Thursday, October 05, 2017

Review - Mean - Youth Performance Company - The Kids Are All Right (Eventually) - 4.5 stars

Bullying doesn’t seem like an ideal subject for musical theater, but Youth Performance Company makes it work with their original production, Mean, written by two YPC alumni - Rita Cannon on the script, Kymani Kahlil on the music.  Director Jacie Knight once again gets impressive performances out of her ensemble of almost exclusively young actors.  It’s a tough topic to handle well, and it takes its toll on the performers as well as the characters.  The actors who play the tormenters in this play are perhaps the ones most relieved when the curtain call arrives.  They sing the closing song and join hands with the actors they were bullying onstage, moved by the opportunity to finally drop the act and banish the demons again.

“They just don’t know what it’s like to be different, but you do.”

Rather than focus just on one type of bullying, the script for Mean spreads the pain around the full cast.  But unlike a lot of tales of bullying in high school lately, this one doesn’t just rehash the problem, it offers potential solutions.  The various strategies for survival fall into two larger categories - if you’re being bullied, ask for help or take help when it’s offered; if you see bullying happen to others, don’t be a bystander, step in and help.  Neither of those solutions are easy and they require strength by people on all sides.  But at least Mean is presenting some options for what can be done, and not just accepting the whole situation as hopeless.

“Look in the mirror and say you’re ugly.”

There are three primary stories interwoven around briefer interludes with other characters in isolation speaking about the reasons they get singled out for ill treatment by their peers.  There’s moments with the kid who reads slowly because of dyslexia, another who’s dealing with a realization they’re trans, yet another who gets unwanted scrutiny because they’re poor enough to be part of the free meal plans at school. 

“Momma, when will I be good enough?”

The stories getting the bulk of the stage time are: Inam (Eponine Diatta), a young Muslim girl wearing a hijab who gets taunted by cheerleaders Ashley (Brea Davis) and Liz (Adeline Wendt). Inam’s fortunes improve when she takes the help offered by her teacher Ms. Roth (Jill Bigelow-Rossing), who gets around in a wheelchair.  A second story focuses on Taylor (Katherine Fredrikson) who gets called out by Hannah (Rachael Wasson) for being fat.  Taylor’s supposed friend Samantha (Arianna Richardson) doesn’t have the guts to stand up for Taylor against Hannah at first.  But Samantha eventually grows a spine to go with her troubled conscience to help Taylor, while Taylor learns to trust Samantha again.  The audience also gets a window into a possible source of Hannah’s bad behavior when they meet her mother (Katenka Bollenbeck).  Also going on, the bullying of Nick (Tristan Brown) by star school athlete Danny (Connor Carlson).  Nick doesn’t fit Danny’s idea of how a real man is supposed to act, so an anti-gay campaign of slurs begins, including efforts to drive a wedge between Nick and his only friend Joey (Carl Hallberg).  Nick’s downward spiral only starts to turn around when his dad (Marc Brown) takes an interest and intervenes with school officials.  The ensemble also includes Casey Johnson, Chase Kozak, Ella Kozak, Flannery McGreevy, Paris Nash, Tess Nelson, and Samuel Osborne.

“I’m glad my school has free breakfast.  I wish they had free secret breakfast.”

There’s a LOT going on in this play.  It’s remarkable how much plot and how many characters they cram into less than 90 minutes of run time.  Maybe just a bit too much.  While this ensemble-style of story presentation allows the production to shine a light on a variety of troubles young people may face, as well as multiple solutions, it’s hard every now and then to know where to focus your attention.  Additionally, while this approach doesn’t allow the audience to get too far ahead of any one story, it also makes it a little hard sometimes to keep all the players straight.  The large cast does, however, make for a more realistic portrait of school life, with groups of people looking on or passing through.  So there are tradeoffs.  On the whole, Mean’s approach to the subject and the way the artists involved in the production present it, is largely a success.

“You’ve got to let people know there’s a line they can’t cross.”

The world outside the theater’s walls is more than happy to remind us how hard these kids have it just getting through the day sometimes.  So it’s nice inside the theater to get a dose of hope, and strategies for how we can help, all the while avoiding preachiness or sentimentality, opting instead for dealing with things the way they are. With Mean, YPC’s Mean uses good original theater to add something useful (and positive) to an important conversation. (through October 15, 2017 at the Howard Conn Performing Arts Center)

4.5 stars - Very Highly Recommended

No comments: