Friday, March 14, 2014

In Phoenix Theatre production, two teenagers — strangers to each other — grapple with a school assignment and their strange connectedness

Working together on a school project rarely involves such obstacles as those Lauren Gunderson sets up for two high-school students in "I and You," a play making the rounds of three theaters across the country under the auspices of the National New Play Network.
Anthony (Eli Curry) and Caroline (Katherine Shelton) collaborate in "I and You"

Phoenix Theatre's production opened Thursday night on the Basile Stage, a perfect space for the necessarily small audience to look in on the thoroughly lived-in bedroom of Caroline, forced by a potentially fatal disease to stay away from school for months at a time. It's a strictly controlled world, and just how hemmed in it is we don't really discover until the surprise ending.

Trying to keep victimhood at arm's length, Caroline reacts angrily to the sudden intrusion of Anthony, a popular classmate who has mysteriously chosen her as partner for a literature project. It's a study of the use of pronouns in the poem Walt Whitman came to call  "Song of Myself."

"I and the mystery here we stand," Anthony quotes by way of introduction as he appears in Caroline's doorway. He knows his "Song of Myself" all right, and his choice of quote is a faint clue as to who he turns out to be.  On the surface, he's a bright, well-liked student-athlete, humbly seeking a working partnership with a shut-in classmate to put a little pizazz into the assignment. His poster needs to make a better impression than the one he's started, and he needs videos of him and Caroline speaking on the topic. But first, he has to motivate the sick girl.

In Katherine Shelton's performance, Caroline is animatedly turned-off and truculent about nearly everything. Linked to the outside world through social media, she's got a few odd favorites among the possessions in her bedroom. It's a cheerfully decorated place designed to hide its clandestine function as a way station en route to her presumptively premature death.

"And as to you death, and you bitter hug of mortality ... it is idle to try to alarm me" are "Song of Myself" words that Gunderson chooses not to quote, but they could well be a badge of Caroline's fragile bravado. You could mine "Song of Myself" pretty thoroughly for words that speak to the situation of youth finding its identity, displaying its sense of wonder, and confronting life's most extreme challenge prematurely.

The playwright deserves credit for articulating the adolescent mind-set and the verbal formulas with which today's teens analyze the world — apparently "weird" is a description they apply in bafflement to a broad range of behavior. This cast is fully invested in the emotions and defense mechanisms that work best for their charming, overwrought or merely confused characters. As Anthony, Eli Curry is particularly adept at conveying these qualities.

Martha Jacobs directs the show.  I liked the energy she elicits from Curry and Shelton, but there were places I wished she had countered the playwright's love of debate with a greater variety of pacing. One of the responsibilities of directors of new plays, it seems to me, is to resist playwrights' tendency to become befogged in their own heads of steam.  Gunderson is too fond of having her characters run in an argumentative rut, especially in the first scene. The actors could say the same words and convey the same verbal push-comes-to-shove with a less relentless rhythm.

Also, for a playwright with such a conspicuous cultural peg to hang a play on, Gunderson ought to have been more familiar with the chronology of "Leaves of Grass" and its chief poem, "Song of Myself." Maybe Anthony is supposed to be misinformed — though I don't know what purpose that would serve — when he says that Whitman wrote "Song of Myself" during the Civil War.

In fact, the poet launched his career with "Leaves of Grass" (12 untitled poems, one of them later called "Song of Myself," and a prose preface) in 1855. Two more editions were published before the war's outbreak, followed by a fourth edition in 1867. During the four-year conflict, Whitman busied himself as a devoted visitor to military hospitals while holding down a clerk's job with the Army Paymaster. Those experiences bore poetic fruit that was harvested in further editions of "Leaves of Grass," culminating in the definitive "deathbed" edition of 1891.

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