High school was so long ago for me that people in their 40s look like youngsters, and it takes some effort to remind myself that they have learned what high school is like nowadays from their kids (and that was even a few years back for some of them).
|Textual interpretation: The boss Heather and teacher Ms. Fleming |
Eclipse, Summer Stock Stage's program for burgeoning theater professionals, has mounted a production of the Laurence O'Keefe & Kevin Murphy show to run through June 11 on the Phoenix Theatre's Russell Stage. It's bright, lively, and loud and seems to have been assembled with machine-tooled precision that fortunately doesn't mask its emotional impact.
"Heathers" is a product of the late 1980s, and the most amazing thing about the way it's rooted in its time is that misunderstandings and peer manipulation get communicated by words on paper. For the purpose of the stage play, that device goes back to Shakespeare, at least. Consider the notes hung on forest trees in "As You Like It" or the harsh deceptions that plague Malvolio in "Twelfth Night." Hundreds of years of written missives discombobulated human interaction before the era of digital dissing and dishing took over.
Of course, in a dysfunctional social setting, some of the abuse is voiced directly. This production scores immediately by making the point in the ensemble song "Beautiful." Director Maria Amenabar Farias and choreographer Sean Blake have the cast simulating an anarchy of verbal taunts and attacks in the hallway of Nick Kilgore's multilayered, institutionally abstract set. This is the kind of environment the heroine, Veronica Sawyer, wants to escape, as we learn when she occasionally reads from her diary.
The movement in the two sections of "Beautiful," including the entrance of the three Heathers who set
|JD and Veronica contemplate life at odds with life.|
and maintain the power relationships, looks spontaneous. It's an energetic expression of teens in the exploratory mood of confirming social hierarchies with plenty of name-calling and sometimes physical aggression. They are producing as much self-definition as they dare with a minimum of adult control, summed up in the educator roles of Coach Ripper (Jared McElroy), Principal Gowan (Eric J. Olson), and Ms. Fleming (Emily Ristine).
The show's songs can be taken in on YouTube from other productions, and the lyrics studied in detail. But I decided to let "Heathers" wash over me for the first time in Sunday evening's performance. There was some loss of intelligibility in the lyrics, but I wanted to see how much. Not catching what was sung happened a little more than desirable, though I expect no one will fail to catch the gist of each song. An accompanying rock band at one side mostly behind the set kept the power in play, and all the amplified actors' voices were pitched at the sort of volume customary in shows of this type. So be prepared for some obscured lyrics, despite the singers' clear articulation.
Taryn Feuer plays Veronica with an urgency that never lets up. She makes us believe there's real
idealism behind her character's quest to distinguish herself. The complication comes, along with her turn toward the dark side, as Veronica pushes back against her peers' bullying of a friend from grade school, the sweet but uncool, overweight Martha (Kallie Ann Tarkleson, in a charming underdog portrayal).
|Three Heathers rule the roost at Westerberg High. |
Veronica's skill at forgery of the documents kids sometimes need (or used to need) to evade adult control brings her into the ambit of the hated, feared three Heathers. They are played like a tense unit of self-appointed authorities by Kha'Lea Wainwright, Isabella Agresta, and Micah Friedman. The roles allow for individualizing, and this trio never misses an opportunity to express that.
The heroine's alliance with an attractive newcomer, the rebellious, Baudelaire-reading (really?) JD, draws her deeper onto a destructive path. Charlie Steiner is mesmerizing in the role, and the indications of mutual attraction with Veronica come through authentically. The plot moves quickly amid the songs to put everyone in even more jeopardy than is the norm for anxious teenagers. JD has combustible ideas.
Suicide is a topic both reality-based and rumored. One of the funniest scenes is focused on the song "Shine a Light," with its organized message of uplift in one of those required assemblies that popped up even in my day, though ours was focused on the equally difficult topic of race relations. That didn't go well, and the same with the one in "Heathers." Eclipse artistic director Emily Ristine as Ms. Fleming represents the well-meaning futility of attempts to guide kids collectively away from disturbing thoughts and actions.
The disturbances are bound to emerge, though with the hopeful fantasy of good outcomes and maturity, "Heathers" reaches the summit in an ensemble reprise of the Veronica-JD duet "Seventeen." The song pleads for self-acceptance and the pleasure of mostly innocent fun at that vulnerable age. Who would deny kids that, though the pitfalls — and entertainment that deals with them — never stop coming?
Make a note of that, and pass it on. It's worth the risk of detention.
[Photos by Zach Rosing]