Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Children of Decidedly Lesser Gods

Teenage angst can be an explosive energy which caroms off parents, teachers, and friends like one of the shiny, round metal objects in a pinball machine. As it ricochets from one bumper to another, lurching around on unexpected trajectories, it sets off buzzers, lights, and other warning signs of impending trouble.

With hormones ranging through their newly fertile systems, more nervous energy than they know how to handle, and a bitter resentment of authority figures, conflicted teenagers seem ripe for dramatization.  Until reality sets in and throws a writer or filmmaker way off balance.

Asking a viewer/audience to suspend disbelief can be harder to accomplish when an onlooker loses patience with the narrative (not every teen as inspiring as Ferris Bueller, Clark Kent, or Tracy Turnblad). Nor is every story about a teenager sufficiently gripping, genuinely riveting, or worth waiting for its dramatic payoff. Some struggle for years to find a following.

It's an odd fact of writing that attempting to make a teenager sound authentic can make one's dialogue seem stilted and forced. Although trying to rein in a teenager's scattered bursts of energy can tighten a drama, it can also betray the spasticity and sloppiness of a teen's thinking processes.

While some teenagers may consider themselves to be loners or antisocial, they tend to react (sometimes quite severely) to outside influences such as parents, teachers, television, and schoolmates. As demonstrated in Newtown, Connecticut last month, the results aren't always pretty. Yet there is an impressively spontaneous and brash energy about teenagers that can't be ignored (trust me on this, I live right across the street from Mission High School).

Back when I was a confused and clumsy teenager, there were always several kids who walked a tightrope between being a loud-mouthed trombenik (someone who doesn't hesitate to blow his own horn) and a hopeless no-goodnik as they worked at polishing their spiel, their act, their public persona or, as comic book fans may say, their "story of origin."

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The Berkeley Repertory Theatre recently presented the world premiere of a new play by Dan LeFranc.  Directed by Lila Neugebauer, Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright is a commissioned piece that was nurtured through The Ground Floor (Berkeley Rep's new Center for the Creation and Development of New Work).

Much angrier than Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, yet younger and less impulsive than Frank and Joe Hardy, Bradley Boatright (Gabriel King) is a 12-year-old Rhode Islander being raised by a single mother who has always believed that his father died in an automobile accident and, like a comic book superhero, Bradley was left behind on earth to protect his mother.

Illustration by Marc Scheff

It doesn't take long for audiences to grasp that while Bradley is still young enough to ask his mother to tie his shoelaces, he is old enough to verbally lash out at her and [unknowingly] hit his mother where it really hurts. Throughout the evening, Bradley walks a precarious tightrope between being labeled just another unmanageable, out-of-control teenager or being sent to a private boys academy (or what used to be called a reform school).

The horrible truth is that he is something much more common: a child of divorce whose father has no interest in him. As the playwright explains:
"I think it's a pretty big universe for Bradley Boatright. When I began, I thought I was just writing a story about 12-year-olds. Part of the struggle in writing this story was that I felt like I had so many characters and so many ideas that it was difficult for me to focus in on what this episode was going to be about. There are so many more stories waiting to unfold. I'd like to write a comic book series about what happens to the characters. Or a cartoon. I know that's a bit pie in the sky, but I could write these kids all day long. I want to see Bradley do the school play. I want to see Bradley join the debate team. But, as we've gone on, we've lost all of this golden material that doesn't fit in with the story we need to tell. It's very clear to me that there are a lot of possibilities with this world."  

Gabriel King as Bradley Boatright (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Therein lies a major problem. In its current state, Troublemaker is an overwritten three-act play that runs about 2-1/2 hours and could easily stand to lose 25 minutes. Between Bradley's adventures running away from home, his tormentors at school, and the strain he puts on his close friendship with Mikey Minkle (Chad Goodridge), the audience must travel a long, winding path before taking a sharp turn to get at the meat of the matter. Troublemaker's emotional payoff is beautifully crafted and certainly worth waiting for (although, by the end of Act II, a growing number of empty seats indicated that a substantial segment of the audience had lost their patience with LeFranc's play.).

Much of the problem has to do with language. Bradley and his friends tend to use the word "freakin" about as often as many teenagers use the word "like." As everyone knows, if you say the word "Fuck" once, it can have a strong dramatic impact. If you just keep saying "Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck," the word loses all meaning. When Bradley's mother breaks down and calls him an asshole to his face, he's less hurt by what she's said than he is genuinely shocked by the fact that his mother actually used a forbidden word.

Bradley (Gabriel King), Mikey (Chad Goodridge), and Loretta
(Jeanna Phillips) are three Rhode Island teens in Troublemaker,
or the Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright

(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Having lived in Rhode Island for three years (and helped run a summer camp operated by the Greater Providence YMCA for 10 summers), I'm used to a wide variety of Rhode Island dialects which allow an aspiring Henry Higgins to pinpoint whether someone comes from Federal Hill, Barrington, Chepachet, or Woonsocket. I've heard things described as "freakin' awesome" and "wicked evil." I've eaten wimpy-skimpies, gone "down cellar" and paused to drink from a bubbler.

A "wimpy skimpy" from Caserta Pizza on Federal Hill

When egged on, a close friend of mine will burst into song, crowing:
"I'm Rhode Island born and I'm Rhode Island bred
And when I die, I'll be Rhode Island dead!"
As many people know, Seth MacFarlane graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he obviously picked up a bunch of Rhode Island accents (the fact that Family Guy is set in the fictional town of Quahog is a joke with special meaning to Rhode Islanders). If you listen closely to Peter Griffin's character, you'll hear a  type of speech which is common to working class Rhode Islanders (and is often marked by lots of bravado and very little intellect). It's the kind of socioeconomic identifier which was beautifully captured by Joe Pesci in this scene from 1992's My Cousin Vinny.

As Dan LeFranc explains:
"It's really tricky to be playing the style game that we are playing while also wanting audiences to feel like they are on the ground with our boys. My hope is that we aren't seeing them from a distance, but that we are in it with them. Troublemaker is a hybrid between a hyper-stylized action adventure world and a naturalistic domestic drama. It's been a really thrilling challenge to see how those two things coalesce in building the rhythm of the piece -- making sure it doesn't get too naturalistic or too slow but also doesn't go too fast for too long. I think when the play is succeeding you stop noticing the language and you are able to really empathize with the characters."

Ben Mehl and Matt Bradley are the bullies behind  Jake Miller
(Robbie Tann), who constantly bullies and torments Bradley Boatright
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Neugebauer has pulled some very convincing performances from Robbie Tann as Jake Miller, Jeanna Phillips as the mouthy Loretta Baretta, and, most especially, Jennifer Regan as Bradley's emotionally exhausted and situationally overwhelmed mother (who has been hiding a bitter secret from her son). Added comic relief comes from Matt Bradley and Ben Mehl as two A-Holes as well as Thomas Jay Ryan and Danny Scheie in a variety of roles. Here's the trailer:

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