KIDS KILL THE DARNEDEST THINGS
Much has been made recently of the physical and psychological dangers of bullying and hazing. Less is said of their value as a teaching element that makes new members useful to a smooth-running society. Zero-tolerance policies are frequently abhorred by artistic and creative personalities (who appreciate the value of experimentation and boundary-testing), except when applied to their least-favorite offenses, for instance hate crimes; then zero tolerance seems to some a moral mandate, and the arbitrary punishment no longer seems inappropriate. Yes, the singling out of the weird and the weak is a memory held forever by those unfortunate enough to be on the unpleasant end of it; but there’s a reason for that. A little conformity is indispensable to a larger peace. It’s important also to remember that at some point, everyone gets told how to fit in; that fitting in is necessary to a cohesive function; that misfits, valuable as they may be individually, by definition cannot constitute the bulk of any organization. The morality of coddling vs. culling becomes less clear when one steps back from the case study to appreciate its larger context.
Fortunately, one need not agree with the premise of a work to celebrate its grace and gravity. Sean Graney’s 2004 The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide is the sort of show that could revive faith in the eloquence of theater. Something giant, expensive, and stupid, like Pasadena Playhouse’s current behemoth Under My Skin, may be too tongue-tied to lick diabetic comas and uterine cancer into a playful dialogue on the health care industry. But the tiny, efficient, and glorious Coeurage Theatre Love-Suicide, under the direction of Joseph V. Calarco, sings hauntingly of the human tendency to allow oppression to shape our will and desire.
Masquerading as one of those adorably dreadful class pageants, Love-Suicide takes an old Japanese form and twists it into a bleak modern parable: the basis for a parochial school’s 4th grade show this year is a bloodstained manuscript written by a nine-year-old bullying victim who recently shot himself. The story concerns the deceased kid’s torment by the boys and girls of his class, each of whom also receives a dose of overt or implicit abuse from above: from teachers, from parents, from cliques, from the carnivorous culture that can’t wait to consume them. The horror creeps less from physical tortures than from the underlying motivations of victim and predator as they vie to establish a grotesque balance of socialization.
Mr. Graney’s most obvious and inspired choice places the ancient Shinju tradition of double-suicide, including a brief human-puppet interlude, as a metatheatrical essay inside the frame of an ongoing school-day. Thus the children’s attempt to make sense of a nasty world is given a context in which to resonate, and the audience is allowed a small remove from the frequently disturbing action. There’s much hilarity in this adult’s take on how a little boy would write of the most sober and weighty issues in his life. Mr. Graney’s subtle winding of theme, and the exquisite appropriateness of his characters’ fantasy lives (one kid locks his enemies forever into the roles upper-classmen have set out as the apex of adult evolution), make me want to see more of this author’s work performed by companies as exciting as this one.
The Coeurage cast consists of adults playing children, and they’re all convincingly narcissistic, sadistic, and – bitter lesson though it is – masochistic. Kurt Quinn leads as the nervous worm-who-turns, Johnny, and Nicole Monet plays his put-upon girlfriend Rachel. Mr. Quinn’s pain and rage is discomfiting; one wants to hug him simply to stop having to see his agonized face. Ms. Monet’s archetypal role, of a self-loathing “fat girl,” in its simple eloquence may erase previous examples you have seen. Noah Gillett’s bully Mike Rice is as well-played as he is well-named, a pompous brute who enjoys nothing as much as the fear in a smaller boy’s eyes, and fears only that he’ll be mistaken for a victim. The other major antagonist, Sally, is portrayed by Aimee Karlin as a nascent temptress, unaffected by the damage she inflicts as long as she is gratified. Her minion Brenda (a game Sammi Smith) embraces every opportunity to efface her own personality by mouthing the words of her betters. One of the most interesting characters, Lucy Law (Kimberlee Soo), giggles in desperation behind her hall-monitor sash as she weighs the perks and punishments of privilege; by aping authority, she gets to see earlier than her peers that what may seem a set and rigid set of rules will reveal itself as a confusion of roles and choices. And Julianne Donelle gives you the sweet creeps as an earlier version of that kid in the halo-style spinal brace who gets stuck running the high school A/V club – only this girl’s got more say in the 4th graders’ show than even she knows.
Valorie Curry’s set seems bare at first, but the designer has put a lot into not very much, especially a giant blackboard looming like a guillotine over the entire action. Mr. Calarco’s direction is invisible, as it needs to be in this type of actor-driven production: his finesse makes the piece seem entirely the work of the performers, which is almost as high a praise as the fact that the show runs less than an hour, but feels like two – not in the least because it drags (it fairly flies), but because it’s scary and wrenching enough to make a great Halloween-season evening out.
photos by Laura Crow
The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide
Coeurage Theatre Company in West Hollywood
scheduled to end on Sunday, October 28
for tickets, visit http://buy.coeurage.org/fourthgraders