STURM AND SLANG
Every generation writes its own playbook for tackling the game of life. These new rules are encoded in language that the previous generation (parents, Old School, The Establishment) usually finds baffling. Flummoxing grown-ups with newfangled lingo (think: fresh, dope, rad and bitchin’) helps young people find a voice, establish an identity and assert their own power. Slang, in all its rich and subversive forms, has one basic message: “Okay, old-timers, you’ve had your chance – now it’s OUR turn!”
In Dan LeFranc’s play Troublemaker, or the Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatwright – having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep – the title is not the only thing that’s a mouthful. The fabulously baroque slang that pours from the lips of the teen protagonist and his cohort of hormonally-charged pals is so over-the-top that it will take middle-aged folks (most of the audience when I attended) a good portion of Act I to catch on to what they’re hearing. These crazy kids spew out rapid-fire linguistic slurry that has the snap and razor-edged humor of classic Hollywood film-noir and screwball comedy, with a generous dollop of Cockney rhyming slang thrown in (even though it takes place in Rhode Island).
After the initial shock, this pungent verbal stew becomes addictive. It is full of thrilling, poetic, and utterly hilarious associations that keep the brain firing on all pistons to parse and savor all the multi-layered meanings. When Bradley’s tomboy friend (and later love-interest) Loretta Beretta (a sassy Jeanna Phillips) snarls that “it’s time to shut your St. Francis and move your Assisi,” the audience gets the general drift. But it takes an extra moment to appreciate the deliciously weird image that these words conjure up. This is the kind of language that you need to chew on for a while to enjoy its full flavor. It often leaves tasty morsels stuck in your teeth, to tease out and enjoy later. Although Bradley and his posse are often cussing a blue streak, it does not shock or offend. The tanginess of the slang has us salivating for more.
As the plot unfolds, this crackling and electric language provides much of the juice that moves the story forward. Troublemaker is essentially a coming-of-age psycho-drama played out in the mind of a bright teenage boy. Bradley Boatwright, the troubled and trouble-making teen at the center of the story, is struggling with an archetypal mash-up of contradictory adolescent feelings: Simmering rage and hero-worship for his absent father couple with defiance and oedipal attachment towards his stressed-out and overprotective single mother. To grapple with a confusing and messy world, Bradley uses his vivid imagination to alter his own perception, to morph the complications that surround him into the simpler flattened narrative of a graphic novel. He does his level best to take everyone else in his life – friends, foes, and family – along for the ride. Like a comic book action hero invoking his super-duper verbal powers, he attempts to single-handedly bend the bars of a psychic prison in which he feels trapped, to free himself from a deep well of unresolved grief and anger and emerge large and in charge of his own destiny.
Predictably, the real world doesn’t play along with his game for long. The conjuring force of his words might make him feel more powerful than a locomotive, but eventually he smacks head-on into a harsh wall of a Kryptonite reality. Ultimately he survives the smash-up of his carefully constructed parallel universe, emerging from the wreckage willing to face life as a mere mortal.
Under Lila Neugebauer’s skillful direction, the pace of the play nicely parallels Bradley’s headlong rush towards self-discovery. The first two acts have the jittery and propulsive energy of an action movie, with Bradley, his allies and his enemies constantly on the move. This is a teen’s kinetic world of epic video game battles and bizarre escape fantasies. When the going gets rough, Bradley plans to make a mad dash to “French Canada – the wild wild West of the north North East.” Adults seem distinctly out of place in the World According to Boatwright, and are portrayed as caricatures: Evil reform-school Nazis or befuddled authority figures. The principal of Bradley’s high school (played with endearing awkwardness by Thomas Jay Ryan) is a hopeless stutterer, a sharp contrast to the verbally adept kids he is supposed to supervise.
In the third act, the pacing takes an abruptly slower turn. Sent to a therapist when his behavior becomes violent, the truth about Bradley’s situation starts to break through his elaborate construct of superheroes and villains. In a brilliantly conceived series of short scenes in the psychiatrist’s office, we witness the agonizingly slow process of Bradley shedding his treasured illusions. The sudden calm that follows all the previous storminess feels like a clean break with the past; a quiet and introspective place has finally opened in Bradley’s interior life, and the change is both poignant and welcome. The language we hear also changes at this point. No longer steeped in all that dazzling and hyperbolic slang, the speech becomes simpler, more tentative and softly spoken. Bradley no longer needs to brandish his words like a weapon.
As Bradley Boatright, Gabriel King does a beautiful job of portraying the boy’s journey from self-anointed action hero to the anguished and vulnerable adolescent who ultimately emerges, mostly intact, from the tatters of his fantasy-world cocoon. Mr. King has clearly mastered the finer points of physical acting. All the initial cockiness and strut in Bradley’s bearing gradually dissolve into a shy and gentle awkwardness. In a particularly vivid scene toward the end of the play, the contradictory forces within Bradley’s psyche finally battle it out. His body and voice are wracked with a series of convulsions that look like a seizure or an exorcism. The effect is mesmerizing, slightly terrifying and utterly effective.
Other stand-outs in the cast include Bradley’s nerdy “sidekick” Mikey Minkle, played by Chad Goodridge. Mikey is the true-blue and sensible pal, Sancho Panza to Bradley’s Don Quixote, who initially plays along with his friend’s crazy schemes out of a deep sense of loyalty. But as a science geek and rationalist, he is compelled to risk their friendship by keeping it real with Bradley about the havoc his narcissistic fantasies is causing. Mr. Goodridge’s grounded “aw shucks” appeal works well pitted against the manic obsessions of his troubled buddy.
Robbie Tann does a delightful and slightly camp turn as Jake Miller, Bradley’s classmate and sinister arch-foe. He is the perfect Lex Luthor to Bradley’s Superman, a debonair villain complete with two daffy evil henchmen (played with plenty of slapstick chops by Matt Bradley and Ben Mehl). As Bradley’s mother Patricia Boatwright, Jennifer Regan has the exhausted look of a single mom who is doing the best she can to parent a hyperactive son who is having some major “issues.” She is one of those people that one both admires and pities.
The set is anchored by a bleak expanse of grey concrete wall that conveys the entrapment Bradley feels being stuck in “working class Rhode Island,” a barrier as suffocating and sinister as “The Wall” in Pink Floyd’s post-industrial Britain. A slashing line of telephone poles and wires cut diagonally across the background, evoking the gritty feel of a comic-book urban landscape, the seamy underbelly of Metropolis or Gotham. Scenic designer Kris Stone’s tour de force, however, is a circular “sidewalk” that revolves like a giant Lazy Susan in the middle of the stage. This serves as a kind of hamster wheel for the restless creatures that inhabit Bradley’s world, constantly on the move but never actually getting anywhere. It is a perfect symbol for Bradley’s unresolved grief and anger, which has locked him in a fugue state of self-destructive behavior.
Well-executed sound design by Jake Rodriguez adds some extra punch to the production. The pre-show and intermission music is a chaotic mash-up of heavy metal rock, action-hero theme songs and the driving (yet strangely lifeless) electronica that often serves as background music for video games; welcome to the jumpy and anxious world of contemporary youth culture. Alexander V. Nichols lighting shows a versatile mastery of effects, turning the stage from the stark and surreal landscape of Action Comics to the mundane interior of a middle-class home. Paloma Young’s costumes are mostly imaginative riffs on the hoodie-sneakers-backpack tweener uniform, along with some very clever drag for the foppish evildoers, including pajama tuxedoes and Bermuda shorts with blazers.
Troublemaker is a play that feels completely fresh, quite baffling at times but with a unique voice that ultimately provides a satisfying evening of theatre. Learning all the fun new slang words alone is worth the price of admission. Shazam!
photos by kevinberne.com
Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright
Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage
scheduled to end on February 3, 2013
for tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit http://www.BerkeleyRep.org