by Matthew A. Everett | 7/11/09 •
“It sucks, but it’s home.”
The sight of a woman in her old high school cheerleading outfit, ten years later, still screaming, is the horror and sadness of a high school reunion in one neat tidy little package. It doesn’t matter if she still looks good in the uniform. It’s what the image represents.
|single white fringe geek is the blog of matthew a. everett. in addition to being one of six bloggers covering the minnesota fringe festival for the daily planet, he blogs throughout the year about theater and culture.|
The Flower Shop Project has re-imagined Dante’s “Inferno” as the new play “Dawn’s Inferno,” in which a young woman must navigate the perils of a ten year high school reunion as her own journey through hell. Written by Brenna Jones and Ruth Virkus, and directed by Paul von Stoetzel, it is relentlessly funny (emphasis on the relentless), a little sad, and a little off-putting.
Here’s the thing about high school reunions – they only work for the people who actually miss high school. The people who had a lousy time in high school should just save themselves the heartache and not look back.
Dawn (K. Marit Geston) is one of those people who shouldn’t have returned. The fact that this is hell for her makes perfect sense. Fortunately, like Dante had his Virgil, Dawn has her Virgie (Melissa Roy) to guide her through the minefield of backstory and exposition she needs to catch up on in order to understand what’s happening from one moment to the next.
The parade of shame and wasted lives is led by Karen (Mame Pelletier), the reunion Nazi who insists that everyone get in line so the party remain perfect. Karen’s (shotgun wedding) husband Carl (Geoffrey Hofman-Frethem) has, to put it mildly, let himself go.
The town tramp Phillippa (Amanda Hofman-Frethem) is still followed around by her little acolyte Caitlin (Alissa Shellito), now a Jesus freak married to a successful doctor.
The homecoming queen Fran (Amber Barnett) had a rude awakening when her marriage to popular high school jock Johnny (Derek Meyer) dissolved in a mess of alcoholism and restraining orders. The fact that Fran then found real love with Johnny’s brother Paul (Shannon Troy Jones) just makes things that much more awkward, since most of the town still loves Johnny best (just ask Phillippa).
There’s also Gerry (Brian J. Evans), the geek who made good (to the tune of millions of dollars in software development), and foolishly insists on coming back to visit the people who did nothing but torment him in school.
Lurking around the edges is the creepy faculty advisor Mr. Carleton (Lawrence Levesque) who loves his students just a bit too much.
Bruno (James Allen Gappa), the fabulous gay kid who came back to parade his new life in front of people he knows he will only make uncomfortable, seems to be the single person likely to emerge from the whole event unscathed.
If that seems like a lot to cram into an hour, you’re right, it is. von Stoetzel and the ensemble run through this thing like a well-oiled machine, so the pacing never flags. There are numerous moments that are so painful or embarrassing or both that you wish they would be over faster, but that’s just because of discomfort, not because the moments themselves are too long. In fact, I’d argue that nearly all the moments are too short.
Exposition, jokes and stereotypes often fly by in an attempt to leapfrog through character development. This is probably a function of the fact that “Dawn’s Inferno” can’t be a two-act play. It lives in a one-act timeframe on the Bryant Lake Bowl schedule. But if there were ever a story and characters that needed, or deserved, more room to breathe, it’s the ones in “Dawn’s Inferno.” Because you can tell the writers and director and actors all want you to know and care about these people – enough so that you’d come back from an intermission, if there were one. But in order to truly do that, the audience needs a little more time to get to know them, not just be told about them.
If more time isn’t an option, maybe a smaller, less populated canvas is the answer. The love, missed opportunities and abandonment issues between Dawn and Virgie alone at a table is its own one-act. Fran’s whole “torn between two brothers” saga often threatens to take over the play as it is – a writer could easily give them one of their own. Karen and Carl’s marriage is schadenfreude in human form. Bruno and Gerry could be their own musical. Right now, everyone’s crammed so closely together on top of one another, it’s hard for any one of them to get a good solid grasp on the audience’s attention.Even Dante took nine different circles of hell to tell his story.
The Flower Shop Project has had this play in development for several years. I didn’t re-read “The Inferno” before attending because I wanted to see if the play stood up whether I had an intimate knowledge of the original or not. It does. But looking back now at Dante and skimming over the basics, I realize that’s a bit of what the script was doing, too. “Dawn’s Inferno” makes sure to hit all the points on the journey, but it has to do them in such hurried fashion that nothing ever really lands.
I know Dante didn’t tell an entire story about Phillippa or Mr. Carleton, but they’re both examples of characters who, just like the others, could be rich territory for character study. Right now, they’re just jokes. Funny jokes, but jokes all the same.
Plus, the script doesn’t seem to like many of its characters all that much. I realize this is an allegory for hell, and thus a lack of sympathy in the point of view may be appropriate, but at times it seems almost gleefully mean-spirited to the point of being petty and dismissive of people who are, with all their failings, still human beings.
The writers and actors, the whole creative team, is clearly capable of more. It feels much of the time in “Dawn’s Inferno” like they’re being held back. By the concept? By the time slot? Hard to say. I’ve fallen a little too in love with the gimmicks my scripts were built on myself, so I understand the tempting hazards of it all. Those scripts only started to really work when I’d let go and let the characters take me to the story they were supposed to tell, in the way it was supposed to be told.
The underlying theme of “Dawn’s Inferno” right now is that wherever you come from is hell. Those that escape should never come back. Those that stayed are either stupid or pathetic or both. That may work for a comedy, but it’s in danger of being just a one joke comedy. It’s cheap, and easy, and, to use a word frequently flung at artists, elitist.
The difference between “Dawn’s Inferno” now and “Dawn’s Inferno” with one more draft of rewrites behind it is the difference between the current production, and an episode of the TV show “Friday Night Lights.” In the latter, you understand the people who choose to live in a small town, or perhaps have (or think they have) no choice but to do so. Guys between jobs, girls desperately trying not to turn into their mothers, people reliving glory days long gone. That TV show doesn’t make those people noble, but it does allow them the respect of actually being people. Screwed up, but still people. That’s what “Dawn’s Inferno” kept teetering on the edge of doing. That’s what I kept waiting for.
(Side note – Probably not a good idea for a character to invite the audience to negatively assess the play by saying things like, “I’m pretty sure that was the highlight of the evening, but it was kind of anticlimactic when you think about it.”)
But you know what? “Dawn’s Inferno” is smart, and it’s funny, as is. The audience was laughing themselves silly from start to finish. The Flower Shop Project knows how to put on a show. The attention to detail is staggering. Karen the reunion Nazi is there to slap name tags on each and every audience member as they come in and engage them in polite shallow conversation. A red secondary program is the program for the reunion itself, with details on every member of the class, and a couple of sly in-jokes (Judy Iscariot, Johnny Bocca). Looking back at the red reunion program after spending time with the characters is very illuminating.
The second the curtain call was over, the cast was tearing down Brian Hesser’s extremely portable set and tucking it away for the night, making way for the Bryant Lake Bowl’s next production of the evening. I admire any group that’s devoted to producing new plays. The Flower Shop Project has its act down. Now I’m waiting for them to take it to the next level.
(Oh, and I have Britney Spears’ “(Hit Me) Baby, One More Time” stuck in my head now. Thanks.)
For the laughs, the acting marathon, and yes, the pain, “Dawn’s Inferno” is…
“Dawn’s Inferno” plays Thursdays and Saturdays at the Bryant Lake Bowl – July 11, 16, 18 and 25, 2009. Curtain at 7pm, doors at 6pm (so you can eat and drink just like the characters onstage). Tickets are $12-$15, pay what you can, or $10 for students, seniors and Fringe button holders. Reservations by calling 612-825-8949, or visit brownpapertickets.com. The Bryant Lake Bowl is at 810 West Lake Street in Minneapolis – www.bryantlakebowl.com. Further information can be found at www.theflowershopproject.com
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