Smile Politely

The gods must be angsty

Illinois Theatre at Krannert Center has opened their 2014-15 season with the visually stunning and incredibly well-acted production of Naomi Iizuka’s ensemble drama, Polaroid Stories. States the show’s program, in a note provided by dramaturg Katherine Quinn: “Building a universe in which fierce gods shook the earth with thunder, Naomi Iizuka’s Polaroid Stories offers a contemporary tale in which these gods still rock the world: this time with screams of passion and desperation.” And rock it they do! With stunning visual effects by scenic designer Jose’ Manuel Diaz-Soto and lighting designer Danielle Deutschmann, with a rocking, trippy score courtesy of sound designer Kenneth Stahl, Polaroid Stories transports the audience into an underworld of teenage angst and desperation that would make the gods proud! 

The script, an adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, promises much, as did last season’s Theresa Rebeck-scribed play, O Beautiful. Both plays give the Theatre Program an ample chance to showcase their talented cast in age-appropriate roles. Both deal with taboo subjects and the underbelly of “the best years of our lives.” And both careen from storyline to storyline with reckless and, at times, messy abandon. The thing that distinguishes Iizuka’s piece from last year’s youth offering is its poetry and sense of majesty. The words of this world are lovely and poetic, a blistering portrayal of the dark side of today’s homeless youth. While O Beautiful explored the plight of pampered suburbanites and their offspring, Polaroid Stories opts to mingle the tortured existence of ancient gods with the “live for the moment and die young” lives of teens cast out by their misguided families—either directly so or through ignorance and neglect. The kids do crack, whore themselves for drugs, and make the best of a fetid world that is literally shit-stained and rotting with decay. Like Rebeck’s piece, everything is angst!  EVERYTHING!  Just EVERYTHING! And while I do think today’s youth have a helluva lot to deal with, if they are all still punching and stabbing those they love and bartering their booties for crack and sundry pharmaceuticals… well, I just thought depravity had progressed past the dalliances and options we partook of when I was a lad.

I must confess, I’ve been writing scenes for young actors for the past year or so and so I may be a bit biased from my own dabbling. But seriously, there are a few kids who are at least momentarily happy and their stories are interesting and worthy of telling. Aren’t there? I wanted Polaroid Stories to give us a reprieve from the gore, guts, and guilt with just an itty bitty ray of hope. Perhaps the abused girl stabbing her abusive boyfriend was that ray, but that seems a bit grim no matter how well-deserved. The gods’ storyline also seemed to lose integration and coherence as well under the weight of all this present day grit. Iizuka’s skill far surpasses Rebeck’s, and that’s readily apparent in every syllable of this piece. I just wanted the gods’ metaphor to make a bit more sense — or simply to get out of the way so I could watch the far more well-drawn story of real teens struggling to survive.

The play is also long, clocking in at little over two hours, with stories repeating and repeating and repeating until I wanted to say, “Hey, if you’d stabbed the boyfriend two vignettes ago, we could all take a pee!” Not the classiest of sentiments, but I have never been accused of being a classy dame. That curmudgeonly grumping (and plot quibbling) aside, it will be apparent to any audience member that this play has merit and has earned the attention it has received academically and theatrically.

The direction and technical aspects are first rate here. Lisa Gaye Dixon keeps things moving and stages the stories in creative and interesting ways. Her spot-on cast has clearly been given a great deal of guidance through this landscape, and Dixon deserves a lot of credit for her work on character and pace. She also gives us an energetic production without the frenzied chaos found in some youth pieces. And Diaz-Soto’s bold and intricately overstocked set is just my cup of tea. I loved all the tech aspects, and the TVs playing throughout, and the junked car, and the huge god face overseeing the proceedings and threatening to blow us all away. LOVED IT! These are perfectly accented by the moody, hardcore lighting of Deutschmann, though audience members on the west side of the space do put up with an occasional glaring light. That said, the last moment is a chilling merger of the designers’ talents. The costumes are hip as shit thanks to costume designer Pingwei Li. [TMI aside: I plan to construct my fall wardrobe after many of the looks if I can just find a pair of Size 15 knee boots and a romper stomper jeans brace!] The sound by Stahl and film imagery are appropriate and accent the mood of the piece, though the speakers in the musical interludes are a bit too loud when the actors speak over them. One of my favorite sound effects was the actors’ live cacophony of creepy random-speak from live microphones set at each corner of the space. GNARLY COOL!

That brings us to the performers, who are uniformly impressive! The script sort of begs for screaming anger and growling discontentment, and the actors in this production wisely avoid that and opt for globally nuanced and varied character choices. You believe their plight and you root for them in spite of their characters’ morally questionable actions. Standout characterizations belong to Donovan Diaz, as a glamazon Narcissus, and Alexis DawTyne, as a little Eurydice lost. Diaz commands the stage whenever he enters and plays well off subtle and brooding costar Mindy Shore. DawTyne is both simmering in her blue wig and kick-ass boots and plays well of her suitors—the menacing boy in a cage, Shawn Pereira, and the always easy and engaging David Monahan. Her interactions with Diaz are seductive and deadly, and her pairing with Monahan has a sweet development and an easy sexuality that makes their moments sizzle. Ryan Leonard and Kara Sotakoun make a combustible pair as the drugged out SKINHEADboy and SKINHEADgirl, respectively, with Leonard’s body slinking through the garbage as if he were a runway model, and Sotakoum providing a stoner realness to a girl who makes bad choices. Martasia Jones is all energy and sass as Persephone/Semele, and she truly kicks ass on several occasions. Wigasi Brent and Sara Costello round out the cast, with Brent providing the appropriate affable menace and Brent offering the appropriate glower and a lovely singing voice to cap off the ensemble.

This is a culturally diverse story, and the players all represent this multi-culti community with style and talent. I highly recommend you see this impressive production if you have the opportunity. Performances continue at KCPA through October 12th. 

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