Nov 12, 2015

[Theater] This Is Our Youth (Red Turnip Theater)

This has been an interesting year for theater for me and Tobie, at least in terms of the shows that we've ended up watching. One thing led to another and I feel like more of the shows that we watched this year were straight plays and not necessarily full musicals. In past years we maintained a rather musical-centric theater roster but things have shifted around. The interesting mix of new theater companies and new touring groups and all that good stuff have made the question of "Which show do we watch?" a heck of a lot more interesting.

This Is Our Youth is an interesting production that I had never heard of prior to Red Turnip teasing that they were going to stage the show. I did my research and was sufficiently interested to see what they would do with it and the end result was pretty good indeed.

Red Turnip continues to be an interesting new face in the local theater scene. They're certainly making an effort to pick what might be considered by some to be somewhat unconventional or maybe less mainstream theater productions to stage. How good each production is may be more a matter of opinion. What's more important is that this other voice does exist.

Synopsis: This Is Our Youth is an American play created by Kenneth Lonergan. It originally debuted off-Broadway in 1996 and eventually made it to Broadway itself in 2014. The Red Turnip Theater staging began on November 6, 2015 with a limited run until November 22, 2015. The production was directed by Topper Fabregas and was staged at the Gallery at A Space Manila.

The entire story is set in the apartment of Dennis Ziegler (Jef Flores) in 1982. Dennis is your typical young rebel who both takes and sells drugs and gets by on his own, albeit with a New York apartment funded  by his parents. The story begins with his young friend Warren (Nicco Manalo) drops by with several bags in hand and the promise of finally paying him back money that had been owed. It turns out that the 19 year old had been kicked out of his home by his father and he decided to steal $15,000 from a suitcase full of money that happened to be among his father's possessions.

At first Dennis was quite annoyed that he had brought the money to his home, thus making him somewhat of an accessory to the crime that had been committed. But soon enough Dennis is coming up with ways to make the most of the money by buying drugs and selling them in order to turn a profit. The other twist is when Jessica Goldman (Cindy Lopez) arrives while Dennis is out. Dennis and his girlfriend had sort of arranged this given Warren had expressed that he liked her. How the two will interact and what will happen to the money or Dennis's big drug plan is all part of how the story unfolds.

Now I'm not entirely sure if it's because of how the characters were written or how the actors were told to perform their roles, but Flores and Manalo get into quite a fair amount of shouting or at least speaking in raised voices throughout the show. I get it - they're young and passionate and sometimes drugged up and shouting is inevitable. This is all well and good until you get to Cindy Lopez, who is significantly softer spoken and a bit more unassuming, which again feels like it's by design. But because things are so starkly different it felt a little off-balance. And I wanted to get this out of the way since this was probably my biggest issue with things that really distracted me from time to time while watching the show.

Beyond that, Manalo and Flores put on some amazing performances and it's easy to appreciate the effort that went into the show. I know, louder voices does not automatically mean better acting, but in this case it did allow them to really let loose and embrace the quirks of their characters and help us as members of the audience explore the story better. They very extremely committed to their roles and the story that they wanted to tell and we're all the better for it.

And it's a pretty strong story as well - one that seems to go nowhere since it ends with that classic theater sense of uncertainty, but that works perfectly well for the story that was being told. We're talking about an exploration of adolescence after all and thus the writing can at times be compared to books like Catcher in the Rye or something. Instead of the plot being all front and center for things, instead we have what feels more like a slice of life experience as we slide into their lives for but a moment and hear their story and then slip away. The ending may not feel all that fulfilling to some and that too is by design - we all feel the pain of knowing instinctively that there's more to this story that what has been told and the strength of the performance has us wanting to know what happens next.

The other thing we really need to talk about is the decision to stage the show at a venue like A Space as opposed to a more traditional theater or even the usual Red Turnip haunt of Whitespace. I really felt that the venue and how things were setup made for a great match for the story since it really helped me as a member of the audience appreciate what each of the characters was going through. Sure, pretty much all of Red Turnip's shows have been staged "in the round" for the most part with the audience surrounding the stage area, thus allowing for more dynamic blocking. But in this case it gave the show a greater sense of intimacy and also a greater note of "reality" or something like that - a better term escapes me now. The show made me feel like I was in the apartment with these characters and I was some sort of silent witness to things. And I never felt this immersed in the whole experience in any of Red Turnip's shows thus far. The chairs may not have been all that comfortable for such a long stretch of time, but the theater experience made it feel worth the discomfort and then some.

There's a lot of talk in the early press about the show about how the story is a great way to show how children of the 80's as products of the Reagan Era can be compared a lot to modern day Millennials. Call me annoying, but that just works because young people are pretty much all the same in my book and they all demonstrate the same rage against systems and will at one point in time or another seem lost and adrift to older generations. So yeah, it's true that there's a lot in common between the generations since I will always feel that whatever labels or distinctions we tag between generations are artificial constructs of our efforts to categorize pretty much everything but in the end never really say anything meaningful.

This Is Our Youth is a great show since it doesn't just make you think, but it also makes you feel more of what the characters are going through. I could come to appreciate more of such theatrical efforts from Red Turnip - but this may all depend on the material that they choose to interpret. Thus the show gets 5 creative uses of the performance space by the actors out of a possible 5.

Oh, and major kudos for the music as well.

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