in my humble opinion

Fringe 2007 - Review (the last, for now) - OurSpace - 4-1/2 stars

“It’s just a phone. You don’t have to answer it.”

Amen, brother.

One of the reasons so many high school and even college productions of Our Town ring hollow is because, regardless of talent, younger performers don’t have the life experience to fully embody the characters. That’s why OurSpace is such a great idea. It meets its performers on their level.

Instead of peeling back the layers on the multigenerational cast of characters living small town life in Grover’s Corners the early part of the last century as the original does, OurSpace uncovers the life of teenagers trying to make it through the minefield of 21st century high school. While this idea, too, is not without its perils (this is, after all, white suburbia we’re talking about), writer/director Glenn Morehouse Olson works with teenagers on a daily basis. She and her ensemble of young adult performers recreate the experiences of these characters truthfully.

There is still a central couple named George and Emily (Clayton Aldern and Abby Olsen). But here, George is the nerd next door, and Emily is the best friend who grows away from George as she enters life as one of the “popular girls” in the high school hierarchy. There is still a Stage Manager character (Noah Muonio), acting as our narrator and guide. But his plans to stage a traditional version of “Our Town” are upended when the ensemble revolts and wants something more current to which they can relate, a story they can truly tell. The Stage Manager adapts, and channels the multimedia included in the life of this 21st century town.

Home life on this side of the turn of the century is a mix of two parent and single parent households. Woven into the scenes of high school life are monologues reveals the things unspoken just beneath the surface - the Emo girl who secretly listens to opera, longing for a life beyond high school where individuality free of labels is easier, or at least possible; the popular athlete who no one knows is gay, and who feels like the only one of his kind in the world; the guy who sits in a room full of friends with text messages and cell phone calls, who just wants to have a normal uninterrupted conversation; and the teenage lothario who starts to claim hidden depths, then smiles and admits he was only kidding, some people really are this shallow. These speeches were developed with the input of the cast, and are some of its strongest material.

But the script overall is a solid piece of work. It sneaks up on you, building a community of characters who we come to recognize and invest in. Class lines are starkly drawn between the kids who have money and those who have to work for their money. The unforgiving politics of popularity and reputation threaten to chew Emily up and spit her back out. Through it all, both George in his position on the fringes of the high school community and Emily in the center of that universe, long for that simpler time when they could just be friends - and perhaps more. Will they find their way back to each other? If it were “Our Town,” maybe. But this is OurSpace. Things are a little more complicated. In addition to the interpersonal barriers we all come equipped with, we now have a whole host of electronic distractions and tools to act as additional buffers. That’s a lot of hurdles to clear to reach another human being.

The script and performances together strike just the right balance. OurSpace is honest without being bleak. It’s romantic with being overly sentimental. It’s comedic without tipping over into parody. I pulled out the names of George, Emily and the Stage Manager mainly as recognizable touchstones from the original source material. This is really an ensemble piece. Just like any great production of “Our Town,” OurSpace needs the audience to recognize the full community first, and its character, before unfolding the identities and specifics and stories of the individual people living there. It requires a strong ensemble, with everyone doing their best work - so any one actor at any given moment could step forward and carry the production. Which is what each of them ultimately does.

In addition to the three previously mentioned, the ensemble of OurSpace is Jake Amdahl, Joe Haag, Laina Hicks, Missy McCoy, Eve Muonio, Rachel Muonio, Josh Schommer, Blayne Sovia, and Alyssa Strickland (with Mark Rehani - of this Fringe’s Blonde on Blonde fame/infamy - stepping in for two performances in the run).

OurSpace was a great way to end my 2007 Fringe experience. It was a nod to the past, and a group of artists early in their development giving me a glimpse of where theater is going. And a bit of reassurance that the performance of stories in real time in front of a live audience may just have a future after all. In the right hands, like these, it’s still capable of being not only relevant, but moving.

Very Highly Recommended.

category: 4-and-a-half Star Shows - Excellent Plus Thursday, September 20, 2007 at 11:07 PM

© Matthew A Everett