High School Confrontational

3. December, 2011 Theater No comments


Show #109: The Chalk Boy, Impact Theatre, November 5.

Luisa Frasconi and Caitlyn Tella in The Chalk Boy. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

By Sam Hurwitt

If there’s one thing we learn from Joshua Conkel’s recent plays at Impact Theatre, it’s that kids are jerks. Last season Impact produced MilkMilkLemonade, Conkel’s comedy about preteen bullying, repressed homosexuality and chicken processing. Now the Berkeley company reteams with the Washingtonian playwright for The Chalk Boy, a dark comedy about how the abduction of the most popular boy in school affects the lives and alliances of four thoroughly unpleasant teenage girls. Well, that’s not entirely fair.  Only three of them are cruel, horrible people. The fourth isn’t mean so much as wishy-washy and clingy.

Director Ben Randle’s staging immediately immerses us in the characters’ high school world. Chalkboards cover the walls of Anne Kendall’s minimal set, and as the audience enters two of the girls are writing and drawing all over them while bopping along to Colbie Caillat and Pink songs: “Welcome to Clear Creek,” “Penny is a witch,” “Lauren Trisha BFFs 4eva,” “Go Vikings.”

The story is loosely framed as a dramatic presentation that snotty and superficial teens Lauren and Trisha are performing at an event for “the fellowship of Christian athletes” to recount what happened in the town of Clear Creek, Washington, after their classmates Jeff Chalk disappeared. Apparently there have been a lot of abductions in town over the years, and everyone’s on edge.

Not all of the actors necessarily look like teens, but they’re pretty convincing in their mannerisms. Maria Giere Marquis injects a surprising note of nuance into ultra-Christian ringleader Lauren, whose prim and unforgiving evangelism is accompanied by an almost desperate bossiness and a nervous tic of playing with her hair. She’s particularly amusing in her chatty prayers: “Hi God, it’s me, Lauren Radley. I hope you’re well.”

More of a jock, Chris Quintos is a bundle of aggression as Lauren’s henchgirl Trisha, whose piety is always at odds with her lack of self-control; she’s always blurting things, cussing and getting into fights.

On the other side are the girls they detest and talk smack about. Luisa Frasconi’s Penny always wears black, but she’s more sulky than spooky, her posture hunched and arms crossed like a petulant child. Penny seems like a one-note character until near the end, when she undergoes a fascinating transformation. Just seeing her smile is like a metamorphosis. Before that, though, she spends her time rolling her eyes at her mother, spreading lies about Trisha just for kicks, and dragging her only friend Breanna into chugging cough syrup and conducting Wiccan séances to try to contact Jeff, whom Penny’s decided she’s in love with after she let him finger her under the table at Olive Garden.

“You’re boring and sometimes I don’t know why I’m friends with you,” she says to Breanna, which is obviously cruel but not really inaccurate. Caitlyn Tella is likeable but wooden as Breanna, who’s clearly in love with Penny and doing a lousy job trying to conceal it.

Most of the cast plays other roles along the way. Quintos’s Trisha also does a cartoonish impression of a teacher with a singsong Midwestern accent and her histrionic warnings to her students not to be abducted. Giere Marquis is stiff as Penny’s mom, nagging her rail-thin daughter about how she’s putting on weight, but she’s effectively creepy as a late-night driver. Jeff Chalk is embodied by one actor and voiced by another in an otherworldly encounter that’s made strikingly effective by Colin Trevor’s creepy sound effects and Jax Steager’s horror-movie flickering lights and projections of swirly static for otherworldly visitations.

At first the dialogue seems awkward, both in writing and execution, and yet the story sucks you in with its black humor, shifting alliances and slight deepening of the characters over time, which is fortunate because they’re so shallow to begin with. Conkel also does some interesting experiments with breaking the fourth wall that almost but don’t quite work. The device of the whole story being a show that Lauren and Trisha are putting on falls apart as the story goes on, replaced by freewheeling metafiction in which characters are occasionally (but not often) aware that they’re in a story being told to an audience. Its internal logic doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny, but the show becomes more entertaining as it goes along, and that’s enough to give the girls’ school project a passing grade.

Chalk Boy runs through December 17 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. http://impacttheatre.com

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