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A CurtainUp Review
History of the Word

I want to make history
High School auditoriums tend to not be a comfortable place, and often college theaters are only a couple steps above that. Rarely can an amateur performer fill the large, echoing space successfully. In fact, it is apparently even difficult for a professional performer to keep the energy level up in that vacuous environment.

History of the Word is a professional production, co-produced by The Vineyard Theatre and Queens Theatre in the Park, but it was performed in a high school theater this past week, and upcoming, it will be performed in a community college theater. Though there is a reasonable impetuous behind this — the show itself is about a day in the life of four high school students— the actual auditorium at Washington Irving High School seemed to overtake the action onstage.

My first impression of the young actors onstage was that they were indeed high school students. To a certain degree this speaks well of the ways these four are able to embody an adolescent mindset. At the same time, however, there is an aspect to their performances that also feels not quite comfortable on the stage, as if they were not quite sure of themselves as performers. Partially, I credit this to the environment — what a high school auditorium invokes within a performer, the expectations of the audience, and even the behavior of the high school students in the audience. Another factor is that the performers themselves look like actual, current high school students in both dress (smart costume design by Ali Turns) and age (their bios reveal that they all must be in their early twenties; NYC teens often look as though they are more than legal themselves).

The History of the Word opens in the AM, at a cemetery where a young black teen has stopped to visit a loved one —who the deceased is, we are not yet sure. The story then continues at the school, where audience members unfamiliar with the daily routines involved at public schools may be shocked at the realistically displayed, airport-like security systems. The students are all in some of the same classes (though not all are in the same year in school). We follow them through history class, gym class, lunch, bathroom breaks, play rehearsal, and more. The school faculty and staff are nicely portrayed by a single actor, David Deblinger— shades of Spring Awakening. Not surprisingly, one of the final scenes is the school's evening poetry slam with all of these teens eloquently expressing themselves through spoken word.

Throughout this day in school, there are moments when the performers open up to the audience, confide in us, and even burst into poems (the poems change in every show and are written by high school students from Washington Irving High School). With a story not exactly established, or resolved, there is something unfinished about History of the Word. At times, it feels as though as many teen-geared issues were tossed into the script as possible: dieting, sex, bulimia, authority issues, broken homes; but in many ways it is exactly these issues that allow a snapshot-single-day view of these high school students to be kept real, with their futures questionable and their present, flawed.

It is too bad the overall performance felt dwarfed by the theater (I can only hope the next location fares a bit better). I came to see honesty and talent revealed by this young crew, whose combined professional theater credits seem to be countable on one hand. Especially charming is Utkarsh Ambudkar as the ROTC-bound Ali, whose stage presence and timing are undeniably spot-on. Lauren Birriel as Marisa, the "10th grade Beyonce," successfully displays a complicated, wounded soul who must face too many difficult decisions. Britton Jones as Felice, and Cedric Sanders as Kayo both have their strong moments. However, while Jones often opts for an overly blatant approach to her actions, Sanders tends to go too far towards subtlety, often becoming very difficult to read.

There is symbiosis apparent between playwright Ben Snyder and director Joe Morton, and their understanding of the world of inner-city high schools is especially refreshing. There is toughness but there is also some friendliness, with students defying authority figures yet desperately wanting to be accepted by them. But there is still some clunkiness to be worked out like scenes that seem to go by in a flash and some relationships that are shakily explained.

History of the Word is the first high-school audience and curricula-geared production by the Vineyard Theatre. They are on the right track, though they are experiencing the inevitable growing pains.

History of the Word
Written by Ben Snyder
Directed by Joe Morton
Conceived by Orin Wolfand Rajenda Ramoon Maharaj, with original poetry by Felice Belle
Performed by Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lauren Birriel, David Deblinger, Britton Jones and Cedric Sanders
Additional original poetry contributed by Kayo Charles, Akil Dasan, Marisa Vural and Yolanda Kae Wilkinson

Sound Design: Brett Jarvis
Lighting Design: Josh Bradford
Scenic Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Ali Turns
Production Stage manager: Rhonda Picou
Music: Akil Dasan
Running Time: 65 minutes
Laguardia Community College 31-10 Thompson Avenue, Long Island City March 7-10, times vary 718 482 5151
Reviewed by Amanda Cooper based on a March 2, 2007 performance.

©Copyright 2007, Elyse Sommer.
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