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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
I and You

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean/ But I shall be good health to you nevertheless/ and filter and fibre your blood.
I and You
Lilli Hokama and Paul Pontrelli
Rapid fire funny and angst-filled teen dialogue is one excellent reason to see Lauren Gunderson's I and You at Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA. In this 90-minute, beautifully directed by Kristen van Ginhoven, two character play, adolescent tension and the cosmos collide through the transcendence of Walt Whitman's poetry.

Sixteen-year-old Caroline (Lilli Hokama) lives in a creatively cluttered teen bedroom with photos, posters, stuffed penguins and a table filled with pill bottles. Sidelined from school by a serious liver illness, she awakens to find Anthony (Paul Pontrelli) in her bedroom spouting poetry from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass": "I and this mystery, here we stand." The likable, goofy Anthony has been assigned to work with Caroline to produce an English class project on Whitman's use of pronouns. In typical teen procrastination it is extremely last minute and due, "like" tomorrow?

Hokoma's Caroline is initially hostile and takes offense at almost every word Anthony utters. They communicate initially in that prickly rapport that passes for conversation in the adolescent world."Don't be nice to me," she acerbically warns Anthony. Caroline suspects every act of kindness as a sign of pity and she rebels against the constant reminder of her illness and impending death

Laid back and precocious, a poetic Orpheus, Anthony is persistent. Eventually through Whitman's lyrical persuasive language in "Leaves of Grass," charms her into cooperation and uneasy detente. She even begins to improve on the poster, of course using glitter. Anthony seems almost immune to Caroline's cynicism. A Coltrane fan, basketball-playing African-American, he refuses to bow to Caroline's rejections. Through his wisdom and prescience Caroline reveals a love of Jerry Lee Lewis and a dream of life in New York City. When they impulsively kiss she covers her embarrassment with the excuse, "I fell on your face." It is a wonderful moment between these two ebullient young humans involved in a confusing yet life-affirming transition.

Gunderson in an interview with friend and fellow playwright, Pulitzer drama winner Margaret Edson of Wit notability, said that she had a class of high schoolers read and critique the accuracy of the language and actions in I and You.

The underlying tension and unexpressed subplot that arises every so often clues the audience in to the fact that a deeper level of inexplicable energy is developing between the pair but its significance will be revealed only in a dramatic end.

The plot's denouement requires a willing suspension of disbelief which is really what all theatdr hinges upon. However, Gunderson is a master at developing characters through realistic dialogue and timing, It is worth the ride to Chester for the sheer pleasure of watching Lilly Hokama and Paul Pontrelli. Like many of the old movies, illness draws the brave knight to woo a sick girl out of her self-absorption and bitterness, but these two actors keep it fresh and current.

The Chester's production avoids predictable traps that a playwright like Gunderson uses with aplomb. Named the most produced living playwright (American Theatre) of 2016-2017 season, and her I and You was the 2014 winner of the Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre critics Association New Play Award.

The design team of Juliana von Haubrich (set design) and Lara Dubin's lighting creates scenic pictures which in a trice transform the stage. Costume designer Stella Giulietta Schwartz knows how to dress modern teens to underscore their personality while sound designer Tom Shread makes sure that the we follow every nuance of the story.

"I love plays that have some sort of explosive, transcendent something about the end. There's something false about the ending of a play anyway which makes me want to run off a cliff with it." Director van Ginhoven and her two actors have created in Gunderson's words "...a different place than you showed up." If you love Gunderson or are new to her work, this is a must see.

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I and You by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Kristen van Ginhoven
Cast: Lilli Hokama (Caroline) Paul Pontrelli (Anthony)
Scene design: Juliana von Haubrich
Costume design: Stella Giulietta Schwartz
Lighting design: Lara Dubin
Sound design: Tom Shread
Stage Manager: Keri Schultz
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Chester Theatre Company, Town Hall Theatre, Chester, MA
From 6/28/17; closing 7/9/17
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at June 30 performance

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