Arts & Events
Remember when you were 17 and it was a very good year? Remember when school was out for summer, school was out forever? I went to the B-Rep on Wednesday, and—well, just feel lucky you live in Berkeley, ‘cause this is the place it’s all coming from these days.
Hot off the Broadway opening of “American Idiot,” I think that Taccone & Company may have just launched the next Broadway hit with GIRLFRIEND.
It is the antidote to the last trace of any lingering homophobia. True Love, First Love, Queer Love, it’s all the Same Love. And playwright Todd Almond uses Matthew Sweet’s Emo* music in this perfectly conversational fashion with the songs interwoven with the dialogue to tell this touching story Just a little story about two American kids growin’ up in the heartland—with a love that dare not….
(*Emo is short for Emotional, a style of rock music typically characterized by melodic musicianship and expressive, often confessional lyrics).
Back in grad school at SFSU the late, great professor Chris Hampton always asked us to express what our emotional reaction was to the plays we were reading—not whether we liked it, but how it made us feel—in addition to the symbolism, action, character, theme, and all the rest of the Aristotlean checklist. So a lot of this critique is going to be about my emotional reaction to this very emotional musical.
Now I’m a hetero, a couple-three years away from Medicare, who grew up on Rock’n’Roll, and this just touched my soul. Admittedly, forty years in the theatre with so many gay friends and twenty years working for Theatre Rhino, I’m partial. I speculate that the enlightened Rep audience is the opposite of homophobic, but middle-aged straight guys generally avoid thinking about gay men’s courtship and how gay youth would meet as teenagers in a small Midwestern town. This play provides a special insight into others’ lives that isn’t generally available, which is a darn good reason for theatre.
This play has no hate crimes, no AIDS. It’s a normal teenaged love story about how kids get together, and, with a little, bitty twist, is dauntingly familiar. The monologues describe a world I forgot, and their words took me back to a chaste, awkward, First Love, when you fell in love with the person—beside and apart from how desperately you wanted to touch their flesh—and how funny, geeky, lovely to behold and charming they were. Their imagery made me smell the summer grass again, and remember back when being in love made even the crass, gray unlit buildings glow at night, and every day seemed like it was the first day of a brand new year; I was transported to my small-town hometown and my first love, admittedly female, but this play makes gender just not matter.
Professor Hampton also clued us in to always pay special attention to the Title of the Play as a clue to what it’s about and where it’s going, and it’s no different here.
Mike is the Golden Boy going to college on a sports scholarship and Will is the shy, mousy guy with the round owl glasses who the high school bullies held down and wrote “homo” across his forehead in indelible Magic Marker
The interminable pauses and fits and starts of our young lovers’ conversations are painfully realistic and reminiscent of the first time with our own adolescent love-object/enemy/stranger. When they do finally talk, Mike (Jason Hite) yaks compulsively about his girlfriend in the next town, baseball, about his dad who’s a doctor and is always on his case, and reflects upon his super-straight life of sports, homework, and television (more sports). Will (Ryder Bach) talks about, well, loopy and funny stuff, with commentary on the world as he sees with the incisively funny observations from the gay perspective that have titillated us from Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, down to present-day Will and Grace, only this Will is more “grunge” and geekier, and thereby more genuine and charming—which makes Mike fall in love with this queer duckling.
Both are home-grown actors from the prolific Bay Area; Ryder Bach has been seen in TheatreWorks’ workshop of GIRLFRIEND, and is a Center Rep vet, as is Jason Hite who played there and at El Cerrito’s CCCT, and who trained at the Young REP workshop in Walnut Creek.
Both have really lovely falsettos to accompany their rock and roll tenors; Mike’s goes higher, which was a little bit o’ fireworks. Both Mike and Will’s voices blend gorgeously. Nice to have a wide pitch range; too much speech-level singing can get tedious.
They are backed up by this terrific Dreadlock-Mohawk-Women-Rock band with Julie Wolf, Shelley Doty, Jean DuSablon, and ieela Grant (small i).
The first act bursts with the manic, sleep-disrupting, anticipation-filled anxiety, joy and despair of any teenager in love. The second act, like most second acts in life and theatre, is the down-side to the build-up of the first act, and slows to let you feel the inevitable doom of any Romeo and Juliet faced with separation. But this is a romantic comedy, so, while the path of true love never does run smooth, amor vincit omnia. (And that’s the final cliché of the day.)
This is a simple play, infused with simplicity from the set, to the music, to the story, to the lighting.
The simple set pulls you in with its familiarity. Pre-show I went down to inspect the intricate collection of props the designer puts on display on the edge of the stage. They are the remnants of boyhood mixed with artifacts of early 90’s late adolescence, including the all-present boom-box—remember mixing tapes and giving them to your s. o.? In the middle of the stage is a worn pull-out sleeper convertible couch on casters covered in white fabric which is the only piece of furniture and is used for everything. The flats are white clapboard with two doors that easily disappear when things change. It’s white, it’s Nebraska, it’s perfect. Upstage is a sunken, paneled, basement with six or so guitars on the wall, a drum set, synthesizer, etc., and string of Christmas lights. It’s a set right out of “Wayne’s World,” and a perfect place for the band to play from. I heard a couple of audience members say, “Hey, I think I used to live in that apartment!’
The lighting is masterfully simple and expressive with good coverage so their smooth, handsome young faces are always well lit. Tiny Christmas lights are used realistically to decorate the walls year-round in the Music Room; they later morph to a starry night moment that serves as background to their young, awkward innocent, guitar-playing, getting-to-know-you wooing. Linear neon lights paint the stage and are used functionally and symbolically: red and blues insinuate the snack-bar lights of the Drive-In Theatre where Mike and Will’s courtship takes place; greens and yellows to take us to the baseball field where Will watches Mike exercise his masculine sports glory; then, all the colors of the Rainbow Flag to symbolize their Coming-Out. It’s subtle, hardly noticeable, but effective, but that’s the touchstone of “subliminal”; hitting you just below the level of consciousness is the key to effective theatre.
The music of Matthew Sweet used in this musical is truly sweet; other, darker music of his (“Someone to Pull the Trigger”) is not much used in this play. I found it disturbingly ironic that Matthew Sweet’s name is just a few letters difference from Matthew Shepard, and the state of Nebraska is just one borderline away the state of Wyoming where the latter was murdered and martyred for being gay. That story is the coin’s reverse of this love story, and one that runs in the background of our thoughts and fears throughout the play and even afterwards.
I hate it when reviewers tell you the story; it should come with a Spoiler Alert. But this moment in the play may give you some insight into the subliminal, symbolic workings of this simple work. There is a moment in their Getting-To-Know-You dance, where they are freeing themselves up with singing. Will playfully directs Mike to sing the rock song like he’s Tosca jumping off the wall to her death, then like she’s not quite yet dead, and on and on. It’s a freeing, fun-filled moment. Afterwards, they sit on the curb laughing with the ice finally broken, and the Coming Out getting near. A car full of teenagers drives by, and they holler, ”Faggots!” Immediately, in the background, a freight train roars by, echoing that moment with the symbolism of a Freight-Train-Through-the-Heart from the idiot insult of the passing car that has just destroyed their moment. Mike describes it as a train that carries no passengers, and just shuttles back and forth within the bounds of the flat state of Nebraska with no escape.
Les Waters’ direction is invisible, which is always the best kind and the mark of a subtle and wise director. He understood the nature of the play and helped it to remain, as he deftly characterized it, “touchingly genuine and utterly lacking in cynicism…[and] impossible to resist.”
Joe Goode’s choreography is genius in its realism which preserves all the clumsy expressiveness of two kids emulating the rock-band choreography they were raised up on, whether sitting in the car or air-guitar-ing it all over the stage.
While the ticket-holders really seemed to enjoy it and many gave a standing ovation, I only counted about twenty “unseasoned” audience members(“unseasoned” is my girlfriend’s term for “unwrinkled’). In the bathroom at intermission, I asked a fellow even older than I what he thought, and his only comment was, “Too loud!” I saw some folks with their fingers in their ears during the performance. Maybe I sat too near the amps during the ‘60’s, but I didn’t find the music to be all that decibel-filled. How did this audience deal with “American Idiot”? The idea of reaching out for new forms—which is what art is all about—and for new audiences (or who will come to theatre in 20 years?) is especially important, but this musical should be flooded with straight, queer, and bi-curious twenty-some-year olds. On second thought, maybe it’s perfectly suited to move the audience it has.
Girlfriend plays at Tue-Sun through May 9. Berkeley Repertory Theatre Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St.
Tickets at www.berkeleyrep.org or (510) 647-2949. Run time, about 2hr 10 min which includes one intermission.
Music and Lyrics by Matthew Sweet, Book by Todd Almond. Direction by Les Waters. Choreography by Joe Goode. Scenic and costume design David Zinn. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman. Sound Design by Jake Rodriguez.
WITH: Ryder Bach (Will) and Jason Hite (Mike).
Live Music by Julie Wolf (music director, rhythm guitarist, and keyboard player), Shelley Doty (lead guitarist), Jean DuSablon, (bassist), and ieela Grant (drummer).
This is the third review in as many weeks by John A. McMullen II. He has taught theatre and directed in the Bay Area for two decades.
Comments/contact/complaints to EyeFromTheAisle@gmail.com