BWW Reviews: Talent Shines in Problematic MOTH at Studio 2ndStage
At first glance, Declan Greene's Moth - now making its American premiere at Studio 2ndStage - has the makings of a story that will likely resonate with many. The topic of bullying has received an extraordinary amount of attention in the media in recent years, been the focus of numerous campaigns, and been the focal point for more than a few television, theatre, and movie productions. Whether that's warranted is another matter, but suffice it to say, the word "bully" is a buzzword as of late that's likely to grab attention (and maybe sell a few tickets). Whether there's much left to say on the subject is up for debate, but Greene has set out to explore the hot social issue in a way that's a bit different than what's already been done. A burst of creativity in what can be said to be a potentially oversaturated market? That's not something to cast aside lightly.
The problem, however, lies not within the general premise of the play, but the way Greene has put his creative juices to use to develop the story/script. With this Studio 2ndStage production, longtime respected DC actor Tom Story in his directorial debut, his cast of two, and a strong set of technical designers do everything they possibly can, it seems, to make it all work. Their effort to tell the story in the most effective, compelling, and gripping way possible does not go unnoticed (at least for me). With a less talented creative team and cast, the slog through Greene's story would have been a major, major chore.
Put succinctly, the script is most definitely not ready for primetime. Greene tries to do too much with too little of a plot; meandering shifts in tone and the worlds that the characters inhabit also don't help matters. One has to applaud Greene's attempt to meld fantasy and realism and transcend that blurry line with some kind of flow and ease - a challenging conundrum to face. Yet, the end result is a confusing mess that becomes tedious after real and imagined situations are repeated ad naseum. Another challenge is that we, to some extent, know the dark path the story is heading the moment we learn about where our protagonists are on the food chain and how they feel about their high school experience and those that influence it. This makes it hard to care about what happens to our protagonists (at least on paper).
We meet goth-like emo chick Clarissa (Allie Villarreal, perfectly dressed in Brandee Mathies appropriate costume) and her equally non-conforming and more than a little geeky friend Sebastian (David Nate Goldman) in what appears to be your everyday, nondescript school hallway with a wall of yellow-orange metal lockers (designed by Colin K. Bills). We later learn, however, that they're really not physically at the school - that location is simply synonymous with their most painful experiences of being bullied by those in the in-crowd, or at the very least, those not on the complete fringes of that micro-world and pretty much alone in the world.
Through a series of largely memory-based and fantastical stories they tell themselves - taking on the voices of other characters as required - we learn about Sebastian's experience being bullied, his at times complicated relationship with Clarissa, and the contentious relationships with their parents/ other authority figures/peers etc. Without giving too much away, most importantly for this story and for its climactic ending, we also experience the unnerving way Sebastian has internally battled with the trauma of being bullied, lets other forces overtake him (enter the moth), and convinces himself he can completely change what's happening - a situation that ultimately impacts his fate. The impact of his downward spiral on Clarissa - who now has more emotional baggage than probably one person can handle - is also explored.
As the 'bullied,' the two young performers definitely bring their "A-Game" and let their considerable acting talent shine through under the careful, but not too heavy-handed direction of Tom Story. Intensity is the name of the game here, but it's combined with authenticity and considerable nuance. The end result is the weakly drawn characters appear less like archetypal cartoons and more like complex individuals we can begin to appreciate at some level.
Villarreal is at her best as the moody Clarissa, but she also excels in taking on array of authority figures/bullies that Sebastian encounters. She shows great range. I may not have found it particularly believable that she was an actual high school student at first because she looked much older than Goldman, but her convincing portrayal allowed me to forget about that.
Goldman faces the challenge of navigating Sebastian's moments of lucidity and non-lucidity and does so with ease. He is tasked with playing a character that's, on paper, more than a little grating and therefore initially hard to root for (at least for me) because it's like he's simply trying to be ridiculous and annoying. However, he infuses enough nuance and authentic, gamut-running, and convincing human emotions into the proceedings so that we can, at the very least, see where Sebastian is coming from.
This is a well-paced production - and I say well-paced because although the production 'felt' longer than 75 minutes, with a less capable director it may have felt more interminable. It also features some nifty technical elements that distracted me from the not so brilliant script. Non-boilerplate lighting and sound touches from Colin K. Bills and James Bigbee Garver, respectively, enhance the eerie and apocalyptic feel to the story and prove useful in cueing the audiences to the various reality shifts inherent to the script. One thing that I found pretty creative sound/lighting-wise is the representation of a pretty mundane thing one would find in any school - a copier. In this case, Sebastian uses one to make fliers to alert his classmates to an impending, life and landscape-altering, apocalyptic event. It's a brief moment - though important to the final scene - but it's memorable for featuring the perfect blend of sound and lighting elements.
Overall, this is not Studio 2ndStage's best outing. I like the idea of staging premieres because heaven knows we don't need yet another production of a play that's been done twenty times in DC in the last five years. I also like the idea of exposing audiences to playwrights (in this case, an Aussie) we might not otherwise ever hear about - especially young ones. I also appreciate that the idea of doing a play that provides meaty material for young actors and new directors to sink their teeth into and one that - at the same time - will likely resonate with young theatregoers. Those are all good things. I only wish the cast and creative team had more to work with in terms of this particular play.
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission.
"Moth" plays at Studio Theatre's Stage 4 Space - 1501 14 Street, NW in Washington, DC - through May 4, 2014. For tickets and more information, visit the Studio Theatre website. Tickets can also be purchased by calling the box office at 202-332-3300.
Photo Caption: David Nate Goldman and Allie Villarreal in "Moth" at Studio 2ndStage. Photo by Igor Dmitry.