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Review: HIGH SCHOOL COVEN Conjures School Memories, Both Sweet And Bitter, Forges Links To Past And Future

The Strand Theater in Hamilton-Lauraville Presents A New Play About Teen Witches And Sexual Assault

There are many reasons to not want to revisit high school. This show blows them up. HIGH SCHOOL COVEN presents a fascinating, almost disturbingly realistic rendition of an out-group clique practicing at practical magic. It's heartbreaking, hilarious, alarming and full of intimate revelations. The actors are stunning in their portrayals of the turmoil of youth, and the 2017 script is set in a non-specific semi-contemporary time which excludes complications like Snapchat and cyberbullying. TW: it also includes references to, and discussion of, sexual assault. It's presented non-graphically, but IS a significant part of the show.

The Strand requires mask-wearing to attend the show. If that's a dealbreaker, I'm sorry. Wearing a piece of cloth or paper is a small thing and should not prevent you venturing to The Strand for another woman-positive theatrical presentation. From The Strand's homepage:

"The Strand is the only brick-and-mortar theater in Baltimore dedicated solely to supporting and amplifying womxn's voices."

Now pay attention to that X in Womxn! This is important. The Strand is dedicated to supporting the voices of women and woman-identifying people. From Womxn is a term used "in intersectional feminism, as an alternative spelling to avoid the suggestion of sexism perceived in the sequences m-a-n and m-e-n, and to be inclusive of trans and nonbinary women."

In short, The Strand is casting in traditionally female roles persons who may not always have identified as female, this show inclusive. I think we can learn to deal with that. If you think you can't, if it's another dealbreaker, skip this one.

HIGH SCHOOL COVEN's author Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin created this show at New York's Corkscrew Theater Festival in 2017. In 2018, it was produced and performed at Indiana University, where Garvin was studying for her MFA in playwriting. Now, with very few production notches on its spine, the script arrives in Baltimore.

HIGH SCHOOL COVEN is written in a temporally linear format, with a few shifts, (one of them exceedingly well done), and several atemporal character monologues. The six-person cast is perceptually expanded by phone conversations, discussions of folk just out of the room, and off-stage voices. A montage sequence works remarkably well, with the superb contributions of Videographer and Projections Artist Chris Uehlinger. His projections and well-timed animations enhance Set Designer Amy Rhodes' otherwise bare-bones set, and lifts the production from skimpy to essential. Lighting Designer Robert Brooks creates location, mood and drama with no accidental weird shadows, terrific accomplishments in a tiny theater. Sound Design by Mo Oslejsek is seamless, and the timing of all elements is spot-on. Kudos to the unnamed tech operator/s.

Director Lee Conderacci showcases the Coven and allows events to unfold or reveal without heavy-handed highlighting or drawn out pauses. Sub-themes lurk in the show like Easter eggs; some may stay with you over the next few days. Conderacci focuses on character authenticity, chemistry between performers and banal commonness of horrific events. The conjuring sequences are infused with hope and naivete, if not actual or accurate crafting. The vulnerable and genuine performances of the cast deliver most of the show's magic.

Greta Boeringer, playing Principal Oversham, capably delivers the sympathetic personage but profoundly ineffectual official in the position of the head of a private school reliant on donor generosity. There's nuance to that role, and under her command, we are treated to a great deal of it, if we're quick enough to catch it.

Performing as clique/coven Alpha, Liana, Nichemat Judith Saroff "NJ" is earnest, uncertain, affronted, hopeful, scheming, verbose and awkward. Liana represents an archetype hard to define, but immediately recognizable. Dramatic diva Rachel is played by Jess Rivera, who absolutely nails the over-the-top it's-all-about-me vibe of a particular breed of high-schooler. No credit is given to a makeup artist, but Rachel's sweatiness is realistic and her runny mascara is perfect. Libbey Kim, in a quieter role, is convincing as brainy Naomi, and carries that vaguely irritated, low-level annoyed ethos of those who quash their own ambitions to submit to the will of the loudest. Her well-timed sighs and shoulder slumps convey much. Playing Trina, a "popular" girl joining the tiny Coven, Tatiana Nya Ford delivers uncertainty and miserable secretiveness with facial expression and body language. Getting pulled into an unfamiliar situation by her new peers for reasons of their own, she exudes stress signals at the non-violent coercion. As a group, the girls alternately converge and conflict, often with loud, inexplicable noises, always with fabulously accurate teen postures.

Betse Lyons, playing a character identified as Shopgirl, has the best lines, and her flat delivery is flat-out hilarious. There's a great deal of depth to the character, and her slow, deliberate ways are a brilliant foil to the fraught antics of the Coven. Lyons handles the subtle changes of her character's moods with small facial flickers and vocal modulation. The Shopgirl's character journey, explored backwards, is psychologically satisfying to uncover.

Costuming by Stage Manager Aria Mairin shows personality of characters, and defies dating. There's nothing to specify which decade we're looking at in the show. Visually and thematically, we could be at any point between 1998 and now.

Intermission is 15 minutes, with refreshments available in the lobby. The bathroom is a onesie; be advised.

The Strand's neighborhood, Hamilton-Lauraville on Harford road, is gritty, like many excellent, interesting locations in Baltimore. Your posh clubbing outfit is out of place. Your hungry stomach is not. Emma's Tea Spot has lovely atmosphere and offers High Tea, which sells out two weeks ahead of time. Silver Queen Cafe seems to have New Orleans on its menu, and offers a discount in conjunction with certain ticket purchases at The Strand.

HIGH SCHOOL COVEN has the right combination of tension and safety, surprise and familiarity, heartbreak and comedy to appeal to anyone who remembers, first- or second- hand, the traumas of being female in high school. Would that witchcraft were the solution to other future woes! However much empowerment women feel, until our voices are not dismissed, we still have work to do. In the words of the unexpectedly wise Shopgirl, "I choose to believe in all of us."

All performances take place at The Strand Theater, located in the center of the block between Gibbons and Hamilton and 5426 Harford Rd. Baltimore MD 21214. Mask wearing is required for attendance.

Street parking in the general area is available; check when payment is required. For further information, 443-874-4917 or Click Here ; this page includes links to nearby eateries.

HIGH SCHOOL COVEN plays at The Strand Theater, located at 5426 Harford Rd. Baltimore MD 21214

January 27th -Feb 12th, 2023; Fridays & Saturdays at 8 PM; Thursday, February 9th at 8 PM; Sundays at 2 PM.

Tickets are $20 general/ $10 Student/Senior/Artist; $15 for Dinner & Show (details on the website.)

There's a helpful seating chart for choosing your spot at point of purchase. It's a small theater! Reserve early! To buy tickets, visit Click Here

Photo: L to R: HIGH SCHOOL COVEN is Tatiana Nya Ford as Trina, Jess Rivera as Rachel, NJ Saroff as Liana, Libbey Kim as Naomi

Photo Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

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New work advocate and feminist writer Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin pens realistic portrayal of high school life, complete with timeless element of sexual assault. Sexual and gender-based violence survivorship activist Lee Conderacci directs a 6-member cast enacting trials and traumas of teen witch wannabes, at womxn-focused Strand Theater in Baltimore.