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BWW Review: Think Tank Theatre Presents the Teen-Created CAN(T) RELATE at the Tampa Fringe

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It's like THE BREAKFAST CLUB set in a drama room.

BWW Review: Think Tank Theatre Presents the Teen-Created CAN(T) RELATE at the Tampa Fringe

"Try telling a bunch of young people and their families they can't do their school productions, but all the sports teams can still play, sans masks mind you. Also tell them sports are getting to play for scholarship opportunities. I guess there are none of those for the arts!?!?!?! But really, Like most we made the best of our situation and pushed forward with what we could do. We didn't pause to think about what we couldn't do." --from the press release for CAN(T) RELATE

STUDENT: "It's a work in progress." TEACHER: "I can see that." --from CAN(T) RELATE at the Tampa Fringe.

As a theatre teacher, I was exceptionally moved by the original play, CAN(T) RELATE, at the Tampa Fringe. Devised and written by members of Thank Tank's Young Artists' Ensemble (high schoolers Layla Kuck, Jake Perez and Annie Sardouk), it's an unblinking but fun and loose look at teenagers trapped in these uncertain times.

The plot is like The Breakfast Club set in a drama room: As Covid recedes to the (hopeful, very hopeful) past, three students will fail Drama class if they don't come up with an original play that needs to be written and presented to their demanding but kind theatre teacher. The kids--a cheerleader, a try-hard outsider and a nerd--are trapped in the room together and don't connect, so they decide to work apart instead of collaborating. Their projects, all of them shown to us, reflect their personalities.

The nerd writes a play that's a lot like a space-age Making Mr. Right, a movie from the 1980's: Building the perfect friend (Bot 24601 with a Les Miz wink) who rejects his maker and falls for a not-very-nice girl. It ends with the cast being phasered to death.

The outsider, Ryan, showcases a Post-Apocalyptic work set "in a desolate landscape that we used to call America." To get an idea of his play, imagine Mad Max with a Scooby-Doo lunch box, a bag of Doritos and a package of Mountain Dew.

The cheerleader writes a script about friendship, entitled "Cook and Milkies." Cookie is sad to realize that he's looked at as a "sometimes food" and Milkie is sad that some people are "intolerant" toward milk byproducts. "Why are we here? What is the meaning of our lives?" one of the character's ask. To which one of them answers, "The only realize we exist is because people like us."

But things aren't hunky dory in pre-post-Covid Hillsborough County, Florida. The kids' teacher is afraid of losing her job. "Our country is a national news story," she says. "Cutting a thousand positions; the arts are always the first to go." The kids are saddened by this thought: "I don't know if I'd still be in school if not for theatre," one of them says. "Theatre is the only class I can be myself in...What will kids do next year if we don't have a safe place?"

These young actors are so full of heart that they're simply irresistible (to quote the title of an 80's hit). Layla Kuck, a student at Alonso who plays the cheerleader, is always so real on stage, always in the moment. The likable Jake Perez from Newsome High School is Ryan and boasts a very strong onstage presence. Annie Sardouk is quite a find, so sincere and heartfelt as the nerd who years to be someone's friend. There is a fourth actor in the mix--adult Katie Calahan--who is solid as the Theatre teacher who loves being there but is scared that "there" will no longer be "there" much longer. She's a great listener onstage (a fine art in and of itself), though I don't think she would physically push a kid's feet off a table (teachers have to be hands off).

Ky Richards' projections are quite clever and add to the shows-within-a-show; Georgia Mallory Guy's production design is appropriately minimal (it feels like a drama room). There's an 80's vibe to CAN(T) RELATE, complete with a Rubik's Cube and such songs as "The Kids in America" and "It's the End of the World As We Know It." And of course the aforementioned Breakfast Club feel to the whole shebang. John Hughes would be proud.

If you are a theatre teacher, past or present, or a student who takes theatre in middle school or high school, then you need to hurry to the Tampa Fringe to watch this show (see below for more details). It may not be perfect--sometimes the cast speaks too fast and we can't understand all that they say (especially the ends of sentences, where enunciation really matters); you can easily predict where the plot eventually leads; and there's a work-in-progress feel to it--but it's so real, so sincere, filled with so much heart and hope, that it will win you over. It's written by students who obviously love theatre class and love their theatre teachers. As the drama instructor tells her students: "We don't do this for the money. We do it because we love it, and we love you!" Upon hearing those words, as a theatre teacher myself, it's time to reach for the hankies.

Come see all of the great Tampa Fringe performances running this week into next weekend; it's like a welcome return from an old friend. Showtimes for CAN(T) RELATE are: Sun 8/1 @ 3:45pm, Fri. 8/6 @ 7:00pm, Sat. 8/7 @ 1:45pm, Sun 8/8 @ 2:45pm at the HCC performing arts building in Ybor City. Tickets are $10 and available at www.TampaFringe.org.


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