Like acne scars that never fade, even as middle-age wrinkles carve tiny paths around them, the worst moments of our teen years remain etched forever on our psyches. It is the time in life most pocked by humiliation, shame and insecurity. Impulse control hasn’t yet kicked in. Mistakes are made. And made again. We learn from the blunders or are doomed to repeat them, or be haunted by them, well into adulthood.
The all-teen Cry Havoc Theater Company plays on these themes and more in a wise and powerful new piece of devised theater titled Shut Up and Listen!, going on for one more weekend at the Margo Jones Theater in Fair Park. Directors Mara Richards Bim and Shelby-Allison Hibbs and their actors — Daniel Hinton, Trinity Gordon, Regina Juarez, Cara Lawson, Romeo Hosein, Jesus Sena, Lucky Lawhorn II, Shamaraye McQueen, De’Aveyon Murphy, Lilia Houser, Elijah Rice — created the script using Meisner acting exercises and writing prompts. Several original monologues punctuate the action, but the otherwise nearly wordless 70-minute production unfolds as a high-energy circus of physical movement that stretches into every corner of the intimate acting space. (Dean Wray served as movement director.)
Inspired by an Edinburgh Fringe hit called Once and for All… by the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed, Shut Up and Listen! begins with a six-minute pageant of typical teenage behavior. As if turning up for class, one by one the actors enter and sit on 11 mismatched chairs lined up tightly across the stage. “Move,” orders a tall guy with shoulder-length hair. A girl scoots over at his command and promptly tumbles out of her seat as another girl enters on roller skates and a girl in blond plaits flits past a boy in a pink topknot to flirt with one in a Hairspray T-shirt. Props are introduced: stuffed giraffe toy, backpack, headphones, deck of cards, water pistol, balloons, plastic tape, blanket, air horns, boxing gloves, hula hoop, jump rope, ball and pool noodle. Someone starts Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the others join in a cappella in near-perfect harmony. A dodgeball game breaks out.
Suddenly everyone’s up and doing things. Topknot strips off his green shorts and dons a pink voile tutu. Roller skates is led around at the end of the jump rope. Two girls hold an impromptu boxing match as another couple disappears under the bedspread. Props become weapons for comedy and mild violence. The noise level ratchets up from study hall murmurs to playground shouts.
Then a buzzer sounds, like the institutional cue for class to change. In a flash, the stage is tidied by the cast and the chairs are realigned. The stage is briefly empty and silent, but here they come again, in ones and twos to repeat the same six-minute sequence in a slightly different manner.
The show continues this way in lather-rinse-repeat fashion. They do the same motions, say the same words over and over, but on balletic tippy-toes accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” one time, then hip-hop wiggles to Young MC’s “Bust a Move.” Then psychedelic swoons, then overtly sexual gropings and finally with the restrained whispers and postures of Jane Austen characters. The sharpest version has them deconstructing their choreography verbally, describing what we’ve seen them do several times in a row. “I proceed to fall out of my chair,” says falling-out-of-chair girl. “I have metaphorical sex under a sheet,” says pigtails.
The monologues that punctuate the action challenge adult judgment of youthful missteps. “I’m gonna get fired! Back off! I’m gonna get an STD! Back off!” shouts actor Jesus Sena. “Maybe I’m the horny one,” purrs Cara Lawson, the girl with braids, as she rails against the constrictions of female teen sexuality.
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Only in these moments do actors directly address the audience. The rest of the time they operate as if no one is watching. She’s setting a Barbie on fire over here, he’s stacking plastic cups or flipping playing cards over there.
Each variation of the core scene shows off the young performers’ skills in different ways. The action may seem chaotic at times, but they know what they’re doing every minute. Their discipline is evident. This thing moves, always in surprising and visually striking directions.
Every onstage stumble may have been carefully rehearsed, but the effect is to make us think about the often unreal expectations of perfection teenagers are expected to live up to. Shut Up and Listen! delivers its message loudly and clearly. These kids have something to say. You, out there in the dark, pay attention.
Shut Up and Listen! continues through January 16 at Margo Jones Theater, 1211 First Ave. (inside Fair Park). Tickets $7-$12 at the door, 214-733-2064 or cryhavoctheater.org.