It's hard to watch a group of teenaged boys screaming about who gets to lead a society and not think about the Republican presidential candidate debates. In America, it seems William Golding's dark bildungsroman, Lord of the Flies, stays forever relevant with its portrayal of power attainment and the violent divisiveness thereafter.
WaterTower Theatre's aggressive production, directed by Kelsey Leigh Ervi, of a book familiar to many high school graduates opens with the sounds of a plane crash. Parachute-like curtains drop to reveal eight boys, one by one, staring out into the crowd. A few of them sing a choral piece about the promised land, remnants of which float above the commotion of the crash and the tribal thump-thump-thumping of Kellen Voss' sound design. The boys find their way to the beach, where Ralph (Henry Greenberg) and Piggy (a near-perfect Matthew Minor) are discussing the merits of the landscape — Ralph admires the water and the beach; Piggy notes he can't swim because of his "assma," The two of them get along swimmingly until a number of new boys show up led by Jack Merridew (a sparkling performance by Anthony Fortino).
The most interesting moments in Lord of the Flies happen when the boys attempt to work in unison. Eventually, they faction off with one group building shelter and following rules laid out by Ralph and Piggy, while the other group accepts Jack as "chief" and explore a more animalistic existence, hunting wild pigs and chasing off the "beastie." But the power dynamic and self-governance is far more complicated and interesting when the groups hold meetings and try to speak in turn and take care of one another. It's difficult — they can't seem to evolve past screaming matches, power grabs and they always resort to insulting the fattest, poorest member of the group, Piggy, and the thoughtful, moral Simon (an adorable but mumbling Kyle Montgomery) — and they eventually give up the community entirely.
What makes this even more interesting is pairing it with the currently-running Second Thought Theatre's Martyr, a tale about an adolescent boy who seeks refuge in Christianity, where he finds a rigid orthodoxy allowing his developing ego a refuge in self-righteousness, eventually leading to extremism and acts of terrorism. It's yet another exploration of the path to human depravity with young boys as a metaphor for violence and war. It works because the cusp of adulthood is made up of staking claims on life, all the while beginning to fear the dark side of life — the meaningless of it. But it also works for an American audience because of our recent history of young white men and their relationship with gun violence.
On opening night, numerous audience members could be heard describing Lord of the Flies as a "boy's story" — a dismissive aside about the sheer number of young boys at the heart of the narrative. It's an easy description of a thorny tale about the unstitching of a society — these boys were shipped from their homes in the UK at the heart of World War II to avoid the threat of bombings — and what happens when you try to rebuild in the rubble. Like every young person fumbling into adulthood, there are decisions you make, or don't make, about morality. Do you pursue structure and peace, or do you rise up with spears and hunt?
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Throughout the play Jeff Colangelo has choreographed athletic fight numbers for the boys when they get into disputes or chase after a pig. The very first number is an excited dance, their attempted grimaces look friendly as they mime plunging a spear into the heart of their prey. This dance is mirrored later in the play when the actions become real, first in pursuit of a pig, and then in pursuit of one another. It's a brilliant device employed by Colangelo and Ervi to illuminate the way in which actions practiced become actions realized.
Lord of the Flies has always had this impossible-to-look-away-from plane crash quality, something this production capitalizes on with both an immersive set design by Bradley Gray (the set is tremendously detailed; the lights inside the crashed plane blink on and off) and with an energetic cast of young actors. Near the end the script gets bogged down in Jack's unrelenting monologues about the "beastie," which is the childish language he uses to describe the need for an enemy. It's hard to swallow this baby talk about monsters in a play that's so physically mature and brutally violent, but it serves as a reminder not only that the actors are playing young (a device which dramaturg Kyle Bradford penned a great essay about in the program), but also that the characters are way out of the confines of youth.
If the chaotic nature of the story resembles in any way the current landscape of political conversation in America, it points to humankind's continual struggle with civilized discourse. But it seems particularly compelling in a time when subjects like immigration, gun control and cultural equity are shaping the dialogue. In America, we've once again ripped at the foundational fabric and that crack is like a deserted island on which some people are choosing to take up arms in fear and others a more reasoned approach with meetings and rules.
Lord of the Flies runs through February 14 at WaterTower Theatre (15650 Addison Road, Addison). Tickets are $22-40. More at watertowertheatre.org.