So a British high school student, afraid to go home after school, afraid of her stepdad — that's as much as she says — asks a fellow student to sew up her vagina, as they do in Africa. Solicited genital mutilation. Welcome to the new generation of British playwriting.
An Orange County–based theater company, Monkey Wrench Collective, is making its first foray into L.A. with a stylistically rambling drama of big ideas, Cockroach, by an up-and-coming female English playwright, Sam Holcroft. The work was first presented in 2008 as a joint venture by Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland. After premiering this production in O.C., Monkey Wrench Collective presents its L.A. premiere at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Hollywood.
The production, nimbly staged by Christopher Basile, gives six young actors both a workout and a showcase, which partly explains the company's attraction to the piece. It's interesting to note how the structurally flawed play received glowing — yet not uncritical — reviews in the U.K., from the excitement generated by a young playwright unafraid to interlink Darwin's theory about the survival of the fittest with recruitment of soldiers among the working class, sexual abuse and, yes, genital mutilation, all against the backdrop of a blackboard jungle.
My hunch is that were this play to premiere in the U.S., we'd all be carping about its unmet or vaguely met lofty ambitions; in this case, it seems, among critics on the other side of the Atlantic, ambition took priority. Britain's excitement over promise rather than polish might go part of the way to explaining why it provides such fertile ground for new writing.
The drama unfolds in a secondary school, where an overwrought and overwhelmed teacher, Beth (Kyra Kiener), tries to keep in line students with raging hormones who are more like wards than scholars. Determined to get them a passing grade on the upcoming exam, she keeps a cluster of them in detention so they might have a chance at a future — the kind of future they gave up on years ago. In their occasional fits of rage, the boys destroy the classroom door and go at each other like pit bulls while Beth attempts in vain to keep them calm, radioing in for help on a walkie-talkie. Among the production's many virtues is director Basile's ability to capture the seething violence that underlies almost every interaction.
Beth is trying to teach the kids the relationship between Darwin and the reproductive cycle, including the surging impulse of females to reproduce when the population is threatened — as it is in the play by an unspecified war, for which the louts are enlisting, one by one, for lack of any other opportunity they can believe in.
There are many sobering visual images amid the chaos: the walls laden with pornographic graffiti, the students' physical hunger that becomes apparent whenever food of any sort appears. Most striking are the boxes of army uniforms that show up for "recycling" — bloodied army fatigues and boots removed from corpses, to be reissued to new recruits, as part of the headmaster's special patriotic program.
The idea of a war machine interconnected to natural selection is sufficiently intriguing to recommend this play, despite its flawed execution. There's no thesis attached, mercifully, just provocation. A dance-of-death scene, for instance, incorporates the bloodied uniforms strewn across the stage, in a strained attempt to mingle realism and surrealism.
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The ensemble is very dedicated, at times to the point of melodrama, overplaying their obvious strengths. Katelyn Gault and Alexander Price portray two students with a violent physical attraction, juxtaposed against the tender union between their classmates played by Stephen Weston and Jodie Grundin. Odd woman out is Kourtni Pollard, playing a student of Nigerian descent, the only African presence in a white war of attrition.
The play's larger point, however, is to take a stock situation of education in crisis, with the war machine plucking its fodder from the poor, and enlarge those ideas — none too subtly — with a timeless theory of how species evolve and devolve, mutate and mutilate. There's some crude artistry in both the play and the production, but its big ideas can't, or shouldn't, be argued with.
COCKROACH | By Sam Holcroft | Presented by Monkey Wrench Collective at the Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. | Through Dec. 18 | (323) 856-4249 | plays411.net/cockroach