Regional Reviews: Palm Springs / Coachella Valley
Summer Session With The Bones Brigade
Set in a working-class Midwest neighborhood, sometime in the last quarter of the last century, based on the choice of scene-change music, playwright Kirby Fields centers a ragtag quartet of mid-teen archetypes and their female friends.
Heath (Ethan Zeph) is the ringleader, a handsome bruiser, more cunning than educated, with a brash outward confidence undercut by emotional insecurity, intellectual defensiveness, and a need to dominate. His affable bestie, Shane (Bonale Fambrini), tries to sand down some of Heath's sharper edges without being obvious about it until being obvious about it becomes necessary. Lee (Alex Michell) is the sensitive one, coping with family tragedy and subsequent dysfunction by way of his Polaroid photography, and DK (Akiyo Komatsu) is the prodigal, atoning for a breakaway moment toward independence with servings of obsequent reassimilation efforts. Observing and connecting them are party girl Sid (Madeleine D. Hall), who wears her damaging family baggage like a beloved but threadbare sweatshirt, and Loralai (Keeley Karsten), her eager but reticent life-lessons mentee.
It's "Stranger Things" without the sci-fi, or "Stand By Me at the Skate Park," making reference to the setting of the play's major scenes–a make-shift skateboard ramp the boys built in the woods and a place where they sometimes hang out with the girls they know. (Major kudos for a very evocative set by Jimmy Cuomo, notable for both its forest and its trees.)
Remembering to think of the characters as boys and girls–at one point Heath says he'll "turn 17 soon"–is one of the greater challenges of the play, given that the cast visually reads as at least mid-twenties when delivering their often-mature sounding dialogue. Does it reflect how kids that age talk to each other now? Is it how they talked to each other in the '80s and '90s?
The question nags because the key plot conflicts between the characters would naturally loom large for a mid-teen cohort but seem less noteworthy when placed on older-presenting actors. This diffuses the potential for greater audience engagement and empathy, which the play needs.
The boys share a love of skate-boarding culture, but (not unreasonably from a safety perspective) very little skating takes place. Instead, they talk about "insider" elements like which Bones Brigade member–a late '70's genre-defining skate team–they would want to be or sharing the latest copy of the hobbyist magazine "Thrasher." This leaves skateboarding as a prominently positioned metaphor without substantive meaning, particularly to the uninitiated.
Equally opaque is the purpose for a series of interpolated bits of choreography involving various subsets of the cast that interrupt or overlap action and then end with no lasting impact or discernible import. Staged by Karen Sieber, the moves are vigorous and intriguing, but ultimately feel meaningless, particularly as the sets dwindle away over the course of the play.
Things get stranger, and more interesting, at the act break, when a major event sets one guessing about character actions, motives, and possible outcomes. Unfortunately, this plot percolation simmers away to an extremely flat and pat ending.
Director Adam Karsten sets up some effective vignettes among the actors, including a wonderful scene between Sid and Shane navigating the dynamics and imbalances of nascent sexual encounters, a pair of downstage sequences late in the play with pairs of characters sharing their truths and expressing admiration for each other, and a clever staging for a shoplifting scene. They're not enough to support the whole evening, but they give a glimpse of the performances that could have been tapped with better material.
As producing and presenting the performing arts becomes more expensive, nurturing new work is a critical role for regional theaters to play. CV Rep is clearly committed to the job. Here's hoping their next premiere can land the handplant. (Try a YouTube search for videos on how to master this popular skateboarding pose.)
Summer Session with the Bones Brigade runs through December 17, 2023, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Cathedral City CA. Remaining performances are Saturday at 2:00 pm and 7:00pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $14-$77. For tickets and information, please visit cvrep.org or call 760-296-2966.