Monday, May 28, 2012

REVIEW: The Collected Rules of Gifted Camp

The Brick Theater
(download the script here)
May 16th - 26th 

The first time I went to pre-college camp, it was UCI, and I studied Forensics. My final project was a biography presentation on Osama Bin Laden, a (at that time) minor figure in Middle Eastern terrorism who at that time was wanted for the embassy bombings and the World Trade Center bombing.

In other words, what pre-college camp does is plant the seeds for the future. In ways you'd never imagine.

As is the custom of our times, The Collected Rules of Gifted Camp, which closed this weekend at The Brick Theater, is a play steeped in nostalgia and memory for a moment in our lives that it's easy to wax nostalgic for. The play takes us back to those heady times where we first ventured out into the world, where we began to explore and decide what was important to us, and where telling a girl you just met that you love them required the sort of bravery that requires physical strength.

The story brings together two girls attending a nameless pre-college camp -- Annie (Hollis Beck), a jaded camp regular, and Leila (Lena Hudson), a wide-eyed first timer. Under the stern and bubbly watch of Rose (Ryann Weir), they explore their new world -- dances, fights with peppermints, and in the case of Leila, love with a boy (Kevin, played by Andrew Butler).

With a script that runs on nostalgic memory, you can't win unless you've got some wide-eyed and honest performers. You can't do better than this ensemble. They capture an age where we've only just started to perform our emotions for the benefit of our peers, and yet despite any feigned walls or defenses our emotions are still throbbing and raw, just beneath the skin.

What's great about this is that the emotional world I just described is a great setting both for comedy and for tragedy. Comedy, because of the ridiculous disparity between how serious we think the world is and how serious it actually is (at one point, Annie says her camp goal is that she wants her mom to die; a moment later, she revises it to wanting everyone to die). Tragedy, because it takes so little to hurt these young people, and when it's done right, you can watch the bruises form (say, the moment when Kevin accidentally pre-breaks up with Leila, and Leila's deep horror slowly transforms into the haughty forced "moving on" that seems more adult).

That delicate balance is the one place where the problems seep in toward the end. For the most part, the tight-rope between comedy and tragedy is walked fantastically but at the end -- no spoilers -- the story takes a hard right turn that doesn't feel justified or necessary in comparison with everything that came before. And therefore, the audience didn't know whether to laugh or to cry, and a truly important moment bordered on the ridiculous.

In a way, throwing an actually hyperbolic event at the end of this sweet, down-to-earth production undercut that sense of an emotionally magnified reality -- it revealed the smallness of everything that came before, in a way that nearly swept the play away.

But that's one gripe in the scheme of things. The play is captivating, sharply written, and sharply directed with a tight ensemble. Where it chooses to take you may be a surprise (pleasant or unpleasant), but for a walk down memory lane, it's well done.