HAZELWOOD JR. HIGH
November 24, 2016
Shanda starts a new school where she meets tomboy Amanda, the love of her almost thirteen-year life, but Amanda is already with Melinda, who counters her femme visage with domineering manipulation that ultimately results in Shanda being senselessly and messily murdered. These events, comprising the play Hazelwood Jr. High, actually happened.
Armed with such loaded extremity, playwright Rob Urbinati maintains a transparent narrative structure, keeping causal chronology. A fight in the hallway is followed by the resulting detention. A witnessing of betrayal is followed by the confrontation. Such immediacy comes across like a made-for-TV movie, appropriately divulging information in the traditional tween storytelling form: “and then, and then, and then….”
Exceptions include performed note-passing, which, while static, simultaneously moves the plot forward. What seems a fruitful opportunity for character development comments more on communication tactics than deep revelations, as Amanda and Shanda try only to impress each other. A cryogenic freezing of fleeting thought, Amanda mourns over Shanda’s love notes to her after the murder. Honesty lies most presently in diary entries, heartbreakingly used to bookmark the play with Shanda’s optimism before transferring schools.
Director Sean Pollock takes Urbinati’s cues, creating breathing room with minimalism and realism. The cast of twenty-somethings easily passes for middle schoolers thanks to a sweet performative spot of 90’s teen erratic bubbliness without falling into caricature. There are few props, leaving most actions to mime, best exploited in the preshow of personal maintenance tasks that last far longer than necessary, physicalizing aimless states of mind.
Age demographic provides a unique context for what would otherwise be another jealously killing, namely, the suspension of logic that comes with the fickleness of youth, simultaneously craving guidance and independence. We see this in Amanda, falling in love with Shanda, but also wanting to keep Melinda as well. What adults might recognize as polyandry is, for kids, inexperience with commitment. Additionally, the value of life is not yet fully internalized; the remnants of magical thinking from childhood and undeveloped empathy cloud judgment.
Behind these strong personalities is the weakness of needing acceptance. Shanda is eager to please. Early on, she agrees to break up with Toni’s boyfriend on her behalf. Her dialogue has an exorbitant amount of “ok’s” in place of actual contribution to conversation. Only when caught lying by Melinda does she takes it all back in defense of her life. Despite her victimhood, Shanda essentially agreed herself to death.
The combination of fickleness, lack of understanding, and agreeability lubricate for violence a slippery slope. When it comes time for the actual murder, it is not so planned but a result of not knowing what to do next. Melinda and crew intend to beat her up, but go too far. Shanda’s insistence on breathing necessitates the next step of being burned alive.
Toni seems like someone we can align with, as she solely demonstrates guilt, yet she actually outsources her violent tendencies – needing Shanda to break up with her own boyfriend, not making the phone call to lure Shanda our of her house, and attempting suicide in jail. We instead align in how we are positioned in space.
The staging is somewhere between immersive and site specific. Appropriately set by Cupcake Lady Productions at Mayday Space Classrooms, the space is also flexible. We sit in the middle of the room, surrounded by different stations between which scenes shuffle. Intentionally difficult, one must rubberneck to see every scene, casting us all as both insider and bystander to senseless violence.
Through all of this, Hazelwood’s centering on a middle school lesbian love triangle does not come off as unusual. What is unusual is the LGBT focus in a piece that does not directly advocate. It portrays, without pointing to a heteronormative culprit, not only girl on girl violence, but lesbian on lesbian violence, resulting in a heightened sense of accountability in such unbiasedness, which, with middleschoolers, is all the more chilling and open to subtler conversation.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews