Theater Programs for Youth

By Philip Pearce

THE MONTEREY BAY AREA is a rich mother lode of programs that train and develop theater by and for the young. For more than thirty years, Ariel Children’s Community Theater in Salinas has featured school-aged performers in plays that combine impressive acting and strong production values with a philosophy of group commitment to key human values.  Christian Youth Theater stages big lively productions of family favorites like Alice in Wonderland and The Lion King in venues around Santa Cruz and Watsonville. Pacific Rep runs a full-time School of Dramatic Arts that offers young theater enthusiasts professional level training and performance in two high-tech Carmel venues. Scene, costume and lighting design facilities at Santa Catalina and Carmel High rival those of almost any Monterey area theater you care to name. 

Two new stage companies, organized by production and design teams in their twenties and thirties, have emerged in the past few years. I had the fun and excitement of watching both of them at work last weekend. 

In addition to its enthusiastic Young Company of school age thespians, The Western Stage opens its theater spaces, equipment and knowhow to a repertoire of summer shows chosen, cast and directed by production teams most of them in their twenties in a program known as 2X4 Bash.   

Paraphrase Productions, which crafted last year’s impressive Hunchback of Notre Dame at the Carmel Outdoor Theater continues an emerging artists program that more than lived up to its name in a production of Jasmina Reza’s God of Carnage (photo above) at Paper Wing, directed by a Pacific Grove High senior named Adrian Clark.

Reza’s dark comedy hit—well known for the 2011 Roman Polanski film Carnage—was a daunting choice for the confident and amiable Clark and his student cast. It starts with two sets of upper middle class parents who gather to discuss implications and strategies for dealing with a playground fight between their respective sons. Things begin at an almost boringly correct and cool-headed level and evolve into a kind of warm-up for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s rough and risky territory for a teen-aged director and actors to explore. That it worked as well as it did at Sunday’s closing performance is a tribute to their courage, maturity and commitment.

As Veronica, who initiates the tense conference, Camrin E Dannelly probably does best at convincing us she’s old enough to have a pre-teen son. She builds a clear and well ordered portrait of the kind of hostess who is all charm and erudition to your face and shreds you like cabbage when you’ve slipped out onto the terrace to refresh your drink. As her slightly lower middle class husband Michael, Blake Vogelpohl shows an engaging gift for physical comedy that produced some of Sunday afternoon’s biggest laughs. He can’t help it if God and nature have made him look so much like everybody’s favorite student body president that his final savage descent into self-proclaimed “Neanderthal” is as earnestly acted as it is hard to believe. 

The opposing team consist of Jaeson Lim, spookily effective as sardonic lawyer Alan and Catherine Gruber as his deceptively compliant wife Annette. Lim’s posturing Alan makes early inroads into the prevailing aura of courtesy with sudden attacks of fury over cell phone interruptions about an upcoming court case. Lim explodes convincingly, but I wish he had not combined his vocal fireworks with nervous pacings that made him seem insecure rather than threatening. In what was possibly the afternoon’s most satisfying surprise, Gruber started off so authentically soft-voiced and tentative as Annette that I imaged it was her innate off-stage character until she launched the shrieking, drunken chaos that bring the play to its skyrocketing climax.

The production might have profited from some further work on the pointing of significant lines. Never mind. This director and his quartet of performers focused on the most important goal any good acting company needs to bring to this play: telling a strong, satiric story with energy and clarity and conviction. And that they did.

For Clark, it was a promising debut as a director. By contrast, Nina Capriola is a seasoned veteran of local theater who has just worked with ten young female actors to create an incisive and convincing girls’ high school soccer team in 2 x 4’s version of Sarah DeLappe’s Wolves.  

It’s a female powerhouse of teenage commitment, yes, to a win for the Wolves in this season’s final, but also to some thorny issues that arise at their weekly pre-game warm-ups. Some of the talk is political, like a tendency toward Trump-ish white nationalist attitudes, some personal, like valley girl high school snobbery, some as startlingly unexpected as the injury of one team member and the death of another. The cast do an ensemble job that grabs you by the throat. Twists of plot and character development are surprising and yet logical. The nine athletes and one bereaved soccer mom may have a tendency to talk too loud and fast at moments of intense feeling, but it’s a flaw that goes with the territory and the age group. I don’t know of any higher energy piece of drama happening on the peninsula at the moment. 

The team, identified only by the numbers on their jerseys, are in numerical order Sarah Gordon (#00 goalie), Andrea Felix-Cervantes (#2), Rachel Martinez (#7), Elizabeth Clarice Perez (#8), Florence Paget (#11), Niki Moon (#13), Lilijana DeJesus (#14), Camille Dilleshaw (#25), Jacqueline Ortiz (#46) plus Sara England as a bereaved soccer mom. 

God of Carnage was offered for a single weekend. Wolves repeats in the Western Stage studio theater at 7:30 p.m. August 9th and 10th.