Problem Plays for Teens
- Anne Chislett (Author)
Flippin' In and Then and Now. Playwrights Canada Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Chris Craddock (Author)
Naked at School: Three Plays for Teens. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Edward Roy (Author), Beth Goobie (Author), and Carmen Aguirre (Author)
Rave: Young Adult Drama. Blizzard Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sue Fisher
Theatre for young adults is a tricky business. Often plays for teens are produced within the context of a school system that requires an institutional and didactic sanction. The five playwrights here manage this didactic imperative in various ways.
Established Canadian playwright Anne Chislett presents two works for young adults: Flippin’ In, the story of two high school girls who attempt to unionize the burger joint where they work in order to improve conditions for their coworkers and Then and Now, a play commissioned in part by the Office of the Commissioner for Official Languages, in which two girls and their fathers get sucked into a computer war game that forces them to relive the history of anglo-french relations in Canada. The former is an impressive piece of theatre that relies on minimal props and set pieces and demands much innovation on the part of the company to bring the twin worlds of high school and the local burger joint to life. The characters for the most part are well-rounded, even if the manager at the fast food restaurant is a bit too easily vilified in the script. The issues the play touches on—the use of part-time workers as a management tactic to avoid paying benefits, surveillance and lack of trust in the workplace, employees being fired for holding down two jobs—are subtle, complex, and well worth introducing to teens. That the play shows the impact of these issues not just on the lives of teens but on those of adults who are trapped in the service industry and does so in a manner that reveals complex issues of power, shifting loyalties, and complicity with injustice is impressive indeed.
Then and Now is equally ambitious in intent. Five actors with very few props (mainly hats and signs) must render the multiple characters and historical situations that have led to the current relationship between French and English Canada. This is no easy feat and it soon becomes clear that the script demands far too much of its young actors and even more of its audience—most of whom will not be thoroughly immersed in the history that is given sweeping consideration. The play, a one-act no less, comes with twenty-eight historical footnotes and covers a period of nearly four hundred years. The framing construct of the video game feels dated and awkward (references to Star Trek abound) and in the end the adult characters are dismissed as being narrow-minded simply because of their age.
In the three plays that make up Naked at School, Edmonton’s Chris Craddock takes on the holy trinity of teen problems—suicide, alcoholism, and unplanned pregnancy—and throws in a peppering of sexuality for good measure. Given the abundance of teen literature on these subjects, it is nearly impossible to write without clichés. With only one exception, however, Craddock, a darling of the Canadian Fringe Theatre circuit, gives us fresh voices and scripts that can be flexibly updated to include current pop culture references.
Wrecked, the exception, centers on Lyle and Susy, a brother and sister trying to make sense of their mother’s alcoholism. The play lacks theatrical innovation—there is nothing in the script to indicate why this piece was written for the stage. With its stereotypical characters and stock situations, its overall feel is that of an ABC after-school special. The Day Billy Lived depicts the aftermath of a young man’s suicide attempt; in the space between life and death, Billy is processed by metaphysical civil servants who help him make an informed decision about whether he wishes to follow through with his suicide. The results are insightful and funny, and the resolution affirms life with mischievousness rather than heavy-handedness. The mixture of voices in Do it Right, a play about teen pregnancy and sexuality, make it the most varied and interesting work in the collection: two ten-year olds try to learn about sex through rumor and dirty magazines, a gay teenager forms a strong friendship with a girl not ready to become sexually active, and a young couple must sort through the options available when the girl discovers she is pregnant. Craddock sidesteps the didacticism common to such "issue plays" by refusing easy closure; even though Jen makes a decision about her pregnancy that decision is withheld and all the possible options are played out for the audience.
Rave: Young Adult Drama is a collection of 3 plays: The Other Side of the Closet by Edward Roy, The Face is the Place by Beth Goobie, and Chile Con Carne by Carmen Aguirre. Roy’s script, that of a high-school boy outed by his friends, has the most natural dialogue of the three and builds to an invigorating climax as this natural dialogue gives way to a series of fractured, overlapping conversations. The play, however, is didactic and contrived in its handling of the issues it takes on. The key problem rests with poor characterization; for the most part, the characters are wooden representatives of differing points of view with little depth or nuance.
Perhaps because she is better known as a novelist (Before Wings) and poet (The Girls Who Dream Me), Beth Goobie has written the most literary of the plays reviewed here. The Face is the Place, though a bit stilted in its dialogue and a bit hectic in its scene changes, creates a theatrical world that is engaging and haunting. In a high school where a small band of girls maintains ruthless social control by slicing the faces of their classmates with razor blades, issues of social conformity and the deceptive nature of appearance vs reality become literal somatic concerns. Goobie uses the full potential of theatre as a distinct genre to support the themes of her work by using masks, mirrors, and flashlights to eerie effect.
Aguirre’s Chile Con Carne is a one-person, multi-media piece that depicts the coming of age of a young Chilean refugee living in B.C.’s lower mainland in the mid-1970s. With the use of music, recorded voices, and slides, the historical realities of Pinochet’s Chile and the culture of the Chilean refugee community is evoked. The play’s sole character, Manuelita, is eight years old but would need to be played by a much older actor to handle this complex script. What makes this play so engaging is the rich characterization of Manuelita, whose naïve voice reveals a number of complex issues slowly and with nuance: the historical plight of Chilean refugees in the mid-1970s, the struggles of race and culture for first generation Canadian children, immigrant poverty amidst the white middle class, and environmentalism in B.C. forests. The result is a mature and enjoyable play for teens and adults alike.
Sue Fisher is the Curator of the Eileen Wallace Children’s Literature Collection at the University of New Brunswick and the Managing Director of the NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival
- Transumptive Acts by Len Falkenstein
Books reviewed: The Buried Astolabe: Canadian Dramatic Imagination and Western Tradition by Craig Stewart Walker
- Hyphenating Minorities by Philipp Maurer
Books reviewed: Calendar Boy by Andy Quan and Flesh Wounds and Purple Flowers: The Cha-Cha Years by Francisco Ibanez-Carrasco
- Trait d'union by Eric Paul Parent
Books reviewed: Le chant du Dire-Dire by Daniel Danis, Assoiffés by Wajdi Mouawad, Floes et D'Alaska (suite Nordique) by Sébastien Harrisson, Le Long de la Principale by Steve Leplante, and Souliers de Sable by Suzanne Lebeau
- Challenging Slums by Daniel Harvey
Books reviewed: Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World by Doug Saunders
- Star Girls by J. Kieran Kealy
Books reviewed: Criss Cross, Double Cross by Norma M. Charles, Dancing for Danger: a Meggy Tale by Margot Griffin, Jo's Triumph by Nikki Tate, Shadows of Disaster by Cathy Beveridge, and Who Owns Kelly Paddik? by Beth Goodie
MLA: Fisher, Sue. Problem Plays for Teens. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #184 (Spring 2005), (Grace, Dolbec, Kirk, Dawson, Appleford). (pg. 116 - 118)
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