‘Yen’, on Now at ACT, Is Tender, Crass and Mesmerizing
Yen is vulgar. Its characters are often unlikable, even repulsive. But its unexpected glimpses of tenderness, unabashed lack of nuance, and strong direction and performances make this year’s Kenan Fellowship in Directing showcase a highly recommended trip. It runs through Sunday.
When the play ends, about all you can do is stare slack-jawed and say, Oh my God, what happens now?
It’s a fitting ending. There are no answers in Yen, a present-day play by British playwright Anna Jordan.
At the top of the show, we’re greeted with brothers Hench (Llywelyn “Willy” Picton) and Bobbie (Daniel J. Willis), ages 16 and 13 respectively, alone on the bed in the living room of their London flat. Their dog, called Taliban (played by Tim Gouran), is locked away in a bedroom; he is heard but never seen, his bark a persistent mixture of annoyance and desperation. The absence of adult influence in the place is obvious.
From this view into their lives, which appears a complete one, the idea that either of these brothers would seek out tenderness or intimacy is outlandish. Even for teenage boys, they’re repulsive. Swathed in their own filth, shirtless and barefoot, unshowered and unclean, they lie around playing shooting games on the PlayStation, watching porn on a laptop, and jerking off in the bed they share. Takeout containers rot on the floor.
The filth is so visceral, in fact, I hold my breath from the audience as they move past, or wrestle with each other in the cramped space. They’re merely actors playing characters, I know. But I still don’t want to chance a whiff.
And just as I wonder, as many must be, why we’re watching a show centered on two gross boys who’ll make everyone swear off men forever — in stumbles mom (Alyssa Keene).
“Dragged in” is more like it. The boys, in a quick bit of compassion, peel her off the street and pour Gatorade (or its UK equivalent) in her. This clearly isn’t the first time; they’ve got a routine. And she spits it back up in her son’s face, in a giant spray, taunting. Later when she sobers, now on the defensive, she spits out the best defense she can muster. You don’t know what I’ve been through right? You haven’t walked in my shoes. We hear of men, and lies, and various abuses; and justifications going nowhere but the only hope she’s got. And just like that, somehow — the boys are less repulsive when we meet their mom, the mom is less repulsive when we hear her story, and the whole picture is just sad.
The layers are pulled back, moved with thuds rather than whispers. This play doesn’t do nuance.
Direction is always the focus in ACT’s annual Kenan Fellowship in Directing showcase; and Rey Zane, this year’s awardee, has made a doozy in Yen. The characters are disturbing. They’re potent. You want the best and the worst for them at the same time; even as it’s not always clear what their best and worst might be. The other elements conspire to make the most of Zane’s keen, inspired directing. The actors do a phenomenal job, centering less experienced actors in demanding roles; and while it seems criminal to keep Gouran locked up unseen, it works. (I also can’t look at Keene and not think of Tina Fey, which adds a strange and funny twist to every show I see her in.) Set design by Parmida Ziaei makes an impressive use of the tiny space. And the sound design from Maggie Rogers sets a foreboding tone: ominous, looming, or worse. (A creepy classic music box jingle of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” could have been plucked from a horror flick.)
At parts — and not insignificant ones — it feels like we’re watching Kids, the excruciatingly raw 1990s cult film, live on stage. But where Kids was notable for its pureness of vulgarity, in the hands of playwright Jordan and director Zane, it’s much, much different. Yen oscillates, hard, between vulgarity and tenderness.
When one of the boys, in a tender moment, tells the object of his affection (Amber Tanaka) — I don’t know how to touch you. I mean, I do know. But none of it feels right with you. — we know exactly what he means. His only knowledge of how people operate together comes not from any intimacy in real life, but from the graphic, ass-banging porn he watches with his brother. He knows this can’t be that. But, remarkably, he can’t seem to grasp at any alternative on his own.
Likewise, his attempts at a compliment fall as short as his vocabulary. What’s it called when you can’t take your eyes off something? Is it memorized?
The second act opens with a storm, rain pounding in the soundscape, and a scene so tender you wonder when the shoe will drop.
And of course, it does. What follows is a sickening scene, amidst a total breakdown.
At the end of the play, the scene opens up and the characters are all in a different place. Whether they’ve moved forward or backward, it’s hard to say. But you can’t take your eyes off them.
Yen runs through 9/29 at ACT Theatre in Downtown Seattle. Tickets (limited seating) are $10, available here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom on the second floor near the elevator (far away from the Lalie, where this show is held). Financial accessibility: all tickets are $10. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.