The Thrust: The Kids Aren’t Alright. But They’re Working on It.

Two plays on now in the South Sound explore death, life, and teenagehood — one immediately after a mass shooting at a middle school, the other through the lens of a retro video game. The lighter of the two isn’t the one you’d expect.

 

This Flat Earth @ Harlequin Productions 

Runs through 9/17 

And I will fight
Until every last person who doesn’t belong is out.

 

This Flat Earth is a 2018 play by Lindsey Ferrentino, and it’s only gotten more relevant in the years since then. The play’s hefty backdrop is a (fictionalized) shooting at a middle school. But this isn’t so much a play “about” a mass shooting as it is about the humans left to make sense of life after it. 

Teenagers and their parents navigate trauma, violence, and bubbles in ‘This Flat Earth’ at Harlequin. Photo by Shanna Paxton.

Set in an unnamed New England coastal town — though it could be a town just about anywhere in America with pronounced class divides — this compact play takes place exclusively in an apartment and at the upstairs neighbor’s. Yet its themes weave expansively, through three families and a yawning wealth gap, as it ponders timeless teenage insecurities against a spiking, human-caused pandemic of gun violence that never seems to wane. 

Julie and Zander, seventh graders at the school, were both present the day their schoolmates were shot, and huddled up together in hiding. Where Zander (Jones Dillard-Disston) seems to be adjusting while seeking support from his friend Julie, the latter (Cosette Yanasak, who alternates with Annabeth Collett in the role) is weighed down by guilt and nightmares.

Meanwhile, Julie’s dad, Dan (Enrique Bravo), struggles with whether he should have sent his daughter to this rich-kid school (viewed as the “safe” one) at all. Lisa (Jenny Vaughan Hall), who enters the picture frequently, is grief-stricken over her daughter’s murder that day, and desperate to keep out any future threats to the privilege and bubble of safety she’s accustomed to. Upstairs neighbor Cloris (Janet Spencer) seems both a cause of Julie’s nightmares (through sound leaks of her persistent cello music, performed live by Christine Gunn) and a sought-out giver of advice; she’s the only character removed both spatially and personally from the tragedy (and most everything else), but is also the one most interested in following it in the news. 

A core strength of the play is its characters who, though painted with broad, generalized strokes, are nonetheless portrayed as quite human in Harlequin’s staging. The physical setup, designed by Bruce Haasl, gives the characters an appealing space where the action is easy to follow. Under Artistic Director Aaron Lamb’s direction, This Flat Earth is a well-crafted production that shapes difficult material into an accessible work of theatre. The characters, and their motivations, shine through. And for all its plot is a tough one, much of this production is surprisingly light.

The takeaway of Ferrentino’s play, however, is much less obvious. This Flat Earth is a very timely — and, I fear, rather salient — work, that comes across as not quite knowing what it wants to do with itself. Some bits are memorable, but ultimately loose ends: a student’s report, never given, that Columbus wasn’t all bad; a description of people forgotten and life marching on.  

One thing that’s apparent is the play — or at least its teenage characters’ perspective — wants the grownups to just do something. But it gives little direction on the what, and how. Is it seeking out some middle ground? Or criticizing the naivete of teenagers? Its message is never clear. And a conversation at the end drifts dangerously close to a “shit happens, get over it,” which is a bizarre (and cynical) shift. 

Perhaps the message is a broader one, transgressing the subjects of the play but targeting the roadblocks. We, as adults whose coalitions have decision-making powers, are too prone to fighting the wrong battles. And our sacrosanct bubbles aren’t as real, or as sturdy, as they seem.

‘This Flat Earth’ runs through 9/17 at Harlequin Productions in the State Theater in Olympia. Run time: 90 minutes, no intermission. Tickets are $39, here. Pay-what-you-choose tickets available for certain show dates (see info here), and same-day rush tickets offered for all show dates (info here).

Playing NWTheatre Bingo? Consider this show for squares 2, 10, 23, or 24. 

* * *

While in Olympia

Need something to lift your spirits before or after the play? A relaxed foodie enclave called 222 Market (222 Capitol Way N.) holds Locust Cider, where gregarious mixologist Tina will craft you some delicious concoctions (the Princess Holland Snakebite, a not-too-sweet Upside-Down Cake, and the Dark Peach among them); Dos Hermanos Mexican Kitchen, with top-notch quick meals (like the sweet corn tamale plate); and, when their Sweet Buns pop-up is there, Sift & Gather‘s box-sized $5 cinnamon rolls are puffy clouds in dessert form. Elsewhere, nearby Batdorf and Bronson turns out smooth caffeinated brews in its relaxing coffee house environs; and the hard-shelled Cinnamon Hazelnut Praline truffles at Bittersweet Chocolates, which Harlequin occasionally also sells at its concessions, are divine.

 

 

The Oregon Trail @ Centerstage 

Through Next Weekend 

Speaking of a message of “shit happens, get over it,” that’s more or less the one her family has for Jane, the central character(s) — in two different eras — in Bekah Brunstetter’s The Oregon Trail

The Game (Kyle Sinclair) guides modern Jane (Kaira Hensler) through life with a series of increasingly unappealing options. Photo by Michelle Smith-Lewis.

A dark-but-hopeful journey play with fantastical elements and a pronounced ‘90s backdrop happens to be one of my very favorite genres, and Brunstetter’s play sounds like it has all the makings of one.

How many hours did I, with a generation of Elder Millennials, spend dropping an embarrassing overabundance of buffalo meat; caulking the wagon and floating it (and, years later, making jokes about that being a better rush-hour plan than taking 520); and setting the travel pace to grueling, exhaustion be damned? Set a coming-of-age story onto that dramatic backdrop, and I’m sold already. 

Unfortunately, the play version of The Oregon Trail falters on both the journey and the backdrop — never really getting an emotional hook into the journey, and not giving itself over to the fantastical (or ‘90s overload) backdrop, either. 

At Centerstage’s production, the casting feels right, and the actors, directed by Jeanette Sanchez, gamely lean into roles that are mostly unpleasant characters: Kaira Hensler as a sullen modern Jane, Taylor Davis as resentful pioneer Jane, Cassie Fastabend as Jane’s exhaustingly competent, earnestly toe-the-line sister in both eras, David Breyman as a slimy loser modern Jane has a thing for, Ben Stahl as a notably dry pioneer father, and Kyle Sinclair as a walking gimmick of a game host. They’re successful in portraying very-human characters (and one very non-human, robotic game), who all have a tendency to lead with their faults. 

The Oregon Trail‘s journey itself, however, lumbers along with a too-realistic, under-dramatic storyline that begs for a whole lot of theatre magic in order to make it pop. Some combination of dramatic lighting changes, ambient Macintosh-screen color wash, a soundscape of the empty plains, and a boss ‘90s soundtrack (or at least nostalgic sound effects) could take the fantasy far. Centerstage had to make a lot of late-in-the-game, behind-the-scenes personnel pivots with this production, which no doubt limited what it could do with those elements. But their absence makes it hard to step out of the hyper-literal and into a fantastical journey. 

As Brunstetter did in The Cake, her Trail makes clever use of some gimmicks, and seems more observational than emotional punch. The problem is that the payoff at the end is basically a watered-down version of “it gets better,” without the journey there giving much reason to invest. 

But nor is it an empty or easy play. If you catch this one, you might be ruminating on its meaning for a few days after.

‘The Oregon Trail’ runs through 9/11 at Centerstage Theatre at the Knutzen Family Theatre in Federal Way (Dash Point). Run time: 1 hour 45 minutes, with intermission. Tickets are $35, here

Playing NWTheatre Bingo? Consider this show for squares 2, 10, 16, or 24. 

 


For shows by date, see the Performance Calendar.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.