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Hamlet’s Orphans (Santa Rosa)

When one thinks of Youth Theatre, one’s mind typically turns to thoughts of happy, peppy kids singing and dancing their way through a production of “Once Upon a Mattress” or “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”. Well, the times they are a changin’.

The recent production of  “Body of Water” by the A Theatre Near U Company of Palo Alto led me to believe that the first shot may have been fired in a revolution to determine the future of Youth Theatre. Well, Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse has joined that revolution with their production of “Hamlet’s Orphans”, an original drama written by Dezi Gallegos in collaboration with members of the 6th Street Playhouse Apprentice Theatre Company.

Gallegos, who at age 18 has had one play produced off-Broadway and is currently starring in his one-man docu-drama “God Fights the Plague” at the Marsh in San Francisco, has gathered a group of 19 talented performers to create something very unique. It is a play by youth, about youth, but not specifically for youth. It’s not something intended to appeal to just the parents, families, and friends of the cast.  This show was designed with a bigger audience in mind.  They’re shooting for an audience that appreciates good writing, strong performances, and perhaps some insight into the world of modern youth.  They are seeking to create a piece of legitimate theatre that stands on its own and is not pigeonholed by the age of its creators and performers. On the whole, they’ve succeeded.

The “Ophelia” cast of “Hamlet’s Orphans”

“Hamlet’s Orphans” is set in the present at a local drama camp where a group of kids (ages 9 – 14) have come together to put on a production of “Hamlet” (Yes, an odd choice, but even the characters admit that.) As we’re introduced to the camp members, we see that they each represent a portion of the modern day demographic. There’s the goth kid, the precocious, bouncy drama girl, the skater boy, the tall, lanky awkward girl, the tiny lothario, the “mean” girl, etc.  Then there’s James, an 11 year old who appears to have the weight of the world on his shoulders who seems older than his years and his sister Ellianne, who’s the reason James has aged.

Ellianne is a master manipulator who gets things her way – or else. James is the responsible younger brother who’s seeking a way to get Ellianne to change. He’s decided to write a book of rules on how to be a good person with the understanding that once he’s finished the book that Elianne will abide by the rules and hopefully live a better life. Till then, however…

While it would be easy to dismiss this production as “Our Gang” meets “The Bad Seed”, there’s a whole lot more going on here.  When’s the last time you saw something written by or performed by young people that broached the issues of morality, loyalty, fear, violence, friendship and love? Better yet, when’s the last time you saw something well written and well performed by a group of 9 to 19 year olds?

Jadin Ellis, Grace Steckler, Ian Purcell, Olivia Paige Newbold, and Maryanne Boaz

Gallegos’ script, written with input from the cast, is not perfect, but it is real. While the protagonists’ story is fictional, some of the surrounding narrative (particularly on the issue of bullying) came straight from the cast. Gallegos as a playwright obviously shows promise, and he does well in adapting those real-life moments to the stage. There were a few times, however, where the reality and the characters faded away and the playwright moved front and center.  Occasional snippets of dialogue were jarring to the ear in that they sounded forced, scripted, and out of range of the typical pre-teen vocabulary. More distracting were several monologues towards the end of the second act. They were awkwardly staged, and the sense of naturalism that was prevalent throughout the show evaporated as the kids literally stepped forward to deliver/speech-ify to the audience.  They stopped being their characters and simply became conduits for Gallegos’ words.  It’s an inherent danger when a playwright directs his own work.  Yes, it’s his fourth script and his first directorial effort at 6th Street but I hope his success to date will not prevent him from continuing to seek out advice and counsel from more experienced writers and directors in the hope of taking something so good to an even higher level. The script is good, but could use further development.

What about the acting? Well, when you have thirteen really young people on stage for two hours, one could expect – shall we say – a “range” of performances.  In this case, one’s expectations would be surprisingly un-met. Gallegos as director not only guided these young thespians in building strongly defined characters, but he got them to maintain those characters for the length of the show.  As someone who has spent the last fifteen years working in public schools with students of all ages, I can say that these kids were very real to me.  It’s probably why I was so disappointed when the characters disappeared in the moments when the play veered into melodrama.

Rennie Boyd, Alyssa Jirrels

Rennie Boyd, as James, is the bedrock on which this production lies. His earnest desire to help his sister and others to find the goodness in life comes through in a performance of physical, vocal, and emotional maturity. Alyssa Jirrels is pitch-perfect as Ellianne, every parent’s/teacher’s nightmare whose lack of a moral and social conscience is the very definition of “sociopath.”  It hurts to think that kids like this exist in the real world, but just turn on your television any given night and catch the 24/7 coverage of the latest school shooting.  Maryanne Boaz, as the cherubic and fiesty Sophie, does well as the innocent caught in the middle of Jame’s struggle with Ellianne.  Good work is also done by Ian Purcell as Drew, the death-obsessed goth, and Grace Steckler as Kayla, the lanky girl who secretly pines for a boy with whom she thinks she doesn’t stand a chance.  Mario Herrera, age 9, was a delight as Sam, the pint-sized, stubby lothario of the group.  If “ohhhs” and “awwwws” are any measure, Master Herrera was quite a hit with the ladies in the audience. The lightness and joy of his character was a good counter-balance to the darkness of others.  Light or dark, the entire ensemble of “Hamlet’s Orphans” did fine work – including Natalie Herman (at 19, the adult/senior citizen of the group) as the clueless camp director.

Grace Steckler, Mario Herrera

It should be noted that the female roles in this play were double cast with each group performing four of the currently scheduled eight shows. While this review can only speak to the performances of the members of the “Ophelia” cast, there is no reason to think that the members of the “Gertrude” cast are not as uniformly strong.

More “Lord of the Flies” than “Little Rascals”, “Hamlet’s Orphans” is a welcome addition to the exciting new approach being taken by some in the Youth Theatre community.  To paraphrase a line of dialogue from the show, “Being good isn’t always pretty. It’s not always nice.” Well, this show isn’t pretty and some of the characters aren’t very nice (to say the least, but you’ll get no spoilers from me), but what this show is, is good. At times, and more often-than-not – it’s very good. Give them some leeway for the occasional weaknesses in script and direction and you’ll find yourself witnessing a very original take on what it means for many to be a kid in today’s world.  It isn’t always pretty, either. As a matter of fact, you may find it very upsetting.

Allow me to conclude with the following, and please believe me when I say there is absolutely no condescension intended in this statement – Bravo, kids. Bravo.

Hamlet’s Orphans

Evenings Thu, Fri, Sat @ 7:30pm Matinees Sat & Sun @ 2pm through July 27

6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
(707) 523-4185

www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

Photos by Eric Chazankin

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