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The Arts
August 1-7, 2007

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Locked Down

'Juvie' tracks the crimes and passions of troubled teenage prisoners

By Marianne Messina

DRAGON PRODUCTIONS Theatre Company ushers the audience into Jerome McDonough's play Juvie from behind bars, a grizzly paint-peeling grille spanning the front of the stage for a "Who's looking out?" effect. With a teenage cast of 10 in an assortment of torn jeans, hoodies and T-shirts, the play presents a loose-leaf compilation of the crimes and reasons that led each teen to this juvie holding tank.

The play starts with a chorus of voice-overs on the idea of "I don't like to think of myself as a bad person." On a clever caster pivot (Cy Eaton, set designer), the jail grille swings 90 degrees to become a male-female divider, and we get a first glimpse of the teens interacting. The bully, drug-dealing Pinky (Darcie Grover), shows no mercy for weakness. She picks at half-witted Andy (Jovan Bennett) and threatens Jean (Claire Martin) when, in defense of Andy, Jean challenges her. Grover's Pinky is quick-tempered and has the rough edge of someone who wears the grit she's seen and lived through. Pinky explains her cruelty to others simply by saying, "You have your higher forms [herself]; then you have your crawling things."

As Sean, Omar Alzayat carries the distortion of pent-up anger on his face while being shouted at by voice-over authority figures such as the pastor: "Thou shall not anything." This production's strong suit is in rendering the vital energy of angst, confusion and anger that characterizes the teenage years. As each offender takes a moment in the spotlight to narrate the story of their arrest, the others enact the events behind them—from gang-type beatings to burglary and car accidents under the influence.

Some narratives are flanked by a rich and energetic choreography (Shannon Stowe) involving the whole ensemble. When backed by slices of familiar hard-rock tunes, the stories become discrete emotional zones with the power of a music video. Though transitions in and out of these zones could be smoother, they prove ideal for capturing the buffeting contradictions that arise in the teen's hunt for social identity.

With so many characters, briefly sketched, the play suffers from diffusion, and the opening hint that we might come to understand how these characters "think of themselves" turns out to be a mere red herring. By play's end, when voice-overs give us the court's sentence for each, we still have no sense of how or if the system has failed them. We've been shown more about these kids' energy than about the places they inhabit in their heads. And by giving the kids' cases no real commonality, McDonough signals that insight into the system is equally not in Juvie's purview. The sentences, almost anti-climactic, offer few surprises.

Many of the young performers emerge from this rickety vehicle as actors to look out for in the future. As the mute and withdrawn Jane Doe, young (just 13 years old) Emily Raboy portrays a delicate brokenness that warns, "Tread softly." Elizabeth Garrett nails the smug shoplifter Ann, ethically blinded by privilege: "It's not like it's a real crime; we have a charge account in the store." And Jovan Bennett combines moments of dazed mind-slip and childlike exuberance to create a mesmerizing soliloquy of slow-witted orphan Andrew bouncing through the foster care system: "I started to meet the nice people ..." What the play lacks in coherence (Brecht be hanged), it makes up for in youthful intensity.

Juvie, a Dragon Productions Theatre Company presentation, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Aug. 19 at the Dragon Theatre, 535 Alma St., Palo Alto. Tickets are $20–$25. (1.800.838.3006)

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