Friday, January 30, 2009

When In Disgrace [Haply I Think On Thee]

By Le-Anne
• great fun with language • uses the melodrama of high school as a universal theme • solid lead actors • innovative playwriting • cohesive production

BOTTOM LINE: You do not need to be familiar with verse or poetry to enjoy this play. This is the perfect show for Shakespeare lovers as well as the perfect show to introduce heightened language to a mass audience.

When one thinks of a “modern verse play,” perhaps direct (or loose) adaptations of Shakespeare-turned-into-popular-teen-movies come to mind. Worse still, fear of a word-heavy, masturbatory, bastardized homage to Shakespeare may rear it’s ugly head. If the language of Shakespeare’s time is all Greek to you, or for those who don’t really care for Shakespeare let alone poetry, then When in Disgrace [Haply I Think On Thee] may just be the means to change your mind.

Playwright and director Damon Krometis takes a modern twist on the old iambic pentameter with the support of Examined Man Theatre, creating an engaging tale based on a true story that examines the extremes of the most essential human experiences. He uses the universal drama of puberty and with a gifted group of actors and smooth direction (supported by rock music and a video game-inspired set and lights) When In Disgrace explores love, jealousy, and mortality.

The play centers on the friendship of three teens who attend high school together. Speaking of high-stakes, there may be nothing more universally identifiable than being a teenager in high school! A time when breaking up with your boyfriend of three whole months was devastating, simply wearing the wrong thing made you a leper, and being grounded (you know, by those tyrannical parents of yours), was the end of the world. Most of us, as luck would have it, made it out alive and not many of us actually carried out our threats of “I’m going to kill her if she says another word” or “I could just die if he doesn’t like me back!” After all, they’re only words, right? But what if they’re not...? It is easy to remember the rash, passion-driven decisions made, and the cruel words said in the heat of pubescence. When In Disgrace further reminds us that with memories of Columbine and the “Trench-coat Mafia” not far behind us, it is also easy to see how a hormone-raging teenager could turn those words into a dark and scary reality.

Ryan (Patrick Vaill) and Ben (Alex Brown) are the best of friends and Caroline (Lauryn Fay Sullivan) is the glue that slowly poisons the triumvirate as biology changes their chemistry. Green-eyed jealousy takes over when Caroline chooses to share her love with Ben rather than Ryan. Vaill is captivating as the outcast in a fast moving downward spiral. “I was not someone that you would have liked,” he says, (notice the iambic pentameter), so honestly and without apology that, ironically, it’s hard not to like him. He continues, “No sirs and ladies. You would not have liked me. But you would not have hated me either,” and he’s right, we don’t. Vaill creates an empathetic albeit accidental villain. Brown matches Vaill with an equal yet opposite quality. Brown’s ability to balance sympathy and vanity make wavering between like and dislike, for the popular golden boy who steals his best friend’s crush, an exciting struggle. Brown creates an unlikely, passive antagonist. The duo drive the story with their facility of language and clear relationship. Sullivan is a charming heroine. She delivers her words with an assured innocence that, even though she is the catalyst for this unsightly chain of events we, like her suitors, fall in love with her a little bit.

The stimulating sound design captures the mood of the play perfectly. Graceful rock music makes way for harder metal beats as the danger becomes more eminent. The stark scenic design of five large gray walls with stairs leading to various levels, help the action to flow seamlessly between scenes. The set design together with a creative lighting design create weightiness in the desperate moments of soliloquy, levity in the more naturalistic party scenes, and make an innovative interpretation of video games come to life. The play ends as it begins, with the two boys sharing a common bond–their favorite sniper video game, “I want to take the soldier in this game and point his rifle at my head,” says Ben suspecting no foul play as he attempts to make amends with his friend.

Who would have thought that four letter words and a vocabulary left behind in high school could sound like poetry? That one might even sound intelligent and heartfelt using such baseness? On the flip side, who would have thought that words of poetry could sound equally colloquial? Krometis, along with this talented cast, manipulate speech and storytelling in such a way that no word is wasted, stakes are high, and a lost way for words is again accessible. He reminds us that Shakespeare’s words, in his own time, were just as plain, fun, and yes even vulgar, as our words are today. Krometis expertly gives verse a rightful and relevant home in the twenty-first century. It’s about high time, for goodness’ sake!

(When In Disgrace (Haply I Think On Thee) officially opens January 28 and runs through February 8. Performances are Wednesday - Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, and Sunday at 5pm. Performances are at The Theater at St. Clements, located at 423 West 46th Street (between 9th Ave. & 10th Ave.), with a run time of approximately 90 min. with no intermission. Tickets are $18, available at 212-352-3101 or

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