Magic Time! ‘Lord of the Flies’ at Imagination Stage

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When Randy Baker told me he had directed a production of Lord of the Flies with a cast of mostly teenage girls, I knew I had to see it. William Golding’s classic about British schoolboys whose savagery emerges when they are marooned on an island is not only a disturbing parable about the collapse of civilization. It is also a brutal depiction of the dominance games boys learn to play. There are no girls for them to torment; instead the stronger boys bully the defenseless ones, constructing a gendered infrastructure of top-down cruelty built on fealty among barbarians—not unlike supremacy-based civilization itself.

The cast of 'Lord of the Flies.' Photo by Jeremy Rusnock Photography.
The cast of ‘Lord of the Flies.’ Photo by Jeremy Rusnock Photography.

So what happens when the roles in that double-edged fable are played by girls?  Well—on the basis of the absorbing production I saw last night in the Reeve Theatre at Imagination Stage in Bethesda—something very provocative indeed.

The cast featured 14 students in grades 8 to 11 who auditioned two years ago to get into the Acting Conservatory, which is one of several Imagination Stage theater and arts educational programs. For three semesters this Class of 2016 studied acting technique, then last January—as Nikki Kaplan, associate director of education, said in her opening remarks—”they were handed off to a genius director, Randy Baker.”

Baker is one of many top-notch theater makers whom Imagination Stage engages to work with its student casts. The local professionals who made up the creative team for Lord of the Flies,  for instance, delivered results that would be the envy of many an indie theater in town: Samina Vieth’s verdant yet menacing scenic design, Robert Croghan’s uniforms-undone costume designs, Kristin Thompson’s lovely/startling lighting design, Thomas Sowers’ thunder-clap-shocking sound design, Gina Grundman’s nailed-the-pig-head props design, and Kristen Pilgrim’s frighteningly good fight choreography, which had me jumping out of my front-row seat.

The text of Lord of the Flies as adapted for the stage by Nigel Williams demands of young actors that they loose their inner beasts. The script doesn’t hold back; it’s ruthless; insults added to injury leap off the page. At the same time, the cast must sustain those ties of trust and teamwork that any ensemble needs to succeed on stage. The fact that this class of student actors had worked together and bonded for a year and a half—during which time, Kaplan told me, none dropped out—was clearly an important foundation for taking on this treacherous play.

Baker’s program note on this topic is telling:

William Golding’s 1954 novel was a Cold War cautionary tale about humanity’s darker instincts in the face of a breakdown of society. Those ideas remain present in any telling, but our production also seeks to explore the loneliness, the joy and the terrible savagery of what it means to be a teenager. Our ensemble-based approach of discovery in rehearsal allowed the conservatory students to integrate their own stories into the novel’s traditional plot.

Situating Goldman’s story as a tale about contemporary teenagers is a quirky concept that makes intriguing sense. Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” functions as the production’s theme song. We see the first character to appear exasperated because her cell phone has died. Inflections and gestures lifted from today’s pop culture pop up in winsome ways—making the characters’ later thuggery and sadism all the more stark.

The actors performed as an ensemble with impressive energy and verve. The program had their names in alphabetical order—and Baker kept the novel’s names for some while regendering others—thus Amelia Barnard played Hailey, Sofija Baykun played Melanie, Malaika Bhayana played Marcie, Camille Blackman played Ralph, Story Hentoff played Claire Nolan, Sophie Isbell played Jack, Benjamin Kapit (the one male actor) played Perceval, Lynn Kusmin played Erin, Ilana Maiman played Sam, Lila Neusner played Simon, Olivia Tello played Piggy, Zoe Tompkins played Belle, Alice Turnham played Elizabeth, and Sarinah Wahl played Roger.

What became apparent about this distinctive performance was that it wasn’t girls acting like boys are socialized to act—there was no impersonation, no mimicry, no put-on boy behavior. What clicked about the performance was that it was girls not acting like girls are socialized to act. It was girls acting without reference to boys at all, completely outside the requisite social norms and conventions that minimize females in deference to males.

The cast of 'Lord of the Flies.' Photo by Jeremy Rusnock Photography.
The cast of ‘Lord of the Flies.’ Photo by Jeremy Rusnock Photography.

Given that much of dramatic literature requires female actors to play all manner of  demeaning “girlish,” “womanly,” and “feminine” clichés, it was a real treat to watch the imaginations of these Imagination Stage students unleashed.

Running Time: One hour 50 minutes, with one intermission.

Lord of the Flies played April 29 to May 1, 2016, at Imagination Stage‘s Acting Conservatory performing at the Reeve Theatre – 4908 Auburn Avenue, in Bethesda, MD. Tickets for the remaining run may be purchased at the box office, or by phone at (301) 280-1660, or online.

Nikki Kaplan, Associate Director of Education, talks about the Imagination Stage Acting Program:

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John Stoltenberg
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.