Be Awesome: A Theatrical Mixtape of the 90s is less a stroll down memory lane and more of a flying leap into an exploding memory bomb. Just a few steps into the Writer’s Center, where Flying V makes its nest, a whole smorgasbord of 90’s accoutrement greets theatre goers. Audience members can help themselves to complimentary slap bracelets and Lisa Frank stickers, and in an alcove off to the side you can pick up a free comic book (I got Spiderman, my friend chose Ghost Rider) or play a game of Pogs. This whole front of house immersive experienced, expertly crafted by Audience Designer Tia Shearer Basset, creates the impression that Be Awesome will be exactly what its title says: an awesome, nostalgic cabaret, some cross between VH1’s I Love The Nineties and the company’s own Flying V Fights series, wherein each scene is a standalone entertaining gem.
In fact, Be Awesome is far more ambitious than that. It is true that the show is made up of episodic vignettes, each accompanied by its own 90s hit song and each with its own narrative arc and unique style. But there is a single overriding story in Be Awesome, and guess what? Along with Playstation and flannel shirts, there are also coal black issues like cancer, abortion, and suicide. What is remarkable is the ease and grace with which Flying V integrates the light and the dark elements. During a triptych sex scene accompanied by (what else?) Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You,” I literally didn’t stop laughing for four minutes straight. But in another scene, set against Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two-Headed Boy” I could barely keep it together for the duration of the song. Yet, both scenes were so unmistakably connected by common narrative and stylistic threads that it didn’t seem the slightest bit odd that they were in the same show.
Be Awesome is far more than a nostalgic compendium of 90’s music. It is a tremendous work of original theatre, deeply felt and irrepressibly creative, exuding truth from every pore. It is funny and bawdy and romantic and sad, not because the ensemble and Director Jason Schlafstein tried to make it any of these things, but because the work itself cannot help from being these things. All of which makes Be Awesome a must must must see, and which proves that Flying V is undoubtedly making the most exciting work of any young company in DC.
The conceit at the heart of Be Awesome is that Jonas Park (Bob Manzo), a thirty-ish millennial with an encyclopedic knowledge of 90’s music, is diagnosed with stage four terminal brain cancer. As his memory begins to slip away as a result of his disease, he decides to create the mix tape to end all mix tapes – a token for his soon-to-be-born daughter. As Park chooses which songs to include, they inevitably trigger memories from his own life, and thus the mixtape becomes a sort of musical autobiography. The exuberance of early childhood is evoked by “The Impression That I Get” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The tragic death of Jonas’ father (Robert Bowen Smith) is accompanied by the desperate Bjork track “Hyperballad”. And so on…
The music aside (and it really is an awesome mix tape) Be Awesome is notable for how creatively it tells the story. At least three quarters of the play is non-verbal, although between each scene is an audio collage (from Sound Designer Gordon Nimmo-Smith) that helps buck up the plot and sets up the next scene. During the scenes themselves, Flying V gleefully rips open the entire theatrical arsenal to tell the story in ways that are unfailingly original.
Goofy hand puppets help tell the story of Jonas’ childhood, while his father’s death takes the form of a stylized ballet. Jonas’ high school experience, set against Beck’s “Loser,” is told by a series of quick costume changes wherein members of the ensemble rush past Jonas and transform him, with a hat or a shirt, into a prep, a goth, a jock, etc. Jonas’ first job, in a soulless cubicle farm, is set against the hard rocking “Repeater” by Fugazi. In that scene, the mechanical motions of the ensemble are punctuated by bouts of unrestrained head banging, an impulse which is recognizable to anyone who’s worked in white collar servitude.
Be Awesome also features some great covers of 90s songs. Radiohead’s “Creep” is given a fresh and evocative instrumental treatment by Diane Samuelson on the cello and Jon Jon Johnson on the violin. Likewise, Clayton Pelham Jr. brings some serious fire to the hip hop track “A Friend” by KRS-One. And kudos to Choreographer Ryan Tumulty and Fight Choreographer Jonathan Ezra Rubin whose amazing work added to the joy of this wonderful production.
“You Gotta Be” by Des’ree takes on new life when sung by Madeline Key and Em Whitworth, who accompany themselves with ukuleles. In the latter case, though, it isn’t just Key and Whitworth making music. On stage during that number is the whole ensemble, in various roles: a homeless guy, a construction worker, an old man playing chess – and over the course of the scene they use their props to add to the rhythm of the song. Eventually the whole stage is alive and moving like an ersatz orchestra. It is beautiful and chaotic, and most importantly it helps to further the arc of that particular scene.
The ensemble is truly at the heart of this wonderful show. Although first conceived by Flying V Artistic Director Jason Schlafstein four years ago, Be Awesome in its current form is a devised piece with significant input from the ensemble: Robert Bowen Smith, Madeline Key, Michelle Polera, Clayton Pelham Jr., Em Whitworth, Christina Day, Jon Jon Johnson, Diane Samuelson, Dan Mori, and Noah Schaefer, who had to leave the show at the last minute due to an injury but participated in the devising process. Each one has moments where they shine, too numerous to mention. A few standouts include Robert Bowen Smith as Jonas’ troubled father, Jonathan, and Michelle Polera as Jonas’ on-and-off girlfriend.
The design for Be Awesome is completely integrated into the story itself. For example, Katie Sullivan’s set design is dominated by wheeled shelves that house boxes of cassette tapes. The tapes represent Jonas’ memories, and as the play goes on spectral figures in white masks remove these boxes, a few at a time. As we see his music collection diminish more and more, we are also seeing his mind gradually empty. Lauren Joy’s projections design is equally built in to the overall show, often featuring fictionalized family photos of Jonas that provide critical context.
Flying V makes theatre accessible to people, especially young people, who don’t normally go to see shows. But they don’t sacrifice any degree of artistry or thematic depth to do so. These kids are crazy talented, and people should give them lots of money so they can continue to make cool original art. Go see Be Awesome: A Theatrical Mixtape of the 90s, because life is too short to be anything less.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Be Awesome: A Theatrical Mixtape of the 90s plays through October 9, 2016 at Flying V Theatre performing at The Writer’s Center – 4508 Walsh Street, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.