2018 Capital Fringe Review: ’52:15′

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The melody may be unfamiliar, but the music that opens The 100th Monkey Theatre Ensemble’s 52:15 is immediately recognizable as a television news show open. A reporter, speaking to the news anchor back at the studio, gives the audience a tour of an unfinished off-grid mountain cabin, with no running water or electricity. The audience sees a stage with a gym mat, and the squalor of candy wrappers, stuffed animals, a kayaking oar, a bottle of lubricant, and a Walmart shopping bag.

Still photographs projected on a screen alternate between setting the scene and, as one may expect with television, flirt with viewers’ prurient interest – at least to the extent community standards allow. The cabin’s occupants had been Mister C., a  fifty-two-year-old high school algebra teacher, and his fifteen-year-old student, Sarah.

The 100th Monkey is a devised theater ensemble made up of faculty members and graduates of the department of theater and dance at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, under the direction of Anjalee Deshpande-Hutchinson (who is also a member of the eight-person cast).  However, despite their claims to have based the play on a true story, everything that transpires comes across as inauthentic and clichéd.

Sarah’s classmates ride around on Razor scooters singing the Pat Ballard song, “Mr. Sandman” before spreading the gossip on social media – not out of concern for their peer, after all, these are teenagers, but to further push her to the bottom of the pecking order. The reporter attempts to elicit confessions and eyewitness reports from all those around the scandal, no matter how tangential (even the kayak salesman gets his fifteen minutes).

Two skits use consumerism to explain Mister C.’s interest in Sarah by comparing her youth to either a red sports car or the latest iPhone. The closest one gets to a confession from Mister C. are the same absurd arguments one hears whenever age of consent laws are debated – about what was normal in past eras, and how Juliet Capulet was not yet fourteen. Any communication between Mister C. and his defense attorney or soon-to-be-ex-wife and kids happens off-stage and out-of-mind.

A few facts come out: Sarah had moved in with Mister C.’s family to escape an abusive alcoholic mother. Mister C.’s wife is said to be fat. Mister C. and Sarah seemed genuinely close to all around them before their sexual relationship was revealed.

For a touch of magical realism, Mister C. (he’s portrayed by at least three different actors over the course of the play) is typically shown wearing a loudly unfashionable plaid jacket, black pork-pie hat, and red-nose of a clown. There’s also a tumbler in a horned motley, neutral mask, and a kitschy Christmas-themed onesie (accompanied by prerecorded voice-overs about forbidden desires). Why not evoke the clichéd manner in which the horror and suspense genres have trained consumers of pop-culture to view clowns as creepy?

Less than a year after the #MeToo movement began to spread across social media, it is unconscionable that Sarah, the alleged victim, is the one the ensemble is least interested in hearing from – indeed, outside of some random factoids, and song lyrics, she only speaks as 52:15‘s plodding fifty-minute procession nears its end.

Nowhere in the United States does the law recognize a fifteen-year-old as capable of giving sexual consent to an adult, but this show doesn’t grant her much of a voice either.  When she does finally speak, she says nothing that couldn’t easily be said by a casual viewer of sensationalist reporting. Even there, dramatically speaking, 100th Monkey has taken the easy way out by presenting it as a soliloquy rather than having her engage with a social worker, police investigator, or close personal confidante.

Why even do this story when no one in The 100th Monkey would commit to the imaginative work of what it is like to be Sarah? Why do they seem more comfortable portraying her bullies and those who would exploit her story for ratings?

Running time: 50 minutes

52:15 plays through July 29, 2018, at Blind Whino SW Arts Club – 700 Delaware Avenue, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, buy them at the venue, or purchase them online.

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