Shootings’ Unseen Victims Step Forth in “Ripe Frenzy”

As we endure the slow holocaust of our schoolchildren, the media  are reporting exhaustively on each killer — and briefly on several of the victims. They even give us sound bites from a few of the victims’ families. We rarely hear from the killer’s family.

With Ripe Frenzy, now at the Greenway Court,  playwright Jennifer Barclay does what the news doesn’t. The play’s set in a  high school theatre that’s busy preparing its 40th annual staging of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. But rather than follow a latter-day George and Emily, Frenzy lets the mothers speak.

Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, Liam Springthorpe, Elizabeth Ann Bennett (photo: Michael Lamont)

Miriam (Melody Butiu) and Felicia (Renee-Marie Brewster) are the moms of infatuated teens, who are in fact playing the two lovers. Best friend Zoe (Elizabeth Ann Bennett) has a son who’s up in the booth, running sound and lights. Each woman shares stories of her child, and of her motherhood, as they together repeat rituals they’ve known all their lives.

But the story belongs to Zoe, Our Town’s Stage Manager years before, who takes a  similar role in this play. She greets us as it begins, narrates it, and says farewell as it ends. Unlike Wilder’s relaxed, forthcoming narrator, however, Zoe seems anxious, repressed. She keeps tossing us “bright side” bon mots, making us wonder what she can’t say (and won’t let  let anyone else say).

Ripe Frenzy shuttles back and forth in time, between the giddy  preparations for tech rehearsal and a somber, reserved moment after Our Town is cancelled in mid-performance and plans are announced to tear down the theatre.

We wonder, but we know. We do not have the innocent pleasure of suspense. As in our lives, the characters’ pre-show excitement is damped, again and again, by news flashes, memes, and texts about a school shooting in a Michigan town. That shooter even appears, like a ghost, at the beginning, to be shooed offstage by Zoe; yet his name echoes through the play like a mantra.

The Event inevitably occurs — but we only experience it through disturbing projections (by Jared Mezzocchi), jerky images from the shooter’s cell phone. We do see the horrid copycat pattern unfold, and hear all the questions, second-guesses, blamings, and arguments that attend such an event. But Ripe Frenzy reaches its climax in uncertainties — the most lacerating of which is Zoe’s struggle with the question: “Wouldn’t the world be better if he had never been born?”

Leaving the theatre, I saw what I’d learned: The “answers” and “solutions” we ardently seek are just attempts to get out of a crisis. But once we’ve lived in it, the crisis will be with us  and in us, and we will be in it, for the rest of our lives.

Ripe Frenzy powerfully and deeply examines a crisis we’re living in,
as our our society rips itself apart. It’s delivered in a calm, steady, colloquial poetry much like Wilder’s, though it comes to a rest at a much less comfortable place.

The performances are alive and nuanced, the mothers standing out (as they should). Butiu and Brewster give us two clear, very different women, bound together by lifelong intimacy (and isolation). Bennett gives us the tragic crumbling of a person who has given all in love, yet is overwhelmed by forces she can’t foresee or forestall.

Liam Springthorpe, besides playing Miriam’s son Matt, gives a chillingly uncontained turn as the Michigan killer. Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson, who plays Felicia’s daughter Hadley, also creates a deeply disturbing cameo of a bright, unmoored girl who adores the killer. Director Alana Dietz rides herd on the time warping and the poetry,
and injects tension and movement into a play which — like a Greek tragedy — puts almost none of its central action onstage.

Amanda Knehans’ striking set neatly makes the “town” of both plays strongly ubiquitous and at the same time feebly small. And Azra King-Abadi’s lighting draws our attention where it needs to be, subtly signaling mood shifts.

The text and staging of Ripe Frenzy have benefited from several rounds of reworking. (Though I am baffled by the title — it’s never spoken, and tells us nothing about the story.) This strong, honest play takes us into a dimension of our common suffering that we need to understand. Like the Greeks who experienced Sophocles’ works, Americans who see this play will be better able to handle what we’re going through.
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Ripe Frenzy, by Jennifer Barclay, directed by Alana Dietz.
Presented by Greenway Arts Alliance, at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., LA 90036.

Fridays at 8:00,
Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00,
through June 16th.
Final performance Sunday June 17th at 4:00.

Tickets: <http://greenwaycourttheatre.org/now-playing>