Tales of A Fourth Grade Lesbo

Tuesday March 15, 2016

Tales of A Fourth Grade Lesbo

Who you grow into is, ideally, a matter of who you always were, plus experience and wisdom. But sometimes it's more complicated than that: Sometimes who you grow up to be is a complicated amalgam of who you are along with who you are expected (or told) to be.

When we're young we're subjected to the guidance of parents, teachers, and other adults. They're supposed to look out for us; they are supposed to teach us and, to some minimally invasive degree, shape us. But the people responsible for guiding us to adulthood have a tendency, sometimes, to want to bend us into something we're not -- and that bending can end up breaking some young people.

Making matters worse is the way children -- and to a greater degree, teenagers -- pick up on messages about who is "acceptable" and who isn't, and why. If some (by no means all) adults eventually learn to be flexible in these matters, kids of a certain age tend toward a higher degree of absolutism; that same rigid thinking can be applied to oneself, again with a risk of breakage.

The current growing awareness of, and conversation around, bullying in schools takes all of that into account (or ought to), but change on the ground has, in some cases and places, been slow and spotty. Youths denigrate and torment each other over all sorts of strange and trivial deviations from some highly specified (is often shifting and mysterious) norm, but it's still dishearteningly often the case that being gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual is a distinction that can set off a hair-trigger volley of rejection and punitive aggression.

People who come through this can laugh about it later; or they can cry about it (often in the confines of a therapist's office); or they can make art about it, and pursue purgative self expression around their social traumas while at the same time provoking both laughter and tears. The four collaborating artists in Gina Young's play "Tales of a Fourth Grade Lesbo" have taken the last option, and we see them here, separately and as a group, working to define and crystallize their experiences and feelings about the doubts, confusion, and terror they endured as they realized they were lesbians in a heterosexual world.

One such artist is Amanda (Julia Alvarez), who looks back on her status as the only lesbian in a pack of school friends at a Catholic high school. Another is Seven (Kathleen Lewis), who went to a different school and who dealt with her "tomboy" nature by hanging out with lots of boys -- wanting to be one of them, not sleep with them, a distinction lost on her classmates, who called her a "slut." Kirsty (Micah Greene), and Julie (Arielle Kaplan) have similar experiences.

These four actors also play younger characters who are either younger versions of the artists, or else characters in the theater piece they are creating to address the perplexing issues of being a child and being "different." (Probably they are both, but this play has moments that feel so meta you come away feeling the whole play-within-a-play is an extended riff of some sort -- a rarefied meditation on the nature of identity, the search for a hard kernel within its malleable and ever-blossoming folds.) The younger characters are a group of school friends whom we meet in fourth grade and then follow through seventh grade; the hierarchical ascendency of these girls is traced through their status as defined by the success of their talent show presentations, song-and-dance routines that are charmingly choreographed by Korinne T. Ritchey and set to hilarious renditions of 1990s pop gems with lyrics re-written to reflect the kids' inner lives, which are fraught with insecurity.

There's also a "Pink Triangle Girl" in a flatten leotard who seems embody both the feminine and the lesbian qualities in the girls; she, too, dances, though it's with the wordless fluidity of a ballet performer. She's played by Katharine Braun-Levine, who also portrays a 12-year-old Catholic school student who's so self-possessed that her walk is a strut and her flirtations with the boys at school seem to come from a place of maturity that should by rights be years beyond her age. She drives Amanda crazy.

Other female characters abound: Gina is played by Malari Martin, and Leah Carnow has a dual role as Tiffany and Penelope.

There's a cadre of boys on hand who also play different roles, depending on which school and grade they appear in. These are played by Arthur Gomez, Matt Arnold, Alexander P. Roy, and Lucas Commons-Miller. The boys spend a lot of their time on the sidelines, joking and rough-housing, though they do get a few substantive scenes (one of them set in a Catholic school classroom in which a class election is taking place; male privilege rears its head here and the election is stolen). Still, the male actors don't feel like mere supernumeraries, especially in the dance routines.

If there's a good one-word summary for "Tales of A Fourth Grade Lesbo," it's "freewheeling." The play has a liberated feel about it; unconstrained, it veers and hops from one setting to another, from theatrical re-creations of youthful days to recollections of those times. Some scenes have a candy-shell gloss; some are barbed with the excitement and dread of early sexual discovery; here and there are scenes of adult intimacy, and the play is engineered to that one can see just how the adults' relationships and turn-ons link back to how they experienced their own sexual maturations, and how they were treated because of them.

Multi-layered, profusely creative, immensely charming, these are "Tales" that take you on a journey full of side-trips into places raw with hurt and ablaze with possibility. Scenic designer Ben Lieberwson's modular set pieces swiftly and accurately fill int he settings, helped along by Benjamin Blum's lighting design (which also keeps us on track as we parse what's memory and what's artistry for our four main characters). Arlen Miller's costumes are a riot of 1990s color and design, with a gleefully unfettered elementary-school motif.

Yes, things got better. And maybe it's a patina of time and recollection, but even back then things weren't all bad. Whether you're LGBT, straight, gray of beard or a mere sapling, there's a lot to enjoy at any time of life -- director Mariagrazia LaFauci and her cast never forget this simple (and so very complicated) truth.

"Tales of a Fourth Grade Lesbo" continues through March 26 at the Arsenal for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.flatearththeatre.com/shows/2016/tales