If the thought of sitting in a theatre for a couple of hours attending a youth theatre production on the subject of suicide raises the specter of enduring a live action version of an old ABC Afterschool Special, allow me to assuage those concerns. The hallmarks of those television specials were well-intentioned but contrived scripts covering issues from teen pregnancy to substance abuse to eating disorders and casts with performers like Scott Baio and Justine Batemen. The peninsula-based A Theatre Near U, a film and theatre academy, takes a decidedly different approach. The Company’s third full production, A Beautiful Glass, examines the issue of suicide not only through the eyes of the modern teen but through history as well. Their cast consists of aspiring young professional performers who workshop all aspects of the production. Who better to consult on the feelings and means of expression of the current generation than local youth aged thirteen to nineteen, and who better to tell the story?
Justin is a gregarious young man who goes out of his way to welcome new students to his school. Georgianna is an introverted young lady who spends her evenings in a hollowed-out tree peering through a telescope in the hope of discovering a new astronomical entity. Their paths cross when Justin, also seeking a secluded area to work on his own project, plants his sleeping bag below Georgianna’s tree. After a few days of observing Justin and his somewhat odd behavior, Georgianna reveals herself to Justin, and Justin reveals the reasons for his behavior. He is seeking a cure for the illness of suicide or, as he prefers to refer to it, “intentional death.” Georgianna joins Justin on his quest, and the manner in which he performs his research and the historical discoveries he has made unfold on stage in a series of vignettes that often include song and dance.
The strength of this company’s work is the incredible level of talent involved. Lead performers Atticus Shaindlin (Justin) and Emily Liberatore (Georgianna) have terrific chemistry and vocal talent to boot. With a cast of characters including Cleopatra, Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath, the ensemble of sixteen young, absolutely committed performers give more-than-credible performances as the aforementioned characters and more. Each had their moment – which was problematical when looking at the show as a whole – with a nice mix of humor, poignancy and drama to challenge them.
In a cast this large and talented, it may seem unfair to single out some individuals at the perceived expense of others, but it would be remiss to not recognize excellent work. Standouts for me were Quincy Shaindlin (VERY funny as a young Justin), Jackson Wylder (showing nice range from an emotionally devastated Van Gogh to an egotistic Pyramus) and Ali Arian Molaei. Mr. Molaei is what is commonly referred to in the ‘biz’ as a “triple threat”, meaning he can act, he can sing, and he can dance. Most importantly, he can do them all well – very well. Whether amusingly and energetically articulating the thoughts of the luckiest/unluckiest man on earth via monologue or gracefully expressing the beauty of life through dance, Mr. Molaei’s ample talents were put to excellent use. Oh, and he choreographed the show as well – a very impressive and diverse body of work within a single show.
The problematic aspect of this show alluded to earlier in this review is its length. In wanting to give each cast member a moment to shine, the show’s running time ends up at close to three hours. As a showcase for the talents of the artists involved, I can respect the desire of playwright Tony Kienitz to provide all the material he could for the top-notch cast and there is a nice blend of humor to lighten the load of the heavy subject manner. However, as co-director (with Tanna Herr), Kienitz might have considered excising several scenes and songs without upsetting that blend. While entertaining (a bit on Shakespeare’s suicide scenes in particular), several felt as if they were there only to showcase the cast and not to further the story. Perhaps a good lesson for the young performers to learn now is that sometimes things get cut.
With that caveat, there’s still a lot to like in “A Beautiful Glass” beyond the exceptionally talented cast. The original music is excellent (with three credited lyricists and six credited composers.) It consists of a variety of styles from traditional musical theatre to alternative rock and is delivered with appropriate gusto and emotion by the cast under the vocal direction of Pierce Peter Brandt. There are also some very interesting and clever technical elements that demonstrate the ability of those elements to enhance the storytelling without distracting from it.
A Theatre Near U continues to push the boundaries of “youth theatre” in an extremely challenging and rewarding direction. Is this …Glass half empty or half full? Brimming with top young talent, A Beautiful Glass is definitely more than half full.
A Theatre Near U Presents
A Beautiful Glass
through June 25
Thurs, Fri, Sat @ 7:30 pm
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
Photos by Rob Wilen, Jackson Wylder