Theater Review - The Kids Are Alright

Youth goes wild in 30 Below

Out of Hand Theater wears its youth on its sleeve for the play 30 Below. The show is performed by and aimed at twentysomethings, which makes you wonder how the troupe will treat its members when they turn 30: Will the rest of Out of Hand hunt them down and cast them out, a la Logan’s Run?

Revised from its debut production at Theater Emory in May, 30 Below offers a free-form, highly theatrical look at the psyche of a generation. 30 Below can be likened to a (mostly) white version of a Freddie Hendricks Youth Ensemble show, having the same interest in serious issues while reserving the right to crack wise and burst into song or dance. Out of Hand’s program of sketches, speeches and performance art may not always be profound, but it makes an engaging showcase for youthful exuberance and artistic ambition.

In a sense, 30 Below begins as soon as you set foot in the theater. The cast, wearing sunglasses and behaving like butch security guards, interrogates audience members in a spoof of post 9-11 safety concerns.

An announcement for the audience to turn on its cell phones leads into “Play” by Steven Westdahl, in which a stilted, three-way phone conversation gets interrupted by ringing phones in the audience. Throughout the show, Out of Hand embraces stagecraft as spectacle. The set, festooned with corporate logos, features a fireman’s pole, video projectors and hidden doors like you’d find on “Laugh-In.”

Five members of the Out of Hand company direct 30 Below, and they so delight in attacking audience expectations, they seem interested in shock for its own sake. “Think of Kisses” begins with Adam Fristoe wearing a clown nose and singing a sweet little ditty which becomes symbolic of the prepubescent struggle to understand sex, with statistics of AIDS deaths flashed before the audience. The cast recalls personal tragedies in “Rants,” but one incongruously announces Out of Hand’s next production. A fake game show, complete with applause sign, strangely segues into “Viewfinder,” an overwritten monologue about a guilt-ridden photographer (Brian Kimmel).

30 Below can seem precocious to a fault. When cast members have outbursts of wild profanity, make jokes about condoms, take their shirts off or spit on the floor, it’s like they’re trying to prove they’re not afraid to offend their parents. And featuring two shorts from the point of view of children seems like one too many, although they’re both entertaining plays.

Two of the most serious-minded works make a virtue of brevity: “Blondell’s” treatment of race and “Black-Eyed Susan’s” look at violence against women find strength in being short. Many, however, don’t know when to end, with “A Date Under His Own Name” seeming disproportionately long, although it’s a reasonably funny look at male dating strategies.

In “Cockamamie,” two friends (Brittany Abbass and Brian Crawford) each encourage the other to admit their homosexuality. The short play uses the amusingly illogical argument that refusing to live up to a stereotype is a sign of self-hatred.

Almost everyone in the ensemble gets a chance to shine, but artistic director Maia Knispel is 30 Below’s most prominent player. She has some of the show’s most extreme, showy roles, coming across as an embodiment of the feminine id, whether playing a big-mouthed kindergartner or a crazed dominatrix. With Ariel de Man, Knispel rails against women who have trouble using toilet seats, and near the end she leads the actresses in a hilarious recreation of the zombie choreography from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

30 Below comes to a rousing conclusion with “Harris Teeter,” in which shopping at the grocery store gives way to Stomp-like percussion and boy-band crooning. And why not? 30 Below may not be the most disciplined show, but it’s frequently fun enough to suggest that maybe maturity is overrated.