Directed by David Prete
Produced by Redtwist Theatre
Yapping Barbarically on Bryn Mawr
I and You is the story of how two teenagers did a lit class assignment on Walt Whitman.
Well, there’s a twist in the last two minutes, but for most of this eighty-five minute production that’s what we’re watching. The company’s website contains links to some messages from director David Prete to playwright Lauren Gunderson discussing how to justify this ordeal. They say the play is about the sharing of wisdom, how we’re all unified and have lots to teach each other, and can therefore face death more easily. It’s earnest and ambitious, but I can’t say I got that out of it.
Caroline (Grace Melon) has a worsening liver ailment that requires her to get a transplant. She had to stop going to school, and is surprised and annoyed therefore when Anthony (Rejinal Simon) shows up and announces they’re partners and have a poster due tomorrow. They are supposed to analyze a section of Leaves of Grass, paying special attention to the pronouns. This does not sound like fun to Caroline, whose experience with poetic analysis is teachers asking what she thinks, and then telling her “Wrong, it’s these other fourteen things that were not obvious.” Anthony likes poetry. He also requested Caroline as a partner because being so close to death, he thought she would have a better understanding of the theme. That, and a boy died that afternoon during a school basketball game, so he’s shaken up and needs someone to talk to.
Their personalities clash. Caroline amuses herself by irritating people and resents being shut out from everything. Anthony is popular, has a good life at home, and is infinitely patient with her. She’s white and he’s black, but this isn’t some kind of cross-cultural exchange. Her house has two stories and she has her own desktop Mac; he wears khakis and his dad’s a professor. With many battles along the way, they wind up bonding.
My main problem is I’m not convinced they really have any wisdom to share with each other. Caroline is expecting her transplant, it’s not like she needs anyone to convince her to live. She isn’t nice or smart enough to have any consoling words for Anthony; he’s the one interpreting Whitman to her. Gunderson’s script makes regular use of the caps lock key, and Prete takes that even further. I estimate Melon and Simon spend about forty minutes shouting at each other, and always on the same level and with the same inflection. Simon also rushes through his bellowing of Whitman’s poetry, making it unclear what it is they’re spending all this time trying to decode. Melon is a two-time leukemia survivor, so I’ll defer to her on the realism of her portrayal of someone with a chronic illness. But literally bouncing off the walls doesn’t serve the dramatic situation or Caroline’s self-assessment, and keeps the energy unvaried even as it shifts from angry to happy.
This play was given a rolling premiere by the National New Play Network, was published in the summer edition of American Theatre Magazine, and beat Aaron Posner’s Stupid Fucking Bird to win the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, netting Gunderson $25,000, so there must be an audience for it somewhere. I think a lot of theatre-goers will enjoy the fantasy of high schoolers falling in love with classic poetry. Set designer Sarah JHP Watkins and costume designer Allison Smith did a lot to flesh out Redtwist’s production. But as far as cosmic struggles over the meaning of life and death go, there just isn’t that much going on.
Reviewed November 29, 2014
For more information, see I and You’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Redtiwst Theatre, 1044 West Bryn Mawr through January 4. For tickets, call 773-728-7529 or visit www.redtwist.org. Tickets are $30-35, seniors and students $5 off. Plays Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3:00 pm, and December 27 at 3:00 pm. No performances December 25 or January 1. Running time is eighty-five minutes with no intermission.