If I told you the entire universe could be found in a grain of sand this would not be a foreign concept. But what if I told you that it could be found in your average bedroom of a teenage girl—a very festively cluttered, collage-walled teenage girl bedroom–or at the very least a speck of dust that landed on the keyboard of the aforementioned teenage girl in the self same room—you might have to adjust your thought process a little but in the end you would most likely poetically agree. And oh…the teenage girl just might be dying…
This is what I and You penned by an extraordinarily talented and enterprising Lauren Gunderson explores in most textural and unpredictable fashion.
It is a customarily festive night at one of my favorite theatres in Hollywood: The Fountain Theatre on the unassuming corner of Fountain and Normandie; (which, though it looks like a rather large stucco house, I have only just discovered has been converted from an old liquor store; the living quarters in its upper realm). With a roughly 99 seat theatre bolstering the downstairs arena, a warm and festive café, reminiscent of one’s living room can be found heavenward with all manner of snacks, drinks and atmosphere for the partaking. The approximately 2000 orange Christmas/Halloween lights adorning the café’s upper ceiling-ward walls provide for a decidedly magical ambiance and the café itself a most homey and steadfast charm. Moreover, theatre goers the complex through can enjoy refreshments not only before the performance, but for an hour thereafter as well. One other bonus worth mentioning; there is not merely one set of restrooms, but two—TWO for our comfort: One right upstairs next to the café (after all what would heretofore upstairs living chambers be without a restroom?) and one on the way up to the café just around the main stairwell from the theatre (‘cause what would an erstwhile establishment that sold liquor NOT want with an extra restroom!?!) The icing on the cake: neither of them disrupts the theatre’s fourth wall! Oh so many options I tell ya! So many options!!!
On the stage sits a bedroom to rival the festiveness of the upstairs café. Adorned with similarly positioned, though decidedly more swoopily festooned Christmas lights. It also boasts an assortment of knick knacks and accoutrements so customary to any given teenager’s room; a Rubik’s Cube, some Russian Nesting Dolls, a rubber duckie, a unicorn lying on its side next to said rubber duck (as if it suddenly passed out by something it said that was waaay too funny), a picture of a very cute cat in a collage behind the bed with a decidedly avant garde hand just beneath said cat ostensibly attempting to pet it (yet not petting it completely as if to symbolize the isolating effects of allergies and the frustrations that come with not being able to touch kitties as a result?), and a bobble head of some sort; someone who looks like Bob Saget as a matter of fact. (Okay if that’s what the kids are into these days… ) Regardless, this room has so many fun baubles and eye candy adorning its walls, one can only think to go up on the stage and play in it (though we have been specifically told not to by the pre-performance recording!)
But something is wrong…something is eerily off. For, surrounding, infusing and engulfing the entire set, (not to mention theatre) is something arrestingly audible. It is not music; more like a scratching, whining, electronically metallic drone oscillating to and fro like robotically hollow beach waves of a vast cyber-encoded ocean. This feeling invariably blends into the opening of the play both coincidentally and contrapuntally….
“I and this mystery, here we stand!” One of the more enigmatic lines from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, will be the first cryptic line of the play as Anthony–completely as yet unknown to Caroline– enters her bedroom totally unexpectedly. My first thought is that he is slightly mad as he penetrates the the fortress of setitude in somewhat of an insistently frazzled state. In his sweaty, unrelenting fist, he wields a somewhat wilted, and greasy looking bag of waffle fries as appeasement for what he is about to do: Make a sick and perpetually absent girl do HOMEWORK. “…for Ms. Branson’s…American Lit Project” and oh, by the way, “it’s due tomorrow.”
Typical modern day teenager that Caroline is, she emphatically denies ever seeing the email notifying her of this co-assignment all in the same breath assuring Anthony, “I have a life. I text A LOT!”
Caroline will push Anthony, his greasy fries, and his stupid assignment away at first under the misguided assumption that the only reason he opted to work with her is to be “nice”.—The least of her favorite aspects of being sick under the guise of gratuitous hearts and kittens on her facebook page to forced concern and falsely compassionate head tilting in conversation. All Anthony can reply is, “I just don’t want to get an F because I couldn’t convince you that Walt Whitman is AMAZING!” As to his genuine curiousity for volunteering to team up with Caroline, “You’re this mystery at school…” (Anthony is apparently vastly intrigued by them; mysteries that is…)
During the course of this ninety minute piece, it becomes evident that Caroline has been out of school for a very long time and that she is in dire need of a liver transplant.
Anthony will educate Caroline on Whitman; help her observe his reference to seeing the infinite in a blade of grass to the point where she will finally declare: “You were right. This poem is about how the body is beautiful despite pain, and death, and stuff…” and concerning what his grave stone should read: “Walter Whitman: National Badass!”
Caroline’s fire alarm will annoyingly beep intermittently during certain portions of the piece embodying one of the day’s aggravations which prompts her to face the fact that life lived amidst machines– machines in particular begging for proper and un-worn-out parts–can be somewhat torturous if not vexing. (Hint: there’s a metaphor here.)
They will exchange ideas, pleasantries, speak as teenagers; regarding music in particular. At one point Anthony impresses us all with his vast knowledge of John Coltrane’s Love Supreme. This prompts one of my favorite scenes as the now sonorously awakened Caroline co-narrates the images that come to mind as the two students follow the music’s lead. “It is midnight in new York.” “A lady gets in a cab.” “She’s wearing sunglasses.” –the types of impressions that would enter your head if you were a high school or college student pulling an all nighter on a term paper whilst listening to any sort of music reminding you of New York and feeling somewhat light headed. “Jazz: The heartbeat of the Universe,” Anthony will declare nearly in the same breath as he asks Caroline about her favorite music. She will balk at first and take what seems like a seven days shy of fortnight to inform us. “It’s white music,” (All I can hope is that is it not the metallic sea waves playing the audience in before the actors’ entrance—or God forbid, The Partridge Family. No seriously Caroline, what is it? How BAD can it be…?)
Anthony will invariably break Caroline’s walls to the point where they sling compliments at each other copping the vocal intonation of insults—You know, the cute and assumingly unassuming manner in which high school students do.
From here on out the sky is the limit concerning their relationship to the point where Caroline will unwittingly get Anthony to admit a very personal and disturbing thing about his day. “I saw a kid collapse,” during basketball practice. He didn’t get up.
From here the play begins taking even more dramatic and surprising turns than we ever thought and despite the fact that it looks like they are falling into a mutual crush, their rapport will prove to be so much more vast than anything we ever imagined; just as Walt Whitman prompted in his all encompassing works of harrowing bliss and beyond!
Comedic and dramatic timing between the actors is impeccable and flows like melted butter. Jennifer Finch as Caroline is soft, hard, defensive, and accepting in all the right places and the audience palpably and deeply identifies with her. Matthew Hannock’s Anthony is not only earnest, but absolutely endearing on so many levels, to speak nothing of the heartbreaking sympathy evoked by his portrayal. Sound by John Zalewski, Lighting by Jeremy Pivinick and set design by Tom Buderwitz are all top notch and Robin Larsen’s direction is the final cherry on the top of this magical sundae of scenes that make this performance flow like a hot fudge river down a mountain of multi-flavored ice cream
Just as surprising as the ending is the near split second transformation of the set as Caroline’s bed, along with the picture of the cat almost being petted and the Bob Saget Bobble head suddenly fly offstage into a void of darkness rendering the stage comparably shadowy and voided but that is all I will say as this is a production that must be seen to be believed and truly one of, if not, the most incredible things I have ever witnessed on any Los Angeles Stage! Run don’t walk to reserve a seat!
I and You plays at The Fountain Theatre until June 14th.
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