Playwright: Jacob Parker. Legit Theatre Company in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre Co. Director Sophia Bryant. KXT on Broadway. June 23 – July 8, 2023.
Reviewed June 26, 2023*
There is a wealth of fine new young voices in the arts. Whether in words or music, they are making themselves heard. They are open, intelligent, articulate, talented and courageous – because they break boundaries, lift taboos. They don’t preach, or moralise! They say, “This is how it is. This is how we are dealing with it. We want to share it.”
Jacob Parker’s characters says all of that in this cleverly crafted play. They are, however, not the Dumb Kids written off by older generations. They are real. They work hard at expressing and negotiating all the perplexing complexities of who they are and how they feel. Director Sophia Bryant saw this when she first read the play.
“The writing style thrilled me,” she says, “the content mattered, and the characters genuinely felt like my friends. This show was about young people having agency in the stories they wanted to tell about themselves.”
Ten young actors transform into a group Year 11 students who meet in a local park to plan their formal. They’re away from school so they can be themselves, be free. Some of them are straight, some of them aren’t. But they work together, caring, compassionate, helpful – sometimes a little too helpful, even manipulative.
The park, designed by Benedict Janeczko-Taylor gives them space to move. He uses the full KXT stage, and four entrances to it to establish a playground area in the park. The ‘props’ – a balance beam, a monkey bar, a slatted bridge, a wooden seat – are cunningly minimised to provide varying levels and places to confide. Painted in bright green paint, they imply the freedom of open air – a feeling heightened by intermittent birdsong, part of Christine Pan’s perceptive sound design, and reinforced by Thomas Doyle’s subtly suggestive lighting.
Bryant and her cast understand the characters Jacobs has created. The have found their individual qualities and vulnerabilities in ten very intimate and convincing performances. They find the humour Jacobs has woven into his carefully worded and punctuated dialogue. They see the importance of his short sentences, interspersed with familiar idiom and quotes. They understand his self-conscious hesitancies and uncomfortable pauses.
From this they have developed young people that are maturing, questioning, increasingly open, but because of that, susceptible, sensitive to criticism or tactless humour – or unconsidered manipulation. They relate as close friend in a hierarchy that Jacobs has established skilfully in the dialogue and Bryant has reinforced in astute blocking and canny use of the “playground props”. They look up to others on the monkey bar. Hesitate beside another on the balance bar. Or watch from behind a pole. At times, guided by movement co-ordinator Emma Van Veen, they group together in slow motion choreography to retreat from something difficult; or dance exuberantly to share something more exciting.
Every actor makes the character they play real and, heart-breakingly at times, believable. They use specific gestures and expressions that are intrinsic to each – and that show their strength or frailty, their sense of fun … or their fear. To single them out would take far too many words – and risk the chance of missing something important in their characterisation – or giving away too much of the of Jacob’s carefully developed plot. But their names are important. They are … Fraser Crane, Ryan Hodson, Mym Kwa, Oli McGavock, Lou McInnes, Dominique Purdue, Connor Reilly, Rachel Seeto, Kate Wilkins and Angharad Wise. Together they are Jacob Parker’s not-so-dumb Dumb Kids.
A play such as this needs discerning direction. It needs consideration and care. It needs space and time, especially in the final days of production. So often independent theatre companies have only a few days to move into a theatre, build their set – and re-establish their blocking, movement, sound and sight cues. bAKEHOUSE and KXT give them that time. Time to feel at home in the space and with the set; time to feel comfortable and in command. Time to ensure that opening night sees a production that is polished and refined … as Dumb Kids certainly is.