Berkeley Repertory Theatre takes an unusually local angle for its season opener, Yellowjackets. It’s the commissioned world premiere of a play about Berkeley High School, just a couple of blocks away from the theater. Specifically, it’s about Berkeley High in 1994, when playwright Itamar Moses was a senior there.
Annie Smart’s set is a fascinating mashup of fragments of the school: an art deco bas-relief from the side of the performing arts building, a mural of Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez with immense graffiti tags, banks of lockers, a high chain-link fence, and brick and concrete steps to suggest different spots on the school campus. It’s an intriguing clash of disparate elements that don’t really fit together, and in that respect it perfectly mirrors the play.
As staged by artistic director Tony Taccone, who commissioned the play, it feels both underdeveloped and overlong, at more than two and a half hours. The narrative jumps back and forth between so many characters that we don’t get much of a sense of who any of them are, and what we do get of their individual stories feels so rushed that they may as well have been skipped.
Brawny Guillem (Brian Rivera) picks on timid Trevor (Craig Piaget) just to see him squirm, and that’s about all there is to that. Jacket editor Avi’s (Ben Freeman) relationship with Alexa (Amaya Alonso Hallifax) and his friendship with stoner Ryan (Alex Curtis) aren’t established in any way other than being in crisis, so there isn’t much sense of why they got along in the first place.
There is an overall story, which gets no closer to resolution than any of the patchwork bits that feed into it. A brawl between Berkeley and Richmond kids leads to beefed-up security and revoked in-and-out privileges. The school paper’s article about the rumble is seen as racially insensitive to a couple of teachers, who organize a boycott. The play follows one of the kids who started the fight, the hapless new editorial staffers of The Jacket newspaper as they try to negotiate the controversy, and various students affected by the sudden closing of the campus.
The cast of eleven young newcomers to the Rep go back and forth between playing students and adults: teachers, counselors, parents and security. The doubling suggests that the people in authority aren’t really any different from the kids, which is one of the more troubling implications of the play: the teachers don’t teach but only indulge in power plays with their students. As interesting as it is in theory, however, the device isn’t pulled off very well. Many of the actors indulge in the kind of faux husky “grown-up” voice that little kids use when they’re parodying their parents, and when the teachers seem like cartoons it makes the whole proceeding hard to take seriously.
Shoresh Alaudini is particularly strong as Damian, a young graffiti tagger in trouble for his role in the fight that opens the show, and he’s also compelling in a single scene as a stern African-American Studies teacher. Lance Gardner transforms remarkably from bookish mock-trial whiz kid James to Rashid, a pugnacious “redcoat” hall monitor trying to keep his younger brother Damian out of trouble. Fresh out of high school himself, Freeman effectively captures Jacket editor Avi’s frustration at being made out to be an oppressor when he feels utterly powerless.
Jahmela Biggs’ portrayal of the boycott-organizing teacher as a stilted buffoon makes her arguments with Avi feel one-sided, but she’s quite likeable as Damian’s jock girlfriend Tamika. The aspiring Latino-studies department founder is more unreasonable still, using Alexa to extort Avi, but is played by Rivera with casual authority that makes him credible. Piaget’s fragile Trevor is touching enough as far as the character goes, but it’s really as the paper’s amusing ex-hippie absentee advisor that he gets a brief chance to shine.
Curtis parodies hollow authority as Vice Principal Franks, who was injured in the fight, but is a cipher as cutup Ryan. A running gag in which various characters snottily repeat Ryan’s catchphrase back at him falls flat because the phrase didn’t make much of an impression the first time around. Adrienne Papp’s Gwen is wholly unsympathetic, a snide and sarcastic pill who resents her friends for doing well. Kevin Hsieh and Erika Salazar make the best of smaller roles.
Yellowjackets opened just as Moses’ Bach at Leipzig closed at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, an often hilarious play exploring the similarities between theatrical farce and musical fugue. While Bach is obsessed with form, Yellowjackets just feels all over the place, exacerbated by a heavy-handed copout ending.
The dialogue is often clever and credible enough to a fellow BHS alum like myself (albeit several years earlier). There are some cute parallels like Damian’s complaint that nobody wants to represent Berkeley in hip-hop culture and Ryan’s claim that everybody does in the punk scene, and some provocative arguments about the big issues along the way, but they’re not threads in a tapestry so much as one big tangle.