Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.
Pictured: Janyce Caraballo, Charlie Irving and Brittney Brown. Photo by Austin D. Oie.
By Elizabeth Ellis
Sometimes when you hear the title of a show, you make an immediate judgment and think you know what the show’s going to be about. You believe that you’ll be seeing a show you’ll need to watch with some alcohol, you prepare yourself to experience some deep emotional turmoil, you steel yourself to be frightened or exhilarated or disgusted.
Such is the case with a show as provocatively titled as HOT PINK, OR READY TO BLOW from New American Folk Theatre. It sounds like it would be a rowdy late-night show and noisy cult classic, where the audience brings their own beer and chimes in with the actors as they speak their lines. To make this presumption would be to sell the play very, very short. While it does employ some familiar and occasionally stereotypical tropes and characters from the high school comedies of the 1980’s, Johnny Drago’s funny and insightful script, with a wonderfully versatile cast and snappy direction from Derek Van Barham, is far more than a silly story about sexually curious teenagers. It will make you reflect on your days in high school and see how many of the old and harmful attitudes about women and sexuality you may still subscribe to today.
In the 1980’s, an active volcano dominates the small town of New Pompeii. Tradition holds that the mayor of the town must make an annual sacrifice of a virgin, chosen from the local high school, in order keep the volcano from erupting, and reducing the town to pyroclastic flow. When a girl is summoned to the principal’s office via announcement over their school’s intercom, everyone knows her fate. A recent sacrifice did not appease the volcano, which meant that the sacrificial virgin…was not a virgin. Consequently, the volcano keeps rumbling because it wants what it wants, and will brook nothing less than an actual virgin.
The mayor’s daughter, pretty Cadence, and her two long-term best friends (Brichelle, the smart nerd, and Tatanya, the tough rebel) live in fear that they might hear their names called. Though Cadence’s father has assured her that she won’t be chosen as a sacrifice, the trio set about to assure that they will make unacceptable choices for the volcano — they each look to lose their virginity.
While it seems that losing one’s virginity should be easy, given that this is a town where a virgin sacrifice is a regular occurrence, the actual consummations prove to be more difficult than the girls thought they would. Cadence comes on to her devoted boyfriend, who is strangely immune to her charms, so that won’t happen. Brichelle looks to her math teacher, who is too obtuse, and Tatanya puts the moves on a hot hair metal rock star, whose consumption of Jack Daniels and weed cause him to pass out before she can drop her panties. After each of the three girls frustratingly report back to each other that their statuses remain as before, they decide to unite as one sacrifice to face their fate, and the volcano, together. Or do they?
Playwright Drago has a keen eye for the expressions of the silliness and high drama found in every high school, as well as some consistent and ridiculous themes. For instance: the unacceptable virgin sacrifice had “big knockers,” so of course not only was she not a virgin; she was a slut. But some tired stereotypes occur as well: The girls’ high school gym teacher is Coach Dykeman, who lives with Donna, her “roommate”; Cadence’s “boyfriend” is all jazz hands and a mincing musical theatre geek with a lisp. The underlying theme, which the girls discover and celebrate, is that girls should not be punished nor labeled nor separated out for their sexuality, however they embrace it. Drago could refine this element earlier in the script and have the girls spend more time on the exploration of their sexual desires, but that’s a minor point.
Director Van Barham keeps the production moving at an energetic clip, but not so fast that the actors zoom over moments to land a joke, or engage in a real moment of reflection. It’s a tough task to take a script like this and avoid a plunge into total zaniness, and Van Barham beautifully balances out the humor with connection. He is aided by a talented cast with terrific comic timing. Cadence (Charlie Irving), Brichelle (Janyce Caraballo), and Tatanya (Brittney Brown) take what could be one-dimensional characters and infuse them with warmth and sassiness. News reporter (Elise Marie Davis), Tatanya’s mother (Anthony Whitaker), the Mayor and Chadwick (Josh Kemper), the dim math teacher (Tommy Bullington), metal head Duff (Kirk Jackson), and Will Kazda (Brace Face, a small shoutout to Joan Cusack’s Sixteen Candles headgear-wearing geek girl, complete a handkerchief skirt figure on her shirt) all turn in excellent work. As does Caitlin Jackson as saucy Bangs, the black-eyed, black-lipped world-weary know-it-all who gives the girls lessons on life, love, and sex. Roger Wykes’ bare and dank set looks inspired by Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit video, and that’s a fabulous choice. His ominous volcano on the back wall watches over everything. Kallie Rolison’s sound design brings the perfect amount of nostalgia and head bopping, while Carrie Campana’s great costumes and Keith Ryan’s large wigs may remind some a little too uncomfortably of bright and shiny 80’s fashions.
A Play like HOT PINK, OR READY TO BLOW read at first like it’s a work dashed off in an evening fueled by old movies and a few bottles of Riunite. But as it unfolds, the messages of honoring girls and women, and how they view themselves as sexual beings, come through clearly, if you allow them. This show is sure to develop a well-deserved following.
HOT PINK, OR READY TO BLOW runs through April 7th. For more information visit newamericanfolktheatre.org.