“She’s my friend because we both know what it’s like for people to be jealous of us.”
– Cher, Clueless, written and directed by Amy Heckerling
(inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma)
I never understood the way high school social groups were shown in movies and tv shows. Yes, everyone at my schools hung out with their regular cliques, but I never saw kids separated into the sort of easy-to-categorize labels shouted out in films like Mean Girls or shows like Saved by the Bell. My personal memories were more akin to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, where stoner Jeff Spicoli hangs out Jefferson’s younger brother with nary a batted eye; or Cooley High, where “good kid” Preach hangs with letterman-jock Cochise and thugs Robert & Stone.
But then, dramatic interpretation was never bound by confines of realism. Hell, I once started a script that mashed up the high school comedy with a prison drama. Besides, lots of things seem larger-than-life when you’re young and hormonal: appearing at social functions is akin to attending a world premiere; a broken heart is world-shattering; and you feel as if nothing in the history of the world will ever be as important as this one thing right here and now. Hell, why do you think so many high schoolers read Romeo and Juliet (that is, other than being assigned to do so)? It’s not because it’s a story about love conquering all, it’s because it’s a story about how two horny teens think their “love” is strong enough to change the world – or, at the very least, end the feud between their families.
As one of many teens who learned to love Shakespeare in high school, I recall how I began to see parallels between the characters in those stories and the folks around me. Clearly playwright Oren Stevens made those same connections, because he and director Ariel Craft have taken the high body count of The Bard’s Macbeth and smashed it head-on with the dark teen dramedies of the much-beloved Heathers and cult favorite Jawbreaker. The result is something could only have come from this longtime duo who may be collaborating for the last time.
It’s the first day of school, it’s sometime in the ‘80s, and it’s a brand new beginning for for Maxine and little sister Ladybird. The former is starting her senior year as the latter is an incoming freshman. Both are optimistic about the totally awesome opportunities the coming year presents. Unfortunately, Maxine didn’t properly prepare her sister for the lame social hierarchy of the school, with cool girl/super-bitch Duncan as Queen of the Hill.
Incidentally, each sister soon finds herself in a position to move up in the ranks. But the price for doing so is incredibly steep. With three ethereal “witches” acting as the devils on everyone’s shoulders, the quest for popularity suddenly takes a deadly turn. Bogus.
In the days since I saw the opening night performance of this show, I’ve been pondering the ending. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it takes a turn away from both the Shakespearean source material and the high school black comedies that influenced this play’s aesthetic. In a way, it plugs up one of the most common plot holes for stories in which a lot of people die, and that part I like. At the same time, it does veer away from the source and comes off as a bit anti-climactic, given what transpired. I found it equally brilliant and infuriating, but I can’t really say the ending is fully brilliant or infuriating. It’s definitely not down-the-middle – I certainly had a reaction, or it wouldn’t linger with me days later – but I’m still not 100% sure how I feel about it.
But perhaps that’s an appropriate way to end what-is-possibly Craft and Stevens’ final project together. When I introduced Stevens as part of a staged reading festival last year, I made note of the fact that he went to Yale, and that he and Craft have been making theatre together since they were both 12 years old. Now Stevens – who recently married his partner, local actor and Breadbox artist Justin Gillman – will be heading to New York to attend law school. I personally don’t know what this means for future projects, but the thought of them no longer making shows together would be something of a loss.
Still, if this is their final collaboration, they could do worse than a New Wave-inspired version of that play no theatre artist (except me) wants to say aloud. Upon entering the theatre and seeing the German Expressionist set as Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” plays over the speakers, one is already intrigued as to how these disparate elements will come together. By the time the three witches begin chanting Vincent Price’s “rap” from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” you’re hooked. The biggest strength of Stevens’ script (which also contains a nod to Richard III) is how it starts off intentionally making its characters into clichés so as give them further dimensions as the play progresses. They each start as “the smart kids,” “the popular girls,” and “the spazzes” so that their moves into one another’s worlds takes a more natural (and tragic) turn, punctuated by such quotable dialogue as “All my classmates are such mouth-breathers that a blowjob would suffocate them.”
Perhaps that’s why the ending kinda irks me: does common sense kill dramatic tension, or have we all become so accustomed to certain tropes that veering from them comes off as blasphemous. There’s a scene in which the new girl Ainsley tells her confidante, her dog, about the power struggle she’s witnessing from the sidelines: “Everyone’s got these goals, but no one’s honest about what they want – it’s so interesting!” Ainsley’s honest is key to the ending. An act of violence would seem like the natural choice, but what would it ultimately solve?
And it doesn’t hurt that they have a pretty hilarious all-female cast with which to work. Lauren Hays brings a good sadness and silliness to the titular “bitch,” Maxine. As does María Leigh – consistently one of the Bay Area’s most reliable actors – as headgear-sporting Ladybird, the show’s Lady Macbeth equivalent. Amitis Rossoukh is clearly relishing her wicked turn as Duncan, but it’s safe to say that most people will be remembering her wingwoman Cameron, played by Cassie Rosenbrock. Cameron gets the script’s most memorable bon mots, and to watch Rosenbrock say lines like “Can you talk louder than a queef?” is worth the price of admission. I’m not familiar with the work of Neiry Rojo or Roneet Aliza Rahamim, but their turns as Brodie and Ainsley, respectively, serve as a fine visual representation of the struggle within Maxine.
And I can’t finish this review without mentioning the witches. Even though they’re represented as three parts of a single entity, I can’t help but wonder if the three actors chosen were done so because of their distinctive looks: the doll-like Jessica Waldman, the wide-eyed Mikka Bonel, and the simmering expressions of Carla Pauli. These three may speak in unison when chanting Madonna’s “Open Your Heart,” but it’s to their credit that they’re easy to tell apart by sight alone. Plus, their inclusion may or may not be a nod to another teen-flick classic, The Craft.
As you can see from the photos above, Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s set is an intriguing mixture of a cold, stone-like setting with the sort of hidden neon lights (courtesy of Amada Ortmayer) one would expect to see in a rerun of Miami Vice. Sound designer Ryan Short does just as good a job creating a collection of dog barks and echoey corridors for our characters. The ever-reliable Brooke Jennings goes full-blown “Catholic school girl” by dressing our young ladies in the classic plaid-skirt-and-stitched-logo-sweater combo. For the witches, Jennings gives the trio acid-washed uniforms that simultaneously make they look spectral, as well as in danger of disappearing into the stone-like set surrounding them. All good work.
Though high school may seem like the beginning and end of everything as you’re going through it, it’s important to remember that it’s a pitstop, not the destination. The majority of the issues one stresses about won’t even be remembered once the school year ends, let alone once you graduate. But when you are going through it, everything is a matter of life and death. After all, how will you survive as an adult when it’s so hard to handle being young? From that perspective, everything really does seem like a Shakespearean tragedy.
And that’s what’s best about MacBitch, it puts us back in touch with the experience of thinking every minor incident is so important that eventually they begin to have real consequences none of the characters could see coming. It imbues the substance of a literary classic into the superficiality of cliché-ridden genre. If this is Craft and Stevens’s final collaboration, it’s not a bad way to end things.
Also, where the fuck are these kids’ parents?!
MacBitch is scheduled to run until the 19th of August at The EXIT Theatre in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 90 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.