The Xylophone West
Tortured by shame and silence
|The Fine Print Theatre presents|
|The Xylophone West|
Review by Clint May
Don’t envy any authority who deals with bullies or the bullied. No cheap platitudes or politically correct after-school specials actually alleviates the on-the-ground persistent pain felt by those who are different. The harsh truth is that bullying is a manifestation of a deep-seated human disposition that has existed since Caveman Bor threw a rock at Caveman Wog for having curly hair. The Xylophone West brings that me-throw-rock-at-different mentality to a modern-day hermetic little town in Nebraska. Specifically, the basketball team at a private school where the pecking order has been established and a wealthy gay student is definitely the runt of the litter. That order is going to be upset as it always seems to be—when the ritual of supremacy creates the regret of tragedy.
We meet Patrick (Donnie Sheldon) as he is nursing a recently broken arm. Only his best—and only—friend Shane (David Weiss) knows what it is that makes Patrick different enough to attract the intolerance of his teammates. They’re two misfit blood brothers suffering under the cruel domination of team leader Doc (Christian Stokes) and his band of cronies. Rush (Nate Ross), the deaf powerhouse; Loni (Chris Daley), the reluctant bystander; Rhett (Paul Krick), the giggling sycophant round out Doc’s little “tribe.” Each is a facet of guilt in the attack that led to the broken arm in a harrowing flashback set where else but the the locker room, bastion of male insecurity. Patrick, already impotently enraged at living in a community with none like him, decides it’s time to runaway with Shane, who has a mythical father in the seemingly perfect land of California where at least they “hate different things.” Driven blind by desperation, their juvenile plan is pathetically doomed to fail. Hopping the westbound train with its xylophonic rhythms (hence the title) creates a tragic consequence and forces the age to “come of.”
The fallout brings to light the culture of shame and silence that pervade the bonds of fraternity, even when those bonds are actually binding limbs. Despite a compassionately Christian mother (Mandy Walsh*), Patrick cannot bring himself to admit the reason behind the bullying. It’s the same frustration faced by witnesses to gang violence or war crimes where tight communities enforce tight lips to the detriment of the whole. Patrick feels he alone must face the consequences of another primal desire; the urge of fight or flight from both the outer demons and those he’s sickeningly internalized.
As a young cast, Fine Print’s naiveté shows in several spots, but is surprisingly strong overall. Lubischer’s naturalistic narrative paints the boys realistically but lets us write Doc off a little too easily as a mere sociopath. In a homely scene, we see each boy prepping for the day at the bathroom mirror as their mother’s voices call to them various inanities. It’s a touching interlude to remind us that even our enemies are still more similar to us than different (a tough lesson to take). Instead of using it to deepen Doc, it shows his true sociopathic core as he attempts to use his mirror to mimic human emotions. Harrowing, yes, but it removes him from the realm of the common bully and into another realm of a monstrous grotesque utterly deficient in humanity. Not all bullies are sociopaths, and caricaturing won’t help people like Patrick to fight in any way that would bring a true resolution outside an 80’s movie. It’s his cronies that have the best chance for redemption. As Loni mournfully muses, they have been “trained to be animals” with no guaranteed winner.
Resourceful and inventive use of a sparse set made of wooden crates and chicken-wire walls adds an appropriately dystopic air. In fact, one couldn’t ask for a better setting than an actual gym for such a tale, and the set design by Nick Sieben is a cross between a thunderdome and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video. It calls to mind another musical reference, The Doors, when they so succinctly sang, “No one here gets out alive.” Flesh may go on living, but innocence can die a very easy death.
If that all sounds unedifying, it’s because Xylophone is a mostly realistic, if sometimes melodramatic, reflection of bullying as an entrenched groupthink wherein the only resolution is relegated from those groups to the growth of the individual. Patrick’s personal battle to resist the internal animal – of speech over silence, of rising above over falling below – has the potential to become a small victory in the struggle eternal. It’s unfair for one to have to endure such indignities, but as one boy post-traumatically muses, “‘Fair’ is a made-up word.”
The Xylophone West continues through April 4th at Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $20-$25, and are available by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or online at BrownPaperTickets.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at URL. (Running time: 2 hours, with a 10-minute intermission)
Photos by Gretchen Kelley
Donnie Sheldon (Patrick), David Weiss (Shane), Mandy Walsh* (Mom), Stephan Cephalu Jr. (Cole), Christian Stokes (Doc), Chris Daley (Loni), Paul Krick (Rhett), Nate Ross (Rush)
*Mandy Walsh was ably replaced by executive director Heather Bodie during the preview performances; it is not permanent.
behind the scenes
Josh Sobel (director); Alex Lubischer (writer); Alex Huntsberger (asst. director); Aimee Plant (props); Sydney Ray (stage manager); Kate Reed (asst. stage manager); Mark E. Penzien (fight choreographer); Nick Selesky (sound design); Nick Sieben (set design); Valerie Walz (lighting); Alyssa Fiala (costumes); Eli King (tech director); Gretchen Kelley (photos)