by Jona Tarlin · May 13, 2014
Playwrights on New Plays #76: Jona Tarlin comments on Jane the Plain at 4th Street Theatre At Plainview High Jane the Plain is mostly unnoticed until a science partner gives her one-on-one time with the school’s head jock, the handsome but dim Scotty the Hotty. So far we’ve heard this one before. Jane’s star struck, Scotty’s horny, and suddenly she’s taking nude selfies after he’s taken her virginity. A modern twist, but something that’s definitely made it’s way to the evening news. Where the play goes after that, well, that’s something new. August Schulenburg’s twisting tale of love gone wrong manages to stay not just one step ahead of its audience, but ten.
I will tread lightly, for fear of spoilers, but I fear it may even be too much to say simply that this will go nowhere you ever expect. I attended with no knowledge of the play other than the title and setting. What I found was a refreshing take on an old genre.
It is a play about narrative and the stories people are expected to tell based on what they look like or what clique they belong to. Schulenburg uses those expectations to continually shift the ground underneath his characters. They’re in a state of constant change; one moment fighting their reductive nicknames the next reinforcing them.
The inventive but never showy direction by Kelly O’Donnell uses every theatrical trick out there to immerse the audience in the world of the play. The cast is universally excellent; a true ensemble that feels lived in.
Alisha Spielmann as the titular character is far from “plain” a fact that becomes more understandable as the play unfolds. Without saying too much, she has a difficult character arc to convey but her expressive face guides us truthfully through the journey.
I must also give a shout out to Becky Byers whose Betty the Pretty commands attention with her physicality and arch comedic timing. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a villainous character on stage, especially one played with this much relish.
The play is told like a YA novel, with direct narration from the characters peppered throughout to fill in the scenes. While the language occasionally strains for its poetry, it is a device that works nicely to add an extra layer of imagination to the events playing out on stage.
With his newest play August Schulenburg has taken what could have been a clichéd afterschool special and built a gripping tale about identity. How identity is so often about wanting to be loved and how hard that can be when you’ve never loved someone else before. It is reminder of what it was to be young, when everything was the end of the world and it feels like you have to be what everyone else says you are.
Flux Theatre Ensemble has been a company to watch for a while now and Jane the Plain rightly reinforces that reputation.