“Facing the issue of community uprising, the directors choose the cast to fit the roles of third-graders, making them appear child-like while giving them abilities to think maturely. The cast is subtly designed to grip younger audiences’ attention to a politically conscious play, as intended by the original playwright. In addition to the conflict of the children’s possible decisions, the macro-level conflict of ideological divides also drives the metatheatrical performance.”
A Brief History of the Earth and Everything in it (ABHOTE) produced at Wheaton (April 2017) is metatheatrical comedy about a group of third-graders’ action of revolt through a play. Against the Fundamentalist religious agenda guarded by Principle Dr. Marsden, a third-grade drama group supported by Ms. LoPiccolo takes an alternative approach to educating the audience about history of the earth, which supports Evolution and Relativism. Acknowledging that it is a metatheatrical production, in the end performers jump out of their roles, address the audience with their names and send individual messages about social activism that acknowledges and upholds multiple identities.
The choice of the production as a musical comedy either can or cannot be an effective vehicle for encouraging social activism, depending on the demographic of the audience. In the Wheaton performance, since actors and actresses address the educated group of college students and the associated community in the neighborhood, the comical acting, carefree jokes, and underdeveloped singing and dancing techniques are carried out in a way that might distract from and undermine the final message. Although acknowledging that the cast are chosen to portray third-graders, the directors should not underestimate the quality of dance and music. The five third-graders wear 80s-style garments, but have adult thinking and action, with the choice of simple dialogues. The music numbers and dance may cause too much emotional investment to the performance comprised of a melodramatic plot and excessive acting to imitate children.
Principle Dr. Marsden wears Khaki suit and tie with a bible in his arms. His authoritarian power is exemplified by his reiteration of the “three levels of detention,” which impacts the children’s chances of success. This statement of rules develops into the arrest and entrapment of Ms. LoPiccolo and the children. In contrast, Ms. LoPiccolo shows genuine support for the idea of putting onstage a musical. Her bright orange swing sleeve top, feather-adorned baton, and final angelic look are closely connected to the drama group children’s flashy costumes. Dr. Marsden’s repeated interruptions of the performance show his unwavering support for Christian Fundamentalism, yet as the only conservative force in the show, he is far outnumbered by the liberals including Ms. LoPiccolo, the drama group, and even Jesus.
The drama group third-graders go through many internal struggles until they become determined to stage the play about ABHOTE under the threat of detention. Conversations between Derek, the protagonist and initiator of the musical, and ambitiously Harvard-bound Maya, can be best understood as the psychological conflict of choosing between rebellion and punishment. Facing the issue of community uprising, the directors choose the cast to fit the roles of third-graders, making them appear child-like, while giving them abilities to think maturely, as not to “jeopardize their future”. The cast is subtly designed to grip younger audiences’ attention to a politically conscious play, as intended by the original playwright. In addition to the conflict of the children’s possible decisions, the macro-level conflict of ideological divides also drives the metatheatrical performance.
Dr. Marsden is not happy during the rehearsal as his value system is constantly challenged by the reenacted 14 billion years of universe formation and evolution. Interrupting and later canceling the performance, He emphasizes that there is a danger to exclude Creation’s perspective. The Irony comes when he requires the drama group to engage the audience as much as possible, striking a resemblance to dictatorships known in history. As the drama group resumes their play, they resort to improv with changed lyrics.
Frequent jumps from the rehearsal to the children’s own independent conversations is also a metatheatrical aspect of the production. Scene changes are played out by characters spinning with hands waving up and down calling the keyword for the next scene. The piano plays descending notes and light flashes, when the third-graders regroup. Constantly breaking the fourth wall, they line up and speak to the audience, and suspend with poses to encourage applauses. As a play within a play, the drama group kids justify their choice of the musical because “no one can resist” this engaging form of entertainment and that is “the only art form that can change the world.” Seeking to combine science and religion, the drama group assure Dr. Marsden’s fear that their rehearsal will make the audience confused and frightened. However, when the drama group perform against the ideological authority, they fall into the “trap door” when two cops enter to arrest them with lightening effects and fast descending piano notes. This is “level-four detention”: when they act defiantly, the earth swallows them, so does Ms. LoPiccolo after challenging Dr. Marsden by saying that “the school is regimented in its philosophy.”
Given the sacrifice of their fellows, Derek faces the dilemma between giving up and pushing through. Determined to find the answer to the universe, for which there are multiple possibilities, Maya sets aside her intention to protect her college hope and dream and decides to fight back with Derek. When everyone falls into a coma. Jesus is shown above the lockers on the center stage. Wearing red and holding a toy lamb, he seems very jollified, and tells Derek he is just a vision. His divine power is juxtaposed with an approachable image, conveyed by speaking to everyone in coma and have them sleep-talk what is on their minds. Then he disrobes himself, left with a red T-shirt saying “King of Kings”, puts on a glittery red jacket and starts jazz dancing while singing “you can get the gods but only if you make them up first.”
The appearance of Jesus bridges the gap of communication among different belief systems and seemingly rigid construction of identities. With the help of Jesus, Dr. Marsden recollects a childhood moment of how his Fundamentalist mother influenced his resistance to music. After hatred and miscommunication among the characters get resolved, they join in a heavenly scene of peace and beauty. The whole cast break the fourth wall, reveal their real names and each send a message about social activism. Suddenly the childish metatheater ends abruptly and turns the audience’s attention to serious political issues. The screen shows slides of gods in different belief systems, from Allah to Confucian. The last slide turns out to be a picture of angry Trump, which is also the moment when the cast chastise acts of attacking human dignity. Then the slides switch to marches and protests around the world since the 2016 Presidential Campaign. Written by Wheaton alum Rabinow ’96 and produced at Wheaton this year, this play manifests itself as a work of community theater with a cathartic ending which invokes the passion and indignity of the audience.
The purpose of simplifying the plot, stereotyping the roles, and making everything obvious could be to create a third-grader mentality to encompass a younger audience. The disconnection between the final climax and the childish narrative may pose an obstacle to invoking an organic development of ideas. Character construction involves a lot of stereotyping, which applies oversimplified personalities by sacrificing multifaceted roles. The five children are assigned with vastly different interests and characteristics, which they explicitly inform the audience of in the form of dancing and singing at the beginning and through their costumes throughout the production. The deliberate child-like acting and costuming, especially that of Presley Turtledove, who has been homeschooled and is cloaked with accessories, may be too superficial and excessive to reflect liberal thinking. Undoubtedly, there is a valid reason to dramatize the distinction between Dr. Marsden and the third-grade drama group, but the cast, choreography, composition, and plot design choices may be less efficient in arousing the intellectual curiosity of a college community like Wheaton.
In line with the theory about Modernism that a play can be reduced to a single theme, this production is an exact fit. It stimulates a sheer emotional response from the audience, which manifests in the conflict between the Christian Fundamentalist authority and the liberal activist students, a binary conflict of the static versus the dynamic, and of the evil versus the good. Too many dramatic strategies as such have been used as an ideological tool to serve educational, commercial, and political purposes, as seen in many Disney productions. A brief look into the history of the play, which was written to be performed by third-graders makes it not hard to understand why the message is made so clear—educate the children. Maybe the playwright attempts at an “easy” way to cultivate critical thinking among elementary school kids, the target audience. Still, there is room for further deliberation.