Puberty is a hard thing to make tolerable. Certainly not while you're experiencing it, nor when you're remembering it. Nonetheless, it's an easy thing to make fun of. Most everyone has experienced or heard of a horrible deflowering story, or some bad-diary memory of a nocturnal emission, or an actual bad diary full of self-immolating blank verse. Such things are the stuff of Impact Theatre's ninth collection of original ten-minute plays. Called Impact Briefs: Puberty, it oscillates from the banal things that everyone remembers ("the talk," slutty dancing, chest hair) to bizarre amplifications of teenage fantasies (vampires, puberty support groups, chat rooms that invade the human psyche). It's not a very good first-date play unless you're planning to go out for pizza afterward and talk about menstruation. Then again, that seems to be the point.
This year's Briefs comprises seven plays — culled from four hundred total submissions — that vary in quality, although they're all pretty imaginative. In between sketches the actors pick sex questions out of a hat, supposedly contributed by students at local middle and high schools. Some of them are mildly humorous (e.g., "Why is my cock so huge?" and "What if I accidentally pee when I'm inside a girl?"). Some are thought-provoking (e.g., "Is it possible to get pregnant if you are sitting on a guy's lap?" "Why do girls like anal sex?"). Some are educational (e.g., "What is a hermaphrodite?"). Some are obligatory "hairy penis" drawings wadded up to look like questions.
Most of the plays are equally entertaining. Take Andrew Shemin's "The Cat Lee Show," a humorous representation of what a snarly thirteen-year-old girl would do if she got her own show. In fact, it's not so different from what any daytime talk-show host would do: She'd interview an admiring friend, dance around, let slip some small but incredibly lurid detail about her personal life, dance around, interview the sensitive guy that we all see at recess, dance around. This sketch introduces us to the show's three most memorable actors: Cindy Im (Cat's friend), who seems to have the most range of anyone in the production; Seth Thygesen, who makes a convincing teenage poet; and Luisa Frasconi, who is wonderful as the peppy, hysterical Cat Lee — until you realize she's actually playing herself.
Shemin actually has two plays in Briefs, the second of which is supposed to be a compendium of short "dialogues" written by students at Willard Middle School. The Impact actors step forward, two-by-two, and read their scripts from lined paper. Outside characters are implied — for instance, Jarrett's mom, who enters, "and lets out a loud 'kweef.'" Shemin succeeds not by virtue of creativity, but because he's able to capture the eighth-grade vernacular well enough that an actual eighth grader might approve. Story-wise, he's eclipsed by other more imaginative playwrights in this production. Diana Bertinelli's "Binkie My Binkie" is perhaps the most cutting-edge, since it shows how teenagers lose their virginity in the digital age — using chat rooms and computer avatars. Pete Caslavka's "Puberty Support Group" might be the most outlandish, but it doesn't quite cohere as a story.
The best plays in this year's Briefs are "Suede" by Cheshire Isaacs, and "The Talk" by David Kongstvedt, both of which offer original takes on classic puberty stories (the wet dream one and the birds-and-bees one, respectively).
"Suede" has a foolproof formula. A recently bar-mitzvahed teen (Thygesen) is given his second test of manhood: He's expected to spend a night home alone and not mess up the suede couch. You can fill in the other details. What makes the play great is Thygesen's comic timing. He goes to every length to stanch out the wet spot on the couch, ultimately enlisting the help of a dry cleaner, a homeless window washer, and at least six different bottles of noxious cleaning solution.
Kongstvedt's "The Talk," meanwhile, is the slickest play in Briefs, and the only one with a complete narrative arc: There's a problem at the outset, it gets complicated, and, after ten minutes, it's more or less resolved. "The Talk" begins with a bumbling, officious father sitting his son down on the suede couch and making us all brace for what's coming. Then dad throws a curveball.
Impact Theatre directors Cheshire Isaacs and Melissa Hillman chose the puberty theme to commemorate their thirteenth year as a company. (They're marketing 2008-'09 as Impact's "Bar Mitzvah season.") They adorned the stage walls at LaVal's Subterranean with pictures of daisies: One has boobs, another has muttonchops, the one in the center has a single chest hair and appears to be ejaculating (or sweating?). So far, "puberty" has been a pretty hard sell. There were roughly a dozen people in the audience on a recent Thursday, mostly middle-school teachers. Not surprising, since few people want to relive the worst parts of adolescence. But a shame nonetheless. Uncomfortable moments make for terrific comedy, after all, and they're often worth revisiting — albeit briefly.
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