Teenage Angst 

Two local theater groups team up to present Laurie Brooks' inventive exploration of adolescent challenges

Two local theater groups team up to present Laurie Brooks' inventive exploration of adolescent challenges

The Wrestling Season

Presented by Mockingbird Theatre in collaboration with Nashville Children's Theatre Through May 1 at NCT's Cooney Theatre

Good theater ought to entertain, but sometimes it can teach a lesson or two at the same time. With The Wrestling Season, Mockingbird Theatre provides us an opportunity to get the best of both worlds.

To be sure, Laurie Brooks' play about high school wrestlers strives not to be a preachy vehicle—not on the surface anyway. Essentially, we get slices of the emotional and social lives of eight teens. Their wrestling togs and the wrestling mat on which they make their interpersonal encounters serve to offer them a metaphorical podium from which they express their feelings, their raw sensitivities and also the darker sides of their youthful natures. The messages are clear: Words can hurt; gossip can be devastating; sex is not a trifling part of life; bravado masks insecurities; using people is wrong; deliberate manipulation is even worse; and it's not necessarily cool to conduct oneself in a manner that is considered "cool."

Director René Copeland has hired a cast that successfully conveys the group teen spirit. This is truly an ensemble effort, and she's got experienced actors on her team, though most of them are making debut performances with either Mockingbird or the co-producing Nashville Children's Theatre. The company includes David Berry, Brandon Boyd, Anitra Brumagen, R. Davis Brunson, Misty Lewis, Robert Marigza, Keiana Richard and Jessica Whitney. The impact of the young players' work varies, but the beauty of this play is that one can envision any number of different types, sizes, shapes and colors in these roles—and these actors generally wear their archetypal mantles well and play off each other with believable commitment. (Only Marigza reads a little out of place physically as one of the production's bully-boys.) Veteran thespian jeff obafemi carr takes on the play's only adult role, as the referee who blows the whistle to signal the kids' questionable or laudable deportment.

Without question, the most energized stage moments here come when the teens actually do some wrestling—the combatants thrown into the spotlight while contemporary pop and rock music fills the air with eerie anticipation. These purely physical interludes help to relieve the earnest dialogue, which is generally very effective but is not without its slightly precious aspects (though it thankfully avoids piety).

The very theatricality of The Wrestling Season is what compels us through its adolescent angst, and it's definitely entertaining to watch the dramatic scenarios develop and the key players work their motivations. But even more than the intensity of the stage work, it's the involvement of the audience (both indirect and direct) that helps the play achieve its raison d'être. The gallery sits in bleachers watching all the "sport" unfold, and the effect of intimacy is palpable. Even better, though, is the post-show open forum, in which the actors return, in character, and the referee conducts the audience through a series of open-ended analyses of the cast members' attitudes and actions. Observers are encouraged to pitch in with their opinions about what is "good" and "bad" behavior, and this exercise proves to be possibly more entertaining than the show itself. Here we learn maybe the play's biggest lesson: that we all bring different perceptions to bear on any situation and it's always wiser to reserve fatal judgments on our fellow human beings.

Given its ambitious scope, it would be a shame if The Wrestling Season didn't achieve its most desired goal: to play before—and to affect deeply—the largest possible crowds of Nashville teens and their parents. Yet purely as theater, it's pretty engrossing fare for persons of any maturity or inclination.

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