How times have changed for gay American teens over the past two decades. Kenny Tolentino could scarcely have conceived of Gay Straight Alliances or “It Gets Better” videos or out celebrities like Ricky Martin and Zachary Quinto (Mr. Spock, no less!) when he was sixteen just twenty years ago, a coming of age now chronicled by A. Rey Pamatmat in his absolutely wonderful Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them.

 Following a string of “rolling” World Premiere productions in Louisville, Coral Gables, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Sacramento, and Durham, NC, Pamatmat’s powerful dramedy now makes its L.A.-area debut in an exquisitely acted and directed production by Artists At Play.

Rodney To is Kenny, forced to care for his twelve-year-old sister Edith (Amielynn Abellera) by a widowed physician father who’s moved in with his girlfriend and left his two kids to fend for themselves. Still, don’t throw any pity parties for Kenny and Ed, who are doing quite nicely for themselves they will tell you, thank you very much.

Holed up in the family farm “outside of a remote town in the remotest Middle America,” Kenny takes it on himself to do the shopping and cooking and getting Ed ready for school, that is when he’s not on the phone reminding his deadbeat dad in no uncertain terms that money needs to be deposited or his kids are going to go hungry.

 Meanwhile, feisty young Edith arms herself with bow and arrow and BB gun in case anyone should attempt to penetrate the fortress Kenny and she have made for themselves, her only companion a big green stuffed frog, with whom she holds long conversations high up in the barn loft, her eyes peeled for enemy attack.

If Ed’s solace is of the plush toy variety, Kenny’s is considerably more human, i.e. Math classmate Benji (Brian Hostenske), whom we soon realize is Kenny’s Prince Charming, and vice versa.

Without the YouTube videos and LGBT-supportive websites available for today’s teens, Kenny and Benji are forced to find validation in comic books that feature girl-on-girl kissing (who knew?) and the dictionary that Benji brings along, with its non-judgmental definitions of “fellatio,” which the eagerly experimental teens have already tried out, and “homosexual,” which the two boys have come to realize they are.

If Kenny and Ed feel abandoned by their sole remaining parent, Benji has quite the opposite problem, an overprotective mother who will surely not take it lightlly should she ever find out that her younger son takes it “up the butt.” (Kenny’s and Benji’s words, not mine.)

With its title suggesting that either arrow or BB might strike a human target and the very real threat of child services finding out about Kenny’s and Ed’s home situation or the equally real possibility that Benji might get thrown out of his own home, Edith Can Shoot Things And Hit Them keeps its audience on the edge of their seats, even as its three onstage characters provide plenty of laughs to ease the tension.

 Still, one of Pamatmat’s greatest skills as a writer is in the unpredictability of his script, which on several occasions upends audience expectations in the freshest and most exhilarating of ways.

It is also a mark of Pamatmat’s talents that he has managed to confection a two-act play in which a number of the central characters (Kenny’s father and Chloe, Benji’s parents and older brother) remain unseen yet ever present in our minds.

Director Jennifer Chang has cast adult actors in adolescent roles per the playwright’s intentions, and since by its very nature a play requires at least some suspension of disbelief, we buy To and Hostenske as sweet sixteen and USC MFA grad Abellera as a mere twelve. Also, while a pair of sixteen-year-old actors might in their real lives be every bit as sexually active as the frisky Kenny and Benji, casting actual teens might prove problematic. Add to that the added depth and dimensions that older actors can bring to school-age characters and a cast of “mature” performers makes perfect sense.

And what memorable performances these three oh-so talented actors bring to their roles under Chang’s sensitive, assured directorial hand.

To is heartbreakingly real as a young kid burdened with adult responsibilities no sixteen-year-old should have to face and whose armor only Benji can pierce (no pun intended). Hostenske matches him every step of the way, adorable in Benji’s awkwardness and utterly charming as he writes a love note to Kenny while singing along to George Michael’s “Faith” that only he can hear through his ear buds. Both actors dig deep indeed, and though there is considerable laughter and joy in their performances (and in the audience’s reactions), when the tears come, they are as real as it gets. Finally, with possibly the toughest assignment of all, Abellera proves unforgettable as a child not yet thirteen who masks her fears with bravado, stubbornness, and the ferocity of a tigress when the safety of her family is at stake.

A design team whose work is mostly new to this reviewer give Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them a thoroughly professional look and sound, beginning with set designer Arturo Betanzos’s and property master Naomi Kasahara’s effectively rendered farmhouse, expertly lit by Jennifer Hill, a collaborative design which includes an era-appropriate phone, a just-right George Michael poster, and a sofa-turned-car (steering wheel, headlights, and all) confectioned in the most ingenious of ways.  (The algorithms scribbled across floor and walls are a nice touch too.) Dennis Yen scores high marks too for his sound design, one which fills in the gaps between a whole lot of scene changes (which a larger stage and higher budget would probably cut down on timewise). Amelia Worfolk is stage manager.

 When Lodestone Theatre Company ended its ten-year run in 2009 at the very same theater where Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them is now playing, it seemed for a while that East West Players would be Los Angeles’s sole Asian-American theater. Such has fortunately not proven to be the case, with several new companies including Artists At Play joining the L.A. theater scene to fill that gap. (Take that, La Jolla Playhouse!)

Filipino-American playwright Pamatmat may have written Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them specifically about a Filipino brother and sister, but its message is about as universal as it gets, and though America may have changed in the past twenty years, this time capsule of a play remains as relevant as ever. Despite today’s Gay Straight Alliances and “It Gets Better” videos and out celebrities, there are still countless Kennys and Benjis in the American heartland, and maybe even as near as the house next door to yours. Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them tells their story with humor, wit, and power, making for about as rewarding a theatrical experience as any audience could wish for.

Click here to read about November 4th’s Understudy performance.

GTC Burbank, 1111-b West Olive Avenue, in the George Izay Park, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
October 28, 2012

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