The attempt by a group of high-school students to cover up the not-quite-accidental death of a bullied classmate makes for dramatic fireworks and multiple unexpected turns in Dennis Kelly’s twisted black comedy DNA, a largely impressive first production from Red Cup Theatre Company.
Kelly does beat around the bush for a while before getting to the circumstances surrounding the unfortunate student’s death, during which time we get to know the deceased Adam’s classmates.
Inseparable besties Jan (Nora King) and Mary (Grace Yoo) do their best to get it through their easily excited heads that Adam is really dead. (“It’s not funny because it’s not a joke, if it was a joke it would be funny.”)
Leah (Katie Kerr) carries on stream-of-consciousness prattle (“I’ve got, I’ve got friends. I mean alright, I haven’t got friends, not exactly, I haven’t, but I could, if I wanted, if I wanted, given the right, given the perfect, you know, circumstances.”) that Phil (Donathan Walters) greets with complete silence.
John (Rod Hernandez-Farella) informs Dani (Pam Covington) that she is “banned” from using the word “dead” to describe the current “tricky” situation, upsetting poor Dani because “This is not part of the plan. Dental college is part of the plan. Dead people are not part of the plan, this is not dental college.”
Lou (Sadeeq Ali) is too scared to offer a solution, Richard (Lucas Gust) hides his own fears behind a mask of bravado, Cathy (Allison Henry) reacts precisely as we’d expect the class mean girl to, and Brian (Parker Shook) hears John describe him through his sobs as a “crying little piece of filth.”
And then at last, the truth comes out in the alternating voices of Jan and Mary …
It’s impossible to discuss DNA any further without spoilers, so those who’d prefer to remain in the dark can skip ahead two paragraphs.
What started out as a joke (“We’re having a laugh with him, I mean he’s laughing as well, see how far he’ll go”) apparently soon escalated from the two Vodka-fueled girls getting Adam to eat some fallen leaves (“dirty leaves off the floor, he ate them, just like that”) to the two of them punching him (“He was laughing, at first. I mean we took it a bit far alright, forty minutes”) to their stubbing cigarettes out on him (“Joking, we were, arms, hands, face, having a laugh, really, he was laughing, and crying, soles of his feet, or crying sort of, a bit of both.)—all of this leading to the girls’ throwing rocks at Adam’s head as he stood poised above an unused shaft about to plummet to his “accidental” death.
Help, in the way of a fiendishly clever plan involving the invention of a fictitious assailant—an overweight, balding postman with bad teeth—and a discarded sweater containing the DNA of an unsuspecting passer-by, comes from the most unlikely of sources in a step-by-step plan whose outcome none of the teens could possibly have predicted, and the same goes for the audience.
As current as the latest news report on middle and high school bullying, DNA reveals the insidious ways that peer pressure can rob otherwise “good kids” of their moral compass while demonstrating how one decisive moment in time can forever alter tenuous human relationships.
Whether it’s a leader unable to cope with seeing his/her authority usurped, or best friends torn apart, or someone robbed of his/her clearly mapped-out future, or a co-dependent relationship destroyed by one member’s newly found independence, DNA provides plenty to talk about for teenagers and older, and has in fact become a theatrical staple in the U.K. since its 2007 debut.
Incidentally, the use of his/her in the above paragraph is not just to mask the identity of the characters concerned, but because playwright Kelly himself has indicated that “‘names and genders are suggestions only, and can be changed to suit performers.”
Red Cup opts to for a male Phil and a female Leah, but an all-girls school in England had them both played as girls and, perhaps even more fascinating, an Australian production flip-flopped the genders to have a chatty “Kate” and still-waters-run-deep “Lee.” (It would have been an exciting, albeit daunting, challenge had director Laura Steinroeder had Kerr and Walters switch roles on alternate nights, and other pairs of actors do the same.)
A bit of decision-making any American production must make is whether to keep DNA’s original English setting or transpose it to the U.S.
Red Cup has opted for the latter, and revised the script accordingly, though not enough. Expressions like “having a laugh” and “off his head” and “first year student” instead of “joking” or “out of his mind” or “freshman” sound strange coming from American teens’ lips, and indeed, Kelly’s script cries out in subtle ways for English accents. (In Red Cup’s defense, it might have been too much to ask of a cast of young American actors to do pitch-perfect colloquial British, though U.K. native Ali does spot-on American, so who’s to say?)
In any case, under Steinroeder’s assured direction, DNA’s cast of eleven do all-around first-rate work, with special snaps for Kerr’s loquacious but vulnerable Leah, Shook’s tormented Brian, and Jeremy Ferdman’s emotional wreck of a “Boy,” though ultimately top honors go to Walters, who reveals the complexities behind Phil’s deceptively, perhaps deliberately innocuous surface, and never more so than in a devastating final scene told entirely though Walters’ deeply expressive eyes.
Scenic designer Nicholas Acciani has given DNA an abstract woodsy setting that not only looks great, it takes stands in for Kelly’s three distinct locations (street, field, and woods) with no harm done for lack of specificity. Costume designer Jamie Brown’s private school uniforms feature some neat defining touches. (I love the molar brooch pinned to the future dentist’s.) Matthew Gorka’s striking lighting design and the production’s unbilled soundtrack both add to DNA’s impact.
Letitia Chang is stage manager. Jean-Paul Rosenveldt is technical director.
In their Artistic Directors’ note, Steinroeder and Kerr state as follows: “We believe that even the smallest of productions can come alive with theatricality when production quality is placed in line with artistic quality,” and their maiden production reveals both qualities in equal measure.
With DNA, Red Cup Theatre Co. reveals itself to be an L.A. theater company to watch.
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Atwater Village.
December 10, 2015
Photos: Gary Gangi