Declan Greene's Moth, produced by Azuka Theatre, adds to the growing genre of post-Columbine teenage turmoil. Far from the formulaic stories of social misfits shedding their nerdy glasses and scoring prom dates, plays like Moth explore the darker side of teenage society, the bullying and isolation that can lead to violence.
Moth adds to Azuka's impressive record of plays exploring teenage life, from this year's premiere of Local Girls, to Speech and Debate (2015), Tigers Be Still (2014), Dutch Masters (2013), Pookie Goes Grenading (2012), and more over their 18 seasons.
Ostracized at school, alone at home
Nicholas Scheppard plays Sebastian, an outcast growing out of his threadbare clothes whose only friend is Claryssa (Hannah Parke), an "emo" girl who customizes her school uniform with punky accessories and whose frizzy hair is a color not found in nature. They hang by the trashcans at lunch, ostracized by all.
Sebastian and Claryssa's friendship is both galvanized and tested by bullying from ringleader Colin and his friends. Sebastian and Claryssa mimic these tormenters and all the other characters in the play as they rehash past events, often coaching each other’s portrayals: "She didn't sound like that," Sebastian says when Claryssa impersonates his ineffectual mother. The two friends move seamlessly from present to past, finding solace in replaying — and sometimes revising — each day's indignities.
Beyond school drama
Moth doesn't just catalogue high school horrors, however. When Sebastian finds a moth in a jar by his bed after a particularly brutal encounter with bullies, it leads to dreams and visions of Saint Sebastian, martyr and gay icon.
Director Michael Osinski's dark, dreamy, stylish production outperforms the story's predictable arc. Apollo Mark Weaver's set is a dreamscape defined by a huge moth tapestry that appears to be drawn on crumpled paper, and several platforms at discomforting angles, including a dresser that looks half-submerged in the floor. Above the action, pieces of wood and paper hang like a perverse baby's mobile — but actually look like debris frozen in mid-explosion. The 70-seat audience sits on two sides, a popular configuration lately (EgoPo's Machinal and 11th Hour's See What I Wanna See are equally effective uses of it).
The production skillfully builds toward a tragic finale, even if we see it coming. Parke and Scheppard, both recent University of the Arts graduates, give deeply committed, frighteningly genuine performances. Those who recall high school with bitterness — I'm one, I confess, even after almost 40 years — cannot be unmoved; hopefully, Moth also touches the people who bullied others or, perhaps even worse, those who laughed along with or ignored the torture.
Extra credit for Azuka
Having heard thousands of dull curtain speeches over my years of theatergoing, I'm always tickled when someone has fun with those requisite remarks. Moth's recorded voiceover is the morning announcements by Sebastian and Claryssa's otherwise nonexistent principal, a cleverly written piece that not only asks us to turn off our cell phones (curses to the woman in front of me, whose phone flashed several times before she finally covered it, but who still didn't turn the damn thing off), but announced Azuka's 2016-17 season.
Ever innovative and willing to take risks, Azuka's production of Moth is their annual New Professionals Production, for which Azuka hires local students and recent graduates not only to act, but for all design and staff positions, providing career boosts and encouraging young artists to stay in the area.
Moth also launched Azuka's first "Pay What You Decide" option for the show's first week of performances, a twist on the popular "Pay What You Will" in that audiences pay what they think the show was worth afterward, instead of beforehand. Could this be a new trend?
What, When, Where
Moth. By Declan Greene; Michael Osinski directed. Through May 22, 2016 at Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (215) 563-1100 or AzukaTheatre.org.