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Group Project, a new original Fringe Festival performance by Temple University theater undergrads, vividly takes me back to the stress of the SAT: arriving early on a Saturday morning for detailed yet confusing instructions, plunging into session after session of questions, feeling anxious to do well and impress my teachers. This show begins with a similar scenario—but then the teacher doesn’t show, and things get stranger from there.
As indecipherable announcements over the intercom tell the students to stand by, and strange quests appear in the classroom, the students start to worry about more than the test. They start to question what they’ve been learning, the state of the world, and whether the mysterious people down in the office are telling the truth when they say “everything is fine.”
This new work, written and directed by Temple theater professor Lindsay Goss, was tailored to the student ensemble. Borrowing from popular representations of teenagers and a 15th-century play about a village uprising in feudal Spain, the show takes a strong stance against authority in favor of hope.
Its cultural references run the gamut from Mean Girls and Dead Poets Society to Depp v. Heard and Roe v. Wade. While many references garner laughs, some fall flat as attempts to ground the show in its more absurd moments. The plot meanders as the students try to decipher and undertake the trials of the test they have (or perhaps haven’t) been given, but the meaning of the play is focused. These students have been gaslit and abandoned by the grown-ups in charge in more ways than just the big test, and they have a few ideas of how to take charge.
While a tighter script and shorter runtime might finetune that plot, it would mean cutting down opportunities for the thriving ensemble cast to embody sheer frenzied anxiety of the big test day as well as the larger world they inhabit. Through sparse yet impressive scenic and prop design, the classroom transforms from ordinary learning environment to something beautiful.
The large cast means there is little time for individual character development, but there are some standouts. Grace Browning’s Laura takes on the stereotypical straight-A student stressed out about the test and her future; Alé La Paz’s JP is stellar even in the background; John Michael Fiorvanti’s Todd manages to capture our hearts in his anguish from sleepy student to the front of the class; the physical comedy of Devon Duffy in an extended lip-syncing sequence delighted the audience. And when the show seems to get a little monotonous, the late entrance of the debate team/girl group “The Fallacies” brings some well-deserved laughs, stunning voices, and fascinating storytelling to bring everything back on track.
By the end, the classroom blackboard is filled with slogans of rebellion. These phrases serve as inspiration for the audience. The students have stopped focusing on the test and started educating themselves on who gets the authority to make decisions for them—can we do the same?
“I try to feel this kind of hope, and sometimes making theater helps,” Goss writes in her director’s note. I am grateful for Group Project’s strange and funny contributions to this year’s Fringe Festival, and this production bodes well for more hope in the future from the Temple theater department.
What, When, Where
Group Project. Created and directed by Lindsay Goss. $25. Through September 18, 2022, at Randall Theater in Temple University’s Annenberg Hall, 2020 N 13th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.
No masks or proof of Covid-19 vaccination required.
Annenberg Hall at Temple University is ADA-compliant. The September 17 evening performance will include ASL interpretation.
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