IOWA CITY - Whenever I go to Riverside Theatre, I know I'm going to think. Whenever I go to a Working Group Theatre show, I know I'm going to be challenged. Whenever I go to a Hancher event, I know I'm going to be entertained to the highest degree.
Put them all together, and the results will know no bounds.
Riverside Theatre is the venue for the most recent collaboration between Working Group Theatre, Hancher and partner departments from the University of Iowa. A yearlong study of cyberbullying in schools and its effects on students, their families and environments has yielded a touring play for student audiences and "Out of Bounds," a searing look inside the life of a victim and the adults who try to help, are desperate to help or choose to brush it off as teen-girl "drama."
Occasional gasps from the audience punctuated Thursday's opening night performance. Many viewers stayed for a talk-back with playwright Jennifer Fawcett and the parents of a girl who was bullied to the point of needing to change schools, right here in the Corridor. The dialogue following the play was as gripping as the situation unfolding onstage. Talk-backs will be offered after every performance, tonight through Sunday afternoon. (5/4/14)
Working Group's hallmark is getting out into the community, talking to people who have walked whatever theme is being explored - from the collapse of Michigan's auto manufacturing economy in "Rust" to the ripple effects of Alzheimer's disease in last year's Hancher commission, "The Broken Chord."
"Out of Bounds" follows the story of 14-year-old Amy (UI senior theater major Emily Hinkler), so desperate to make friends in her new school, that she follows a dare from her two new besties to take an underwear selfie using a social media site that deletes images after 10 seconds. That's just long enough for the mean girls to spread the photo among their friends, and soon Amy is being bullied online, in texts and in the school building.
She no longer feels safe there. Her mother (Kristy Hartsgrove-Mooers) reacts with shock and horror, seeking any way to stop the escalating threats against her daughter. The teacher who offers Amy a place to spend her lunch hour brushes it off as "drama," while the principal, who is trying to crack down on bullying through drafting new school policies, means well but is fairly ineffective.
The petite and perky Hinkler is all wide-eyed innocence, equal parts embarrassed and afraid. Her character finds an inner strength that allows her to handle her ordeal with a grace beyond her years.
Hartsgrove-Mooers, a regular in Working Group shows, portrays a pain and frustration so palpable we can hear her heart breaking as she learns just how far-reaching her daughter's bullying stretches. She struggles mightily to make her voice heard and protect her daughter, drudging up painful memories of her own adolescent trials buried not very far from her adult consciousness.
Tim Budd (teacher) and Matthew James (principal) also are familiar faces on local stages and find just the right tempo and balance between caring and stifling ineffectiveness.
Barrington Vaxter, making his third Working Group appearance, has the welcome role of TJ, facilitator at a local youth recreation center that helps keep kids off the streets. TJ offers just enough humor for audiences to relax a little. Vaxter injects the body language and sidelong glances that let viewers laugh.
Director Sean Christopher Lewis is a master at weaving mixed media into stage productions, from his expert sound design and original music by Katie Roche to inventive images displayed on an old-school video projector and shattering shadow puppetry designed by Jen Shook. Lewis' spare set design allows the actors to create new environments with the swivel of a desk and two chairs.
Fawcett's script is crisp, powerful and crushingly real.
This stunning play, crafted from real-life stories, is designed to not only bring this burgeoning problem out of the shadows but to spur a community dialogue seeking solutions to a very real problem that can haunt victims all their lives.
Bravo to all involved.
IF YOU GO
What: Hancher: "Out of Bounds," by Working Group Theatre
Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (5/2) and Saturday (5/3); 2 p.m. Sunday (5/4)
Tickets: $10 to $25, Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160 or Hancher.uiowa.edu