TheaterPeace, A Young People’s Theater Troupe in ‘Catch Her in the Lie’

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Ayumi Patterson (R), as the spirit of the poet Vergil, guides Monica Bell (L) as a questining student, to a storehouse unseen, where dwell the souls of those who wold lead youth but believe children incapable of judgment, who crush belief and foster cynics. Photo by Agate Elie.

In a world filled with adults preaching one thing, but often doing another, how can young people find the best way to lead their lives? Philip Suraci and his theater ensemble, TheaterPeace, display some of the answers in “Catch Her in the Lie,” a new work to be presented by New York’s Theater for the New City May 5 to 22, 2011. The play is an examination of hypocrisy from the perspective of our children. It’s a hilarious/perilous journey exploring truth, virtue, and madness that will look at the contradictory behavior of adults–politicians, business leaders, athletes, artists, parents, and teachers–as viewed by teen youth. Among the inspirations for the project are “The Catcher in the Rye” and Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.”

The mission of TheaterPeace (www.lysistrataschildren.com) is to create dialogue between youth and their elders, so “Catch Her in the Lie” will be performed for audiences of both students and adults. In the troupe’s creative process, young actors examine, write and perform their views on a social issue; then Suraci takes this as source material and writes an original piece on the theme. The play that results allows adults to listen as audience to the outcries of youth with a focus that only a dramatic context can provide.

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A drama club improvises on A Catcher in the Rye. LR: Josh Feiger, Brandon Smith, Antoine Saunders, Matthew Antezzo, Monica Bell, Malcom Zelaya, Delfin Meehan. Photo by Agate Elie.

“Catch Her in the Lie” takes place in a school, where a drama teacher is making a musical version of “Catcher in the Rye” to suit her teaching program. The drama club kids, however, take the challenge much more personally and seriously. They break off to investigate themes of the book from their own experience. The students create scenes and write poetry that they perform in their drama class. In one scene, they act out the hypocrisy of parental drug admonitions.

In another scene, the Mayor is made to stand trial for teacher lay-offs in the face of his own personal wealth. Oops!, the skit is witnessed by a representative of the Mayor’s Foundation during a school visit. The representative threatens retaliation against the school’s administration for what they have been teaching in regards to the Mayor (“I wouldn’t be planning any paid sabbaticals if I were you.”). The school’s Quaker principles are then applied hypocritically by the school principal to punish the most outspoken student, Holly, who is blamed for inciting the loss of the funding. Holly undergoes a trial of doubt and faith, but is rescued in a dream by a vision who represents the spirit of poetry and justice. She is transported to a storehouse unseen, where dwell the souls of those who would lead youth but believe children incapable of good judgment, who crush belief and foster cynics. It’s a zone of karmic retribution modeled on Dante’s Inferno; its inhabitants include an assortment of politicians, athletes and entertainers who have recently been pilloried for their hypocrisy (or should have been).

The play illustrates how society underestimates the effect of role models on kids: it’s part of the process of their maturation and needs to be regarded a lot more responsibly. It reveals that kids are more disappointed in people they believe in, like Al Gore and John Edwards, than those they had already been displeased with, like George Bush. This applies especially to pop culture figures they had formerly held as role models, like Miley Cyrus and Kate Moss, whose more recent public images seem to belie the idealism they had previously represented.

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When the kids play adults, it’s with halfmasks. Front row: Malcom Zelaya, Josh Feiger, Brandon Smith, Matthew Antezzo, Antoine Saunders, Delfin Meehan. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

The staging style of the play, like Suraci’s two previous “plays by-kids-for-adults” at TNC, offers a generous amount of mask work, giant puppets and song. When the young actors play adults, it’s in half-masks by Spica Wobbe (a prominent NY puppet maker and frequent collaborator with Jane Catherine Shaw and Theodora Skipitares). In a departure from its predecessors, this play has heightened poetic dialogue in its fantasy sequences.

The piece is written and directed by Philip Suraci and devised by Suraci with his cast of 17 actors, who range in age from 9 to 18. Music is by Joseph Albano Feiger, a 19 year old LaGuardia High School graduate. Set design is by Mark Marcante. Lighting design is by Alexander Bartenieff. Costume design is by Kat Martin. Choreography is by Steffanie White. Mask design is by Spica Wobbe. The performers are Josh Feiger, Jakob Sacksofsky-Berck, Brandon Smith, Malcom Zelaya, Antoine Saunders, Matthew Antezzo, Ty Cotton, Mercer Borris, Kimberly Coulter, Ayumi Patterson, Frances Raybaud, Delfin Meehan, Ava Kuslansky, Asha Simon, Brianna Bartenieff, Tiffany Otero and Monica Bell.

ABOUT PHILIP SURACI

Philip Suraci has written and directed two previous productions at Theater for the New City, “Lysistrata’s Children” (2007, 2008) and “Generation buY” (2010).

While pursuing a master’s degree in educational theater (NYU 2004), Suraci was deeply impressed by the depth and complexity of thought of relatively young people (ages 10-13). When these students and their words were placed in a dramatic context, Suraci found the result to be powerful, provocative and beautiful. His first production by-kids-for-adults was “Lysistrata’s Children” in 2007 and 2008. In Aristophanes’ original, Athenian wives denied their husbands sex in order to persuade them to make peace. In Suraci’s ingenious adaptation, children withheld love from their parents until they signed an oath of “Victory over violence” and join the children’s quest for peace. There was sly comedy in the children’s manipulation of their parents’ behavior and in the parents’ responses to their children’s demands. It was devised for and with its teenage cast in a collaborative process.

Last year Suraci, in collaboration with a troupe of 15 kids and three adults, created “Generation buY,” which used humor, song, shadow puppets and story telling to explore the unsavory side of advertising to youth. Part expose, part satire, “Generation buY” shared the real life techniques of marketers to kids: surreptitious video taping, packaged slumber parties for teenage girls, cause marketing and the co-opting of rock and roll, cartoons, and “cool.”

Suraci feels deeply fortunate to be working at Theater for the New City. He writes, “Crystal Field and TNC have had the courage, heart and vision to present both ‘Generation buY’ and ‘Lysistrata’s Children,” original works exploring a new application of theater. By championing the humanity of children through art, TNC exemplifies the daring and sincerity that is the true youthful spirit. They foster a vision of a more hopeful, joyful world through the transformative power of theater.”

There will be a gala fundraiser for “Catch Her in the Lie” and Theater Peace on April 8 at Gallery 151, 350 Bowery (at Great Jones) from 7:00 to 9:00. Tickets are $20. Performances will include live music and poetry. For information call 646-413-0975.

“Catch Her in the Lie” will be performed May 5 to 22, 2011 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (at East 10th Street). Shows are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $15, $5 seniors, students and teachers. The box office number is 212-254-1109; tickets can be purchased online at www.theaterforthenewcity.net. The show is recommended for audiences 11 and up.

Jonathan Slaff is a New York publicist in the specialty of international cultural events. Jonathan and his writers keep us ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.