In his acting debut, freshman Adam Ritz plays a low-level comedian contemplating a job change.

In five one-acts, Drama program explores teen identity as it affirms its own

January 24, 2016

An 18-year-old stares intently at a letter from his parent’s dream college, UC Berkeley.  An ultra-orthodox mother tells her ambitious daughter she cannot go to college at all.

A 43-year-old comic bombs on stage with cheesy jokes. A 14-year-old girl throws off a translucent mask that symbolizes her toxic inner voice. 

And Amelia Earhart bursts through a time transportation portal to be with a man born 400 years after her infamous death.

These are just a few of the student-written scenes from last month’s fall theater production, You Do You, held Dec. 17, 20 and 21 in the new Wildfire Theater, located behind the auditorium and sharing its reversible stage.

The unifying theme this year was “forging identity,” but it could also have been “identity struggle” — fitting considering Shalhevet’s drama program last year had to struggle with no stage — renting one in the fall and using a home as a stage in the spring. Also, the annual festival of one-acts is usually produced in the spring, but this year it was moved to fall semester.

So You Do You was thus a defining moment for both Shalhevet and its drama program — and in the end didn’t struggle at all. Arriving in its new permanent home, this year’s fall mainstage continued the line of great plays that came before it and set a worthy standard for what will likely be performed on the new stage.

Institutional implications aside, forging identity is both a universal struggle and one that is most pertinent to teenagers. That made it a natural choice for this year’s student writers.

The first act, Art For Art’s Sake, written by junior Tania Bohbot, introduced two 18-year-old aspiring artists, Wyatt and Hermes, played by senior Eitan Schramm and junior Ezra Fax, respectively. Hermes must fulfill his family’s dreadful legacy of studying law at UC Berkeley, but he and Wyatt have dreams of painting the walls of Europe after high school. . Wyatt tries to convince Hermes to defer his acceptance to Berkeley, while Hermes explains the predicament of telling his parents he is an artist, not a lawyer.

Acting in their first roles, Eitan and Ezra depicted two polarized best friends whose argument presented both sides of a common dilemma: passion vs. practicality.  Ezra perfectly embodied the over-pressured high school student, with constant arm-crosses and agitated tugging at his burgundy beanie. Eitan acted believably as the laid-back artist, stuttering casual yet defensive sentences about his lack of a plan for after high school, alternative friend groups, and rumored drug use.

In the next play, the character of Esther had the opposite ambition in sophomore Aviva Katz’s Going Out The Door.  When the Haredi but academically ambitious Esther, played by Hannah Merritt, tries to trick her mother in to signing a parental agreement form for the PSAT, the pair begins an argument as together they set the table for Shabbat. Comments from the mother, played by freshman Donna Grunfeld, such as “It’s a woman’s role to raise the family and cook the food,” and “After seminary, you’ll be shidduched [matched] with a nice Jewish man with a good job,” provoked laughter from the audience.

Although it seemed like a distant dilemma for Modern Orthodox girls at Shalhevet, it’s apparently not so far-fetched other communities. Aviva said she’d been inspired by a situation with a friend of hers in Sherman Oaks.

“Her parents were frum and wanted her to go to seminary and get married,” Aviva said in an interview. “Now they’re open to the idea of her going to college, but I remember when we were younger that was more of a struggle for her.”

Aviva said she likes to write about people she knows. Perhaps that’s why the Hebrew and Yiddish dialect brought the play’s characters to life without creating caricatures or vapid stereotypes. Debra does not want Esther to attend college because of immorality and “sin” she participated in when she went to university herself. The one-act tackled an ongoing issue in nearby communities, while still maintaining warmth and even some comedy. When Debra hints to her daughter about depravity she was involved in in college, Esther garnered laughter from the audience after quipping, “What, you wore pants?”

Perhaps the most intense and serious one-act was a sketch tackling anorexia and body image with an artistic edge.  Written by freshman Donna Grunfeld, Behind Her Mask featured sophomore Shana Lunzer as the malicious inner voice of a struggling freshman girl, Jade, played by freshman Gabriela (Gaby) Grunfeld.

Wearing a crisp ensemble of beige pleated skirt, brown leather jacket and fashionable knee-high boots, the voice mocks Jade’s outfit choices, weight, height and hair. Shana perfectly personified a destructive self-image, complete with sharp invective, angry hand gestures and vicious condescension. Gaby used fake crying, hurt looks and anxious facial expressions when her balancing bitter inner thoughts and a conversation with her frenemy Stephanie, played by Aviva Katz.

For most of the performance, Gaby wore a hard, clear mask, symbolizing her character’s confident but false exterior covering up an insecure emotional interior. The most chilling moment of the performance was when she attempted to stand up to her inner voice. Jade throws off her mask, and the inner voice responds, “This isn’t about your happiness anymore,” and tells her to put it back on. The struggle continues until the lights go out dramatically, leaving the audience to ponder the back-and-forth and wonder who will win.

In addition to the new theater, the drama program added new technology to its performances with a large projector screen. Videos and graphic designs — shown between plays while actors set up for the next sketch — usually anticipated the upcoming one-act while entertaining the audience during 60-second transitions. Preceding Too Little Too Late, a quick clip of a comedy routine about bees by Louis C.K amused the audience while actors created the set for the back room of a bar.

In this bar, aspiring middle-aged comedian Isaac, portrayed by freshman Adam Ritz, looks in a mirror to check his appearance before performing for free at a bar where he usually waits tables. His agent, Cole, played by Ezra Fax, quickly motivates Isaac to do his best during his performance. Isaac is booed off stage after telling multiple cheesy puns.

Isaac then receives a job offer from his mom to work for his uncle’s real estate firm, but rejects it. After his failed performance, he calls his mother back to accept the offer, but in a comical twist of fate, his cousin has already taken the job. This calamity becomes the inspiration for a genuine and funny comedy routine in which Isaac makes fun of his situation, and the plot unwinds from there along with Isaac’s hopes.

Although some of the self-deprecating quips were a bit cliche, their delivery by freshman Adam Ritz made them authentic, and the play movingly portrayed the struggle of aspiring artists and performers of all kinds. Moreover, Isaac’s need to choose between a good income from a job he hated and a minimum-wage job that let him to do his passion was a great depiction of the struggle that is “forging identity.”

The set’s last one-act, The Anomaly, was in fact the anomaly of the entire production. For one, the “forging identity” theme was not extremely overt, and secondly, the one-act was a sci-fi thriller romance. Inspired by Doctor Who and Star Trek, playwright Eitan Schramm retrieves the real-life 1930s aviator Amelia Earhart, whose disappearance while on a worldwide flight has never been solved.

In the play, Earhart is brought to the future – the year 2338 — because her death is found to be “an anomaly” in the space-time continuum. When she is in the future with Dimus, portrayed by senior Mati Davis (and on some nights, alumnus David Lorell ’15), the anomaly disappears.

Not surprisingly considering the circumstances of her disappearance, the character of Amelia, played by freshman Hannah Merritt, is not just your usual love interest. When thrown through a time portal with no warning, she demands with audacity to be told what is going on. The scene turns from exciting to grim when Dimus and his work partner Kell, played by sophomore Amin Lari, inform her that back in the 20thcentury, she died a mysterious death.

Following directions from the mocking Kell, Earhart is put back into the 1930s. But once she is, an oddity suddenly appears again on a projector screen behind the actors. Through a second time travel, the characters discover Amelia is meant to be with Dimus, and the one-act ends with the two mysteries solved at once as the pair smiles at one another.

Any romantic sappiness in the play was perfectly offset by the cynicism and sarcasm of Kell as portrayed by Amin Lari.  Initially cast as Dimus, Amin said he himself realized he was better fit for a more sarcastic role and the switch was made. This decision created the perfect balance between a romantic and optimistic Dimus, and a mocking Kell.

Dimus was played by senior Mati Davis and sometimes by David Lorell ‘15, who understudied the role due to an emergency in the Davis family. Despite the short notice he was given, David proved a great replacement, having starred in drama productions through out high school and acting locally since graduating. Freshman Hannah Merritt was an excellent and talented match to a seasoned thespian such as David Lorell on the night The Boiling Point was there.

The stage has a dedicated and significant space in the Wildfire Theater, which is painted black, given a sign on the door, a catwalk, and a new ceiling light system. Although the theater has its limitations — such as a shared metal wall with the basketball court that makes afterschool practice noisy — it worked as an intimate and practical place for the fall performance.

It’s also a contemporary room, which is now united with the rest of the campus.

Debut For New Wildfire Theatre

By Hannah Janol, Staff Writer

Three p.m., Dec. 20: Shalhevet’s new Wildfire Theater is packed with students, parents, siblings and teachers. Drama Director Ms. Emily Chase stands on the new stage under bright ceiling lights in a space with black-painted walls, ceiling and floor. Seventy-five minutes of student-written one-acts follow, surrounded by great sets and backed by a giant projector screen.

It is hard to imagine that just a few days before, that same space was being banged at irregular intervals by basketballs hitting the other side of its conjoining wall. This is one of a few challenges facing student actors in the new building – though the product they produced didn’t’ seem to show the effects (see related story, this page).

Alumnus David Lorell ‘15, who filled in for senior Mati Davis at some performances in this year’s fall production, called the new theater “garage-like.” He said the roll-up metal wall between the stage and the gym provides almost no soundproofing.

“The old one was its own tiny little cozy universe of a theater,” said David.

The new theater, however, has eight more seats.  Though they were rented and installed just for the run of the play, they were tiered, comfortable and allowed for great sight lines.  The acoustics in the room were also good. The metal wall at the back of the stage, although a shortcoming during rehearsal, worked as a makeshift acoustic shell which reflected sound to the audience. The wall was hidden with black drapes, which alongside the theater’s black walls, created a centralizing visual effect while also preventing echo.

The multi-purpose positioning of the stage, which is reversible so the gym can also be used as an assembly space, affects Firehawk athletics as well. Athletic Director Eli Schiff said he had to reschedule basketball games when he found out the performance dates. A few practices were cancelled, and others were moved to a different time or location.

“However, I’ve also had to cancel practices and games for various other events  — SATs, Open House, Back To School Night, Shalhevet Institute, rentals,” Mr. Schiff said, adding that Facilities Director Lili Einalhori was helping with the problem. “Lili and I have created a calendar to avoid double-booking the gym.”

This year’s actors had other complaints as well. Senior Eitan Schramm said the off-stage area is too small for all the actors to fit in at once, and David Lorell said the ceiling was too low for good lighting.

Others just still feel attached to the old theater. Junior Ezra Fax felt the old theater was more personal, and created a feeling of ownership among drama students because no one else used it.

Detached from the school building, it also had more space, a deeper stage and velvet curtains, and gave many an impression that they were inside a real theater, even though it was previously “an old, decrepit storage room” according to Ms. Chase.

Ms. Chase said it was still too soon to evaluate the new theater because it was still “in the process of being birthed.”  She said the school plans on adding a lighting grid and installing speakers permanently, which would be very helpful to student productions. “Eventually they hope to install permanent, flexible seating, a lighting booth and other features,” Ms. Chase said.

But despite any defects the theater may have currently, most flaws hopefully will be resolved over time – except perhaps for the basketball problem.  At the end of the day, it is not the stage or the theater that makes a play, but the actors and the writers — two things at Shalhevet Drama that are as strong as ever.

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