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Ambitious But Uneven

Playwright Itamar Moses’ “Yellowjackets” is creating quite the stir on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, which has been impressively thrown into relief by Annie Smart’s vivid, graffiti-spackled set and a towering fence that’s more suggestive of a high-security prison than a high school. The play swirls with mid-90s slang (sending a shiver of recognition down the spines of those of us who braved adolescence during that epoch), urban politics, racially charged turbulence, schoolyard violence and bullying, the Kafkaesque K-12 bureaucracy, and the riotously epic, hormone-driven confusion that characterizes the American teenage experience.

So what’s the problem? Well, while Moses (who bears the imprimatur of the theatre literati and is currently being touted as the next big thing) is certainly capable of showcasing his talent through a series of intellectually incisive vignettes, his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink métier has resulted in a highly ambitious piece that’s just a little too big for its britches.

Moses, who attended Berkeley High School in the 90s (the same place and time that anchor his play), positions his piece around a controversy fomented by a racially insensitive remark published in the school newspaper (of which Moses happened to be editor-in-chief when he was a junior). This is a play that is about a specific moment at a specific urban high school, but given, by fiat, Berkeley’s heavyweight rank in the cultural zeitgeist, Moses’ microcosm is one in which we are behooved to consider the general hornet’s nest of public school education, where indifferent adults preen and patronize, hapless hooligans get sucked up by the system, and privileged students divvy up the spoils.

The veritable shitstorm created by the newspaper’s anonymously attributed story (which identifies the victims and perpetrators of a gang-related campus fight as young black men) allows the tremor of Moses’ ideological underpinnings to screech to an insistent pitch -- giving way to a web of fractured plotlines that range from the debate on tracking (that is, pigeonholing students in classes according to their intelligence and ability) to mini-polemics on economics and social justice.

Director Tony Taccone has the subjectivity and nebulousness of the high school experience down pat, ensuring that Moses’ turbid vignettes have ample space to kick around on stage, but all the same, the playwright’s largely autobiographical musings are enacted more in the spirit of intellectual sparring than compact, riveting storytelling. Moses’ first act clocks in at 90 minutes, but ensconced as it is in punchy sketches (between bullies and their luckless victims, teachers and students, siblings, News Staff overachievers, etc.), it is not so much tedious as it is meandering—this could have been avoided with a little editing and selective reminiscence on Moses’ part.

Taccone’s young cast, while uneven, works to telegraph Moses’ intent with astonishing dexterity. This includes Ben Freeman as the erudite Avi, editor of the school paper, who perpetually finds himself licking his wounds and kowtowing to impenetrable authorities (i.e., teachers boycotting the school newspaper on the grounds of racism) in his attempt to placate the powers that be and make sense of the chasm between him and the school’s less privileged students. Freeman is most compelling in the high-tension scene between Avi and his Latina girlfriend Alexa (Amaya Alonso Hallifax), in which he poignantly reveals the frustration that seethes below the affable veneer of white guilt.

Shoresh Alaudini is equally gripping in his portrayal of Damian, an African-American teen whose artistry and street smarts vie with a penchant for beefing and confrontation. Jahmela Biggs also shines as Tamika, Damian’s more grounded best friend who’s attempting to steer him in a more favorable direction while negotiating the oppressive forces that govern her own life. Adrienne Pap’s Gwen -- an unlikeable Ivy League striver (and Avi’s news staff nemesis) and pro-tracking debate star who grouses, grumps, whines, and cavils through most of the play -- is harder to make sense of. Her antagonism is overplayed given the minor magnitude of her role, and any conflict that might have served to enrich the plot gets diffused in a watery, inchoate denouement.

While potentially captivating material (such as the role of Gwen or the peripheral interaction between a bully and his quarry) gets lost in the fragmented structure, there is a vividness to Moses’ narrative that is both painful and palpable. While Moses’ use of the characters as mouthpieces for proselytizing makes some of the acting ring hollow, this is a play bursting with vigor and white-hot energy rather than the disdainful, passive-aggressive pedantry that most young writers who choose to engage with overtly political themes find themselves routinely stumbling into.

Moses has said that the rapid-fire tempo of adolescence influenced the pacing of his work, so it makes sense that the story wouldn’t proceed at a jalopy trot, but rather, with the thumping velocity that makes high school such an imbroglio of fear and chagrin. While many of the stories and characters linger in the media res of underdevelopment, Moses’ splintered narratives, punctuated as they are by strobe-lit chaos and brash musical interludes, feel authentic precisely because they reek of the danger, uncertainty, and ambiguity of children floundering toward adulthood without the role models or built-in support to make a successful go of it.

And yet, in the midst of it all, there is the undeniable possibility of all these disparate people and stories intersecting in a more meaningful and leisured way; it is a desire that Moses barely hints at in the end, and one that he will hopefully nurture in future efforts.

“Yellowjackets” runs through October 12 on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage.