by John Stoltenberg
Up on the fourth floor of Studio Theatre is a great big black box of a performance space, which isn’t actually black because its walls are cinder block, rather like an institutional enclosure. On a platform stage is Colin K. Bills’s equally ominous set—a row of hallway school lockers. If this ambiance triggers a twinge of high school angst (as it did for me)—some dim recovered memory of worry about fitting it, fear of being teased, or other unnamable age-specific unease—you’d not be far off the mark. You’ve come to a play by a writer who can relate. In fact Declan Greene’s Moth packs in so much Generation Y alienation, disaffection, and lonely isolation that you’ll likely thank your lucky stars you’ve grown up and moved on.
The script was originally extensively workshopped several years ago with young people, in Australia, where the almost-30 Greene is an up-and-coming theater-maker and playwright with an impressive list of prizes and productions to his name. Everything about Moth—the two characters, their teenspeak, their interaction, their back stories, their troubles—was in effect market-tested for verisimilitude and veracity by its ostensible target audience of teens. And it all rings true, though very disturbingly so. Melborne’s Arena Theatre Company, which commissioned and premiered the work, even distributed a related teacher’s guidebook featuring classroom exercises, discussion questions, and other earnestly useful info. The cover identifies the show’s “suitability” as “years 10–12.” All of which might suggest that Moth is an edifying cultural artifact full of teachable moments for youth.
In truth, Moth is a harrowing play about two depressed and distressed young people—both social outcasts and misfits, tormented physically and verbally by peers, but gifted with foul-mouthed wit and survivor grit. They engage in mutual aggression masking craving for affection and launch into a surreal fantasy of saving the world from destruction but end up spiraling into pathos and dead-ending in tragedy. How to Survive High School this show is not. If it were a segment on Glee, the music would have to be apocalyptic dirges and heavy metal cris de coeur.
As dark as is Moth’s thematic material, the performances and production are blazingly brilliant. In the role of Clarissa, an emo wannabe poet who cloaks her ample girth in goth, Allie Villarreal has powerful presence, at once scarey, sassy, and sad. As her slightly built friend Sebastian, whose obsession with anime blurs into messianic delusions, David Nate Goldman is an impish delight, nimbly navigating his character’s attention deficits and charming us with every perfervid free association. Tom Story’s direction digs deep into what makes this duo a fragile codependent dyad, even as he piles stagecraft surprise upon surprise. To that end the movement by Elena Day, sound by James Bigbee Garver, and projections by Mimi d’Autremont are all shocking, in a good way.
I wouldn’t have missed Moth—it’s sensationally provocative and wickedly witty and the actors are captivating—but I left not knowing quite what to make of the work as a whole. In an interview with the playwright, I found this insight:
You know, high school is actually a really, really, really rough time, and I think people forget how fucked up and difficult high school can be for some people. And you know, if you want to dye your hair black and wear crazy clothes and write bad poetry, well that’s fine. Do whatever you need to do to get through it.
I’m starting to sound very polemic. I don’t mean to be. There was never any opportunity to sit down and think, well, what are we making this play about? There was never really the opportunity to make this a didactic exercise. Everything was just so up in the air all the time.
So what we’ve ended up creating is what I hope is an interesting tapestry of ideas, a network of ideas, that interrelate and feed off each other in a free associative kind of way.
And I think it’s good that it doesn’t have a hard-hitting message; young people get hit with that sort of thing a lot.
As I understand the author here, this work is meant to engage and resonate with disaffected teens and intentionally not “hit them over the head” with any overarching meaning. And that would probably make sense if the audience was Gen Y-ers. But I saw the show with a Studio Theatre audience whose high school years on average were decades ago. Being a grownup now, I’m not message averse. In fact I appreciate authorial framing that gives meaningful shape to recognizable life. Even the lost lives of youth. So I expected Moth to offer grownup comprehension of adolescent turbulence. That’s of course an impossible perspective. Which may be a message of a sort.