by Monica Hunter-Hart
We attend the theater because stories have the power to sweep us away. Roxie Perkins’ I’m Alive You Bastards And I Always Will Be is a play about this very concept: preteen Lang finds a creative outlet for her struggle with an abusive mother by inventing a best friend, Jak, with whom she engages in violently escapist shenanigans. In a sequence of events that is revealed at the play’s conclusion to have been only imagined, Lang finds a dead dog, she and Jak defile it as part of a “game,” and the dog’s owners—two female criminals—threaten the girls’ lives in retaliation. Oberlin College’s March 6 performance of this show, directed by Taylor Greenthal, so encouraged the audience’s initial confusion with the narrative that the big reveal (in the spirit of the Wizard of Oz, an “it was all in the heroine’s mind!”) couldn’t bring true satisfaction. Our discomfort lasted too long and was too intense: the abnormality precluded a reason to relate to or care about the characters and events of the story.
Even the most basic explanatory elements one expects from a story were missing: the location, for example, was unclear. The set consisted of a crate and a platform made of wooden boards and fishing nets: these materials, along with the presence of a laundry line and the tendency of the young girls to jump around on it, suggested an outside setting. Yet Lang’s mother Rhonda casually took a nap on the platform, and a landline phone hung on its fence-like exterior; the informational clues didn’t add up to a clear conclusion. The setting also changed throughout the play—at one point the events took place in a small convenience store—but without a conspicuous set or lighting shift, it was often unclear when these changes took place.
Another big question refused to be even somewhat resolved until the end: why so much brutality? Probably the violence of Lang’s real life manifested itself in her imagination. The grotesque events of the play—which included falsifying rape stories; physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; robbery; suggestions of bestiality; near murder; omnipresent extreme insults and swearing—were clearly too outlandish to be real. Until it became clear that they weren’t supposed to be real, the show seemed ludicrous, not evocative. The sources of many of Lang’s disturbing ideas remained unclear even at the play’s conclusion. I’m Alive You Bastards adhered to the inadequate, yet all-too-common formula that many modern plays use in attempting to make themselves significant: interpersonal violence + frequent use of cuss words = narrative depth. Meaning does not come from horrifying events alone.
Of course, much of this is a script issue: there’s only so much that an ensemble can make of material that is superficial to begin with. The script was also to blame for the simplistic character constructions. Yet where it was deficient, the actors could still have added more nuance in their portrayals: Molly Bennett as Rhonda, for example, was too exaggeratedly severe, so that the few moments in which her character demonstrated humane affection for Lang came off as unbelievable. Almost every actor tended to slip into hyperbole, which could have been justified by the fact that an unspecified amount of the story took place within Lang’s mind, except that Jourdan Lewanda played Lang with the same overstatement. However, it is difficult to pretend to be a child without embodying a trope of immaturity, and to Lewanda’s credit, there were moments in which she projected such seemingly pure emotion that our sympathies were won. Likewise for all: it is not that the cast’s performances were bad—they just rarely felt real.
All that being said, the production contained many fine elements. Greenthal blocked the play well: it took place on a thrust stage in Oberlin’s Little Theater, meaning that the actors were surrounded by audience on three sides and could not face all sections simultaneously. But Greenthal engaged creatively with our sight lines and kept the actors regularly moving. She also knew how to rousingly build tension within the action sequences. The excitement in those moments was heightened by chilling performances from Tiffany Ames and Ariana Silvan-Grau as Dex and Tweek. They oozed power as unrepentant delinquents. Ames provoked shudders in her slow delivery of lines like, “Sell us the shit and we’ll be gone a lot faster.”
The costumes, hair, and makeup were also fantastic, featuring everything from a pastel satin bathrobe on Bennett to striking magenta hair on Ames. The characters’ getups cued their identity as soon as they first appeared: it was remarkable, for example, how the solid color tank top—a somewhat neutral clothing item—worn by Sophie Zucker as Jak could yet signal an obvious middle school age. The soundscape of the show, too, was effective, featuring haunting melodies sung tunefully by Lewanda during Lang’s flights of fancy and creepy effects during the same character’s recitation of a story about a witch named “Ikki Ikki” (which is, incidentally, the most intolerable name Perkins could have chosen for her characters to interminably repeat).
If I’m Alive You Bastards had been produced with more of an emphasis on realism, it could have been a riveting psychological thriller. However, the team still created an interesting show that undoubtedly left audiences with much to talk about upon its conclusion.