Ring around the Patsy

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While bullying has only recently grown from a sitcom staple to a talkshow hot-button topic, homophobia has a long dubious history in cultures around the world. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, and both were pointedly dramatized in The Wrestling Season last weekend at Duke Energy Theatre in a taut 57-minute Chaos Ensemble production by students from Providence High School.

Appropriately, the 2010 production was a mere block away from ImaginOn, where the Charlotte premiere of Laurie Brooks’ high school drama was staged by Children’s Theatre in 2007. The quality gap was similarly narrow as the world was turned into a wrestling ring once again.

Centering around two varsity wrestler chums who are smeared by a malicious homophobic teammate, the story also explores how teens respond to peer pressure and the extremes they go to as they invent or protect their images. In the process, we repeatedly see how the ripple effects of the teens’ actions yield results that are wildly different from their intentions. Rumor mongers get as much of a working over as the bullies and the homophobes.

Because the politics of high school coolness and manliness are as much about having a hot girlfriend as winning the annual wrestle-off championships, there are juicy roles for young men and women as The Wrestling Season plays out. Real-life competition for the nine acting slots must have been quite intense, for director James Yost found perfect fits all around, suggesting the talent pool at Providence wasn’t close to running dry.

The key characters are Matt, the more purposeful and driven of the two chums, and Willy, the rival wrestler who pins the “homo pervert” label on Matt and Luke – for an admirably rich set of bad reasons. Ignorance, for starters. Kaio DeSouza may have delivered the most sensational performance as the slimy, toadying, and explosive Willy – and DeSouza seemed to revel in Willy’s prejudice and neurosis – but Tanner Agle was no less adept at the subtler complexities of Matt. There was a contradictory mix of self-centeredness and sensitivity in Matt: on the one hand, he uses Melanie to bolster his hetero creds and then comes on way too strong when the ruse fails; on the other, he persists in reaching out to Luke after the vicious rumor threatens to wreck their friendship – and destroy Luke.

Jimmy Irwin tuned Luke’s delicacy to exactly the right pitch where he sounded credible in believing that what was being said about him might be true. Likewise, Savannah Hamilton played easy enough for Matt to get as Melanie, but not so knowing and aggressive that the “slut” label pinned on her had to be true. No less impressive, Kara Spangler as Heather and Brian Froeb as Jolt actually brought some freshness to the hackneyed alpha couple of the school. Both embodied the trashy teen idols to whom, before all others, peers would bring their most sensational gossip.

Special mention should be made of Lindsey Rosenbaum as Kori, the rainbow-haired character who won the most universal acclaim from the audience at last Friday night’s talkback. Something of a pariah among the cliquish young women, the Bohemian individualist counsels Matt to repair the rumor damage by hooking up with Melanie – a duplicity that climaxes in Matt’s brutality, our hero’s most universally condemned action of the evening. Clearly, Rosenbaum had some sort of mojo boosting her approval ratings.

You certainly can’t accuse Brooks of preachiness in her script. In fact, the lack of a rigorous point of view is her chief flaw as an artist. But The Wrestling Season shows us convincingly that, beyond its Glee glamor, high school life is rich in complexity and moral ambiguity, acted out by adolescents whose survival instincts are often more developed and engaged than their minds.

Spoiler: Matt gets a decent grade on his Pre-Cal test anyway.

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