With school shootings more prevalent than ever, it is unsurprising that Ripe Frenzy, a new play currently in its west coast premiere at Greenway Court Theatre as part of a National New Play Network rolling world premiere, tackles this difficult subject head on. While 2017 brought what felt like an onslaught of theater commenting on the Trump administration, whether directly or indirectly, it seems likely gun violence, particularly in schools, will be the next issue everyone is clamoring to address. The perspective of Ripe Frenzy is an interesting one full of promise, but a muddled message does not ultimately add much to the national conversation.
Written by Jennifer Barclay and directed by Alana Dietze, Ripe Frenzy begins with Zoe (Elizabeth Ann Bennett), the exhaustingly cheery historian of a small New York town. While information is dispersed slowly, it is immediately apparent that a tragedy has recently happened at the town’s high school, during their record 40th production of Our Town. Zoe rewinds to tech rehearsals, telling the story of the days before, during and after a school shooting perpetrated by her own son.
Zoe, Miriam (Melody Butiu), and Felicia (Renée-Marie Brewster) have been best friends their entire lives, from starring in the “seminal” 1992 production of Our Town, to giving birth to their children within weeks of each other, and now to watching said children take part in the play themselves. Zoe’s son, Miriam’s daughter, Hadley (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson), and Felicia’s son, Matt (Liam Springthorpe) used to be the Three Musketeers, inseparable, but in recent years Zoe’s son has grown increasingly ostracized from the fold. He interacts with the world only from behind his GoPro, locks his bedroom door, and takes a behind-the-scenes role in Our Town, designing the sets and projections. Zoe, whose husband died of cancer some time before, is doing the best she can, but admits she has drifted apart from her son. In the days immediately prior to opening night, everyone is reeling from a school shooting in Michigan, talking constantly about its perpetrator, Brian James McNamara, and watching, glued to their smartphones, as the death toll rises and more gruesome details are made public.
The show makes a point of never naming Zoe’s son, a detail that is striking and important until the script insists on hanging a lantern on it towards the end. Such a statement would be more powerful if never directly acknowledged, especially given the play’s harsh words regarding the national fascination with tragedy, and the role the thirst for information when school shootings happen may have in inspiring the next perpetrator. While Zoe grapples with her own accountability, a judgmental eye is also turned upon the audience for the typical human desire to soak up every bit of knowledge about horrifying events.
While the shooting is very much the pivotal event upon which the entire show hinges, it is not actually staged, and not a single gun ever appears. Instead, the details are largely and disturbingly left up to the imagination of the viewer. As is to be expected given the subject matter, it is a highly emotional and tense play, with Zoe’s anguish coming to the forefront especially towards the end. Ultimately, it is after the climax has passed that the story loses its footing, scrambling to check a lot of social commentary boxes and confusing its own message in the process. There is a sense of multiple endings, as if the playwright wasn’t quite sure when to stop or when enough had been said. First, Zoe is furious, resenting her son and what he did to his classmates, herself, and her friends and fellow parents. Determined to break the cycle, she tries to erase all traces of her son’s manifesto, anything that will make him a national celebrity. But then an encounter with her young neighbor, Bethany (Johnson) makes her reconsider this perspective, finding a different way to process her own loss.
More could be done visually in terms of driving the most emotional moments home, although the projections (Jared Mezzocchi) are well done, highlighting both life in the town and the shooter’s state of mind. It is not a comfortable show, and the cast is giving what must be very draining performances, particularly Bennett, who has to do most of the heavy lifting. Johnson was a standout, bringing distinct personalities to both roles she played and stealing any scene she was in. As difficult as a dramatization of a school shooting is to watch, it is a conversation that needs to be had, although what, if anything, Ripe Frenzy specifically adds to that conversation is difficult to say.
Ripe Frenzy runs through June 17th at Greenway Court Theatre in Los Angeles. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Remaining performances are Saturday, June 9th at 8pm, Friday, June 15th at 8pm, Saturday, June 16th at 2pm and 8pm, and Sunday, June 17th at 4pm. General admission tickets are $34, with discounts available for students and seniors, and can be purchased here.