Burgess Clark’s memories of being bullied are as vivid as Aaron Fricke’s in “Reflections of a Rock Lobster.” The Boston Children’s Theatre executive artistic director (at BCT since 2008) could easily identify with the out Rhode Island hero of his acclaimed 2012 play, now in a return visit to the Calderwood Pavilion (through Sunday). As the 51 year old out writer-director recently told Bay Windows, “I read Aaron’s book (of the same name) when I was 18 or 19 and it really resonated with me. I’m reliving my own youth. I was more of an Aaron.” In fact, their experiences turned out to be quite similar.
While Clark grew up in Central Ohio—at Worthington, just outside of Columbus, he encountered bullying in public school as Fricke did. Both were theater enthusiasts as well. “I discovered theater when I was 13 or 14,” Clark noted. “I was even president of the drama club.” His public school resume in Worthington ranged from “Oklahoma” and “Carousel” to “The Mouse That Roared” and “Twelve Angry Men.” While Aaron was bullied as a closeted gay and as a theater buff, Burgess admitted “I was targeted more because I was a theater kid.” Clark’s play vividly depicts the bullying and homophobia of many fellow Cumberland, Rhode Island class of 1980 students and especially then principal Richard Lynch in the first act. In the second act, Aaron’s legal suit and the court’s subsequent historic decision in his favor and that of prom date Paul Guilbert take center stage.
Burgess’ own youth and his familiarity with Aaron’s memoir have not the lone sources for his insight. Three decades as a theater professional and educator have been equally important to Clark preparatory to his writing the adaptation of Fricke’s memoir. Burgess, who once served as director of education for the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, observed , “The personalities (in the play) and the result ( school conflicts over same-sex dates for proms ) are very common to what happens (today) .” At the end of the play, projected photos of victims -among them Brandon Tena and Matthew Shepard as well as adolescents who committed suicide because of bullying- demonstrated the disturbing continuing timeliness of the play as a cautionary play.To reinforce the immediacy of the warning, lighting designer Michael Clark Wonson employs empty backdrop squares as though to suggest that there will sadly be more as yet unseen victims (gay and straight) of bullying.
While Clark revealed that “I heard through the grapevine that there was concern among the board (before the 2012 world premiere) ” about the unflinching honesty and candor of the BCT staging, he has been “enormously moved and impressed” by the work of the cast and the very positive reaction of audience members young and old, gay and straight. “I’ve been very impressed at the response of older straight men, “ Clark offered. “I suspect that they may have done some bullying themselves (as kids) .” He has also been gratified by the effect of the adaptation on previously closeted theatergoers. Clark cited a 15 year old who came after seeing the play-in which Aaron comes out to his parents in a particularly moving scene, and a teacher who followed suit on viewing it.
To hear Clark, “The response has been extraordinary. It’s back by popular demand.” The current production-even stronger than its very good predecessor- should enhance that demand. Out actor Paul McCallion-a pre-med student at Wesleyan University—is as convincingly brave yet vulnerable as fellow out actor Ian Shain, who originated the role of Aaron and now studies at the University of South California(Shain is an IRNE-independent Reviewers of New England award nominee as is “Relfections” for small stage best new play). Straight actor Felix Teich is once again appealingly outspoken and supportive as Paul.
Other continuing standouts include Richard Snee, who catches father Walter Fricke’s caring as well as his quirkiness and Doug Bowen-Flynn’s mean-spirited Lynch. Kippy Goldfarb’s stoic cruelty as Loretta Fricke is even more chilling that Paula Plum’s less scary mother last year. Nick McNeil has the right overriding sadness as Aaron’s once best friend Bob Cote. Arguably the most frightening scene shows June Kfoury as religious fanatic Marie Cote taking Bob’s belt and pressuring him –with verbal and physical abuse- to disavow his friendship with Aaron and do penance for the intimacy they had shared behind closed doors.
Aaron, who has used humor as a shield, learns to develop the toughness of the title creature. The BCT ‘s blisteringly honest “Reflections of a Rock Lobster” should make all who see it equally strong.
Clark and company, who are partnering here with PFLAG, hope to take the play on tour and employ local casts at various locations across the country. BCT is also beginning work on another project that should go a long way to combat hate-namely the struggle of African-Americans and civil rights activists with prejudice during busing era Boston.
If BCT is a remarkable company, so is Boston Ballet, which continues exploring (with alternating casts) three diverse BB premieres by Czech- Netherlands choreographer Jiri Kylian in a program fittingly entitled “All Kylian” (through Sunday). Once again the technique-strong company is demonstrating that it’s best efforts in spirit and achievement deserve the kind of respect given to such first rank troupes as American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. Such premier dancers as Kathleen Breen Combs, Lia Ciro and Pablo Arrais catch the surreal beauty of “Wings of Wax.” Pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama is as breath-takingly poetic in her playing high above the Opera House floor as Cirio, Arrais , John Lam and Robert Kretz in the wonderfully enigmatic “Tar and Feathers.” Rounding out the trio is the Stravinsky-accompanied and Persian tapestry-adorned “Symphony of Psalms,” which displays the company’s estimable ensemble as well as individual strengths.
Reflections of a Rock Lobster, Boston Children’s Theatre, Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, March 17. 617-933-8600 or bostonchildrenstheatre.org
All Kylian, Boston Ballet, Boston Opera House, through March 17.617-695-6955 or bostonballet.org