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Subversive's youth series delves into timely, difficult issues in 'Slut: The Play'

There’s an urgent message being shared at Subversive Theatre right now, delivered right from the source.

In “Slut: The Play,” this summer’s iteration of the company’s summer youth series, a cast of students from Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts shares the reality of enduring various kinds of abuse and disrespect. About how our current culture propagates and supports these egregious acts. About how, for some, it’s an acceptable, innocuous way to talk to one another.

We’re talking about “slut shaming,” the term for shaming someone – often women and girls – for their perceived sexual expression or behavior, which abusers claim warrant attention that is otherwise uninvited, or potentially illegal.

Playwright Katie Cappiello developed the play with the Arts Effect All-Girl Theatre Company in New York City; a recent reading with members of this ensemble inspired a full production.

It opens in a girls’ high school locker room, where dance teammates joke and kid about each other’s reputations and approaches toward the male students they’re dating or interested in. (The old “locker room” theory of salty conversation is apparently universal.) Everything appears innocent. Maybe these jokes are nothing more than that. Maybe context is important.

But when one girl later is sexually abused and raped, at the hand of male childhood friends, no less, those perceptions are turned into fact and used against her. Slut shaming turns to victim shaming. And there, justice cannot be found.

Cappiello’s script tells a compelling, important story, but suffers from the typical challenge of speaking for teens, rather than through teens. It's as if a corny parent or teacher crafted language they assumed or wished their kids would use in everyday discourse; of course, no one really talks like this.

Director Kelly Beuth, who has led the Subversive Youth Series for eight summers, is a theater teacher at Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, from where her cast of seven hail. They are a close group on stage, and perform alongside each other with the casualness of a well-honed ensemble. Whether they are personally close with each other in school or not, they certainly evoke true friendships and bonds, which in the play’s context, bodes well for their scenework.

Beuth’s direction has many strengths – in that this production is even possible, and fostered with visible love and respect for this cast. But staging-wise, it’s bogged down in too many clunky scene changes, befuddled with unnecessary props and furniture dressings. These details are way too literal and inconsequential to the scenes they populate, and furthermore, in the context of what is still an educational theater exercise (for the cast, at least) there are missed chances to create a smoother, more efficient product.

These are talented teens – young adults, growing people, emotionally accessible humans with agency and drive – with strengths and weaknesses like any performing group. I’m hesitant to call upon the specifics of their performances, as this is more an exercise in talent (and hopefully audience) development than it is in expert presentation. That said, this is a professional production with reasonable standards of quality; where admission is charged, one expects a certain kind of product.

In all, they perform well. Everyone would benefit from slowing down their speech, taking a moment or two to process what’s being said, to react more and recite less. They have no problem performing with sincerity – emotion isn’t an issue – but it plays at times like a sped-up record. Look at the strong, but difficult, interactions on the back half of the play’s single act. By lights-down of the performance I attended, two of the actors, having broken through their self-imposed barriers, looked at each other and then to us with real-life tears dripping down their faces.

It was in this discovery that it became clear: Cliched style aside, this is substance that’s worth revisiting – until society has learned its lessons, and then again for prosperity. Thank you for sharing your souls, however masked they may not have been. You’ve done the hard work. Now it’s our turn.

“Slut: The Play”

3 stars (out of 4)

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. June 28-30 in Subversive Theatre Collective, the Manny Fried Playhouse, 225 Great Arrow Ave. Tickets are $15. Visit subversivetheatre.org or call 462-5549.

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