What are we to make of Millicent Scowlworthy? In this 2006 play by Rob Handel, a child is found murdered in her adoptive parents’ basement on Christmas morning, shortly after being rescued from war atrocities in “Kosovo or whatever,” and a high school massacre follows in the same town shortly thereafter. And yet there’s the curiously cutesy title and character names (Sass Tendril, Jinx Porbeagle) that make the exercise sound far more playful than it is.
There’s a ritualistic quality to the story as it’s brought to life by 99 Stock Productions, a newish company started in 2012 by San Francisco State grads. A group of nameless teenagers assembles in the wreckage of the local high school to reenact the tragedies, drawing numbered ping pong balls from a fishbowl to determine which role each will play.
Kirsten Royston’s set is like the ghost of a classroom: school chairs in a pile at the rear, and a nimbus of white chalk, ash or paint on the floor, with tendril-like shadows of bare tree branches on the walls.
In company founder Michael Saarela’s compelling staging, the teens act out the story with dedicated solemnity, opening with spellbinding chanting and synchronized movements. It’s clearly not a spontaneous thing, but something they’ve done many times before — and something that’s not allowed. From time to time they have to scatter as unseen police break up the illegal gathering. It’s an insistent ceremony of remembrance in a town that desperately wants to forget.
We never learn anything about the kids reenacting the story, aside from the uniform and bearing that marks each of them as a member of a particular segment of high school society. (Amanda Ramirez’s costumes do a lot of the heavy lifting, suggesting who these people might be.) How well did they know the kids they’re representing? How much time has passed since the incidents, anyway? We can tell by looking at them that they’re all kinds of students who wouldn’t normally hang out together — the skater dude, the popular girl, the emo kid, the jock, the punk — and they don’t talk outside of the reenactment.
The kids might roll their eyes at whom they have to play, but once they take on that role, they’re entirely absorbed in it. The boy wearing all black and raccoon-like eye shadow (Tim Garcia) doesn’t retain any of his customary gloomy aloofness as a boorish wheeler-dealer dad who’s always barking on his cell phone. The male jock (Aaron Moses) plays a society dame with a minimum of camp. A preppy girl (Kelly Bentley) puts on a torn sport coat to become a blowhard all-purpose fixer who can always find somebody a good deal, whether it’s discounted high-end clothing or a lucrative publishing or movie contract.
Juliana Lustenader is haunting as the title character, shellshocked and all dolled up in a party dress, whose response to any attempt at small talk is to blurt out horrifically inappropriate details of the atrocities to which she was subjected. The seeming protagonists are two rich kids, played with great intensity by Ben Calabrese and Nicolina Akraboff, Millicent’s acerbic and nerdy brother, Porter, and his neighbor Kelly, the spoiled daughter of the aforementioned highball-swigging dad. Kelly is also an aspiring actress, leading to some over-the-top Greek tragedy in a play within the play within a play. (Punk-attired Miranda Lickey has some amusing moments as her hammy and singsong-voiced frenemy.)
Andrew Akraboff and Rachel Goldberg are ’50s-sitcom chipper as the Scowlworthy parents who chafe at how their murder mystery has made them a spectacle, overshadowing how much tech money they’ve poured into this town. David Reynolds has a chilling leer as the school’s designated strange kid, and Drew Wolff exudes stoner vagueness as Tim the Cater-Waiter, a character so incidental to the play that why he’s even there seems like a puzzle to be unlocked. Eventually the students are joined by Ariella Amaris Irula as an all-night diner server who jumps into the story with gusto as an enthusiastic drama teacher.
Unlike the many seemingly unrelated threads that come together in unexpected ways in A Maze, Handel’s mind-bendingly multi-layered play that was produced by Berkeley’s Just Theater last year, what’s striking about Millicent Scowlworthy is how little is ever resolved. We learn a little more about what happened, but almost nothing about how or why. Maybe that’s the point: The key word that keeps coming up in child murders and school shootings is “senseless,” and that’s the ultimate takeaway here — that no matter how many times the kids replay the story, it’s never going to make sense. The problem is, that lesson contradicts the point that’s explicitly and repeatedly made by the kids in the story itself, that they need and actually try to process and solve these things rather than shrugging them off as terrible and moving on. But on the basis of what little we learn in Millicent Scowlworthy, the latter is really all we can do. Unlike in real life, here that’s all there is.
Millicent Scowlworthy runs through August 30, 2014 at Thick House in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit 99stockproductions.org.
All photos by Alandra Hileman.