When I planned on seeing "The Ninth Circle" and "Crocodile" on Friday night at the Rochester Fringe Festival, I inadvertently set myself up for an evening of theatrical throwbacks to aching adolescence. In totally different ways, each piece presented a situation where youths wrapped up in their own difficult worlds can manifest tragic results.
"The Ninth Circle" is an hour-long play written by Matthew Fox and directed by Heather Fox, performed at The TheatreROCS Stage at Xerox Auditorium. A spare set that indicated a college library played host to five players from Monroe Community College's On The Edge Drama Troupe. At the onset and through the first half of the performance, the scene felt like John Hughes' film, "The Breakfast Club," in that kids from disparate social groups kept arriving and engaging with one another in ways both hostile and kind.
Each of the characters spoke in turn about an unnamed incident involving Ethan (Mike Pisher), a student they all knew, and their guilt over what had transpired. Corrine (Kiyomi Oliver) stood by the apparently fatalistic, dramatic Ethan whenever tricky social interactions had him bouncing back to her trusty friendship. Meghan (Amanda Willett) was Ethan's latest object of desire, but she was interested in his friend, Brett (Neilsen Waterman). A disoriented professor (Linda Ferguson) got caught up in the mix, having been present when the incident in question took place, and is the only character who doesn't remember what happened.
Through their dialogue, the audience begins to form a picture of Ethan as a self-centered, blinded-by-anger young man who mistook disappointments, embarrassments, and petty cruelties as evidence of evil in friends who actually did love him.
The discussion about Ethan continues, and at one point Corrine begins to recite a post Ethan had made on Facebook immediately before the incident, before Ethan himself arrives and finishes reciting his diatribe. He proclaims that so many betrayals have forced his hand, while completely and entirely dismissing any responsibility for his own actions. If his words sound eerily familiar, there is good reason -- the play's writer took inspiration from the manifestos left behind by the shooters at Columbine and Virginia Tech.
Ethan's arrogant, hard words leave little room for sympathy, except Pisher plays his mannerisms with hints of an uncertain, hurting man-child. The play's name comes from the realm of hell reserved for traitors, according to Dante's inferno, and the great irony of the situation is that though Ethan accuses those present of betraying him, he's the traitor, and this is the result his actions have reaped.
Before the others leave him to his fate, they take turns confronting Ethan, trying to make him see what he's taken from them. But Ethan is still full of certain, seething rage, unable to see past the adolescent immediacy of petty jealousies and an episode of bullying; he is certain the world is empty and our motions through it meaningless. The audience was left pondering how best to help close-to-the-edge youths know there will be life and love and joy on other side of their personal abyss.
("The Ninth Circle" is also performed Saturday, September 21, 4 p.m. at the TheatreROCS Stage at Xerox Auditorium. Tickets cost $10.)
While "The Ninth Circle" provides a reflection on the tragic outcome of youthful drama, "Crocodile," screened Friday at Little Theatre 1, is less straightforward, more stream-of-consciousness: the audience is present with the characters' experiences. Seventeen-year-old Ernest pushes hard against adult responsibility while diving headlong into new-love oblivion with the seemingly worldly but actually fragile new girl in town, Sasha. The two awkwardly navigate the traumatic discovery of their parents' human vulnerabilities, mental illness, sex, recreational drugs, the secret beauty of Upstate New York's doldrums, and the difficulty of recognizing the hardships of others when faced with our own. The film was produced by Brain Crane and provides a truly interesting mix of slapstick humor and bittersweet philosophy.