High school is the bane of nerds everywhere. If a kid gets defined as a nerd early on, that’s the role they’re stuck with until they graduate. The same applies to other roles, the jock, the slut, the homecoming queen. It pretty much requires divine intervention for a teenager to break out of their assigned persona, and that concept forms the core of Jane the Plain, a new play by August Schulenberg.
Jane the Plain takes place at the aptly name “Plainview High”, a deliberately generic all-American high school where football players and cheerleaders rule. Each of the kids at this school is known for one distinct trait that defines them among their peers. Aside from the title character Jane (Played by Alisha Spielmann), there is Betty the Pretty (Becky Byers), Scottie the Hottie (Chinaza Uche), Lexi the Sexy (Sol Crespo), along with nice guy Leeson the Decent (Chester Poon) and the archetype nerd Leonard the Awkward (Isaiah Tanenbaum).
With these broad characters, plus Schulman’s poetic dialog, and Kelly O’Donnell’s abstract directing it comes across as an Expressionist interpretation of The Breakfast Club. Will Lowry’s set design furthers the surrealistic feeling by running bold white line through the theater so that the venue looks like a football field and a school hallway at the same time.
At first the story follows Jane’s romantic pursuit of Scottie The Hottie, and the inevitable humiliation that comes from a plain girl trying to date one of the cool kids. However, about one-third of the way through the story, Jane is visited by a supernatural entity and she suddenly becomes the most beautiful girl at school. This throws the social structure out of balance and leads to other kids questioning their identities too.
There are some terribly funny moments as Chinaza Uche (As Scottie) comes to the slow realization that there might be more to life than football. The character is a lunk who tries to make profound speeches, but usually ends up on a rambling tangent and forgets what his soliloquy was supposed to be about.
In between the laughs there are also aching moments of teen heartbreak too. Jane learns how beautiful people are treated differently, both the good and the bad. Meanwhile some characters pursue her out of earnest love, even the rest of the gang is only interested in her because of her newfound looks.
As the story unfolds new social themes appear, including a lesbian romantic subplot, a horror story, and eventually a climactic battle between darkness and light at the big homecoming game. With all of these story lines and moral messages bouncing around, the show ends up far from where it started and culminates with an unsatisfying bromide on the nature of love.
As the show steers from theme to theme, it likewise swerves between comedy and drama, never quite establishing itself as a true farce, or fully defining the supernatural elements. Audiences are likely to wonder what is intended to be literal, and what is merely symbolic.
The themes addressed in Jane the Plain will resonate with people who still have unresolved high-school issues. Audiences who have made peace with their sophomore demons will enjoy the humor, but find the dramatic elements to have less weight.
Jane the Plain is running now through May 24th. More on the show can be found at www.fluxtheatre.org.