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Compelling, yet shallow: CalRep introduces “Polaroid Stories” at the University Theater

The play talks about teen homelessness but does little to resolve it.

%22Polaroid+Stories%22+tells+stories+of+homelessness%2C+abuse+and+addiction+in+Cal+Rep%27s+last+show+of+the+fall+season.+

"Polaroid Stories" tells stories of homelessness, abuse and addiction in Cal Rep's last show of the fall season.

Courtesy of California Repertory

Courtesy of California Repertory

"Polaroid Stories" tells stories of homelessness, abuse and addiction in Cal Rep's last show of the fall season.

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It only took a few minutes for the audience to feel uncomfortable in California Repertory’s performance of Naomi Iizuka’sPolaroid Stories” which premiered at the University Theater on Nov. 17.

But not in a good way. Not in the “wow, this is an amazing show and it’s so gripping and I can’t look away” kind of unsettled, but instead an uneasiness and discomfort that never seems to leave.

This is hardly the fault of the production or its performers. Instead, it is Iizuka’s dated references and contrived attempts to characterize the “edgy” subculture of homeless teenagers that remove any chance of depth the ensemble can bring to the table.

The play loosely draws upon Greek lore, as Iizuka weaves classic mythology with real struggles of homeless youth and teenage sex workers who she spoke to in the ‘90s. Each narrative is intercut with scenes of another character, never allowing the audience to digest a scene before the characters respond to their failings themselves.

This is the point where the writing fails the actors.

“Polaroid Stories” attempts to ground Greek mythology in the gritty reality that homeless youth face today. It addresses issues of addiction, abuse and prostitution, but it reads less as a criticism of the institutions that fail these teenagers than it does an exploitation of their plight. The characters rest on aged archetypes and the less-than-subtle dialogue comes across as an oversimplification of the issues Iizuka tries to tackle.

Yet, perhaps this is what the playwright intended.

The flattening of the issues may very well speak to the statistics on homelessness, which were inserted into the playbill. It never clearly explains the factors leading to the plight of Narcissus (Jarod Duncan), a gay, self-obsessed teenager that falls into prostitution. It reduces the drug abuse of Skinhead Boy (Erin Galloway) and eventual overdose of Skinhead Girl (Gaelyn Wilkie) to addiction for the sake of addiction. It fails to clarify why the drug-dealing Dionysus (Dongé Tucker) expects worship from his dutiful junkies and then laments at his own misshapen life.

While the play attempts to navigate through complex issues, it only scratches the surface and leaves out pivotal information. The character’s monologues offer no clarification on where their parents are or how the institutions meant to protect homeless youth failed them, but muddy their paths further and blurs the lines of reality and fiction in the show. The statistics, likewise, strip the individuals of their stories and simplify their struggles to fit into a prescribed slot. It is unclear if this is a result of sloppy storytelling or if it’s what Iizuka intended.

An abstract piece and sometimes difficult to watch, the production relies on its actors to make sense of the unclear guide that Iizuka offers.

The strongest performances of the night came from Isidro Cortes, who played Orpheus and Tereus. Cortes’ split-second changes from a loving boyfriend to abusive and obsessive behavior was genuinely startling. His maddened delivery of his monologues and the frustrated, demanding screams commanded the attention of his audience long before he took center stage.

Wilkie also drew the audience’s attention, though her character often reads as an aside to Galloway’s. The strength of Skinhead Girl came in her delivery of her “princess” monologue, which did not get lost in the choked sobs and angry, harsh screams. Her distracted, uncertain way of engaging with her fellow actors conveyed the instability of her character as she fluctuated between intense highs and a crippling paranoia of monsters only she could see.

The staging choices made by director Eric Hoff conveyed a sense of the labyrinth of a world the actors had to navigate. The sound design, blocking, usage of lighting and fight choreography also aided in developing a sense of unease and chaos that the audience and cast were to exist in for the duration of the show.

“Polaroid Stories,” to put it simply, makes little sense when approaching it from a narrative perspective. It reads more as nihilistic than anything else, unable to make up its mind on whether or not it wants to criticize or simply show to audiences what is the reality for the homeless youth of America.

The show, however, merits a view from the sheer strength of its ensemble cast as they try to survive an unforgiving world that seeks to erase the stories they have to tell.

“Polaroid Stories” will be playing through Dec. 2 with shows at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays with Thursday shows at 7 p.m. at the University Theater. Tickets are $20 for the general public and $15 for Cal State Long Beach students and faculty and can be purchased online or at the box office.

This article has been updated for corrections on Nov. 29.

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