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Theatre in Review: Square Go (59E59)

Gavin Jon Wright, Daniel Portman. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Square Go is a brief but comprehensive guide to the middle-school jungle, written and staged with considerable invention and wit. The Scottish playwrights Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair need only sixty minutes to reveal all you need to know about the thirteen-year-old Max and Stevie; the treacherous landscape of their school; and the toxic male role models who are driving them, however shambolically, toward violence as an assertion of masculinity. It's also frequently very funny, a kind of pubescent High Noon, in which Max, holed up in the boys' toilet, tries to psych himself up for a "square go" (slang for a boy-to-boy fight) against the class bully. Alternately helping and undermining Max is Stevie, his personal Sancho Panza. Stevie, it is worth noting, misuses words at a rate that would impress Mrs. Malaprop. As he notes, "People say our school is shite, but I think that's unfair; they're just being perpendicular."

Nothing much happens in Square Go, which takes place entirely in the run-up to Max's match-up with Danny Guthrie, who is frighteningly aggressive and physically mature beyond his years. (As Stevie warns Max, "His back is like a carpet sample, whereas you my friend have got less pubes than me and I've only got forty-eight.") Even so, this catalogue of early adolescent woes effectively doubles as a perceptive study of youths struggling to learn how to become men. The script is loaded with details that are as precise as they are comic: We are instructed in the use of the phrase "your brother" to reliably deliver insults -- as in "Macauley Culkin's your brother." (This line gets a laugh based on its entirely random quality.) Stevie walks Max through the "seven attributes of being a man," noting that Max is deficient in all of them. (Number three is fearlessness, but he adds, "You, Max, shat at watching Casper the Friendly Ghost.") And we learn about the stigma of "VL," or "virgin lips," which is to be avoided at all costs.

All of this unfolds in delightfully self-conscious fashion, with plenty of audience participation, up to and including the moment when an attendee is recruited to take part in an arm-wrestling match with Max. Cheering is definitely encouraged and, at one point, cue cards are distributed. When Max objects to Stevie bringing up a particularly mortifying incident, saying "Nobody needs to know that," Steve replies, gleefully, "But it's important... dramaturgically."

On this point, Stevie is correct, as it establishes the play's sub-theme, involving Max's non-relationship with his boozing and largely absent father, a sad state of affairs that has caused him to turn to the American wrestler Randy Savage as a figure to emulate. He is not alone; the script also gracefully establishes some of the many reasons why Danny has become a monster at an early age; when it comes to deprivation and humiliation, Danny and Max may be brothers under the skin.

Square Go is performed by a pair of thirtyish actors who bounce around the stage like human jumping jacks, plausibly and without caricature transforming themselves into boys ready to explode from anxiety and pent-up energy. (That both characters are rather more articulate than one might reasonably expect at such an age is part of the script's attractively stylized approach.) Daniel Portman's Max seemingly spends his days permanently on the defensive, but he is also vulnerable in ways that are alternately hilarious and heartbreaking. ("What do you mean 'man up'?" he squeaks out, before dropping his voice an octave or two, asserting, "I'm manly!") Gavin Jon Wright struts amusingly as Stevie, who imagines himself "the social lubricant that keeps this playground hanging together" -- an inflated claim at best. He also assumes a variety of other roles, including a teacher and Max's hulking, disengaged dad, taking part with his son in an imaginary, impromptu drinking contest.

Finn Den Hertog stages everything with the appropriate level of incipient youthful hysteria, although both of his actors could slow down their deliveries just a tad, and clip back their accents ever so slightly, if only in the name of clarity. Still, they win over the audience effortlessly, paced by Peter Small's antic lighting design -- which underlines the many fantasy sequences with chases and ballyhoos -- and original music and sound by members of the Scottish indie rock band Frightened Rabbit. And the director confidently guides his cast to a strenuous climactic physical battle, followed by a moment of truth about all their macho posing; by this point, we've come to care about Max and Stevie -- enough to hope that they're on the right track at last. --David Barbour

(20 June 2019)

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