Small World

On the mat

We looked around at the distressed skin, the dyed hair, the guys in hoodies, and a few buzzing rows of red-uniformed Catholic teens from St. Luke’s; my friend leaned over to me and said, “I hated high school.” Sure enough, the volatile articulation of that sentiment is what powered the morning’s Seattle Children’s Theatre school matinee of Laurie Brooks’ The Wrestling Season and its fervent post-play workshop.

Brooks’ piece about two high-school wrestling buddies labeled as gay, and the agonized search for personal identity by all teenagers, is innovatively written—unfolding in expressionist scenes entirely on and around a wrestling mat, complete with a surly referee—but it’s the pointedly theatrical direction of Jeff Church and sports choreography of actor Leigh Miller that bring kinetic new meaning to the term “physical staging.” The production, filled with tussles between angst-ridden protagonists of both genders, constantly confronts its young audience with their own overreaction to seeing people touch one another; the wrestling isn’t sexual, and yet, of course, it is. Church amplifies the proceedings with heavy-metal sound cues and slow motion, throwing a literal and figurative spotlight on the frustrated intimacy of grappling limbs. In this context, quiet moments of human contact feel daring—a tight-sweatered girl a row down let out an involuntary guffaw when Miller’s character simply laid a caring hand on his troubled friend’s shoulder.

The workshop that followed benefited from the intentional discomfort. Even those who wouldn’t participate seemed, with palpably unsettled energy, to be secretly busting to do so. The actors remained onstage in character; the students were at one point asked to rank the behavior in the play from the most deplorable to the least offensive, and ultimately defend their varied choices by standing up and addressing the protagonists. The passionate and vocal dissonance didn’t allow anyone to express merely what they thought they were supposed to say—responses to the probably closeted wrestler’s oddly negative ranking included both “Get over it” and a spontaneous, surprisingly sympathetic, “I wouldn’t have ranked you there, bro,” from a tough kid who looked like he might be ditching algebra later that day.

The engaging discord proved again the ability of theater to show us how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go in comprehending ourselves and each other: When an adult stood up to earnestly note that kids might take their dilemmas to their mothers and fathers, the suggestion was met with the dismissive mumble, “Parents can’t do shit.”