A play focused on two teenagers surprisingly partnered for a poetry class homework assignment may seem like a challenge to collegiate theater audiences used to loud musicals, traditional Shakespeare or large-cast comedies.
But set the performance in a bedroom, give one character a life-threatening disease and the other a mysterious background, and now the work has a little romantic spark, life and death drama and all kinds of intrigue.
The University of Wisconsin-Superior staged the Lauren Gunderson three-act play "I and You" before an opening night crowd of 50 at Manion Theatre on Friday night. The 90-minute performance mixes 19th century poetry with 21st century high technology to deliver a tale of awkward friendship that ends in a breathtaking surprise.
"I and You" uses the epic Walt Whitman poem "Song of Myself" as a homework assignment for two seemingly mismatched young people as they explore friendship, young love, life and even death.
Both Claire Jackson, as sickly high school senior Caroline, and Jovann McKnight, as studious basketball player Anthony, spend the entire performance on stage in the teenage girl's bedroom. With the spotlight always on them, the pair worked through some opening night, first-act stiffness to deliver a powerhouse finale that left the audience buzzing.
The swift Gunderson script seemed at times difficult for the audience to track. Jackson and McKnight spar with each other like Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, with bold quips and overly clever comebacks. "I'm small but mighty, like a dachshund," declares Jackson, winning an early laugh from the audience.
As the two characters work through their assignment, the quips slow down, allowing Jackson and McKnight better opportunities to develop the relationship. The pair share dreams about traveling to New York and their entanglements with parents.
Anthony is hip, with a two-tone haircut and the latest in sneakers. McKnight gives the character a large presence, frequently waving his arms and always standing tall. He possesses a wonderfully deep and mellow voice, which can be both an asset and a liability. For example, an abrupt opening scene was difficult to understand but later, the voice added power and emotion to his description of a basketball court incident.
Caroline wears a choker and sweatpants, communicates with the world through Facebook and is homebound with a horrible liver disease. Jackson, not much older than her character, delivers the "likes" and "ewws" of teen-girl speak all too well: "Ugh, I HATE that," she says, and "I'm TOTALLY changing my Twitter background."
Her dance routine to a Jerry Lee Lewis song, featuring a rollicking "air-piano," won big laughs from the audience.
In one of the strongest scenes of the night, Jackson deftly changes her young character's tone, delivering a thoughtful and mature analysis of the Whitman poem as Anthony records the presentation on his cellphone. The speech is so moving, the two embrace and share a first kiss, which leads to a stunning final revelation.
Director Kathy Laakso creates an intimate performance that should feel fresh and important for a younger audience yet thought-provoking and moving for all. Her restraint allows the characters to slowly mature and let the actors find the balance between "weird" teenagers and thoughtful adults.
If you go
What: "I and You"
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22-23; 2 p.m. matinees Feb. 17, 24
Where: Holden Fine Arts Center, 1805 Catlin Ave.
How much: $15; seniors and students $10; UWS students $5