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Theater Review:

"ABOUT FACE YOUTH THEATRE: IN REAL LIFE" at About Face Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Since their revelatory debut two years ago with "First Breath" (a collaborative piece about grappling with sexual identity), About Face Youth Theatre’s artists continue to build their confidence, creativity and commitment to a cause. Last year, the group presented "Raising Voices," which placed homosexuality in a historical context.

This summer, the young performers expand their reach to the Internet. "About Face Youth Theatre: In Real Life (AFYT: IRL)" is based on the personal stories of hundreds of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning youth and their allies (LGBTQA) from around the world, gathered through the newly launched Youth Theatre website: www.afyt.com.

This astute 90-minute theater piece – inventively constructed and robustly performed by a 20-member Youth Theatre ensemble – was developed by over 50 youth together with eight Youth Theatre staff members. The work opens in high-tech/Technicolor bursts (provided by lighting designer Seth Reinick) as the stage is transformed into a huge computer screen complete with suggestions of icons and the actors standing in for search engines.

"Who are you?" is the production’s central question, which weaves through humorous, wrenching and topical stories ranging from a young girl’s decision to represent gay youth at a national conference televised on CNN to one woman’s travails over wanting to wear a tuxedo to her prom to issues of teen self-injury, suicide and HIV/AIDS.

What makes About Face Youth Theatre such an exhilarating group to watch is its total lack of self-pitying angst. The artists take a mature and innovative approach to crafting truly theatricalized moments from real life. So their wide-reaching accounts are placed in metaphoric and multidimensional contexts that allow for endless exploration.

The ensemble consists of Tony Alvardo, Gelson Andujar, Packii Berry, Jesus Chapa-Malacara, Quinton Clemons, Brenna Conley-Fonda, Cameron Estrich, Allison Fox, Hannah Garber-Paul, Andre Gardner, Elliot Greenberger, Cres Hernandez, Greg Him, Andy Hunt, Ryan Inton, Rico Johnson, Jamie (Chase) Machotka, Raul Montes, Charlie Morris and Shawn Quinlan.

They were guided by About Face artists Megan Carney, Brian Goodman, Zahra Baker, Greg Copeland, Scott Ferguson, Kyle Hall, Eric Rosen and Paul Oakley Stovall. And the production features the insightful talents of designers Geoffrey M. Curley, Jennifer Keller and Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman.

A particularly powerful story is that of a lonely adolescent boy who tries to bring his "Miss Piggy" doll to life with battery chargers so that he can have "a lifelong friend." When his experiment fails, he learns to become self-sufficient – "knowing that no one in this world could ever understand me."

Yet understanding is at the core of About Face Youth Theatre’s work. The group addresses layers of misperceptions that exist within and outside the gay community. More informational outlets, like the Internet, provide greater opportunities to send out messages of tolerance. But as the troupe so candidly proves, the Internet can create a whole new form of deception and mistrust, which each provocative Chat Room sequence unveils.

And discrimination can run rampant among "cyber queers." For instance, an Asian youth says that he is referred to as a "rice queen" on line; a Latino and African-American youth are similarly pigeonholed. The three band together and make an empowering proclamation: "Ethnicity is not a fetish!"

Part youth-activist rally, part gorgeously textured theater, "In Real Life" calls for change without beating the audience over the head with anger and guilt. One of the most effective sequences is a brilliant parody of the song, "Tell Me More," from "Grease" refashioned as "Tell Me Why" and set during a controversial senior prom. This scene, which ends on a joyous note, reverses itself as the writer-performers share what really happens in an intolerant world.

During the softly urgent finale, the cast asks for a moment of silence "for those who cannot say the truth about their lives out loud." Their silence evoked the same kind of explosive energy as their words.•

"About Face Youth Theatre: In Real Life (AFYT: IRL)" runs through July 22 at About Face Theatre, 3212 N. Broadway. Tickets: $18-$22. Call 773-549-3290.

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