The Fringe of Friends

friendsliketheselogoGregory Crafts’s play Friends Like These, which had a brief, successful run at the first-ever Hollywood Fringe Festival, is a smart, brooding possum of a show. I say this because it initially plays dumb and light. When we first meet our small ensemble of characters—Garrett the geek, Diz the freak, Brian the nice guy, Jesse the jock, and Nicole the cheerleader—they cling so tightly to their clichés, one wonders if they had accidentally slipped into a cheesy, eighties high-school movie. But once you start to really listen to the dialogue, you realize something odd: these stock characters can’t stop talking about their own stereotypes. They seem to be self-consciously obsessed with their own roles in life. And that’s when Friends Like These starts to reveal itself as a play less about high-school or petty romance, but about identity and the darkness that often feuls it.

Before any actors even enter stage, a montage of semi-hysterical newscasts can be heard over blackness; reports of a school shooting, four victims, lots of questions. The incident is not brought up again for some time, but serves as what a high-school English teacher would dub as foreshadowing. Images of Columbine-like violence are conjured up in the minds of the audience, only to lay dormant for the majority of a seemingly harmless production. You have Garrett, who meets up with the much more popular Nicole. The two go on a date, hit it off, and before you know it, they’re attracting the jealous attention of Nicole’s ex-boyfriend, Jesse, as well as Garrett’s female partner in crime, Diz. We, as watchers of this John Hughes-esque tale of geek-meets-girl, are left to wonder how such events can lead to the something so extreme.

Along this journey, we are introduced to the world of LARP-ing (aka Live Action Role Play). It’s where Garrett and his geeky friends go to act like they’re characters in World of Warcraft, and it provides a nice break from the high-school hum-drum, but also serves a much deeper function. It’s an update of Shakespeare’s woods, where lovers’ identities are jumbled and proven false, where truth reveals itself in strange ways. One of my favorite moments from these LARP-ing scenes is when Nicole (who Garrett brought to the event) is suddenly attacked by black-hooded, enemy figures called “Darknesses.” They surround her menacingly, until Garrett steps in and fights them off.

The reason I like this bit so much is because I feel it is representative of Garrett’s personal test in this play. He has to fight off the Darknesses in order to get the girl. And in Crafts’s vision, as brought to life by directors Sean Fitzgerald and Vance Roi Reyes, the Darknesses are all-encompassing. There’s so much hate in high-school, so much raw anger, rage, and cruelty. It’s hard to fend it off.  And everything about the production reiterates this theme loud and clear. The set: five colored pillars (symbolic of the five characters) enshrouded by looming blackness. The music: mid-90’s grunge and pop-metal, emlematic of the post-Cobain struggle to compromise between 80’s mindlessness and early-90’s self destruction. The costumes: Garrett, for instance, swims in the customary black attire of goth kids, his hands constantly squirming in their pockets, dying to break out.

Despite a few technical snafus and a couple missed moments acting-wise (though Ryan J. Hill and Sarah Smick were consistently on their game), Friends Like These does what it sets out to do: it questions the identities we wear, whether in high-school or older. And it asks an important question for our time, which is whether or not these identities are just heavy defense pads against something brighter within us. According to Crafts, you can fight the darknesses, but in order to do so, you have to first realize that they’re really just other geeks like you wearing black-hooded robes. Otherwise, you’ll get smothered.

- By Joshua Morrison

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