The onset of an unknown ailment or disease can cause confusion, concern and outright panic. Witness the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s and today’s COVID pandemic. In playwright Elenna Stauffer’s modest one-act, Hysterical!, a nameless malady - maybe real, maybe not - is the antecedent for a meditation on alienation, inclusion, relationships, and the pressures high school women face.
Meet The Bandits, a cheerleading squad led by the take charge Senior captain, Shannon (Olivia Billings). There is fellow Senior, Madison (Kendyl Grace Davis), and captain-in-waiting, Charlotte (Julia Crowley), Mia (Isa Muiño), and Freshman, Maddie (Shannon Helene Barnes). They are a well-oiled unit, even though their personalities don’t necessarily mesh. When a mysterious illness sidelines Mia, it is just the start of a reckoning the teammates must face with each other and their future.
Ms. Stauffer’s structures the play, at first, as a comedic piece. You can’t help but laugh at the appearance of Mia’s tics. However, the smiles soon turn to unease as the depth of the spasmodic twitches take hold and the young woman’s life, as well as other members of The Bandits’, takes a darker turn. The playwright has stated she based the work on a real-life event of mass hysteria among high school girls. We never do find out the root cause of the problem. But that’s not the point. Ms. Stauffer wants to use the situations and conditions to ruminate about acceptance and understanding.
The playwright incorporates humor into the show as a way to leaven the dramatic and emotional toll of the teenagers. In a number of the staccato-like scenes in the production, she cleverly employs three of the cheerleaders as a type of Greek Chorus. While running through precision routines, they comment on the events and feelings the students are going through. It adds needed exposition and provides a good dose of levity to the production. Bianca Paolello, billed as the show’s Cheer Coach, does a marvelous job shaping the actresses into a accomplished crew.
While the five actresses tackle their roles with commitment and spunk, I never felt overly connected to their plight. They did convey a disorientation and bitterness to their quandary but, on the whole, I felt their portrayals lacked nuance and relied too heavily on histrionics.
Director Tracy Brigden has formed a cohesive group of young actresses. She skillfully integrates the cheerleading sequences with moments of personal reflection and confrontation. Ms. Brigden adroitly balances the humor and seriousness of the work,
Scenic Designer Emmie Finckel has laid out a simple astroturf flooring, which easily covers the set of Athena (playing in repertory with Hysterical!). Costume Designer Brenda Phelps has crafted distinctive cheerleading outfits. Lighting Designer Adam Lobelson bathes the set with an intense quality and Sound Designer Jason Peck adds fitting background noises.
Hysterical!, playing through August 6 at Thrown Stone in
Ridgefield. Click here for information on dates,
times and tickets.