On the weekend of Friday and Saturday April 15 and 16, Puget Sound students were treated to The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide, a play described by one actor as “exactly what it sounds like.”
Directed by Joey Fechtel, the 50-minute play formed a part of the Senior Theater Festival, and portrayed a fourth grade class putting on a play… written by a classmate who had killed himself. While The 4th Graders Present had its moments of both sincerity and sadness, bolstered by brilliant and genuine acting from several players, it ultimately suffered from a too-complicated premise, an awkward script and a melodramatic ending.
The play-within-a-play tells the story of Johnny (Derek Rainey), an awkward boy, and Rachel (Grace Libby), a “fat” girl with beautiful braids, whom he loves.
The drama of the story is evoked by the bully Sally (Theresa Gabrielli) and her boyfriend Mike Rice (Henry Funk), who cause nothing but trouble for the two fledgeling lovebirds. It’s a fun premise; however, the fact that these fourth graders are—stick with me—played by fourth graders, played by college students, leads to all sorts of complications.
The script of the play-within-the-play had to have been plausibly written by a fourth grader, and this sometimes led to fun or cute moments when, for example, Mike Rice struts on stage and announces “I am a bully!” However, it generally worked against the production by muddling the drama. One affectation that the fourth grader’s script included was that of shunning contractions; that is, an abundance of “I do not”s, “I will”s, etc. This particular quality of the script forced a surreality into many of the scenes that served only to confuse and annoy.
Further issues with the script included moments limited by the fictitious fourth grade playwright’s explanatory skills: after Mike Rice announces that he is a bully, he launches into a long, rambling, speech in which he attempts to articulate the feelings which have led him to his bullying ways, a speech which ultimately falls flat due to the supposed playwright’s own confusion on the matter.
Script issues aside, the actors themselves were faced with the daunting task of portraying fourth graders portraying fourth graders. The decision clearly had to be made at some point on whether the actors should portray these fourth-graders-portrayed-by-fourth graders as realistically as they could, or whether to consider the fact that most fourth graders aren’t very good actors.
The Puget Sound cast seemed to choose the first option, and for the most part played their parts well—perhaps a little too well. Would a fourth grade actor really be able to laugh, cry, perform so convincingly? Probably not. However, that being said, the performances still remained the highlight of the show.
Another frustration was the layout of the stage in relation to the audience: the audience sat in a circle around the action, which resulted in the actors always facing away from a significant portion of the audience regardless of where they stood.
Marika Proctor as Lucy Law, the cheerful hall monitor, was one actress who stood out among her peers for her subtle and endearing performance, and made audience members wish that they could consistently see her face.
Ultimately, while the play suffered a sort of Inception-style crisis of identity with plays-within-plays and characters-within-characters, it still managed to have a multitude of enjoyable moments with its more lighthearted subject matter.
It was when it veered to darker territory, particularly at the end with a highly melodramatic onslaught of murder and suicide, that the shortcomings of the material swept up and over the actors, overshadowing their genuine talent with confusion, melodrama and ultimately, dissatisfaction.
[PHOTO COURTESY/JESSE BALDGRIDGE]