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Teen Scream

Sometimes You’re Related to the Bitchiest Woman You Know In This High-School Set Comedy-Drama

ONLY DISCONNECT: (clockwise from left) Dina Epshteyn, Eric Berryman, Mark Scharf, Alison Buckley, Courtney Krimmell, and Madonna Refugia can’t communicate even with a good calling plan.

By Josephine Yun | Posted 8/23/2006

Hope's Arbor

By Rich Espey

At Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre through Aug. 26

Whatever. Teenaged girls with long, silken hair, short-sleeved T-shirts stretched tightly across their formidable chests, eyebrows raised in snooty, bored petulance as they chew gum--they only smile when talking or texting on their cell phones. There was one at Spotlighters Theatre this past Saturday; whatever. Tanned, with honey-colored hair, she sat across from the black box’s entrance, sandwiched between a family and a couple.

Ironically, the Baltimore Playwrights Festival show in production, Hope’s Arbor, examines the impact of technology on human relationships--specifically, the relationships of a teenage girl who text-messages as much as she speaks. Written by local playwright and middle-school teacher Rich Espey, it’s the epitome of modern: The Spotlighters cast packed six "RazorClams" (T-Mobile Sidekick IIs) for their parts.

Hope Horrishall (Courtney Krimmell), 17, enters her final year away at preppy Thwaite Academy after a summer of college essay writing and "fat camp" implemented by her Thwaite alumna mom, Jean Fox (Alison Buckley). The family is connected by their RazorClams: Jean "summers" at the family beach house, harvesting shells for her handcrafted jewelry business, while Hope’s author dad, Peter (Mark Scharf), works on his book closer to home. But despite the family being constantly wired together, communication snafus abound. Hope’s response to it all: "Whatever."

Rather than revise her college entrance essays, Hope prefers to stay in touch with two people she met on MySpace: premed student Chris (Eric Berryman) and the exotic, nebulous Saiko (Madonna Refugia). At school, she meets new girl Caitelynne (Dina Epshteyn), but her loneliness in real life causes her to come on too strong--and Caitelynne humiliates Hope for the sake of joining a clique. Mortified, Hope logs back online, where Chris flips out over his studies during an IM session. Hope offers Chris the keys to the beach house for solace. Visiting his school under the guise of an admission interview, she leaves her parents and forces Chris to take her with him, ditching her RazorClam so she can’t be found. But Chris still has his RazorClam, and Hope can’t resist going back online.

What happens next had the audience laughing and clapping before intermission. Krimmell accomplishes the exhausting job of revolving the play around Hope with sincere, unfettered emotion--but her voice suffered, becoming roughshod, cracking, and hoarse by the show’s end. Refugia gives a troubling performance as the abused, poetic Saiko; Epshteyn’s Caitelynne is convincingly petty and deceptive. Berryman is ably indignant and philosophical as Chris, and Scharf is solid and sensible as Peter, clearly at his wit’s end in an eroded marriage. Chemistry between all combinations of actors is dazzlingly rife, with some of them switching to nonspeaking roles that are no less poignant. At one point, Hope’s fears are underscored when the other players re-create a disturbing, grotesque scene from a nightmare she has, magnifying her anguish.

But it’s Buckley who stands out as Hope’s superbitch mom--an infuriatingly obnoxious and out-of-touch ball of middle-aged unhappiness. Consistently selfish and superficial, Buckley’s Jean blindly passes her misery on to her daughter, too self-centered to see the obvious. She fights for her idea of perfection, alternately domineering and manipulative in her fake attempt at martyrdom--and though she eventually realizes the truth, it comes at a steep price.

Hope’s Arbor reminds you that today’s fast-paced, internet-savvy world is a place where anything--including misunderstanding--goes. You can hope for better, more fulfilling communication. You can ask questions and get answers. You can demand better information and meet people in real life. But in the end, you have to trust yourself.

"Hope has two daughters," Chris quips at on point, "anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, and the courage to change them." With a spectacular cast and superb dynamics all around, the Spotlighters’ production embodies both.

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