“Zero” is enigmatic, devious, heartbreaking, and breathtaking. Set in a private reform school/residential treatment center called St. Vedastus Academy for Misguided Teens, it does a masterful job of depicting the relationships among the kids.
These actors took this script and knocked it out of the park.
Full disclosure — I worked for nearly 10 years in a residential treatment center for children and teenagers as a counselor. Much of the dialogue and sheer manner of relating took me back to the most fulfilling, demanding, and frustrating job I ever had. The playwright, Ian August, gets it.
The play is a little less successful when detailing interactions between the staff and the kids, but that might be because there simply isn’t as much of it.
The story belongs to the kids — Nil (an inspired Emmett Grosland), Harrison (Dylan Fleming), and Julia (Shubhangi Kuchibhatla). On the periphery of the group, who sort of sets things in motion, is Nick (Alejandro Ruiz). The relationships are complicated, at times transactional, fraught (not a word I use a lot, but it’s what really happens) with the uneasy alliance of being and not being with others in a strange country. Fleming’s Harrison was gifted in subtle ways, and as Julia, Kuchibhatla was riveting. Grosland took the character Nils through an arc to self-awareness and responsibility that was raw and honest.
And this type of facility is a strange country. Nagivating adolescence when you’ve been shunted off the “normal” path to adulthood is to be knocked to the ground and stepped on. These actors took this script and knocked it out of the park. They got that these kids were bravado and despairing, bone-deep hurting and sometimes cruel, deeply empathetic and seriously indifferent to others — all at the same time. This was survival. And they breathed life into these roles that was smashing.
The same can’t be said for the three “adult” roles. Local theatre stalwart Rick Hammerly played three roles — the headmistress of the school, Dr. Virginia Woodhouse; the English teacher with a nasty secret, Mr. Gaines; and Sgt. Riggs. As written, they seemed almost caricatures and given the intensity of the other roles, it was a little jarring. Although, I would have loved to have seen Hammerly take a shot at Bad Mary, the head of security, who is never seen. Hammerly did a fine job with the material he was given, but it was thin.
And in the end, the adults didn’t matter — it was up to the kids to figure out how to save themselves.
For the most part the pacing was tight. There was a bit of a lag in the first few scenes, but then it all coalesced. Kudos to Craig Baldwin, the director, for his work in pulling off such a feat in a physically-separate on-line environment. Special kudos to video editor Gordon Nimmo-Smith for smashing work on the backgrounds and special effects, and sound editor David Crandall who used some nicely eerie sound effects to move the action along. Both did outstanding work in fostering a sense of place and movement.
This is an intriguing work and should be seen. The script opens the hearts and minds of the kids, and it may just open the hearts and minds of the audience too. Nobody should ever be left to be a “nil.”
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 55 minutes with a brief intermission.
Show Advisory: Adult language, references to violent sexual situations, self harm and violence toward others, cigarette smoking.
“Zero,” presented by Spooky Action Theater Online Project, runs through August 19, 2020. For more information, please click here.