If there is one thing you can say about Kaela Mei-Shing Garvin’s play currently running at Strand Theater Company, it’s that it certainly isn’t afraid to take some chances. As a result, theatergoers get to sit back, relax, and at the same time, explore some pretty provocative dramatic territory. Such was my experience watching “High School Coven.” I left the theatre feeling energized by the acting, the witty character interplay, and the effects, and also feeling a tad uncomfortable given some of the subject matter and how it is so sadly resonant of the world we live in now.
…energized by the acting, the witty character interplay, and the effects…highly engaging direction…
Garvin gives us the story of four young women, attendees of Cupertino High School. Aside from the usual teenage preoccupations and high-school hijinks, these characters are also members of a “coven.” But leave your preconceptions about what covens do and/or how the members collectively act at the stage door. As one of the characters insightfully notes, “there is no wrong way to be a witch.” The coven Garvin presents is one of connection, of all women (beyond just cis women) supporting one another within the context of a friendship safe space that proves vital to their ability to “survive” high school.
Naomi (Libbey Kim), Liana (Nichemat Judith Saroff “NJ”), and Rachel (the riotously in-your-face Jess Rivera) are typical high school outsiders. Watching the popular goings-on from the perimeter, they secretly envy and also despise the Kristas and Kellys of the insular high school in-crowd. As a result, they’ve formed their own sacred coven where they can find solace in “spirituality without the strings.” Trina (a very compelling performance by Tatiana Nya Ford) is the independent variable here. She finds herself on the fringes of her popular friend group because of an event that serves as the central plot device. She is drawn to the coven because of their openness, their candor, and their willingness to look past conventional high-school wisdom and peer into someone’s heart versus judging by standard popular-club criteria.
The girls’ bond is what drives the bulk of this play. Their heart-to-heart discussions touch upon everything from which “Sex in the City” character they each embody; to what type of communal pet they should buy; and how to best shake up the campus by running for the top spot—school president. Garvin perfectly nails the “dialect” of modern-day teenagehood while also bringing to light a number of significant issues and challenges faced by today’s younger generation. Their homogenous, American Lit reading list for example, becomes a catalyst for asking some rather big “whys.” Why is the syllabus 90% white male authors; why are key voices in the American experience silenced; and why is navigating society seemingly a constant struggle for those who are not counted among the privileged, or in this high school setting, among the “popular.” Overall, the playwright manages to interweave the universality of these characters’ experiences with the more intimate depictions of their burgeoning individuality. Each of the four young women gets a center-stage monologue moment during which we come to learn a little more about what makes them tick.
The performances of the cast members are all-in-all quite riveting. As noted, Rivera’s Rachel holds nothing back, drawing laughter from the audience while also, on cue, making them feel what they’re supposed to feel—even if they don’t necessarily want to go there. Greta Boeringer as Principal Oversham manages to tow an important and somewhat controversial line in the sexual assault on campus conversation. She gets the audience’s attention. Perhaps though, the standout performance here is that of Betse Lyons’ Shopgirl. Her hysterical, monotone delivery juxtaposed with those moments where she’s forced to break down the walls and reveal the most vulnerable parts of herself makes for just really good theatre. She reminds me of a slightly Goth, unapologetically quirky Jennifer Coolidge.
Under Lee Conderacci’s highly engaging direction, “High School Coven” becomes a more immersive experience in which audience members do in fact feel a connection to this group of girls who just want to claim their own kind of power in their own kind of way. While set design is fairly minimal, the sound design (Madeline Oslejsek) and clever projection effects (Chris Uehlinger) add to the stark tangibility of these students’ worlds. Aria Mairin’s costume choices are a wonderful complement to the diverse casting and inclusive messages inherent in this penetrative play.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
“High School Coven” runs through February 12, 2023 at Strand Theater Company, 5426 Harford Road, Baltimore, MD 21214. For more information and tickets, go online. Patrons are required to remain masked.