EMPLOYEE OF THE YEAR (Fringe): Preteens tell a story of universal significance

Photo by Maria Baranova
Photo by Maria Baranova

A girl, about twelve years old, stands at the corner of a large white mat. As she tells the story of J, a three-year-old left alone in a garden, she raises one arm ninety degrees to her side, the hand slightly splayed at the end. She follows the arm with her eyes. “This is my house,” she says. She raises the other arm about 45 degrees. “This is that game with the sticks.” The arms stay in the air as she continues.

Minimalistic changes in body architecture accompany the life story of J, as told by five young women in constant monologue. J’s house burns down, she discovers secrets about her parents, she runs away from home and has all her money stolen; though the play follows some of the most traumatic events in J’s life, it is told through short, declarative statements. The engaging young performers speak with minimal emotional elaboration, allowing the story to be ours to interpret.

600 Highwaymen, the New York-based production team of Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, write plays for specific individuals, working often with “non-actors.” This play is written specifically for the five girls who perform it, who are now 11-12 and were 9-10 at the time they first performed it.

The apparent innocence of the performers is a constant reminder of youth, and the recycling of life; it is also a warning, as juxtaposed with the story of aging, loss, and choices, we can look forward from them and back from the quickly aging woman they are describing.

Employee of the Year is a stark, accessible, touching story told via minimal and distinctly theatrical means. There are no light changes or sound cues to “enhance” from the youths’ performance, or direct the audience’s interpretation; the “importance” of J’s story is driven by the hangups each audience member brings into the theater. I walk away reminded of the simplicity of theater, the universality of its tools, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a nagging fear of loneliness and failure.

The life picture of J, told from start to finish in seventy minutes, seems appallingly bare. A decade slips by in minutes. Single moments of joy or pain become extremely important. J, like her audience, rarely has time to stop and look back, wonder why she’s made the choices she has, and why she is so constantly left to deal with those choices alone. [Fringe, 140 N. Columbus Blvd.] February 26-27, 2016; fringearts.org.

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