For the last three years I’ve been the organizer of a short-film festival dedicated exclusively to the work of high-school students from around the world. The films submitted are often a lot like you might imagine: low-budget auteur idolatry, a general air of basement and backyard spontaneity, a loose definition of plot and even looser definition of resolution. Yet there is one element that comes up again and again in the films I have watched that does surprise me: death.
There are a lot of reasons why the teenage infatuation with death might catch us off guard. Perhaps because we falsely remember a cheerier version of our own adolescence or because we see young people fawning over their smart phones and assume that a preoccupation with mortality and a healthy Snapchat habit can’t exist simultaneously. Whatever the case may be, the unnerving truth is that death holds a certain allure for the young and always has.
While Sean Graney’s “The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide” takes place at an elementary school, his and The Hypocrites’ collaboration with the Senn Arts Magnet High School’s artistic collective The Yard makes this very much a production focused on teens, “The 4th Graders Present” is schoolyard Shakespeare: melodramatic, witty and linguistically inimitable. Love, purity and honesty are paramount characteristics and the ongoing threat of their loss represents the ultimate stakes.
Graney’s play gives audiences unprecedented access to the hyperreal landscape of the developing mind where circuitous circuits of logic abound. “I do not deserve the yellow cake of your like for me,” an already body-conscious young girl tells her suitor. On paper the line has a certain charming playfulness. On stage its implications are dire. “The 4th Graders Present” unfolds as a play within a play, a suicide note from a recently departed classmate and a testament to the more grueling aspects of the supposedly golden years of our lives.
As the demographic most intimately aware of the celerity of youth, the students of The Yard do a magnificent job carrying the play’s humor and heft. The value of their work is simple though its execution is anything but. This is work for the young, by the young. It is only a matter of how we decide to define that term. For just as the acknowledgement of death knows no start and end date so too does youth exist without expiration. (Kevin Greene)
The Hypocrites at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, 1329 North Milwaukee, the-hypocrites.com, $15. Through November 8.