The premiere of “The Best Damn Thing,” written by Hanna Kime, directed by Grace Dolezal-Ng and with original music by Sara Geist, is a semi-autobiographical retrospective on pop singer Avril Lavigne. In a show-within-a-show format told from the perspective of two high-school-age women, Ellie (Elisabeth Del Toro), a hyperactive playwright-in-training, and her emo ex-best friend, Rachel (Maya Hlava), they put aside past aggressions (or do they?) and workshop an original production based on Lavigne’s life story for their school’s upcoming theater season.
To say the event is intimate would be an understatement. Presented by and at The Understudy bookstore-turned-theater venue in Andersonville, most of the performance takes place in a narrow hallway with the audience seated on either side. At the far end of the room is a four-piece rock band and, despite the close quarters, the sound is balanced to get your blood pumping without blowing out your ears.
There are no actual Avril Lavigne songs in the show—“How much would THAT cost?” asks Rachel during a brainstorming session with Ellie. Instead, original songs are performed with a live band in the style of the pop singer. There is the fist-pumping punk-rock anthem, “Whatever,” the kitschy “Melanie” in reference to the conspiracy theory that Lavigne had died in 2003 and was replaced with a clone named Melissa Vandella, and the emotional show-ending “I Wanna Scream.” While you can’t sing along to these new tunes, they contain all the three-chord hooks the duo seek to emulate.
Ellie and Rachel workshop their new musical while confronting their tumultuous past relationship. Former best friends, Rachel had decided to do a “friend breakup” with Ellie, trading her in for a cooler clique. To Rachel’s credit, Ellie is a bit much, but Rachel’s cruelty goes beyond the pale. Vicious pranks, harsh words, betrayal… Despite all, a glimmer of hope makes reconciliation a possibility.
The two leads display an athletic amount of energy. The proximity of audience-to-actor leaves no margin for lethargy, and both Del Toro and Hlava keep the momentum going at full blast. Besides delivering heavy amounts of dialogue at a breakneck pace, the duo sing, dance, move large props and roll on the floor during an explosion of bloody tampons without breaking a sweat. If you don’t go for the nostalgia, go for the performance.
The references to popular and esoteric icons threaten to ostracize audience members not in the know. References include “Mad Men,” Richard Dawkins, Zooey Deschanel, Urban Outfitters, Frederick Nietzsche, Lululemon, grooming, Sylvia Plath… These are just the ones that I got, and the ones I didn’t, as many as I listed here, went right over my head, and left me adrift of the context of the jokes.
On the other hand, Hanna Kime’s script includes the deepest analysis of the song “Sk8er Boi” that possibly exists, adding depth to what seems like an otherwise vapid song. In short, if you don’t get it, you’re lost; if you get it, you’re in for a treat.
If you’re a Lavigne fan, you won’t want to miss this show; and even if you’re not, the enthusiastic performance of the two protagonists and catchy tunes are still enough to spark interest. If you’re looking for a fun show, why make things so complicated? Just head over to The Understudy and check out “The Best Damn Thing.”
“The Best Damn Thing” runs through February 5 at The Understudy, 5531 North Clark, and features a post-show set by Sara Geist and the Best Damn Thing band. Tickets are $25 and are available at theunderstudy.com.