More novel than a graphic novel, more colorful than a color comic book and able to entertain a middle-aged theater audience for 150 minutes, Troublemaker, or the Freakin Kick-Adventures of Bradley Boatright is a dynamic, angst-fraught, paean to the super-cool kid-power of awesome invention.
Playwright Dan LeFranc's live-action comic book captures that often overlooked demographic called tweens. Tweenagers are between and betwixt -- teetering between reality-based fantasy and fantasy-based reality. Tweens are old enough to think they understand it all and young enough to get it wrong much of the time. They perch where grays seep into an absolute world of black and white and sometimes they still want to have their shoelaces tied for them.
Bradley Boatright is a 12-year-old would-be superhero -- able to carry a giant chip on his shoulder and escape detection from adults. Gabriel King is terrific as the righteously indignant Bradley. King's charming performance captures Bradley two identities; as a sullen pre-adolescent and an amusing cartoon of sullen pre-adolescence. With his faithful best friend Mikey Minkle (Chad Goodridge) at his side and the tag-along grrrl-spunky Lorette Beretta (Jeanna Phillips) close behind, Bradley is on a mission to outwit and show-up his evil archnemesis, the stuck-up rich kid Jake Miller (Robbie Tann).
As our heroes strive to thwart Jake Miller, sidestep authority figures and plot their escape to French Canada, the play is action-packed, verbally clever and quite zany. The moving friendships, rivalries and crushes are also sweet and recognizable. Goodridge and King have a lovely chemistry, creating a rich, insular bond that reveals the intimacies of best friendship with shared secrets, elaborate high-fives and brotherly disputes. Phillips commands attention as Loretta, a wonderfully quirky tough cookie with a mouth like a licorice whip.
Set in nebulous "Nineteen Mighty-Four," Bradley and his friends wear the familiar uniforms (Paloma Young's costumes are stitch-perfect) of youth culture -- Bradley in a Where's Waldo wool cap and crumbled zipper sweatshirt, Loretta in layers of tights, socks, outerwear and a miniskirt, and Mikey in the iconic eccentric brainiac gear of an aviator hat with goggles, army surplus coat and glasses. Together they look like the gang from Scooby-Doo.
Except they curse like sailors. Well, they curse like G-rated wannabee sailors. In building a kids-only universe that exists largely in fantasy, misinformation and miscalculation, LeFranc has constructed an original and preposterous lexicon of slang, kid-cussin' and dressing downs. So it's freakin' A-hole and "are you freakin' skiddin me?" and "gum-lickin' chalk-sucker." Their laughably toothless language reveals children's attempt to feel powerful in their often powerless lives. And it shows a child's sharp-shooter verbal skills with improvised weapons: "Call me babe again," Loretta says, "I'll rip off your bread stick and shove it up your olive garden."
The original slang is integral to the play. It's a language of their own. Kids and adults really speak different languages in Troublemaker. Bradley Boatright's universe is grown-up free -- much like the Peanuts universe, where adults are only mumbly sounds.
Under Lila Neugebauer's delightful direction, Troublemaker's perspective is utterly lacking in adult supervision -- or adult point-of-view.
Neugebauer's fun and ultimately touching production weaves in and out of overactive imagination, like a Calvin and Hobbs comic strip where a tiger is a living breathing best friend, but becomes a stuffed animal when grown-ups are around.
LeFranc's awkward heroes and villains also recall the amateur exploits of Austin Powers and Dr. Evil. Tann's Jake Miller give a stand-out performance as a juvenile evil-doer, a John Hughes spoiled brat cast as a Lex Luther apprentice. He taunts Bradley with the threat that, "my dad is going to boyfriend-girlfriend your mom!"
Into the mix is a less clever plotline in which buffoonish Germans pursue Bradley, threatening to send him off to a treatment center. Danny Scheie is broadly comical as an absurd villain. Jennifer Regan doubles as the stout Nazi-type disciplinarian and as Bradley's mother. Thomas Jay Ryan doubles as the stuttering principal and Jake's dad -- who is or is not trying to boyfriend/girlfriend Bradley's mom.
Confronted by perilous predicaments and diabolical enemies (e.g., zombie pirates, exploding packages), Bradley faces colossal calamity at ever corner. Or, is he just a kid with oppositional defiant disorder? As his mother, Regan is the straight man to Bradley's over-the-top adversities. She's the crack in this kids' eye-view play; she snuffs out Bradley's hyped-up super adventures with the banal realities of domestic conflict. She drags him, kicking and screaming, out of his insular comic absurdism and into theatrical realism. And so, Troublemaker expands and transforms and is able to aptly leap genres in a single, singular play.