Wrestling with sexuality

Seattle Children's Theatre takes risks on the mat.


Seattle Center, Seattle Children's Theatre 441-3322, $14.50-$22.50 7 p.m. Fri.; 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Sat.-Sun. runs Fri., Jan. 11-Sat., Feb. 16

LINDA HARTZELL usually only has to worry about friendly spiders and giant poultry. The Seattle Children's Theatre has tackled Big Issues before, but as artistic director Hartzell can tell you, the bulk of its aesthetic output—wistful fare like Charlotte's Web and The Hoboken Chicken Emergency—is a far cry from a production revolving around the conflicted tenderness between two teenage boys. Sexuality, let alone homosexuality, may not seem like child's play to many parents.

"It's funny—the parents will [accept] a show about anything, but if it deals with sexuality . . . ," a wary Hartzell says, trailing off. "[But] on a scale of ten, ten being really promiscuous and provocative, this play is a one."

The Wrestling Season, which opens this week, focuses on the psychological tumult of a couple of high-school wrestlers who are rumored to be gay. Laurie Brooks' play, which caused little controversy in its initial incarnation at Missouri's Coterie Theatre, avoids earnest, cloying didacticism by treating her protagonists' pains as one piece of a larger, more uncertain teenage world. Best friends Matt and Luke are caught up in a complex maelstrom and surrounded by male and female peers being battered by their own secret storms.

Hartzell first witnessed the piece's effectiveness a few years ago at a Kennedy Center youth theater festival. "I saw a whole row sitting next to me of kids 13 to 15—very, very blond, all of them," she remembers. "They were cheerleader/football player kinds of kids. And I looked down the row and [watched] the body language when they were all leaning into it and compelled by it. Then I thought, 'OK, this is a good piece.'"

Meant for audiences 12 years old and up, Brooks' version of sexual angst dramatically sidesteps the kind of overt depictions that unnerve students and educators alike through the highly theatrical use of its central metaphor. The events are physically clean but emotionally indelibly messy.

"The metaphor, of course, is that we wrestle our way through the whole play, just in the same way you sort of wrestle your way through high school—and it's not without injury," says director Jeff Church, who has been with the piece since its Coterie commission. "Every scene, even the dramatic scenes, are wrestled. That, I think, elevates the play to a very interesting, more universal level than if we did the mundane 'Here's the play in the high-school hallway.' I don't think there's a stand-around, naturalism scene in the whole piece. It doesn't look much like anything you've ever seen."

A cast full of attractive young actors who spend the entire play wearing nothing but wrestling singlets must be a sight, too.

"It's bulges and bumps right from the beginning," Church admits, noting that the tactic allows students to get the giggles out early. "Our theory is we let them get it over with in the beginning. And then they [take] it serenely seriously, brilliantly seriously, two minutes into it. But we purposely put this really strong cue at the front to diffuse whatever it is that has to happen." Discomfort should be further diffused at a post- play discussion that finds the kids interacting with performers who remain in character to accept advice from the audience. The conceit gives students a chance to explore unsettling ambiguities outside of the sometimes antiseptic constraints of the classroom.

Brooks isn't aiming for clean-cut answers to murky questions. Neither Matt nor Luke ever officially comes out as gay, and the promising relationship between Matt and a sweet, supposedly whorish girl he's used as a decoy is never settled. The Wrestling Season asks only that teenagers be allowed to feel their own way to an honest understanding of their personal identities, and recognizes the emotional challenge as a great feat of sportsmanship itself.


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