4 out of 4 stars
Raven Theatre presents the Chicago premiere of award winning playwright Anna Jordan’s compelling drama YEN, directed by Elly Green. Set in current London, two practically feral teenage brothers live alone in their filthy flat with a dog named Taliban, perpetually bathed in the blue glow of their screens: playing video games, watching porn, waiting for the occasional visit from their detached mother, and surviving. But what happens when the new girl next door barges in to their little blue world?
As a visual artist, my eyes immediately are drawn into the sparse set. With minimalism designs detail reigns. The trash underneath the pull out sofa, exposed wires, and peeling paint all contribute to the environment impacting the characters. The audience sits in an intimate theater with the stage acting like a window into the apartment. Joe Schermoly’s scenic design is anything but boring though! As the narrative progresses, walls move back and fling up to reveal a third more stage space. It widens the audience’s perspective outside these four walls. The jarring contrast in removing the characters outside their environment and forced into another.
Bobbie (Jesse Aaronson) and his older brother Hench (Reed Lancaster) have a turbulent relationship to say the least. Crammed in the small square footage, the two are barely surviving. Among regular brotherly issues and rough housing, they share even the bare necessities like a shirt between them for going outside to the shop. Alexis Chaney and their costume design simply reflects the environment with brown trousers, worn gym shoes and no socks. Although it is never stated, Bobbie has traits on the spectrum for Autism or something like it. This adds to the complex dimensions of the step-brother relationship. Aaronson portrays Bobbie in such an endearing and charismatic way that serious moments truly evoke a strong empathetic quality. Playing opposite, the strong standoffish Hench is caught between a rock and a hard place as Bobbie’s caretaker and provider at the tender age of 16. Hench’s quirks with twitching eyes and aggressive behavior was a characteristic well portrayed by Lancaster.
Aaronson and Lancaster balance each other well with natural chemistry. The blocking and fight choreography by Sam Hubbard is phenomenally scrappy, but also includes carefully placed safety practices – particularly regarding aggressive events and self-harm. The stage never seems crowded and keeps the audience in engaged constantly with any of the characters. The transitions between scenes is also engaging through track lighting around the edges of the back wall and downstage edge give the appearance of a glowing screen or even a night club. Claire Chrzan (lighting design) hones the subtleness it takes to illustrate believable transitioning sunlight throughout a 24-hour cycle. Paired with Aaron Stephenson’s sound design of distant airplanes, sirens, and the like give a heartbeat to the work. The piece feels full and well round from the acting and visual end, which leads me to highlighting how incredibly well written this work is.
Award winning playwright Anna Jordan is a London-based playwright, director and acting coach. Jordan writes such relatable themes with a poignant ferocity that is layered from scene to scene. It is a packed with humility, intensity and powerful interactions between strangers and family members. The production is an excellent portrayal to complexities and the crude harsh realities of abandonment in adolescence. A raw honesty, yet sensitive approach in comparative lives of what growing up really means. Tiffany Bedwell plays the uncommitted neglectful mother that is juxtaposed against Netta Walker’s character of new girl to the neighborhood, Jennifer. Each woman is exposed the hardships of loss, abuse, and finding one’s path. They play the endearing nurturing beacons against the chaos of these boy’s lives. Jordan’s plays have been performed internationally and YEN has garnered the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting 2013 and Shortlist of Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Jordan is also the Artistic Director of Without a Paddle Theatre.
YEN is a marathon at the speed of sprint and a harrowing depiction of inner demons released from pain and neglect. It is wonderfully energetic and compelling from the script to the caliber of acting. This performance is an unrelenting barrage of truth and complexity that is soaked into every scene. Highly recommend catching this show while it’s around!
YEN is playing now through May 5th, 2019 at the Raven Theatre at 6157 N. Clark St in Chicago. For more information and tickets, please visit www.raventheatre.com or by calling (773) 338-2177.
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!