At the top of Be Aggressive’s second act, after Laura breaks the awkward silence of a car ride with an earful of seahorse trivia, Leslie says, “You’re not gonna be one of those people who fills the quiet spaces with like, metaphors, are you?” Be Aggressive, written by Annie Weisman, fills every quiet space with metaphor, burying questions of death and loss in the mundane images of smoothie shops, gopher burrows and cheer practice.
Directed by Elizabeth Carlson-Guerin, visiting assistant professor of drama, for the Kenyon College Dance, Drama and Cinema Club (KCDC), Be Aggressive runs at the Bolton Theater on Feb. 1, 2 and 3. The play opens in the seaside California town of Vista Del Sol. Seventeen-year-old Laura, played by Emma Daily ’18, must grapple with the unexpected death of her mother, who was struck in a hit-and-run while jogging. In a play where monologues on mourning meet spectacularly choreographed cheers, the performances, especially Daily’s, stand out for their energy and complexity.
Laura struggles to connect with her buttoned-up father Phil (Mark Ashin ’18) and feels ill-equipped to step into her mother’s shoes for her little sister Hannah (Nina Samaan ’20). Looking for solace, Laura turns to cheerleading and finds a new friend in one of her squadmates, Leslie (Meredith Rupp ’19).
Tired of playing second fiddle to the other cheerleaders, the two set their sights on the Spirit Institute of the South, a two-week cheerleading program that promises training and professional achievement. All Laura and Leslie need is $1,000, a car and a killer standing back tuck.
Daily shines in the starring role, equally comfortable lampooning a smoothie sales pitch and conveying Laura’s confusion and frustration. She and Rupp develop a compelling chemistry that pays off when the second act isolates Laura and Leslie from the rest of the characters. Samaan, too, is a magnetic presence whose smile and verve are welcome buoys in a play preoccupied with grief.
The minimalist production, with set design by Christopher Ellsworth, technical director in the Department of Dance, Drama and Film, and lighting design by Rebecca Wolf, associate professor of drama, plays well to Weisman’s sense of the absurd. Eerie blue-and-red lighting casts a hellish glow on the cheerleading squad as they deliver gory rumors of the hit-and-run with unnerving pep. As counterbalance, small details on set help to ground the play — an ever-present family photo reminds us of the trauma that drives the characters to dark humor.
With its willingness to combine the routine with the outlandish, Be Aggressive addresses a bevy of moral gray areas. Characters lie, cheat and steal to cope with their grief. A controversial freeway construction project becomes a centerpiece for some of the play’s thorniest questions about individualism, materialism and responsibility.
Unfortunately, the play shies away from reckoning with all the questions it raises. At its best, Be Aggressive asks us to consider how far its characters will go to chase their American Dream, and what they are willing to lose along the way. But at crucial moments, the play hits more cloying notes. A late plot twist, slightly cheap, leads Laura and Leslie to a predictable realization. The play’s conclusion opts for sentiment over politics.
This production leans into that sentimentality, doing a disservice to the many tough questions it raised in its first 90 minutes. But it did raise them. With its maze of absurdity and ambiguity, Be Aggressive leaves you questioning who you are cheering for and why, perhaps, you are cheering at all.
Be Aggressive will run on Thursday, Feb. 1, Friday, Feb. 2 and Saturday, Feb. 3 at 8 p.m. in the Bolton Theater.