Twenty-four hours after seeing The Beautiful People, I still feel traumatized. The trigger warning in the Matrix Theatre lobby about nudity, violence and gunplay did little to forestall discomfort at watching—there’s no other way to say it—toxic masculinity play out onstage.
Playwright Tim Venable has created a new and important work for Rogue Machine Theatre that nonetheless churns the stomach. Yes, there are some comic moments, and plenty of insight about the lives of teen boys that aren’t all disturbing. But the overarching experience is bleak. Director Guillermo Cienfuegos ensures the emotions are raw and the action unfiltered. Several times, it felt like an actor was being hurt in the making of this play, due to physical violence choreographed by Jonathon Rider.
More often it felt like the audience might need some PTSD counseling after the show.
Alex Neher and Justin Preston brilliantly play two unnamed high school students having a sleepover in one’s suburban basement in the late 1990s. Video games, MTV, junk food and one-upmanship are their fuel. Female body parts and the latest music are among their passions.
The two have fallen into archetypical teen roles: abuser and abused. Neher plays the bully, Preston the victim. Their interactions are difficult to watch, as the bully cruelly lashes out and the victim, who only occasionally and terrifyingly fights back, sustains both emotional and physical injuries.
There are periods of normalcy as the night progresses. Anyone who’s lived through the teen years recognizes some of the misguided thought processes and ardent opinions about pop culture, the high-energy bouncing off the walls of what feels very much like an area where parents would exile their testosterone-packed son. It’s the intense anger that (hopefully!) isn’t so familiar.
The interactions build as the night progresses, although it’s never clear where it’s going. Spoiler alert: There’s no happy ending here, no adult intervention, no kumbaya moment. Instead, the audience staggers out having witnessed what feels like an authentic horror story.
The Beautiful People from Rogue Machine Theatre is onstage at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. through July 31. Running time is 85 minutes. Performances take place Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8:00pm (no show July 4) and Sundays at 3:00pm. Tickets are $45 and can be purchased here. Onstage seating is available for those who like to be even closer to the action.
About Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Neo Ensemble Theatre in Hollywood.
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