Troublemaker at Berkeley Rep Is a "Freakin'" Great Play

Categories: Review, Theater
Troublemaker_Kevin Berne.jpg
Kevin Berne
Nemesis Jake Miller (Robbie Tann) and our hero Bradley "Freakin" Boatright (Gabriel King) have the worst kind of showdown: the middle school kind.

Recent graduates of prestigious MFA playwriting programs have all heard the same maxim: To get plays produced, write producible plays -- i.e., those that make few budgetary demands.

Dan LeFranc, a graduate of Brown, defies this wisdom. His Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright, now in its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, features a cast of nine (most of whom play multiple roles), innumerable scene and costume changes, and three acts with two intermissions, all of which last two and a half hours.

Yet any producer that balks at these stats is missing out.

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For thinking so big with his theatrics, the story LeFranc tells sounds deceptively simple, small, and familiar: A boy, Bradley Boatright (Gabriel King), grows up by coming to terms with his past. But in LeFranc's uncompromisingly truthful yet warm and tender telling, growing up becomes almost an original play topic. His notion of maturing is about learning how to not fill every silence, how to uphold fiery beliefs while also being in and of one's surroundings.

If this all sounds earnest-qua-cloying, Troublemaker is also one of the most riotous comedies recently seen on Bay Area stages. A large part of the humor is linguistic. LeFranc's characters speak their own language, what might be called Tween-ese. "Freak" functions much as "fuck" does, an emphasizer and every-three-words placeholder whose all-purposefulness verges on meaninglessness, though it does have delightful aural qualities. "Dong" is the male genitalia. "Crotch" is the worst possible epithet, even more insulting than "a-hole." And "boyfriend-girlfriend" is a transitive verb. In this world, one would never answer a question with simply the word "both" when he or she could say "pretty much freakin both." The ensemble deploys this dialect with so much rhythm and verve that they seem to create a superhuman level of language fluency in which id and speech are perfectly aligned.

Bradley has cast himself as the superhero in a comic book world, complete with a self-composed origin story. He's on a quest to protect his partner (definitely not "black sidekick") Mikey (Chad Goodridge) from bullies, his single mother Patricia (Jennifer Regan) from new love interests, and eventually himself from a special boarding school for bad kids, a fate he tries to escape with an elaborate plan involving a constant stream of "intel," potions from a science fair, and an escape route to French Canada, "the Wild, Wild West of the North-Northeast."

Director Lila Neugebauer's staging maximizes the script's comic and comic book possibilities. Cheesy "dun dun dun" sound effects, by Jake Rodriguez, let us know when danger lurks near, amplifying Bradley's sense that he lives in a world populated by good guys and bad guys with nothing in between. A circular conveyor belt, half of which is hidden by the rear wall, has the practical advantage of zipping set pieces on and off while also allowing for spectacularly silly run-in-place chase scenes. (Kris Stone did the scenic design.) Costumes, by Paloma Young, reward scrutiny. Mikey's impeccably geeky ensemble features not just the usual suspects like too-short pants but also an aviator cap and a cargo belt. Her design also offers delectable surprises that even those swept along by the giddy pace can't miss -- for instance, a single neon athletic glove, used for playing arcade games.

The ensemble members take contagious delight in their roles' cartoonish qualities. Robbie Tann, as Bradley's nemesis Jake Miller, has a full-necked evil laugh, and his goons, or, as the script calls them, A-Holes No. 1 and 2 (Matt Bradley and Ben Mehl), make docile, evil stupidity a lively and dynamic character trait. This is not to say that all the fine acting on display in Troublemaker is comic; when the play shifts in tone -- a total but completely earned transformation -- and these same actors must stumble their way through pidgin adult-ese, every choice is equally thoughtful and well executed.

The one piece that doesn't work is the character of Patricia. Unlike the other characters, she is never allowed a zany moment, which makes her tonally incongruous. But she is also made to bear too much of the play's emotional weight -- How many times must she react with shock and anger and sadness when Bradley abuses her? -- without being allowed to be a real person. Even if Bradley can only see her as a generic mother figure, the audience should be able to see more if the injuries heaped upon her are supposed to register any more than they would for a stereotype of the helpless grieving mother.

This problem aside, LeFranc's play represents an exciting departure from contemporary playwriting-as-usual. Get off your freakin A's and go see it.

Troublemaker continues through February 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Admission is $29-$77.

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