“I and this mystery, here we stand.”
These words, from Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” are among the first lines uttered in Lauren Gunderson’s tight, funny, dramatic play “I and You,” now in a new production from Capital T Theatre and running through April 14 at Ground Floor Theatre. Anthony, the boy who first quotes the line, says it as he stands before Carolina, a classmate into whose room he has just intruded. Carolina has been home sick from school because of ongoing complications with her liver, and Anthony is there to work with her on a project about Walt Whitman.
This simple premise unwinds over the 90-minute run time. The play is neatly divided into three scenes that show the progression of the teens’ Whitman presentation as well as the development of their friendship. Just as Whitman used the medium of poetry to express a multitude of highly personal thoughts about a country and culture on the verge of splitting itself in two, Gunderson uses the medium of humorous dialogue between these two characters to express the realities of teen life in the fractious, social-media-obsessed 21st century.
Capital T’s production is a part of the company’s annual New Directions program, which “offers a young director with no professional credit the opportunity to direct a full-length play and bring a fresh new voice to Austin theater while getting paid.” This year, that director is Simone Alexander, who has crafted an intimate, intensely youthful piece alongside a talented cast, with Kenah Benefield as Anthony and Mia King as Caroline.
Much like Whitman’s poem, “I and You” rambles in subject and tone, but it constantly returns to a playful manner that underlies the discussions of serious issues, ranging from death to disease to the nature of being open and honest with oneself (and with others). The vast majority of the play eschews any narrative bells and whistles, instead focusing on the two characters’ thoughts, feelings and growing friendship. Alexander approaches the text in the same way, giving her two stars plenty of room to command the stage.
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King and Benefield have an electric chemistry, one that is believably antagonistic, romantic and platonic, sometimes all at the same time. The deeper that their conversation — and thus their relationship — gets, the more they ratchet up the intensity through subtle tonality and physicality. What’s most impressive is their ability to convincingly portray high school students, poised on the cusp between childhood and an adult world that both intrigues and frightens them. Gunderson’s text resists the urge to delve into traditional stereotypes, and so do Alexander and her two actors.
In a time where teenagers are making their voices heard in the loudest possible public arena and showing us that they have what it takes to lead our country into the future, it is more important than ever to see that kind of intelligent, composed and articulate (yet still frequently confused and self-conscious) teen represented in our media. By creating a deep, soulful connection between two nuanced and troubled characters, poised on the brink between hope for the future and despair, “I and You” provides us with a vision of what it looks like to “sing” and celebrate the self even as it argues that nobody should have to sing alone.
“I and You”
When: 8 p.m. April 6-7, April 9 and April 11-14
Where: Ground Floor Theatre, 979 Springdale Road #122