By GWEN AVILES
Throughout your time at Cornell, you will meet a multitude of “writers”; people who are currently writing, but never seem to produce anything, or at least not enough to see their work fully actualized. But that is not the case for Anna Alison Brenner ’16, a senior who’s been penning some version of the play Twentyhood (which premiered at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts this weekend) for the last few years. According to the director of the show, Andrea Fiorentini ’16, Fiorentini has watched this show become “pulled apart, created and recreated” as it grew from “a play about painting, to a play about Italy, to a play about self-discovery and college life.” There is no doubt this play has many faces, both literally and figuratively, and that is due in part to Brenner’s identity as a logophile. Actors learned to adapt quickly as lines were changed, re-molded or discarded, even during the week leading up to the show.
Yet, neither the last minute line adjustments nor the sensitive, personal material of the play Twentyhood seemed to faze any of the actors. Twentyhood follows the narrative of Olive (“like the fruit”) Glass, a college student who is staying with her friends during a summer in Ithaca. Glass, portrayed by Elise Czuchna ’18 is a revered playwright, respected by peers and faculty alike for her talent. However, Olive’s security in her playwriting identity does not extend itself to all facets of her life. During her summer as a “Lampchop Playwriting Fellow,” (Brenner has a habit of poking fun at the world of theater while at the same time embracing it), Olive develops feelings for two of the actors in her theater program, Evander, played by Luke Bianco (’19) and Helena, played by Siobhan Brandman ’17. Olive first tries to convince herself it’s the charming (albeit broke) Southern gentleman that she wants, but then realizes their interactions are far more awkward and entail far less chemistry than she had originally conceived. I mean, really, who quotes Romeo and Juliet upon leaving the girl they just kissed for the first time? Not only is it a little obnoxious, but it’s one of those things some girls might think will be romantic in theory, but is just cringe worthy in actuality. Instead, it is Brandman’s tantalizing and fearless Helena that captures Olive’s affections and the affections of the audience. That is, until Helena starts hooking up with Evander herself, leaving Olive in the lurch.
Twentyhood is remarkable for several reasons, a primary one being its commitment to truthful storytelling and avoidance of all that is maudlin and trite (especially since the show, co-sponsored by Haven, Cornell’s LGBTQ Student Union, obviously touches upon serious issues of identity). Ultimately, however, Twentyhood’s biggest strength is its balanced approach. Czuchna’s performance as Olive could have easily been the overdramatized account of a college student struggling to find herself and awaken her sexual identity, but her command of subtlety allowed Olive’s story to more greatly affect its viewers. Czuchna also balanced out Carly Siege’s ’19 performance of Becca, one of Olive’s overtly aggressive and emotional friends, who is devastated after the boy she loses her virginity to takes someone else to his room.
Luckily, the play’s devastation is offset by its physical and linguistic comedy and its parodying of theater. Calvin Kuang ’17 as Mike, the man-whore of Olive’s friend group, is effectively hilarious in his drunken stupor and inability to sleep alone. Christian Kelly ’16 who plays Gino Marino, Olive’s gay best friend, has a way of making every line sound suggestive, and his use of physical comedy, despite or perhaps maybe even because of being on crutches, garnered consistent chuckles from the crowd. And finally, visiting lecturer Jeffrey Guyton’s portrayal of Aurora, a harried, overdramatic, bitterly divorced theater professor might have been the funniest thing I’ve seen in years; the laughter that it inspired was the athletic equivalent of a 300 crunch workout. Still, even through the hilarity of Aurora’s stripping and declaration that she is not giving up on herself, we see a person who too is going through her own struggles.
Twentyhood is a challenging play both to perform in (one of the main actors dropped the show in the beginning of this project, for that very reason) and to watch. It will sadden you, perhaps even anger you, but above all, it will remind you of the human capacity for pain and resilience. As Gino Marino instructs us, “This is the beginning … because when the party is over and you’re sitting on the floor by yourself, you better know how to pick yourself up.” The good news is that even if you don’t know automatically how to do so, you will learn, as all the characters of this play did in their own way.
Gwen Aviles is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.