October 23, 2003

Be a Person

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Sing along now: “B-E A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E, be aggressive, be-be aggressive!” Much more than being the chant of California cheerleaders in this witty play by Annie Weisman, Be Aggressive offers humor and motivation for Cornellians at the crucial time of mid-terms. This offering will not only provide its audience with a study-break of laughs but will serve as a pep-rally for when it’s time to hit the books again. The story is of two girls, Laura (Kristen Frazier) and Leslie (Jackie Koppell) who, in their failed pursuit of being better cheerleaders, develop into better people.

Set in materialistic southern-California, the most important things in Laura and Leslie’s lives is improving the high school cheerleading squad, and being at the forefront of it. The two spontaneous “best friends” set off on a road trip — leaving their world of smoothies and wraps behind — to find the fabled cheerleading training camp, the Spirit Institute of the South. Little do the girls know that they will learn a lot more than standing back tucks on their journey. Returning to her Alma mater to guest direct Weisman’s play is Sarah Stern ’97, associate artistic director of the Vineyard Theatre in New York City. Stern manages the satirical script wonderfully; ensuring each hilarious line hits home with comical and socially reflective purpose.

Be Aggressive is not only the name of the play but also the creed by which the protagonist, Laura, lives by. Determined not to fill her recent mother’s role of housewife, Laura is opposed to staying around the house and cooking for the family. Instead, she insists to her father that cheerleading is the right thing for her and will do anything to prove it. The play explores the theme of identity from many different vantage points. Laura’s father (Marc Moritz) hides his identity as “Mr. X” behind the So-Cal town’s freeway construction, Leslie’s mother (Jan Rogge) hides her roots behind her fashioned exterior, Laura’s sister (Sara Clemens) is exploring her Jewish heritage, and of course, Laura and Leslie no longer want to be mere spotters on the cheerleading squad.

Rogge, who appears courtesy of the Actors Equity Association, is her usual keystone-self in the play. As an aging mother she is trying to maintain her spot in the trendy So-Cal scenery only to have Leslie tell her, “you’ve got dirt under your pastel French tips and everyone knows it.” Clemens puts in an interestingly irritating and endearing performance as an Allison — “this one time in band camp” — Hannigan-sounding little sister. Clemens’s Hannah is young and conforms to her father’s desires, which in contrast highlights the independence of her teenage sister.

Laura is, however, the central character. She finds herself in the course of the play, changing from a girl reliant on luxuries and dependent on diet fads, to traveling without her hair products and indulging in Twinkies. Koppell’s Leslie is the show’s standout performance. The role of Leslie is jam-packed with the majority of the play’s great lines (“I’m pregnant. He said he’d pull out right away, but so did Nixon in ‘Nam”), but Koppell picks up the load and runs full speed with it. She is the play’s most enjoyable character due to the hint of sarcasm in her materialism, which suggests she sees the humor in her ways as we do.

Aside from writing excellent comedy, Weisman demonstrates why she is considered an emerging playwright to watch by subtly working some successful symbolism into the text. For example, the shallowness of Laura’s lifestyle deteriorates along with a eucalyptus tree in the garden. Perhaps the play’s biggest problem is that it has almost too much closure. The girls’ return home marks a too blatant journey with a definite end. It also seems that in attempting the hard task of incorporating a freeway, a house, and a colorful ocean town into one set, designers actually came out too central without really capturing any of the above. The set is innovative and flexible yet ultimately lacks context.

Be Aggressive deals with many teenage female issues such as self-esteem, fashion, peer pressure, liberation, the influence of pop-culture, and relational aggression. Weisman’s own adolescent experience in San Diegox surely contributes to the accuracy of this often-stereotyped corner of America, and as a result Be Aggressive deserves victory cheer of its own. Are you ready? Ok!

Be Aggressive runs through October 26 and then again from October 29 to November 1, at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.

Archived article by Tom Britton