Oh, to be 17 and in love again.
Actually, scratch that – being 17 sucked. Being 17 and in love, with your heart about to be crushed like a bug? The. Worst.
Everybody Loves Robbie is new play by local playwright Ellen Chorley currently running at the Arts Barns; it’s the second play in Northern Light Theatre’s season. It will dredge up all your squirmiest, most uncomfortable high school memories.
The script follows two teens – one is the titular Robbie (Richard Lee Hsi) who is tall and graceful, amiable if a bit naïve, and universally liked by his peers. The other is Chloe (Jayce McKenzie) who is short and clever, with a keen eye for observation and electric green hair. Chloe is our narrator and we follow her perspective throughout the show, starting in the present when she and Robbie are going through a cataclysmic shift in their relationship right at the end of high school and during Limelight North, a fictional but very believable three-week drama camp in Grande Prairie.
The play then flashes back a couple years to when they first met in grade 10. We follow their story as original entrants in their high school’s brand new, scrappy and desperately underfunded drama program. The duo attends Anthony Henday High, a fictional Edmonton school that’s “not a sports-focused school but is totally a sports-focused school” and feels absolutely familiar to those of us who also went to similar jock-ruled schools. Chorley attend Ross Shepherd; I went to Scona. Yep, sounds about right.
From there, we watch them grow and change over the course of high school, getting ever deeper into Broadway musical fandom, starting a romantic relationship, and then throwing that into jeopardy when they both start to question their burgeoning sexuality.
Watching this play with adult eyes is painful in a different way than if you were a teen watching it. Some things seem so obvious to me, jaded and in my mid-30s, but if I put myself in these teenage shoes I remember being caught up in all that hormonal confusion.
Both actors do a great job playing off each other, they’ve got good chemistry and you can really believe that they were best friends who started hooking up somewhere along the way. I was not a drama kid in school but I had friends who were, and I feel like if you were part of any similar niche community you’d find a lot of resonance with Chorley’s script. (OK, maybe not if you were a jock.)
The set is simple, with a backdrop of sparkly high school locker-esque photos and Post-It notes that provide a neat visual tie-in to two crucial moments in the plot. (Design by Trevor Schmidt.) Throughout the play, Lee Hsi and McKenzie play a number of other characters; McKenzie’s turn as Chuck Butler, the cynical and foul-mouthed instructor of a “how to audition” class at the local community college is an absolute riot. (And while Butler is an asshole, he’s also got some pretty good advice, admittedly.) As we follow their journey, the duo periodically breaks out into scenes or musical numbers from whatever show they happen to be working on or referencing at the time; these moments are underscored by a sound clip from said show (sound design by Lana Michelle Hughes).
The ending is not wrapped up with a neat bow, much as the audience might be rooting for that. I’m happy Chorley didn’t go for this Hollywood-style wrap-up because it just wouldn’t feel believable. High school relationships end messily – or at least mine sure did – and I enjoyed how this play ends right at a moment of painful clarity. Reality bites, man.
Overall, Everybody Loves Robbie feels very in keeping with Northern Light’s ethos: it’s a one-act coming of age tale, with a blend of heart and heartbreak and comedy that feels very signature of the company. I also think it’s a really wonderful incarnation of a local script. Chorley has had a long working relationship with NLT artistic director Trevor Schmidt, and it’s lovely to see the fruits of partnerships like these play out so well.
Everybody Loves Robbie
By Ellen Chorley
Northern Light Theatre
Studio Theatre at the ATB Financial Arts Barns
Until Saturday, January 25
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