In ‘Debut,’ monstrous growing pains

“Debut Track One Chord One Verse One (Or, The Shed)” tells the story of a monster. It also tells the story of a teenage girl growing up in a small town.

The play is consumed by this reconciling of two seemingly disparate parts: the tension between the mundane and the fantastical.

Audience and actors get up close and personal in
Audience and actors get up close and personal in "Debut." There is also a monster.

Premiering this Thursday at the Yale Cabaret, the show mimics the set up of an audio CD: both are approximately 50 minutes long and made up of small, independent entities — scenes in the play or songs on an actual CD.

The playwright Caroline McGraw DRA ’12 imagines the life of a 16-year-old girl, Pepper North (Alexandra Trow DRA ’12), as she undergoes the struggles of adolescence in an isolated town — a town that is also home to a threatening monster. But this play goes far beyond the conventional monster-mystery story. On the contrary, the existence of the creature is acknowledged from the outset, and its menacing presence — in a shed always out of sight — is never the main conflict or focus of the action. Rather, it lends significance and depth to the otherwise ordinary town of Pentalic. The unseen entity lurks just beyond our awareness. But it weighs heavy on the audience’s mind, and amplifies every ordinary teenage anxiety to near-mythic proportions.

Indeed, the main heroine aspires to greatness — which to her is simply the ability to leave her town, to travel the meager 128 miles to see her unnamed musical idol play at a club. But this desire, so trifling and small, is felt deeply by the audience. The invisible monstrous presence creates an odd claustrophobia, making the inescapability of Pentalic seem undeniable.

“You can’t skip town,” Pepper says emphatically at one point.

Beyond this dream of escape — whether from isolation or monstrosity — Pepper also experiences all the horrors and wonders of being 16, made infinitely more eerie and more momentous by the concealed creature in the shed.

The set design, created by Natalie Westbrook ART ’10, is comprised of a digital and cartoon-like forest, gracefully showing the passage of time from day to night, season to season. Interestingly, the feared shed is never shown. We are constantly reminded, though, by the unsettling red tinge of the forest that accompanies scenes about the monster.

“Debut” attempts to stay structurally close to its musical inspiration. Resembling songs on an album, these scenes are loosely related snippets, but not perfectly fluid. This slight distortion of continuity leaves viewers wondering about the chronology, the setting and the resolution of certain plotlines at times. But the play uses this lack of full disclosure to blur the line between what is real and what is imagined. The structural instability mirrors and adds to the feeling of the mythical.

The actual execution of these quick scene changes can get sloppy, but the viewer is never jolted out of the experience of the play. The intimate design of the space also means that the audience automatically becomes a part of the production — they too are members of the small town. The audience space and the acting space merge in the tiny black box of the Cabaret, so the awkwardness of furniture changes for new scenes is lessened. We feel less like viewers, unbelieving of their attempts to create new worlds for us on stage, than participants, residents of this world that the actors are merely rearranging.

The play is a 50-minute whirlwind, a quick transportation to a surreal small town of myths and legends, rumors taken as facts. And even in the oppressive, almost suffocating environment of the monster, all the dramas of growing up and the mundane details of life continue.

When asked why he works as a guard of the monster’s shed, Pepper’s cousin passionately defends his choice with an answer understandable to most: “Health insurance!”

This interplay between the mythical and the routine makes “Debut” a surreal but eerily believable journey.

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