- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

The Studio Theatre and classic mythology can make for an uneasy pairing. Last season’s ambitious production of “Prometheus” was saturated with saccharine New Age-y gloppiness, and this summer’s Secondstage offering, “Polaroid Stories,” tries to graft stories from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” upon the self-dramatizing tall tales of street children and teenage prostitutes.

Playwright Naomi Iizuka’s idea looked good on paper — literally, since the play was also inspired in part by Jim Goldberg’s 1987 photo essay, “Raised by Wolves,” about the lives of homeless teenagers on the streets of San Francisco and Seattle. Struck by a teenager’s lie about how he was one of a set of twins born into a prominent family and then cast into the wild, Miss Iizuka drew parallels to the Romulus and Remus myth, and the conceit for “Polaroid Stories” was born.

Written in the late 1990s, “Polaroid Stories” already seems dated — a sepia-toned photo journal of the mean streets, fraught with cheap sex, drugs, abuse and violence. It is like the musical “Rent,” only without the blistering rock score and the air of urgency.

“Polaroid Stories” shows ugliness and degradation galore, but it doesn’t offer fresh insights or even a penetrating look into the realities of teen homelessness. There isn’t even any shock value to stimulate us. Director Keith Alan Baker takes the more-is-more approach to the production, piling on the music, sound and lighting effects and movement in the hope something sticks.

The attempt to invest these young people with mythical status by linking them to gods and goddesses fails. Poorly integrated, the myths seem pasted on rather than organic to the characters’ personalities. Especially since the teenagers, when being their everyday selves, speak in a mundane drone of profanity and common vulgarities. Just when you think they can’t even say “hello” without using the f-word, the characters start spouting overheated, ornate prose about rivers, stars, love, gods and death. What are they doing, hallucinating CliffsNotes?

There are only a few situations where this insertion of elevated language works. Neon Girl (the excellent Catherine Deadman) is a punk girl in torn tights and black lipstick who looks tough as nails but is actually a big squish of fears and half-formed dreams. Weary of street life and abandoned by her speed-freak boyfriend Skinhead Boy (Scott Kerns), Neon Girl gulps down pills and delivers a dark, devastating monologue before climbing up into the stars and becoming a sad little constellation herself.

Her partner in pathos, Skinhead Boy, is a hopped-up skateboarder, zipping around like Mercury. Mr. Kerns, who possesses a compelling white-hot energy, has his bravura moment where he dispenses his own personal history — he sees himself as some sort of agricultural god, born in the Midwest, a combination of the romanticism of the heartland and a new, urban mythos.

Another arresting figure is Narcissus (Cesar A. Guadamuz), the classic splendid egotist reborn as a smug, homosexual street hustler. Preening in the mirror while adjusting his artfully highlighted hair and flashy clothes, Narcissus regales the self-esteem-free Echo (Veronica del Cerro) with tales of his fabulousness. Mr. Guadamuz is indeed fab, his androgynous looks and outsized personality holding a fascination for both genders.

In the end, it is not the stories in “Polaroid Stories” that hold you. They seem like random snapshots — blurry, badly cropped, hastily shot. What stays with you is the promise and the energy of the young, largely unknown cast. Here’s hoping we see more of them in Washington-area theaters in seasons to come.

**

WHAT: “Polaroid Stories” by Naomi Iizuka

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW

WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 10.

TICKETS: $25

PHONE: 202/332-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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