Joint Needs Improvment and BETCo show balances humor with serious topics

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PHOEBE KALLAHER/SAGAMORE STAFF

Senior Noam Scully delivers a monologue in the improv game “You Know What I Hate?” during Needs Improvment’s Friday night show. The game involves ranting about a particular subject until another member of the class interrupts a rant of their own about a topic mentioned in the previous monologue.

An abandoned Toys R Us. The kitchen of a McDonald’s in the skinny part of Tennessee. The Supreme Court gender-neutral bathroom. The belly of a whale.

Those were just a few settings for the scenes that Needs Improvment and the Brookline Educational Theater Company (BETCo) presented during their joint performance on Friday, Nov. 15 in the Roberts-Dubbs Auditorium. The improv class showed off their theatrical talent and creativity in a light-hearted environment, while a series of original BETCo scenes used actors’ political and social awareness to entertain and compel audiences.

The night began with the improv performance, which demonstrated students’ wits and ability to think on their feet. Drama teacher Mark Vanderzee regularly relied on audience suggestions for themes, settings and character names so that the drama students had no idea about what they were about to perform until the scene had begun.

In a particularly memorable scene, senior Renata Shen portrayed a strict boss who demanded to know why junior Din Klein was late to work. Klein had initially left the auditorium while the audience hashed out the reason for her tardiness and how she managed to get to work (the singer Rihanna arrived in a flying submarine and rescued her from an alien invasion). Through exaggerated miming and gesturing, senior Freddy Sell and junior Jack Reisman tried to convey this information to Klein without angering Shen. At one point, Sell flapped his arms energetically while Reisman puffed his cheeks and held his breath, giving the impression of being underwater. Sell’s Rihanna impersonation, complete with lip-syncing and dancing, drew bursts of laughter from the crowd.

Junior Yuen Ler Chow, senior Natalie Bergin and senior Naomi Mirny also played a three-person game where Bergin and Mirny revealed traits of Chow’s character through improvised dialogue and context clues. Chow’s character, named “Red,” was the dead, temper-tantrum prone child of Mirny and Bergin. “We shouldn’t have shot him,” Bergin and Mirny dramatically sobbed while the audience howled with laughter. Chow portrayed a ghost by moving his limbs in slow-motion, almost as if in a trance. His voice––a piercing shriek, interspersed with voice cracks––put me in stitches.

The BETCo portion of the show took on a much more deliberate and serious tone, as the current class decided to tackle the impact of substance use and abuse through many different points of view.

The opening scene, titled “Poppyseed Pathway,” was a puppet show with a darker twist. Three seemingly child-friendly characters––Bilbo (senior Ben Kiel), Frizzle (senior Barbara Pires) and Nurse Sally (senior Dee-Nah Wattana)––attempted to teach the audience about the letter O, using words like “owl,” “oar” and “one.”

“But I thought that ‘one’ starts with the letter W,” Bilbo says at one point. “Silly Bilbo,” Nurse Sally laughs and responds, “the number one starts with O. It can be used to say things like one in eight kids has a parent with substance abuse problems.”

The twisted version of Sesame Street was oddly chilling and tragic, emphasizing the fact that young children are exposed to the ugliness of opiate addiction through their parents’ reliances on banned substances. The puppets’ peppy, energetic voices contrasted with the serious topic they were discussing, creating an unsettling effect.

Another scene, called “Fun Times at CVS,” examined how race and drug possession tie into one another. Kyle (senior Kenny Sobah), an African-American boy, smokes weed for the first time, accompanied by a white female friend (senior Sylvia O’Shea) who uses drugs more frequently. However, when a white man confronts them on the street, he threatens to call the police on Kyle and warns him to stay away from O’Shea’s character.

“When we first really decided on doing substance abuse as our topic, we really made it a point that we can’t talk about drugs in this country without talking about race,and about how that has impacted black and brown communities specifically,” Pires said during the post-show talkback.

Though some of the scenes were sobering, several of BETCo’s pieces were infused with levity and hope. In “IHOP: 3 a.m.,” college students Harlem (Ben Kiel) and Jersey (senior Clay Baker-Lerner) are able to kickstart their romantic relationship only with the aid of alcohol, which lowers their inhibitions. At one point, over a plate of hash browns, Harlem excitedly tells Jersey, “We’re the hash browns!” He explains, “All my life I’ve just been a boring, bland potato. And it wasn’t until you came into my life that I even had potential. You’re my salt.”

Baker-Lerner and Kiel skillfully conveyed a sense of drunk giddiness through their body language and, most of all, their dialogue. The relevation itself was delivered overly dramatically (“We’re the hash browns!”), but the emotions behind it––love, longing, gratitude––were just as powerful as in any sober love confession. The hilarious dialogue and exaggerated metaphors helped lighten the scene, making it entertaining and fun to watch. According to Kiel, BETCo wanted to explore an instance where drugs spurred a careless decision that, ultimately, wound up being the right choice.

With scenes that conveyed how drugs are simultaneously a destructive force, a source of happiness and a coping mechanism, the BETCo show allowed a glimpse into the diversity of human experience. It truly was more than the sum of its parts.