The Star Tribune, 2.11.08
By JOHN TOWNSEND, Special to the Star Tribune
Twenty Percent Theatre, a group that produces new plays by women, bares its fangs with "After Ashley" by Gina Gionfriddo. This savage 2004 satire on media packaging of private tragedy opened last weekend at Minneapolis's Bedlam Theatre.
"After Ashley" portrays the rage of teenager Justin Hammond (Nicholas Leeman), whose mother, Ashley (Ellen Apel) is raped and murdered. Justin's father, Alden (Michael Jurenek), profits by writing a memoir that distorts who she really was.
Director Shannon C. Harman strikes a balance between Gionfriddo's caustic caricature and realistic conversation. For instance, when initially approached by English major Julie (Amanda Cheung), Justin wrongly assumes she's interested only in his celebrity as the boy dubbed the '911 Kid' who never left his dying mother. So he berates her to overwrought excess. Yet, these two actors ultimately create a sweet rapport that proves this polemic has emotional nuance.
Apel's seamy Ashley hotly contrasts Jurenek's priggish Alden. Jerome R. Marzullo is disturbingly insidious as David Gavin, a media figure who cravenly traffics in "violent losses." Ryan Grimes is deliciously lurid as Roderick, a mystery man with damaging information. The production ends with a spine-tingling stage image.
February 13, 2008
Spoiler alert: It's impossible to talk about this play without revealing a major plot twist that occurs midway through the first act, so if you're holding a ticket and want to be surprised, come back and finish reading this after you've seen the show. All right, now that we're alone, here's the scoop. In the first scene we figure we're in for a conventional family drama, with son Justin (Nicholas Leeman) home from high school with a case of mono, and mother Ashley (Ellen Apel) lingering around and expounding at inappropriate length (given her audience) about her dissatisfaction with her marriage. Soon, in walks papa Alden (Michael Jurenek), and a few things become clear: He's a subtly unlikable, rather prim and smarmy bleeding heart who feels the pain of the poor but doesn't do much to jazz up his wife. When the lights go down, we get the big twist: Via a taped 911 call of Justin's voice, we learn that Ashley was brutally murdered in the family home. We find ourselves next on the set of a TV show revolving around survivors of violent crime hosted by blatant opportunist David Gavin (Jerome R. Marzullo, who throughout the evening strips away any shred of his character's sympathetic side and reveals brimming, acerbic rage). From here, Alden writes a book that edits the past in his favor, becomes famous, and ends up hosting his own show, complete with crime scene reenactments. Justin responds with appropriate bitterness, and Leeman captures writer Gina Gionfriddo's zingers and Justin's bleak desperation with visceral energy. Amanda Cheung alternates between affable co-conspirator and self-serving user as a girl who beds Justin to share in his creepy celebrity, and Ryan Grimes lays on the camp as a guy from Ashley's past with vivid proof that she wasn't always the angel she's being made out to be. Matters turn plain weird by the end, but Shannon C. Harman's direction strikes a solid balance between seriousness and levity, and this improbable meditation on victimhood and exploitation (turning on a bizarre, kinky public prank) ends up entertaining throughout.
Last Updated October 3, 2009
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