by Hugh Hunter
Allens Lane Theater is returning to its edgy ways with “Polaroid Stories” (1997) by Naomi Iizuka, directed by Sarah Mitteldorf. (Mitteldorf is also artistic director of the new ensemble “Kaleid,” a pun on the words “kaleidoscope” and “collide.”)
The play grew out of Iizuka’s interviews with homeless young people. Their life stories somehow reminded her of the violence, chaotic passions and general restlessness in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” the world-renowned epic poem first published in 8 A.D. In “Polaroid” Iizuka attempts the risky trick of melding these two kinds of stories into one play.
She pairs up her characters in a long string of vignettes, and interaction between these pairings is minimal. In “Polaroid,” production has to shoulder a heavy burden because this type of script lacks the tension of a traditional linear story in which you get to wonder what will happen next.
Director Mitteldorf comes up with some nice touches. Set design (David Ward) blends street trash with the kids’ scanty possessions, a steady visual image of the lives these young people lead. Both lighting (Mike Lucek) and off-stage sound (Zachary Sellet) are atmospheric.
“Polaroid” has its moments. Narcissus is a prostitute who likes to boast about her feats, but underneath the swagger Narcissus has a pathetic need to have someone affirm her worth. She brags to Echo, but Narcissus does not get what she needs because all Echo can do is repeat what others say.
The presentation of Philomel is also affecting. In the Greek story she was raped and mutilated by Tereus, then transformed into a nightingale. In “Polaroid” we see her from time to time, drifting out of the dark alleyway to sing her lovely nightingale song.
But a lot of the time a visceral connection between Ovid and gritty urban realities is just not there. “Polaroid” spends a lot of time on Orpheus, who loses the love of Eurydice to Hades. What does this have to do with the homeless other than affirm, actually insist, that they too have love interests?
The issue of homelessness among young people is a serious matter, and in her program notes director Mitteldorf rightfully talks about the need to “empathize and validate” their existence. That would make “Polaroid” a sort of “problem play” or consciousness-raising play.
This seriousness of purpose, however, does not always match up with Ovid’s lightheartedness. “Polaroid” is also overly long. But the play never drags thanks to an abundance of acting talent, and the saving grace of this production is the terrific energy its high-spirited cast members bring to it.
The cast includes Kelly De Vose (Philomel), James Patefield (Dionysus), Ellie Marissa Ruttenberg (Eurydice), Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez (Persephone/Semele), Davon Clark (Orpheus/Tereus), Shauntia Coley (Narcissus), Asaki Kuruma (Echo), Nina Giacobbe (SKINHEADgirl), Nathan Logue (SKINHEADboy) and Branden Lipford (Zeus/Hades).
Allens Lane Theater is located at Allens Lane near McCallum in West Mt. Airy. “Polaroid Stories” will run through Dec. 7. Reservations at 215-248-0546.