A group of children dressed in animal costumes perform a fable in an outdoor setting. Seems as wholesome as a Norman Rockwell picture. The truth is far more complex and troubling in A Frontier, As Told by the Frontier, a fascinating new play from Jason Gray Platt premiering at the Source Festival.
A Frontier is the story of a teacher named Nafts (Scott McCormick) and four children of varying ages. One is his own sixteen year-old daughter, Feola; the other three have been left behind by their parents who may, or may not, still be living.
Some unknown disaster has caused the power to go out at a park. Everyone else has gradually left, while this group stayed behind. Nafts encourages the others to believe they were correct in staying behind and that the others will someday come back.
Meanwhile, the teacher keeps the children busy learning a variety of subjects – basketball, literature, and neuroscience are among them. He holds competitive oral quizes. He plays on their need for approval by pointing out how proud of them others will be when they return to the park and see how much they have learned and how well they perform certain fables.
These fables are like liturgies with a power over the children that most religion cults would envy. According to Nafts, people gave their lives to protect these stories, which have been recited word-for-word for 200 years. The words can never be changed and no new fables can be created. These stories are so important that they need to be performed multiple times a day, even if no audiences are present to hear them.
Miller is the Mouse, Feola is the Fox, Barker is the Bear, and Orsay is the Owl. They can never change their roles, except, if they are really devoted and excellent, someday one of them may graduate to the most exalted role of all, the all-knowing Icon currently played by Nafts. All of the stories have morals like the dangers of secrets or the importance of not giving way to your feelings.
As the play proceeds, it gives rise to questions about the motivation of Nafts. To what extent is he trying to hold the group together by being unduly and/or dishonestly optimistic? Where did these fables come from and are their “moral truths” being used to teach or to control the children?
As we observe this odd little troupe, we see cracks developing in their tight family. Feola (Maggie Erwin) is curious about the world outside of the park and starts to rebel against her father’s teachings on the importance of waiting for the others to return. Miller (Ryan Sellers) desperately misses the mother that he only faintly remembers. Barker (Kyle Encinas) starts to develop teenage feelings for Feola despite Nafts’ teaching that there is no such thing as love, only sexual attraction. Orsay (Kita Grayson) is the youngest of the children, with a degree of zealousness and ambition that makes her more than a little scary.
Theatregoers may recognize the name Jason Gray Platt as the author of Crown of Shadows: the wake of odysseus, another of his plays that received a DC world premiere at Round House Theatre. His newest play is reminiscent of that work. It also involves an exploration of the use of power and also leads to a shocking ending.
Platt has said he wants to question the American notion that America is the land of opportunity and any inequalities or failures to reap its rewards can’t be due to underlying problems. To that, he could add the dangers of devotion to any dogma.
The play benefits from perfect casting and Lee Liebeskind’s meticulous directing. Liebeskind helps all of the characters and their actions seem reasonable, and the underlying problems of the children seem realistic.
A Frontier, As Told by the Frontier
Closes June 30, 2013
1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Source Festival at
1835 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
Details and tickets
The actors, who appear to be in their twenties, all easily adopt child-like personas. The sincere and heartfelt performance of Maggie Erwin as Feola drives much of the play’s story. The performance of Howard University student Kita Grayson as the diminutive and devoted Orsay is both charismatic and chilling.
Jason Gray Platt’s play is at once highly intelligent and highly disturbing. A Frontier, As Told by the Frontier could become a modern classic, an Animal Farm for our time, and area theatregoers are strongly encouraged to see this seminal production of an outstanding play.
The growing prestige of the Source Festival is demonstrated by the increasing number and quality of the submissions that CulturalDC receives. This reviewer has been to most of the six Source Festivals, the production of A Frontier, As Told by the Frontier may represent a high-water mark.
A Frontier, As Told by the Frontier by Jason Gray Platt . Directed by Lee Liebeskind . Produced by the CulturalDC / Source Festival
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Rating of the show: Highly Recommended