If you’re over twenty years old, chances are you remember the lost art the mix tape.
And yes, it’s a lost art. Don’t tell me you can still make a Spotify mix and send it to someone on Facebook, because that whole process lacks the AV Club-masochism of getting the songs to match up correctly, crossing your fingers that the tape wouldn’t run out mid-song, and standing over the analog dual tape deck or cd player for an hour while it all happened.
That’s the “labor” part that made the mixtape “labor of love,” and although it’s gone the way of the Trapper Keeper and the slap bracelet, there was a time when a mixtape was the most high-tech mechanism for setting a mood.
Going on a long drive at night? Mixtape. Hosting a party? Mixtape. Trying to tell that special someone that yeah, you needed a little space and you’re sorry, but she’d be way better off back with you than she ever will be with that new guy, who’s handsome (I guess) but can’t name a Sub Pop record and doesn’t even know how you take your coffee and will never really love you the way I do.
Anyways, Flying V Theater, under Director Jason Schlafstein has written an homage to the mixtape that they’ve called Be Awesome: A Theatrical Mixtape of the 90’s.
The show takes us through the life of Jonas, a largely non-descript child of the 90’s. Each stage of his life is unfolded through a series of “live action music videos,” in Flying V’s words. Before each scene change, Jonas stands up and reveals a new album cover for the audience, cueing the next song in the mix.
As he does, an explosion of theater bursts out at the audience with a little bit of everything: sketch, dance, puppetry, and even a little juggling. Fans of Flying V’s “fights” series will recognize the model, where a long narrative arc is unfolded one song at a time in scenes that could stand on their own but together tell a larger story.
Jonas’s life is a balance of ups and downs. He suffers some serious setbacks early in life, but otherwise leads what appears to be a fairly normal, if occasionally uncomfortable, ascent into adulthood.
We’re treated to the full breadth of Jonas’s maturation, first as a Saturday morning cartoon-watching rug rat to the tune of Mariah Carey’s “Hero.” Later we see Jonas discovering his own identity as an awkward teen with Beck’s “Loser” blaring in the background.
From there, with help from Radiohead, the Foo Fighters, Bjork and a host of other 90’s standbys, we see Jonas struggling through relationships, tiptoeing into his first office environment, and experience the all-too-common late-20’s phenomenon of a circle of friends winnowing away.
Flying V navigates these emotional moments deftly, dancing between the poignant and the comical with ease.
Choosing a favorite moment is tough, but watching Jonas’s heroes come to life in his childhood bedroom is a riot, and the final song sent more than a few patrons digging for tissues.
At the very least, a shoutout is warranted for perhaps the most delightful sex scene ever devised, with a little help from Boyz II Men.
Now, while the maker of a mixtape might consider themselves an artist, they have to know they’re nowhere without the performers behind it all. So it is, too, in Be Awesome.
The cast deserves heavy praise for sprinting through a grueling 90-minute session that offers little relief. They’re wrestling each other in one moment and then playing the ukulele in the next, showing an impressive range of abilities and making transitions in as little time as it takes to turn a tape over.
This includes Clayton Pelham, who throws down on the wrestling mat in one scene and with a tremendous rap in another; Em Whitworth, who gripped every heart in the room with a scene at a very specific medical office; and Jon Jon Johnson, who rocked the violin in a rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” and can say more with a flip of his hair than most people can in a full monologue.
Bob Manzo merits some additional praise for leading the show as Jonas. He’s offered not one moment to take a breath but doesn’t miss a single beat. Our hero is charmingly awkward, and even when a set malfunction took center stage in our performance, it was clear from the laughs and cheers that the audience was solidly behind him throughout.
Be Awesome: A Theatrical Mixtape of the 90’s
closes October 9, 2016
Details and tickets
Be Awesome also showcased some set, light, and sound work that rivaled the big houses in Washington. The sound design is on display from beginning to end, which lays like a fine carpet on top of a set that’s not just eye candy for the nostalgic types, but helps tell the story as well.
One needn’t be a child of the 90’s, either, to enjoy Be Awesome. Sure, the references to a chest-beating Fugazi fan or “The Rock’s” famed battles with “Mankind” might be lost on someone too young or too old to remember them, but it doesn’t matter in the end.
Speaking for the children of the 90’s, however, I will say that I scratched my head a little that a “Mixtape of the 90’s” slides by without including a single A-list inclusion from the grunge era.
Smashing Pumpkins? Nine Inch Nails? Nothing? Really, how do you create a show about the 90’s and not at least include a track from Nirvana (and no, I’m not counting Foo Fighters as a grunge band)? It’s a little like doing a show about the 60’s and leaving out the Beatles or Woodstock.
But in some ways, that’s the essence of the mix tape: Setting aside the obvious tracks and digging out the B-sides that force the listener to see a moment in time through your eyes.
As John Cusack tells us in High Fidelity, making a mix tape is a hard to do because “you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.”
Flying V has proven they’re more than capable of meeting the challenge, and for a theater company that bills itself as “theatre for people who don’t think they like theatre,” they can rest assured that they’ve done it again.
Be Awesome: A Theatrical Mixtape of the 90’s. Directed by Jason Schlafstein. Performed by Christina Day, Jon Jon Johnson, Madeline Key, Bob Manzo, Clayton Pelham Jr., Michelle Polera, Diane Samuelson, Noah Schaefer, Robert Bowen Smith, Em Whitworth. Scenic design by Kate Sullivan. Costume design by Alexa Duimstra. Lighting design by Colin Dieck. Sound design by Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Projection design by Lauren Joy. Production stage managed by Dale Schreiber. Produced by Flying V.