This week Custom Made Theatre opens their new show, an adaptation of Cory Doctorow’s best-selling Young Adult novel Little Brother, at the Gough Street Playhouse in San Francisco. Please note that the following review is of a preview performance.
The story follows Marcus Yallow, a technologically savvy high-school senior in near-future San Francisco, who introduces himself thusly;
“I’m a senior at Cesar Chavez High in San Francisco’s sunny Mission district, and that makes me one of the most surveilled people in the world.”
After ditching school one day Marcus is swept up in the aftermath of a devastating terrorist attack on the city. The attack kills thousands of people and results in a massive crackdown by the Department of Homeland Security. After being detained and tortured at a secret location as enemy combatants, then subsequently released, Yallow and his friends find themselves in a changed city, which has essentially become a police state. As a sometime hacker and son of previously politically active parents, Yallow decides that he needs to fight back using the tool he knows best; hacking
Adapted and directed by Josh Costello, the play streamlines the book, dropping several characters and sub-plots while also adding a scene or two. The cuts are entirely necessary given the time and staging constraints, however it might make the occasional didacticism standout a bit more than in the novel. However this tone is not entirely unintentional, Doctorow is an activist, and entertaining as the story is, there is no mistaking that it is intended as a call to arms.
Despite the changes, the central message remains strong, and the play stays true to the voices of its young characters, who are a convincing mixture of precocious intelligence, naïve idealism, and adolescent cynicism.
The venue is attached to the rather imposing Trinity Episcopal Church and is a thrust theatre, with seating that surrounds the stage on three sides. The stage itself is at floor level, and the players are never more than a few feet from most audience members. But the staging uses this intimate space well, including a backdrop onto which still images and video are projected to help with the narration. This gives a nice illusion of size during important outdoor scenes, and allows key concepts to be conveyed clear and efficiently.
The cast is composed of just three actors, who play all the parts in the story. Daniel Petzold plays Marcus Yallow, the protagonist of our story and our narrator. Unlike the other cast members he only portrays one character, also handling the majority of the narration. He plays Marcus with an amiable restless energy, bouncing from place to place and ranging from smartass rebelliousness to frustrated anger at living the life of a teenager in a society which all but criminalizes the very act of being underage.
Marissa Keltie as Ange sparkles with intelligence and serves as a good ego deflating voice of sanity, reminding Marcus that it is “not your story” when he gets carried away with his role in events that directly involved not just his friends and family, but thousands of his fellow citizens.
But Cory Censoprano is the standout, he portrays the most characters and the widest range of emotions, including a wrenching scene near the very end. He also gets the most humorous scenes, the best of which is a brief bit as a Fox News commentator.
The themes of the book were relevant when it was released in 2008, and if anything they feel even more so today. It is impossible to watch the play without thinking about the Occupy and Anonymous movements, SOPA and the National Defense Authorization Act with its controversial indefinite detention provisions which was signed by President Obama just last month.
Performances run Thursdays through Sundays until February 11th at the Gough Street Playhouse, located just two block off from Van Ness at 1620 Gough Street (at Bush).
Tickets range from $25-$32
For more information: www.custommade.org/little-brother