“The Metal Children” by Adam Rapp is mildly autobiographical, darkly comical and borders on the surreal. Directed by Holly Derr, the play opened Nov. 8th to a sold-out show in UC Riverside’s Arts Studio Theatre. However, despite strong performances from the cast and crew, inconsistent writing left the play on an unresolved note.
When small-town Midlothia bans “The Metal Children” from its high school reading curriculum, burnt-out writer Tobian Falmouth (Kyle Filipelli) arrives to defend his novel. Within the religious confines of Midlothia, “The Metal Children” has sparked controversy over hot-button topics like abortion, teen pregnancy and feminism. Led by revolutionary Vera Dundee (Christie Newby), the novel inspires a group of local teens to rebel against society in unexpected ways, and Tobian must contend with the fallout.
“The Metal Children” is based on writer Adam Rapp’s experience with his own young adult novel, which was banned by a small Pennsylvania high school. The concept of book banning and teenage rebellion introduces some powerful themes in the play’s first act; hints of artistic freedom, individual purpose and modern feminism pepper the plot with promises of fulfillment. However, the play’s second act falls short of resolution. Perhaps as a consequence of packing too many heavy themes into one story, elements of the play’s end feel unbelievable and rushed, as though Rapp wanted to package all of his story’s dense themes into a feel-good package for his audience to take home.
Despite the ending, the cast’s performance is phenomenal. Kyle Filipell brings a constant sense of guilt to Tobian’s character (a self-described “38-year-old loser”), which haunts him throughout the story and suits the play’s moody atmosphere. Christie Newby packs an impressive amount of power as Vera, particularly during a heart-wrenching scene between her and Tobian on a hospital bed. The members of the Pork Club, played by Jazmine Branch, Sarah Green, and Jordan Mackey, made pig masks look even creepier via their lurching movements and acts of violence. During a scene involving a statue and the perfectly unsettling Roberta (Brandi Douglas), Mackey’s jerking, psychotic entrance was positively entrancing.
The play’s technical effects noticeably benefitted the performance by immersing the audience in Rapp’s Midlothian world. Sound designer Jeff Polunas’ mood music and metal baseball cleat clank kept the audience on edge, and the costumes, designed by Noëlle Raffy, encapsulated the essence of each character, particularly Roberta’s shapeless denim dress and Tobian’s neutral pallet of baggy clothing.
As a whole, the acting and technical elements of “The Metal Children” created a story primarily about individual accountability; Tobian cannot hate himself forever, and Vera must deal with the consequences of her revolution. Despite its sloppy writing at the end, the play’s witty dialogue, haunting atmosphere and powerful performances are engaging and definitely worth viewing. “The Metal Children” is free for UCR students and performances continue through Nov. 17. Going along with the story’s emphasis on teenage pregnancy, Condom Co-op @ UCR distributes free condoms after each performance.