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Like the in-your-face student athlete at its center, Redshirts is smart enough that you can’t help wishing it would take a deep breath and relax.
An entertaining chronicle of the fuss kicked up when four freshmen footballers at a fictional Southern university are accused of plagiarizing an English paper, Dana Yeaton’s drama boasts sharply etched characters, a sociologically intriguing premise, intelligent performances, and a good deal of wit.
It also has more plot twists than it quite knows what to do with, a production bent on proving how clever it can be on a tight budget, and a playwright with so restless an imagination, he can’t resist having his smartass protagonist, Dante Green (James T. Alfred), spout rhymed hip-hop asides to the audience between more realistic scenes.
Dante probably shouldn’t be doing that if he’s going to claim to be clueless about poetry in the scenes he’s not playing in verse—but grant the author a little leeway on that score. Yeaton is, after all, involving four student athletes in an academic scandal that will hinge on the parsing not just of Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson but also of a host of conflicting social imperatives—the expectations of educators, the rigidity of institutions, the differing standards of the arena and the academy, the pressures of youth, of pride, and yes, of prejudice. If he wants to dress the verbiage up a bit, I’ll not be the one to say him nay.
I will note, however, that between the rear-screen projections that put the players on ESPN, and the ADHD tests a shrink administers, and the coach’s play-by-play films, and such side issues as whether the accusing prof is going to screw up her tenure prospects, and whether the players’ tutor is nursing a sports grudge, and whether the frosh teammates have been enabling a player with head trauma to do himself mortal injury, there’s a lot to keep track of even before we get to plagiarism.
Worrying about why Dante is suddenly rhyming qualifies as an unnecessary distraction. And as that list indicates, it’s not the only one. Still, if a bit of pruning is in order, there’s much to admire in the rambunctious staging Lou Bellamy’s brought to Round House’s Silver Spring stage from Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minn. It’s crisp, expertly performed (especially when its four football cutups are roughhousing), and never less than engaging as it runs through more complications than it should. Alfred’s appealing as motormouthed Dante, and so are his teammates—drawling Dale (an ingratiating Will Sallee), frequently concussed Curtis (a scarily effective Ahanti Young), and comparative whiz-kid Jahzeel (Cedric Mays radiating decency and smarts).
As the prof who accuses them of plagiarizing, Regina Marie Williams manages to be unswerving without turning into a humorless voice of rectitude. She’s been given a few too many on-the-nose speeches about race in academe (three of the four accused students are black, as is she), and while she can’t quite keep them from coming across as authorial declarations, she does manage to make a case for them as the reasonable concerns of an educator. James Craven blusters nicely as the coach, and Kimberly Gilbert is perkily amusing as a tutor who develops a crush on one of her tutees.
Though Martin Gwinup’s projections strike me as distracting, I’ll concede they’re well-managed, as is C. Lance Brockman’s pointless setting with its slide-on platforms and foreshortened football field. Not that the players ever take the field, or that visual distinctions between locker room, classroom, and dorm are anything more than perfunctory. Sometimes, in fact, it seems as if the creators are playing with form just for the sake of playing—when, say, during a phone call to his prof, Dante strides onstage, phone in hand. For an awkward moment, it’s unclear whether he and the prof are occupying different stage spaces, or he’s broken into her house. Turns out he’s broken in, a complication that makes no difference to anything they’re arguing about, but that takes a moment of chatter to establish, and then another moment of chatter to dismiss. It amounts to a sort of theatrical instance of ADHD—off-point, mildly frenetic, essentially irrelevant—that makes you want to tell everyone concerned to relax. Take a breath.