Theater Review: YEN (Raven Theatre in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on March 27, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Theater takes us places and shows us stuff that we might never freely choose to go or see. Exhibits A-Z are Yen, a 2013 visit to Gorki’s “lower depths” by British playwright Anna Jordan. Depicting marginalized misfits in a broken west London neighborhood, Yen impressively manages to both chronicle the outrages of outcasts and yet garner sympathy for life’s underdogs.

Given an incomplete play about incomplete characters, Elly Green’s stark staging, a Chicago premiere at Raven Theatre, establishes empathy for these bottom-dwellers mired in Feltham in 2015. Like earlier British plays about proles (Sid and Nancy, Orphans, Look Back in Anger), this two-act tour-de-sewer probes the plight of troubled teens eking out a mere existence. How much decency, Yen asks, can squalor spare?

Jordan’s fierce focus here is on two half-brothers stuck in a dirt bag apartment leased out by their miserable mother. In the next room a much-neglected mutt named Taliban barks and paws the door. Set designer Joe Schermoly’s dingy digs is not where you want to lose your childhood.

A too-early lost cause in every way, narcissistic, thirteen-year-old Bobbie (Jesse Aaronson) is a petty thief, homophobic, racist, misogynistic. This drifting semi-sociopath is unclean (he suffers from psoriasis) and unmoored — and under the thrall of his too-adoring mother Maggie (Tiffany Bedwell). This semi-incestuous enabler perversely validates Bobbie’s every defect, even as she endures an abusive, needle-needing boyfriend. Bobbie just plays video games and watches porn: You sense that his innocent childhood lasted no more than fifteen minutes. “Sick!” is his favorite epithet, which makes all the sense in the world.

The other sibling offers grounds for care: Sixteen-year-old Hench (Reed Lancaster) is as stunted as Bobbie, a virgin who still wets his bed. But at least he’s beyond just self-destructively acting out his anger. He’s longing to be touched — literally and more.

So it’s providential that this case of damaged goods should meet a girl who used to be called “Yen.” Jennifer (Netta Walker) is a kind of “punk whisperer” for these lost boys. Breaking a cycle of dependency and desperation, her arrival, like Laura’s gentleman caller, changes everything. As Jennifer, nurturing and domesticating, teaches Hench how to touch and be touched, his fear of intimacy gives way to very tentative trust.

But in this still-feral world life is at best two steps forward and one step back: Both brothers strike out — against an animal and an ally. At the end Jordan is content to split the stage between a holding cell and the foul flat. But one brother is not alone: We have to hope that Jennifer’s unplanned intervention will halt the tailspin that is this plot.

Elly Green insures that, horrific as this human cesspool can get, Yen never succumbs to blame-throwing and shame-giving. Despite the despair, we stay connected to these too-human survivors. Aaronson kinetically conveys Bobbie’s appalling lack of boundaries. He’s so much dangerous energy minus any saving outlet.

In contrast, Lancaster’s Hench is poignant with unprocessed neediness, the crisis that Walker’s redemptive Jennifer seems born to heal. Finally, Bedwell’s lethal mom seems reason enough to cancel a certain Sunday in May. Accuracy abounds here, including, unfortunately, the faithful Feltham accents.

Yen is no theatrical picnic in the park. It tells us to reckon with folks we’d cross the street to avoid. But that’s how theater confirms our humanity–by forcing us to feel its full range.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Raven Theatre Company, 6157 N. Clark St. (at Granville)
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 3:30
ends on May 5, 2019
for tickets, call 773.338.2177 or visit Raven Theatre

for more, visit Theatre in Chicago

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