This true account of a student-led protest to save a beloved school takes a few whimsical narrative liberties to maintain a flashy aesthetic and frame the events as an aspirational fable. A presentation by Theatre Direct and Prairie Fire, Please in collaboration with 4th Line Theatre and the Peterborough Museum and Archives; Give ’em Hell features some local teens in a whimsical re-enactment of a campaign to keep the Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School (PCVS) open.
In retelling this tale of student activism from back in 2012, Playwright Madeleine Brown fixes our attention on two main players: a young woman, Breaker (Jalen Brink), joining forces with another student named Bode (Isabelle Siena) who calls herself The Cat—a running joke about her having starred as the main cat in a high school musical about cats. (All references to this show are hilariously vague, suggesting this might be some other musical about cats and not necessarily, y’know… CATS™.)
As the students band together, the play wrestles with themes of activism, queerness, alienation, acceptance and allegiance; as well as a multitude of strategic and emotional complications of peer dynamics and collective action. My favourite aspect of this show is the bustling moments of youthful solidarity with its placards, slogans and choral chants. Scene transitions are pretty snazzy too.
Director Aaron Jan maintains an exuberant, Disney Channel mise en scène. The performances are somewhat affected and stage presence varies wildly throughout this ensemble, but the enthusiasm is uniform and undeniably infectious. And with Jan’s quirky, self-aware posturing, this feels always on the verge of becoming a full-on musical.
This musical theatre vibe pervades the design elements too. Uri Livne-Bar provides an abundance of emotionally evocative music stings. Logan Raju Cracknell’s expressive lighting is colourful and features a rock concert-esque bank of lights that occasionally blind the audience and throw the performers into silhouette. The focal point of Melanie McNeill’s stylized set is a central window frame that references the historic school’s facade and is flanked by rows of lockers that feel like a backdrop for song and dance numbers.
Most adult figures are antagonists here. Some trustees even come off as campy supervillains. All of this heightened posturing is playfully deliberate and offset by some nuanced discussion of the fraught circumstances with which the students, teachers and elected officials must contend. The two principal characters, Breaker and Bode, also have some compelling interpersonal complexity.
Early on, Breaker’s recently deceased grandmother is set up as a potentially important figure. Having attended this same school in her youth, it seems as if this might establish a sense of legacy and inter-generational connection, but this doesn’t really pay off. In one of Brown’s more fully realized, fanciful narrative flourishes, Rick Mercer—who played a signifiant role in the actual events by bringing the protests into media visibility—appears as an imaginary friend and guide.
I found many aspects of this slick production funny, poignant and exhilarating; though I’m not really its intended audience. The tone and style is geared towards capturing the imagination of a younger audience, whom, I imagine, could be suitably galvanized by this earnest docudramatic effort.