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Elementary, My Dear Watson: Ye Shall Be as Little Children

Ready Steady Yeti Go

Rori Flynn and Jasmine St. Clair

READY STEADY YETI GOTheatre Review

Rogue Machine Theatre, which won 2018’s Best Season Ovation Award, is known for pushing the envelope with plays that challenge conventions. A number of the edgy theatre company’s productions deal with the thorny theme of racism, including the stellar One Night in Miami, a rare revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs, American Saga: Gunshot Medley - Part I (on July 6 Rogue Machine is remounting Dionna Michelle Daniel’s searing drama) and Dutch Masters.

The latter was directed by Ovation Award winner Guillermo Cienfuegos, who also helms Rogue Machine’s curtain lifter of its new season at Venice’s Electric Lodge, David Jacobi’s Ready, Steady, Yeti, Go, as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. Like the above mentioned dramas, Yeti also deals with the subject of bigotry - but with a big difference.

Prepubescent immaturity is the norm as part of the usual ups and downs of growing up - which is unexpectedly shattered when a hate crime targets Carly Uhlenbeek (Jasmine St. Clair), one of the school’s two African American pupils.

It was Harper Lee’s genius to tell her tale of prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, from a child’s point of view. Similarly, Yeti is conveyed mostly with the perspective of eleven-year-olds (all played by adults) who live in a town that is predominantly Caucasian. The grade school classmates share the usual experiences and antics of small kid days and shout the titular “Ready, Steady, Yeti, Go!” when they want to move forward. Prepubescent immaturity is the norm as part of the usual ups and downs of growing up - which is unexpectedly shattered when a hate crime targets Carly Uhlenbeek (Jasmine St. Clair), one of the school’s two African American pupils.

All hell breaks loose as the mostly white community reacts to and tries coping with the racist incident. The teacher Mrs. Apples (Rori Flynn, who has a triple role) is one of Yeti’s few adult characters, and although well meaning in a “liberal” way, her efforts to address the act of bigotry merely mortifies the much put upon Carly, serving to make matters worse for her, plunging a reticent Carly into the spotlight. Carly finally asks the overbearing teacher why she didn’t ask her how the young Black girl wanted Mrs. Apples, the school and town to deal with the crisis? It’s a good question members of minority groups could ask of their “defenders” and “champions” from the predominant majority culture who, unsolicited, deign to speak on their behalf.

After the covertly executed discriminatory act Carly is befriended by Goon, played by Ryan Brophy, who was Ovation Award-nominated for co-starring in Rotterdam. As his name implies, Goon has a bad boy persona and is a rebel whose cause is defying parental and school rules, regs and authority. Brophy’s finely etched performance delineates a boy coming into collision with puberty, society’s expectations and his own aspirations to remain an individual. Goon is trying to figure things (like, you know, that whole “life” thingamajig) out and trying to do the right thing.

Ready Steady Yeti Go

Randolph Thompson, Ryan Brophy, and Kenney Selvey

On the other hand, Goon’s twin brother Gandry (Kenny Selvey, who appeared in Rogue’s Oppenheimer last year) projects a squeaky clean image. Gandry is a goody two-shoes, overly eager to play by the rules and please the grownups.

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Randolph Thompson pulls triple duty, including as Barry, the school’s only other African American student. As Wikipedia Jones, Thompson portrays a wannabe Sherlock Holmes from another town who tries to crack the case of who committed the offense against the Uhlenbeek family. Wearing orthodontic headgear Thompson plays Wikipedia to great comic effect. According to Jacobi: “There’s no way anyone likes hanging out with a kid who spends his free time ratting out his peers. So I realized I could portray his irritating nature by giving him headgear and have him spraying spit everywhere every time he went into a diatribe.” Thompson also has fun portraying Officer Ed, an adult policeman who speaks publicly at the elementary school in a droll send-up of those lawmen who try convincing youngsters to “just say no.”

In addition to raising the specter of racism - which, alas, remains all too timely and topical - Yeti also probes the nature of good and evil and delves into the stirrings of young love. However, I felt like the 90-ish minute play, which is performed sans intermission, never comes to a resolution, explaining the motive for the hate crime that triggers the plot into motion.

As for the show’s strange name, Jacobi says, “The title doesn’t really mean all that much. It's the name of the game the kids are playing. The game resembles putting on a play, and ‘Ready, Steady, Yeti, Go’ is shouted when they want to skip ahead to the next part of the story. I added ‘yeti’ because ‘Ready, Steady, Go’ didn't have much of a ring.” But I prefer to think that “yeti” refers to the Himalayas’ Abominable Snowman! I’m probably wrong but it sounds like a mo’ bettah explanation. I also imagine that Jacobi named the maligned African American family “Uhlenbeek” because the playwright won a Holland New Voices Award - but what do I know?

Ready Steady Yeti Go

Kenney Selvey, Randolph Thompson, Ryan Brophy, and Jasmine St. Clair

Anyway, the best thing about this one-acter is its childhood ambiance, enhanced by scenic designer David Mauer’s set and costume designer Christine Cover Ferro’s outfits. The playbill’s use of photos of the cast and crew from when they were kids is a clever, inspired touch. St. Clair’s brief performance as her parents takes jabs at stage and screen stereotypes of Blacks, while her incarnation of Carly is very poignant. The eleven-year-old has awakenings, perhaps for the first time, about racism, as well as romance. Despite her growing relationship with Goon, suspicion but of course falls on the rule breaker as the likely culprit behind all of the commotion in this racial whodunit. Unfortunately, childhood isn’t always innocent - but on the brighter side, at least these pupils aren’t subjected to a school shooting. IN any case, Yeti reminds us that America hasn’t graduated from racism yet - and still needs to be sent back to school.

Ready, Steady, Yeti, Go is being performed until July 29 on Saturdays and Mondays at 8:00 p.m.; 7:00 p.m. on Sundays (in June); Sundays in July at 3:00 p.m.; with added performance at 8:00 p.m., Friday on June 14 and no performances on Monday June 10 and July 8 at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Avenue, Venice, CA 90291. For ticket info: (855)585-5185 or https://www.roguemachinetheatre.net/.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based film historian/criticEd Rampell is co-author/author of four movie film history books, including “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ ).