Review of Burn Book, Yale Cabaret
Three boys in boarding school, sharing a dorm room. The new kid arrives. Tensions arise, secrets are discovered, bonding takes place, but also possibilities for conspiracy and betrayal. The plot may sound familiar, but Burn Book, JJ McGlone’s debut play making its debut at Yale Cabaret, takes it to a different register. What makes it different? The boys are girls, which is to say very gay and very out about it. The play is wickedly good fun, directed by Zoe Mann, a third-year actor, in her directing debut.
William (JJ McGlone) claims the four are the only gays at the school (what are the chances?), and we never see them interact with others outside the room of four cots. The play gives us very privileged access to a very insular space. In that space, the four all indulge each other’s uncloseted personae, and the dialogue is fast-paced, arch and very funny. The dynamic among the four runs the gamut of the kinds of getting to know you moments, meltdowns, anxiety attacks and so on, familiar to the teen queen genre. At first, the main concern seems to be pecking order as William, the top Mean Girl, so to speak, immediately insists that newcomer Ty (Gregory Victor Georges) will replace Lewis (Daniel Liu) in the cot righthand side to his own. Ty, from Haiti, has a greater cachet, if only because of his outrageous twerking skills. Meanwhile, Warren (Julian Sanchez) seems the most put-upon and most likely to sulk in his cot.
The foursome engage in venomous commentary about teachers, fellow students, and the school’s straight ethos (we are reminded a few times of how important status and success are here). Of course, each teen has pet peeves and favorite objects of lust. But McGlone has another genre in mind as well: Ty, we learn when William makes the discovery, has a special book secreted away. And so the main dramatic outing is William calling out Ty as a witch—which they all claim to be as well. Now we’re in the midst of a coven and the four take to wearing skirts, as a means to set themselves apart and because nothing in the school’s dress code forbids it.
The four’s rapid-fire interactions—which includes choreographed raves, themed videos by Erin Sullivan (one, a kind of Goth-drag music video on Yale’s Old Campus to the tune of The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now,” is particularly hilarious), and casting spells—are full of a heady immediacy. Director Mann keeps the pace just short of collective hysteria—and the night I attended the audience was incredibly spirited, swept up by a sense of a behind-the-scenes exposure.
The sequence of getting-even hexes the four commit escalates to the point where discomfort and disagreement begins. Ty tries to demur, and William becomes more demanding. McGlone’s William gets a scary gleam in his eye, playing upon the weaknesses in his coven to gain his goal: a jealous blow against the wife of the male instructor he wants for himself. The outcome—after each undergoes a major freak-out—takes place when called before the school’s deans and it arrives as a shocking act of betrayal and a completely unhinged moment. It’s also where an actual witch-hunt and the term’s more metaphoric usages dovetail in a sharply dramatic way.
A “burn book”—as viewers of Mean Girls know—is a kind of collective scrapbook in which defamation and destruction of certain detested objects (mostly fellow-students) are gleefully indulged. The four witches keep such a book and it becomes a testimony against them, not only in the targets of their hexes but also in the truly malevolent spirit they have unleashed among themselves. Of course, with the fate of the witches of New England in mind, a “burn book” is also a document of how certain populations, deliberately “other” to a dominant culture that is straight, patriarchal, Christian and at least somewhat puritanical, have been outlawed, persecuted, and, wherever possible, cancelled by history. Considering such a context, it’s not the first time the slogan of confrontation might well be “burn, baby, burn.”
By JJ McGlone
Directed by Zoe Mann
Producer: Laurie Ortega-Murphy; Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Sound and Projection Designer: Erin Sullivan; Costume Designer: David Mitsch; Assistant Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Sound Engineer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Dramaturg: Alex Vermillion; Stage Manager: Kevin Zhu
Cast: Gregory Victor Georges; Daniel Liu; JJ McGlone; Julian Sanchez
October 31-November 2, 2019
Yale Cabaret is dark next weekend, then returns November 14-16 with Rubberneck, proposed and created by Mattie McGarey, a theatrical interrogation of how “habitual movements shape our reality,” that brings “body language, symbolic gesture, and unspoken social cues to the forefront.”