Agape youth willing to ‘rumble’ with tough topics

By John Lyle Belden

Agape Theater Company, a middle- through high school youth program hosted by Our Lady of the Greenwood Catholic Church, has a particular approach. It takes on classic stage works – from Shakespeare to Broadway – with an eye to the moral and spiritual lessons they hold. In June, they tackled the subject of a Tony winner with now two Oscar-winning film productions: “West Side Story.”

(Various excuses I could give prevented Wendy and I from attending opening weekend, but Agape invited us for the closing.)

With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the mid-20th century musical is based on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” with feuding families replaced by rival street gangs: the Jets, white kids whose working-class families are getting pinched by Manhattan’s building boom; and the Sharks, young immigrants from Puerto Rico hoping for their own American Dream. Personally, I think the “Story” is a little better than in R&J, as the tension and stakes are a little more real with a clash of two cultures, and Tony (our stand-in for Romeo) is, while still a lovesick fool, less immaturely foolish than that boy in Fair Verona. Plus, there are those cool songs (reeeal cool).

Directed by Kathy Phipps with musical director April Barnes, the young cast gave a top-notch performance. The present medical concerns that put a lot of understudies and swings on the stage in New York also struck here, yet the company managed to roll with the changes, with only a couple of cancellations, and making cast changes without losing a step.

Bursting with talent and Latinx pride are Rebekah Barajas as Maria, Jaelynn Keating as Anita, and Cordale Hankins as Sharks leader Bernardo. Leading the Jets with an ever-tense feeling their turf is slipping away are smooth Riff (Grant Scott-Miller, u/s Nathan Ellenberger) and hot-headed Action (Clayton Mutchman), who long for their true leader, Tony (Johnny Gaiffe, u/s Caleb Wilson) to take charge. But Tony has a real job, and senses real possibilities (“Something’s Coming”) but as the saying goes, “When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet.” The gangs want to have the rumble (gang-fight) to end all rumbles, with the terms set at the neutral-ground school dance. Tony and Maria are each reluctant to attend, but they go – they meet – and their fates are set.

Other tensions include the cops, ever-present but always a step behind (and the butt of the joke in one song). More subtle is the hint dropped by Bernardo that Tony is called “Pollack” behind his back, not even fully respected by his fellow Caucasians. In today’s climate, we especially feel for “tomboy” Anybodys (Aleah Mutchman, u/s Jocelyne Brake) and the desire to join a hoodlum gang being their only hope for being “one of the boys.”

The dancing and acting were superb – having actors the ages of their characters helped – as were the voices, heartbreaking at times. Still, despite the fun moments, the story is still a tragedy. There was no backing down from the dark moments, complete with believable anguish.

In a promotional video, the principal cast spoke of the emotional burden they were taking on, and of being true to all who have done these roles before. When asked what they hoped the audience would take away, the unanimous answer was that all would take time to look past people’s differences and let go of hate. They did well towards accomplishing that mission.

Agape will next perform at IndyFringe in August, with “Sing Down the Moon: Appalachian Wonder Tales.” They also return to Indy Bard Fest this fall with Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” For more information, including supporting this 501c3, visit agapetheatercompany.com.

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