hile “fresh” and “upbeat” ordinarily sound like compliments, they’re not the kind of words usually associated with Rarely Done Productions’ end-of-season slot. More characteristically this has been the berth for in-your-face edginess, like Debbie Does Dallas, Bathhouse and Scream Queens.
Yet Alaina Kunin and Bradford Proctor’s Bunked! was a huge hit at the 2010 New York Fringe Festival; it makes nice with the audience without pulling anyone’s chain. The way it fits into the Fringe market is Proctor’s demanding and complex score. Tension arises in seeing how well the young cast can pull it off. Director Dan Tursi guides this season finale at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St.
There are two implicit puns in the title that Kunin and Proctor generally let slide. One is that the setting is summer camp, in which one of the teen counselors is a well-out-of-the-closet gay, Oliver, who was once distressed when his Lucille Ball figurine was smashed. Although Oliver is a reliable source for gags, only a little of the show’s humor could not be described as campy, like the name for the setting, Camp Timberlake.
Secondly, the roughing-it sleeping accommodations are called “bunks,” which puns with a word for twaddle. But the show does not feature bunk-hopping by the counselors, and nobody seems to be delivering a line of malarkey or, well, bunk. The counselors are just stuck in Timberlake bunks for the summer while they sort things out. The juveniles they tend are offstage and never seen.
The five counselors are just out of high school and making that trapeze swing to college over the summer. At first appearance they all seem to be familiar types, but experienced audiences know those are cartoons waiting for dissolution. First are the mismatched twins Oliver (David Cotter), loudly gay and proud, and Anabel (Rachael Mou-Thiel), a tortured, clarinet-playing nerd who has never been kissed or tasted beer and is prone to self put-downs.
Both are smitten with Stewart (Garrett Heater), a self-described “pansexual” who admits being equally attracted to Zac Efron and Miley Cyrus. A prisoner of privileges, Stewart complains that his controlling parents demand that he attend Dartmouth, the most isolated of the Ivy League schools. Audiences will not be surprised to learn that co-author and composer Proctor attended Dartmouth himself.
The remaining two are heterosexual but send out off-putting signals. Masculine and aloof Max (Ethan Law) is carrying some unspeakable secret. Brassy Carmen (Sara Weiler), a consumerist princess, broadcasts through overheard phone messages her unhappiness at being in such a boondock miles away from a Gucci outlet or a Starbucks. Like Max, Carmen is also carrying an unspeakable heavy burden, the real reason why most of her obsessive phone calls are to her mother.
In the 2010 Fringe production community theater alumna and Manlius Pebble Hill graduate Lizzie Klemperer sang the role of Carmen. A fan of Rarely Done, she provided the link to getting the rights that allowed an area premiere here.
Action in Bunked! follows two dramatic arcs. The more important is how each character is going to make peace with personal anxieties. On that line the twins take a lead. Anabel’s first-act solo, “Hot Mess,” roils with a welter of self-criticism, and not incidentally bears some striking echoes from “Popular” in Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked, a perfectly admirable model.
Two numbers later in “Labels” (“They aren’t for people/They’re for clothes”), brother Oliver proclaims that he’s perfectly at ease being gay and proud, he doesn’t want to be limited or categorized. The premise becomes an occasion for Kunin and Proctor to cobble together something that sounds almost like a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, squeezing in as many fashionable brand names as a line will allow.
The second arc follows two budding romances, but that does not mean the show is a love story. Against odds, the assertive Carmen turns out to have a softer middle, which allows actress Weiler to show a depth of emotion the others are not allowed. She falls for Max, which we recognize as unpromising before she does, just as Anabel’s sweet feelings for Stewart are not going to open the door for her.
Then again, the possibility of alliances between the characters becomes a premise for more complex music. One of the most intricate numbers in the show, “Working Toward Tomorrow,” well handled by music director Chris Widomski, puts all five voices in motion, sometimes blending with one another. If the word “opera” did not scare people, we could say that Kunin and Proctor are using an off-Broadway idiom to reach another level of sophistication.
While the twins get their solos in the first act, the other three get theirs in the second. Sara Weiler’s “Shine,” as the title implies, ranks as one of the best numbers in the show. And with “Take This Chance,” Garrett Heater—winner of numerous Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) awards, and not usually thought of as a singer—displays yet another strength. But with Max’s “Selfishly,” alas, newcomer Ethan Law does not enhance his career.
Other than looking for setups for different songs, Bunked! is not long on action. The counselors bark at the unseen campers, hardly a cause for much action. The closest thing to a comic skit is on the failed staging of Cinderella, with an unwilling Oliver in drag as one of the ugly stepsisters. It becomes another plus for Heater as the exasperated Prince who can’t get anyone to put a foot into the slipper, or in this case, a rubber boot.
Production values are usually modest for Rarely Done, and thus Reina Apraez should get some applause for really useful props, just as Ty Marshal and C.J. Young provided a mobile set ready for quick changes.
If Bunked! were an IPO it would be classed as a growth stock. Alaina Kunin and Bradford Proctor are fresh beginners who will be heard from again.
This production runs through June 16. See Times Table for information.