Review: High marks for Studio Theater’s ‘John Proctor Is a Villain’

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Never underestimate the importance of a dancing teenage girl. The smart and wary high schoolers of Kimberly Belflower-inspired “John Proctor Is the Villain,” currently in its world premiere at the Studio Theater, may seem like they’re having fun to music by Lorde and Taylor Swift. But their movements — and their fun, captivating talk — shine a light on pressing social concerns, from the grip of patriarchy to the implications of #MeToo, to widespread deficits in trust. And if the kids can let off steam in the process, that’s a plus.

And there’s plenty for the characters to do in this tale of friendship, sex scandal, and coming-of-age at a small-town Georgia high school. Not only did Belflower ingeniously set up nuanced resonances with America’s broader civic zeitgeist, but she also penned a touching, and at times hilarious, portrait of uniquely specific 21st-century youth. Add an incisive literary dimension – the piece converses with Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” – and “John Proctor” is, its slightly slow and explanatory start aside, pushing for a 4.0 GPA.

Marti Lyons (Studio’s “The Wolves”) directs the production, which shifts from intensity to humor to emotion on designer Luciana Stecconi’s lively class set. This classroom is where several high school students, including ‘Twilight-obsessed’ preacher daughter Beth (Miranda Rizzolo), Raelynn (Jordan Slattery), and new avid watcher Nell (Deidre Staples), start a club. of feminism. Once the gifted teacher, Mr. Smith (Dave Register), signs on as the club’s faculty sponsor, the outlook looks good for quiet discussions about intersectionality and the like. But then sensational allegations surface inside and beyond the school, coinciding not only with #MeToo, but also with the reappearance of Raelynn’s former friend, Shelby (Juliana Sass), after an absence unexplained.

In just one example of the ensemble’s uniformly knockout acting, Sass outplays the troubled Shelby – now hard-eyed, now vulnerable, occasionally rocking on her heels as she nervously twists the straps of her backpack, always brilliantly idiosyncratic. “I really got into the ocean,” Shelby said at one point, during a Slurpee. “It makes me feel better about my life knowing that there are fish with teeth on the outside of their heads.”

All the cast capitalize on Belflower’s flair to chart changing personalities as well as relationships. A sweet and awkward study session in which Nell and her classmate Mason (Ignacio Diaz-Silverio) discuss “The Crucible” is a good example.

“The Crucible” is of course the classic that depicts flawed truth-teller John Proctor’s opposition to the Salem witch trials (a crisis that follows an underground dance party in the woods). Belflower’s one-tier play responds to Miller’s play, reimagining and recontextualizing it through a contemporary awareness of toxic masculinity, sexual abuse and harassment, and structural inequality of power.

It’s not understating the many other accomplishments of this play to say that after watching it, you’ll never see “The Crucible” the same way again.

John Proctor is the villain, by Kimberly Belflower. Directed by Marti Lyons; costume design, Moyenda Kulemeka; lighting, Jesse Belsky; sound, Kathy Ruvuna; accessories, Deb Thomas; intimacy and combat choreographer, Chelsea Pace. With Lida Maria Benson, Zachary Keller and Resa Mishina. About 2 hours 20 minutes. $45 to $110. Through June 5 at the Studio Theater, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300.

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