Innocent Flesh at the Zephyr Theater Through February 16

By Mike Schulte

When the lights come up on Kenyetta Lethridge’s Innocent Flesh, the all-female cast is pantomiming a skipping rhyme, squealing and girlishly cartwheeling across the Zephyr’s barren stage. Just as you begin to wish you had lingered longer at the bar, the scene abruptly shifts: the playground becomes “the track” and the girls swerve from playful to darkly lascivious—taunting the audience as though they’re eyeing a line of tricks. It’s the first of many late-breaking curve balls that writer/director Lethridge throws throughout this stark one act exploration of underage prostitution and the abuse and neglect that often drives its victims.

Innocent Flesh’s wounded protagonists dream of unattainable futures that will fill the void of damaged childhood with the anonymous adulation of fame. It’s not an original conceit, but Lethridge synthesizes confrontational drama with survivor’s humor and the result is both disturbing and uncomfortably funny.

The four girls are pulled toward their fates in similar ways—most memorably Lisa (an electric Jameelah Nuriddin). Terrified by a killer stalking the neighborhood, she locks her bedroom window just as the real threat emerges from within her own family. Her betrayal, brokered by her own mother, is the kind of moment that could easily be overplayed. Here, it’s handled with a naked subtlety that freezes the air in the room.

As the girls are driven into the streets, their stories unfold in shifting character vignettes, interspersed with a kind of Greek chorus narrative, which occasionally tosses a spike strip into the production’s otherwise brisk pacing. The writing is at its best when the play’s harrowing situations are underpinned with gritty humor—and there are plenty of both.

Each actress deftly flips characterizations to portray the pimps and johns that prey upon them. Nuriddin cries her way through a low-down monologue as victim before speed shifting into a swaggering pimp before her eyes dry under the lights. You laugh, but the laugh catches in your throat.

The no-nonsense pacing and whipsaw emotional transitions are evidence of Lethridge’s command as a writer/director, but the real engine of Innocent Flesh is the skill and courage displayed by the cast. Angelina Prendergast’s Lupita is a streetwise, lovelorn poet whose pain is visible just beneath her wisecracking, tinfoil surface. Daphne Gabriel gives Candace a moist-eyed innocence that never strays toward cliché. Clara Gabriele’s Danna stalks the stage like a lanky older sister until her story of a gang rape—half-remembered during a self-induced drug blackout—gets the blood flowing from the script. The pain in her eyes nails the audience to their seats; it is the play’s most wrenchingly uncomfortable scene.

Innocent Flesh ends as it began, the girls as unsoiled children again, pleading for love in a reprise of the opening. The intention may have been to sound a hopeful concluding note, but as the lights go out, it rings as a bitter admonition of all that has been lost.

Healing At-Risk Kids Through Theater

Healing At-Risk Kids Through Theater

Marie Laurin is a rehabilitation specialist at a residential treatment facility for severely emotionally disturbed children in Los Angeles. The facility houses 80 children who are awaiting family reunification, adoption or foster care on a sprawling campus that was built as an orphanage in the 1920s.

When Laurin discovered that the facility’s main meeting hall was originally constructed as a theater – and had not housed a single theatrical production in its 90-year existence – she initiated a drama program and began work staging an adaption of Saint-Exupéry’s children’s classic The Little Prince.

While the kids enthusiastically embraced the idea, the facility’s brass was less than encouraging. “When I suggested staging a play, there was dead silence in the room,” Laurin said. “Because these children tend to be hyperactive and exhibit aggressive behavior, the system places low expectations on them. But these children love challenges; it boosts their self-esteem. I knew they could pull it off. They’re survivors.”

As rehearsals got underway, even Laurin was surprised by the degree of commitment the kids displayed. “I was blown away by the fact that these kids – who hate homework – learned their lines in two days, with no help from the staff.”

Laurin was also surprised at how naturally the kids took to the rehearsal process. “Because of their high-level of creativity and imagination, they had an immediate grasp of their characters. Even the youngest actor in the play, at 8 years old, understood the play and the message right away,” she explained. “Most of my work involved re-directing their behavior rather than directing their performance. These kids tend to exhibit a sense of entitlement because of their history as victims of abuse and neglect; as survivors, they’ve learned to look out for themselves. Since theater is a communal activity, they had to develop social skills and learn how to deal with delayed gratification. It took five weeks of rehearsals before they saw the result of their work. For these kids, five weeks is an eternity.

With all that stacked against her, how did she get the kids to stick it out until opening night? “I used a reward system of praise, and the occasional bag of Hot Cheetos,” she admitted. “Hot Cheetos is like gold on the campus.”

The road to opening night was not without its difficulties. “There were some last-minute adjustments,” Laurin said. “One actress quit the night before the performance because she didn’t want her peers to see her wearing a tutu. I also had to recast another part because the original actor assaulted the school principal.”

Overcoming doubts by many administrators that children who suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and behavioral issues could successfully mount a theater production, Laurin and the children stunned a packed house of board members and invited donors with a performance that drew a standing ovation and an encore performance the following week. The positive effects on the kids were instantly apparent.

“The staff saw a change in the children’s behavior immediately. The kids had more self-confidence. They were beaming,” said Laurin. “Our lead actor was a little cocky for a few days, but he came back to reality. Most of the kids who were in the play have since been reunified with their families. Kids who weren’t in the play begged me to put them in the next show.”

Laurin and the kids are now in the beginning stages of an ambitious musical production, this time, chosen by the children themselves: The Wizard of Oz. “The kids are very aware of the message,” Laurin said. “They run up to me in the halls, click their heels and say, ‘There’s no place like home.’”


Top 10 Eco-Friendly Cars of 2012

Top 10 Eco-Friendly Cars of 2012

If you’ve considered dumping the dinosaur in your garage for a more eco-friendly ride, but hesitated due to sticker shock or a persistent case of technophobia, 2012 may be the year to switch to a green technology/alternative fuel vehicle. With an eye toward balancing fuel economy and drivability, here are our picks for the 10 best green cars of the year:

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Honda Civic Natural Gas

MPG: City 27/Hwy 38
From $26,155

Named by Green Car Journal as the 2012 Green Car of the Year, the 2012 Honda Civic is surprisingly fun to drive. A shortened wheelbase and increased low-end torque allow for some fleet-footed cornering, abetted by the seamless five-speed gearbox. The ride remains smooth and comfortable at highway speeds. Factor in the reduced cost of natural gas and the Civic’s multi-state HOV lane eligibility and top honors are well deserved.

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Nissan Leaf

MPG: Combined 99/City 106/Hwy 92
From $35,200

With a reservoir of torque, nimble off-the-line response and a top speed of 90 mph, the Nissan Leaf is a pugnacious and frugal urbanite. The Leaf’s ride quality can be a little stiff, but not out of place with the car’s runabout personality. Solid braking is another strong suit, making the Leaf a perfect choice for metro-bound, eco-minded drivers.

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Ford Focus Electric

Range: Up to 100 miles
From $39,200

Ford’s first all-electric passenger car reaches a citation-dodging top speed of 84 mph and has been tuned to offer sharp handling and a refined ride. To combat reservations about the car’s limited range, the MyFord Mobile app allows owners to remotely monitor and program charging, start and stop the vehicle, locate charging stations and preheat or cool the car.

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VW Passat TDI

MPG: City 30/Hwy 40
From $25,995

The clean diesel powered Passat TDI was born for the open road. The ride is glassy over road irregularities and highway cruising is smooth and quiet. In the city, steering is a bit sluggish, but braking is crisp and responsive. With an 18.5-gallon tank, Passat owners won’t be sweating the distance to the next diesel-equipped gas station.

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Mitsubishi i

From $29,125

The 2012 Mitsubishi i feels more stable than most small cars, especially when cornering. The engine delivers some punch at low speeds, but tops out at 81 mph. With a range of 75 miles on a full 12-hour charge, the i’s unabashed EV persona may not be for everyone, but Mitsubishi has delivered an efficient around-town vehicle in a simple, if strangely distinctive package

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Toyota Prius v

MPG: City 44/Hwy 40
From $26,400

Because of its added heft, the 2012 Toyota Prius V feels reassuringly planted on the road. Acceleration is anemic, but selecting “power mode” from the three available driving modes adds some grunt for passing situations or hill climbing. Long-time Prius owners will appreciate the added interior room in the 2012 model.

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Lexus CT 200h

MPG: City 43/Hwy 40
From $29,120

It may be similar to the Prius in design, but the Lexus CT 200h has a secret weapon under the hood: Sport mode. While it will certainly knock down the car’s fuel efficiency, driving in Sport mode sharpens the steering and adds punch to the throttle, allowing for some guilty pleasure as you blow past a Prius and into the Whole Foods lot.

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Chevrolet Volt

MPG: City 95/Hwy 93 Electric (35/40 Gas)
From $39,145

In all-electric mode, the Volt delivers a ride that is quiet and smooth. Although it feels a little front-heavy when cornering, the Volt is stable and solid overall, befitting its five-star safety rating from the Feds. The Volt is a long-distance green machine, claiming a 300-mile range. Unfortunately, those long legs are reflected in the Volts hefty price tag.

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2012 Honda Insight EX with Navigation

MPG: City 41/Hwy 44
From $23,540

Flashing updated styling cues and an improved navigation system, the hybrid Insight EX with Nav is more than capable of holding its own against the refreshed competition in its class. The 2012 Insight is quieter as well, with thicker noise suppression material quelling the 98-horespower engine.

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Ford Fusion Hybrid

MPG: City 41/Hwy 36
From $28,700

The Ford Fusion Hybrid transitions between gas and electric power seamlessly. In pure electric mode, the Fusion Hybrid can reach an impressive 47 mpg. Combine that spec with a 700-mile per tank range and you have ample evidence to make this a top contender for green family sedan of the year. Agile cornering, smooth performance and a surprisingly sharp interior deliver the closing arguments.