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The entertainment gods have deemed high school hot. From American Pie to Election, from the latest angst-ridden escapades of Dawson, Pacey, and Joey to the new kids on "Popular", high school life in all its locker-slammin' cafeteria-smellin' glory seems to be a genre onto itself. But now the teen beat has gone Off-Off Broadway avant-garde with Big Art Group's production of The Balladeer, and high school never seemed so...surreal. Since the real thing, that is. Especially if you were as committed to getting "f*cked up" as The Balladeer's six freshmen attending their first high school dance purport to be.

The Balladeer

is set during the school dance in the three orbs around which all high school life revolves: the gymnasium, the bathroom, and the parking lot, with transitions between the three indicated by the illumination of photo boxes stacked downstage left. Characters, sporting prom-wear askew, run out from behind the silver streamer backdrop, pose, and deliver short clips of dialogue (written by Jemma Nelson and the company) directly to the audience.

The story includes the highs/lows/unfathomable turns of fate typical of freshman existence. Chryssie, who like doesn't even wear make-up, ends up making out with Eric, the kid with the deformed arm, in the parking lot. Aaron, who declares the new kid Kyle a total homo (check out his weird pants), ends up alone with him in his car, supposedly listening to his new CD. Janet ends up getting totally stoned with that bitch Denise. And best-best friends Chryssie and Janet, who started out connected at the butt, end up hating each other's guts.

Interspersed with all this drama are sappy senior-band ballads, bad black-eyeliner poetry, and appearances from a random French ballerina, who talks of traveling the world over in search of 10,000 lifetimes worth of love and claims to have "fallen in love with dirty dishes--and the mouse that eats from them." There are also two installments of a tiny puppet show, performed on a light box, in which a lovebug falls in love with a butterfly, much to the consternation of his friend the ladybug. (Plastic opera glasses were passed out before the show to better view the bugs.) Notice a theme?

The list of designers who worked on The Balladeer is as long as that of the actors, and their technical elements contribute a lot to the nostalgic-yet-futuristic, industrial-alienated look and feel of the show. The actors are the same bunch who did Big Art Group's last show, CLEARCUT, catastrophe! in last year's NYC Fringe Festival. They make for a strong ensemble, though their timing during some of the freeze-unfreeze dance moments seemed out of sync with the music. Vivian Bang (who originated the role of Princess Senju in the Bat's Bento Kozo) and Rebecca Sumner Burgos, in particular, get the deadpan delivery of the hyperbolic statements symptomatic of the freshman set.

The Balladeers, however, is really a director's piece. Caden Manson, who conceived and directed the show, founded Big Arts Group two years ago "as a collective of emerging artists engaged in inspiring collaboration and experimentation." Having paid his dues as assistant to an impressive list of directors, it seems he's now experimenting with formulating a style of his own.

And while Manson uses generic characters to play through the been-there/done-that school dance plot in an over-exposed teen setting, the show's surrealism and alienation aptly match the high school experience. True, the characters never directly look at or speak to one another (making it hard for the audience to ever connect with them), but isn't there something more real in that than in Pacey Witter's look-her-in-the-eyes confession of love to Joey Potter at the water's edge, at dawn, last week on "Dawson's Creek"?

Plus, many of Manson's physical and visual touches are fresh, insightful, and clever. Like his chorus-line chain-reaction fight, which gets repeated--beat by beat, punch by slap, with increasing tempo--about five times. And using a boom with a clamp (held by a third actor) to transport lipstick and tequila back and forth between characters who are standing side by side. And using crazy string from aerosol cans when they blow each other's--and their own--brains and guts out at the conclusion of the dance, in the only ending possible for a play about the "catastrophic paradox of youth's first love."

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