John Hughes meets George Orwell in Angst: 84, a clever and sincere offering from Cleveland’s Dobama Theatre. The plot is pure ‘80s teen comedy: popular cheerleader Winnie (Elena Averbach) and uncool jock Julian (Joshua D. Brown) decide to buck the school’s caste system and embark on an illicit love affair. But, playwright Toni K. Thayer has a deeper message to convey than "Be True to Yourself!" For her, the popularity that her characters covet and yearn for is a reaction to the totalitarian, Big Brother-type hierarchy that runs the school (a hierarchy not unlike, say, the Reagan Administration, or 80's Republicanism). They want to be popular, to fit in—to conform—or else they will be "erased." Suddenly, the humorously ridiculous booster messages that run throughout the play—"Learning is Obedience!"; "Do What You’re Told!"—take on a chillier meaning. The mention of Principal Duce’s name (a knowing reference to Mussolini) invokes laughter and fear. And, Winnie and Julian’s relationship suddenly looks a lot like Winston and Julia’s forbidden love in Orwell’s 1984.
This is pretty strong stuff for a theater company whose target audience is 15-30 years old. But Thayer and director Dan Kilbane are smart enough to know that, by sandwiching their theme within the conventions of an ‘80s teen comedy, they have a good chance of getting their point across. To that end, they populate Angst: 84 with a rogue’s gallery of freaks-and-geeks archetypes that the audience will remember from Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and many other films.
The entire cast is terrific, but special mention must be made of Brian Douglas as Traverse, the requisite gay student, and Heather N. Stout as Shannon, the goth girl who presides over the action like a Greek chorus. Stout is enormously charismatic, and her pitch-perfect performance anchors this splendid company.
Angst: 84 succeeds as both entertainment and political allegory. For those who were young enough to have been in high school during the’80s, it will leave you a little nostalgic for the good old days. It will also leave you trying to draw more comparisons between Reagan and Big Brother. Hopefully, Dobama will continue to enjoy much success in Ohio, and we will get to see them again in New York before long.