There are few topics that can be universally agreed upon in 2018, but perhaps the horrific nature of online bullying is one of them. Whether in the form of ghosting via online dating, trolling through twitter, or personal attacks on Facebook, most of us have felt the painful effects caused by the sense of anonymity and distance that technology creates. But, if this issue is universally accepted as a negative thing, why do we perpetuate this culture? Why do we use online platforms as means of saying what we would not in person?
It is these questions that Philip Dawkins’ world premiere production of The Burn explores, fittingly as part of Steppenwolf’s Young Adults program. Using Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (an oftentimes required high school text) as an allusion to highlight the complexities of identity and to mirror the polarized attacks orchestrated by Abigail Williams, Dawkins’ work successfully mixes the past and the present without directly over-laying the well-known plot onto his own. Where his play is less successful is in the message it sends about bullying itself; the play’s attempts to complicate the issue in some ways seems to justify troubling actions, particularly in a time when school shootings are at the forefront of national conversation.
The Burn follows three high school students as they navigate the difficult world of trying to fit in while staying true to their unique identities. The trio’s fraught attempts are further complicated by a new student’s appearance in school; unlike them, Mercedes (Phoebe Gonzalez) refuses to compromise on who she is or what she believes. Her fierce allegiance to her religion ostracizes her, and the three more popular girls, Tara (Birgundi Baker), Andi (Nina Ganet), and Shauna (Dyllan Rodrigues-Miller) start mocking her online, on a platform which Mercedes does not have access to.
This premise, at least, is a realistic one. What high schooler, after all, cannot relate to one of these girls in some way--whether it’s through Andi’s struggle of adopting the right vernacular to be accepted or through Mercedes’ desire to be herself without being brandished an outsider. However, as the play continues and the girls’ teacher Erik (Erik Hellman) becomes more involved in their struggles, the play becomes at points unrealistic (such as when Erik blackmails the popular girls to get them involved in the school play) and at others simply irresponsible. Faced with the knowledge that the trio is cyber-bullying Mercedes, Erik takes no action, threatening to involve higher school authorities but never doing so. When the play ends with a very serious threat, Erik empathizes with the perpetrator of that crime, sending the message that we, as the audience, should do the same.
While this ending makes it clear that cyberbullying can have serious effects, the lack of action against it in the first place and the sympathetic conclusion felt like advocacy for thoughtless actions. There is a serious difference between online insults and cyber threats, specifically ones invoking physical violence, and Dawkins’ conclusion seemed to commiserate with the latter.
There are elements in this play that really ring true--Baker’s performance as Tara and Ganet’s Andi offer glimpses into the complexities of two young women grappling with who they really are and who they portray at school. And the relationship between the cyber and real world, made possible by fast-paced direction (Devon de Mayo) and engaging sound, lighting, and projection designs (Sarah Ramos, Heather Sparling, and Rasean Davonte Johnson), wonderfully empathizes the huge role that technology plays in these girls’ lives. Unfortunately the play’s positive influences were overall weighed down by its troubling message.
Review by Emily Schmidt
The Burn continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through March 10. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreinChicago's Review Round-Up.