2 Angry Men: 'Yen' at Raven Theatre
With masturbation, video games, and porn as adult candy abound, the idyllic, cis, male, wet dream comes to life in Raven Theatre's latest production of Yen written by Anna Jordan. From its inception, it's far for the feign at heart. A cleverly crafted mix of startling sounds (Aaron Stephenson), transformative lighting (Claire Chrzan), and artistic direction (Elly Green) paint a present-day picture of practically orphaned London sad bois who struggle to find a few quid and survive each other in a morose motel room.
This Chicago premiere centers on brothers Hench (Reed Lancaster), the stone cold, serious, older one and Jessie Aaronson (Bobbie), the immature, happy-go-lucky, Energizer bunny who aren't in school, but slumming it. Jordan's script kicks us off with a day in the life of their seedy surroundings filled with blue screens and bleak prospects. Lancaster and Aaronson's chemistry establishes an all too familiar, familial dynamic with roughhousing, a ghastly lack of hygiene, and indestructible insecurities tightly compacted like a tower of Legos. Although smell is not a sense implemented, you can practically feel the stink coming off these boys through their harsh dialogue and grim surroundings and sneak into your bones.
What's also immediately present is the bros before hoes have the dirtiest minds and mouths, which for a pair of teenage boys is to be expected (Hench is 16, Bobbie is 13). The language is intrinsic to the piece. It offers a glimpse into their psyche who are both driven by sex, money, and mostly a need for affection. The intention is clear, but it's difficult to bear, especially when regarding the degradation and dehumanization of women. Threats of rape, non-consensual wanking, and women (including their mother) referred to as whores and skanks is as innate to these boys as breathing.
And if there was any questioning, Mommie dearest Maggie (Tiffany Bedwell), floats in and out of the boys' lives as smooth yet prickly as lush velvet, fine, but finicky. Bedwell plays her with all the brazenness of a mother who may love her sons, but doesn't know how. With both of Hench and Bobbie's fathers not in the picture, she has other vices to bide time with booze, coffee, and cigarettes. This barely passable apartment as a home is in her name, and as far as she's concerned is enough. Bobbie grabs on to what he can get, practically sucking on his mother's teat, whereas Hench has become hardened from her not so charming habits.
These lost boys appear to be in need of a mother, and in walks the "skank" they've watched from their window, Jennifer (Netta Walker). The same age as Hench and equally jaded by her family for far different reasons, Walker shifts the entire play with her infectious humor, genuine heart, and action-oriented spirit to change her circumstances. She arrives in her Hermoine finest, concerned for the mistreatment she's witnessed of Hench and Bobbie's dog, Taliban (yes, you read that correctly). Once she expresses her concern, the three slowly build a friendship, and her care transforms them. New digs, homemade food, and even adorable, moon-eyed romance appear on the horizon between Hench and Jennifer which is sizzling as it is sweet.
The end of Act I leads to Mom (Bedwell) crashing the trio's dinner party with substitute Mom (Walker) in attendance, and gets Act II off for the end of all good things. The pieces of this puzzle can be assembled of how the play ends and it's not through an escape to Neverland. The second act is a testament to the work of director Elly Green (Jackalope Theatre's In the Canyon, Sideshow Theatre's You for Me for You) and violence/intimacy director Sam Hubbard. In the hands of another creative team, the severity of uncomfortable language could have felt claustrophobic with the added layer of visible, graphic moments onstage. The feeling of relief cannot be stressed enough that the audience is not subjected to witnessing these violent moments, but trusts the audience can understand the severity of these actions.
In theatre right now, there seems to be a crisis for where white, cis, male characters hold space and in what capacity. Yen addresses the common issues seen within this group onstage and off of toxic masculinity, violence toward women, and resources not being applied in treating mental illnesses. These issues must be discussed, but it remains to be seen what the best way to demonstrate that is without making a play about the fall of two white men who had potential; and without assigning blame to the mother who didn't provide enough love at home. Yen doesn't provide clear cut solutions to these problems and leaves these subjects in a state of unrest, which is refreshingly realistic in our attitude toward them right now.
As much as we may love to attribute causes and blame on others to psychoanalyze why people commit acts of violence, there is still a need to see that person come to terms with their own self and sense of accountability. But how can that be depicted on stage without the person becoming a martyr or without an audience building empathy for a character who has committed an unforgivable crime? Yen sits in these questions, and while those answers linger, I'd prefer to see these questions explored in the hands of femme, gender non-binary, and transgender directors and playwrights, if we insist on continuing to see these stories performed.