SALT LAKE CITY — Geography Club felt like a gay version of Saved by the Bell, in the best way possible. The protagonist, Russel (Mike T. Brown), guides the audience through the halls and social moirés of his high school in a way that is instantly familiar. Remember how the most important thing in high school was just to fit in? Remember how your desire to fit in had this mystic power of making you even more aware of all the ways you were different? Being gay, Russel is acutely aware of everything he might lose if anyone finds out who he really is.
Along the tour through the high school locker room, cafeteria, and hallways of Russel’s high school, the audience meets the characters that one would expect to find in adolescence: the baseball star (Michael S. Johnson), the bullies (Steven Robert Jones and Cody V. Thompson), the quirky best friends (Natasha Green and Laurent Backman), the desperate airheads (Erica Carvalo and Kate Lanphier), the skater (Jacob Eltzroth), the soccer player (Allie Russell), and the lowest common denominator nerd (Malachi Van Nice). Even though they’re all character types most Americans would know, Brent Hartinger’s script introduces them in unique ways that make them poignant rather than prosaic, fresh and interesting, rather than old hat.
The basic premise is that Russel and a few other LGBT students decide to form a Geography Club as a safe place to talk about their experiences. In the midst of this very basic event the audience gets to relive all the intensity of teenage life, and what’s remarkable is that each character was strikingly relateable, regardless of sexual orientation. When the unthinkable happens and a student (Napsugar Hegedus) shows up to a meeting out of sheer interest in geography, the club thinks their cause might be shot. That’s until Brandy shares some family problems and says, “The whole world has to tell me how normal they are and how different they are from me.” The students instantly empathize, and the Geography Club transforms into a gay-straight alliance.
The play wonderfully presents LGBT characters as varied, vulnerable, familiar characters, rather than the usual portrayal as the quirky best friend or the punch line to every joke. I’m used to seeing gimmicky gay characters in popular sitcoms, but it’s common for people to think “the gay agenda” is being pushed down their throat if a gay character is explored in any depth or develops a relationship. Green’s character Min points out, though, that straight people get to walk around holding hands in front of everyone without worrying about repercussions.
Every part of this production was fantastic. Director Jerry Rapier maintained a unique balance between light heartedness and poignancy. Auditions for the play began August 23, and all the actors were lower classmen. Instead of making the play feel amateur, these qualities seemed to infuse it with the youth and vitality that drive the story. All the actors were exactly what they should be, and Brown was brilliantly charismatic and personable in the lead. Every character felt real, and their chemistry together made each relationship irresistibly relatable.
The set (Chris Warren) was no more than a few tables and lines of lockers, but it was perfect for the quick pace of the show and the focus on character development. The costumes (Aaron Swenson) fit the setting of the play and also the characters’ individuality. The sound design was particularly impressive; Jennifer Lynn Jackson mixed sections of pop songs whose lyrics and tone fit the action, but she did it in a way that didn’t draw attention away from the action.
In the midst of my laughter and heartache for the characters, I kept thinking of friends and family I wished were watching the play with me. Geography Club humanized the aspects of LGBT issues that many people have only considered in the abstract. Simultaneously beautiful and hilarious, one couldn’t help but having a delightful and educational evening. If you can’t make it out, I’d highly recommend the book (written by Hartinger). I’m already planning which friends will be receiving the book as a Christmas gift with a message.