Ryan Wuestewald and Sonia Justl in Jon.
Michael Ensminger

In Jon, teens express themselves in an artificial world

On the opening night for Jon, the Catamounts served vodka before the show. The drinks — courtesy of Boulder's 303 Vodka — came in glasses rimmed with blue Kool-Aid, and with ice cubes made of frozen cherry juice. This offering — along with a food wagon decorated with lights that pulled up in front of the venue after the show and handed out sliders and mac and cheese to theater-goers — is part of the company's FEED program, which recently received a $25,000 grant from the Boulder Arts Commission. Having landed from Chicago in a food-obsessed town a couple of years ago, artistic director Amanda Berg Wilson decided to "meet the culture where it is and create more of a community event out of theater." The drinks emphasized the artificial world of the play — and they also underlined the cool, creative vibe that characterizes the Catamounts.

Wilson doesn't comb the Pulitzer lists or study reviews in the New York Times to find the smart, zizzy, offbeat plays she presents, plays that tend to be light-spirited even when the topics are heavy. The latest offering is a dramatized version of George Saunders's long short story Jon, in which a group of teens are kept captive in a comfortable and controlled bubble and required to evaluate products for the market. Their entire worldview is shaped by games and advertising, and the only way they can express their thoughts is through the slogans and images they're provided. Should they ever feel a moment's unhappiness, there's a drug called Aurabon to make them happy again. But hormones will rage, even in the most artificial setting, and love and procreation tend to be irrepressible.

Saunders is a MacArthur genius whose education was unorthodox for a writer — among other qualifications, he has a BS in geophysical engineering from the School of Mines in Golden. He has published several books of short stories, and there's a brilliant satirical piece by him in a recent New Yorker called "I Was Ayn Rand's Lover." (Alas, Saunders makes the mistake of showing a moment's compassion for a sick aunt and loses Rand to a more satisfactorily ruthless youngster by the name of Paul Ryan.)



Presented by the Catamounts through March 16, Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 720-468-0487, www.thecatamounts.org.

The short story Jon is an extended monologue, and Seth Bockley's stage adaptation follows suit. You know those pieces of writing where the rhythms take over your brain? How, when you've seen a Pinter play, every conversation you hear afterward sounds like a Pinter play? Jon's speech rhythms commandeer your thinking in the same way. They're a very original mash-up of advertising slogans, ad descriptions and the serious, semi-literate attempts of someone completely cut off from the world to find ways of expressing himself. The sentences are funny, but they hint at — and sometimes skate over — ideas that are very important, and they have a cumulative power. Although some of the impact of this thought-stream is lost in the dramatization, the story also gains something: a sense of urgency and a concern for the flesh and blood creatures in front of you.

Ever since Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984, we've wondered if the coming dystopia we uneasily sense and fear will take the brutal shape imagined by Orwell, or if we'll just be lulled to sleep with comforts and distractions like the inhabitants of Brave New World. Jon leans toward the Huxley version, with Aurabon taking the place of soma ("all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol," says Huxley, "none of their defects"). Saunders's themes include the fragmenting, crazy-making effect of technology and mass media, particularly on teenagers, and the push-pull between the comfort and safety of an artificial universe and the sometimes terrifying rewards of real life.

Ryan Wuestewald's Jon is as wistful and innocent as a ruffled baby bird, and Sonia Justl provides a sympathetic Carolyn and some moments of real pathos. Jason Maxwell's performance as coordinator Slippen is a little too broad, however. We've seen a lot of shows lately where the primary emphasis is on the tech, and clearly Jon has complex technical requirements. But while there's expressive sound design (courtesy of Ben Berg Wilson) and video (Brian Freeland), Wilson's solutions are bare-bones and low-budget. They work. And most important, they keep the focus where it belongs: on Saunders's language and the human predicament he describes.


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