TDPS's "Polaroid Stories" Boldly Blends the Profane and the Poetic

TDPS's "Polaroid Stories" Boldly Blends the Profane and the Poetic

Orpheus (Yohana Ansari-Thomas) and an ensemble cast member (Farryl Lawon) hold up photographs of some of the real street youth whose interviews with playwright Naomi Iizuka inspired Polaroid Stories. Photo: Alessandra Mello.

Orpheus (Yohana Ansari-Thomas) and an ensemble cast member (Farryl Lawon) hold up photographs of some of the real street youth whose interviews with playwright Naomi Iizuka inspired Polaroid Stories. Photo: Alessandra Mello.

The reimagining of myths and legends is nothing new. Like “O Brother Where Art Thou” and “Pretty Woman,” Naomi Iizuka’s play Polaroid Stories mines Greek mythology, this time situating it in a modern, urban context. The originality of Polaroid Stories is found not in its modern take on mythology, but in its compelling and poetic language, often composed in lyrical monologues and soliloquies. TDPS’s gritty production tells the stories of young people relegated to life on the streets and explores the complexities of mental illness, addiction, and relationships, giving a unique face to homeless youth in America.

We open with Philomel’s (Anya Cherniss) bittersweet rendition of “You Are My Sunshine,” soon drowned out by the chaotic din of the urban world. Her song reappears between vignettes, dredging up hope in a hopeless setting. As she listens yearningly to the smooth crooning of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable,” we are forced to face the forgotten homeless youth of our nation. The excellent incorporation of music, woven throughout the show, breathes life into a bleak tale of cyclical suffering. The use of light, sound, and sparse set design also vastly enhance and elevate the production.

Polaroid Stories hinges entirely on its passionate performers. It finds its strongest moments in its monologues, when characters tell us the stories of their lives, confiding in the audience. Akash Patel’s Narcissus particularly shines, bursting with life, color, and humor. The entire ensemble cast is incredibly strong, bringing passionate intensity to their individual tragedies and conflicts. As they grapple with addiction and identity, their stellar performances converge around a universal desire to be seen. Characters lament how people “look right through [them]” or pretend they “ain’t even there,” “like a ghost.” As they let us peak inside their heads, they remind us what we all do to survive, whether we seek solace in vice—like Skinhead Boy (Baela Tinsley) and his speed—or in fantasy—like Skinhead Girl (Sarah Handler) and her dreams of being a “princess in [a] rad-ass fairytale.”

Narcissus (Akash Patel) preens in a broken-off rearview mirror, while runaway Echo (Jessica Li-Jo) compliments and envies him. Photo: Alessandra Mello.

Narcissus (Akash Patel) preens in a broken-off rearview mirror, while runaway Echo (Jessica Li-Jo) compliments and envies him. Photo: Alessandra Mello.

The show’s vignette structure and abstract narrative can make it difficult for the audience to connect with the characters. With little linear plot, the bulk of the show uses language to create meaning within each insulated scene. Iizuka’s writing, boldly blending the profane and the poetic, is sometimes too abstract to follow easily, depending on the actors to guide the audience emotionally. However, in her fusion of modern poetry, urban language, and mythological allusion, Iizuka successfully crafts a daring and original work.

In spite of its structural weaknesses, Polaroid Stories is sustained by powerful performances and innovative staging. With the recent creation of UC Berkeley’s own Homeless Student Union and the presence of nearly 20,000 homeless students in the Bay area alone, Iizuka’s honest depiction of homelessness couldn’t be more timely. Polaroid Stories gives light to the hidden realities of poverty and gives life to the stories of the streets.

“Polaroid Stories” runs until March 12 at Zellerbach Playhouse.

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