Gabriel King, Chad Goodridge and Jeanna Phillips star in the world premiere of ‘Troublemaker’ at Berkeley Rep. Photo:
Gabriel King, Chad Goodridge and Jeanna Phillips star in the world premiere of ‘Troublemaker’ at Berkeley Rep. Photo:

Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright, written by the young, talented Dan LeFranc (Sixty Miles to Silver Lake), is a fresh, funny, vibrant, original and ultimately sympathetic glimpse into the angst-filled world of tweeners. It’s a time when young boys feel constrained by their self-described “origin story,” real or imagined, and long to escape their limits into a world of action.

The protagonist Bradley Boatwright (excellent Gabriel King) is a likeable kid who spirals out of control. Brad’s “origin story” is that his father died while saving Brad and his mother (first-rate Jennifer Regan) from a burning car. This puts him one-step up from friends whose origins are mostly being children of divorce. Brad envisions himself a superhero who needs to watch over his mother and his nerdy friend and sidekick, Mikey (Obie award winner, terrific Chad Goodridge).

Troublemaker takes place in working-class Rhode Island in the year nineteen mighty-four. In the first act (there are three acts and two intermissions) Brad and Mikey get into scrapes with a rich, funny and frightening bully, Jake Miller (wonderfully played by Robbie Tann) and his henchmen. His mother and the school principal Peter Putters (Thomas Jay Ryan) threaten to send him to Oggerstead Academy (the kids call it “Foggerhead”), the dreaded juvie detention school on the other side of the river.

Brad is too young to be allowed to curse, but he desperately wants to. Playwright Dan LeFranc has written for Brad and the kids countless curse-like words that are amusingly spewed throughout the play. While some of the curse-lite language is commonly used, while others are fresh, creative and comical. They lend authenticity to Brad and his struggles to communicate.

In the second act, Brad is wild and out of control. Brad and Mikey run away with help from their hard-hitting friend, Loretta Beretta (first-rate Jeanna Phillips) who has family problems of her own. The obstacles in their surreal world include being threatened and chased by homeless pirates. Oggerstead Academy sends out kid-catchers in Nazi uniforms with German accents (including funny Danny Scheie) to capture bad kids.

Robbie Tann and Gabriel King face off in ‘Troublemaker’. Photo
Robbie Tann and Gabriel King face off in ‘Troublemaker’. Photo

In the sobering third act, Brad, his mother and his therapist (Thomas Jay Ryan) work with Brad to separate fact from fiction. We find that, having trekked through crises, Brad becomes a different type of hero — one who overcame challenges and sees a new reality. He is coming of age.

It is not by accident that Troublemaker’s world premiere is at Berkeley Rep. Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor held a workshop for Troublemaker in July 2012 at its inaugural Summer Lab. The Ground Floor program encompasses Berkeley Rep’s new work development activities, in which artists are selected based on a combination of existing relationships with Berkeley Rep and an application process.

There’s much to think about in Troublemaker. In an interview, LeFranc said, “Troublemaker is a hybrid between a hyper-stylized action-adventure world and a naturalistic domestic drama.” That is a tough tightrope to walk. Yet LeFranc, director Lila Neugebauer, and the marvelous cast walk the highest tightrope and make it look easy. With authenticity, flair, humor and pathos, Troublemaker is a remarkable evening of theater.

Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright is playing at Berkeley Rep through February 3, 2013. For information and tickets, visit the Berkeley Rep.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...