What's your damage? Rock River Rep goes old school with production of "Heathers: The Musical"
JANESVILLE—Kendyl Van Kirk is a nice young lady. At least she thinks she is.
Her director agrees. So do her co-stars.
How, then, can the Parker High School junior possibly turn in a convincing performance as the manipulative, merciless leader of a powerful high school clique in “Heathers: The Musical?”
It ain't easy.
“Being mean is definitely hard on me. Sometimes the things she says are so terrible,” said Van Kirk, referring to her onstage character, Heather Chandler. “But being able to say some of those things is, honestly, a good outlet in some ways. It's definitely a release.”
Van Kirk and her fellow Heathers—Olivia Foght and Emily Eidman—will expel some deeply repressed nastiness Aug. 11-12 and 18-19 when Rock River Repertory Theatre presents the musical production at the Edgerton Performing Arts Center. The musical is based on the 1988 dark comedy film starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater.
Like Van Kirk, both Foght and Eidman are conflicted by how their own true natures differ from those of their malicious characters.
“(Director Jim Tropp) told me, 'I want everyone to hate you by the end of the show,'” said Eidman, a Milton High School graduate and UW-Stevens Point freshman who plays Heather Duke. “It's hard to get into character because I think I'm a nice person. I try to put the dark parts of me into the character and let them come out on stage.”
Much of Heather Duke's abrasiveness is aimed at Heather McNamara, the character played by Eidman's new friend Foght.
“I love Olivia to death, but I have to say so many mean things to her,” Eidman added. “I tell her, 'This is my character, not me.'”
Foght, a student at Waunakee High School, plays the “weak” Heather—the verbal punching bag for Heather Chandler
and, eventually, Heather Duke. Aside from swallowing a slew of scripted insults, Foght said the most challenging aspect of her character is trying to balance being popular and vulnerable at the same time.
“I've never really been bullied, but I understand the feeling of being intimidated by other people, so I get where she's coming from,” Foght said. “I also think everyone has their own insecurities, and being popular doesn't automatically get rid of those insecurities.”
Set in Westerburg, Ohio, “Heathers” maneuvers socially through the cutthroat landscape of high school in the 1980s.
Along with the three Heathers, the show's lead character, Veronica, completes the school's most popular clique. But when Veronica becomes involved with a rebellious transfer student named J.D. and later embarrasses Heather Chandler at a frat party, the blond trio sets out to destroy Veronica's reputation.
Things get interesting when J.D. turns out to be darker than anyone could have imagined, and his twisted sense of justice sets into motion events that lead to death, disruption and, eventually, destruction. Feeling responsible for the “damage,” Veronica enters into a dangerous, psychological standoff with J.D. in an attempt to save the school.
“I watched the film and was surprised because it was much darker and creepier than the musical. It's more like a thriller,” said Hayley Rosenthal, the Beloit native and University of Minnesota-Duluth sophomore who plays Veronica.
“But that doesn't seem to be as much of a problem when you add songs to it,” she joked.
Despite being a play about life in high school, “Heathers” touches on mature issues such as bullying, sexuality, murder and teen suicide. The theater company emphasizes it is not intended for those younger than 13.
“The whole reason it's listed as mature content is because you don't want kids to do what we're doing on stage,” Rosenthal said. “We're playing high school students and drinking at a party, making out on stage ... stuff you don't ever think is happening in high school. But the story is so well written, the script is beautiful and the message is amazing. It's unfortunate we have to put a mature rating on that.”
Entertainment value aside, director Jim Tropp thinks “Heathers” will resonate with older audience members who remember high school hierarchy.
“I was sitting at rehearsal with (choreographer) Michael Stanek, and what is weird is we know (someone similar to) every single person in the show,” he said. “We know every personality—the girl that watches MTV, the geek who is super smart but is kind of a pervert at the same time, the Heathers, and the jocks who are complete d-cks. We all know those guys.”
But Van Kirk says much has changed in terms of equality and acceptance. When it comes to younger audiences and their reactions to “Heathers,” she expects disbelief-based laughter at the overt harshness portrayed.
“From my experience, people don't pick on people because of the way they look or anything like that. Mostly, people don't like other people because of the things they do,” she said. “If people are mean, they are the people that are disliked. Girls are mean to other girls because they are jealous, but that's about all it is. That part has not changed.
“But I haven't really encountered much of that, thank God. I wouldn't want to.”