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Christianity and Modern Adolescence Collide in '#Blessed'

This riveting under-21 production makes waves at FringeNYC.

Navigating the boundary between religious faith and flawed everyday reality can be a challenge for anyone. For teenage girls, steeped in a culture of sexualization and the constant need to seek approval from their peers, it can be downright treacherous. And when the worst happens, and it is accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol and dubious statements of consent, what does it take for one overwhelmed freshman girl to be believed?

#Blessed is a play about faith, rape culture and what it means to be a young woman today, produced and performed by young women who are still trying to work that out themselves. The project comes from Semicolon Theatre Company, an organization dedicated to giving a voice to young people 21 and under in the theater community, and features a production team entirely under that age. Written by Zoe Kamil and headed by Fringe’s youngest-ever director, 19-year-old Miranda Cornell, #Blessed is a window into the world of Christian teens and where their faith helps and hinders them.

Liana Goodwin is a cheerful, awkward freshman, happy to have the guidance of best friend and fellow Christian youth group member Katie as she starts high school. But when Liana falls under the spell of the charming, attractive Michael Silverton and his mildly rebellious, pot-smoking friends, her dedication to her church begins to falter. And then there is a party with a lot of alcohol, and Liana ends up sobbing on the bedroom floor, and no one knows who or what to believe.

Intercut with these scenes of teenage intrigue are moments from a trial that is part court room and part religious tribunal. These interludes are sometimes insightful additions to the story and other times simply confusing, as it is often unclear who is arguing for what side and the logistics of the trial are not explained until much later. Still, the chorus' enactment of the biblical rape of Dina, a running metaphor throughout the play, is possibly the most powerful moment of the piece.

The high school drama, meanwhile, is engaging and generally charming, Kamil's script successfully capturing the particular dialect of modern teenagers without being annoying about it. The performers do a great job generating sympathy for their beloved Michael, so that when he is finally accused of rape, the audience finds itself in the same uncomfortable situation as his friends of not knowing who they want to believe.

#Blessed has some trouble with pacing throughout, due to both lagging transitions and a general sense of aimlessness in the piece after the rape occurs. Whereas the first section of the play evokes the sensation of a trap slowly closing in on Liana, the second consists largely of characters confronting one another about information the audience already knows, like the particulars of Katie and Michael's previous relationship. There are two standout scenes toward the end, however: one between a broken-down Michael and the Jewish "other Michael" whose discomfort with their religion is the butt of frequent jokes throughout the piece, and one at church between Liana and a man who at least claims to be far more than he appears.

The age of the actors, meanwhile, adds another dimension to the piece, highlighting the insularity of the teenage world while also showing off the acting chops of the main characters. Anna Dale Robinson's stunning transformation from innocent child to assault survivor Liana would be impressive even in a much older actress, while Thaddeus Kolwicz's Michael expertly toes the border between alluring and frightening. Rebecca Lampiasi (Katie), Natasha Krause (Leticia) and Marcus Shacknow (Todd) round out the strong central cast of characters, each struggling with their own faith and relationships while trying to understand what has happened between their two dear friends.

The rest of the cast often feels like an afterthought, a chorus rarely incorporated into the main action of the piece but simply popping up when needed, much like the debris strewn across the back of the stage that serves as Liana's locker and occasional source of props. But even so, the overall story of #Blessed certainly packs a punch, and while the play does not reconcile religion and the modern world for you, it leaves the door open for its characters, and its audiences, to find their own way through.

#Blessed plays at the Clemente through August 25 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.

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