Putting a Spin on Drug Education

When one attempts to produce theatrical works for teenage audiences, it doesn’t get much more difficult than the anti-drug play. Most of us may have put the traumas of high school behind us, but few still have a clue about how to win the approval of the cool kids—especially when it comes to telling them that they shouldn’t do something. When staging a production for teenagers, the most effective rule of thumb is also the most paradoxical: The moment you attempt to please, you’ve lost your audience. As an anti-drug work, Cranked is about as good as they get. A one-man show about the life-threatening crystal meth addiction of talented freestyle rapper Stan (Kyle Cameron), the one-act work inserts a cautionary tale into a hip-hop formula. On paper, this pairing comes across as too eager to please, but the result is effective to the point of shocking. Stewarded by Cameron’s remarkable performance, Cranked lacks all pretention, and as a result is truly frightening.

Cranked originated at Vancouver-based Green Thumb Theatre more than two years ago, and since then has toured at high schools and theaters around North America. The script has a heavily autobiographical flair (at points, it brings to mind a hybrid of 8 Mile and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces), but Stan is, in fact, a fictionalized character assembled from the experiences of several real-life addicts.

In preparing for the role, Cameron had to learn to manifest many of the clinical effects of crystal meth, including the characteristic fidgeting, sweating and paranoia. It’s a physically taxing role, and Cameron succeeds admirably; he is an equally charismatic and frightening presence on stage, and it’s difficult to take one’s eyes off him. Cameron shows remarkable control of his voice and movements, from his twitchy reflexes to the play’s several freestyle rap segments, and his pale complexion and skinny frame lend themselves effectively to the image of physical exhaustion.

Stan’s story is framed by a performance that the rapper gives after checking out of a rehab clinic. Stating that he is not yet ready to go onstage, he throws himself into a series of flashbacks that narrate his early teenage years, his short-lived success in hip-hop, and his decision to check himself into rehab. Most vividly, however, Stan describes what it feels like to crave the drug, comparing himself to a zombie. “I’m rotting from the core,” he says in one segment. “I’m gutless, I’m soulless, I’m dead,” he later describes.

The impact of Cranked is strengthened by its thoughtfully executed stage design. In order to believably channel an underground hip-hop show, a microphone stand is the only prop on the otherwise empty stage, and a backdrop of graffiti art provides a canvas for both gritty realism and drug-induced fantasy. The background depicts several ghoulish figures standing underneath rows of speakers and a white, skull-like face. On occasion, this face serves as a video screen that alternately shows close-ups of Stan and stylized images recalling a meth trip. Combined with flashing, red lights and a bass-heavy music track, the overall effect is appropriately surreal.

Because Cranked has an obviously educational goal, it doesn’t offer a traditional theater experience. It’s more likely to attract school groups or families wishing to learn about drug addiction than casual theatergoers, but within its notably limited framework, the show is at the top of its class.

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