Why is it that I like myself most when looking back on my years as a college freshman, drunkenly spooning peanut butter into my mouth amid the squalor of my dirty kitchen? Why is it that I appreciate a boyfriend most when I see his elementary school photos and realize he used to look like a well-fed lizard in glasses?
I'm going to wager that it isn't my own affinity for the less-than-socially acceptable and is actually a testament to the fact that humans often love that which is most, well, human. And humanity has the tendency to do some painfully embarrassing stuff.
This is the concept that drives Mortified, a collection of short readings and performances of the sometimes brilliant, sometimes artistic, sometimes sad, and always humiliating personal musings its performers created as children and teens. The brainchild of creators and producers Dave Nadelberg and Neil Katcher, Mortified has a constantly changing cast, mainly consisting of adults who have, fortunately, left most of their adolescent angst behind — but still have plenty of stories to tell about it.
The DNA Lounge is surprisingly conducive to theater, with its upper balcony offering unobscured views of the performers. On Aug. 10, the night’s first performance was by Orlando, Fla. native Jessica Wassil, reading from her teenage diaries. There isn’t much to do in Orlando, the edgy-looking brunette explained in her introduction, and thus her 14-year-old self saw no other alternative to the cultural void than to eat Butterfingers by the truckload and obsess over football players who didn’t know she existed.
Wassil’s excerpts treaded not-so-lightly on the line between funny and cringe-inducing, with her bellowing laments of insecurity and unrequited love making the audience members guffaw, but also tempting them to crawl under their seats. Her powerhouse opening excerpt, describing what indeed seemed to be the “worst Valentine’s day ever” (eating Snickers for breakfast and then soiling herself at school) had tears of ambiguous varieties streaming from the audience’s eyes.
But it’s okay, because now she’s totally cute. And kind of a hipster. And probably pretty awesome, given her confidence to stand alone on a stage and read almost grotesque confessions from her youth.
However, Heather Aronson’s accounts of a being an underage metalhead were anything but sad. Her diary entries read more like an epistolary novel addressed to the guitarist of Def Leppard, to whom a young Aronson's commitment resembled a nun's devotion to God. Kinda freaky. And such was the collective opinion of Aronson’s classmates in her first year at a new high school.
And yet, the admittedly girly but nonetheless badass actions of the head-banging teen were wholly awesome. She backed boys into corners, scored concert tickets, got drunk, made at least one friend, and — as the piece’s climax and finale went — cussed out the haughty girls at her school, kicked in her science classroom's door, and ends her high school year of hell in appropriately metal fashion.
The “Worst Teen Poetry Slam,” for which Mortified creator Dave Nadelberg traveled from Los Angeles to San Francisco, offered some variety in the evening. The first contestant was businesswoman Lisa Ratner, who read adolescent love poetry directed toward one particular (and, it seemed, totally undeserving) young man.
Imagine any lovesick and slightly pathetic tween’s poetry, then add in a strong penchant for metaphors about kings, queens, stardust, and chariots, and you’ve got the general aesthetic of Ratner's collection. Nadelberg was the night’s second contestant, and eventual winner, thanks to some awkwardly erotic poetry about "world music" just bizarre enough to offer a refreshing reminder that teens aren’t only pitiful ... they’re also weird as hell.
“What’s in the bag, Mr. Pips?” began Nadelberg’s ode to bagpipes. He had me at that.
Lily Sloane’s confessions of a boy-crazy, coffee-shop working, rock'n'roll loving, and prematurely cynical teen girl were perhaps an unspoken dedication to all those 15-year-old girls who know they’re cool but, goddamn it, why doesn’t anyone else realize it? Covering her insecurities with swearwords yet always admitting to her own faults and adorably neurotic self-awareness, Sloane shared oodles of unwittingly fantastic one liners. (“That little fucker better call me” ended one entry about the boyfriend for whom she incessantly pined.)
Her piece, however, was best punctuated by the live performance of her fifth and sixth grade musical stylings, with which she angrily serenaded her parents: “I have to be cute when we have guests/I don’t want to wear my little pink dress.”
San Francisco show producers Scott Lifton and Heather Van Atta programmed wisely by choosing to end the night’s series of confessionals with Ezra Horne. His diary of an overweight, closeted Mormon boy read like a Daniel Pinkwater coming-of-age novel, with daily accounts of the number of times he looked at porn (which he coded as “P”) or masturbated (creatively delineated by the letter “M”).
He thought he was a fat, lazy, slob. He was jealous of his friends. He made secretly-self hating speeches at church. He knew he would never get into the celestial kingdom. And yet, by the end, there was some hope in Horne's brash yet somehow whimsical musings. He ended his piece with an epilogue: his eventual coming-out was a well-supported, smooth transition by his family and community. Currently happy and in love, Horne said: “I was always hoping God would fix me. But God can’t fix me because I’m not broken.”
And that could be the moral for all the of night’s performers: despite horror-story, silly-stupid childhoods, they'd all moved on nicely.
Mortified officially began in 2002, and this is by no means the first Mortified SF installation. Speaking with audience members, it’s evident that every show is different. According to the unnamed gentleman on my right, this show “wasn’t even as funny” as the last.
And that may prove my thesis: the concept behind Mortified is brilliant to the point where I’m not quite sure where any Mortified show could go wrong, with its ability to lovingly yet bluntly look at personal and painful topics.
The series returns to the DNA Lounge Sept. 14; the group will also make a special performance at the SF Improv Festival Sat/18.