They’ve done it again! The American International School Muscat Drama Department have come up with another sterling High School Drama performance that achieved what it set out to do. Drama teacher and Director, Kris Hovland, chose a play that could accommodate as many enthusiastic youngsters as possible with unique characters to portray, and then set about training students to create a credible scenario in the Bosch Centre for Performing Arts at TAISM.
“The Hope and Heartache Diner” is actually called “Dukes” though no one knows why. It centres on a young student on her last day at home, though she actually spends it in her family business doing “the full run” in the Diner, before she leaves for college in the big outside world, away from parental control and comforts. The protagonist, Felix, becomes the narrator and was played fluently by Ananya Chawla, reflecting all the anxieties and concerns of a young woman coming of age. But there is a complication: she has her deceased great-grand parents and grandfather in her head, who originally founded the diner and with whom she is in constant contact. She talks to them and they talk to her, and to each other, in various tones of familiar dialogue. The great-grand parents, played by Hamda Qaiser as Betty and Stefan Chordas as Earl, were clearly in love throughout their working lives, while granddad Felix senior, portrayed by Ethan Brink as a quick-witted ladies’ man, grown cynical with age, lost his wife while still young and he somehow never got over it nor remarried. As a result he was free to spend a lot of time with young Felix until his death. Her own father, Sam, the boss and owner of Duke’s, was portrayed perfectly by the clear-spoken Tom Wilson while her mother, Polish émigré Nell, appears as a tongue-tied teenager with some Polish phrases, and later a mother-in-control, played confidently by Emilie Serna.
Lydia Price wrote “The Hope and Heartbreak Diner” for young actors, reflecting their emotions at a vulnerable age, and it is filled with teenage angst, hope of love and the fear of being ‘stood up’.
It is extremely witty with fast interjections in the dialogue, presenting quite a challenge in the sizeable Bosch Theatre at TAISM. The great-grandparents appear as ghosts of their youthful selves, allowing for themes of falling in love and courtship without the need for superfluous greying hair and wrinkles. After all, what age would you like to be when you get to the after-life?
All the parts were played by budding young TAISM thespians, including waiters, diners, and the ‘stray cats’ which Wiki, Felix’ sister — a painfully shy introvert, portrayed sensitively by Reem Al Yafaey — meets and invites over. The cast of 28 worked perfectly together as an ensemble, and credit goes to the Set Construction team for their nostalgic creation of a metallic and nouveau-plastic 1950s diner — implied by the Elvis sound track. The scene shifts to and fro from the present to the past and distant pasts — all remembered by Duke’s Diner itself perhaps — though no one knows where the name originally came from.
Among the staff was the sharp-tongued, quick-tempered Rat who had the audience in stitches with her threats and imperatives; “ask me again and I’ll pull your tongue through your nose”; or “I’ll slam your head in the waffle iron”, played superbly with the clearest projection by the astute young Annie Griffin. Less volatile perhaps but equally convincing as Mission was Claudine Urdaneta — definitely a woman with a mission and not to be messed with, although her mother had tried with cigarettes burns in her youth. School escapee masquerading as an office worker was the hilarious Hisham Bukhari as Lost, squealing himself out of awkward questions, but in the end admitting he was a 14-year-old runaway because he was sure no one loved him enough to miss him.
In Act 2 Lyndsay Price employs a cinematic technique where two conversations are going on at opposite sides of the stage (the diner) simultaneously, which leads to some funny juxtapositions of topical subjects, but demands more clarity from the actors as the audience’s attention turns from side to side. Some of the dialogue was difficult to catch from the less confident students, but BLT’s obsession with food from the slim Aakrit Gokul was not missed, and provided a delightful contrast with Jaena’s obsession with diet, body image and health from Faith Grenier’s anorexic persona. Manar al Asmi provided a delicious antidote as the girl who could eat it all, as Jelly.
The play was quintessentially middle-American, with fast-moving conversation in colloquial patter. It was also a High School Show, for which they achieved a commendable standard of performance.
And did I mention that the origin of the name “Duke’s” was never explained?