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Theater Preview: The Breakfast Club

Why would anyone create a stage adaptation of The Breakfast Club? Co-director Shawn Lipenski jokes the decision came after drinking rather too much whiskey. But his fellow director Seth Jarvis notes there were sensible reasons to transform John Hughes' 1985 teen film fave for live actors: It basically came down to "the unity of space and time that are similar to theater," he says. In other words, because a movie that is set almost entirely in one room -- a high school library -- is relatively easy to realize on stage.

Easier, at least, than Hughes' other flicks of the same era, such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Sixteen Candles. Lipenski and Jarvis were more attracted to The Breakfast Club, too, because of its compelling characters and the absence of a moralistic "comeuppance" inherent in many teen films. When their stage version plays at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge this weekend, many in the audience are likely to be fellow "Gen-Xers" for whom The Breakfast Club is a beloved icon of their youth.

The movie tells the story of a diverse group of high school misfits who are sharing Saturday detention because of minor school-day infractions. Over the course of the day, they talk through social barriers that ordinarily keep them apart. New alliances are born, though not without substantial pain first. And lines like "Don't mess with the bull, young man, you'll get the horns" and "Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?" made the film an instant teen classic, its dialogue becoming clichés in pop culture. "For a good six to eight years after its release," says Jarvis, "the film was a staple of weekend retreats and slumber parties."

The Breakfast Club legitimized the "Brat Pack" by featuring actors Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy and Anthony Michael Hall. And to the extent young viewers related to its characters, the movie also legitimized for that generation the struggle to work through insecurity and angst, to find oneself and make sense of one's place in society. In other words, it addressed being a teenager in America -- at least a white one.

Lipenski and Jarvis are friends who until recently worked together at Burlington's Waterfront Video, and who both had roles in a local indie film that was featured in the Vermont International Film Festival last fall. Both are also known around town for their stage work, as an actor and slam poet, respectively. And both are hovering at around age 30.

With The Breakfast Club, Lipenski and Jarvis found another way to collaborate. And when they vetted the idea to other members of their artistic community, the response was "overwhelmingly enthusiastic," says Jarvis, noting that as people heard about the project, many asked how they could get involved.

Nearly 20 years after the original release of the film, Lipenski and Jarvis believe the issues raised in The Breakfast Club are still relevant. And yet Jarvis has faith that this remove from the 1980s will give their production some healthy perspective. "People can relate to these characters even if they weren't the prom queen or geek," he suggests.

The ensemble of local actors and musicians apparently feels the same way. "People keep coming up to me saying, 'I was that character [in high school]," says Andy Krackow, referring to her role as the "basketcase" Allison, played by Sheedy on film. Fellow actor Eric Olsen, playing the delinquent Bender, suggests the character originally portrayed by Judd Nelson "was one in a long string of very bad role models."

Of course, the actors in this adaptation can't help but think about having to live up to the movie's memorable performances. "We're not trying to break away [from the film], but we're not trying to imitate it," says Krackow. Olsen wonders whether their portrayals will provoke audience participation, à la camp classic Rocky Horror Picture Show. "I've had a couple of dreams about forgetting lines, but the audience yells the line to me to keep me in step," he confesses.

Chances are, the camaraderie of this cast and crew will help get them through any potential curveballs. Says Krackow, "We're all comfortable being crazy together."

Those with a close attachment to the original Breakfast Club shouldn't worry about the stage version losing its iconic punch. "We've seen the movie numerous times to keep a running list," says Lipenski. "There are many recognizable moments." Even so, this production obviously cannot copy the film exactly. The majority of the action still occurs in the library, but the text has been altered slightly to accommodate the limitations of a stage set. In any case, an "adaptation" has leeway to make changes as needed. As actor Krackow points out, "John Hughes isn't Shakespeare."

One bold departure is the music: The film's memorable soundtrack has been dropped -- except for the final song, "Don't You Forget About Me" by Simple Minds -- in favor of original music composed by Amanda Gustafson. This will be performed by The Physics Club, comprising Gustafson, Adam Wood and Jeremy Frederick. According to Lipenski, Gustaf-son's compositions, utilizing three keyboards and a drum machine, are "as '80s as you can get."

Another fun twist following Saturday's performance is "Prom Night." Showcase Lounge will switch from theater to high school gym -- 1980s-style, of course. There will be "official" prom photos and prizes including ones for Best and Worst Dressed. And a prom King & Queen -- or Queen & Queen, or King & King -- will be crowned. No discrimination for this prom's royalty.

Nearly every member of the cast will perform at the prom as the band referred to in the movie: Larry Luster & the Diamond Stud. The directors hope people will come "appropriately dressed" for the festivities. A ticket stub to any of the performances grants you free admission to Saturday's prom.

This stage production of The Breakfast Club is a lively entry to the passionate fringe-theater scene in Vermont. The collaborative process has been "great fun, rewarding and enjoyable," says Jarvis. "The group of artists involved is superlative." This weekend, the cast's enthusiasm will surely make this one '80s nostalgia trip worth taking.

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