No folkloric Himalayan ape-men appear in David Jacobi’s play “Ready, Steady, Yeti, Go.” That may sound like a spoiler, but it’s a PSA: The friend who went with me to see Rogue Machine’s production was too disappointed by the lack of yetis to focus on what was happening onstage, which is engaging but conceptually tricky enough that we could have used some help figuring it out afterward.
The story is set in present-day suburban America, in a backyard clubhouse that, as designed by David Mauer, evokes the childhood idyll of “The Little Rascals” or “Encyclopedia Brown”: unsupervised kids roaming an eternal summertime. Five pre-teens — played by adults — meet here one afternoon, apparently at the request of Carly (Jasmine St. Clair), the only black girl in town. She has invited Katie (Rori Flynn), Barry (Randolph Thompson) and twins Goon and Gandry (Ryan Brophy and Kenney Selvey) to reenact a racist episode that changed their lives.
They have a boom-box, rudimentary props and costumes, but no director; they cue scene changes by chanting, “Ready, Steady, Yeti, Go!” That’s the only yeti to be found in the script, except obliquely, perhaps, in its endorsement of Rousseau’s concept of the noble savage. Not only does Goon, the “bad” twin (he and his brother are tongue-in-cheek imports from the didactic comic strip “Goofus and Gallant”), prove to be the most humane of all the characters, but the forces of civilization represented by an earnest teacher, a dopey cop and the annoying boy detective Wikipedia Jones are the villains.
There’s a hate crime that is unsettling, a reminder of the ugly truths behind nostalgic idealizations of America in the 1960s. But it’s the way the characters react that destroys these children’s faith in the world and one another.
This message may be heavy, but the action is so cartoonish that its weight doesn’t settle until later. The play-within-a-play framework provides for moments of frisky meta-theatricality, perhaps most deliciously a scene in which Carly, dissatisfied with how her parents are being portrayed, pushes the other actors offstage and takes on both parts herself.
But the conceit doesn’t always work. Would children really go to the trouble of writing and staging such a technically sophisticated piece of theater, for themselves, simply to find closure? And if they did, would they be so surprised by its ending?
The writing does capture the ineffable delights and indignities of being 12, however, and the actors, warmly directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos, have such a good time letting their inner children out to play that they’re a treat to watch.
‘Ready, Steady, Yeti, Go’
Where: Rogue Machine at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays and Mondays, through July 29. Also 7 p.m. Sundays in June, 3 p.m. Sundays in July.
Tickets: $40; $10 and up at the door Friday, June 17 and July 6
Info: (855) 585-5185 or roguemachinetheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes