Playwright plumbs teen life

For Amy Herzog, in town for the world premiere of her play, this is the second visit to San Francisco. The first, in 2000, was quite different. She arrived among 30 Yale University classmates at the end of a nine-week cross-country cycling trip. Heroic effort as that might have been, Herzog freely admits that she returned to the East Coast by plane.

Bravado and practicality also mingle in her work, “The Wendy Play,” written for teenage actors about teenagers studying drama, but for a general audience. The show, opening tonight at the Zeum Theater, is presented by American Conservatory Theater.

“Very few people write for teen actors, and the ever-aging theater audience may find this unexplored territory,” Herzog says.

The Wendy of the title is a new drama teacher in a private school’s summer conservatory; Herzog herself taught in a summer arts camp, not long before writing the play in 2006.

“We don’t use the word camp,” says a prim character in the play. “Camp is about canoeing and folk songs by the campfire. This is an arts conservatory. For artists.”

Wendy stages a “modern” version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and Herzog’s focus is on the many conflicts in what is advertised as “the cloistered world of bullheaded administrators, jaded colleagues and angst-ridden teens.”

Herzog stresses that she stayed away from a stereotypical play with “a young liberal perspective.”

She weaves a complex story in the context of educating young artists, treating them as adults, but allowing that the “other side” (of administrators and older faculty) may have some valid concerns.

What Herzog and “The Wendy Play” are unequivocally against,however, is the school’s regard for parents as “kings … fearing what they may think.”

Says an administrator when “P.M.S.” gets into the text under Wendy’s direction: “It’s just not what parents who have paid $5,000 want to hear their kids talking about.” Yet Herzog also leaves space for the possibility that her hero “may be getting ahead of herself at times.”

(As to language, the play itself has a profusion of salty words, worthy of David Mamet; Herzog herself says it is not appropriate for those under 12.)

“The Wendy Play,” directed by Domenique Lozano, is a co-production of A.C.T.’s two major educational wings, the Young Conservatory and the Master of Fine Arts programs, the latter serving as alma mater to the likes of Annette Bening, Denzel Washington, Danny Glover, Benjamin Bratt and Anika Noni Rose.

See “Wendy” and guess which of the new MFAs, playing the “older roles,” will join the ranks of the famous: Kaliswa Brewster (Wendy), Jahmela Biggs (Tammy), Kevin Dedes (Tim), J.C. Ernst (Jamie).

IF YOU GO

The Wendy Play

Where: Zeum Theater, Yerba Buena Gardens, Fourth and Howard streets, San Francisco

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; closes April 5

Tickets: $15.50 to $20.50

Contact: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org

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