‘No one is awesome here. Everyone sucks,” schoolteacher Erik (Adam Stepan) tells bullied student Mercedes (Jamie Cooper) near the end of The Burn, the newest production at Springs Ensemble Theatre, directed by Jodi Papproth.
Erik has spent the show so far fostering a creative spark in Mercedes by pushing her to participate in their high school production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible amidst the chaos of bullying classmates and her own religious hesitation.
The Burn , Through Feb. 26 , SET, 1903 E. Cache La Poudre St., set.booktix.com
But by the time he utters this line, things have become dramatically worse in his English class. He later recants his all-encompassing damnation, but it’s hard for anyone to believe it, whether player or spectator, because everyone winds up with blood on their hands — literally or figuratively.
The Burn, written by Chicago playwright Phil Dawkins, tells a story of duplicitous people and the labyrinthine relationships their disparate identities create. The play’s trio of bully “witches” — with ringleader Tara (Jasmyn Madise), the brainy Shauna (McLain Murphy) and jock Andi (Sheridan Singer) — are a clique of “holier-than-thous” who don’t hesitate to inflict cruelties on outsiders. Their mark is the meek new kid Mercedes, a born-again Christian who returns to public school, having being homeschooled following a family tragedy. In SET’s intimate, classroom-sized theater, this predator/prey tension is immediate and palpable.
This is not Tina Fey’s relatively light-hearted high school comedy about savage in-crowders, nor is it the vintage after-school special about bullying with the introverted “good kid” getting harassed or beaten by leather jacket-wearing villains.
The Burn is mean.
The thoughts these characters have and the words they utter serve only to maintain their toxic group. The play’s first act is probably the hardest to take in as the witches express their unfiltered thoughts out loud through spoken text chatter in class. They ignore their teacher: He delivers unheard instructions; they nonchalantly chat about inappropriate student-teacher relations. But one kid in the back is paying attention — Mercedes is silently tracking with the teacher.
All four classmates are eventually brought together by persuasion or punishment to perform in Miller’s classic play about the Salem witch trials and persecution, which boils away some of their abrasiveness, at least temporarily. (“It’s a test where they set things on fire,” Shauna says, explaining the title to the smarter-than-she-looks Andi.) It’s here we realize that Mercedes is no saint herself, despite her moralizing and holy influence.
”It sounds like you’re trying to convert us,” Shauna and Erik bellow in unison to their born-again classmate, and she shamelessly acknowledges her proselytizing.
It’s not long before tensions escalate and we see that she can match the witches’ cruelty under the guise of prayer-summoned, divine retribution. This leaves Erik to referee the proceedings as a character whose own struggles put him on the defensive against their barbs.
The Burn spends a lot of energy showing the ways harassment and bullying have changed in this new millennium with easy, instantaneous communication over cell phones and social media. The witches taunt Mercedes behind her back online with their call to arms: the hashtagged “GodHatesMercy.” These abstract scenes project snippets of text conversations with creative use of lighting while actors talk to each other using pantomimed phones or by floating around darkened stages, rarely making eye contact.
Of course, presenting these online interactions is a curse all its own when different platforms gain and lose relevance and technology shifts constantly. The reference to Reddit passes muster and tagging in the aging online RPG World of Warcraft suffices, but the idea that Zynga’s social media game FarmVille (which peaked in 2010) still has clout among teens while they tap out 140-character tweets (bumped up to 280 in 2017) was a little distracting from a play written in 2019 and produced in 2023.
Anachronisms aside, The Burn mercifully sprinkles in enough humor to get you through what would otherwise be an unrelenting slog; a vicious coming-of-age story of very mean girls. If the endless parades of spoken internet acronyms (“OMG!” “STFU!”) and mean curses these witches cast don’t scare you away, you’ll realize that no one there is awesome, everyone sucks — and deep inside, there are terrible reasons why.