She Sets Fire to the Smell of Lemons: “OTP” at BPT

Blanca Isabella, Hampton Richards; Photo by Stratton McCrady.

Presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre and the Boston University New Play Initiative
Written by Elise Wien
Directed by Enzo Gonzales
Cultural consultant: Ciera-Sadé Wade
Intimacy coaching by Jess Scout Malone
Featuring: Hampton Richards, Blanca Isabella, Diego Cintròn, Dom Carter

December 8-18, 2022
Boston Playwrights’ Theatre
949 Commonwealth Ave.
Boston, MA 02215

Content Advisory: This play contains mentions of suicide and depictions of self-harm.

Review by Kitty Drexel

BOSTON, Mass — OTP is the acronym for One True Pairing, which identifies a person’s favorite fictional romantic relationship. In Wien’s OTP, now closed, best friends Michelle (Hampton Richards) and Ceci (Blanca Isabella) are co-writing a submission to Madame Tussaud’s “Melt Your Heart Out” fanfiction contest. 

Their fanfic features a teenage President Barack Obama (Diego Cintròn doing good accent work). Obama is the leader of the free world during the day and immortal stealer of hearts by night. Suspend your disbelief. OTP is worth it. 

All is well until their lives outside the fanfiction writing intrude on their work: Michelle is running for JSA President! Ceci is writing solo fanfic! Both girls learn that there is more to friendship than convenience and (relation)shipping the same world leader. Dom Carter stars as an uncannily familiar politician with amnesia whom Ceci must rescue from mutant foxes in apocalyptic Illinois. 

The Archive of Our Own, AO3 in popular vernacular, “offers a noncommercial and nonprofit central hosting place for fanworks using open-source archiving software.” In other words, online writers can go balls to the wall bonkers on any copyrighted material such as TV show Supernatural, the Captain America/Ironman Marvel movies, KPop boyband BTS, or, my personal favorite, the Star Wars franchise without facing a legal or fiscal penalty for their creative works. 

AO3 offers an online community for similar-minded folks or folx who want to connect and share works-in-progress, or completed works. Readers offer kudos which are like Facebook “likes” and comments if they have a profile. A vast repository of smutty horny bawdy stories and novellas by independent writers is only a search away. 

OTP is light-hearted as its title implies. It also contains unexpected depths also like its title. Fanfiction gets a bum rap. The word fanfiction implies frivolity and superficiality. The truth is fanfiction is often more than fluff. 

Any story loosely based on popular fiction is fanfiction. A movie, book, or play based on a work by Shakespeare is fanfiction. Any media based on Greek myth is fanfiction. We don’t invalidate it as art because of its origins. Fanfiction on AO3 deserves the same benefit of the doubt as Slings and Arrows

Much fanfiction writing is well-researched and intelligent. Some of it is bodice ripping erotica. Okay, a lot of the writing on AO3 is graphic erotica that’ll make your grandma sweat bullets. That doesn’t mean the writing isn’t also thoughtful. If good writing and erotica were mutually exclusive, Anaïs Nin wouldn’t have made a career for herself. 

Playwright Elise Wien believes in her character’s capacity for maturity. These are girls who can believe #BlackLivesMatter and gun control will save lives and study for physics and trigonometry tests. These girls can deduce that there are bigger, more important things than a fanfiction contest while also hoping that they win the contest. 

Ceci and Michelle aren’t stupid; they are teenagers though so that means they’ll make some uninformed decisions and put things on the internet that they probably shouldn’t. These girls are written to be imperfect. Their imperfections are emotionally charged and believable.  

It would have been easy for Wien and director Enzo Gonzales to have allowed the relationships between the girls and the Obama simulacrums to take an x-rated turn. Burgeoning young sexualities may hyperfocus on adult role models for guidance. It’s all roses and virginal kisses in a teenager’s mind, but that same March-September relationship plays out differently on the stage. 

There’s a power imbalance that cannot be ignored even if the male, adult character is immortally 17. He’s been 17 for at least 50 years longer than either teenage character. On stage and in real life, it is up to the individual with more lived experience to take responsibility for the child’s wellbeing. 

Wien and Gonzales skip over that problematic dynamic by forgoing sexual intimacy for passionate hugging. The girls get their corny fantasy, and the audience doesn’t have to consider the minutia of Illinois’ statutory rape laws. 

It also means that actual teenagers could perform this play. It’s perfectly reasonable that teenagers would consider performing OTP. It has themes that young people can identify with such as defining friendships in a classist society and the struggle to find a creative outlet when the internet is a cesspool of filth. 

Dom Carter, Diego Cintròn; Photo by Stratton McCrady.

The cast comes together nicely in this production. Hampton Richards and Blanca Isabella are evenly balanced character foils. They both get zippy montages with an Obama: Isabella shows off her prop work; Richards shows off her leg extension. 

Diego Cintròn has the better Obama impression and keeps pace with the more experienced Dom Carter. Carter, in a moment of brilliance, spins some of Wien’s absurdist poetry and makes it sound like Shakespeare’s finest. The words trickled from Carter’s lips like diamonds. 

Scenic designer Peyton Tavares had her work cut out for her. She and props assistant Addie Pates make the set look like a livable, lived-in teen girl’s room. It’s trashed by the end of the performance with all of the cast’s coming and goings in the wilderness and out of museums. Their detailed work is noticed and appreciated.  

The OTP glossary in the paper program was also appreciated. It could have been longer. This middle-aged critic knows the placid belly and sordid underbelly of AO3, but not everyone who saw OTP would. Terms such as “crackfic” and “ship” aren’t in the common vernacular of non-geeks. Yet. Creators who are young now will blink and find they are old now. No matter the decade, glossaries never go out of style.  

Unfortunately, OTP has closed, but anyone with an internet connection and the gumption can read up on very real Obama fanfiction on AO3. Please, for the love of Harry Styles, mind the tags. You have been warned. #ThanksObama  

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