Amy Belschner Rhodes and Deborah Randall (on swing) in a scene from "Garbage Kids," a journey through homelessness through the eyes of abandoned children.
Amy Belschner Rhodes and Deborah Randall (on swing) in a scene from "Garbage Kids," a journey through homelessness through the eyes of abandoned children. (Photo by Curtis Jordan)

The second installation in Venus Theatre's "Sweet Sixteen: Groovy Young Things" 2016 season, "Garbage Kids," invites patrons to a wild walk on the homeless side through the eyes of abandoned kids.

The playwright, Jayme Kilburn, is pursuing a doctorate in theater arts from Cornell University, graduated from the University of California Santa Barbara with a degree in dramatic art and psychology and earned a master's degree in humanities and social thought from Cornell.

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"Garbage Kids" marks the second Kilburn script that Venus Theatre founder Deborah Randall has produced and directed at Laurel; Kilburn's "Ding. Or Bye Bye Dad" premiered at the C Street theater in 2014.

Randall has assembled a powerful cast for the intimate "Garbage Kids" journey, joining Jay Hardee (as Belly) and Amy Belschner Rhodes (woman and interviewers) onstage in her own portrayal of a young girl who calls herself Scuzzy.

As the lights rise on Scuzzy and Belly fidgeting in a waiting room, Randall and Hardee skillfully conjure the illusion of two terrified waifs.

Scuzzy thinks someone is going to cut off her arms or legs. The incongruence of such exaggerated fear in an ordinary situation — Belly gets a vaccination, Scuzzy gets a lollipop — sets the tone for a tumultuous tale that spins out fast in a stream of consciousness.

Scuzzy and Belly run away from foster care, clinging to each other through their teen years.

Belly sings for spare change on the street and naively dreams of becoming famous; Hardee maneuvers Belly's childhood idealism beautifully.

"People don't give you money because they feel sorry for you," he says, "They give you money for your talent."

Belly's playful songs (Hardee's imperfect vocals are perfect for this character) add light to a dark adventure; his spirited rendition of "Hobo Bill" is charming.

Scuzzy finds her own way to adulthood, befriending a lonely woman who bribes her with sandwiches, and forming a sad relationship with food.

Randall is fascinating to watch as she travels the many layers of her character's longing and resilience.

As a director, Randall's blocking tends to be athletic (actors have been known to bounce and hang off the stage walls). As an actress, her physical relationship with the stage (she does a fair amount of bouncing here) speaks to the intense preparation audiences have come to expect from Venus Theatre.

Rhodes stands out in multiple roles; crossing gender and back to portray Belly's interviewers allows her to exercise an impressive acting range. In her main role as the Woman, she plays a lonely soul who begs Scuzzy to take the place of her daughter with chilling depth.

"Other little girls would kill to have sandwiches," she says.

In her director's notes, Randall writes that Act 1 is presented as a memory, "jagged" and "surreal," which may explain some loose ends.

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Early on, for instance, a violent act during Scuzzy and Belly's escape from foster care should have horrific repercussions, but is never mentioned again. Several references to Scuzzy going away present an unsolved puzzle. By play's end, we never know where or why.

Belly's accent is Southern and Scuzzy's and the Woman's are nondescript; we learn nothing about their origins. And although we can assume that Scuzzy and Belly grow into a sexual relationship, that issue is never addressed.

But we may not need to know these things.

Perhaps such holes in a nonlinear context connect symbolically to the holes in a society that allows children to grow up homeless. "Garbage Kids" dives into otherworldliness the moment the lights rise on the black set designed by Rhodes (who is also part of the production team).

Framed by collages of trash hanging off the walls (which are worth a close look), a set of wooden steps, with a simple steel frame on the other side, flanks a tire swing suspended from the ceiling center stage.

Kristin Thompson's lighting design and use of strobe lights adds subtle color beginning with the nightmarish opening scene, and Neil McFadden's imposing and distorted sound design drives an aura of fear.

Randall is credited with the savvy costumes and props and Lydia Howard as stage manager.

Act 2, Randall writes, "is intended to be naturalism" as Scuzzy and Belly reunite after he abandons her in young adulthood. This doesn't make for a happy ending, but it's not as dark as one could fear.

There's enough playfulness, love, laughter and survival in Venus' wild production of Kilburn's riveting script to leave audience members contemplating empathy and hope.

"Garbage Kids" continues at Venus Theatre Play Shack, 21 C St., through Sunday, June 12, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with matinee performances on Sundays at 3 p.m. General admission is $20. For reservations, call 202-236-4078 or buy tickets online at venustheatre.orghttp://www.venustheatre.org.

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