Child's Play

Teenage actors stage a world premiere about an American girl mysteriously transported through time to become a gladiator

Hollywood would have us believe that all gladiators were beefed-up hulks like Russell Crowe, but history has a different story to tell. An inscription from Pompeii suggests that women, too, fought in the arena -- usually dressed as Amazons -- during the reign of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who ruled from 193 to 211 A.D. The notion appealed to British playwright Sarah Daniels, author of feminist plays like Neaptide, which explored lesbianism and child custody, and The Gut Girls, an homage to working-class Victorian women. Co-commissioned by the ACT Young Conservatory New Plays Program and London's Royal National Theatre Youth Programs, Daniels' new play, Dust, which has its world premiere at the Zeum Theater this weekend, uses the idea of women warriors as the jumping-off point for a coming-of-age story. Another successful example of the trans-Atlantic collaboration between the British and Yankee youth groups, the production also continues ACT's flourishing partnership with the 250-seat Zeum Theater as a supplement to its usual venue, the Geary Theater.

Daniels was inspired to write the play after reading about the 1996 London excavation of an ancient grave, which contained what is believed to be the remains of a female gladiator who fought in the Roman amphitheater in that city. Estimated to be in her 20s, the woman was buried with symbols normally associated with the fighters. The archaeological discovery seemed to support the belief that women fought as gladiators, but it's debatable whether the remains were actually those of a gladiator.

Dustopens on an alarming note that many may find eerily familiar. Flavia, an American teenager, and her British classmates are en route to see a production of Julius Caesar when a terrorist's bomb goes off, trapping them underground in the subway system. Ostracized by her schoolmates, Flavia sets off on her own, only to find herself mysteriously transported to the Roman-ruled ancient London, where she's expected to enter the amphitheater as a fighter. Trained by female gladiators -- two of whom, Amazon and Achillia, appear on ancient stone reliefs in the British Museum -- Flavia is surprised that her newfound physical prowess gives her confidence and courage, which promise to serve her well after her time travels end. Though we hope most teens won't have to face down lions as a rite of passage, the play draws attention to the struggle to gain independence and resist peer pressure that most adolescents confront.

A school trip  turns into  a nightmare in  Sarah Daniels' 
gladiator  fantasy, Dust.
Kevin Berne
A school trip turns into a nightmare in Sarah Daniels' gladiator fantasy, Dust.

Details

Previews Thursday and Friday, Aug. 22-23, at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, Aug. 24, at 2 p.m., then opens Aug. 24 at 7:30 p.m. and runs through Sept. 1

Admission is $10-15

749-2228

www.act-sfbay.org

The Zeum Theater, Yerba Buena Gardens, Fourth & Howard streets, S.F.

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Directed by Domenique Lozano and featuring a cast of 25 Bay Area youth ranging in age from 13 to 19, Dustis fit for the whole family. It's a far cry from the typical theater most kids are expected to perform, but the students of the ACT Young Conservatory are ready to enter the battlefield head-on.

 
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