“Attention: This production will use a fog machine at three different moments. The performance will also have flashing lights and will play loud music and sound effects. There may also be references to chonky cats, K-Pop, John Denver, the generic version of Lucky Charms, and Aristotle’s influence on modern civilization. Audiences should also be prepared to sing.”

Those are the warnings you’ll find on the program for The Loathsome Fate Of Riley Faust, the latest original production from Milwaukee’s Highland Community Players. Not familiar with the Players? Maybe that’s because they seem to change every few years: the ever-refreshing group is made up of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders from Highland Community School (1706 W. Highland Ave.), a K-8 Montessori school just west of downtown Milwaukee.

Oh, and it should be noted that Riley Faust doesn’t just feature a reference to John Denver, it features a character breakdancing to John Denver.

Highland’s long-serving performing arts director, Barry Weber, is the kid-friendly and adult-savvy brains behind the Players. Riley Faust is his 16th written/directed production with the school; past productions have riffed on everything from the films of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch to the nostalgic buzz of ’80s Nintendo games and ’90s Nickelodeon games shows. Heady themes are explored, like groupthink, corporate greenwashing, and misinformation. Kid characters reference Eugène Ionesco plays as well as Game Of Thrones. Occasionally, audience members get blasted with Silly String.

“Something that I’ve always done is taken whatever I’m into at the time, and thinking, ‘How can I make this appropriate for kids?'” Weber says.

As its title suggests, The Loathsome Fate Of Riley Faust is a 21st-century retelling of the Faust legend, shot through with references and themes for the modern grade school set. Frustrated by writing empty platitudes for a 6th grade graduation speech, Riley finds himself entering into a shady deal with the mysterious Mephisto. That deal comes in the form of a “User Agreement,” a comically long document of fine print that should be familiar to anyone who has ever simply scrolled down and clicked “Agree.” Indeed, Mephisto is rendered here not so much as a trickster demon, but as a shape-shifting AI assistant (think Alexa or Siri) who promises Riley instant knowledge, infinite entertainment, and, more enticingly, a fawning audience. Well, maybe this Mephisto is a trickster demon after all…

“I really got into the variations of the Faust legend last fall,” Weber says. “I also really loved that Neil Postman book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, and that was on my mind, too. I thought about what it was like for me growing up in school, and thinking of how it is to grow up now. The endless amount of entertainment available to you. The endless amount of options to be told what you want to hear, and to be given what you think you want. And as I was reading the Faust legend, I thought there was something we could play with there.”

Riley Faust tackles a lot of big ideas: identity, instant gratification, influence culture, the toxic desire for “engagement,” the hollowness of fame, and, yes, chonky cats. Similar to Weber’s other plays, however, the tale is never ham-fisted or preachy. There are modern concerns and plenty of sly references for parents, sure, but the play operates first and foremost as a fun, accessible, and positive experience for the students.

“I never want the kids to be ‘props’ or my mouthpiece,” Weber says. “But I think when kids tackle this kind of subject matter each year, and when it’s performed by kids, it takes some of that ‘bite’ out and makes it more palatable.”

“I like acting in these plays,” says 5th-grader Nakia Matthews, who plays one of Mephisto’s goblins. “It gives me so much confidence.”

Speaking of students, Riley Faust boasts Weber’s largest group of kids to date: a whopping 39 actors, and more than two-dozen students on the run and stage crew. The overstuffed cast is thanks, in part, to multiple actors playing the same roles—sometimes swapping in and out after every scene.

“I wanted to play with this idea of identity, and how in an online world you can be whoever you want to be, or whoever you think you want to be,” Weber says. “I liked the idea of this character, Mephisto, changing their form, as well as other characters like the fools and Riley himself changing their forms. It seemed like a great way to share parts.”

“I was surprised to see more than 50 people in this,” says 6th-grader Will Nichols, who expertly plays Riley Faust throughout much of the play. “I was like, ‘How are we going to fit them all?’ But the role-changing actually kind of helped me rest a lot, since I’m in every other scene.”

Faust or no Faust, questions of identity of no questions of identity, Weber’s plays give students a chance to shine—whether the students in question clearly have a flair for theater, or are just interested in taking the stage for a few seconds and doing a cartwheel or cracking a joke. (The stage, by the way, is a student-created set in Highland’s gymnasium.) And, as with all things related to growing up, there’s something bittersweet about the experience, too.

“This is my third play I’ve ever done, and I’m really sad because it’s my last,” says 6th grader Willow White, who plays one of the many forms of Mephisto. “I’m going to miss being with all these amazing people and acting with them.”

Sixth-grader Ryan Ward, who plays a frustrated teacher (Weber always finds time to playfully dunk on authority), puts an even finer point on it. “These plays always go by way too fast,” he says.

Highland Community School will host a public performance of The Loathsome Fate Of Riley Faust on Friday, March 8, at 6:30 p.m. Admission is pay-what-you-can.

Want more Milwaukee Record? Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter and/or support us on Patreon.


Highland Community Players tackle groupthink, shadow puppets in ‘Don’t Wake The Dragon’

Highland Community Players cook up controversy in super-slice spoof, ‘Pizza Party!’

Co-opted activism, meddling adults get sent up in Highland Community School’s ‘Justice For Pluto’

Cast, crew, and crowd get messy in Nickelodeon game show-inspired ‘Winnerz Take All’

Retro-game-inspired ‘Quest For The Sacred Orb’ reminds grade school adventurers it’s dangerous to go alone

Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Dead Man’ resurrected as grade school play ‘The Bully, The Liar & The Thief’

The twisted world of David Lynch meets the grade school set in ‘Judy Plays With Fire’