Amber McNew in Urbanite Theatre's Scorch.

In the role of a gender-exploring teen in Stacey Gregg’s sympathetic one-act play Scorch, now onstage at Urbanite Theatre, actress Amber McNew has energy to burn.

Her character, Kes, bursts onto the small stage from a seat in the audience, ready to engage with us as she (he?) lets us inside the world of a younger self—feeling like a boy in a girl’s body, trying to pee standing up like her brother, wishing not to be in love with a movie star like Ryan Gosling, but to be Ryan Gosling. There are a lot of questions inside her, but as Kes gets into the teen years, there’s also a longing for love and intimacy.

So, when a girl Kes has been playing video games with online—Jules—ups the ante by wanting to Skype, and, eventually, to meet in person, Kes is both drawn and scared. Flattening the boobs she never wanted (they feel like aliens to her), dressed in sneakers, baggy blue jeans and shirt and deepening her voice (but not too much, or you’ll sound like Darth Vader, she reminds herself), Kes prepares for face-to-face encounters with Jules.

That’s exciting, exhilarating—but leads to trauma, when Jules’ parents discover what’s going on, and the frightened Kes is taken to court on fraud and other charges. (The play was inspired by a true-life case.) Overwhelmed, the 17-year-old Kes can’t believe what’s happening. And the character continues to directly involve the audience, as Kes speaks up in group therapy circle sessions (we’re the group) and tries to deal with upheaval in an already unpredictable life.

Amber McNew as Kes

McNew, an FSU/Asolo Conservatory student, is perfect for the role of Kes, her lanky body and gawky attitude just right for a girl/boy on the verge of something but not sure what. She and director Summer Wallace have also achieved a fine balance between the humor and the horror in Gregg’s play; the comedic moments are there in the beginning, as Kes jumps around the stage like the hyped-up teen she/he is, but we have a slight sense of foreboding (partly due to Daniel’s Kelly’s sound design) early on, too.

It’s a remarkable performance, all the more so for fitting into an hour-long show tightly packed with emotions and discovery.

Scorch continues through Aug. 25; for tickets call 321-1397 or go to urbanitetheatre.com.

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