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Are you a troublemaker?

The stage is set at the Berkeley Rep Theatre: a group of rich kids who call themselves “gamers” are standing around, waiting for friends to arrive at a sleepover party. But not everyone they’ve invited is a friend – especially not the hero, Bradley Boatright.

“Yeah, we call him Boatwipe,” one character says, on stage.

Bradley knows they’re not his friends, and he’s suspicious of what they might do. So he and his best friend come to the party in disguise, and try to plan a counterattack.

“I'll grab the phone! You just distract the a-holes,” Boatright says to his

This is Troublemaker, playwright Dan LeFranc’s new play about the perils – and lessons – of growing up.

“There is a lot about looking at yourself with clear eyes, understanding how your actions affect other people and what kind of person you are,” says LeFranc, “and really difficult ways we have to reckon with who we are and how we better ourselves.”

LeFranc says you don't get to see a story of a rebellious 12-year-old boy on a theater stage very often these days. And he wanted that energy onstage. The characters move and speak fast, just like children do. Sometimes it's almost hard to understand – and it's intentional.

Director Lila Neugebauer is actively involved in every scene, practically onstage, often laughing, making remarks and giving directions to actors.

“Language is the driving engine of the play, language is the landscape of the play, the language is incredibly imagistic. So in many ways you will find... the text is sort of dominant element you are coming to experience,” says Neugebauer.

Troublemaker is set in working class Rhode Island, in a fictional decade called the “nineteen-mighties” ­– it's meant to feel a little bit like the '90s, a little bit like the '80s and a little bit like today.

After the death of his father, Bradley believes that his main mission is to protect his mother.

“These are not just problems of a 12-year-old boy, I think they are more universal than that.,” says LeFranc.

Bradley deals with the real world struggles his family faces by inventing an adventurous world, where he fights rich kids, zombies and evil grown-ups. LeFranc and Neugebauer say that desire to be a kind of superhero will be familiar to many audiences.

“I think that play is also about the kind of gnawing desire to kind of be extraordinary and the kind of terror we have of being extraordinary and the kind of deep desire to be normal, whatever that means … And also about how terribly afraid we all are – kids and adults – of being normal,” says Neugebauer.

In addition to special powers, Bradley creates a special language – it's one of the most distinct features of the play. The show's subtitle, “The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright,” gives a good feel for it.

“I was the kid whose parents would maybe not let me hang out with their children because I was cursing too much … I think this is true of a lot of young people. You sort of have your own code, your own language between you and your friends that ... you probably do not share in a company of an adults,” says LeFranc.

In fact, the creation of a vernacular was a sort of necessity, because it would be almost unbearable to watch a bunch of 12-year-old characters cursing on stage through three acts.

“So I tried substituting his curse words with you know words like ‘freak’ and ‘scat’ and ‘a’ or ‘a-hole’ and ‘crotch,’” explains LeFranc.

And from there, the play took on a life of its own. When he started writing it, LeFranc had a workshop with a group of kids around the age of 12 – at first, at least, he assumed he might cast someone the same age as his hero.

“These kids were hilarious, they were so funny because the were like the real thing.  And so when you are having these little boys saying ‘freak you,’ ‘you stupid dog’… It's like so charming,” says LeFranc.

But he quickly realized that only adult actors would be able to properly play the characters.

“After a couple days it was pretty clear that 12- to 14-year-old actors were not going to be able to handle this thing. As charming and delightful as they were, we are going to need some people who have serious chops,” says LeFranc.

That’s not just because the characters have to speak quickly and do lots of crazy things at the same time. It's also because at the heart of this play is deeply emotional domestic drama. To convey it from the perspective of a child, the actors need an adult's life experience.

The performances get at deeper truth: that the young characters believe they are capable of adult actions – and that, even for adults, the challenges of childhood aren't always far behind.

The world premiere of Troublemaker is on stage at the Berkeley Rep through February 3rd.