Fast Times at Freshwater High

Freshwater Theatre straps on its backpack and heads to high school in preparation for the opening of Ruben Carbajal’s “The Gifted Program.”

The cast of Freshwater Theatre's

Mark Vancleave

The cast of Freshwater Theatre’s “The Gifted Program” rehearse Wednesday, April 10, 2013, at Nimbus Theatre in Minneapolis.

Joe Kellen

What: “The Gifted Program”

When: 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m., Sundays; April 12-27

Where: The Nimbus Theatre, 1517 Central Ave. NE, Minneapolis

Cost: $15, $13 for fringe-button holders

Freshwater Theatre, like a number of other small companies, rehearses over at Hennepin Square in a room that looks more like a trashed call center than a performance space. Inside it sits the preliminary set of “The Gifted Program”: a couch, a beanbag chair and a whole set of Dungeons & Dragons equipment.

“The Gifted Program” follows the struggles of an awkward group of gifted and talented students that suddenly lose funding for their program in small-town Wisconsin in 1986.

Director Ben Layne watches the large ensemble cast of the piece navigate through the teenaged basement of a set, keeping his ears and eyes open to the ever-changing play.

“I’m at least smart enough to understand that I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “When you put together a cast of 14 people, you’d be a fool to not ask them questions.”

Straight out of the John Hughes canon, Ruben Carbajal’s teen dramedy provides the story of their complicated encounters with the high school elite and what happens when the two worlds forcibly combine.

Even with the inevitable comparisons to “Freaks and Geeks” or “Pretty in Pink,” Layne is fascinated by the influences of the play.

“It’s a milieu that we all know generationally; we all get that language,” he said. “I don’t think teen comedy was a thing in the way that John Hughes made it when his films first came out, and you can either run from it or you can go straight at it, and I think Ruben ran right at it.”

Ruth Virkus, the co-artistic director of Freshwater Theatre, insists that the play goes beyond that aesthetic and into deeper territory.

“It’s about how oppression breeds an oppressor,” she said. “Having experienced bullying myself in high school, the ways that the characters cope with it ring incredibly true to me.”

In light of programs like The Trevor Project and the current national conversation centered on bullying, “The Gifted Program” takes on a different tone. Actor Garek Bushnell’s character takes his fair share of abuse throughout the piece and illuminates the issue.

 “Some people manage to leave high school consciousness, but it stays with a lot of people,” he said. “I think it’s why they make high school movies and media so often — this is where so many people got their first big scar.”

This isn’t to say that the play doesn’t have its tongue-in-cheek moments, however. The script is peppered with ridiculous humor as well as more cultural references than you can shake a stick at. Bushnell was taken under the wing of  fellow cast member Jesse Corder in order to study the era.

“It’s been a cultural education just rubbing elbows with this guy,” Bushnell said in reference to Corder.

“Some people remember sports stats; I remember specific years when albums came out,” Corder said. “I was like, ‘Oh! It’s set specifically in like, the first month or two of 1986? All right!’ I moved my record collection around so I could listen in.”

Their work hasn’t been limited to jamming to The Cure and Violent Femmes — the actors got together for evenings of Dungeons & Dragons as well.

“We want to sell it to the geek community — I wouldn’t put it past somebody being obsessed enough with the game to start throwing shit if we get it wrong,” Corder said.

“The Gifted Program” may obsess over nerdy details, but it’s more concerned with grappling on how we all get bruised in our adolescence. Bushnell summed up the play in one sentence:

“You get punched in the face, and someone takes a picture of it; and then you put a sparkly border around it and put it on your fridge.”