May 1, 2002 at 12:00 am

“Have you ever felt like hate was in control of your world?” As the narrator speaks, a teenage girl becomes the physical embodiment of “hate,” curling her spine, twisting her face, contorting her mind and body into a destructive, palpable force that mocks the singers and points and laughs at the audience. It’s a scene that’s both poignant and entertaining with a very practical effect, and just one glimpse into the Mosaic Youth Theatre’s power-potent play HeartBEAT, onstage all weekend at Detroit’s Music Hall. The Mosaic Youth Theatre troupe was founded in 1992 by Rick Sperling and has since performed all over the planet, funneling all that universal teen angst into a fiery, daring, unflinching success. Mosaic is renowned for mixing elements of classic theater with contemporary language and subject matter — such as its past production of Crossing Eight Mile in which commedia dell’arte characters were effected with a modern makeover, or last year’s show, 2001 Hastings Street, stylistically a play about the ’40s, and based on oral histories that the students themselves conducted interviews for.

“That kind of pushed the envelope in terms of what’s expected,” says Sperling. “When we choose our scripts we choose things that are very artistically daring and go beyond the expectations of what people usually think.”

HeartBEAT adapts the basic plot of Peace, a lesser-known Aristophanes play. The troupe slightly modified the structure, seeing the connection between love, hate, motion and rhythm that permeated both the play and the kids’ lives. They then enriched it with personal experiences and ran with it, coupling prayers to Zeus in Olympus with vivid illustrations of the horrors of growing up.

As “lust,” a group of teens hovers and smothers around a girl, transforming themselves into sexual temptation. When they leave, the girl has a baby and she caps the scene with a message: “If it’s love, you’ll respect me the way I want to be respected.”

HeartBEAT combines professional-quality pop, R&B and Beethoven-influenced music with characters donning a hybrid of flowing classical Greek wardrobe and teenage street gear, all created by Mosaic’s technical and music teams.

“People think that coming to see a youth theater play is something you do for the kids in the show — you do it to support them and because it’s a good thing to do. That’s not our view of what this is. We view this as art, and if you, no matter what age you are, come to this play and it doesn’t make you think about your life and your choices, then we haven’t done our job as artists, no matter what our age is.”

One story feeds into the next as memories, modern-day allegory and classical Greek dialogue are painted with chants in unison, snapping fingers and step dancing derived from African gumboot dance that works like a spiritual mantra forged by stomping the rhythm.

“Sometimes the hard thing is getting people in the door.”

The “Youth” in Youth Theatre doesn’t mean you won’t be exposed to an intense experience. Mosaic is recognized nationally and internationally, funded by the NEA, and has performed in Europe and Asia, at the Kennedy Center and the White House.

“In a strange way we have more artistic recognition on a national level than we do locally,” says Sperling.

Which seems to be typical of Detroit, the “I get more respect outside of my family than at home” syndrome. Here and abroad, HeartBEAT is Mosaic’s most popular production, “... because it demands so much honesty in the telling of the story, and that it goes into subject matter that people shy away from.”

Sperling noticed that society’s definition of “love” seemed to be limited to romance and family sitcoms, and saw the need for further exploration of the emotion that makes the world go round.

“If this is a play about the battle between love and hate,” concludes Sperling, “then ultimately that battle is inside of you.”

The kids in this city have something to say — they just need a way to say it. Mosaic Youth Theatre offers them a professional voice in theater and music recognized and heard all over the world.

HeartBEAT will be at the Music Hall (350 Madison, Detroit) Thursday (10 a.m.), Friday (10 a.m. and 8 p.m.), Saturday (8 p.m.) and Sunday (3 p.m.). Call 313-872-6910 for information.

Anita Schmaltz writes about performance for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected]