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Theatre in Review: Education (Sanguine Theatre Company/59E59)

Wesley T. Jones, Jane West. Photo: Caroll Rosegg

Whatever else you want to say about Education, it certainly showcases playwright Brian Dykstra's talent for composing rants. Time and again, the characters in his provocative, if overloaded, drama spout off, furiously and eloquently, about the cankered state of the nation. The first screed explodes only a few minutes in: Mick, a high school senior, has been sent to the principal's office; it seems his art project, which involved a tiny American flag poised over a Bunsen burner, caused a great deal of upset in class. Matters aren't helped by the fact that he concealed a can of lighter fluid -- and, though no one is admitting it, by the additional fact that Mick is black.

Mr. Kirks, the principal, who is tough and pugnacious enough to cause one to wonder if he has a degree in boxing rather than education, tries to cut Mick down to size -- and, in truth, the kid is asking for it when he stares Kirks in the eye and describes himself as "really, really smart." Instead of passively letting Kirks scald the arrogance off him, Mick responds in kind, spraying the room with a fusillade of scorn for flag-waving, the anti-Colin Kaepernick crew, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the American culture of medication, among other hot-button topics. ("There's a canary choking to death in the coal mine! Hello! Danger! Shouldn't somebody do something? I mean, other than wait for science to save the day after decades of pretending science is a matter of opinion!") It is both random and mordant, a free-association riff of grievances that surges to a climax, thanks to Wesley T. Jones, the gifted young actor who plays Mick.

Because Dykstra has a talent for invective that can make his fellow playwright Bruce Norris seem like the shy, retiring type, Kirks launches a counterattack, first murmuring, "Nothing on gay marriage?" before dismissing Mick as "a lazy, penny-ante loser" who takes the path of least resistance in devising his pathetic artistic act of dissent. Next time, he counsels the young man, he should do something that shows effort, like crafting an effigy and burning it. He adds that he will deny ever having said so -- and he will have reason to regret his words.

Bekka, Mick's girlfriend, also runs afoul Kirks, having in her possession a poem written in language sizzling enough to make the paper burst into flame. Bekka is a devotee of poetry slams, and, tired of listening to cheerleader types' rhapsodic odes to their sexual experiences, she launches a foul-mouthed takedown that uses the F word more times in three or four minutes than are heard throughout the entirety of Jerry Springer: The Opera -- and with considerably more wit. Because the poetry slam takes place off campus, Kirks lets her off with a warning, but Bekka is the child of religious fundamentalists -- her father is a deacon -- and her appalled mother puts the kibosh on all such activities.

All these parental and school restrictions are about to blow up in everyone's face: Banned from the school art competition, Mick comes up with a humdinger of a provocation -- an effigy of Jesus, made of dollar bills, that goes up in flames -- and Bekka enters it for him. A video is made and, of course, it goes viral, turning a small school disciplinary issue into a national cause célèbre. Suddenly, everyone is facing more exposure -- and controversy -- than he or she wants, leading to threatening messages and worse.

From Dear Evan Hansen to Relevance, the viral Internet sensation is rapidly becoming the playwright's favorite dramatic device, and, in this case, I'm not quite convinced that it would blow up quite so far or so fast. It also cues the moment when the plot starts to spin out of control, thanks to a series of implausible developments that include the threat of a drug frameup; an act of parental corporal punishment that ends up, out of context, on an S&M website; and an act of murder. Dysktra also romanticizes his young couple a bit too much, positioning them by the end as just shy of Joan of Arc and her consort, ready to go into battle against the hypocrites of the world. And, in the second act, one's initial delight at the playwright's gift for lengthy takedowns fades as the characters are overtaken by speechmaking.

Still, even when it starts to fall apart, Education has its moments, including an Act II confrontation that pits Sandy, Bekka's pietistic mother, and Gordon, Mick's entirely supportive guardian and uncle, in a nifty round of psychological chess. (This scene goes some way toward explaining how Mick has a white uncle, filling out his complicated backstory. Interestingly, Kirks is biracial, a fact that is mentioned briefly, and which may or may not play a role in the decisions he makes.) The play's obvious weaknesses might be veiled by better, more nuanced direction than that offered by Margarett Perry. Jones is adept at suggesting the matrix of emotions behind Mick's actions, even when he is unburdening himself at length, but Bruce Faulk, as Kirks, and Jane West, as Bekka, deliver oratorical performances that are sometimes wearying. Rather better are Matthew Boston as Gordon, a law professor with an easygoing manner that masks a cunning legal mind, and Elizabeth Meadows Rouse as Sandy, who, far from being a Bible-beating caricature, is a sincerely loving mother who finds herself in over her head when faced with a dilemma not easily explained by Scripture.

Perry has obtained solid work from her design team, beginning with David L. Arsenault's set, which lays out two playing areas divided by two walls in a V-shaped arrangement, one of which serves as an occasional projection surface for images of currency and flames, as well as a final collage of what looks like student art projects. Arsenault's lighting also confidently carves out different spaces and creates a distinctly different, more theatrical look for Bekka's performances. Amanda Aiken's costumes fit each character well. Kevin Heard's sound design includes such tunes as "Born in the USA," "Like a Rolling Stone," "American Idiot," and a montage of television news program intros.

Education isn't really a success, but it's the work of a playwright who is willing to take on all sides of an argument, sending it spinning in all directions and the hell with the consequences. And his strong, unfettered words can seem like a revivifying blast of fresh air. This is my first experience with his work, and I am eager to see more. -- David Barbour

(20 March 2018)

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