Dead White Males

This critique of public education loses grade points on acting choices

Arts Review

Dead White Males

The Hideout Theatre, 617 Congress, 964-5685,

Through Sept. 11, running time: 2 hr., 10 min.

Public school teachers have it bad, and we all know it. They don't get paid what they deserve, they don't receive funds to buy what they need (unless, of course, they happen to coach a

sport as well), and they don't get to teach from their experience. Rather, administrators, who sometimes have never seen the inside of a classroom and often are desperately attempting to justify their own positions, annually implement new teaching "strategies," which usually involve the latest instructional "theories," and force them down the throats of instructors, who have no practical use for them. Then, states institute "standardized testing," which means teachers, in order to preserve their livelihoods, must "teach to the test" rather than teach for the students. And let's not even go near the fact that for years public schools have been required to teach subjects that most of their charges have no use for out in the working world.

Some of these subjects get addressed in William Missouri Downs' Dead White Males, currently being produced by the Sustainable Theatre Project. The characters consist of three teachers, none of whom is teaching the subject for which she received her degree (yet another problem in modern public education), and three administrators, all of whom wish to dictate both what is being taught and the method of teaching it. Only one of the characters is an actual student at Thomas Paine Elementary, and that particular student, Johnny, is played by an adult. Throughout, the actors playing the teachers and administrators refer to the audience as the students and, when they are required to actually usher the students in and out of the "classroom," pantomime as if they are doing so.

Sympathizing with the basic politics of the play is painlessly easy. Almost anyone who has children has concerns about their education and the top-heavy bureaucracy that controls it. Finding the same kind of sympathy for the play itself proves somewhat more challenging because Downs introduces pedophilia into the story, and he seems to do it for no other reason than to manufacture a dramatic ending. Consider that literally nothing happens to the pedophile and the introduction of this particular perversity seems somewhat miscalculated.

While Downs' script is bothersome, director Derek Kolluri's choice to have his actors play two entirely different styles proves somewhat more bothersome. Sometimes the acting works. Molly Fonseca as Janet, the new, idealistic teacher, is sincere and believable. Suzanne Balling as the rebel teacher, Doris, has some effective moments. Dennis Kelleher Bailey as the pedophiliac Principal Pettlogg has two monologues in which he manages, surprisingly enough, to draw sympathy. And Beth Burroughs as Woods, the worst teacher in the school, has an effective scene in which she reams out her class. But on more than a few occasions, many of the actors employ a satiric, mugging style that comments on the characters rather than portrays them as human beings, and this radically clashes with the more effective, realistic tone. The actors often seem to be judging their characters rather than simply allowing them to be. The actors seem to be trying to tell us how we should feel about what we're watching, and as with education itself, my preference is that I be allowed to draw my own conclusions.

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Dead White Males, Sustainable Theatre Project, Derek Kolluri, Molly Fonseca, Suzanne Balling, Dennis Kelleher Bailey, Beth Burroughs

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