Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays

For anyone who thinks they know theater, it's time to go back to school. Specifically, the Village Community School, where the daring Electric Pear Productions has set up The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays, an intimate series of three site-specific one-acts that put the "cool" back into "school." (There's even a bake sale in the cafeteria.) For our entertainment, they've ripped up the lesson plans and gone with a more mature sort of education: Ann Marie Healy's "The Grafton School" indulges in a little ritual sacrifice, the teacher in Clay McLeod Chapman's "Rugrats" is upset about getting herpes from your kindergartner, and the balloon-animal condoms of Zayd Dohrn's "Sex-Ed" are far from the biggest problem with this math teacher-turned-sexpert's lesson plan. By thrusting us into the tiny chairs of various classrooms and putting us in the hands of stylistically different playwrights, The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays captures the fear and excitement of that first day of school: you never know quite what's coming next.

Healy's piece takes a very human issue--the desperate attempts of Frederick (Christian Conn) and Miranda (Erin Felgar) to place their daughter in capable hands--and twists it with a comic and slightly supernatural edge. (One should always be cautious of a school with a 12:1 teacher/student ratio.) As the creepily overkind headmistress Nathalie (Kathryn Grody) plies her guests with chocolates and statistics, Miranda's nerves start to overwhelm her, leading to trust issues with her scholastically enthusiastic husband. It's well-acted, and the close confines help to play up Felgar's panic; the only problem is that Kerry Whigham's direction only uses a small corner of the classroom, basically turning it into a miniature theater.

Francesca Mantani Arkus, who directs Dohrn's play, takes a far more active approach: the blackboard is covered in graphic slang (from "fuzz box" to "Ground Zero" and "schlong" to "Little Elvis" . . . I hope someone's brought an eraser), a half-dozen containers of condoms (and a dental dam) are strewn across an activity table, and Craig (Gabriel Field) is in the middle of inflating a condom when his final parent, Melanie (Nairoby Otero), walks in. Dohrn's well-timed and exaggerated jokes are similar to Healy's, but his material is more attuned to school life (he even addresses the afterschool special), and because Arkus keeps the actors moving through the room, stepping over audience toes (even as the pointed dialogue steps on them), the play has more of an effect in line with the overall aesthetic.

It's Clay McLeod Chapman's piece--and Rebecca Lingafelter's performance--that nail the whole thing down. Chapman's penchant for monologues allows Lingafelter to directly address the audience as if it were one collective parent, and his use of beautiful ugliness ("snot like petrified mother of pearl," "rose petal sores") is enhanced by all of a classroom's inherent contradictions. The play builds perfectly, too, from Lingafelter's initial descriptions of unsanitary behavior in the classroom to her self-pitying explanation of why she never gets a second date (who'd call her back after getting pink eye?) and all the way up to her twisted tale of revenge. The entire thing is also neatly paralleled with the grittier side of Thanksgiving: the increasingly infected natives had very little to be thankful for.

The Parent/Teacher Conference Plays may be set in a school, but it's far from a textbook case of theater, and on that rubric-smashing ground alone, it deserves to be noticed. But it has gold stars in each of its playwrights and extra credit through the backing of a edgy, unconventional theater company: if you miss this, consider yourself far too grounded.

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