BWW Reviews: Oh The Things You Can Think! (If You're Willing to Try)
Alan Bennett's masterpiece, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, documents senior boys and the educators responsible for filling their minds with knowledge. When the Headmaster of an all boys school brings in Irwin, a young and ambitious teacher who believes education is applicable only to the exam for which he is preparing the boys to take, Hector, the tenured eccentric general studies teacher who believes in cultivation, is rocked and sent to fight for his job. A debate on education is not the only theme here; sex, unrequited love, religion, failure, friendship, scandal, and an existential breakdown to name a few are all found in this loquacious play.
THE HISTORY BOYS is not for casual theatre goers who prefer to "sit back and relax". The unapologetic lack of exposition and shear force at the top of the show requires the audience to pay attention (ahhhh!) and listen (stop it! I'm going home to watch Big Brother!) in order to appreciate the work of Bennett and Mad Cow's production team. Bennett's structure can leave an audience who prefers to be handheld feeling unsatisfied. Nothing is conveniently resolved here, folks.
Making his directorial debut with Mad Cow Theatre, Mark Edward Smith dissects the sagacious words of Alan Bennett which results in honest, stimulating, and natural storytelling. In a play about people talking in rooms, Smith creates beautiful moments of theatrics. Most memorable were; Hector's first entrance, and the french scene (try to keep an eye on Hector during this). The apex of theatrical excellence came when a melancholic Posner laments his unrequited love by singing Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered from Rogers and Harts 1940 musical PAL JOEY.
The strongest and most challenging scenes in THE HISTORY BOYS feature nine to 10 characters discussing, debating, and challenging heavy topics like The Holocaust. Smith accomplishes this daunting task of orchestrating the dialogue so well that theses scenes are organic and reminiscent of my time in classroom discussions. Each student had their own point of view, identifiable character traits, and even unique chair posture. When the classroom scenes were humming full speed the action was as hot and as exciting as Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE- GHOST PROTOCOL.
Philip Nolen as Hector, the populistic english teacher, balances an incorrigible disposition laced with a hard swallow of spunkiness sublimely. Peter Travis as Irwin gives the strongest performance of the evening as the young teacher who never once backed down when challenged scholastically. I found myself agreeing with him as much as I wanted to stop the show and start an impromptu debate. Tommy Keesling as the often vexed Headmaster makes us all aware how education only goes as high as administration.The Headmaster is often criticised as a caricature, but Keesling unearthed a lot of Bennett's humor and dove deeper. Any unfit actor would do nothing more with it than encapsulate a peaked Assistant Principal.
The role of Mrs. Lintott, the only female in the play, has always been my favorite. I would even say Mrs. Lintott is the smartest character. After all, she nails the definition of history, "the utter randomness of things" and has some of the best lines in the play, "History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men." The verbal fireworks from Lintott it is almost always followed with the stage direction, "There is a silence", because Mrs. Lintott is disregarded (gender politics!) by everyone around her. Alas, Robin Proett Olson's Lintott is manifested as an 8th grade english teacher closing in on retirement. Maybe Lintott really is listless, but then why would Bennett pour so much wisdom into her?
Robert Johnston's Dakin, as an elitist in the making, struggles with his dialect and embodiment in act one, but stands out in act two with defined color changes and clear, self-gratifying, objectives. Despite being used as a device to play off Dakin, the role of Scripps goes well beyond that with Matt Lipscomb at the wheel. This formally trained actor is the most mature young man on stage and carries a lot of the shows weight on his back effortlessly. Sean Michael Flynn as the back of the class Rudge is perhaps my favorite student. Often without lines, Flynn is most convincing at paying attention in class by using his time to scribble down, presumably, inscrutable notes all while holding his pen incorrectly.
Jeffrey Todd Parrott's Posner is a hot mess. Not the kind of hot mess that one would use to describe 9 TO 5: THE MUSICAL, or Alice Ripley's Tony speech, but the kind of mess that combines an existential crisis with a grim future- that I imagine includes self medicating. Can someone get this kid a pint of Ben and Jerry's and a copy of STEPMOM on DVD? The irish to english dialect he slips around in is forgiven with the mighty work this young man accomplishes. With a strong musical background, Parrott sinks his teeth into the writing and discovers the harmonic cadence.
Technical design in THE HISTORY BOYS is strong and memorable. William Elliott's set of a versatile classroom worked well to define all locations. The grotesque linoleum floor, it is worrisome that that flooring is still being manufactured, and the iconic orange desk chairs used in the original production were both great touches. John Hemphill created some wonderful moments with his lighting design. The show was wrapped up and packaged with a wicked score of 80's Europe rock music, designed by Michael Powers (care to make me a Spotify playlist?).
Mad Cow Theatre's THE HISTORY BOYS is a monumental work that stays with you afterwards. Instead of asking questions regarding the action in the play, we as the audience are left to explore deeper into the themes of the show and pick up where Alan Bennett leaves off. Think of it as his way of preparing the audience for what's next, "Pass it on, boys...pass it on."
For more information on THE HISTORY BOYS visit Mad Cow Theater's website for tickets and showtimes. THE HISTORY BOYS plays through September 7th with performances on Thursdays through Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2:30pm, and Monday September 1st at 7pm.