BWW Review: OFFICE HOUR at Fort Worth's CIRCLE THEATRE
A troubled student and fearful educators in a time of school shootings- this is what sets the stage for Office Hour, a drama by Julia Cho. Though Office Hour grapples with poignant and contemporary issues in society, it does so in a way that's more confusing than thought-provoking. Nevertheless, the direction and acting seen in this show was truly superb. Circle Theatre handled the issues of mental health and gun violence with grace, and handled the more unusual moments and "alternate endings" with sensitivity and care.
The show opens with three professors discussing a disturbing student who writes about the most horrific atrocities imaginable- and does so poorly, no less. Genevieve (Whitney Holotik) passionately describes the disgusting content that said student produces for her class- content so disturbing that others have dropped the class because of it. David (Ivan Jasso) chimes in, with a more intense note of hatred, describing how he failed this student- and his ratings as a professor suffered accordingly. Finally, the two plead with Gina (Olivia de Guzman) to "talk to him"- as they are afraid that this student will likely go on a shooting rampage if his behavior goes unchecked. The duration of the show takes place in Gina's office, where the student, Dennis (Alex Vinh) arrives for Gina's office hours.De Guzman mastered the part of an educator who goes above and beyond when it comes to caring for and inspiring her students. Despite being fearful of this potentially dangerous young man, she tries over and over again to get him to confront the darkness in his life that no doubt makes him behave the way he does. Desperate to get this student to open up, she pleads with him through long-winded monologues and stories about her own upbringing. De Guzman delivered a staggering number of lines without showing a moment's hesitation - to a stoic and unmoving character, no less. Her performance displayed a delicate balance of raw determination, frustration, and fear for her life. In short, De Guzman was as empathetic as she was fierce, making her performance utterly compelling.
Vinh did exactly what he was supposed to do as the troubled student, Dennis- he scared you. He kept his expression stony as his professor Gina pleaded with him. Little by little, his character did open up to reveal a hardened young man- and the bitterness that came as a result was palpable. Through his performance of this unfeeling young man, Vinh still managed to make the audience dread, "What will he do next? What will he say?" Alex Vinh's portrayal of this unusual character was chillingly spot-on.
The set of Office Hour captured a collegiate feeling- the opening scene showed a bench creatively placed in front of a decorative pool. Gina's office was exactly as you'd expect (or remember) an English professor's to look: A picture of Edgar Allen Poe hung on the wall, books and papers filled the shelves and desktop, and a clock ticked next to the doorway- a clock that became a focal point as both Gina and Dennis tracked how much time had elapsed during their time together. Similarly, the costumes were fitting for their characters: a preppy pink ensemble for Genevieve, a sharp vest and tie for David, and laid back, comfortable look for Gina that made her seem younger and more approachable than her peers. Quizzically, an enormous amount of trash littered the perimeter of the stage throughout the show and seemed to have little significance except for a reference to the great Pacific garbage patch towards the end of the play.
The piles of garbage were not the only unusual thing about this show. Throughout the play, something tragic and violent would occur, after which the stage would go black. A moment later, the lights would come back as if nothing had happened, and the play would resume as before. Towards the last 10 minutes of the show, a new sequence of violent events occurred rapid-fire. The lights dimmed, electronic music blared, and these abrupt incidences repeated themselves in variations for several minutes. To say the least, the significance of these events was lost on me. Although I'm tempted to interpret these events as a commentary on gun violence, both the playwright and director Jenny Ledel make a note in the program that this play is "not about guns." Perhaps the story was intended to evoke the imagination to consider every "what-if" scenario in life, and if so, confusion trumped imagination.
I appreciate the story that Office Hour tells at this moment in time- it's the first time I've seen a dramatic piece deal with the issue of gun violence and mental health in a comprehensive way. The actors gave a near perfect execution of their characters and truly drew one into the story- not for a moment was I distracted by an actor who was not 100% committed to their character, which is all too common in theatre. Nevertheless, the confusion that the abrupt and violent scenes created did distract me for the performance as I wracked my brain for possible meanings and interpretations. With that being said, do check out Office Hour at Circle Theatre to see excellent actors explore contemporary issues in a way that pushes the boundaries of modern theatre.
Photo Credit: Taylor Staniforth