Monday, April 6, 2009
Theater Review: The History Boys
Definitely recommended as a well-acted, thoughtful and moving performance.
The History Boys by Alan Bennett presents a clash between learning for its own sake versus education with an agenda. Though set in the 1980s, the play has clear relevance for our own times. Do we educate our children to enrich them, to help them think for themselves, or do we educate them to test well and score high on the SAT? We also tend to forget the inevitable real-world education adolescents receive when friendships, romances and mentors don't live up to hopes or expectations.
It's an ideologically dense play, narrative-heavy and symbol-rich. Each scene boasts more than its fair share of obscure literary and cultural references, a constant stream of conflicting ideas, and the philosophical fumblings of a group of students trying to make sense of it all. But it is the underlying humanity of the story that makes it so compelling.
Hector (Bradley Campbell), a "maverick" English teacher, wants to instill a love of learning and knowledge in his pupils. But he suffers from his own demons, specifically a tendency to fondle his male students' genitalia while riding with them on a motorcycle. By contrast, new teacher Irwin (David Plunkett) has only one goal: teach the students to ace their college entrance exams. It's irrelevant to him whether he teaches fact or truth, only that his students angle what they know sufficiently to stand out in the exams.
"Is nothing sacred, sir?" one of the students asks him. Ultimately, that's the point of the play. Nothing is sacred. Everything can be played, angled, manipulated and presented in whatever fashion serves the purpose. It may be as subtle as the language - using an euphemism, as when handsome Dakin (Brett Thiele) tries to seduce Irwin by inviting him to have a drink - or as crass and cold as addressing the holocaust not as a tragedy, but as a means of getting into college.
Irwin treats history like journalism, as they say in the play. It's fact and truth swallowed by revisionist interpretation. "What has truth got to do with it?" he asks. It has nothing to do with getting into Oxford or Cambridge, in his view.
Hector defends a more absolute understanding and morality. Ironic, considering his predilection for fondling his students.
The play really becomes interesting where formal education intersects with informal, and where roles become reversed. Hector, the mentor, is a wise old man gone somewhere wrong. He follows a tradition of elderly British gurus who lead their pupils to greater wisdom, but he diverges in taking advantage of them physically. The students, far from being traumatized by the act (which is described as appreciative rather than "investigatory") seem to take it in stride as a personal eccentricity of Hector's. Nevertheless, one can't help but think it reflects an immaturity on Hector's part.
Similarly, Irwin is a brilliant tactician when it comes to manipulating education for specific ends, especially to gain entrance into "Oxbridge." He's a maverick in his own way, willing to speak defensively of Stalin or dismissively of the Holocaust, if only it will help him and his students stand out from the crowd. But on a personal level, he's almost painfully retiring and shy. When Dakin makes advances on him, he seems utterly within Dakin's much more confident grasp, like the snake mesmerized by the snake-charmer. It's a curious role reversal.
The story itself has a prominent gay sensibility, which this adaptation ratchets up. It also presents a refreshing take on this kind of scenario. Typically, when we see same-sex relationships or desires among students at a private school, it's like some kind of after school special about the devastation wrought by "shameful" acts. In fact, the play eschews the easy histrionic "won't someone please think of the children!?" approach. It addresses the gay content matter-of-factly, which is a pleasant change from the more traditional portrayal. That's not to say Hector's behavior goes unpunished. Quite the contrary.
The ensemble cast acquits itself admirably. While individual actors run the gamut from competent to outstanding, not a single voice in the sizable cast could be described as sub-par. Considering the nature of the play, that's not faint praise. To convey such complex dialogue believably, organically and naturally - scene after scene - requires mastery of the material. The cast does very well.
Bradley Campbell, playing eccentric professor Hector, stands out with a wonderful performance. He delves deeply into his character. Through his performance, Hector is not merely understood by the audience, but felt. He becomes the center of gravity for the entire show.
The other adult actors – Rick Espaillat as the Headmaster, Plunkett as Irwin, Wendy Welch as Mrs. Lintott - don't quite capture the same subtlety as Campbell 's performance, but they ably hold their own. Kudos to them all.
The younger actors are a little more inconsistent.
Corey Clear-Stoner as Posner reaches right into the emotional core of his character. In fact, as far as emotional depth goes, his performance is second only to Campbell 's. But he doesn't quite hit the right note for his character's tone. We're talking about a boy who's isolated from the other students in some meaningful ways – younger, Jewish, gay – but the impact of the ensuing sense of alienation on his dynamic with the other characters is muted.
By contrast, Brett Thiele as Dakin is pitch-perfect in capturing the flavor of his character, a cheeky and precocious lad whose easy successes have spoiled him. He imbues Dakin with the precise vibe that the character would exude. But this character is no less affected by the relationships and events around him than any of the others, and Thiele skims over Dakin's emotional heart.
The rest of the ensemble cast play off each other well. The dynamic is easy and natural, and director Bruce R. Coleman must be commended for keeping a large cast focused and working in sync.
Overall: definitely recommended as a well-acted, thoughtful and moving performance.
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