Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"I just wish there were marks in it"

I'm about to make an entirely uncontroversial statement: The History Boys at TimeLine Theatre is really, really wonderful. (By the way, thank you Uncle Lou and Aunt Jeanne for this wonderful birthday present!) I could be contrarian, just to go against the nearly six months of sold out houses and bouquet of admiring to ecstatic reviews, and say it's not that great, but that would be perverse. (And it's not that I'm scared to be contrarian--Jersey Boys has met with inexplicable critical and popular success, and that doesn't make it any less of a hash of cardboard characters, melodramatic plotting, and wildly overstated sentimentality.)

That it's been such a success is all the more remarkable for the fact that it's three hours long, filled with obscure references and complex debates, and, despite its high spirits, has a current of darkness and a decidedly downbeat ending.

One of the things that's exceptional about the play is how uncompromisingly intellectual it is--these characters are smart people, and act like it. I can't imagine there are very many audience members who don't get lost at some point--I certainly did. But because the play refuses to talk down to the audience, either intellectually or emotionally, they want to keep up with the difficult parts.

So what about this production (the last two weeks, by the way, are sold out, but trying to get on standby is well worth your time) makes it work so well?

We have to start with the script--Bennett has written an incredibly rich and complex play. It follows eight students, three teachers, and a headmaster at a boy's school in the North of England in the 1980s--Margaret Thatcher is in power, education is changing, and being an adolescent sucks.

(By the way, reading the program essay of Margaret Thatcher reminded me of what a horrible leader she was--particularly because of her closeness to Ronald Reagan. Which takes me back to one of my favorite themes: we don't spend nearly enough time or energy hating Ronald Reagan these days. He may be gone, but his ideas live on, and they make things worse and worse. So think about it--have you thought or said anything mean about Reagan or Reaganism today? Have you worked against his legacy of disdain for anyone who isn't white, straight, male, Christian, and wealthy? Have you combatted the fiction that he was anything other than a disaster as president? If not, DO. Your country needs you. Now, back to our regularly scheduled meditation.)

Though some students are inspired by the "knowledge for knowledge's sake" Hector (Donald Brearley) and others by the "anything to get ahead" Irwin (Andrew Carter), this is anything but an "inspirational teacher" story--both men are horribly flawed. But that doesn't make their achievements less real. And perhaps the best part of the script is this willingness to accept complexity. Nobody is all good or all bad, most brilliant things come with a catch, and that's simply how it is. This lack of sentimentality is all too rare--in theatre and other media, now and in the past--and it's what's making the show so popular.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that it's very funny, and makes the audience feel smart for enjoying it and keeping up with it, and gives twelve actors the chance to do wonderful work.

And this brings us to Nick Bowling's production. The most discussed part is doubtless how he and set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge use the space: the area that is usually TimeLine's lobby is taken up by representations of the boys' bedrooms, and there is no separation between that area and the rest of the stage. With the audience seated on two sides of the action, that leaves a lot of space for the staging, and Bowling uses every inch. He's created some exceptional visual moments, and the play always feels like it's in motion--it evades the trap of being static that such a talky play could easily fall into. But in addition to the big-picture sweep of the play, the production gets the little details--the atmosphere of the staff room, the casual cruelty in the boys' banter, and on and on. Every character gets an arc and has real depth. I would mention the excellent parts about individual performances, but then this would be even longer than it was. Suffice it to say that everyone on that stage has a chance to do exceptional work, and they all take advantage of it.

So congratulations to everyone who worked on the show--particularly the cast replacements, who meshed perfectly with those who've been in it since April--and TimeLine, for getting such an exceptional run out of such a difficult piece. We need more like History Boys in this town, and I hope that the theatres here will step up to such a great example.

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