Brilliant take on a Terrible Occurrence

Review by Robert Liebowitz

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For this humble scribe, school shootings were never a hearken back to the old days–they were inconceivable. They simply didn’t happen. Now, however, one fifth into the new century, even as mankind has progressed in so many tangible ways, murderous rampages committed by homicidal maniacs against the most defenseless, helpless, and vulnerable victims are now almost a staple of every day life–to the point when there is a national sigh of relief on days when one doesn’t occur.
Documentaries about these shootings–most notably ‘Bowling For Columbine’, which depicts the 1999 shooting in Colorado–are just hard to watch. Even harder is an attempt to make a statement of art about such an horrific, loathsome, hateful deed.
Playwright Sean David DeMers, however, has gone into the land that is not for the faint-hearted, and despite some dubious plot choices, and a drama that is one scene too many, has written a masterful play that relives such an occurrence. ‘Faculty Portrait’, a wonderfully ironic and sedate title, ‘ runs at IRT at the historical Archives Building on Christopher Street in the West Village though the 23rd, It is not to be missed.
The play is episodic and presentational, effortlessly moving backwards and forwards in time, and takes place in a high school somewhere in America. There is a feel of rural living rather than urban confinement; otherwise there is no note in the program, and no reference in the play where the high school is actually located. It didn’t need it. The school could be anywhere in the world.
History has shown us that sometimes the killings have a specific motive; others are simply acts of a madman, devoid of all rhyme and reason. Here, the gunman Tim (never seen or heard, a wise choice by the playwright, and a wonderful theatrical device) apparently has found out his would-be paramour Claire (well played by Phoebe Holden) is actually a closeted lesbian, already in a deep, loving relationship with Amy (matched by Jessica Nesi). It is always a difficult, sometimes impossible task to depict a murder on stage, because at the end of the day everyone in the building knows that it is fake, and that the willing suspension of disbelief doesn’t travel quite that far.. However, the dramatization of Claire’s murder here was just about the best attempt of staging this heinous crime this humble scribe has ever seen.This is a tip of the cap to the director Ariel Francoeur and the sound designer (also the playwright). It happened very quickly (the shortest scene in the play)  and was gut-wrenching to watch.
Faculty Portrait-00148.jpgIn a parallel plot, a teacher–the mysteriously-named Mr. Y (Russ Cusick) is still mourning the loss of his wife, who also taught at the school, and apparently was collateral damage. (It is unknown how many actual casualties there were, except for these two). Strangely, while Claire’s story and back story were well depicted on stage, Mrs Y never appears, a curious choice of omission by the playwright.
The middle third of the play gets bogged down a bit in a muddled plot, as Helen (the best of the bunch, by Molly Schenkenberger) tries to valiantly interview the spent Mr. Y for a ‘faculty portrait’ for the school’s yearbook…but the play rights itself up with a splendid final third, where issues of guilt and hope are beautifully interwoven, and touchingly offered by Mr. DeMers.
The playwright clearly has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and a strong sense of pace. Never rising above a whisper it seemed, telling the story in a muted -but-still singing way, (imagine the way a trumpet plays with a ‘mute’), Mr. DeMers, in telling the tale, is highly effective and very sobering. The technical accessories, beginning with the minimal yet masterful set (design by Molly Carroll), and continuing with the Lighting & Projection Design (breathtaking work by Heather Crocker) enhanced the story-telling in a humble but prevalent manner; you definitely felt a sense of dread every single time the projection flashed on the cinder-block walls ‘The Day Of’.
Mr. DeMers has also adopted some of the traits that make the playwright Harold Pinter effective; specifically, a sense of impending or implied violence that is never (except for a few seconds) seen, but covers the stage like a blanket. It is in the subtlety, the suggestion of violence, or of characters misspeaking if even for a second, where the playwright’s work really shines. In addition, the play feels like a puzzle that the audience has been tasked to solve; different sections with different characters, in different time zones, in different areas of the school–all spread out , and by play’s end, all put together, on the kitchen table.
Faculty Portrait-00858.jpgJulie Thaxter-Gourlay effectively plays the earnest and crestfallen janitor Jamie J, and Shammah ‘Speed’ Waller completes the cast, and does likewise is his interpretation of Kyle, who has his own crosses to bear, and who embodies the spirit of the play best–horrified at the events, dazed, and yet determined to move forward, hoping to gleam some sense, some goodness out of this senseless act of violence.
The production by IRT runs through the 23rd of March.
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