Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region.   ,

This Phoenix Theatre production called Staff Room (by Joan Burrows) is a mild crowd pleaser, definitely aimed at a niche audience. A cast of ten actors playing 55 roles carried out a non-stop whirlwind evening of skits , monologues, dialogues or exchanges with multiple actors of varying descriptions.  Each skit was an individual performance but all were linked by the fact that they all took place in the staff room of a high school where the teachers, administrators, cleaners and related employees were all involved in the business of this institution of learning. Joel Rahn responsible for media relations, stepped out on the stage before the curtain went up and asked us point blank: “How many people were/are school teachers“? A lot of hands went up. I gather that If he asked the question it was important, and we soon realized why.

It was set in a rather hum drum space that shows an interest in stage reality which gave us a good but dull reproduction of a school staff room, complete with exits to the toilets, to the school hall and the school exterior. Even with no narrative line to speak of, the play was a bit of fun that allowed the actors to change costumes, toss on a wig in the wings, come running out for the next scene, all in quick sequences thus keeping the energy high and the pace from faltering. Since the story line is not important, it all hinges on the mix of strange, endearing or even annoying characters who manage to hold our attention most of the time, depending on the talent of the actor,

Andrew Johnson was especially convincing and endearing as a  student with a crush whose raging hormones kept him in a state of nervous jitters in front of the sexy Miss Aymes (Jennifer Bond). The roles were mainly caricatures  but from time to time, the caricature was underplayed and that made a stronger impression. Take for example Alan Arbuckle who became the wise  but slightly overexerted male teacher sitting between two female colleagues at a meeting. This fellow was never able to get a word in edgewise and his frustration was funny but captured a certain pathos as the actor   managed to share a lot of emotion with a minimum of words. Quite a feat!

Paul Leduc as a macho technician who has his eye on one of the teachers (the untouchable Lise Moore) gave an excellent performance. He tried to embellish his character with lots of smart-aleck gestures that established the type while bringing a lot of substance to this cocky very disagreeable person with a glib tongue.

One could say that the entire cast did justice to their multiple roles but there is no question that the weakness of the evening was the text and the lack of stylistic unity that was both the choice of the director and the way the author presented her material.

The first half of the evening was made up of short skits that forced actors to overact. Those who tried to be more natural changed the whole feeling of the performance but they did stand out because their realistic style appeared to be much more successful. During the second part of the evening the skits became longer, the characters accumulated in the staff room and bits of an intrigue appeared so that we were no longer concentrating on one or two individuals but on a group of actors who made the event more interesting . The weaker actors were swallowed up in the group while there was more stylistic unity in this piece, making it a real farce . It had the rhythm, the heightened performances, the rapid movements and the excitement of the well-oiled farce machine that kept going lickedy split until the end..

Nevertheless, some of the writing was rather disturbing. Jokes were made about classes for special needs. One teacher especially was the mouthpiece for this foolishness when one exhausted teacher, unable to cope, tries to convince her colleagues to take over her class, the “mouthpiece” blurted out that we are afraid of all those “wackos” who can’t learn. What was more surprising was the fact that many people in the audience laughed at this. That says a lot more about this niche audience than about an author who exploits anything she can get her pen on, using the excuse that what she writes relates to one’s real experience in a classroom and thus makes perfect material . And yet reality is not the aim of theatre. Theatre is not necessarily, in our present time, a photograph of our daily lives because one can make a video of a class room or a staff room and get all the realism you want!! There is always some form of artistic input , which is what transforms events and makes the performance “theatre”. In most cases, jokes and playfulness were tempered by funny characters who appeared to be pure creations by each actor but were no doubt also inspired by some lived experience. Such a mixture is the basis for change, and remaking and remixing comic elements. That is the creative side of this kind of popular theatre that can even question or turn narrow mindedness into a parody of how individuals deal with society. That is, if one wants to take the time to work this out.

There was one skit dealing with a professor who was supporting funding events for gay students and his work was belittled by the principal. The arrogant reaction of his superior elicited a gasp of disapproval from the audience which, on that subject seemed to be a lot more sensitive. That made everyone rethink things I’m sure. What Burrows play did try to show was the the good cross section of the social mix and way individuals of various backgrounds can congregate in our schools. This gave the play its positive points, but just barely because none of that was really explored. Generally speaking however, the performances were quite good and the evening ended on a positive note.

Staff Room continues at the Gladstone theatre until April 30. Curtain at 7h30, Matinees on April 23, 24, & 30.

A Production of Phoenix Players

Staff Room by Joan Burrows

Directed by Andre Dimitrijevic

Sound: Dan Litchinsky

Lighting: Kevin Schneider

Costumes: Shanna Parashchuk

Props: Barbara Stiles

Set design: Andre Dimitrijevec

Cast: Andrée Benson, Kitty Galt, Lisa Moore, Paul Behncke, Jennifer Bond,

Paul Leduc, Andrew Johnson, Jonathan Vien, Erin McNamara ,Alan Arbuckle.