A battle of pedagogies is raging at an English grammar school for teenage boys. Veteran English teacher Hector (James Herrera) is, in the words of the number-crunching Headmaster, "not curriculum-directed." Hector encourages raucous playacting, singing, and recitations of Auden, and an appreciation of knowledge for its own sake, rather than as a "useful" commodity. But that's no help on the upcoming Oxbridge exams. So the Headmaster (Brent Askari) brings in a young post-modernist, Irwin (Ian Carlsen), to coach them on the history essays they must soon write. Irwin urges them to be less concerned with "truth" than with flavor, spin, and revisionist spectacle (the play takes place rather pointedly in the 1980s), and to use their knowledge as flash and lures.
TO TELL THE TRUTH But what does that mean?
Hector and Irwin thus form a thesis and antithesis of Alan Bennett's rich, multiple-award-winning The History Boys, which also explores the dynamics of history, nascent sexuality (both straight and gay), and the inherent eros of the teacher-pupil relationship. On the momentum of last season's sold-out staged reading, Peter Brown directs a production for Mad Horse that is nothing short of magnificent.
There are gratifyingly many elements of Brown's production to admire. Among them is the masterful work of local greats Carlsen, Herrera, Askari, and Christine Louise Marshall (as a traditionalist and wryly long-suffering history teacher). Their characters' strained interactions are particularly revealing (and entertaining), as the educators uphold that mingled belligerence and civility unique to life in academe. Also excellent are the show's varied staging, centered around ever-changing arrangements of plain wood tables and chairs, and its brisk, era-heightening scene-changes — made on a darkened stage pulsing with black strobe lights and the strains of bands like The Cure.
But at the heart of this superb production are the eight remarkable young actors of Brown's cast (most are students at local high schools and colleges). They portray the English boys with candor, electricity, and — most impressively — a real sense of wisdom and unity of purpose, ranging beautifully between rambunctious classroom scenes (particularly an impromptu French-language scenario in a brothel) and focused one-on-one encounters between peers and teachers.
Brown also directs them in a smart distinction between their reactions to each teacher's style — to Irwin their responses seem almost martial; with Hector, their behavior is bacchanal.
Three particular students emerge as most central to the plot and narration: As the handsome and clever Dakin, desired by peers and teachers alike, Jason Badeau has the carelessly arrogant grace of a young thoroughbred, and does fine work showing how the student's hubris grows apace his sense of his own power. Posner, a slight, effeminate Jewish boy, is openly, charmingly infatuated with Dakin; in Colin Thomas's canny and expressive hands the boy is a balance of angelic and profane, ingenuous and very shrewd. He also sings transportingly. Finally, there is the aspiring writer, Scripps, who documents all he sees, and addresses us frequently via monologues. Philip Rogers gives this young man a true writer's precocious watchfulness and sensitivity — I often found myself seeking the gauge of Rogers's face and expressions, even as the dominant action happened elsewhere on stage.