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It takes the English teacher, upon his first entrance, fewer than a dozen words to work his way up to “cunt,” so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the world actually does end in The Faculty Room. And in fact it isn’t terribly surprising, given the portentous plot thread involving a student clique’s increasingly fervid fascination with a Left Behind–style series of apocalyptic novels. It’s not terribly convincing, either, not with all the snark that’s been dished out in the run-up to the Rapture, which is probably why Bridget Carpenter’s loud and lively black comedy, which lacquers an ever-after gloss over the dead-end lives of three teachers at a nowhere high school, ultimately feels like so much less than the sum of its entertaining parts.
At least the parts do entertain, in a dark and cynical sort of way that undoubtedly has something to do with why Woolly Mammoth picked it to wrap up the season. Adam (Ethan T. Bowen as that singularly profane English teacher) makes his initial appearance packing three kinds of heat, all confiscated from the student body: “I hate morning checkpoints,” he snarls before moving on to drop the c-bomb on his much younger ex-wife. We’ll learn later that Zoe (Megan Anderson) was still a student when they first hooked up, but we’ll learn sooner that since their divorce the two of them have distracted themselves with a friendly annual competition involving underage paramours, and somewhere in between it becomes apparent that buying drugs from their charges is a fairly regular habit, too. So it’s hardly a shock when a throwaway bit about a cutting epidemic among the sophomore girls turns out to be not so throwaway after all. The dialogue drips bile, the reports of offstage teenage wack-headedness come regularly and often, and Adam and Zoe turn out to be such burned-out, anesthetized basket cases that Michael Russotto’s Carver, the queer newbie running from a dark secret, looks positively normal.
Carpenter, Woolly’s program notes indicate, has been working with director Howard Shalwitz on a script first performed a few years back, nipping and tucking “to make the plot inevitable…to create a playworld where the mundane ‘questionable relationships’ could exist alongside the profound ‘religious ecstasy.’” But the satirical and the supernatural coexist uneasily in The Faculty Room; the sneering excesses of the former make the ultimate earnestness of the latter seem all the more jarring, and the occasional documentarian flourishes (a reference to Gilmore Girls, Bush-Clinton-Bush portraits on the back wall of Robin Stapley’s satisfyingly grubby teachers’ lounge) don’t make the script’s contempt for the quotidian feel a whit less unearned.
The design, including Melanie Clark’s subtly savvy costumes, Jennifer Sheetz’s hilariously apt junkpile of props, and a lighting scheme (by Jay A. Herzog) that covers scene changes with an eloquent series of projections, supports the script intelligently; Shalwitz gives the evening a snappy, agitated flair, and the cast (which also features Michael Willis as an ethics teacher who—significantly, ya think?— stays largely silent) commits gamely to the roller-coaster course Carpenter maps out. But when that course ends at the predictable, implausible place she’s chosen, you may find yourself identifying with all rambunctious students, and allowing your inner teen the last words: “As if.”
Has Michael Kahn taken a liberty or three with Love’s Labor’s Lost? You betcha: The phrase “Police brutality, man,” on the lips of a stoned peacenik, most likely did not come from Shakespeare’s pen. Nor, I suspect, does the First Folio indicate that the lovestruck Don Adriano de Armado, mid-reverie, should break into a chorus of “Besame Mucho.”
But that’ll bother only the starchiest of purists. Kahn’s conceit—he sees a neat parallel between the scholarly retreat four noblemen sign up for in the opening lines of Love’s Labor’s and the ’60s-era pilgrimages made by many a famous personage to the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—may involve the odd distracting implication, but the payoff at the Shakespeare Theatre Company is a tie-dyed tangerine dream of a show, a riot of color and noise centered on a Beatles-esque band of longhairs seeking enlightenment and the Vespa-riding, go-go-booted gang of girlies who arrive to distract them.
It’s a high-fashion, high-concept production, and it takes a little while to get itself fully in gear, but once the guru himself realizes that all he needs is love—the moment, as you might anticipate, involves a tambourine—you realize that giddiness is much of what Shakespeare is after here, and a passionate sonnet set to the whine of electric guitar feels a lot like infatuation.
The update underscores the faddishness of what’s going on at the court of the King of Navarre—scholars hint that Shakespeare might have been poking mild fun at the Earl of Southampton, who hosted a kind of salon that attracted Walter Raleigh and other Elizabethan fashionistas—even as it points up the seriousness of what eventually transpires. Shakespeare’s noblemen, whose scholarly seeking is something more than a pose but less than a real passion, seem just the sort who might find the glare of the flashbulb and the giggle of the groupie distracting enough to put enlightenment on hold, so reimagining them as a kind of fab foursome works pretty cleanly. And the women in Love’s Labor’s, a French princess and her quick-witted ladies-in-waiting, always seem to have the upper hand, so the liberated sassypants (Claire Lautier) who dominates her scenes at the Lansburgh seems right at home in those miniskirts. (Ditto her ladies, the Pussycats to her Josie, played by Colleen Delany, Angela Pierce, and Sabrina LeBeauf.)
The show’s pretty sumptuously visualized—Ralph Funicello’s sets, lit lushly by Mark Doubleday, back a storybook maharajah’s palace with an acid-trip sunset, and Catherine Zuber’s costumes get sexier and funnier with each scene change—but language goes begging occasionally amid all the antics and atmosphere. It’s not as alive, somehow, as we’ve come to expect at the Lansburgh, especially when it’s Hank Stratton’s rubber-faced Berowne doing the talking—and he’s the showboat part, a ladies’ man who fancies himself a wit (at least until the ladies outwit him). His comrades, led by Amir Arison as a charismatic, gorgeously arrayed Navarre, measure their couplets with marginally more panache, but their love poetry still doesn’t quite sparkle, even when their raptures erupt into an impromptu jam session.
Happily, there’s Ted van Griethuysen’s lascivious old scholar and Geraint Wyn-Davies’ flamboyant Spaniard—the latter a vision in zebra stripes and a Dali moustache—to remind us how lively words can be when you give ’em a lick and a caress. Nick Choksi’s mischievous Moth helps in that regard, too, and though Jolly Abraham isn’t given much to say as the alluring servant Jacquenetta, she manages to be as expressive nonverbally as many of her colleagues with more lines.
There’s a playful tension between words and action in Love’s Labor’s Lost, a comic disconnect between promises made and promises performed, but when it comes time for the upbeat ending audiences expect of a conventional comedy, Shakespeare throws a curve. The games come to a sudden halt—there’s been bad news from the home front—and a sudden sober melancholy makes clear that Berowne and his free-spirited boys still have a lot of growing up to do if they’re to be worthy of the women who’ve been leading them on such a merry chase. With its evocation of an era that left American society unsteady on its feet, uncertain about boundaries and unable to agree on what constituted acceptable behavior, Kahn’s update serves that moment pretty neatly, too. It leaves you wondering whether his flawed fab four will find themselves a happy ending after the curtain’s come down—or whether, as in our world, their lives will be a series of stumbles, from sweet to bitter and back again.CP