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Theater review: Exit Strategy

The cast of "Exit Strategy" for Face Off Theatre Company
Face Off Theatre Company
The cast of "Exit Strategy" for Face Off Theatre Company

Face Off Theatre closed its season last weekend with "Exit Strategy," which follows the efforts of a group of teachers to keep their school from closing. Gordon Bolar has this review.

In her program notes for “Exit Strategy,” Director Marissa Harrington says Face Off Theatre’s production aims to shed light on “systemic inequalities and injustices” in our public schools.

But Ike Holter’s play thankfully focuses more on the human element rather than headline social and educational issues. The decisions, triumphs, and failures in the lives of the characters attending or teaching at a mythical Chicago high school are rightfully front and center in this production.

The result is a gritty and revelatory depiction of the school-day trials and tribulations of five teachers, their assistant principal, and one student. The fast-paced action of the show is sometimes chaotic, and the dialogue is frequently humorous, boisterous, and profanity-laden. All of this helps Harrington’s production to succeed.

Most important, this production succeeds because the performers bring seven interesting and fully dimensional characters to life on the three-quarters-round stage of the Judy K. Jolliffe Theatre in the Epic Center in downtown Kalamazoo.

A key element is the detailed work of the actors. Erica Soto as Jania, a special-ed teacher, helps to endow the teachers’ lounge with a casual, semi-messy, lived-in look through the matter-of-fact rhythm of her entrances and as she crosses the room onstage.

Her many nonchalant trips to the microwave, and her voracious, unapologetic eating, prompt fellow teacher Luce, played by Diego Zambrana, to claim that her reheated lunch smells like “warmed-over orangutang.”

Jania’s co-worker Sadie, played by Shealin Shobowale-Benson, spews vitriolic observations about the school in a non-stop stream-of-consciousness, verbal machine-gun barrage, punctuated with vivid body language, gestures, and full torso engagement.

These and other actors create a comfortable, well-inhabited boiler room of a lounge space where daily frustrations are shared, complaints voiced, and heated exchanges are the currency of the day. Bonds between the occupants can be made and broken in full view.

Two of the teachers - Arnold, played by David Noyes, and Pam, portrayed by Gayle Beach, share a special bond. Noyes delivers a strong performance as the intense, button-down history teacher and union steward, whose love for Pam seems capable of transcending all bounds.

Beach’s Pam, the forward leaning, tough as nails home economics teacher, is comfortable with being described as an in-your-face “crazy bitch.” One comes away with the notion that her relish for giving and receiving insults serves as the armor she wears in this world and the next.

In addition to their strong feelings for each other, Arnold and Pam are united in their disregard and contempt for the play’s central figure, Ricky, the sloppy and spineless assistant principal.

Although teachers accuse Ricky, played by Drew Gorzen, of not doing enough to convince higher authorities to keep their school open, he manages to stumble upon a plan to get himself out of the doghouse and become a minor hero.

Ricky’s catalyst, and the chief instigator of a massive march and demonstration to save the school, is upstart student Donnie, played with animated and persuasive enthusiasm by Xavier Bolden.

Gorzen successfully completes his characters arc, navigating the transition from milk-toast administrator to fiery engaged leader, and then falls back to earth when Arnold’s invective puts him in his place and calls him out for his self-serving scheme. Gorzen, although effective in this role, could do with fewer stereotypical palms out “not my problem” hand gestures.

A strong suit of this production is Marissa Harrington’s use of silences. Her actors are comfortable with the silence and stasis that pervade long, uncomfortable pauses between and among characters. This is the case in the play’s final scene as the seven characters assemble in a line upstage to watch the demolition of their former school. Their broken conversation and intermittent silences speak volumes as we hear off-stage bulldozers and wrecking balls doing their work before their tear-filled eyes.

A former station manager of WMUK, Gordon Bolar is now the station's theater reviewer.
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