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Jackalope Theatre Company at Broadway Armory Park. By Ike Holter. Directed by Gus Menary. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 45mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
A fiery new work by a Chicago playwright, set in a teachers’ area of a beleaguered Chicago public high school and concerning itself with the systemic limitations those teachers face in serving their students, has opened on a North Side stage. For the second time in a month.
It speaks to our city’s collective civic anxiety about the problems facing Chicago Public Schools at this cultural moment that two plays fitting that description should hit in such quick succession: First Joe Zarrow’s excellent Principal Principle (a co-production of Stage Left Theatre and Theatre Seven that closes this weekend, but
may will return later this year), and now Ike Holter’s equally passionate Exit Strategy at the young, ascendant Jackalope Theatre Company.
Where Principal faces disparate frustrations over educational resources and the merits (or lack thereof) of standardization, Exit Strategy takes on the related concern of school closures. Holter’s piece focuses on a fictional CPS high school in a neighborhood where, as one teacher puts it, “there’s two gangs and a crepe place on the same street.” The play opens on the school’s stammeringly ineffective young assistant principal, Ricky (Patrick Whalen), informing a bullshit-resistant veteran teacher, Pam (Barbara Figgins), that the coming school year will be this school’s last: “Low test scores, unfavorable conditions. Lots of—lots, of lots, of lots of stuff.”
Pam’s reaction propels the action of the play through the rest of the school year, with the demoralized teachers (Danny Martinez, Lucy Sandy, Paloma Nozicka and HB Ward) squabbling over whether to fight or give up. One student, a smart, fervent senior named Donnie (Jerry MacKinnon), tries to take matters into his own hands, leading wishy-washy Ricky to suddenly find a backbone and rally the troops, campaigning as “Team Winning.” But the question remains: What does “winning” look like in a broken system?
Holter, also the author of the riot-hearted Stonewall history Hit the Wall (which continues in its current remount at the Greenhouse Theater Center through May 25 and should very much be on your agenda), is at the beginning of what one hopes is a long and prolific career. He has a rollicking, breakneck way with entertaining dialogue and, perhaps even moreso, monologues—though he should be wary of over-relying on breathless rants and reads. Everyone in Exit Strategy is righteously angry, but there’s a Sorkinesque danger of multiple characters all sharing the same linguistic rhythms of Hit the Wall’s mesmerizing drag diva Carson.
But that’s a concern that doesn’t yet overwhelm the bracing, juicy drive of Holter’s smartly structured storytelling, with strikingly current local color—including an allusion to the bitter fight over last year’s demolition of Whittier Elementary’s field house, and even a cutting reference to the amount of agita Chicagoans displayed over the closing of Hot Doug’s compared to the overnight closing of 50 schools.
Gus Menary’s smartly paced production hugs the comic and tragic curves in Holter’s tightly packed plot, and his appealing ensemble sells it with style. Ward is especially good as a grizzled, embittered longtime faculty member who’s lost his love for everything. And Whalen is terrific as the play’s nebbishy heart, masterfully maneuvering through Holter’s parentheticals and administrivial interjections before finding passion and confidence—and then finding they may not be enough for the job.