February 12, 2009

A Class Act on Stage

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The Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts premiered Alan Bennett’s The History Boys in its Flex Theatre yesterday. The play debuted at the Lyttelton Theatre in London in 2004, and has since become a Broadway show, a Tony Award-winner and a movie. At Cornell, it is directed by Melanie Dryer-Lude and put on by eight students and four professional actors associated with the Actors’ Equity Association.
Jeremy Flynn ’11, who plays Rudge, the somewhat less-than-brilliant jock looking to eke his way into Oxford, praised both the cast and the director in an interview with The Sun. The action of the play is often rather rapid-fire, a style the boys pull off impeccably, and Flynn credits their success to the director: “Our director stressed improvisation, and it made us a very tight knit unit. We do a lot of feeding off each other and that’s the way that we are able to be successful.” He also enjoyed working with the four professionals: “It’s really great to take [something] away from the effort they put into every performance and to try and replicate it.”
The History Boys examines the final semester of eight boys studying history and preparing for the entrance examinations to Oxford and Cambridge (collectively known as Oxbridge). The setting is a fictional and rather second-rate private school in England in the 1980s. The headmaster is obsessed with improving test scores, the boys are discovering sex, the teachers are learning they’re gay and the play is ultimately addressing the issue of education and how an education should be administered (or if it should be administered at all). The History Boys touches on many issues — sex, homosexuality, gender roles, growing up, war, art, poetry — in a sometimes hard-to-follow but undeniably charming manner. It manages to be profound in dealing with a great many of these themes, but most especially, of course, with education.
The must-pass-the-exams school of thought, based on a strict curriculum, is represented by the audacious Mr. Irwin (Michael Kaplan) and the Headmaster (Jeff Guton), while the idea of learning for learning’s sake (screw formal ed., that is) is espoused by Mr. Hector (Paul Hebron). “You give them an education,” he says, “and I give them the wherewithal to withstand it.” One of my favorite lines of the play comes when Hector explains passionately how the education he has given the boys is “learned by heart,” meaning both memorized, to be kept forever and loved.
The Cornellian actors do a really great job with this play — the dynamic between the eight guys is flawless and believable, and the four professionals (portraying the three teachers and the Headmaster) capture their characters to a T. Watch especially for the strutting gait of the Headmaster. I will warn, however, that the play is long and that the boys’ British/Scottish accents are, for the most part, inconsistent. But where it really matters — the ethos, the atmosphere of Bennet’s play — the actors rise to the occasion wonderfully. They even do a great job with the singing. Yes, I said singing. Although The History Boys is not a musical, music is used as a device throughout to set the tone or reflect the mood. Some of the boys, including Flynn, were already singers (and my hat’s off to John Chambers in the role of Posner), but some were not, and again Flynn credits the directing staff with their success. “The way we sang was supposed to embody our characters,” he explained, and musical guru Gary Moulsdale “was like a second director to us in how much he worked with us.”
The set (designed by Sarah Lambert ’85) is done beautifully, being deceptively simple but with an exacting attention to detail — for example, there are real sugar cubes and real milk. But the best part of the set is undeniably the blackboard, which is written upon, erased and changed constantly in what, according to Flynn, is a “partly planned and partly ad-libbed” fashion. The board is comedic and expressive and bestows on the audience a sense of experience, a sense of the style of learning that Hector espouses — a random and heady mix of language, culture, history and the boys’ not-so-clandestine sexual references (“the body count” for example, written up by Irwin in reference to World War I, surreptitiously becomes “the booby count”).
One of my favorite parts of the play is a scene near the beginning that’s done almost entirely in French. Although I do speak French (lucky, eh?), I assume most of the audience will not, and I know most of the actors did not. So I asked Flynn about this scene. He said first that it was “the hardest scene we had to work on” but he also said that the cast had a lot of fun with it. They had two French coaches in to work with them, and they emphasized the cognates (and, I must say, they did a stupendous job), but Flynn explained that the scene is really about the action. “It was a great storytelling opportunity,” he said.
On my walk home after the play, I passed the Kaplan test center in Collegetown where a cheery poster informed me that “higher scores mean a brighter future.” I thought this was appropriate, as it summed up the debate of the night very well. And to sum up this review: the moral of this story is, go see The History Boys strut their stuff. As Flynn says, “There’s so many messages in this show, and I think that’s why it’s so great to see, because every audience member can take away something different.”

The History Boys stars Jeremy Flynn ’11, Jon Delikat ’10, Aaron Sprecher ’11, Myles Rowland ’11 and Paul Hebron, among others. Performances are Feb. 12-14 at 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 15 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; February 18-20 at 7:30 p.m.; and February 21at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8 for students and seniors and $10 for the general public.