Monday, April 16, 2012

Outliers at the Alchemist

Grace DeWolff's Fascinating Exploration into the Nature of Education

By Russ Bickerstaff
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I've been really impressed with Grace DeWolff's work as an actor in local theatre . . . ever since I first saw her in a couple of productions at UWM a few years ago. And now she's got this show that she's written and directed . . . and I was worried about it for some reason. Turns out I can relax . . . turns out she's a really good  actor and writer and director. Okay, so that's three reasons to envy her. The show, which opened this past weekend is called Outliers and it's a really interesting look into the nature of formal education and some of the problems its been grappling with for many, many years. 

 

Luke Erickson plays Mr. Host--a teacher that has only recently started working at the school in question. He teaches chemistry, but the bulk of the drama focuses on the fact that he is tasked with instructing a gifted and talented class. The catch: there's only one student in the program. 

 

High School freshman Sebastian Weigman plays that student. He's a gifted student with an extremely inquisitive nature who claims to have been able to levitate by sheer force of will. So maybe he's telekinetic or maybe he's psychotic or maybe he's just looking for someone to actually pay attention to him . .  .whatever the case, Weigman does an admirable job of bringing a very intricate and sophisticated character to the stage. There's no attempt to overemphasize the character's quirky side. It's a touchingly sympathetic portrayal of a kid going through some serious inner problems. The thing that makes this powerful is . . . to a certain degree EVERY student is that student. Every student is distinct and intelligent and unique . . . formal education tends to pound that out of any student and beat everyone into a kind of hazy mediocrity. We see this student's journey and we're seeing every student. And  we're seeing ourselves. 

 

Jazmin Vollmar plays an administrator with a comically forced niceness about her that doubtlessly comes from having deal with children professionally her whole life . . . it's a charming portrayal with a really nice kind of depth to it that extends to her office. A plush toy rabbit holds a box of tissues atop a filing cabinet in her office. This little bit of set decoration helps illustrate the character. She's risen to a level that gives her some authority without the ability to actually do anything significant with it. It's fun to see Vollmar play through that. The forced niceness and sugary condescension is comically chilling.

 

At one point,  Vollmar interacts with the audience directly as a teacher handing out a multiple choice Scantron emotional inventory to the "class" in a surprisingly effective little bit of audience interaction. The kinds of personality inventories used to assess efficacy in formal education are well-intentioned, but they are so fabulously open to interpretation . . . even a well-accepted personality inventory like the MMPI has serious problems . . . being formally handed one of these things and addressed as though the audience was a class has kind of a creepy effect. It's like so much of the rest of the production. In its comic moments, the laughter is covering something much deeper. In its dramatic moments, its bringing something to the stage that isn't often given a chance to breath in traditional contemporary drama. 

 

Project Empty Space's production of Outliers runs through April 21st at the Alchemist Theatre. For ticket reservations, visit the Alchemist online. A portion of the proceeds from the ticket sales go to help fund art education and buy supplies for a few local teachers. 

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