ART'S 'Votive Pit' offers many lessons

Published: Thursday, January 13, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2005 at 9:52 p.m.


"The Votive Pit"

WHEN: Thursdays-Saturdays through Jan. 29
WHERE: Acrosstown Repertory Theatre, 619 S. Main St.
TICKETS: $7-$9

'The Votive Pit" thrives from an old adage that commands an author to "write what you know." The play now at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre is the product of Shamrock McShane's fertile mind and years of experience teaching middle schoolers.
The play can be enjoyed on at least two levels. The repartee of the jaded teachers, useless guidance counselor and vacuous member of the administration provides comic relief in this rather dark dramedy. In addition to those comedic aspects are several references to James Joyce's novel Ulysses.
McShane plays the part of "Baldman" and exhibits many of the same aspects of Stephen Dedalus from Joyce's novel. Both are school teachers, plagued by their pasts, and suffering from fatigue and confusion. Both find it difficult to be effective in the classroom.
Edna (Jessica Arnold) and Gladys (Rachel Ianelli) are two experienced teachers. Lourelei (Karin Boycheva) is a sincere, innocent pregnant teacher. Rounding out the teaching staff is Dedalus (Scot Davis), an individualist and extrovert. Counselor Jim Evergreen (Dirk Drake) and Administrator Wendy (Julie Tidwell) balance out the staff at Odyssey Middle School, while Michael McShane plays a student.
The action consists of vignettes occurring in various parts of the school, played out on the versatile set designed and constructed by William J. Eyerly, who also directs the show. A number of staff meetings, parent-teacher conferences, lunchroom discussions and other interactions between the characters are portrayed, but when the teachers start to teach, the audience becomes the student body.
This device is very effective and allows the small cast to make the best use of ART's intimate facility. But too much audience participation, such as removing one audience member from his seat and requiring him to exit the theater, distracts from the play's continuity.
The acting is generally outstanding. Arnold steals the show with her gravelly diatribes against the educational system. Her counterpart, Ianelli, anchors their hilarious team with straight lines and zingers of her own. Boycheva as the still-nave Loureli is delightful in her approach to life - a radical contrast from the two harpies.
Yet, despite their acerbic blasts at everything from No Child Left Behind to the Gifted Program, Edna, who refuses to take a day off, and Gladys remain devoted to the vows they took when they began teaching, no matter what the pit throws at them.
Davis as the history teacher Dedalus, tries to inspire his students by appearing in period costume. He has the greatest amount of interaction with the "class." His soliloquies on public education likely reflect the playwright's heart-felt opinions.
Drake's counselor Evergreen typifies the namby-pambyness found in some members of this species, and Tidwell's air-headed leadership typifies those who are so ineffective they continue to be promoted.
McShane runs into some trouble when he departs from Odyssey Middle School and into "The Odyssey" and "Ulysses." His writing in the schoolroom settings is crisp with brilliant dialogue. There is a great deal of yelling and cursing, true, but that is understandable, given the frustrations with which these people live.
When the play seeks to develop "Baldman's" personal odyssey, the storyline becomes somewhat fragmented and incomplete. McShane has given himself a tremendous challenge in trying to weave two complex skeins into one play, and his success, while perhaps not complete, is still admirable.
His primary point, which he brings home decisively, is that those who teach in the public school system face almost insurmountable obstacles day after day and year after year. Despite this, most really care about their students, which keeps them from giving up.
Dick Maxwell is a former attorney whose 20 years of theater experience in Gainesville includes directing, acting and musical direction.

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