Chicago Theatre Review
Heading Down the Educational Path
The History Boys – Eclectic Full Contact Theatre
As Irwin, the newly-hired young history teacher attempts to teach his tricks for acing examinations to eight energetic school boys, you begin to question his skill, motivation and technique. Contrasted with Hector, the older, more gregarious, unorthodox English instructor, who stands for culture and new discovery and advocating knowledge for its own sake, and Mrs. Lintott, who has dragged her students through their basic studies with just “plainly stated and organized facts,” audiences begin to understand the play’s primary conflict: which teacher has got it right?
This production is excellent for so many reasons. Set in the late 1980’s in northern England, at a fictional Grammar School, Alan Bennett’s Tony Award-winning play is directed here by Katherine Siegel. She infuses her production with energy, empathy and warmth. Lacing her drama with humor and frank honesty, she guides her actors through an examination of issues such as education, ideals, beliefs and sexual identity. Its intimate staging, its truthful, layered characterizations and Siegel’s attention to detail all add up to a mesmerizing evening of theatre. Study Irwin’s body language as Dakin (skillfully played by handsome, charismatic Mathias Blake) wields his power over his teacher’s authority and taunts him with the possibility of sex. Share Posner’s angst and desperation (created by a brilliant Joshua Servantez) as he copes with a love he neither understands nor is able to share. Observe the individuality of each student, seen in his personality, his dress and even in the way he enters the classroom and takes his seat.
When the house opens the play has already begun. Two adult authority figures, whom we learn later are Headmaster and Mrs. Lintott, guide the audience to their seats. The theatre’s been reconfigured into a three-quarter-thrust style seated lecture hall that draws the audience onto the perimeter of the classroom and the teacher’s lounge. Patrons are never more than a few feet from the cast, allowing everyone to feel like part of the student body. Costumed by Catherine Tantillo, each adult has his own specific look, as do each of the students. Despite being uniformed in their blue blazers and rep ties, the students, to Ms. Tantillo’s credit, somehow all look unique.
This non-Equity cast is exceptional. The educators are an interesting lot. They include Justin Atkinson’s young, but cautious, go-getter, Irwin; David Belew’s eccentric, unloved humanitarian English professor, Hector; Lisa Savegnago’s bare facts, no-nonsense general studies instructor, Mrs. Lintott; and Andrew Pond as a Headmaster driven by a demand for higher test scores, all give voice to Bennett’s educational views.
But ultimately it’s Ms. Siegel’s superb cast of students who work well, both individually and as an ensemble, breathing life into these extraordinary, unforgettable history boys. In addition to fine performances by Posner and Dakin, Taylor Sorrel creates a strong, admirably religious student leader in Scripps. His musical talents also get showcased from time to time at the keyboard. Derek Herman is the grinning, seemingly lesser academically-gifted Rudge. He’s a student who not only excels in every sport but ultimately knows how to network his way into the best university. Rohan Sinha creates an affable Akthar, Mark Yacullo makes a studious, yet slightly rebellious Crowther, and Matthew Harris’ portrayal of Lockwood is potent and likable. But it’s Stephen McClure who stands out among the ensemble as Timms, the boy Hector loves to whack over the head with his composition book, but who watches everyone around him. Through his devilish, yet wisely perceptive eyes, McClure becomes the human barometer through which we observe this story. This is an actor to watch.
Alan Bennett’s engrossing, award-winning drama appears deceptively simple-looking. However this is a difficult, complicated multilevel work of art that, among other things, transforms the classroom into a microcosm of society. Every philosophy, both conservative and extreme, is represented in these characters. What we ultimately get is a story about educational experts at odds trying to best prepare their students for university and to become future leaders. Which teacher understands how best to accomplish his goal? Within the student body we observe eight very different, gifted young men who, despite their intelligence and unique personalities, are all headed down the same educational path toward life. In these history boys we see ourselves, as well as a world in transition.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 3-March 5 by Eclectic Full Contact Theatre in Studio Two, at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 773-935-6860 or by going to www.eclectic-theatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.