through Sept. 7 | Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St. | 407-297-8788 | madcowtheatre.com | $28-$36
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Suit-wearing students at a tradition-steeped high school are inspired by a poetry-spouting teacher whose unconventional methods enrage the uptight headmaster, eventually ending in tragedy. Real life and art sometimes synchronize in eerie ways, especially when the news is sad, so I wasn’t surprised to sense echoes of Dead Poets Society while watching Mad Cow’s production of The History Boys a few days after Robin Williams’ death. But despite several superficial similarities, Alan Bennett’s 2004 Olivier- and Tony Award-winning play is much more than a rehash of Dead Poets Society, especially in the sure hands of director Mark Edward Smith and his exceptional cast.
For starters, rather than a binary dynamic between the iconoclastic teacher and the forces of authority – embodied here by Tommy Keesling as an ambitious headmaster aching to place pupils at Cambridge and Oxford – The History Boys offers two opposing apostles of nonconformity. Hector (Philip Nolen) is a motorcycle-riding “general studies” proctor who clowns around with perverse pantomimes, persuading his pupils to go guilelessly unprepared into their university placement exams out of semi-coherent anarchic ideals. His favor among the senior class is usurped by newcomer Irwin (Peter Travis), hired to teach them that truth and conviction are irrelevant impediments to producing provocative essay answers on issues like the Holocaust. This pair pivots around Mrs. Lintott (Robin Proett Olson), the by-the-book professor who longs to get a word in edgewise among the endlessly pontificating men, and the trio creates an unstable triangle where there’s no clear hero or villain.
Further, the students – played by actors age 17 to 26 – are unexpectedly complex and candid, especially in regards to homosexuality, for a show set in the 1980s (hence the toe-tapping New Wave transition music). It’s an ensemble piece with spotlight moments for each of the eight boys, including Adam Reilly, AJ Nickell and Joshua S. Roth. But the two standouts are Robert Johnston as Dakin, a charismatic climber who is seduced by Irwin’s moral slipperiness, and Jeffrey Todd Parrott’s Posner, a Jewish bibliophile openly in love with Dakin. Other notable classmates include God-obsessed Scripps (Matt Lipscomb), thuggish Timms (Ryan Corbin Bathurst) and rugby roughneck Rudge (Sean Michael Flynn, effectively playing against type).
A few elements may make the first half hard for some to follow (fractured flashback narration, thick English accents, unfamiliar educational jargon) but the universality settles in by the second act, and Smith smartly smooths over time shifts with sharply choreographed movement. The show ends on a predictably elegiac note, but ultimately proves thought-provoking instead of merely maudlin. The issues raised – history versus journalism, testing versus learning, remembering versus commemoration – have no easy answers in contemporary times, and the connection made between quantified education and right-wing politics is frankly frightening. Just resist the urge to stand on your seat and shout “O Captain! My Captain!” during the climax; it blocks the view of theatergoers behind you.
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