Saturday, July 9, 2016

36. Review: THE ANIMALS (seen July 8, 2016)

"Reading and 'Riting and ‘Rithmatic"
Stars range from 5-1.

Almost a year ago I began my review of Ripple of Hope, a one-woman play by and with Karen Sklaire, as follows:

One of my regrets over the past three decades, ever since my daughter became a grade school teacher in the New York public school system, has been my failure to record her frequent rants about her job: the incompetent principals, arrogant parents, lack of supplies, budgetary shortfalls, emphasis on testing over creative teaching, bureaucratic ineptitude, and, even though she mainly taught the earliest grades, the physical violence wrought by troubled students.

Ripple of Hope, which deals with many such issues, was inspired by the author’s experiences as a teaching artist in the New York public school system. The Animals, by Amina Henry, has a somewhat similar genesis, although it’s not as autobiographical as Sklaire’s work.

Here’s how Henry explained it in an online interview with Sarah Guayante:

“The Animals” was inspired somewhat from my experiences as a teaching artist. I became increasingly in awe of teachers who seemed to have to do it all. Teaching is hard work, and there are a lot of moving pieces to keep track of in terms of students, teachers, administration, special programs (like the one I am a part of), lesson plans, rubrics, standardized tests—it takes a really special person to be able to balance it all with grace, while still having time for a personal life. That being said, there was no one specific experience that inspired the play. It was more of a meditation on teaching that began when I was doing a residency at The Pacific School during the 2014-2015 school year. Those teachers work hard.

The Animals, like the recent Exit Strategy, which also examines the difficulties of being a public school teacher, is set in a teachers’ lounge, this one at Peabody Elementary School, represented by a set creatively crafted from cardboard boxes by Angelica Borrero and Christopher J. Cancel-Pomales. The action evolves in ten scenes, each representing one of the ten months in a school year, the specific months being designated on a wall calendar that the actors change between scenes. We watch the interactions among five eccentric teachers of different grades, each of them struggling to navigate the pressures of teaching and maintaining a normal life. A common goal is to win the school’s teaching award.
Amelia Fowler, Leta Renee-Alan, Richard McDonald, Melissa Diaz, Isabelle Pierre. Photo: Amina Henry.
The wafer-thin plot serves mainly as a pretext for us to observe the comings and goings and individual attitudes toward their jobs of the various teachers. There’s the quietly cynical Sue Faulkner (Isabelle Pierre, leaden), who steals a colleague’s yogurt and handles stress by vaping weed; the fresh-as-a-daisy, idealistic, new first grade teacher, Dot Banks (Melissa Diaz, pert and promising), who says words of positive affirmation (i.e., “I am a winner”) to herself in the mirror every morning; the overwrought Sasha Klein (Leta Renée-Alan, frantic), who tries to control her tight-as-a-spring emotions by omitting the letter “o” from her conversation; the distressed, moonlighting, pony-tailed math teacher and soccer coach, Bob Mills (Richard McDonald, meh), separated from his wife, who begins a sexual relationship with the noncommittal Sasha, who can’t even bring herself to say “Bob”; and the warmly supportive Gloria Martinez (Amelia Fowler, vibrant), who must cope with the discomfort of her pregnancy and then with the problems of balancing her duties as a mother and teacher.
Leta Renee-Alan, Richard McDonald, Melissa Diaz, Ameleia Fowler, Isabelle Pierre. Photo: Amina Henry.
Some of this mostly familiar material crackles with humor, which gets a robust audience response, and there are several nice paeans to the nobility of teaching. Despite the hardships several of the teachers encounter, very little of it evokes pathos, though, even when disillusion sets in. There’s no sense of danger, either; mostly, the material is mined, even pushed, for laughs, some of it—like Sasha’s haywire behavior—too broadly farcical. About the most traumatic classroom experience anyone has is when a first-grader in Ms. Banks’s class does the unimaginable and pees in her pants. And says “you’re a bitch.” How, I wonder, would Ms. Banks have reacted, if one of her darlings punched her in the face or smashed an angry hand through a glass door? Yes, folks. First-graders can be threats.

And the various complaints about teachers not being paid enough don’t quite ring true, especially when one says she can do better in banking and another in real estate. Good luck with that. While no one denies how stressful the job is, nor that teachers won’t become wealthy, if they stick with it teachers in the New York area at any rate can nowadays earn a decent salary (a close relative with an MA is making $66,000 after one year in nearby Long Island, with another $3,000 for coaching track), get the summer, as well as many other days, off, and receive major health, pension, and other benefits. I can name a number of well-educated, middle-aged people who'd be happy to get teaching jobs in this economy.

The acting slides along the spectrum from professional to amateurish, but all the performances would have benefited from a firmer directorial hand than Gretchen Van Lente provides. There’s little sense of honest interplay among the actors, who often seem overly involved in their own dilemmas to the detriment of their mutual relationships; as acting teachers often say, the stakes never seem high enough. Van Lente’s staging frequently suggests the air going out of a balloon, particularly in the handling of the many scene transitions. Henry’s script shares the blame for not having found sharper ways of ending the scenes; what should be exclamation points, or simply periods, too often are ellipses. Van Lente’s lethargic handling of these moments, however, only makes them worse.

For all its flaws, Amina Henry's The Animals will definitely appeal to anyone who's spent time teaching in an urban school. The audience received the production warmly, and one could often sense the been there, done that feeling of recognition. 

I write this with mixed feelings since many of those involved in The Animals are graduates of Brooklyn College, where I spent my own teaching career. I had a reputation as a tough grader. There's a line in the play that a small change can make a big difference. Some things, though, never change.


The Animals
505 1/2 Waverly Ave., Brooklyn, NY
Closes July 9