I had the chance to attend the short Edmonton run of a new Concrete Theatre play by Mieko Ouchi that will be touring high schools and junior high schools, I Am For You. And it made me happy.
The three characters in the play are a student teacher doing a practicum in drama, Mr Morris, (Jonathan Purvis) and the two students he catches fighting, Mariam and Lainie (Patricia Cerra and Samantha Jeffery.) I found all of them appealing likeable people, and the character growth in the storyline was credible and satisfying.
I thought the student teacher was particularly well done. He was awkward and inexperienced enough to be believable (the way he winced after talking about “meaty” parts of the body), and at the same time he was able to provide enough exposition for the audience within his teaching persona. Many of the audience in the show I attended were actors or acting students and I got the impression that they were particularly amused by the things said about his career path from acting student to actor to teacher. I was more impressed by the way he asked for explicit consent every time he touched his students during stage-combat instruction, and the way the students rolled their eyes at his rule-following but came to trust him. It always irritates me when scenes of teachers and teenagers don’t fit current Canadian customs on this kind of thing (Friday Night Lights, I’m looking at you), and it is helpful for anyone who might be on either side of a similar situation to see the behaviour modelled properly and to see that it doesn’t disrupt the teachable moments or the physical comfort.
Cerra and Jeffery had realistic portrayals of teenagers, surly and defensive but occasionally becoming more open to each other and to the teacher. Jeffery’s character is in some ways the harder case, but her flashes of grin are a victory for the teacher and a delight for the audience. When the detention / fight choreography work ends and they gather up their bags, saying of course the real fight scenes would always go to the boys, I could see that neither of them had any expectation that this could change or that Mr Morris could be persuaded to intercede. But of course in this story Mr Morris does intercede, persuading the (off stage) play director to cast the two girls as Tybalt and Mercutio.
The performance contains a lot of valuable information about theatre, about stage combat, and about the story and meaning of Romeo and Juliet. I was fascinated to have some of the techniques of convincing falls and unarmed fights explained and demonstrated, and I was actually disappointed when the teacher says he doesn’t have time to teach them how to do a slap.
At the same time, some powerful messages about violence are being delivered. Purvis’s character doesn’t let his students get very far into the fun of the choreographed dances of stage fighting before starting to remind them that they are learning to portray something dark and awful. His statements about Juliet’s father slapping her mother, about slapping being an intimate or private form of violence extra shocking when done in public, and about how it’s the form of violence most often experienced by female characters in plays, connected with the audience as well as with the two students. Although there is no explicit backstory expounded for the two girls, it is clear that they are aware of “messed up families” and found relevance in that part of the Shakespeare story.
Watching this play would be good entertainment and valuable conversation-starters for school groups, student teachers, beginning actors, or just anyone who likes stories about young people or about teaching. And having seen this play, I would definitely make a point of watching anything else by Mieko Ouchi.
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