Fascism isn't funny but it offers huge targets for satire.
The premise is familiar: an eager novice takes up a new calling, infused with idealism, and finds that not only is the actual day-to-day work grueling but the authorities are self-serving, hypocritical and exploitative.
Dead White Males is a valentine to those teacher-victims and a savage attack on administrators of educational systems. The Sustainable Theatre Project stretches a bit by linking the play to recent battles over the Texas education curriculum, but that wouldn't bother the likely audience in Austin for this staging. In fact, the company gave the intro an Alamo Drafthouse feel by running news clips and cartoons for the twenty minutes or so before the start of the live action.
Downs sets the tone from the very first moments, with a trio of evaluators sitting in on one of the first classes of tender, earnest Janet, a newly recruited teacher. Janet (Molly Fonseca) struggles to maintain discipline in the class from hell as the administrators interrupt her with impossible, smarmy instructions and corrections. Our villains are a useless Ph.Ed named Dr. Ozzy Mandias (flashing neon sign here! cf. Shelley's poem of the same name about the statue of an ancient, vanished mighty king), a sycophantic "master teacher" Burns (Kaite Brock) and non-committal Principal Pettlogg (Dennis Kelleher Bailey). The lesson is a fiasco, mostly because poor Janet never gets the opportunity to present it.
Then comes the buddy scene, in which the jaded veterans of the trenches (to use Downs' subtitle) scoff at the stars in the rookie's eyes and offer her advice -- essentially, to follow instructions, however absurd, and to cover her ass. Not one of them, not even Janet, has been assigned to teach the subject matter for which she is qualified. All are obliged to make a "voluntary" contribution from salaries to fund supplies (duly noted in the teachers' permanent records). Not for a moment anywhere in the play do we observe any real teaching, for whenever the theatre serves as the classroom, with us as the pupils, our stressed educators are perpetually obliged to reproach the delinquents and the inattentive among us.
The portrait of hell is wearing after a while, particularly as Robert Deike glories in the absurdity of his character Dr. Mandias, growing ever more bombastic and inflating himself like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade balloon. We attend an obligatory unpaid Saturday morning conference for teachers to hear the incomprehensible drivel that he has brought back from a conference (all expenses paid by a textbook supplier) -- and in case we weren't sharp enough to identify it as satire, poor Principal Pettlog is slapping up overhead transparencies that prove it. The hectic pace suggests that this scene is supposed to be funny, and indeed that is probably the only way that director Derek Kolluri could have made it palatable. Veteran teacher Doris (Suzanne Balling) tries to rise to Mandias' invitation to ask questions, only to encounter icy smiles, intimidation and unspoken promises of punishment.
Saving the piece from its forced absurdities are the performances of two in the cast. Suzanne Balling has the obligatory role for an anti-fascist drama of the common man (here, woman) who is driven to question hollow authority. Those three administrators observe her science class and intervene just as they did with novice Janice. Their brainless suggestions about teaching evolution goad her eventually into mocking their received doctrine in a wonderfully comic turn that includes impersonating the Mother Duck at the origin of creation. Doris is, inevitably, crushed and brought back into the fold in a tasteless but thematically necessary enactment of a come-to-Jesus tent revival. Balling gives Doris an awareness and a vulnerability in this madness that give her dignity in despair. We feel for her; even more important in this crazed world, we believe in her character.
The other is Dennis Kelleher Bailey as Principal Pettlogg. A pedophile principal is just the mockery that one might expect, given the playwright's contempt for educational authority figures. Bailey gives Pettlog a wary, careful demeanor suggesting that an interior world entirely lacking in Mandias and his admirer master teacher Woods. He is flawed and he knows it. We see him during his sessions with a psychiatrist, including one in which the stage conventions crack, just for a moment. He seeks to confess, but Mandias will hear nothing of it, closing the doors with cheerfully steely resolve both against guilt and against responsibility.
Pettlogg on his knees is suffering an emotional disaster different from that of teacher Doris, but both are providing some humanity in the plot.
Molly Fonseca as Janet the novice functions as a witness to much of this, increasingly bewildered as bad turns to worse turns to worst. She doesn't lose that idealism, but she does prove smart enough to take it elsewhere.
Comments at "Rebablog," August 22
Review by Cate Blouke for the Statesman's Austin360 "Seeing Things" blog, August 23
Review by Georgia Young at austinist.com, August 27
Review by Ryan E. Johnson at austinist.com, September 2
Review by Barry Pineo for Austin Chronicle, September 2
NowPlayingAustin.com interviews Derek Kolluri about Dead White Males on its new venture "The New and the Weird," August 16 (11 min.)
Click to view program for Dead White Males from Sustainable Theatre Project