‘The Knowledge’ is powerful
|Steep Theatre Company presents|
Review by Keith Glab
“There’s no such thing as out of character, is there?” muses newly-qualified teacher Zoe in John Donnelly’s The Knowledge. “There’s what we do and that’s it.” So caps an exchange between Zoe (Caroline Neff) and her mentor/supervisor Maz (Michael Salinas) on how everyone thinks they are a good person, finding ways to explain away their immoral actions.
There are immoral actions aplenty in Donnelly’s 2011 script, which makes its US debut at Steep Theatre. So much so that it’s hard to find any of the characters truly likeable. What makes the production a success is the ability of the Steep artists to make the audience care about what happens to these characters despite the fact that they are pretty awful people.
Zoe has moved from London to the town of Tilbury after her fiancée cheated on her with her sister. Newly-certified as an English instructor, she must teach a remedial four-student citizenship class before continuing as a proper English teacher. Her supervisor Maz is a womanizer, Harry the Headmaster (Jim Poole) is a bumbling eccentric, and her students’ behavior ranges from disrespectful to shockingly rebellious. At the end of her rope, Zoe engages one of her students in an inappropriate relationship.
The cast does uniformly excellent dialect work and creates interesting characters. Neff provides many layers to Zoe; she can be strong one minute and vulnerable the next while maintaining a consistent character. Salinas brings a subtle intensity to Maz. Karris initially seems like a stereotypically promiscuous teen, but Carolyn Braver deftly gives her a sweetness and vulnerability in the second act. Jerry MacKinnon, Jr. is suitably mysterious as Daniel, the quiet student. Clancy McCartney plays a very big character in the disruptive Mickey, but does so in a very believable and naturalistic way.
With the rest of the cast playing intentions and honoring emotions, Poole hams it up as Harry. Certainly, the character is designed to inject more comedy into a sometimes disturbingly dark piece, but Poole chooses to play for laughs rather than honor the logistics of his character and scene. While he often gets his laughs, I wonder whether underplaying some of the humor would have made them even funnier, and I know that his antics detracted a bit from the interesting and believable character relationships built by the rest of the cast.
Sometimes the dialogue feels rushed; the best moments occurring when the actors take an extra beat to let moments land. The instinct for director Jonathan Berry to move things along may come from the length of the piece. Two hours isn’t excessive, but the resolution we get for that investment isn’t as satisfying as it could be. Donnelly weaves such interesting situations and complex relationships that he is unable to sort all of his threads. One or two plot points don’t come off as believable either, most notably the notion that the neophyte Zoe could be offered a spot as head of the English department, regardless of the motivations for that offer.
Nevertheless, the good outweighs the bad in Steep Theatre’s powerful production of The Knowledge, a title that carries three separate meanings in the play. You can attend secure in the knowledge that the experience will captivate and intrigue you.
The Knowledge continues through May 25th at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are $20-$22, and are available by phone (866.811.4111) or online through OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at SteepTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Lev Kalmens
Carolyn Braver (Karris), Caroline Neff (Zoe), Sarai Rodriguez (Sal), Clancy McCartney (Mickey), Jerry MacKinnon, Jr. (Daniel), Jim Poole (Harry), Michael Salinas (Maz), Leeron Silberberg (Zoe, Sal u/s), Madison Vernon (Karris u/s), Dewayne Perkins (Daniel u/s)
behind the scenes
Jonathan Berry (director); Ellen Willett (stage manager); Dan Stratton (set design); Pete Dully (lighting); Sally Dolembo (costumes); Matthew Chapman (sound design); Jamie Karas (props); Kendra Thulin (dialect coach); Joey DeBettencourt (fight choreography); Julie Allen (technical director); Julia Siple (production manager); J. Cody Spellman (asst. director); Maren Matthias (asst. stage manager); Max Horowitz (asst. lighting), Lev Kalmens (photos)