Kitchen Dog Theater
Directed by Tina Parker
Set Design by Clare Floyd Devries
Light Design by Aaron Johanson
Costume Design by Korey Kent
Sound Design by John M. Flores
Stage Management by Ruth Stephenson
Leah Spillman - Heather
Jenni Kirk - Corryn
Music selections (Exurgency, Legions [War], Fern, Walking Man, Optimist) by Zoe Keating
Reviewed Performance 4/9/2014
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
168 hours in a week, and for young American children a minimum of 35, more like 40, are spent in school. In elementary and middle schools, if you add the ever-growing need for after school care, it becomes closer to 50 hours, almost one-third of a week, all under the supervision of too few adults, mainly women, and hundreds of other impressionable children in which to mold one’s identity, personality, confidence and self-worth.
A young child’s school life being so many of those 168 hours, in the circle of teacher vs. parent, teaching vs. raising, the age-old question always comes back to what degree our children are taught who to be over what to think. Where does the ultimate responsibility lie for who a child becomes, what they think about, especially when something goes terribly awry? This barely scrapes the top layer of questions and accusations placed before audiences during Gidion’s Knot at Kitchen Dog Theater. The depth of this short one-act is almost unfathomable in its metaphors, juxtapositions of issues, and painful, uncompromising realizations.
A scheduled, afternoon parent-teacher conference dissolves to verbal swordplay as the female teacher and Gidion’s mother use word duels while waiting for the school principal, Godot-style, who never arrives. They become two opposing forces, one trying to avoid confrontation while the other rightfully wants to know why her son was suspended and what happened after he left school. Playwright Johnna Adams deftly chooses her words too, squeezing out exposition drop by drop, selecting just the right words to shave, slice and cut away layer upon layer of information and revelation that may shock, but for those who understand what school institutions can do to a child’s soul, aren’t all that surprising.
John M. Flores carefully chose his music selections for the most emotional impact. Listening to the solo cello compositions by Zoe Keating in preshow, her songs are precise and static, off-balancing and unrelenting. Even the final composition, “Optimist" has only scant shades of hopefulness. The sound of the afternoon school bell is jarring, but the children’s excited voices and slamming locker doors is oddly comforting.
Clare Floyd DeVries set lends those same feelings. A cutaway section of Gidion’s fifth-grade classroom holds many colorful pictures and symbols of freedom and expression - kites, mobiles and papier-mache masks - hanging from the ceiling and on the walls. But the children’s desks are set neatly in rows, their chairs crisply tucked in, nothing left on top. The teacher’s desk is also uniformly perfect, minimally decorated, everything in place. The differences in learning are immediate. Apparently the class has been studying Greek history and mythology as Greek architectural designs and objects are placed around the room, the children’s projects and reports thumb-tacked to the board. Symbols of fact or imagination, history vs. mythology, are to loom largely over the play’s story.
From my seat, I could look upon all the watercolor pictures the class had painted. Each one is of the same thing, a perspective drawing of a columned Greek building in the background, hedges on the sides and a road from the building to the foreground. Probably traced from the same template, the paintings use similar hues of the same colors, and the only thing truly different is the path. Some are straight paths, some wavy, and some really wonky, all leading to the artist that painted it. In my mind, I’d like to think that little bit of individuality means something.
Aaron Johansen fills in his lighting design with rows of fluorescent tubes to add a light blue pall over the set as well as supplementing the institutional aura. Subtle shifts in levels and focus are used for the occasional times each woman finds herself alone in the room.
The two costume ensembles are of the pull-out-of-the-closet variety but Korey Kent’s selections clearly define these women. Teacher Heather wears a mauve pink, buttoned-down shirt, well-fitting taupe slacks, front creased and cuffed, and low, black patent heels. Her blond hair mid-length, straight and pulled behind her ears, the look has a slight masculine feel, definitely one of uniformity. Corryn lands somewhere between harried mom and hippie, and obviously one that does not spend time deciding what to wear. Her jeans are a bit short, T-shirt wrinkled, socks patterned and shoes earthy and sensible. The too large, tunic-length striped sweater finishes off the look, its belt dangling from behind. Her hair is shoulder-length but pulled up and back, held with a large clip, not for style but for convenience.
I found the juxtaposition between the two characters' careers to be a fascinating choice by Adams. Heather had been in the advertising business, as one that sells people on what they should buy. As a teacher, she now sells information and knowledge to the children, but who’s actually buying what she’s offering. Corryn too is a teacher but she delves into ancient literature and the search for originality in writing amongst all those archaic plagiarists. Adams has placed a drop of familiarity between the two characters to see if it’s possible for these two opposites to attract.
There must have been many an hour spent between Director Tina Parker, Leah Spillman, who plays Heather Clark, and Jenni Kirk, playing Corryn, lifting the opaque mantle from this play. In thinking about it on the way home, in bed that night and early the next morning, my thoughts ran faster and faster with all the revelations and correlations, so much so I knew I could never explain it fully on paper. Parker guided Spillman and Kirk to places in the soul almost too painful to enter but so utterly necessary to do the play justice. Gidion’s Knot uses power shifts quite effectively; watch for them as some are obvious - principal over teacher, teacher over parent or child - but some shift so subtly you don’t see them coming until you wonder how the character suddenly became so forceful or submissive.
Leah Spillman opens the play at her desk, readying herself to grade papers but seeming preoccupied and upset. Upon Corryn’s entrance, looking for the correct classroom, Spillman’s dialogue is static and rote, as though reading from the script. She is relying on heavy sighs and breathing for emotion. I felt immediately this might be a one-sided performance but her speech rhythm begins to loosen and flow more naturally. Heather’s knowledge of an issue not divulged is used as a shield against Corryn, to keep professional and safe at all costs. Spillman masterfully holds that demeanor, her posture straight, face blank when possible, body language cordial but reserved and constrained. After understanding her acting choices, I could better see the type of woman Spillman portrays and why the defenses. Heather finally allows her emotions to surface, her caring concern to emerge, and the two women bond, even for the smallest of moments. Spillman’s transition to that place is gratifying.
The power of words and freedom of expression fully sums up Jenni Kirk’s characterization of Corryn. A mom overworked and aware she may not have a firm grasp on the problems her son faces in his life, Corryn rallies on and is at the meeting to get answers. She says whatever she is feeling, and at this point, she’s angry, confused and on the edge of anarchy. Kirk plays her character with wild mouth abandon, flighty movement and high sensitivity. Not simply playing her against Heather for the sake of opposition, Kirk’s moments are carefully chosen and spoken. Corryn’s angry and pleading tirades are still controlled but pointedly clear. Kirk’s portrayal of Corryn, as a symbol of so many parents in our country today, is one we could easily scoff at if it weren’t so unbelievably real.
The unseen Gidion is not silent in this play. He is the very reason for the meeting, as Corryn had yet to meet his teacher. His books, notebook, papers and pencils are there in his desk. In a short scene where she is alone, we see her slowly walking around, checking for Gidion’s work on the board, looking for her son’s name on the “Clark’s Stars” list or his face in the classroom photos . . . and it is heart-breaking when you realize she does not find them there.
The play’s title is a take-off on The Gordian Knot, associated with Greek king Alexander the Great. Used as a metaphor for an impossible problem (detangling the knot) solved easily by cheating or thinking outside the box (cutting the knot). Sometimes there is an intractable knot tied by parent and child, teacher and student, troubled child and society. Does the knot need untying and who will take on the obligation or authority to slash it open? Kitchen Dog Theater states they choose plays to challenge moral and social consciences, and invites audiences to be provoked and challenged. They provide no answers but invite questions.
Gidion’s Knot matches KDT’s mission statement word for word. The play has no triumphant, comforting closure for there is none to be found, not yet. It pushes us to the bitter end, and even over the edge, to confront our own moral and societal consciences. It is a play short on answers, long on questions and that stays even longer on the mind.
Kitchen Dog Theater, The MAC, 3120 McKinney Avenue, Dallas, TX 75204
Play runs through April 26th
****Note This production contains adult language.
Thursday Saturday at 8:00 pm, with additional performances on Wednesday, April 23rd at 8:00 pm and Sunday, April 13th at 2:00 pm. “Talk-Backs” with the actresses and director will follow the Sunday performance.
Tickets range from $15.00-$25.00 and $10.00-$20.00 for MAC, STAGE, KERA, DART, ARTSCARD, TCG members, students with proper ID and seniors 65+.
Pay-What-You-Can for the first 25 patrons are available on Wednesday, April 23rd, and the remaining two Thursdays. For information and to purchase tickets, go to Kitchen Dog Theater 2013-2014 Season or call the box office at 214-953-1055.