The Column Online



By Julia Cho

Circle Theatre

Director – Jenny Ledel
Stage Manager/Prop Design – Cathy O’Neal
Assistant director – Sasha Davis
Lighting Design – Jennifer Owen
Set Design – Clare Floyd DeVries
Sound Design – Amy Poe
Costume Design – Melissa Panzarello
Choreographer – Danielle Georgiou
Dramaturg – Haley Nelson

Gina – Olivia de Guzman
Genevieve – Whitney Holotik
David – Ivan Jasso
Dennis – Alex Vinh

Reviewed Performance: 4/26/2019

Reviewed by Chris Hauge, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN

It has been 20 years since the shootings at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado. On April 20, 1999, senior students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, after having planned for nearly a year, carried out a terrorist attack on the school premises resulting in the deaths of 12 students and one teacher, and gunshot injuries to 21 other people. The event has cemented the name Columbine as shorthand for referring to school shootings and has sparked debate about gun control, mental health and school safety. And, regrettably, it was only the beginning of a long line of violent incidents on school campuses.

It also gave us the profile of the silent, angry young man whose frustration with the world suddenly erupts in bloody violence. In Julia Cho’s gripping play “Office Hour,” powerfully presented by Circle Theatre, we are forced to spend the better part of ninety minutes with Dennis (Alex Vinh), a young man whose demeanor and sexually violent writing has sown fear among the faculty and student body of the college he is attending. We watch as he moves from sullen silence to angry outbursts during a student-teacher conference with his adjunct English professor Gina (Olivia de Guzman). And we watch the clock on the wall tick down the minute and wonder if the meeting will end in violence.

But playwright Cho is not content with merely making us wonder about the outcome. A statement from the playwright in the program tells us, “I’m drawn to the ‘what ifs.’ Sometimes an image sticks in the back of my head and there’s a spot that bothers me…that’s where a play comes from. Usually a small memory or an event. And the what ifs.” And the playwright gives us those ‘what ifs.’ We watch as Gina, hesitant at first, tries to break through the armor he has built around him, and we watch as things unfold. We are given various outcomes, some with violent endings, some with a modicum of hope, and we are always brought back to the reality of the moment with the danger and promise that every moment in this meeting holds.

We are first introduced to Dennis during a meeting on the campus between Gina, Genevieve (Whitney Holotik) and David (Ivan Jasso). Genevieve and David are professors who had Dennis as a student in classes in previous semesters and they warn Gina about him as he begins attending Gina’s class. They describe his clothing (baseball cap, sunglasses), his personality (sullen, never speaking in class), and his writing (sexually explicit and graphically violent) and complain that they couldn’t get through to him and that the other students became uncomfortable and many dropped the classes. Genevieve’s solution was to pass him and let him become another professor’s problem. David flunked Dennis and now is enraged by the negative performance reviews that are appearing online. And both Genevieve and David want Gina to solve the problem.

Director Jenny Ledel has taken on this play and has made it very real. She has assembled a talented cast and has paced the show so that ninety minutes without an intermission goes by very quickly. And Ms. Ledel, with the assistance of choreographer Danielle Georgiou, has given us scenes of violence, especially one extended sequence, which are haunting.

This is now the third play I have attended this year where Clare Floyd DeVries designed the set and I am convinced she can do anything. She has given us an outside area on the college campus (complete with water feature) to begin the play. Then we are taken to a shared adjunct professors’ office where Gina meets Dennis for his office hour. Around the set are mounds of plastic trash, the significance of which is explained in the play with great effect. Each part of the set provides the proper atmosphere for this story.

Costume designer Melissa Panzarello gives Dennis the appropriate black outfit with a jacket sporting a disturbing image that displays the character’s desire to both attract and repel attention. The lighting, designed by Jennifer Owen takes us from reality to the unreal with ease, and the sound design by Amy Poe, with its pounding, discordant music reflects the chaos that everyone assumes is going on in Dennis’ head.

The characters of Gina and Dennis are onstage for most of the show and for the first part of their office session, Gina does all the talking. Tentatively at first, actress Olivia de Guzman gives us a person attempting to reach out to someone, not knowing what the result of contact might be. Ms. de Guzman shows us Gina’s fear, which doesn’t stop her from trying to communicate with this distant, angry person, but tempers everything she says with caution. She shares her own frustrations with the state of her life to touch him. And what will she find if Dennis does open up and what might happen? And is there any way to truly understand and possibly help this person? Olivia de Guzman clearly shows us Gina’s struggle during this office hour, and she makes us identify with the character’s discomfort. With her body language, vocal delivery and facial expressions, Olivia de Guzman brilliantly brings the character to life. It is a wonderful performance.

Alex Vinh is terrifying as Dennis. He reminded me of someone I knew in college who, though he was never violent, used his dress and behavior to shield his emotions. Mr. Vinh embodies that teenage sullenness that is both maddening and scary. Having endured rejection from his parents and humiliation from his previous school mates because of his looks and ethnicity, Dennis has shut down, dying to the world and resurrecting himself as mass of anger and anguish. When Dennis does begin to speak, Mr. Vinh gives voice to the anger and loneliness that are the core of the character. But is hard to empathize with that pain, for Mr. Vinh gives Dennis a dangerous edge. If you reached out to touch him, you get the feeling you might lose your hand.

Ivan Jasso plays David with all the arrogance and ego of a screenwriting professor and reacts with rage when his authority and status is abused by a student. Whitney Holotik ably gives a very believable portrayal of a woman, when faced with an uncomfortable situation, gets away from it and forgets about it as quickly as possible. And both characters are more than willing to shunt the problem off to someone else.

And I think that is the main point of the play. How do we deal with the problem of those who feel alienated to the point where violence becomes their ultimate expression and what does society gain by throwing the problem off to others? This is the question that Circle Theatre has tackled with skill and passion and while they don’t provide easy answers, they do give us tiny glimmers of hope. And perhaps those glimmers will provoke conversation and light the way to a solution.

Circle Theatre
230 West Fourth Street, Fort Worth, TX 76102 (Parking tickets are validated)
April 18 – May 11, 2019
Thursday – 7:30PM
Friday & Saturday – 8:00PM
Saturday – 3:00PM
For more information and tickets call the Box Office at (817) 877-3040
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