Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Review of Uncut Productions "Assembly: Junior High," published by EDGE Philadelphia

What do you remember learning from junior high school assemblies? “I learned that I should be scared everywhere I go” answers one of the students emerging from the first half of Uncut Productions presentation of Mark Dahl’s Assembly: Junior High. After listening to songs about “the terrorists among us,” getting raped in cyberspace, and watching 1950’s sex-ed and safety films re-edited for maximum effect, you’d be scared of everything too.

But this is the theatre, and this is the latest work from Uncut Productions, the local masters of all things satirical in Philadelphia. So while the characters on stage get frightened out of their tidy-whities and training bras by the educational performing troupe “Scare Tactics,” the audience nearly falls out of their chairs with laughter.

Split into two halves, the play starts with the principal’s announcement for all students to meet in the auditorium for an “emergency assembly” designed to shock and horrify the students—conveniently occurring right after the school has subjected them to the latest rounds of personality tests borrowed from the FBI. This slightly eerie beginning quickly explodes into hilarity, as the five-member crew of “Scare Tactics” performs Dahl’s original songs that parody the Pledge of Allegiance, Homeland Security and the lurking dangers that are only one mouse-click away.

The second half of the show shifts its tone to focus on five junior high students, one from each decade—from the Eisenhower fifties to the Clinton nineties. These students struggle to cope with first periods and crushes, sexual and drug experimentation, and their identities, gender or otherwise, with all of their (mis)information filtered through the lens of the various assemblies and school films by which the first half has educated them. The result, of course, is one of awkward missteps, ignorant malice, and general confusion—students mistaking bulimia for morning sickness, and Chlamydia for flowers.

Carried forward by humor, the highlight of the first half was Dahl’s “The Ability Song,” where a wheelchair bound member of Scare Tactics laments his condition, and where the lyrics (rightly) skewer our society’s current means of inducing tolerance in children by celebrating the unfortunate circumstances of the handicapped. Joining him in song, a girl with flipper arms (from her mother’s thalidomide use) delights in resembling a goldfish, and a boy with one giant sized foot proudly announces his success in kickball. Just when I was writing in my notes “this is the kind of genius that made Avenue Q possible,” out comes one of the members of Scare Tactics attached to a puppet representing his conjoined twin, gleefully boasting of a difference that in class "lets them see 360 degrees.”

The heavily re-edited school films do no less justice to Uncut’s brilliant multimedia work, particularly Jena Serbu’s original short safety film, “The Buddy System.” For those who aren’t aware of the efficacy of partnering to avoid danger, Serbu shows two kids, hand in hand walking through a playground filled with snipers and machine guns, walking unscathed, protected from all harm by following the rules. It could’ve been Philadelphia, or Baghdad, in either case, in an age of terror and violence-filled streets that requires something better than sleep-inducing propaganda, her film provided a moment of much needed, hilarious insensitivity.

Of course, Dahl does have a slight, though sinister message hidden in his play. The hesitant and unsure behavior of Act II’s Junior High’s students stands as the direct result of witnessing the very types of assembly spouted drivel and films presented in Act I. We can laugh at them, but for five decades worth of kids growing up on this paternalistic pulp, the results aren’t nearly as funny.

If only the two halves weren’t so disparate. I loved Assembly, and could tell from the ever-ascending pitch and volume of laughter that the audience loved it too. And while certain parts of Junior High both evoked laughter and clearly disturbed (a woman behind me blurted out loudly, “this is so wrong,” when Dahl’s 80’s Valley Girl described her bulimia as “Karen Carpenter in reverse”), overall, I think everyone kept waiting, as I did, for the second half of the program to reach the tenor of the first.

Otherwise, the entire evening seems like two plays linked by location and Dahl’s theme of the deleterious effects of institutionalized ignorance. The brilliantly over-the-top satire of the Assembly strikes almost painfully against the Junior High’s more muted tones, so much that they don’t even appear as written by the same person, but rather a collaboration; one half fashioned by a satirical genius, and the other crafted by the painstaking efforts of a historian.

In this regard, Dahl’s play is still a work in progress, though I wouldn’t have missed Assembly for any other show in town. The writers of the Onion could not have done more justice to this first half than Dahl’s songs (and a highly talented pair of ensembles) so cleverly achieve. And no artistic directors in Philadelphia slaughter the sacred cows of society with as much verve and hilarity as Dahl and Serbu, and no show at the Fringe made me clutch my sides in laughter as much as the first half of Assembly: Junior High. See it.

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