“Gidion’s Knot” untangles the fate of a transgressive prodigy in a Florida Studio Theatre Stage III production.
Johnna Adams “Gidion’s Knot” is FST’s latest Stage III production. It’s a philosophical play —well written, well acted and well staged. How do you talk about the philosophy without giving away the play’s surprises?
I’ll tie my prose up in knots and do my best. Even so, I’ll have to mention one detail that isn’t revealed until late in the play. It’s the heart of Adams’ passionate argument. There’s no way to talk around it. So, consider that a spoiler alert — and feel free to stop reading now.
Adams’ two-person, one-act play unfolds in a fifth-grade classroom. Corryn (Kate Hampton), an angry single mother, confronts Heather (Katherine Michelle Tanner), a teacher who’s just suspended her son. Corryn’s looking for a fight; Heather desperately wants to keep things civilized. It’s the worst parent-teacher conference. Ever.
Without giving too much away …
Something bad just happened. The essay was the match that lit the fuse. Corryn’s son wrote it — and passed copies around to all his classmates.
Gidion’s brilliantly written piece is a long, twisted, poetic meditation in which the students of his school torture, mutilate and murder the teachers, and then bring their intestines to weavers who create “poet cloaks” out of them. This bare summary fails to convey the essay’s visceral horror. Imagine a cross between “Hostel” and “Battle Royale.” Or the musings of a young Marquis de Sade.
Gidion’s words are the reason Heather suspended him and set up the parent-teacher conference. Worse things than words have happened since he wrote the essay. But Gidion’s mother wants to go through with the conference anyway.
At Corryn’s insistence, Heather reluctantly reads Gidion’s tome out loud. She expects her to be shocked. No. Mom’s impressed. Her son is a true poet.
The meeting goes downhill from there. What started out as a parent-teacher conference from hell descends to lower hellish circles.
Something bad just happened. Corryn doesn’t blame her son’s essay. She blames Heather for suspending her son.
The teacher’s expecting back-up from the principal. But the principal’s not her pal. Like Godot, she never appears.
So, Corryn backs Heather into a corner with harsh, cutting, brilliant words. She doesn’t physically attack the teacher, but she clearly wants to. Heather winds up weeping on the floor, devastated, a puddle of human jelly.
Mom makes her exit. Her parting shot?
“I blame you for this … I’m sorry.”
I get the strong impression the playwright does, too.
It’s great theater, don’t get me wrong.
The play’s boxing-ring rhythms alternate between long awkward silences and vicious sparring sessions. Jason Cannon’s direction is crisp — not a wasted moment or empty gesture. Outstanding performances, too. Tanner’s Heather reminds you of an animal backed into a corner. Hampton’s Corryn evokes the tiger mom who clawed her into that corner. Bruce Price’s set design ironically creates a bright, happy classroom on the miniscule Bowne’s Lab stage.
As to what it all means …
Adams’ play advances a clear argument: America’s post-Columbine education system has no room for artistic weirdoes who don’t fit the mold. It stomps the budding imaginations of future Stephen Kings, H.P. Lovecrafts and Marquis de Sades.
A valid point. One that’s occurred to me. I get it.
The gutsy playwright advances her argument in the strongest way possible. Gidion’s essay is deliberately shocking. If teachers are going to tolerate their young students’ shocking art, it’s the kind of thing they’ll have to tolerate.
But the playwright presents the counter-argument as weakly as possible. Adams stacks the deck against the teacher. Our sympathies are naturally with the angry mother. On top of that, she actually outranks Heather. Corryn teaches literature at the graduate level. Heather is a lowly elementary school teacher — with only two years job experience. She went back and got a master’s in education after a disappointing stint in advertising.
Corryn’s enraged and eloquent — her zingers all draw blood. Heather cowers, mumbles, evades and prays for the principal to show up and tap her out. The teacher never really stands up to the mother. Never says any cogent words in her own defense. Never asks Corryn, “What would you have done?”
It makes for an entertaining evening, for tough-minded theatergoers who enjoy sinking their teeth into raw meat. It’s a fight, make no mistake. Fights are always interesting — especially when the stakes are life-and-death. But the playwright’s put a heavyweight against a featherweight on the bill. The fix is in. The fight’s outcome is never in doubt.
“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is the closest analogy, if Albee had written that play with a hen-pecked George who never talked back — and a furious Martha who got all the good lines.
Nobody said the boxing ring of live theater has to be fair.
But an evenly matched fight is always much more interesting.
IF YOU GO
“Gidion’s Knot” runs through March 4, at Florida Studio Theatre’s Bowne’s Lab, 1247 First St., Sarasota. Call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org for more information.
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