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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Sideways Stories from Wayside School

Or “Brecht for Babies”

By Louis Sachar and John Olive

(subtitle lifted with reverence from Zoe Nadal, actress)

I must take my hat off to Director Dan Cantor for reintroducing me to my sense of play. If you have been sunk by midterms, or any other of the ‘thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’, I would recommend a good does of Sideways stories that will put a bounce in your elbows, a spring in your step, and a smile on your face.

Wayside School, brought to us out of somewhere in the midwest by Sachar’s beloved books, is a curious place. It was supposed to to be thirty rooms all laid out on one floor, but was constructed with 30 floors, each with one room. It attracts wayward cows, goblin witches (Aaron), world famous psychiatrists (Bender-Stern), excitable foreign dancers (Nadal), the worst cooks imaginable (Moynahan) and an eldritch abomination of education, Miss Zarves (Nadal again, clad in a christmas light robe and wielding the mini-shofar of power), who rules the nonexistent 19th floor. Don’t worry, it all gets explained. Kind of.

Despite all its strangeness, the kids at Wayside are as kind and curious and brave as any you could hope to find. I wish I had known Myron (Macgaffy), Bebe (Webb), Mac and Nancy (George and Weingarten), Leslie (Himelfarb), Rhondi (Harris) and especailly Dameon (Baer) growing up. They have their strengths and their weaknesses (which admittedly are a tad unusual), but they really just want to find out about the world around them. Which is difficult to do when their teacher is trying to kill them.

Mrs. Gorf, (the always comedic Aarons) dressed to the nines in warty nose, bat-ears and a stylish 19th century get up, has been using her powers to transform her students into apples, and looks forward to when she has enough to bake a pie. But thanks to a daring insurrection by Bebe (with strong overtones of Harry/Voldamort) and the intervention of Louis the yard teacher (Fair) the evil creature is done away with and replaced with the kindly and rather eccentric Miss Jewls (Wills) who’s approach to education suits her students to a T. However, in her quest for knowledge, Miss Jewls provokes Miss Zarves’s wrath, and Mrs. Gorf’s revenge is already brewing in the wind.

Cantor and his crew have drunk deep from the well of Brecht’s Epic Theater. The entirety of Dunk’s set is made from chalkboards (the door and window, egresses and handily labeled “door” and “window”) and this dusty void is slowly filled up with the scraps of Miss Jewels instruction, as well as the play’s progression through scenes as marked by the stoic Exposition (Bender-Stern, again). Props, set pieces and the occasional petrified cast member, are carted off and on by trio of stagehands in shirts that read “you can’t see me”. All sound effects, percussion, and administrative anointments are carried out by Maestro Moynahan who gleefully provides rim shots, rattlesnake rattles, and the occasional magic cow-bell. Sadly for Cantor, though not for the audience, the epic theater principal defeats itself, and we pour all our belief and sympathy and worry into this absurd wonderland. It’s not that the show conducts itself seriously, but it has all the urgency and depth of the worlds you created as children to rule or run through.

Pickus, the sound designer, gets special mention for augmenting the story and balancing Moynahan's compositions with truly “epic” music that never fails to get the heart pumping, as well as providing copious amounts of disco, which never fails to get the feet tapping, no matter how well you were raised.

If you like TYA, then I suggest you come and get an education of how to perform it properly. Each and every role is delved into with a boldness and exuberance that capture children's attentions while at the same time plucking the heartstrings of adults. The students are particularly good at this: their expressions of horror and delight as well as their obvious care for each other, even when quarreling, makes one want to dash out and schnoodle them. Even the terrifying Miss Zarves, and monstrous Mrs. Gorf, play the occasional sonata on the heartstrings. After all, abominations though they be, they just want to be happy.

This being said, not to give laurels away lightly, the performances though full of energy, sometimes lack some subtlety to garnish their antics. Given the nature of the beast, both the play and the form, this does not detract from their performances, or our enjoyment at all. However Wills goes above and beyond the call of duty by making dear Miss Jewls more than a pillar of ‘sweetness and cherry pie’. While just as energetic and peculiar as her fellows, Wills manages to let tastes of frustration, fear and most difficult of all, utter inner turmoil bubble behind her smile as she is confronted by nosey students, an affectionate Yard teacher, and the dark powers that threaten to consume her.

Sideways stories has everything to offer: its intellectually puzzling, emotionally gripping, delightfully physical, uproariously funny, and shows us the joys and fears of our education played out on an epic scale. For those conceded that its too “TYA for your tastes”, don’t be. This story appeals to the kid in all of us, and the adventurer too. My verdict: Go See It: they’ve invited you to play and it would be a great loss for you to refuse.

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