Berkeley Rep’s “Office Hour”

“Office Hour” at the  Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Carol Benet

Just weeks after the mass shooting of High School students in Florida, Julia Cho’s “Office Hour” comes to the Berkeley Repertory and it is a painful and moving play about an outcast student whom one faculty member says is a “shooter.”

What should the three writing teachers do about Dennis, a weird and scary student who has turned in writing filled with violence, rape and horror and who never speaks?  The first scene in this tense 80 minute play has the teachers debating what they should and can do about Dennis.

David (Jeremy Kahn) is most insistent that he should be kicked out of school and maybe worse.  Genevieve (Kerry Warren) agrees but their hands are tied.  He has not committed a crime and  his writing, as disturbed and frightening as it is,  does not constitute this.  The school insists on freedom of expression.  Dennis is an adult and they cannot force him to seek counseling. The other students have signed petitions against him and have dropped classes where he is enrolled.

Gina embarks on a new class where Dennis has signed up.  She refuses to let herself be prejudiced by the conversation between the two other teachers who have had Dennis in their classes.  She is willing to take a chance and when in   the next scene in the make-shift office well crafted by  scenic designer Matt Saunders where she meets Dennis she has her doubts too..  Scott Zielinski’s bright and harsh lighting here is also contributes to the intense bareness of the scene.

Gina insists that all students come in for a 20 minute office hour each week and in comes a sulky Dennis, dressed in all black, sunglasses, and hat underneath his hoodie. Appropriate costumes are by Maggie Morgan.  He slouches in and slumps into a seat.  Gina demands that he remove his hat, his glasses and after several awkward minutes that he answer her banal questions.  He does not.  She then pleads with him telling him she is only an temporary adjunct teacher who depends on a minimum of 15 students per class dot keep her job and already students have dropped it and more warn they will also do so because Dennis is in the class.

And Dennis’ big black backpack, like Chekov’s gun that when placed on a table at the beginning of the play will undoubtedly go off by the end, is menacing.  The next short is a shocker and so are the others that follow.   They are filled with violence and come one after another in a dizzying manner so that the audience is left wondering what really did happen?   Were these episodes in the imagination of the teacher or Dennis.? Is Dennis a victim of pre-judging and just a classical problem student, awkward and weird, or is a a real “shooter”?

The playwright Julia Cho said that she did not write the play to solve problems but to expose them.  That she and the character Dennis are both Asian Americans, marginalized and powerless in society points out one of these problems.  Whether a work like this can have any effect on breaking the cycle of school shootings like the one at Virginia Tech that most encouraged her in writing the play about disenfranchised students who commit these crimes is one of the big questions posed.  The direction by Obie Award winner Lisa Peterson is faultless in its creation of a relentless, tense and lively production that never falters. The four actors are excellent.  The play could not be more timely..

“Office Hour” has short run through March 15 at the Berkeley Rep.

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