Review: Aurora’s ‘Exit Strategy’ finds its heroes, villains

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(L to R) Donnie (Tre-Vonne Bell), Luce (Ed Gonzalez Moreno), Jania (Gabriella Fanuele), Pam (Margo Hall), Arnold (Michael Asberry), Sadie (Sam Jackson) and Ricky (Adam Niemann) wait for the inevitable in Ike Holter’s “Exit Strategy,” running through Sept. 29th in Berkeley. (David Allen photo)

School fight songs will never be found in the great American song book.

These mostly banal tributes to the greatness of the alma mater are simplistic in their rhyme scheme but serve a purpose larger than their syntax. These delightful ditties connect generations of alums together, instilling a lifelong pride and an instant conversation starter.

Yet, when Pam sings these lyrics rooted in the history of the school community she lives within, lyrics she certainly sang repeatedly over her 23-year teaching career with a bevy of students, this last go-round stopped her in her tracks. With a breaking of her voice that served as both the sadness for the end of an era and a darker piece of foreshadowing, these words and the repeated naming of their beloved mascot took on a piece of poignancy that proved to be too much.

The strength of Aurora Theatre Company’s strong production of Ike Holter’s “Exit Strategy” is in the minutiae shaped by artistic director Josh Costello’s staging, with each of the cast of seven stirringly playing an archetype of the communities that exist in the toughest of schools. There is the young and ideal Luce (a great presence by Ed Gonzalez Moreno), the cynically guarded translator Jania (sharp Gabriella Fanuele), calming presence Sadie (pointed Sam Jackson) and the pragmatic, grizzled veteran educator Arnold (a beautifully nuanced Michael J. Asberry).

The play wastes no time getting after it, with the opening scene setting the plot fully in motion, spelling out in haunting ways the tragedy that encompasses the staff. This incident involves tough as nails veteran Pam (Bay Area stalwart Margo Hall), a woman who comes across as the kind of teacher every embattled school has. You know, the teacher who loads up on snacks for the kids that come to school with their stomachs growling, ready to fill them at any necessary moment.

Each of the subplots in Holter’s script all inform the main one – this school, full of forgotten students, which often means those of the black and brown variety, is the latest scheduled for the wrecking ball. One of those subplots involve the young student Donnie (whip smart Tre’vonne Bell). This particular storyline doesn’t fully ring true, an odd alliance between him and the vice principal Ricky (energetic Adam Niemann).

It is blatantly obvious to everyone that this portrayal of Ricky is of the white savior variety, with leitmotifs of Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise” sprinkled throughout the show, the signature song from “Dangerous Minds,” where Michelle Pfeiffer showed up and showed all of the students of color what their lives were missing. No, not affordable housing, healthy food, opportunities for good jobs and streets without guns, drugs or gangs. Obviously, they were missing out on the poetry of Dylan Thomas and the music of Bob Dylan. Bless her.

The acting performances, particularly those of the staff members, were sharply on point. The choices of Gonzalez Moreno and Asberry rang the truest. Luce’s idealism and Arnold’s every movement driven by a haunting were through lines that encompassed their critical moments on the stage. Even a revealing moment, which required just a hint of Gonzalez Moreno’s nuance, was loudly impressive.

What is a bit more confounding is Niemann’s Ricky, who put forth an acting style that was a hint different than the others, a style that didn’t always allow certain moments to cohere. That could be a result of Niemann’s choices, Costello’s shaping or Holter putting Ricky in preposterous positions, making decisions that are so beyond anything the worst of administrators would come ever come close to doing. Yet in other powerful moments, especially when a line is drawn between Ricky and others on his staff, the patience that comes with every pause and the stakes involved in each critical choice is fantastic.

There are schools that cater to the kids who arrive every day broken by life, beset by tragedy and trauma, yet still survive due to the good graces of an adult who waits at their classroom door with a snack and some milk in hand. These are the forgotten kids, the first to lose out on music and theatre educations or sports programs with fully functioning equipment. They are also the first in their families who have a shot at the previously unattainable high school diploma. And because their impact on society is measured by dollars and home values, a poor student’s standing in society is always perilous.

For some of the glaring flaws of “Exit Strategy,” the larger message of Holter’s piece is fully intact – the love of a teacher may not be able to save a building, but the love of a teacher can certainly save a life.

The fight song may end, but the fight MUST continue.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Aurora Theater Company presents “Exit Strategy”
Written by Ike Holter
Directed by Josh Costello
The Word: Despite some script flaws, the story of a group of educational heroes taking on an impossible battle is timely and strong.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Running time: One hour, 45 minutes with no intermission
Through Sept. 29th
Tickets range from $35 – $70
For tickets, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org

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