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Capital Fringe 2014 Review: ‘The Inaugural Election for President of Mrs. Jacobson’s Sixth Grade Class’

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In this delightful comedy, six 6th graders are running for President of Mrs. Jacobson’s Sixth Grade class.  You, the audience, get to participate and choose the winner.  In the age of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, nothing could be more apropos than a little political humor.  Remember “He Got Bin Laden, I’ll Get Big Bird”?  There are certainly many political absurdities in our world; now more than ever.  But in Mrs. Jacobson’s class, instead of cursing at the television set, or possibly throwing it out the window, you get to be a part of it.  Yes, that’s right, you, an American, can participate in the electoral process.  And this time, I know it’s hard to believe, but you’ll enjoy it.

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Each of the sixth graders has a distinctive and winning personality.  Nicholas (Luke Cieslewicz) has the kind of charm that sneaks up on you; Katie (Katrina Clark) is wistful, intelligent and yearning for she doesn’t quite know what; Alice (Momo Nakamura) is a tense overachiever who is headed for burnout.  Stefanie Garcia as Louise comes across as the kind of girl who knows she’s pretty and enjoys it; Genevieve James (Jenny) is a bit like Reese Witherspoon in the movie Election; perky, pumped, and ready to go at all times. Billy (Matthew Marcus) is the cute, cool guy all the girls like; Mrs. Jacobson (Carol Randolph), their teacher, is earnest, dedicated yet firm; the teacher we would all like to have, or be.

As the play opens the sixth graders are holding a funeral for the class hamster, which has, unfortunately, died.   Apparently someone (Jenny, actually) forgot to feed it.  In the wake of this tragedy, Mrs. Jacobson has come up with what in the film The Trouble with Angels they called a “scathingly brilliant” idea.  There will be a Hamster Calendar, so everyone will have to sign up, and no one will forget.  They will elect a Class President, who will be in charge of the calendar, and be able to order the class around, or stand up against oppression, or do whatever a Class President in Mrs. Jacobson’s class is meant to do.

Writer/Director Kevin Finkelstein has managed to do something almost impossible; convey a serious message about the importance of civic engagement while entertaining the audience with a touching story of sixth graders; getting together; breaking up; screaming; crying; ignoring each other; consoling each other; and, bit by bit, in spite of themselves, growing up a little, or sometimes a lot.

Lewis Freeman, the priest at the funeral in the first scene, also plays Mr. Walbridge (Nicholas’s father), Mr. McConnell, the substitute teacher, and a bus driver.  His bond with his son is engagingly awkward, and, though he excels throughout, he is especially believable as the substitute teacher who challenges the kids to think more realistically about the pace of social change.

As Katie, Katrina Clark is endearingly coltish and dreamy; Nicholas (Luke Ciesiewicz) has the gaze of an innocent, shiny with goodwill.  Matthew Marcus as Billy is inventive and brings a number of different colors to a role which could, in other hands, slide into stereotype.  Louise (Stefanie Garcia) hits just the right notes as his ex-girlfriend.  The talented Genevieve James (Jenny) who seems to be the most motivated to become President, focuses with such intensity on her goal that she seems about to explode.  And Momo Nakamura, as Alice, has a lovely scene in which she reveals just how much it has cost her to become who she is.

The costume design (Heather Whitpan) is nuanced and well-adapted to each character.  The set (Construction by Robert Moran) and lighting (Peter Caress) have simplicity and appeal.  Sound Design by Mehdi Raoufi has many inventive moments, and the songs and choreography fit the upbeat, playful tone of the production.

The Federal Theatre Project has created a bittersweet valentine to the electoral process.  Would that all elections were as much fun!

Running Time: 85 minutes.  Recommended for all ages.

The Inaugural Election for President of Mrs. Jacobson’s Sixth Grade Class plays through July at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – Lab II – 1333 H St. NE, in Washington, DC. For performance information and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe Page.

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