Review: ‘It’s So Learning’ at FringeArts

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It’s So Learning, written and performed by comedic mavericks The Berserker Residents, is a wild, immersive ride through the Berserkers’ vision of the K-12 system. Even people who avoid audience-participation theater like the plague – including yours truly – are likely to enjoy themselves here.

Justin Jain, mannequin, Lee Minora, Bradley Wrenn, Dawn Falato. Photo by Kate Raines.

Justin Jain, mannequin, Lee Minora, Bradley Wrenn and Dawn Falato. Photo by Kate Raines.

The audience is ushered into a “classroom” (what is usually the stage at FringeArts, although by the end of the performance I’d forgotten where we were) by someone in a plush turtle suit. Inside the classroom there are numbers taped to the floor, blackboards on all four sides, and platform stages at two ends. The cast members are milling through the crowd, telling everyone that we need a pink and green slip. One tells you your “chair number,” the other is for “supplies.” Each chair number corresponds to a number on the floor, where you are directed to stand.

When everyone’s found their place, the four teachers start to explain the rules. Each is in front of one of the blackboards and has a cute call and response mnemonic designed around their character name and meant to restore order in the classroom. Each represents a different teacher-type: Hake (Dawn Falato) is the oldest and sternest of the four; Baldwin (Bradley Wrenn) is the nerdy guy with a bowl haircut, mustache and overly color-coordinated outfit designed around his sweater vest; Ricks (Justin Jain) is the hip young teacher with a pony tail and shirt sleeves always rolled up; and Faluca (Lee Minora) is the not-quite-hip younger teacher with the colorful sweaters regardless of weather. (Jillian Keys’ costumes and wigs are spot-on.)

For the next 80 minutes, the “class” is directed through a series of “educational exercises,” with the promise of a pizza party if the class does well. But the overarching theme of the piece is the question of whether much of what goes on in the classroom is really Pavlovian training for what the anthropologist David Graeber has termed “bullshit jobs”, the sort of self-replicating “work” that basically consists of making certain you look like you’re working, since nothing much is actually made any more. We dutifully recite the mnemonics, put our heads down and our thumbs up in the air for “games” (it might be a good idea to take advantage of the hand sanitizer if you want to fully participate), try to answer questions about Lord of the Flies (a recurring motif of the piece, suggesting other darker undertones to the educational system), are invited to share embarrassing stories from our own school days, and participate in a “bully/rebully” exercise where one “student” is publicly shamed and then gets to shame other “students.” Most of these exercises provide an opportunity to earn “bing bings” (cheap peel off stickers) which are promised to have unspecified value in the future.

Bradley Wrenn. Photo by Kate Raines.

Bradley Wrenn. Photo by Kate Raines.

Periodically, the teachers vanish, and a character named Forcep (David Johnson) takes over. Forcep is a student/former student who is too cool for school – much of Johnson’s performance seems modeled on Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, minus the catchphrase and casual lechery. Forcep puts down the whole process, mocks our conformity, and encourages small acts of rebellion, like throwing the paper wads helpfully provided in our supply backpack.

This is the second version of It’s So Learning performed in Philadelphia (the first was at the 2015 FringeArts Festival). Johnson had to drop out of those performances at the last minute. I don’t know if Forcep was part of the original design of that iteration; this time around, the character didn’t add much to the piece, although it might reflect what Wrenn means when he talks about “the tyrants that are your friends. That tell you you’re doing great, and you would be so much happier if it weren’t for these other tyrants. So why not throw them over?” The new ending, with Forcep included, seems darker than the old ending.

FringeArts’ publicity says “It’s So Learning takes on new resonance in 2017.” Surprisingly, a small difference from 2015 undercut that claim for me. In 2015, I was very much aware that the piece was supposed to be taking place in “The SimEdu Center” – the sort of free market, private approach to education that gives Betsy DeVos wet dreams – and that the four teachers were really technicians, demonstrating the product. An online interview with Wrenn and Jain still mentions this, but I don’t recall hearing it mentioned in the performance. The result was an experience that was more generally about weaknesses in the educational system writ large (although capping the audience at 55 avoids one aspect of our poorer public schools) rather than a focus on privatized and corporatized education, at a moment when public education may be facing its greatest threat.

But even with this cavil, It’s So Learning provides much food for thought in an imaginative and very fun 90 minutes spent with five delightfully funny “Creator-Performers and Writers.” Additional credit should go to the “Outside-Eye Direction” by Adrienne Mackey and the witty sound design of Adriano Shaplin, with sound effects improvisationally performed by Tom Carman.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

It’s So Learning runs through March 18 at FringeArts – 140 N Columbus Blvd at Race St., Philadelphia. For tickets, call the box office at 215-413-1318 or purchase them online.

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