Aaron Lewis Photography
The golden ruler: Jim Johnson's Mrs. Gorf 'tutors' Jack Starr's Myron and Jennifer Rich's Leslie in 'Sideways Stories From Wayside School.'
By the Wayside
Renegade Theatre Experiment turns the classroom topsy-turvy in 'Sideways Stories'
By Marianne Messina
AS RENEGADE Theatre Experiment's seasonal "family show," Sideways Stories From Wayside School strikes a juvenile frame of mind while speaking to any adult who grew up on the books of Louis Sachar. Adapted by John Olive, the play's rendering of the magical books includes a tango teacher in a wheelchair, ensemble screams at the mention of "Mrs. Gorf" and a visit to the "19th floor." "There is no 19th floor!" goes the refrain. Director Nichole Y. Hamilton conflates the 19th floor with the fourth wall to create a light-show limbo where bodies buffet about in slow motion—in audience space.
Wayside School is a surrealistic, 30-story school, one room per floor (as in sideways), that is full of witches and wonders. In the beginning, the students on the 30th floor have a nasty witch for a teacher, Mrs. Gorf (Jim Johnson), who turns bad students into apples. When the play opens, Mrs. Gorf has apple-ized all but two of her students whom she demands count to 100—alphabetically. In beaked nose and church-lady clothing, the witchly Jim Johnson creates a delightfully unpredictable, enchantingly, quirkily wicked Mrs. Gorf. As cruel as she is to the children, she shows her frisky side when she whaps a grown man across the backside with her ruler. Her self-satisfied body language is priceless. Then she's out of the show.
That's a pity, especially if you can't quite identify with the children—pigtail-pulling Myron (Jack Starr), big, toothless Rhondi (Christine Schisano) and the others. Mrs. Gorf's replacement, Mrs. Jewls (Alika Spencer), is simply too nice to intrigue, leaving the episodic parade of oddballs through the classroom without a linchpin. Delightful as they are, the kids don't carry it. Maybe I'm one of those people who have misplaced their childhood, because a lot of the humor went right over my head, even as the Saturday-night audience of mostly adults laughed throughout the play.
After a lull at the end of Act 1, things get livelier in Act 2—more power surges, a storm that makes the building sway and a cow fly past the window, and lots of wonderful choreography. In re-creating Sachar's mimsy magic, Renegade Theatre Experiment has taken great care to master an incredible coordination between theatrical elements. Son of Gorf (also played by Johnson) zaps the kids speechless, then zaps them vocal again in rapid fire as sound effects accompany each zap. Likewise, the witch-controlled "Thriller" dance, where each of Johnson's hand moves corresponds to a familiarly goofy disco move of yore, is a visual treat and feat of coordination (choreographed by Hamilton).
Thanks to ingenious set design by Fabean Mureron, the back wall of the classroom morphs into a talking face, after which you just can't look at that wall the same way again. The colorful green and yellow classroom has kid appeal, oodles of fun things to make note of, like the letters posted upside down, the clock melting off the wall and the whiteboard permanently tilted. A painted reflection of the skyscraper pours off the tiers of the stage so that the clouds are at the bottom. Derek Batoyan's typically impeccable sound design (theremin ghosts and the like) outdoes itself in the music of the washboard (more like plumbing pipe) orchestra—sort of out of sync, yet meshing; extraterrestrial sounding, yet pleasing. This production of the Sideways Stories may have little to do with story, but a lot to do with experience, surprise and seeing the world sideways.
Sideways Stories From Wayside School, a Renegade Theatre Experiment production, plays Thursday (except Nov. 23) at 8pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Nov. 25 at the Historic Hoover Theater, 1635 Park Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $10-$18. (408.351.4440)
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