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Syracuse scene returns to school – and returns to live theater – with clever and sarcastic “Eureka Day” (Review)

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In its first live-action production in 19 months, Syracuse Stage bounces back with “Eureka Day,” an alluring comedy-drama set in Berkeley, Calif., In which vaccination, epidemic and exposure, and personal beliefs – not about Covid but mumps – – divide parents of children attending private progressive school.

Written in 2018 by Bay Area playwright Jonathan Spector and directed by stage art director Robert Hupp, “Eureka Day” has the easy familiarity of a sitcom, the quirky characters of a trending Netflix series, and the power of persuasion. of a New York Times editorial. Intelligent, devious and without feelings, he avoids polemics and postures by giving us a holistic view of the individuals with whom we may not agree but who we gradually understand as they complete their story. .

A 2018 world premiere at the Aurora Theater in Berkeley has garnered him numerous awards for the new Bay Area play. In 2019, a one-month run at Brooklyn-based Colt Heart won a New York Drama Critics Circle Award nomination; “Eureka Day” was also named a New York Times Choice of critics.

The two-hour play is a much-needed relief valve as fall sends downtown New Yorkers indoors to negotiate pressures to hide, vaccinate, get a booster, go out or stay away. the House. Although little known, “Eureka Day” is already scheduled for productions in regional theaters across the country and around the world in the coming months. Props to Syracuse Stage for recognizing its importance and for being among the first to offer this timely gem.

At the start of the show, a large projection screen descends from the front stage into a school library space dominated by an arched window overlooking the hills and cityscapes of the San Francisco Bay Area. On screen, a cheerful promotional video captures a multicultural assortment of children smiling, playing, learning and interacting within the diverse community of Eureka Day School. Even after the screen retracts into the ceiling, the core values ​​of diversity, integrity, citizenship and kindness – prominent in the video – continue to come through through posters and rainbow-colored signs on the walls and shelves of the library.

Though never before seen on stage, these bright, caring, and progressive students are the product of Eureka Day’s carefully crafted character education system. The school’s cocoon of inclusion, acceptance and welcome is a point of pride for the parents and educators who make up the executive committee, the governing body that meets in the library. It is these five adults – the school principal and four parents – who form the main cast.

Soon it becomes clear that blonde, patrician Suzanne (LeeAnne Hutchison) and stay-at-home dad Eli (Drew Hirshfield) are controlling the meetings. They casually interrupt and chat with two BIPOC parents, Meiko (Laura Yumi Snell) and newcomer Carina (Stephanie Weeks), and walk on Don (Jason O’Connell), the non-confrontational director who reads Rumi to the group and tries to keep things amicable.

As the opening scene is Carina’s first meeting as a member of the executive committee, the others try to instill in her the culture of Eureka Day as well as the committee’s emphasis on consensus decision-making (in which all parties must come to an agreement) rather than majority voting. This becomes a sticking point as the play progresses and the issues before the committee literally hinge on matters of life and death.

Though written before the pandemic wreaked havoc on social intricacies – and the Black Lives Matter movement entered mainstream discourse – the themes of white privilege, fake news, the culture of denial, and other burning issues surface throughout the piece, keeping momentum and tensions quivering. At the end of Act I, an online public forum for the Eureka Day community awkwardly kicks off (reminding many of us of the worst online webinars we’ve ever had) and explodes into a free ‘chat’. for all of whom the opening night audience screaming in gratitude and choking on laughter. Act II takes on a more serious tone as we step back on the characters and their motivations.

Suzanne de Hutchison is easily recognizable – the ever-appropriate iron-willed mother who never lets anyone get the best of her – but her vividly told monologue in Act II deepens compassion for the play’s obvious villain. . As Eli, Hirshfield is an unconscious know-it-all who cannot see how his insistent mansplaining is the opposite of inclusive; part puppy-dog, part dot.com brother, Eli is made sympathetic by a balanced portrayal.

Snell directly plays Meiko, a single mom, without any Asian slant (no pun intended, I’m also Japanese-American and always mindful of AAPI misrepresentation); although the character leans slightly towards the stereotype – slender, passive, supple – she has her moment of strength. Carina is clearly the protagonist, and you can’t help but cheer her on over the duration of the play, about a year at Eureka Day; Weeks imbues Carina with a rock-solid honesty that tightens into witty integrity as she sees the adults around her eschew accepted science and public health for “consensus” and “acceptance.” .

The decision to choose Jason O’Connell as the main Don brings a satisfying closure to the 19-month hiatus Syracuse Stage was forced to take as the pandemic swept across the country; his signature portrayal of Salieri in the only opening / closing night of “Amadeus” in March 2020 will go down as one of the best moments of Stage. The fact that he is able to play Don as such an obsequious and flabby administrator is proof of his finesse as an actor.

The outstanding work of the production team adds to the success of “Eureka Day”. Junghyun Georgia Lee’s scenography provides volumes of information even before the actors take the stage; the shelves and tiny furniture in the library are the only permanent furniture – all adult-sized chairs are laboriously brought in and out of this space, suggesting that the adults who meet here are somewhat of an intruder. Lisa Renke’s projection design hysterically reproduces the craziness of the online cat, and the changing day-to-night landscape of the Bay Area in the arched window amplifies the atmospheric space.

Appropriate to the subject matter on stage, Syracuse Stage takes its Covid precautions very seriously, more than any other place I have visited. In the front vestibule, to enter, you will need to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test. Masks are mandatory throughout your visit, including the entire performance, and if you take them off you will be asked to put them back on; I witnessed this twice midway through when a usher approached a woman in the row behind me and waved at her, doing the same with a customer three rows down. Kudos to the staff for enforcing the policy, a risky act in these belligerent times. Their efforts have made me feel safe, and this is appreciated by those who want to return to the live theater but still hesitate in closed spaces. Another notable difference: The increased ventilation can make you feel an airflow – some customers have complained about being cold. Bring a sweater or choose a warmer outfit.

To ensure you arrive at your seat on time, arrive at the theater early to account for these extra steps.

The details:

What: Jonathan Spector’s “Eureka Day”

Or: Scene from Syracuse, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse

When seen: Opening on October 15

Length: 2 hours plus a 15-minute intermission

Family guide: Suitable for high school and up

Crosses: October 31

Information on tickets and reservations: Call 315-443-3275 or buy online at syracusestage.org

Conditions of presence: Proof of vaccination or negative Covid test, and masks worn at all times