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Thursday, October 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Classroom confidential
The Faculty Room peeks into high school's sordid side
The perfomances crackle with barely controlled desperation.
The perfomances crackle with barely controlled desperation.

Every student wonders just what goes on behind the imposing door of the teacher's lounge. They may picture a quiet sanctum for refined academic discussions, or a relaxed cafÃ-cum-saloon where teachers can let down their hair. But unless they imagine gunplay, drug use and self-mutilation, they don't expect anything like Bridget Carpenter's The Faculty Room.

In Mercury Players Theatre's production (running through Oct. 28 at the Bartell Theatre), a group of embittered high school educators struggle to drag meaning back into their lives. Carver Durand (Micheal Herman) is an idealistic young history teacher who recently left the big city for an isolated community in the Midwest. In his new position, Carver is subjected to the brutal hazing of fellow teachers Zoe Bartholomew (Martinique Barthel) and Adam Younger (George Gonzalez). Zoe and Adam detest the town, their jobs, and their students ' apart from the ones they are dating. Soon tension arising from the teachers' secret pasts and religious zeal among the school's fundamentalist students boils over into violence.

While the show gives the first impression of aiming for broad parody (the gun-disposal chute in the wall, the mute ethics teacher), this goal is quickly abandoned. By the end of its first act, The Faculty Room is fraught with more emotion than a grand opera, leaving its own comic devices hanging awkwardly on the periphery. As themes grow more complex, the cast's performances crackle with barely controlled desperation. Gonzalez skillfully reveals the fragility of Adam's bravado; Herman's performance as Carver becomes the show's moral compass; and Barthel, as Zoe, pulls off both biting cynicism and hopeful vulnerability.

Although the script's barrage of crises seems implausible even in the hands of such capable actors, The Faculty Room's exploration of teacher-student relationships and school violence proves disturbingly relevant.

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