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Sunday, December 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Theatre LILA's No Child... examines public education's challenges
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Gobel slips in and out of characters not just with accents, but with her entire being.
Credit:Ross Zenter

Theatre LILA, one of Madison's newest theater troupes, received a hearty Wisconsin welcome for its production of No Child... (through Jan. 11 at Overture Center's Promenade Hall). No Story Left Behind, a free program of short plays from the community, is also being staged at Overture Center on Jan. 11.

The director of No Child... and Theatre LILA's artistic director, Jessica Lanius is a Madison-raised theater professional who has returned to town with confidence and mighty chops. She was wise to cast another very talented actress, Milwaukee's Marti Gobel, as the star of this Obie Award-winning one-woman play.

No Child… is a fictionalized account of playwright Nilaja Sun's time as a teaching artist at a Bronx high school. In 70 or so minutes, Gobel plays a dizzying spectrum of characters. She portrays Sun herself, as well as an elderly custodian who narrates the play and provides background on the changing landscape of public education in New York City. She also appears as a school principal, a security guard and even a classroom of unruly 10th graders.

Glad to have found a source of income, the financially strapped Sun is dispatched to Malcolm X High School, where she is assigned to "the worst" 10th-grade class. Sun has only six weeks to ready a theatrical production in a classroom plagued with outbursts, racial slurs and a revolving door of downtrodden teachers. She soon goes about mounting Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country's Good. Set in the 1780s, the play is about Australian prisoners performing a play called The Recruiting Officer. The "play within a play within a play" angle isn't lost on Sun. She highlights similarities between the Australian penal colony and the students' prison-like school, which has two metal detectors, three police officers and five security guards.

Elements of the setting feel a bit trite at times, or perhaps the combination of gang violence, teen pregnancy, and the death of a likable character tugs at the heartstrings in too obvious a way. I also winced a bit at some of the characters who were too broadly drawn. But I understand why Sun and Gobel use shorthand: to distinguish the many characters from one another.

Mike Lawler provides a spare but smart set, which consists of just a desk, chairs and blackboard flooring, and there are some clever contributions from sound designer Jeff Parluski. But the show rests on Gobel's shoulders and the impact of Sun's words. Gobel immediately draws in the audience, dancing around the perimeter of the stage to Sade's silky "Feel No Pain."

The dazzling physicality of Gobel's performance is her greatest gift. She slips in and out of characters not just with accents, but with her entire being. The jittery, impulsive Brian; the brusque and bulldozing principal; the stooped and slow-moving janitor Baron; and the sass- and swagger-filled Sondrika are just a few of the memorable personalities. Gobel doesn't just inhabit a huge cast of characters; she makes them interact with each other in believable ways.

My favorite scene has a defeated Sun riding home on the subway. She is surprised by a student who initiated an uprising that derails her efforts in the classroom. Though it's not as flashy as the scenes surrounding it, its sincerity shines through.

Exuberant, kinetic and surprisingly funny, the production will get you thinking about our public education system, with its woefully underfunded schools, ever-increasing expectations, and widening achievement gap. While there are a few moments of treacle, the play isn't as preachy and heavy-handed as it could be.

As audience members enter the theater, they are encouraged to write the name of an inspiring teacher from the past on one of several chalkboards. Mine was Melba Sullivan, a second-grade teacher in Stevens Point who helped this dyslexic kid make friends with words. Thanks to her, I felt teachable and, most importantly, that I deserved to learn.

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