nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
February 25, 2009
In Recess, solo performer Una Aya Osato energetically introduces a group of Bronx first graders, focusing on Sharita, a mixed-race girl with more than enough problems for any seven-year-old. Following Sharita at home, in class, and on the school playground, we watch her situation go from bad to worse. It's no wonder she has a hunched-over, withdrawn stance, a shaken voice, a shell-shocked expression, and a tendency to avoid eye contact. What is less clear is what we are supposed to take away from Sharita's sad story.
The piece's greatest strength is the spirit, specificity, and heart Osato brings to the stage to invoke Sharita and her classmates: Teesha, a friend with unbounded energy and sweetness, Hispanic mean girl Cynthia, and obnoxious Henry (think South Park's Cartman). Under the careful eye of director Moises Belizario, Osato gives each character a distinct voice and physicality, transitioning between characters with lightning speed and precision. Her performance never loses its infectious energy. The strongest scenes here are the recess moments, capturing the vivacity and imagination of children at play. In an astute moment, a playground altercation is played and replayed multiple times from the perspectives of several characters—and I wish more of this play were as sharp. Osato and Belizario also use interactive video to good effect, allowing us to see fully realized versions of the characters through the classroom video they are making to send to President Obama. (No technical or stage manager is credited; hopefully the transitions into video can be smoothed-over as the run goes forward.)
Despite a winning performance, the writing feels unbalanced and unfinished. The use of news announcements in between the scenes (referencing headline issues such as the economy, the Iraq war, health care, and Obama's inauguration) suggest an attempt to view the microcosm of recess politics in relation to the larger problems of the world—but ultimately the piece doesn't add up. Osato has so stacked the deck against her central character (a dying mother, an imprisoned father, and an uncaring teacher) that Sharita comes off as a victim who can only passively react to events around her. Osato's characterization of Mrs. White feels vindictive. Self-important, egotistical, Mrs. White willfully neglects Sharita's problems (while favoring the superficial, manipulative Cynthia), incessantly complains about (and to) her students, and refers to Sharita as a "little retard." None of Sharita's actions merits such hostility, and nothing about Mrs. White suggests she is fit to work with children. Instead of laying the blame on an inept teacher, wouldn't it be more interesting to explore the conditions of the education system that make good teachers go bad? Indeed when the show came to its sudden stop (not anything like an ending), I didn't know what I was supposed to take away besides the pathos for a child facing so much suffering.
I keep referring to this as a "piece" because, at this point, it doesn't feel like a cohesive play. But there is rich potential in these characters and their school environment, a top-notch performance, and real passion about the issues, if Osato would go back to her script and dig deeper into the complexity of the situation.