“Those who know don’t talk
Those who talk don’t know”
– Laozi 老子, Tao te Ching 道德經, No. 56
Has it really been just under a year since I saw Shotgun’s production of David Greig’s The Events (which was commented on by the director, leading to a long e-mail exchange between us)? For that matter, has it really been only three days since I saw the Eli Roth’s God-awful remake of Death Wish?
You’re probably wondering what those two projects could have in common, other than an excessive use of firearms. After all, The Events is about finding an answer to gun violence and Death Wish promotes the idea of gun violence as the answer.
Well, dear reader, the reason I’m reminded of those two diametrically opposed takes on the same issue (both of which present their positions poorly) is because if I didn’t know better I’d say that those projects, or some like them, influenced Berkeley Rep’s new production of Julia Cho’s Office Hour. Cho’s script features the stumbling moral impotency of Greig’s script married with the exploitative fetishization seen in movies like that of Roth. The result is as hypocritical as it is pretentious.
Dennis scares people. Quiet, withdrawn, and adorned in all-black, his fellow university students do their best to stay clear of him. Unfortunately, he’s also an English major taking creative writing classes, so those same students are often forced to hear the ultra-violent fantasies he commits to the page. His professors think something should be done, but don’t know what.
Since office time with a professor counts as 25% of his grade, Dennis takes a meeting with his latest professor, Gina. Determined to break through the barriers Dennis has placed around himself, Gina can’t help but feel a little intimidated by his foreboding presence. As their meeting goes on, Gina appears to be making progress. But before the meeting is over, she may regret having ever tried.
You know how a Jack-in-the-Box is only surprising the first time you see it; that when you wind it up again, it’s not as much of a shock when you know what’s coming? Apparently, no one explained this to Julia Cho, because she relies on the “surprise” gunshot trick no less than a dozen times over the course of an hour-and-a-half-long show. It reeks of shock value and narrative desperation in a flimsy script where everyone is a straw wo/man representing ideas rather than fully realized human beings.
The script is so unsure of itself that it can’t even seem to commit to the very character traits to which it vaguely alludes. Fellow professors Genevieve and David (played with detached monotones by Kerry Warren and Jeremy Kahn, respectively) think Gina should speak to Dennis due to the two having “similar backgrounds”. Gina and Dennis are both played by Asian actors, as they were in the original So. Cal production, but the dialogue refuses to specify that, so one could swap out any two actors and nothing would change. For instance, Gina’s “changed” maiden name has no weight because we never hear it. And when actress Jackie Chung adopts a thick Asian accent as Gina roleplaying with Dennis, it’s impossible to tell if this is the choice of the script, director, or actor.
The idea of a play by an Asian playwright imagining the thought process of a rare Asian mass-shooter (such as Virginia Tech shooter Seung Hui-Cho) is a fascinating-if-terrifying one. But Cho’s script refuses to commit to that idea. Hell, it refuses to commit to any idea or reality, constantly falling back on more fantasy sequences (the aforementioned Jack-in-the-Box shooting scenes) than a binge marathon of Family Guy and Scrubs.
And when Cho is truly bankrupt of ideas, she decides to steal one. The climax of the play is a – for lack of a better term – “school shooting montage” done in a manner derivative of the dehumanizing montage at the climax of Sarah Kane’s Blasted – complete with total blackouts. Part of me wonders if this was Cho’s attempt the sort of shock-value writing one would expect from a creative writing student. Yes or No, it’s still a bad playwrighting.
Technically speaking, it’s as well as one would expect from the Berkeley Rep. Director Lisa Peterson at least stages the actors well, even when she can’t get great performances from all of them (to be fair, both actors Chung are good as Gina and Dennis). The only really poor choice is to start the montage with the actors literally moving in slow motion.
Matt Saunders set design is excellent in its simplicity. Upon first taking my seat, I quickly noticed things like the trees outside the windows and the fire extinguisher in the hall, but it took me a moment to see the then-unlit fluorescent lights hanging above the set. Scott Zielinski’s lights effectively make the setting terrifying in necessary scenes, whilst subtly shifting from a day to night sky outside the window. The best I can say for Robert Kaplowitz’s sounds is that they know how to make a loud gunshot.
Like those aforementioned films and plays, Office Hour has absolutely nothing to add to the discussion about guns. It thinks that just bringing up the topic is enough. It’s bad enough the play refuses to take a position – other than “School shootings are bad, m’kay?” – but in a world and country where the Thief-in-Office honestly suggests that teachers carry guns to prevent school shootings, Cho’s supposed “see all sides” take on the debate is easily one of the most ignorant.
Office Hour is scheduled to run until the 25th of March in the Peet’s Theatre of the Berkeley Rep.
The show runs roughly 90 min. with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.