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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Monkey Jar

Kai Goldman just shot me! — Mr. Dori, 4th grade teacher<
Getting to Theatre 40 is a bit like dropping down a rabbit hole. You enter through a rather grungy parking garage on the grounds of Beverly Hills High School and proceed through a darkly hidden doorway into a brightly lit corridor and a comfortable, well-equipped professional theater that you never would have suspected was there.

review continues below

The school setting, coincidentally, parallels the setting of the marvelously gripping world premiere that is being performed at Theatre 40 at the moment. Richard Martin Hirsch's The Monkey Jar takes place at a grammar school in a posh suburb of Los Angeles (think Beverly Hills?). A 10-year-old boy has brought an antique pistol to class, blasting the serenity that the school is so proud of and calling into question the premises of education, leadership, race, and privilege.

The boy, who is Japanese, was adopted as a baby by a loving Jewish couple. His fourth grade teacher is also Japanese. He teaches with enthusiasm, but with all the subtlety of a samurai in full warrior mode. Trying to form an ethnic bond with the boy, the teacher, Mr. Dori (in a beautifully nuanced performance by Henry Hayashi), tries to badger him into learning his multiplication tables. The boy, Kai Goldman (an absolutely astounding young actor named Sekai Murashige), has just been diagnosed with a short-term memory disability that precludes his learning the tables. Nevertheless, Mr. Dori humiliates him in front of his classmates, driving him to tears, and inciting him to bring a gun to school.

The principal (Mark Berry) is an African-American newly appointed to the school and tiptoeing gingerly in his new role and environment. He is an able but riddled with doubts leader whose educational goal is to instill in the students a love of learning. He keeps a monkey jar on his desk to remind him of another of his objectives: "letting go". As he explains to Mr. Dori, the monkey jar is used in Africa and elsewhere for catching monkeys. A banana (or berries) is placed at the bottom of the jar and the monkey goes after it by inserting his arm into the jar's long neck. Once he clutches the food in his fist he is unable to extricate his hand, but rather than let the food go, he will wrestle with the jar, fruitlessly, until he is captured by the trapper. The point being, obviously, that not letting go is more destructive to the one who won.t let go than it is to the thing (person, idea, attitude, etc.) being held onto.

The principal's current dilemma is whether to prosecute the boy, as the teacher demands, or to protect the reputation of the school, as the officious head of the PTA (an obnoxiously controlling busybody, perfectly played by Addie Daddio) insists. His deliberations are also influenced by the boy's distraught parents (Richard Horvitz and Salli Saffioti) and the school district psychiatrist (Amy Tolsky), who believes the boy's story that he had no intention of threatening his teacher.

The drama is played out in a setting that includes Mr. Dori's classroom, the Goldmans. living room, and the principal's office, fastidiously designed by Jeff Rack. With just a minimal amount of furniture and Meghan Hong's effective lighting design, the production bounces along with a fast-paced contemporaneousness. Director Warren Davis leads these seasoned professionals through the ramifications of a felony committed by a child and to the consequences for all involved. It's a gripping story told by a superb cast, and well worth a visit. And don.t be put off by the rabbit hole.

The Monkey Jar
By Richard Martin Hirsch
Directed by Warren Davis
Cast: Mark Berry (Robert Rees), Addie Daddio (Judith Heptner), Henry Hayashi (Michael Dori), Richard Horvitz (Aaron Goldman), Sekai Murashige, alternating with Josh Ogner (Kai Goldman), Salli Saffioti (Nancy Goldman), Amy Tolsky (Coral Bryson).
Set Design: Jeff G. Rack
Lighting Design: Meghan Hong
Costume Design: Holly Victoria
Sound Design: Jonathan Snipes
Running Time: 2 hours plus one 15-minute intermission
Theatre Forty and Storey Productions, Reuben Cordova Theatre, Beverly Hills High School, 241 S. Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills, 310-364-3606 for information, 310-364-0535 for reservations,
From 02/02/08 to 03/09/08; opening 02/02/08
In repertory with Another Vermeer by Bruce J. Robinson.
Tickets: $20 Monday-Friday, $22 weekends; $139 for 9-play subscription
Reviewed by Cynthia Citron on 02/03/08.

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