by Sean Cook
Roundhouse Community Centre
April 26-May 3
All the advertising
and promotion around SCHOOL
Inc. presents the show as an exposé of
creeping corporate commercialism in our schools. Playwright Sean
Cook, an English teacher at Coquitlam’s Centennial Secondary,
has been publicly addressing the issue for some time. Last year
he blew the whistle on the disturbing details of UBC’s
multi-million dollar deal with Coke. Here he ostensibly tells
the story of a public school district that sells its soul in
a deal with “Cash Cola” that will help pay for its
sports programs in a time of government cutbacks.
But SCHOOL Inc. is
only secondarily about the schools’ collaboration with
corporations eager to market unhealthy products to impressionable teenage consumers--a
story that surely needs telling. Instead, it focuses on beleaguered English teacher
Jim Freeman, who heroically dares stand up to the corrupt system which tries
to destroy him. But he won’t be silenced. The Truth will make us free,
man. Jim actually thinks of himself as the guy standing in front of the tanks
in Tienaman Square. And at least one intelligent, rebellious student will appreciate
In the process of canonizing his flawed saint of a tragic
hero, Cook loses sight of the corporate critique, saving most of it for a two-minute
mark, powerful but as subtle as a sledgehammer.
Meantime, we meander through a half-dozen subplots: the
break-up of Jim’s
marriage, his mentoring relationship with a female student which his enemies
use to accuse him of sexual misconduct, the basketball coach’s revenge
against Jim for failing his star player, a student fashion show, and the principal’s
wife’s battle with cancer.
Dramatically, the most effective plotline involves the
dumb, sexist, bullying basketball star (nicely played by Tom O’Brien, who doubles as the Superintendent
of Schools, who would twirl his nasty moustache if he had one) and the rebellious
Goth girl (an excellent Robin Mooney) who stands up to him in the only moments
of the play when I wanted to cheer.
Most of the acting is decent and much of it is very good.
David Purvis does solid work as Jim, especially in the classroom scenes where
students understand how advertising manipulates them. Chantal Ethier
is convincing as the smart girl and Jeffrey Fisher makes the caricatured
But director Jack Paterson’s decision to have the actors mime their props
and actions is disastrous. It results in clichés (Superintendent and Principal “golfing” while
discussing corporate sponsorships) and distractions (Jim’s wife “putting
away the dishes” while they argue), and often makes the show look like
bad high school drama.
The over-explicit writing doesn’t help. “When a teacher speaks the
truth, you silence him. What does that teach our students? Well, I’ll tell
you what it teaches them…” An English teacher should know that a
rhetorical question doesn’t need answering.