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Buffalo School Board stages theater of the absurd

On Tuesday afternoon, I got word from a colleague in the know that a piece of pop-up theater would take place the following afternoon in a little-known performance space in downtown Buffalo. It would be a one-night-only affair and was expected to draw a standing-room-only crowd.

As a theater critic, I am nothing if not susceptible to the lures of exclusive and semi-secretive events. So I contrived to get myself a seat.

At the appointed time on Wednesday afternoon, I made my way to the theater, a cramped space with a few rows of creaky seats on the eighth floor of a lovely art deco building on Niagara Square. The show, I later learned, was being mounted by a company with a reputation for absurdist theater that calls itself the Buffalo Board of Education.

When I arrived after a ride up an ancient elevator with a fellow reporter, I discovered a cramped antechamber full of chattering people. A palpable nervousness coursed through the crowd, as if everyone was aware they were about witness a momentous occasion.

A uniformed security guard – another strange touch for a piece of free public theater, I thought – emerged briefly and made a joke that seemed to relax everyone temporarily. Shortly after 5:30 p.m., the doors opened, and the crowd trickled into the theater, settling into a few rows of seats evidently designed for kindergarten students.

A large group of disappointed theatergoers had to remain in the vestibule, where they could either crane their necks and try to catch random syllables of the proceedings or stare at a television feed of the production that lacked the crucial component of discernible audio. The microphones in the room, as one observer later stated, seemed to be entirely for show.

And what a show it was.

The playbills for the production, distributed to a chosen few before the production, included a cryptic list of items under the subheading “Revised Agenda.” These included scenes with titles like “Superintendent’s Update,” “Educational Affairs” and, titillatingly, “Unfinished Business.”

Would this be a Brechtian reflection on the injustices of bourgeois society? An exploration, a la Samuel Beckett, of the hopelessness of the human condition? Or perhaps a more animated, obscenity-riddled thriller from the likes of David Mamet?

The anticipation was killing me and my fellow theatergoers as I settled into my seat, notebook and pen clutched in my hands.

The first performer, a confident woman in a smart gray suit, took to a podium near the crowd and launched into an eloquent speech about the challenges facing Buffalo’s schoolchildren. She then turned things over to another actress, who said about 46 different kinds of nothing in the most articulate way possible, ticking through a litany of performance gauges and strategic initiatives, meticulously calibrated buzzwords and bar graphs and charts that painted a picture of impossible progress.

There was one performer seated at the square table at the front of the room who did not seem to be buying what she was selling. In his searching eyes, you could read the stirrings of a conflict. A story was beginning to emerge.

Soon enough, this agitated antihero – the only one in the play who seemed to acknowledge the absurdity of his situation – began to launch accusations and demands at the confident leader. She reacted by adopting the voice of a kindergarten teacher, which only ruffled her interrogator further.

The show included about three hours of audience participation, in which members of the audience gave eloquent and often extremely moving speeches to the assembled troupe, who gave no substantive responses. At one point, in some unexpected drama, an audience member insisted that the leader resign from her position. When a friend of his piped up, he was escorted out by security. This was interactive theater at its best.

The intermission, or “executive session,” as these guys called it, stretched on for more than two hours as the troupe deliberated over apparently extremely important issues while the audience milled around outside. Most left, disappointed that the key scenes they’d come to watch were being performed in private.

When the house opened up again around 11:20 p.m., the play fizzled without a resolution. It left me hungry for more drama.

As it turned out, this six-hour marathon production bore very little resemblance to Shakespeare, Beckett or Mamet. It was more like a lost play by Franz Kafka – a slow and absurd look at the slow and absurd machinations of bureaucracy in the face of terrible and immediate injustices.

It went, essentially, like this:

Question: Why are black and brown kids with no money routinely and systematically denied the same educational opportunities their richer, white counterparts receive? Answer: Our recently completed strategic plan, produced in secret and with no input from key community leaders, contains a series of actionable outcomes based upon national benchmarking equations.

The point the playwright was trying to get across, I think, was that sometimes the tools at our disposal to solve our biggest problems are entirely inadequate. Our attempts to use them in spite of that fact are more likely to result in theater than in actual progress. Waiting for this particular body to solve the impossibly complex problems before it is a little bit like “Waiting for Godot.”

It’s a problem central to modern democracy, a problem made more acute in poor cities with crumbling school systems and a problem, in spite of all that, everyone needs to work much harder to solve. Which is where, in the miniseries this troupe is currently mounting, our unlikely antihero comes in.

Much to my dismay, his long list of concerns and complaints against the leader and others did not play out on the cramped stage that evening. But as the production died down, he promised that his concerns would be aired in a subsequent performance scheduled to take place in the same theater Sept. 11.

I suggest getting in line for a seat now.