SALT LAKE CITY — How do you balance artistic ideals with community standards? When is a lesson plan an attack on a family’s values? These questions get raised in Plan-B Theatre’s new audio production of Matthew Ivan Bennett’s play Art & Class.
The play is based on events that occurred in Cache County School District in 2017. This involved an art teacher providing materials that had been provided by the school for use in classes including copies of various works of art, some of which included nudity. A parent was upset by her child’s reaction to this, and events escalated to the point of the teacher being fired from the school. The lesson plan was intended to provide classic art examples to model the color choices the students had made. The drama of the play centers on the conflicting stories told by the teacher and one her students to her parents. There are questions of mental state, possible abuse, and emotional manipulation that arise in the play. As emotions escalate, actions that would seem to be attempts at resolving the issue inflame the situation, until there is no solution that is equitable to all sides.
Bennett is an accomplished playwright and has crafted a compelling work here. Overall, he succeeds in creating an engaging if often uncomfortable drama. My biggest complaint is that there are scenes where one actor or another has an emotional monologue that seems too heavy handed. In saying that, I know that I have heard people speak similarly in real life, but in an audio drama, it over the top. I also found myself angered by the fact that these characters were so incapable of empathizing with each other. Some audience members will see this as a strength of the writing and true portrayal of life. But after the year of pandemic and four years of political parties refusing to truly listen to one another, it wore me out.
The cast was superb. Taking on the main role of Lucia Mendoza Horne is Flo Bravo. A great deal of the success of this production rides on her performance. She provides a powerful performance as Lucia, and I felt the intensity of her convictions and the frustration at how no one seems to understand how important this whole situation is to her, particularly as an immigrant in a tightly knit community. Providing an equally compelling performance is Bijan Hosseini as her husband Riley Horne. He captures the concern of a husband who has grown up among the culture and people in Cache County and tries to help his wife to understand the culture and navigate through this morass. Despite this, I found practically every character acting extremely selfishly throughout the play. That may have been Bennett’s intention, but it did leave a mildly unpleasant feeling as the play ended.
The notes for the play discuss that it was rehearsed and recorded via Zoom in four homes in three counties, then edited and audio mastered into this presentation. Sound engineer David Evanoff recorded the vocal tracks which were then synched, and sound designer Cheryl Ann Cluff did the final engineering and refinement, under the supervision of director Jerry Rapier. The sound quality was generally excellent, with only occasional sections where the sound dropped out in between lines of dialog. (Overall, it was a minor distraction.) Considering the work that had to be done to create such a clean sounding production, they did an admirable job.
Art & Class is a worthy production and an intriguing drama. Plan-B Theatre and brought together an excellent cast and a strong production team to present Bennett’s engaging drama. All the individual pieces should add up to satisfying whole, but it lacked the spark that has been a part of many Plan-B productions.