Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Exit Strategy
Aurora Theatre Company
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of Anastasia

Tre’Vonne Bell, Sam Jackson, and Adam Niemann
Photo by David Allen
There are times when a character on stage does something I wish I had the courage to do: as when Pastor Paul in The Christians stands up against dogma to preach a true message of love and forgiveness. Or when Emile de Becque in South Pacific risks his idyllic island life and love with Nellie Forbush to serve as an advance scout on an enemy-occupied island. By the time the opening performance of Exit Strategy at Aurora Theatre Company had ended, I almost wished I'd followed the lead of Margo Hall's character Pam, who (spoiler coming), after 23 years of teaching in a crumbling South Side Chicago high school ("even the paint's running away from this place"), leaves a meeting with the fresh-faced vice principal (Adam Niemann)—who has delivered news that the school is slated for closure and demolition—and steps into the next room and shoots herself. Because after an hour and 45 minutes of bombast disguised as drama, eternal oblivion might have come as welcome relief.

Exit Strategy is Josh Costello's first production as Aurora's artistic director, and though he was marvelously energetic and welcoming in his pre-curtain speech, his take on Ike Holter's text seems so over the top that it nearly leaves Earth's orbit. Each of the characters—five teachers, a student, and the vice principal—scream and swear and bitch and moan, often simultaneously. While their ranting is often about matters of great importance—helping at-risk kids navigate their way into the wider world—much of it is trivial and unmoored to the broader issues at play. There is a gay subplot that seems tacked on, reveals little about the characters that Holter isn't already showing us, and includes a moment of lust played for comedy that is almost offensive in its pandering for laughs.

Many lines elicited laughter from the audience (though not from me) not because of their inherent humor, but because of the sheer audaciousness of the cast who, under Costello's direction, pound them with the force of a pneumatic jackhammer. Adam Niemann's portrayal of Ricky, the vice principal, is exceptionally unsubtle in this regard. He alternately stammers and screams, cowers and postures until we lose all sense of who this person really is. It's wonderful when an actor loses themselves in a character, but this is a glaring example of a character disappearing under the weight of an overwrought performance.

Fortunately, there are some lovely, even gripping, performances. Margo Hall is one of the Bay Area's most gifted and reliable actors, and she takes what is the best-written of all Holter's characters and fills it with passion and anger and regret. Her opening scene is the best in the play, but she sadly offs herself the moment she steps off stage, and nothing that comes after is even close to being as powerful—even when her Pam returns as a vision.

Kudos are also due to Michael J. Asberry. Like Hall's Pam, his Arnold is a veteran teacher who has been battered by a dysfunctional system, but he has never given up on his kids or striving to be the best he can. He exhibits a resilience and competence that serves as the most solid moral core Exit Strategy has to offer. Young Tre'Vonne Bell is a thrilling discovery in the role of Donnie, a gifted (yet still rebellious) senior who takes the threat posed by the school's scheduled shuttering into his own tech-savvy hands. Bell's focus and ability to hold his own against his elders (both as an actor and as his character) kept me engaged when Holter's text and Costello's direction kept pulling me out of the drama.

The set by Kate Boyd is appropriately industrial, and her revealing some of the school's infrastructure (by including conduit and HVAC vents at the top of the set) serves as a reminder of the underlying fragility that is too common to inner-city educational institutions.

Ultimately, though, it is a line spoken by Pam in that first excellent scene that sums up my entire experience of Exit Strategy: "Please—stop the bullshit."

Exit Strategy, through September 29, 2019, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Performances are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $35-$70. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 510-843-4822.