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REVIEW

Jill Holden Goes Public With Private Tales of the Classroom

The keen narrative skill of her one-acts is clouded by a frustrating inability to choose between acting and teaching.

February 01, 1996|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In an interesting twist on the overdone, overexposed, over-staged and overboard cottage industry known as one-person theater, writer-actor Jill Holden is presenting herself as the anti-actor in her autobiographical piece, "Private Stories: Public Schools," at the Eclectic Company Theatre.

Many teachers would say that what they do is a kind of performance. So when Holden tired of endless stage touring (getting to production No. 4 of "Isn't It Romantic?" was the final straw) and she had to find a day job, teaching made sense.

But not just any teaching. Substitute teaching. Substitute teaching in schools to which no one with any seniority would ever go. Substitute teaching in classrooms where chaos is the norm, girls duel with scissors, and snipers fire at the playground. Above all, substitute teaching that might get in the way of acting altogether.

Admirably, Holden doesn't ladle out the sentiments or traumas; nor does she draw attention to any good she has done as a sub. Actually, she gets a kick out of dwelling on how unprepared she is for the experience--or for anything: "I felt like a satellite orbiting around my own life."

But perhaps because Holden feels so under-qualified, her sense of discovery and surprise are all the more acute. A modest show-and-tell with postcards of great paintings elicits the chant of "Henri Matisse!" from a bunch of ragamuffin kids, and Holden's eyes light up as if she's opened a door of perception. A day job to get her by between stints at her real job--acting--is starting to become her life.

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The mitigating factor, though, is her realization that she can't make any difference in kids' lives filled with drive-bys, murder, revenge and drug overdoses. A fellow teacher advises her to "show love" and "touch the wound" in the wounded kids, and so she does--but only for a day. What about tomorrow?

Oddly, despite Holden's charming personality, a keen narrative skill at blending her own running thoughts while describing classroom events, and a tone that sometimes descends into diary-like reflections, she never comes to grips with what must be a difficult three-way tension in her life. Teaching is a career, or it remains a phase until something better comes along, or acting matters most.

Whichever it is, juggling the three is Holden's comic mainspring here, but nothing more. Holden is too good an actor under Meagen Fay's fluid direction for her not to wonder what her ultimate life choice is going to be.

That choice would seem to be the most revealing comedy-drama of all, yet it remains frustratingly vague rather than open-ended. Art requires some closure, even if life doesn't always work that way.

Russell Christian's clever black box set is complete with a resonating checkerboard floor and blackboards, which teacher Holden fills with chalk notations (note the U.S. flag behind the blackboard on the upstage wall). Lawrence Oberman's lights are typically fine and understated, and sound designer Dan Bonnell comes up with a very real alarm bell that puts you in the classroom as much as Holden does.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

DETAILS

* WHAT: "Private Stories: Public Schools."

* WHERE: Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Ends Feb. 25.

* HOW MUCH: $12.50-$15.

* CALL: (213) 467-1767.

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