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Parent vs. teacher in taut ‘Gidion’s Knot’ at SCC

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The shaky state of America’s education system gets a less-than-passing grade in a new drama, now playing at the Sonoma Community Center,

“Gidion’s Knot,” by playwright Johnna Adams, was named by the American Theatre Critics Association as one of the top three new plays of 2012. Charged with urgent, ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy, the twisty two-actress drama – about a parent-teacher conference gone terribly wrong – went on to become the 11th most-produced play of 2014. Now, in the first collaboration between Sonoma Arts Live and Napa’s award-winning Lucky Penny Productions, the comedy-drama has come to Andrews Hall, where it opened last night in the first of four performances.

The show arrives in town following a similarly swift run at the Lucky Penny Community Arts Center, where co-founder and artistic director Taylor Bartolucci took a break from the high-spirited musicals she’s been appearing in, taking her first full-on, non-singing dramatic role in over two years.

“Doing this show has been a breath of fresh air,” says actress-producer Taylor Bartolucci, of Lucky Penny Productions, laughing as she adds, “even though this is such an intense dramatic part. ‘Gidion’s Knot’ is such a superb piece of writing, and it’s been so refreshing to take it on, and to step into the shoes and skin of such a demanding character.”

In the production – which runs through Sunday – Bartolucci plays the mother of a small boy, Gidion, who has recently been expelled from school. Over the course of 80 minutes, played in real time, she locks horns with her son’s emotionally distraught teacher (played by Dyan McBride), debating a gradually unfolding array of topics including the state of education in America, freedom-of-speech, zero-tolerance rules, and what constitutes bullying amongst elementary school students.

Directed by Barry Martin, who spent most of last week relocating the compact classroom set from Napa to Sonoma, “Gidion’s Knot’ is the kind of show that causes audiences to side with one character, then the other, then both, back-and-forth for the duration of the show.

“I know that when I read it I was blown away, but I didn’t know how anyone else would react to this show when we did it in Napa,” Bartolucci says, having now performed it five times with Lucky Penny. “It’s not an easy show,” she allows, quickly adding the script balances its drama with plenty of dark humor and clever writing. “After the first performance, word got out,” she says, “and every performance had more people in the audience than the last one. As a producer, it’s been an extraordinary experience. I’ve never been thanked more, after a show, not ever. No show I’ve done has had this kind of audience response.”

Especially electrifying, she reports, were the post-show “talkback” sessions held with the cast and director.

“The talkbacks were sensational,” Bartolucci says. “We didn’t know if people would want to get the heck out or the theater, or stay and talk. But lots of people stayed. One night the entire audience stayed. Everyone just wanted to talk about what they’d just experienced together.”

Asked if talkbacks are part of the plan for the show’s Sonoma run, Bartolucci is enthusiastic.

“Oh, I think so,” she says. “I hope so, for at least some of the shows. I guess it will be up to the audiences in Sonoma. If people want to stay and talk, we’ll stay and talk.”

Contact David at david.templeton@sonomanews.com.

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