A vibrant blue door frame matches the plastic moulded fifth-grade seats. The word “THINK” penned in calligraphy is the basis of an inspiring acrostic poem on the whiteboard. This brightly-lit classroom is the secretive world of “Gidion’s Knot,” which opened at the Aurora Theater in Berkeley and is running until March 9. In Aurora’s tiny, leveled box, the audience is transported back to huffing glue sticks and doodled binders.
“Gidion’s Knot,” directed by Jon Tracy, has only two characters– Gidion’s mother and his teacher– and takes place during their parent-teacher conference. Gidion’s suspension from his fifth grade class pits his mother’s unconditional love against his teacher’s responsibility to her students. The two strong female characters interact with dedicated understandings of their roles toward Gidion. His mother wants to protect and advocate for him, his teacher is concerned that she must protect other children from him.
The 75 minute play, part of Aurora’s “Global Age Project,” explores the topics of personal responsibility, authority and the often completely separate worlds of children and adults. Gidion’s mother knows nothing of her child’s school-life; having missed “Back to School Night” because of work, she walks right into Gidion’s classroom and asks his teacher of the office’s location.
The obvious draw of this play is raw emotion. Both characters believe they know what’s right and how to proceed. By the end of the play, both women have collapsed on the floor realizing that no one has the answers. The characters fling accusations like hand grenades, each one causing a bigger catastrophe than the last. With children’s realms becoming rapidly more insular, who really knows what was going on? In a world of ambiguity and confusion, how can someone, even a parent, truly know everything?
However, the real enjoyment in this play comes from its honesty. It shows personal perception as myopic at best. It shows two strong, successful women who still don’t know what to do. It shows irony and humor and being faced with your own flaws. The classroom has images of gods; Vishnu, Hermes and others because the children are learning about mythology. Gidion’s mother asks about the teacher’s Muslim students– do they think their gods are mythology? The teacher responds abashedly that they have no Muslims in their school.
The name of the play is itself anchored to mythology, referencing Alexander the Great cutting instead of trying to untie the Gordian Knot. By making a quick, militaristic action, the storied conqueror sliced the hallowed knot tied by an ancestor to prove there is more than one way to solve a problem. Before the play’s events unfold, Gidion has already severed his knot, and his clueless guardians are left to pick up the pieces.
Dialogue in “Gidion’s Knot” is quick and sharp. Since there are only two speakers in the play, no line is thrown away or unheard by the other character. Frequently, in the most uncomfortably voyeuristic moments, the audience groans a chuckle of agreement, even with tears forming in their eyes. When Heather, the teacher, brings Gidion’s sexuality into question, his mother staggers back. “Poor Seneca,” she grimaces, referring to the girl she recently discovered had a crush on Gidion. A fifth grade classroom, a mine-field–what’s the difference?
Each perceptive slice into our culture of shirking responsibility by playwright Johnna Adams only brings up more problems for the characters, showing that a many-headed Hydra was at the center of “Gidion’s Knot.” The supposed adults attempt to untie a confusion, but can only cut each other down. Adams mirrors the adults’ alacrity in the children’s squabbles, giving the play a shadow of inevitability. The play leaves the audience exhausted and unsettled; Adams provides no solutions to the problems presented, only silence and a couple of overturned desks.