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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Little girls! I am in the business of putting old heads on young shoulders, and all my pupils are the crème de la crème. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life. -- Miss Jean Brodie

Sarah Marshall is indeed "in her prime" in Studio Theatre's newest production of the Muriel Spark classic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The novel, which has been made into a play, movie and television series, follows the exploits of a charismatic spinster schoolteacher at a traditional all-girls academy in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Miss Brodie, a magnetic leader with unabashed favorites who are known as "The Brodie Set," is a force to be reckoned with as she makes pronouncements about life, religion, politics, love and art to her students. The fact that she is delusional, grandiose, self-obsessed and an ego maniac just adds to the fun. Completely without self-reflection to cause her to look at the impact of her words and actions, she becomes a lightening rod for conflict as her forceful manner causes some to wonder how much harm she may be causing the students she has been hired to teach.

For this newest adaptation of Ms. Spark's novel, playwright Jay Presson Allen has revised her own original play (first produced in 1968) to include more of the music and art of the time period, as well as keeping the story line truer to Ms. Spark's multi-layered book. It's an interesting adaptation which showcases Miss Brodie against the charismatic leaders she admires -- Caesar, Mussolini, Franco and Hitler, while also highlighting her as a savior of young minds by immersing a Christ-like religious theme into the play.

Thus Miss Brodie is a whirlwind of contradictions which make her appear to be a great hypocrite. She romanticizes Mussolini and fascism, while disparaging group mentality. She derides Catholics while having an affair with one. She says she is creating thinkers but is really simply creating junior Miss Brodies. She has a habit of not bothering to teach mathematics and focusing solely on the arts -- of course that means teaching only the arts of which she approves while condemning the small minds of those around her who feel science is an important subject of concern.

Seemingly larger than life, she immediately inspires her girls while aggravating the school's head, mistress Miss Mackay, as well as many of the other instructors. It is a mutual feeling since Miss Brodie feels everyone at the Marcia Blane School is beneath her in intellect, vision, ability and appeal. She's a big fish in a little pond and thinks she is beyond the reach of any of the smaller minds she encounters. Unfortunately, she is not beyond the reach of her students and when one betrays her by informing Miss Mackay about Miss Brodie's classroom political discussions, Miss Brodie's prime begins to disintegrate, along with her confidence.

Director Joy Zinoman has pulled together a well-balanced cast, although this show is really all Miss Brodie, a.k.a. Ms. Marshall. From the moment she walks on stage wearing a devilish grin and a sideways glance the audience is ready to erupt into applause. It's a star treatment that, to Ms. Marshall's credit, she quickly transcends by pulling us into the black comedy's plot about betrayal, love, brainwashing and what constitutes appropriate teaching methods.

Ms. Zinoman has utilized Ms. Marshall's unique speech cadence and wacky stage persona to bring Miss Brodie's self-inflated ego into full bloom. With every nod, smile and intonation of "crème de la crème," Sarah Marshall uses her quirky humor to take audiences on a fun ride through education's darker side. Thus we are treated to Jean Brodie's travels to the Mediterranean with pictures showcasing a huge grinning face of Ms. Marshall in the forefront of historic ruins and classic paintings. (One wishes Studio would sell them as postcards in their gift shop.) It's all very clear from the get go -- in Miss Jean Brodie's mind at least -- that Miss Jean Brodie is the center of the universe. Which reminds one of a quote attributed to Martha Graham -- "I think you'll find, wherever I am is the center of the stage."

Studio's production is filled with chanting, Scottish music, interesting projections and a constantly evolving stage. Daniel Conway's two-story set creates an old world feel with dark wood and brass, filtered by Michael Giannitti's lighting and Erik Trester's projections, which magically appear above the set. Alex Jaeger's costumes have Ms. Marshall dressed in red and purple hues completely contrasting to the somber greys and dark colors of the other teachers and nuns.

Terrific performances are also given by Catherine Flye as Miss Mackay, David Adkins as Teddy Lloyd, Richard Stirling as Gordon Lowther, Sarah Grace Wilson as Sandy Stranger, Elizabeth Chomko as Jenny Gray, Mary C. Davis as Monica Douglas and Ellen Warner as Mary Macgregor.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is interesting in that it is not a simple good/bad morality play, which could put some audience members off of the story. While the novel's Miss Brodie has a far darker personality, the book does more fully intone the idea that no one at the Marcia Blaine School is completely innocent or entirely evil. Unfortunately due to time limitations, the play combines characters and abbreviates some of the story, thus we don't get a picture of Miss Brodie's eventual influence upon the lives of her girls.

Director Zinoman steps into this moral ambiguity by providing us with a Jean Brodie who seems less calculating than simply unaware of her impact on impressionable young minds. This Miss Brodie, for all her faults and bad judgement, does have a few good points. Coming across as larger-than-life, she is inspiring to her girls, pushes them to think beyond the limited scope of their upbringings and eschews them to look past their everyday environment to the romance of living life. Unfortunately the students have nothing in their lives with which to balance Miss Brodie's influential storytelling. Thus you understand why they are transfixed by her presence.

Definitely in its prime, Studio's production will keep your attention until the last curtain call.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
by Jay Presson Allen
based upon the book by Muriel Spark
Directed by Joy Zinoman
with Sarah Marshall, Catherine Flye, David Adkins, Richard Stirling, Sarah Grace Wilson, Elizabeth Chomko, Mary C. Davis, Ellen Warner, Simone Grossman, Meghan Fay, Darcy Pommerening, Mackenzie Jo Pardi, Fiona Blackshaw, Sarah Fischer, Talisa Friedman, Caroline Gotschall, Rose McConnell, Elizabeth H. Richards
Set Design: Daniel Conway
Sound Design: Gil Thompson
Lighting Design: Michael Giannitti
Costume Design: Alex Jaeger
Projections: Erik Trester
Dialect Coach: Elizabeth van den Berg
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission
The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW
Telephone: 202-332-3300
WED - SAT @8, SAT-SUN @ 2, SUN @7; $32-$52
Opening 03/08/06, closing 04/15/06
Reviewed by Rich See based on 03/12/06 performance
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© 2006  Elyse Sommer.