Children's story by Cal grad takes the stage
By John Angell GrantAs children's book author Louis Sachar tells how he got into writing, it was 1976 in Berkeley, he was an undergrad at Cal, and a girl on the street handed him a flyer. Her elementary school was looking for teacher's aides, offering three points of college credit in exchange.
Sachar signed up. And from that experience later emerged his first children's novel, "Sideways Stories from Wayside School."
Although the book found a publisher during his first week as a student at Hastings Law School in San Francisco, it took more than a decade, and several more books, before Sachar was able to quit his day job as a lawyer and support himself with his writing.
In 2001, Seattle Children's Theater premiered a stage adaptation of "Sideways Stories from Wayside School." A production of the show found its way to the Bay Area this month and is now running at the Historic Hoover Theater in San Jose, presented by Renegade Theatre Experiment.
"Sideways Stories from Wayside School" is a play for kids. If you go, take a 6-year-old along for your maximum enjoyment.
This stage adaptation is basically a compression of stories from the novel into a 90-mintue show. In the San Jose production, multiple characters from the book are condensed into five students.
At Wayside School, as it turns out, the architect goofed. Instead of designing 30 classrooms on one floor, he built 30 floors, each with one room, and no elevator. It's in the classroom at the top that all the weird action takes place.
Peninsula funnyman Jim Johnson, a veteran of many local theater productions, is the horrifying classroom teacher Mrs. Gorf (in drag), a screeching harridan with warts who hates children. The students Mrs. Gorf dislikes, she turns into apples.
Mrs. Gorf asks one terrified student to count from one to 100 - alphabetically. (Example: eight comes first, then eighteen ...)
Returning in the second half of the show as Mrs. Gorf's son, Johnson cranks up the energy even higher, falling to the floor in a frantic fetal position to suck his thumb when he encounters stress, before turning totally evil in a highlight segment about the conflict between fear and empowerment in the daunting and terrifying world of elementary school children.
As Mrs. Jewls, a lively and charismatic Alika Spencer comes to the rescue as the good teacher. How do we know she's good? Mrs. Jewls is up front about herself, and offers to answer any questions from the students (who proceed to ask how many people she has kissed, and how much money she earns). Answers: kissed 31, earns $39,000.
Elsewhere, lively Jenny Rich is student Leslie, a girl who reads and writes upside down, necessitating standing on her head to read the whiteboard.
Wayside School story elements include pigtail dipping, a Twilight Zone-like visit to the building's imaginary 19th floor, hypnosis by the school counselor, mind control by evil forces, a tornado, and that delicious cafeteria snack rutabaga cake with crunchy noodle topping.
Designer Courtney Flores does a striking job with the riotously bright school costumes, in strikingly vivid color combinations. The students make wonderful music (courtesy of arranger Derek Batoyon) on a variety of nonsense instruments.
"Wayside School" is a story of pupil empowerment in the classroom. If I were 6 or 7 years old, I think I'd like this show. I checked with the two youngest in the audience the night I attended, and they both gave "Wayside School" a thumbs-up.
Rating: Two stars
E-mail John Angell Grant at firstname.lastname@example.org.