August 6, 2004





Careful, teacher's having a bad day


A stinging slap in the face of glib bromides about the salutary power of education, Robert Athayde's 1977 "Miss Margarida's Way" serves up plenty of dark sarcasm in the classroom, if not very persuasive thought control. Subtitled with withering quaintness "A Tragicomic Monologue for an Impetuous Woman," the play is a real-time nervous breakdown as well as a strident meditation on the hopelessly blurred line between authority and hypocrisy.


It is also, and perhaps above all, a grinding workout for a thoroughbred performer, and in Bonita Friedericy, director Bruce Wieland's sparkling new production has one of L.A.'s most mercurial, mordantly charming and out-and-out brilliant actors. Strutting and sidling with eerie precision around a set (by Susan Gratch) dominated by chalkboard green and the regulation wood-grain of schoolroom desks, Friedericy makes this bitter, scabrous, simpering monster of an eighth-grade teacher into an icon both hauntingly universal and unsettlingly immediate.


In chunky black shoes and lean, smart skirt ensemble (uncredited costumes), her wig a taut pile that's part laurel wreath, part sparrow's nest, the trash-talking Miss Margarida--pronounced "MAG-a-ree-da"--embodies the nightmare of discredited yet still empowered leadership. She transparently contradicts herself, flies wildly off the handle and mixes a toxic cocktail of hilariously blunt discouragement, digression and condescension.


A silent, shaggy student (Flannery Lunsford) sits to one side as the main target for Miss M's abuse, though Friedericy includes us all as stunned pupils caught in the headlight glare of her smilingly oppressive gaze.


A drunken second act wobbles but rights itself with an urgently suggestive climax, under Trevor Norton's exquisite lights, in which Miss M stumbles onto the meaning of life--or rather, given the play's epistemological preoccupations, the meaning of meaning.


For a solo show as provoking as it is virtuosic, "Miss Margarida's Way" is a primrose path indeed.

-- Rob Kendt


"Miss Margarida's Way," presented by Stage Door Johnny Productions at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. today and Aug. 14, 19, 20, 21; 7 p.m. Aug. 15 and 22. Ends Aug. 22. $15. (323) 860-9860. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.