Review: ‘School Play’ and playing at being schooled

 Terry Brennan in Tribe of Fools' production of 'School Play.' (Photo courtesy of Nick Mazzuca)

Terry Brennan in Tribe of Fools' production of 'School Play.' (Photo courtesy of Nick Mazzuca)

Lucky Terry Brennan – he gets to play not just a fourth grader, but one who celebrates life with abandon. Or, as his teacher Miss Jackson might say, that boy can’t sit still for a minute! “School Play” is a production from Tribe of Fools and Brennan is its artistic leader – and anyone who follows the work of that stage company knows that no one can sit still for a minute.

“School Play” is the company’s first Philadelphia opening outside the Philadelphia Fringe Festival – Tribe of Fools has produced the dark-horse hit of the festival several times. The group devises its own work, and has a playful and keen insight into the quirks that make Philadelphia what it is. Shows have taken on the Mummers, the Parking Authority, South Philly macho and the like. The productions are as physical as they are articulate about their subject matter. Performers sometimes make their points by bouncing from somewhere near the stage rafters – you get the picture.

“School Play” has much of this, all rolled into Brennan’s sweet and swift portrayal of himself as a nine year old – correction – 9.5 year old, as he insists in his little-guy persona. He developed and wrote the one-man show with Jack Tamburri, its director, after thinking about how hard school had been for him; Brennan, as we like to say today, “learned differently” from the standard model. If he was anything like the little Terry Brennan of “School Play,” Miss Jackson and all the others were far more underpaid than even teachers in general.

In his high-top red sneakers, red outfit, Mario tee-shirt and Phillies cap, Brennan looks like the elementary-school type. But from the moment he comes onto the playing space at St. Peter’s School in Center City, he’s an electric spark that shoots randomly and without control – it’s no wonder that the kids in the audience the night I saw “School Play” swooned with delight. He is every kid they roll their eyes at. And sometimes he probably is them.

Boring class? Then play with your pencil in any way you can, when you’re not asking time and again to sharpen it. History project due? Write about something you like, not necessarily history. In this case, wouldn’t you know it, the subject he chooses is Parkour – the art of moving quickly from one point to another with only your body as a prop. This, Brennan does with style, from a backward flip early in the barely one-hour show to some agile work getting in and out of a traditional desk-topped chair.

It’s not always zany. When Miss Jackson – never seen because she’s offstage – slams her ruler as a sign of disapproval (she does this a lot), young Terry is often crestfallen, just a fraction away from tears of remorse and hurt feelings. That’s one of the dynamics that make “School Play” so relatable. No matter who might be trying to make fun of him or hand him a mean note or flash a dismissive look, he knows when his worst enemy is himself.

Kyle Yackoski’s sound design supplies everything from the ruler smacks to the flatulence (yes, we have to have that in a kid-joke show) and even with Brennan’s energy, the production wouldn’t work nearly as well without the effects. “School Play” is a part of this year’s SoLow Fest, a festival of one-person shows from about 40 artists that officially begins Thursday and runs through June 25.

“School Play,” produced by Tribe of Fools, is at St. Peter’s School, on Lombard Street between Third and Fourth Streets. Tribeoffools.org.

For more information about SoLow Fest, visit solowfest.com.

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