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Susan Mach's 'A Noble Failure': The Limits of the Test

Rolland Walsh, left, Rosalyn Davies and Bruce Burkhartsmeier star in Susan Mach's "A Noble Failure."

Rolland Walsh, left, Rosalyn Davies and Bruce Burkhartsmeier star in Susan Mach’s “A Noble Failure.”

Owen Carey

During my one visit to Disney World in Orlando, I had one overwhelming feeling: Everything here has been measured. The length of the rides was just barely long enough to “justify” the length of time spent waiting for my turn. The volume of soft drink per dollar, determined to the thousandth of a penny, stopped just this side of “outrageous.” The social engineers had predicted my behavior and directed it as much as possible to squeeze as many of those tiny increments of cash from my pocket as possible.

Now, I believe in “measure twice, cut once” as much as anyone. But I hate the idea that EVERYTHING can and should be measured, which is one of the reasons I gravitate toward the arts. Great art never feels “measured.” Quite the opposite. It feels immeasurable.

Another thing that feels immeasurable to me is education. Sure, we can create metrics around education and take a gross stab at figuring out whether our students learn particular elements of math and English. But it’s a gross stab. Learning isn’t linear; it arrives in fits and starts. And the arrival of the”big picture,” the moment of useful integration of knowledge, can take… decades.

My thoughts about education and measurement put me at odds with the law of the land (which is No Child Left Behind), but they align me just about perfectly with local playwright Susan Mach’s new play, A Noble Failure, a smart, sharp and polished play, which premiered this weekend at Third Rail Repertory Theatre. (Arts & Life has a video clip from rehearsal.)

Bruce Burkhartsmeier plays a crusty veteran principal in Susan Mach's "A Noble Failure."

Bruce Burkhartsmeier plays a crusty veteran principal in Susan Mach’s “A Noble Failure.”

Owen Carey

Mach also opposes the centrality of testing in No Child Left Behind, and she opposes the privatization of public education. These issues are the backdrop of A Noble Failure, and thanks in part to a set of outstanding acting performances, astutely balanced by director Philip Cuomo, the human consequences of testing and privatization get a good airing.

The action occurs at Fillmore High in a decaying neighborhood in an unnamed city. Principal Truman Spencer (Bruce Burkhartsmeier) is trying to roll with the punches of the “administration” and lessen the impact of their initiatives on his best teachers, including Rosalyn Davies (Jacklyn Maddux), as well as newcomers like Darren Loftus (John San Nicolas). And, of course, he has to deal with troubled kids like Ivan (Rolland Walsh), too.

The principal is about to get some “help,” in the form of Barbara (Maureen Porter), who’s an education efficiency expert, ready to apply her skills at teaching to the test to help raise those vital scores at Fillmore. And the administration sends in a lawyer to “help,” too, Hank (Gavin Hoffman), who is establishing the legal basis for the layoffs that are coming.

As Barbara, Porter has the most delicious lines, such as, “poverty, poverty, blah blah blah” and “sometimes my marketing background gets the best of me.” She’s the perfect, articulate villainess, determined to bulldoze anyone in her path, without a moment’s skepticism about those tests she teaches to or a thought about what real education is. Hoffman doubles down on this narrow definition and role: They are cogs in the bureaucratic machine, and the REAL results simply don’t matter.

Go See It

A Noble Failure at Third Rail Repertory Theatre

  • January 11 - February 3
  • Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
  • Winningstad Theater, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland
  • Visit Third Rail website

The audience at my Sunday matinee was older and from their reaction to the shabby treatment of the wonderful teacher Rosalyn, you could tell that they were surprised at the implacability of the test machinery and its human servants.

Two side issues during the play also seemed to resonate with them. The first was how easy it is to “cheat” the test. (This is apparently a widespread problem: Here’s a link to a Frontline story on Michelle Rhee’s reform experiment in Washington, D.C., for example.) The second? Where does The Rime of the Ancient Mariner fit into a pedagogy that is all about testing? How about Hamlet? How do we measure the effect of great literature or art or history (not the textbook variety) on students and by extension … us? 

And this is where we came in, yes? We can’t. Not really. Maybe we can test a kid’s reading comprehension or short-term memory. But what’s the value of the soliloquy in Hamlet that the troubled student recites at the end of the play. 

“O God! God! / How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, / seem to me all the uses of
this world! / Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden, / that grows to seed; things rank and
gross in nature / possess it merely.”

He is in the process of returning a book of Shakespeare to Rosalyn’s library, one she’s given him for his own. But he figures there is a use for Hamlet, and he shouldn’t keep it to himself: “Ms. Davies, someday somebody’s going to need this. I gotta go.”

Sitting in the audience, I think we all had the same anxiety.

What if someday someone DOES need Shakespeare, and he’s not there to help, simply because we can’t fit him into a test? And we shuddered at this peek at a world that does not contain Hamlet.

Barry Johnson edits Oregon Arts Watch, where he frequently writes about theater, dance and the arts.

Susan Mach "A Noble Failure" Third Rail Repertory Theatre

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