From the first cagey moments of “Gidion’s Knot,” I knew the play would be grueling to process.
I didn’t, however, expect my mouth to drop open, my heart to hurt.
They did anyway.
My pledge: Because the two-woman play is a disturbing cat-and-mouse game and theatrical Rorschach test, viewers will find it virtually impossible to leave the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley unaffected.
Personal baggage will, of course, determine exactly how and what is experienced.
The tension-filled drama starts with an abrasive, in-your-face single mother — a walking open wound — demanding a constrained teacher tell her why she suspended the parent’s troubled son from his fifth-grade class.
The discussion that follows is often awkward.
But it’s also a fascinating examination of personal responsibility and blame, freedom of expression, the failure of our school systems, bullying and embryonic sexuality.
“Gidion’s Knot” is provocative, powerful and guaranteed to force theatergoers to hold their breath for what seems its entire 80 minutes.
The impact of the gut-wrenching, twist-and-turn tragedy comes when the angry, sarcastic mother, herself a professor used to academic probing, keeps pricking and questioning until she learns the truth.
At least her truth.
A working clock on a classroom wall helps maintain the sense of real time.
And the actors’ breathtaking depiction of passion, thoughtfulness and mood swings help keep the action authentic.
Playwright Johnna Adams demands playgoers think for themselves, so she supplies no pinpoint answers to the questions she poses: Are parents or schoolteachers ultimately responsible for pupils’ well-being? Is Gidion a bullying monster or sensitive, poetic victim? Is classmate Jake the bully or an object of affection?
Neither fifth grader appears on stage.
Nor does Seneca, an 11-year-old friend and note-passer described as having a stuffed bra, nose ring, false eyelashes and dyed platinum hair.
Tossed into the mix are references to censorship, freedom of expression, American society’s litigiousness, and our growing national fear of what’s ahead.
Sadly, “Gidion’s Knot” echoes all too many real-life headlines of recent years about individual tragedies caused by taunting, either in person or through social networking.
And, although it doesn’t reference those situations, it can’t block memories of schoolyard massacres.
Tension is director Jon Tracy’s forté, copious enough to make me — and most other seat-holders — uncomfortable.
Unrelentingly, in fact, all the way to the play’s final moments — except for a few snarky quips that let everyone find a smidgeon of relief through nervous laughter.
Part of the unease, by the way, stems from the two characters (and audience) waiting for someone to arrive.
As “Gidion’s Knot” unravels its multi-leveled conflicts and complexities — from an exploration of Greek and Roman military history and epic poetry to a tale of revenge against teachers and disembowelment — it may require a strong stomach.
I could hear erratic gasps in the audience.
Nina Ball’s set is a deceptively cheery contrast through which she’d dragged me into a 20-desk classroom and its reference maps and academic materials in Anytown, USA.
The setting’s so effective I could almost see the portraits of gods tacked onto an invisible wall explored by the distraught mom, who reveals she could best relate to a demon-destroying Hindu god, Shiva.
Destruction just happens to be another underlying theme of “Gidion’s Knot.
So’s the Marquis de Sade.
Then, of course, there’s the metaphoric Gordian Knot, which — legend tells us — Alexander the Great decided to slice rather than untie. The phrase, of course, has become a means of representing having to face an intractable problem.
What’s absent in this dazzling play is artifice — despite the presence of polemics and diatribes.
What’s present is actors whose performances are flawlessly multi-layered, facilitating my feeling their respective pain.
I flinched as the mother asked disingenuously, “This doesn’t have to be adversarial, does it?”
But the sold-out audience was right there as the mother, Corryn Fell (Jamie J. Jones), and teacher, Heather Clark (Stacy Ross), struggled to untangle the web of what really happened.
Where a playgoer travels emotionally and intellectually will determine whether “Gidion’s Knot” is loved or tagged offensive and too harrowing.
I fall in the first niche, glad I was there despite the work required.
The opening night crowd also had no doubt: In unison, it gave it a thunderous standing ovation.
“Gidion’s Knot” runs at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, through March 9. Night performances, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Tuesdays and Sundays, 7 p.m.; matinees, Sundays, 2 p.m. Tickets: $16-$50. Information: www.auroratheatre.org or (510) 843-4822.