With ‘Office Hour’, a Gun-Obsessed Country Still Hunts for Answers
ArtsWest’s latest, which runs through May 26, considers the lead-up to a mass shooting while tempering the more shocking displays of violence in the play.
There’s a scene in the middle of Julia Cho’s Office Hour unlike any of its other scenes. Sickly fluorescent lighting is replaced by steely action-movie tones. Dramatic string music swells. And the play’s characters, all moving in labored slow motion, take turns shooting one another over and over and over.
Out of context, the scene is absurdly overwrought. In context, the scene is still absurdly overwrought — and a perfect distillation of the American obsession with gun violence. It’s a dream ballet plunged into the realm of delusional fantasy.
Office Hour, now on stage at ArtsWest in a production helmed by artistic director Mathew Wright, was written by Cho in response to the Virginia Tech killings, briefly the deadliest mass shooting by a single person in U.S. history. In the play, a harried adjunct instructor, Gina (Naho Shioya), tries to get inside the mind of her troubled student, Dennis (Christian Quinto), during their regular meeting during her office hours.
Cho’s play is torn between the conceptual and the actual. As a meditation on America’s new normal, where unthinkable violence barely shocks us, it’s often terribly effective, the playwright’s gall sitting just below the surface.
The play’s structure is deliberately distancing, with frequent blackouts where the action rewinds, and we see the scene continue in a different direction. Whether these are alternate universes or simply Gina envisioning all possible scenarios, the conceit has a distinct effect on audience expectations when the inevitable appearance of a gun arrives. (Unlike some earlier productions that used live blanks, ArtsWest opts for significantly less jarring recorded gunshot sounds.)
As a conceptual piece, the play’s pervasive sense of dread overrides the dramatic shortcomings in its jagged fragments of scenes. It’s more difficult to accept Office Hours as pure abstraction when it becomes apparent how closely Dennis is modeled on Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. Dennis is an English major with a fondness for writing ultraviolent fiction (like Seung-Hui Cho, he has an affinity for the term “ass-rape”), and his disturbingly sullen silence only adds to the concern.
Before it essentially becomes a two-hander, a prologue features two of Dennis’s previous instructors, Genevieve (Varinique Davis) and David (Nik Doner), warning Gina about her new student — “a classic shooter,” David calls him. But they’re also looking to her to do something about this kid.
“You guys must have stuff in common — not psychologically but, you know, a background,” Genevieve offers. Like Dennis, Gina is Asian American, and it’s a reference point that Cho does pull on to extract humanity from an initially blank cipher.
There’s a stronger point of connection though. David, in his final pitch to Gina, says, “It’s not normal to not talk ever. It’s not normal to be that isolated. It’s not normal to be that sad.”
Gina: “It isn’t? I mean, isn’t it?”
That sense of empathy underpins Shioya’s performance, which moves from trepidation to tenderness and back again, her growing understanding of her student suddenly whiplashing to square one. Quinto’s performance evolves more slowly, from statue-still, ensconced in a hoodie and dark sunglasses, to soul-baring.
But no matter how compelling the actors are — and Shioya and Quinto do fine work — the callbacks to a real person who committed a heinous crime raise uncomfortable hypotheticals. Is Cho suggesting a well-meaning teacher could’ve prevented Seung-Hui Cho from murdering 32 people if they had been willing to lend a sympathetic ear? Is she suggesting there’s literally nothing anyone could have done to stop him? This is a play that could support either reading.
Office Hour is more about the moral morass in the middle, where there’s no easy answer, and despite its formal trappings, it’s meant to be a visceral experience more than an intellectual one. It’s completely understandable why ArtsWest shied away from firing blanks, but it unquestionably robs the play of its guttural anguish.
Office Hour runs through 5/26 at ArtsWest in West Seattle. Tickets are $42, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Dusty Somers is a lifelong Seattleite whose love of the arts has resulted in a distressingly large physical media collection. Right about now, he’s probably watching a movie, seeing a play or listening to a record. He has covered theatre for City Arts, The Seattle Times, and NWTheatre.