The Beserker Residents' immersive comedy It's So Learning, a 2015 Fringe Festival hit revived at FringeArts, is a time machine. We're transported back to elementary school: the energy and excitement, anticipation and anxiety, humor and horror.
Get to class
We're given name tags and held in the lobby until show time, then allowed to rush in like it's the first day of school. The ensemble -- Beserker founders Justin Jain, David Johnson, and Bradley K. Wrenn, joined by Dawn Falato and Lee Minora -- play broadly stereotypical teachers, though I recall real-life counterparts for each of them from my school years. They herd us like the aimlessly curious animals we are, assigning each a child-sized chair and backpack of supplies, and class begins.
Part of the 75-minute show's fun is the Beserkers' satire of teachers and school. Each of four teachers takes a side of our square classroom on the FringeArts mainstage (curtained off so the usual audience seats are hidden) and we're forced to turn instantly from one instructor to another as they teach lessons. Often, their approaches and instructions are contradictory: Something allowed by one, like snacking, gets punished by another. One builds our self-esteem with platitudes, another shapes our psyches with tough-love insults and threats. Each slyly snipes at the others and pushes his or her own philosophical agenda, especially Johnson's cool teacher, the subversive teacher we all had who confides to us that school is a sham and we must think for ourselves.
It's a dizzying experience -- just like elementary school, when everything was new and flew at us from all sides, a barrage of information and rules -- but the Beserkers' serious commentary shines through the manic fun.
Everyone must participate. I saw people 30 years younger than me and 20 years older embrace the show in similar ways, united by our common experience in the US school system. Our name tags allow the teachers to instantly call on us. Moreover, performance rules insist the audience not carry in coats, purses, or other encumbrances of our adult lives, and we're not allowed to take notes -- except, of course, during the lecture on Lord of the Flies, for which a notebook is provided.
Motivated by a promised pizza party and other rewards, we're subjected to a barrage of questions in a "brainstorm" competition where instant answers are required for a vast array of random questions, plus a final exam with a fitting surprise ending. The show's nonstop immersion amuses, though answers don't come fast enough to minds years removed from school. That any actual learning occurs through all this activity -- in It's So Learning or real school -- remains open to doubt, but the absurdity of again being herded through rituals meant to prepare us for life is endearing, hilarious, and more than a little frightening.
Nevertheless, this might be one of the most enjoyable experiences I've ever had in an interactive show (a form toward which I confess my reticence). It's So Learning succeeds because the elementary-school situation imprints on us for life and remains familiar, despite the years, and because the Beserker Residents conjure it with intelligence, insight, and warmth.