Posts Tagged ‘student actors’

Hilarious & Irreverent ‘Spelling Bee’

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

One of the opening numbers at the Spelling Bee

By Marcia E. Gawecki

Today at 2 p.m. is the final show of the “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a hilarious and irreverant comedy, by the Idyllwild Arts Theatre Department. If the last two shows were any indication, you may want to arrive early so that you can get a seat.

The show centers on a middle school spelling bee in the fictional town of Putnam Valley. We get to learn a lot about its six quirky contestants, including Olive, a latchkey kid whose mother ran off to an ashram, played by Ruby; Logan, a German immigrant with a lisp and two dads, played by Erin; Barfee, an egghead who writes with his feet, played by Shane; Chip, an over stimulated Boy Scout played by Preston; Leaf, a simpleton tree hugger, played by Joey, and Marci, an Asian overachiever, played by Miracle.

Panch, the proctor, played by Devon and Rona the host, played by Paulina, add much of the adult humor and keep this musical comedy rolling along. Throughout the show, keep a close ear to Panch, who offers the words in an NPR-sounding whisper, yet provides raunchy examples when asked to use them in a sentence.

For her part, Rona is host, but she’s still living out her glory days as a spelling bee winner. The author, Rachel Sheinkin, likes to tell many of the back-stories in flashback, with lights, smoke, and characters that appear out of nowhere.

Meeche, played by Becca, is the “comfort counselor,” who is at the spelling bee because of her parole. Like many characters in this play, she’s a stereotype. She’s a macho Mexican gang member, who wears a bandana and leather jacket. She’s the one who ushers the students offstage when they lose. Yet, towards the end of the show, she reveals her tender side, wanting to give the students real life advice–instead of just a hug and a juice box.

Poster as seen on the Idyllwild Arts campus

The best part of the show is the audience participation. While standing in line, several attendees were asked if they wanted to be a “volunteer.”  That meant that they would go up onstage and participate in the spelling bee show.

This added a homespun element to all of the shows, including the one on Saturday, May 22. Among those chosen were students and teachers at Idyllwild Arts, including Macarena, a dancer; Martin, a violinist, and Molly Newman, a composition teacher. Ironically, Molly was eliminated early, while Macarena and Martin stayed on for at least four words.

Like the others in the show, Macarena, who is Mexican, was asked to spell only Mexican words, and Martin, who is from Singapore, was given only easy words, “because he just learned English a few minutes ago.”

Although this show is a farce–and you’ll see some surprises at the end–the author may have gone too far with Asian stereotypes. Marci, the Asian overachieving contestant, speaks six languages, twirls a baton and takes karate, yet only gets three hours of sleep each night.

However, Martin, the Asian volunteer, although cute, looked stupid, while Panch’s definitions for his easy words didn’t fit. It appears that Sheinkin borrowed from the racially insensitive humor of “Long Duk Dong,” an Asian foreign exchange student from “Sixteen Candles,” a 1984 teen movie starring Molly Ringwald. I sat next to a father and a young Asian girl, who didn’t understand any of it. Pity the poor Pop who had to explain things later.

Yet, no one minority group seemed to go unscathed in “Spelling Bee.” For example, Logan, the young German girl, who spoke and sang with a lisp, has two fathers, or a gay couple, as parents. They hover like helicopters throughout the show, pushing Logan to her stress limits.

“Don’t talk to me about stamina, Carl,” one of them quips.

In another scene, they take a picture of Logan to send to her “B.M.,” which is not poop, but an abbreviation for her birth mother, who naturally, lives in a trailer park in Kansas.

Although the contestants were the focus of the show, the parents of Olive (played by Melissa and CD), gave a heart-wrenching duet of their breakup.

No children or adults in the audience can ever spell all the words that the contestants were asked, including strabismus, capybara, boanthropy, phylactery, omphaloskepsis, crepuscule, flagellate and tittup, to name a few.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” won some Emmys on Broadway, including “best book.” To help with the show, the assistant choreographer from the Broadway show came up to Idyllwild for a couple of days to help out with the dance numbers. Brooke, who was a contestant and dance captain in the show, said it was great to have her there. You can see her professional mark on everything, including a slow-motion dance piece.

To add to the authenticity, all the songs, dance tunes and sound effects were played each night by musicians at Idyllwild Arts, including Patrick Doran-Sheeran, the conductor who also played drums; Nelms McKelvain, a piano teacher on piano; Georgina on keyboards; Una on percussion; Shen on clarinet and Monica on cello.

“It’s always a great experience to learn different types of music,” said Una. “It’s great for your resume, and at the end of the show, they give us pizza.”

The final show of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is at 2 p.m. today, Sunday, May 23, at the IAF Theater (in the Bowman building) on the Idyllwild Arts campus. All shows are free and open to the public. For more information, visit

Copyright 2010 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

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Welcome Home: Play Review

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

By Marcia E. Gawecki

“I’ve seen my show,” said Howard Shangraw, head of the Idyllwild Arts Theater Department, to the cast and crew of “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter.”

He was giving these students the ultimate compliment. He was pleased with the final rehearsal and their stellar performance. Even if no one came (in the aftermath of a 12-inch snowstorm that hit Idyllwild that weekend), he was happy.

“Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” is a modern play that focuses on a wounded Marine now back from Iraq who is trying to “find her way home” through the help of misfits from Slab City. As outlined in the playbill, this show has become part of a national trend of theater performances that are shining a harsh light on Iraq’s seven-year war.

“This is one woman’s story about her own war experience,” Howard said. “If there’s any message here, it’s this: war is hell.”

The show’s stark reality started with the set. In center stage, wrapped around a large pole, was an American flag, our nation’s symbol of freedom. Yet, this one s soiled and tattered, and created from large strips of rags–the backdrop of an brutal story.

Behind the flagpole was a large, floor-to-ceiling video screen that featured flashbacks of ongoing gun battles and bomb explosions complete with sound effects. Other times, it served as a simple scene changer from a hospital, to a bus station, and then to Slab City, Jenny’s remote “haven” in Southern California.

“The video was our idea,” said Howard, proudly. “At one part in the script, the playwright suggested some slide scenes, but we decided that ongoing video and slides would really enhance the show.”

Howard said that Eric Bulrice, the set designer, an award-winning Idyllwild Arts graduate, went to Slab City, and shot stills of its drab, concrete reality, and even found videos of gun battles. Everything worked out well visually, and if there were any glitches during the show on Saturday night, January 23rd, they were not evident to the audience.

The beauty of a small cast, six in all, is that the audience gets to see the characters fully develop. We know their pasts, their idiosyncrasies, their hopes, their dreams and all the while, we’re cheering for them. At the final curtain bow, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. However, those were not tears of sadness, but of appreciation for a remarkable story well told.

“I couldn’t stop crying for about an hour after the show,” said Dominique DeRoss, a visual arts student, and roommate of Carter Smith, one of the cast members. “I was emotional because I was so proud of my roommate. I know how hard she worked on her performance, and she was so great!”

The show opens with Jenny Sutter, played by Amenta Abioto, being carried into a hospital on a stretcher. “I can carry my own weight!” she snaps at the two Marines, giving us a taste of her exploding anger, frustration and bitterness. It’s also where we first learn that Jenny has a prosthetic leg, a war wound that she obsesses over.

“The leg is not really a typical plastic prosthetic,” explained Howard. “That would have cost us $1,000, but it’s a wrap around one made mostly out of material. I believe it worked.”

Jenny, at odds with her new home environment, watches bus after bus leave the station, until Hugo, an attendant wittingly played by Juwan Lockett, takes notice. He asks about her destination, and she tells him to mind his own business, her eyes flashing. He is quirky–killing cockroaches with his shoe and shouting in glee–yet relentless in getting her to move on. Jenny is as guarded here as she was back there.

Carter Scott, who plays Lou, a loveable, yet neurotic, compulsive gambler-drinker-smoker-thief-and-sex-addict, befriends Jenny and takes her home with her to Slab City, a former WWII Marine base without water or electricity.

“How did I get here?” Jenny asks Lou, obviously appalled by her lowly surroundings, including all the quirky misfits who live there. Buddy, played by Riley Lynch, is Lou’s boyfriend, a physically handicapped lay minister who retells simple triumphs.

“What’s his story?” Jenny asks Lou, as Buddy limps away.

“When he was young, Buddy served as a ‘punching bag’ for his parents, until a neighbor took him out of a shopping cart one day and saved him,” Lou explains. “His parents never came looking for him.”

Buddy’s shoulders stoop, his arms hang awkwardly at their sides, and he limps. His physical ailments are not befitting his young age. Unlike Jenny, however, Buddy chooses not to focus on his physical shortcomings, but tries to heal the world instead.

Lou’s other friends, including Cheryl, her  “psychologist,” played by Madeline Otto, and Donald, a withdrawn weirdo, played by Joey Jennings, serve as the show’s comic relief.

Cheryl, in her business suit and comfortable flats, follows Lou around, encouraging her to abstain from all her vices. “She’s not really a psychologist, you know, but a hairdresser from Hemet,” Donald quips as he “outs” her to the others. “If you really want to help Lou, give her a perm!”

Joey, who wore a knit cap and eye shadow on his cheeks, wasn’t easily recognizable by his family members in the audience.

“I knew it had to be him because there’s only six cast members,” said his aunt from Idyllwild. “He just looked so different, but he stole every scene he was in.”

Like the other cast members, Joey visited Slab City with Howard before the show and met his real life counterpart. With his monotone voice, and eyes that darted sideways, Joey nailed Donald’s tragic character. Donald withdrew from society after he saw a truck crush his best friend to death.

“I miss people,” he admits to Jenny after their first kiss.

Yet, as we watch Jenny have nightmares, battle scene flashbacks, and angry encounters with everyone, we know she’s strong and is going to be all right. Her physical and emotional scars are situational–not rooted in youth.

The bomb, that was planted in a baby’s diaper at an Iraqi checkpoint, went off, killing 23 other Marines, and caused Jenny to lose her leg. That remarkable and grim reality of war wasn’t discussed much in the show. Perhaps playwright Julie Marie Myatt didn’t want to preach.

“How do you live with that?” Jenny screams at Donald near the end of the show. “Twenty-three people died because I didn’t check a baby’s diaper!”

Even when the scenes involved other characters, Howard kept Jenny onstage. “I wanted her emotional turmoil to be ever-present,” he said.

Yet, it is Lou, who makes Jenny remember her obligations. “I’ve seen your breasts, and those are breasts that have nursed children!” Lou exclaims.

“Quit looking at my breasts!” Jenny shouts back.

“You have children, for God’s sake! You can turn your back on your parents, friends, and brothers and sisters, sure. But not your children!” Lou announces in a woman-to-woman confrontation that leaves the audience tearful.

Another powerful scene was somehow created in slow motion onstage. When a balloon pops at her “Welcome Home” party, Jenny instinctively pulls Lou and Donald to the ground, covering them from the “bomb.” When they all realize it was only a broken balloon, there’s an awkward silence as Jenny and Lou struggle to stand up. Then Donald laughs hysterically, and we all hate him for it.

After the party disaster, Lou found solace in booze and cigarettes. When he finds her, Buddy doesn’t preach. We get a good idea on how emotionally fragile everyone is.

In the final scene, Jenny and Lou are back at the bus station. Jenny is headed home to Oceanside, while Lou is off chasing rainbows.

“Go back to Buddy,” Jenny encourages, believing for a second she has a chance for a real relationship. But we know it’s going to take years of therapy to undo those damages of youth. We know somehow Jenny is going to make it. She’ll get physical therapy at the VA Hospital, spend time with her two girls, and piece her life back together. Maybe she’ll even forgive herself.

“God, give me something to believe in,” Jenny kept pleading in her nightmares. Lou said that she could identify with that too. Left with an uncertain ending to the Iraqi war, it’s a plea that we all can share.

Copyright 2010 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

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Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

By Marcia E. Gawecki

How do you prepare teenagers for a play about the ravages of war when no one has ever served in one, let alone met anyone in the military?

“Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” Idyllwild Arts Academy’s recent play, will be presented this weekend, January 22-24. It’s about a young woman Marine who returns home from the war in Iraq–disfigured, disillusioned and unable to reconnect with her family. Yet, she finds comfort with the misfits of Slab City, and eventually finds her way home.

The small cast, six in all, are teenagers who play older military characters. Howard Shangraw, head of the theater department at Idyllwild Arts, prepared them in the best way he knew how–he took them to Slab City.

Slab City is a makeshift RV campsite built on a former WWII Marine base in Southern California. The name comes from the concrete slabs where the RVs park. But, like the stark name implies, there is no electricity, running water or comforts of home. Most visitors come to Slab City temporarily during the wintertime, while about 150 veterans live there permanently. Those were the ones that Howard’s students went to meet.

Riley Lynch, who plays a handicapped preacher, said that meeting his character in real life was awe-inspiring. “He told me to keep everything real simple,” Riley said. “But that didn’t mean he wasn’t a complex individual.” After their hour-long meeting, Riley said that he was able to mimmick the preacher’s mannerisms, ticks and labored walk.

Amenta Abioto, who plays the lead, a 30ish African American mother with an amputated leg, wasn’t as lucky. She couldn’t meet her real-life character at Slab City because she was deceased. So Amenta had to rely on You Tube videos and documentaries to develop her character.

Howard showed her and the rest of the cast a PBS documentary about a Marine who had returned home from Iraq with the same challenges as Jenny Sutter. Yet, this Marine ended up committing suicide, Howard said somberly.

Since Amenta’s character’s leg was amputated, Howard tried to set up a meeting with a wounded Marine to hear a firsthand account. It didn’t matter if the soldier was male or female, he said.  Yet, after several phone calls and e-mails to a Marine representative, there was still some resistance.

“He (the representative) had read our promotion piece and was concerned that the play criticized the Marines’ lack of support for their soldiers as they re-entered civilian life,” Howard said. He told him about the excellent veteran programs that cover their needs–physically, financially and emotionally.

“No doubt that the Marines take care of their own,” Howard added. “Our play, however, is not a criticism of any branch of the U.S. military. It’s one individual’s story. If there’s any message here, it’s this: ‘War is Hell.'”

Howard had also invited the playwright, Julie Marie Myatt, to the Idyllwild Arts campus to meet the crew before the show, but ran out of time. “We’ll just have to talk to her over the phone,” he said.

Actually, “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” is not a true account of a wounded Marine. It was created from a compilation of stories that the playwright heard growing up from her father, a Vietnam veteran, Howard said.

“Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” begs to be told in our country now, as growing numbers of men and women are returning home from Iraq,” the play promotion adds.

The play opens this weekend with 7:30 p.m. showings on Friday and Saturday, and a 2 p.m. showing on Sunday. All shows are free and held at the Bowman Theater on the school campus located at 52500 Temecula Road (at the end of Tollgate Road) in Idyllwild. For more information, call (951) 659-2171, extension 2200, or visit

Copyright 2010 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.