There are good reasons why “trouper,” as in a member of a theatrical troupe, has come to signify a person who doggedly persists through times of adversity. Nancy Owen, who directs the New Paltz High School Drama Club on her own time, for a negligible stipend (she’s not a faculty member), has demonstrated this tenacity time and again. One year she directed the school’s annual spring musical while caring for her dying mother. In other years she and her regular collaborators, Nicole Foti, Karyn Morehouse, Kate Weston and Dan Young, have made theater productions happen through sheer force of will when a strapped school district totally cut out the club’s already-minimal budget line. The show must go on, and if Owen’s around, it does.
Last year was the exception, and not for lack of heroic effort. The Drama Club was getting ready to perform The Secret Garden as the spring musical, following months of negotiation with a school district diversity committee about how to make a teachable moment out of the show’s depiction of maltreatment of Indian servants by a spoiled, privileged English girl. All the tricky message stuff had been worked out; the play was in rehearsals; some of the students were working on an exhibit about the impacts of British colonialism that would be mounted in the lobby of the high school auditorium while the show was running.
And then COVID-19 hit. For the first time in decades, there would be no NPHS spring musical. The theater geeks in the Class of 2020 didn’t get their big moment of hometown fame. “We felt so bad for them last year,” Owen says.
Happily, things are going to be somewhat different for the Class of 2021, despite the deadly virus still being among us and social distancing rules still in effect for theatrical venues. You will be able to sit in the auditorium when the kids perform Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods May 20 through 23 – just six feet apart from the next party of attendees. All tickets are being sold online this year, in order to allow time to assign safe seating. You’ll also need to wear a mask, fill out a form and have your temperature taken upon arrival.
Performances and rehearsals must follow COVID regulations as well, with the actors wearing clear plastic masks and their stage positions blocked in such a way that they never touch. This presents a special challenge during dance numbers, and a couple of scenes where a prop has to be tossed rather than handed from one character to another. In one such instance, the prop is a doll representing a baby; but the director wryly observes that, for the self-absorbed Red Ridinghood, thoughtlessly manhandling an infant is “consistent with her character.” A furtive kiss, crucial to the plot, will have to happen through a sheet of plexiglass, Owen says.
This musically challenging play was chosen this year partly because the senior class is blessed with many outstanding singers capable of tackling Sondheim’s dark, sophisticated and convoluted tunes, and partly because it can be done with a relatively small cast. That’s a major departure from the customary spring musical’s massive-scale extravaganza in which pretty much any student with a yen for the footlights, however klutzy or tone-deaf, can either get a small part in the chorus or work on props backstage.
“We are actually rehearsing two shows at the same time. We couldn’t start rehearsals till mid-March, and because we needed to do a small musical, we had several kids left over with nothing to do, so I put together a Broadway revue for them,” Owen says. All but two of the cast members of Into the Woods will be graduating this semester; the revue, scheduled to run June 3 to 5, will give ninth-to-11th-graders their chance to shine.
This particular play suits this particular time in history as well, Owen notes, on account of its symbolism. Inspired by The Uses of Enchantment, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim’s classic study of fairy tales and child development, Into the Woods addresses the question of what happens after the “happily ever after,” once the characters’ wishes have come true. Many of the characters meet grim outcomes, with an offstage giant the primary antagonist. The work was conceived in the mid-1980s, by and for a subculture of artists ravaged by an earlier viral scourge. “Their giant was AIDS. I think our giant is the pandemic, randomly stomping through the woods – which is our life journey – and taking people away,” Owen says. “Every person has a giant in their life.”
The cast of Into the Woods consists of Rhys Weires as the Narrator and the Mysterious Man; Paris White as Cinderella; Ryan Hovey as Jack; Calla Savelson as Jack’s Mother; Andrew Geher as the Baker; Jessica Dugatkin as the Baker’s Wife; Rebecca Ingrassia as Cinderella’s Stepmother; Anna Adams and Jordan Bailin as Cinderella’s Stepsisters, Florinda and Lucinda; Ruthie Crosby-Lizarde as Little Red Ridinghood; Queen Irving as the Witch; Delia Nocito as Cinderella’s Mother, Granny and the voice of the Giant; Mark LaBorde as Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf; Eliza Behrke as Rapunzel; Jack Hyland as Rapunzel’s Prince; and Ryan Kelso as the Steward. Talia Feinsod is the stage manager, Lexi Friedman, Caleb Lai, Josie Quinn and Willem Weston the stage crew, with lighting by Dalton Veeder.
The students seem to be taking the challenges of rehearsing under pandemic conditions in stride, although several cite the physical difficulties of performing while masked. “I’m working on projection and hitting the high notes,” says Adams. “It’s hard to get air,” Bailin agrees. “I have to skip everywhere I go, so I get out of breath wearing my mask,” notes Crosby-Lizarde. During the actual performances, most of the players will get help with their projection via electronic amplification. “We have 14 body mics. There are 16 of you, but we ran out of money,” vocal coach Foti tells the cast.
This determined group is making it happen from May 20 through 23, with evening performances beginning at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. matinées on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets cost $20 for adults, $15 for students and senior citizens for all shows. They are already available for purchase at www.showtix4u.com/event-details/52294. Ticket sales will close two hours before each performance, or when a show has reached the 100-person limit. To complete the school district’s COVID-19 Screening Survey (mandatory to enter the auditorium), visit https://entry.neric.org/npcsd.
Audience members are advised to arrive a little early to get through the screening and read the program information, which will be projected as a slideshow before the curtain goes up, rather than handed out in print format. Bathroom access will also be limited, so arriving with an empty bladder is also a wise approach. There will be no concession scales of snacks at these performances.