In the past week, I’ve seen two theatre productions here at Middlebury College: the departmental show In The Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks and the student-run musical Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. While the inherent differences in subject makes it hard to compare the two, both are still worthy examples of the state of theatre at Middlebury College.
In The Blood was a gripping piece directed by guest faculty member Jaye Williams and the production shows the resources available within the department. The show was put on in the Seeler Studio Theater, an interesting black box with a balcony. The show utilized the best parts of the black box set up with scenes taking place all around the audience. That said, many seats in the house could not see some of what was going on. To make up for that fact, TVs were placed around the theater (admittedly also for artistic value editing in relavent media clips on occasion) showing the “action” (closed circuit broadcast) when you couldn’t see it for yourself. This had the effect of a cross between a science educational video like Bill Nye the Science Guy and Blair Witch Project. Other special technical effects included a rain shower contraption as well as a floor lighted trash can. I like the black box a lot and look forward to seeing more productions make use of the space.
Middlebury, while not exactly known for its theatre department, has a decent theatre program probably because the few students who major in it get a lot of personal attention from the esteemed faculty. This is evidenced in the acting which was quite brilliant on the whole. I particularly liked Himali Soin who played a welfare worker. But even the strongest of the supporting cast paled in comparison to Charly Nixon who powerfully played the role of Hester La Negrita. Nixon was very consistent in her acting and, at the same time, built a very complex character with subtle shifts in physical movement.
There is no doubt in my mind that the production was a success. What bothered me, however, is that productions like this which forcefully confront uncomfortable issues such as race and poverty are rare despite a relatively socially active community. The Middlebury Campus newspaper, writes, “…the cast and crew put on a play the likes of which Middlebury College rarely sees.” Middlebury should instead be supporting artistic works that continually push the envelope on hard issues.
Into the Woods is obviously not meant to push any “hard issues” as it is a fanciful musical full of fantastical stories interwoven into a single plot. For me, it is more a case study in whether students alone have the abilities to put on great work. The musical was fun but in the way a middle school musical is fun. It’s fun to see people you know on stage, and it is fun to be in the musical, I’m sure. In terms of production value, however, this show is not even in the same ballpark as the departmental shows. I don’t expect it to be comparable to a faculty-led endeavor but I do expect it to at least be in the same league.
First, the venue pretty much killed the production from the get-go. The Hepburn Zoo may be fine for one-man-show black box or cut and dry plays but a musical cannot survive in that small of a setting. The space limits lighting options, set options, audience capacity (all performances are sold out because the house only seats maybe ~100), orchestra seating, sound system…The list can go on. It’s almost inevitable that the show looks like it was produced by the local Middlebury middle school.
The choice of musical is questionable as it is diffcult to put on a show about fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, etc.) without depicting a lot of the fanciful elements of these stories. While few can resist the sweet melodies of Sondheim, I admire the Middlebury College Musical Players (MCMP), the organizing group, for being so bold as even to attempt it.
Consequently, the results varied with some bright spots but also some underlying iffy moments. There are some fantastic singer/actors in the cast. I particularly enjoyed Shannon Gmyrek as the Baker’s Wife and Dan Kelly as Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk). On the whole, the singing was just a little off. Normally, that’s not an issue so long as the rest of the show is inflated enough but with Sondheim (known for difficult lyrics and melodies) a little rough around the edges turns into a real issue. Often enough, I had no idea what characters were saying, heard jarring duets, and teetering solos. Everyone in the small cast had their moments of brilliance (a funny one-liner, an amazing facial expression, a dead-on high note) but consistency was hard to come by.
I mean not to discredit the production of Into the Woods with this criticism but rather hope to point out that examples of great theater is not that far of a reality. If In the Blood can succeed so well, the students with talent are definitely on campus. The key is organizing those students to participate in the student-run musical.