BAR HARBOR — Both Mount Desert Island and Ellsworth high schools went home with well-deserved first-place trophies in their respective A and B classes at the Regional Drama Festival held here at the Higgins-Demas Theater last weekend. Both schools received near perfect (287 out of 300) scores for their one-act performances. Both will go on to the state finals, which MDI won last year.
While there were many fine performances from the nine participating schools, these two were in a category by themselves. Having chosen challenging, complex plays to perform — both dramatically and physically — the casts of MDI’s “Jack, or The Submission” and EHS’s “The Secret in the Wings” went on to give a master class in how it’s done.
Hermon’s “Elephant’s Graveyard” was the Class A alternate. Central High School’s “Ted” took second place for Class B.
The MDI students’ remarkable interpretation of the Eugene Ionesco play embraced its inherent absurdities with a keen understanding that something dark and truthful lurks behind the oddball and often hilarious tale. “Jack” tells the story of a rebellious boy, his conformity-obsessed, extended family and his unwanted bride-to-be.
The judges’ comments on the production were full of words like “excellent,” “amazing” and “superb.”
Jon Kimball, one of the judges, summed up the experience by saying, “Theatre of the Absurd is not easy, but you did it! Great concept — true to the playwright’s message. You found the humor, the pathos and the absurdity of the modern condition. Loved it!”
All three judges mentioned how much they wanted to see the show again.
Let’s start at the beginning, when a backstage crew rolled onto a naked stage, walls, doors, windows, electronics, light poles, furniture, home décor, a food pantry and an array of props. In the allotted five minutes, the crew miraculously managed to assemble it all into a multi-tiered set. Some schools chose to do this set-up behind the curtain, but it was fascinating to watch it all come together.
Those with memories of actual three-ring circuses will understand what it was like, the moment the play started, keeping track of multiple attractions all going on at the same time.
On center stage, we had the attention-grabbing shenanigans of Jack’s frantic and frankly awful parents (perfectly realized by Rawl Blackett and Emerson Jeffery) and his peculiar, doll-decapitating sister (a perfectly dreadful Dezirae Zaman) as they coerced him into making a life-altering decision regarding potatoes.
It must be mentioned here that although Desmond Reifsnyder as Jack is the only unmasked character and is a fine-looking young man, his scowling kabuki-like facial expressions were as grotesque as anything mask designer Piper Charron and crew created in papier mache. That is saying a lot, considering that Jack’s intended has three noses.
While all this was going on, Jack’s grandparents (a doddering and croony Zach Uliano and his shrill mate Moxie McBreairty), were inexplicably separated from the rest of the family in a sound booth; seen and heard through Plexiglas and an intercom. These two were always up to something, and the surprised, bewildered looks on their half-masked faces were priceless.
Over on stage left, there was a big black-and-white TV that, rather creepily, seemed to react to the action on stage — such as interrupting its bland sitcom, variety-show programming with a “Technical Difficulties” notice the moment Jack rejected his future bride.
There were the ingenious stage dressing and props to discover — the Costco-size cans of food, the tree of doll heads, the Perry Como portrait, the “America is Great” poster. This last perhaps suggested that this troubling place and time is the sort of America our president pines for.
And, oh! The dead rhinoceros on the bookshelf, a private joke for theater geeks. (Search online for “Rhinoceros.”)
You had to abandon those fun discoveries, however, when Jack’s future in-laws arrived (the marvelous Anna Redgate and Ethan Leonard). These parental horrors took up so much physical space and commanded the stage so completely with the unseemly merchandizing of their daughter that you couldn’t help diverting your gaze to them.
The dialogue in this play is, of course, absurd, the trippy sort of seminonsense of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland characters.
“The truth has two sides,” Jack’s father observed while ogling his future daughter-in-law, “but the third side is best.”
Under the direction of Casey Rush, the cast punctuated the absurdity by hyper-enunciating their words and exaggerating their body language. Reifsnyder also tended to add extra syllables to certain words, such as “quick-el-ly,” to make them sharper, like little, pointy daggers. Leonard never simply walked across the stage; he pranced, sidled, leaped and bounded, reminding one of a rogue Macy’s parade balloon.
Rosie Avila as the exquisite Roberta made her every move a graceful dance, creating an odd counterpoint to her awkward, hysterical self-promotion as she tried to convince the petulant Jack to accept her, despite not being ugly enough for his tastes, extra noses notwithstanding.
Meanwhile, Jeffery as Jack’s dad prowled and stomped about, his face frozen in permanent, disappointed outrage, while Blackett, as his wife, drink and cigarette in hand, unsteadily navigated around the obstacles of her family and furniture.
In addition to handing them the Class A first-place trophy, festival judges Jon Kimball, Liz Rollins and Ann Ross named five cast members — Leonard, Reifsnyder, Blackett, Avila and Zaman — to all-festival cast and gave special commendations to Avila’s choreography and to Charron’s masks and video montage.
Before it goes on to the state competition March 23 and 24 at Windham High School3 local folks will have another chance to see this excellent performance at the Black Rose Showcase at MDI High School on Wednesday, March 21, at 6 p.m.st