BAR HARBOR — Theater and sports are usually considered to occupy quite separate cultural worlds.
Less so at Mount Desert Island High School, where many student thespians and musicians are athletes, too. They can also often be found out at the stadium in the fall and in the gym in the winter playing in the pep band, one of the biggest and best in the state, during football and basketball games.
This year’s one act play, “A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes,” goes all in on that cultural crossover.
It’s an absurdist take on a family Thanksgiving celebration, but the set includes a jumbotron like one that would be found in a stadium. The narrators (Rex DeMuro and Ruby Mahony) are ensconsed in a press box, commentating as if at a sports game. And the original score features a fight song.
“My dad used to sit in the backyard in the summer and listen to baseball games on the radio,” playwright Kate Benson wrote in a note included in the script. “… back in the United States of Baseball’s distant past when the professionals played games during the day and it really mattered …
“He was not in the ballpark, and yet he was perfectly able to follow the action and understand the tension and drama of what was going on over there in Wrigley Field while also remaining present in the backyard with the swing and the birds and a hoard of kids and dogs running around. He didn’t miss a thing. (Not even the crab-apple fights.)”
So the script includes a play-by-play from the press box of the stages of Thanksgiving action — inventorying the linens and setting the table, grown children and grandchildren arriving with spouses and great-grandbabies, basting the turkey and whisking the roux for gravy.
But in the same way as Benson’s father tracked both the baseball game and the kids and dogs in the backyard, the action on stage doesn’t exactly match the narration.
Instead, the table-setting has aspects of a rhythmic gymnastics routine. And the roux-whisking involves rowing, like on a rowing machine or in a sculling boat.
“The metaphors are mixed, purposefully,” director Casey Rush said. He thought of rowing as appropriate for the high stakes whisking scene because the cooks are going on a journey, in a sense. Also, their arms get tired.
It’s weird, for sure. But this group does weird well.
Rush came across the play with the help of former student Mary Paola, who had worked on a production of it.
“As far as I can tell we’re the first high school production,” Rush said.
It took some doing to cut the original play down to a length that could be used in a one-act competition, but Rush took a stab at it, Benson approved, and they were off and running.
With an 18-person cast, it’s a bigger group by far than the last several MDI one acts, which had between seven and 11 actors.
That’s been an adjustment, Dezirae Zaman said at a rehearsal last week, “but it’s also made it really fun.”
Zaman plays Cherry Pie, the middle daughter of SnapDragon (Rawl Blackett) and GrandDada (Zach Uliano).
Blackett said that, like the Eugène Ionesco play (“Jack, or The Submission”) the school took on two years ago, the script of “Great Lakes” is full of twists and jokes that reveal themselves gradually after you’ve worked with it for awhile.
“Every time you think you’ve figured out what it’s about, you’re wrong,” she said.
There are no stage directions in the script. Nor is there any punctuation.
Haley Leonardi credited Rush with providing overall guidance but leaving enough space for the ensemble to do their own exploring and see where it leads.
Rush comes up with a “general sense of what the scene is,” he told the Islander, “so the kids can at least move around on the stage.
“But ultimately my job is still to tell the actors ‘That works,’ and ‘That doesn’t work.’”
Faye Durand plays “The Uncountable Horde of Great-Grandbabies.”
“Just like some people as students work well with structures and schedules and others (struggle with them), it’s been interesting to see how different people respond” to the wide-open nature of this script,” she said.
At this rehearsal the group was discussing the fact that absurdist plays often include meditations on death and mortality.
Rush reminded them that Ionesco said, “Life is grotesque.”
Similarly, Benson advises in the script of “Great Lakes” that the pace of the play should be “Basketball Fast, not Football Slow, or Baseball Inert, because we’re all going to die soon and there is no time to waste.”
The local premiere of “A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes” is set for Saturday, Feb. 29 at 7 p.m. at the high school.