BAR HARBOR — Mount Desert Island High School took the first-place trophy in Class A this weekend in the Downeast Regional competition of the Maine Drama Festival.
The MDI Drama production of “A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes” by Kate Benson is well worth going to see, and local folks will have another chance at the Black Rose Showcase next Wednesday, March 18, at 7 p.m. Admission to the showcase is by donation to the Black Rose Fund for renovations to the Higgins-Demas Theater.
For father-daughter director-stage manager team of Casey and Julia Rush, the win makes three regional championships in four years, along with two state titles (and counting).
The production is a satisfying blend of the comic and the macabre. It follows a large family Thanksgiving gathering of four generations, offering plenty of laughs but also exposing the just-under-the-surface dread that also accompanies family holidays.
As the sportscasters “@” and “#” who narrate the action, Rex DeMuro and Ruby Mahoney build suspense and play off each other beautifully. DeMuro digs right into the cheesiness of being the “color” side of the duo without a whiff of self-consciousness and Mahoney is quite funny as the one who takes it all super seriously.
Daughters Trifle (Moxie McBrearity), Cherry Pie (Dezirae Zaman) and Cheesecake (Anna Redgate) are beautifully synchronized in the opening scene where they’re setting the table and also performing a rhythmic gymnastics routine; they’re also effective at setting up the competition and tension that will follow. Their husbands Ed (Bryce MacGregor), Fred (Spencer Clark) and Ned (Matthew Wheeler) sport cheesehead hats of the kind popularized by Green Bay Packers fans. They manage to be both a bit out of it, as their wives expect them to be, and also perfectly-in-sync parts of the complex ensemble movement.
The next generation includes Trainer and Trainer’s Partner (both played by Ly Dillon), Runnerman (Calvin Partin), Smilesinger (Eva Crikelair), Smilesinger’s Husband (Hayden Braun), Republican (Colby Bennoch) and Republican’s Wife (Haley Leonardi). Every member of this crew makes the most of brief moments, and minimal guidance from the playwright, in creating distinct personalities.
One festival judge praised the “clear detailing of characters.” Another wrote, “You elicited responses to characters who may have originally seemed two-dimensional and … breathed life into them.”
Presiding over the gathering are their parents, Rawl Blackett as SnapDragon and Zachary Uliano as GrandDada. Blackett goes all in on the no-one-else-will-say-it moments (“There’s always one bad apple”) and powerfully holds the ensemble focus at key moments. Uliano manages to be a sleepy, gentle presence while still contributing considerable energy.
Logan Wilbur has a hard row to hoe with the character Gumbo, the granddaughter who arrives late and can’t seem to do anything right, but she succeeds admirably. Even Gumbo’s mother won’t stand up for her when it’s discovered that she’s pressed the wrong buttons, turned the oven up too high and burned the turkey.
Gumbo and her cousin Runnerman get into a tiff about each other’s marital and career failures in an especially effective scene where they appear to be playing tennis.
And without giving too much away, Wilbur as Gumbo and Alifair Durand as “The Uncountable Herd of Great-Grandbabies” provide a skin-crawling climax to the story.
Original music by MDI alumnus Francis Snyder is a good example of the dark comedy tension of the show: Casey Rush wanted a traditional college fight song, but couldn’t find one they could get the rights to. Then in the car one day, when Casey and Julia were discussing the show, Julia mentioned that the “Dies Irae” theme from the Middle Ages seems to be everywhere in movies and might be an interesting starting point. So the elder Rush reached out to Snyder, who created both the “‘Dies Irae’ Fight Song” and the “‘Dies Irae’ Dirge.”
DeMuro, Mahoney, Blackett and Uliano were named to the All Festival Cast. McBrearity, Redgated and Zaman earned a special judges’ commendation for “outstanding phsysicality and choreography.”
Judges were also effusive about the design and technical elements of the show. Carlene Hirsh designed the sports-stadium set, which includes both the press box and jumbotron; Evelyn Zumwalt designed the lights; Gianna Turk, Atty Brown and Celeste Farhangi collaborated on sound design; and Marilee Marchese designed the costumes.
Julia Rush also operated sound for the production, earning kudos from the judges for “exceptional…execution of the technical elements” along with Eveyln Zumwalt on lights and Piper Charron and Laura. The show’s running crew included Kahlan Hanle, Sage Dentremont, Aidan O’Connor, Tessa Sanborn and Rowan Schoff.