BAR HARBOR — The good news is that Mount Desert Island High School put on a near-perfect production of Adam Bock’s thought-provoking, one-act play “Thugs” at the Eastern Regional Maine Drama Festival, which was held at the high school this past weekend.
The not-so-good news is that they lost the first place crown that they’ve claimed for the past two years, finishing Class A runner up to Yarmouth High School’s fun-packed melodrama “The Secret Affairs of Mildred Wild” that won the judges’ hearts and high scores with some fine acting, an excellent tap routine and a brief appearance by King Kong.
In the past, MDI and Yarmouth haven’t met up until the Class A finals, where the two excellent theater programs are perennially among the top contenders. But a scheduling change by the MPA had the two schools competing at the regional level this year, which is something akin to pitting tennis greats Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens against each other in the early rounds of the U.S. Open.
“Thugs” opens on the ninth floor of soulless, urban office building; a set that is so convincing in design and execution by Carlene Hirsch and her crew, if the very realistic looking and sounding elevator, really worked, they could probably rent the room to some insurance company. Gradually the office staff arrives on that elevator and they fall into what is clearly an established group dynamic.
Diane (nicely realized by Anna Redgate) appears to be the titular supervisor of the floor but she is clearly unsuited to the job. It is manipulative Elaine, (the marvelous Rawl Blackett, who earned All Festival cast honors for this role) who sets the jagged tone of the place with her complaints, subterfuge and general mean-spiritedness.
In this role Blackett is the epitome of a high school mean girl, grown up and taking out her disappointment in life on other, more vulnerable people in her life. Her snide, imperious delivery is mesmerizing and, coupled with facial expressions that can transform in an instant from dead-eyed to razor sharp, makes Elaine a truly intimidating force.
The primary object of Elaine’s scorn is Mercedes, a diffident and defeated young woman who is bewildered as to why she, despite her earnest efforts to fit in, is largely despised or ignored by her co-workers. Played with heartbreaking relatability by Carolyn Graber, Mercedes is like the single hen in a hen house that the rest of the flock has, for no apparent reason, decided to peck to death.
Each of the other four women in the office have their own disappointments in life that have brought them to this dreary place — except perhaps the new girl Chantal (Dezirae Zaman), who is just happy to have found a job, even though she really doesn’t understand what the job is or what’s going on in general.
Then there is Daphne (a convincingly conflicted Ruby Mahoney who also earned AFC honors) who enjoys going to work but hates actually working. She is being bullied and abused by her boyfriend, Joey, a thoroughly menacing character (played by Zackary Uliano), who is encouraging her to do something immoral and illegal. Mary (Moxie McBreairty) is a sort of Cassandra blurting out uncomfortable truths and warnings as the tension builds in the office.
“We are not supposed to know all these things!” she cries out, and we understand she is not simply talking about what is being passed along through the office building grapevine but the general overload of information in all our lives.
We even get to know silent delivery girl Aurora (Haley Leonardi) who has such a romantic name for someone who spends her days carting in box after box of papers. This can’t have been a random name pick by Bock. The exasperated look on Leonardi’s face as Aurora’s lunch is interrupted by a call to pick up more boxes, reminds us that she not a robot, but has her own issues and disappointments. Leonardi, who has no dialogue, was so eloquent in her stage presence that she was also an AFC honoree.
As the only cock in this roost, Bart (a puckish Colby Bennoch) enjoys stirring up trouble in the office and seeing where it takes them all. Today he takes the vague news of a death in the building out for a ride. Was it just one death or more? A murder? A suicide? Is the killer loose in the building? His co-workers become increasingly paranoid during the course of the day with Mercedes, in particular, brought to the verge of panic.
The office conversation — if you can call it that, as no one really listens to each other in their need to make themselves heard — becomes increasingly negatively charged.
The fast paced, overlapping dialogue in this play is a triumph of direction by Casey Rush who must have had to overcome an ingrained theater taboo about stepping on another character’s lines. And while there is a lot of sitting around at tables, there is not a single static moment in the play until it is all static.
As the panic in the room builds concerning the mysterious death, something strange starts happening in the ambient sounds in the room, in the weather we can see from the office building windows and even in the school auditorium. It all culminates in a virtual maelstrom of crackling misfunctioning energy and we aren’t sure if it’s the circuits in the building shorting out or if some sort of mass hysteria has been unleashed and we, the audience, are in the middle of it. Kudos go to the tech and backstage running crews who also earned special honors from judges.
Their work made that piece of the story phenomenal, said Judge Matthew Dobson. The elevator itself became a character. “This group of students needs a well-deserved pat on the back.”
MDI’s stage manager Julia Rush was also singled out by judges. “She called an amazing show based on many timed cues and proved her worth to the overall presentation. They could not have pulled this off without her.”
Judges also praised the actors’ diction, character and ensemble work.
Probably each audience member went away with his or her own interpretation of what “Thugs” was all about, but it’s a sure bet they talked and thought about it all long past the 40 minute time limit of the performance. Bravo!
In Division B, Ellsworth High School will be taking its gorgeous production of “The Little Prince” to the finals with Deer Island Stonington’s wonderfully creepy thriller “Attached” as runner up. EHS will continue to Class B finals which will be held there March 22 and 23.