Workhouse Theatre The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling BeeBy Xandra Weaver • Apr 9th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Workhouse Arts Center, Lorton, VA
Through May 6th
2:10 with one intermission
$20/$15 Students, Military, Seniors
Reviewed April 6th, 2012
Excitement, nervousness, tension and disappointment are all reigning emotions at a spelling bee, but there is one feeling that permeates every moment; pathos–the indescribable empathy that causes audience members to want each contestant to succeed. Workhouse Theater’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee hits every one of those notes, by virtue of a strong cast and amazing pacing, and brings out every feeling in the spelling bee tradition.
Joseph Wallen’s production plays directly to the hearts of audience members, by emphasizing stereotypes. Each characters’ needs are so great that their personality has to be that much louder to compensate. Amid the frenzy of songs and spelling, each character tells their story and has their moment to shine–and, boy, does this cast shine. Every one of the actors in this show demonstrated versatility and a range that fleshed out the semi-one note characters into real people with quirks they had to overcome.
Harrison G. Lee as Chip Tolentino, the champion from last year’s bee, shows us that the title means nothing to Chip if he fails this year. His paradigm contrasts with Leaf Coneybear (played by Eben Kuhns), the hopeful homeschooled kid whose family is all much smarter than him. Leaf is so confused to be at the bee that he begins to act out by producing finger puppets and deflecting attention in order to hide his lack of confidence and his desire to be a better, smarter Leaf. Chip comes in wearing his perfectly pressed, highly decorated Boy Scout uniform, while Leaf enters wearing a too short superman cape he made himself.
The overachievers Olive and Logainne (Amie Cazel and Shannon Kingett respectively) tell stories of parents who are too much involved or not involved enough. Logainne’s two fathers want her so much to succeed that they subvert her personality for their own goals and make her failures even greater. Meanwhile Olive’s absentee father won’t take off work to watch her compete because Olive’s mother is in India dealing with depression.
Meanwhile, two know-it-alls with very different needs duke it out at the microphone. Introvert Marcy Park (Anna Jackson) speaks six languages, participates in multiple sports, dance and karate, and in the pursuit of perfection sleeps only three hours a night. William Barfée (Ben Gibson) is the kid with peanut allergies and the infuriating habit of saying “I know” every time his answer is pronounced correct. His abiding passions are the correct pronunciation of his name (“It’s ‘Barfay.'”), and his system of spelling words out on the floor with his “magic foot” (which, in his mind, is absolutely superior to all other methods).
The three adults in the story are just as quirky. The announcer of the bee is a self promoting former spelling bee star Mona Lisa Perretti (Mary Payne). She accompanied by sarcastically unstable Vice Principal Panch (Jeffrey Davis). The voice of reason maintaining order in chaos is Mitch Mahoney (Anthony Williams) serving out his parole by comforting losing kids.
The small cast size calls for some double-casting. Both Kuhns and Williams make a spectacular break out of their main characters to become the quarrelling dads of Logainne. Harrison Lee drops the Boy Scout to inhabit a guest appearance as Jesus in the second act imagination of Marcy. The dramatic shift from character to character showcases each actor’s ability to shift characters completely.
Vocally, the actors seemed comfortable and prepared. The majority of the story is played out in a frenetic and disjointed musical score. Together, the band and cast consistently maintained solid control of the music. The songs only faltered when the audio balance was bad and the instruments were far too loud.
The stage at first appeared too simple and sparse with a table for registration and bleachers for the spellers to sit in. Very quickly, the stage was filled with the boisterous performances of the actors. Four empty spaces in the bleachers were filled with audience members who had been asked to participate before the show. None of the volunteers seemed to realize what they had signed up for, as the musical traditionally keeps each of the volunteers onstage to participate through musical numbers until they misspell a word!
Be careful in the audience! Hilarity ensued when a volunteer speller received audible help from a family member. The Vice Principal called them out for it, demonstrating a superior command of comedic timing and improvisation. He compelled the family member onstage to join the cast in spelling as well!
Overall, the play gave a stunning portrayal of each individual story. Even as the show came to an end, the two finalists showed just how much winning meant to them, and how their characters would be affected if they lost. As the play drew to a close, the characters left the feeling that the bee was merely an intense microcosm of the reality of growing up.
Photos by Vinh Nguyen
- Chip Tolentino: Harrison G. Lee
- Marcy Park: Anna Jackson
- William Barfée: Ben Gibson
- Olive Ostrovsky: Amie Cazel
- Leaf Coneybear: Eben Kuhns
- Logainne Schwartzandgrubinerre: Shannon Kingett
- Mitch Mahoney: Anthony Williams
- Rona Lisa Perretti: Mary Payne
- Vice Principal Douglas Panch: Jeffrey Davis
- Director: Joseph Wallen
- Music Director: Merissa Driscoll
- Scenic Designer: Caren Hearne
- Costume Designer: Kristen Jepperson
- Stage Manager: Kevin Laughon
Disclaimer: Workhouse Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/7883.
Xandra Weaver has a great love of the process of theater and the creation of art that has led her into working both behind the scenes and onstage. Her career includes working for many years providing sound and lights for both professional and amateur shows as well as makeup work for a feature film. At college, she specialized in makeup to earn her theater degree, and discovered a love for directing and playwrighting. She's also been a nominee for the DC area theater WATCH awards for her work with the company of The Producers with The Arlington Players.