Last week, the LSPU Hall was abuzz, hosting the 2014 Eastern Avalon School Drama Festival, featuring a dozen entries from senior highs, junior highs and an elementary school, spread over five days and evenings of performance.
The jamboree commenced on Tuesday with St. Matthew’s and John Battcocks’ “The Ghosts of Brigus South,” comprising six short stories involving fairies, ghosts, phantoms, leprechauns and a weird old lady who likes to eat children, all conjured up by four young storytellers (Alexandra O’Keefe, Maddie Leonard, Rebecca Hodder and Ezzy Doyle). They evidently enjoyed themselves.
The evening’s second show was mounted by Mount Pearl Senior High, Alan Haehnel’s courtroom drama, “The Case of Alex Hansen.” An increasingly Kafkaesque court is presided over by a cantankerous and monstrously prejudiced judge (Faith Ford, revelling in the part), with a defendant who doesn’t know for what crime he is being tried. As the trial moves closer to farce, Michael Lawlor remains natural and real in the role of the baffled defendant.
Wednesday featured two junior highs. Villanova kicked off with a lighthearted farce, Jack Frakes’ “Final Dress Rehearsal.” A dozen students turn the last rehearsal of a production of Cinderella into a train-wreck, supervised by a bossy director (Nathan Mackey) and a supercilious stage manager (Haley Haskell), with the captious author (Alia Ball) looking on incredulously.
Leary’s Brook followed with John Bowden’s “Spring Cleaning,” a memory play on a split set. Stage right, a reflective elderly woman (Mikayla Williams) knits, while waiting for her heartless daughter (Kaitlin Woodley) to take her from home to an elder-care facility, while her granddaughter (Samantha MacKay) sorts through mementos. Stage left is the realm of the senior’s younger self, luminously played by Martha King, who lives in the past, occasionally visiting her future self. A nostalgic and touching script was well enacted and interpreted.
Thursday was a big night, showcasing four shows. First up was Macdonald Drive, with an enthusiastic rendering of Donna Mills’ “Junior High for Dummies,” a skit satirizing teachers, Grade 7 students and the school janitor. Live performance is backed up by images and commentary projected on an upstage screen. I didn’t always get it, but the kids in the hall sure did.
Second in line was Holy Trinity High, with no program and thus, alas, no credits. “Cheating Death” features six nurses, male and female, seated in a shallow semi-circle of chairs. They are joined by a very foxy lady, dressed in black. She turns out to be a devil, who has come to take Sam Johnson down to hell. But is that Samuel Johnson or Samantha Johnson? Hindered by the nurses, the angel of death runs out of time, but Sam nevertheless volunteers to accompany her to Hades. The play is perhaps over-talkative, but it was capably handled by the sextet of nurses and the elegant demon.
Cowan Heights Elementary followed with Bradley Hayward’s “Fancy Pants.” A high-achieving student (Nicolas Collins) joins a new class, which has a kindergarten curriculum. He wants Euclid and Plato. Instead, he gets Play-Doh, crayons, nursery rhymes and skipping, Not to mention the attention of a young thug (Joshua Earles), who arrives late, wearing leather jacket and cap on backwards. “Life,” the teacher (Kathleen Burton) philosophically dec-lares, “is not a simple game of tag.”
Thursday’s crowded schedule closed with Gonzaga High’s colourful and amusing send-up of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” in the form of Allison Williams’ express “Hamlette,” featuring a Princess of Denmark (statuesque and stylish Emma Gibbons), Queen Gertrude sporting a hand-puppet (Bethany MacKenzie), Eric Brushett doubling as Polonius and shrouded Ghost, Christian Kavanagh as Host and King, Dave Hewson as Horatio, Mitchell Edwards as Francisco, Rose Walters as Laertes and Ophelia, all supported by Nick Fogwill, Damir Golami, and Stephen Pollett. It was cheeky fun.
Friday evening ushered in two productions, the first by Prince of Wales Collegiate. Stephan Gregg’s “Small Actors,” another play about play-making, features a bare stage, except for three black tables that also function as seats. Props are mimed. Emily, a wannabe actress, gets only four words of dialogue in the school play. And the director would like to reduce that number. However, she tells her parents, who will be vacationing out of town, that she is cast as Juliet. To her consternation, proud parents cancel vacation and invite relatives to the show from far-flung parts, including an aunt studying Buddhism in Tibet.
Mother is not amused when Emily’s fib is revealed on opening night, although father is more understanding. Daughter (Leah White) and parents (Jack Whelan and Mikaela Clark-Gardner) are persuasively and amusingly evoked.
Holy Spirit High followed with Michael Scanlan’s “Fortress.” Watched over by a black-clad chorus, the female lead, Kim (Bronwyn Keough), who functions as narrator, falls in love with Billy (Nick Boggin), the adopted son of a funeral director. In their sometimes strained relationship, the two are bonded by a shared passion for Superman. Like Clark Kent, Billy wears the caped super-hero’s clothing under his shirt and trousers, while Kim lectures on varieties of kryptonite. The two social misfits argue and squabble, but love conquers all — with a little help from Superman. Riotous applause greeted the curtain call.
On Saturday afternoon, the festival’s last two productions were mounted by Queen Elizabeth and Holy Heart. Queen Elizabeth went first with Grant Boyd’s “What Does It Mean?” A struggling young painter (Boyd), three months behind on his rent, finally hits the jackpot — but with a painting he detests. His flamboyant, red-haired patroness (Mallory Parrott) buys and aggressively promotes the piece that he hates, while his angry frustration makes his longtime sweetheart (Erika Stonehouse) walk out on him.
MacKenzie Morgan’s split set (fashionable bar stage-right, cluttered painter’s studio stage-left) was the most attractive of the festival, but constant shuttling between the two locales led to halting development of an intriguing premise.
The final play of the festival was the shortest and also most lyrical. Holy Heart’s “To This Day,” comprising three choreographed poems on child bullying and social ostracization — “Paper Thin” by Sarah Connors, “Bullying” by Tomie White and “To This Day” by Shane Koyczan — is performed on a starkly bare stage, the three original pieces being articulated by bullied individuals, accompanied by a chorus of humming voices and a fluid dancing ensemble.
It was remarkably beautiful as well as disturbing. I walked home very thoughtfully.
At the packed, excited awards ceremony on Saturday evening, I did not envy adjudicator Michael Chiasson the responsibility of selecting and handing out about 40 certificates to schools, companies and individuals, winners all, for excellence in properties, costumes, lighting, sound, transitions, movement, miming, timing, physicalization, tableaux, choral movement, technical work, ensemble, acting, satire, adaptation, original script, emerging artist, and best performance by male and female actors.
Chiasson did his duty judiciously and tactfully.
And, finally, the big tamale, best production, admits the favoured company to the Newfoundland and Labrador National Festival, opening at the LSPU Hall five weeks from now. The Eastern Avalon school system’s representative will be Mount Pearl Senior High’s production of “The Case of Alex Hansen.”
See you again in five weeks’ time.