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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 4.1.10

 

Bee Spells Fun

Actors Cabaret show is wickedly funny

by Anna Grace

F-a-c-e-t-i-o-u-s. Facetious; given to or marked by mature intelligent humor. From the middle French facetieux; meaning to joke or jest in-appropriately. 

If you want to use this word in a sentence, start talking about Actors Cabaret’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, where the simple power of a witty script and the well-timed delivery of a good joke have audiences laughing as they are drawn through the heartbreak of pre-teen angst.

Why are we so obsessed with spelling bees? Most people I know can’t spell worth ordure (def: crap, from the Anglo-French root ord, meaning crap) yet everyone can identify with the pressure. To kids on the cusp of teenagehood, it really does feel as if the whole world is judging, whether you’re in a spelling bee or the school cafeteria. Watching this play threw me back for a swim in the murky waters of pre-adolescence. These children try to carve out what they are in this world, while struggling under the murderous pressure of adult expectations. The play is funny, but it can be wickedly harsh on the parents of the spellers. Madelyn Schwartz (as Marcy Park) sings with all the anger of a “gifted” child: I Speak Six Languages strikes at the heart of ego-parenting that takes many forms beyond spelling superiority.

Joe Zingo’s direction brings out an air of Christopher Guest in this show; it plays like a mockumentary with musical asides. Audience participation adds appropriate real-word absurdity. Four really brave audience members are called up on stage and asked to publicly spell. I got the feeling they were carefully chosen for traits of willingness and self-confidence, but they weren’t plants. Or maybe the reminders of Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman came from the veridical (def: accurate, exact, from Latin veridicus, meaning true.) performances of Maida Belove and Bruce McCarty as the bee announcers. 

This production strikes a nice balance of infusing newcomers to ACE, such as Evynne Hollens (who plays Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre) and Dylan Stasack (who plays Leaf Coneybear), and coaxing substantially contradistinctive (a word that entered the English language in 1647 and hasn’t been much of a favorite since) performances out of the seasoned workhorses. Sophie Mitchell (Olive Ostrovsky) had me in tears throughout the second act and even in my car on the way home. Nearly recognizable was ACE favorite Mark Van Beever as the socially awkward spelling savant William Barfee.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is delightful. It will make you love big words and awkward children and the sheer pandemonium of mixing the two in a high stakes contest. Hard on the heels of their successful experiment with CATS! Actors Cabaret strikes again with a poignant, jocose staging of the most awkward stage of life.   

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues through April 24 at ACE. Tix at actorscabaret.org or 541-683-4368.