Theater returns to full-scale productions
Get ready for some serious cuteness when you attend The Merc Playhouse children’s theater production of “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
“Cute factor of 15 ½ on a scale of 10,” said Winthrop Kiwanis member Rick Lewis after the cast presented a preview of the performance at a recent Kiwanis meeting.
The show opens Friday (March 18) and is an exciting turning point for The Merc, marking the return of full-scale theater productions after two years of being shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March of 2020, director Jane Orme had just begun dress rehearsals of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” for The Merc’s Tom Zbyszewski Children’s Theater. The show was called off five days before opening night.
Last fall, when it appeared that it would be soon be safe to resume live theater again, Orme contacted cast members to invite them back, and many of the original cast of elementary and junior high school students have returned.
Some members of the original cast did not rejoin, and a few had gotten too old for the children’s theater production during the pandemic hiatus, Orme said. Auditions were held in December to fill those parts.
The cast includes 18 children, including 10 returning cast members from the canceled 2020 production. Cast members range from almost 8 years old to 14 years old, with most between 9-12 years old, Orme said.
“Half the cast came back, and they are thrilled,” Orme said. “A few of the cast members are brand new to theater. I hope they continue.”
For returning cast members, so much time had gone by that it was like starting over again, Orme said. Some costumes, made for the 2020 performance, had to be adjusted to accommodate for cast members’ growth over two years, and some younger cast members had matured enough to take on bigger roles, Orme said.
Precautions have been taken to keep cast members healthy during the past two months of rehearsals. Performers have worn masks at all times, except during snack breaks. And they have not been using the backstage area to avoid being grouped together in small spaces, Orme said. Parents were asked not to come into the theater, but to wait outside to pick up their children after rehearsals.
“The cast is incredible. The actors are so much fun to work with. They have rehearsed three times a week, 2 ½ hours each time, totally in masks, since the second week in January,” Orme said. “I have not had to ask one child to put a mask on.” And, she said, cast members have worked to overcome the inherent difficulty of delivering lines behind a mask.
When they take the stage for the public shows, cast members will perform without masks. The Merc is asking audience members to wear masks at the performances, even though the state mandate on wearing masks indoors will no longer be in effect when the play opens on March 18. The Merc also plans to limit audiences to 80% of the theater’s capacity.
“We still strongly recommend that audience members wear masks to keep the youth actors as safe as possible while they perform without masks,” The Merc said in announcing the play. “This has been a long rehearsal process in which we have worked very diligently and with great effort to keep everyone as healthy as possible. We appreciate the audience’s assistance in moving forward with those efforts.”
While The Merc has hosted some small-scale performances in recent months, including a high school play and a reader’s theater presentation, the children’s theater production is the return to programming planned before the pandemic shutdown, Orme said.
“It was supposed to be, and now is, the first of a series of stage productions we had planned two years ago,” Orme said. Upcoming performances in the series include a high school show in May, summer youth theater camp shows in June and July, another play, not yet determined, in September, and a version of The Nutcracker in December, she said.
The Tom Zbyszewski Children’s Theater program, Orme said, provides a training ground for young actors. “The youth theater program is devoted to kids. It’s the only show that is totally kids. It teaches them about theater and protocol and acting,” and prepares them to continue acting in high school, she said.
Based on a book by Raold Dahl, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” tells the story of Mr. Fox, who feeds his family by stealing poultry from three cruel and dimwitted farmers. The angry farmers lay siege to Mr. Fox’s burrow, and other underground animals — moles, rabbits, badgers and weasels — are caught up in the conflict.
The play has sparked conversations among the student actors, Orme said. “There’s this ethic that’s going on. He’s stealing, but he’s not doing it for fun, but because his family is starving.” The actors have debated whether it’s OK for him to steal. In the end, Orme said they concluded, “Well, he’s a fox, that’s what he’s supposed to do.”
Like many books by Dahl, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” has a lot of “quirky, irreverent characters” and distinguishes “the good from the not-so-good,” Orme said. “The humans in this play are awful. There’s nothing redeeming about them. You’re really on the fox’s side because they are so awful.” Two of the actors playing the nasty farmers are delighted to be costumed in “fat suits,” Orme said.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is supported by a talented stage crew, Orme said. “Kira Cramer is my wonderful stage manager, Missi Smith is choreographer, Emily Doran is house manager, Darla Hussey is costumer/makeup artist with her mom Beth Hussey, seamstress extraordinaire. Betsy Kieckhaefer designed the beautiful set, and the team of tech people includes Stephen Kish, technical director, Dean Hussey, sound, and Liam Daily, lights. Most of the crew has come back but a few are new to the show.”
The show runs March 18-27, with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 for adults and $5 for youth and can be purchased online at The Merc Playhouse website: mercplayhouse.org. All ticket sales are in advance and end two hours before show time. On Thursday, March 24, admission is by donation. Free tickets are available at Room One or The Cove for people without the ability to pay.
The Merc asks that people not attend if they feel ill, have any symptoms of illness or have had a positive Covid test result in the previous seven days. Refunds will be available for people who cancel due to illness.