Out of Their Comfort Zones

Two shows this week find performers venturing beyond the usual parameters of their craft. At UMass, students in the music department’s Opera Workshop take on Gilbert and Sullivan, and in Northampton, stage actors meet improvisers in a mashup of scripts and ad libs.

On Sunday at the Academy of Music, the Happier Valley Comedy troupe teams up with New Century Theatre actors in Making Up Love, putting a new spin on Happier Valley’s popular improv show Scripted/Unscripted. This version, part of the Four Sundays in February series, is co-directed by the two companies’ leaders, Pam Victor and Sam Rush. Joining Victor on the improv side are the Ha-Ha’s improv troupe — Maureen McElligott, Laura Patrick, Maile Shoul and Christine Stevens, along with Scott Braidman. Holding the scripts with Rush are New Century regulars Lisa Abend, Sandra Blaney, Stephanie Carlson, Cate Damon and Sam Samuels.


In the usual format, an actor performs one side of a scripted two-character scene, word for word, while an improv artist responds extemporaneously to each line — often with hilariously unintended consequences. For this outing, each brief scene will be run three times. The first time through it’s performed by two of the actors, exactly as written, with two improvisers offstage out of earshot. Then one of the improvisers joins one of the scripted actors for another time through, and finally the scene is run again with the other actor/improviser pair.

Rush says that first seeing the original scene performed as-is should “enhance the enjoyment of the improvised scene,” and that we also might see “thematic elements emerge in the improvised scene that echo the actual scene.”

Actors and improvisers rehearse together to get the hang of it, but never using the actual scripts that will be performed. “That,” says Victor, “makes the show even more exciting and pleasantly terrifying, to have zero idea of what’s going to happen.”

“It’s a great exercise in listening, being present on stage, and reacting only to the given circumstances,” Rush adds. “Rather like a great jazz improvisation.”

Since it’s Valentine’s weekend, the vignettes chosen for Making Up Love deal with themes of love. “Or at least the scripted scenes do,” Victor says. “I can’t guarantee what’s going to happen when the improvisers get in there and start mucking around with them.”

Feb. 12, 2 p.m., Academy of Music, Northampton, $10-30. http://www.aomtheare.com.


Playing Pirates

The Pirates of Penzance is the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta with the plot that turns on a slip of the tongue and a trick of the calendar. Young Frederic was mistakenly apprenticed to a pirate (it was supposed to be a pilot) and because he happened to be born on February 29th, his 21st birthday, marking the end of his apprenticeship, won’t occur until he is 84. Oh, misery! How can he marry the lovely Mabel when he has sworn to be a wicked pirate for the next three decades?

Brandon Hetherington and Lydia Barrett rehearsing “Pirates”

Ellen Kaplan, who staged a production of the G&S favorite at Smith College six years ago, is back at it, guest-directing it for Marjorie Melnick’s Opera Workshop at UMass this weekend, with guest conductor Mark Swanson and an ensemble of Five College musicians. “It’s a perfect musical comedy,” Kaplan says, “a great send-up of Victorian England proprieties and of ‘stuffy’ 19th-century opera, and just plain hilarious.”

This is the first time in two decades that the Opera Workshop’s spring production has not been a “proper” opera, and Kaplan says she was daunted by the prospect of working with the young cast, who are trained in classical singing and, in many cases, have no previous acting experience. “That had me worried,” she admits. “I’m no fan of operas that are static and serious and function more as showcases for great voices than lively, fully articulated performances. But I was also excited by the challenge.”

She adds, “The cast has been wonderful. They are alert, eager, delighted by the opportunity to explore acting, and delightful on stage.” In rehearsal she has encouraged them “to approach language and movement as precisely as they do the music. It is joyous to play with this language, which is every bit as ‘musical’ as Sullivan’s brilliant score.”

Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 12 at 3 p.m., Bowker Auditorium, UMass Amherst. Tickets and info at 413-545-2511 http://www.fineartscenter.com/musicanddance.

Pirates of Penzance photo by Marjorie Melnick
Sam Rush photo by Jon Crispin
Pam Victor photo courtesy of Happier Valley Comedy

Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and valleyadvocate.com/author/chris-rohmann


Chris Rohmann

Author: Chris Rohmann

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