Student written and directed ‘Staging a Rescue’ wins big laughs

Is Walt Disney’s head really cryogenically frozen to preserve his genius forever? We might never know the truth. One legend we can debunk, however, is that theme parks are all fantasy and fun, as writer and director Meredith Gansner ’08’s new play Staging a Rescue showed this weekend. The play, produced by Cap and Bells and staged in Paresky Performance Space, chronicled the absurdities behind the live action shows at a fictional theme park called Fantasy Fun World.

Thanks to a terrific cast, consisting almost completely of underclassmen, Gansner’s play treated audiences to a hilarious behind-the-scenes look at a second-rate theme park and its latest attempt to draw customers: The park hosted a contest to design a new ride whose construction would force one of the park’s suffering live shows to be shut down. The shows on the chopping block were “Big Blue Sea,” starring Mickie (Jasper Scheppe ’11) or, less popular but longer-running, “The Regal Rescue,” directed by Tim (Ralph Morrison ’10).
At the urging of the daycare-instructor-turned-park-counselor Jordan (Mandy O’Connor ’10), park manager Sarah Howcroft (Caitlin Eley ’10) proposed a competition to the rival directors – whoever had the highest ticket sales by the end of the week would be allowed to stay.

Eley was delightfully harsh as the manager working with a bunch of imbeciles, and her monologue was one of the high points of the show, judging by audience reaction. Complicating the issue, Martha (Caroline O’Connell ’11), a local reporter who wanted nothing more than to expose a scandal at Fantasy Fun World, had been reluctantly granted backstage access to both shows and was watching every move closely.

Tim, portrayed by Morrison as a depressed and frustrated whiner and alcoholic, chose not to disclose to his cast how close they were to losing their jobs, mostly because he was afraid that it would not, in fact, motivate them to do any better.

Through the clever use of monologues, which were really just one side of private interviews with reporter Martha, the audience learned that most of the characters never intended to work at a theme park in the first place, leading to their somewhat ambivalent feelings towards “The Regal Rescue.” O’Connell’s Martha was the archetypal sleazy and manipulative investigative reporter to a T, and yet she deftly managed to make the audience hate her and love her at the same time.

The entire cast portrayed the characters’ idiosyncrasies as completely over-the-top throughout the show. Rob Gearity ’11 played Richard, a “Regal Rescue” cast member who desperately wanted to get back into real acting. Richard was played as pretentious and arrogant, making his utter failure especially entertaining. As kleptomaniac and ex-convict Leonard, Aaron Bauer ’11 gave a kooky interpretation that left the audience laughing every time he came on stage. In their roles of Bob and Rita, Robbie Amster ’11 and Eva Flamm ’10, though great character actors as an awkward admirer and complete airhead, made for an oddly unconvincing couple, as their courtship was not well portrayed.

Not all of the characters were so light-hearted. Pedophobic Lewis, played by Julia Drake ’11, was a classic caricature of emo, and her completely deadpan approach to life was hilarious. Scheppe also contributed to the stellar performance as the wonderfully oily and condescending Mickie. Michael Reynolds ’08 had a bit part as a creepy janitor, but his appearances often had the most laughs of the show.

As may be predicted, shenanigans ensued and backstabbing occurred, leading to “The Regal Rescue” suffering a glorious demise involving drunkenness and a botched public rendition of Hamlet. In the end, almost everyone lost their jobs, but at the same time gained a new sense of perspective. The play closed with Lewis leading a lost child to find her parents, showing audiences that she had overcome her fears and, like the rest of the cast, been able to move on.

O’Connor’s opening scene, in which she failed miserably at taping a commercial for the park, set the satirical mood nicely and showcased her sweet but somewhat naïve character well. Additionally, the actors were their own stagehands and did a nice job of discreetly switching between scenes.

As strong as the actors were, they could not completely make up for the awkwardness of the staging. The performances all ran in Paresky Performance Space, a small auditorium with poor lighting options, reminiscent of an elementary school all-purpose room. Consequently, the set depicted the backstage of “The Royal Rescue” opposite an empty space that was used alternately as either an office or interview space. Lighting determined where the action was taking place, but actors often had to cross through that empty all-purpose space to reach the actual stage’s backstage area, which occasionally became confusing.

The lighting options were also rather constricted – often it was simply a choice between harsh and soft white light, which at times didn’t completely capture the mood. Additionally, especially toward the end, blackouts were often employed to allow actors to switch positions even though time was not progressing terribly far in the play itself. It would seem that entrances and exits could have been worked into the script in order to make these blackouts unnecessary.

Gansner mentioned in her program notes that her views on the College and graduation informed her writing in this play. The characters’ mixed feelings on losing their jobs and leaving a place they never thought they liked may or may not resonate with students here, but they were certainly well-articulated in Staging a Rescue and well-worth thinking about.