Buzzworthy ‘Spelling Bee’ performance prompts laughs, tears

Photo courtesy of Cap and Bells.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, written by Bill Finn ’74, features a motley crew of characters united by their love for spelling.

When the Cap and Bells production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, directed by Evelyn Mahon ’18, began on Saturday night, Amanda Madsen ’21, playing Rona Lisa Peretti, real estate broker and the host of the bee, started singing before the house light had come down. While the delay of the lights may have been a technical error, the effect nevertheless worked to rope the audience into the play. The play sets the stage such that the audience became the audience of the bee, with the actors on stage speaking into a microphone placed on stage like spellers in a real bee. With the lights on, the auditorium of the Manton Center at the Clark Art Institute quickly morphed into the fluorescently lit school gym of Putnam County.

Beyond the set, the show itself was a wildly immersive play. The script, written by William Finn ’74, heavily features audience participation.  Three audience members were chosen “at random” to participate in the bee: Scott Lipman ’18, Peter Matsumoto ’20.5 and Yeshe Rai, a fourth grader at Williamstown Elementary School, whose performance was both impressive and extremely adorable. In addition to featuring students, the Cap and Bells production offered personalized introductions and fun facts written into the script for these volunteers. Poking fun at Lipman’s blonde hair and blue eyes, Madsen said, “Mr. Lipman’s favorite color is khaki.” Matsumato wowed the audience and “surprised” the bee’s hosts and participants by correctly spelling “Catterjunes,” an archaic whaling word with  only one known citation.

While the audience participants made a valiant effort to integrate the show-goers into the play, the casted actors of Cap and Bells worked tirelessly to convey the atmosphere and emotions present at a middle school spelling bee. Natalie Turner-Wyatt ‘19, playing Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, maintained a convincing lisp throughout the show. Her character, an asthmatic who faces overwhelming parental pressure, also exhibited irregular breathing and a physical tick where she flapped her arms like a penguin for her role.

Ben Weber ’21 also exhibited immense physicality in his role as William Barfée (Bar-Fay), a precocious and irritating speller with a “magic foot” that helped him trace the words on stage. Michael Rubel ’19 worked the stage as Leah Coneybear, the second runner-up at his regional championship with a long shot at winning the bee. He claimed, “I’m not that smart,” but he had the audience cheering him on as he correctly spelled “capybara” and “acouchi.” Perhaps most receiving of sympathy, however, was Hallie Della-Volpe ’21 playing Olive Ostrovsky, a middle-schooler who has absentee parents and a knack for rhyming and anagrams. Della-Volpe had a strong and honeyed voice that captivated the audience as she belted “The I Love You Song” with her conjured-up mother.

As the play progressed, each speller revealed the respective adversities they faced. Whether it was over-bearing parents, impressive older siblings or unreasonable expectations, insecurity is written in the script that could resonate with anybody who was once a child. By all means, the show’s relatability was magnified for any College student in the audience. Perhaps it can be accredited to the fact that Finn attended the College, but the show presents students with tendencies found in most nerdy Williams students. The crowd giggled excitedly along with Olive as she rhymed “Christina Ricci” with “Nietzsche” and was delighted as William made anagrams of “Chromataphore.” Finn’s text is also alluring in its malleability, and Cap and Bells supplemented his script with modern lines that would appeal to its audience. In defining “Mexico,” Madsen offered the sentence, “Let’s go somewhere unconventional for spring break, let’s go to Mexico”—the audience erupted in laughter. The crowd applauded at the end of the play as each actor presented their character’s life trajectory. “She went on to become secretary of education under President Oprah Winfrey,” Turner-Wyatt said of Lorraine before breaking from her lisp and concluding, “Her speech therapy was completely successful.”

Beyond the script, however, the entire performance of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was captivating. Turner-Wyatt sang clearly through her lisp, and Madsen’s voice was sweet but not saccharine as she hosted the participants through the bee.  Jack Whitney ’21’s full-bodied voice also impressed during “Prayer of the Comfort Counselor,” while Christopher Thomas ’21 cracked up the audience during “My Unfortunate Erection.” Playing the co-host, ’19 Elías Ramos offered perfect delivery of his lines as a dejected vice principal, while Emily Zheng ’21’s deadpan as Marcy Park, the hyper-achiever who knows six languages, brought shivers to the audience. “Life is pandemonium,” the cast sings, but The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee seemed to map out all of adolescence’s nuances completely in its characters. 

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