One of the things that sets Fort Wayne Youtheatre apart from other community theater organizations is that their mission is not only to provide entertainment but also provide performance opportunities for its students and for the younger actors in the region.
That is one of the challenges facing Youtheatre director Todd Espeland and assistant director Christopher Murphy when choosing material for their seasons. It can lead to some inventive and outside-the-box productions.
Play within a play
Such is the case with the upcoming production of Rapunzel, which is being directed by Murphy.
“We are actually doing The Commedia Rapunzel, which is a really good adaptation,” Murphy said. “The problem with Rapunzel is that it basically has only five characters. You have the witch, the princess, the prince, and a couple of people who trade their baby away for a salad. We need to serve our community of young actors, and we can’t do that with five roles.
“The commedia play is really a play within a play with a dell’arte group staging a play of Rapunzel. This way, we’re able to serve a larger number of actors while presenting a story that is satisfying not only to a six-year-old girl who loves the story of a princess in a tower, but also funny to the parents and grandparents who are sitting in the audience.”
Murphy admits that his own directorial style takes much from the tradition of commedia dell’arte, but he has reinforcement from Espeland, who has formal training and vast experience in the art.
Espeland and Murphy are providing not only performance experience for their students but training in a new area, albeit one with which they may already be somewhat familiar.
“Todd has been coming in and doing workshops with the kids, teaching them about the styles and the schtick,” Murphy said.
“The most recognizable commedia group is the Marx Brothers. It’s a style of theater that really came out of the 16th and 18th century, and it plays on stereotypes. There are particular pieces with stereotypes that turn up show to show to show. There are different stock characters that are familiar to people even if they don’t realize what they are. For example, Todd was showing them the Pantalone character who is the greedy old miser, and as he begins doing it for them, one of the kids said, ‘It’s Mr. Burns from The Simpsons!’”
Murphy is enjoying how his young cast of 21 actors (who range in age from nine to 17) are learning and growing as they prepare for the performances.
“As a theater director and as an educator, it’s fun to do something different and to bring Todd in there to share his expertise,” Murphy said. “And it’s fun to watch them throw themselves into the style. This is a fearless cast of actors who are not afraid of making fools of themselves.”
There will be three performances of The Commedia Rapunzel including a sensory-friendly production on Thursday, May 16. The opening night performance takes place on Friday, May 17, and an early-morning performance follows Saturday at 10 a.m.
Friday’s show will be preceded by a volunteer appreciation party at which the Fort Wayne Youtheatre’s 2019-20 season will be announced. One show, the holiday production of Frozen Jr., has already been confirmed.
Murphy will of course be involved with those productions, but he is also a busy director in other theater venues. One upcoming gig will be directing the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre’s February production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, appropriate since much of the cast is comprised of young actors.
Given how twisted Dahl’s take on the world can be and how different the commedia take on Rapunzel is, it’s interesting to note that kids are particularly drawn to these kinds of stories.
“I think it’s just that young people’s minds are not as fully formed and set as ours are, and they are still so open to looking at the world in different ways,” he said. “And we need to be able to look at it through the eyes of a child.”
Murphy thinks audience members of all ages will embrace Youtheatre’s unique telling of Rapunzel through commedia dell’arte as they bring a close to the organization’s 85th year.
“It’s like a Bugs Bunny cartoon really,” he said. “It has a lot there for the kids to love, but there are very many moments that are there for the adults. There’s something for everyone to enjoy and laugh at.”
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