Mt. Hope Masqueraders to stage 'Man of la Mancha'

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Director Carol Schlink buzzed around the stage, repositioning her actors, reminding them to face the audience, project their voices and at one point in a contentious scene to "push like a man."

Stage manager Bridget O'Hanley, a junior, tweaked the set designed by theatre tech students while keeping an eagle eye on the script, quickly correcting any inaccuracies.

The 20 or so actors occupying the stage worked through their choreography, practiced conveying just the right emotion at just the right time and, of course, tried to remember their parts of the script, occasionally yelling out "Line" after a silent pause.

Such frenetic activity on a Thursday afternoon long after most students have headed home for the night is par for the course two weeks before the curtain rises on the Mt. Hope Masqueraders' latest performance, the musical "Man of la Mancha."

"A musical is three times the work of a regular play," said Ms. Schlink, a theatre teacher at Mt. Hope High School. "You've got the music, the acting and the choreography. It's a good 12-15 hours a week for the leads."

Ms. Schlink is faced with the added challenge of directing a cast of mostly underclassmen. Only a handful of seniors and juniors came out for the group's spring performance, leaving roles for a large number of freshmen, and even one middle schooler. Furthermore, few boys auditioned for a play with a large male cast, leaving the director to "cross-gender cast."

"There are quite a few with little or no stage experience," Ms. Schlink said. "That means a lot of technique work, reminding them not to put their back to the audience … basic stuff they would have learned in theatre class. But they're hard workers. Their confidence is building every rehearsal. I'm confident we'll be able to pull it together."

Nick Kirby, a junior, is one of the performers without any acting experience. Still, his stage talents as a musician and his drive to improve his performing arts experience landed him one of the lead roles — that of Don Quixote, as well as Miguel de Cervantes, in the complicated play-within-a-play.

"It's definitely a new experience. I'm learning the ropes," said Mr. Kirby, who plans to pursue a career as a music teacher and band director. "The hardest part was learning my lines. But once I got the movements down, it was easier to remember."

Michaela Neerny, a senior, has a bit more experience under her belt, having performed in 14 plays in her acting career. Ms. Neerny plays Cervantes/Quixote's love interest Dulcinea, "a woman of easy virtue" whom Cervantes sees as a chaste lady/ "That's not accurate," Ms. Neerny said. "I love it. She's tough. I'm not usually tough, so it's fun to play tough."

Man of la Mancha is the musical version of the classic Cervantes novel Don Quixote. In the 16th century, Cervantes, poet, playwright, and part-time actor, has been arrested by the Spanish Inquisition, accused of presenting an entertainment offensive to the Inquisition. Inside a dungeon, the other prisoners gang up on Cervantes and his manservant, and begin a mock trial, with the intention of stealing or burning his possessions. Cervantes desperately wants to save a manuscript he carries with him and stages, with costumes, makeup and the participation of the other prisoners as actors, an unusual defense — the story of Don Quixote.

"It's just a beautiful show," Ms. Neerny said. "A lot of us hadn't even heard of it, then we read it through and heard the music. It's very emotional for the cast and it will be for the audience. It makes you think. It changes you."

"It's inspiring," added student and veteran actor Matthew Zufelt. "It's darker, gothic, very intense. You have to see this show."

The Mt. Hope Masqueraders will present the performance May 1-3 at 7 p.m. and May 4 at 2 p.m. at Mt. Hope High School, 199 Chestnut St., Bristol. General admission is $15. Students and teachers are $10. Tickets are available at the door.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.