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Chamber Music Breaks the Competition Trend


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By Devon Lindsey
Staff Writer

For this year’s competition play, Westford Academy Theatre Arts will be performing absurdist playwright Arthur Kopit’s Chamber Music. The single act play set in the 1930’s tells the story of eight women in a mental institution, who believe they are famous women from history as they prepare for an alleged attack from the men’s ward. Performances at WA will be on February 25th, 26th, and March 11th.

Normally the plays done for competition are multi-act plays which are shortened to fit the forty minute time limit.  Last year’s competition play Angels in America for example in full length is six acts long, but was abridged to meet the competition’s requirements.  However Chamber Music breaks the trend, being the first single act play WA will have done for competition according to junior Mark Fingerhut, who plays the main doctor’s assistant in the play. In addition to that, there is no intermission or break between scenes.

“There’s a lot going on in this play. It’s different from anything WA has ever done in the sense that these characters are 100% committed for 100% of the time. There’s no intermission and the characters never leave the stage,” said Fingerhut.

Director Michael Towers has been hoping for an opportunity to produce the show, but the complexity of the play made it questionable as to whether or not it would be too much of a challenge for the actors and actresses to take on. However this year he believes the acting skills of the students are strong enough to handle the challenge.

Also, there are mostly female roles, which can make casting easier considering there are far less boys involved in WATA than there are girls.

“The reason why I’ve selected this specifically for this year is because of the level, the depth of actresses, female actors, who are capable of these roles. We had certainly a pool of fifteen anyway to twenty women who were really capable of playing these parts, because they are remarkably difficult acting jobs. So I knew that I had a group of talent that was capable of it, I knew that I had the right class of women to do it, and that was a significant factor in choosing it for this year,” said Towers.

For the first month, the cast researched to help them bring their characters to life, especially the girls. Because the women believe they are famous historical figures, it is like playing two characters in one. They did research on who the character believes themselves to be as well as doing research on mental disorders and used that information to then diagnose the character.   For example senior Jennifer Torto, who plays Constance Weber Mozart (wife of the renowned composer), diagnosed her character with dependent personality disorder based on her character’s attachment to those around her.

“We have done a lot of research. Research on what and who we think is crazy, and we’re trying to come up with a definition of crazy,” said Torto.

While the boys’ characters were not quite as complex, they too had to do research, just from a different angle.

“The guys were mainly focused on how they fit into the big picture. Since we didn’t have specific mental illnesses, we had to figure out how we fit into the scope of the play. It’s a very absurd reasoning,” said Fingerhut.

Even though the boys are outnumbered by the girls in the cast, they are essential for the story line if Kopit’s messages are to be grasped by the audience.  One of these messages being how women are suppressed by men in society; an issue that was certainly a more predominate issue during the sixties when the play was written, but does still make appearances in today’s society as well.

“He’s questioning where we are, and what our values are, and he’s poking and probing at us and asking us if we, as a society, agree with it and do we feel that this is an accurate reflection of our values, in America particularly,” said Towers. “We have to pull from it what the themes are because it’s an absurdist piece. It’s not very deliberately clear as to what the author is saying; we have to glean that together from the production itself,”

During the sixties the U.S. was in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, which Kopit references to in Chamber Music. Just as the U.S. suspected the Soviet Union of being a threat, the women believe the men’s ward means to do them harm and plan for as to how they will prevent this attack.

Although the play has serious undertones to it, play is actually a comedy, a dark comedy, but still it will be the first comedic play WA has performed for the competition in quite some time, if ever.   The genre also separates it from the other plays directed by Towers which are typically dramas.

According to the assistant director Emily Moler, rehearsals run much longer than they normally would in the theatre season because it is a competition play, extending over two theatre seasons.  With the research process having been finished, they have begun blocking the scenes, which essentially just means going through who will be where for what line and the basics of what they will be doing.

“We’re just starting to get bare-bone skeleton of the show together,” said Moler.

As different as Chamber Music is from other plays, the same challenge of meeting all the rules of competition are still present. One of those rules Moler mentioned was the forty minute time limit which if exceeded could mean disqualification.  Another issue of time restrictions brought up by Towers was that only five minutes are allotted before and after the performance for the crew to assemble the set and take it down. The set must also be able to fit on the various sized stages as they go from school to school.

Any school in Massachusetts is able to compete, so for obvious reasons they are only sent to a certain selection of schools, but it varies from year to year to try and create a fair balance. Overall the cast will have performed about seven shows for between competition performances and ones held here at WA. That massive group of schools eventually narrows down to the semi-finals which WA will be hosting, only fourteen schools make it to the finals which take place in the John Hancock Theatre in Boston.

“I enjoy the competition part the most because we meet people from all different towns in Massachusetts and people that would never be involved with theatre before, now get involved,” said Torto.

So far it seems things have started off well as the cast has been preparing for this year’s competition.

“It’s going very well, it’s a very dynamic group. There’s a lot of personalities as can be expected and that is appropriate for the play. There’s a lot of strong minded, artistic persons,” said Towers. “But we’re in good shape, we’re off to a good start.”

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Chamber Music Breaks the Competition Trend