A Stage to the Past
M-CHS theater brings New Deal era dark comedy to the stage
Two sweet elderly ladies are killing lonely old men. A young man believes he is Teddy Roosevelt. A newlywed drama critic has a serial killer for a brother.
No, these are not recent headlines — Simply, another night at the theater.
Montezuma-Cortez High School presents a season of dramatic comedy, murder and musicals starting Friday night. The first play on the agenda has all of the above. “Arsenic and Old Lace,” was written in 1939 by Joseph Kesselring, who thought the play should be dramatically cold and was advised to stick with comedy.
Good thing he took their advice.
Two spinster sisters are poisoning old men and having their nephew, who thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt digging the Panama Canal, bury the bodies of those they kill in their basement. In love and sane, their other nephew Mortimer, discovers their deadly secret and tries mightily to get them all locked away in a psych ward. One more twist awaits Mortimer as his brother, another serial killer, turns up at his aunt’s door with his own body to hide. Mortimer struggles with the idea that insanity may run in his family.
What a fun family.
It may not sound riotous but there are audience misdirections that make for a comedic surprise. As they are revealed it’s sure to promote the laughs.
“We are pushing the complexity and sophistication of our shows this year,” says Nicholaus Sandner, director of the drama department. Sandner is in his second season with M-CHS.
“The comedic timing for this play is difficult because the jokes are outdated, so we had to research what they meant in order to execute that timing.”
Sandner and his wife chose this year’s theme, “A New Deal,” and wove in plays set during FDR’s New Deal era. They also altered a few details in order to keep each play in tune with that theme.
“Arsenic and Old Lace was written during that time,” Sandner said. “We changed MacBeth’s setting to a 1940s style gangland and of course, Annie is set in that time period.”
Sandner says because the first two plays are murderous in tone, he tried to add something a bit more lighthearted in the mix by choosing Annie for the spring musical. He also wanted to open with a comedy rather than the dark tones of Macbeth.
This year he introduces a fourth show but with October being a busy time for the students, fitting in the show and finding the time for practice is trying.
“We wanted to add a show, even though October is an intense time. I’m pretty nervous right now because we are usually allowed eight weeks to rehearse and we have only had seven,” he says. “So this play has been a challenge.”
Many of the students are also involved in band which requires some traveling within the month. But Sandner says they are all dedicated to the show.
Rachel Faught plays Abby Brewster, one of the murdering old women. She returns to the drama department this year, finally being able to play a female role. Last year, there was a shortage of male actors so many girls were playing male roles.
“All the police (in this play) are females playing men.” Sandner says. “One of the old men who is poisoned is female and a few others. Rachel is finally getting to play a female.”
One of the female roles, Elaine Harper, Mortimer’s fiance, is played by Anakay Hanold. She also returns to the stage.
“I tend to get a little nervous,” Hanold says. “But that feeling goes away after I’ve been up there a couple of times.”
Sandner says all students can audition for the plays. He also teaches acting class at the high school but says these plays are strictly an after school program. The students do all the technical points as well. He does the set design but the students are in charge of lighting, props and costumes.
“I help lead everything but they do it all,” he says.
This year, Sandner is receiving help from Autumn Brice, a social studies teacher at the middle school. She is his assistant director. In the spring, the middle school will lend more hands to the musical, Annie, for choreography extras. Sandner is happy to start the season off with “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
“I’m looking forward to hearing the audience laugh,” he says. “We hear the same jokes every day so it’s always nice to hear them laugh and get a fresh perspective.”
“Arsenic and Old Lace” opens Friday at 7 p.m. in the M-CHS Auditorium with follow-up performances on Saturday, Oct. 13 and 20 at 2 and 7 p.m. Sandner expects a good community turnout since they have sold at least 30 patron tickets and sponsorships. Tickets for adults are $8 and $5 for students. Children five and under are free. The show will last about two hours with an intermission. For more information on upcoming shows and times visit mchsdrama.org or call 565-3722.