The New Paltz Theater Department spelled out the semester’s first production in all different shapes, sizes and speech impediments.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” directed by Professor Joe Langworth, told the story of six exceptional children fighting to earn recognition and independence, letter by letter.
Performed on the thrust stage in Parker Theatre, the production’s actual audience doubled as the audience in the spelling bee, creating a direct connection between actor and viewer.
This intentional interaction filled the void that I find to be one of the only flaws in theater: the occasional disconnect an audience member can feel with a show.
Each actor’s maintenance of eye-contact with the audience, as well as certain remarks directed at us, kept me on my toes and made me feel as if I were actually attending a spelling bee in an underground gymnasium (which, by the way, looked stunning and scarily realistic).
Each character in the production was just that: a character. Complete with their own quirks, techniques and most poignantly, struggles, the competition was filled with actors who genuinely made their roles their own.
One in particular was second-year undeclared major Nick Magnanti, who played Leaf Coneybear, a puppet-holding, fanny pack-wearing altogether ridiculous child. Every nuance and movement Magnanti made was grand and dramatic and seemed precisely crafted to fit his character.
Similarly hilarious was fourth-year theater major Jenna-Kate Karn, whose speech impediment, political rants and medusa-like hairdo appeared to grow more and more intense by the moment. A product of two fathers, Karn’s character, Logainne Schwartzandgrubeniere, undergoes personal growth and realizations throughout the production that force her to question her motives and strive for her own independence.
The incorporation of volunteer audience members as contestants in the spelling bee also contributed to the show’s sheer hilarity — of the four non-actors chosen to appear onstage, all looked a mixture of excited and terrified as cast members played out their occasional musical numbers, outbursts and personality quirks around them.
Some components of the production were completely outlandish (Jesus making an appearance after one contestant sarcastically took his name in vain), while others, when executed correctly, struck a memorable chord resonating volumes about the struggles of growing up and facing disappointment.
There was an element of each character I found myself rooting for, another I found myself laughing at, and yet another I found myself relating to.
The spelling bee host who strives to live out her glory days vicariously through the current contestants, the juvenile delinquent with a heart of gold whose community service hours consists of handing losing spellers a juicebox and escorting them offstage and the overachiever who intentionally blows the competition just to feel the rush of rebellion.
Overall, the production was poignant, hilarious and well-executed. The failures and achievements of each character resonated with me well after I left the theater and, ultimately, I think that was the intention.