CHS dramatists tackle massive undertaking in fall play

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The members of Columbia High School’s Parnassian Society are traveling back in time to the 16th century when they stage “Shakespeare in Love,” from Nov. 15 to Dec. 1. The drama club is putting on the theater version of the 1998 film that won seven Academy Awards and was nominated for another six; the fictional tale tells the story of William Shakespeare falling in love with Viola de Lesseps while he was writing “Romeo and Juliet.” CHS is one of only a few schools to put on the play, partnering with Disney Theatrical Productions to give the theater version a trial run.

“Disney reached out and wanted to see how high schools could produce it,” Parnassian Society co-adviser Steve Stubelt, who is in his 18th year directing the Parnassian Society’s fall play, said in an interview with the News-Record on Nov. 9. “I think it’s been done in London and Chicago and in Cincinnati, but not on any big stages.”

The cast features 27 students, the largest show the Parnassian Society has ever put on. Even with a bigger cast, Stubelt said that many students are playing more than one character. That, along with other technical challenges, has made the show a huge undertaking.

“I’ve never tried to work with something that was a movie first,” Stubelt said. “It’s usually the other way around. But it’s been done a lot recently with Disney doing ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ There’s a lot of action and moving from one location to another — it’s a big production. But I’m enjoying it and the kids are enjoying it. We’re making it our own.”

Period pieces often come with elaborate costumes and sword fights — “Shakespeare in Love” is no exception. CHS English teacher and show producer Janet Bustrin has been working on costumes, which she told the News-Record are so large an additional dressing room had to be built.

“The costumes have been an adventure,” Bustrin, co-advisor of the Parnassian Society, said in an interview on Nov. 9, mentioning that some of the costumes were donated from a film studio in Queens. “I sew, so that’s an advantage. We did create an alternate dressing room for the girls because there’s just too many costumes, so it makes for a challenge.”

The sword fights are choreographed, including lunges, fades and advances — and real swords. Sam Magdanz, who is playing the titular Shakespeare, said that he has to make sure he knows each move.

“The stage combat is a unique situation,” the CHS senior said. “I’ve never done that before, but swords are cool. It’s a lot of practice to make sure I don’t get stabbed.”

Bustrin said that unless students are part of a fight scene, they are not allowed to touch the swords. The trick to creating those scenes, according to Stubelt, is repeating the moves over and over in rehearsals.

“It’s all choreography; they’re learning how to repeat the same move,” he said. “We make it look real and spontaneous but it’s all very planned. There’s three fights, and it’s a whole other experience to learn how to plan the unplanned.”

This is the first major role that Magdanz has had in a stage production, after moving to New Jersey from South Carolina at the beginning of his junior year.

“It’s not the first show I’ve been in but it’s the largest role I’ve played,” he said. “Learning lines has been difficult because I spend more time on the stage and in the spotlight. One of the biggest challenges has been learning the language and the words of Shakespeare.”

Stubelt said that the language has been tricky to learn, but many of the lines from the movie are also used in the play. Still though, he said it is slightly different based on the fact that the stage version has a smaller production value than the movie because there is no ability to cut and do multiple takes of a scene.

“It’s like a poem that you know but if you read it in a different location, it’s a little different,” Stubelt said. “There’s many of the same lines but they’re set differently in a play. There are things we can’t do in a play that aren’t a problem in a movie. So we have to cover the elements that make it into a play.”

The theater version can still pull off working with live animals though, as senior Stephen Lehren described in a phone interview with the News-Record on Nov. 8. Lehren is playing Lord Wessex, an aristocrat to whom Viola, played by Jordan Muhammad in the CHS production, will be married if her parents have their way.

“There’s a frog named Buddy, who jumps up and is able to climb on people,” Lehren said. “It’s a lot of fun; I think this is going to be different from a lot of what high schools are doing.”

Lehren is a first time actor, taking to the stage after Bustrin encouraged him to audition following the staging of a play he wrote last year. He’s been learning the ins and outs of putting on a play, and said that it has helped his writing process.

“I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare and as a writer it’s been a learning experience,” Lehren said. “I have one monologue that I do offstage that’s really funny. I think it’s something new and different from what people will expect to see at a high school, especially since this is one of the first times it’s been done.”

Stubelt said that audience members who are familiar with the movie version of “Shakespeare in Love” or any Shakespeare writing will see shades of both in the stage production.

“Littered throughout are inside jokes about Shakespeare,” he said. “They’ve found ways to work his words into the dialogue and there’s some quotes from ‘Hamlet’ in it. A lot of the kids have purposely avoided the movie so they can create their own version, but I’ve watched kids go ‘Hey, I know that from “Hamlet!”’ They do have some exposure to it.”

Despite the costumes, sword fights and animal challenges, Stubelt thinks “Shakespeare in Love” is a good choice for this year’s fall play.

“This is my 18th show, and it’s the largest and most challenging,” he said. “But we think it will end up being successful. It’s a wonderful story and hopefully people will get a lot of enjoyment out of it.”

Magdanz agreed.

“I think it’s going to be amazing,” he said. “It’s one of the greatest productions I’ve ever been a part of. It’s a massive undertaking, but there’s a lot of talent and we’ve done a lot of work on it so far.”

“Shakespeare in Love” will be performed at the CHS Black Box Theater at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 15; Friday, Nov. 16; Saturday, Nov. 17; Friday, Nov. 30; and Saturday, Dec. 1; and at a 2 p.m. matinee performance on Sunday, Nov. 18. To purchase tickets, call 973-713-6866.

Photos Courtesy of Marilyn Lehren