by Shirley Lorraine
Spellers Put to the T.E.S.T.
Even though school is out county-wide, the Spelling Bee must go on. That is, the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee now being held on the Conejo Players stage in Thousand Oaks through July 17.
Competition is never easy, but for six middle school age students in Putnam County facing their fears as they work to overcome their insecurities, their myriad family issues and peer pressure to attempt to triumph in the Bee, it is especially challenging. The six quite disparate students each have their own singular ways of coping and recall, providing the audience with a great deal of laughter and empathy.
The students are played by Paige Pensivy as the confident, several-time winner; Jack Cleary the eccentric, homeschooled Leaf Coneybear; Hannah Saltman portrays a shy and insecure Olive Ostrovsky. Aaron Ellis is the Boy Scout Chip Tolentino (who ultimately suffers an embarrassing attack of inopportune puberty), Jacob Coners is William Barfee (pronounced Bar-Fay), and Jenna Lay is Logainne SchwarztandGrubenierre. Each one gave distinct and delightful characterizations, tackling their individual shining moments with verve and enthusiasm.
Three “adult” characters, the Bee organizer and town realtor (Rona Lisa Peretti), Vice-Principal Douglas Panch, (played wonderfully androgynously by Leilani Toone), and Mitch (Jeremy Matticks, a man serving community service hours, hold the students to the task at hand.
One tricky element of this play is the opportunity for the actors to improvise, adding often hilarious lines and actions to the play. Audience members are encouraged to “sign up” to be in the Bee as they enter the theater. Several are then chosen to participate in the Bee on stage, offering additional unknowns and opportunities. The audience immediately becomes a part of the Bee itself, rooting for everyone. Lots of fun.
To the cast and director’s credit, these elements were all handled seamlessly. Word definitions provided by Vice Principal Panch become a highlight of the action. Because of the unknown elements that can affect timing, the song order is not announced as it can change. Lots for the actors to keep track of! When a speller is eliminated, the character renders a “goodbye” song, is given a juice box and ushered off the stage.
Several of the “kids” and Mitch reappear as additional characters to add flavor and substance to the spellers’ backstories. The musical numbers are lively and feature some outstanding voices among the cast. The songs themselves are not particularly memorable but are appropriate to the action.
The ubiquitous school gymnasium setting, complete with climbing rope, posters and bleachers, is just right. The single microphone center stage is almost a character into itself. The production is tight and worthy of attendance. Go. It’s a fun show.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. only through July 17. A full program can be accessed on the CPT website, www.ConejoPlayers.org. Make reservations via the website or 805-495-3715.