The jungle surrounding Julie Locker is breathing. Trees sway, leaves rustle. She walks cautiously toward a row of moving branches, pulling out her machete and leveling it with one strike.
The set for the upcoming Department of Performing and Media Arts production of “On the Verge” is full of energy. With rope bridges, platforms, hidden windows, a giant yeti and props emerging from trap doors in the stage floor, the world that students and director David Feldshuh, professor of performing and media arts, have created is almost its own character.
“It’s truly alive,” says Locker ’16, who plays Fanny. “I’ve never been in a play like this.”
Onstage Nov. 12-21 at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, Eric Overmyer’s “On the Verge” is a story of three Victorian women – Mary, Fanny and Alex – who venture into uncharted land before unwittingly traveling through time to the 1950s. With uncertainty around every corner, the three women forge a tight bond as they adjust to a new world and search for happiness.
The script is a celebration of language with dense melodic writing, but this production is designed to be visually rich as well. Aided by four student actors serving as koken – a Japanese term for stage assistant – the set is part of the action. The black-clad performers blend into the background while helping the three women interact with props – emerging from trap doors to highlight supplies, manning the limbs of an oversized yeti or throwing snowballs – to create a satisfying visual aesthetic.
“Instead of just standing on the set and letting it live there, we try to bring it to life and braid it in with the text,” says Sarah Coffey ’16, who plays Alex. “It’s very imaginative. It’ll be visually very exciting to watch the koken create these atmospheres. It’s going to be like a dream.”
Feldshuh says the themes of “On the Verge” made the koken a natural fit.
“The play is about freedom from boundaries and welcoming surprise and the unexpected,” Feldshuh says. “Using the Japanese Noh technique of ‘stage assistants’ allows objects to appear and disappear at will and illusions – climbing mountains, crossing a gorge on a rope bridge, etc. – to be created through the actors and the audience’s imagination.”
While the visual elements add to the sense of adventure, the dialogue is a journey of its own. Coffey compares it to Shakespeare in its complexity, adding she finds something new with each reading.
“The writing is beautiful and different,” Coffey says. “It’s definitely been tough to become comfortable with the words, but once you find the tempo and the thought and the ecstasy in saying the words – because it’s a play about language and how words and sounds can feel when you say them – once you embrace that aspect of the language instead of brushing over it, it takes focus.”
“On the Verge” serves as the final class presentation for PMA 3609, Making Theatre: Rehearsal and Production Techniques. Senior lecturer Carolyn Goelzer plays the role of Mary, leading a cast of seven student actors. Students in Advanced Undergraduate Practice as Research in Lighting are also in key roles behind the scenes.
Feldshuh says that with its depth, “On the Verge” helped his students to grow as professionals.
“It is a perfect text to take on in order to learn how to communicate language to an audience. The text is filled with allusion, rhyme, tempo and rhythm changes, fun words and sound,” Feldshuh says. “Above all, ‘On the Verge’ is about theatricality. That element and the humor in the script have been highlighted in this production. There are major demands made on the actors in terms of language, movement, costumes and audience engagement that move any young actor through numerous aspects of the acting craft.”
Tickets are $15 general admission, $8 for students and senior citizens, and are available at the box office and at Schwartztickets.com.
Matt Morgan is communications manager for the Department of Performing and Media Arts.