Buzz Worthy

OCP’s Spelling Bee fun, racy and just plain hilarious

“A resident of Mexico. Or an American slang term for anybody from Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, South America or Spain.” Subtly curious definitions like these are the foundation of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’s hilarity. Other words featured in The Omaha Community Playhouse’s latest production are ridiculously difficult. The spelling of “syzygy” by teacher and spelling bee administrator Ms. Peretti (Theresa Sindelar), recalling her days as a young speller, starts the show. “Syzygy’s” definition as a kind of unity most commonly used in the astronomical sense is a fitting start to the off-the-wall, endearing story of seven spacey adolescent outsiders who join forces in the end. “Syzygy” continues to play as a zinger, complimenting the understated but sidesplitting one-liners throughout. The characters are equally and bizarrely funny and multi-layered. Director Carl Beck says 90 percent of making the show work was in the casting — and cast well he did. From multiple-award winning actors Sindelar, Tim Abou-Nasr and Gordon Krentz to worldly stage alumns Analis Swerczek, Bailey Carlson, Dan Chevalier and Jennifer Tritz, to newer breakouts Roderick Cotton and Eric Micks, the ensemble shines, making the show a trippy, nostalgic and dark comical ride, clearly uproarious as evidenced by the crowds’ continuous explosions. What also sets this show apart, and makes each night unique, is audience participation — selected participants remain onstage for a big portion of the show, with the cast egging them on by dancing and giving words for them to spell, being a part of Peretti and Panch’s impromptu humiliating, most often politically incorrect quips like “Mr. [Volunteer Name] has the largest collection of belly button lint”; or “Mr. [Bald Volunteer] just got over head lice.” This humiliation is part of what makes this show so true and beloved, according to Beck. “I didn’t want any cute, grownup versions of kids,” Beck says, “but to show the strangeness, awkwardness, foibles, pains and fun rawness of being a kid, before developing filters.” Character William Barfee (Micks) is perhaps the epitome of such; endlessly correcting his name pronunciation (“Bar-FAY”), Barfee suffers from severe peanut allergies and embarrassing mucus membrane deficiency, being able to only “breathe with one nostril,” causing him to wheeze, snort and hack throughout. Barfee is also a know-it-all, classic proud dork who uses the infamous “magic foot” method, forming the words with his toes while spelling each seemingly impossible word. Yes, most of the words are about as impossible as “syzygy,” including strabismus, cystitis, boanthropy and capybara. A few extremely simple words are thrown in, too, such as “cow,” (to the other participants’ extreme dismay). The smart-ass definition given is, “It means cow.” And with that, “Please spell cow.” But the show isn’t really about the spelling bee; it’s about the characters’ personalities and their times and trials, as Beck alludes. Even Mitch Mahoney (Cotton), who’s on parole and serving volunteer hours by “comforting” bee losers by showing them out and handing out juice boxes. The character is quite the opposite of all the others — clothed in black and adorned with chain, tough guy Mahoney serves as a participant’s “scary” potential future — losing. Cotton also shines as the gay stage father of Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere and absent workaholic father of shy Olive Ostrovsky, showing multi-faceted talent, sometimes switching in less than a minute between characters. No doubt the actors are all showing their aptitude with these roles — never going out of character as they twitch, wander, giggle, stretch, push, mumble and daydream throughout — just like real kids. Constantly in kid mode, they memorize crazy words, interact with audience volunteers, and sing sweet, innocent yet telling personal odes. “The script is fun, off-putting, clever and unpredictable as can possibly be,” Beck says. “Each character goes in different directions — light, frivolous and dark. It has a subversive, dark humor but is also fun and childish.” Somehow, it all comes together — “syzygy” — in the end. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through Mar. 27 at the Omaha Community Playhouse‘s Howard Drew Theatre, 6915 Cass St. Performance times are Thurs-Sat at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Visit omahaplayhouse.com or ticketomaha.com for details.

posted at 12:04 pm
on Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

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