The spotlight may shine on Gywneth Anderson, Molly Grant and the rest of the cast of “Beowulf.” But Elizabeth Erskine may be the real star of the show, according to those involved with Marblehead High School’s entry in the state drama festival.
The ever-patient Erskine, the production’s prop designer, has had to see her handiwork — mostly swords fashioned out of discarded smartboard boxes — undone when one of her classmates brings a bit too much exuberance to one of the play’s battle scenes.
But her persistence and the hard work of the rest of the cast and crew paid off, as MHS’ “Beowulf” advanced out of the preliminary round at Beverly Middle School March 5 to this weekend’s semifinals.
The Marblehead cast and crew will be taking its show on the road to Norwood High School this Saturday, March 18 with their sights set on advancing to the state finals in Boston March 30 through April 1.
Overseeing the production is first-time director Tom Rash. A postal worker by day, Rash was coaxed into the role by his partner, English teacher Ashley Skeffington, MHS’ regular drama supervisor, who is taking a year off.
Rash has a degree in theater but said what ultimately got him past his reticence to pursue the position was his realization that Marblehead is rich with young artistic talent Marblehead, and many of his cast members would have cut their teeth in the Marblehead Little Theatre or North Shore Children’s Theatre’s youth productions.
He is “very glad” he pushed that initial hesitancy, Rash said.
“I’m having such a good time,” he said. “The kids are extremely talented.”
The trip to the semifinals will be a first for Rash, who participated in the Massachusetts Educational Theater Guild’s festival as a Rockport High School student but never advanced out of prelims.
In one sense, the METG drama festival is like any other competition. There are rules — productions cannot exceed 40 minutes, and sets must be constructed and broken down in five minutes or less — and at the end, “winners” are declared.
But in another sense, the drama festival is quite atypical. When casts and crew return to the auditorium after performing, they typically receive rousing ovations from their rivals.
Festival is surprisingly grueling, said Aylin de Jong, the costume designer for “Beowulf.” In Beverly, the first show of the day was performed at 9 a.m., the last at 5:30 p.m. The students then eat dinner and socialize while the judges deliberate.
De Jong said that, right up until the moment the individual honors are bestowed and the schools moving on are announced, you tend to forget that there is actually a competition going on.
Sophomore Benji Boyd, who plays Unferth in “Beowulf,” agreed, noting how freely compliments are exchanged when passing in the hallways, casts and crews easily identifiable by the T-shirts most have made in conjunction with their shows.
Even after the winners are declared, it is not uncommon for the victors to say to another school’s cast “your show should have won” — and mean it, said Boyd.
This is the second festival and second trip to the semifinals for de Jong, a junior at MHS. Last year, she was very nervous, de Jong acknowledged.
“But once you are there, all of the nervousness leaves,” she said.
One of the best parts of the experience is seeing what her peers have been working on in other parts of the state, an opportunity that would not exist outside the festival, de Jong said.
New take on classic
The title “Beowulf” may conjure memories — perhaps unpleasant — of the daunting text of the Old English epic poem. But this is not your high school teacher’s “Beowulf.”
Skeffington first learned of this particular adaptation of “Beowulf,” written by Toby Hulse, about five years ago when Boston Latin performed it. The Boston Latin director, in turn, had discovered it through the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Despite Skeffington’s endorsement, Rash said that the decision of whether to perform “Beowulf” was ultimately made by the students.
“They had a chance to change our mind,” Rash said.
In Hulse’s “Beowulf,” the story is framed by an Old English professor, Hanneke, who is battling cancer, and her 9-year-old daughter, Sophie, who is trying to wrap her head around her mother’s diagnosis through the stories her mother has shared with her.
In Marblehead’s production, Hanneke and Molly are played by Gywneth Anderson and Molly Grant, respectively, while CJ English is in the title role of Beowulf.
Hard work pays off
In the preliminary round at Beverly, Anderson and English received individual acting awards for their performances, while Erskine was recognized for her prop work.
Rash said it was particularly gratifying to see Erskine’s hard work rewarded.
“I’ve asked a lot of all the designers, but Elizabeth especially has taken the brunt of it,” Rash said, noting that she gave up time over the February break to finish building the cardboard dragon head brought on stage during the play’s climactic scene.
As for creating the costumes, de Jong said the process began with her and wardrobe manager Monica Pechhold rooting around in the closet in the basement of the Veterans Middle School for costumes that would at once be medieval but also a bit whimsical.
Aside from some general “blocking” — telling the actors where to stand — Rand said that “pretty much everything about the production came from the kids.”
He said that reusing sets and costumes and pulling things together at the last minute mirrors how equity stages operate in the wider theatrical world.
“These things stay with you,” Rash said.
Aside from the costumes and Erskine’s props, de Jong said one of her favorite parts of the production is the fighting scenes.
“A lot of hard work went into choreographing and rehearsing them, and you can see it,” she said.
Marblehead High’s “Beowulf” also features original music by Jacob Piascik, an “organic” addition to the production that arose when Piascik jumped behind the keyboard at an early rehearsal and expressed an interest in supplying musical accompaniment, according to Rash.
“We now have him playing almost through the entirety of the piece,” he said.
Sneak preview planned
“Beowulf” will be the second show performed in Norwood on Saturday, starting at approximately 10:30 a.m. Aside from some mild disappointment that they will not get to see the first show of the day, Leominster’s “James and the Giant Peach,” both Boyd and de Jong said that the time slot does not matter.
For those who would like to see “Beowulf” without driving to Norwood, you do have a “one night only” opportunity. An open dress rehearsal will be held at 6 p.m. Friday, March 17 at the Performing Arts Center at Veterans Middle School. Admission will be a suggested $5 donation to the Friends of the Performing Arts.
“It will be great for the kids to show it to an audience and break the nerves” of the following day’s competition, Rash said.
Cast, crew of ‘Beowulf’
- Gwyneth Anderson, Hanneke
- Molly Grant, Sophie
- CJ English, Beowulf
- Tyler Earp, Hrothgar
- Charlotte Howells, Scyld Scefing
- Benji Boyd, Unferth
- The Bards: Ila Bumagin, Jacob Piascik, Anya Kane
- The Monks: Brady Weed, Ella Benedetto, Ryan Kindle, Dante Genovesi, Olivia Niles
- Mr. Tom Rash, director
- Ila Bumagin, assistant director
- Brady Weed, assistant director
- Phineas Bennett, stage manager
- Dylan McDonald, assistant stage manager
- Mr. Gregory Dana, technical director
- Mimi Fallon, technical director
- Elizabeth Erskine, prop designer
- Aylin de Jong, costume designer
- Monica Pechhold, wardrobe manager
- Mimi Fallon, lighting designer
- Aiofe Sullivan, sound designer
- Carrie Linde, set designer
- William Johnston, fight consult
- Benji Boyd, fight captain
- Run crew: Aeryn Vizy, Ava Genovesi, Lucas Rosen, Martha Heffernan