Puppet characters are used in the Triumvirate Theatres production of Baranovs Castle, which tells the tale of the last days of Alaskas first governor. The show, with puppets operated by members of the Nikiski High School debate and drama team, features a soundtrack of songs from Nikiski High teacher and area musician Matt Boyle.
Photos by John Hult
The telling of a nearly 200-year-old Alaska colonial tale gave tellers the chance to learn a lot of new things, among them writing and recording a soundtrack, puppeteering to the recorded soundtrack and outfitting those puppets in 19th Century Russian garb.
“Baranov’s Castle,” opening tonight in the Triumverate Theatre in Soldotna, is the true story of the last days of Alaska’s first governor, a Russian trader named Aleksandr Baranov, whom Russian authorities believed was embezzling money from the colony. Russia sends a naval commander named Hagemeister with a war ship and an accountant to check Baranov’s books.
What follows from that point is the stuff of the Hollywood epic: Baranov threatening to blow Hagemeister out of the water, Baranov’s daughter Irina falling in love with Hagemeister’s first mate, the two dueling strongmen forced to compromise and of course a happy ending.
According to Joe Rizzo, the director and writer of the show, the only historical change made to the story was the time frame.
“It seems like it takes place over three or four days, but it was really over three or four months,” Rizzo said.
The show is performed to a soundtrack, with members of the Nikiski High School debate and drama team maneuvering the puppets and matching the dialogue on the soundtrack with the mouths of the the muppet-like characters.
Photo by John Hult
“The voices are so distinct, it’s really easy to just pick up the characters and know what they’re singing,” said Tyler Payment, a Nikiski High junior who, like all the puppeteers, works several different characters during the show.
The students earn money for the debate and drama program with the shows, including shows done in Homer and Seward in October. The students said learning to work the puppets wasn’t particularly difficult, though none had done it before.
“It gets pretty easy. It’s just like lines you would say,” said Kara Bethune, a junior at Nikiski.
“Your hand gets tired after awhile, but that’s about it,” Payment added.
Rizzo, who ordered the puppets from a Bible Web site then gave them to Soldotna Public Library worker and Triumvirate volunteer Terri Burdick for re-costuming, said it takes practice to be able to do a whole show.
“When we first got these puppets, they were delivered to my home and I pulled them out and I put on the soundtrack and was entertaining. I only got about halfway through the song and I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said.
Rizzo, who teaches at Nikiski, employed the talents of a fellow teacher and peninsula musician for the soundtrack, and it represented a learning experience for him, too.
“I kind of wanted to make it as authentic as possible, and I really didn’t know a whole lot about Russian music,” said Matt Boyle, who spent six months writing, recording and editing the soundtrack. “I did a lot of Internet searches for Russian folk music.”
Many of the songs in the show were written by Boyle, but others are either traditional Russian folk songs he recorded with his own equipment or tunes revolving around reworked melodies he discovered during his research.
Boyle also recorded the characters’ dialogue and sound effects, splicing them together with the songs to make the soundtrack used for the show. Boyle, a musical fixture on the peninsula since 1976, said the show was the largest he’s ever undertaken.
“I do a lot of my own stuff, to, but this is the first time I had ever been part of a larger project where other people were involved, and I’ve always just kind of written songs for the fun of it for myself,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve had to write for an audience and do a little bit of research and make sure it fit with the dialogue. It was a big challenge, and I loved it.”
Boyle also said he’s open to doing more projects of this nature in the future, although he said he couldn’t do two projects back-to-back. Rizzo agreed, calling the recording process is deceptively difficult.
“A lot of times people think you just get in there and do it, but it takes a lot of hours in the recording studio to get it right,” Rizzo said.
For Boyle, however, the challenge of the project paid off.
“It was like going to Disneyland with all the lights and the mystery,” he said of the first time he saw the show. “It was really cool.”
Children also seem to be big fans. Rizzo and his fellow Nikiski teacher and show producer Carla Jenness say the group will perform for area elementary schools.
Teachers also will get a packet of activities so students can learn more about Baranov’s Alaska after the show.
“Kids love it,” Jenness said. “Sometimes they sing along, they clap. Every time the confetti goes off, they shriek with delight.
“I never predicted how excited they’d get about the show. It’s really fun to watch them.”
“Baranov’s Castle” opens today at 7 p.m. in the Triumvirate Theatre in the Peninsula Center Mall. It runs Jan. 12-14 and Jan 19-21 at 7 p.m., with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. on Jan 14 and 21.
Tickets are $6 and can be purchased at the door or in advance from the Triumvirate Theatre Bookstore and Gallery from Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 6 p.m.
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