Playing it up

Inventive melodrama lets actors go over the top

Posted: Thursday, July 14, 2005


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  Josh Ball, playing the hero Hector Skyscraper, proclaims his love for little Nell, played by Tatiana Butler , in a rehearsal for the melodrama "Little Nell" on Monday at Soldotna High School. The play will be performed this weekend and next. Photo by Jenny Neyman

Josh Ball, playing the hero Hector Skyscraper, proclaims his love for little Nell, played by Tatiana Butler , in a rehearsal for the melodrama "Little Nell" on Monday at Soldotna High School. The play will be performed this weekend and next.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

Welcome to the world of melodrama, where villains are dastardly and irredeemable, heroines are wholesome, if a little dense, and dashing heroes save the day just in the nick of time — as long as their pants don't split.

"Little Nell," by John Nash, supplies all the classic elements of melodrama — grandiose monologues, villainous asides to the audience, "Oh-woes-me" wailing from the downtrodden and, of course, signs prompting "boos," "hurrahs" and "sighs" from the audience.

The play goes beyond that, though, tempering the over-the-top haminess inherent in melodrama with a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the actors putting on the play.


Justin Smith, playing Hector Skyscraper, and J.R. Cox, playing Carlton Bainbridge, face off in a scene from "Little Nell."

Photo by Jenny Neyman

"It's a play within a play where everything goes wrong," said director Carla Jenness, who is staging the production with the Alaska Children's Institute of the Performing Arts and Triumvirate Theatre.

Though most of the action on stage is "Little Nell" the melodrama, the show is actually about a theater company staging the melodrama, so you not only see the actors swooping about in their roles, you also see them running to make late entrances, having forgotten lines prompted by a stage hand and struggling with set malfunctions.

"We can see the little backstage action," Jenness said. "It seems more interesting to have this kind of multilayer story. It's basically two stories."


From left, prompter Sharon Miller, Little Nell (Tatiana Butler), Carloton Bainbridge (Justin Smith), stage manager Ramona Baker and Hector Skyscraper (Josh Ball) gather in the off-stage area t watch other actors "on stage" in the play "LIttle Nell."

The melodramatic aspect of "Little Nell" is about the title character being pursued by two suitors — the dashing but poor Hector Skyscraper and the wealthy but dull Carlton Bainbridge.

Hector has captured Little Nell's heart, while Carlton offers to use his financial resources to free Little Nell's family from the "foul degradation of mortgage."

Little Nell's parents, Ma and Pa Wilkins, pressure her to accept Carlton's marriage proposal and wealth, not knowing the villain came by the money to pay off the mortgage by robbing a bank and plans to foreclose on the property if Little Nell doesn't marry him and name him sole inheritor of the family's estate.

The only one who sees Carlton for the no-good schemer he is is Hector, but he faces an uphill battle fraught with much hang wringing and knuckle biting in getting Little Nell to forsake her family's wishes and marry him instead of Carlton.

While all this is going on, the audience also sees a prompter and stage manager off to the side trying to make the show run smoothly despite problems with the set, forgotten lines and actors wandering off and missing their entrance cues.

The play-within-a-play element of "Little Nell" gave Jenness and the actors room to expand the show's comedy, "Which I think is cool because it makes it where it really appeals to a really broad audience," Jenness said.

Not only is there a classic melodrama to watch, there's also the bumbling antics of the actors trying to keep the melodrama on track.

"It's kind of winking at the whole genera," Jenness said. "It's not sarcastic but kind of ironic almost. ... We, the audience, get to be all in on the joke with these people."

The script is flexible, giving the actors a chance to add their own touches to the show.

"It's been kind of fun, this backstage thing," Jenness said. "All the actors had fun basically sitting around scheming of little skits they can do.

"The script has these long speeches so it's kind of fun to have something going on while that's happening."

Jenness said about half the comedy bits are in the script and the other half the actors came up with, including musical jokes woven in and skits where the prompter and stage manager bicker with each other or scramble to pull off a special effect while the actors pause with deer-in-headlights stares onstage.

"It's kind of like a Bugs Bunny cartoon," Jenness said. "There's all kinds of pop cultural references and all this slapstick going on."

The play has seven characters —Little Nell, played by Tatiana Butler; Hector Skyscraper, played by Josh Ball and understudy Justin Smith today and next Thursday; Carlton Bainbridge, played by J.R. Cox; Ma Wilkins, played by Terri Burdick; Pa Wilkins, played by Mark Osterman; the prompter, played by Sharon Miller; and the stage manager, played by Ramona Butler.

Burdick and Osterman have been in several community performances in the central Kenai Peninsula.

The other actors have years of experience performing together in Nikiski High School and other Alaska Children's Institute for the Performing Arts productions. They also have been teammates on Nikiski High's state champion drama, debate and forensics team.

"(Ball and Cox) are so comfortable with each other and with their comedic talents it's always kind of fun to put those two together on stage," Jenness said. "It took very little coaching on those guys. They realized these were basically these big loud caricatures, really. Those two have been really funny.

"Tatiana was born to play this big loud heroine role who is very loud and dramatic and swoops around," Jenness said, adding that Butler's dance background makes her able to swoop around every inch of stage.

None of the actors had a problem pulling off the hammed-up aspect of melodrama, Jenness said.

"That's what I've been telling them all along — if you played this really deliberately and big, anything goes. And that's what they've done."

Jenness said she and Triumvirate Theatre partner Joe Rizzo wanted to do the play to coincide with Soldotna's Progress Days celebration to revive a tradition that died off in the mid-1980s.

"I hear tell that many years ago they used to do a melodrama every year for Progress Days, so we thought it would be kind of fun to revive that tradition.

"I think it's kind of a cool community thing that brought the community together for a theater experience that had kind of fallen by the wayside. We thought it would be a fun thing for the community and thought it would be fun to do a comedy."

"Little Nell" will be performed today, Friday and Saturday and next week on July 21, 22 and 23 at 8 p.m. in the Soldotna High School Auditorium. Tickets are $8 at the door.

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