Theater Goes Silent for Stage Lights
by Jim Amidon
April 22, 2014
It is no secret that Wabash College students have big, loud voices — just attend any football or basketball game for proof. But in the Wabash Theater Department’s production of Jack Moore’s play Stage Lights, mum’s the word.
Director Jessie Mills brings the silent, physical comedy inspired by the work of Charlie Chaplin to the Ball Theater stage April 23-26. Curtain times are 8:00 p.m. each evening and free tickets can be reserved through the box office (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The playwright adapts the charm of classic film and reimagines Chaplin’s universe for a modern audience in this vibrant new work. Stage Lights follows the Tramp, Chaplin’s iconic character, as he enters the dizzying world of the Vaudeville Theater in search of a job and where he falls in love with a beautiful stagehand. As the possibility of romance blooms, a new act comes to town—Max, a kind and sensitive strongman whose charm and talent threaten to steal the Tramp’s love, as well as jeopardize his newfound employment at the Vaudeville Theater.
Having to play their roles silently has been a challenge for many of the actors. “Since this story is told without dialogue, we spent the first week honing our silent storytelling skills,” Mills said. “Over the course of this rehearsal process, the cast has become more aware of and specific about every single movement on stage. Without language, after all, every distinct gesture adds important information to the overall story.”
Veteran actor Patrick Kvachkoff has his breakout performance as the Tramp, a cane-twirling, penguin-walking, Chaplin look-alike. He helps a young woman who dreams of a career in vaudeville, played by Felicia Santiago, find work in a theater and along the way she steals his heart. The tramp finds work at the theater, too, but manages to frustrate everyone from the Maître d’ (Rory Willats) to the Jugglers (Corey Egler and Kendall Baker).
When Max, the Strongman (A.J. Akinribade) joins the troupe, all eyes turn to his muscles. Not only do the Vaudeville Girls (Casseia Todd and Sammie Amidon) fall for Max, so does the Gamine, which breaks the heart and spirit of the adorable, hope-filled Tramp.
Beneath the charming and hilarious performance of Kvachkoff exists the dim reality of life in the city. The Dock Manager, played by Zach Canon, is mobbed when frustrated dockworkers fight and scratch for day labor that will pay them only pennies.
“It has been a great joy to work with these actors on such a unique show,” said Mills. “The students here are wildly talented and creative – a production like Stage Lights could not exist without the dedication, imagination, and joyful collaboration of this cast. I am so proud of what this cast has accomplished and I can’t wait for them to bring this story to life in front of an audience.”
Accompanying the silent actors are musicians David Gunderman on piano and Tim Hanson on violin. After the first 20 minutes, you come to realize that the major characters have their own music, and you can follow the action by listening carefully.
For the audience, the experience is that of sitting in an old-time silent movie theater, especially when Media Center Director Adam Bowen’s black and white films and graphics are projected above the action on stage. When movies or graphics are depicted, the stage lights dim ever so slightly and the actors’ movements turn to slow motion.
Andrea Bear designed and built scores and scores of costumes — from dockworkers’ togs to Vaudeville Director Dan McCarthy’s tux. James Gross designed the set, which turns from a street market to the backstage of the Vaudeville Theater and then to the main stage where the performers act, sing, and juggle in the spotlight.
Holding the whole play together is stage manager Bradley Hopper, who keeps the music, movies, acting, and lighting moving along without the benefit of the actors’ vocal cues.
The cast truly benefitted from the silent acting workshops, which were facilitated by Mills and the playwright, Jack Moore, who visited campus for a week. The playwright will return for the weekend performances of the play.
For first-year theater professor Mills, the experience of working with Wabash students, women from DePauw, and other community cast members has been warm and positive. Mills’ first rule for rehearsals is never to be late, and being Wabash students, there were a number of men tardy early on. As punishment, late arrivals had to bring snacks for the cast. That soon led to some actors forcing people to be late or changing the time on their phones.
“By the time we got to tech rehearsal,” said Mills, “almost everyone had brought treats for the cast and not a soul was running late any more. That said, tech rehearsal hit and, even though no one owed treats, almost half the cast brought in food for the group. It was a very touching moment to watch an ensemble look out for and take care of one another – it’s what you can only hope for, as a director.”
Starring in Stage Lights at Wabash College are Patrick Kvachkoff as the Tramp; Felicia Santiago as the Gamine, A.J. Akinribade as Max, the Strongman, Dan McCarthy as the Director, Rory Willats as Maître d', Zach Canon as Dock Manager, Clayton Mikesell as Fighting Dock Worker, Carolyn Yarnall as Fruit Stand Lady, Jason Wright as Policeman, Casseia Todd and Sammie Amidon as Vaudeville Girls, Corey Egler and Kendall Baker as Jugglers, Donovan Whitney and Mackenzie Hepburn as Theater-Going Couple, and Ryan Cairns, Ian Baumgardner, Alex Wimber, Xinyang Shane Xuan, Erik Bryant, and Herchel Springer as Highlighted Vaudeville Acts and Stagehands.
The Wabash College Theater production of Stage Lights: Jessie Mills, director; written by Jack Moore; original musical compositions by Scott Borchert; costume design by Andrea Bear; scene and lighting design by James Gross; Bradley Hopper, stage manager; media designed by Adam Bowen; and media operation by Scott Hastings.