Martha's Vineyard Times
April 6, 2011

Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School presents two winning plays

By Gwyn McAllister

Two outrageously camp and funny one-act plays presented by the Charter School kept even the littlest audience members at the Vineyard Playhouse engaged and laughing throughout three performances over the weekend.

In keeping up the school's tradition of presenting unconventional material, Treather Gassmann and first-time director Ian Chickering offered up a children's version of the classic French absurdist play "Ubu Roi" and a madcap parody of action/adventure films entitled "The Everyday Adventures of Harriet Handleman -- Super Genius."

Both works involved large ensemble casts and the fun material allowed an energetic group of young actors to display their individual personalities during the course of an evening that involved a massive pillow fight, underwater escapades, and much more.

Credited with inspiring the Theater of the Absurd and the surrealist art movement, Alfred Jarry's "Ubu" might seem like an unusual choice for a group of elementary school students. The political satire in three parts, which premiered in Paris in 1896, is a reworking of a number of Shakespearean themes with an exaggeratedly vulgar, stupid, and self-interested brute as the original theatrical anti-hero -- heady stuff for a bunch of kids.

However, in this adapted version, the action is fast and funny, the characters entertainingly larger than life and the clownish behavior of the obese, flatulent, nose-picking, butt-scratching, lazy oaf of a protagonist a natural draw for kids of all ages.

While the play's themes of conspiracy, betrayal and abuse of power could be appreciated by the adults in the crowd, the buffoonery of the lead character (a no-stops-barred performance by Susa Breese), his imperious wife (Michaela Rivard in a very funny turn), and others, combined with the inclusion of a stalwart child hero (a jaunty Sequoia Ahren) and his sympathetic mother (a mature performance by Bella Maidoff) kept the kids in the audience laughing and cheering.

In the second play, a routine day in the life of child prodigy, Harriet Handleman (Alistair Rizza) is interrupted when an ingenuous science fair project falls into the wrong hands. Suddenly, Harriet's challenges escalate from a spelling bee and a forgotten lunch bag to waging a transcontinental race against time with a mysterious villain intent on world domination.

She is accompanied on her mission by a CIA agent (Oscar Thompson), her little brother (Violet Starr Kennedy) and a handful of friends (Dominique Aaron, Sarah Chickering, Morgan Taylor, and Kyra Whalen). The gang variously escapes from a cannibal stew pot, battles an angry octopus, and evades a sword-wielding Egyptian assassin before triumphing over the diabolical "shadowy figure" (Lena Henshka) thanks to Harriet's 275 IQ.

The intimate Playhouse proved to be a perfect setting for the two high-energy, character-driven plays. A great addition to the minimalist sets was the use of very clever projected backdrops. Some unusual avant-garde musical choices added another interesting touch.

Ms. Gassmann has a knack for picking kid-friendly material that adults can also enjoy, while encouraging individuality in her actors by allowing their naturally goofy and hammish selves to shine through. As a director, she turns a lot of the decisions over to the kids. The result, as one might expect, is a lot of activity and some great contemporary nuances to characters.

This year for the first time Ms. Gassmann employed a student as assistant, Charter School 10th-grader Ian Chickering, who has acted in the school's two previous productions, as well as in the Island Theatre Workshop's production of "Hope." A writer and an aspiring film director, he is currently working on a play satirizing pop culture, which the school will present next year.

"I figured stage directing was the place to start," Ian said, noting that Ms. Gassmann turned full responsibility for Ubu over to him. "Treather gave me free reign. She was just there poking me in the back saying, 'this is feasible, this is not.'"