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Attack of the one acts: High schools present plays in local showcase

East Ridge High School students Meghan Horan, Erin Foy, Alex Bretoi, Nolan Sherburne and Emma Pfeifer star in "Childhood," a play by Thornton Wilder. The cast will compete in the Minnesota State One Act Play Competition. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)1 / 3
Woodbury High School student Raphael Ruggero (left) is a deadbeat aristocrat who is mistaken for an influential official from Moscow by town mayor Akul Seshadri in the "Government Inspector." The cast, which also includes Joyce Mutyaba, will perform in the District 833 One Act Festival Friday. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)2 / 3
Director Kajsa Jones takes notes during a rehearsal of "Childhood" at East Ridge High School. The cast, which includes Nolan Sherburne, Meghan Horan and Pfeife r(from left) will compete in the Minnesota State One Act Play Competition. (Bulletin photo by William Loeffler)3 / 3

School District 833

Each year, the student casts of three local high schools court drama when they test their nerve and skill in the Minnesota State High School League One-Act Play competition.

Probably the only chance to see all three together is at the One-Act Play Festival beginning at 7 p.m. Friday at Woodbury High School.

The trio of shorts includes "Come Back" by Neil Haven by Park High School; "The Government Inspector," an adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher of a Nikolai Gogol play by Woodbury High School; and East Ridge High School's performance of "Childhood" by Thornton Wilder.

The section finals are scheduled for Feb. 1 at Park.

East Ridge's 'Childhood'

Wisconsin-born Thornton Wilder penned "Childhood," an eerie comedy about three siblings who engage in morbid games of pretend, to the increasing dismay of their parents.

"The nice thing about a one act is that you can rehearse it multiple times," director Kajsa Jones said. "It's a challenge for high school kids because it's not quite realism and that's what they're attuned to doing."

The cast includes Erin Foy, Alex Bretoi, Meghan Horan, Emma Pfeifer and Nolan Sherburne.

Each play in the one-act competition is limited to 35 minutes in length, with an additional 10 minutes for setup and five minutes for takedown. Each show can have up to 20 students involved, including cast and crew. The plays are judged on physical characterizations, vocal characterizations, technical elements, educational value and overall effectiveness of ensemble.

Park's 'Come Back'

Park is no stranger to the state one-act play competition. They've made the state finals no less than 10 times. Their productions have consistently received a "starred" or exceptional rating, in 1994, 1998, 1999, 2001-2004, 2006, 2013, and 2015.

This year's entry, "Come Back," is a dark comedy about friends and family coping with the loss of a loved one.

Senior Melody Armstrong plays Erin, the recently deceased friend to Sky (Alec Bercham). Erin has left everything to her best friend, with one caveat: he must find the perfect repository for her ashes. And should Sky choose not to carry out Erin's wishes, the money will go to the American Nazi Party. So there's that.

Sky embarks on an arduous and antic road trip, where he shops at various crematoriums. Among the sales pitches: have his friend's remains pressed into a vinyl record, a commemorative brick or encased in bullets.

"It's hard for kids this age to act a play like this where they have to react to the loss of a loved one," director Denise Atkinson said.

The competition adds a new measure of difficulty to the endeavor. When the curtain goes up and the timer hits the stopwatch, stagefright can set in.

Atkinson is trying to prepare the first-timers in the cast for what they'll face.

"Some of your faces will be as white as that screen behind you," Atkinson told the cast at a recent rehearsal. "You can cut the tension with a knife."

Flub a line? Keep going. If you can't act brilliantly, act fast, because you'll be disqualified if you end a second past the 35-minute mark.

"You've got to stay focused," Armstrong said, "because the second you lose focus that's when you run off the rails."

Woodbury's 'The Government Inspector'

Nikolai Gogol is a giant in Russian literature. His novels, plays and short stories combine fanged satire with outrageous elements of magic realism. Judging from "The Government Inspector," the Ukranian-born author didn't have a high opinion of the Russian bureaucracy.

The play chronicles a pending visit by an official from Moscow, and the subsequent panic and scheming it sets off among the venal leaders of the town. Akul Seshadri plays the unctuous and unabashedly opportunistic mayor.

"It's fun to play someone who's not you, especially if they're this weird character," Seshadri said.

Raphael Ruggero plays a deadbeat aristocrat who is mistaken for the visiting VIP.

Marcie Berglund of Cottage Grove is in the director's seat again this year.

"It's really a play about corruption in a small town," she said.

This particular adaptation of Gogol's play was performed at the Guthrie Theater in 2008.

"My goal is to make it rather like a circus," Berglund said. "These people are not clowns but they're nuts. The town is nuts."

If you go

The One-Act Play Festival is 7 p.m. Jan. 20, at the Royal Theatre at Woodbury High School, 2665 Woodlane Drive. Tickets are $5.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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