BWW Review: River Ridge's Royal Knight Stage Company's Deeply Moving Production of THE AMISH PROJECT (ENSEMBLE VERSION) by Jessica Dickey
So many high school theatre departments like to play it safe. They usually choose shows that are funny, cushy and easy on the viewers' sensibilities. They fear pushing their students with powerful, controversial, risky shows. They choose farces, serious albeit overdone classics, and ubiquitous vignette plays. For example, Almost, Maine is a great script, but it's also performed in every high school to the point of cliché (I'm wondering of late if it's a curriculum requirement with some schools). With Shakespeare, his lightest comedy--A Midsummer Night's Dream--is the one oft chosen. These theatre teachers--many of whom are amazing--just don't want to shake the audience's worldview; they don't want to push their student actors to the next level by making them confront the demons of reality, digging deep into the darkness of a character; and they don't dare make parents feel uncomfortable at all. In some ways, they don't dare to make anyone feel anything at all. Just a nice time, nothing more. Get the show done, make it as entertaining as possible, and then, as they say, set it and forget it.
But then there are those brave theatre educators who like to push the envelope. Usually with a supportive administration (a key component), they want to embolden their actors and their audiences, to create a dialogue about touchy subjects, and to do plays and musicals that rarely are performed at the high school level. All good theatre teachers are heroes; this category of courageous souls contain superheroes among the field of heroes.
This is why I respect River Ridge High School theatre teacher David O'Hara's decision to produce a controversial work like THE AMISH PROJECT. This is one tough piece of theatre, one that dives deep into the dark heart of America and also soars toward the brightest lights of grace and forgiveness. This certainly isn't Pollyanna Goes Pennsylvania Dutch. This is a moving, powerful ode to forgiveness, using the real-life tragedy of the 2006 Nickel Mines shooting to explore its themes (its characters are fictional, but the incident is real).
You may not recall this specific shooting; sadly, since we've had so many school shootings since 2006, you may not remember it because it has become a tragic blur along with most of the other school shootings. On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV entered an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and opened fire. He took hostages, ultimately shooting eight young girls, ages six to thirteen, before killing himself.
Interestingly, after the 2006 killings, the West Nickel Mines School was torn down, and a new schoolhouse was built at another location. Its name: The New Hope School. Aside from the obvious Star Wars connotation of its name (something very un-Amish and obviously unintended), this new name turns out to be what THE AMISH PROJECT is all about. Finding some kind of hope, grace, in the midst of an unimaginable tragedy.
THE AMISH PROJECT by Jessica Dickey has most famously been performed by a single actress, but this is the Ensemble Version that River Ridge chose. And it's a gutsy play for a high school, mesmerizing at times, didactic at others, but almost always moving. And the River Ridge production, which played from October 17th to October 19th at the Center for the Arts, contained two student performances that were out of this world glorious.
I have seen Kylie Arseneau perform since she was a pre-teen, and yes, even then you could see she had so much potential. She was always a standout on stage, naturally talented, starring in such shows as Peter Pan (she played Wendy), Annie (she was Grace) and Seussical (Mayzie). But then it seemed like she was stalled in the wings for a spell, waiting for that one opportunity where she could let loose and show the world that she is not just talented, but a major find. Then came her performance in the title role of Thoroughly Modern Millie last summer, where she wowed all of us who got to experience her musical, acting, and even dancing abilities full-throttle. Director David O'Hara also saw that major talent flourish, so he cast her as Carol Stuckey, the wife of the killer in THE AMISH PROJECT, certainly the show's most difficult role.
To say that Ms. Arseneau is phenomenal in THE AMISH PROJECT is not enough. This is a performance that sustains its intensity for well over seventy minutes, a rollercoaster of emotions, so real and so vulnerable. You could see her always in the moment, sometimes the tears flowing down her face, sometimes her face turning pale in a plea for understanding, sometimes her body collapsing to the ground in resignation. Rarely do we see the viewpoint of the killer's family in a play, and this is what makes this fresh portrayal so fascinating. Ms. Arseneau never forces the emotion, she just lets it happen, and that's what I found so moving. It also doesn't fall into the trap of overacting either. It's just so open, so raw, so heartbreaking. There was a real actress up there, and I know I am not alone when I say that her work is far above high school or even several college performances.
Equally good, but in a very different way, is Cody Farkas as the killer (a fictional name is used--Eddie Stuckey--instead of "Charles Carl Roberts IV"). Looking like a weird amalgam of John Hinkley (Ronald Reagan's shooter) and Arthur Bremer (George Wallace's shooter), and also chillingly similar in looks to the real-life Roberts, Farkas speaks slowly, almost reptilian as he walks, moving at a different pace than the rest of the cast. If you saw Farkas' hilarious work in River Ridge's Beauty and the Beast last year, you would not be able to recognize him here. It's a scary turn, almost horror-film worthy, and yet we see the struggling human in him. But he's also not some cookie-cutter killer stereotype, some Thomas Harris villain. He comes across as a sort of troubled regular guy, someone who could easily get lost in a crowd until it's too late and the damage is done. It's a sensationally frightening performance at times, one that can haunt your nightmares like BOB from Twin Peaks if you're not careful. Only this guy is scarier because he's based on someone real.
Carly O'Neill is another standout, portraying one of the Amish victims. She has a wonderful "otherness" about her, a gentility but also a strength of soul, as if she never doubts God's word. Robert Matson is commanding as the Fireman. And a natural Amanda Torres as America and Izzy Pravato as a rude non-Amish community member have their moments, although it was hard to hear both of them at times (I had to lean forward because their voices were sometimes so soft).
The likable Shawna Hopper has good energy as another of the Amish victims, but it seems like she was trying too hard to sound like a child rather than letting it happen naturally. (It was almost sometimes difficult to hear her as well.) Savanah Ray projected quite well as a reporter, and Daniel Vorbroker had some strong nonverbal moments as an Amish father. Ethan Conrad, looking at times like a young Bill Clinton, is a good presence onstage but I had a more difficult time with his character, and his big emotional scene felt forced to me.
The ensemble seemed underused. They include such talented performers as Rachel Knowles, Austin Judd, Matthew Bracker, Sarah Lawhorne, Jacob Andrews, Jamye Cardello-Peters, Hayden Danielson, Georgis Galiatsis, Bailey Odom and Vivian Wright. I question why (opening tableau aside) there were so many of them onstage when all they did was just sort of stand there like wax figures.
With its stillness, sometimes the play seemed like a museum slideshow.
David O'Hara's direction is often masterful, his young performers beautifully staged, moving about like they were in a very concentrated game of chess. Making the show intimate was another terrific move (they turned the large Center for the Arts into an intimate 96-seat theatre). Still, sometimes the pacing seemed off (I kept thinking the show was about to end at several points, and there it kept on going like the old Energizer Bunny).
Sophia Adkins' Amish costume designs looked extremely authentic, the real deal.
The show may have offended some people with its starkness and some of its language, but the audience members near me watched it in stunned silence. Various individuals broke down crying, obviously touched by this story (and by Ms. Arseneau's riveting portrayal). You could hear constant bellowing throughout, the sound of audience members sniffling and blowing their noses during the performance. Many were emotional wrecks afterwards. Such is the power of theatre.
Photographs by Bella Harvey.