April 1, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 67°F

Life & Culture

Comedy and contagion combine in student musical

During a rehearsal of Theatrists Theatrics’ production of “Plague! The Musical,” an actor serenades a prop bottle as five others dance in place around him: there’s a mix of cha-cha, dabbing, cliched disco moves and arms that flow like seaweed. Their movements are frantic and clashing; yet, when performed with the cacophony of the original production’s recording, the discord creates a sense of harmony.

“Plague! The Musical” is an over-the-top dark comedy about Britain’s outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1665. It has almost no historical accuracy, inserting fictional characters like the Rat King, and uses a fusion of rock and jazz to tell its story. Theatrists Theatrics — a student-run theater group dedicated to producing nontraditional, experimental and original productions — will make its debut performance of “Plague! The Musical” at 8 p.m. Nov. 9 and at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Nov. 10.

The musical has only been produced three times in its entirety and only once in the United States. Theatrists Theatrics’ production will become the musical’s fourth official production — its second time in the country and firstever time on a college campus. Director and junior Will Giering has been in close contact with the original writers, David Massingham and Matthew Townend, as well as Martin Bones, the director of the first U.S. production of “Plague! The Musical.

Giering said he fell in love with the musical in 2013 when the Marble Valley Players, a community theater organization, first brought the show to the U.S. in his home state, Vermont. During the production, Giering played the role of the Beggar Lord, a role he will be reprising for Theatrists Theatrics’ production. He said the over-the-top absurdity attracted him to the show.

“They really went full-out with the production for that, which is something I absolutely love,” he said. “It was really all-out, which was something really nice to see. A lot of the times it’s easy to hold back when you’re doing theater.”

Ever since, Giering has been dreaming of bringing bubonic-infested coffins to his own stage. He’s been working for the past two years to make his dream a reality: analyzing the script, getting a group to help with production and finding costumes and props. He said he approached junior Jeremy Werner, Theatrists Theatrics’ artistic director and actor playing the Rat King. They had both worked on a production of “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” Werner agreed to help produce the show without hesitation.

At the time, Theatrists Theatrics was unsure whether or not it should perform rare theater productions or exclusively original content. In many ways, “Plague! The Musical” is both, Werner said. He said even though the show was not originally written by members of Theatrists Theatrics, the script’s room for improv and the musical’s relative obscurity allows Theatrists Theatrics to develop the roles as though it was originating them.

Freshman Noah Pantano, who plays lead character Clive Hucklefish, said that he can create his own character because there’s little precedent for the role.

“I get to really take it and do whatever I want with it because there’s no preconceived idea of it…” he said. “You can really take yourself to the character and embody them and develop it for future productions.”

Werner also said that Theatrists Theatrics were able to play around with the music. The music was originally created for a full-pit orchestra, but it only had a band. The group had Alastair Bones, who had played drums for the production of “Plague! The Musicalwhen put on by Marble Valley Players, look over the music and rearrange it to better suit a four-piece band.

Giering said he has also been emailing Massingham, Townend and Bones to develop the script in a new and unique way. Giering said he loves how open the original writers, Massingham and Townend, were to rearranging the music and adding to the script.

“The creators aren’t especially strict about sticking to their script, so they don’t care if we add humor,” he said.

Giering is also including many of the jokes that Marble Valley Players added in its rendition and is encouraging a lot of improv in his production. The writers have contributed new jokes that Giering has incorporated, creating a new and original take on the show.

“They’ve sent me ideas for added dialogue, jokes … as well as helping me better understand the characters,” he said.

Theatrists Theatrics is also using a variety of old props from both the original and the first U.S. production. Giering is borrowing many of the costumes from the Marble Valley Players’ production and is bringing in three full-sized coffins, one sarcophagus and one expanding coffin covered in tacky leopard print. Two of the three coffins are from the original U.S. production.

Senior Music Director Anna Marcus-Hecht, who is playing a minor character in “Plague! The Musical,” has never been a music director before, but said she has learned from the experience.

“I’m just excited to say I’ve done this, that I have something like this under my belt,” she said.

Giering said that all he really wanted was to bring nontraditional theater to Ithaca and to make people laugh. Due to the musical’s improvisational nature, he said, it’s easy to add jokes that reference the current political climate.

“Comedy in general is something that’s desperately needed right now,” he said. “It’s becoming a very difficult world to live in with everything that’s going on. If we can just help people have an evening where they can laugh and have a good time. That’s all I really want for this production.”