Two weeks down...
What an interesting piece of theatre Spelling Bee is. And not really what I expected when we went into rehearsal. Having seen the original cast and hearing the audience roaring with laughter all through the show, I made the (silly) assumption that this was a show like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Reefer Madness, Forbidden Planet... sincere but overblown. I was operating under the mantra of the Bat Boy writers, "The height of expression, the depth of sincerity." We operate under that rule quite often...
But Spelling Bee is something else. Like many of the shows we produce, this is a show like no other. It has its own rules. In fact, as we started blocking, I realized I had it backwards -- this show doesn't operate like Bat Boy. The trick to making this show work is to play the kids as real and honestly as possible, with almost no "style" layered on. I've realized the show is built so that the kids are normal people (relatively speaking) in a nightmare world. Sort of like the Jonathan Pryce character in Brazil.
I realized that if the kids are cartoony at all, that undermines the many serious moments when we go inside their heads and reveal the many complicated emotions, loneliness, frustration, and feelings of abuse or even abandonment. The world of the Bee is what's crazy; not the kids. The show makes this Bee as disorienting and confusing and overwhelming for the audience as it is for the kids. That's its genius -- to take something we all either dismiss or find merely cute, and show us what it feels like from the inside, to a terrified ten-year-old.
And that in turn reminds us that we're all still that ten-year-old, still having to audition (literally or figuratively) over and over throughout our lives, still being judged every day in one way or another, constantly finding we're the "loser" in one context or another.
And these kids show us how we deal with all that. Leaf and Marcy have found their inner Zen Masters. Marcy finally realizes that sometimes losing -- letting go -- is the real road to happiness. Leaf is the one kid who has never really cared if he wins; it's an adventure to be enjoyed as far as he's concerned, not a mountain to be conquered. Olive finds joy in the small act of being taken seriously, victory or not. On the other hand, Chip and Logainne find only unhappiness at not measuring up to Perfection. Even Barfee finds that making a new friend is as big a triumph as winning a Bee.
But for us, the audience, to register all this, the performances have to be very real, more so than one would expect from a show this outrageous. And that was a surprise to me.
What a privilege it is to work on a show this beautifully and artfully written!
Long Live the Musicals!