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High-school theater reigns supreme

Let's try something new here. Let's forget about $25 tickets and touring companies and instead consider a fine alternative: high-school theater. Now, now, don't get ahead of yourself -- we're not talking about the prom queen overacting her way through Our Town or a monotonal group of sophomores shuffling across the stage for a knuckle-dragging rendition of Guys & Dolls. There are some amazing drama departments in this town, and two of them are presenting unique productions this weekend. The Indy got a chance to watch a dress rehearsal of each of these plays -- here's the skinny.

Brighton Beach Memoirs

Palmer High's student-produced Masque & Sandal has taken on Neil Simon's autobiographical comedy-drama that brought logic like "stop that yelling, I have a cake in the oven!" to the modern American theater-goer, Brighton Beach Memoirs. The story of a lower-middle-class extended Jewish family living in Brooklyn in 1937, the play is narrated by 15-year-old cynic (and Simon's alter ego) Eugene Jerome, played by obvious class clown, Justin Steidinger. Director Darius De La Cruz has his hands full with this intricately layered script, which finds its passion in careful timing, vocal inflection and well-crafted acting.

Steidinger shines brightest as an awkward teen (surprise) when discussing the finer points of life and women with his older stud brother Stan, played by Ari Finkelstein. Finklestein is a perfect choice as the conflicted young man, who has to choose between principle and practicality. Whitney Gaskill adds effervescence as Nora, Eugene's pretty, but flighty, cousin and has particular chemistry with Courtney Eichengreen, who plays Nora's bratty little sister Laurie.

Kristen Fleecs is absolutely perfect as Blanche Morton, Nora and Laurie's mother, who has lived with the Jeromes since the death of her husband. Fleecs' posture, movements and inflection would be impressive on a "professional" stage, but considering Fleecs has yet to graduate high school, she's amazing as the tragically funny mother trying to make a life for her daughters.

Annie McDowell plays the Jewish matriarch Kate with pillow-plumping ferocity, and is deft at allowing Kate's intense, nearly overbearing love for her family to radiate from her character, but without becoming a precious stereotype. Jared Seehafer's shoulders slump as Pop, a tired salesman, "born middle-aged," who finds himself not only trying to feed these seven mouths, but in charge of sorting out their messy personal problems as well.

The cast and crew of Brighton Beach have the one thing that this complicated script requires above all -- heart. Director De La Cruz has excellent rapport with his actors, and their eagerness to perform makes this production sparkle with humor and love.

Much Ado About Nothing

Director Elizabeth Kahn, a Coronado teacher, has taken Shakespeare's classic romantic comedy to a new level by adding a fabulous soundtrack and beautiful costumes, and setting the whole thing down in the middle of post-WWI Chicago, where jazz babies and smooth-talking war vets take the place of the traditional setting of pastoral Messina.

Nicole Darin plays her Beatrice with more flirt than shrew, her sharp tongue melting when she learns of the love of Benedick, played by Kiel Soper. Soper is confident in his role as the sworn-bachelor-turned-Hallmark-greeting-card, and shows himself to be a true comedian when trying to navigate his way to Beatrice's heart. The highest points of the production come during dialogue between Benedick, Claudio (Stephon Black), Don Pedro (Mike Darin) and Leonato (Doug Chartier), a quartet of manly swagger and schoolboy heckling. These guys have stage presence, and their interaction during Shakespeare's already perfectly hilarious lines is priceless -- especially when they set out to hoodwink the cocky Benedick.

Between the ragtime, intricate lighting, dance troupe (Did I mention the dance troupe? Yeah. They Charleston.) and fiery script, Coronado's twist on an age-old classic is a night well spent.

-- Kristen Sherwood

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