Ryan High School theater students are having a bit of a romp with murder.
This weekend, the school’s theater arts program closes The Attempted Murder of Peggy Sweetwater, John Rustan and Frank Semerano’s one-act comedy about nefarious goings-on at a South American banana plantation in the 1930s.
Sophomore Audrey Howell plays the title role, which turns out to call for an actress made of sturdy stuff.
“There’s a generator that runs the lighting on the whole plantation, and throughout the play, there are problems with it,” Howell said. “Every time the lights go out, something else happens to Miss Sweetwater.”
Howell’s not complaining. There are few chances to ham it up on stage without losing audience respect and colleagues’ esteem. But in this comedy, Howell said, she gets to “overdo it.”
The story is a viper’s nest of plot twists, but the basics are simple enough.
Sir Phillip Dowden runs the plantation with the help of Llewellyn, the son of an adventurer who’s been on the plantation long enough to get bored with it. Saunders is an educated man sent to the plantation to search for new plants. Giles, the butler, is there to keep the proceedings plied with tea and civility. The Duchess of Lardham is the colonialist who owns the plantation, and she travels with chauffeur Morley. She has a strained relationship with her maid, Peggy Sweetwater.
Freshman Zach Palmer, who plays the even-tempered Giles, said the comedy is conditioning the players’ comic timing.
“You have to listen to what the other actors are saying, and then react to it at the right time,” he said.
Junior Connor Belt, who plays the role of Dowden, said much of the comedy is physical.
“It’s really kind of in your reaction to everything,” Belt said. “It’s on your face and in your posture. With some comedy, the humor is in the words. In this comedy, it’s in your reactions. I’ve never been in this kind of show before, where you’re supposed to play over the top. Before this, the comedy I’ve done has been more realistic.”
“Really, this play is almost like an all-male Scooby-Doo,” Palmer said. “These three guys are trying to find out what’s going on and they mess up. A lot.”
Freshman Emily Testerman said the characters don’t stray from type. She plays the duchess.
“She’s snotty and bored, and thinks everyone is beneath her,” Testerman said.
And as the other characters investigate poor Peggy Sweetwater’s unending chain of assaults, the Duchess leans on the expectations of the British class strata.
“She acts bored because she knows they’re onto her,” she said. Dowden, Llewellyn and Saunders play inspectors as Miss Sweetwater endures slight, injury and violence.
The Internet has been the cast’s dialect coach, with most of the players adopting a proper English accent. Ryan High speech teacher Jordan Love has helped the cast with some of the physical comedy.
“Now I know how to fall down a flight of stairs without hurting myself, thanks to him,” Howell said of Love. “Well, you can do it without hurting yourself, but after the second time you fall down a flight of stairs, you can’t really feel your arms so well. I know that sounds bad.”
The cast members said that to do the story justice, they have to commit the play to memory especially well, because the broad comedy requires them to perform contrary to their lines.
“It can be pretty confusing if you just take the script for what it says,” said sophomore Drake Hughes, who plays Saunders. “A character will say, ‘Now we’re making progress!’ when actually the opposite is true.”
LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877.
THE ATTEMPTED MURDER OF PEGGY SWEETWATER
What: Ryan High School theater arts department presents a short comedy by John Rustan and Frank Semerano.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday
Where: Black Box Theater at Ryan High, 5101 E. McKinney St.
Details: Tickets cost $5 at the door. Advance tickets are available at the Ryan High front office. For more information, contact Jeannene Abney at 940-369-3000 or email@example.com.
Myrtle Baxter — Kirsten Anderson
Sir Phillip Dowden — Connor Belt
Morley — Nyne Chapman
Peggy Sweetwater — Audrey Howell
Percy Saunders — Drake Hughes
Sean “Sidestep” O’Doodle — Daniel Magden
Giles — Zach Palmer
Edward Llewellyn — Garrison Reeves
Duchess of Lardham — Emily Testerman
Bill Baxter — Bobby Wallace
Assistant directors — Julia Durbin, Alexandra Carlton