KINGSTON, R.I. – Oct. 3, 2019 – While the University of Rhode Island’s Honors Colloquium examines the complexity of “Religion in America” in Edwards Hall, the Theatre Department is taking the discussion to a different public square—the good, old elementary school cafetorium. Or as one character in URI Theatre’s season-opener calls it: a functional, flexible, publicly funded space.
In “A Brief History of the Earth and Everything In It (as performed by Ms. LoPiccolo’s Third-Grade Drama Group from the William Jennings Bryan Elementary School in Springfield, Missouri),” the “cafetorium” is the perfect space for 8-year-olds to broach the debate.
The setting will put the audience on familiar turf, says director Rachel Walshe, when the play opens Oct. 10 in the J Studio. Besides stage design, the Fine Arts Center lobby will be transformed to feel like the entrance of William Jennings Bryan Elementary.
“Most of our audiences will have had that experience, so my hope is that when they come into this space they’re thinking, ‘Oh God, this is totally how I remember elementary school,’” says Walshe, of Warwick, R.I., a URI lecturer in acting and directing.
The play’s themes also will ring familiar, offering a pointed and humorous look at a topic that is in the news nearly every day—the influence of religion on politics and the rhetoric that results. The play follows third-graders as they battle their tyrannical principal, Dr. Anita Marsden, a fundamentalist Christian who has reshaped the school to match her creationist beliefs. The Ten Commandments are in every classroom, courses eschew science and fact for dogma, dodgeball is now “Stone the Infidel.” The third-graders have had enough, and turn to drama teacher Ms. LoPiccolo to put on a musical to thwart the belief-based curriculum in favor of science and fact – because “no one can resist a musical.”
“The play is about the dangers of politicizing religion,” says Walshe. “It attacks extremism and dogma and stands up for independent thinking. It’s about religion, but there are a lot of things you can swap in terms of politicizing something to gain favor with a political base or interfere with people’s capacity for independent thought.”
“A Brief History” – book and lyrics by Cranston, R.I., playwright Dave Rabinow, music by Rabinow and Vicki Dorazio, with additional music by Keith Munslow – was first staged in 2011 in Providence. Walshe saw the play in a shorter form in 2012 and compares it to such plays as “Book of Mormon,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant” – part of a genre of “political satire from the mouths of babes.”
“The play is more than a religious bash or a conservative bash,” says Conor Delaney ’21, who plays Derek, the ringleader among the third-graders. “It’s more about close-minded people. There are many people in our society—on the left, on the right, in the center—who believe that just because your idea isn’t mine, you’re wrong and you are my enemy. You can disagree and still find a middle ground or at least hear each other out.”
Omar Laguerre-Lewis ’22 hopes the play will present a chance to get people thinking and talking.
“I wanted to get involved in this play because my first reaction when I read it was this play is funny, and at the same time, this play is smart,” says Laguerre-Lewis, who plays third-grader Turner. “But one of the things I was a little cautious about is my character is very out and proud against religion. However, I think the main goal of the play is to get a dialogue started. It may get people angry, but I think it will get a conversation going that I think we need to have.”
“A lot of people are going to come into the play expecting this super silly, funny show – which it is – but also, they’re going to leave starting a conversation,” adds Lauren Jannetti ’21, who plays Maya.
To prepare for their roles, the actors have seemingly gone through boot camp to understand all the concepts involved. Early in rehearsals, Walshe held extensive table readings of the script and brought in Cheryl Foster, URI professor of philosophy, to help students grapple with the play’s vast religious and philosophical content.
“Rachel’s wonderful because she goes into the really nitty gritty parts of the script that you wouldn’t normally discover,” says Mary Mullane ’21, who plays Ms. LoPiccolo. “She really makes you think not just about your character but about the entire process. Not a lot of directors do that.”
Also, Emma Becker ’21, of Tiverton, R.I., the play’s dramaturge, has helped the actors by compiling pages of terms, everything from Marvel Comics references to intelligent design. “Because the play deals a little bit with the history of human thought—in musical numbers—Emma has had the monumental task of making those concepts as clear as she can for the folks who have to sing about them,” Walshe says.
Lily Ferreira ’20 has the difficult task of playing the despotic Dr. Marsden. It’s especially challenging. “I was raised religious but I’m not anymore,” she says. “I’m revisiting beliefs and playing this character as if it’s something I still believe in.”
“You will never find a solid line in which you merge perfectly with your character,” offers Arturo Puentes ‘20, who plays Jesus (yes, that Jesus). “Instead you have to find a correlation in which you can both work together as one. You may not agree with a certain statement your character says, but you have to understand why you’re saying it.”
The play has also presented the students with the rare opportunity to contribute to a relatively new play and to collaborate with the playwright. The play’s author, Rabinow, who has taught playwriting at URI, has been involved in the production from the start, updating the play’s ending and helping students with any questions.
“Whatever we’ve been unsure of or whatever we’ve felt needed to be updated, Dave’s been there to work with us,” says Meaghan O’Donovan ’20, who plays third-grader Presley. “It’s an exciting process. We seldom get to do this because the playwrights aren’t local or they’re dead.”
“A Brief History of the Earth and Everything In It” runs Oct. 10-12 and 17-19 with shows starting at 7:30 p.m. in the J Studio at the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, Kingston Campus. On Oct. 13 and Oct. 20, shows begin at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors, URI faculty, staff and students. To purchase tickets, go to play’s web page or call (401) 874-5843.
For URI’s production, costume design is by David T. Howard, department chair; scenic design is by guest artist Renee Surprenant-Fitzgerald ’10; lighting design by Lecturer Max Ponticelli ’09, sound design by guest artist Michael Hyde; and choreography by Valerie Ferris ’20.
Character: actor, hometown
Mr. Denton: Josh Raymo ’20, Portsmouth, R.I.
Ms. Dorazio/Ensemble: Valerie Ferris ’20, Staten Island, N.Y.
Mitchell Maxwell Horowitz: Trey DeAngelo DiGioia ’21, Bristol, R.I.
Jesus: Arturo Puentes ’20, Pawtucket, R.I.
Mrs. LoPiccolo: Mary Mullane ’21, Warwick, R.I.
Dr. Anita Marsden: Lily Ferreira ‘20, Middletown, R.I.
Turner McKenzie: Omar Laguerre-Lewis ’22, Mamaroneck, N.Y.
Derek Palomino: Conor Delaney ’21, South Kingstown, R.I.
Presley Turtledove: Meaghan O’Donovan ’20, West Warwick, R.I.
Maya Von Hoogen: Lauren Jannetti ’21, Lincoln, R.I.