Stillpointe Theatre has a cheeky blast with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by Bret McCabe
William Barfee (Ryan Haase) spells with his foot. Whenever the middle-schooler is called to the gymnasium podium during The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Barfee—pronounced bar-FAY, not BARF-ee—wipes his nose, plants his legs about shoulder width apart, and begins tracing the word’s letters on the ground like a horse counting, and a rather cranky horse at that.
It’s a comic pantomime, made even more funny by the performance. Haase, Stillpointe’s artistic director and this production’s set/lighting designer, plays the chronically sinus-afflicted, insolent Barfee as a cross between Judah Friedlander and that scowling guy who always has an unoccupied seat next to him on the bus, even when its packed.
Grown-ass adults pretending to be middle-schoolers—in public, onstage—while spelling words and singing shouldn’t be so entertaining. And yet, catching Stillpointe Theater‘s Putnam at its cozy new Station North space initially feels like you’ve wandered into a fetish night you didn’t know existed, a LARP or cosplay or whatever featuring musical theater’s freaks and geeks letting their inner teenage angst out. Typed out that looks like being forced to attend a GOP presidential candidate debate. Sitting through this Putnam IRL, though, is more fun than a never-ending supply of Girl Scout cookies.
Credit director Amanda J. Rife and the cast and crew for the lion’s share of that entertainment factor; as usual, this company manages to make polished musical theater on a DIY budget. Putnam is Stillpointe’s first production in the space that used to house the asshat-run Lo-Fi Social Club and the collectively run Hexagon arts space. Haase and carpenter Nolan Cartwright have turned the former stage area into an intimate black box, where the black walls double as chalkboards. The stage itself is but a modestly elevated platform where the six contestants compete.
The absurdity of a spelling contest is complimented by the DSM-IV-like list of tics, neuroses, eccentricities, social awkwardness, and outright pathologies present in the participating students. Haase makes Barfee the snotty but smart bully. Corey Hennessey realizes defending champ Chip Tolentino as a twenty-something bro in training. The hilarious Darius McKiver turns Loganne Schwartzandgrubenierre into a lisping neurasthenic who has two daddies. Jon Kevin Lazarus’s Leaf Coneybear is a home-schooled, crunchy granola sweetie pie who comes across like he couldn’t operate Velcro. Ciera Monae and her show-stopping voice make Marcy Park the goody-goody overachiever whose Type-A drive has her one disappointment away from a straitjacket. And Ashleigh Haddad plays Olive Ostrovsky as the sheepishly day-dreaming latchkey kid who took the bus to the bee, wants to save a seat for her dad who says he’s coming, and won’t have her entry fee until he gets there. Save flashbacks to flesh out who these young people are, Putnam‘s plot unspools as any bee’s would: a student gets a word, can ask for its definition and use in a sentence, and then has to spell it. At every performance, three audience members become bee contestants, too.
Presiding over everything is Rona Lisa Peretti (Zoe Kanter), Putnam County’s top realtor and a former champion (winning word: “syzygy”). Kanter plays her as a woman who cherishes the annual bee with the nostalgic affection a former homecoming queen has when dusting off her tiara. She is often the only adult trying to maintain order anytime the kids get unruly.
Sure, comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney (Lawrence D. Bryant IV) is there to help, but only by court order. And, yes, technically vice principal Doug Panch (Danielle Robinette) is also a grown up, but this middle-aged man is returning to the bee after a five year absence—something to do with an unfortunate incident, but he’s better now—and is as prone to immature behavior as the kids. He’s the official word caller, and Robinette plays him as a pompous sad sack who thinks the world of himself, though the world barely notices him, and she nails every aspect that middle-manager masculinity from the brown shoes to the drugstore cologne. I almost want her to turn her version of this character into a Marc Maron-esque interviewer of third tier character actors—you know, when the part calls for a Jeffrey Tambor but the budget won’t even float a Stephen Tobolowsky, so you start making calls to Kurt Fuller. Robinette’s Panch is their Salieri.
None of which gets at what makes Putnam—words and music by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin—so entertaining, or explains why it’s produced such sincere glee ever since it premiered off-Broadway prior to its 2005 Tony-award-winning run.
This cheeky romp through a middle-school spelling bee ostensibly takes place in the titular New York County, but this setting is as quintessentially and fictively America as A Prairie Home Companion. Putnam hit Broadway when spelling bees became popular movie narratives in the 2000s, running from Jeffrey Blitz’s Spellbound (2002) documentary to Bee Season (2005, based on Myla Goldberg’s best-selling novel) and Akeelah and the Bee (2006). In the book American Bee: the National Spelling Bee and the culture of word nerds (2005), journalist James Maguire followed five young spellers as they competed in the national tournament, which was started in 1925.
The E. W. Scripps Company began administering the contest in 1941, and that same year linguist Allen Walker Read wrote an essay titled “The Spelling Bee: A Linguistic Institution of the American Folk,” which argued that the contests are reflections of American democracy, an idea that Maguire echoes in his book:
“It’s a story of pure Americana, part Norman Rockwell part Horatio Alger. The bee is an egalitarian gathering in which kids from every social class compete in a true meritocracy. A window washer’s daughter competes with a banker’s son; a first-generation Korean goes toe-to-toe with a descendant of the Mayflower. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free: Every year, the audience is sprinkled with immigrant parents, mothers and fathers who speak in a thick accent, watching their children compete in a second language—the event, like the arms of Lady Liberty, is open to all. In the most idealistic of American traditions, the bee offers a level playing field, in which color of skin and your last name mean nothing, but hard work and belief in self mean everything.”
Sam Whitsitt quotes that part of Maguire’s book near the beginning of his essay “The Spelling Bee: What Makes it an American Institution?,” which links Read’s observation about the arbitrariness of word spellings in American English to the arbitrariness of God in Calvinism, which informed America’s puritanical mores. It’s an inspired linguistic argument, in which Whitsitt reasons the bee is an essentially American institution because through mastering the arbitrariness inherent in American English words—the learning of which has always tied to being able to read the Bible—one “might triumph over, even exorcise, if only momentarily, an essential, more fundamental arbitrariness.” That mastering spelling requires mere access to a dictionary means that this quasi-spiritual exercise was, like America itself, a democratic possibility—open to anybody, from anywhere, of any gender, race/ethnicity, etc.
The populist force of Putnam‘s comedy, in my brain, comes from two things. One is the script’s knowingness, where adult writers, lyricists, and actors can see youth and young people’s worlds through the sobriety of age. (Avenue Q, which Stillpointe produced last year, accomplishes a similar feat.) The second is how rambunctiously Putnam detonates the meritocratic lie of the bee competition as a democratic space—where while, yes, anybody can win if he or she just puts his/her mind to it, but the concepts of family, education, success, and modern life needed to enable somebody to compete is utterly bonkers. Putnam feels like roughly 100 minutes of kids learning to cope with that realization by singing, “America! We’re awesome! And we’re completely off our rockers!”
In its short existence, the Stillpointe company has proven adept with this kind of ecstatic insanity, where thorny subtexts get overlooked because, well, musicals have become synonymous with empty entertainments. It’s admittedly a self-inflicted wound—anybody who’s sat through some of the crap Broadway has spit out over the past 40 years knows that—but the Stillpointe creative team has craftily played to its strengths a young company, and its approach to productions feels like the cast and crew impressively tease out bigger themes they want to tackle.
With The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Stillpointe delivers a broadly entertaining portrait of adolescent agita, but given that we now live in a world where Crazy Ex Girlfriend is on network television—a show whose small-screen sheen and contemporary pop-tinged musical numbers masquerade just how intelligently ornery a portrait of young American’s 21st-century lives it is—this Putnam makes me curious what Stillpointe could do with a production that bites into more adult complexities, such as Sondheim’s Company. Until that happens, this Putnam keeps you chortling.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will be performed through March 18, 2016 at Baltimore’s Stillpointe Theatre. Check here for tickets and more information.
Photo credit: Rob Clatterbuck