Just as the wealthy Mr. and Mrs. Kirby (Caleb Jeske and Athena Leisching) were leaving the dinner party – without having dinner — a group of FBI agents stormed into the house and grabbed Ed Carmichael (Rusty Frank).
Then more FBI agents came up from the basement with Mr. De Pinna (Reid Ivanoff), who was also arrested. Then things on stage started going crazy as the fireworks made and stored in the basement apparently started to explode.
The play, “You Can’t Take It With You,” written by Moss Hart and George Kaufman, won the 1936 Pulitzer Prize, multiple Tony Awards and was made into an Oscar-winning film. It is offbeat, quirky and hilarious.
During last Thursday’s 15-minute performance that made up the press preview presented by St. Helena Drama, I couldn’t help smiling and laughing, especially when the FBI agents, both men and women, burst into the living room and started to create even more chaos. All were dressed in sharp black suits, complete with fedoras and sunglasses. The costumes for this period piece were rented from a company in New York.
One of those agents is senior Lily Fay-Velazquez. “You Can’t Take It With You,” which opens at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 10, is her first play with director Patti Coyle. She said she likes the mystery and seriousness that the FBI agents bring to the production. “It is going to greatly contrast with the family and their dynamic,” she said.
Fay-Velazquez is one of five seniors who are part of the cast and crew. The other seniors are Biella Beringer, Francesca Menegon, Gabby Gomez and Ethan Hougie. Coyle said there are 39 people in the production, from the eighth grade to high school seniors. Nearly all have been in her plays and musicals before.
Beringer and her sister, Meribel, are crew members and responsible for Spotlight 1 and Spotlight 2. They are high above the stage in the maze of catwalks. This is Beringer’s second production. “I work on the spotlight on the upper left of the theater,” she said. “It is challenging (using the spotlight) without a targeting system,” which would show the operator where it would point and what size the light would be. Coyle said a consultant recommended the spotlights and added that it will take some work to get to know them.
The best thing about being part of the production? For Beringer, it is “talking on the comm,” that is “talking to everyone from Deni (Ratterree), the prop manager, to my sister on the other spot, to the lighting booth and the sound booth. Everyone is on comm. It takes quite a bit of coordination” to put on the production. Avery Roberts is stage manager and Scott Speck is lighting designer.
Gabby Gomez plays Rheba, the maid for Paul and Penny Sycamore (Nicholas Jeworowski and Francesca Menegon). She has acted in three of Coyle’s former productions and been involved in five or six. As the maid, she sets the table, gets the door, talks to the family and interacts with everyone. As so many others said during interviews for “You Can’t Take It With You,” Gomez said the best part of being involved in the production is “hanging out with these people,” whether they be cast or crew. Menegon elaborated: “The best part is definitely the experience. We learn together with the cast and crew and we are just like one big family. And it’s really nice to be with these people all day and learn.”
Menegon plays the mother of the family and admits her character is weird. “I have an obsession with plays. That’s my typewriter and I’m constantly there and maybe think I can publish these someday. It’s a hobby that’s gone to an obsession,” Menegon said.
Penny’s father is Grandpa (Ethan Hougie). Talking to Hougie, it’s clear where the family’s quirkiness came from. “I have some very strange ways about myself, so my whole family follows behind my quirky strange behaviors,” he said. Those behaviors include going to random commencements and collecting snakes off the side of the street. Beyond that, though, his family has “many secrets and weird things that we do,” Hougie said, without elaborating.
For the past three years Hougie has been at a boarding school on the East Coast, but he came back to his St. Helena hometown for his senior year, specifically to act in the brand-new theater and play baseball on the new field. “It’s a lucky year for me,” he said.
For Hougie, the best part of acting in the 1930s comedy is Coyle’s “sense of professionalism.”
“It makes me feel like I’m in a real professional environment, unlike other directors I’ve had, where with two weeks before the play, you buckle down,” he said. “We’ve been tightened down since day one.”
Auditions for the comedy were the first week of classes in mid-August and rehearsals began Aug. 28. The cast and crew rehearse after school for 90 minutes from Monday through Thursday.
Coyle said it’s unusual for a play to have such a large cast, but she expanded it to include the FBI men and women. “They have interesting things they do (during performances) in the audience, for example, they case the joint,” Coyle said. “I just wanted to get more students involved.”
The gorgeous set was built by Bill Kauffman and Coyle said the comedy is the first one to be presented in the new St. Helena Performing Arts Center. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a home base,” she said. “I can’t even explain to you what it’s like to be able to rehearse and perform in the same space.”
She added, “We have been working on the set for at least six weeks, which is unheard of. It is such a treat.”