BY VARTAN GHEVONTIAN
In an impressive first-ever theatrical effort, the Rose and Alex Pilibos High School Drama Program—led by directors Dominic Catrambone and Jeremy Kent Jackson of DiscoveryOnstage—successfully staged the Neil Simon comic fable Fools. Mr. C and Mr. J, as they are affectionately known to the Pilibos drama class, trained totally unseasoned and introverted high school students and turned out seasoned, confident actors. When asked what the students were like as actors at the start of the elective class and what they represented as actors onstage in their theatrical debuts, Mr. J said simply, “Night and day.”
Neil Simon’s Fools, billed as a comic fable, is set in the remote Ukranian village of Kulyenchikov, which has been cursed with chronic and absolute stupidity for over two hundred years. Enter Leon Tolchinsky (wonderfully and energetically portrayed by Mihran Ogaryan), an idealistic young school teacher who arrives to save the village from its curse (or, as the villagers struggle in vain to name it, “the nurse!, no, the purse!…”).
Leon learns of the plight of the town when he meets “Something-Something Snetsky, the Sheep Loser,” (refreshingly presented by Satinee Ghiulezian), the shepherd who does not even remember her own name. Indeed, the entire village is a motley crew of fools: from the Magistrate/Priest (artfully portrayed by Vartan Dzharatanian) who will live to be 80, though he’s 79 right now; Yechna the vendor, who milks her cow upside down to get more cream and who sells flowers which she believes to be fish (played with great humor by Vicky Hagopian); Slovitch the Butcher (marvelously acted by George Dermendjian), whose worst fears are realized when the curse is broken and he discovers he actually is stupid; Mishkin the Postmaster (played refreshingly and splendidly by Haig Ter-Ghevontian) who gives away people’s mail to other people for enjoyment; Count Gregor Yousekevitch (strikingly acted by Mher Boghigian) who makes the entire town “tremble-tremble” with fear; Dr. Nickolai Zubritsky (artfully presented by George Kechkarian), who marks his book pages with maple syrup; Mrs. Lenya Zubritsky (absolutely superbly acted by Tamar Atmajian), Sophia’s doting mother who set the drapes on fire because she can’t find her candle; and Sophia Zubritsky (magnificently portrayed by Biayna Ayvazian), who is 19 and has just recently has learned how to sit.
Tolchinsky has only one day (or “25 hours,” per Count Gregor) to educate the dimwitted Sophia or become stupid himself. Desperately wishing to marry her, he must convince Count Gregor to adopt him, as Sophia must marry the last of the Yousekevitch line—namely, Count Gregor, who has been busy proposing to Sophia twice a day every day to no avail. Tolchinsky finally makes it to the altar, but as he is about to marry his beloved Sophia, Count Gregor reveals that the adoption papers are false and that he himself must marry her instead. Suddenly, Mishkin the Postman presents a letter to Leon, which turns out to be an old bill from his former college. Leon tricks the group of fools assembled before him and tells them that the letter is from a long lost uncle, now dead, who has left him all his debts, and that most importantly, his real name is not Tolchinsky but Yousekevitch. The gullible villagers believe him, and Leon takes his place at the altar. Love, of course, ultimately prevails and saves the day.
The play, pure vintage Simon, is full of one-liners and silly quips and jokes, which might have come off sounding flat or stale were it not for the masterful execution of the script by the Pilibos thespians-in-training. The audiences at both sold-out nights were left in stitches, wanting more. The students, nearly all of whom had never acted before, displayed professional poise and star-quality energy.
The play was accompanied by two live soundtracks: one being the delightful guitar stylings of Richard Stubbs, who entertained the audience both during the performance and at breaks; and secondly, by Foley Artists (twin brothers) Gregor and Gevork Khoubeseryan. Drama teachers Mr. C and Mr. J invited a professional Foley Artist/Engineer to train the two brothers in creating sound effects for the performance, much as Foley Artists do for stage and film. They explained that since the stage was built outdoors and consisted of a platform without doors and other props, the production of special sound effects would add another dimension to the play. In order to produce these sounds, a specially built foley stage was built alongside the main stage—in plain view of the audience—where the brothers could create a soundtrack for the script by simulating creaking doors, animal sounds, and the like. In addition, the actors not only memorized voluminous lines and perfected their comic timing, but also helped physically assemble the main stage and create various props, which afforded them the unique opportunity to be involved in all aspects of production.
In this first of hopefully many more efforts, the Rose and Alex Pilibos Drama Program magically transformed the school campus and produced two unforgettable nights of theater under the stars. Very special thanks go to Dr. Viken Yacoubian and members of the Administration for not only inviting DiscoveryOnstage to provide an elective drama class for Pilibos students, but for providing their steadfast support in staging this wonderful and auspicious production.