Shrek – The Musical Jr was on stage last week, being the 2018 annual dramatic production of the Georgetown International Academy. The play was directed by Ellenelle Gilliam and Subraj Singh, both teachers at the school whose considerable talents elevated the production. Gilliam was also the Musical Director with choreography by Andre Lewis and the Technical Director was Christian Sobers.
The Georgetown International Academy (GIA), popularly known as the American School, is the only secondary school in Guyana that has annual full-length public theatre. Such full public productions have been very sporadic over a long period of time and are now truly very rare among schools in this country.
There has been an increase in drama in schools over the past few years because of a combination of factors. An increasing number of schools are now studying Theatre Arts or Performing Arts for the Caribbean Examinations Council exams. The National School of Theatre Arts and Drama (NSTAD) has contributed to this increase as well as to a number of teachers in schools who have introduced the subject there. The National Drama Festival has been another stimulus. Yet, these have not resulted in schools doing full-length plays for public viewing. St Joseph High School has been the most visible, led by the work of teacher and NSTAD graduate Lloyd Thomas.
GIA stands above them all, having made drama a permanent fixture in its annual calendar, and for that commendation is due. The plays selected are from a rather limited range and type, but nothing beats the extremely hard work put in each year. Though restricted in range, the selected plays are of a type that thrives on the proverbial “cast of thousands”, which serve not only spectacle and grandeur but give very many students an opportunity to appear on stage or to work in productions. They also involve quite a team of teachers and the interested support of many others, including parents.
The whole school seems to be involved from the tiny tots of early childhood to the more advanced teenagers of the upper secondary. It is obviously quite demanding for the teachers in not only directing the drama and stage work, but in managing those terrifying multitudes of children. There seems to be a good, encouraging sense of achievement and all that allows profound involvement in theatre. So, the theatre in school reaches much deeper than what is seen as a play on stage.
Now to this year’s play. The film Shrek was released some 15 years ago and was so immensely popular and successful that it inspired many other works. Among those was the stage play with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and musical score by Jeanine Tesori. Shrek – The Musical Jr is a slightly edited version of the play. The directors Gilliam and Singh took it on as a complete musical drama with a good degree of accomplishment.
These types of plays are of the fairy tale variety with not much profundity beyond the good values normally demonstrated in such stories. But Shrek, using this medium, did have something to say. It was a somewhat mild debunking of the superficial glamour, glitter and fantasy of the usual fairyland world where “happily ever after” is the defeat of ogres, wicked witches and dragons, the rescue of beautiful princesses by dashing knights ending in marriage to a prince or a princess or in other words – eternal bliss.
The play is full of irony. One of the many songs was a cover of “I’m A Believer” with “I thought love was only true in fairy tales / And for someone else but not for me”. The play shows that love does not only exist there, but can be fulfilling in ordinary lives, and for persons outside of the fairy tale glamour. Eternal bliss is not marriage to a beautiful princess or handsome prince, but to be able to find yourself; to be able to accept who you are and not wish to be someone else who you feel is more attractive. (A similar message, by the way, came over in last year’s GIA play – Aladdin.)
Shrek is a drama about identity, self-awareness, self-confidence, appearance, real genuine values vs pretences and superficial beauty. There is the usual love story central to most fairy tales, but the hero, Shrek played by Eros Jackson, is a hideous looking ogre whose appearance frightens away everyone. However, unlike the stereotypical ogre of the usual tales, he is kind-hearted, good natured and heroic. He confronts the tyrannical ruler Lord Farquaad (Anthony Islam) who has banished all the legendary fairy tale characters and who treats his subjects unkindly. Farquaad challenges him to rescue the beautiful princess Fiona played by Rachel Mekdeci, held captive by a dragon and bring her to be his wife. With the help of his loyal friend Donkey (Shane Sukhlall) he accomplishes the task. Princess Fiona reacts badly to the fact that her rescuer was not the handsome knight she expected, but during the journey Fiona and Shrek fall in love with each other.
The play challenges the stereotypes of fair princesses and handsome knights and who is a hero and who a villain. Monsters, wicked witches, ogres and dragons are not what they seem or expected to be.
It was a full musical, which served as good exposure and education for the local audience who rarely see musicals here. This time there was a live orchestra playing from the orchestra pit, which added to the edifying experience, and all the actors sang to live accompaniment. Their varying abilities were better handled than in previous years.
In fact, the music was outstanding. It dominated the tenor and atmosphere of the theatrical tone of the production. The instrumentals by Kelly Valenzuela, Seon King, Nickel Pinkerton and Gilliam were excellent even if all the solos and choruses were not and gave the dramatic experience the feel of a real musical.
Not unconnected to this was the outstanding lead delivered by Mekdeci as Princess Fiona. Her singing was excellent, she had good command over her voice and was able to adapt to the vocal varieties demanded by the character. Her versatility in voice quality was matched only by the same ability in styles of acting. She was always in character and proved herself a very competent actress. Mekdeci was both energetic and sensitive.
As her opposite, Jackson very adequately carried the play. He was able to sing and also in command of his songs. This added to a high degree of maturity in acting. He communicated the Shrek character in very believable fashion and was steady and consistent.
Sukhlall as Donkey provided very sound support. He understood the ironies including the donkey in place of the fine steed of chivalry with which the fabled knight would conquer. This was quite reminiscent of Don Quixote in Cervantes’ parody of courtly love. Sukhlall carried that effectively in a sensitive performance. Timothy Chand as the Captain of the Guards and Sofia Pinol as the Wicked Witch also gave strong support. So too, did Islam as Lord Farquaad. His convincing portrayal was as much owed to clever costuming and make-up as to acting. But the effort put in to make him look a mere four-foot-tall was not replicated in the Dwarf played by his brother Daniel Islam who was awkwardly and obviously walking on his knees.
The set was inconsistent, mixed and uncertain not sure whether it wanted to be realism, spectacle or symbolic. But the costuming by Louann Jackson was an overall masterpiece. It was phenomenal work for such a large cast, intricate, appropriate, convincing and adding to the spectacle. The same can be said for the make-up by Steve Bravo, proven genius of Bravo Arts.
The major undoing of this elaborate production was the dubious quality and inconsistency of the sound. Mics were everywhere. Sound bars with mics were flown in and out, there were personal mics, clip on mics, handheld mics which were jarring, in addition to the general stage sound amplification. Yet sound was not effective. There was frequent feed-back, unreliable and uneven sound quality, occasional failures and a good deal of inaudibility. Added to those was some lack of clarity in speech.
The three story-tellers Sandhya Singh, Ayushi Baidya and Vianka Singh, despite their mics, could hardly be heard. Sound and speech were troubled throughout to the point where those who did not already know the story or know about Shrek would have suffered. One had to go to the play with background knowledge or very much was lost. And there was indeed much to lose. Shrek had an exceedingly rich store of themes, ironies, and lessons in the subversion of the typical fairy tale fantasies and cultural stereotypes.
All that phenomenal, demanding and immensely rewarding hard work and stagecraft by Singh and Gilliam threatened to go for naught because the important narratives could not be heard.
The production needed to have been enhanced by more effective reinforcement from choreography. But whatever imperfections in technical sound blemished the National Cultural Centre stage did not affect the quality of the music. The achievements with that large cast, choruses and various characters stage managed by Bibi Mohammed and Reall Stewart, showed discipline and an enjoyment in performing which no doubt helped the audience to be thoroughly entertained.