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Theater Majors 

Who put the children in Christmas? I suppose the Christ child himself, the prophetic star and the adoring shepherds are partly responsible for Toys 'R Us. At any rate, in the holiday sweepstakes (at least with the toddler-through-preteen set), you can bet Santa Claus wins hands down over Pilgrims and turkey dressing.

At the North Star Theatre in Mandeville, the connection between kids and Christmas has been taken one step further than usual. Not only is mean old Uncle Scrooge onstage -- cursing compassion in general and Christmas in particular -- but the world's most famous miser is played by an eighth grader. So is the ghost of Jacob Marley. In fact, the whole cast of A Christmas Carol is junior high students -- except for the ones who are still in grammar school.

Needless to say, this special kind of casting creates a special kind of show. Some of the youngsters amaze you with their poise and ability. Others win you over with a naive earnestness -- somewhat off-course emotionally perhaps, but brimming with unintentional Sesame Street charm.

In the category of prodigy, I would cite Weston Twardowski, who keeps the play focused with his vibrant, irascible Scrooge. In the playbill, this eighth grader is credited with singing, dancing and acting on Broadway, no less. And A Christmas Carol is noted as the 36th show on his resume!

Among other standouts are Andrew Shindi as Jacob Marley, Rafe Whalen as Bob Cratchit and Rebecca Davis as his wife.

Director Lori Bennett puts her 24 young actors through their paces briskly yet deliberately; every episode in this famous Victorian yarn gets the time and attention it deserves. One can see that each actor understands his character and his function in the narrative.

Obviously, this is not a show for those who are looking for slickness and fancy stage effects. On the other hand, if you bring your kids to North Star's A Christmas Carol, they just may get inspired to try some acting themselves.

Meanwhile, on this side of Lake Pontchartrain, UNO recently gave us a fascinating original play by master of fine arts candidate Sean Patterson. Of course, Patterson, while pursuing his studies, has also pursued his theatrical career as an actor and director. Last year, in fact, he won a Big Easy Entertainment Award for best actor in a comedy for his tour de force performance in the one-man show Fully Committed.

Get Flanagan follows the career of Federal Theatre Project national director Hallie Flanagan. When the play begins, this remarkable woman is directing experimental theater at Vassar University. The year is 1932 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is receiving the Democratic nomination for President. Simultaneously, Pinocchio, a marionette, is in the process of cutting his strings. In the audience, we hear Roosevelt while we watch Pinocchio, for director Rusty Tennant focused on the simultaneity of Patterson's script. The means available to Tennant were meager, but he effectively used the staging to intensify the dramatic message.

The Federal Theatre Project was designed to put out-of-work actors back to work. Finding a job as a ditch digger was not considered an optimum way for thespians to get off the relief rolls. However, while government-funded theaters thrived in Europe, the system proved difficult to import. Furthermore, unfortunately, one of the places where state-funded theater thrived was Russia. Hence, communism tainted the New Deal enterprise by way of paranoid association, if not in actual practice.

Angie Joachim gave us a convincing Hallie Flanagan. In one of her best performances to date, Joachim brought to life a feisty, bemused idealist who learns what a dangerous ride it can be to leave the cozy precincts of academe for the rough-and-tumble arena of national power struggles.

Jared Gore, Jason Cutler, Clarence Wethern and Mark Harkins were also noteworthy amid a game cast of 19 (who brought to life no less than 64 characters, as various as Eleanor Roosevelt, Mussolini and Orson Welles). One of the trademarks of the Federal Theatre Project was a form of semi-documentary style called "Living Newspapers." Controversial issues of the day were presented in controversial ways. Of course, controversy grabs attention. But, when you're supported by tax dollars, controversy can become detrimental -- in fact, fatal. One of the nice touches in Get Flanagan was the way the play evoked the kind of theater whose history it was relating. At times, Get Flanagan was "living newspaper" about "living newspaper."

click to enlarge Annalise Torcson, Brendon A. Bruno, Rafe Whalen, Rachel Vanek, Rebecca Davis and Kendall Kramer as the Cratchit family in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, on the boards at the North Star Theatre in Old Mandeville
  • Annalise Torcson, Brendon A. Bruno, Rafe Whalen, Rachel Vanek, Rebecca Davis and Kendall Kramer as the Cratchit family in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, on the boards at the North Star Theatre in Old Mandeville
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