How fun? Local sixth-grade students Julien Ponsolle and Colleen Halleck and their fellow young actors in Great River Shakespeare Festival's (GRSF) "The Merry Wives of Windsor" are called upon to pinch and poke Falstaff (Jonathan Daly) while singing a taunting song and wearing absurd fairy and hobgoblin costumes. They grinned as they explained their duties. "We get to pinch him to teach him a lesson," Halleck said.
. Local youth actors sing and pinch in the climactic scene of Great River Shakespeare Festival's "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Clockwise from left, Emma Bucknam, Colleen Halleck, Bailey Bestul, Julien Ponsolle, Carter Briggs, and Skylar Templeton.
While the stars of "Merry Wives" may tower over six feet, wear tremendous fat suits, and hail from such distant and cosmopolitan locales as New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, six local youths have a central part in the play's climactic scene.
The show may seem like an upbeat production full of good-natured laughs, but there is a controversy lurking behind the scenes, Ponsolle and Halleck revealed. The young actors only have a few minutes to change out of turn-of-the-century school uniforms and into grotesque hobgoblin masks, hairy hobgoblin ears, and flowing fairy gowns, so stagehands instituted a classic challenge for the young actors: boys versus girls. The first group to finish each costume change gets a point. At the end of the season, the winners get a sugary prize. As of last week's preview performance, the girls had scored the first and only point during dress rehearsal. However, both teams accuse the other of cutting corners.
"The girls are winning. The boys had penalty time because they didn't hang up their costumes right," Halleck said. She explained that the stagehands had to penalize the boys for throwing their costumes haphazardly on the racks, but even without the penalty time, the girls were still faster.
"The girls have a point right now, but that's because they cheated," said Ponsolle.
How did they cheat? asked his mother, Susan White. "They have dresses they can take off at the same time," Ponsolle replied, explaining that the girls wear multiple layers of dresses, but can wriggle out of them all at once, while the boys have a series of cumbersome buttons on their school uniforms. He added that the boys have another disadvantage: Bailey Bestul, a Rushford-Peterson High School sophomore several years older than the rest of the youths, is too cool for the boys versus girls challenge. "Bailey is like, 'I'm not going to do this,'" Ponsolle explained. "We kind of yelled at Bailey a few times," he added, smiling.
When asked about Halleck's assertion that the boys were penalized for improperly hanging their costumes, Ponsolle said, "We hung everything up." White smiled and asked, "So why'd you get in trouble?"
"I don't know," Ponsolle responded, shrugging. He said he was hopeful, despite the girls' advantage and Bailey's reluctance, that the boys can come back to win. After all, there is a long season ahead and he has been working out a strategy to speed along his costume removal. "My trick is that I leave my pants unbuttoned," he said. With the suspenders he wears, the top button of his pants are unnecessary, he explained.
Winona sixth-grader and schoolchild/hobgoblin Skylar Templeton did not have any tricks for her costume change, but confessed, "I don't want to say this in front of the other kids, but I think that my costume is the best." Why? "Because it looks cool. I'm the only girl goblin."
For all of the young actors, being in "Merry Wives" is a great opportunity and challenge for their acting chops. Bestul has performed in past GRSF productions, but has a more prominent role this year. "I'm Falstaff's servant, but I don't like him very much," he explained. As a servant to the rascally, fat, old knight, Bestul poses as a rough-around-the-edges youth with a Cockney accent. Playing a tough kid is challenging, Bestul acknowledged, because it is so different from his own demeanor. "I work very hard on being tough," he said, and added, joking, "The director told me to go home and be surly to my folks."
Much of the young actors' roles involve singing. When rehearsals began, the only thing they practiced were the songs, they said. In some of the rehearsals, the directors would yell, "Hold!" just as they had finished a song. Everyone would freeze and they would start the song over again from the top. Then, they would "hold" and do it again. After weeks of singing the same songs over and over again, Bestul cannot get them out of his head. "We got to the point where you don't know if it's actually playing or just in your head," he said.
In the play, Falstaff tries to seduce two other characters' wives, hoping they will bankroll his drinking habit. In the play's climactic scene, the schoolchildren dress up as hobgoblins and fairies to scare Falstaff and teach him a lesson. He was "trying to be in love with her, but it's all a plan," Halleck explained. Templeton explained that as she and her fellow fairies and hobgoblins pinch the terrified Falstaff, they sing a song about the pitfalls of lust and lechery. "Did they explain that to you?" wondered her mother, Cherisa Broadwater. "Dad told me," Templeton responded. What did he say? asked Broadwater. Templeton tried hard to remember, then said, "I forgot what he said." Broadwater said, "That's OK."
For the most part, the young actors have a firm grasp of what is happening in the play, "and that's really a testament to the way this company does Shakespeare," said Colleen's mother, Beth Halleck. "They're getting people who might not have never dreamed they would ever understand [this language], to love Shakespeare. And this is such a great play for first exposure to Shakespeare," she added.
Bestul agreed. "It's really approachable Shakespeare. There's so much music and action. You'll definitely get it, even if you don't [think you'll] understand."
The young actors were excited by the chance to be side-by-side with high-caliber professionals. "When I found out [the professional actors] lived in places like New York and Los Angeles, I was amazed because I thought GRSF was just in Winona. They are real, professional actors, and they came from far away." She continued, "It's pretty cool working with the older actors because I've seen them so many times in other plays. Now I get to see how they turn on and off the character." Ponsolle has been impressed with how quickly the older actors would switch from being focused on their character to cracking jokes at breaks in rehearsals.
Ponsolle has never acted before. His mother was amazed and puzzled over where his interest and ability came from. He did not get it from her, she said. Ponsolle said acting appeals to him because "you get to be who you're not. For a few hours you can be a guy who's really rich or really poor. You can be a completely different person."