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When you walk into the Arkansas Repertory Theatre to see "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," you'll find yourself immersed in a re-creation of your middle school. You'll recall all the sights and sounds of awkward adolescence and that feeling of growing up while still being a kid. You'll even have a chance to sign up for the spelling bee as you let go and release your inner middle school student.
The play sets an eclectic group of sixth-graders against each other in hilariously ruthless competition for the prized trophy and the chance to be enshrined among the glorious halls of spelling bee champions.
"It's one of the funniest nights of theater that you'll see, but it has a lot of heart to it," said Tommy Martinez, who plays Chip, a contestant in the bee. "So much is unexpected and written so well; it's unlike anything else you've seen."
Included among the zany characters are the shy girl whose best friend is a dictionary; a hyper, allergic kid who uses his "magic foot" to help him spell; a former champion who's dealing with the onset of puberty; and a politically aware whiz kid who's out to impress her gay fathers.
To shake things up a bit, four audience members from each performance will join the cast of Rep veterans and talented newcomers onstage. "Every show will be unique because of the audience participation, and it adds a great element of improv comedy to the show," said Lauren Dadap, who plays Marcy Park, another contestant.
Audience members can sign up in the lobby before the show starts to participate in the spelling bee. "It's a lot of fun for the audience members because you don't know if you'll get easy words or really tough ones, or who turns out to be a great speller," Martinez says.
The play is an extended one-act with a quick pace and even quicker wits.
"It cuts sort of like a TV show, sometimes skipping back and forward in time, and it really keeps you on your toes," Dadap says.
"It's different in that there's really no antagonist in this play," said Correy West, who plays Mitch Mahoney, the "Official Comfort Counselor" who gives a juice box and words of encouragement to whomever gets eliminated. "There's some stake that you have in each one of the kids, and you'll find yourself rooting for each of them."
"Putnam County" is a relatively new musical, earning several Tony nominations and a few wins in 2005, and it's a favorite among actors because of the improvisational elements.
"Every actor who knows this show really wants to do it," West says. "Having the audience in the play gives the actors a lot of room to play with, and you never know who's going to be eliminated."
While some of the humor is aimed more at grownups than young children, parents should feel comfortable bringing their middle-school-age kids to the play, where they'll likely relate the play to some of their own experiences. Think of it as a soft PG-13.
"There's a lot of healing messages in the show that will be good for kids to see. You can see the pressure and expectations going into this, and the effects of bullying and competition on the characters, but they end up having positive interactions with each other," Dadap says.
"We learn a lot about the kids' families and who they are, where they come from. Everybody will relate to one of the kids on stage, or they will recognize someone that they know, whether it's the dreamer, the outcast, or the overachiever," West says. "Things aren't always what they seem, though. You think you know someone, but then you'll find something deeper."
The Rep is decking out the theater and lobby to look like a middle school gymnasium. Check out some of the contests on Facebook; the theater is asking folks to submit their best middle school yearbook photos and stories from participating in bees when they were in school.
Performances begin Friday, Oct. 16, and end Sunday, Nov. 8. Special events include a panel discussion at the Clinton School for Public Service at noon Thursday, Oct. 15, and "pay your age night" on Sunday, Oct. 18. A sign interpreter will be in the house Wednesday, Oct. 28.