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Showboat teaches U of M theater students old-time tricks

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Centennial Showboat
Centennial Showboat is moored permanently at Harriet Island in St Paul. One cast member said as it has no engine it might be better called a "show barge." "The Vampire!" begins its run on Friday, June 15 and ends Aug. 25.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

While drama students study the classics all year at the University of Minnesota, the biggest dose of theatrical reality for many of them comes in the shape of melodrama on an old boat.

"The Vampire," a 188-year-old work, is the latest production at the Minnesota Showboat moored at Harriet Island in St. Paul. 

The unique setting is providing some serious theatrical lessons for the cast and crew of students.

THEATER ... ON A BOAT

Scene designer Meg Kissel met one challenge head on as she cut a trapdoor in the stage. Working on a boat she knew there wasn't much room for error.

"It didn't sink!" she said. "We did puncture something and a little geyser happened and we were worried it was going to sink for a second."

There are challenges for the actors too. In addition to learning lines, and perfecting scene changes, they deal with things that could only happen on a boat: noise from passing barges and logs floating under the hull.

"You just hear thud! Bump, bump, bump," said actor Ryan Colbert. "It really is a shock at first, but then ... it's fine." 

"It's quite interesting seeing a Scottish vampire in a kilt."

Colbert plays Lord Ruthven the vampire.  This is his second production on the Showboat. He is a BFA acting student at the university, as is Joseph Pyfferoen who takes the role of the vampire's foe Lord Ronald. Pyfferoen admits this play leans more on spectacle than fact.

"Set in Scotland where there is absolutely no history of vampires whatsoever," he said. "It's quite interesting seeing a Scottish vampire in a kilt."

"The Vampire" is a melodrama written in 1824. Director Peter Moore said it's not great literature, but it gives his actors a chance to try a style of theater which once dominated the American stage. He tells his students doing melodrama means going over the top with a completely straight face.

"In a film you get mad at somebody like this," he said, assuming a quiet angry intensity. Then he raises his voice slightly. "In a straight play you get mad at someone like this," he said. Then he raises his head and his arm and roars, "But in a melodrama by heaven it's like THIS!" He slumps down and smiles. "That's a whole lot of fun. It's fun to have bite marks on the scenery."      

LEARNING A GENRE

Adding to the fun is pianist Anton Melnichenko. A native of Russia, he's doing a masters in piano at the university. When he first arrived on the boat he had never heard of melodrama. He struggled with Moore's request to do things like jump from the music of one classical composer to another to build the dramatic atmosphere.

"In my head it's like 'I need to finish this!' From my classical training 'I need to finish this!'" he said.

"Is different keys!" interrupted Moore in a Russian accent. "The keys are different! You can't do that!"

"I mean, for me it was kind of strange," said the pianist.

But he gets it now and Moore said Melnichenko's accompaniment is vital to the show. 

Vern Sutton is another veteran of the local acting scene involved in "The Vampire." He's directing the olios, the musical interludes between scenes. 

"Things like 'Who ate Napoleons with Josephine while Bonaparte was away?' I had to do that song," he said.

Another tune called "Frankfurter sandwiches" involves a dancing hotdog. 

Silly? Yes, but Sutton said skill-building for the students.  

"Even though they go through a university and get an acting degree they don't necessarily learn show business," he said. "What they have a chance to do here is lean some of the stuff that is done in the commercial world just in case they don't end up doing Shakespeare and Chekov." 

  The actors will do eight shows a week for 10 weeks. They also have to sell the show. Actor Charlotte Calvert  took part in the recent Grand Old Days parade and discovered this play feeds into a contemporary fascination.

"Just the title sells it. It's called "The Vampire" and vampires are totally in right now what with, what is that? 'Twilight!' " she said.    

Last summer 9,000 people came to see the Showboat production, and the cast and crew hope to better that this year.