Julieanne Pogue found inspiration for her new production of The Fantasticks where most people find paint and fertilizer: Lowe's.
“I've done The Fantasticks several times before, and almost always in a traditional production, just on a platform, with drapes,” Pogue said before a Monday night rehearsal of the classic musical. “In thinking about what I wanted to do with it, there were a number of things that appealed to me about doing it on levels.”
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The numerous characters and stories and secrets can make a production on a traditional stage a little daunting because it limits the number of ways a director can present scenes.
“So one day I was driving past Lowe's, and I saw this playset, and I said, ‘Huh,'” Pogue says. “I took photos from all sides, and I said, ‘I want to do The Fantasticks on that.' I hadn't been given directorship of the show yet. But I said, ‘One day I want to do The Fantasticks on that, because I could see entrances down the slide with the Mute, quick into the fray, into the middle of stuff. I could see Louisa swinging. It just kept exciting me, and finally I said, ‘Rick, I have an idea for a show,'” Pogue says, referring to Rick St. Peter, artistic director of Actors Guild of Lexington.
Now, Pogue sits in the AGL rehearsal studio in Lorillard Lofts off Leestown Road with a big wooden jungle gym that looks as if it should be giving a 5-year-old a workout.
But it's Pogue's cast that's climbing all over the playset: Cameron Perry as Matt talking about how mature he is while standing in the treehouse; Laura Blake as the Mute swooping into scenes on the slide; and Michelle Czepyha as Louisa, slowly swinging with a forlorn look on her face during the song Try to Remember.
“It's been interesting, because it was probably built for people who are 2 feet tall, to have to find ways to move around it,” Czepyha says. “But it's so fun, and interesting and different.”
Set designers and builders can, of course, build a multilevel stage for a show that will give the actors plenty of room to hop around and play.
Why, then, put an iconic piece of playground equipment at the center of this iconic musical?
Perry says the gym adds “an innocence, a playlike atmosphere. The show itself is very childlike and innocent. It's very much a family show. So, it's going to appeal to the children in the audience, and I think that's what Julieanne was trying to do.”
The Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones show holds the distinction of being the longest-running musical ever, logging 17,162 off-Broadway performances during a 42-year run, from 1960 until 2002.
The Fantasticks tells the story of Matt and Louisa, who live next to each other but are separated by a wall their parents have built to keep them apart. The wall, though, is meant to encourage them to fall in love, under the presumption that they will do what is forbidden.
And they surreptitiously come together before discovering their parents' plan. They then split, and the big question is, after going out and exploring the world, will they come back together?
Other classic characters include the Mute, who acts as the wall and other things, and theatrical El Gallo, who stages an abduction of Louisa to set Matt up as her hero.
The champion piece of playground equipment to all but Czepyha is the slide. She favors the swing, but that could be because she is the only actor allowed on it.
And, well, Carmen Geraci still likes El Gallo's cape, one of the classic props of Fantasticks productions.
The Fantasticks is a story that El Gallo tells, and Blake says even that enhances the playground aesthetic.
“It is a fantastical story, and one that El Gallo has told numerous times,” Blake says. “That's one of the things we like about the beginning, because at the beginning, we're passing out props like everybody knows what's going on here, we've done this story over and over again … the fact that it's been kept very youthful and childlike will be engaging to people in the audience who remember falling in love for the first time.”
The gym is supposed to provide a stage and a contrast.
“There's a difference between the idealism of childhood and the reality that comes with experience,” Geraci says. “When Julieanne first presented her concept, I was in tears, and that's why I decided to do it. I thought we could add that element to it of that kind of sadness.”
In fact, as the story closes and moves on, Matt and Louisa move away from the jungle gym. So part of the purpose of setting the play on the playset is to eventually leave it behind.