VERSAILLES — Evan Sullivan isn't used to playing characters like Vice Principal Panch in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Sullivan is usually the leading man: Harold Hill in The Music Man, Curly in Oklahoma!
"This is a very nerdy, self-conscious character as opposed to bigger-than-life and self-confident," Sullivan says, sitting in the green room at The Woodford Theatre. "That meant I had a whole lot more to draw on. It's a lot closer to my own experience."
Created from improvisational routines by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has no leading men or women. But there are nearly a dozen character roles, parts that let the actors build quirky, offbeat personas to play off one another as the drama of the competition unfolds.
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"Each character is so different and quirky, but so fun," says Tegan Hanks, who plays Mrs. Perretti. "Even a character like Barfée, who is a jerk, sort of, is also likable in most ways. He's definitely a character people will attach themselves to because he's hilarious."
Jan Hooker, who plays Logainne Schwartzand grubenniere, says, "None of these characters are classic stock characters. They're filled with quirks and goofiness and silliness. It's kind of an actor's dream."
"I have a friend in Chicago, and a major theater up there is doing Spelling Bee, and he said everyone that he knows wants to be in it," says Nick Vannoy, who plays one of the spellers, William Barfée (pronounced bar-FAY, though no one in the show seems to get it right). "They already get to play these amazing characters, and they play multiple characters, and they're playing children."
The show centers on a small-town spelling bee with a field of competitors that all have their own peculiarities and hang-ups.
There's Leaf Coneybear, who finished third in his school spelling bee, but the competitors before him had to drop out. His family tells him he will lose, and he shows up wearing a purple cape and bicycle helmet and flips into a sort of trance when he spells. Olive is a lonely girl who loves reading the dictionary and arrives alone, certain that her dad will show up eventually. She nervously chews on her hair.
On the highly competitive side, there is Marcy Park, new to town from a prep school, and Chip Tolentino, last year's champion, who has a bumpy ride trying to defend his title.
Then there's Barfée, a bully who's been bullied, has a sinus condition and spells out the words with his foot. As much as any character in the show, Vannoy worked to build his character with several, um, tics.
"He's basically drowning in his own mucous," Vannoy says. "I try to make it sound like he has collapsed sinuses, like something is up there that just is not coming out. And he has this magic foot that he believes helps him spell, so there's a little dance for that."
The show gives the actors a lot of freedom to work with their characters.
"In this show, the writer's intention was to have fun," Sullivan says. "There are big, bracketed areas in the script where it says just play with this, just improv. It's a 'choose your own adventure play.'"
Helping the actors play are the outfits, from Coneybear's cape to Schwartzy's crazy hair.
"The clothes are the final piece," says Stephanie Wier, who plays Marcy. "You feel a little strange playing a different character in your own clothes sometimes. It's the last piece that makes you feel complete as that character."