Theater — NHS troupe to present its version of Pat Cooks Much Ado About Murder, which calls for plenty of audience participation

With last year’s production of “The Servant of Two Masters,” the Newberg High School Players gave audiences a taste of participating in the performance, but have upped the ante with their upcoming presentation of Pat Cook’s “Much Ado About Murder.”

As far as interactive experiences go, the level of inclusion during the four-show run, which kicks off at 7 p.m. Friday at the NHS auditorium, may have some theater-goers feeling like they should’ve been listed among the GARY ALLEN - Murder? - Travis Cox rehearses for Newberg High School's presentation of Pat Cook's 'Much Ado About Murder.' The interactive and comedic murder mystery opens this weekend 
with 7 p.m. performances on Friday and Saturday.

Audiences will be drawn in and engaged by Hawker, a character in the production who acts as a sort of “circus ringmaster emcee,” popping in and out of the story to engage the audience, ask questions and get its mental juices flowing, according to student co-director Matthew Jones.

Stepping it up a notch, viewers will be prompted to ask questions and converse directly with the characters to help unravel the mystery, which revolves around the death of a family patriarch at a Halloween costume party.

Members of the family were prompted to attend the party dressed as their favorite Shakespeare characters, such as the Dromio twins from “The Comedy of Errors,” Prosperon from “The Tempest,” Katherine from “The Taming of the Shrew” and Lady Macbeth. Combine the costumes with the varied personalities of the characters — from an obnoxious jerk to an antisocial personality and a kleptomaniac — and the tone of the performance becomes whimsical, if not downright silly at times.

“Some of them are in more outlandish costumes than others, but they’re a dysfunctional family, so there’s a lot of crazy situations that arise,” Jones said.

Because of the audience participation, the actors have also been honing their improvisational skills, adding to the difficulty of the performance.

“I think that a challenge, especially when we first started out, was the actors getting out of their shell because in dramas and kind of more straight-forward comedies, there’s a lot of portrayal of real human emotion,” student co-director Garrett Gibbs said. “This is more of an up-in-the-air, go-all-out, crazy, if-you-can-do-it-why-not play.”

Gibbs and Jones also shouldered more responsibility than many student directors in the past as drama teacher and regular director Drea Ferguson was in Scotland for the Fringe Festival for much of the preparation. Her replacement also had to bow out after sustaining a back injury.

“We did have some added challenges to this production, but I think it’s really a testament to the kids in this program because everyone bucked up and we all pulled through,” Gibbs said. “And we’re better for it.”

Written in the 1980s, the Newberg production has been updated with a more current context, which adds yet another layer.

“Everyone here has put a lot of themselves in to it, so there are a lot of added levels on the play that are unique,” Gibbs said. “It’s a great experience. Each night’s a new play, you could say.”

All four performances — Friday and Saturday, as well as Sept. 27-28 — are scheduled for 7 p.m. Cost is $6 for adults and $4 for students, with proceeds going to the NHS drama trip to Ashland, and Love INC.

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