Before the floods hit, the talk of Halloween in Westmoreland was Hannah DeStefano and her captivating performance in our Historical Society’s “Haunted Schoolhouse.” Some people left quivering, some people left and got right back in line, and some people left too freaked out to remember to get their candy on the way out, but everyone who left raved about her work.
“Who was that?!” almost everyone asked in admiration.
I will answer that.
That very talented young woman who scared the crap out of our town is a graduate of Notre Dame and a sophomore at Utica College who is majoring in Communications and Media with a concentration (not surprisingly) in Theater. She is also considering a double major in Business.
Her theater background is too extensive to even summarize. She estimates that her performance in last month’s production of “Macbeth,” by the Wilde Rep Theatre might have been her 16th play. Her favorite characters to have played are Catherine in “Pippin and Fantine in Les Miserables.”
This week, Nov. 8-10 she will be appearing as the authoritarian Penelope Pennywise in Utica College’s Performing and Fine Arts production of “Urinetown.” I asked her how she prepares for a role that Wikipedia describes as “The tough, jaded warden of the poorest, filthiest urinal in town [and] a shrewd, penny-scrounging cheapskate.”
“The characters in “Urinetown” are meant to be one-dimensional,” DeStefano explained. “I usually think of the people I play in one or two words, but with her it’s three: ‘bitter old woman’.”
On Sunday I toured the set with Laura Salvaggio, who chairs the Utica College Department of Performing and Fine Arts. I walked under realistic-looking arches painted to look like the openings to underground brick cavernous sewers and stepped up to a glistening white platform with a solid gold toilet next to a roll of toilet paper made of $100 dollar bills.
“This reminds me of a certain President,” I joked.
“Well, in “Urinetown” there are two parts of society that are kind of butting heads,” Salvaggio laughed.
“I guess it’s clear which one gets to use the golden toilet,” I said.
“The rich are allowed to flush because they can afford to,” she explained. “The poor have to pay a tax to pee. We’ve got these people who can’t afford to pee so there’s a rebellion. Pee becomes a metaphor…”
“So it’s political,” I interjected.
“It is,” Salvaggio agreed. “It’s ridiculous and it’s hilarious, and it parodies every musical you can think of along the way, and at the same time it asks important questions about what’s a right and what’s a privilege, and where’s the line.”
The assistant master carpenter showed me how the aqueduct portion of the set was built and made to look so realistic. I asked her name.
I thought she said Alicia pees.
“That’s appropriate!” I laughed.
It’s actually Aleecia Pease, and she not only had a hand in building the set she is an actress in the musical.
I asked the multi-talented sophomore what drew her to the production.
“I think this show is really good because there are a lot of messages that are being sent and depending on the audience they’ll get or miss certain messages,” Pease said.
“Everyone will find it funny but there are parts you’ll take outside the theater and say ‘what was that about.’ It sparks conversation.”
I was taken backstage by Rachael Pinard who is the show’s propmaster.
When she spelled her last name starting with “p” into my phone recorder I giggled a bit. By now the cast and crew are used to all things “pee” but for me, it was a little overwhelming and pretty amusing.
“I sit in rehearsals and record all the things people on stage need to have on hand to do the scene,” Pinard explained.
We walked into long rooms backstage. One had wood, saws, and pieces of the set being constructed. Another was like a very big walk-closet with thousands of different items of wardrobe from years and years of productions; everything from uniforms, to fantasy creatures, to faux furs, to some clothes that look like they might be worn by characters who are one step up from the sewers.
There are labeled and organized holders for props including bunny ears and fans for fantasy sequences, and a billy club/flashlight for grittier scenes all over backstage. Pinary is responsible for making sure all of them are where they belong and in working order.
“If we need a prop I have to find it, make it, or we have to buy it,” she said.
I wandered back onto the stage and met Connor Supensky a Communications major who is in charge of building the sets. Supensky has worked construction all his life and graduated from Norwich High School with an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering through Project Lead the Way a program offered by the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“Every minute detail is thought of because every minute detail is important,” Supensky explained. “We want the setting to convey [meaning] as effectively as the acting.”
I asked him what his work conveyed to the audience.
“We wanted the set to split off two separate classes of society,” he said. “And we want to make it very clear where the separation is.”
The stark difference between the “rich” and the “poor” section does set the stage for what the theater department’s social media page (Facebook.com/UticaCollegeTheater) describes as “a dystopian future where there is such a massive water shortage the use of a toilet is aggressively taxed until the people revolt.”
Tickets are available to the public for $15, or $10 for students, for any of the shows, Thursday, Nov. 7 through Saturday, Nov. 9 at 7:30, and Sunday, Nov. 10 at 2 p.m.
Tickets can be purchased at UticaTickets.com.
“Urinetown is pretty fresh,” Hannah DeStefano jokes. “Fresh like how you could call a child fresh.”
The website good-naturedly warns people that it is “definitely a musical about pee, so be ‘peepared’ for a bit of potty humor.”
Ron Klopfanstein teaches English at Utica College and is the president of the Westmoreland Historical Society. He will post a review of Urinetown after attending the college’s preview performance on Wednesday, you can read that on his social media pages Facebook.com/BeMoreWestmo and Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo