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We've only had a year, at most, to acclimate to the restraints imposed upon theatre and performing artists by the pandemic – and to wrestle with the sensible precautions imposed on audiences. Even that slim amount of time becomes constricted when you consider the amount of time it takes for an artist to come to grips with COVID conditions and navigate what he or she can feasibly create. Adjustments have been further constricted by the time required for a presenter to navigate the practicalities of production, schedule an event, shoot and edit and upload a livestream, and reconnect with an audience whose attention may have drifted away to Play Station and Roku. Still, when something like Hadleyburg High from the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem comes along, getting so many things so right and making all of its answers to problems that have stumped so many other theatre companies seem so simple and obvious, I found myself wondering why it had taken so long.
Up until Hadleyburg High, streamed theatre productions I had reviewed existed in a binary universe. Companies either recorded their actors on stage wearing masks or they squeezed their actors onto a Zoom grid, as many as eight wee rectangles cramped into one larger screen designed to hold 12 participants. The only escape from masking and Zoom-ing has been a one-person monologue. But as Chad Edwards' adaptation of Mark Twain's "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" amply proves, masking and Zoom-ing aren't the only paradigms available to a resourceful theatre artist.
From the outset, Edwards expands the possibilities, presenting his vengeful mischief-making narrator, The Stranger, as a podcaster who can quite naturally fill our screens – and proceed as soon as we key in the proper passcode. Instead of her planned episode, "New York's Five Most Haunted Places," on her Stranger than Fiction blogspot, The Stranger plans to tell us of an exploit that she herself is somewhat surprised at pulling off, the hoodwinking of Hadleyburg High. Sadly enough, The Stranger had not been able to fit in during her sojourn at the perfect school, where perfect students got perfect grades, lived perfect lives, and won every state championship worth winning. Everybody had known everybody else at Hadleyburg, but nobody troubled to welcome her or get to know her during the semester she spent there. She couldn't wait to leave Hadleyburg when the semester ended, and she couldn't wait to devise her vengeance – by exposing the pretense and corruption beneath the perfect students' perfect veneer.
Now in Twain's 1899 short story, telling a fable that happened "many years ago," a whole proud and pretentious town, not a mere high school, was exposed by an offended stranger who had passed among the townspeople. Twain's story was served up from an omniscient narrator rather than from a snarky, disaffected teenage girl. When Edwards, who also directed, plunges into his narrative, The Stranger disappears until we're deep into the denouement. Without our narrator's voice guiding us, point of view regained its original omniscient form, as Edwards adopted a split-screen format for the dialogues that ensued, simulating a series of video calls on the Hadleyburg High students' laptops. A huge leap of the imagination wasn't necessary as we switched gears from The Stranger's first-person account.
The Stranger's locked box with a note attached – the famed "temptation" of Twain's tale – is delivered to Casey, the Student Council president. Conferring with Tammy, her bestie, Casey makes it clear that she hopes to keep the locked box and the riches it contains a secret from the rest of the school, which would thwart The Stranger's scheme. Tammy, however, is a relatively straight arrow, not the greedy politician that Casey is, so she's leery of conspiring with her friend, though she prides herself on having the computer skills necessary to break the code that will unlock the box. Denied by Tammy, Casey turns to Brent for help in getting out the word of The Stranger's quest to discover the student who had offered the advice that had helped create the fortune contained in the locked box, a tempting $100,000. Each student who believed he or she had given this advice was to submit a form to Mrs. Calloway, the teacher that The Stranger trusted most, stating word-for-word what the exact advice was. Keyed into the box, the exact words would unlock the cash prize.
Edwards isn't shy about injecting some fresh comedy into his retelling, along with altering a plot twist or two. When Tammy changes her mind, getting a bit greedy, Brent turns out to be a bit of a screw-up when Casey tells him not to send out the announcement after all. And The Stranger's affinity with Mrs. Calloway turns out to be justified by the teacher's deep flaws. Another nice touch is Frances, reporting for Hadleyburg Student News about the amazing giveaway, as Edwards reverts to his podcast format. Reactions from various students to the bulletin, intercut with Frances' report, helps to widen the roster of imposter Samaritans who will submit their entry forms and set the stage for the catastrophic reveal. All of the students at Hadleyburg know that they didn't donate the $20 that seeded The Stranger's fortune, but an email sent out by The Stranger explains why each of them deserves the prize. Edwards was able to preserve most of Twain's original design in baiting this trap. Like Twain's letter writer, Edwards' email correspondent has just returned from Mexico.
The famous advice is also replicated – exactly. Edwards finally goes to Zoom format when the trap is sprung. He added Calloway to preside over the reading of the students' entries, a Mr. Banks to be caretaker for the digital lockbox, and a Mr. Caldwell as the school principal. What Edwards couldn't do in a Zoom format was to underscore the shame of the tempted hypocrites to a whole town, or even to a full high school student body and faculty. Only eight students, eventually including The Stranger, are crowded onto the Zoom grid with the adults. After the podcasts and the video calls, this climactic scene did seem populated by a throng. Nor did Edwards disappoint me in dealing with the fallout from the public disgrace, resourcefully adjusting his plot.
Performances weren't professionally polished down to the smallest cameo, but you'll find that Edwards' design bends to such imperfections, particularly when Hadleyburg High students are reacting for a newscast. It was also interesting to watch how emphasis shifted from Casey as Council president to the morally ambivalent Tammy as the action proceeded. Playing the typical stuck-up high school queen bee that we know so well from teen comedy flicks, Adair Addison had most of the zingers in the early action as Casey, reveling in her smugness and sense of privilege. It's a fun role to play. Tammy's trials, however, more closely echoed the struggles that Twain's most upstanding citizens had in his Hadleyburg, and as the webcast proceeded, I appreciated Sabrina Layman's ambivalence and vacillation more and more, particularly after the Zoom meeting took an unexpected turn.
Ella Kiser framed the production nicely as The Stranger, assuming an outsider's sense of resentment from the moment she addressed her podcast audience as "deviants." Unlike Olivia Samuels, who was so polished as Frances in her newscasts that she could pass for a TV anchor, Kiser retained a nerdy vibe and we could easily imagine her sitting alone, in front of her laptop, with her teen angst and defiance. Screw-up or not, Noah Goldstein was the coolest and most relaxed of the Hadleyburg students, squinting and bending toward us each time he was messaged or emailed, so we really did think of him as lounging in front of his laptop in his tacky bedroom. Addison was such a diva as Casey that we delighted when Goldstein and Layman pushed back in bargaining for their share of the undeserved cash.
All of the adults were very fine, though only Bethany Schultz as Calloway ever garnered a substantial share of our screens. Schultz was a fascinating study, never surrendering her dignity to Tammy no matter how much Calloway was compromised, yet layering on a nervous, impulsive edge. Ken Ashford as Principal Caldwell and Mickey Hyland as Banks did most of the heavy lifting in reacting to the mass humiliation of Hadleyburg's perfect students. As the principal, Ashford registered the steep descent from pride to shame – with plenty of surprise and outrage in between. Hyland remained the respectable adult in the room, mostly concerned with damage control as the school's disgrace metastasized. We could sense that Casey hadn't received the comeuppance she truly deserved when the Zoom meeting adjourned. This and other loose ends were neatly tied together with late-breaking podcasts from Tammy and Frances before The Stranger returned with a final update on her Stranger than Fiction blogspot. While Edwards decided to detour around Hadleyburg's memorable temptation motto, the path he chose otherwise was almost perfect.