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Comedy to die for
Masquers’ summer “Encore” program closes with <i>Arsenic & Old Lace</i>
Facing the camera left to right, Susan Jackson (Abby Brewster), Gail Byrd (Martha Brewster), and Ben Wolfe (Mortimer) take the AASU Jenkins Theater stage July 26th for the opening night performance of Arsenic and Old Lace. - photo by Katherine Arntzen

It’s not only the Masquers’ summer season that comes to a close with the end of their next play, Arsenic and Old Lace. One of the most intriguing experiments in Savannah theatre history will come to a close as well.

The staging of the Joseph Kesselring’s classic dark comedy by the Armstrong Atlantic State University theatre group comes right before their home base at the Jenkins Theatre closes for at least a year for extensive renovations.

Still, the venue went out with a bang, as the Masquers decided to stage as much theatre as possible in it while they could. Specifically, a madcap run of four shows in rapid sequence with no break between them, collectively dubbed “Encore”: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), The Bad Seed, Parallel Lives and this weekend’s Arsenic and Old Lace.

April Soroko, a part-time design sequence instructor, acted as self-described “facilitator” for the “Encore” season, which was actually carried out almost totally by the Masquers themselves.

“We were all initially thinking the building would be shut down at the beginning of summer, but then we discovered that’s not the case,” Soroko explains.

“I was approached by Pete Mellen, head of the theatre department here. He felt like it was a great opportunity for students to do some important work on their own,” she says.

“And also, because the theatre will shut down at the end of the summer, this was the last opportunity students had to work in that space before the space is gutted and redone.”

After that and until the work is done, the Masquers will be using a temporary space in Armstrong Center around the corner, sometimes simply referred to as “the old Publix,” a reference to the supermarket once occupying the spot.

Arsenic and Old Lace deals with the hapless Mortimer Brewster, a longtime bachelor who brings his new bride to meet his two aunts. But he gradually discovers that the two ladies — so sweet on the surface — have a strange affinity for performing involuntary euthanasia on people, using a concoction of elderberry wine, arsenic and cyanide.

The play was made into a hit movie in 1944 starring Cary Grant as Mortimer. This weekend, Susan Jackson and Gail Byrd play the two crazy aunts, Abby and Martha Brewster, while the versatile veteran Ben Wolfe plays Mortimer.

AASU senior Jamie Busbin is directing the Masquers’ stage version of the beloved classic.

“I wanted to breathe a little life as far as casting, but it’s such a great script that I didn’t want to stray too far from it. That would be doing a disservice to the audience, — many of whom are familiar with the Cary Grant movie,” Busbin explains. “I want to give it some new life, to make it fresh, but still keep true to the story.”

The secret to the story’s success, the director says, is that “We all realize that someone crazy is in everyone’s family. That’s why people always sort of feel close to Mortimer. But that’s what makes it a tough show — not many other characters in the show are people the audience can relate to. That makes it tough on the actor playing Mortimer, because it’s tough on him sort of trying to embody everybody.”

Busbin says that even from a logstical standpoint, the “Encore” season was a case study in serendipity.

“We said, ‘OK, we’ve got the whole summer with this theatre, so what can we do in that time?’ Luckily for us, with Bad Seed and Arsenic and Old Lace we were able to use the set from Three Cornered Moon,” she says, referring to a performance early in 2007 that reprised the very first Masqers’ show in 1937.

“That was designed by a designer from New York, so we were very lucky to be able to still have that available,” Busbin says. “And for The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and Parallel Lives, they required no set at all.”

Busbin says the summer season has been a priceless experience for all involved.

“It’s been a class for all of us. It’s basically been a theatre lab, that’s what we’re calling it,” she says. “It’s all of us working together on every single play.”

Soroko echoes that with her simple explanation as to how the Masquers were able to pull off the daunting “Encore” season.

“It’s a family over there. Students know each other so well, they work long hours and they’re so hungry for opportunity,” she says. “With very little resources they can pull it off and make it look professional. Because there’s so few faculty at Armstrong, students get so much opportunity in taking on big responsibilitys. These are all students making sure everything’s right — sound cues, light cues, props, building sets.”

Soroko says the Masquers continue their tradition of opening auditions to the entire community, though the bulk of participants are indeed connected to AASU.

“At least 80 percent of participants in the shows are affiliated with the university in some way, but we do have a wide variety of students – two are pursing masters in education, and there’s one nontraditional student working on a bachelors in education with a minor in theatre.”

Soroko, who leaves soon to take a position with the University of Miami in the fall, says the future is bright for theatre not only in Savannah, but nationwide.

“Theatre’s not unlike sports in that it builds community. When people feel there’s a void and they’re not able to get out and connect, then they make the theatre happen,” she says.

“No doubt people spend a lot less time on live theatre now than 100 years ago, and yet people still have hunger to sit with other people and experience something together.”

The AASU Masquers perform Arsenic and Old Lace July 26-28 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday July 29 at 3 p.m. in the Jenkins Theatre on campus. General admission $8. Senior citizens, military personnel, and non-AASU students $7. Cash or check only, please. AASU students, faculty, and staff free with ID.