“This play briefly uses a fog machine, and will occasionally play loud music and sound effects. Audiences are encouraged to sing along and make the ‘metal sign’ where applicable.”
It’s a program note that could apply to only one thing. No, not an arena-sized rock show, but the annual upper elementary play from the Highland Community Players. The past 15 years have seen a boisterous, ever-changing group of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders perform original plays inspired by everything from David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch films to ’90s-era Nickelodeon shows and Nintendo games. Conspiracy theories, co-opted activism, and misinformation are typical themes. Our Town this ain’t.
This year’s production? Don’t Wake The Dragon, a grade school take on the 1951 absurd comedy Rhinoceros by Eugène Ionesco. Issues of groupthink, mob rule, and political sloganeering are explored. But yes, there’s still plenty of time for a fog machine, a shadow-puppet dragon, TikTok dances, and a whole lot of Judas Priest music.
“I like how Mr. Barry makes his plays cute and stuff,” says 4th-grader Haleigh Walker, who plays a teacher named Ms. Stewart. “I like that he always tries to make something based off of something else, but he never does it the same at all. He does a whole different storyline.”
The Mr. Barry in question is Barry Weber, Highland Community School’s long-serving Performing Arts Director. Dragon is Weber’s 15th play he’s written and produced for the parent-directed MPS Montessori school. While some of his early efforts tended to be on the lighter side—2010’s GWAR-inspired Penguin Attack, for example—recent years have found him tackling headier, more of-the-moment themes.
“I’ve always loved Eugène Ionesco’s plays, and over the years I’ve always wanted to do a Rhinoceros Jr., if you will. This year seemed like a good year to take a stab at that,” Weber says. “I remember hearing from someone who’s a librarian, talking about how in today’s culture you’re never sure what’s going to awaken some kind of angry mob, or inspire some kind of awful reaction from people. I read an article where someone said it feels like a dragon is going to wake up every time you do this or that.”
The play concerns a school thrown into chaos by a series of mysterious dragon attacks—simulated by some nifty shadow puppets. Teachers and staff members are alarmed, but students, thanks to social media and other influences, quickly fall under the creature’s spell. Soon, they’re sporting homemade tails. (“My parents support my tail, Counselor! So get off my back if you know what’s good for you!”) It isn’t long before the adults are bowing before the dragon, too. (“My name is no longer Coach Voss. I am Coach RATHOR!”) Only one student, Stanley Berenger (played nicely by Ryan Ward), resists the dragon’s charms. Podcasters, political pundits, pop stars, and a decrepit retro video game hero (Dragon Warrior‘s Erdrick, played with great aplomb by 11-year-old Alan Taper) also figure into the madness.
“Ionesco lived in Romania when the fascist Iron Guard took over, and then he lived in France during the Nazi invasion,” Weber explains. “Rhinoceros was his commentary on how human beings can get swept up in groupthink and mob rule. He explored how ideas and ideology can turn into idolatry, and how well-read and reasonable people can behave in certain ways where they’re stripped of their individuality. Part of being a young person is certainly that challenge, that temptation to conform versus trying to still be yourself.”
Rhinoceros‘ original concerns with groupthink and mob rule translate easily—perhaps too easily—to Dragon‘s inclusion of social media influencers and TikTok trends. Weber sees the latter elements’ entertainment value as part of their sometimes-troubling power.
“We’re all susceptible to social media targeting,” he says. “Kids will go on YouTube to watch one thing and then I’ll hear them repeating something else. I kind of get taken aback. This play deals with the entertainment of it all, where this scary creature is first met with shock, but then it becomes something that people are drawn to.”
And yet Weber’s work is never preachy or heavy-handed. Dragon‘s big themes are easily accessible, but the play also functions as an excuse for kids to embrace their inner theater geeks and goof on the things that make up their worlds: school, homework, extracurricular activities, “cool” teachers, Zoom “healing sessions,” etc. The all-kid stage crew, meanwhile, gets to tackle a production filled with tricky lighting and sound cues. There are no small parts. It’s inclusive, it’s chaotic, and it’s always a blast to watch.
“What I enjoy about this play is all the different stuff,” says 12-year-old Thijs Van Iersel, who plays said “cool” teacher Mr. Z with a Spicoli-esque charm. “The puppets, the smoke machine, how the stage crew and run crew does the light. There’s just a whole bunch of extra stuff in this play that’s just amazing.”
Dragon is the first Highland production in three years that will be open to parents and members of the community. A 2020 production, Justice For Pluto, was staged just weeks before the initial COVID-19 shutdowns. A 2021 production took the form of an online video. Twenty-twenty-two’s Pizza Party! saw students return to the Highland gym, albeit fully masked and unable to perform for a general audience.
“This is my third play I’ve done with Mr. Barry, and it’s a great opportunity to really have fun and make it big,” says 6th-grader Elsa Johnstone, who shines as an over-the-top school counselor. “This is my first play I’ve done without wearing a mask. It might not seem like a big difference, but for me it’s really big. I’m excited to be able to perform in front of my family and friends, because it’s always good to show people this beautiful thing we’ve created.”
An engaged and active audience is key to Weber’s plays—though that doesn’t just apply to doting parents. When not delivering lines onstage, members of the cast often act as rowdy onlookers, and are called on to cheer (or jeer) the action. The same goes for fellow Highland students not involved in the production.
“I love plays that are social events,” Weber says. “I think having kids in the audience is something kids naturally get. When you’re a kid, you have to be shushed a lot because your instinct is to yell or to cheer the actors, or when you’re watching a movie to talk along with the characters. I want a space where they feel they can do that.
“Even as a community, I think it’s important for us to have this social act, this back and forth, where everyone feels that they’re part of this play,” he continues. “The audience is its own character. I want that to happen here because I have a hunch that over these next couple performances, they’ll be cheering the dragon, too. They’re going to get caught up in the excitement. Hopefully there’s some reflection there.”
Again, those moments of reflection are certainly available, but Dragon also works on a more fundamental level: letting kids be kids.
“I just got into upper elementary. I’ve seen maybe two of these plays but I’ve never really been in one,” says Haleigh Walker, who turned 10 during rehearsals. “It was kind of nerve-wracking at first and I was kind of scared, but then I met everybody and I knew I could socialize with people. And then I felt more comfortable and everyone made it fun.”
A public performance of Don’t Wake The Dragon—open to family, friends, and members of the community—is set for Friday, March 3 at Highland Community School (1706 W. Highland Ave.) Doors open at 6 p.m.; showtime is at 6:30 p.m. Admission is pay-what-you-can.
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