Arts & Culture

How 6 actors play 40 characters in Melodrama’s ‘Connecticut Yankee’ comedy

King Arthur (Mike Fiore), center, oversees a duel between a knight (Rachel Tietz), left, and Hank Morgan (Jeffrey Salsbury) in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” playing at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano.
King Arthur (Mike Fiore), center, oversees a duel between a knight (Rachel Tietz), left, and Hank Morgan (Jeffrey Salsbury) in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” playing at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano.

Toby Tropper is no stranger to risky roles. He’s channeled a flamboyant master of ceremonies in “Cabaret,” a rapping clam in “Under the Boardwalk” and legendary Spanish painter Pablo Picasso in “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”

Tropper’s latest acting challenge requires him to juggle 10 or 11 characters at once, including men, a woman and a dog.

“It’s a fun time trying to remember who you are and at what moment,” he said with a chuckle.

Tropper is part of the tiny but talented cast of the world-premiere production of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” running at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano through June 11. (Performances are paired with the “S is for School Vaudeville Revue,” directed by Eleise Moore with musical direction by Kevin Lawson, featuring school-themed comedy sketches and songs.)

In “A Connecticut Yankee,” adapted from Mark Twain’s novel of the same name, six actors portray about 40 characters ranging from knights to peasants to castle guards.

“It’s a really busy show. There’s a lot of action going on, and a lot of movement,” said playwright Matt Koenig, a resident artist at PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre in Santa Maria.

Directed by Melodrama veteran Chuck McLane, “A Connecticut Yankee” follows the madcap adventures of Hank Morgan (Jeff Salsbury), an industrial engineer living in New England at the turn of the 20th century. After a bump on the head, he’s transported through time and space to medieval England, where his knowledge of modern technology has everyone convinced he’s a magician.

Buck Up
King Arthur (Mike Fiore) counsels Hank Morgan (Jeff Salsbury) in a scene from “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” playing at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano. TGAM Inc.

Hank soon finds a place in the court of King Arthur (Mike Fiore), who puts him in charge of industrializing Camelot. With Clarence the page boy (Sierra Wells) at his side, he sets out to defeat his rivals, including wizard Merlin (Tropper) and enchantress Morgan LeFay (Wells again), and win the heart of the spunky Sandy (Molly Wetzel).

With the exception of Salsbury, the “Connecticut Yankee” cast members, including Rachel Tietz, play multiple roles with the help of lightning-fast costume changes and a few props. (“Sometimes under the (wizard’s) robe, I have maybe three costumes, ready to go,” Tropper said. (Renee Van Neil designed the simple yet versatile outfits.)

In the play’s opening scene, Tropper portrays both a shepherd and the sheep he’s tending.

In another scene, Wells finds herself fighting, well, herself.

“It’s just me on stage playing the two characters,” she said. “It’s a big challenge.”

According to Tropper, such split-second timing requires lots of practice.

“It’s very much a choreographed ballet backstage,” Tropper explained, noting that “the process has become like muscle memory” at this point. “In between costume changes we’re also moving the set and at intermission we’re also working the bar. It’s about 2  1/2 hours of nonstop (action).”

According to Tropper, “A Connecticut Yankee” does a good job of taking Twain’s “sprawling, epic book” and condensing it into a rollicking story about King Arthur and the Round Table.

Hank in a Tree
A knight (Molly Wetzel) corners Hank Morgan (Jeffrey Salsbury) in a tree in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” playing at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano. TGAM Inc.

“He found a really good balance of melodrama, humor … and poignant moments,” Tropper said of Koenig.

“There are really great morals in it … about learning to live life with compassion and love for other people instead of just focusing on yourself,” Wells said. “But also it’s so much fun.”

Koenig first read “A Connecticut Yankee,” which was published in 1889, on a car trip during middle school. Although the nuances of the narrative escaped him as a younger reader, Koenig was struck as an adult by the book’s smart, satirical sendup of contemporary American society and its obsession with chivalry.

He was also impressed by Twain’s humanistic message: “Your purpose in life is to help people.”

“I thought, ‘This sometimes is sadly relevant to what’s going on in our political climate right now,’ ” Koenig said.

While the Catholic Church is the main antagonist in Twain’s book, Koenig’s play recasts the class system as the villain. The playwright combines material from the original “Connecticut Yankee” with assorted “Twainisms” culled from Twain’s letters and autobiography.

“Sometimes my own political beliefs are very subtly thrown into it,” Koenig said with a chuckle.

Koenig said he came up with his no-frills approach to “A Connecticut Yankee” after seeing similarly stripped-down adaptations of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” and George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan.”

“I just thought, ‘This is the kind of theater that we need,’ ” Koenig said, noting that such a minimalistic approach puts the focus on “the storytelling and its inherent silliness,” as opposed to lavish sets and costumes.

“All you need are a bunch of hats and a small round table and a couple swords,” he said.

‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’

7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, 6 p.m. Sunday; through June 11

Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville, 1863 Front St., Oceano

$20 to $27

805-489-2499 or www.americanmelodrama.com

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