Stage flight: Berkshire Theatre Group's 'Tarzan' brings high-flying community theater to The Colonial

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PITTSFIELD — Fully preparing to stage this summer's community production of "Tarzan" at Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre makes memorizing lines look like child's play.

For Tim Jones, who portrays the musical's leading ape-raised man, the role has required him to quite literally spend hours sitting on his haunches and learning to move like an ape. For master electrician Cassondra Klepzig, it's about bundling enough wires and helping to rig enough lighting to create an eye-popping electric jungle, with staircases of leaves that light up on an 1,800-plus-square-foot stage. For costumers Stephen Smith, Kayla Higbee and Jennifer Lippert, it's about making characters — from gorillas to leopards to iconic leading lady Jane — not only look good, but making sure the actors' attire fits securely over the flying harnesses that will swing them through the air.

And for the director, Travis Daly, it's about having these moving parts, and many more, come together in fewer than four months to "create a 'Tarzan' in a rock 'n' roll 'Avatar' world for a 21st-century audience," with music director Mark Gionfriddo conducting the pit band to hit the right notes of an Oscar-winning score. The show opens Thursday night and runs through Aug. 16.

"With this show, you have to do flying because it looks cool, but you also have to think, 'How do you use it to help tell the story?'" said Daly on Wednesday, the start of technical training for the actors who will be hoisted above the stage for several vine-swinging scenes.

This show marks the fifth production that Daly is using this technique to enhance a production. The first was "Peter Pan," followed by "Seussical," "Mary Poppins" and "Beauty and the Beast."

Haley Aguero and Hanna Koczela, who share the roles of Jane Porter and a gorilla named Jill, have some previous experience with stage flight. But for Jones, who is incidentally currently studying to be an aerospace engineer at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, it's a first.

"How does it feel?" asked Lewie Long, flying director for the company Vertigo, which is outfitting the actors for the show.

"It feels," said Jones, in assessing the situation. As he dangled a couple of feet off the ground he found the harness to grip quite snugly around the seat of his body. Over the next week, he'll have to get comfortable with both it and his loin cloth while balancing a long-haired wig.

But before the lights, the set and the sound come together, "our focus is on the story first. The spectacle stuff is important, but it's secondary in the rehearsal process."

"Tarzan's uplifting themes of compassion, acceptance and understanding show us how infectious the power of love is to unite two different worlds to form one family," the director said.

Daly, who has directed more than a dozen productions with community youth casts, puts his faith into more than 100 young actors and supporting adults, to bring an authentic nature and storytelling to the stage. They've been rehearsing lines and movements since the spring.

"It's a little challenging getting comfortable with moving your body in a way you wouldn't usually," said Sadiya Quetti, who is cast as a gorilla and a sort of forest spirit.

Jone said he thinks a lot about a line in the play about "human adaptability," and the capacity they have as a cast to go the necessary lengths to fit their roles.

These young adult cast members say they also find inspiration and motivation from their younger counterparts in the show, some as young as 9 and 10 years old.

"I started when I was that little, so I tell them it's a lot of work, but to stick with it. It's worth it," said Koczela, a recent graduate of Hoosac Valley High School.

Aguero said the tribe of gorillas now "move like a Greek chorus," working to tell a story through their eyes and postures, even in scenes where no lines are spoken.

"This group is so much fun to interact with as a family. We can hoot and holler with each other and beat our chests," said Jones.

With a nod to his younger counterparts, he said, "It's awesome to see the future of this craft is getting their feet on the ground and learning skills that will last for life."


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