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Chorus of Westerly's 'Twelfth Night' is a really big show

By Kristina Dorsey

Publication: The Day

Published January 09. 2014 4:00AM

When a production is as mammoth as "A Celebration of Twelfth Night," rehearsals can be a dynamic process. Leading up to the show's January performances, the Chorus of Westerly's George Kent Performance Hall becomes an absolute beehive of theatrical activity.

Director Derron Wood might be rehearsing with actors in the conference room, while choreographer Robin Rice guides the dancers onstage. Assistant director Victor Chiburis could be working with other performers in another hall space.

Later, the chorus members might come in to practice - or they might be singing instead at Christ Church because the performance hall is so busy.

When the "Twelfth Night" creative team wraps at 9 p.m., the tech crew dives in and sometimes toils all night.

Oh, and another thing going on in the hall this year: a 40-foot dragon is being built in the basement.

Such is the wonderfully bustling world of "A Celebration of Twelfth Night." The Chorus of Westerly has been staging the event since 1975. Although the story changes every year, certain constants remain - the battle between good and evil, the European court-style Twelfth Night celebration, a king and queen selected by which theater-goers finds a bean in their slice of cake.

Music is always a grand part of the proceedings, too, thanks to the chorus directed by Andrew Howell and its accompanying Festival Brass.

Derron Wood, who is directing his 14th production of "A Celebration of Twelfth Night," says, "It really is unlike anything else that I'm ever going to get a chance to work with. You don't get a phone call too often where it's, 'Okay, we have a 200-member choir, a 40-foot inflatable dragon, and 100 actors.' It's, like, 'Okay, sure, let's go!'"

This year's "Twelfth Night" marks a return to a standalone tale after an ambitious five-year story arc in the scripts by Harvey Blanchette. It deals with a castle in danger from a dragon and a boy who is destined to become king.

Shadow effects are part of the theatrical creations, as is the aforementioned dragon, who is mother to a group of Dragonlings. Two of the Dragonlings are performers in full-body puppets, and the other four are dancers wearing costumes.

"The story has a lot to do with mothers and children," Wood says. "The young prince's mother died early on, and he feels responsible for it. So there's a neat parallel because the dragon mother and the Dragonlings are misunderstood by the people of (the town)."

The script had gone through four drafts in the first four days of rehearsal, and other parts of the show are constantly changing, too. That's how it goes: "A Celebration of Twelfth Night" is, in a way, a perpetual work in progress.

"Getting caught up with all the evolution is by far the trickiest thing, but it's also what makes it fun because it's such a collaborative process," Wood says. "Harvey has these great scripts and these great ideas and stuff happens and, before we get to auditions, it's like, 'What if we try to view this character only as a dancer? What music would go underneath that?' Then, when we get into rehearsals, we're shifting this over here, this character's going out over there, this is now being told in this dance moment, so we don't need this dialogue. It just continually evolves as it moves forward."

One of the new elements for 2014's "Twelfth Night" is an all-sing where the audience will help sing "O Come All Ye Faithful" during one of the processions. That means the 400-some audience members will join voices with the 200-member choir and the more than 80 cast members.

"If that's not going to rock Westerly, I don't know what is!" Wood says with a laugh.

"A Celebration of Twelfth Night," George Kent Performance Hall, 119 High St., Westerly; 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; $23-$70; also, preview at 7:30 p.m. Friday ($17); (401) 596-8663, chorusofwesterly.org.

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