Mids gear up for the stage

Naval Academy to compete in theatrical event in upstate New York

January 12, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,SUN REPORTER

The actors were a little rusty Wednesday afternoon. They spoke and moved awkwardly during the scene, with many sheepish calls for "line" - their dialogue - after a six-week performance hiatus.

But the tug of war between sisters Blanche and Stella, which comes about midway through Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, was not without its moments. As she pleaded with Stella to leave her abusive husband, Blanche seemed less flighty than she often appears in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and Stella, resisting, seem to seethe.

The nuance in the rehearsal belied the actors' identity: They were not professionals or even theater majors. Donning the black uniforms of winter, these three Naval Academy Midshipmen were preparing for a performance next week.

Juniors David Smestuen and Joy Dewey and sophomore Julie Barca have been invited to perform the scene at a regional theater competition and festival in upstate New York that begins tomorrow. The invitation is only the second in academy history.

The three were selected last month by judges from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Smestuen, Barca and senior Sean Bingham were also nominated to compete for acting scholarships awarded by the festival.

Region two, the geographic area that the Mids competed in, is one of the most competitive in the country. It is also host to major undergraduate theater programs such as the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University, said Christy Stanlake, who directed the play and helps run the Masqueraders, a Midshipman theater group.

"We were thrilled to be invited to perform, and then to have three Midshipmen nominees, which is the maximum they allow from each participant," she said Wednesday.

Dewey, 21, of Sacramento, Calif., said she feels "incredibly blessed" to be working with those leading the program because "they bring us to a level that you normally wouldn't see at a military academy."

The main difference with those competing from other colleges, Dewey quipped, is that "you spend hours and hours rehearsing here and then you go back into the hall and get yelled at."

Smestuen, 21, an English major from Brenham, Texas, who plays Stanley in the scene - a part made famous by Marlon Brando in the film version - said he went to the festival last year and was taken aback by the stark contrast between Midshipmen and other participants.

"When we went last year, most of the kids there were theater majors, and it was obvious that they devote their lives to theater," he said. "They would go over all the schools of thought on movement in acting, and we hardly have any theater classes. And despite all the time we put in for rehearsal, it doesn't relieve us from all our other academy responsibilities. But despite coming from kind of a humble background, we can still hang with the best of 'em."

Not everyone sees the importance of theater at a military college whose curriculum is geared toward leadership and engineering, but Smestuen said he has been surprised at the reactions of some Marines.

After a performance, a gunnery sergeant assigned to the academy once told Smestuen how impressed he was with acting and its potential for officer training.

"He was just saying that leadership is often a matter of getting in front of people and trying to make them feel a certain way, whether that's inspiration or fear," he said. "That's what acting is."

Bingham, 21, a Chicago native who will enter the submarine community after he graduates in May, said he has received a fair share of looks when he has told Mids that his involvement in theater exempted him from the academy's requirement that he participate in varsity or intramural sports.

"But acting in general is just analyzing people, and that's the basis of what our jobs are going to be when we get out," he said. "If a kid's got a problem with something, and I need to help somehow, I think it will be easier to do that when I've taken on so many different characters and in a way, lived so many different lives."

For Barca, 21, an oceanography major from Pittsburgh, Pa., theater was a much-needed escape from the rigors of her plebe indoctrination. After arriving in the summer of 2005, she had not been allowed to wear anything but her uniform for five months until she put on a frilly yellow dress for her role in The Belle's Stratagem.

This will be Barca's first chance to compete at the festival, and although she does not have her hopes pinned on making the national finals, she is glad that she and others made it this far.

"I will admit I didn't always think this would help me as an officer, but after we tore apart our characters and spent time looking into them, I learned a lot about myself and about not being myself," she said. "And I really believe that helps with your bearing."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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