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Lafayette College Theater will perform The Nativity, adapted by Tony Harrison from the medieval York mystery plays, at 8 p.m. November 29-30 and December 1-2 in the Black Box Theater of the Williams Center for the Arts.

Tickets cost $6. Seating is limited. For reservations and information, call the Williams Center box office, (610) 330-5009. There will be a preview at noon Monday, Nov. 27, in the Black Box. Lunch will be available for $3.

Originally commissioned by London’s Royal National Theater, The Nativity is the first part of a trilogy collectively entitled The Mysteries. The subsequent sections are The Passion and Doomsday. In The Nativity, Harrison, a native of Yorkshire, has shaped original mystery plays of the 14th and 15th centuries that roughly parallel Biblical events from Genesis through Matthew into a unified evening of theater using an idiom that is both medieval and contemporary.

The mystery, or cycle, plays were performed as huge pageants throughout Western Europe in the late Middle Ages by members of guilds and civic organizations. The plays, all written by anonymous authors, combined Biblical stories with a medieval world-view to present the cycle of human history as part of a divine plan in which, ultimately, the forces of good overcome evil.

The play is directed by Michael C. O’Neill, Lafayette’s director of theater, with scenery by Kim Corbett, a senior from Clifton, N.J., and lighting by Chris Valenti ’01 (Summit, N.J.). Technical direction is being done by Richard A. Kendrick and costumes by D. Polly Kendrick, Parrott Designs. Timothy Frey is handling sound.

“Of particular interest to me educationally is that I have tried to apply the medieval mode of mounting the play as a community experience to our production,” explains O’Neill.

He is teaching a distinctive First-Year Seminar called “Distant Mirrors, Performing Selves,” and all the students enrolled in the course are participating in The Nativity as cast or crew members. In addition, seven College Theater veterans are doing an independent study in conjunction with the production.

“For example, both the scene designer, Kim Corbett, and the lighting designer, Chris Valenti, are students,” O’Neill says. “Although Richard Kendrick is overseeing their work and advising them, this is the first entirely student-designed show we have done since I have been at Lafayette.” The other independent-study students, Andrew Bostian ’02 (Seekonk, Mass.), David Campos ’01 (Rochester, N.Y.), Jonathan Pushman ’02 (Hamilton, N.J.), Sandy Veresink ’02 (Easton, Pa.), and Liza Zitelli ’02 (Bergenfield, N.J.), appear in the production and have been assisting O’Neill with the music and choreography.

“They have been mentoring the first-year students in everything from acting to analyzing scripts to building sets,” O’Neill says.

The seminar has been investigating the concept of the self as a theatrical construct. “The Nativity is providing students with a means of comparison between our society and the medieval world, and, I hope, will give them first-hand experience in performance that we will apply in the concluding discussions of the seminar,” says O’Neill.

“The experience has been terrific for the students and for me,” adds O’Neill. “By being involved in all aspects of the production, the students, in effect, are doing what the medieval guilds did when they performed these plays. We have studied the medieval period, visited The Cloisters museum in New York together, and discussed contemporary performance theory, such as that of Peter Brook and Bertolt Brecht, that has its roots in theater of the late Middle Ages. My goal is that all of these elements will come together in The Nativity, thus providing a rich educational experience for our students and a superb evening of theater for our audiences.”

O’Neill’s seminar is designed to allow Campos and the other independent-study students to participated in as many areas of The Nativity as possible. Campos plays the role of Joseph, the husband of Mary. He is also one of three students, with Zitelli and Veresink, who are assisting with the singing in The Nativity. They sing as commentary during the play, and Campos has a solo at the end.

“An engineering student, David is minoring in theater,” O’Neill notes. “He has been very active in the College Theater since last January, when he stepped into a role in our production of Working. He is taking full advantage of opportunities at Lafayette. The independent study frees him up to learn more about the background and contexts of medieval theater, something that in his demanding engineering curriculum he probably would not otherwise be able to do.”

Campos is excited about the experience. “This allows me to put my best foot forward with something that I have an intense passion for,” he explains. “Many people will not have a chance to do all of the things that they want to do, and this is that one thing that I did not think I would have the opportunity to do. I am appreciative that Lafayette allows for me to take advantage of this project.”

O’Neill wants the student instructors to provide leadership to the first-year students without sacrificing the community spirit demanded by the medieval plays. Campos and his students have participated in discussion groups and performed skits that they have developed. They were exposed to 13th and 14th century architecture and artwork on a visit to The Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum devoted to medieval European art and architecture, in northern Manhattan.

“This was an attempt to develop an understanding of what the times nearly a millennium ago were like,” says Campos. “We were to identify with a certain art work or display to expand on descriptions about the year 1,000 obtained through literature. We performed an improvisational show for the class to convey what we had learned.”

Another highlight was taking in a performance of the off-Broadway improvisational theater piece LifeGame, which uses many of the theater techniques being explored by the cast of The Nativity. During auditions, Campos served as a guide to the newer students by reading along with them during scenes and singing parts of the songs to help them feel comfortable.

“The most surprising thing has been how much I have been able to reach out to the first-year students in my class. I broke the barrier with getting to know them immediately, to the point where they feel comfortable coming up to me whenever and wherever if they want pointers or advice,” says Campos. “It gives a great sense of accomplishment and pride to see the students take what we have presented to them and use it as a guide.

“Each of them, I believe, would feel comfortable now performing in front of a large audience, which, in most cases, would be a first,” Campos continues. “Nurturing the students also has given me more confidence in myself as a performer.

“Michael has been a mentor for me and for the entire class,” adds Campos. “I couldn’t think of one person who has performed under Michael or even just worked with him who does not feel the same way. He has such a broad knowledge and background in the theater, which is reflected in the way he presents the material. His passion for theater entices those of us who work with him to have the same mindset.”

Campos’ previous Lafayette College Theater roles include the humbled butler Morrison in this fall’s presentation of Major Barbara. He played Richard Knowles in Alison’s House and Doc Baugh in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof last spring. He also performed as Tom Patrick and a migrant worker in the fall 1999 production of the musical Working, which was selected to participate in the 32nd annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, recognizing the finest work produced in college theater programs nationally. Working was one of only five productions chosen from among more than 90 shows at mid-Atlantic schools to participate in ACTF’s Region II festival in January.

Campos also served as stage manager for a student one-act play, Pitching to a Star, last spring. He sings in the male a capella group The Chorduroys and is a member of Played Out, Lafayette’s peer-theater group. One of the “Real Men of Lafayette,” students who to are committed to playing a high-profile, leadership role in speaking out against date rape and other forms of sexual assault, he is a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity.

Veresink has taken the college’s directing class and has appeared in almost all of the College Theater productions since she came to Lafayette.

“She’s an English major with a concentration in theater, and this independent study gives her an opportunity to build on her experience while putting it to good use with students who are just starting out,” O’Neill says.

“The most challenging aspect has been keeping up with the enthusiasm of the first-year students,” says Veresink, who played the lead role, Barbara Undershaft, in Major Barbara. “They are amazing! Each one brings something different to the group, and they are so eager to learn and to try new things.”

Veresink, who plays the Archangel Gabriel in The Nativity, is struck by the depth of the play.

“When you hear ‘the Nativity,’ you think of Jesus and Mary and the manger scene, but the play is so much more involved than that,” she explains. “It basically spans the whole Old Testament. I’ve never been very comfortable with improvisation, but the atmosphere in the classroom is very accommodating in the way it makes students feel they can be themselves and take risks without being ridiculed or embarrassed.”

Two years ago, Veresink was assistant director and choreographer of a production of Fiddler on the Roof at nearby Notre Dame High School. “That was a wonderful opportunity to work with students, so when the current opportunity came up, I jumped at it,” she says. “This independent study gives me a chance to share my theater experiences and instill in the new students a love of the theater.”

She particularly values the one-on-one interaction with first-year students.

“There is a wonderful, close-knit feeling,” she says. “They are all so eager to participate and learn. It’s a fun, interactive and informative class. What more could you ask for?

“Lafayette has provided me with great opportunities that I know I would not have had elsewhere,” Veresink adds. “Taking an independent study gives students like me the opportunity to learn not only from an amazing professor, but from other students. We are here to help the first-year students discover theater at Lafayette, and, I hope, discover themselves in the process. As much as I am instructing them, they are teaching me as well.”

Veresink is president of Cadence, a women student a capella group, and treasurer of Resolution, a mixed a capella group. She also is manager of the Pep Band, vice president of member development for the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority, a tour guide, and a member of Played Out.

Zitelli says, “The collaboration with the upperclass independent-study students, Professor O’Neill, and the first-year students, combined with the hands-on nature of the course, make this one of the most unique and fulfilling experiences I have ever had,” says Zitelli, a Marquis Scholar. “I love theater and think good theater that endures through the ages truly has universal resonance that reflects human impulses.”

“Liza has performed in many College Theater productions since her first year, and she has taken acting classes here,” says O’Neill. “Like Sandy, she is a member of Cadence and has a very strong musical background. In addition to performing in the show, Liza is taking on most of the vocal direction with the students. She is a terrific role model.”

One of the primary goals of the independent study is for students to help each other reach a further understanding of themselves, their society, and their culture through theater, based on the premise that theater and art are a reflection of the self and society.

“The play is medieval,” Zitelli says, “and we have focused on the fact that we are removed from this time period by a full millennium. Yet there are many similarities between the people who first performed these plays and us young adults in the year 2,000 at Lafayette. It’s fascinating.“

Another goal of the class is to use theater as a means for the students to become engaged in the college community. Zitelli plans to write a paper exploring how and why the theater opens people up to one other and helps them communicate.

“It always has done this, since the very first theater, and there must be something inherent about theater and human nature that makes them go hand in hand,” she says. “That is what I want to observe and explore in my classroom and rehearsal process.”

Each independent-study student has worked with a small group of first-year students to break down a scene from a piece of drama, getting to its roots and finding the underlying emotions and ideas. The class has studied contemporary works like Eric Bogosian’s Suburbia, as well as scenes from the medieval play.

The Nativity seemed very ancient and hard to relate to, but with the improvisation work that we did, getting to the heart of the scenes, we found that the same emotions exist in humans from every time and every place,” says Zitelli. “In one very entertaining class period, our groups contemporized Biblical stories, and suddenly Bogosian’s play and The Nativity seemed almost identical. It’s all about archetypes, and how human nature is constant throughout time.”

She says the course is helping her grow as a reader, writer, actress, learner, and teacher. “I couldn’t be happier,” says Zitelli. “Professor O’Neill is amazing. He has a gift for throwing himself right into the work without the pretensions of knowing more about it than any of the students. It’s a discovery process for us all, and I think that makes the learning environment even more fulfilling. The first-year students just got to campus and already they are, in effect, co-producing a major college theater production. They are getting a chance to act, assistant-direct, design the set, or run the show. Professor O’Neill’s vision was to engage the students in a community of passionate learners, and he is doing a brilliant job fulfilling this vision.”

Zitelli believes Lafayette provides an excellent learning environment for experiences like her independent study. “Lafayette has endless resources, but also the kind of depth in its curriculum that allows the personal attention I need to get this project done,” she says.

Zitelli played Rummy Mitchens in Major Barbara and was Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She will take on several roles in The Nativity, including Eve. She is managing editor of The Marquis, Lafayette’s annual magazine of poetry, prose, photography and artwork, and a member of the Cadence and Resolution ensembles.

Zitelli is fundraising chair of the Alternative School Break Club, one of more than 25 programs of sustained voluntary service that Lafayette students conduct each year under the auspices of the College’s Landis Community Outreach Center. She is an executive officer of the student organization Body Acceptance and Self-Image on Campus, which educates fellow students about healthy self-esteem and body acceptance, nutrition, eating disorders, and general health.

First-year student Ryon Clarke (East Thetford, Vt.) signed up for the class after being actively involved in high school theater and meeting O’Neill when he visited the Lafayette last spring. “I’m definitely getting a much broader theater experience of theater through this class than I did in high school,” he says. “I feel that my acting has matured a lot by working with Professor O’Neill.”

Clarke plays the roles of Cain, a shepherd, and a soldier, and additional minor parts.

“It has been great working with the older students,” he says. “Just having them here helps a lot with the theater part of the class because they’ve all worked with Professor O’Neill before. They let us know what to expect and they’re all really friendly and personable. I think we all feel like we can go up to all of them and ask any questions. They’re always there for us. I’ve also become friends with some of them outside of class, which has been really nice.”

The Cast:

Andrew Bostian ’02 (Seekonk, Mass.), Josh Brodsky ’03 (Needham, Mass.), David Campos ’01 (Rochester, N.Y.), Susan Donnelly ’01 (Philadelphia, Pa.), Kate Edelstein ’01 (Caldwell, N.J.)

Bob Hawkey ’01 (Hainesport, N.J.), Nora Kennedy ’02 (Williston Park, N.Y.), Terrence Monte ’03 (Valhalla, N.Y.), Suzanne Montgomery ’03 (Thornton, N.Y.), Rose Pilato ’02 (Redding, Conn.), Jonathan Pushman ’02 (Hamilton, N.J.), Dwayne Thomas ’01 (Brooklyn, N.Y.), Sandy Veresink ’02 (Easton, Pa.),

Beth Wynstra ’01 (Walnut Creek, Calif.), and Liza Zitelli ’02 (Bergenfield, N.J.)

First-Year Students: Jennifer Carty ’04 (Egg Harbor Township, N.J.), Ryon Clarke ’04 (East Thetford, Vt.), Christopher David ’04 (Sandy Hook, Conn.), Jeremy Deaner ’04 (Madison, Wisc.), Kimberly Enoch ’04 (Hatboro, Pa.), Michelle Ferguson ’04 (Wallingford, Conn.), Shara Gregory ’04 (Collegeville, Pa.), Megan Loeffler ’04 (Manasquan, N.J.), Alison Poole ’04 (Randolph, N.J.), Ryan Sakmar ’04 (Doylestown, Pa.), Stephen Tanner ’04 (Florence, Ala.), Jennifer White ’04 (Manalapan, N.J.), and Melissa Zine ’04 (North Quincy, Mass.)

Musicians: Brandon Cochenour ’03 (Lower Burrell, Pa.), keyboard; Daniel Miller ’03 (East Amherst, N.Y.), bass; and Joseph Benoit ’04 (Middletown, N.J.), guitar

Categorized in: Students