Elyse Ashton and Morgan Zenith in “The Girl Who Owned a Bear” in the History Lit production at Pasadena Museum of History. Credit: Daniel Kitayama
by Laura Berthold Monteros
Three carefully chosen plays offer a spectrum of emotions in Unbound Productions History Lit at Pasadena Museum of History through July 31. This is the second time the company has mounted a trio of adapted short stories reflecting various historical periods at the museum. History Lit is immersive theater, where the action takes place in close proximity to the audience and the venue enhances the stories. Two of the plays, “The Garden Party” and “Two Pictures in One” were originally presented four years ago, and one, “The Girl Who Owned a Bear,” makes its debut.
Jonathan Josephson’s adaptation of a short story from American Fairy Tales by L. Frank Baum, “The Girl Who Owned a Bear” is a delightful confection that utilizes the current exhibit at PMH, “Flying Horses & Mythical Beasts: The Magical World of Carousel Animals.” It was the perfect setting for the fanciful tale of…well, you have to see it, but let’s just say that it’s the story of a resourceful and imaginative, if a bit spoiled, young lady who does not like to read. Morgan Zenith captured the credulity of Jane Gladys and Chairman Barnes brought humor to the affable author Peter Smith. Elyse Ashton, Mark Bate, and Melissa Perl played creatures only Baum could have dreamed up.
“The Garden Party” benefitted from a condensed script and moving one of the sets to a less confined and better lit location than previously, closer to the magnificent Fenyes Mansion that is the centerpiece of the PMH campus. Written in 1922 by New Zealander Katherine Mansfield and adapted by Josephson, it’s a sort of coming-out story of Laura (Summer Ruyle), a girl who discovers that she is not only capable of planning a garden party, but also of meeting tragedy with self-confidence and strength. It’s also a reflection of the changes in perception of class in the early decades of the 20th century. Laura’s parents were played by Hannah Whiteoak and Raymond-Kym Suttle, Cheryl Ann Gottselig played the maid, and Sam Silverstein the guide.
For all the humor of the first play and thoughtfulness of the second, “Two Pictures in One” remains the most compelling and haunting of the three. Adapted by Paul Millet from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The Two Altars; or, Two Pictures in One,” it juxtaposes two families in crucial eras in American history, the Revolutionary War and a decade before the Civil War.
The first altar, which Stowe names, is liberty, and the Ward family is called to makes its sacrifices to throw off the yoke of the British. Neither the second altar nor the second family is named, perhaps because the sacrifice on it was not one of redemption. The liberty the white Wards fought for in 1776 was not extended to the black family after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. After the gavel banged and the last word was spoken, the audience filed out in silence.
The staging of this play especially deserves mention. The original staging divided the main room of the Curtin House on the campus into two rooms, and the audience could not see both well. The current production not only interweaves the dialog of the two families, it places them both in the same room and shared space. There is a wonderful choreography between the two, and as the play progresses, they dance closer and closer. The similarities are thus more binding and the differences starker. The entire cast turned in emotional performances: Bradley Bundlie, Madeline Fair, and Conner Scott as the Wards; Jacquelin Schofield, A’lasia Simone, and Tony Williams as the black family. Eric Keitel and Caleb Slavens took dual roles as Revolutionary War soldiers and officers of the law.
All performances start at 7:00 p.m. and are held at Pasadena Museum of History, 470 W. Walnut St. Pasadena. Remaining dates are July 21-July 24 and July 28-July 31. Parking is free in the small lot or on the street; tickets range from $40 to $60 and can be purchased at HistoryLit.org. Concessions are and raffle tickets available for purchase.