As the University of Saskatchewan drama department’s mainstage production company, Greystone Theatre is showing off promising student talent in its season finale. This years’ Coram Boy lives up to this mandate, with the added bonus of several standout performances.
Set in 18th century England, Coram Boy explores the dark underside of the burgeoning class divide. At the time, the lower classes found themselves increasingly impoverished and unable to care for new additions to the family. As a result, charity institutions sprung up with the aim of fostering orphan children. Unfortunately, such desperation also attracted swindlers. Many of these charities became the feeding grounds for men who purchased children under false pretenses of providing jobs or apprenticeships, while in reality exploiting them in the slave trade.
The play follows the deeds of Otis Gardiner, one such con man. His actions affect the lives of two boys apprenticed in a choir, who over the course of the story come of age in a world where justice and privilege are heavily biased towards the wealthy.
The subject matter is gripping, but the production is bumpy at times. The biggest issue was the gaps between scenes and lines that could be tightened to shorten the total running time. The sheer number of students on stage is also sometimes overwhelming with respect to its size. However, Jenna Berenbaum’s undeniable charisma and talent as the plucky choirboy Thomas Ledbury certainly makes up for these hiccups.
As Thomas, Berenbaum rises to the occasion of portraying a different gender, age and nationality with gusto. I caught myself with a grin on my face on several occasions during her scenes as Thomas came to life on stage. She also manages to be brilliant in scenes where she is not integral and manages to add to the story without stealing focus.
In the latter half of the show, Thomas ages into an adult and is portrayed by Mikael Steponchev. Berenbaum retires to a role in the background chorus of young choir boys. Despite the fact that she has no dialogue, Berenbaum invests fully in her nameless character and every moment he is experiencing.
Since Thomas is male and comes from a lower class background, Berenbaum had to modify both her voice and physicality to create her performance. She explained a little about the cast’s process of performing a show that required diverse accents from different levels of society.
“I do a Gloucester dialect,” Berenbaum said. “We learn RP [Received Pronunciation, a standard United Kingdom accent] in third-year acting. With Gloucester, I had no idea. We were lucky enough to get a dialect coach.”
Miranda Hughes, Berenbaum’s fellow fourth-year drama student, shares many scenes with her and plays an equally important role. Hughes portrays the musically talented and socially privileged Alexander Ashbrook, who is on the cusp of puberty and struggles with family pressures to leave the world of music behind and take up his place as heir to much wealth and power.
Hughes and Berenbaum’s chemistry on stage effortlessly conveys moments of both comedy and tragedy as their characters quickly become friends. The two have been working together on the show since the beginning of the semester and their on and off-stage bond is charming.
Despite the large cast of characters, both Hughes and Berenbaum are double-cast in the production. This means that every other night their counterparts Anna Mazurik and Caitlin Zacharias portray Thomas and Alexander. Neither actor is upset about this choice, however.
“The great thing about double casting is that you really learn a lot from your partner and you get to discover the role together,” said Berenbaum.
The two actors agree that this bonding experience is just one example of the diverse and beneficial opportunities that U of S drama department offers.
“You meet really great people and people you can act with. You learn about design and stage management and technical aspects,” said Berenbaum.
“It affects all aspects of your artistry,” Hughes added. “It’s very comprehensive, and it’s focused on doing quality work. I would love to do film, I also love music and I think the great thing about this program is it enhances your ability to do any of those things.”
Berenbaum will convocate this spring — meaning Coram Boy is the last opportunity to see her perform as a U of S undergraduate — with Hughes following her in December. Another standout performance comes from Kyle Kuchirka, who is heart-wrenchingly sincere as Meshak, the neglected son of a man bent on exploiting profit from the desperate. These three actors alone are enough to make this show unmissable.
Coram Boy runs March 18 to 28 at the Greystone Theatre. Ticket purchases and further information may be found online at artsandscience.usask.ca/drama/greystone/tickets.php.