Prepare to boo the villain and cheer the hero when the Port Polson Players, in association with Mission Valley Friends of the Arts, reopen Polson’s Theatre on the Lake June 11 with “Dirty Work at the Crossroads.” The melodramatic comedy ushers in the Players’ 46th season and welcomes audiences back after a year and a half of pandemic-induced closure.
“COVID-19 was everyone’s villain and will eventually get its ‘come-uppance,’ just as the scoundrel in ‘Dirty Work’ gets his,” promise producers Neal and Karen Lewing.
Although “Dirty Work” is the first melodrama that the Port Polson Players have staged in more than four decades, it’s not an unfamiliar genre for either of the husband-wife team.
For Neal, it was “the first legitimate show I was ever in.” As an aspiring high school thespian at an all-boy Catholic school in Missoula, he played a little old lady while the football quarterback scored the role of heroine (cross-gender role playing was not uncommon in melodramas and dates back, at least, to Shakespeare’s time).
Karen studied melodrama in college, where one of her professors had earned a doctorate in the genre, and both worked with Larry Barsness, a patriarch of theatre in Montana who founded the Virginia City Players in 1948 – a company that continues to offer melodrama each season – and helped launch the Port Polson Players.
The show was slated to open last summer, but the pandemic put an end to live theatre for most companies across the state, including the Port Polson Players. Fortunately, the elaborate drop-and-wing set – painted by Carmine Mowbray – is ready to go, and most of the cast from last year’s show was able to return.
Staging a melodrama is tricky, in part because it’s a style of theatre that dates back to the late 1800s (this play was written in 1896), when stages were still lit by gaslight, and actors wore heavy makeup and deployed large gestures to depict their characters.
Behind the scenes, the crew is hard at work. When the villainess Ida Rhinegold (wife of viperous villain Munro Murgatroyd) arrives paddling a boat, for example, people off stage tug the boat on wheels behind waves that are also in motion. And then there’s the inevitable train, bearing down on brave hero, Adam Oakhart, tied to the tracks by an innocent farm girl, Nellie Lovelace!! (Spoiler alert: there is a happy ending!)
“It’s so much fun for the audience because you’ve got all this magic going on,” says Karen, who directs the production. “But a lot of the reason we haven’t done melodrama is it’s pretty involved technically.”
Thankfully, much of that hard work – including casting, costumes and scenery – was completed last spring before the pandemic dimmed the theater’s lights.
Neal, the music director, points out the theme is timeless. “It’s the classic good vs. evil, motivated by greed and money … You could do it any time in the last 10,000 years and it would be relevant.”
He notes that the original melodramas, which often kept audiences entranced for up to four hours, were punctuated by oleo acts, with each character coming on stage during frequent intermissions to sing a song lamenting their plight or promoting their evil intentions. In this version characters will emerge during a single six-minute oleo to sing brief songs. Even the musicians, who play piano, bass, guitar, banjo and clarinet, get roles in this act.
“The timing ends up being just right,” says Karen. “We need laughter for the spirit of the Mission Valley – for people to just cheer on some of their own and forget COVID for awhile.”
“Dirty Work at the Crossroads” comes to the Theatre on the Lake, located at Boettcher Park in Polson, at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, June 11-27. Tickets are $16 for adults and $15 for senior citizens, students and children.
Social distancing and sanitary protocol will be employed at the historic theater, with wrapped concessions available outside on the Old Nine of the Polson Golf Course.
The summer season continues with “The Pinup Girls,” July 8-25; and “The Last Romance,” Aug. 5-22, interspersed with Montana Music Week, featuring four different shows by four different groups, July 29-Aug. 1.
Reservations are strongly suggested and available at PortPolsonPlayers.com or by calling 406-883-9212. Walk-ins will be seated in keeping with capacity recommendations posted by the Centers for Disease Control.