PaliHi’s ‘The Barker’ Is Sensational
Every so often when I review a play, I get really lucky because one of three things happens: it is an outstanding play, there is an outstanding production or there is outstanding acting. Rarely do you hit the trifecta, but I did last night at Palisades High School’s “The Barker.”
The play was fascinating and written by American playwright and screenwriter Kenyon Nicholson. Often with an older play, usually three acts, it seems to drag by today’s standards of two acts and a faster pacing—and the story often doesn’t seem relevant. That’s not the case with “The Barker.”
The 1927 play, which had 221 performances on Broadway, revolves around headstrong carnival barker Nifty (Ezra Schoeplein), his girlfriend Carrie (Eloisa Huggins) and estranged son Chris (Nick Libonatti).
Nifty has big plans for his son, which include becoming a lawyer. His 19- year-old son, who had been living on a farm with his grandparents, shows up and wants to travel with the carnival for the summer, with promises to go back to school.
Nifty pushes his girlfriend aside, because he doesn’t want Chris to know or see his “immoral” relationship with Carrie.
And, as we know from stories down through the ages, a scorned woman is dangerous.
Carrie pays her friend Lou (Gabi Feingold), the snake charmer, to seduce Nifty’s son. An “experienced” woman and an idealistic youth, what’s the chances?
The leading actors draw the audience in and made us care about them. Could a parent just back off and let the kid make his own life? Geez, could we just have a happy ending?
As the story unfolds, directors Sheri and Monique Smith know that some of the prevalent issues are found not only in the play, but in today’s cultural climate around #MeToo. Audience members will ask themselves, “Has so much really changed since 1927?” This play contains mature content and is not for elementary school or younger.
The acting is outstanding, and the cast takes the challenge of bringing “carney” life to the audience and succeeds. As you walk into Mercer Hall, you’re already under the big top. Carnival freaks (the bearded lady), fish (townspeople) and frail (young women) wander among the audience or invite you to try your luck on games of skill.
The set, featuring the tents of Colonel Gowdy’s Big City Shows, extends into the audience. On stage, the set revolves between the area for ticket sales and a dressing room/bedroom.
The costumes are exquisite, and some had to be a real challenge to create, such as the “half-lady.” According to the playbill, credit for costuming goes to Kerry Cooper, Madeline Jalali, Sarah Senator and Lila Ward.
It was such a joy to find a ‘new/old’ play this interesting that I asked co-director Cheri Smith how she found it. She said that this year’s school schedule made it hard to get a dance concert in and that PaliHi had already produced a musical, “Sister Act.”
She didn’t want to do a second musical because there are also many talented drama students, who don’t sing. Smith wondered how she could combine students with both talents, and it came to her. “A circus,” she said. “A play about a circus would have lots of movement, music.”
Smith started searching but found, “there aren’t a lot of plays about circuses.”
Then she found Nicholson’s “The Barker.”
During the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings, the play became even more relevant, and provided discussions with the cast.
Smith and her sister Monique have done a skillful job of working with a high school cast and a mature topic and still making the play entertaining. Cheri Smith said the kids researched the time period and carney life. And it shows: There is a truth to the performances.
Before the play begins, the audience is treated to two beautiful solos. Scene changes go almost unnoticed, because the dancers take over the stage and entertain. If you Love “Dancing with the Stars,” you’ll love these exceptional dancers.
Go see this production. General admission tickets are $16 and parking is free. You can enjoy a night of theater without having to drive downtown, and I predict you will be as fascinated as I was by this play. I even spent the better part of a morning researching the playwright.
Showtimes are November 2, 3, 8, 9 and 10 at 7 p.m., plus a matinee at 2 p.m. on November 3 and 10, in Mercer Hall on campus. Tickets can be pre-purchased: palithebarker.brownpapertickets.com.