Philaletheis premieres new piece

This weekend in the Susan Stein Shiva Theater, The Philaletheis Society will be presenting “The Moon Is Red.” Scott Szpisjak ’20 directed this new comedy himself and co-wrote it. / Courtesy of The Philaletheis Society and Facebook

This week, Vassar’s oldest student theatre organization, The Philaletheis Society, presents “The Moon is Red”, co-written and directed by Scott Szpisjak ’20, in the Susan Stein Shiva Theater. This student-written, student-produced and student-directed piece promise to be a combination of space, secretaries and socialism.

Szpisjak and his co-writer, Aline Dolinh, a sophomore at the University of Virginia, initially created the concept for this play based on an inside joke imagining a conspiracy theory that the moon didn’t exist. This joke soon developed and became more fleshed out. Once they brainstormed the plot point of the Soviet Union filming a propaganda video and hatching a plan to launch a satellite, the duo saw the potential for an exciting play.

Caleb Featherstone ’18 plays one of the show’s principal characters and was attracted to the show from the start. He said, “I was drawn to the play by the goofiness of the premise and the rapid-fire, self-aware comedy of the script.”

Even while staring down a week of technical rehearsals, Featherstone recalled, “One of the highlights of the creative process thus far has been the open attitude towards experimenting with big, over-the-top choices, which has made the rehearsal process a lot more fun and less stressful than other productions have been for me and will make the show a lot stronger and more entertaining for an audience, for sure.”

Stage manager Lisset Magdaleno ’19 became a member of this production for similar reasons. She remembered, “Scott asked if I’d like to be the stage manager and after reading the script, I thought it would be a fun show to be involved with and a good opportunity to be involved in theater with people I knew.”

But what is the audience going to be in for when they show up to see this play? She illuminated, “This show is like an office comedy but with much more going on. There’s the Communist threat, there’s the moon, there’s the office relationships and dynamics. People should come to appreciate the moon, it’s truly beautiful. It’s a period piece that takes place in the ’50s, so it’s fun to see an interpretation of [that era] and America’s reaction to Communism in the play.”

After the playwrights determined that they had a solid formulation, they proposed a 30-minute version for their high school’s one-act play festival. While only three productions were picked, Szpisjak and Dolinh were fortunate enough to have theirs approved. They initially wrote the play with a significant number of roles, casting 28 parts.

Max Hamilton ’20 is working on sound design for the Vassar production of “The Moon is Red,” and while he had worked on sound before, he was particularly excited for this piece. He remarked, “I was incredibly excited to work on this show in particular—not just because I know most of the rest of the production team, but also because I think a lot can be said about the sound of this particular time period. I think there’s something about sounds and music from the 1950s that create an almost instant ambiance around them. The certain brand of post-war sentimentality in the music, along with the unique sound of phones, cars, sirens—it’s just a great period to find sounds for.”

For many of the cast and crew of “The Moon is Red”, this production has been something special and unlike other theatre experiences at Vassar. Featherstone noted, “This show is the first show I’ve been a part of that is both written by a student and written before the rehearsal process, since most of my student theater experience at Vassar has been with devised pieces. It’s also the most traditionally funny play I think I’ve been a part of, since other comedies I’ve done—like ‘The Sims’ last semester—have tended towards a kind of humor that constantly reminds the audience how bizarre the show is as a whole. In contrast, I think ‘The Moon is Red’ creates a very well-realized world and crisis in which the humor comes out of the characters’ very real desire to fix the central problem.”

Last fall, Szpisjak directed an edited version of the play in Philaletheis’ 10-Minute Play Festival. After the growing number of conspiracy theories sprouting from last year’s presidential election, Szpisjak collaborated with Dolinh over the semester to expand the piece into a longer play, reflect- ing not only the current political environment, but also gender dynamics in the workplace and the hypocrisy and jingoism surrounding the myth of American exceptionalism.

Beyond the play’s relevance, stagecraft gets its due spotlight in this performance. As Hamilton noted, “Firstly, we’ve spent a lot of time making sure the design for this show is good, and I feel that I can’t stress that enough. We’ve spent a lot of time on the set, sound and lights so that they add to the show as a whole. It’s funny, too, and I think that the actors are doing a great job—I would think that even if I wasn’t working on this show. Overall, it’s a short, sweet show that is super enjoyable and holds the audience’s interest.”

While Szpisjak and Dolinh were making changes last semester, Szpisjak had a goal of proposing the production through Philaletheis. To prepare it for student theatre, for example, the cast numbers dropped to five. Because of the focus Szpisjak has put on their ambitious design and attention to detail, he assembled a design team last spring.

Magdaleno spoke about the enhanced experience this production’s focus on technical elements has wielded: “Our set alone is a must-see, and it’s all come together so beautifully thanks to everyone involved. This play is also really production-focused so there were a lot of opportunities to work with and learn about the tech aspect of theatre. I think the play gives the audience a lot to think about in terms of underlying concepts that the play explores, like gender dynamics in the workplace and propaganda and misinformation, both of which are topical.”

Since this is the first play of the student theatre season, cast and crew have only had almost exactly one month from auditions to opening night to get this show together.

Hamilton elaborated on how this rushed schedule impacted the production environment: “I think this piece stands out in how short of a time we have managed to get it done in (thus far, at least). We’re the first show going up in the Shiva, and as a result, we are in a bit of a time crunch—but we are managing to live through it so far, in a way that I think is testament to how much work can actually get done on a show if you just really go ham on it.”

“I think some of us on the production team have worked on shows before where the design took a back seat and only existed at the bare minimum needed for the show to function,” he elaborated, “and this is us stepping away from that and, I think, hoping the rest of student theater will step away from that. That isn’t to say all shows throw design in the trash, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s a lot of room for expanding the role of designers.”

“The Moon is Red” is playing in the Shiva Theatre this weekend: Friday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 21, at 2 and 7 p.m.

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