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Up the Down Staircase - The Madeira School - McLean, Virginia - November 4, 2017

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Up the Down Staircase - The Madeira School - McLean, Virginia - November 4, 2017

Aubrey Winger

Loudoun Valley High School


Fractured walls and dreams make up the classrooms of Calvin Coolidge High School. Hormonal teenagers rule the halls while distant administration drowns the staff in a barrage of paperwork. This dysfunctional environment and the characters who dominate it was beautifully explored in the Madeira Arts Department's production of Up the Down Staircase.


Originally adapted from an epistolary novel written by Bel Kaufman in 1964, this production explores the trials and tribulations of a young teacher by the name of Sylvia Barrett. As she weaves herself into the fabric of her high school, her kindness and determination change the lives of her students forever.


Up the Down Staircase, almost completely composed of letters, memos, announcements, notes, and essays, poses an immense challenge for any performing company. A combination of levels within the set and indirect conversations between actors separated the real encounters from those on paper without losing the integrity of the production. 


The faculty ensemble maintained their maturity and poise throughout the show, completely separating them from their teenage students. Sylvia Barrett, portrayed by Alex Raposo, was a burst of light amid a fractured and authoritarian high school. Everyone in the cast gravitated towards her, and her genuine desire to make a difference coupled with an innately human sense of self-doubt, gave her unique traction with the audience. With understated character choices and a warm, comforting presence, her fellow teacher Bea Schachter (Morgan Taylor) personified the quintessential confidant. Prabha Girish took advantage of her booming voice as disciplinarian, J.J. Mc Habe.


The student body of Calvin Coolidge High School celebrated their individuality while forming a cohesive ensemble. Each student had rich character development, ranging from the tempestuous Linda Rosen's (Caroline Potter) journey to modesty to Jose Rodriguez's (Olivia Lewis) complete transformation when given the opportunity to contribute in the classroom. Fulling embracing their male personas, Lou Martin (Chapin Brown) and Lennie "the Hawk" Neumark (Sydney Marenberg) perfectly encapsulated the typical boisterous, flirtatious teenager. Joe Ferone (Katie King), a self-proclaimed bad boy, anchored the plot with strong diction and a fiery temperament. A jarring contrast from these male characters, lovesick Alice Blake's (Melissa Handel) desperate pursuit of attention from her teacher Paul Barringer (Mallie Moore) made the chaotic nature of her attempted suicide deeply resonate with the audience.


A show typically set in the 60's, Up the Down Staircase was skyrocketed into the 90's with sound effects and nostalgic music, aiding the movement of the plot without overpowering the actors. The set perfectly mimicked the inner-city environment of the show. Every onstage element, from the suspended windows that gently alluded to a city skyline to the rusted radiator and mismatched chairs, fit the period perfectly.


In a world where chaos is constant, a little guidance can have monumental impact. Especially in the case of Joe Ferone, all you need is one person to teach you how to stop going up the down staircase.


Elizabeth DeProspo

Stone Bridge High School


At disadvantaged schools, everything can seem dismal. Windows are broken, common school supplies such as chairs are missing, and rambunctious students run up the down staircase. Up the Down Staircase may seem like a strange choice of a play for an elite academy such as the Madeira School, but the energetic cast members and creative use of technical effects transformed the stage into a world of poverty, disorganization, and chaos.


Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman was adapted into both a movie and a play after its initial success as a novel in 1967. The novel was one-of-a-kind in that it was told through a series of descriptive letters and notes. The play is centered around a young and idealistic teacher named Sylvia Barrett, who is thrown into a chaotic teaching job at Calvin Coolidge, an economically disadvantaged school. Though the story is sprinkled with light hearted jokes and characters, it also addresses more serious topics such as racism, parental negligence, and attempted suicide.


Alex Raposo, who portrayed Sylvia, blazed a path for the rest of the actresses with her undeniable quirkiness and dedication. Raposo evoked the spirit of the overwhelmed teacher in her introduction to the students and staff of the building and only grew in confidence and determination with each struggle. However, the charm of the cast rested not only in the lead, but in the supporting characters as well. Since Madeira is an all-girls school, some actresses were required to play male roles. The goofy Lennie Neumark (Sydney Marenberg) and the clueless, but intellectual, Paul Barringer (Mallie Moore) were clear favorites among these parts. Though playing male characters may have seemed intimidating, the young women were undaunted and brought their respective roles alive.


The imaginative technical aspects of Up the Down Staircase were some of the most impressive pieces of the show. The set was simplistic, yet beautifully and thoughtfully designed, with definite elements of a run down and sparse classroom. The walls were expertly painted to look like the worn bricks of an old school, and the blocky and step-like borders of the set provided a more abstract take on the typical classroom. The technical crew utilized sound effects to craft the environment of each scene; for instance, when a tragedy struck the school, sirens and urgent music flowed through the room and gripped the audience with a sense of dread.


To many people, the perception of a typical Madeira student differs from the characters portrayed in Up the Down Staircase. However, each cast member embraced one of the ultimate goals of theater:  to help the audience connect and experience the lives of those who are different from themselves.

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