Chantilly High School
Our lives are precious, and like most precious things, they are terribly fragile. One occurrence could change the course of our lives forever, like the wind redirecting the sails of a ship. One occurrence could also stop our lives, abruptly and without warning. These ideas are explored in Independence High School's double feature of Lessons from the Dead and Bullseye.
Lessons from the Dead is a short play featuring a collection of monologues and songs from the recently deceased residents of a small Illinois town. Set during the 1800s, the characters use their stories as messages and warnings to those still living. Through both speech and song, the characters weave a narrative about the fragility of life.
Lessons from the Dead was more than just a series of monologues and solos, however. The show was a beautiful ensemble performance. The actors rarely left the stage blank; they always created a world with just themselves and a few wooden chairs. A single spotlight was used to highlight each speaker, as blue lights draped the ensemble in a hazy shadow. Their silhouettes painted pictures of each monologue, demonstrating the power of the collective troupe. The ensemble sounded gorgeous in every song. With just a lone pianist (Max Schellhammer) for instrumentals, the soft harmonies of the choir pulled the focus. The standout singers were the soloists, Max Layman, Kelly Donlan, Paul Hartmann, and Katie Phillips.
The dramatic lighting of each scene gave the chilling impression of past souls coming to life again, and each cue was excellently directed by Connor Thatcher. Also helping bring the world of Lessons from the Dead to life were the historically accurate costumes. All the costumes fit the characters well, from grandiose dresses demonstrating wealth to plain yet elegant brown frocks. The costumes were the time machines transporting the audience back into the 19th century.
Independence High School's second feature was a short film written and directed by student Casserley Grace. This silent film was based on her own experience as an athlete struggling with Lyme disease. Told only through breathtaking cinematography and visual storytelling, the non-linear tale follows the athletic Miller (played by Jack Grace) as his condition worsens.
Jack Grace's performance was excellent. Acting without words, his expressiveness and physicality portrayed the athlete's pain.
Furthermore, Casserley Grace's cinematography was jaw-dropping. Wide nature shots illuminated the environment, juxtaposed against the shaky, disjointed perspective shots through Miller's eyes. The story, despite lacking a linear narrative, had a strong flow. Costume differences made changes in time clear and made following the story easy. Casserley also composed the score for the film, which matched the tone wonderfully. The music was mostly calming, but progressively grew disjointed as Miller's pain grew worse. In a sense, the music acted as the unspoken dialogue of the film.
From death to disease, our lives are often racked with unexpected tragedy. Independence High School's double feature of Lessons from the Dead and Bullseye remind us to cherish what we have. Each life is invaluable. So no matter where the course of fate takes you, be sure to treasure every breath.
Quince Orchard High School
What does it mean to be alive? And is it worth it to live one's life at all?
Students at Independence High School addressed those questions with their productions of Lessons from the Dead and Bullseye. Lessons from the Dead was based on Spoon River Anthology, a collection of 211 fictional epitaphs for villagers in a small Illinois town during the early Victorian period, written by Edgar Lee Masters. The play was first conceived by Independence High School students as a virtual performance, but it was adapted into a one-act stage play as the school's submission to the Virginia High School League. Bullseye, on the other hand, was a short film chronicling a runner's struggle with Lyme disease, as he slowly loses his passion for a sport he once loved. Both pieces reckoned with love, loss, life, and identity, and what it means to be human.
As a collection of monologues, Lessons from the Dead offered moments for all its actors to shine. Jacquline Louh was particularly impressive in the role of Dora Williams, a rich widow who ended up poisoned by her third husband. Her stage presence and indifferent attitude towards her tragic death made her especially compelling to the audience. Also notable was Kelly Donlan as Hannah Armstrong, a woman who spent months travelling the country searching for a relative who was injured in the war. Her effective use of movement and her tangible desperation made for a stunning performance.
Music played a pivotal role in both productions. In Lessons from the Dead, piano music (provided by Max Schellhammer) accompanied many of the monologues. Musical interludes were also a part of the narrative - Katie Phillips, who also played Sarah Brown, offered a stunning solo rendition of "Shenandoah," showing off her immense vocal range and acting skills. The ensemble also offered wonderful harmonies in the show's group numbers. In Bullseye, music was relied upon to tell the story - a constant stream of simple piano notes (composed digitally by Casserley Grace, who also directed, edited, and produced the film) punctuated and enhanced emotional moments.
The technical elements of each show were also commendable. Lessons from the Dead was performed on a mostly bare stage, with a dozen mismatched chairs representing each of the dozen actors. The chairs allowed for a world to be created within the stage, as well as allowing for social distancing between the masked performers. Bullseye had eye-catching cinematography, with excellent use of light and shadow, as well as dramatic camera angles.
Mankind may not yet know the meaning of life, but the students at Independence High School have come close to an answer. With pathos, inspiration and an understanding of the human spirit, these performers have created memorable pieces that are sure to sway audiences.