A former co-worker of mine spoke and wrote fluent Farsi. One day, when things were slow, she wrote my name in Farsi for my name tag. I looked at the sinuous, cryptic lines. The writing was beautiful, but something about how quickly she wrote it puzzled me. “How do you know how to spell ‘Greg’ in Farsi?” I asked.
“Oh, in Farsi, if you can say something, you can spell it. Everything is spelled exactly as it sounds.”
“Everything? You mean you don’t have to memorize spelling in Farsi?!”
“EVERYTHING!” she assured me. “You don’t have to study spelling. Each character in our alphabet stands for a sound, and there aren’t exceptions like in English.”
Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I wish I’d been born in Iran– a wish that never left me until the advent of spellcheck.
I thought of the countless hours I had spent on my least favorite (and worst) subject back in elementary school. The weekly headbanging (aka “studying for my spelling test”) usually quickly devolved into philosophical musings, like “Why does the ‘ough’ in cough, through, dough, and thought make different sounds?” There seemed to be no logic, because, in fact, there was none. Our spelling rules are fraught with exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions ad infinitum. (“i” before “e”, except after “c”…or when sounding like an “a” …or in the following words: species, science, sufficient, seize, weird, their, foreign, feisty…). I’ve often felt we could power the world three times over with the wasted energy spent trying to memorize the correct spelling of words.
In 2002, a delightful documentary called Spellbound was released. It followed eight finalists as they prepared for and competed in the National Spelling Bee. It is a wonderful film– both hilarious and moving. What becomes apparent from the start is that these kids are exceptional and unique in many ways. Some are rich, and some are poor; some are “natural” spellers (who literally just read the dictionary once and remember each and every word) and others have studied for years to make it to the finals. The only common denominator amongst them all is that they are all… idiosyncratic (OK… let’s say it: odd!) in some way or another.
The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee must have been inspired by this film. (It was written and performed less than two years after Spellbound premiered, and some of the characters seem almost as if they were peeled off the celluloid and pasted into the script.) This 2004, one-act musical play is based on the book by Rachel Sheinkin with music and lyrics by William Finn. The play focuses on six middle-school contestants in a spelling bee with occasional flashbacks that fill us in on their backstories.
If you arrive early to the play, you will have the opportunity to volunteer to be a contestant in the spelling bee yourself! Several audience members are selected at the beginning of the show and asked to take their places on stage beside the main characters, who whisper stage directions to them. As the show opens with a song that requires the entire cast to sing and move about as a chorus, it produces some hilariously rough choreography. (It is especially hilarious for the friends and families of the selected audience members!) These volunteers must also compete in the bee but are eventually eliminated by successively harder words by about the middle of the play.
Because the play involves these volunteers, some of the dialogue must be improv; no character must do this more than vice principal Douglas Panch (played by Tyler Bremer). Panch reads the words to the contestants, provides definitions and uses the words in a sentence (just like in the real bee). As the volunteers may ask unusual questions or make off-the-cuff remarks, the demands on this actor are unusually difficult. Tyler Bremer proved he had the quick wit to perform. When one volunteer purposely misspelled “cat” as “K… A… T!” (no doubt because he was hoping to leave the stage quickly and return to his seat and friends) Bremer quipped, “… and in Finland that is correct! Correct answer!” Make no mistake (or go ahead and make a mistake… it doesn’t matter!), Bremer is quick on his feet and will not eliminate you until the script deems your character’s time is up!
The quirky characters in the play exhibit some of the unusual ticks and behaviors that one might expect from a spelling savant. William Barfee (well played by Benji Kaufman) uses his “magic foot” to trace out the spelling before stating it to the judge, while Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre (a standout performance by Emily Fontanesi) traces it out on her left forearm.
While the play had several strong performers (Jeanette Deutsch and Christian Schmidt also performed admirably), there were some shortcomings that were inherent in the play’s script. First and foremost, the play’s music, while pleasant, was hardly filled with memorable melodies. Although there were many songs, I cannot recall even a single melody from any of them 24 hours later (by comparison, I can still recall the refrain from Evita after nearly 24 years!).
Another element that bothered me was the fact that several of the minor characters in the play were performed by the major characters who simply stood behind a cardboard effigy and spoke the other character’s lines. At first I thought this may have been an attempt for a small cast to pull off a large production, but a little research showed me that the play is actually scripted that way! Why? I don’t know. It didn’t seem to add to the humor in any way; rather, it just seemed somewhat distracting. Overall, however, the play is definitely worth catching; the audience erupted with laughter throughout the play’s 90 minutes. And remember, if you arrive early, you may even get the chance to perform onstage yourself.
The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee will play at the Studio Theatre at CSULB through Nov. 10. The venue is located at 1250 Bellflower Blvd. Parking is available in Lot #7 next to the Theatre Arts Department for $5. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8pm; Saturday also has a matinee at 2pm; Sunday shows are at 1pm and 6pm. Tickets are $15 general admission or $12 for seniors, students or staff. For tickets and more information, call (562) 985-5526 or visit calrep.org .