In the final mainstage production of the Fall semester, Temple takes a turn for the morbid with the black comedy “The Marriage of Bette and Boo.”
Set in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the play chronicles the marriage of the characters Bette and Boo through the eyes of their son, Matt, whose character is based on the playwright Christopher Durang himself.
Director Dan Kern said the play is about growing up in the baby boomer generation in an upper-middle-class Catholic family.
The show runs two acts, made up of 33 scenes in approximately two hours, which is no short order for any director.
“[When] doing Shakespeare which is comprised of a lot of scenes — but never 33 — there will be maybe 20 scenes in a Shakespearean play but given the length of [“Bette and Boo”] some scenes are literally seconds long,” Kern said. “On average each scene is two minutes long. It’s kind of hard to grow momentum in the growth of the plot and the growth of the characters when it’s so segmented as it is and that’s a challenge. Each rehearsal I was working six to eight scenes in a four-hour span which means I was spending 30 minutes on a scene. That’s kind of a funny way of working.”
Kern took on the challenge of directing his actors through the 33 scenes — which jump in chronology — managed to get the rehearsal process running faster than expected.
“He knew what he wanted, how to get there and how to just do it,” said Ethan Botwick, a junior theater major who plays Matt. “We were doing a run by the end of the second week.”
Matt is the first lead role for Botwick, who made his mainstage debut last semester in Richard III. Botwick faced some challenges with his role, which is not only based on the life of Durang, but was also played by the playwright in the original run of the show. The characters of Bette and Boo are also based, loosely and satirically, on Durang’s own parents.
“It was a little intimidating at first because this is a semi-autobiographical play,” Botwick said. “I did some reading about this play and I watched interviews with him talking about it. He has very specific views of this play because it’s so close to his heart. So I just tried to do as much research on [Durang] as I could, just to be true to that.”
Botwick’s character also takes on the role of narrator, addressing the audience directly — a challenge for Botwick since a lot of his monologues to the audience were in the form of a college essay. To remedy the challenge of essentially lecturing to the audience Botwick had to find ways to make his monologues more conversational.
“It had a lot to do with coloring the words and making everything as specific as I could and for a while it did sound very professor-like and me just lecturing to the audience,” Botwick said. “You know you find certain ways to color the things and make them interesting and along the way I speak in a more conversational voice.”
Botwick added that part of his character’s goal as a narrator is to attempt to intellectualize his family, “because he thinks by doing that he’ll solve or figure out why he is the way he is.”
Kyra Baker, a senior theater major, plays Bette, her first lead role in a mainstage show at Temple. Unlike Botwick, Baker had to test her comedy skills playing a satire of Durang’s mother.
“That was difficult, trying to find this wacky lady who is going through these very serious problems,” Baker said. “That was the hardest thing for me to bring together, I had a really hard time understanding how this was a comedy the first time I read the play. This [role] has definitely been more challenging.”
As Bette, Baker had to balance being the source of comedy while suffering through an alcoholic husband and miscarriages, which were problems indicative of the times.
“I think after we’ve gotten a few performances under our belt it’s become a lot more relatable to a lot of people, since it’s so hard to find happy families,” Baker said. “I mean now people go to therapy and stuff and that’s good but the starting point of the play is 1948 when Bette and Boo get married and it was of the times to sort of not self reflect so they kind of [get married] without knowing who each other was.”
Baker added she is still aiming to connect with her character throughout the run of the show.
“Sometimes I don’t even think it [has] clicked all the way, it [has] been clicking more and more but I think there’s time to grow and I think that’s right because she’s still getting to know herself,” Baker said. “I think I really click most with this character in the second act because in the first act when she’s younger she does not know who she is. She knows what she likes, she likes cute things and she wants to have a big family but I think in the second act she [has a better grasp of] who she is.”
The outlandish nature of Bette and the rest of the characters inspired the design of the set, which is circus-themed with striped tents setting the stage and all of the actors sitting around the edge when they are not an active part of the scene.
“The characters are archetypal, clowns if you will, of a unique type which led to my choice of scene design with the circus motif,” Kern said.
Unlike the “clowns” everyone else in the cast played, Botwick had the only grounded of the 11 characters featured in “Bette and Boo.”
“It really helps you feel how crazy [Matt] felt because these people are insane and I’m just this regular normal person and how am I supposed to deal with these larger-than-life sort of characters,” Botwick said. “So it definitely helps to get me into those places I needed to be.”
“Bette and Boo’s” cast is evenly split between five undergraduates, four graduates in the master of fine arts acting program and one in the MFA directing program.
“I think the graduate actors come to the material with a greater sense of the style of the piece, a greater sense of skill with comedy in general, certainly a lot more experience,” Kern, who is also the head of graduate acting, said. “So I think they were kind of able to set the bar as it were and I think the undergrads were able to get a much better sense of where the world of the play lives as a result of working with the grads. The great thing about [having] a graduate class like ours, working alongside our undergraduate program, is the fact the undergrads get to see how a professional would approach material and what their work ethic is.”
Both Baker and Botwick credit working with the graduate students as inspiration to work harder on the production.
“I loved working with the graduate actors,” Botwick said. “To know these people had professional experience and I was just able to pick their brains all day and just watch them perform and pick up little things — even just watching them warm up and the kind of stuff they do to develop their characters was very interesting. I like having professionals around because any of those questions or fears I have for when I graduate I can confide in them.”
Playing in Randall Theater, “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” will run through Dec. 1.
Luis Fernando Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.