The 25 Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Jazz hands at the ready, Bruiser Theatre Company is back

Two distinctly American preoccupations are mashed together in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Bruiser Theatre Company's latest production at The MAC: the high-school-as-televised-song-and-dance world of Glee, and the primary-school-pressure-cooker of spelling bees.

On the surface, the two pastimes appear to have little in common. The drama geeks of Glee, ready to emote at the drop of a hat or the wiggle of a jazz hand, don’t seem to share anything with the pint-sized, rote-learning robots of televised spelling bees. And yet there are similarities. What it comes down to is this: both groups are made up of freaks and outsiders, people that don’t fit in.

And so, too, are the characters of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which was concieved by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Finn, and first performed Off-Broadway in 2005. There’s the snotty kid who uses his foot to tell him how to spell; the soft-headed, helmet-wearing weirdo; the neglected new girl; a sexually-frustrated boy scout; a severe perfectionist; and an uber-activist. Freaks, all of them.

A spelling bee filled with freaks is a premise that is, perhaps, light on stakes, but this show draws you into the individual worlds of the characters, moving them past the two-dimensional representations and elucidating their histories, and the circumstances that brought them to the competition. Troublesome home lives, demanding parents, alienation – all are given a workout in the second act.

The first act, however, is built upon audience participation. MAC staff spend the time prior to the play commencing combing the lobby for willing volunteers to participate in the bee.

It’s a risky proposition, basing so much of the action on audience participation, but one handled skillfully by the bee’s facilitators, Rona Lisa Perretti (played by Colette Lennon) and Douglas Panch (played by Morgan Crowley), whose improvised anecdotes about the contestants provide much of the first half’s humour.

At this particular show, it just so happens that recently independent MLA, Basil McCrea, shows off not only a surprising talent for orthography, but a willingness to be a good sport in the face of 'It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To' jokes. Whether or not any of his colleagues at Stormont would be so obliging is, of course, impossible to tell...

Once the volunteers have all been eliminated from the spelling bee, the show can get down to the business of exploring the myriad pressures that young people face today. Yet Putnam County manages to strike the right balance between 'serious' theatre and comedy. Demonic possession, poorly-timed erections and even Jesus – who, it turns out, is Irish and doesn’t care much for spelling bees – make appearances along the way.

The cast standout is surely Gerard McCabe, who plays William Barfee ('It’s pronounced Bar-fay'), the mucus-riddled, allergy-suffering foot speller. His ability to take on a collection of outsider stereotypes and imbue them with depth and emotion sets him just slightly apart from a talented cast coping with the same challenge.

An over-the-top look at adolescence from the point of view of those individuals who may never fit in, filled with casual and quirky singing and dancing, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is the kind of under-the-radar production that deserves wider acclaim.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs in The MAC, Belfast until May 4.

Spelling Bee