Dionysus Theatre in Houston tries to mainstream actors with disabilities with non-disabled actors.
Comments have been tallied and the verdict is unanimous: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" marks another hit from Dionysus Theatre.
The audiences who filled the theater's 70 seats to capacity on opening night Saturday, June 12, or created a sizable crowd for the 1 p.m. Sunday matinee the next day laughed out loud at the familiar angst of childhood presented in a witty and humorous script and a lively, times poignant, musical score.
Many in the audience took time to comment on - and lavishly praise - the current-running musical as presented by the nine-member cast of Dionysus Theatre, the state's only stage to include disabled and able-bodied professional actors.
"This theatre is amazing. I'm awestruck," "It was fun and entertaining," "Fantastic," "Moving," "Uplifting" were among the comments that were, without exception, positive feedback or flat-out rave reviews.
The Saturday show in the intimate, black-box-style Joe Frank Theater, which the Dionysus Theatre group rents at the Jewish Community Center, 5601 S. Braeswood, impressed first-nighters Howard and Florence Kusnetz . They felt compelled to share the experience by e-mail with 70 or so of their friends throughout the world.
"Last night we saw a local version of the Broadway musical, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." What made it a moving experience was the theater group," Howard Kusnetz wrote in the e-mail.
"Dionysus Theatre in Houston tries to mainstream actors with disabilities with non-disabled actors. They do a fantastic job," Kusnetz wrote. "I just wanted to share with you some of the enjoyment we got last night. We've seen a number of their productions over the years, and each one has been heartwarming enjoyable."
The "Putnam" story focuses on children, played by adults, who learn that they can be winners and, despite dysfunctional families, stars in their own lives - regardless of any competition's outcome.
A couple of audience members had comments posted on the www.dionysustheatre.org Facebook page after seeing the musical directed by Dionysus' founder/artistic director Deb Nowinski, a Clear Lake resident, and Galleria-area musical director, Stephen W. Jones.
"I'm awestruck at the talent and quality of entertainment in Dionysus" said one. "I saw this on Broadway and I loved it. I saw this in Dionysus and I never knew this show could be so uplifting and inspirational. Thank you Dionysus."
The good news for people who haven't yet seen the show: "Putnam," the last show of Dionysus Theatre's 12th season, runs until June 27 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and 1 p.m. Sunday matinees.
Tickets are $20 per person, $15 for students and seniors, and group rates are available by visiting the web site or calling the theater, 832-483-0573, or at the Joe Frank Theater within the JCC, 5601 S. Braeswood, prior to each show.
For more information about interviews or photography shoots with directors and cast, please call 713-647-6997. For information about Dionysus Theatre classes, upcoming shows, touring and youth theater troupe, please call 713.728-0041 or visit the website: www.dionysustheatre.org. Dionysus Theatre: Changing Lives...One Act at a Time
Actors, directors in Dionysus Theatre's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"
George Harris, a 20-year-old resident of Acres Homes, has been involved and passionate about theater since his first play, "Annie," in which he played dual roles on the stage of engineering magnet George Washington Carver High School. He has continued acting at Texas A&M University at Prairie View, where he is a junior majoring in electrical engineering, and at Stages Repertory Theater.
It was a Stages actor and prop/stagecraft master Richard Solis who invited him to Dionysus Theatre while both were cast in a Stages production. Solis was also in the theater's late April-early May play, "The Boys Next Door," at Dionysus Theatre and he invited Harris to audition for "Putnam."
Harris is playing an ex-convict character, Mitch Mahoney, who is working at the spelling bee as a comfort counselor as part of his community service requirement.
"He comforts the kids when they lose, giving a hug and a juice drink. He grows to like it," Mahoney said.
Mahoney said he enjoyed working in a group that includes disabled people in the cast and wants to help push Dionysus Theater's mission of inclusion of everyone, regardless of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation or ability/disability.
Despite his busy calendar with Stages, Prairie View classes, computer networking, songwriting and music-video making, he said he will definitely be returning for Dionysus Theatre productions.
"In the Putnam spelling bee, there are people who stand out, who are different, who stand out. The outsiders," Mahoney said. "They learn to accept themselves and others in the spelling bee. The actors in the play do the same thing, only in real life."
Founder of Dionysus Theatre and artistic director, Deb Nowinski describes herself as "seasoned artistic director with her sense of humor still intact." She has directed the nonprofit Dionysus Theatre for 12 years, often writing scripts and scores for productions featuring her troupe of professional actors, disabled and able-bodied. She also has directed long-established plays and musicals for Dionysus, as is the case with "Putnam," a Broadway mega-hit.
In "Putnam," she directs the Dionysus cast in the summer musical with a message,
"In our twelfth season, we dedicated our shows to communities of differences and I feel this show has a universal theme of surviving childhood and learning the life lesson that you have to accept yourself. And you have to like yourself, that it's OK to be creative and different."
One reason to buy tickets, she said, is to help nonprofit Dionysus pay for future plays and musicals. In return, Nowinski said, theater-goers will see real inclusion on stage. That's something they can't see in any other theater, she said, able-bodied actors and actors with disabilities working together at a very high level.
"And it's entertaining and educational," Nowinski said. "We could all use a little bit of laughter and hope. Who better to show that anything can be accomplished if you just don't give up hope and encouragement for these incredible actors. Actors of all abilities can truly send out the message of hope."
A registered nurse and a veteran actress of Houston stages and in Illinois, Andrea Hockstra, "fifty-ish," joined the Dionysus Theatre troupe after meeting Nowinski through theaterport.com, an online magazine for current and upcoming theater casting needs. She discovered they had two common interests: "Theater and wonderfully specially able children."
"Putnam" marks her first performance with Dionysus. She plays the role of Lisa Peretti, moderator of the spelling bee and former spelling bee champion who still relishes her past glory.
"In the show, her past is revealed and she learns who she really is," Ms. Hoekstra said. The message, she said, is a serious one, a perfect fit for Dionysus even as it's humorous touch generates laughter from the audience.
"It's the same as as Dionysus Theatre's message - accept each other and ourselves."
As Olive Ostrobsky, a mentally and physically abused character left to herself by an overly-unconcerned mother traveling India, Maredith Zaritski, 20, sings her heart out, demonstrating her strong, soprano voice that has helped her net plum leads in musicals. A few are Winifred in "Once Upon a Mattress;" Louisa, "The Fantasticks;" Ado Annie, "Oklahoma;" Winnie Tate, "Annie Get Your Gun."
Playing that role is quite a jump from playing musical leads at Mayde Creek High School before graduation in 2006, roles she took on while earning her bachelor's degree in theater arts at Sam Houston University and as an actress in productions in the Woodlands and near her Conroe residence.
It was another professional actor, Richard Solis of Main Street Youth Theater who invited Zaritski to come see a spring production at Dionysus.
From her seat in the audience, she was hooked soon after the play began. She auditioned and netted a prominent role in "Putnam," the girl with the roaming mom and a dad who is too busy to be in the audience to see his daughter demonstrate her spelling skill.
Zaritski plans to return to her university alma mater for her masters in theater arts education and to obtain a teaching certificate with an eye on directing future students in classrooms and theaters. She said she plans to carve out time to join the theater company in future shows.
Like Harris, she learned of Dionysus through Richard Solis. She was, and remains, a fervent supporter of the play's and theater's message to the world: Inclusion.
"It's wonderful how the program works. Nobody else does this work with special needs kids," Zaritski said. "It gives them an opportunity."
Zaritski, who is planning on continuing at University of Houston in a master's degree program in theater arts, said the theater's mission flows through "Putnam" dialog and songs.
"It basically says that even if you lose, you still become someone important, someone who adds to other people, become someone beautiful."
Shawn Linsey is a 20-year-old student in his freshman year at Houston Community College in Katy and commutes to school and Dionysus from Fulshear.
After playing lead roles in the two previous Dionysus productions this year - "Autistic License" in January, and "The Boys Next Door" in late April-early May - he only has a cameo role in "Putnam," but it's a memorable part.
"I play Jesus," Linsey said. "Jesus answers the prayers of a kid who is in the spelling competition."
Linsey said playing the role of a deity "feels good."
He has worked for theater groups, including Main Street Youth Theatre, but Dionysus is his acting home of choice.
"It's good because get the chance to do more," Linsey said, "and to do what this cast does, be good actors and develop our acting." He added, "And I get to learn a lot more lines."
Before Dionysus, Linsey said, he didn't have many lines and some theaters didn't really try to include actors with autism or other disabilities.
"On the stage here and with other actors, it's more accepting of disabled people and more chance to work with other people of all abilities."
In this spelling bee, he said, "everybody is a winner."
President of of Morton High School's Thespian troupe in Katy, Ryan Smith has amassed several leading musical roles at the high school's performing arts center at age 16. This is Smith's first performance with Dionysus Theatre, but said it won't be his last.
He was drawn by the announcement of the theater's casting call, especially since it was for "Putnam
"That's my dream play," he said. "And the role of Chip is my dream part. Chip is a boy having difficulty with puberty," Smith said. It's a plight Chip bemoans in a solo, Chip's Lament.
"I love it here," Smith said. "I forget about the Dionysus mission. These are the most talented actors I have ever worked with. You forget the disabilities because nothing feels different. If anything, they are ahead in ability.
"It's because the message of acceptance is there, in the theater and the play."
Katy's Noriann Dogium, 17, attends Gateway Academy, Inc., near Allen Parkway is rehearsing her third play at Dionysus Theatre.
"I enjoy being here," Dogium said. I want to be an actor," Dogium said. "I was in (Dionysus Theatre's) 'Pirates of Penzance,' and 'The Boys Next Door.'"
In "Putnam," she plays a girl nicknamed "Schwartzy" who sports pigtails, has a lisp - which Doguim does not.
"She has two daddies," Dogium said. She didn't add that one of them will stop at nothing to see his daughter win.
"The play has an inclusive message," Dogium said. "It fits because Dionysus is the only inclusive theater in the state of Texas. Everybody cares about everybody else here. We practice hard in our acting and singing. We show that everybody can be a winner. You just can't give up."
In his fourth year as Dionysus Theatre's pianist/musical director, Stephen W. Jones makes sure actors know their lyrics as well as their lines. Jones, 27, began his contract with "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown," and working with the cast changed Jones' attitude about the disabled community.
Since then, he has worked with Dionysus' casts for each summer musical, including "Seussical the Musical" and "Pirates of Penzance" with disabled actors in lead roles. "Putnam," he said, is the first Dionysus show in which disabled and able-bodied actors share prominent roles.
While completing his bachelor's degree at the University of Houston, he was offered - and accepted the job of coaching the university's opera program, which includes professional-level actors, he said. Dionysus Theatre is a nonprofit organization that pays its actors, which makes them professionals "and they all want to be here," Jones said.
Initially concerned about how to talk to cast members with disabilities, it became a mute point when he was bowled over by the courage and talent of a blind man as Charlie Brown. Soon, he found he no longer paid attention to disabilities, instead connecting with people as people.
The audience soon catches on, too, he said. "When the audience leaves, they are not thinking, 'That was a good show with disabled people,' they are saying, 'That was a good show.'"
A Heights resident and Main Street Youth Theater actor in its actor-in-residence program, Richard Solis, 40, is an actor and master of props and stagecraft, skills he has been bringing to summer musicals since 1998 to Dionysus.
In addition to appearing in four summer musicals - "Putnam" marks his fifth show - he helps Artistic Director Deborah Nowinski with props and building and painting sets.
The show was a major hit and Tony winner when it opened on Broadway and it was also a natural pick for Dionysus. "Every character in the play is very quirky, a lot of them not accepted by their parents. They are spelling champions, seen as nerdy outcasts," Solis said.
Solis said he learned to appreciate people with special challenges from because of a nephew born with downs syndrome and the talents on display at Dionysus.
"I never thought challenged people would want to act," he said. "Dionysus really opened my eyes. Challenged people are like me and you - they really don't want to people to make a big fuss. You're not talking to disabilities, you're talking to people."
Marquia Banks, 27, celebrated her birthday in rehearsals three days before opening night June 12. She is at equally at home in the Heights and at Dionysus Theatre, involved on an "on and off" basis since Dionysus Theater began, she said.
She's comfortable enough with being blind to talk about it, a rarity among Dionysus Theatre's actors, especially actors with disabilities not outwardly apparent.
"OK, I'm blind. I still want to act and to be on this pep squad," Banks said.
She said she became weary of explaining to directors that she could do more than to "stand here, be an understudy, be a tree."
When she learned about Dionysus and learned of an upcoming show, she felt she had to audition. When she got to the theater, she was nervous, but she was impressed with the concept.
"It wasn't just a lot of people in wheelchairs," Banks said. "I was all stressed out. I asked (artistic director) Deb (Nowinski), how do you get into this troupe" She said, 'You're in.'
Since that rehearsal in 1999, soon after Nowinski founded Dionysus, she has acted in almost every play the theater group has presented. "I get to act, sing in the chorus, actually sing songs and act in musicals," she said.
In "Putnam," she plays the role of Marcy Parks, an uptight parochial school girl who tries to be the image of perfection to compensate for her reality. She also sings, as Olive's fantasy mom, the play's most poignant and stunning song.
"I love to shatter stereotypes," Banks said. "I'm not a blind person who will just stand there and look lovely. I'm a full-time mom and college student."
She is a junior at Houston Community College, where she is studying to become a physical therapy assistant, and she's the mother of Joshua, 4.
As if on cue, Joshua launched his toy car under, around and over the theater seats while waiting for his mother to finish rehearsals. Hearing his "Zoom," his mother smiled.
"Here, I'm not a blind actor," she said. "I'm an actor who happens to be blind.
Golfing - not acting - might seem a more natural pick in a list of recreational activities enjoyed by an oil field manufacturer - until you meet they guy in the super-hero cape at the spelling bee on stage in "Putnam."
The character played by Raymond Deeb, 28, sports his colorful, though unmistakably homemade costume to rally his confidence as a challenger in the spelling bee.
In his off-stage life, Deeb lives in Kingwood and his day job is his family's business, Packard International, which manufactures safety valves that go inside oil rigs - not the valves used at the offshore Louisiana oil leak, he points out.
"My part, Leaf Coneybear - he is very strange, out there in outer space, a home-schooled kid and one of seven children who only gets into the competition because his school's first-place and second-place finalists couldn't make it," Deeb said.
He's the kid that everybody made an object of fun, Deeb said, who can spell complicated words but fears he is not as smart as everybody else.
This will be the second time this spring that Deeb has had a featured role in the ensemble. He was also in Dionysus Theatre's previous show in late April-early May, "The Boys Next Door."
He directed the play four years earlier, when he was a student at the University of Houston.
"I'm here because I love the play and I love to act. I love to perform professional theater," Deeb said. "In this play, it's really an uplifting experience."
It doesn't get any more uplifting and inspiring than the plays at Dionysus, he said.
"In this one, the disabled and able-bodied are on stage together, and it's great," he said.
Saturday, June 12 (opening night)............7:30 p.m.
Sunday, June 13....................................1 p.m.
Wednesday, June 16..............................7:30 p.m.
Thursday, June 17..................................7:30 p.m.
Saturday, June 19..................................7:30 p.m.
Sunday, June 20...................................1 p.m.
Wednesday, June 23.............................7:30 p.m.
Thursday, June 24.................................7:30 p.m.
Saturday, June 26.................................7:30 p.m.
Sunday, June 27..................................1 p.m.
Wednesday, June 30...........................7:30 p.m.
Students and seniors..............................$15
Groups discounts.....call the theater at 713-728-0041
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