A spelling champion manqué contemplates the glories of Putnam County
by Sarah Deshaies
I’m a spelling bee champion manqué. Always an overachieving know-it-all in elementary and high school English, I now copy edit my campus newspaper, own my own special edition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and follow the AP Stylebook on Twitter. Sad to say, I narrowly avoided the advent of the Canspell competition.
I felt like I had missed out on a great opportunity - I would’ve made the perfect, OCD spelling champ.
The annual event is a Postmedia-sponsored nationwide spelling bee first inaugurated in 2005. Each year, 20something young kids assemble to vie for the crown of top Canuck speller.
That first year, in Quebec, my younger brother, a below-average student at an inner city school, beat out several other children to capture the title of provincial champ.
What followed was television appearances, prizes, a gigantic new dictionary, a big, glass award and a trip to Ottawa to meet Adrienne Clarkson and compete in the nationals (and the chance to eat from a chocolate fountain, I envy to add). My brother also went to Washington, D.C. to compete in the Scripps Spelling Bee, the elite competition that was the centre of the 2002 documentary Spellbound.
With my parents, I was swollen with pride at his accomplishment. But secretly, I felt like I had missed out on a great opportunity - I would’ve made the perfect, OCD spelling champ. The spotlight, the new dictionary, the chocolate fountain all could have been mine, if by some trick of karma our birth order had been rearranged.
Here was my chance to grasp at spelling glory, as audience participation in the Bee is a must.
That’s why I was so pumped to attend Processed Theatre’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Mainline Theatre (presented in tongue-in-cheek conjunction with the Putnam Optometrists). Here was my chance to grasp at spelling glory, as audience participation in the Bee is a must.
Six spellers embody childhood stereotypes with a refreshing take, while three flawed adults help grease the wheels for Putnam’s spelling bee. Up for grabs: a coveted trip to Scripps, a $200 bond from the Putnam Optometrists, and eternal bragging rights. If you misspell a word, you are faced with failure, a choral goodbye and a juicebox.
The young spellers are flawed, funny and perfect. Last year’s champ Chip Tolentino (Jeremy Carver-James) chooses to try to live up to expectations in his tight boy’s scout uniform. Pig-tailed, forward thinking Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Katy Breier) is facing pressure to succeed from her dads. Leaf Coneybear (loveable Michael Mercer) is a caped, homeschooled space cadet. Marcy Park (Cassandra Togneri) is a Spartan genius in a kilt who excels at everything. William Barfée (rocking Dane Stewart) is an insecure nerd who spells with his foot. And at the heart of the play, latchkey kid Olive Ostrovsky (a winning Shannon Hamilton) attempts the bee with little more than courage and spelling smarts, despite little parental support (or entrance fee cash).
Both the kids and the adults supply the darker material.
The humour flows easily, touching on both kid and adult comedy material. Both the kids and the adults supply the darker material. Mitch Mahoney (Mike Melino) is a convict doing his community hours by comforting eliminated kids. And Douglas Panch (William Ward) a disgraced former pronouncer who’s called back from retirement after an ‘outburst’ at the 20th Bee. But, he’s in “a much better place now.”
All the neuroses and stress are in place for a catastrophic bee, but neat MC Rona Lisa Perretti (Lindsay Milner) a former spelling champ herself, is there to iron out the kinks and make sure we have a good, clean time - almost.
There’s little to quibble about in this production...
The Bee, directed and choreographed by Nichole Carone, is a light but clever romp through one of childhood’s more bizarre rituals. It’s a fun trip to the past that doesn’t weigh too much judgement on the stress that the kids go through when they participate in this most strange of school competitions. No matter who wins, everyone has an epiphany and their moment at the microphone.
There’s little to quibble about in this production, save a sloppy ending that exposes Olive’s bizarre family situation with no clear resolution. But this could be chalked up to William Finn’s original music and lyrics. The young cast is hilarious and well-suited to their roles.
As for the audience participation, four big kids joined the bee in one of the most seamless, hilarious audience stunts I’ve ever witnessed. Unfortunately, I was not one of them - a snivelling cold kept me sidelined this time, coughing through my laughter.
Luckily, the play runs until Sept. 24 at Mainline Theatre. I might yet get my chance at spelling glory.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Mainline Theatre, 3997 St-Laurent Blvd.