'Merlin in the Middle ...' interprets Arthur legend
Each year, Penn State Greater Allegheny selects a different theme for its Teaching International emphasis.
So when it came time for professor Jay Breckenridge's Workshop in Theatres of Other Cultures class to develop its spring production, only one thing was clear — it needed to focus on the Celtic nations in line with the theme.
What evolved after months of planning is “Merlin in the Middle … of the King Arthur Legend.” The production is “cobbled together,” director Breckenridge explained, because the class “starts from scratch and works backwards,” since the script is written by students, instead of them learning lines from an established play.
Professor of theatre arts Breckenridge has been teaching at Penn State for 32 years at the McKeesport campus and 10 years before that at the Hazleton branch and uses the theater class as a framework for developing plays based on the folklore of the cultures under study in the international program.
“The possibility of using the Arthur legend for the production came to me during the fall term when we were developing the Children's Theatre production from Celtic folklore,” Breckenridge said. “I usually establish the spring theme during the fall term so I can do a good portion of the research over the winter term break. So, by the time the spring term began in January, I had read a slew of versions of the legend.
“There are very few historical ‘facts' in the story of Arthur ... he was more a literary hero than an historical one,” he said. “Nearly everything in the legend was made up centuries after his mention in Welsh poetry as possibly a battle hero of the Celts in their warfare with invading Saxons in Britain around 600 A.D.”
The other person who remains constant throughout the various legends about the unlikely young man who became king, complete with his Knights of the Round Table, is Merlin, the ruler's Druid advisor.
“During the first part of the term, we worked mainly on script development,” Breckenridge said. “I provided elements from various versions of the Arthur legend and in class we improvised scenes and drafted dialogue.”
Once the working script was in good shape, roles were assigned and blocking began just before spring break the first week in March. Costume and set preparations began in earnest when everyone returned, alternating with line rehearsals, he said.
With a limited number of students in the theater workshop and production classes, many wear multiple hats for “Merlin.”
There was no traditional audition process, but students were asked to indicate up to three roles they might be interested in. And while some had previous performing or tech experience in high school or other activities, others said they took the class because they needed to fill an art requirement.
Freshman Collin Warren, who portrays Merlin and played Shemp in “Children of Eden” in high school, said he took a theater class his first semester and thought “it would be fun” to take a second one. “Plus we have a great director,” he said of Breckenridge.
Lauren Pruitt plays Merlin's wife Gwendolena.
What? Merlin has a wife?
Breckenridge laughed a little when someone familiar with the various legends wondered about that character.
He explained in the PSGA play, not only does the sorcerer have a wife, but he has two apprentices. They are Nimue, a sorceress played by Jasmine Bey, and the bard Taliesin, played by Will Woodson.
Having a wife and devoting much attention to his female apprentice leads to some complications for Merlin, Breckenridge said, and there's competition between the apprentices, too.
Students from a variety of majors are involved in the production.
Brandon Jacobs, a sophomore anthropology major from Liberty, plays Lancelot. Woodson is studying corporate communications. Fatemata Kei portrays Morgan le Fay, Arthur's evil half-sister. She's combining criminology, business and public relations.
Jonathan Phillips, as Arthur, said performing “is not something I'm used to,” but it definitely could come in handy for the political science major.
Rounding out the cast of major characters is Aunyae Corbitt as Guinevere, the princess of Lios Mhor in Ireland, who becomes Arthur's wife.
Other students and faculty, including assistant professor of engineering Eric Lipsky, were recruited for the production. Breckenridge's wife Kathie again adds her expertise to the costume department.
“It has been a longstanding tradition in our spring productions to try to include some sort of ‘chorus' of faculty and staff members to perform brief narratives and transitions — and generally frame the action of the play,” Breckenridge said. “Two years ago they were a roving band of gypsies. Last year they were time-traveling Jinn. This year they are Druids.
“The role of the chorus will be expanded a bit in this production, since the individual Druids will also be playing small character roles in the flashbacks — especially those where the parents of the main characters are presented.”
Breckenridge has expanded a welcoming speech to introduce the play to the audience into real lines for the chorus, as he will do again this year.
A sneak peek at the working script demonstrates that audiences should be in for an entertaining show, with some historical drama and plenty of humor thrown in for good measure.
Bonnijean Cooney Adams is a Tribune Review copy editor. She can be reached at 412-380-8503or firstname.lastname@example.org.