Masquing is Magnificent

Navarro College Theatre presents new free play

By Guy Chapman – Navarro County Gazette

UPDATE: The Navarro County Gazette was recently informed the debut of The Magnificent Masque of Masks has been delayed, and will now premiere in February of 2021. We apologize to our readers for any inconvenience.

While people have been getting used to the concept of wearing masks throughout 2020, the practice has been celebrated throughout history for centuries.

That’s the subject of The Magnificent Masque of Masks, a new and free to the public play by Dr. Shellie O’Neal, Director of Theatre at Navarro College, and presented by the Navarro College Theatre Department. Performances run 7 p.m Thursday, Nov. 19; 7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 21; and 2 p.m. Sunday Nov. 22.

The origins for The Magnificent Masque of Masks came about through an idea O’Neal had during the last summer.

“What is this going to look like in the fall, and how do I get students on stage,” O’Neal said when asked about the inspiration of her recent production.

O’Neal knew her next play would need to be told through a series on monologues, where students would be up on stage without a mask on. Unsure if there would be a live or livestreamed performance (or even a show at all), O’Neal spoke with her students about ideas. Working with the current environment, if students had to wear masks, then why not create a show around the culture of masks? The idea was approved by the faculty deans.

The show features all the theatrical traditions of masks throughout the centuries, but also how masks are used in rituals. Throughout centuries of history, all countries have celebrated the concept of masking, so O’Neal spent five weeks writing the piece throughout the college’s hybrid format schedule.

“It has been such a fun project,” O’Neal said.

The play features a Greek chorus featuring Thespis of Icaria, known for being the first person to ever appear onstage as an actor playing a character in a play. Thespis serves as a recurring character throughout the production.

Featured countries and set pieces introduce audiences to cultural experiences from around the globe including Japanese Shite (pronounced sh’tay) actors from Noh drama (the oldest existing form of theater), Commedia Dell’Arte players from Italy, Mummers’ plays and an Elizabethan dance from England, the masquerade ball scene from Romeo & Juliet, a Buffalo Dance from the Hopi Tribe, Día de Muertos, and the “Dada Dude,” a Dadaesque character that is another recurring part of the show.

The performance also briefly reflects on the current need for people to wear masks, a historical nod of recognition to the times we live in.

O’Neal wrote the lyrics to three songs for the performance, using pre-existing period melodies such as “‘O sole mio” and “Greensleeves”.

For choreography, O’Neal hired Navarro College character alumnus and professional dancer Kevin Davis Jr. as the 2020 NC Theater guest artist of the year.

The students are making their own masks from paper mache and other materials, with additional pieces provided from O’Neal’s personal collection. The students in the stage makeup class are using the pieces as part of their period design studies, and the stagecraft class are integrating their efforts into their own final projects.

Students create masks for their upcoming performance. – Courtesy photo

“We’ve all of these masks that are portrayed by characters in the show,” O’Neal said. “All of the masks are celebrated in their own right, but for the last third of the lay, they all come together to feature all of these different characters.”

Students rehearse the various roles in preparation for their show. – Courtesy photo

“I collect masks, so that has always been a fascinating thing to me, but when you put it all on stage all together in one thing, it’s a little bit overwhelming in the best way. It is so striking how this has resonated with people throughout the centuries and across cultures. It really blows my mind.”

Though admission to the play is free, proper social distancing practices are observed. Attendees must reserve seating my e-mailing Dr. O’Neal at shellie.oneal@navarrocollege.edu – A livestream performance will also be available for thos unable to attend in person.