BEMIDJI -- As they don their costumes, apply their makeup and undertake their final sound checks, the four lead characters in the Bemidji High School performance of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” don’t expect to get many -- if any -- laughs from the audience.
And they’re fine with that.
Just as the school’s upcoming rendition of the story might be slightly new for the audience members, it’s also a new challenge for all four of the cast’s leads, as it will be the first time any of them have stepped into such serious roles.
“If I nail my part, the audience is silent.” Mitchell Shaw, who plays the role of Dom Claude Frollo, said. “You’re not working for the audience any more. You’re working for yourself and for that connection between you and another character.”
Set in Paris in 1482, the story unfolds a tangled web of love, desire, and betrayal among outcasts. The title character, Quasimodo, is deformed and lives an almost entirely secluded life as the bell ringer at Notre Dame until he ventures into the streets of Paris. From there, he learns the harsh reality of the worlds both inside and outside his cathedral walls.
The student actors have done some fairly extensive research to prepare themselves for their roles. David Caliri, playing the role of Quasimodo, listened to the audiobook of the original novel by Victor Hugo, a task that took him the length of the summer. Shaw met with a local priest to learn about the Catholic clergy and how to properly administer sacrament. Emily Bergeron, who plays the role of Esmeralda, tried to find different versions of the production as research.
Director Holly Nelson took all four lead characters down to Egan to see another theater group perform the same script.
“I like the funny plays, but my favorite are the more dark, serious plays,” Bergeron said. “There are people today that are looked on as outcasts and shunned by society. It kind of gives you goosebumps to think about how it relates to today still after all these years.”
For Caliri, his role is almost as much a physical challenge as a mental one. After 10 minutes on stage, his back has already begun to hurt. He plans to begin stretching before heading into the full performance.
For senior Andrew Hokanson, who plays the role of Phoebus, it has been a new experience altogether. He’s previously stepped onto the stage as a singer and dancer, but this will mark his first theatrical performance. The role, he said, has shown him how much vulnerable he has to be when acting as compared to other performance arts.
Ultimately, the production is challenging for everyone involved, not just the four lead characters.
“The music itself is challenging; the concepts are challenging, the acting is challenging,” Nelson said. “I think if you ask kids to take on a challenge, they rise to a challenge.”
Along with the challenge of portraying more serious roles, the thespians are also aware of the heavier message the play unfolds.
“I hope they feel for Quasimodo, and I hope they maybe even take this into consideration when making choices in their own lives,” Caliri said about what he hopes the audience takes away from the performance.
In the play, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is narrated by a troupe of medieval actors - creating the sense of a play within a play. Because of that, Caliri puts on his hunchback costume on stage. Rather than using heavy makeup to show the large, deformed eye, The Hunchback will have makeup streaks as symbolic deformation.
“In the end, everyone has the streaks because everyone’s got a little bit of good and a little bit of evil,” Nelson said.
If you go:
What: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by BHS
Where: Bemidji High School
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, and Friday, Nov. 3, and 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4.
Tickets: See Bemidji High School Theatre on Facebook or click here.