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No Refund Theatre Presents: ‘Arsenic & Old Lace’

No Refund Theatre is back again with another production in its fall catalog. This week, the group presents “Arsenic and Old Lace,” a dark comedy bringing the laughs back to live theatre in Happy Valley.

Written by American playwright Joseph Kesselring and directed by fourth-year student Madison Colantrello, Arsenic and Old Lace tells the story of Mortimer Brewster, a young man on the brink of a picture-perfect life. Fulfilled by his career as a New York writer and about to marry the love of his life, Brewster is on the edge of complete happiness with great rewards. Residing in Brooklyn in the 1940s, Brewster is about to live the dream, but all is jeopardized when he makes a gruesome discovery within the home of his beloved old aunts.

To his absolute shock and his jaw on the floor, Mortimer Brewster quite literally lifts the lid on a murderous secret: The old women have been helping over a dozen gentlemen down the road to the afterlife with two sweet smiles and a dash of poison in their homemade Elderberry wine.

With the return of his murderous brother, Jonathan, and a maniacal plastic surgeon altering faces in the dark evening, Mortimer is shaken to his very core at these new discoveries within his family. Tasked with handling the makeshift morgue currently occupying his aunts’ cellar, Brewster meets many characters throughout the night, all while trying to restore some sense of normalcy in his childhood home.

Combining two quick-witted aunts, another brother who only answers to the title of President Teddy Roosevelt and thirteen bodies in the basement, Mortimer comedically struggles with a message relatable to anyone who’s sat at the family dinner table: While family may make our lives a bit more complicated, we’d be nothing without them.

In comparison to the family presented on stage, familial values rang true within the production itself. Finding kinship within the cast was never a struggle, and director Madison Colantrello explained the importance of fostering a family atmosphere within the group in one of the first shows returning to in-person theatre.

“Especially since we’ve all been apart for so long, I wanted them to feel what NRT is actually like,” she said.

With movie nights, group dinners, and long rehearsal days, the cast became close like the Brewster family. Fortunately, they were nowhere nearly as dysfunctional, and connections formed during the process bonded veteran NRT performers and new club members.

“And now we’re like, ‘Can we still hang out after the show?'” Colantrello said with a grin.

In continuing the family atmosphere, assistant director David Donohue related the current production family with core No Refund Theatre values.

“Inclusion is so big. Some people have different opinions than you, but find the goodness in them and people. Just be kind to one another and really encourage each other,” he said.

With support and encouragement between the cast and production staff in true NRT fashion, actors within the production dug down deeply to present these classic characters fluidly through dynamic layers. In the return to in-person events, Emma Cagle, a fourth-year student and President of NRT, explained the long-awaited return to live theatre through the eyes of an actor and production staff member within the fall catalog.

“It’s great to do it as an actor, and being able to see everyone do it, it’s kind of fulfilling in both ways,” she said.

Gratitude for the return to live theatre was reiterated by the entire cast, and fourth-year Katie Smith put the intense emotions associated with a passionate reunion to normalcy into a simple yet poignant reflection.

“Working with other people and getting to be on stage with other people has just been so much fun,” Smith said.

Continuing the idea of thankfulness for her fellow castmates, Smith drew a hilarious comparison between the roles played by the two murderous yet lovable aunts within the script and their positions within the real-life cast.

“We feel like we’re the aunties of the show!” she added.

With family presented both onstage and off, third-year Will Lehmann presented the message of the show with clarity. Playing Mortimer Brewster, Lehmann rose to the challenge of the demanding role and emphasized the clear message of inherent relatability demonstrated within the story.

“The relationships between the characters is the most important in the show. As they ebb and flow, and things go bad and things get better, in the end, it just resembles family…because family’s never clean-cut, as I’m sure we all know,” he said.

Presenting a dysfunctional yet present family, No Refund Theatre brings the laughs and lessons back to live theatre this weekend. Wishing to lighten the dreary autumn days this season, fourth-year Nick Borgacci summarized the organization’s hopes for the audience of Arsenic and Old Lace.

“It’s been so long since we’ve gotten to do shows like this, in a space in front of a live audience, and we really just want everyone to enjoy it, laugh, and have a good time,” he remarked.

Suggesting the show’s mischievous nature, he hinted at a trick within the script.

“And don’t trust the wine!” he said with laughter.

With clear dialogue and brilliant banter to rival the best comedy clubs, Arsenic and Old Lace wishes a light-hearted fate for its audience far from the untimely ends of victims at the hands of the Brewster family. Director Madison Colantrello echoed her own ambitions for the audience as well and expanded upon the joy of the return to live theatre with a joyful statement worth way more than four simple words.

“I hope everyone just leaves saying, ‘I missed this feeling!'” she said.

Continuing the return of live theatre to the Penn State community, the cast and production staff of Arsenic and Old Lace are bringing laughter and joy back to campus. With hilarious presentation of the complex dynamic of family life, the production reignites the joy of live theatre once again, brightening dismal autumn days one laugh at a time.

You can catch Arsenic and Old Lace this Friday, November 12, at 8 p.m., and November 13 at 8 p.m in 111 Forum. In true No Refund Theatre tradition, all showings are free of charge.

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About the Author

Lizzie Palmieri

Lizzie Palmieri is a current sophomore with an undecided major from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Ask her about Disney World, Diet Pepsi or dancing on the Jumbotron at Beaver Stadium. When not causing general trouble, Lizzie enjoys playing golf, performing in theatre, and being the CEO of reorganizing the fridge. Her favorite thing to do is hang with her sassy sidekick, 17-year-old Italian Greyhound, Macaroni. Follow her on Twitter @lizziepalmieri if your deepest desire is bestie vibes only.

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