“An Italian Straw Hat” is making its way onto UMKC stages later this month, and you’d better start preparing your sides for splitting now.
The play, originally written in 1851, details the absurdly hectic wedding day of Ferdinand. While on the way to the chapel, his horse eats the straw hat of an ex-lover. He’s then engaged in a desperate race against the clock to replace the hat and still make it home in time to get married.
Given that it’s over 150 years old, “An Italian Straw Hat” is a well-worn production. While many directors might see the familiarity of the material as negative, director Ian Crawford sees it as an invitation for innovation.
“I love the opportunity to take a classic play, shake off the dust and help a new generation enjoy it from a new perspective,” Crawford says.
The first wrinkle Crawford adds is gender-neutral casting. For example, strapping young lad Ferdinand is played by UMKC graduate student, Jessica Andrews.
The original play contains some archaic gender roles and dynamics.
“We have worked with both character choices and casting to shift and subvert that perspective,” Crawford says.
Another idiosyncrasy of the production is the use of modern songs. Traditionally, the play features small moments of music made up of folk songs with interchangeable lyrics.
Crawford takes that a step further, taking Top 40 pop hits and dropping them into the 19th-century setting.
“An Italian Straw Hat” not only shakes up the norms of the play, but also of rehearsal.
Crawford describes the preparation as “from the outside in.” Instead of focusing on the emotional plot of the characters during rehearsal, a lot of time has gone into blocking and directing the actor’s energy to the audience to maximize zaniness.
It’s a high voltage, fast-paced play with a huge cast and elaborate set, but Crawford believes his cast and crew are up to the challenge.
“It takes such specificity and constant focus,” Crawford explains, “from everyone on stage to keep the machine chugging along at full speed.”
The principle reason comedies are so popular is because they give people a reason to laugh. Today, with so much going wrong from politics to the environment to daylight savings starting, there’s a lot of grey that needs lightening up with a few good chuckles.
This is what Crawford ultimately wants to do for the audience.
“The world needs some joy,” he explains, “And it has been a pleasure to make that an important part of our work in the rehearsal process.”
Free previews for “An Italian Straw Hat” begin Oct. 18. The show officially opens Oct. 23 at the UMKC Spencer Theater at 7:30 p.m. and runs until Oct. 27 with matinees Oct. 19 and 27 at 2 p.m.