Elizabethtown College tells “Rats’ Tales” to Audiences of All Ages

If you ever attended your local library’s Children’s Story Time, you’ve seen Elizabethtown College’s production of “Rats’ Tales.” The one-act play features student actors going over the top to act out stories and often narrate themselves in over-the-top ways. The show is advertised for ages nine to 99, and coming after productions of Shakespeare and “Spring Awakening,” is something relatively new for Etown’s Fine and Performing Arts Department. But that is easy to forget, as “Rats’ Tales” is one of Etown’s most upbeat and entertaining production this year.

“Rats’ Tales,” written by Carol Ann Duffy and Melly Still, uses the well-known folktale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin as a frame story. When the Pied Piper takes the town’s children away, the parents cope by telling stories about childhood…and rats. Actors play multiple roles as citizens of Hamelin and characters in various stories.

Junior Tyler Rossi plays the Pied Piper and many other characters from a prince to a mysterious stranger, removing both the rats and the children from the town of Hamelin with his enchanting music. Overall, Rossi’s performances are the best of the show; he clearly has no problem making a fool of himself and makes each of his characters endearing in the few minutes he has to play them.

Another standout is the scene-stealing senior David Callahan, who high-knees his way through a story as Rossi’s butler, leaving the audience in stitches. Senior Katherine Campbell, in her final Etown show, is also notable, at one point playing a witch who comes into the audience. Even when she doesn’t change her acting much between stories and characters (which include a witch and a queen), it is easy to see that the stage is her happy place.

Also obviously happy to be performing is junior Anna Sorrentino, who unfortunately gives one of the less engaging performances of the night. She mostly goes through the motions, letting loose once while standing still during a story about a girl in a wooden dress. Junior Dante Sarracino, in his third Etown production, could also use some work; he shouts most of his lines and he’s usually angry, even when his characters are not.

Even though “Rats’ Tales” is a play, music is still used. Sophomore Sarah Lohrfink plays the flute, hitting a few noticeable wrong notes. Senior Suzie Al-Absi plays the guitar. I don’t know much about music, but to me these instruments could have blended together better. The actors’ singing was much better, as many of the actors have been in the school’s musicals. No song is ever longer than thirty seconds, starting with a hymn conveniently led by junior music major Francesca Artus in her first Etown production. Sorrentino sings the same rat-catching song Rossi sang in the play’s opening during a story in which she catches rats herself, uniting the stories and their frame.

The show features an intricate use of shadow work. Artus’s shadow is hilarious as a horse that’s obviously a human behind a screen, but the all-ages audience buys it. The rat cutouts are obviously on sticks, which is fine, but sometimes one could see the shadows of the hands controlling those rats, which is not fine. Still, the shadows were a fun and unique addition to the production, and techniques like one shadow growing while another shrinks perplexed the audience.

Most of the sound effects were generated by the actors themselves, including rats scurrying on the floor (actors crouching and tapping the ground). The actors also created some of the props using their bodies; Campbell mimes a pair of scissors by bending and swinging her arms together while saying “SNAP!”.

The sets required audiences to use their imaginations, as the stage was usually nearly bare, contributing to the story-time vibe. The same half-dozen benches, ladders and pieces of fabric were used over and over to make kitchens, staircases, rivers and even a fire.

Campbell and junior Tasha Lewis oversaw costumes. With actors playing so many characters in such a short time, the costumes had to be and were versatile. Senior Amber Mangabat begins the play as a cook and plays another one later, but this is a very different cook than the first one; her apron is tied to cover just her waist. Under Campbell’s witch cloak is the same dress she’s worn the whole show. Sorrentino wears the most story-specific piece; instead of wearing the four separate dresses her character does, her skirt is divided into four sections and she spins it when she needs a different dress.

Despite its simple theatrical elements, “Rats’ Tales” is an imaginative production. Director Terri Mastrobuono, adjunct professor of theatre, has created a production absorbing and genuinely entertaining enough that the audience can simply imagine any flubs away. In conclusion, no story is perfect, and “Rats’ Tales” is no exception, but the actors (and therefore the audience) get so into it that most subpar elements vanish as easily as those pesky rats.

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