As soon as the lights went down and the audience’s eyes refocused, it was clear that theatergoers’ imaginations were about to travel — through place and time.
The rotary phone, old-fashioned telephone bench, crystal chandelier and impressive acting from nine student actors (plus two teachers!) clad in vintage costumes helped morph the Center for the Arts mainstage into 1940s Brooklyn on November 10 for a three-night run of the dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, about an elderly duo with the murderous hobby of poisoning their dinner guests.
“We wanted to transport the audience into the home and absurdity of the Brewster sisters,” said Brooks’ Director of Theater Meghan Hill of the Brooks production, based on the play that has become one of the most produced shows in American theater history since its debut on Broadway in 1941.
At that time, right as America stepped into WWII, the hope was that this comedy would ease the stress in the states, said Hill. “Coming out of a pandemic and as we experience racial tensions, attacks on LGBTQIA+ rights, and in a way, on women, maybe it can do the same for us.”
A huge amount of work (from a small group: just 15 student actors and crew members) went into Brooks’ Firetrail Theatre Productions earning those laughs.
“This dark farce provided a great challenge for performers to learn how to access a specific type of comedic acting,” said Hill. “They had to embrace the ridiculous while making their characters authentic and believable. The script is not forgiving. It requires stamina, dedication and attention to detail.”
The cast — Shalini Navsaria ’23, Preston Wong ’23, Chapin Dobbins ’23, Emma Plante’ 24, Abby Derderian ’25, Arshia Sharma ’24, Shelley Grant ’25, Giada Musto ’26 and Daniel Min ’25, as well as Self in Community Teacher Shami Bery and Assistant Head of School Nina Hanlon — rose to the challenge.
“My favorite part was trying a type of character I’d never done before,” said Abby Derderian, who even added a British accent to her play persona, the knife-wielding “doctor” Einstein (above, center). “It was really cool to try to explore that because I usually do characters that are a lot like me and Dr. Einstein was nothing like me.”
Although new administrator Nina Hanlon was also playing the polar opposite of herself (bumbling cop, Officer Brophy; below on left), stepping into another persona was actually right up her alley. Hanlon is a former thespian with an MFA in Acting from the American Conservatory Theater.
When a last-minute replacement was needed for the part, Hanlon jumped at the chance to perform again after 12 years off the stage.
“It was incredibly special to be a part of the cast,” said Hanlon. She only had 10 days to rehearse with the cast and the crew (Aiden Choi’ 24, Noella Chung ’23, Junho Chung ’25, Kayla Gutkoski ’25, Eva Karoly ’25 and Ivy Zhao ’26) but said it was a joy, start to finish.
“I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard in a very, very long time,” she admitted.
“The best part of it was seeing what the cast did in that little time that I was there,” Hanlon said. “Where they were, and then where they brought the play by the end, was extraordinary!”
Being in the limelight wasn’t her primary motivation, though. “It was an opportunity to get to know the community and the kids and the faculty in a different way,” Hanlon said joining the cast. “I was just really grateful for that time to do that and explore that side of Brooks. Being creative and being back on stage was so fun, but it was much more special to watch how it all came together and be a part of that.”
Hanlon will continue to collaborate with the acting community at Brooks going forward, too. She plans to help as a dramaturge and as an acting coach, as needed, for the school’s upcoming winter musical, Chicago.
An information session was held for interested students before they departed for Thanksgiving Break. We’ll keep you posted on how the production comes together!