A couple of costume racks and a table of props surrounded the corner stage at the Casper Senior Center as actors donned costumes.
Michael Bardgett shifted from a black-caped villain to a gentle, Russian toymaker as the Red Dogs Players rehearsed last Wednesday for their next theatrical production. Vickie Jasmann swapped a mass of blonde curls for another wig of gray locks swept into a bun to portray his wife.
The senior citizen theater troupe’s double feature this weekend at the Casper Central Wyoming Senior Services Center opens with a melodrama followed by “The Snow Child,” a Russian Cinderella folk tale about a peasant couple longing for a child at Christmas.
The troupe is known for goofy melodramas in which a hero rescues an innocent damsel from the villain. “The Snow Child,” is a new effort to specifically cater to children, and it’s a more serious, moving story, the Red Dogs Players Director Jack Damien said. The troupe’s shows are popular with the senior center crowd, and now they’re reaching out to families.
“We love theater, and Casper is becoming more and more of an arts community,” Damien said. “Every weekend and most days of the week, there’s something going on. That gave us a clue: why not invite the whole community?”
“The Snow Child” opens with the toymaker, Demitri, telling his wife about the village children who came to see the toys they want for Christmas. Bardgett stretched his arms and laughed toward the ceiling above the stage.
“They are so happy, Anna, so happy,” he said.
Then he sobbed into a handkerchief thinking about how they have no child of their own.
On a walk through the woods to ease their sorrow, a daughter magically materializes from snow as the story develops, according to the play description. But the villagers despise her for the tattered clothes she wears, and a villainess jealous of her beauty and innocence tries to destroy her. But good triumphs over evil in this story of family, true love and hope.
Entertainment for the family
The all-volunteer acting troupe has no budget. The members gather costumes and props from their homes and thrift stores. They put together the sets the same way, said Carol Chapin, who portrays a judge in the melodrama. She’s a freelance actor who enjoys being part of the Red Dogs Players.
“We tell everybody, for the price we charge, you’re not going to get professional actors,” she said. “Though I’ve done some other acting, most of us are just seniors who have fun. We don’t always remember our lines, so that’s why we’ve got a prompter. And we tell the audience, this is just fun.”
The Red Dogs Players formed more than six decades ago as the Red Dog Saloon Players, and were revived in 2010 after at least a decade of hiatus. The acting troupe has long been known for melodramas, where the crowd heckles the villain and cheers the protagonists.
The cast played the role of the audience as the troupe rehearsed last week, hissing and booing Bardgett as the cackling, miserly villain Ebenezer Humbug in “The Plight Before Christmas.” He threatens to foreclose on every renter who owes him on Christmas and send his saloon’s manager back to her “former sordid life— performing for the Casper Red Dogs.”
At one point, he tries to persuade Felicity to marry him or starve on the streets.
“Buuuuut,” Jasmann as the young damsel said, before the villain interrupts her. Then she repeated the drawn-out word with her eyes wide and her hands in the air shaking on either side of her blonde wig. The actors are always coming up with extra ways to entertain the audience with exaggerated gestures and expressions, Jasmann said.
Her friends from high school are shocked she’s a regular on stage with the Red Dogs Players. She was shy and quiet in school, before she joined the U.S. Marine Corps and then served in the Wyoming Army National Guard. But she’s enjoyed the group and entertaining the audience, she said.
Chapin plans to make her entrance from the back of the room as the judge, saying “Here comes the judge” as she passes the audience. The play will also include audience sing-alongs with the senior center’s chorale, the Meadowlarks.
The Red Dogs Players’ shows are popular with local seniors, but the grandchildren in the audience enjoy them too, Chapin said. Usually people are expected to be quiet in plays, but melodramas are different because of the audience participation, she added.
“When the kids find out that they can say anything they want, they do,” Chapin said. “Sometimes they cheer the villain off.”
The actors also are learning that not all theater is goofy and farcical, Damien said.
“There is some theater that is passionate, sweet and uplifting,” like the heartwarming story in “The Snow Child,” he added.
Still, some of the actors wondered last week if the audience will continue to boo and hiss out of habit even during the folk tale.
Bardgett just hopes they’ll enjoy it. He joined the Red Dogs Players because he loved theater in high school. He even thought about pursuing a stage career. He became a wildlife biologist and an Oregon Trail historian. After retiring about three years ago, he thought about the things he’d always wanted to do and started acting again, he said.
“You never know what somebody’s going through, and you look out there, and you see them smile for just a second because of some stupid look on your face or something you said,” Bardgett said. “That’s all I need — right there, just knowing that I’m bringing them joy.”