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Curtain Rises on a World Premiere and One of the Indian River State College Performing Arts Program's Most Ambitious Productions Yet

Curtain Rises on a World Premiere and One of the Indian River State College Performing Arts Program's Most Ambitious Productions Yet

September 26, 2023 Jon Pine

‘Labyrinth of Love’ Opens October 12; Tickets on Sale Now

When the curtain rises on Thursday, October 12 to open the 2023-2024 Performing Arts Season at Indian River State College it also rises on a world-premiere performance of what is perhaps the College’s most ambitious theatrical project to date. Bringing “Labyrinth of Love” to the McAlpin stage was a genuine labor of love that took more than two years and the combined efforts of dozens of students, faculty and an IRSC alum with a gift for the craft of stage fighting—along with a significant grant from the National Endowment for the Arts—to bring to fruition.

Stage Fighting

Stage fighting choreographer Sean Birkett, center, teaches the proper technique for fighting with rapiers—thin, light, sharp-pointed swords used for thrusting—with student actors Dillon Faustin, left, and Alex Rebaza, at right.

The play’s journey to the McAlpin stage began in 2020, said Alex Kanter, IRSC’s Master Instructor of Performing and Visual Arts. “Everyone in the theatre industry has been looking for ways to proactively diversify the voices that are being put onstage,” Kanter said. “As we study classical theatre in academia, like the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare, it’s very difficult to find someone who was writing from a different demographic.”

In his research, Kanter stumbled across Mexican playwright/philosopher/poet Sister Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, who was writing plays and poetry in the latter half of the 17th Century—considered the Hispanic Golden Age of arts and literature. “I thought, this is exactly what I’m looking for!” Kanter said. “She’s a contemporary of Moliere, but also a nun, a woman, and from Spain but living in Mexico.”

After reading an English version of one of de la Cruz’s plays, “House of Desires,” “which I found hilarious,” Kanter said, he sought out her other plays, but could not find an English translation of “Labyrinth of Love.” He did find an English description of the play, which is based in Greek mythology, and features sword fights, court intrigue, mistaken identities, and a love triangle.

“I thought, this sounds really cool,” Kanter said. “But how do I do this? I don’t read Spanish.”

Applying for the NEA Grant

Then, an idea emerged while Kanter was in a meeting of the College’s grants team in Research and Institutional Effectiveness. Because enrollment at IRSC includes at least 25% Hispanic students, the College is designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) as defined in Title V of the Higher Education Act. As an HSI, IRSC qualifies for certain federal grants. Kanter and the grants team took the idea and applied for a $15,000 Grant for Art Projects from the National Endowment for the Arts. The award was approved in 2020.

The next step was to find students to translate the play into English. Working with IRSC Spanish Professor Cristobal Sartori De Smith, students Aileen Diaz, Dasha Ortiz, Martha Ortiz, and Adriana Gonzalez each were given a section of the play to translate. Diaz also will perform in the play as Princess Ariadna, a rival to Princess Phaedra in the story’s love triangle, joining a cast of 20 made up of a majority of Latinos and other students of color.

Alex Kanter HeadshotKanter then took the rough English translation and massaged it to bring back the poetry and prose that de la Cruz intended, and also infused it with aspects of current social culture—such as references to popular movies and music—that will engage a modern audience. “Most of the characters still speak in iambic pentameter or iambic quadrameter verse like you would hear in Shakespearean text,” he said. Kanter also composed music for portions of the script that will be sung in the original Spanish.

“It’s a brand new play,” Kanter said. “It’s a world premiere in every sense of the word. It is also a celebration of student research in humanities form. We are involving students in literally breathing life into a work and bringing this voice to the stage.”

A portion of the NEA grant will fund publishing the play so that other schools and theatrical groups can produce the IRSC translation and adaptation of “Labyrinth of Love.” It also means the names of those involved in the translation will be published along with the play.

IRSC Alum Brings Authenticity and Excitement to the Swordplay

This staging of “Labyrinth of Love” includes some intricate and period-specific scenes involving sword fighting, as Prince Theseus wards off his rival princes and defends himself. To help lend an air of authenticity to all this excitement, Kanter used some of the NEA grant money to hire Sean Birkett, an actor and theatrical sword-fighting expert.

Birkett is also a graduate of Indian River State College, earning his Associate in Arts Degree on the Dramatic Arts/Theatre Track before transferring to Troy University in Alabama, where he acquired a B.A. in Theatre, and eventually a Master’s Degree in Acting, which included training for sword fighting on stage. As a contract actor, Birkett spent a lot of years performing in outdoor theatre, such as Horn in the West, and found himself drawn to roles that required sword fighting and other combat. He also picked up certifications in fighting for theatre from various organizations.

Sean Birkett

Sean Birkett works one-on-one with a student actor.

“I really love stage fighting and it’s near the top of my resume,” Birkett said. To keep in shape and keep his stage fighting chops up he swims a lot and practices martial arts like kickboxing and Jiu Jitsu, he said. “Martial arts teaches one of the most important things for stage fighting,” Birkett said. “When you’re moving you want to constantly be taking in air. Often, when an actor is so focused on the fighting, they forget to breathe.”

For the fighting scenes in “Labyrinth of Love,” which is set in the Baroque era, even though the Greek mythology is much older, Kanter instructed Birkett to stage the fights as they would have been staged in the Baroque era, similar to the style of the Three Musketeers. The actors fight with rapiers—thin, light, sharp-pointed swords used for thrusting that arose in Renaissance Spain and were widely popular in Western Europe throughout the 16th and 17th centuries as symbols of nobility.

The fighting actors also wear capes, which can complicate movement while fighting, Birkett said. “They’re actually using their capes while they fight, presenting a fun little challenge,” he said. The biggest lesson students must learn, however, is that “stage combat is antithetical to real fighting in that you’re constantly taking care of the person you are fighting with,” he said. “It’s a four-step process of constant communication—eye contact, prep your attack, your partner reacts, and then you follow through. When you create a fight, you create a dialogue. You make sure that what you’re saying is being received and it’s constant communication.”

Coiffing a Spanish Baroque Era Cast

Another challenge when presenting a period play is capturing the style of the day, and that includes hair styles. To properly coif the cast of 20 for “Labyrinth of Love,” Kanter called on an actor and dancer friend, Brittany Rappise, who earned a Master’s Degree in Wig and Makeup Design for Theatre and Film from North Carolina School of the Arts—one of only two universities that offer such a degree. Rappise has spent the last 15 years doing makeup and styling wigs for major productions, including shows by New York City Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sarasota Opera, Pensacola Opera, Opera Delaware, and Knoxville Opera, to name more than a few.

Wig Maker Brittany Rappise

Professional Wig Designer Brittany Rappise share some techniques for styling wigs for Spanish Golden Age theatre with student Angelyn Valdes, center, and Nikki Hernandez, an Assistant Director for 'Labyrinth of Love, right, while student Benjamin Fadayomi looks on from behind. 

The wigs for “Labyrinth of Love,” because it is aimed at a common audience as opposed to royalty, are styled “hyper-realistically”—to appear as closely as possible to the actual styles in 1690, Rappise said. “A more grounded look for a more grounded time period,” she said. Whereas wigs for opera are designed more grandiose, with bigger styles and louder colors, she said.

“Once I get to the space and I meet the performers, everything really comes to life,” Rappise said. “I can do all the planning I want to, but once I see a rehearsal and the way the characters are being played and the way everyone’s interacting with each other on stage, it tells me so much more than the word on the page. Getting to know the character as well as the actor. Then it’s just a matter of making the hair and makeup a continuation of the physicality of what they are doing. I feel like I put the cherry on top of the technical process.”

Rappise lives in Pensacola, Florida, but for more than 10 months of the year she is traveling from job to job, with her collection of wigs worth up to $45,000. Often, wigs made with synthetic materials are better than wigs made from real hair, she said, because real hair does not respond well in hot and humid environments—like a Florida stage.

“Brittany is a perfect example of someone who stumbled into a little-known career where she is only one of three wig makers in the region,” Kanter said. “So she stays very, very busy. I always tell students to learn some of the technical work. The people doing technical work will make money while the actors are starving.”

“I was a dancer and that’s what I thought I would be—a chorus girl in every show,” Rappise told IRSC performance arts students. “I stumbled into this by accident and I absolutely loved it. There are performance and technical avenues everywhere. There’s a whole backstage world that I did not know about until I stumbled into it in college.”

Rappise builds her wigs mostly from scratch or adds on to existing wigs to get the style needed for a particular show. In 1690, wigs were worn by royalty partly for fashion, but often to cover up baldness, which sometimes was caused by diseases like syphilis or other sexually transmitted diseases, Rappise said. Then the courtesans picked up the fashion, and it trickled down to noblemen and even commoners, if they could afford it, she said.

For “Labyrinth of Love,” Rappise will create all the wigs and then leave them styled and ready for the show. Rappise is teaching the play’s three assistant directors—Marlie Pierre, Lucia Quesada, and Nikki Hernandez, all theatre majors—how to prep the actors’ real hair so that when a wig is added, it stays on during any action sequences.

“I’m super excited,” Marlie Pierre said. “It’s been a long process and all the actors have been putting in so much hard work. It’s like a family. And you can tell they are all super passionate about this project.

“It’s going to be really exciting for audiences because there is a little bit of everything for everybody—there’s music, there’s dancing, there’s fighting, there’s a love story, and anger and sadness and tragedy. People will be able to say, ‘Oh! That really resonates with me.’ It’s the perfect show for anybody.”

Nikki Hernandez agrees: “It’s nice to see everything come together from words on a page into its beauty and creation. Seeing what we created together is one of the most beautiful things this college has done. This play is so unique.”

“Labyrinth of Love” opens Thursday, Oct. 12, at 7:00 p.m. with additional performances on Friday, Oct. 13, at 7:00 p.m. and at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 15 and 16. Individual tickets are $20 each and are available online here,  at the McAlpin Theatre Box Office, by telephone at 772-462-4750 (or toll-free at 1-800-220-9915) or by email at The Box Office is open Monday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. To see the entire season schedule, click here.

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