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It’s ‘Act 2’ for Hill-Murray alums
Former classmates reunite to stage play on the East Side
Years after parting ways to go off to college, a group of former Hill-Murray theater buffs are getting the gang back together to put on a production.
The play, “Don’t Shoot the Masseuse,” is an original comedic farce set in the 1950s. It was written by Hill-Murray High School alums Marino Eccher and Elizabeth Eccher, who are also co-directing the play. It’s slotted to be performed at the Historic Mounds Theatre on the
East Side of St. Paul the third weekend in June.
Getting everyone together was kind of like in the movie “The Blues Brothers,” cast member John Komarek says.
“Marino was like, ‘Well, we’re trying to get the band back together, you in?’” recalls Komarek, who plays Rex, one of the leading roles. Komarek was indeed in. So was nearly everyone who was asked.
The play is “very much in the style of a traditional farce,” Marino says.
The production’s fundraising website describes it as follows: “Rex, a baseball player moping his way through a charity ball after a break-up with his glamorous girlfriend, could use a friend.
“He finds one - and maybe more - in Lucy, a sweet, sensible masseuse with a penchant for solving problems.”
Add into the equation the fact that Rex’s ex, Vicki, is present at the charity ball along with her new man, a clueless hunk of a tennis star named Fernando. Not only that, but Rex and Vicki are placed in adjoining rooms at the hotel where the ball is taking place. Throw in some paranoid FBI agents who find communism where there is none, heightened emotional tension, whimsy, and a healthy dose of slapstick, and you will get an idea of how the cast and crew have been describing the play.
“It has a little bit of everything,” says Elizabeth Eccher, a 2007 Hill-Murray graduate.
The play has largely been funded by a campaign on the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter. The group put together a call for funding through the site, launching the initiative on March 4.
Within a week, they had succeeded in raising their goal amount.
“We thought it would take at least a month to raise $3,300,” co-director Marino Eccher, a 2004 Hill-Murray graduate, stated in a press release. “We were off by 24 days. It’s times like this that I like being wrong.”
Marino says the list of contributors included some people he knew would help out, but also some that he never imagined would contribute.
“It was just tremendous,” he says. “People were incredibly generous.”
Over $2,500 of that money came from Hill-Murray grads.
The group will continue to accept contributions through the website through April 3 to make up for additional expenses, including props and costumes. As of March 27, $3,960 has been raised through the site.
Elizabeth says the response showed that the Hill-Murray theater community “never really went away, even though it wasn’t tangible for a while.”
“It was very touching,” she adds.
Inspiration found in Fargo
Marino wrote the original script for the play in the spring of 2011 while working as a journalist in Fargo, N.D.
Fargo was perhaps “a little slower” than he was used to, he says laughing. Not having a lot to do there for fun, he decided to reinvigorate his love of theater, which had more or less gone dormant since he graduated from high school. So he tried out for a play at the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theater.
He got a role in the play, a musical called “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Soon after he was in the comedic farce “Lend Me A Tenor” at the same theater. Inspired by the farce, he decided to write one himself.
“I wanted to see if I could take (the structure of a comedic farce) apart and put it back together myself,” he explains.
He banged out the script in a couple of months, and then began a slow process of editing and refining it, with the help of his sister Elizabeth, who contributed additional lines including what are some of the best jokes in the script, she says with whimsical pride.
The two have since done a final edit, tightening up the script.
Though delving into artistic ventures with a sibling can sometimes lead to butting heads, the Ecchers say their brother/sister dynamic works to their advantage.
“We have a high comfort level with criticism,” Marino says, attributing this to the fact that they are still very close. It helps, he says, that they have similar tastes in movies and plays, and both have writing backgrounds. Elizabeth graduated from Macalester College with a creative writing degree, and Marino graduated from Marquette University with a degree in journalism.
In addition to writing well together, their comfort level makes it easier to co-direct the play, Elizabeth says.
She highlighted the advantages of having two directors -- at times they are able to work on two different scenes at once. This works because they have the same vision about the production, she says.
When “Don’t Shoot the Masseuse” was written in the summer of 2011, the two talked about putting the play on in Fargo, but that didn’t pan out.
Then, in November 2012, Marino found himself back in the Twin Cities, and was keen on turning his script into a full theatrical production.
He and Elizabeth thought of all their former Hill-Murray theater cohorts who still lived in the area, and they figured they could cobble together a crew.
So they posted a call for actors on Facebook and contacted old theater friends. They had a speedy and overwhelmingly positive response.
“It meant a lot to us for them to show so much enthusiasm,” Marino says. It showed “it wasn’t just me and Elizabeth blowing smoke.”
Shades of “Seinfeld”
They quickly gathered a group of 10 Hill-Murray graduates, who were mostly former theater aficionados from high school, plus one childhood friend of the groups’ and one college friend of Marino’s. After reading through scripts, they began assigning roles.
Nearly everyone they asked to play a part said yes, Marino recalls.
Komarek, for instance, was onboard as soon as got his hands on the script. After a few script readings and a casting process, the Ecchers asked Komarek to play Rex, the male lead in the play. The 2003 Hill-Murray grad says he agreed without hesitation, adding he “knew it would be loads of fun for everyone involved.”
Komarek describes Rex as very “Seinfeld-esque.” Everyone around Rex is fairly kooky, he adds, but Rex is “kind of a foundation.” He only really loses his cool when he is confronted with anything related to his ex-girlfriend, Vicki. In contrast to Rex is the character of Fernando, the clueless new boyfriend of Vicki’s. Komarek describes Fernando as “Kramer-esque” with a lot of physical acting, referring to another character from the TV sitcom “Seinfeld.”
Marino explained that the group has “a bit of an age gap.”
The most recent Hill-Murray graduate is from 2008, while the oldest graduated in 2001.
Marino explained that this is due to the fact that some are roughly his sister’s age, some are from his graduating class, and some are “cream of the crop” people who came before them. He considers the 30-year-olds to be mentors. “It’s cool to work with them all these years down the road,” he says.
One such mentor is Eric Johnson, who graduated three years before Marino. Johnson “was the funny guy,” Marino says, but also someone that he really looked up to - Johnson showed him the importance of “being serious about your craft.”
Like other members of the cast, theater was the main extracurricular activity for Johnson at Hill-Murray.
“It was my whole life pretty much in high school,” Johnson says. He describes the school as “a big theater school,” where many from the cast of “Don’t Shoot the Masseuse” were able to participate in three to five plays a year, sometimes more.
“I was really excited and proud for Marino when I saw he wrote this and put it together,” Johnson says.
Another cast member Marino cites as a mentor is Heather Fisher, who plays Lucy the Masseuse, Rex’s new romantic interest. Fisher was “the prototypical do-everything leading lady in high school,” Marino remembers. Fisher graduated from Hill-Murray in 2001.
Scouring for props
The actors are giving themselves a long time to rehearse and hone the play before they take the stage. Though opening night isn’t until the second half of June, they began rehearsing the last week of February.
“Given the enthusiasm that people showed, we really feel even more compelled to put out a quality product,” Marino says. “We want to hold up our end of the bargain.”
The cast is “scouring basements and thrift stores as we speak,” Marino adds, trying to find 1950s furniture for the set, which will consist of two rooms in a hotel.
In terms of future productions, the Ecchers have a few things on the backburner. But for now, they just want to focus on putting on “Don’t Shoot the Masseuse.”
Patrick Larkin can be reached at email@example.com or at 651-748-7816.
Thespian Hill-Murray alums reunite
If you go ...
The new play “Don’t Shoot the Masseuse” will begin its run with a free senior citizens preview on Thursday, June 13, at 7:30 p.m. and then continue through the weekend, with Friday, June 14, and Saturday June 15, shows at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 16, at 2 p.m.
The following weekend’s performances will be at 8 p.m. on Friday, June 21, and Saturday, June 22.
Admission will be a suggested $10 donation at the door.
The Historic Mounds Theatre is located at 1209 Hudson Road, just east of Earl Street and north of Interstate 94.