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With risky “Trap,” Solebury School bends rules of high school drama

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Blackout scenes in theater don't usually involve the whole audience blacking out. But then, a play that concludes its sci-fi script by sending its audience off into a state of unconsciousness?

Unconscionable. And also eerily entertaining.

Such is the trepidatious premise of "Trap," a trick of a treat that trips up audience expectations, unfolding with deliberate devilishness that delivers a wrecking ball of a reckoning in one of the most creepily crafted horror auras of our era.

It is an unusual yet insightful choice for a high school production, but insightful is an insider's acknowledgment of the rightful risks that Solebury School's Peter Martino makes as head of the Solebury Theater Collective, a distinctive dramatic department of this private school with a well-earned public perception as progressive and prestigious.

These are accurate adjectives accumulated by the Collective as well, no more apparent than with "Trap," Stephen Gregg's Gregorian-like chant of a horror story opening Thursday for a five-performance run at the school's Barn Theater.

Choreographing the actions of a cast of 46 students, Martino is taking a chance on changing high school theatrical perceptions with "Trap," which tracks the exploits of a mock theater troupe's machinations in adapting a tragedy for the stage without being trapped themselves by the outside forces of evil that left their audience not laughing but lame and limp. Interactive and invasive, "Trap" has Martino's actors ape martinets, human puppets manipulated by menacing monsters whose seductive style is whispering secrets to their victims, secrets that secrete serious repercussions.

Indeed, not since the days of Marc Antony have crowds been asked to lend their ears with such dire consequences, here, leading to unconsciousness. But then Martino has made a conscious decision to mind-bend the rules of high school drama, hoping to free and upgrade the mundane from being trapped in a quagmire of the tried and true.

Piece by piece, he succeeds.

"When I was growing up, my mother took me to see 'Little Shop of Horrors' off-Broadway," and, with that, Martino said he was off and running with a theatrical fascination with the fearsome, catching up to it again years later as a college student, "appearing in the Rutgers [University] Hillel production."

"I am a big fan of horror stories and the weird, the macabre," says Martino. "I am always supportive of weird things. In fact, I went as Freddie Krueger in kindergarten for Halloween."

Nightmare on Phillips Mill Road? No, far from it; more of a dream come true for the school and this forward-thinking theatrical innovator, whose core is comfortable in its creativity and chemistry with all things theater.

Indeed, audiences and administrators apparently have taken comfort in that core as well.

"There is a place in high school theater (for such more mainstream works as) 'The Man Who Came to Dinner,' but," concedes Martino, "I like to think outside the box. I like to create cool things."

What could be cooler than chilling out with "Spring Awakening" — but not a version of the 2006 Broadway musical. No, at Solebury, Martino matched his cutting-edge ethos with the controversial late 19th century Frank Wedekind script of kinder (children) on the ragged edge of discovering and exploring their sexuality in restrictive and oppressive 1860s Germany, offering germane topics to ponder to this day.

Martino's multifaceted accomplishments show in a resume that shows off a wide range of talents: In a two-decade career, this Rutgers grad has made the grade nationally and internationally as an actor, director, teacher and theater technician. Indeed, his bio boasts a legion of local ties, notably with the Bucks County Playhouse, where he spent eight years on the acting and tech side; Bristol Riverside Theater; and Two River Theatre in Red Bank N.J.

On this side of the river, nothing makes him happier than being part of the flow in the know that is the Solebury Theater Collective. "I love my job," and so much has to do with the support and encouragement of Tom Wilschutz, head of school. "He gets it," acknowledges Martino.

What Martino gets are sold-out houses that scream success at the Barn. Indeed, "Trap" is a scream of a play.

"I hope there will be screams," he says of anticipated audience reactions come this week and weekend.

It is not all for the weak of will. In that way, "Trap" is part of Martino's treasure trove, a trajectory of trick-and-treat triumphs that are menacing and meaningful.

"My ultimate goal," says the hyphenate of histrionic accomplishments "is to freak people out."

Michael Elkin is a playwright, theater critic and novelist who lives in Abington. He writes columns about theater and the arts.


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