‘Putnam County Spelling Bee’ opens at Harlingen Performing Arts Conservatory

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HARLINGEN — It seems to be a year of newness, of innovation, of the exploration of things and the discovery of things as new waves of Thespians make their appearances on the grand stage.

Those students at the Harlingen Performing Arts Conservatory dance across the stage with the quickness and the eagerness to celebrate uniqueness and identity and variation.

“At the 25th Annuaaaaal Putnam County Spelling Bee,” sings Deacon Kindel, 16, leaning forward, arms out, swaying back and forth with a sort of rambunctious passion that is sure to delight audiences. Those audiences will surely feel very much a part of this spelling bee as they’ll sit on the stage and make direct eye contact with the players.

A rush like a powerful spring rain and its torrents powers every movement, every nuance, every flash of the eyes and the quick smiles as the 14 students rehearse for the upcoming show at the Performing Arts Conservatory. The show opens Sept. 28.

At first glance you see the kids and their characters are celebrating the success of Rona Lisa Peretti played by Karla Rivera who has just spelled a word baffling in sight and sound: “Sysygy.”

Karla very well conveys a sense of the baffling and the facial contortions of a contestant in the spotlight struggling with the insane medley of low self esteem and the power of belief. She faces the challenge with the courage to reach for her belief and the achievement beyond that belief.

“S-Y-S-G-Y,” she says.

“We have a winner!” says a judge and then Karla/Rona grasps a large glistening trophy and the cast members/fellow spellers dance in jubilation.

“We concentrate on winninggggg at the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee!” they sing now in chorus before breaking into ever evolving choreographies that change with a smooth and joyful seamlessness.

But this show is about more than winning and it’s more than a spelling bee. It’s about uniqueness and identity and the power of difference.

Poster for the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. (Courtesy Image)

“At the surface this show is kooky, it’s campy, it’s over the top,” says Eddy Cavazos, director.

But …

“There are so many themes in it that are so relevant and something that everybody can identify with, whether that’s community, whether that’s finding your first love,” he said. “The biggest thing that resonates with me is the human spirit in regards to expectation.”

Our expectations can be emboldened by the support of adult mentors in our formative time and derailed by the hideous infections of volatility and emotional destruction. The show reveals the many struggles these kids face as they aspire to excel in a spelling bee.

And the Harlingen players who step into the troubled skins of these characters convey a powerful sense of humanity and empathy.

Olive Ostrovorsky is facing real challenges with a fragmented home life and a new school, and Nadia Vento understands her very well.

“She’s very very quiet and shy,” says Nadia, 14, a student at the Dr. Abraham P. Cano Freshman Academy.

“She’s new to the environment at the new school,” said Nadia. “Her background is realistic, her parents are separated and her father is always at work and kind of neglectful toward her, and her mother is actually in India so she has a lot of at home situational problems.”

Nadia speaks now with the same authenticity that has become her trademark, but she is now moving into another time in her trajectory as a young actress. The Disney characters of her earlier years have traded places now to the more serious role of a girl struggling to find her way out of a dysfunctional home life.

“I’ve played a lot of bubbly lively characters,” she says. “I haven’t played realistic situations, so I have to get inside the mindset of how a child would live like that through their everyday life.”

Deacon who plays Leaf Coneybear transferred here this year from IDEA San Benito. He transferred for the specific purpose of joining the Performing Arts Academy after seeing its presentation of ‘The SpongeBob Musical.’

“I was blown away,” he said. “I was like, ‘I need to be in this.’ And so I looked up to everybody who was in that production and now they’re my friends.”

And he seems to found a place here as he dances around the stage in his helmet and red cape. The helmet and the cape convey a socially awkward character who wants very much to be himself and yet also longs for social acceptance. And therein lies the conflict for Leaf and for so many of us.

Deacon speaks now with great sensitivity about Leaf who has three brothers, three sisters, and everyone telling him he will never accomplish anything.

“What happens at home is a lot of emotional abuse,” Leaf says. “They’re just tearing him down all the time. He’s definitely struggling with self-confidence. A lot of this character is rooted in introverted people.”

And there’s a sort of serendipitous element to this this character’s arc, or perhaps luck, or perhaps … what?

He managed to go to the Putnam County because the first and second place winners at the earlier event couldn’t go, so he was selected to fill in for them.

Now Deacon speculates on this sort of paradox.

“Do you believe in fate, or do you think things happen for a reason?” he says.