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Lagunatics Remaskered: No Square Theatre’s cast and crew share what it took to stage this year’s production

By MARRIE STONE

Have you ever noticed those unmanned Laguna Beach Police cars stationed at strategic curbs and corners around town? Does your foot instinctively hit the brake before realizing they’re often empty? Our local cops hatched a cost-effective way to deter speeding on city roads. And those are exactly the kinds of details that don’t go unnoticed by No Square Theatre’s writers. 

“Police, Maybe Not” (sung to the tune of “Feliz Navidad”) is just one of more than 20 numbers staged in this year’s Lagunatics Remaskered, premiering live this weekend on No Square Theatre’s intimate stage. “We’ve been toying around with that one for a couple of years,” said Paul Nygro, who’s wearing several hats in this year’s production. “They park their police cars there, hope people see them and it works.”

In addition to Nygro’s usual roles as writer, director, choreographer and actor, he’s also functioning as cinematographer and film editor this year. For the first time, Lagunatics is both staging and filming their annual production, acknowledging the strange hybrid times we find ourselves living through. Nygro choreographed two versions of “Police, Maybe Not.” One for stage and another on location in Laguna’s streets. “The Police Department let us use one of their vehicles, so we filmed around it. They thought it was hysterical.”

Lagunatics has been a town tradition for 29 years. Bree Burgess Rosen, who founded No Square Theatre as its artistic director in 1994, co-directs, writes and acts in the show. The annual production parodies local politics and city quirks. How many towns possess a controversial pepper tree? What’s with all those butterflies down at Heisler Park? No topic is off limits, from drag queens to pickleball to the impossibility of parking downtown. While Lagunatics will deliver the same hilarious songs and over-the-top costuming, the cast and crew are all working double-duty as they both prepare for a play and film the entire production for screen. 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Emma Hutchinson performs “Somewhere,” a parody on the impossible parking situation downtown (from “West Side Story”)

Several members from the cast and crew shared what it took to make this year’s production happen, the unique challenges they faced given the events of this past year, and why – despite it all – they can’t wait to welcome you back.

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Marc Marger leads the Lagunatics cast in “Vaccinated Actors” (from George Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good”)

Adapting to changing circumstances

Since the pandemic hit us nearly two years ago, things seem like they either change without warning or never change at all. Both modes present unique challenges when trying to stage a parody about daily life in Laguna Beach. 

“It feels like Groundhog Day,” said Musical Director Roxanna Ward. “We’re still dealing with the same issues as last year. The show needs to change and yet some things are eerily similar.” 

This year’s writers traded toilet paper for test swabs and booster shots, but the masks remained. Hence the name, “Remaskered,” a term cleverly coined by Nygro. 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

Eric T. Anderson plays the indestructible pepper tree in front of City Hall. “I Am Alive” (sung to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”) pokes fun at the town tree that keeps coming back.

For all those frustrating Groundhog Day moments, other concerns kept shifting beneath their feet. While it appeared safe to open this summer, the pandemic tide soon turned and No Square Theatre closed again, rescheduling a few Cry Baby shows and canceling their planned production of Charlie Brown

Other changes were minor, but disruptive nonetheless. “I wrote a number from Wicked called ‘Netflix and Wine,’” said Nygro. The song is an homage to how we endured the pandemic by watching Netflix and drinking wine. “I listed a bunch of shows on Netflix, but as time moved on, the shows weren’t as popular. I kept having to change the references to keep up, and the cast had to keep memorizing different show titles along the way.” 

Then the container ships arrived offshore and Hotel Laguna finally opened its restaurant doors. Certain things around town can’t be ignored. “We changed some lines and added a song at the last minute,” said writer and actor Ella Wyatt. “Sometimes things come up and we have to make tweaks.” 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

(L-R) Backstage with Kristen Matson, Yvonne Browning and Ella Wyatt

On location, location, location

Every cast and crew member we spoke to cited the dual production of Lagunatics (on both stage and film) as the greatest challenge of the year. Even costume designer Brigitte Harper, whose creations didn’t change from stage to screen, had to navigate the uncertainties of setting her costumes loose on Laguna’s streets. 

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Even a phone booth isn’t off limits for actress Kelly Goldstein, who appears in “Vaccinated Actors” (from “Lady Be Good”)

“I didn’t have the chance to make adjustments to the costumes,” said Harper. “To see what worked, and to have access to the actors, to make alterations and clean the fabric. It’s much harder to do this in a filming situation than on stage.”

It wasn’t easy on the actors, either. “Once we filmed one thing, I would still be thinking about it while I was supposed to be memorizing something else for the next thing,” said Wyatt. “I spent my days re-memorizing everything. I learned to let the last thing go so I could focus on the next thing.”

Nonetheless, despite doubling the work and stressing out the crew, using Laguna’s actual locations as the backdrop for the songs proved hilariously worthwhile. Three senior gals got their boosters at Bushard’s Pharmacy. The pickleball players shot their scene on a real court. A group of drag queens shopped in Laguna’s boutiques. 

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Photo by Marrie Stone

(L-R) Ella Wyatt, Bree Burgess Rosen and Kristen Matson appear in “Boosters” (from “White Christmas”)

“We took all our guys, dressed up as girls, and went to Tight Assets, Twig, Slice and several other locations filming both outside and inside these venues,” said Nygro. “The reactions were great. So many people stopped and took pictures. The shop owners were more than happy to let us film inside. We were free advertising for them.” 

All about the headdress

Ask any cast member what stands out about this year’s production and you’ll soon hear about the costumes – specifically the headdresses. Harper, who’s worked with No Square Theatre as their costume designer since 2015, outdid herself once again.

“Infrastructure” (done to the tune of “Big Spender” from the 1966 Broadway musical Sweet Charity) pokes fun at our national infrastructure bill. Harper designed and built bridges, roads, wind turbines and electrical powerplants, all as headpieces to be worn while dancing. There’s also an electric car, a train and a ship.

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Costumer designer Brigitte Harper created cars, roads, trains, boats, wind turbines, powerplants and other infrastructure symbols on headdresses 

“Bree asked if I’d seen Beach Blanket Babylon [a musical that relies on hilarious and elaborate headwear],” recalled Harper. “I hadn’t. But I researched it, dug up photos and figured out the most cost-efficient way to produce these headdresses. We’re a nonprofit, so we don’t have money to spend on expensive costuming.” 

Using Styrofoam, barbecue skewers, thread, EVA foam, fabric and whatever else Harper could conjure that was lightweight and durable, she created some of the most elaborate and hilarious headpieces yet. “Ella Wyatt, who wears the wind turbines, probably has the most difficult one,” said Harper. “It’s not just one turbine, but three. It’s a little more challenging for her than for the others.”

Nygro choreographed the dances to accommodate the bulky headwear. “The headdresses were designed brilliantly,” he said. “But you’re always going to run into some sort of problems when you have sizable headdresses on someone’s head. We had to make sure they could keep them on, not get injured and still do the choreography. I tried to make sure to use all hand choreography and not too much with their heads.” 

Both Nygro and Burgess Rosen said it took forever to videotape the song “Negative,” which debuts in the second act, because everyone was laughing so hard. “The song is about a woman who’s scared of getting the big, long swab shoved up her nose,” said Nygro. “We developed this number around three girls who play the swabs. They have these huge cotton swabs on their heads. We couldn’t contain ourselves. We could barely get through it without cracking each other up.” 

“I haven’t laughed that hard in years,” said Burgess Rosen. “I was crying-laughing. This was our first time wearing the hats which, at that point, hurt like hell (they don’t now, because Brigitte Harper is the best). We got the giggles and it just wouldn’t stop.”

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Photo by Ella Wyatt

Kristen Matson plays a COVID test swab in the song “Negative” (from “Legally Blonde”)

Thankful for a good laugh

If there’s one thing this town could use these days, it’s a good laugh. “What we really need,” said Ward, “is a show about kindness. More Mr. Rogers is what our town needs.” 

Navigating negativity seems one of our collective challenges. Ward’s solo – “People” from the 1964 Broadway musical Funny Girl – was inspired by an encounter at a four-way stop sign in town. “I remember the days when people were polite, letting everyone go ahead, smiling and waving,” she said. “There’s none of that now. People are acting ridiculous. I went into rehearsal that day and said, ‘Okay, I have my act.’”

The tone and tenor of the town has changed, Ward observed. It’s no longer quite as friendly and carefree as it felt pre-pandemic. “We’re trying to act like we’re all okay, going out to dinner and taking our masks off. But then we find out Uncle Bill over here has been infected. There’s just an edge that I don’t remember experiencing in my life so far.” 

The cast and crew agreed the town needs Lagunatics and their silly, over-the-top antics perhaps this year more than ever before. 

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Musical Director Roxanne Ward performs her solo song “People” from “Funny Girl” 

“We’re so looking forward to our live shows this year,” said Nygro. “Connecting with the audience and seeing their faces, feeling their energy and feeling their presence. That’s going to make it fantastic and hopefully make all our hard work worthwhile.”

The bad news for those who didn’t purchase their tickets early, all three live shows sold out weeks ago. Even Wyatt’s own mother didn’t get a seat. “We always tell everybody, every year, we sell out,” said Wyatt. “And every year my mom asks me to get her a seat. I have to say, ‘I told you. You’re too late!’” 

The good news, of course, is the production was filmed for screen. For two nights only, December 26 and January 1, 2022 Lagunatics Remaskered will be available on the No Square Theatre website. Is a filmed version planned for future years? The response was emphatic from cast and crew: Never again!

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Courtesy of No Square Theatre

Director Paul Nygro poses with the Booster ladies and Dr. Fauci

For more information on No Square Theatre, Lagunatics Remaskered and future productions, visit their website at https://www.nosquare.org/.