It's on to the state championship, Saturday, March 4, in Charlottesville for Westfield High's one-act play, "Cowboys #2." The school won the district VHSL One-Act Play Festival, Jan. 30, and came in second last week in regionals.
THE TOP eight schools from four districts competed last Tuesday, Feb. 14, at Herndon High in the Northern Regionals. Marshall High finished first, and the top two schools from each of the four regions advance to states.
Under Director Scott Pafumi and Assistant Director Zoe Dillard, Westfield performed a play written by actor Sam Shepard in the late 1960s. It's about cowboys on the open range, brotherhood and surviving the elements.
"It's stylized, surrealistic and a little bit avant garde," said Pafumi. "But it grabs the basics of American mortality and man vs. nature and himself."
Seniors Brian Randall, 18, and Branson Reese, 17, portray brothers Chet and Stu, who have to help each other survive. Senior Kevin Manship, 17, plays Man No. 1, and junior Haroon Haider, 17, plays Man No. 2 — mirror images of the brothers.
Reese thought of his character as the older brother. Calling him "somewhat antagonistic, kind of a jerk," he said Stu shows affection through teasing. "He's the more sarcastic, cynical one of the two," said Reese. "But he has a character arc I enjoy playing and relate to."
About halfway through the show, Stu's struck by an arrow in his arm and, said Reese, "He spends the rest of it running from his own mortality. He knows he's going to die, but he's in denial."
He said playing this character was an interesting experience. "I tried not making him too big, and more realistic, like someone you'd really see," he explained. "And I don't think he's really a jerk. He just had a certain way of dealing with life, and he got along so well with Chet because Chet understood that."
THE HARDEST part of his role — and also the most fun, said Reese — was that "it's just you and one other actor. And it's really rewarding. There's so much you can bring to it because it's so abstract. I love that about it — the audience and I can both see different things in the character."
Reese said he "almost had a heart attack" when Westfield took second in regionals. "I really thought Chantilly was going to win," he said. "It had an amazing play — very moving and emotional. I think luck in our favor tipped the scales."
Randall considered his character, Chet, the older brother. "I'm in charge, but frustrated in the beginning," he said. "We've been out in the desert so long, it's wearing me thin. I have a strong connection with Stu; when he dies, it's just me. I have to accept his mortality, and I don't want to live anymore."
Randall said it's probably his favorite character ever to play. He's also won impressive awards in this role. Earlier in the year, he made the All-Star Cast at the Virginia Theater Association, and Reese was named Best Actor. Then at districts and regionals, Randall was chosen Best Actor.
"It was such a shocking experience — a surprise and honor," he said. "It's probably the biggest thing I ever won in my life. Mr. Pafumi gave me a great opportunity. This character, this role, this style of theater — all the little things came together at once and worked out for the best."
Since the one-act play festival is judged, said Randall, "You never know how you'll do. But everyone's been impressed by the acting and power of the piece. Just going to states is award enough for me. I'll do the best I can, represent Westfield well and just enjoy the experience."
As Man No. 1, Manship is a neutral character — a representation of Chet's emotions. He and Haider are there to be mirror images of Chet and Stu. "I sing and play guitar at the beginning and end to give the audience the feeling that this is universal and mortality is a cycle," he explained.
"As Chet and Stu die, I sing their death rites and Haroon plays guitar," said Manship. "Man 1 and Man 2 come into the foreground and start the play over again — just four or five lines — to show life is a continuing cycle."
CONSIDERING the nature of this play, he said, Westfield's thespians didn't expect to get out of districts, let alone advance to states. "It's not popular for high-school theater, and we weren't sure how people were going to react to it," said Manship. "I think what made it stand out is the acting. You don't have any set or props, so everything depends on the actor portraying what he wants the audience to feel — and Brian and Branson did beautiful jobs."
He also believes the musical aspect Westfield added to the show also increased its audience appeal. Said Manship: "It just goes to show that it's not always the biggest spectacle that gets recognized — sometimes, it's just straight acting."
He's also pleased that people are appreciating the theater for what it is. And their performance of this play is always changing, he said: "We add a little something every show, such as the way words are emphasized, how we play the songs — and not intentionally. It just happens."
At states, Manship believes Westfield's effort will be as solid as ever. "Whether or not we place, it'll be good to see some excellent theater," he said. "Although it would be nice to win."
As Man No. 2, Haider contrasted the opposite of Stu's feelings. "For example, when Branson's mad, I'm happy," he said. "And when he and Brian were walking away from each other, Kevin and I would tilt our heads toward each other."
Haider said his and Manship's characters were there to give a "surreal, existential look at the connection Chet and Stu have, even though they don't show it [outwardly]. Me and Kevin don't talk that much, so most of our roles is physical acting."
He said he was surprised their play made it this far "because it was a very different piece from the rest. But I'm very pleased about it." Especially powerful, he said, was "the ending of the piece — with Stu and Chet dead on the floor and Kevin and I standing in front of them while playing a song. Kevin has a beautiful voice and, seeing the look on the audience's faces, there's something very special about it. And we sort of 'become' Chet and Stu."
As for states, Haider expects it to be tough, but said, "We all want to win."