Theater deparment ends season with “O Pioneers!”

Amanda Kinnunen

The UW Oshkosh Theater department premieres the musical “O Pioneers!” on Thursday, April 29 at 7:30 p.m. to end its successful season. “O Pioneers!” was adapted from a book written by Willa Cather and takes place in the late 1800s to early 20th century. “It’s a book that I’ve loved for a very long time,” director Bryan Vandevender said. “I first read it in elementary school, and then read it again in high school.” “O Pioneers!” is about a Swedish immigrant family who settles in the Nebraska prairie. When the father dies, he leaves the eldest of his four children and only daughter, Alexandra Bergson, in charge of the family homestead. “The land that they settle on is, when they arrive, sort of dead and barren, and it’s not really producing crops the way that they had hoped,” Vandevender said. “But the father has a vision for the land. He has a belief that it will turn around at some point and be fruitful, and he knows that his daughter feels that way too.” The remainder of the novel follows Alexandra’s life and what it’s like to be a woman during the time period in which she lives. “It really kind of addresses what it’s like for Alexandra to be a woman who owns property, a woman who is a good businesswoman,” Vandevender said. “The kind of conflicts that we encounter in the play are usually about men having some sort of response to her being a strong, powerful, savvy, smart, self-possessed businesswoman in this time period.” Alexandra is played by Oshkosh student Amy Baumgardner. “Having the opportunity to play her is probably one of my most favorite theatre experiences thus far,” Baumgardner said. Baumgardner said she is excited to play a character that she mentally connects with. “I have never had the opportunity to play such a strong feminist character,” Baumgardner said. “I personally find myself and my thought process to very much align with hers, and it is incredible.” With this sister’s influence, character Emil Bergson wishes to experience life outside the homestead. “My favorite [part] about playing Emil is that he is a part of a generation that comes from the prosperity of the homestead,” Matt Nielsen, who plays Emil, said. “Because of this he is free from the land as opposed to everyone else.” Vandevender said in many ways, the novel says a lot about the changing role of women. “In lots of ways it’s ahead of its time in that Willa Cather was presenting a type of female character that we hadn’t necessarily seen yet, which is an adult woman who is self actualized and makes choices for herself,” Vandevender said. He also said the novel says a lot about American identity. It focuses on immigrants from all over Europe coming to America and shows how they come together to form a community. Vandevender said one thing he likes about Cather’s novels is that, in all of them, the land is talked about as if it was a person, and that’s something he wanted to emphasize. “The big challenge I would say in this production is the land has to undergo a transformation,” Vandevender said. “It goes from being dead and barren at the beginning of the play and fast forward 16 years it becomes lush and fruitful. I think we’ve come up with a very theatrical way to demonstrate that transformation. I think that kind of theatricality is going to be something that’s really cool about it.” Vandevender said the music is unique in “O Pioneers!” because it is used as a narrative tool. Theatricality is a term Vandevender uses meaning that rather than giving the audience a scene as it would appear in real life, theatrical techniques are employed to give the impression of a situation. “Stage magic is limited in terms of what we can do,” Vandevender said. “In a film, we could just go to a location and shoot a scene with some barren land, and then go to another location and shoot a scene with beautiful, green lush land and the audience would buy that it’s the same place.” Vandevender also said he thinks students and Oshkosh community members will like the musical whether or not they are fans of the genre. “I think that it is a musical for people who love musicals, and it’s a musical for people who don’t love musicals because the music functions differently,” Vandevender said. “I think the people who don’t love musicals have a hard time making the kind of mental jump you have to make, which is that this character that has been talking this whole time is now singing.” He said one of the things he is most proud of is how everyone who worked on the show helped contribute solutions to staging, scenery, costume, lights and music. “I think it’s going to be a little different than the things they’ve maybe seen in our theater in the past,” Vandevender said. “I think it’s a beautiful story with beautiful music. I hope students will come and love it as much as I do and as much as I know that our cast and our crew does.”