Surgical Theater

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & ive girls in skimpy lingerie are dancing right in front of me. & r & & r & They're underage. And I'm in a public high school. During school hours. & r & & r & None of my high school classes was anywhere near this interesting.

But then I never took a course in practical theater from Lewis and Clark High School instructor Greg Pschirrer. And not many high school drama teachers are insane enough to confront the demands of putting on a show like Miss Saigon: supervising all 42 students in the cast, with several dozen more in the backstage crew or working as designers or covering the front-of-house duties; cooperating with professional designers on lighting (all those "intelligent" lights!) and sound (making five musicians sound like 26 with the computerized OrchExtra package!); and blocking and choreographing all the movements for a production in which the sets and costumes are all student-designed. For Pschirrer, it's the culmination of a three-year project culminating in his master's degree.

Miss Saigon updates the Madame Butterfly plot to the 1970s: a Vietnamese orphan girl named Kim stumbles into prostitution, falls in love with one of her customers, an American G.I. named Chris, and has his child -- but not before Chris has returned to the States and gotten married to an American woman. When Chris' friend John re-locates Kim and her little son and Chris returns in-country, what sacrifice will which of the two lovers make?

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t the show's first complete run-through, just eight days before opening, the go-go dancers have a question.

"How slutty should we be?"

This is not a question often fielded by, say, chemistry teachers. But Pschirrer, in the midst of herding cats (misplaced props, off-beat light cues, missing musicians, out-of-line dancers), seized this teachable moment and conducted a miniature lesson in acting, etiquette and sexual politics. His answer was pitch-perfect: "Sluttier than what goes on at the average dance, but not so slutty that you'd be mortified if your mother saw you doing it."

The dancers covered their mouths, giggled, and clutched their flimsy robes more tightly around themselves. But they were satisfied with the answer.

Later, while giving post-rehearsal notes to cast members, Pschirrer was blunt about how his horny G.I.'s (out on the town for their final night on leave) weren't acting horny enough. The racier scenes of this PG-13 show are asking boys who are barely old enough to attend to act in sexual ways. And despite all the way-cool, above-it-all looks being exchanged, few of the freshmen and sophomores had much notion of how to go about it.

The problem in rehearsal, Pschirrer explained, was that junior-high, six-inch-rule dancing was going on when what they needed was something closer to grindin'. A thrusting pelvis would just seem crude, he explained; but a full-on body hug would read to the audience as aggressive without being disgusting.

"And ladies, it's perfectly fine at the end of a scene to tell the guy, 'No, that was too much,'" Pschirrer emphasized. "And guys, you have to respect that -- no means no."

A nervous but curious hand was raised from the back of the rehearsal hall. "Mr. Pschirrer, could you tell us again what 'going too far' means?'"

When limits are being tested, learning is going on. And just like that, in just 10 minutes, Pschirrer had taught a more effective lesson on sexual harassment to his 42 students than is likely being taught in any area school's health classes or sex ed curricula.

Meanwhile, the Viet Cong are on the march: Four columns of peasant workers in conical rice paddy hats are stomping their feet, lofting their rifles and doing karate kicks. Pschirrer has choreographed his chorus of Commies into having the impact of Star Wars storm troopers.

As director, Pschirrer has rotated the action, allowing for different perspectives. Sometimes we're looking out from the dancers' perspective at a crowd of leering soldiers; sometimes we're ogling the girls ourselves, as if we're in the middle of that crowd of slobbering American grunts. Similarly, during the fall-of-Saigon evacuation scene, the fence separating the compound from the refugees revolves: Sometimes we're inside the fence with the uniforms, and sometimes we're outside like the refugees clamoring to get in.

As for everybody's first question -- "How are you doing the helicopter?" -- Pschirrer smirks and answers, "Smoke and mirrors." Then he admits that strobe lights and sound effects will suggest the chopper that leaves the American embassy's roof.

LC is one of "about 10" high schools in the country to attempt a production of this epic 1989 musical. Because of the edgy material, Pschirrer had to edit the script and tone down some (but not all) of the profanities and sexual references. Then he made sure to circulate the edited scripts among administrators and parents beforehand.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & iss Saigon will have its bobbles. There are too many moving parts -- too many sound and light cues and costume changes -- for mistakes to be avoided entirely. But as Pschirrer says, when a director is swamped by questions from every direction, "leaders begin to emerge." It was evident from the prop masters' and costumers' attention to detail and perfectionism, from the willingness of the students in the sound booth to get things right, that a whole lot of teenagers were taking on responsibilities voluntarily and growing up fast.

Like The Doll Shop at NC, like the big productions made possible by the state-of-the-art theaters at U-Hi and CV, a musical like LC's Miss Saigon is about a lot more than just drilling a dance team or keeping your props in the right spot backstage. They're about history lessons and cultural tolerance and the definition of appropriate gender relations.

Big glossy musicals create teachable moments. They shouldn't be dismissed as expendable fluff.

Miss Saigon will explode onto the LC auditorium stage, 521 W. Fourth Ave., on Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 28-March 1 and March 6-8, at 7 pm. Tickets: $7; $10, at the door. Visit or call 354-7000.