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Lead stricken with appendicitis but show goes on
ARSENIC--Review Pic copy
Emilio Villalobos and Sabrina Schmier who played Mortimer and Abby Brewster in the Ripon High Drama Clubs presentation of Arsenic and Old Lace Wednesday night at the schools multipurpose room pose together after making their way out into the crowd. - photo by JASON CAMPBELL/The Bulletin

Mariah Rivera didn’t get her chance to shine under the bright lights of the stage on Wednesday evening.
The Ripon High School student, who was cast to play the role of Martha Brewster in Joseph Kesserling’s “Arsenic and Old Lace” on the Ripon High Drama Club’s opening night, fell ill with appendicitis during the day on Wednesday and was scratched from playbill at the last minute.
There was no understudy.
So Ripon High Performing Arts Teacher Adam Serpa did something unique in order to find somebody to step in and fill the role – he tapped a thespian from Ripon Christian High School who had performed the same role months ago when they presented the same classic play.
Everything went off without a hitch.
While Elizabeth Herbert, a Ripon Christian sophomore, used a script during some of the performance as an aide to help her remember the intricate dialogue of the dark and farcical comedy, she also breezed through the majority of the lines with almost no time to prepare.
And she wasn’t the only one to shine on stage.
The star of the show was Ripon High’s Emilio Villalobos who took the role of Mortimer Brewster – a nephew in the dysfunctional yet wealthy Brewster family who spends his evenings in Manhattan as a play critic but becomes concerned when he discovers that his two aunts, one of whom was Herbert, have been killing guests that they welcome into rent rooms in their large Brooklyn home.
Everything gets more complicated thanks to Mortimer’s younger brother Teddy – played by Kevin Valdez – who thinks that he’s actually President Theodore Roosevelt and carries out the dirty work of his aunts in burying the bodies of those they kill out of “mercy” by digging new “locks” down in Panama, which is really the family’s cellar.
There was a meta act to all of this. I was asked to go down and write a review about the play by my boss, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, New York journalist Mortimer absolutely hated attending plays and had no shame in proclaiming his distaste with anybody that would listen. And late in the performance, when Mortimer’s other brother Jonathan – who disappeared 20 years prior and went on to have a run as a global murderer before returning home – finally ties him up and is prepared to kill him in order to beat his aunts in their body total.
Just before that happens, Mortimer – while everything is playing out behind him – delivers a very self-aware speech about how he just saw this in the God-awful play he had to sit through, basically narrating everything that was about to happen to him.
The subject matter was dark and somewhat broody but Villalobo’s amazing performance and stage presence set the tone for the entire production. He was funny, serious, and likeable and most of all seemed completely at ease in the first public run through of a show that will likely be more polished on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. when the final two public performances are held. Tickets are $5 at the door of the Ripon High multipurpose rooms.
He wasn’t the only one that was a pleasure to watch on stage.
While the two aunts – Herbert as Martha Brewster and Sabrina Schmier as Abby Brewster – were dynamic with their twisted logic and deadpan delivery, it was Valdez as Teddy that really added the transitions between most of the scenes and was magnetic whenever he had to step up and play the younger brother that was unknowingly getting shipped off to a sanitarium.
Here’s the kicker though – Valdez is autistic. A chat with his father during one of the intermissions gave me the insight about the boy who was diagnosed at 18 months and had a shadow aide through his entire elementary school education. He went solo when he arrived at Ripon High School two years ago, and now, thanks to the drama department and his turns in several plays at Cornerstone Church in Manteca, he’s flourishing.
Only Villalobos got as much applause from the audience when they took their final bow.
The great thing about watching young people immerse themselves in the theater world is watching as they lose themselves in the characters that they play. Some can do it effortlessly, while others really have to work for it.
But when it came to “Arsenic and Old Lace” on Wednesday, everybody appeared to be in that zone and while the undertones were macabre and the production ran a bit long – coming in at over two-and-a-half hours – it was delightful and fun in every way and if you’re not doing anything this weekend is completely worth your time.
Just make sure you bring somebody else. Those two ladies target the unattached, and you don’t want to end up taking a trip to Panama.