Jason Woods Teams up with the Vintage Players for "Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bells”
Photography by Jonathan Scherf

Jason Woods Teams up with the Vintage Players for “Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bells”

As a playwright, Jason Woods is always seeking new experiences through whimsical stories, fanciful characters and clever dialogue. Woods’ developed his most recent script “Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell” to create an outlet for senior members of the Vintage Players to showcase their talents in a staged reading presented Nov 8-10 at All Beaches Experimental Theatre.

“Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bells” is staged at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at ABET, 544 Atlantic Blvd. in Neptune Beach. Tickets are $20 and available at www.abetttheatre.com or by calling 249-7177.

“I’ve been pushing them a little further and I’ve created this opportunity for them to all be on stage with me in a reading at ABET. It’s about old people in an old folk’s home who feel that everybody has given up on them which is sometimes the message that I get from them. I’m interested in their escapism,” says Woods.

“They tell me ‘we can’t audition for anything, nobody will cast us, I can’t drive that far anymore’. The theme of the play is that everybody has value no matter their age. When I work with people, if you say I can’t do something, we’ll figure out a way to do it.”

Woods produces and appears alongside members of the Vintage Players in the senior level production of “Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell” based on the production “The Silver Whistle.” Woods will play the title character, a 45-year-old author pretending to be 77 who sneaks into an old folks’ home with a dead man’s death certificate. His goal is to convince the members if senior community that he’s discovered the secret to eternal youth with a fake pill and a bit of whiskey.

“He pretends to be 77 and they buy it because it’s a change for them. Everything is so dreary and depressed and defeated and he’s BS’ing them the whole time convincing them he’s discovered the potion of youth. He sets them up with ridiculous stuff.”

Cast includes Woods, Christopher Watson, Katie Johnston, Jack Permenter, Bob Shellenberger, Anne Lanier, Gwen Cordes, Mary Clark, Bill Dunford, Jo Anne Stenski, Jim Warren, Donna Brownley, Hank Pelz, Julie Franciskato, Mark Wright and Evie Day.

Watson portrays the reverend at a dilapidated church, frustrated that his efforts can’t bring real change. Quietly in love with the nurse played by Johnston, trying to keep it professional. Belvedere swoops in to make reverend jealous.

Local stage veteran Shellenberger, who plays nursing home resident Mr. Beebe, angrily confronts Belvedere once his scam is revealed. “He says ‘you tricked us and you thought it was a good joke but it’s not. This is what’s real for us. Nobody cares about us. Nobody loves us. We’re just here waiting to die’. What they don’t know is the reverend and Belvedere eventually team up and overnight the nursing home is just brimming with new life,” muses Woods.

The Vintage Players is comprised of volunteers with varied theatre experience ages 50 years and older. Acting experience is not a requirement to become a member of the group, and participants are not required to appear on stage until they are ready. Weekly acting classes are offered to members at 10 a.m. every Friday at Jacksonville’s Church of the Redeemer with artistic director Gary Baker.

Current members  include Linda Allen, Nancy Avera, Donna Brownley, Mary Allman Clark, Gwen Cordes, Bill Dunford, Julie Franciskato, Anne Lanier, Mary Metzler, Hank Pelz, Leland Pettis, Phyllis Rice, Bob Shellenberger, Jo Anne Stenski and Jim Warren. Many members have previously appeared on community and professional stages in this area. The group regularly performs at nursing homes, churches and other community organizations.

While filling in a guest instructor during a recent class, Woods encouraged the group to host a showcase of original material with a trio of characters developed by Linda Allen serving to bookend the event. The material touched on such themes as dating at a certain age, town gossip and finding the value in yourself.

“Why shouldn’t she have her writing showcased? I’m trying to show them what’s beyond here and performing in nursing homes. That’s the theme. Everyone has value, no matter their age. It directly correlates to why I thought they should be on stage,” says Woods. “You don’t get it if you don’t ask.”

Woods transcribed the original film to develop his script, which he opted to stage as a reading because it’s not as taxing as a three-month rehearsal schedule. He answered questions from his cast on blocking and wardrobe choices (shirt and ties for the men to reflect the dress of the day, afghans and drab, modest dresses for the women).

“Take good notes at rehearsal but be flexible. Use pencil. The most important things to me is that you are heard and the pacing is good. We’ll all be on the same page,” he says. “If the read-through is any indication of your process, we’re going to be great. Just have a great time.”

Cast members are excited to present material that reflects their demographic. The film series includes “Sitting Pretty” and “Mr. Belvedere Goes to College” starring Shirley Temple. “Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell” was the final film in the series.

Notes Woods, “It’s not Pulitzer Prize writing but I have loved this story for decades. It didn’t perform very well.”

With impeccable timing, Shellenberger answers, “Until now.”

About Liza Mitchell