No need to behave at 'Mantorville Melodramas'

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Johanna Lillie and Michael Ling. Zartan, the Mysterious White Jungle Cat or Beware of Hairless Monkeys Bearing Wits, Mantorville Theatre Company.

In "Mantorville Melodramas," half the show takes place in the audience.

That's where patrons boo and hiss at the on-stage villains and cheer the upstanding hero who always saves the damsel in distress.

And it completely surprised Melisa Ferris when she first volunteered with the Mantorville Theatre Company after moving to the area 10 years ago from Atlanta.

"The whole idea of audience participation was completely foreign to me," Ferris said. "But once I got into it, I was really into it."

She hit upon one of the secrets of success of Mantorville's summer melodramas, where audiences get to act out as much as the actors on stage.


"You can take people of literally all ages to these shows," said Ferris, who is the publicity coordinator for the Mantorville Theatre Company. "You can take a small child and they're not going to get bored because they don't have to sit there and behave."

No, the melodramas are not church or school, and they are not "Hamlet." But they are wild and fun and, in Mantorville at least, highly successful.

The 42nd season of summer melodramas at the historic Mantorville Opera House has reached its half-way point. A new show, "Medium at Large, or A Sault on the Senses," opens Friday.

Such longevity is not routine in the world of amateur theater, where underfunded community groups, like the one in Mantorville, normally struggle to survive from one show to the next.

In contrast, the Mantorville Theatre Company, using the summer melodramas as a base, has in recent years expanded to produce traditional dramas and comedies the rest of the year.

"Certainly, we have a strong group of volunteers," said Karl Huppler, of Mantorville, who has been involved with the theater since 1980. "We have a loyal audience. We have some folks who drive down from the Cities to see each of our shows."

The foundation of all the success, though, appears to be fun. Actors, who in melodramas are not under pressure to delve deeply into the psyche of their characters, are clearly enjoying themselves.

"I discovered I'm a bit of a ham and melodramas are great for over-actors," Huppler said of his onstage roles.


Meanwhile, the audience, which stops just short of throwing tomatoes at the bad guys, is having a blast.

Crowds of 60 to 100 people in the 160-seat opera house are routine, Huppler said. "We need at least 30 to get the audience going," he said. "You need to have enough people so they don't feel silly when they're the only person booing."

The Opera House, built in 1918 (and rumored to be haunted), and the well-preserved nature of historic Mantorville, are other factors in drawing people to the melodramas. "It's got an aura of a place people want to visit," Huppler said.

And based on 42 years of evidence, they'll want to come back.

"We certainly look forward to many more seasons," Huppler said.


If you go

Mantorville Melodrama performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Mantorville Opera house. Tickets are $9 and $8, and can be reserved at 507-635-5420.


"Medium at Large, or A Sault on the Senses" opens Friday and runs through Aug. 17. "Meet Me at the Rendezvous, or In Search of Hope" opens Aug. 22 and runs through Sept. 14.

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