Dan Mahler came to College of the Atlantic as many students do. He felt stifled and uninspired by the traditional structure of most colleges and universities, yet he knew he was driven and capable, and eager to learn and grow. COA was the perfect place for him.
“I studied theater at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, but I just didn’t like the structure and the classes and the way things were,” said Mahler, now just shy of 22. “I came to COA thinking I would study marine biology, which is, of course, what brings so many people here. I didn’t want to do theater. I wanted to leave it behind.”
Theater wouldn’t leave him behind, however, and by the end of his first year at COA, Mahler abandoned his scientific career path. The stage called.
Three years since his first COA production, a creatively re-imagined version of the Greek tragedy “The Bacchae” by Euripides, Mahler will stage his fourth and final COA show, which doubles as his senior project. Over the course of this school year, Mahler wrote “Facades,” a play that’s part beauty contest, part drag show, part love triangle, and all about how people put on masks in order to hide their true selves from others. “Facades” opened last night and continues in performances at 8 tonight and 6 p.m. Sunday at COA’s Gates Community Center.
“Facades” is the first play Mahler ever wrote. In fact, much of what Mahler has done in his four COA shows was the result of his jumping feet first into the world of directing, staging, choreographing and writing — none of which he had ever done before “The Bacchae.”
“I realized it was as easy as asking if I could just do it. I had no training. I just used what I had learned from all the shows I was in in high school,” said Mahler of his first attempt at producing his own show. “There’s no bureaucracy to work around. I asked around, to see if people would audition, and we ended up with 15 people in the show.”
“The Bacchae” was well received among the COA community for its emphasis on music, creative movement and nature, with one of the shows actually staged outside. In May 2009, Mahler and his regular collaborator, fellow COA student Alicia Hynes, followed up that show with another reimagined take on a classic: Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” In a unique twist, their version of the play drew heavily from Bollywood, the fantastically colorful Indian cinema tradition, and was set on an East Indian island.
“To me, the island in ‘The Tempest’ is very magical and mystical and fantastic. It seemed like a natural connection to make, with the kind of fantasy worlds Bollywood presents,” he said. “COA is very passionate about representing many cultures in what goes on here, so to have that element was really great for the audience.”
The directorial pair enlisted the help of two COA students, Tanvi Nair of India and Aishath Loofa Mohamed of the Maldives, both of whom were familiar with Bollywood dance styles and choreographed the extensive dance sequences. The 25-person cast was outfitted in vivid, colorful costumes, and traditional and contemporary Indian music was incorporated into the show. “The Tempest” was so popular among the COA student body and MDI residents in general that an encore weekend of performances was held.
Mahler’s third play, a production of “Macbeth” performed in March, differed greatly from the lush, romantic “Tempest.” Instead of a big set with fancy costumes, Mahler and Hynes opted for a sparse stage and a fast-paced, visceral take on the murderous story. A shadow screen with puppets and video projections, designed by Hynes, helped to illustrate the tale of the bloodthirsty Macbeth and his Lady.
“We wanted it to be fast and bloody and snappy,” said Mahler. “We wanted the focus to be strictly on the story and the characters and their motivations.”
With “Facades,” Mahler had the chance not only to direct, but also to write. He wrote the play over the course of seven months, half of which was spent studying abroad in Greece. The play focuses on the interconnecting stories of six people: Frank, also known as Fantasia, a drag queen; Reise, who recently has fallen in love with Frank; Violet and Dave, a couple on the rocks; Ally, a model who develops a relationship with Violet; and Starry Dust Storm, another drag queen.
Over the course of the play, all six begin to reveal their true identities to one another, with the events of the story taking place against the backdrop of an “America’s Next Top Model” type of show, titled here the “Continental High Fashion Model Search.”
“It’s about questioning what it means to be a man or a woman, regardless of your sexual preference,” said Mahler. “We all put up facades, you can say, and gender is one of the biggest of them all.”
As with the previous three shows, Mahler called in help to assist his actors, including asking a local drag queen to help them get into the spirit of drag. Mahler and cast members made a special trip to Boston to buy high-fashion clothing for certain characters, and costumes and makeup were done by COA students Rain Perez and Kayla Pecor.
“One thing that’s been amazing is how game everyone here is for doing these shows, even if many of them have hardly acted in their lives at all,” he said. “I’m so excited and impressed by how into it everyone has been. I think the fact that no one here has done a lot of theater makes their performances more authentic, because they don’t have any preconceived notions about how it’s supposed to be.”
With this show, Mahler graduates from COA. In September, he’s off to Emerson College in Boston, where he will attend graduate school for a master’s degree in theater education.
“I think all the firsthand experience I had doing my own shows here kind of gives me an upper hand,” said Mahler. “I don’t think a lot of people in my position can say they’ve had the opportunity to do what we’ve done here.”