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'Milford Project' brings comedy and science to LAB!

The Milford Project is LAB! Theater's latest musical comedy, starring sophomore Margaret Burrus as Penny and senior Bryan Burton as Richie (both dramatic arts majors). In it, Burton's character Richie creates an "ultra" bomb for his science fair project, but then the US government becomes interested in his creation, along with a few Nazis. "It's (performing the musical) so much fun up there for us" Burton said.

On a Saturday rehearsal of “The Milford Project,” Richie and Penny skipped across a classroom-turned-meadow stage, speaking in oddly-pitched, curious tones.

The director paused the scene for a moment, and UNC students Bryan Burton and Margaret Burrus discussed — in their regular voices — about how to interact with a falling prop bird.

The actors play eighth-graders in love, the protagonists of the musical that premiered last June at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Eight months later, the play is making its second run with UNC’s LAB! Theatre, which is presenting the play for the first time on the East Coast.

Back in character, Richie and Penny talk — and sing — about science, relationships and love.

Director Scott Ripley, who saw the play at the festival, immediately wanted to bring it to LAB!, seeing an opportunity to be more experimental than with PlayMakers Repertory Company without the pressure of stiff expectations.

“We don’t have a bottom line. PlayMakers does,” he said. “We don’t have to sell tickets. For this, we need an audience.”

He met with the play’s writers, Nick Martin and Kevin Oeser, to pitch the prospect a “commedia dell’arte” version of the play, which promotes exaggeration and humor instead of realism.

“I was curious to see what he would do with it,” Martin said. “He seemed to have some wacky ideas.”

The department of dramatic art — which produces the show — paid $700 for “Milford’s” temporary rights, Ripley said.

He and the cast focused on creating “lazzi” — comedic moments that do not progress the plot but still provide humor.

He said the original performances at the Fringe Festival were strictly 90 minutes, but LAB!’s lack of restraints allowed the cast to find and create “lazzi” from the script.

“You expand it, you stretch it, you see how far you can take it,” Ripley said.

Ripley’s favorite moment occurs when a student, working on an experiment about how bread molds, announces that in any second, mold will grow on he slice of bread he’s holding.

The students freeze.

Two minutes pass, and the bread, of course, does not mold.

Martin said every second was precisely timed in the original production.

“I thought it would be interesting to see ‘The Milford Project’ with less constraint,” he said.

Burton, playing the science-whiz protagonist Richie, said premiering the play provided the actors with more opportunities for artistic creativity.

“It’s kind of freeing to really make whatever you want out of it, instead of characters that are so well-known,” he said.

The cast of college students looked for inspiration in many places, including the actors’ pasts.

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“My character is me as a 3-year-old,” Burrus said of Penny. “We kind of blew it out of proportion.”

The cast also went to Woods Charter School, where sixth-graders made science fair projects to be displayed in the lobby of the theater, allowing the audience members to be immersed in the scene of a real science fair.

“They’re going to start to — through osmosis — absorb the world of the play,” Ripley said.

The real-world science fair project was Ripley’s method of engaging the outside community with the production.

He asked the school if it would help in making projects to be incorporated into the show. Science teacher Kevin Pease took the assignment.

“Anytime we can collaborate with, in this case (college students), it makes it more exciting,” Pease said.

One student, Annabella, said having people outside of her classmates see her work is a new experience about which she is eager.

“I just want people to see my project and say, ‘Wow, that’s really cool,’” she said. “I won’t even know them, so they have no influence on their decisions whatsoever.”

By interacting with the students, cast members said they found the spirit of “Milford.”

“It’s just really goofy, and that’s the point of the show,” said freshman Richard Mull, who plays a janitor and a townsperson. “Just observing with the kids and getting in the mood helps.”

The writers’ eventual goal, Oeser said, is to have the show Off-Broadway in New York City — a goal they think can be reached through productions around the country.

Ripley said the show has the potential to be successful in New York theaters, making the LAB! premiere that more appealing for local audiences.

“This is the chance to see a show that everyone could be talking about,” he said

The pressure, though, of premiering the show on the east coast hasn’t been in the front of Ripley’s mind.

“It’s a nice selling point,” he said, “but I haven’t been concerned with it.”

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