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Making a Scene: Moorhead native returns for inventive ‘Gatsby’ staging

John Lamb / The Forum Jorie Kosel prepares for her upcoming role in “The Great Gatsby.”

FARGO – Jorie Ann Kosel graduated from Moorhead High School five years ago and moved away. Yet every summer she’s drawn back, not just to family and friends, but to work.

Graduating in May from Point Park University in Pittsburgh with a major in musical theater, the actress returned again to star in a re-invention of “The Great Gatsby,” which opens tonight in the courtyard of St. Mark’s Church.

“The theater community here is entrancing. People do such interesting things,” she said during a break from rehearsals last week.

Kosel has worked on most major summer stages in the community, including “Beauty and the Beast,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” at the old Trollwood site, Broadway Lights’ “Rent” in 2011 and Act Up’s “Spring Awakening” in 2012, both at The Stage in Island Park.

The latter two were choreographed by Ryan Domres, who adapted and is directing “The Great Gatsby.”

Kosel was busy with a play in Pittsburgh last summer and couldn’t be in Domres’ production of “Grease,” but she saw it at Festival Concert Hall at North Dakota State University and knew she wanted to work with the director again. She first worked with Domres in 2007 in Moorhead High’s “High School Musical.”

When she signed up for “Gatsby,” not all of the details were set. As of this writing, it wasn’t announced which of the 13 actors, all between the ages of 18 and 23, would be playing which roles.

The production stresses that the show is an ensemble and doesn’t want the audience walking in expecting certain actors to play specific parts. The ambiguity also helps as the audience will feel more like the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, who is thrust into his neighbor Jay Gatsby’s party without knowing the host.

“I got here the first day of rehearsals and just thought we were doing this at NDSU,” Kosel says with a laugh.

Instead, Domres’ production is set in a geodesic dome that can seat 200 people, with the actors using the aisles for this theater-in-the-round staging. Kosel likens it to “this jungle-gym structure.”

“Ryan really did push the envelope with ‘Grease,’ ” she says of last summer’s spare staging, which effectively used projected films of the cast in place of elaborate sets and lighting to set the tone. “And if he pushed the envelope with that, this is upgraded to a first class package. This is an entirely different beast.”

Cast and crew want the audience to be surprised and aren’t revealing too many details, but hint that film again could be used as well as elaborate choreography given the cozy confines, Domres’ calling card.

“The space is challenging but exciting,” Kosel says. “We’re pretty much on top of the audience. We’re totally demolishing that fourth wall (the imaginary barrier between the audience and the actors). It’s an exciting challenge.”

Another obstacle is dancing in high heels, she says.

“The heels are an added challenge,” she says. “The characters are so sophisticated, so the heel helps with that. It makes you feel like a grown-up lady.”

Kosel says the early 1920s were a time when women felt more liberated than they would for the following three decades and that added to the appeal of the performance.

“It’s an interesting time for women,” she says of the Roaring ’20s. “It’s fun to play with that kind of freedom for women in the show.”

Despite a limited budget and space, Kosel says the transition from scene to scene is, “seamless.”

“It kind of catches you off guard,” she says. “When the lights come up, people will say, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe this just happened.’ ”

Seamlessness will be important as the show packs the 180-page book, nods to Baz Luhrman’s 2013 screen adaptation and a dozen period appropriate and contemporary songs into 70-minutes.

“I’d love it if all theater did that. It makes it much more appealing,” she says.