Professional playwright, director adapts original play into musical thriller

HILLSDALE - On Nov. 10, Wilson High School's theater department will ignite the school's stage with 'Ablaze,' a high-stakes thriller written by local playwright, composer, producer and director Matthew B. Zrebski.

Zrebski is a resident teaching artist at Portland Center Stage and also teaches through Literary Arts Writers in the Schools program and the Acting Academy at Oregon Children's Theatre.

Zrebski worked with Wilson in Spring 2010 on a production of another of his plays, 'Handprint Alley,' and was asked to return to write and direct its latest production.

'Ablaze' is an adaptation of a play Zrebski originally wrote for Lincoln High School in 2004.

'The idea was to write a piece for teenagers to (be able to) play teen characters;' he said, 'a show that was for and about them.'

Set in an old, abandoned high school, 'Ablaze' follows a group of teenagers who are trapped when they are suddenly surrounded by fire.

The group is able to climb through a hole in the gymnasium's floor to escape, but they soon realize they are not alone and that an unseen predator is watching them.

As their captivity continues, the teenagers' personal demons and vendettas emerge.

'It's like watching a collage,' Zrebski said. 'The audience has to piece together (what they see) … There is a big range of material.'

'Ablaze' explores a variety of issues facing teens today, including bullying, pregnancy and sexuality, he said.

Because of its subject matter and some strong language, Zrebski described the play as 'PG-13' and recommended it for middle-schoolers and up.

'We discuss the content in a responsible way that's also very artful (and) artistically challenging,' he said. 'It's the stuff of high school.

'There are definitely scary moments, but it's not without humor.'

This time around, 'Ablaze' has been adapted into a musical, performed completely through a cappella music and rhythmic spoken word.

'It's an experiment in musical theater,' Zrebski said. 'I've never seen a high school attempt a play of this kind before.'

Because of the difficulty of the material, Zrebski said students auditioned for the show last March and participated in a summer workshop before beginning regular rehearsals the second week of school this fall.

Additional auditions were held at the beginning of the school year to add freshmen to the chorus, rounding out the cast at 23 performers.

Zrebski said the play is still a work in progress, as he's developing the music around the voice of the cast itself.

He said the students have had to be flexible but that they've risen to the occasion.

'I'm always amazed at how willing young people are to work hard when you expect them to,' he said. 'I don't treat them any differently than I do when I'm directing professionals. Their level of commitment is very moving.'

'Ablaze' has been produced in association with Playwrights West, of which Zrebski is a founding member, and it will be performed in concert form in January as part of the New Works Festival, giving its cast a taste of the professional stage.

'Ablaze' will open its run on the Wilson stage, located at 1151 S.W. Vermont St., Nov. 10 and continue Nov 11-12 and Nov. 16-19 at 7 p.m. A matinee performance will be held Nov. 13 at 2 p.m.

Tickets run at $16 for general admission and $8 for students and educators with IDs. They can be purchased in advance at or at the door.

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