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February 2, 2023

SVSU to present first full-length production of ‘Very Berry Dead’

Playwright/guest director has ties to Saginaw

A man in a blue shirt point

Jose Perez IV, the author and director of Saginaw Valley State University’s next theatre performance, “Very Berry Dead,” is no stranger to the Great Lakes Bay Region. The multifaceted talent grew up in Saginaw, graduating from Nouvel Catholic Central before completing bachelor’s and master’s degrees in drama.

Saginaw Valley State University is proud to host the premiere of the show, which runs from Wednesday, Feb. 15-Sunday, Feb. 19.

“It’s a real honor to have the world premiere production produced here at our university, to be able to help develop new theatrical work, and it’s a unique opportunity for our students to work with the playwright and guest director,” said Dave Rzeszutek, SVSU professor of theatre. “The experience is especially meaningful because Jose (Perez) grew up in Saginaw.”

“Very Berry Dead” follows a family grappling with burial arrangements following the tragic loss of several of its members. As the survivors, including the head of the family and two feuding grown children, return to the family farm in Vermont to bury their loved ones in the ancestral cemetery, they find the process complicated by state burial laws and limited space in the graveyard. The ensuing drama draws in an assortment of characters, including a rancher, a pagan, a visitor and the town health officer who was not prepared for the pandemonium.

“With this play, I'm trying to encourage the idea that there can be joy within the grieving process,” Perez said, “that even when bridges are burned between people, if you’re willing to both work at it, things can be repaired. And that in tragic loss, you can both mourn what happened and find a way to be at peace with it. 

“The greatest challenge with this script is finding the balance between the comedy and grief, and needing to do each justice,” Perez added. “Scenes will go from characters making awful puns to sincerely mourning the loss of their loved ones. That can be tough for both actors and directors to achieve, which is why casting the right actors is so essential.

“I've been grateful and impressed by the talent and dedication of the actors at SVSU; it's made my job very easy!”

As SVSU theatre productions go, “Very Berry Dead” has a large cast. In addition to the nine principal actors, there are five understudies. Cast members include:

  • Katelynn Bell, a creative writing major from Cheboygan, in the role of Ma.
  • Scout McCulloch, a teacher education major from Port Huron, in the role of Scat.
  • Brielle Myles-Williams, a Spanish major from Saginaw, in the role of Marigold.
  • Dana Samalik, a communication and theatre education major from Essexville, in the role of J.J.
  • Alexandra (Lexie) Schultz, a music major from Saginaw, in the role of McGill.
  • Zoey Schwab, a creative writing major from Bay City, in the role of Casey.
  • Lila Duvendack, a psychology major from Saginaw, in the role of Riley.
  • Noah Johnson, a political science major from Lake Orion, in the role of Sims.

Understudies include:

  • Alex Dubowski, a theatre major from Big Rapids (Marigold).
  • Holly Greif, a theatre major from Gaylord (Scat, McGill).
  • Isabel Losa, a theatre major from Saginaw (Ma).
  • Daija Thornton, a pre-health professions major from Lansing (Riley).
  • Alexandria (Alex) Vanderhyde, a finance major from Cedar Springs (Sims).

Perez said the large cast size means there is a lot of action on stage.

“There's a lot of scenes with a lot of characters all on stage at once. I would encourage the audience to keep scanning the stage. There's so many little details that the actors have built into their portrayals. You'll see strong opinions about what other characters just said, you'll see small interactions that say something big about the relationships between characters. And you'll see some pretty bizarre things scrawled on a white board.”

The play is recommended for audiences age 14-plus.

Perez and his play have come to SVSU because of his acquaintance with Tommy Wedge, SVSU associate professor of theatre. This project was made possible through the Spatz Endowment for Performing Arts at SVSU, which provides theatre and music scholarships in addition to funding for distinguished playwrights/artists-in-residence. The endowment was established by a generous bequest from the estate of Virginia A. Spatz of Bridgeport. 

“When I was approached to direct at SVSU by my colleague and ‘fight friend,’ Professor Tommy Wedge, my first thought was to direct a different play of mine, ‘BB & Tango & the Apocalypse & Fun,’ which is a massive stage combat epic. But as this was going to be the first time I would work with the department, and because I was putting a lot of focus on developing ‘Very Berry Dead,’ I decided to go with this play to start my ‘handshake’ with the program. I was very eager to see these characters and the story come to life, as this is my favorite script I've ever written. I definitely made the right choice.”

While SVSU is staging the first full-length production of “Very Berry Dead,” the script has had two staged readings.

“Both were essential to me as the playwright to further develop the script and land on the version that we are using for this production,” Perez said. 

Perez, who has been writing and directing his own plays for over a decade, said his experiences in high school inspired him to pursue theater.

“I attended St. Stephen Elementary and Nouvel Catholic Central, where I first did theatre and fell in love with it,” he said. “What convinced me to pursue theatre professionally was a scrappy production of a new play written by a local playwright, Marc Beaudin, performed at The 303 in Old Town Saginaw (since closed).”

Today, Perez serves as resident fight director of Pittsburgh Public Theater and as artistic director of Big Storm Performance Company in Pittsburgh. He also works as a director, fight choreographer, playwright, teacher and actor. Some of his plays can be found on the National New Play Network’s New Play Exchange®.

Perez is no stranger to university theater programs, and he considers his time at SVSU to be rewarding.

“The faculty and students at SVSU have been incredible. Day by day I am floored by the enthusiasm, dedication, curiosity, joy, and kindness that lives within the theatre program. ‘Small but mighty’ is what I've been hearing from day one, and I agree. I feel like I’ve stumbled upon a very special place in the theatre world and it’s been an honor to be a small part of it. I sincerely hope to be back some day as this has been a very nourishing artistic environment to be working in.”

Performances of “Very Berry Dead” are Wednesday, Feb. 15-Saturday, Feb. 18 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 19 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online or at the SVSU box office.