The cast of Ontario High School's production of "Murder on the Orient Express" takes the stage at Four Rivers Cultural Center. (The Enterprise/Liliana Frankel)

ONTARIO – When Covid hit last spring, Ontario High School drama students were just a week away from performing “Murder on the Orient Express.” 

“At first we just pushed it back. We thought we’d be able to perform,” said Tara Bastian, the English and drama teacher at Ontario. 

But of course, the initial shut down was followed by months of distance learning, and the students who’d initially been cast as the show’s leads graduated without ever taking the stage. 

On May 7, after a year of turmoil, “Murder on the Orient Express” finally made it to the stage. Bastian said her kids performed “really, really well.”  

Last fall, Bastian was determined to provide an opportunity for the kids to act, even though it wasn’t yet possible to practice in person for a conventional show. 

Her students put on a radio play – a combination of a Flash Gordon story and a Sherlock Holmes story that ran for an hour and a half. Even without visuals, there was plenty of rich audio detail for the students to provide.

“We talked about knock sounds, shoe walking sounds,” Bastian said. “At one point, we had monkeys screaming in the background.” 

Then, in 2021, the state of Oregon eased its Covid metrics for schools, and activities slowly resumed at Ontario. 

“We got the go ahead, and as soon as Four Rivers Cultural Center (where the stage used by the drama club is located) was open and we could have kids in the school, I started practice,” said Bastian. 

Only 20 students were allowed to participate at a time due to cohorting, a Covid precaution. That meant that the same students serving as actors also worked on costumes and props.

“The kids have been hardworking,” Bastian said. “They’ve come to every single practice. They’ve been more of a team. I think in a lot of ways this brought us together so we could do something joyful in a hard time.” 

Andrew Rodriguez and Claudia Juarez are seniors and two of the stars of the show. Rodriguez said he participated in drama all four years of high school, with Juarez getting involved for three out of four of those years. 

“I’m actually really happy we were able to do this play because I didn’t think we would get a year,” said Juarez. 

“A lot of our grade grew up together from kindergarten to high school,” said Rodriguez, describing the feeling of community support he enjoys around his participation in drama. “It’s really cool to have kids come to see us and say, ‘Oh, you did a great job.’”

“Our role as actors is to bring beauty into the world,” said Bastian. “We’re kind of arbiters of joy, and in the process of bringing joy to others I can see it’s healing to kids to be a part of this program.” 

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577. 

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