College is a time of high ambition, youthful audacity, and relentless idealism. For these reasons, many of the audience members viewing the Bowdoin Theatre and Dance Department's production of George S. Kaufman's Merton of the Movies?which premiered last night and runs through this weekend?will identify with its starry-eyed protagonist.

"There are definitely parallels, reasons why I think people will be able to relate to this play, even though it's about the silent film era," said Director and Department Chair Davis Robinson.

The idea to put on Merton of the Movies was given to Robinson by none other than writer George S. Kaufman's daughter. Last year, Robinson participated in a production of another Kaufman play, The Late George Apley. When Ms. Kaufman came to speak to the cast, Robinson asked her if she would recommend one of her father's scripts for the Bowdoin Theatre and Dance Department to tackle. She suggested Merton at the Movies.

Set in the 1920s, Merton of the Movies chronicles the story of a small-town general store employee from Illinois, who dreams of achieving fame in the burgeoning moving picture industry. Merton Gill, played by Michael Wood '06, attends every screening that comes to town, fawns over the prima donna of the silver screen, Beulah Baxter (Hannah Weil '08), and is often caught re-enacting scenes from his favorite films by himself, behavior that troubles his adoptive mother, Mrs. Gashwiler (Ellen Powers '06).

Merton has glamour shots taken of himself posing as different characters in hopes that some talent scout or casting director will notice his supposed resemblance to popular actor Harold Parmalee. He even adopts the alluring stage name of "Clifford Armatage."

When Merton finally arrives in California, however, his na?ve vision of Hollywood as a bastion of artistic integrity is assaulted by the reality of movie-making: it is much less an art than a business. Merton begins to meet professional actors?not the ones featured in the films, but the extras trying to scrape out a living. He meets J. Lester Montague (John Menke '06), a caricature of a man who keeps his dignity afloat with a pompous facade that is as ridiculous as it is transparent. Merton also meets Montague's daughter (Brandy Maloney '06), a regular in comedy pictures, a genre Merton views as vulgar.

Merton's refusal to compromise his art soon leaves him penniless, hungry, and sleeping outside the movie lot. Taking pity on the stubborn gringo, Montague's daughter dupes him into starring in a comedy film. Merton eventually concedes his aspirations of creating "meaningful art" and embraces his talent for selling cheap laughs.

This play is about perception versus reality. Back home in Illinois, Merton dreams of leaving his mundane reality for the magical worlds of the screen and walking among its deities. In Hollywood, film's magical worlds are replaced by sets and props. Its golden gods and goddesses are replaced by pompous, ridiculous mortals. Idealism is replaced by pragmatism. Lofty dreams are pulled to earth by the gravity of reality.

These sticking points might seem a bit dreary for a play its director touts as "one of the funnest plays" Bowdoin has seen in a while. But its bleak thematic elements notwithstanding, Merton of the Movies is still a comedy, and is replete with funny characters. Contrary to the comedic aspects of the play is sophomore John Ferriss's role as the haughty director Sigmund Rosenblatt, whose physical stature seems inversely proportionate to his enormous ego.

For a cast of students raised in the era of DVDs and iPods, projecting themselves into characters from the 1920s was a challenge.

"In the '20s there was a different rhythm?people spoke differently, it was a younger country, it was pre-Depression, people had different sorts of hopes and dreams," said Robinson, "so it was a really good exercise of the imagination."

Wood, a veteran of Bowdoin theater, admitted that getting into character as Merton Gill was not easy at first. "It took me a while to realize that comedy doesn't necessarily imply acting 'silly' or 'goofy,'" he said.

In order to help Wood identify with Merton, Robinson showed him and the rest of the cast a number of silent films. "It became less about 'being funny' and more about being invested in achieving what I, as Merton, want to do," Wood said.

The Bowdoin Department of Theatre and Dance's production of Merton of the Movies will run Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 p.m. in Pickard Theater. Tickets are free, and available at the Smith Union information desk.