Illuminated only by the soft glow of candlelight and a single orange-filtered ceiling light, the procession made its way from the back of the room to a small stage at the front, passing by tables of seated audience members.

The group ended at an altar littered with candles of different shapes and sizes on a stage in the corner of the room. For a moment, you think you actually are in the Sicilian church where one of the scenes in Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" opens.

The lavish decorations and intense performances were part of Canal Winchester High School's 31st annual Madrigal Dinner on Feb. 15 and 16.

The event, under the direction of Todd Phillips, features a selection from a rotation of Shakespeare plays; this year's performance transformed the school's cafeteria (which was designed with a stage) into 16th-century Sicily.

And the event is far more than a simple play. Between scenes, more than 100 costumed students ferry food to the tables. This year's dinner menu was a four-course meal of bruschetta, an olive and cucumber salad, chicken parmesan or vegetable ravioli, and Italian wedding cake.

Each table, spread with a tablecloth in a deep wine color, held a pair of candles burning inside decorative glass vases. Between the period costumes, atmospheric lighting, decorations that included medieval banners festooned across the wall and a full standing set of armor, it's easy for audience members to forget where, and when, they were. As a final touch, notes from the Winchester Consort, a handful of students performing on recorders -- instruments common to the 16th-century time frame of the play -- floated delicately across the transformed space.

Between scenes, music from the school's choir and solo performers added to the festive ambience.

Three stages positioned throughout the cafeteria kept the audience, guessing about where the next action would occur, in keeping with the playful mood of "Much About Nothing."

Canal Winchester resident Brian Parker was a trumpeter and in one of the original Madrigal Dinners produced in the 1980s. He was on hand to watch his daughter, junior Claire Parker, perform.

He said the event has continued to grow in size and improve in quality.

"Just to see Mr. Phillips develop this from its humble beginnings in the late '80s is great," Parker said." There's been more and more each year."

Stephanie Whitaker attended her first Madrigal Dinner this year with her friend, Lisa Fox, who has several children in the production.

"This really is more than just a play; it's an event," Whitaker said.

A large part of the Madrigal Dinner's immersive atmosphere comes from a special twist Phillips has incorporated: audience involvement. Cast members are close to the audience and, throughout the play, approached several of those in attendance, who were covertly pulled offstage and given brief instructions or short lines to recite during the actual performance.

A tradition among cast members, according to senior co-lead JD Black, who portrayed Benedick and who performed a high-powered vocal solo between scenes, is to select at least one high school staff member to involve in the production.

This year's helper was assistant principal Laurie Buchiers, who was plucked out of the audience by senior Allison Kuck to play a scribe to Dogberry, the character Kuck portrayed. Quick on her feet, Buchiers was able to ad-lib several lines in a comical back-and-forth with Kuck.

"They typically try to ask if it's all right to include us in some manner," Buchiers said. "Basically, they'll let you know beforehand, but they won't let you know what you're going to do, so it's completely on the go. You never know who they're going to ask, so it always adds a lot of entertainment."

Some audience members who end up involved in the show, such as Jim Hunt, aren't school employees and are given little to no warning before the performance. Hunt came on stage as one of a trio of bumbling police watchmen. While his partners engaged in a funny exchange, he slept and snored loudly.

"Oh, I had no idea beforehand," Hunt said. "One of the students just came up to me and let me know he'd tap me when I needed to snore, and (when) they needed me to jump up. It definitely made things more entertaining."

Although it takes a certain level of alertness to pull off ad-libbing in front of a crowd of 200, this kind of engagement is also a different experience for the actors.

"One of the things we'll do during rehearsals is we try to grab a different cast member every time, someone who isn't in that scene, just to make sure we get an authentic response," Kuck said. "And we did have one rehearsal where a reporter from the school newspaper came, and we pulled her onstage."

"As a lead like I am, you're always kind of driving the plot forward, but it's great when we're able to go off-script for a bit to interact with the audience and make them laugh," said sophomore Jonathan Pauwels, who portrayed Claudio. "It keeps things fun for us, and it's great for the audience, as well."

editorial@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNews