Month: February 2015

Theater Review – Born Yesterday at Haddonfield Plays and Players

At first I thought Born Yesterday a bit dated. After all, this 1946 show featured some antediluvian characters one wouldn’t recognize in the modern era. Harry Brock was an unscrupulous businessman. He’s in Washington, D. C. ostensibly to ‘sight-see’ but in actuality to bribe a senator to pass favorable legislation for his company. Norval Hedges was a senator motivated by money, not the principles of American government. Ed Devery was a corrupt alcoholic attorney. He used to work for the Justice Department, but left public service to facilitate Mr. Brock’s unethical commercial endeavors. I’ll tell you: I really had to suspend my disbelief to buy into this story.

I had the privilege of watching the Haddonfield Plays and Players troupe present this piece on Friday, February 27th. They did an exceptional job. Al Maffei really brought Harry Brock’s character to life. He strutted about the stage like a modern day emperor surveying his domain. In the tone of a New York street thug he pretentiously barked orders to his underlings; in the character’s mind this meant everybody. The casual cigar flailing added a nice touch.

Emily Brennan turned in a fine performance as the lovable, but dull-witted Billie Dawn. I found her chemistry with her love interest/paramour/ educator Paul Verrall (played by Charlie Kirkwood) well done. It brought to mind Eliza Doolitle and Professor Henry Higgins only with much more edge to it. After Verall agreed to Harry’s offer of $200.00 per week to make Billie more compatible with Washington society, she decided to give him a bit of an education of her own. (Don’t worry, folks. If you don’t mind some bad language, you can bring the kids to this show.)

Brennan also showed outstanding chemistry with Maffei. After repeatedly describing Billie as a dullard, the two sat down to a game of gin. Unlike the audience, the two thespians managed to keep straight faces to Billie’s repeated shouts of “Gin!” To date, this scene represented the best comic exchange I’ve had the privilege of watching during live theater.

Billie’s transition served as the centerpiece of the drama.  Verrall’s exposing her to books and especially, left-wing political thought, moved the story forward. The comic japes and yuks made the story much more enjoyable. Without them, this would’ve been an evening long disquisition on the dark side of unfettered capitalism, political corruption and a jaded citizenry.

I mentioned left-wing political thought, right? I’d give the playwright, Garson Kanin, credit for not turning this into a dry polemic. I should point out that several characters described Harry Brock as a ‘fascist’. He admitted he was a dealer in ‘junk’; something he took pride in. The catalyst of Billie’s change worked as a writer for the New Republic.  Yeah, Kanin wasn’t very subtle in allowing his political views to come through in the text.

All three acts of this show took place in Suite 67D in the best hotel in Washington, D. C. The crew did a phenomenal job with the set design. It included most of the suite with the exception of the kitchen and the two bedrooms. I liked that both of the latter were up a flight of stairs. That showed good attention to detail. At first I wondered if the show would keep my attention without scene changes. Thanks to the superb direction by Susan DeMinico and the performance by the cast, this issue didn’t arise.

The show runs through March 7th. I’d encourage anyone with an interest in a quality community theater performance, to see Born Yesterday presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players. While I described the show as a comedy, I should point something out. My opening remarks in this column were meant to be humorous. The more I thought about it. Born Yesterday first premiered in 1946. Unfortunately, many of the serious themes explored in the performance are just as relevant today. No amount of histrionic prowess can make that funny.

Poem – “Hot Coffee”

Last night I attended an Open Mic Night hosted by the South Jersey Writer’s Group. All of us basked in the afterglow of Valentine’s Day. The spirit of the season inspired me to share a love poem I’d penned at the age of 19. (This would’ve been four years ago for those of you who’ve never met me. For those who have, it was five years ago.)

Back in my youth I aspired to be a songwriter. I sat down one evening with my bass guitar and came up with the framework for a song called “Hot Coffee.” While most musicians my age wrote about nothing but love, I chose a different tack. I tasked myself with a voyage of self-exploration. “What was one thing I couldn’t live without?” After much reflection and contemplation, it came to me. I crafted the lyrics about something I truly enjoyed more than anything else.

Looking back it should’ve been self-evident. My subject hooked me. The first time I tried it I knew it would be a part of my daily routine from that day forward. I had to write a song about it.

After an evening of research or ‘indulgence’, if you will, I crafted these lyrics. The group members I recited them to last night seemed to enjoy. I hope you do too. This is “Hot Coffee”.

Thinkin’ about the countless ways

I pass the time on Saturday night.

I cruise the town all around

Just lookin’ for somethin’ to do

 

But when the clock strikes Midnight

There’s only one place I’m gonna be.

I’ll be heading to the neighborhood diner

And that’s where you’ll find me

Lookin’ for my…

 

Hot Coffee

Two lumps of sugar sweet

Hot Coffee

Add the cream and it’s such a treat

Give me that

Hot coffee to go

 

That’s where my baby’s workin’.

She’ll be at it ‘till the break of day.

Let me tell you all right now

She ain’t all work and no play.

 

I can’t wait to get there.

I’m feelin’ mighty too cold.

I need a cup of her hot coffee

To heat and warm my soul.

Now give me that…

 

Hot Coffee

Two lumps of sugar sweet

Hot Coffee

Add the cream and it’s such a treat

Give me that

Hot coffee to go

 

If you don’t mind a little crowd

I guess I’ll see you there on Saturday night.

When the neighborhood boys hear my baby’s workin’

The place really packs ‘em in tight.

 

You should see the looks on their faces

When my baby leaves with me, but I don’t care.

They cry and moan and scream and groan

But who said life was fair?

They’re not getting’ any…

 

Hot Coffee

Two lumps of sugar sweet

Hot Coffee

Add the cream and it’s such a treat

Give me that

Hot coffee to go

I may not warrant comparison with the great wordsmiths. No one will place me in the same category as Springsteen, Dylan or any of the great British Romantic poets of the nineteenth century. That’s okay. There are some things in life more important than the adoration of anonymous critics. I think about that every day when I have my coffee.

© 2015 Kevin Stephany

Book Review – Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

What better way to show that special lady in one’s life just how one feels about her than by taking her to a movie? How about one that features two idiots engaging in brutal sadomasochistic sex? Happy Valentine’s day, hon. Since I’m not a big movie fan, I decided to stay in this weekend and read Fifty Shades of Grey. At one point I thought I’d need to be put in bondage to get through it, but I finished, anyway. While I know this sounds bizarre coming from me, it exceeded my expectations. To be fair, from the reviews I’ve read, this wasn’t hard to do.

Based on the merciless pillorying it received, I expected the level of prose one would find from a fourth grader. If a verb appeared every few lines or so, I would’ve thought the book much better than I’d anticipated. Still I found it lacking. The author presented the story exclusively in Anastasia’s point-of-view. The narrator related the drama in a manner I’d expect from a self-absorbed twenty-something. But still: I would’ve expected a better range of language from someone who majored in English. Then again, Anastasia clearly didn’t receive the best education. After four years of college she couldn’t think of any other way to describe a smile than “wry”. Maybe in one of the sequels she got her tuition back.

And then we have the descriptions. Anastasia related her amatory endeavors with the same emotion and passion that one would use reciting from a phone book. I can’t cite passages. They struck me as so dry I didn’t mark them while reading the text. Granted no one reads erotica anticipating the verse of a John Keats, but I do expect some lyrical flourishes. After all, this was a love story; or at least one of intense infatuation. Pretty much Ana limited her descriptions of Christian to how physically attractive she found him. REALLY!!! Because of that she’s willing to let him bind her, hit her and use her body as a laboratory for his depraved desires. I’m sorry, but no one’s that good looking.

Now we come to the plot. I don’t mean to spoil it for anyone, but here it goes. Young miss innocent girl met worldly guy who seemed like a living reflection from a dream. BUT WAIT! He had a dark secret!!! He slowly drew her into his bizarre world. Should she leave him? Could she change him? He experienced conflicting thoughts, also. Should he give up something that’s a part of him for the love of this woman? Have you heard this one before? It’s been used in the past. I remember encountering it in a work called Every Book Every Written.

The one positive element to Fifty Shades of Grey entailed the author’s depiction of Anastasia. While I loathe making this point, I found her behavior very believable. In fact, her taste in men and her thought process reminded me of a young lady I knew at one time. I suspect the only reason I finished the book was to try and understand this way of, for lack of a better term, thinking. It didn’t. It did make me wish Christian could’ve somehow isolated Anastasia’s “inner goddess”, tied it up in the Red Room of Pain, and left it there.

On the subject of believability: I found Anastasia’s first erotic encounter completely beyond all bounds of possibility. She acknowledged Christian as her first lover. Yet, she turned in a performance worthy of an Olympic medal. That’s a hell of a first effort. If I’m to believe this I need to believe Jimmy Page belted out “Stairway to Heaven” the first time he picked up a guitar, the Theory of Relativity comprised Einstein’s first words, and two year old Shakespeare’s first scribbling made up the soliloquy to Hamlet. Folks, we can all dream, but it doesn’t happen in the real world.

I don’t anticipate Fifty Shades of Grey will make the list of 100 must reads for the 21st century. I have to admit, that I thought it an interesting book, but not so much for the content. What intrigues me is that in spite of the poor reviews, it’s a New York Times Best Seller. While critics compete over who can pan the film version the harshest, it made over $94M in its opening weekend. The real gray area is why subject matter such as this resonates with such an immense audience.

Theater Review – Rent at Bridge Players Theater Company

Johnathan Larson must’ve had a profound hatred for actors when he wrote Rent. This musical presented the most challenging material I’ve ever witnessed on a live stage. Watching it performed by a community theater group really impressed me. I enjoyed the stellar performances even more.

Rent featured an extraordinary array of musical styles. Tracks such as “One Song Glory” harkened back to standard Rock and Roll. “Tango: Maureen” was just that: a tango. “Seasons of Love” took me back to the age of Aquarius. The musical also had some numbers for more ‘traditional’ theater fans. I thought the titletrack probably the closest to a standard ‘show tune’ sound.

The vocal routines by this cast were mind blowing. Leilah Murphy (as Mimi Marquez) qualified for a Gold Medal in gymnastics with her performance. It’s hard to sing in front of a group of people. It’s harder to sing and dance in front of group of people. During her rendition of “Out Tonight” Ms. Murphy did these things, while swinging from a beam and then sliding down a pole. It impressed me even more that she pulled all this off without getting hurt.

Mike Wemer (as Tom Collins) also displayed some exceptional vocal skills. The reprise to “I’ll Cover You” showcased his vocal prowess the most. Mr. Wemer began the song as a baritone. A high note came in at the end that he nailed flawlessly. I should also point out that this number came up at the most somber moment of the play. Mr. Wemer sang while nearly crying. All I can say is, “Wow.”

Kiara Rodriguez (as Joanne Jefferson) gave Mariah Carey a run for her money as a singer. Several times during the evening Ms. Rodriguez hit notes close to dog whistle territory. As I told the lady sitting next to me, “She hit those notes better than I would have.”

The most challenging aspect of performing Rent involved the subject matter. It followed a group of bohemians through a year of their lives. Their struggles and heartbreaks served as the crux of the story. Most of the characters suffered from HIV or AIDS. It took a very special group of actors to animate this story in such an entertaining way. Kudos also to Amanda Frederick (as Maureen Johnson) for getting the audience involved with “Over the Moon”.

I also have to give credit to Jonathan Mosesku’s performance as Angel Schunard. (For those unfamiliar with the play, the latter character is a drag queen.) Any man who can run around a stage in high heels and not fall down certainly deserves respect. I struggle walking in flip-flops. I don’t know how the hell he pulled that off.

Matt Dotzman (as Mark Cohen), Mike Reisman (as Roger Davis), and Zack Treusch (as Benjamin Coffin III) turned in fine performances, as well.

I also credit director Chris Focarile for pulling the whole thing together. Gina Petti did an exceptional job as choreographer. (Ms. Petti also played a number of roles in the play.) Those two should qualify for a PMP for staging this production. With all the different characters and the host of intricate musical numbers, they did a phenomenal job.

Jonathan Larson may not have liked actors, but I liked the ones in the Bridge Players Theater Company. In addition, I always enjoy seeing Pulitzer Prize winning plays at community theater groups. This way my wallet doesn’t get ‘rent’.

The Valentine’s Day Masterpiece

For the last thirty years I’ve been working on an epic poem about my love life. It’s appropriate that I should finally complete it so close to Valentine’s Day. I hadn’t planned on sharing it with the blogoshphere. After further reflection I thought readers may be curious and possibly offended that I kept my masterpiece from them. So here it is.

Tears drown the train wreck.

Ten thousand dollars well spent.

This sucks.

I’m sure astute poetry fans noticed the epic poem ended up being just a haiku; missing a few syllables. One person I presented it to compared me to Keats, though. Not so much for writing ability, but because he died young. She wished I could’ve died young; or at least before writing this poem.

I might be writing a sequel to this poem in the near future…

Drama Review – Doubt by John Patrick Shanley

Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite—it is a passionate exercise.

John Patrick Shanley March 2005

            I have no doubt, that Doubt is one of the best written plays I’ve ever read. John Patrick Shanley crafted a masterpiece without clearly depicting the main story sparks. The ending left me confused and troubled. It reflected the play’s title perfectly. I’ve seen this play performed and read it once before. I found it so powerful that I couldn’t resist delving into it again.

Doubt served as the theme of Fr. Flynn’s opening monolog.  I liked the way the playwright established the setting and theme of the play at the very beginning. I still mentally harken back to the beginning of Hamlet whenever I read a play. Lines and lines of dialog where characters prattled on about how dark the night and that they’re standing in front of a castle really seared into my memory. (I do take solace in the fact that even the Bard could’ve improved as a writer.) Shanley avoided this error. The fourth line in the play read: “Last year President Kennedy was assassinated.” (Page 5) What an exceptional way to quickly establish the time frame.

The play contained an outstanding protagonist and antagonist, but with a twist. Shanley drew them so well that I’m not sure which role each main character played. Sister Aloysius served as a hardline reactionary to the changes occurring in the Church. She opposed the use of the song “Frosty the Snowman” in the Christmas show. It “espouses a pagan belief in magic”, she asseverated. (Page 29) I thought it clever how she informed Sister James not to focus so much on teaching history. Yet, in the play Sister Aloysius referred to Socrates (Page 12) and Sparta (Page 36). She did so while, in essence, telling Sister James how to do her job. I found her choice of examples intriguing. Wasn’t Jesus a teacher, too?

Fr. Flynn served as her opposite. He supported a friendlier, more accessible clergy. He recommended adding secular tunes to the Christmas pageant. He coached the boys’ basketball team. After practice he invited them to the rectory. The priest even paid special attention to the lone African-American child at the school, Donald Muller. The latter ignited the main story spark.

Sister Aloysius suspected that the priest had an inappropriate relationship with the boy. There being no Chris Hansens at St. Nicholas school, she opted to investigate the matter herself. The drama unfolded around her efforts to confirm her (unfounded) allegations. Fr. Flynn always responded with a reasonable (sounding) explanation for all her suspicions.

To further enhance the story, the priest admitted being a fabulist to Sister James. Again, he followed this revelation with a reasonable (sounding) explanation. He claimed making up stories for his sermons “in the tradition of the parable.” (Page 38) Why?

What actually happens in life is beyond interpretation. The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion. (Page 39)

The playwright did an exceptional job keeping me engaged. The more I read, the more I had doubts about both characters’ behavior. It took special talent to continue building this tension through the entire play; accomplishing this while relating few verifiable facts took extraordinary skill.

I have little doubt that the ending won’t satisfy some readers. I would remind them of Shanley’s own words:

You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time.

To absorb the essence of these words, read Doubt.