Month: October 2018

Murder by Poe at Haddonfield Plays and Players

This Halloween several performers met their “Poe” tential at Haddonfield Plays and Players. Themes involving black cats, vengeance and murder took the stage as the company presented “a descent into the maelstrom” that was the mind of Edgar Allan Poe. I put on “the spectacles” for October 27th’s performance of Murder by Poe directed by Amber Kusching.

The story began with an “enigma.” A woman (played by Hannah Keeley) encountered a house in the forest. Upon entering she discovered a “valley of unrest.” Everyone present had committed murder. While that presented “a predicament” she then undertook a quest to determine how all their stories linked together. An evening of mystery, terror and even humor followed.

Poe was a literary innovator. A pioneer of the short story form, he invented the modern detective tale in 1841. Forty six years before Sherlock Holmes appeared in The Strand, Poe introduced American audiences to sleuth extraordinaire C. Auguste Dupin.

John Nicodemo took on this iconic role. Speaking with an authentic French accent he brought out the character’s cunning, wit and arrogance. He best animated these traits through his cocky synopsis of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.”

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher made the Dupin character much more complex than his creator did. Mr. Nicodemo met these demands. He displayed excellent chemistry working with Ms. Keeley; especially, as his character became the subject of her investigation. The performer brought out the character’s change and subsequent discomfort with it very believably.

After that performance, I have to say, “Mr. Nicodemo: ‘thou art the man.’”

Poe’s wrote during the Romantic Era. That may seem odd when considering the subjects of his poems and stories. While lacking in “romance” itself, his work contained many references to emotions and feelings. Hannah Keeley infused this sense element into her performance.

Ms. Keeley displayed the anxiety of her situation very well. Even when silent, her facial expressions conveyed the character’s inner turmoil. She complimented Mr. Nicodemo wonderfully. As his character changed, Ms. Keeley steadily altered the Woman. Throughout the course of the show her role converted from that of the emotional character into the more analytical of the two.

The show’s conclusion contained a “mesmeric revelation.” I won’t give away details, but it contained a “dream within a dream” sequence. I credit Mr. Nicodemo and Ms. Keeley for becoming new characters in the final scene.

The script provided serious challenges for the actors. Several performers accepted the task of reciting a Poe story in its entirety. This entailed delivering long monologues written in nineteenth century prose. Robert Bush (as Usher), Tony Killian (in “The Black Cat”), Dan Safeer (in “The Tell-Tale Heart”), Salina Miller (Marie Roget) and Alex Leavitt (William Wilson) all proved themselves adept storytellers.

I’d especially credit Mr. Leavitt. He delivered a rendition of “William Wilson” that made Poe’s tale sound like something out of Shakespeare.

Murder by Poe included an intricate visual spectacle, as well. Projections appeared on a wall at stage left. In addition to still images, it also displayed some live action. Shadow figures enacted key scenes from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The cast and crew kept everything in synch. One also has to credit them for drawing comedy out of these morbid scenes.

Gary Werner designed a set well suited for this show. The paintings, bookshelf and off white background reminded me of a scene from a Gothic mystery story. I did have one suggestion, though. In homage to Poe, I would’ve liked to see “the oval portrait” of him hanging somewhere.

Performers Deborah Tighe and Tina Currado rounded out the ensemble.

Unfortunately for Poe fans, theatre goers and “the man of the crowd”, for that matter, this special presentation of Murder by Poe ends October 28th.  The show would make for a great Halloween tradition. Let’s hope this isn’t “nevermore.”

 

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“The Salem Witch Trials: A Conspiracy of Witches” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

In the pale light of a waxing full moon I ascended the walkway to Smith-Cadbury Mansion. My stroll past the old Hopkins home allegedly spooked by a “blue lady” and the apparition of a Quaker gentleman put me in the frame of mind for a scary story. Mickey DiCamillo, the President of the Historical Society of Moorestown, didn’t disappoint. He delivered the final chapter of his trilogy of terror on the Salem Witch Trials. I attended his “A Conspiracy of Witches” lecture on October 24th in the kitchen at the Society’s headquarters.

Of the three installments on the “Essex Witchcraft Crisis”, as people in the 1690s called it, I found this one the most terrifying. Mr. DiCamillo’s use of imagery in depicting of Abagail Williams’ vision of a coven of witches gathering on her guardian’s property gave me chills. The pontifications of a sinister figure she viewed among them vowing to destroy Massachusetts Bay Colony in order to raise it up again in the name of Satan added to the dreadfulness. Interestingly, the most frightful parts of this program didn’t involve the supernatural. The most unsettling segments concerned the conduct of society itself.

As with the other lectures in the series, Mr. DiCamillo shared some amusing anecdotes about the events. The most gripping concerned the fate of George Burroughs. When asked if he had any last words while standing on the gallows, this convicted witch recited the “Lord’s Prayer.” As people believed witches didn’t possess the ability to pray the on-lookers became confused. They turned to a renowned witchcraft “expert” among them. Cotton Mather utilized some specious logic to justify the execution continue as scheduled.

Mr. DiCamillo’s depiction of Rebecca Nurse’s fate delivered chills, as well. The jury initially found the 71 year old innocent on charges of witchcraft. Instead of accepting the verdict the judge questioned the panel. He reminded them that Mrs. Nurse made a cryptic comment during the proceedings: “Those used to come among us.” As the magistrate and the jury interpreted her remarks differently, they asked the defendant what she meant. Mrs. Nurse didn’t reply to their inquiry. Some speculate her advanced age rendered her partially deaf. The jury reversed its own verdict.

Mrs. Nurse retained a lot of support in the community. These people petitioned the governor to pardon her. He did. In an unprecedented move, the Salem judges refused to accept it. There was only one sentence for those who were found guilty without confessing to witchcraft. Mrs. Nurse went to the gallows on July 19, 1692.

I found the story of Bridget Bishop the most intriguing. In either the 1670s or 1680s, she was accused of witchcraft and tried. She received a “not guilty” verdict and returned to her normal life. In 1692, the newly established Court of Oyer and Terminer decided to re-hear her case. There being no concept of “double jeopardy” in Puritan juris prudence, she became the first person tried in the Salem Witch Trials. Prosecutors used the same evidence presented against her the first time. This time the jury convicted and sentenced her to execution. Mr. DiCamillo explained, “This shows that the political and social climate had changed. It was the same evidence with a new mentality.”

The lecture’s real horror began when Mr. DiCamillo placed the witch trials in their historical context. After revoking the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s charter, the British government established a new one. The number of people imprisoned for witchcraft appalled new Governor Sir William Phips. He established a court in his first official order. The Court of Oyer and Terminer did reduce the number of people waiting to be tried for witchcraft. It did so in a way that made it infamous.

Everyone who appeared before this court received a guilty verdict. Part of this stemmed from its willingness to accept weak evidence. In his first lecture on the Salem Witch Trials, Mr. DiCamillo described the types of evidence accepted during a witchcraft trial. A confession provided the most compelling one. Others included “spectral evidence.” This entailed a witch appearing in ghostly form to its victim. He described another as “anger resulting in mischief.” The latter referred to two people getting into an argument and then something bad happening to one of the participants.

While dubious, the court accepted these types of “evidence.” They applied it so liberally that 20 people met their deaths at the gallows. It may seem odd, but those who admitted practicing witchcraft did not receive death sentences. In return for a confession, a person would then testify against other “witches.” As Mr. DiCamillo noted, it didn’t do much good to execute a star witness.

At the end, Mr. DiCamillo attempted to answer the biggest question about the trials: why did they happen? He identified three elements that combined to make this bizarre event possible. Puritan society contained many factions. A vulnerable government led people to question its legitimacy, future and effectiveness. A “fear factor” served as the third component.

As with his discussion of the flu pandemic of 1918, Mr. DiCamillo found something positive in the tragedy. Both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams grew up in Massachusetts while the Puritan system of government fractured. The principles they learned in that environment inspired them to help build a new system of government: one predicated on the rule of law and a separation of church and state.

The Salem Witch Trials still serve as the benchmark for a society run amok. As Mr. DiCamillo noted, the expression “witch hunt has become a part of the American vernacular. The factors that led to the events of 1692 have repeated themselves throughout our history; most notably in the Red Scare of the 1950s. Let’s hope there are more Mickey DiCamillos out there raising awareness about the aspects leading to this spectacle. As he chillingly noted, “I don’t blame the children. The adults could’ve put a stop to this at any time.” Let’s hope that next time they do.

Into the Woods at the Ritz Theatre Company

Once upon a time there was a rapping witch, a comical carnivore of a wolf and a mooooving death scene involving a cow. Then a writer named Lames Lapine encountered songwriter Stephen Sondheim. They took these tales and translated them into a story for the stage. Director Craig Hutchings heard this fairy tale and decided to make it a reality. He worked his magic on the staff at the Ritz Theatre Company. Like Jack with the magic beans, he planted the idea of presenting Into the Woods this autumn. The audience who witnessed the October 26th performance lived happily ever after.

Into the Woods brought a unique concept to theatre. In essence, Lapine and Sondheim combined elements of various fairy tales and set them to music. They took the stories of “Cinderella” (played by Jenna Lubas), “Little Red Riding Hood” (played by Brittany Marie), “Jack and the Beanstalk” (Zachary Moore and Melissa Manzano), and “Rapunzel” (Jamie Talamo) and used them as part of a larger narrative (eloquently explained by Ryan Ruggles).

A witch (Jennie Knackstedt) promised a baker (Joshua Bessinger) and his wife (Megan Ruggles) that she would grant them a child if they could provide her with the following items before three midnights passed: a cape as red as blood, a strand of hair as yellow as corn, the whitest cow and a golden slipper. To my surprise, this quest concluded by the end of the first act: yet another happy fairy tale ending, right? Well…

As local South Jersey writer Christine Hardy once observed, “There’s a reason why fairy tales always end with a wedding.” Into the Woods proved this hypothesis. Act Two injected a dose of “realism” into this fantasy world.

Jenna Lubas delivered strong operatic vocals on the emotional number “Cinderella at the Grave.” Jennie Knackstedt sang a somber lament on parental estrangement with “Last Midnight.” Megan Ruggles performed a moving meditation on regret with “Moments in the Woods.”

To balance out this mood, Into the Woods contained humor. Robert Repici played the most comical death scene involving a cow possibly ever performed on stage. Brittany Marie made “Little Red” into an emotionally charged character. Michael J. DeFlorio turned the villain of her tale into quite the witty wolf. The audience echoed his howls with those of laughter.

Mr. DeFlorio also played Cindarella’s prince in this show. His scenes with another lovelorn regent (Rapunzel’s prince played by Anthony Crosby) made for the evening’s funniest moments. These pretentious princes exaggerated every action they took on stage. This included their singing on the melodramatic duet “Agony.” I also enjoyed Mr. DeFlorio’s struggles to sheathe his sword.

In keeping with the spirit of the season, Into to Woods put some outstanding costuming on display. Costuming Designer AJ Garcia took on quite a project with this show. The pauper style garb that Cinderella, the Baker and his wife and Jack and his mother wore appeared very authentic. On the upper class end of the spectrum, so did Cinderella’s gown, the elaborate uniforms worn by the princes and the witch’s elegant dress in the second act. Even without the music (directed by Collin Maier), the choreography (by Michele Romond) and the excellent acting, Into the Woods would’ve made for an entertaining Halloween parade.

The story book and forest setting (by Krysten Cummings and Joshua Bessinger) made an exceptional framework for action on the stage. The lighting (by Jen Donsky) enhanced it spectacularly.

The cast included A LOT of talent. I’d also credit Krysten Cummings, Ellorah Mead, Monette Solomon, Nicholas French, Jomarie Apelt, Chris Jewell, Maggie Harbord and Sadie McKenna for adding their skills to this stellar ensemble.

Into the Woods made for a scintillating sylvan spectacle; an awesome autumnal arboreal undertaking. The Sunderer of Sorrows and Destroyer of Delights will inflict upon it the same fate as the giant in Jack’s story after November 18th at the Ritz Theatre Company.

“The Salem Witch Trials: Strangely Accused” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

The Historical Society of Moorestown bewitched local historians with another enchanting evening this October 17th. The organization’s President, Mickey DiCamillo, delivered the second part of his lecture series on the Salem Witch Trials.  This installment subtitled “Strangely Accused” further described Salem Village’s decent from normalcy—at least by Puritan standards—into an environment of paranoia and zealotry. The crux of the lecture focused on the reasons for this change.

The Society selected an excellent environment for such a discussion. The cobwebs, pumpkins and eerie lighting served as an excellent backdrop. The Halloween décor along with the howling winds on this brisk autumn evening further established the mood.

The group decided to move the lecture indoors due to the cold…or so they said. I wonder if the real chill everyone longed to escape was the one the darkness and the cool breeze sent up everyone’s spine. The audience moved into a cozier atmosphere in the kitchen at Smith-Cadbury Mansion.

During the early months of 1692, accusations of witchcraft only fell on societal outcasts. As the year progressed this changed. Upstanding members of the community such as 72 year old Rebecca Nurse and church goer Martha Corey found themselves under investigation.

As expected, Mr. DiCamillo included witty observations in his lecture. “Maury Povich would want to meet the people of Salem,” he noted. Martha Corey’s life illustrated one reason why. Mrs. Corey moved to Salem Village to begin a new life for herself. While living in her previous community she’d engaged in an extramarital affair. To make things worse, she became pregnant as the result of this illicit relationship. The fact that her child bore the features and skin tone of a Native American didn’t do much to ameliorate her situation. Hence, she relocated to the community and “repented” for her sins. She remarried and became an ardent Christian woman.

Mr. DiCamillo added other interesting details regarding the witch investigations to his lecture. He emphasized the common themes that developed in the course of them. Those allegedly bewitched often reported seeing animals. Most often they witnessed dogs and yellow birds. In Puritan lore, these figures represented the Devil.

Interrogators often asked those accused if they had written in the Devil’s book. Every witch seemed to carry around a tome in which fellow sorcerers and sorceresses would sign their names. Mr. DiCamillo’s imagery made me think of the tradition of signing high school yearbooks.

While accusations of witchcraft could cost someone his/her life, those acquitted endured financial hardships. During the era prisoners paid for their own food, room and board. An accused person could accumulate large debts while waiting for trial.

Coming from this draconian environment, it seems odd that the Puritans began a benign tradition that persists into the modern era. They established the practice of attending church on Christmas.

As with just about anything the Puritans did, this one comes with an interesting story. In seventeenth century England, people celebrated Christmas much differently than those of us living today. Think mardi gras meets New Year’s Eve meets a frat party.

In the 1680s Anglicans began moving into the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Puritans objected to these raucous celebrations. They declared that if a person wanted to commemorate the birth of Christ, one should do so in a church. Revelers swapped their whiskey for communion wine and a great American tradition began.

The “Strangely Accused” lecture showed that anyone could be accused of witchcraft. Neither age, nor gender nor amount of religious devotion immunized a person from these allegations. Mr. DiCamillo piqued everyone’s interest on how this bizarre and tragic situation would resolve. I eagerly anticipate hearing it. The final segment of this tenebrous trilogy of terror takes place this October 24th at the Historical Society of Moorestown.

 

The Ghost Tour Presented by the Historical Society of Moorestown

Even the best place to live in America* has its scary side. I heard tales of Quaker apparitions, mysterious shadows and a visit from the Jersey Devil when I took part in the Moorestown Ghost Tour the evening of October 13, 2018.

Like Prince, Fabio and Bono our tour guide opted to forgo a surname. A man referring to himself by the enigmatic one-word Joe led our group through the journey. We explored Moorestown’s macabre memories surrounding Main Street. An entertaining evening ensued.

The weather accommodated the chilling atmosphere. The unseasonable warm temperatures South Jersey’s experienced gave way to the cool caress of an autumn breeze. A crescent moon bathed the area with a haunting glow on this starless night.

Our tour guide didn’t waste time in getting everyone’s attention. After sharing tales of alleged hauntings at Smith-Cadbury Mansion, we embarked.

Joe discussed the horrific occurrences in the area where the TD Bank now stands. Two local celebrities lived in a home near its grounds. Edgar Sanford served as the first rector of the Episcopal Church on Main Street. His wife, Agnes Sanford, founded the Inner Healing movement. Historians cannot identify the precise location where their house stood.

Mrs. Sanford described the Inner Healing Movement as a process of “the healing of memories,” according to Wikipedia. It’s somewhat ironic that she could have used that practice upon herself. She reported her “senses deadened” and witnessing “shadows moving without light” in her Moorestown home.

A later portion of the tour entailed a visit to Trinity Episcopal Churchyard. Joe forewarned my group that some tour goers have experienced discomfort visiting that graveyard at night. In fact, a few reported the appearance of shadows in the absence of light; an intriguing observation regarding the ground next to the church where Reverend Sanford preached.

I encountered a potential run-in with the occult while in the cemetery. The young lady next to me reported seeing “beady eyes” staring at her from off in the darkness. “It must’ve been a cat. At least, I hope it was a cat,” she said. As I prepared to investigate, I thought it would’ve been impolite if I proved her wrong. I figured it more honorable to go along with her suggestion.

The Trinity Episcopal Churchyard serves as the resting place of Edward Harris. Before Iron Maiden fans “run to the hills” and become “invaders” to Moorestown they should be aware: this is a different Edward Harris than the band’s mascot. The Moorestown Edward Harris befriended John J. Audubon and owned Smith-Cadbury Mansion; the Historical Society’s current headquarters.

Joe told multiple tales of spectral figures attired in Quaker garb haunting the community. During the early twentieth century a farm worker encountered one. While at the site where Hooton’s Hall once stood, he witnessed a ghostly figure in a dark suit and hat walking across the hay and through the wall of a barn.

A customer at the real estate company occupying the Hopkins home on Main Street reported a comparable experience. Upon entering the building he witnessed a man dressed like a nineteenth century Quaker sitting on a chair and staring at him. The figure bore an uncanny likeness to the home’s original owner John Clement Hopkins.

Not all supernatural occurrences in Moorestown are of the spectral variety. January 19, 1909 proved a memorable day in the town’s history. Not only did a snowstorm affect the area, but a series of unexplained phenomena occurred. One resident reported hoof-like tracks in the snow near Stokes Hill. They began in his front yard and trailed around to the back of the house. There they stopped abruptly. That seemed rather odd as the snow had just fallen.

Other residents witnessed a UFO over the site of the current Community House. They described it as a small creature about three feet in length with a two foot wingspan. Its head bore that of a collie’s and the face resembled a horse’s. While on his legendary tour of the Mid-Atlantic region in January of 1909, the Jersey Devil apparently decided add Moorestown to his itinerary.

Joe discussed a variety of other stories that do not appear in this article. I didn’t want to spoil the fun for those who haven’t taken the tour, yet.

On a very serious note he asked for assistance on a local cold case. He requested that anyone with information about the August 22, 1975 disappearance of Carolyn Majane please contact the authorities. More information regarding the case can be found on his website.

I later found out that Joe does, in fact, have a last name. More information regarding Mr. Wetterling’s research can be found at moorestownghosts.blogspot.com. As he mentioned during the tour, the newspaper articles posted there are very graphic. Parents should review before allowing their children to read.

You know it’s a popular community when even those who’ve passed on don’t want to leave. After taking the Moorestown Ghost Tour, it’s hard to blame them. The program included a stroll through the downtown area. Tour goers got a close-up view of the historic homes, churches and businesses that flank Main Street. Even those interested in the more earthly aspects of Moorestown’s history would enjoy the program. The town’s beauty may haunt them long after Halloween, however.

 

*Money Magazine declared Moorestown, NJ the “Best Place to Live in America” in 2005.

“The Salem Witch Trials: The Usual Suspects” by Mickey DiCamillo at the Historical Society of Moorestown

What words would best assess the Salem Witch Trials? Historical Society of Moorestown President, Mickey DiCamillo chose some unexpected ones. Describing the event as both “complex” and “nuanced”, he proceeded to correct a “shallow understanding” that has developed around them. Mr. DiCamillo delivered the first phase of a thorough explication of this macabre chapter in American history at the Garden at Smith Cadbury Mansion this October 10th.

Due to the event’s intricacies, Mr. DiCamillo opted to divide his remarks into three separate lectures. The Historical Society of Mooretown scheduled the following talks over three Wednesdays in October leading up to Halloween: “The Usual Suspects,” “Strangely Accused” and “A Conspiracy of Witches.”

While fusing the ghastly tone of the subject along with some superb Halloween ambiance, the Historical Society of Moorestown established the mood brilliantly. I wasn’t sure if I was attending a history lecture or walking into a coven of witches. A series of candles illuminated the walkway. Pumpkins and cobwebs adorned the periphery. Stray leaves fell from the trees throughout the evening. Mosquitos served as the only blood sucking creatures one needed to fear, however. The balmy 80 degree evening made the autumn evening feel more like the dog days of summer. A large stake and ominous witch figure behind the seating area brought audience members back into the spirit of the season.

I’ve attended several lectures Mr. DiCamillo has presented at the Historical Society. His talks include myriad details which reflect both diligent research and scholarly erudition. In this speech he added another feature to his repertoire: humor. While speaking for over an hour–without notes–, he added comical quips that made the talk even more engaging. His observation regarding a deadbeat husband showed both creativity and a flair for alliteration: “Goodman Goode was good for nothing.”

The opening lecture explored the background that served as the catalyst for the infamous events of 1692. Mr. DiCamillo described that context as including poor governance, continuous warfare and a society rent by factions.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s leaders failed to fulfil the responsibilities of their offices. In fact, they proved so inept that during the 1680s the British government revoked the colony’s charter.

Interminable wars with Native American plagued the community. These conflicts became brutal affairs. Both adversaries engaged in barbaric acts against one another. When combined with an ineffective government, these struggles exacerbated the environment of fear in the colony.

Dysfunction permeated the area’s religious institutions, as well. Salem Village (now Danvers, Massachusetts) hired and fired three ministers in 15 years. As a harbinger of the American system of voting, church members elected their preachers from among the congregation. The continual turnover displayed the prevalence of factions among the faithful.

The Puritan mythos held a belief that they were chosen by God to build a New Jerusalem. It proved as practical as the striving for Camelot that inspired Europeans during the Middle Ages. Along with the conviction of a pending “Puritan apocalypse”, their failure to achieve the “City of a Hill” led them to seek a scapegoat.

While none of these matters served as a harbinger of good things to come, the community also harbored a belief in witchcraft. Their legal code included penalties for its practice. In the days long before fingerprinting and DNA evidence, the standards for conviction proved difficult. A confession proved the most durable. Lacking that, Puritan prosecutors tested the accused on their knowledge of religious precepts; such as prayers or Biblical verses. They would also investigate “body evidence.” This included either warts or odd markings on the body. Puritans believed these served as portals where “magic” could enter a person. If the “bewitched” individual claimed the “witch” appeared to him/her as an apparition, that provided another form of evidence. “Anger resulting in mischief” could also be raised against the accused. This entailed upsetting someone and then something bad happening to him/her.

This minatory concoction reached a climax in Salem Village during the early 1690s. It seems fitting that a disgruntled preacher would trigger a more ignominious phase of colonial history. Reverend Samuel Paris’ daughter and niece both suffered from a mysterious illness. The symptoms included barking, growling and running. Following these outbursts, the children would engage in a long period of staring. When the doctor couldn’t provide a medical diagnosis for this behavior, he suggested witchcraft as a potential source.

The speaker then described the events and personalities that shaped the early stages of the trials. He even included an audience participation exercise. Showing the skill of a seasoned showman, he left an excellent cliff hanger for the October 17th lecture

For readers contemplating hopping into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine to visit this era: there’s more. Even by the standards of the time, Puritans engaged in much quirkier practices than those described.

Mr. DiCamillo included some of these activities in his talk. People practiced an unusual means of fortune telling during the late seventeenth century. They would break and egg and pour it into a glass of water. Participants would interpret the shapes formed by the egg white in order to discern the future.

But this wasn’t the strangest thing people living in the Massachusetts Bay Colony did with food. They also baked “witch cakes” to determine whether or not someone had been bewitched. The ingredients included dough, flour and the urine of the afflicted. The concoction would then be fed to a dog.

The Historical Society of Moorestown presented an exceptional opening program on the Salem Witch Trials. Kudos to Mr. DiCamillo for doing some bewitching of his own. His unique combination of scholarship and wit cast a spell upon the audience. One doesn’t need to pour an egg into a glass of water to know those who attended will return for the October 17th program.

High Fidelity at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Haddonfield Plays and Players took me back in time this weekend. Not only did the company feature a show set during the 1990s, but Ed Doyle cast a number of familiar faces from his 2017 homage to the 1980s, Rock of Ages. In spite of my enthusiasm for watching Ed “Rico” Santiago, Dana Masterman and Vinnie DiFilippo share the stage again, I had some doubts about the overall program.

If I were to partake in the main character’s favorite past time, the 1990s wouldn’t make my “top five” decades. My “top three” reasons are: our country suffered through a philanderer in the White House, a senior figure in the Federal Government perjuring himself and a sexual misconduct scandal involving a Supreme Court nominee. Bad behavior must’ve been endemic to the 90s as High Fidelity’s protagonist, Rob, engaged in some of his own. The story explored his relationship woes through great music (directed by Jared Moskowitz) and dance routines (choreographed by Katharina Muniz). I attended the October 6th performance.

High Fidelity depicted one man’s quest to cope with heartbreak. Rob (played by Ed “Rico” Santiago) struggled through a difficult breakup with Laura (Dana Masterman). His past relationships with Alison (Jenn Kopesky), Penny (Sara Viniar), Charlie (Krista Reinhardt), Sarah (Trishia Dennis) and Jackie (Amanda Frederick) haunted him. Rob found solace among music and the regulars who frequented his Brooklyn record store.

Someone coping with the loss of his girlfriend while living a dull life may seem like a hackneyed story line. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsey-Abaire gave this premise a fresh take. High Fidelity contained unexpected plot twists and several quirky characters. Add the music by Tom Kitt and lyrics by Amanda Green and this musical comedy became an enjoyable evening of theatre.

Ed “Rico” Santiago (as Rob) possesses a rare gift for connecting with spectators. Unlike many performers he regularly makes eye contact with theatregoers. Combine that with his pleasant delivery, witty presence and adeptness for singing upbeat numbers Mr. Santiago’s ability to engage an audience is without peer.

Mr. Santiago displayed great range in High Fidelity. In spite of the character’s despicable behavior, he still induced the audience to support Rob. His stirring rendition of “Laura, Laura” served as a major reason why.

Dana Masterman (as Laura) displayed great talent through her use of non-verbal communication. Even when her character wasn’t singing, speaking or dancing, Ms. Masterman made Laura a key figure on the stage. She ensured the audience always understood precisely what Laura thought and felt about the action. The best example in this show occurred during her first scene with Ian (played by Tommy Balne). The performer captured the situation’s awkwardness perfectly.

Ms. Masterman’s singing capability equals her aptitude for facial expressions. She delivered outstanding vocals on “Number Five with a Bullet”: a track that fused aspects of country, rock and soul music. As if that didn’t provide a challenge, Ms. Masterman performed part of this number while climbing over a couch.

The “She Goes” routine grabbed the number one spot on my “top five” High Fidelity highlights list. While Lauren Hope Gates (as Allison) and Mr. Santiago delivered strong vocals, the back-up dancers made the number a classic. Vinnie DiFillipo, Matthew Weil and Jonathan Greenstein performed a comically choreographed routine that made the evening’s highpoint.

For those romantic minded theatregoers out there, the show included some additional love stories. The one between Dick (Joseph Grosso) and Anna (Faith McLeery) allowed these two performers to sing the delightful reprise to “It’s No Problem” together. I’d add that moment to the “top five” list, also.

The ensemble contained eccentric characters. They made the show even more amusing. Barry (played by Anthony Vitalo) strived to put together a band although he didn’t play anything. When he did assemble the members of Sonic Death Monkey, he showed himself to be quite the balladeer. He performed a terrific rendition of “Saturday Night Girl” accompanied by Matthew Weil and Johnathan Greenstein. The latter used the same hair stylist as Mr. T. for this show, apparently.

Singer Marie (Allison Korn) was “complex.” She engaged in brief affair with Lyle Lovett, but couldn’t say it was with Lyle Lovett although it was with Lyle Lovett. Ms. Korn delivered the sober lament of those coping with difficult breakups, “Ready to Settle”, with somber conviction.

In keeping with the “list” theme, Tommy Balne catapulted his character into the pantheon of “top three” Yogi’s. Joining the distinguished company of the Bear and the Berra, add Ian.

Among a cast of funny and talented performers, Mr. Balne made his role the most humorous. Famed for organizing Kurt Cobain’s intervention, Ian attempted to win over Laura with his mystic appeal. Mr. Balne’s wig, costume and clever insertions of the yoga tree pose would make him any comedy fan’s Ghandi.

I did find one aspect of the show a bit disappointing. Alluding to his earlier work, Mr. Doyle placed one of Stacey Jaxx’s records in the store. Last year Vinnie DiFilippo portrayed that fictional singer in Rock of Ages. The prop kindled my hope that he’d reprise the role in this show. While that character didn’t appear, Mr. DiFilippo compensated by performing a spectacular Bruce Springsteen impression.

I would also like to complement performers Jenn Kopesky, Sara Viniar, Krista Reinhardt, Trisha Dennis, Amanda Frederick and Jeremy Noto for their work in this production.

High Fidelity would make my “top five” list of musical comedies set in the 1990s. We all know the scandals that shamed our nation in the 90s will never recur. However, let’s hope playwrights and musicians craft more period pieces like High Fidelity. Let’s also hope that this cast and crew members from Haddonfield Plays and Players are available to bring it to the stage. No one will ever accuse me of perjury after writing that.

High Fidelity goes the way of grunge music, the Macarena and the US budget surplus after October 20th.

Frost/Nixon at Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage

A flurry of entertainment masquerading as politics has infected the news cycle for the last two years. To ameliorate this madness I opted to watch a theatrical presentation exploring the thin line between politics and show business. Granted, that decision may sound like the drunken whim of a law student out celebrating the only time he ever managed to pass a bar. Nonetheless, I was sober as a judge when I attended the opening night performance of Frost/Nixon at Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage this October 5th.

Tim Kirk directed this analysis of two unlikely adversaries. Both men reached vertiginous heights of success at the summit of their professions; one in television, the other as the leader of the free world. Failures crushed each man plummeting them to the ground like modern day Icaruses. But a burning ambition ignited both to strive for that apex again. The only obstacle preventing each man’s return to glory was the other man.

A night of engaging theatre quickly transitioned into a verbal chess match. With Matt Becker in the role of David Frost and Bernard DiCasimirro portraying Richard Nixon it was game on.

Matt Becker did a wonderful job transitioning Frost from a carefree talk show host into a credible journalist. The English accent he adopted reflected the character’s cheery persona. Mr. Becker showed the audience that means of speaking masked a facade. As the show progressed, he brought out the complexities of Frost’s character. I liked the uncomfortable way he avoided the question when Caroline (played by Emily Huddell) accused him of being “sad.”

My favorite scene occurred when Frost received an unexpected phone call. Mr. Becker lamented the poor quality of the interviews and how he’d gambled his career on them. Then an inebriated Nixon contacted him. With a slight slur and an abundance of bravado, Mr. DiCasimirro drew comparisons between the two men. Mr. Becker listened while a poker face for the ages came over his expression. The look captured the character’s determination and frustration. As he sat silently listening to the President’s drunken oration, Mr. Becker drew my attention even better than Mr. DiCasimirro’s brilliant portrayal of the intoxicated former President.

Richard Nixon assured the American people that he was “not a crook.” In the role of the former President, Bernard DiCasimirro sure stole the spotlight. His witty delivery of anecdotes captured both Nixon’s disarming charm and social discomfort. His efforts to rattle Frost before he began the interviews captured the character’s ruthlessness. Through his skillful portrayal he managed to inspire empathy for the disgraced former Chief Executive; transitioning him from a cynical political operator into a vanquished and broken man. Nixon may have let down the American people. Mr. DiCasimirro certainly didn’t let down the audience at Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage.

Mr. DiCassimiro captured the character’s essence brilliantly. My favorite moment came when Nixon learned that Frost made the $200,000 down payment for the interview with his own money. Mr. DiCasimirro nonchalantly quipped to an aide: “If I’d known that, I would’ve offered him tea.”

In addition to directing, Tim Kirk played several roles in this piece. He delivered a terrific rendition of negotiator extraordinaire Swifty Lazaar. He played it so well that I had to avoid him after the show. I worried that he’d be able to talk me into spending a fortune on a pair of those Italian shoes Mr. Becker wore.

I usually don’t agree with the inclusion of a narrator in theatrical productions. Frost /Nixon featured two. To my surprise, Mr. Morgan crafted both roles very well. The playwright used them to provide insights into both the Frost and Nixon camps. The audience got to learn about the motivations behind each character’s supporters. The performers who played the narrators animated the text beautifully. Dave Pallas (as Jim Reston) presented the story from the Frost camp. I enjoyed the way brought out the anxiety and frustration with the project. Francis B. Pedersen (Jack Brennan) provided a convincing point-of-view from a dogged Nixon loyalist.

I also credit performers Richard E. Brown II, Alex Levitt, Scott Alexander Ross, Emily Huddell and Eilis Skamarakas for their contributions to the performance.

I had one criticism of the show. The story’s premise defied belief. My mind couldn’t process the idea of a Republican politician talking to a reporter not representing Fox News. I understand that the events in the story occurred 19 years prior to the network’s advent, but still: I would have found a musical version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit performed on an ice skating rink much more believable.

Media and politicians do share some common practices. In addition to sensationalism, both tend to frame issues as zero-sum games. The latter does not provide the best source material for a fun evening of theatre. The cast and crew of Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage still did extraordinary work making Frost/Nixon enjoyable. Mr. DiCasimirro’s rendition of Nixon made him into a tragic figure worthy of Shakespeare. Mr. DiCasimirro’s character told Mr. Becker’s, “Only one of us can win. The other ends up in the wilderness.” In staying true to Nixon’s personality, this statement proved inaccurate. The audience walked away the victors from this contest.

Frost/Nixon heads out to the wilderness from Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage after October 13th.