The Groundling at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

The ‘garage band’ phenomena may be followed by a ‘garage theatre’ trend compliments of playwright Marc Palmieri. This writer took the concept of ‘home theatre’ to another level in The Groundling. Add a story influenced by Shakespeare to some quirky characters and an entertaining evening of theatre resulted. Your correspondent attended the February 15th performance at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.

A production of Love’s Labour’s Lost inspired Bob Malone (played by Michael Melvin) to become a playwright. He decided to craft a play describing his and his wife Karen’s (Lori Aleixo Howard) courtship. He even hired the director of the show that led him to write, Dodd (played by Nicholas French), to direct it. Bob’s play, however, would take place in his garage and last for just one show.

Bob was no Shakespeare. For that matter, this playwright’s rhyming couplets made the airy lyrics found in popular love songs sound profound by comparison. Add to Bob’s writing “skills” the romantic tension between Dodd and leading lady Victoria (Marissa Wolf) along with the complex personalities of the other actors (Stephen Jackson and Allison Adams) and Mr. Palmieri created a comedy that would have made the Bard laugh.

Mr. Palmieri provided director Edwin Howard with an outstanding attention getting opening. Think ‘Mamet meets Mambo’ for this one. While Mr. Melvin’s and Ms. Howard’s characters engaged in an obscenity filled shouting match, ‘technical director’ Frank (Russ Walsh) proceeded to percussively pound a beam with his hammer. No audience chatter occurred after this curtain rose.

The Groundling contained an extraordinary plot twist. The cast executed Mr. Palmieri’s unexpected, but inevitable conclusion with moving realism. All the performers on stage, especially Mr. French, seemed as surprised by it as the audience did.

Michael Melvin ended a three-year hiatus from the theatre with The Groundling. He captured the full range of Bob’s emotions during his performance. He showed the character’s romantic side when discussing the play with Mr. French. The director recommended he add more “conflict” to the story. Dodd called the relationship “too smooth.” “Nothing happens,” He said. Mr. Melvin became nostalgic as he explained, “That’s how it happened.” The performer balanced comedy with anger during his arguments with Ms. Howard. Mr. Melvin made the hackneyed writer a figure of pity and empathy through his gripping delivery at the show’s end.

In her performance as Karen, Lori Howard brought out the character’s wrath and bitterness. She maintained the persona of an angry woman while providing nuances that Karen deserved sympathy. Ms. Howard measuredly revealed the character’s underlying personality during an exceptional scene opposite Ms. Wolf. The performer showed that Karen possessed heart underneath a harsh exterior.

Marissa Wolf turned in a Marissa Wolf level performance. Ms. Wolf brought out Victoria’s change with subtlety. After starting out as a bit of a diva, she became curious to learn more about the character she played in the ‘play within a play.’ In the process Victoria discovered a personal connection to her role. In the pivotal scene opposite Ms. Howard, she showed skill by adopting Ms. Howard’s tone of voice and mannerisms to play the role of Karen.

Nicholas French portrayed Dodd: a man deeply and passionately in love with his own perceived genius. When Bob expressed his admiration for Dodd’s work, Mr. French delivered a monolog in which he described his approach to Love’s Labour’s Lost. He did so with such passion it sounded like he gasped several times. His exaggerated mannerisms accentuated the character’s high-minded vocabulary. Mr. French’s moving a pencil like an orchestra conductor’s baton during the play’s rehearsal showed his artistic pretentions. The display led Allison Adams’ and Russ Walsh’s characters to mock him during this scene.

The other members of the cast added their own brands of comedy to the production. The irony of Russ Walsh’s character not being able to hear in the presence of so much noise added humor to an already funny opening. Stephen Jackson showed the humor in a composer who couldn’t compose. Allison Adams portrayed a struggling actress struggling to act.

Jackie Duran served as the Stage Manager for this project. Nicholas French became the uncredited Music Director for The Groundling. He composed the play’s music and taught performer Stephen Jackson how to play the keyboards for the show.

Shakespeare even may have influenced the seating for The Groundling. Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage is an intimate 35 seat venue. Because of the limited room, your correspondent had the opportunity to sit next to Mr. Melvin during one of the show’s scenes. This arrangement hearkened back to the Globe Theatre during the Elizabethan Era. In those days, audience members would pay to sit on stage during the performance.

Playwright Marc Palmieri attended the February 15th performance at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage. During the talkback session he was asked what he thought of this performance of The Groundling. Mr. Palmieri said that he, “Hasn’t seen better.” With the quality of community theatre in South Jersey, is that a surprise?

 

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