Bridge Players Theatre Company made their inaugural entry into the cybersphere this August 20th. For this historic effort they chose a show written for just such a platform: Sean Grennan’s comedy Couples. The combination allowed the cast to zoom in on the comedy. Maureen Broadbent directed this witty take on virtual therapy.
Mr. Grennan crafted Couples for the coronaera. The show featured a virtual setting designed for an on-line presentation. This format allowed all of the actors to follow social distancing guidelines and perform from different locations. With the exception of the thespian playing Thomas, everyone in the cast remained on-screen for the entire show.
Technical Director Kris Kauker took premise of a good head shot to another level. The audience could only see the from the performers’ heads to just below shoulder level. The set-up gave the show an interesting perspective. Think something like the opening montage of The Brady Bunch,but with quirkier characters.
The playwright’s format worked on multiple levels. Zoom meetings are the ubiquitous response to the COVID-19 guidelines. Group sessions are a popular form of therapy. So is marriage counseling. Add to those the increasing interest in virtual theatre, and Mr. Grennan provided performers with an outstanding overall concept with which to work.
Count Tolstoy famously wrote: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The beginning of Mr. Grennan’s play showed the prescience of Anna Karenina’s opening line.
Dr. Sharon Mercer (played by Gina Petti Baldassari) treated three separated couples during their fourth virtual session together. With the way these couples bickered in the opening act, the decision to host these meetings on-line proved a wise one. The pairs included Nevin (John Weber) and Barbara (Alice Weber), Sally (Akayla Butler) and Faith (Jessi Meisel), and Cynthia (Cathy Mayher) and Thomas (John Martelli). For the first act, the couples discussed a “date” they shared together at the doctor’s recommendation. For the second, the doctor prescribed that they spend a month without contact with one another. The side effects of this treatment ranged from hilarity to self-revelation.
As Dr. Mercer, Gina Petti Baldassari displayed the type of outstanding vocal skills more common in musical roles. She performed the character’s opening vocal exercises with the same authority as Ian Gillian’s delivery on Deep Purple’s “Child in Time.” Ms. Baldassari adjusted her tone to deliver a gripping monolog on the formula for a successful marriage: “Surrender. Give yourself. Lose yourself” with both passion and power. With the same skill, she used a dispassionate tone to describe her listening to a squabble between Thomas and Cynthia as “against professional ethics.” Then she followed their dispute with rapt attention.
The playwright applied a standard psychology tool for brilliant comedic effect. Ms. Baldassari gave all the couples a Rorschach test to form an “emotional baseline.” Intriguing impressions followed. John Weber provided the most memorable. He described one picture as “Abraham Lincoln in a sundress.”
In a clever bit of casting, a real-life married couple played Nevin and Barbara. John and Alice Weber worked very well opposite one another. Mr. Weber adopted the persona of a free spirt. Mrs. Weber expressed irritation with her husband’s unconventional behavior. Both performers added depth to their characters’ personalities.
An encounter with a dying friend served as the catalyst for their decaying marriage. Mr. and Mrs. Weber showed the impact of this meeting on both their characters with both comedy and conviction.
Mr. Weber’s relaxed tone of voice and wardrobe choices showed Nevin’s cool composure and his disinterest in “acting his age.” As did his use of the expression “universal fail” in reference to the doctor’s “date night” idea. His hysterical humming of the Jeopardy! theme while accompanying himself with jazz hands became another one of the show’s funniest moments. He expressed Nevin’s serious side just as well. Clad in a suit and tie, he became lachrymose while describing his feelings for his wife.
South Jersey community theatre afficionados know Alice Weber as a director of thought-provoking dramas. Mrs. Weber displayed the same riveting aptitude as a comedic actor.
As Nevin’s wife Barbara, Mrs. Weber delivered wonderful zingers. She used the skillful delivery of a stand-up comic when chastising Nevin for his tattoo of “A bald eagle with a cowboy hat riding a Harley screaming ‘ride or die.’” Her straight-faced references to watching the band Chemotherapy during their date enhanced the line’s comedic impact. Mrs. Weber also performed a deft enactment of her character’s sensitive side. She brought emotion to her revelation that she believed Nevin’s new persona his way of rejecting their marriage. Mrs. Weber also cried when talking about the couple’s friend Jeff.
Sally (Akayla Butler) and Faith (Jessi Meisel) made up the next couple seeking the doctor’s services. Their relationship began based on passion, but had, to paraphrase Rabindranath Tagore, deteriorated into the “dreary hand of dead habit.” The responsibilities of parenthood smothered their feelings for one another.
Akayla Butler surmounted the challenge of playing a character full of frustration and passion both concealed by a shy exterior. While not finding their “bowling date” satisfying, she still expressed strong feelings towards Faith. She delivered a powerful reflection on the joy she experienced in response to a brief period of not feeling overwhelmed.
Jessi Meisel played the more expressive of the duo. Even when not the focus of the scene, Ms. Meisel made herself relevant to the action. She responded to Mr. Martelli’s expressions of love for his wife by pursing her lips and shaking her head. The performer showed Faith’s toughness when bickering with the other characters. She also brought out the role’s loving side when telling (and virtually showing) Sally her affection for her.
Cathy Mayher showed that Cynthia could be both gullible and tough. She timidly defended her husband’s obvious lack of interest in her. This proved difficult as he didn’t arrive to the first session until its conclusion and gave her a bracelet engraved with another woman’s name. Ms. Mayher also brought the character’s more belligerent side to the screen when she confronted Thomas while intoxicated.
John Martelli portrayed the selfish and self-obsessed Thomas. Even though he didn’t appear in the show until late, he still made his time on screen relevant and comical. After arriving late to a session to save his marriage, he still left in order to take a phone call.
The audience had a condensed view of the performers, but the actors still utilized skillful costuming. While a referee’s uniform may have been a better wardrobe choice for Dr. Mercer, Ms. Baldassari did wear a shirt with stripes for the second act. John Weber selected an authentic pork pie hat for his character. Alice Weber chose a bow-like red one for Barbara.
At the end of the show, Cynthia revealed that, “Tom married a loser so that he could win all the time.” Fans of community theatre in South Jersey may feel that they’ve lost something due to the coronavirus quarantine. Thanks to Sean Grennan and organizations such as Bridge Players Theatre Company, supporters of the arts have venues when they can still experience theatre. That’s a win for everybody.