Month: December 2020

A Christmas Carol – Digital Reading 2020 Presented by the Pioneer Theatre Company

Three ghosts may have visited Scrooge, but the Pioneer Theatre Company provided audiences with five segments of A Christmas Carol to visit this Holiday Season. The company presented an original rendition of Dickens’ classic as part of their Let It Show: A Perfectly Pandemic Production series.

COVID-19 restrictions have inspired creativity among theatrical companies. Not only have they discovered new ways to bring theatre to audiences, they’ve developed new means of telling traditional tales. The Pioneer Theatre company achieved both with their retelling of a Holiday standard.

Versions of A Christmas Carol abound this time of year. So many that it’s difficult to imagine fresh approaches to the story. The Pioneer Theatre Company reworked the novel into a quintet of performances for online broadcasts. Each show covered one “stave” or chapter of Dickens’ novel. Only three performers delivered the narration and acted all the roles during each reading. The same actors performed in the first and final shows. The other performances contained different players. Each one featured a different director.

From their own homes, the actors read Dickens’ novel. They crafted different voices to portray each character. The narrators alternated. The audience experienced a hybrid between listening to an audio book and watching a theatrical performance.

The production team displayed their Holiday spirit throughout the production. The directors used the same snowflake wallpaper for all five shows. Red and black checkered paper wrapped the performers’ scripts.

The actors applied their own brands of Christmas cheer to their sets. Behind Elizabeth Ramos, a stocking hung from a garland covered shelf. Tito Livias read in front of a fireplace. A winter village decorated the mantle. Nafeesa Monroe placed a red poinsettia over her right shoulder. Collen Baum surrounded herself with a snowman, a stocking and a wreath.

Dickens’ verbose prose can be a difficult slog for those living in the twenty first century. The actors read and performed with immense enthusiasm. Everyone cast in these shows maintained the same level of excitement throughout their performances.

The actors appeared in blocks on the Vimeo screen. Unless delivering a soliloquy or if two characters spoke to one another, the audience could see all three performers.

Pioneer broadcast the first stave entitled “Marley’s Ghost” on December 5th. Their Artistic Director, Karen Azenberg, directed this piece. It featured Elizabeth Ramos, Greg Balla and Vince McGill.  Ms. Ramos delivered stellar narration.

The highlight of this segment came when Mr. Balla portrayed Marley’s ghost opposite Mr. McGill’s Scrooge. Mr. Balla adopted a malevolent tone when addressing the Christmas curmudgeon. After growling his lines earlier in the stave, Mr. McGill spoke with a tremulous voice. Mr. McGill also applied humor to the role. In response to Marley’s revelation that three spirits would visit Scrooge, Mr. McGill wittily replied, “I’d rather not.”

The second stave “The First of Three Spirits” aired on December 9th. Pirrone Yousefzadeh directed. Corey Allen, Laura Hall and Tito Livas read. Mr. Livias brought passion to the role of Scrooge. He showed effusive excitement when revisiting his childhood school. Mr. Allen captured the Ghost of Christmas Past’s ethereal nature. Laura Hall applied fantastic vocal variety to her narration.

Ms. Hall and Mr. Allen played one of the novel’s most gripping scenes. As Scrooge’s fiancée Belle, Mr. Allen explained to Scrooge (now portrayed by Ms. Hall) that “another idol had replaced her” in his heart. The two performers captured the devastation, loss and heartbreak in the exchange.            

On December 13th, “The Second of Three Spirits” premiered. Shelly Butler directed this third stave. Colleen Baum played Mrs. Cratchit, Fred’s wife and others in addition to narrating. Ben Cherry took on the roles of Scrooge and Tiny Tim among others. Nafeesa Monroe portrayed the Ghost of Christmas Present, Bob Cratchit and miscellaneous characters.

Dickens included a host of imagery in this chapter. The performers delivered palpable depictions of the sights and smells of Victorian London at Christmastime.

Much laughter occurred in this stave. All of the performers delivered hearty chuckles during Fred’s party. Ms. Monroe’s Ghost of Christmas Present performed the most energetic laughter throughout.

Ms. Monroe showed that her character could spread more than fun and Holiday joy. When Mr. Cherry’s tremulous voice inquired about Tiny Tim’s future, Ms. Monroe answered by using his own words about “surplus population” against him. His somber expression replied. Ms. Monroe showed the ghost’s anger when introducing Scrooge to the children Ignorance and Want.  

 Director Kareem Fahmy adopted an un-cozy, un-Merry Christmas approach to setting when “The Third of Three Spirts” made its appearance on December 19th. At rise, performers LaToya Cameron, Jamen Nanthakumar and Jeff Talbott stood in front of blank screens. Then the ambiance reflected the eerie aura of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. A dark background covered by a gray mist appeared behind the actors. It oozed a sense of horror.

When the action occurred inside the Cratchits’ home, the interior of a small Victorian house appeared on the screen. The setting of the fourth stave mirrored its beginning. Once more, the background became blank.

LaToya Cameron portrayed an outstanding version of Scrooge. She also played Mrs. Cratchit, Caroline and others. Ms. Cameron narrated expressively. Her nervous trembling when the Ghost instructed Scrooge to remove the blanket from the dead man’s face enhanced the tension. The performer expressed shock upon discovering his identity at his grave.

Jamen Nanthakumar delivered memorable renditions of the Cratchit kids, the charwoman and the “fat man with a large chin.” For the latter, the director only showed him from his           nose to just below his neck. The performer used a squeaky voice and even wore a shawl when playing the charwoman. His eye shifting captured the character’s sly personality.

When not narrating, Jeff Talbot performed the roles of Peter, Old Joe the pawnbroker and a moving Bob Cratchit. When lamenting Tiny Tim’s passing, Mr. Talbot’s voice broke up as he restrained himself from sobbing. Moments later, in a gravelly tone he said, “I am very happy.” His delivery sounded as though he wanted to convince himself.

The director included the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come as a character. The audience could only see a bare hand and a sleeve from a black robe hanging off the actor’s arm. Its trembling when confronting Scrooge made for the show’s most dramatic moment.     

The fifth stave served as “The End of It” on December 23rd. Rosalyn Coleman Willams directed. The three actors from the first reading returned to the screen. This time, the director cast Greg Balla as Scrooge. Vince McGill played opposite him as Cratchit in addition to delivering animated narration. Elizabeth Ramos narrated and played various children; even using a credible cockney accent.

Mr. Balla showed himself just as adept at portraying an ecstatic figure. His giddiness led him to execute the task of “laughing until he cried.”

Mr. Balla and Mr. McGill played one of the show’s best scenes. Mr. McGill portrayed Cratchit entering the office late. Mr. Balla’s Scrooge began chastising him. Then, in Scrooge’s mean voice, said he would be raising his salary. With respect to Harold Pinter, never did two performers make a pause so engaging.   

At the stave’s conclusion, all the actors who performed in the series joined together for the concluding, “God bless us, everyone.”

For Christmas 2020, the Pioneer Theatre Company developed a creative interpretation of A Christmas Carol. Five directors adapted this nineteenth century novel for performance on an online platform. The actors brought infectious enthusiasm to their readings. All this occurred during a pandemic. To quote a line Laura Hill read: If that’s not high praise, tell me higher and I’ll use it.

Those who missed the original broadcasts can still watch all five performances. They will be available until December 31st at: A Christmas Carol – Digital Reading 2020 | Pioneer Theatre Company.

Yo Eleven! One Woman Many Voices Presented by the Atlantic City Arts Council

Stand-up comedian Michelle Tomko got serious with her one-woman act: Yo Eleven! One Woman Many Voices. The play explored the lives of people living in her home community of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Ms. Tomko, who also wrote the piece, portrayed eleven different characters in the span of an hour and 45 minutes. The show premiered before a live audience at Dante Hall in November of 2019. The New Jersey State Council on the Arts and Stockton University sponsored. The Atlantic City Arts Council rebroadcast the performance as part of 48 Blocks Atlantic City 2020 via Zoom on December 21st.  

The promotional material for Yo Eleven! explained the meaning of the show’s title:

 The reason bettors yell “Yo eleven” at the craps table is so the croupier doesn’t confuse the word eleven with the similarly sounding word seven. In the same vein, this collection of stories is titled Yo Eleven! to ensure that the often forgotten community of Atlantic City is not confused with the similar sounding casino openings & closings, celebrity appearances, state takeovers, and quarterly numbers that dominate most of the articles written about “America’s playground.”

During the introduction, Ms. Tomko described herself as a student of restorative journalism. This approach to the craft emphasizes “second act stories.” It explores what happens after a tragedy. Reporting becomes more than “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Ms. Tomko’s theatrical background led her to craft a performance inspired by this method. She based the show on the premise that “everyone has a story.”

Her desire to research “unsung heroes” presented a challenge. She discovered that many such people preferred to remain “unsung.”

Undaunted, Ms. Tomko persisted with her research. She found people interested in participating. Their stories became part of Yo Eleven!  

Ms. Tomko portrayed an eclectic range of eleven characters. Her subjects illustrated Atlantic City’s diversity. They included a retired Fire Chief, a chef and a yoga instructor among others.

Heidi Mae directed the performance. A couch and a chair occupied stage right. At rise, a table set on stage left. Later in the show a bench replaced it. The center contained a clothes rack upon which various costumes hung. This set allowed Ms. Tomko to change on stage. It also ensured nothing would distract the audience from she and her narrative.

Ms. Tomko gave each character its own unique voice. Ray-Ray, the convict, spoke with a tough, deep tone at first. Later, she revealed his vulnerable side when he said, “God has changed all my angles.”

She delivered a realistic portrayal of Maddie, the millennial. Speaking in a high-pitched voice, Ms. Tomko included disfluencies in her dialog. The interspersing of expressions such as “um,” “ya know” and “uh” created the sense that a real person was speaking in a café.

The performer captured her characters’ appearances and mannerisms. This brought them to life for the audience. In keeping with Ray-Ray’s request, “If you’re going to play me: hoodie, hat on backwards and sunglasses” she did just that. When portraying Gina, she sat with her feet up on the couch and held a cup with both hands. These portrayals created the illusion that the audience was hearing these stories at the time the characters first told them.  

The playwright worked a diversity of topics into the show. Her characters discussed various subjects that included raising families, working in the entertainment industry and running a local business. They delved into social issues such as Atlantic City’s LGBTQ community, race relations and changes in fashion trends. The subjects of drug and alcohol abuse entered into the conversations.    

“Street Priest” emerged as Ms. Tomko’s most memorable character. This Roman Catholic clergyman ran a half-way house for men about to be released from prison. He imparted some trenchant observations on life. A bishop once told him: “Some people are so heavenly bound, they ain’t no earthly good.” “Street Priest” also noted that, “Your past mistakes don’t have to define you.”

The clergyman came up with an original interpretation of a popular swear word. Turning its letters into an acronym, he changed its meaning to: “Faith Unity Charity Kindness.”

Ms. Tomko applied her comedy writing skills to her script. During their meeting at an eatery, both she and the Fire Chief offered to pay for each other’s meals. Once he declared himself a Trump supporter, she said, “It was at this point I decided to stop fighting over the bill.” Ms. Tomko colorfully described a business owner as someone who, “Sounds like Scarlett O’Hara doing an impression of Queen Victoria.” When explaining her dislike of yoga, she used the pigeon pose to both show and explain her reasons.

A resident of Atlantic City, Ms. Tomko originally hails from Cleveland. While those born and raised in Atlantic City view it as a “badge of honor,” they’ve welcomed Ms. Tomko. “We’re a team in this community,” the yoga instructor told her. “You’re on our team.”

At the beginning of her performance, Ms. Tomko declared that “AC is one of the coolest places.” Her subjects agreed. “I feel rich living here,” Gina said. “Food choices. Friendships. Things to do.” Michael, the chef, observed, “The experience doesn’t end at the end of the plate. It ends where your heart is in the community.”

In response to negative news reports, The Fire Chief’s son keeps telling him to “get out of” Atlantic City. He’s not moving. “There’s good stories (in Atlantic City), too,” he says. Through her creative interpretation of eleven residents, Ms. Tomko showed just how true that is.

A Reading of a Cult Classic at Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center

Can good acting rescue bad writing? The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center addressed that question this December 16th. The company performed a virtual reading of the script from the “Citizen Kane of bad movies,” Tommy P. Wiseau’s legendary effort The Room.  

Using words such as legendary or even effort in describing Mr. Wiseau’s iconoclastic piece may seem odd. Perhaps. To capture The Room’s true essence, one must experience the original screenplay as crafted by the author. It also requires distinguished actors with a passion for drama to present it.

Mr. Wiseau’s The Room should not be confused with Harold Pinter’s comedy of menace with the same title. Interestingly, it did share similarities with Pinter’s work Betrayal. A love triangle threatened to destroy a strong friendship between two men. As in Wiseau’s piece, Betrayal’s dialog contained repetitious lines. The similarities ended there. 

For his contributions to the arts, Harold Pinter received the Companion of Honour, the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Légion d’honneur among others. It is doubtful that Mr. Wiseau will receive similar distinctions for The Room. His work still provides audiences with an unforgettable evening of entertainment.

 The Room told the story of Johnny (played by Jim Catapano) and his “future wife” Lisa (Laura Paone). After informing her mother Claudette (Catherine LaMoreaux) that she “doesn’t love Johnny anymore,” Lisa seduced Johnny’s best friend Mark (Nathaniel Tomb). Johnny felt alienated and unappreciated. As he so eloquently reflected: “Lisa’s been unfaithful. And her mother cares more about her life-threatening cancer than me.”

It is not Chekhov, but, somehow, it works.

For those unfamiliar with Mr. Wiseau’s dialog, James Brown’s lyrics would serve as a good comparison. The Godfather of Soul’s skills as a wordsmith may raise questions. Modify his lyrics, however, and the song just is not a James Brown tune. The same premise applies to Mr. Wiseau’s dialog. Some of the most memorable passages from The Room included:

Lisa: “It’s women’s talk. Only women can talk about it.”

A few lines later Lisa said: “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Like the great playwrights, Mr. Wiseau used his work to explore the tragedy of the human condition. Peter (Noah Stanzione) and Johnny shared the following exchange on Jimmy’s (Thom Boyer) passing.

Peter: “Funerals are so depressing.”

Johnny: “That’s life.”

As she contemplated her own mortality, Claudette shared a deep conversation with her daughter.

Claudette: “Nobody wants to help me and I’m dying.”

Lisa: “…Johnny says everything will be fine.”

Claudette: “I’m sure he’s right.”

These quotes provide a good sampling of the screenplay’s content. Michelle (Shauni Ramai) observed, “This is getting worse and worse.” It’s unclear whether she referred to the story or the dialog itself.

One could open to any page in the script and find some unusual phrasing. The following exchange between Billy (Nick Endo) and Lisa would rank among the most befuddling.

Billy: “I owe him money.”

Lisa: “What kind of money?”

Lisa also receives the award for the show’s most nonsensical line: “Before I met Mark, I didn’t think he would blow my mind.”

Claudette advised Lisa to remain with Johnny. She expressed her motherly advice as only a Tommy Wiseau character could.

“I haven’t been happy since I got married for the first time. I didn’t want to marry your dad, either. I’ve been miserable since then.”

Bartlett’s Quotations could devote an entire volume to Claudette’s ruminations. She expressed her disdain for her son.

“Billy’s been nothing but trouble. First the caesarian and now this.”

Each performer played their characters as the script warranted. They made the performance as amusing as the dialog.

The Holiday Season can be a challenging time for performers. Many theatre companies present shows such as A Christmas Story, A Christmas Carol and Scrooge. Each feature roles made iconic by other actors. 

But can anyone imagine anybody except Tommy Wiseau playing Johnny?

Performer Jim Catapano tested his skills by taking on the most unique character in the history of cinema. Mr. Catapano made Johnny…well, Johnny. The repeated “you are my future wife” reminders to Lisa sounded fresh. His multiple descriptions of Mark as his “best friend” came out as original each of myriad times he said it. He delivered the sine qua non of The Room: “You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” Even the late James Dean would have smiled at Mr. Catapano’s delivery of the line he inspired.

Mr. Catapano performed a scene not shown in the movie. He confronted drug-dealing Jimmy (Thom Boyer) and challenged him to a fight. While gunslingers in Western films used weapons to settle disputes, Johnny combined his previously unmentioned vampire powers and some interesting trash talk.    

I have nine black belts, 15 master’s degrees and a PhD in Agricultural Economics…Have you seen my power level? it’s over 9,000. That means I have over 9,000 units of power…Anger is my middle name.

While not specified in the text, it is unlikely Johnny received any of those master’s degrees in English.

It may seem paradoxical to note that The Room inspired some outstanding performances. Mr. Catapano was not the only actor who impressed.

Laura Paone portrayed The Room’s other infamous character. Somehow Ms. Paone delivered all of Lisa’s lines without laughing. None of the script’s characters were well-developed; Lisa’s vacillating made her a top contender for the least thought through. Ms. Paone still managed to animate Lisa as written in the text. Her best moment came during the fight between Johnny and Mark. In a voice that sounded bored, Ms. Paone drew out the line, “Stop. You’re ruining the party.”

Nathaniel Tomb delivered another superb performance. A remarkable achievement with the character of Mark. By his own admission, Mr. Tomb didn’t understand who Mark was. He still portrayed the character with feeling. His mannerisms and vocal inflections almost allowed the audience to overlook the sloppy dialog.

When discussing the story’s inconsistencies, performer Thom Boyer said, “It’s not a lack of interlocking; it’s a higher interlocking.”  

Shauni Ramai brought a lot of energy to her performances as Michelle/the Barista. Nick Endo applied the same enthusiasm to his portrayal of the show’s most controversial character, Billy. Noah Stanzione portrayed Peter as the voice of reason; not easy with this story. Thom Boyer delivered a wonderful rendition of the “me underwears” speech as Bran. Catherine LaMoreaux portrayed Claudette and Anna Paone read the stage directions. Both deserve credit for their professional manner of saying the lines as though serious.     

So, can strong acting save poor writing? With respect to The Room, the cast of Dragonfly’s rendition showed why Mr. Wiseau’s work earned the distinction of “cult classic.”

Mark instructed Peter to, “Leave your stupid comments in your pocket.” If Mr. Wiseau had taken his own character’s advice, audiences would not have experienced the The Room.

It’s a Wonderful Life Presented by Classic Radio Road Show

The Classic Radio Road Show gifted their audience by wrapping up 2020 with a Christmas classic. The company presented an audio only version of the Holiday staple It’s a Wonderful Life.  The performance took place live via Zoom on December 19th.

The company presented a retelling of George Bailey’s (voiced by Duane Noch) discovery of his own worth. George lived his entire life in the same Bedford Falls, NY community. He married a local woman, Mary Hatch (Marcia Finn), after succeeding his father at the Building and Loan Association. They then had three children.

A scandal rocked George’s settled existence. One of his associates, his Uncle Billy (Michael Bürgi) lost an $8,000 deposit. The bank faced closure and George could potentially go to prison. He unraveled under the strain. The pressure led him to contemplate death.

Joseph, the Superintendent of Angels, (Brian Hotaling) tasked Angel Second Class Clarence (Michael Bürgi) with showing George how meaningful a life he lived. If Clarence succeeded, he would receive his wings. Clarence concocted a plan to show George how life in Bedford Falls would have occurred had he never been born.

A time revered Christmas classic ensued.

To enhance the audience’s suspension of disbelief, the Classic Radio Road Show didn’t post any images on the screen during the performance. This decision added to the format’s authenticity. It also burdened the actors to carry the show with nothing other than their voices. They executed this challenge splendidly.         

Duane Noch took on the celebrated role of George Bailey. Fans of the movie version no doubt identify Jimmy Stewart as George. Duane Noch compensated by not playing George as a Stewart impersonator: he played him as Duane Noch. The artist’s approach allowed him to give the character his own distinct interpretation.

Mr. Noch’s soothing voice made George’s adventures a joy to experience. His voice portrayed George’s awkwardness when visiting Mary’s home. When Mary complimented the old Granville House, he delivered the charming response, “I wouldn’t live in it if I was a ghost.” Mr. Noch displayed George’s elation when he managed to keep the bank open during a run on it.

The actor showed George’s descent into misery with equal proficiency. The tension and anxiety came through in his voice. He portrayed genuine anger when hollering at his daughter for playing the piano. His berating of the teacher who sent his other daughter home due to illness showed a man coming unhinged. Mr. Noch produced realistic crying as he lamented his situation.

Michael Bürgi took on the show’s other famous role: that of Clarence. Mr. Bürgi adapted Clarence’s persona for the radio. The voice he chose reflected that of a naïve character lacking in judgement. (Hence the reason Clarence’s boss was in almost every scene with him.) The cheery way Mr. Bürgi informed the bartender that he was 293 years old best illustrated this.

His scenes opposite Brian Hotaling’s Joseph showed the character’s good intentions tempered by a lack of thinking things through. Mr. Hotaling gently prodded that maybe letting George look for his mother and Mary when he was never born wasn’t the best idea. This made for one of the two’s funniest exchanges.

In addition to Joseph, Mr. Hotaling gave voice to the sinister Mr. Potter. His evil, “You’re worth more dead than alive” to George, concretized the character’s essence.

Besides portraying several characters in the show, Laurie Noch performed stellar work managing the sound effects. It’s a Wonderful Life contained a lot of them. They included an angry crowd, splashing sounds and Mr. Potter’s squeaking chair. The incidental piano music provided a good background during key scenes. Ms. Noch always inserted these sounds on cue.

Most of the show’s performers played multiple roles. Some scenes required them to do so in quick succession. The actors executed these changes seamlessly.

It’s a Wonderful Life included the following cast members:

Michael Bürgi as Clarence, Uncle Billy and others.

Brian Hotaling as Joseph, Potter and others.

Marcia Finn as Mary Hatch.

Laurie Noch as Cousin Tilly Zuzu and others.

Gwen Ricks-Spencer as Mrs. Bailey, Mrs. Hatch and others.

Duane Noch as George Bailey and Announcer.

At the show’s conclusion, Mr. Noch told the audience, “This story is always moving for me.” No doubt, it moved listeners, too. Despite the pandemic, the Classic Radio Road Show’s rendition of It’s a Wonderful Life ensured pandemic plagued 2020 will still experience a wonderful Christmas.

A Prophet’s Gamble Presented by Dunvegan Productions

Pre-Arthurian postlapsarian intrigue occurred on Facebook Live this December 18th. Dunvegan Productions entertained both knights and knaves with Lane McLeod Jackson’s A Prophet’s Gamble. Tyler Riley directed the outstanding cast.     

Merlin (played by Lou DiPilla III) had a vision of an ideal society. To achieve his dream, he brought together a council consisting of “Church, Conqueror and the Court.” Over dinner; the Archbishop of Canterbury (Taylor Cawley), Sir Holt of the Distant Isles (Dustin Sutliff) and Duke Ector (Tony Patryn) would discuss and debate this new government. The Justice Minister designate, Morgan Le Fey (Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams) and Merlin’s protégé Vivian (Juliana Cerón) joined them.

Duke Ector referred to Merlin as “the Goat”; probably alluding to the conjurer’s legendary concupiscence. Actor Lou DiPilla III showed himself to be the GOAT in the Muhammad Ali/Tom Brady sense of the word. He performed a magnificent interpretation of the sorcerer.   

Lou DiPilla III brought his own histrionic magic to the role of Merlin. DiPilla III made this legendary figure from Arthurian lore into his own original character. The performer captured the serious aspects of the wizard’s personality. DiPilla III portrayed Merlin as a Benjamin Franklin type figure. As a statesman, he showed his diplomatic skills when selling others on his beneficent form of government.

The Archbishop condemned Merlin for using “black magic,” and being both “the son of the devil” and “evil incarnate.” DiPilla III showed that even malevolence has a sense of humor.

DiPilla III added comedy to the role of the mythical magician. He performed an impressive impression of Marlon Brando from The Godfather. Putting on a pair of sunglasses, he mimicked a hippie. His eye rolling and head bobbing as the Archbishop said grace captured the character’s inner thoughts with wit.

Each act began with Vivian reading a tale from the Arthurian legend. Juliana Cerón addressed the audience as though speaking to a group of school children. She displayed extraordinary skill as a storyteller. As expressive performer, she showed outstanding stage presence. Ms. Cerón delivered the narratives with passion and enthusiasm.                                    

Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams portrayed Morgan Le Fey, an interesting choice to serve as Minister of Justice. Mitchell-Williams brought out the character’s burning ambition for the crown. She also captured the irony that someone interested in “justice,” viewed vengeance as the only appropriate implementation of it.

Mitchell-Williams showed that even her character had a sense of humor. When referring to Merlin’s wizard outfit, she observed, “It’s a hit at all kids’ birthday parties.”

Taylor Cawley played the Archbishop of Canterbury. Cawley’s stern looks and fierce answers showed the true nature lurking underneath the vestments. In addition to executing over 1,000 people (over just the last year) he also downplayed myriad allegations of clerical “abuse.” When not behaving like a vicious enemy of the human race, the Archbishop advocated for the Church’s interests zealously.  

“Another glass of wine and I’d be in Paradise,” Duke Ector said. Tony Patryn played the role like the character experienced eternal bliss many times over. Self-described “proud of being a drunken sot,” the Duke also delivered the play’s most interesting lines. He called Le Fey’s family tree: “gnarly and weird.” As Arthur’s guardian, he informed the gathering that he, “Wouldn’t have had the prince shoveling shit” if he had known his charge would ascend to the throne. Mr. Patryn expressed this amusing dialog with a touch of drunken inhibition. He still spoke the lines clear enough for the audience to understand them.

Dustin Sutliff delivered a dignified portrayal of Sir Holt of the Distant Isles. A man who conquered 32 kingdoms in less than one year proved himself the noblest of the guests. He developed a code of conduct that would evolve into chivalry. The son of a cannibal and a giant, he conducted himself as a good man who led by example. If he ascended to the throne he would, “Baptize dragons if they stayed still long enough.” Mr. Sutliff brought these traits to the screen.

Lane McLeod Jackson’s script included creative language. Merlin described Arthur as having “steel under the skin” as he progressed from “stable hand to squire.” The expression “legions of legend” and an onomatopoeic heartbeat sound appeared in the text. When Merlin informed Le Fey that dinner would accompany the meeting, she added, “Pigs are better behaved when fed.”

The playwright included words and expressions more common to the modern American vernacular than Medieval English. This language gave the show a contemporary quality.

Chris DePew’s virtual scenic design well accommodated the setting. The stone walls, dim lighting and shields reminded this reviewer of the décor at Pennsauken dining establishment The Pub. The ambiance suited a fictional dinner gathering just as well.

Ross Lampert handled Music Supervision and the show’s original music. He worked a Medieval vibe into his compositions.

Willow Bethke stage managed the project.

Camelot may be a mythical ideal. Dunvegan Productions ensured that quality virtual theatre remains a reality even during the coronavirus pandemic.

Those who missed the original broadcast still have the opportunity to see A Prophet’s Gamble. After the show’s debut, Dunvegan Productions announced plans to keep the production available on their Facebook page for “at least the next week.”

A Christmas Carol: Radio Show Presented by Newtown Arts Company

Myriad incarnations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol appear this time of year. They include movies, a play and even a musical. It’s difficult to imagine another media in which to present this popular Holiday story. The Newtown Arts Company created one that accommodated both this Christmas tradition and the coronavirus restrictions. They performed the story as a radio show. The company premiered it via YouTube on Saturday, December 13th.

It’s challenging to create a new take on something so well known. Mike Dettra’s adaptation gave this version its own unique qualities. Mr. Dettra condensed the story so it could be performed in an hour. As with reading the novel, the radio play format allowed the audience to use their imaginations to envision Dickens’ fantastic world. The actors’ deliveries aided listeners in experiencing the characters’ thoughts and feelings.

John Wolodzko played the Christmas curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge. He highlighted the character’s range of emotions through only his vocal prowess. With conviction, the performer proclaimed the iconic, “Bah, humbug!” Mr. Wolodzko’s elation came through when he observed: “The happiness he (Fezziwig) gives is as great as if it cost a fortune.” Sincere concern came through his voice when discussing Tiny Tim with the Ghost of Christmas Present. His voice trembled while speaking to (or really at) the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The “Oh” he wailed concretized the character’s anguish when confronted with his headstone. Mr. Wolodzko completed Scrooge’s transformation by delivering a comical sounding “Woof” infused with elation when awakening on Christmas Morning.   

Directors Mike Dettra and Mary Liz Ivins employed two alternating narrators. Anne McKernan and Rebecca Begnaud transported the audience into the world of the story through genuine sounding British accents. Each delivered wonderful descriptions of Dickens’ imagery. The highlight occurred when they depicted the festive scene of the Ghost of Christmas Present’s entry.  

Bob Cratchit came to life through Sam Dressler’s acting talents. Mr. Dressler related a touching description of Tiny Tim’s hope that he inspired parishioners to reflect on the meaning of Christmas. The performer showed the character’s devastation when sobbing to lament his son’s fate. When arriving at work late, Mr. Dressler panted and spoke in a tremulous voice. It made Scrooge’s confrontation with him more dramatic.  

Amelia Ball adopted a cheery, upbeat voice for Mrs. Cratchit. Ms. Ball delivered a toast to Scrooge that combined both wit and disdain. The performer showed the character’s deep distress when recalling Tiny Tim’s passing. In that scene, Ms. Ball employed an outstanding pause when recalling Mr. Cratchit’s walks with his son. It made her monolog more impactful.

Some of Dickens’ dialog would make Proust’s style seem like Hemmingway’s. He saved the most verbose for Belle. Danielle Ziemba portrayed this loquacious character. Ms. Ziemba managed Belle’s wordy break-up with Scrooge smoothly.

Liam McKernan delivered the sine qua non of all A Christmas Carol’s versions. The performer expressed Tiny Tim’s iconic line, “God bless us, everyone” with warmth and enthusiasm. 

Listeners weren’t limited to staring into a black screen during the show. The production team posted drawings depicting various scenes from the story. Some contained the quality of woodcuts.  

Mike Dettra immersed himself in this project. In addition to adapting the story, he co-directed, played the role of Young Scrooge and composed some of the original music. Mr. Dettra also edited the final product and managed the sound design. He performed spectacular work on the latter.

The ominous music during the scenes between Scrooge and Marley enhanced the eerie mood. The rattling of Marley’s chains and the clacking of Scrooge’s footsteps sounded realistic. These elements aided audience members in losing themselves in the story’s world.

After those acknowledgements, some may wonder, “But what has Mike Dettra done lately to make A Christmas Carol a memorable show?” Well, Mr. Dettra deserves special accolades for his skillful addition of reverb.

As Marley, Bob Quintana called out to his former partner by moaning, “Scrooge.” The reverb made his entreaties sound more plaintive than ominous. The sound effect also added an ethereal quality to the voices of the Ghost of Christmas Past (played by Andrew Loudon) and the Ghost of Christmas Present (David Danner).

All the actors delivered enthusiastic performances. A Christmas Carol’s cast list included:

Narrators: Anne McKernan, Rebecca Begnaud

Scrooge: John Wolodzko

Fred: Erik Meyer

Cratchit: Sam Dressler

Gentleman: Bill Monaghan 

Marley: Bob Quintana

Ghost of Christmas Past: Andrew Loudon

Fezziwig: Bill Monaghan     

Belle: Danielle Ziemba  

Young Scrooge: Mike Dettra

Ghost of Christmas Present: David Danner

Mrs. Cratchit: Amelia Ball

Martha: Bridget Dykty

Belinda: Genevieve Dykty

Tiny Tim: Liam McKernan

Niece: Kelly Gainey

The production team included:    

Directed by Mike Dettra and Mary Liz Ivins

Produced by Lisa Reiser

Sound Design and Editing: Mike Dettra

Sound Mastering: Adam Nevada

Music: “Fezziwig’s Jig” by Bill Monaghan

“Joy to the World” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain” by Adam Elmarakby

All other music was created by Mike Dettra

The Newtown Arts Company entertained audiences with a new take on an old classic. They showed that Dickens timeless tale works as a Yuletide tradition in yet another media. That’s no humbug.

Those who missed the original performance are still able to listen to the show on YouTube. It’s available at: A Christmas Carol: Radio Show – YouTube.

Do You Read Me? Presented by Jack Frey Productions

Not many playwrights take on the triumvirate of agriculture, interstellar colonization and personality conflicts. Somehow Kathryn Funkhouser fused the three into the sci-fi comedy Do You Read Me? Your correspondent attended the 8:00 PM show on Saturday, December 12th.

Jack Frey chose this piece for his first foray into the field of theatrical production. At the helm of the enterprise, he selected South Jersey’s preeminent theatrical guru, Amber Kusching to direct.

NASA scientist Dr. Weaver (played by Sabrina Leonard) devised a unique concept for a mission. The doctor envisioned sending a team to Mars. Their task? To grow an eggplant on the Red Planet. Dr. Weaver could have stopped there. Instead, she pushed her creativity to places no one had gone before. She decided that neither astronauts nor scientists would participate in this endeavor. “Average joes” would make the journey. She reasoned that if the colony succeeded, it would prove that anyone could live on Mars.  

Dr. Weaver selected a motivational speaker, a passive aggressive personality, someone with attitude issues and a wannabe bounty hunter for the mission. A self-serving egotist would serve as mission commander.

The characters alone sounded like the beginning of a punch line. Pure interstellar entertainment followed.

The playwright crafted her work for a Zoom performance. The story’s structure adapted well onto the online platform. All of the scenes contained two characters: one at Mission Control and the other on Mars. They spoke to one another via video screen.

The script allowed for the audience only seeing the performers from the shoulders up. As Cameron Leonard said during the talkback, this format limited the opportunities for non-verbal acting. Sabrina Leonard added, “It’s hands and face.” The cast and Director Kusching compensated very well.

Sabrina Leonard conveyed Dr. Weaver’s disbelief and frustration during the colonists’ reports. One has to credit her for the ability to widen her eyes and raise her eyebrows so many times in the course of an hour. Ms. Leonard performed all her reactions with the same believability throughout the show. She also brought out the Dr. Weaver’s patience. After her shocked reactions, she would calm herself and speak in a settled fashion through the end of the scene.  

Frank Bergson’s abrupt, defensive answers enhanced Commander Fillion’s duplicitous nature. Mr. Bergson’s delivery made them comical. The performer also wore a costume that reflected his character’s ego. More stars appeared on his uniform than the colonists would have seen while traveling from Earth to Mars.

Tears Hall and SarahGrace Nutter portrayed three different roles each.

Ms. Nutter adopted a genuine English accent for the erudite Dr. Dent. Her other characters’ personalities were antithetical to that intelligent and mature figure. Ms. Nutter captured Karen’s abrasive personality through her miserable mumbling and avoidance of looking into the camera. The performer rounded out her trio by exploring the artistic bounds of quirkiness as cup castle creator Jess.

Ms. Hall brought her characters’ unusual foibles to the Zoom screen. Quinn showed herself to be a self-serving motivational speaker. Charlie struggled with “space madness” exacerbated by a passive aggressive personality. Sam engaged in an original style of recklessness that defied categorization. Ms. Hall made all a pleasure to watch.

Cameron Leonard portrayed Robin. This character preferred to be known as Thrace Mallomar. He longed to be a bounty hunter and to work with aliens. Mr. Leonard played the character as though he meant to be taken seriously; not easy for an actor to do with this kind of material.

In addition to portraying Commander Fillion, Frank Bergson designed the virtual sets. He applied both subtle and not so subtle humor to the visuals. The frame behind the Commander showed his full name as F. U. Fillion;an appellation that well suited the character’s mentality. The Commander’s hand drawn sign that spelled the colony’s name as New New Joisey did, as well.

Composer Luke Leonard contributed a diverse musical soundtrack to the show. A xylophone led jazz piece played prior to the opening. The catchy tune “Meteor Shower” by pop princess Brittney Smears gave Karen and Dr. Weaver the irresistible urge to dance.  

Tony Gonzales managed the show’s video production duties. Catherine Frey served as the Graphic Designer.

While Ms. Funkhouser wrote the play as a comedy, both the producer and director take their art seriously. “We’re growing a new way of life, a new civilization,” Dr. Weaver said. This performance of Do You Read Me?  illustrated that Mr. Frey and Ms. Kusching are doing the same with virtual theatre.

The production team is donating all proceeds from Do You Read Me? to the Center for Food Action.

Great Expectations Presented by the Masquerade Theatre

The Masquerade Theatre revolutionized theatre this December. They executed a superlative feat that no other theatre company may ever imitate. The production team brought a play based on the work of Charles Dickens to the stage for the Holiday Season: and that play was not A Christmas Carol.

The Masquerade Theatre then expanded the boundaries of theatrical innovation even more. The artistic team of Megan Knowlton Balne and Tommy Balne along with a team of talented actors thrilled audiences with an unprecedented show to meet the challenges of unprecedented times. Your correspondent witnessed the opening night performance of Great Expectations on Friday, December 11th.

Great Expectations served as a good choice to end the Masquerade Theatre’s inaugural season. The company started 2020 with high aspirations for the upcoming year. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Undaunted, the production team adjusted from planning stage performances to adjusting for an online platform. While a challenging task in itself, none of the team members had experience working in television. They learned how to use the virtual format with Proof. In Constellations, they developed a creative application of lighting. With Great Expectations, they added broadcasting software to their artistic toolkit.

Playwright Gail Childs Daily adapted Dickens’ novel into a troupe show. This fast- paced format required the six actors to play multiple characters; sometimes the entire cast would perform on stage together. For a live performance, Director Megan Knowlton Balne envisioned presenting the show as theatre-in-the-round. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the production team planned on filming the actors performing together. The next day the City of Philadelphia enacted more stringent regulations that prohibited such gatherings. This required the actors to perform from their homes again.

Tommy Balne explained that the biggest learning curve with Great Expectations concerned the process. “We changed our process so many times,” he said.

Enter the broadcasting software. It allowed the performers to make quick entrances and exits. As Stage Manager/Technical Director, Tommy coordinated these myriad movements beautifully.

Most virtual performances only allow the audience to see the performers from the neck up. Great Expectations showed them from the waist up. This permitted the actors to…well, act. During the talk back session, performers Jake Hufner and Alex Levitt said that this development gave the show the feel of a regular theatrical performance.

Because of the performers playing so many roles, the director used the characters’ attire as a means of aiding the audience in identifying them. Jeanette Balne did extraordinary work on the costume design; even more extraordinary since she never met any of the actors. Megan explained that the performers sent the designer their measurements.

All of the performers’ attire appeared authentic of Victorian England. The garb included: Tony Killian’s cape and tie; Jake Hufner’s cape and top hat; Courtney Bundens’ tie, jacket and suspenders; Allison Korn’s cravat, Beatrice Alona’s Queen Victoriaesqe veil, black dress and pearl necklace, and Alex Levitt’s puffy sleeves and top hat.     

Performer Jake Hufner explained that he “Loves troupe shows.” Not performing in the same room with the other performers added “a new layer of difficulty.”

Allison Korn described orchestrating the fight choreography as “super interesting.” In addition to the timing of the punches, they had to be coordinated with respect to which hand the actors used. The amount of practice the cast put into these scenes came through in the finished product.

Tony Killian noted the positive aspect of performing these scenes virtually: “It was fun to take a pounding without taking a physical blow.”    

Megan explained that with virtual staging, she employed the cameras to help tell the story. The intricate technology used for the production prevented the actors from seeing the show the same way the audience did. Jake Hufner and Alex Levitt both attributed the performance’s quality to the cast’s strong chemistry. Great Expectations contained some moving scenes that illustrated just how solid that chemistry became.

Courtney Bundens and Alex Levitt delivered heart-warming performances when on screen as Pip and Pip’s guardian Joe. Alex’s facial expressions and tremulous voice captured the character’s affection for Pip. Courtney responded to Alex with the same emotional intensity.   

As the spinsterish Miss Havisham, Beatrice Alonna insisted Courtney to profess Pip’s love for Estella. Beatrice’s strong voice and expressive mannerisms drove the scene making it more powerful. Courtney’s timidity provided a stellar contrast.

Courtney showed sincerity when bearing the character’s soul to Estrella played by Allison Korn. In a haughty voice devoid of feeling, Allison announced plans to marry the emotionally numb Bentley Drummle. Alex Levitt played the latter to perfection.  

Courtney Bundens displayed Pip’s immaturity as the character pursued “great expectations.”  Courtney’s facial expressions and vocal inflections captured Pip’s development along the journey.

Tony Killian delivered an emphatic monolog detailing the convict’s adventures. Tony made his presentation an exciting adventure to watch.

In addition to the engaging voyage of Pip’s bildungsroman, the show contained wonderful humor. During a trip to the theatre, Pip watched a farcical production of Hamlet. The remaining ensemble members participated in the play-within-the-play. Jake Hufner described caricaturing Hamlet as “one of (his) favorite things” about the production. Alex Levitt said that, “there’s no better joy than going against your better instincts (as an actor).” Alex added that this was the show’s one scene where he had to force himself not to laugh.  

For Dickens’ Holiday purists, Great Expectations included a reference to the season. As the actor Mr. Wopsle, Jake Hufner wore a Santa Claus hat and performed what Mr. Wopsle would call, a dance.

The other members of the show’s production team included: Assistant Stage Manager Gi Maneri and Lighting Consultant Molly Jo Gifford. In addition to directing, Megan Knowlton Balne also worked on the Sound Design.

Beatrice Alonna complimented the director by saying, “Megan inspires me. It was a gift to work with her.” The cast, crew and production team gifted the audience a creative, innovative and well performed rendition of Great Expectations. For those inspired to see the show for themselves, great. Expectations are that the virtual production will be hosted by the Masquerade Theatre through December 19th.  

Making Amends by Susan Brown-Peitz at Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center

The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center presented the perfect production for late Fall. Since the pandemic has limited gatherings this Thanksgiving and Holiday Season, many will spend time reflecting on past family events. Playwright Susan Brown-Peitz’s one act drama Making Amends complimented this milieu. The Dragonfly team served up this gift packaged on the Zoom platform this December 9th.

Andrea (played by Julia Stibich) harbored resentment towards her father Bud (Thom Boyer). His drinking caused his marriage to Caroline (Ann Gripp) to disintegrate seventeen years prior. He’d left the family. Neither Andrea nor her mother received any communication from Bud since then.

Caroline then received a message from Bud’s girlfriend Essie (Shauni Ramai). Bud had passed away. Among his effects, Essie found an insurance policy. Through the latter, she also learned that Bud was married.

Essie invited Caroline and Andrea to visit the apartment she and Bud shared. She would give them the insurance paperwork. They could also reminisce about Bud.

This meeting would force Andrea to confront her resentful feelings towards her father.

Ms. Brown-Peitz accentuated this story through strong writing ability. The dialog contained spectacular phrasing. Most of the lyrical expressions occurred during Andrea’s narration. Some memorable examples included “the Angel of Righteousness,” “Father left us leaving just the smell of his smoke in the curtains” and “It’s impossible that Bud died of a heart condition. He didn’t have a heart.”

The show’s emotional theme didn’t inhibit the playwright from including wit in the script. The word usage in the following exchange would have impressed Samuel Beckett.  

Andrea:          “What the fuck?”

Caroline:        “Language.”

Andrea:          “What the hell?”

Caroline:        “Better.”

Ms. Brown-Peitz even included poetic phrasing in the stage directions (read by Anna Paone). Caroline wears a robe like a straitjacket, she wrote.

During the talk back session, the actors expressed their own admiration for the playwright’s work. It came through during the show. The actors in this piece gave Ms. Brown-Peitz’s text the high-level performances it required.

Julia Stibich seamlessly melded the anger and lyricism in Andrea’s dialog. When asked about the role, Ms. Stibich discussed the character’s desire to hold on to her impressions of her father. She applauded the arc of how those feelings changed during the play.              

Shauni Ramai enjoyed animating Essie for the Zoom screen. The character grew up with an alcoholic father. She rejected Bud’s advances until he addressed his own drinking problem. Ms. Ramai interpreted this as Essie taking the opportunity to help someone else since she couldn’t help her dad.

Making Amends contained engaging conflict. Ms. Grippo and Mr. Boyer enacted a dramatic confrontation regarding the latter’s alcohol abuse. Ten-year old Andrea witnessed it. While portraying a character with a hangover, Mr. Boyer insisted that he wouldn’t drink that day. He spoke as though Bud believed his own words, but didn’t. Ms. Grippo answered him with the passion of someone who’d had enough. The two made the argument realistic.

Ms. Brown-Reitz answered questions after the performance. She told audience members that no real-life events influenced the story. Her imagination crafted the piece. Like other playwrights, she’s also written poetry. She explained that Andrea’s lyrical language “just came out that way” during the writing process.              

The ninth of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Steps provided the play’s title. The “making amends” theme can also tie into a favorite Holiday staple; the famous question from “Auld Lang Syne”: “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Making Amends shows that they shouldn’t. The theme of family struggles along with hope and redemption make Ms. Brown-Peitz’s drama a joy to experience in time for the Holidays.

For those who missed the live broadcast, a replay is available on the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center’s Facebook page.

Plays by Women Writers at Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center

With the Holiday Season upon us, the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center’s December 2nd program seemed a throwback to another beloved holiday: Halloween. Thai beliefs in the supernatural provided the background for Germain Shames’ The Reincarnation of Aunt Ratana. Catherine LaMoreaux’s We Love Our Town explored the relationships in a social media group devoted to promoting community appreciation.

Guess which play was scarier.

In Ms. Shames’ work, California couple Kate (played by Monica Shaw) and Mali (Ashley Biel) brought in a new addition to their family: a cat named Mung Bean. Mali noticed that their pet exhibited similar mannerisms as her departed Aunt Ratana. The playwright created a wonderful simile to describe one as “eyes like two lasers invading the soul.” Those who knew the aunt said that she possessed “super powers.” This led Mali to discover that her aunt’s spirit inhabited the feline’s frame. An ironic outcome as Aunt Ratana didn’t care for cats.

Ms. Shames explained that her interest in multicultural studies influenced the story. Her goal was to write something that “would transport people to different realities during the pandemic.”

In 1960, the Twilight Zone presented Rod Serling’s “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” Fear motivated small town residents to turn upon one another because of a belief that each colluded with aliens.

In 2020, the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center presented Catherine LaMoreaux’s “We Love Our Town.” Community pride motivated small town residents to join a social media group in order to express their fondness for the neighborhood.

Guess which one was scarier.

Shauni Rami portrayed the site administrator. Her bubbly, enthusiastic persona showed that she really believed everyone should “be kind and courteous” to each other. She wanted “only positive comments” on the page; and, of course, “no politics.”

The good feelings stopped almost once Ms. Rami finished speaking.  

Ms. LaMoreaux worked an impressive amount of conflict into this short piece. Arguments ranging from making the group public or private, the quality of the “smart kids’ school” and, of course, taxes populated the posts. A dispute over historical preservation even worked its way into the discussion. As did myriad personality conflicts. Some disgruntled members found solace by establishing their own town pride groups. These included We Love Our Town More Than They Do and Our Town: None of the Idiots.

Performers Laura Paone, Barry Leonard, Ashley Biel, Nathaniel Tomb, Jon Turner, Monica Shaw, Joyti Presswala and Robert Goodwin led the audience through a theatrical answer to a hockey match.  They enacted the acerbic posts written by their characters with intense realism. They made the playwright’s artistic decision to make this a Zoom play seem a good one.   

Ms. LaMoreaux, who is also the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center’s Artistic Director, explained that real internet banter inspired the piece. She added that the performers presented her work’s first draft.   

This duo of dramatic pieces delighted the audience. For those who missed Wednesday’s reading, a replay of Plays by Women Writers is available on the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center’s Facebook page. The group’s next Wednesday reading is scheduled for December 9th at 8:00 PM.