Month: January 2021

Prisoner of Second Avenue Presented by Virtual Studio Players

Through the confines of the Zoom screen, the Virtual Studio Players released Neil Simon’s Prisoner of Second Avenue. As Co-Producer Peter Artale explained this choice to open the company’s 2021 season: “We’re all feeling this way because of the last few months.” He and Co-Producer/Artistic Director Greg Northam arrested community theatre fans’ attention with the Saturday, January 30th performance.

Perhaps influenced by Shakespeare’s “winter of our discontent,” Neil Simon began this piece with the summer of Mel Edison’s (played by Lee Catalfomo). During a bout of insomnia during a sweltering 2:00 AM summer morning his wife Edna (Ann Grippo) tried to settle him. Her attempts made the Little Engine That Could seem like a low effort quitter by comparison.

Mr. Catalfano portrayed the character like an Al Bundy figure with nervous issues. He moaned about the air conditioning. “It’s 12 degrees inside and 89 degrees outside.” The “sounds of the city” vexed him. The noise from the neighboring German stewardesses annoyed him. He blamed health food for giving him an upset stomach.

Mr. Catalfomo delivered his lines as though his character relived the anguish they caused while he spoke. The performer made his Mel’s disgruntled behavior amusing to watch. He seamlessly worked in the comedy from Simon’s script.  

The patience Ann Grippo brought to Edna made the biblical Job seem impulsive. After listening to Mr. Calafomo deliver his litany of irritations, she showed calmness. Her soothing demeanor encouraged him to discuss the source of his anxiety. As a man about to turn 47, he feared losing his job. Mr. Califomo portrayed Mel as “becoming unraveled.”

Winston Churchill once compared himself to “the old man on his deathbed thinking about all the problems he had that never happened.” Mel didn’t share the Prime Minister’s good fortune. He lost his job in what we would call today a “mass layoff.” His feelings of coming undone proved prescient. The strain caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown. Edna and his siblings ensured that he received the professional help he needed.

The plot may conjure thoughts of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, but Simon kept a humorous tone in this 1971 play. Due to Mel’s unemployment, Edna took a job to support the two. She still came home every day to make him lunch. This caused a comical exchange well performed by Mr. Catalfomo and Ms. Grippo. He complained that everyone in the building knew what she did. He informed her: “A six-year-old girl on the fourth floor is the only other person in the building who gets their lunch made.”

The conversation developed into something darker. The cast kept it funny. Mr. Catalfomo discussed his learning of “the plot”: a conspiracy to repress the working class. His increasing paranoia led him to insist that “they” were “taking over.”

With a serious expression and a hint of apprehension in her voice, Ms. Grippo replied, “Tell me who’s taking over so I’m not going to be late for work.”

Ms. Grippo also made a witty observation regarding Mr. Catalfomo’s analysis of socioeconomic conditions in America. “You mean there’s another class besides the lower, middle and upper class?”

The pair delivered hysterical performances when the Edisons discovered their apartment had been robbed. Mr. Catalfomo’s disbelief of Ms. Grippo’s insistence that she was only gone for “five minutes” made for an enjoyable exchange.

Ms. Grippo asked what he’d been doing since he lost his job. Mr. Catalfomo delivered one of the show’s funniest moments. He explained that he filled in for a 14-year-old during a baseball game. In two innings, Mel struck out, dropped several balls in the outfield and lost the game for his team. 

Mr. Catalfomo’s and Ms. Grippo’s performances complimented one another very well. Their characters alternated from being the high-strung person to the more relaxed one. Each executed these transitions believably.

 The actors who played Mel’s siblings showed that genetics may have influenced Mel’s quirky behavior. Harry (Greg Northam), Pauline (Anne Buckwheat), Pearl (Susan Dewey) and Jessie (Gina Vitolo-Stevens) gathered to determine how to help their brother.

Mr. Northam played Harry, the businessman. He suggested everyone contribute to loaning Mel “X number of dollars.” A comical debate ensued regarding the precise value of “X.” Ms. Buckwheat reminded the group that they hadn’t seen their brother or sister-in-law for nine years. Ms. Vitolo-Stevens’ ever-present tissues showed Jessie to be the emotional member of the family. Ms. Dewey argued with Mr. Northam as to whether or not Mel suffered a nervous breakdown during his high school years.

Mr. Northam once again distinguished himself as a strong character actor. He returned to his forte of playing outwardly strong figures with hidden vulnerabilities. Mr. Northam showed Harry’s jealousy towards Mel. In a moving scene opposite Mr. Catalfomo, he brought out his character’s feelings of alienation and desire to be “the favorite.”   

In addition to co-producing, Peter Artale contributed the voice of newscaster Roger Keating. He also managed the audio/visual aspects of the production. Mr. Artale selected excellent photos of New York City and an apartment background to enhance the production’s quality.   

The performers chose excellent costuming for their roles. Mr. Catalfomo and Ms. Grippo both wore robes and pajamas during the early morning scene. Ms. Grippo even put rollers in her hair. When Edna took a job, Ms. Grippo wore a jacket and sash around her shoulders. Mr. Northam’s scarf may prove as meme worthy as Senator Bernie Sanders’ mittens.   

The Virtual Studio Players deserve an award for authentic prop use. Both Mr. Catalfomo and Ms. Grippo performed with rotary phones. In most virtual shows, performers use their smart phones to simulate calling someone. Credit goes to the production team for ensuring that a period appropriate telephone made it into the performance.

The show proved more topical than the production team intended. Prisoner of Second Avenue concluded on the eve of a snowstorm. (Credit goes to Mr. Catalfomo for his wonderful snow dance performance.) The Sunday, January 31st performance at Virtual Studio Players will occur prior to a snowstorm. Worries of being imprisoned for the next few days should “cell” viewers on whether or not to watch the show at Virtual Studio Players.    

Agatha Christie’s Hecule Poirot in The Case of the Clueless Client: An Old Time Radio Show

The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center’s Wednesday, January 27th reading clued the audience in to an Agatha Christie mystery. Many of the usual suspects from the company participated. A killer performance resulted when they presented The Case of the Clueless Client as an old-time radio show.  

At rise, Hercule Poirot (Noah Stanzione) set out to solve his most baffling case: where to find an available apartment to live in New York City. While staying at a hotel, he encountered Miss Fletcher (Vicky Wolack). The latter discovered a dead body in her apartment. Upon arrival, Inspector Stevens (Nathaniel Tomb) identified the body as the officer assigned to guard the VIP staying in the room above. This person, financier Mr. Parrish (Thom Boyer), planned to travel to Europe for an international currency convention. Inspector Stevens suspected Hillary Kent committed the murder. This criminal committed crimes for no other reason than to baffle the police.   

Even though billed as an “old time radio show,” Noah Stanzione utilized superb costuming. Mr. Stanzione transformed himself into the legendary sleuth, Hercule Poirot. He wore the character’s signature the derby, bow tie and, of course, the handlebar moustache.

Mr. Stanzione brought the character’s quirks to the Zoom screen. He spoke his lines in a pronounced French, make that a Belgian, accent. He entertained through a steady barrage of the detective’s trademark lines. He politely corrected those who mispronounced his name, delivered a host of mon amis, and made myriad references to “little gray cells.”

Shauni Ramai portrayed the matriarch of the murder mystery, Dame Agatha Christie herself. The character introduced the story, delivered the narration and provided concluding remarks. Ms. Ramai delivered her lines with an enthusiastic English accent. She enhanced her performance with expressive gestures. Her dark clothes and sash enriched the figure’s persona.

The other cast members also captured their characters’ unique personalities. Nathaniel Tomb applied the voice of a hard-boiled New York detective to Inspector Stevens. Vicky Wolack gave Miss Fletcher a sassy personality. Thom Boyer enacted Mr. Parrish’s arrogance and sarcasm over Poirot’s “silly moustache.”  

Several performers took on multiple roles for the show. Ashley Biel played the Clerk and Laura, Jordan Brown portrayed the Elevator Man and Johnny and Jon Turner took on the characters of Brady and Pilot.

Catherine LaMoreaux managed the show’s sound effects. They included an engaging opening tune and the shocking music when Poirot discovered the body in Miss Fletcher’s apartment.

Instead of a “whodunnit,” the team at Dragonfly should consider hosting a “howdunnit.” The real mystery is how these performers played their roles so well. Jon Turner was the only actor who’d read one of Agatha Christie’s books. He said that he did so “a long time ago.”

Some histrionic skills transcend all genres. Evidence of that abounded in The Case of the Clueless Client. To miss this performance would be criminal.

Those who didn’t see the original presentation can still watch the recording on the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center’s Facebook page.

Plays by Cris Eli Blak at the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center

The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center introduced their audience to the work of Cris Eli Blak this January 21st. For their Wednesday night virtual reading, the company presented a duet of one act shows written by this talented playwright.

Currently a senior in college, Mr. Blak already has an impressive theatrical resume. He strives to craft work that captures the diversity of the world around us. That may explain why his material has been either published and / or performed Off-Broadway, in Europe and in Australia.

Mr. Blak explained that he writes about people who have “crazy ideas and crazy goals” while struggling with personal conflicts. His characters’ own social circles don’t take them seriously. The concept of family appears in his plays. He uses these themes to show audiences how people aren’t isolated. The playwright’s the (final) ballad of the Miss Donna Shine and Here. Then. Now. included these attributes.

Nick Endo portrayed the protagonist in the (final) ballad of the Miss Donna Shine. He donned a wig as he played a drag queen. Donna struggled with both her career and an unwelcome reunion with her estranged father (played by Craig Mayer.) Donna’s brother Sean (Will Horner) served as her one source of support.

Will Endo gave Donna the personality of a diva. He utilized expressive mannerisms throughout his performance. Mr. Endo animated Mr. Blak’s colorful language with passion. A sarcastic “Ha!” sounded even more dramatic coming from this high energy performer.

Craig Mayer may have portrayed an unlikable character, but he showed outstanding acting ability in bringing him to the Zoom screen. Mr. Mayer allowed Dad’s anger to seethe in his dialog. His every word reflected his frustration with his son for not being a “real man.”

Lack of parenting skills weren’t Dad’s only shortcoming. The character spent most of his life drinking. He abandoned his family when Sean was five years old. And, yet, Dad still had the self-assurance to disparage his son.  

The playwright developed a warm relationship between the two siblings. Sean provided the assistance and friendship that Donna needed. Will Horner brought out this character’s essence. He always spoke in a reassuring voice. At the end of the show, he encouraged Donna. In essence, he told her that she’d be more successful than she believed she was capable of being.

Mr. Horner delivered the show’s most trenchant line. He described Donna as, “Brave on stage, afraid in real life.”

Mr. Blak said that he wrote Donna Shine for a family member. The person who inspired the play read and liked it.

Thom Boyer and Catherine LaMoreaux both contributed their stellar vocal skills to the performance. Mr. Boyer played the club’s announcer and Ms. LaMoreaux read the show’s stage directions.

In Here. Then. Now. Cady (Shauni Ramai) combined her love for her family with her passion for science. She informed her love interest, Mel (Thom Boyer), that she “made a breakthrough.” A small box that fit in one hand contained “the past, present and future.” She’d developed a time machine so she could save her parents. Anna Paone read the stage directions.  

In a December 2020 Dragonfly reading, Ms. Ramai showed the depth of her talent. Somehow, she added depth to several characters during a performance of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. If the Swedish Academy offered a Nobel Prize for Acting, Mr. Ramai would’ve had a claim to it after that achievement.

 Mr. Blak’s writing skills exceeded those of the Disaster Artist. Ms. Ramai showed just how awe-inspiring a performer she can be when provided a strong script and cast in a moving role.  

Ms. Ramai varied her rate of speaking to enhance the drama. She used myriad vocal inflections to express Cady’s emotions. In spite of the limitations of the Zoom screen, she worked in hand gestures that enhanced her performance.

Thom Boyer displayed his own extraordinary acting skills playing opposite Ms. Ramai. Mr. Boyer used laughter very well when expressing his disbelief over Cady’s invention. He performed a sardonic commercial for the time machine. Mr. Boyer delivered the best line of this play: “I don’t want you to think that you’ve struck gold when you’ve only hit a nickel.”

Following the performance Mr. Boyer complimented Mr. Blak. He appreciated that the playwright “gives his characters victories.”

During the talkback session, Mr. Blak told the audience that he writes other literature besides plays. Regarding his writing he said, “I want to do something I’m passionate about.” Based on the quality of his work performed at the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center, Mr. Blak will continue making powerful contributions to the arts in the years to come.

The Mountaintop Presented by the South Camden Theatre Company

The South Camden Theatre Company presented a fitting program to commemorate the 2021 King Holiday weekend. Initially shown in December of 2020, the South Camden Theatre Company reprised Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. This virtual staged reading presented a fictional reimagining of Dr. King on the evening before his assassination.

The cast consisted of two characters. Eric Carter portrayed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Wendi Smith played hotel maid, Camae. Connie Norwood directed. The plot twist, the tension and the drama kept this reviewer engaged for the show’s full hour and 50-minute run time.   

The performance opened with a video of Dr. King delivering his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. His powerful repetition of the phrase “Somewhere I read” enhanced the impact of his calls for freedom of assembly, freedom of speech and the “right to protest for right.” He said that the “difficult days ahead” didn’t matter, because, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

The inclusion of this April 3, 1968 sermon had a powerful impact on the show. On the evening after Dr. King delivered it, an assassin murdered him.

The scene then transitioned to room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. As the rain poured outside, the maid, Carmae (portrayed by Wendi Smith), entered. She addressed the audience by describing the accommodations. A late 1960s orange and brown pattern colored the bed. She illustrated the carpet as, “The color of bile.” “Water stains pock marked the walls.”

In this location Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would spend his final hours.

As Dr. King, Eric Carter strode to the door with a weary gait. Despite the character’s exhaustion, Mr. Carter showed Dr. King’s gregarious personality. He enacted one side of a conversation with Ralph Abernathy. Smiling, he asked his associate to purchase a pack of “Pall Malls” for him. He again smiled while on the phone with room service. King’s celebrity starstruck the person with whom he conversed. In a friendly voice, Mr. Carter explained that he didn’t “give out autographs: just thanks.”

When Camae cussed in front of Preacher King, Mr. Carter showed his amusement by laughing. As her unease increased, he informed her in a nonchalant voice, “I forgive you.”

Writers who craft biographical work often deify their subjects. Not Katori Hall. Ms. Hall decided to show Dr. King as “just a man” in her interpretation of the fallen civil rights leader. Camae contrasted him to Malcolm X who didn’t “drink, smoke or cheat on his wife.” Mr. Carter brought this realistic and flawed figure to the stage.

While drinking coffee and speaking to Mrs. King on the phone, Mr. Carter lied and said he was drinking tea for his cold. In response to her description of a threatening phone call, Mr. Carter said, “I’m not scared.” He wore a worried expression and took a long drag off a cigarette while doing so.

The theme of fear haunted the show.

In one powerful monolog, Mr. Carter captured Dr. King’s anxiety. He described the apprehension that affected him even while preaching at his own church. He compared the latter to standing atop a pedestal. “In America,” he observed, “the tall trees are felled first.”

Camae served as a bit of a foil to Dr. King. In one exchange, Wendi Smith captured the frustration of the protagonist’s critics. When Mr. Carter talked about the similarities between white and black people, she began to argue.

“What’s one thing we’ve got in common?” She asked.  

“We’re scared,” Mr. Carter replied with a solemn expression. “Fear makes us human.”

Ms. Hall wrote Camae as a deceptively complex character. Both an admirer and critic; an antagonist and catalyst of Dr. King’s redemption, Wendi Smith enacted the role’s complexities brilliantly. Ms. Smith spoke with a genuine sounding Southern accent. She used a nice drawl when addressing “Preacher King.”

Ms. Smith even performed a credible impression of Dr. King herself. After a spirited exchange in which she said Dr. King relied on marching too much, he asked what she would do. Ms. Smith put on his jacket and wore his shoes. She stepped onto the bed and delivered a Dr. King style oration. Mr. Carter served as the audience by cheering her on and encouraging her.

Ms. Smith also brought subtlety to her performance. While Dr. King spoke on the phone, she feigned making the bed. Her facial expressions foreshadowed that her character knew more than she revealed.

Somehow, the playwright added humor to this portrayal of a man on the eve of his murder. The director and the performers flawlessly integrated the funny moments into the play.

Mr. Carter described an assassination attempt in which someone stabbed Dr. King in the chest. He mentioned that had he sneezed; the attack would have been fatal.   

“I’m glad you didn’t have a cold that day,” Ms. Smith responded in deadpan fashion.

A heated argument led to Mr. Carter demanding that Ms. Smith call her supervisor. The shocked look on his face expressed his surprise when Camae’s boss asked to speak with him. Mr. Carter’s nervous voice and Ms. Smith’s smug non-verbal expression made this key scene comical.

Ms. Smith showed fantastic comic timing. Mr. Carter acknowledged, “I’m not perfect.” Ms. Smith delivered a witty riposte with a snap, “That you ain’t.”   

Josh Samors served as the project’s Lighting and Technical Director. Under his direction, the thunder sounded like a rifle shot.  

Other members of the production team included: Artistic Director Raymond Croce, Scenic Design Robert Bingaman, Stage Manager/Production Manager Samantha Smith and Props Ashley Reiter.

The Mountaintop required a lot of reflection and emotions from the actors. Because they modulated their voices so often, at times they became difficult to hear from the computer. (Your correspondent doesn’t use earbuds.)  

The show’s action occurred on the evening of April 3 – 4, 1968. The Mountaintop premiered in 2009. One passage contained relevance for the present day.

Mr. Carter expressed Dr. King’s frustration with the sanitation workers’ march. Some used it as an opportunity to “help themselves to free TVs.” The looting gave the police a pretext to employ violence. Mr. Carter showed his guilt over a resulting death. He also expressed his anger at the media for labeling him “Martin Loser King.”   

The show ended as it began with Dr. King giving a powerful speech. Instead of a video projection showing the concluding oration, Mr. Carter delivered it. His mouth trembled. Tears formed in his eyes. He then spoke of the Promised Land with the same expressions, vocal inflections and mannerisms that his character would have used.

“The Promised Land is so far, yet so close,” Mr. Carter declared. He added a Kennedyesque, “The baton passes on” to illustrate everyone’s responsibility to continue marching towards it. The team at the South Camden Theatre Company shared that powerful message this King Holiday Weekend.   

Archie Andrews: An Old-Time Radio Show Presented by the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center

The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center opened the new year with a Christmas reprise. The company presented a Holiday themed Archie Andrews comedy in the style of an old-time radio show.

Dragonfly became the latest community theatre company to revisit this classic art form. On January 13th, they gave it a twenty first century makeover. Instead of tuning in on their dials, audience members logged on to Zoom and Facebook.

Archie (played by Nathaniel Tomb) planned to visit Veronica (Shauni Ramai) at 3:00 PM. She informed his dad, Fred (Arthur Gregory Pugh) that she needed to postpone their get together for an hour. She secretly wanted to go to Stacy’s Department Store to buy him a Christmas present. Upon discovering he had some free time, Archie decided to go Christmas shopping for her. He and Jughead (Tom Scudmore) also went to Stacy’s.

Fred realized that he still needed to purchase a gift for his wife Mary (Susan Roberts). He too went to the department store. Mary and Betty (Anna Paone) headed there to do some shopping of their own. Comic situations and misunderstandings followed. Each character attempted to avoid the character for whom they shopped. They also coped with the officious Floorwalker’s (Laura Paone) harassment.

The show included outstanding production for an internet performance. Excellent sound effects occurred throughout the show. They included a phone ringing and even the noise of Archie bumping into a mannequin. A musical score opened and closed the program.

To enhance the authenticity, the company performed an old-time commercial during the program. In addition to reading the stage directions, an enthusiastic Catherine LaMoreaux plugged Swift’s Premium Franks by praising their “dinner quality meats.”

The slang written into the script helped to transport audience members back to the Riverdale of the 1940s. Nathaniel Tomb’s high pitched “gee whiz” and Anna Paone’s “golly that Jughead” captured the essence of both.

The performers used outstanding voices for their characters. Shauni Ramai articulated a southern belle voice for Veronica. Tom Scudmore delivered a machine gun barrage of the word ha as Jughead.

Following her performance as Julia in Dragonfly’s rendition of The Room, Laura Paone showed herself just as adept at playing characters who exist in reality. As the Floorwalker, Ms. Paone became the perfect straight person for the comedic confrontations.

Her obnoxious tone and serious expression contrasted well opposite Nathaniel Tomb’s slow-witted Archie. When she accused him of stealing the jacket he wore into the store, he said that he’d pay for it then turn in the sales receipt to get his money back. Mr. Tomb delivered an awesome monolog of Archie’s realization that he then wouldn’t have a jacket.  

Laura Paone’s theft allegation against Mr. Pugh’s character led to another comedic outcome. He’d placed a bottle of perfume in his jacket to hide it when he saw his wife. He explained this to Ms. Paone’s character. When the Floorwalker didn’t see her, she suggested that he suffered from delusions. Ms. Paone inquired if he, “sees spots before his eyes.”

The comedy kept coming. While Susan Roberts’ character tried on a bathrobe, Anna Paone placed her dress and jacket on an empty rack. A store attendant (Matt Holbert) removed it without her noticing. Lacking anything else to wear, Ms. Roberts’ character walked around the store wearing just the robe. Once again, the Floorwalker accused a character of shoplifting. Ms. Roberts’ emotional explanation enhanced the humor.  

Even though performing a show intended for radio, Dragonfly didn’t black out the screen. A good artistic choice as it allowed the audience to experience the stellar facial expressions of Shauni Ramai, Nathaniel Tomb and Anna Paone.

Even in an era defined by smart phones, the internet and remote meetings, classic radio still endures. The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center paid a worthy tribute to an enduring art form.

Those who missed the original broadcast can watch the replay on their Facebook page.