Month: March 2021

Picasso at the Lapine Agile Presented by Virtual Studio Players

Einstein, Picasso and Elvis walk into a bar. While this may sound like the opening to a joke, it’s not. One could be forgiven for thinking that. It’s the premise behind legendary funny man Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapine Agile. This March 20th, the Virtual Studio Players showed how serious they are about comedy. They performed the play for an internet audience.

            The VSP production team of Artistic Director Greg Norman and Technical Director Peter Artale once again produced a creative and visual masterpiece. The backgrounds well suited a gathering at an early twentieth century Paris bar. A gilded hue covered the walls. The shading added a sense of elegance to the establishment. One could imagine luminaries such as Picasso and Einstein gathering at such a location.

            Mr. Artale included some of Picasso’s paintings in the opening montage. The images provided insights into the mind of the character who created them.

            Paris’ Lapine Agile became a popular place on the evening of October 8, 1904. The proprietor/bartender Freddy (played by Brian Wayman) conversed with Gaston (Greg Northam); a regular with salacious interests and a frequent need to use the rest room. A newcomer to the establishment named Einstein (Sam Dressler) entered. After waitress Germaine (Melissa Davenport) arrived, a young lady named Suzanne (Gianna Porfano) joined the crowd. She planned to meet a gentleman with whom she’d had a brief affair; the painter Pablo Picasso (Anthony Paparo).

            Other quirky characters visited the bar that evening, as well. They included a Countess (Annette Devitt) who admired Einstein, Picasso’s art dealer Sagot (E. Dale Smith-Gallo), and an inventor of a new building material, Charles Schmendiman (Alex Luckenbaugh). Later, a time travelling American musician known as The Visitor (Nicholas Renna) appeared.

            This unusual set-up presented the performers with opportunities to flex their histrionic muscles. The actors made each role into an engaging one.

During the show, Einstein commented that, “Inspiration is the highest form of research.” Sam Dressler’s performance made it seem relative. Perhaps, stirred by this observation, Mr. Dressler applied his own brand of comedic genius to the role of the physicist. He unified the figure’s high-minded brilliance through the way he fielded his lines, but that’s just a theory. His pedantic explanation of a joke regarding a pie in the shape of a letter e showed the character’s keen intellect. He responded at the speed of light when Mr. Wayman asked mathematical questions that included word problems.    

            Anthony Paparo enacted both Picasso’s arrogance and his charm. He gestured emphatically while speaking in a French accent. In one memorable exchange Ms. Porfano became offended when he didn’t recognize her at the bar. She accused him of lying to her during their earlier encounter. Mr. Paparo replied with a nonchalance that revealed the character’s nature. “I meant everything I said that night. I couldn’t remember who I said it to.”

            Greg Northam’s character noted, “Put two geniuses together and gee willikers.” Mr. Dressler’s and Mr. Paparo’s interactions reflected that statement’s veracity.

            The physicist and the artist came to understand their similarities far exceeded their differences. Mr. Lukenbaugh’s comical performance of the inventor helped to clarify this realization for the two characters.

In a memorable exchange, Mr. Paparo said, “I regret that we will be in two different volumes in the encyclopedia.”

            Mr. Dressler responded, “There will be no Schendiman to come between us.”

            The playwright included instances in which characters broke the fourth wall. Mr. Wayman played these comical scenes wonderfully. He criticized Mr. Dressler for appearing in the show before Ms. Davenport’s character. “You’re fourth,” he said. He then chastised Ms. Davenport for arriving late.

            Mr. Martin’s work contained some “wild and crazy” humor. When describing her love of Picasso, Ms. Porfano used the simile “like a Polish village.” She then clarified by adding, “Unpronouncable.”

            Melissa Davenport gave an expressive performance as Germaine: Freddie’s current and Picasso’s former girlfriend. She delivered the play’s most incisive line. During a frank conversation with Einstein, she declared that both he and Picasso entered their chosen fields of endeavor in order to “pick-up girls.”

            E. Dale Smith-Gallo portrayed Picasso’s business-minded art dealer, Sagot. Lauren Proda played the Female Admirer.  

Nicholas Renna instructed the other characters to “watch (his) shoes.” Interesting word choice as the actor chose some big shoes to fill in the role of The Visitor. A leather jacket clad Memphis musician with a distinct voice, he became the last luminary to visit the bar.

            The presence of Mr. Renna’s character enhanced one of the show’s serious themes. Ms. Davenport’s character expressed optimism for the future. Mr. Dressler’s and Mr. Paparo’s characters determined that the twentieth century would be different from the preceding one. They concluded that whereas politicians guided the nineteenth century, artists and scientists would dominate the next. After this performance, one wonders if online theatre companies such as the Virtual Studio Players will shape the twenty-first.   

Spreading the News Presented by the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center

On March 17th, the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts center continued their tribute to Women’s History Month. In celebration of the holiday, they incorporated a reference to St. Patrick’s Day. The group performed a reading of Irish playwright Lady Gregory’s 1904 comical take on small-town life Spreading the News.

Following a conversation with Bartley Fallon (played by Thom Boyer), Jack Smith (Will Horner) left his hayfork at the local fair. Fallon attempted to return it to him. This act served as the catalyst for a series of misunderstandings and misstatements. Gossiping townspeople embellished the story into a tale of adultery, murder and an escape to America. These events culminated with a ghost sighting.

While the rumor germinated, an English Magistrate (Abraham Ntonya) investigated the community. He believed the townspeople guilty of committing crimes. The lack of any corroborating proof encouraged him to look even harder. Upon hearing the story of Smith’s “murder,” he sought Fallon. The paucity of evidence or even a body didn’t deter him.

The company gave the show an Irish vibe. Donned in green attire, the performers spoke in front of a rustic backdrop. Stone buildings and a verdant countryside created the illusion of a Hibernian village. All spoke with an Irish brogue.

The actors gave witty and delightful performances. Attired in his tweed flat hat, Thom Boyer captured Bartley Fallon in the many states of “misfortune.” Anna Paone’s wide eyed facial expressions and emphatic diction made Mrs. Fallon a pleasure to watch. Abraham Ntonya’s exaggerated gestures and pretentious delivery captured the Magistrate’s buffoonery. Greg Northam’s low-keyed portrayal of police officer Jo Muldoon contrasted well with him. Will Horner enhanced the show with a musical number. He performed a strong a capella rendition of “The Red-Haired Man’s Wife.”     

Nick Endo, Anil Joseph, Laura Paone, Jyoti Presswala and Nathaniel Tomb played the catty townspeople. In keeping with the evening’s theme, Catherine LaMoreaux read the stage directions in an Irish accent.

Rife with stock characters and predictable outcomes, Lady Gregory’s work still gives audiences a good evening’s entertainment. Dragonfly’s Artistic Associate Anna Paone noted that the show “has fallen somewhat out of favor in recent times.” The company’s performance may be one of the rare chances for theatrical fans to experience it. Those who missed the original can still watch the replay on Dragonfly’s Facebook page.  

The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center will continue with its Wednesday night readings on March 24th. It will broadcast performances of original plays crafted by New Jersey playwrights on Zoom at Facebook at 8:00 PM EST.

Tennessee Women for the Vote at the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center

The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center observed Women’s History Month through a dramatic exploration of the debate over suffrage. Reprising a play the company performed to honor the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment, Director Catherine LaMoreaux adapted it for the Zoom and Facebook screens. The company both entertained theatrical fans and history buffs through Dr. B. Ayne Cantrell’s Tennessee Women for the Vote.  

            The playwright set her piece in the summer of 1920. Both pro and anti-suffrage leaders gathered to express their views. Dr. Cantrell included actual speeches delivered by the characters. As attendees advocated their positions, Tennessee legislators prepared to vote on whether to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. 35 states had already affirmed it. If one more approved, women’s suffrage would become enshrined in the Constitution. Would the Volunteer State become the needed 36th?

             Your correspondent watched the Facebook presentation of Tennessee Women for the Vote from Cinnaminson, NJ. A Quaker graveyard in town is the final resting place of suffragist and author of the Equal Rights Amendment Alice Paul.   

            The performers used authentic period costuming. In addition to large brim hats, the women wore the traditional white apparel that symbolized the women’s rights movement. Susan Roberts even adopted the same color for the opposing Heckler’s attire. She accentuated with a large American flag over her left lapel. The lone male in the cast, Barry Leonard, dressed like a 1920s lawyer. He wore a hat, tan jacket and black bow tie.

            The playwright included historical figures from the Tennessee suffrage movement as characters. The actors delivered performances that captured their conviction and, in some cases their misguided, passion.

            Anna Paone portrayed Catherine Talty Kenny the Chair of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage League. The character served the gathering’s emcee. Ms. Paone delivered her lines advocating the suffrage with authority. Through subtle nodding and pursed lips, she displayed attentiveness while showing her agreement with those supporting the cause.

            Shauni Ramai played the Chair of the National Women’s Party, Sue Shelton White; the only Tennessee woman arrested for her suffrage work. She explained her reaction to President Woodrow Wilson’s duplicity. While advancing national self-determination abroad, Wilson became reticent on allowing woman’s suffrage in the US. With the deceptively mellifluous voice of a Southern belle, she described a bonfire in front of the White House. Ms. Ramai discussed how she “burned the President’s hypocritical words.” Later, she placed an effigy of Wilson into the flames.

            The playwright took poetic license with Lide Smith Merriweather. The real Merriweather passed away seven years before the events in the play. Dr. Cantrell made a solid artistic choice including the legendary suffragist in the story. The Memphis News-Scimitar eulogized Merriweather as “the prime mover in the cause of suffrage in Tennessee.”

            Emily Niemeyer brought out this principled figure’s personality. She delivered an emphatic oration listing all those permitted to vote. Being included with those who could not demeaned females. Ms. Niemeyer decried how women must “protest legal classification with the idiot.”

            Dr. Cantrell’s play showed how the suffrage movement intersected with the advancement of civil rights. The rally included two African American leaders: the physician Matte E. Coleman (played by Tyechia Smith) and educator J. Frankie Pierce (Mimi B. Francis). They asked that in return for their contributions to the women’s suffrage movement, that women voters support improvements for their community.

             Other figures who spoke to affirm the suffrage included the President of the Tennessee Equal Suffrage Association and Vice President of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, Ann Dallas Dudley (Justine D’Souza). Ms. D’Souza delivered the powerful line, “Give women the vote to clean up the ballot box.” Sheema Sahane gave another stirring oration as Martha Elizabeth Allen. The show’s director, Catherine LaMoreaux, portrayed one of the suffragist leaders in the crowd.

            Not all the characters who attended this gathering shared the suffragists’ views. Three participants opposed women’s right to vote.

            Barry Leonard portrayed Tennessee attorney John Jacob Vertrees. Mr. Leonard’s not-so-subtle head shaking and dour countenance showed his disagreement. He declared it with the tone and rationality of a skilled counselor. Mr. Leonard voiced the belief that “only those who bear arms” in the military should be allowed to vote. He added the chauvinistic tripe of the time that “women are too emotional” to choose candidates for office. He concluded by declaring that Tennessee women didn’t want to vote.

            A female speaker followed him. The President of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage and the Southern Women’s League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment Josephine Anderson Pearson (Laura Paone) stated her opposition. Ms. Paone declared that she performed “God’s will” by opposing women’s suffrage. She could have stopped there. Then she said, “Women wanting the vote are modern Eves.” Once again, she made her point. But there was more. With a Southern accent, Ms. Paone implored people to reject the amendment on racial grounds. It would “destroy the Southern way of life” by “enfranchising Negros.” Interesting choice of words from someone who believed, “Suffrage will lower women by allowing them to take part in politics.”

            As the Heckler, Susan Roberts’ character advanced the antediluvian argument that voting would take women away from their families.

Tennessee Women included an authentic soundtrack. Mimi B. Francis sang a stirring a capella rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” with suffragist lyrics. Director LaMoreaux used recordings of songs from the era at the beginning and end of the program.  

            The director included professional ending credits. Ms. LaMoreaux included photos of both the actors and the real-life figures they played during the evening.

The virtual setting allowed Dr. Cantrell to witness the live broadcast. In addition to commending the performance, she gave viewers insights into the play. She told the audience that she wrote Tennessee Women for the Vote during the late 1980s for what was then Women’s History Week.

            Dragonfly presented the show through permission of the Tennessee Women’s Project. They also received a Grant from the from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.

             “Women’s votes are human rights,” became the show’s theme. Although the event in the story occurred over a century ago, the message regarding voting rights maintains its relevance today.

            Dragonfly will present a special program for its next Wednesday night reading. Incorporating both Women’s History Month and St. Patrick’s Day, they will perform Spreading the News by Lady Gregory. The show will be streamed live on Facebook and Zoom at 8:00 PM on March 17th.

Wit at the Masquerade Theatre

This March 12th the Masquerade Theatre opened their second season with wit: both literally and figuratively. Consistent with their mission of “exploring the humanity behind the masque,” the company presented Margaret Edson’s1989 Pulitzer Prize winning drama Wit.

Director Megan Knowlton Balne described the play as “reflective of the time that we’re in.” The emotions in the show allow audience members to experience a catharsis during the pandemic.

Wit also mirrors Masquerade’s mission. The show opened as Vivian Bearing, PhD, (played by Toni Richards) revealed her stage four ovarian cancer diagnosis. “There’s no stage five,” she noted. Her physician, Dr. Kelekian (Rico Santiago) recommended an aggressive eight-month treatment regimen to combat the disease. As an aside, he added it would “be good for research.”    

As Dr. Bearing endured the regimen, she narrated her deteriorating condition. She contemplated her life in the process. A scholar of John Dunne’s Holy Sonnets, she became a fastidious professor: one respected for her erudition but not liked. Confronted by her own mortality and plagued by suffering, she rethought the choices she made.

Edson crafted a spectacular character in Vivian Bearing. Combining the traits of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych and a mythological character punished through poetic justice, Dr. Bearing became a topic of research by the inhumane Dr. Posner (Jason Amira). Ironically one of her former students, he viewed her the same way she studied Dunn’s work.

A character this complex required a talented performer to interpret it for the virtual stage. Toni Richards enacted both Dr. Bearing’s austere persona and the vulnerable personality beneath the callous exterior. With some wit of her own, Richards delivered the powerful line, “Eight-month cancer treatment is highly educational. I’m learning to suffer.”

Richards showed Dr. Bearing’s regret over her life choices. During one of her monologs, she criticized Dr. Posner’s preference for “research over humanity.” She lamented that he didn’t take an interest in her as a person. It made her regret not treating her students with more humanity.

Throughout the show, Richards convincingly portrayed the character on various occasions during her life. She illustrated Dr. Bearing’s stern pretention while reciting one of Dunn’s poems to her class. In one scene, Richards credibly played the character as a five-year old child. Later, the performer showed Dr. Bearing’s vulnerability and need for companionship. During an early morning discussion with Nurse Monahan (Allison Korn), the two ate popsicles together.   

Performer Jonathan Amira described Dr. Posner as “a bad character who thinks he’s the good one.” Amira used his first foray into an “unsavory” role by playing Dr. Posner as Dr. Bearing’s doppelganger. His effusive gushing when describing cancer as “awesome” became the one time his character expressed happiness during the show. Amira showed the character’s personality through the laconic way he diagnosed: “That’s it. Kidney’s gone.” He further showed this coldness when denigrating a medical school class on “bedside manner” as a “waste of time.” It took time away from “research.”

Allison Korn’s interpretation of the empathetic nurse Susie Monahan contrasted well with Amira’s callousness. Korn showed compassion when speaking to Richards. Several times addressing Dr. Bearing as “sweetheart.” The performer demonstrated contempt for Dr. Posner through non-verbal expressions of disgust. Korn’s best came when Amira referred to Dr. Bearing’s concurrent fever and chills as “shake and bake.”

 Phyllis Josephson contributed her superb histrionic skills to the production as Dr. Bearing’s mentor, E. M. Ashford. The character possessed the same scholarly interest in Dunn, but with a gregarious disposition. Josephson demonstrated the latter when visiting her former student in the hospital. In a touching scene, she read Dr. Bearing’s favorite childhood book to her. The tenderness in her voice made it heartbreaking to watch.

Veteran Masquerade Theatre performers Beatrice Alonna, Courtney Bundens and Jake Hufner played in the ensemble. They worked well together as students in Dr. Bearing’s class. Hufner took notes with febrile intensity Alonna made funny faces and Bundens struggled, often without success, to remain awake.

The Balne creative team expanded upon the groundbreaking work they did in December’s Great Expectations. Stage Manager/Tech Director Tommy Balne once again took his technical prowess online. Using broadcasting software, he controlled where the performers appeared on screen. This allowed the director and actors to coordinate movements and positions so it appeared the characters either spoke to or interacted with one another.

All the actors performed live from their homes off book. As Phyllis Josephson commented after the performance, “It felt like a live show.”

In a classroom scene, Josephson criticized the punctuation used in Richards’ version of Dunn’s sonnets. One could put an exclamation point after this version of Wit. The Masquerade Theatre captured the tragedy of the human condition coupled with the painful search for truth while demonstrating “the humanity behind the masque.” The company still provided their audience with an entertaining evening of theatre. They did so through wonderful direction, engaging performances and, yes, with wit.

Little Women Produced by the Edison Arts Society

The Edison Arts Society commenced Women’s History Month with a dramatic reading of an American classic. The organization collaborated with the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center to present Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women as a radio show. The event occurred via Zoom on Tuesday, March 2nd.

             The ensemble from the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center last performed Alcott’s story on February 3rd.  While an outstanding program, the company presented a more polished rendition of the show for this event.

            Little Women invited the audience into the home of the March family. With father gone fighting the Civil War, Marmee (played by Monic Shah) and her daughters Jo (Shauni Ramai), Meg (Anna Paone), Amy (Laura Paone) and Beth (Justine D’Souza) prepared to spend the Christmas Season without him. The play followed the four sisters’ journeys from adolescence into little women. The enchanting characters and wonderful interpretations the actors gave them made for an entertaining evening of theatre.   

            Shauni Ramai portrayed the headstrong Jo. Ms. Ramai captured the character’s contradictions. Ostensibly, a writer with an “independent spirit,” Jo longed to keep her family together in the wake of their father’s absence. Ms. Ramai best illustrated this during the scene where Mr. Brooke (Thom Boyer) expressed his affections for her sister Meg. With charm, Ms. Ramai exclaimed that “Mr. Brooke is being disagreeable towards Meg. And Meg’s liking it!”

            Although the Dragonfly team presented the radio show version of Little Women, they allowed the Zoom audience to see the actors. Shauni Ramai again took advantage of this opportunity to showcase her unparalleled proficiency for non-verbal communication. Ms. Ramai expressed Jo’s thoughts and feelings through her gestures, expressions and eye movements. She accentuated many of them with her “Christopher Columbus” exclamations.   

            Anna Paone portrayed Meg; the character who doubled as the show’s narrator. Also skilled in the art of non-verbal communication, Anna showed Meg’s coyness towards Mr. Brooke. Her laconic answers to Jo’s inquiries regarding her feelings expressed her interest with the same skill. Anna demonstrated her character’s love for her ailing sister, Beth. Anna struggled to express the words as she became lachrymose while recounting her sister’s illness. 

            The show’s other actors displayed their histrionic skills to perfection. Laura Paone delivered Amy’s malapropisms with aplomb. Her insistence on using good “vocibulary” and being “perfectionary” added humor the show. Justine D’Souza displayed poignancy through her enactment of Beth’s health struggles. Catherine LaMoreaux allowed Aunt March’s toughness to come through in the way she thundered her dialog. Monica Shah contrasted her by speaking Marmie’s lines in a soothing tone. Thom Boyer added his inimitable vocal style to the roles of Announcer and Mr. Brooke. Craig Mayer showed the kindness in Beth’s musical benefactor Mr. Lawrence. Susan Roberts gave the different servants she portrayed their own unique personalities.

            Dragonfly made two casting changes from their February 3rd production. In that show, Nathaniel Tomb played Laurie and Nick Endo portrayed Professor Bayer. For the Edison Arts Society performance, the two actors switched roles. Mr. Tomb   showed both Laurie’s love for and heartbreak over Jo. Mr. Endo adopted a well-crafted German accent with which to woo Jo as the German pedagogue.  

            Gloria Dittman, the president of the Edison Arts Society, complimented the “exciting” coalition between the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center and her organization. Those interested in learning more about the group can visit their website at Edison Arts Society.  They are currently hosting an art exhibit at the Edison Town Hall.

            The Dragonfly Multicultural Art Center returns to Zoom and Facebook on Wednesday, March 10th. Continuing their recognition of Women’s History Month, they will perform a reading of Tennessee Women, a show that explores the history of the women’s suffrage movement. More information about the group is available on their website: Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center (dragonflyartsnj.com).