Author: kevsteph

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).

God’s Trombones Presented by Burlington County Footlighters

Burlington County Footlighters concluded Black History Month with a fitting encomium. On February 26th, they made a prerecorded performance of James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones available on their website. Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. directed.   

The book by James Weldon Johnson inspired this theatrical rendition. As its subtitle indicated, God’s Trombones featured Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Through compelling poetry, actors presented dramatic retellings of biblical stories. Gospel music performances bracketed several of them.  

The audience received context for the overall presentation. Slides included in the video summarized “Black Church” history in the United States.

The end of the slave trade in 1810 enabled religious practices exclusive to the African American community to grow. The First Great Awakening brought African slaves and free blacks to Christianity. The Second Great Awakening advanced the belief that all people are God’s children leading to the abolitionist movement. These developments facilitated the advent of African American leaders, preachers and churches.

The preachers played a crucial role in the African American community. Their efforts allowed slaves brought to the US to receive their “first sense of unity and solidarity.”

God’s Trombones provided an excellent segue into Women’s History Month. Most early black congregation members were female. Many received “the calling” to become preachers themselves. They included Minister Jarena Lee, Elder Julia Foote and Reverend Florence Spearing Randolph.

The production team recorded God’s Trombones at The Lighthouse of Deliverance Gospel Church. The site contained the perfect ambiance for a show with religious themes. A crown of thorns hung from a large cross on the rear wall. Flowers adorned the altar. The latter’s length allowed the actors to move about it like a stage.  

The cast stood in a circle as they opened with a solemn invocation of “Listen Lord – A Prayer.” Voice overs from each performer read a section of the poem. Bryan Smith’s keyboard accompaniment augmented the ritual.

Danielle Harley-Scott then performed “The Creation.” Using immense enthusiasm, she described God’s conception of the universe through the creation of Adam. Her use of hand gestures illustrated the story just as well as she told it.  

Alfred Lance, Jr. continued with the tale of sin’s entry into the world and its consequences. Mr. Lance, Jr. enhanced “Noah Built the Ark.” through his expression of the script’s humorous phrases. He described Satan telling Eve, “You’re sure good looking” before gifting her with a looking glass. People mocked Noah’s prophesying a great flood by accusing him of having “water on the brain.”

In addition to directing, Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. performed two of the play’s poems. He first delivered a powerful retelling of the exodus from Egypt. During “Let My People Go,” he emphatically portrayed Moses insisting that Pharaoh free the Israelites. Mr. Thompson, Jr. hooked this reviewer to such a degree that he listened with the intentness of someone hearing the story for the first time.

Mr. Thompson, Jr. added his own brand of humor to the narrative. After explaining that Pharaoh claimed he “didn’t know the God of Israel,” Mr. Thompson, Jr. let out a sarcastic laugh. It reflected God’s contempt for the Egyptian monarch.  

Next, Siiyara Yasmine delivered a gripping story about a woman’s final moments. Ms. Yasmine included tenderness in her telling of “Go Down Death.” Her recitation combined the sadness of leaving this world with the joy of eternal life awaiting with Jesus.

Beau Emerson showed that he would be just as adept at delivering a Sunday sermon as at acting. His stage presence in “The Prodigal Son” reflected that of a seasoned public speaker. He drew out one syllable words such as slide, bright and man. His expression of the line “slip and slide until you bang up against hell’s iron gate” along with his description of “hanging out in gambling dens throwing dice with the devil for his soul” contained the vocal prowess of an experienced pastor.

April Johnson presented a moving depiction of “The Crucifixion.” Ms. Johnson became lachrymose when personalizing the suffering of “my Jesus.” The image of her spreading of her arms with the cross added to the scene’s impact. Ms. Johnson’s delivery of the line, “It causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble” captured the significance of the crucifixion to her character.  

Darryl S. Johnson, Jr. returned to the screen for a performance of “Judgement Day.” He used excellent vocal inflections to contrast the rewards of a righteous life with the “woe” awaiting sinners.   

God’s Trombones included several gospel songs. Danielle Harley-Scott, April Johnson, Siiyara Yasmine, and Alfred Lance, Jr performed soulful renditions of these numbers. At the show’s conclusion, Darryl S. Thompson, Jr. led the entire ensemble in a group performance.  

Bryan Smith played keyboards. In addition to accompanying the vocalists, he provided musical background for several of the verse readings.

Jeff Rife Videography worked on the video and editing.

God’s Trombones presented engaging retellings of classic Bible stories. The variety of interpretations entertained through stellar renditions and connecting with the audience on an emotional level. The gospel music added even more depth to the latter. Black History Month received a wonderful commemoration from Burlington County Footlighters.   

The Mountaintop at the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center

Continuing with their celebration of Black History Month, the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center presented Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. They performed this Wednesday night reading on Zoom this February 24th.

On April 3,1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (portrayed by Arthur Gregory Pugh) delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon. He then retired to Room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. After settling in, he ordered a coffee from room service and worked on his next speech. He would never deliver it. The following evening, an assassin would murder him.

A maid named Camae (Sheleah Harris) delivered his coffee. Their banter led to a rapport with one another. Throughout the night, their conversation would develop into a deep understanding of both themselves and each other.

The playwright chose to balance the iconic image of Dr. King with that of the flawed man. Ms. Hall’s character inspired and led a civil rights movement. He complained about his “smelly feet and holes in his socks.” He also enjoyed whiskey and smoked Pall Mall cigarettes. This Dr. King possessed other character flaws unusual for a preacher. They included a vain disposition and a fondness for beautiful ladies.

Arthur Gregory Pugh captured this heroic figure’s complex personality. After complimenting Camae’s prettiness, he delivered a flirty, “With your face, it looks like you fell from heaven.” He showed Dr. King’s tenderness. When talking to his daughter on the phone, Mr. Pugh described how praying helped him sleep. It “makes everything real peaceful,” he assured her.

Mr. Pugh spoke with subtlety when foreshadowing Dr. King’s death. He told Camae, “I like your sense of humor. Like mine. Morbid.” Later he observed, “I know the touch of fear better than my own wife.”

The burden of leadership wore on Dr. King by the end of his life. Mr. Pugh’s somber description of the murder of a teenager during a march showed how much it troubled his character. As did his frustration with the people who “helped themselves to free color televisions” at the same protest.

 Mr. Pugh allowed the character’s egotism to come through in his performance. He did so in an oblique way when he complained about newspapers referring to him as “Chicken a la King” and “Martin Loser King.” He expressed more overtly when asking Camae if he should shave his mustache. After Ms. Harris performed a Dr. King-style speech, he delivered laconic feedback on her public speaking prowess: “I’m better.”

Sheeleah Harris enacted her character’s contrasts to the well-educated world figure. While Camae lacked erudition and sophistication, Ms. Harris developed the character’s sensitivity and practicality.

Ms. Harris adopted a thick Southern accent for the role. It enhanced her character’s penchant for cussing in front of “Preacher King.” Ms. Harris’ embarrassment opposite Mr. Pugh’s laughter added a catharsis to the drama. She delivered a memorable “sheeeoooot” when the character tried to disguise her crassness.   

Like Mr. Pugh’s character, Ms. Harris’ contained more depth than its exterior suggested. She possessed an inner toughness. Mr. Pugh questioned whether Malcolm X’s support of violence had prevented him from entering heaven. She replied with a swift, “Malcolm X didn’t drink, smoke or cheat on his wife.”

Not the playwright’s purpose, perhaps, but Ms. Hall’s text refuted the notion that a person shouldn’t meet someone she admires. Despite Mr. Pugh’s solid enactment of Dr. King’s flaws, Ms. Harris showed how Camae still respected the person. In the penultimate scene, both characters expressed their deepest thoughts to one another. Ms. Harris delivered a gripping monolog in which she expatiated on her regard for Dr. King. She poignantly described her admiration for his strength to love those who hated him.

A drama containing only two characters puts pressure on the actors to carry the show. Both Mr. Pugh and Ms. Harris met that challenge spectacularly. Although limited by the Zoom platform, they created the illusion of two people together in a room engaging in a serious conversation for 90 minutes. Catherine LaMoreaux’s reading of the stage directions set the mood.

Ms. Harris speculated on the loss of Dr. King with tenderness. “You won’t feel the hurt. The world will,” she said. “The baton” has passed on to the next generations of civil rights leaders. Mr. Pugh’s powerful depiction of Dr. King and Ms. Harris’ expression of Camae’s regard for him showed how much that hurt still endures.

Dragonfly’s fans should note that their next reading will occur on a Tuesday NOT a Wednesday. The company will reprise its performance of Little Women on Tuesday, March 2nd. The Edison Arts Society will host this event.            

Rachel Presented by the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center

The Dragonfly Multicutural Arts Center honored Black History Month this February 17th. The company did so through a show significant for both its historical and its theatrical value. Dragonfly performed a reading of the first play written by an African American to be produced in the United States. The event took place via Zoom and Facebook.

Dragonfly Executive Director Catherine LaMoreaux’s opening remarks provided viewers with the show’s context. Angelina Weld Grimké wrote Rachel in 1916. A desire to educate her audience about racial conditions in the United States inspired the work. The playwright submitted it to the Drama Committee of the NAACP. It became the first American theatrical production to feature all African American cast members.

Rachel’s tone could be compared to that of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One could describe it as a melodrama, but the underlying premise gave the work a realistic edge.

Rachel brought viewers into the Loving household. They seemed a typical early twentieth century American family. Mrs. Loving (played by M. Drue Williams) worked odd jobs as a seamstress. Her son Tom (Nathaniel Tomb) played quarterback on the school football team. Her teenaged daughter Rachel (Amanda S. Padilla) loved children.

During their evening together, Mrs. Loving became melancholic. The children inquired why. Her response would change their lives. She revealed that on the same night ten years prior: “Christian people in a Christian land” lynched both their father and half-brother.

Tom displayed incipient signs of bitterness. Rachel began doubting her religious faith. She even questioned her desire to raise children. African American children grew up “just for that?” She asked her mother.   

Shortly after, a seven-year-old child, Jimmy (John Randall) moved in with the Lovings. Rachel became his surrogate mother. She also gained the affections of family friend, John Strong (Abraham Ntonya). Both did little to ameliorate Rachel’s increasing disillusionment with the society around her.

Amanda S. Padilla delivered a riveting performance as Rachel. With buoyancy and enthusiasm, Ms. Padilla showed the character’s positivity along with her passion in caring for young children. As the show progressed, she displayed the devastating impact of living in a racist society.

One of the show’s most powerful scenes featured Jimmy and Rachel. Mr. Randall described a group of kids throwing rocks at him while shouting a racial epithet. He asked Rachel why they did. Ms. Padilla attempted to explain. Her difficulty showed that the incident affected her more than him.

Ms. Padilla delivered a passionate monolog during the third act. With lachrymose eyes she related how the trauma of racism had affected her soul. “We are all cursed by the white man’s prejudice,” she said. “In a year or two Jimmy will be made old by suffering.”

Nathaniel Tomb also showed the effect of bigotry on his character. Despite graduating from college as an electrical engineer, no one would hire him. Mr. Tomb’s facial expressions and vocal inflections showed Tom’s increasing resentment. When Mrs. Loving told him not to lose his faith in God, he replied that he’d “try” to believe again.   

Abraham Ntonya played the pragmatic John Strong. When asked how he was doing, Mr. Ntonya replied “I’m always well.” A college graduate, his race precluded him from gaining suitable employment. The lack of options forced him to become a waiter. Mr. Ntonya captured John’s practicality. He enthusiastically described working into the position of head waiter. He expatiated on the perquisites of his job. For one, his former college classmates tipped him well. “They see it as philanthropy,” he said. When Rachel questioned him on the merits of his career, he dispassionately stated, “I tried your way. Mine is the only sane one.”

M. Drue Williams portrayed the family’s matriarch. Ms. Williams showed her character’s steady resolve while coping with loss and suffering. Her weary description of feeling older than her 60 years stirred empathy. As did her efforts to keep her children rooted in their faith while living in a “white Christian country that sets its curse upon motherhood.” In a moving scene she commented on Jimmy’s resemblance to her departed son, George. “If God hadn’t relented a little in giving me back my boy.”

Anna Paone read the stage directions. Catherine LaMoreaux served as the show’s technical director. Nathaniel Tomb’s cat made an uncredited cameo.

Grimké’s portrayal of Rachel’s development served as a unique type of bildungsroman. It provided the audience with an understanding of a young woman’s coming of age not under tragic circumstances, but under normal circumstances that happened to be tragic for her because of her race. Ford Madox Ford opened his 1915 novel The Good Soldier with the words: This is the saddest story I ever heard. One wonders if he still would have written that had he seen Rachel first.   

A replay of Rachel is available on the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center’s Facebook page.

Next week Dragonfly will continue commemorating Black History Month. On Wednesday February 24, the company will present Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop. It will feature Sheleah Harris and Arthur Gregory Pugh. The performance will be broadcast via Zoom. Those interested in watching must preregister at DragonflyArtsNJ@gmail.com.

All About Eve at the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center

The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center took audiences behind the curtain to expose the alternate side of theatre. For their February 10th, Wednesday night reading, the company used a virtual arena to present the radio play version of All About Eve. The audience warmed up to this story quick.

In the preliminary situation, Margo Channing (played by Ann Grippo) had conquered theatrical stages as a sought-after actress. Playwright Lloyd Richards (Thom Boyer) tailored his lead roles specifically for her. Margo’s love interest, Bill Sampson (Nathaniel Tomb), prepared to direct his first Hollywood movie. A loyal maid, Birdie (Susan Roberts), loyally served her. In addition, Lloyd’s wife Karen (Susan Holtz) introduced her to a fan who had followed Margo’s latest show across the country: a young woman named Eve (Shauni Ramai).

Quite a pleasant backdrop. But a trap opened up underneath these given circumstances. Margo missed the cues that Eve didn’t simply aspire to meet her idol: she longed to be her idol. Aside from acting as Margo’s assistant, her focus shifted to seeking the limelight. Eve took the stage as Margo’s understudy. She tried to strike up a relationship with Bill. The dialog she used to open up to critic Addison DeWitt (Noah Stanzione) didn’t mask her ambitions.

With this in the backdrop, Margo confronted her most challenging role yet: playing an “ageless” ingenue both on and off the stage.                

Dragonfly’s production team used the radio play script of All About Eve for this performance. They still allowed the audience to watch the actors play their roles on both the Zoom and Facebook platforms. The cast showcased excellent costuming. Noah Stanzione used a jacket, open shirt and a cravat to accoutre the ambitious critic, Addison DeWitt. Ann Grippo varied her attire nicely for Margo Channing. She wore a robe with a towel on her head when in the character’s dressing room. For her public persona, she wore a fashionable jacket and scarf that suited the character.    

Shauni Ramai’s character said, “My heart is in the theatre.” From Ms. Ramai’s performance, one would surmise that the role became the actor. Ms. Rami brought her signature enthusiasm to this performance. She burst with joy to reflect her character’s thrill when meeting her idol. At the show’s conclusion, Ms. Ramai delivered an animated acceptance speech.  

The Eve character gave Ms. Ramai the opportunity to play an oblique figure. With deadpan diction, Susan Roberts explained to an incredulous Ann Grippo that Eve was “studying her as if she were in a play” or “a blueprint.”

Ms. Ramai enacted the character’s ruthlessness. While trying to woo Margo’s love interest, she spoke with a seductive tone that contaned a hint of malice in it. Her malevolent eye roll when blackmailing Susan Hotz’s character expressed Eve’s mercilessness.

Ms. Rami employed her talent for non-verbal expression in other creative ways. When lying to Addision about Eve’s past, she flinched. During the same scene, she also performed an authentic impersonation of Noah Stanzione’s character.

It’s always interesting to watch an actor portray another actor. Ann Grippo accepted the challenge of playing aging starlet, Margo Channing. Nathaniel Tomb’s character described her as a “hysterical screaming harpie.” Ms. Grippo brought that temperamental personality to the Zoom and Facebook platforms.

At times, Ms. Grippo’s performance could draw comparisons with Faye Dunaway’s interpretation of Joan Crawford from Mommie Dearest. Her dramatic delivery of her dialog, the use of the martini glass prop and her longing for Bill “to love (her) and not Margo Channing,” captured the personality of this high-strung character. Ms. Grippo allowed Margo’s frustrations over her own aging coming into conflict with the ageism in the industry to project in her voice.    

Ms. Grippo showed Margo’s passions controlling her during an argument with Lloyd. Ms. Grippo and Thom Boyer made this one of the show’s most memorable scenes. Mr. Boyer delivered the cryptic riposte, “It is time the piano realizes it has not written the concerto.”

While familiar with the 1950 Hollywood film, the performers didn’t study it prior to the show. The actors presented their own interpretations of the characters. Through his haughty accent, Nathaniel Tomb showed Bill’s egotism. Noah Stanzione’s diction expressed Addison’s cynicism. Susan Holtz also selected a solid accent and used well thought out vocal inflections for Karen.

Anna Paone performed the play’s introductory announcements. Catherine LaMoreaux managed the sound effects. Laura Paone portrayed the Operator, the Waiter and Miss Caswell.  

All About Eve showed that cynicism, intrigue and skullduggery can take place in theatre. The performers at the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center showed the audience just how entertaining it is to watch it.

To honor Black History Month, Dragonfly will present excerpts from Angelina W. Grimke’s Rachel. This drama was the first play written by an African American to be produced in the United States. This reading will take place at 8:00 PM on February 17th. For more information, please consult the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts’ Facebook page.    

Nescience Presented by The Masquerade Theatre Company

The Masquerade Theatre presented the inaugural performance of their New Works Series this February 5th. To provide “a platform for contemporary artists to present new and thought-provoking pieces that help us explore our humanity,” the production team selected Beatrice Alonna’s Nescience.

Ms. Alonna called the piece a “a comedy that presents a serious subject” during the talk back. The playwright expatiated on that premise in the playbill. She described Nescience as:

…a compilation of stories that surround the world-wide epidemic of stereotypes…Nescience the word could be defined as a lack of knowledge, or ignorance. These instances presented are surrounded around the nescient conclusions made by the human race.

When researching the play, Ms. Alonna asked people if they’d been stereotyped. “Everyone I asked had a story,” she said. When constructing the dialog, she decided not to present each narrative from the perspective of the person who shared it with her. She made this artistic choice in order to “express the truth in the fact that everyone is often misrepresented.”  

The play followed a ten-scene structure. Each vignette contributed to the larger story. Ms. Alonna credited the Masquerade Theatre’s production team for aiding with the sequencing.

Unlike Masquerade Theatre’s other virtual performances, they pre-recorded Nescience for broadcast. It allowed Ms. Alonna, who also directed the play, to incorporate outdoor scenes into the show. It also facilitated the popping up on screen of text messages the characters sent to one another.  

Recording the show beforehand also allowed Tommy Balne to work his technical magic. He produced a gripping video montage for Grace Crosby’s solo performance of “Scream.” Ms. Crosby wrote, sang and accompanied herself on acoustic guitar for this folk-rock piece.

When Ms. Alonna presented the song to the show’s producers, it moved Megan Knowlton Balne. She said that she’d listened to it “a couple hundred times.” Tommy Balne compared it to a 1960s protest song. Its inspiration led to Mr. Balne’s most powerful video work yet.  

Those interested can watch Ms. Crosby perform the song sans Mr. Balne’s visuals on YouTube at:  https://youtu.be/MhnCNvUauOc.

Nescience would serve as a good educational tool for grammar school students. In several scenes, young actors Icesis Gonzales-Hughes, Isaiah Milton, Aniyah Poole and Giovanni Ramos portrayed schoolchildren. Based on comments in the Crowdcast chat, Abra Watson, the actress who played their teacher, Miss Mahogany, became a fan favorite.

The classroom setting served as an effective symbol of the necessity of educating society about stereotyping. Ms. Watson’s comedic portrayal of Miss Mahogany captured the subconscious misconceptions people carry. The playwright showed how the students recognized the biases that she didn’t know she had.  

Ms. Alonna presented an outstanding twist on stereotypes in “The Microaggression.” Performer Miles Arthur sat down on a bench next to a woman (played by Leah Cohen). Ms. Cohen politely smiled at him and resumed looking at her phone. He nervously called the police. She confronted him for assuming her dangerous.

Perhaps in a first for theatre, a playwright incorporated a game show into the performance. Miss Mahogany fielded questions from the host (Emily Little) regarding her understanding of stereotyping.      

Nascience included a variety of musical material, as well. In addition to Ms. Crosby’s powerful song, the entire cast performed opening and closing musical numbers. Hip Hop fans would enjoy Natacha DeCastro, Icesis Gonzales-Hughes and Aniyah Poole performing together on “Mixed.”  

The show’s other cast members included Hannah Hanselman, Ishanna Rodriguez and Isaiah Showell. Prince Slomo and Simon Hamilton managed the music productions.  

After the show, audience members asked the performers how the show impacted them. Abra Watson replied, “It made me look at myself…I don’t think we examine ourselves as being the perpetrators of stereotyping.”

Nescience showed that people of different faiths, cultures and ethnicities have more commonalities than differences. For individuals to recognize that, as Ms. Alonna and Ms. Watson noted, “It starts with a conversation.” One hopes that Ms. Alonna’s work will inspire people to have those discussions. The enthusiasm that came through in the Chat comments gave reason for optimism that they will.

The Masquerade Theatre’s website contained the following thoughts from Ms. Alonna:

It is extremely interesting to me that such a controversial topic could be found humorous, but Nescience the play does just that, the comedic take on racial stereotypes allows the human race to open their eyes to how they see other people. This production is truly an experience that could very well be an aid to ending the epidemic. Compiling these stories together in a creative way has taught me a lot; and I pray that some of these truths can be presented in a way they can serve as a revelation to the cultures that experience it.

Nescience runs virtually through the Masquerade Theatre until February 7th.