Author: kevsteph

Clybourne Park at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

My most memorable moment as a theatre critic occurred several months ago at Burlington County Footlighters. During a production of The Fox on the Fairway, they used my name during the show. I’m sure glad my name didn’t come up during their 2nd Stage presentation of Clybourne Park. I much rather prefer having my golfing ability questioned in a public forum than getting associated with the themes in this story. In addition to a sense of relief, Footlighters treated me to a thought provoking and entertaining performance on June 16th.

Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning drama also received the 2012 Tony Award for best play. The story addressed the topic of racism in America. The first act occurred in 1959 and the second fifty years later in 2009. With housing as the background, it explored the state of race relations in American society during two different time periods.

The playwright used an interesting technique. The same actors played different characters in acts one and two. All had a personal connection to either the neighborhood or the home that served as the play’s lone setting. It led to some unsettling discussions involving race. In the first act, white people fought the perceived encroachment by African Americans into the community. Over time the neighborhood demographic shifted becoming predominantly African American. Mr. Norris then added an interesting twist. In the second act, the African Americans fought to preserve the neighborhood’s historical heritage from white people’s interference.

Sensitive theatregoers should be forewarned: Mr. Norris’ show featured raw dialog. It made me feel uncomfortable during the second act when the characters discussed racial matters. During the first act I found the conversation just painful. The characters seemed very timid as though they struggled to understand one another, but just couldn’t find the right way to communicate their thoughts.  The discussion in the 2009 act deteriorated into anger and resentment. The racist jokes from both sides compounded the animosity.

Shows that require actors to play multiple characters challenge thespians. Most times that’s because their roles possess antithetical traits to one another. Clybourne Park took an original approach to this technique. Even though the cast played different characters, the roles they performed possessed the same values and beliefs. The difference showed in how they chose to express them.

Performers Sheldon Jackson and Nina Law played the African American couple in both scenes. In the first act, Ms. Law took on the role of an ostensibly obedient domestic servant. She always seemed hesitant or uncomfortable when speaking to her employer Bev (Kathy Harmer). Her open expressions of frustration and defiance towards her husband showed her true character. I credit Ms. Law for executing this challenging balancing act so well.

Mr. Jackson removed his hat and recited a series of “yes, ma’am”s when addressing his wife’s employer. While overtly polite, his mannerisms and speech reflected an underlying tension.

In the second act, they transitioned into more assertive people. Mr. Jackson physically confronted Steve (Fred Ezell) in response to his insulting his wife. Ms. Law crossed her arms and legs, pursed her lips while attending the meeting, thus expressing contempt through her mannerisms. Then she confronted Steve when he intimated his views on race.

Both Mr. Jackson and Ms. Law animated these challenging emotions brilliantly. Their counterparts as the white couple, Fred Ezell and Stevie Neale, did the same.

In the first act, Mr. Ezell looked and sounded the role of someone fighting to preserve his “progressive community.” He struggled when explaining how “different” people were, well, “different.” He held his hat in front of him as if metaphorically trying to conceal the character’s true inner feelings.

Stevie Neale turned in an extraordinary performance as a deaf woman; someone incapable of hearing the goings on around her. Ms. Neale’s manner of speaking demonstrated that she took the time to research and comprehend the role.

In the second act, the hat was gone and Mr. Ezell’s character let loose. While managing to repress and feign his feelings he eventually expressed his views with abandon; even telling a bigoted joke.

During this portion of the show Ms. Neale’s character couldn’t avoid hearing her husband’s views. While reserved at first, she also became enraged at the course of the conversation. As with the African American wife in the first act, she directed it at her husband.

In the first act, Kathy Harmer played an outstanding 1950s wife. She expressively pranced about the room discussing trite matters with her husband. Even with the stresses of an uncertain future following a horrible family tragedy, she exhibited a sense of optimism. In the second she became a dull lawyer.

Jonathan Edmonson ran the emotional gamut in Clybourne Park. This performer transitioned from a priest in the first act to an attorney in the second. (It’s hard to imagine any two roles more oppositional than these.) His calm reserve in response to Russ’ (Al Krier) insults gave way to impatience and aggravation in act two.  Later in the show he returned in the role of a somber, distraught man.

Al Krier always makes himself unique in his performances. Usually he does so through his costuming. While the bandana he wore in act two did present a rather unique look for him, he distinguished himself in the first act. In yet another example of why I’m glad my name didn’t come up the show, he instructed a priest (Jonathan Edmonson) to go “f–k himself.”

Mr. Krier turned in an extraordinary performance even by the standard of excellence I expect from him. In the first act, he played a father with anger issues over a family tragedy. He convincingly played someone trying to repress his emotions; especially, by the calm way he delivered the line in the preceding paragraph. Later in the scene he vented his rage at the community itself. In the second act, he refocused and became the show’s comic relief.

The play contained a range of dialog; some of it very tense and other portions rather comical. I didn’t care for the opening of both acts with banal discussions. The conversations droned on far too long for the effect the playwright wanted to achieve. I’d encourage audience members to be patient and endure them. Beyond that one shortcoming, I found the rest of the story well written.

As with a previous visit to Footlighters 2nd Stage, I had the opportunity to sit next to the director. (Blogging about community theatre has its perks.) Carla Ezell laughed heartily during the comedic lines. That impressed me. She’s worked on this show with the cast and crew for months. Familiar dialog still drawing that kind of reaction from her demonstrated her enthusiasm. That passion carried over into the performances.

Clybourne Park brought an uncomfortable part of the American experience to the stage. With that noted, a diverse audience attended the same performance I did. Not one attendee walked out. No one reacted in anger. It led me to believe that just maybe, should Mr. Norris add a third act covering the year 2059, the characters would behave with more civility towards one another. For now, theatre fans can attend the conflict laden version at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd stage through June 24th.

 

Drama Review: Sweat by Lynn Nottage

Lynn Nottage crafted the most gripping tale of an American tragedy I’ve ever read. Sweat presented a realistic depiction of the disintegration of the middle class’ dreams and aspirations in recent years. A masterpiece of the highest order resulted.

As in Ms. Nottage’s 2008 drama, Ruined, the playwright displayed her extraordinary artistic aptitude. Once again, she paired the perfect characters with the appropriate setting in the proper time frame. Sweat took place in Reading, Pennsylvania. The action occurred in the years 2000 and 2008. The characters reflected the diversity in American society. They included two generations of African Americans, two generations of German Americans, a Columbian American and an Italian American; all born in Berks County, Pennsylvania. NAFTA’s effects coupled with the ensuing economic uncertainty it wrought caused this melting pot to boil over. It did so in the form of resentment, nascent racism and xenophobia.

I applaud Ms. Nottage’s brilliance in using events from the recent past to present a modern story. The show premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on July 29, 2015. The events it described occurred either seven or fifteen years prior. Still, the narrative’s immediacy impressed me greatly.

Ms. Nottage crafted very believable characters. I could imagine sitting down and sharing a beer with the likes of Tracey, Brucie, Jason and Chris. Their values and respective mentalities captivated me even more.

The playwright did an unparalleled job in creating balance throughout the story. One of the factory workers, Cynthia, received a promotion to supervisor. Making one of the “workers” a member of “management” made it difficult to completely vilify the “white hats.” That made the true “villain” in the story a bit nebulous. The “heroes” also struggled with their own hubris.

The playwright captured society’s carefree attitude at the advent of the twenty first century. While drinking together at a bar the subject of the modern business environment became a topic of discussion. An inebriated forty-five year old Tracey said, “We’ve been having the same conversation for twenty years. So, let’s stop complaining and have some fun.” (Page 27)

Jason, the twenty one year old white American, discussed his plans to retire at 50. He envisioned his “killa” pension would provide him with the means to purchase a condo in Myrtle Beach. Possessing “money to burn” would supply the means to buy into a donut franchise and run his own business. (Page 32)

Not all the characters possessed this boundless optimism, however. After Brucie’s plant locked out its workers, he struggled to cope not just financially, but personally. His very identity evaporated with the loss of his job. Like many in his generation he struggled to understand his plight. When comparing his time as a factory worker to that of his father’s, he asked Stan the bartender: “Where did I go wrong?” (Page 36)

The playwright creatively alluded to the title throughout the text. Evan, the parole officer, commented, “It’s no sweat off my back.” (Page 9) Stan observed that the new managerial generation didn’t enter the shop floor because they didn’t want their diplomas “stained with sweat.” (Page 26) Chris declared that he broke up with his girlfriend due to her “sweating” him. (Page 98)

Many writers become overwhelmed by their own research. Ms. Nottage avoided this mistake. Each scene opened with the date followed by a brief description of news events. They included both national political and financial happenings as well as occurrences specific to the Reading area. It provided for a good contrast. The use of the old beer commercial line “Wazzup” in the dialog provided a true voice from the era.

Stan, the bartender observed, “Nostalgia’s a disease.” (Page 97) The drama illustrated the wisdom in that aphorism. It didn’t offer much of a prescription to ameliorate its impact in the future, either. With the myriad warnings about increasing economic inequality in our society, all of us should sweat about that.

Tami Gordon Brody: The Critique Compendium Interview

Tami HeadshotAfter a 20-year hiatus from the stage to raise her two sons, Tami Gordon Brody has certainly been making up for lost time over the last five years. Upon the urging of her son Taylor, who is also an actor, Tami embarked on her first audition in two decades; Haddonfield Plays & Players’ 2011 production of Titanic and was cast as Charlotte Cardoza. Since then, she has been lucky enough to portray some of musical theatre’s great “women of a certain age” roles. Golde in Fiddler on the Roof, with Voorhees Theatre Company, Joanne in Company with Cumberland Players, Carmen Bernstein in Curtains and most recently Mother Superior in Sister Act, both at Haddonfield Plays and Players.   She’s also taken on some “strictly acting” roles, such as Harriet, in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at South Camden Theatre Company and Reba Freitag in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, at HP&P.   Up next, Tami is thrilled to be working with director Craig Hutchings in the Ritz Theatre production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in the role of Mrs. Potts.

In the course of “making up for lost time”, Ms. Brody kindly offered her time to be interviewed on 6/7/17. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

 

 

Critique Compendium: What first interested you in the performing arts?

Tami Gordon Brody: When I was young my father worked in the record business. He was head of promotion for Columbia. I took singing lessons, but my voice wasn’t suited for pop music. When I got a little older I discovered musical theatre while at Cherry Hill High School East.

 

Critique Compendium: You’ve said that you’re “making up for lost time” in terms of your performance schedule. What motivates you to be so active in community theatre productions?

Tami Gordon Brody: What do you do after work? Some people play tennis. I do theatre. I love doing it. When I leave work I get to be the actress.

 

Critique Compendium: From looking over your resume, it seems like you’re equally comfortable performing in either musicals or playing strictly acting roles. Which do you prefer?

Tami Gordon Brody: When I was younger I would’ve said musicals. My background is in musical theatre. I was a singer who acted. There have been some directors who have helped build my confidence as an actress. While I prefer musical theatre, acting challenges me more. I enjoy the challenge of it.

 

Critique Compendium: You’re a very talented vocalist. Who influenced you musically?

Tami Gordon Brody: I’d have to say Barbara Streisand and Ella Fitzgerald. Every Jewish girl loves Barbara. (Laughs.) Ella had such a pure, rich voice.

I have other performers I look to now for inspiration such as Victoria Clark, Christine Ebersole and Bernadette Peters. Bernadette Peters was the ingénue when she could be the ingenue. I’m finding that there are many amazing roles for “women of a certain age.” Musical Theatre is one of the few mediums where you don’t get replaced by younger actors.

There’s a show on Broadway now called War Paint. The two performers leads in it (Ebersole and Patty LuPone) are both women over 50.

Helen Mirren is another example of that type of actress. There are amazing roles for “women of a certain age.” I think you really need to have lived a life to play them.

 

Critique Compendium: Do you feel that you’ve matured as a performer when you play these roles?

Tami Gordon Brody: My priorities are different than they were when I was in my 20s. Now I pick and choose what I want to do.

When I was younger performing was about attention. Now it’s about being part of a bigger thing. It’s about telling a story. I’d rather be part of a strong cast.

It’s great having the opportunity to become someone else. Theatre is ageless.

 

 

Critique Compendium: If I could return to the subject of your vocal talents. You’ve done voice overs for the Special Olympics of New Jersey, Karl’s Baby and Children’s Furniture (in Philadelphia) and JCCA Maccabi Games. How did you get into that field?

Tami Gordon Brody: Karl’s is my big claim to fame. (Laughs) My ex-husband is a filmmaker. He asked me if I’d be interested in doing some voice over work. To do it I needed to lose my Jersey accent! It’s a different kind of medium. They want you to say things a certain way. After recording they speed up the track to eliminate the pauses. It’s very unnatural. So in that sense it’s much different than theatre.

 

Critique Compendium: What kinds of things interest you in playing a role?

Tami Gordon Brody:  Sometimes, it’s the story. For instance, Parade was an important story. In that show, I played a Senator’s wife. Although it was a smaller role, I got to be part of it.

Then there was Mother Superior in Sister Act. Roles like that one really gives you a chance to create a character.

I look at the way the character is written. Of course, you have to be practical about how young you can play.

It has to be something I’m going to enjoy doing. I also like roles that are a challenge emotionally, such as Joanne in Company. I wanted to find out why she was so angry and drank. I wanted to convey the character’s emotions. It’s important to make the audience feel.

 

Critique Compendium: How do you handle an audience that doesn’t feel?

Tami Gordon Brody: Every audience is different. You get different reactions from different crowds.

A performer must listen to the audience. It’s important to be mindful of their responses. Timing is important to allow them to react. Sometimes, you may get the same reaction to a line or a moment on stage and you come to expect it.   Then you’ll get an occasional audience that doesn’t react the way you expect.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s been you’re favorite role that you’ve performed so far?

Tami Gordon Brody: Oh, Joanne in Company. But I would love to play Golde in Fiddler again. Both are iconic roles. I do enjoy playing flawed characters better than playing ‘normal’ ones. Some are just fun though.

 

Critique Compendium: Why?

Tami Gordon Brody: My Jewish upbringing. My great-grandfather grew up in a village in Russia just like Anatekvah . Golde is the character I’ve played that’s the closest to me. It was very personal.

Although, I’ve loved all the roles I’ve played. I learn things about other people by playing different characters. Some aren’t like me at all. I like learning about people and cultures. Now, in Beauty and the Beast, I’m playing an animated character.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult role you’ve played?

Tami Gordon Brody: Harriet in Broken Glass. That was my first straight acting role. The caliber of talent in that show was unlike anything I’d worked with before. I had to reach. It’s good to have to reach. It was hard work. I wasn’t going to be able to rely on my singing. Until then, I was more insecure about acting than singing. Although, you don’t want to see me dance. (Laughs)

 

Critique Compendium: First, allow me to wish you a belated Happy Mother’s Day. You had the experience of working with both your sons, Taylor and Evan, in: Parade. You and Taylor will be sharing the stage once again at the upcoming production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast at the Ritz Theatre Company this summer. What was it like sharing the stage with your children?

Tami Evan and Taylor

Tami Gordon Brody: Amazing! It was the greatest experience! I’m so proud of them. They’re so talented. They’re so much more advanced than I am vocally.

Taylor and Evan got the bug. Taylor (to Ms. Brody’s left in photo) was in Fiddler on the Roof with me too. Evan (to Ms. Brody’s right) will be playing Kenickie in Grease this summer in Blackwood.

Unfortunately, (because of our theatrical schedules) sometimes we can’t always see each other’s shows. Theatre is something we share. We can lean on each other and help each other. It’s great to have this shared love with my children.

My boyfriend Glen is also an actor, and it is something that I can share with him as well. We all understand the commitment that goes into doing a show – which is a wonderful thing.

 

Critique Compendium: What performers have influenced you?

Tami Gordon Brody: I’d say Meryl Streep, Kevin Spacey and Helen Mirren. They can really transform themselves into different characters; and they don’t need accoutrements to make that happen.

 

Critique Compendium: If you had the opportunity to work with any other actor either living or dead, who would it be?

Tami Gordon Brody: I’d love to work with Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and definitely Nathan Lane. His comic timing is amazing. These are people I could learn from. When I was younger the answers might not have been the same. Back then I would’ve been interested in their “star power.”

 

Critique Compendium: In addition to your busy performance schedule, you’re the Vice President of Haddonfield Plays and Players. What inspired you to take on a leadership role with that organization?

Tami Gordon Brody: I did two shows with them (Titanic and Full Monty). Dave Stavetski (the President of HP&P) got me to go to a meeting. I helped out with creating the posters in front of the theatre.  Now that I am on the board, I handle the playbills, social media, media and advertising. I’m happy to give back to them. We have an amazing leadership team. They’re a really great group of dedicated people.

Dave is very civic minded. He’s very involved in sharing the arts in South Jersey.

Our space allows for the ability to do shows that other people can’t do. For instance look at (director) Matt Weil’s innovative use of space in The Pillowman. You wouldn’t see a show like that in a larger theatre.

We have a successful StageKidz program. Last year, we switched to a five show season. We used to do seven shows. This gives us more production time for each, mainstage show. It also allows us to provide additional special programming – like our annual production of Number the Stars, as well as our successful cabaret series. Whenever I perform I think, “Look at how much I’m getting.” Being involved with HP&P gives me the satisfaction of giving back. You make connections with the other performers. Creating lasting relationships. Community theatre in South Jersey is getting stronger and stronger. So many theatres mean more opportunities for actors. There’s a lot of talent down here.

 

Critique Compendium: How do you balance a career, family and other activities with the demands of performing in community theater productions?

Tami Gordon Brody: When I’m at work I focus on work. It all comes down to time management. Theatre teaches it. It helps with other aspects of my life. It’s a responsibility.

 

Critique Compendium: How do you prepare for a role?

Tami Gordon Brody: I write the lines on index cards. I use them for memorization.  It’s all about time management. I’ve got the instrumental rehearsal tracks of Beauty and the Beast in my car.  I sang it on the way over here.

I know I need to do my homework. I need to get past my frustration and learn what I need to know. Then I don’t have to worry about it. I need to understand the character. I need to be prepared. Sometimes it entails not only knowing my lines, but that of my fellow actors as well.

It’s not always easy to do theatre. It means something different to everyone. I’m very proud of what I do. The roles that satisfy me the most are the ones where I work the hardest.

You have to live up to the role. Golde and Joanne are iconic roles. People expect it to be a certain way. I also want to be as good as my fellow cast members. I do enjoy playing flawed characters better than playing ‘normal’ ones. Some are just fun, though.

 

Critique Compendium: This is the first time you’ve worked with director Craig Hutchings since you played Harriet in the South Camden Theatre Company’s production of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass. What’s it like working with him again?

Tami Gordon Brody: Craig is an “actor’s director.” He’s always looking at the acting. He gives notes and character suggestions. To him, the lyric is just as important as the dialog. He brings depth to the characters.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s next for you?

Tami Gordon Brody: After Beauty and the Beast I’ll be taking a rest. I would love an opportunity to assistant direct next season.  I’m hoping to be as versatile as some other theatre people. But, I like performing more. If the right role presented itself, I would definitely audition!

I can honestly say if I didn’t have theatre I’d be half a person. I don’t know what I’d be doing without it.

 

The Pillowman at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Haddonfield Plays and Players’ promotional material for The Pillowman contained a warning that they intended the show for “mature audiences.” When I purchased my ticket on-line I gave my real name. When I picked it up at the box office, I mentioned who I was to the person at the counter. In spite of the management’s repeated assertions that audience members should possess the emotional characteristics of an adult, they still allowed me to attend the show. It delighted me that they chose to be flexible with their policy. I attended the Saturday afternoon performance on May 13th.

Director and set designer Matthew Weil didn’t waste time in establishing the show’s tone. I entered the theatre 20 minutes prior to the start time. The scene that greeted me explained a lot about the “mature audiences” disclaimer. The stage contained a table, a light directly over it and two chairs against a dark background. A blindfolded performer sat in one of them. The dim lights made it difficult to see. Eerie music played in the background. I credit Mr. Weil for this creative use of ambiance. It allowed him to capture the beauty and the horror of Martin McDonagh’s piece before the story even began.

As with his direction of Brighton Beach Memoirs, (also presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players) Mr. Weil utilized an innovative stage set-up. He designed it as a square with one corner pointing to the front of the theatre. By doing so, it allowed performers to get closer to the audience during key scenes. As I sat to stage right of the corner, the angle of vision gave me a similar perspective as the protagonist when the detectives questioned him. That allowed me to empathize with the main character and really get into the story during the interrogations.

The story centered on a writer named Katurian (played by Michael Pliskin). Without understanding the reason, two police officers Tupolski (played by Michael Doheny) and Ariel (Ryan Ruggles) entered the room and began questioning him. The mystery deepened when they asked about his fiction; with particular emphasis on the ones that included child killings. They explained that someone murdered two children in a similar fashion to those described in his stories. To add to the tension, they held his mentally deficient brother Michal (played by Andy Spinosi) in the next room. They threatened to harm him if Katurian didn’t cooperate.

The story contained philosophical undertones that would’ve impressed Aristotle. As Mr. Weil wrote in the playbill:

 Camouflaged in this gripping piece of theatre are a series of meditations on the nature and existence of art. Is art capable of corrupting? Does it feed off suffering? Should writers be brought to task for dealing in violence and child abuse? Is the artist responsible for the consequences of art? What is or should be the relationship between art and politics?

Michael Pliskin delivered an impassioned performance as Katurian; with emphasis on the word impassioned. The role demanded a range of emotions from the performer. During the interrogation scenes he captured the character’s confusion and terror. Tears came to his eyes when expressing his affection for his brother. Mr. Pliskin impressed most with his skill as a story teller. In several scenes he recited stories written by Katurian. Mr. Pliskin’s awe inspiring deliveries made them much more interesting and entertaining than they would appear on the written page. It would’ve been a very satisfying evening if the show consisted of him only doing that.

In some ways similar to Lenny in Of Mice and Men, the ‘Mikal’ role challenges thespians to perform it credibly. Andy Spinosi animated the character exceptionally well. In addition to enacting Michal’s complexities, several times he did an excellent imitation of Katurian from his character’s perspective.

Michael Doheny and Ryan Ruggles delivered a remarkable take on the good cop / bad cop dynamic. A comedic performance is difficult; getting laughs with dark humor is much harder. Through their skillful interpretations, these two gifted performers made it appear facile; quite a feat with the nature of the story.

Jonathan Greenstein and Marissa Wolf each delivered terrifying performances as the Father and Mother. The two presented their roles like more frightening caricatures of Edward Gorey characters. I especially enjoyed Ms. Wolf’s evil laugh. Having to sleep with the lights on for a few nights is a small price for watching these two exceptional renditions.

Sara Scherz returned to the Haddonfield Plays and Players stage as the girl from Katurian’s “The Little Jesus” story. Aside from the usual challenges of getting into character, this role contained some added physical efforts, as well; and not just speaking in-synch with Mr. Pliskin. Ms. Scherz managed all these intricacies flawlessly.

I had one criticism regarding the script. I found it ironic that a story centered on a writer contained some very poor writing. The dialog contained A LOT of repetition. Several times in the opening scene Tuploski and Ariel repeated each other’s lines back-and-forth. That annoyed me. The second act opened with Michal repeating various things Katurian said to him. That annoyed me even more. Michal then spoke about his “itchy ass” numerous times. At that point I actually thought about leaving.

Listening to the same lines of dialog repeated verbatim over and over just strains my patience and wastes time. In fairness to Mr. McDonaugh, he did include some excellent writing; particularly in the form of Katurian’s prose. The playwright added pauses at effective times, too. With these techniques in his creative arsenal, I didn’t understand the need for characters to keep repeating the same lines.

I expressed my concern about Haddonfield Plays and Players “maturity” requirement to my friend, the esteemed actress and director, Lisa Croce. She suggested I act like I possessed the emotional intelligence to attend the show. To which I replied, “If I was that good an actor, I’d be on stage.” Well, I may have gotten in to see the show, but the skills of the cast far exceeded my meagre abilities. They delivered impressive performances of challenging roles in a very difficult play. No doubt, Mr. Weil’s tutelage contributed to that effort. That’s no fluff. The Pillowman meets the same fate as many of Katurian’s characters after May 20th at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

 

City of Angels at Burlington County Footlighters

I spent a long evening of being mesmerized this May 5th. The excessive amount of talent on stage nearly overwhelmed me when I attended the opening of Burlington County Footlighters presentation of City of Angels. This Daryl S. Thompson, Jr. directed piece contained superb acting, great dancing and extraordinary singing. It also featured performances by several South Jersey Community Theatre legends. DJ Hedgepath, Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor all returned to the Footlighters stage. To add to the show’s appeal, Jim Frazer designed the set and Cameron Stringham served as musical director. Mallory Beach and Erica Paloucci handled the choreography.

Well, what else is there to say?  Oh, DJ Hedgepath and Rachel Comenzo once again showed us mortals why we all need to keep our day jobs. This is the easiest review I’ve ever written. Enjoy the rest of your day.

For the benefit of those people who like details, I’ll continue.

The show applied the “story-within-a-story” approach to a musical. It told the tale of screenwriter Stine’s (DJ Hedgepath) quest to write the script for a movie called City of Angels. In the course of doing so, he battled Hollywood producer and director Buddy Fidler’s (Steve Rogina) incessant meddling, he struggled to keep his marriage to Gabby (Rachel Comenzo) together; a feat complicated by his infidelity with Donna (Jillian Starr-Renbjor), and the voice of his protagonist, Stone (John Romano), tussled with him in his head.

In a manner reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, characters from real life ended up in the imagined story. One has to credit the performers who played dual roles during the same evening.

Kaitlyn Delengowski stood out as portraying the two most diverse characters. I really enjoyed the high-pitched squealy voice she selected for the Carla character; quite a departure from that of the haughty, Alaura Kingsley.

As to where the story went after that: your guess is as good as mine. With the Hollywood characters becoming the movie characters, the plot twists in the detective’s quest and Stine’s re-writes, I found it far too complicated to follow. It didn’t matter, though. The fantastic singing and superb performances made for a very enjoyable evening.

The story didn’t possess the same complexity as some of the melodies, however. David Zippel’s lyrics didn’t quite compliment Cy Coleman’s odd musical phrasing, either. They gave the singers a challenge.

Rachel Comenzo delivered a transcendent performance on the intricate “It Needs Work”. Perhaps inspired by her skill, DJ Hedgepath followed it up several tunes later with his stellar rendition of the equally difficult “Funny”.

The musical began with an unconventional and difficult opening to perform. It started as scat singing that transitioned into a barber shop quartet. Performers Stephen Jackson, Matthew Maerten, Emily Huddell and Kori Rife accepted the challenge of hooking the audience with this unusual material. They executed this task brilliantly.

Not many players would volunteer for the opportunity to sing a duet containing sixteenth notes. Fans familiar with them already know that Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor possess exceptional vocal prowess. They showed it with their rendition of “What You Don’t Know about Women.”

DJ Hedgepath and John Romano shared their own dual moment in the spotlight, as well. They delivered an outstanding performance on the “You’re Nothing without Me” number.

The cast delivered outstanding presentations. Mr. Romano tuned in a solid performance as the hard-boiled detective. I enjoyed his interactions with his edgy secretary (Jillian Star-Renbjor), the wealthy wife (Kaitlyn Delengowski) and the gangsters (Wayne Renbjor and the brilliantly comical Tony Flores). Noel McLeer played the missing girl very well, too. This group made me feel like I watched a musical interpretation of a Dashiell Hammett novel. Steve Rogina’s portrayal of the arrogant Hollywood director added a nice element to the story, as well.

Unlike many directors, Darryl Thompson, Jr. chose not to spend the night in the control booth. Instead, he opted to add his own superior vocal talents to the show. I’ve heard him sing bluesy and soulful material in the past. In this production, he showcased his ability to croon jazzy tracks with “Ya Gotta Look Out for Yourself” and the tender ballad “Stay with Me.”

I’d also like to credit Vitaliy Kin’s performance in the roles of Pancho Vargas and Lt. Munoz. I still remember several years ago hearing him perform Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish in The Wedding Singer. As comical as it was, he sang the tune very well. In this show, he delivered an awesome “All Ya Have to Do is Wait” number featuring a salsa and conga dance.

It thrilled me to hear Rachel Comenzo showcase her vocal talents once again. I watched her perform several non-singing roles last year. Ms. Comenzo’s rendition of “With Every Breath I Take” as nightclub singer, Bobbi, made up for the long wait. Her voice delivered great vibrato, soft inflection and outstanding modulation. I thought the band a little too loud on this number. Without a microphone, she still found a way to deliver soft notes in a manner so the audience could still hear her clearly. I’m still trying to figure out how that was even possible.

While crooning this moving number she also used extraordinary facial expressions toward Mr. Romano’s character. As difficult as this may be to believe, she conveyed Bobbi’s emotions non-verbally so well, that the scene would’ve been just as effective had she been silent.

With the possible exception of Mr. Hedgepath, I’ve never watched a performer get into character as well as Ms. Comenzo. Somehow, she manages this so flawlessly, that one sometimes loses sight of just how proficient she is at doing so. That’s talent.

It’s always difficult to select a ‘best’ DJ Hedgepath moment. His duets with Mr. Romano and monumental solo rendition of “Funny” would be good contenders. I also liked when he stepped out of the spotlight to put on the trench coat, glasses and hat and become one of the background dancers. In addition to his superior skill as a performer, you have to respect actors who are willing to accept any role to remain on the stage.

The City of Angels title aptly fit the show. The cast took the audience to heaven. The production impressed so much that “you can always count on me” to tout its praises “with every breath I take.” It’s true that “ya gotta look out for yourself.” There’s nothing “funny” about that, but “eve’rybody’s gotta be somewhere.” So why not use “the buddy system” and take a friend to go see it? “All ya have to do is wait” until the next performance.

 

Drama Review – Three Tall Women by Edward Albee

It’s never easy to write a show with four characters with three being the same person. Edward Albee did so. After crafting such memorable shows as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? and Seascape he added the extraordinary Three Tall Women to his catalog. It provided the perfect vehicle for the playwright to exhibit the range of his genius. In addition to the creativity involved in the concept, he crafted a moving meditation on the physical and psychological effects of the aging process.

The play contained three main characters. The playwright chose not to name them; settling instead for the appellations A, B and C. It turned out that each character played the same “tall” woman at different points in her life. A was an old woman in her nineties. In the list of characters, Mr. Albee described B as “looks rather as A would have at 52; plainly dressed.” C “looks rather as B would have at 26.”

The drama commenced with A on the verge of death. The three characters discussed the key events from her life and how they led to this conclusion. The disparity in their views concretized the ways people evaluate the same events at different points in their lives.

The author animated this point very well. I especially enjoyed the exchanges between A and C on pages 104 and 105. Both admitted to each other, “I don’t like you.” I found that very interesting for two characters that were, in essence, the same person.

I liked how the author worked A’s difficulty remembering things into the story. With the way the narrative progressed I wondered if the character lacked this ability intentionally. With some of the unpleasant events that occurred during her life I could understand why. A good example took place when B expressed hatred for her own son.

(Rage) He left! He packed up his attitudes and he left! And I never want to see him again. (To him) Go away!! (Angry, humiliated, tears.) (Page 92)

I found the portion where C discussed their future husband with characters A and B the most interesting section of the play. The playwright made C a young lady of 26 years. A and B informed her that she married at 28. The characters derisively described the spouse as “little and he’s funny looking—a little like a penguin.” (Page 82) B even called him, “The little one; the little one-eyed man?” (Page 79) She added that they went on to spend forty years with one man: “more or less.” (Page 79) Under C’s questioning, she acknowledged a torrid affair during the marriage. I enjoyed how C became disgusted by the description of the husband along with her (future) behavior towards him. Of course, we know that she’s the character who went on to marry and cheat on him shortly afterwards.

I did have some issues with the dialog. I found a lot of it repetitious. I can understand that since all three characters played, in essence, the same person the playwright would choose to show that by having the individuals speak in similar ways. It did get a little tedious to read after a while.

Characters B and C also recited a line made famous by Kurt Vonnegut. They both used the expression, “And so it goes.” It really grabbed my attention. I didn’t understand if the Mr. Albee deliberately referenced Vonnegut or if he had a meaning more endemic to the play in citing him. I would’ve appreciated a clarification.

On an episode of The Simpsons, Marge told Lisa, “You could write a depressing Broadway play. It could be about people coming to terms with things.” That would serve as a good general synopsis of Three Tall Women. While a very cerebral and unhappy story, it’s still an extraordinary exploration of aging and its effects on the human psyche. If you don’t believe me, and you’re young enough, try reading it when you’re 26, 52 and 91.

Drama Review – How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel

During an interview playwright Paula Vogel expressed her debt to Vladimir Nabokov. His Lolita inspired her to craft a similar story written from the Lolita character’s point-of-view. The superb play How I Learned to Drive resulted.

I found the play’s structure outstanding. The author instructed that during the show a voice over recite messages as though coming from a driver’s education film. These included expressions such as, “Safety first – You and Driver education” (Page 9), “Shifting Forward from First to Second Gear” (Page 16) and “You and the Reverse Gear.” (Page 45) The playwright cleverly inserted these messages into places where they corresponded with the scene. As disturbing as I found the one on “Implied Consent” (Page 44), the following expressed the most troubling message.

Before You Drive.

Always check under your car for obstructions – broken bottles, fallen tree branches, and the bodies of small children. Each year hundreds of children are crushed beneath the wheels of unwary drivers in their own driveways. Children depend on you to watch them. (Page 32)

No play would be presentable without the addition of quirky and memorable characters. How I Learned to Drive didn’t lack any. This family had a very unique tradition. As the protagonist, Li’l Bit explained.

In most families relatives get names like “Junior” or “Brother” or “Bubba.” In my family if we call someone “Big Papa,” it’s not because he’s tall. In my family, folks tend to get nicknamed for their genitalia. Uncle Peck, for example. (Page 12)

The playwright provided great insights into Uncle Peck’s character through his behavior. As he taught Li’l Bit to drive, the occasions became a metaphor for their illicit relationship. He took Li’l Bit out for oysters and cocktails after she passed the driving test. (Page 17) When she was 13, he had her do a sensual photo shoot for him. He told her:

Peck:…You’re doing great work. If we keep this up, in five years we’ll have a really professional portfolio. (Li’l Bit stops.)

Li’l Bit: What do you mean in five years?

Peck: You can’t submit work to Playboy until you’re eighteen. — (Peck continues to shoot; he knows he’s made a mistake.)

Li’l Bit: –Wait a minute. You’re joking, aren’t you, Uncle Peck?

Peck: Heck, no. You can’t get into Playboy unless you’re the very best. And you are the very best. (Page 43)

It seemed very eerie to me that an adolescent girl would still address a man as “uncle” when he talked about sending erotic photos of her to a men’s magazine. I credit the playwright for crafting this scene so well. It gave readers an insight into Uncle Peck’s true nature.

But this was just warm-up depravity for Uncle Peck. He had more despicable conduct to commit. In the play’s most dramatic scene, Li’l Bit expressed her disgust in the following exchange.

Peck: — They were gifts! I just wanted to give you some little perks for your first semester—

Li’l Bit: –Well what the hell were those numbers all about! Forty-four days to go—only two more weeks.—And then just numbers –69—68—67—like some serial killer!

Peck: Li’l Bit! Whoa! This is me you’re talking to—I was just trying to pick-up your spirits, trying to celebrate your birthday.

Li’l Bit: My eighteenth birthday. I’m not a child, Uncle Peck. You were counting down to my eighteenth birthday.

Peck: So?

Lil’ Bit: So? So statutory rape is not in effect when a young woman turns eighteen. And you and I both know it. (Page 49)

The playwright added another distressing bit of realism to this story, too. In the end, Aunt Mary blamed the teenaged Li’l Bit for seducing her husband. It’s always terrible when a victim gets blamed for the crime committed against her. It’s even more awful when that sufferer is a child.

While the nature of the story made for a somber read, the playwright managed to work in some fantastic humor. My favorite occurred when Li’l Bit shared a “Mary Jane joke” with another character.

“Little Mary Jane was walking through the woods, when all of a sudden this man who was hiding behind a tree jumps out, rips open Mary Jane’s blouse, and plunges his hands on her breasts. And little Mary Jane just laughed and laughed because she knew her money was in her shoes.” (Page 37)

For Ms. Vogel’s extraordinary work, How I Learned to Drive received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama. To those not familiar with it, I’d encourage these people to get in their cars. Adjust the seat. Fasten the seatbelt. Then check the right side mirror – check the left side. Finally, adjust the rearview mirror. And then—floor it to your nearest theater or bookstore.

God of Carnage by Yasmin Reza Translated by Christopher Hampton

With God of Carnage, Yasmin Reza put the drama into drama. The playwright utilized the perfect formula to do so. First, she created four quirky characters who didn’t like each other very much. Then she placed them in a confined space. To enhance the set-up she added a story spark that would lead to conflict among them. One enteraining and disconcerting play resulted.

I first have to credit the playwright for the pace. At first God of Carnage began as a civil discussion between two sets of parents. The Novak’s 11 year-old son hit the other family’s child in the mouth with a stick. The latter lost two teeth over the incident. These children’s fathers and mothers opted to have a diplomatic meeting regarding the matter. They began by calmly discussing how best to rectify the situation. As the evening progressed, their personalities became the main obstacles to reaching an understanding.

In the course of evaluating the situation the grown-ups exhibited some issues of their own. Alan, the father of the attacking boy, happened to work as an attorney. Interesting enough, he mentioned having to leave town the next day for the International Criminal Court. He represented the pharmaceutical industry in a different matter. The child’s mother, Annette suffered from a nervous stomach and, dare I write, enjoyed a bit of a nip on occasion.

Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with the immortal line about every unhappy family being unique. That description would well-suit the Novaks. Michael worked an “ordinary job” and harbored dark thoughts regarding family life. Veronica earned a living by “writing” primarily regarding injustice in Africa. A bit of an elitist, she took her children to concerts and introduced them to art. She told her guests, “We’re eccentric enough to believe in the soothing powers of culture!” (Page 14) Ms Reza used the remainder of the play to show that naïve would’ve been a better word than eccentric.

This dialog occurred a little over ten pages into my version of the book. At that point in the reading I knew: the train wreck’s coming; a really, really nasty one.

I found God of Carnage an outstanding theatrical work. I would strongly encourage people to either read it or watch it performed. Because of that I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s enjoyment by giving away spoilers. I would mention how brilliantly the playwright crafted the Alan character. I loved how he became progressively more wedded to his cell phone as the play progressed. In the midst of serious discussions about the children, he repeatedly broke off from the conversation to discuss a business matter with colleagues. The way he dropped the f-bomb in front of everyone during one of the conversations was priceless.

The author showed extraordinary skill at foreshadowing…and displaying hypocrisy. Early in the evening Anette told the Novaks: “We can’t get involved in our children’s quarrels.” (Page 15) Very, very shortly thereafter she changed her view. It turned out the other child verbally offended her son prior to the altercation.

Annette:…(embarrassed pause.) Something occurred to me in the bathroom…

Veronica: Yes?

Annette: Perhaps we skated too hastily over…I mean…What I mean is…

Michael: Say it, Annette, say it.

Annette: An insult is a kind of assault.

Michael: Of course it is.

Veronica: Well, that depends, Michael.

Michael: Yes. It depends.

Annette: Benjamin’s never shown any signs of violence. He wouldn’t have done that without a reason.

Alan: He got called a snitch! (Pages 23 – 24)

At this point the action degenerated into Lord of the Flies with a grown-up cast. While I found the play very amusing, Ms. Reza earned credit for her trenchant depiction of human nature at its worst. During one of his numerous cell phone conversations, Alan told his wife, “Annette, right now I’m risking my most important client so this responsible parent routine…” (Page 20)

Keep in mind all this occurred PRIOR to the couples passing around the bottle of rum. Not the best idea at this point, but, after all, these weren’t the most responsible people. The alcohol really allowed the characters to release their inhibitions.

Michael: What I always say is, marriage: the most terrible ordeal God can inflict on you.

Annette: Great.

Michael: Marriage, and children. (Page 32)

Now, Michael could have stopped there, but no. He decided to elucidate his point even further.

Children consume our lives and then destroy them. Children drag us toward disaster; it’s unavoidable. When you see those laughing couples casting off into the sea of matrimony, you say to yourself, they have no idea, poor things, they just have no idea, they’re happy. No one tells you anything when you start out. I have an old school buddy who’s just about to have a child with his new girlfriend. I said to him, a child, at our age, are you insane? The ten or twelve good years we have left before cancer or a stroke, and you’re going to screw yourself up with some brat? (Page 33)

Not to be outdone, Alan shared his own enlightening view of the human condition with the group.

They’re young, they’re kids. Kids have always given each other a good beating during recess…I believe in the god of carnage. He has ruled, uninterruptedly, since the dawn of time. (Page 35)

Many adjectives could describe God of Carnage, entertaining would serve as my first choice. It did have a much more serious side to it. Ms. Reza used a school yard fight as a catalyst for a disturbing journey into the basest aspects of human nature. It’s one of those stories readers can enjoy for the simple reason they can close the book and walk away from the madness. They also don’t need to worry about the Novaks or Raleighs ever watching their kids.

Drama Review – The Flick by Annie Baker

What cinematic aficionado doesn’t long for the days when film was just that: film? Playwright Annie Baker crafted a semi-humorous take on the subject. The Flick told the story the end of an era. Avery, Sam and Rose worked in one of the last 35mm movie theaters in Worcester County, Massachusetts. They struggled to cope with an abusive boss, changing times and even each other. A charming dramatic work resulted.

The playwright selected an excellent array of characters to tell the tale. Ms. Baker made Sam a disgruntled 35 year old theater employee with a secret. The free-spirited Rose worked the old projector. Avery served as the newcomer to the group. This character wasn’t “into” movies: he “loved” the movies. (Page 12) In fact, when Sam challenged his with a host of “six degrees of separation” games, he solved them all; sometimes in less than six degrees. With that passion for cinema, a reader would suspect he’d fit right into this ensemble. Not so.

This play contained outstanding conflict. Sam and Rose informed Avery that they skimmed money from the box office. They gave this theft the more benign appellation “dinner money.” Due to the scant wages they made, these funds would help them afford meals. They expressed their expectation he would take his cut. Avery battled his own aversion to a changing society manifested through his affection for old style movie making; even calling digital film “immoral.” When a new owner purchased the theater, he wrote a letter imploring him to retain the 35mm projector. Sam felt he’d been passed over for promotion too often. I enjoyed reading how the characters coped, or didn’t, with these issues.

In addition to the drama, the playwright included a sold dose of comedy. While cleaning the theater Sam complained about all the outside food people would bring in and leave there. While visiting family out of state he caught himself doing same thing. He later lamented his hypocrisy to Avery.

I’m that douchebag who brings in random weird ethnic food into a movie theater and then forgets about it and leaves it there!

I am my own worst nightmare! (Page 73)

Ms. Baker resolved this complex story rather well. The playwright brought the points of the “dinner money”, the references to Pulp Fiction and the debate over a digital versus 35mm project to proper resolutions. It surprised me that she managed it so well.

I’ve read some criticism of the play regarding banal dialog and the characters performing too much “sweeping.” I found both appropriate for the story and characters. Both Sam and Avery enjoyed movies. The discussions allowed Avery to demonstrate his passion for them. Plus, the two men performed custodial work at a movie theater; the latter serving as the lone set in the show. Other than sitting in the seats and talking, what else could they have been doing?

The Flick entertained on both a humorous and dramatic level. It takes an extraordinary playwright to balance the two while keeping the overall narrative cohesive. For Ms. Baker’s efforts, this work received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s well worth a read. Don’t wait for the movie.

Drama Review – All the Way by Robert Schenkkan

What Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did for film, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way did for the theatre. Both works followed the journeys of American Chief Executives in the quest to pass revolutionary civil rights legislation. Mr. Schenkkan selected a much more controversial public servant for his story. While today Lyndon Baines Johnson takes the majority of blame for escalating the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam Conflict, the playwright chose to focus on the pinnacle of his domestic achievements: the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

As the child of a Vietnam Veteran, I grew up exposed to a negative take on America’s 36th President. Robert A. Caro’s four-volume (to date) biography of Johnson introduced me to his myriad complexities as both a politician and a person. I read Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award winning play All the Way curious to discover his take on the nation’s most significant post-war leader. It didn’t disappoint.

This biographical work explored Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first year as the nation’s chief executive. It encompassed his first moments in the Presidency following the Kennedy assassination through his election to the office in 1964. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill served as the main story line. The play contained myriad conflict. It illustrated Johnson’s superb managing of civil rights leaders, his subordinates and reactionary Southern Democrats to get the proposal enacted into law. This made for a very engaging and tense read.

The playwright clearly performed his research. I found the portrayal of his protagonist accurate. Several times I felt like I was sharing a drink with the former President at the Johnson Ranch. I could envision LBJ saying things such as, “You can tell that Liberal crowd of yours, I’m gonna out-Roosevelt Roosevelt and out-Lincoln Lincoln!” (Location 523) and “’Politics is war by other means.’ Bullshit. Politics is war…You’re not running for office. You’re running for your life. You’re trying to cheat death.” (Location 1729)

The rattlesnake story sounded like vintage Johnson, too.

Knew a good ole boy once, caught a rattlesnake bare-handed on a dare. Stood there with that big ole thing wrapped around his arm, head snapping this way and that, with this stupid look on his face, saying “Wow! It’s a whole lot easier to catch one of these critters than it is to let it go.” (Location 605)

In Caro’s biography he quoted one person as saying, “Some people read books. Johnson read men.” Mr. Schenkkan incorporated this uncanny understanding of human nature in the drama. Here’s the President’s assessment of Senate Minority Leader Republican Everett Dirksen as told to the Floor Manager of the Civil Rights Bill: Senator Hubert Humphrey.

Let me tell you about Senator Everett Dirksen. That man is in love with himself; in love with his voice. Did you know that every day he gargles with warm water and Pond’s beauty cream? I shit you not. Now, a man like that wants one thing—he wants to be a “Great Man.” And you’re gonna give him every opportunity to do just that. Every chance you get, you praise Dirksen, you thank Dirksen. You’re gonna kiss his ass so much, he won’t be able to sit down. He wants the spotlight? Give it to him. Six months from now, all anybody will remember is that the Democratic Party passed a historic civil rights bill. (Location 1324)

The author included several famous figures among the characters; FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover among them. I enjoyed the following exchange between him and LBJ. It took place following a male Presidential aide’s arrest for lewd behavior with another man. As the scandal occurred so close to the election, Johnson worried it would impact him at the polls.

LBJ: CLEAN UP YOUR MESS! I worked with that man for twenty-five years. Not a clue. (A threat.) How do you know when somebody’s that way?

J. Edgar Hoover: Well, well, there are certain signs; mannerisms. The way a man dresses or combs his hair. Or walks kind of funny.

LBJ: News to me. I’m not questioning you; I’m sure you’d know—In your line of work, I mean. Take care of this. (Location 2707)           

LBJ noted during the play: “What’s the point of bein’ President if you can’t do what you know is right?” (Location 1414) Later he added, “People think I want great power, but what I want is great solace; a little love. That’s all I want.” (Location 2433) Abraham Lincoln once commented that upon serving in the Presidency he found only “ashes and blood.” After reading All the Way, the same could be said for Lyndon Baines Johnson. Instead of adapting LBJ’s 1964 campaign slogan for the play’s title, a version of the Chinese curse “may you get what you wish for” may have been more appropriate.