Theater Review

Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center Reading: Classic TV Sitcom

The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center brought the small screen to the Zoom screen this October 20th. The company presented an interpretation of one of television’s most memorable episodes. For their Tuesday Night Reading, they performed “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” from the I Love Lucy series.

            Fans of the show may remember better it as the “Vitameatavegamin” program. Ricky (played by Johnathan Santillana) received an offer to host a television show. In order to do so, he needed to hire a woman to perform the live commercial. Lucy (Shauni Ramai) begged him to let her. To put it politely, Ricky decided to move forward in his search by exploring other options.

            Later on, Lucy made a shocking appearance in hers and Ricky’s television set. She presented her own commercial as a sort of audition. It failed to persuade Ricky.

When Fred (Barry Leonard) and Ricky left the room, Lucy received phone call from the actress her husband hired to perform in the commercial. Lucy informed her that the role had been filled. She proceeded to the television studio in her place.

            The Director (Laura Paone) walked Lucy through a series of readthroughs for Viatmeatavegamin. This health tonic included common ingredients such as vitamins and minerals. Stagehand Joe (Matt Holbert) discovered that its “secret sauce” was just that: the sauce. It contained 23% alcohol.

            At the conclusion of each practice run, the Director instructed Lucy to sip the product. Viatameatavegimen had an acquired taste. Lucy acquired it pretty quick: just in time for the live commercial.

            Fans remember Lucille Ball as a comedy idol. Enthusiasts of classic television programs view the role of Lucy as iconic. It’s difficult to imagine any performer other than the former playing the latter.

Enter Shauni Ramai.

            Ms. Ramai took this legendary character portrayed by an inimitable performer and reinvented it. She adopted some of Lucy’s recognizable features, however. The bow in her (although black not red) hair, the pearl necklace and black blouse reflected 1950s style. Ms. Ramai delivered Lucy’s famous “waaahhh.” It served as a fine tribute to one of the character’s beloved quirks.

Then Ms. Ramai made Lucy all her own.            

            She articulated the Vitameatavegamin pitch with assurance. While sipping the tonic, her facial expressions told how terrible it tasted as she struggled to hide the fact from the fictitious audience. As the rehearsals progressed, Ms. Ramai showed the increasing effect of the alcohol on her character. Her hiccups graduated into slurred speech. It intensified until culminating with her chugging the drink. The believability she gave this scene may have made it funnier than even the original. Ms. Ramai executed a fitting finale by comically staggering about her kitchen.

            Jonathan Santillana and Barry Leonard portrayed Ricky and Fred with authenticity. Mr. Santillana crossed his arms and delivered a drawn out “Lucy” just like Desi Arnaz. Anyone listening to the broadcast would have assumed the production team dubbed in William Frawley’s voice. Mr. Leonard performed a perfect imitation of him.

            Laura Paone also showed some vocal talents of her own. As she played a male character, Ms. Paone adjusted her vocal range in order to speak as a baritone. She delivered her lines in the lower register without slipping.

              Anna Paone completed this stellar cast by portraying Maury. Catherine LaMoreau read the stage directions.

            The “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” originally aired on television May 5, 1952. The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center presented their own interpretation this October. 68 years later, it still made an audience laugh. That’s serious comedy.  

Bloody Jack Presented by Virtual Studio Players

“Let good come from evil,” the eponymous character of Bloody Jack said. The Virtual Studio Players took his suggestion to Zoom this October 18th. The company presented playwright Tim Kelly’s fictional take on the Jack the Ripper killings. One stellar performance resulted.

Artistic Director/ Co-Producer Greg Northam along with Co-Producer Peter Artale once more fused both the excitement of the live theatrical experience with the comfort of watching a movie in one’s own home. The show they selected for their October performance made Halloween special this year.   

The pre-recorded opening scene drew the audience into the story by making them part of it. Viewers experienced the first victim’s (played by Patricia Kohlreiter) execution from Jack’s point-of-view. The chilling reverb and echo effects added to Ms. Kohlreiter’s final cries intensified the character’s horrific death. As a wonderful homage to Alfred Hitchcock, the close-up of the performer’s eye established the disturbing nature of the performance to follow.

The production team utilized backdrops appropriate for an 1888 Victorian doctor’s home. The setting behind Mrs. Hillier (Regina Devitt) and Morgan (Brian Wayman) included gilded walls, multiple bookcases and a large portrait hanging in the middle of the room. It reflected a conventional scene for a mystery story.

The playwright crafted Bloody Jack as more complex than a simple whodunnit, however. Mr. Kelly explained, “In traditional mysteries, the audience is supposed to guess who. In this play, to get the who, you have to establish the why.”

The writer tasked Inspector Flanders (Jim Szablewicz) with this challenge. While the inspector had all of London to investigate, the audience had to find the killer from among a cast of eight characters. The playwright made it just as challenging for them. Motives abounded. The story opened with the inspector asking Dr. Sargeant (Greg Northam) to postpone reporting the poor state of his health to his employer until he solved the Ripper case. Was Flanders using the killings as a means to keep his job? Dr. Sargeant recently hired Mrs. Hillier’s (Regina Devitt) brother Morgan (Brian Wayman) as a favor to her. Morgan already had a criminal past. Was he the killer? Several characters expressed antiquated views of femininity. Did a woman commit the crimes to show them otherwise?

These were just three of the potential motives. The playwright included many more. Then he concluded the story with multiple plot twists and an unexpected ending. Pretty heady theatre for a mystery story.

Aside from a few instances of excessive exposition, Mr. Kelly produced a well-written play. The text included some clever uses of language. When confronted about imbibing Dr. Sargeant’s brandy, Mr. Wayman (as Morgan) delivered a nonchalant: “I didn’t drink, I sipped.” The latter wore a tattoo described as, “a mouse in an opera cape.” Mr. Northam (as Dr. Sargeant) described Bloody Jack’s pen as, “A cruel, sharp weapon.” He also observed, “Faith in humanity is a burden.” During one of the story’s upbeat moments, Lady Flora Chilton (Annette Devitt) commented that “cynicism lost to hope.” In a reference to the work of another famous playwright, Dr. Sargeant named the skeleton in his office Yorick.               

The costuming enhanced the story’s sense of mystery. Every performer except Annette Devitt wore black and white clothes for most of the show. The actors ensured the attire suited the period, as well. Mr. Szablewicz and Mr. Norman both sported cravats. Regina Devitt and Gianna Porfano (as Ellen Sargeant) wore brooches to button their collars. Mr. Szablewicz and Tyler Riley (in the role of Dr. Stephen Barrows) covered their heads with derby hats.

Directors casting themselves in their own shows have the potential to become a terrifying experience for theatregoers. Greg Northam the director ensured that Greg Northam the actor kept the horror within the story. Mr. Northam’s calm, serious demeanor augmented the tale’s tension.

Mr. Northam showed his character’s illusive side during scenes with Annette Devitt and Mr. Szablewicz. While likable and credible, the information he presented showed his character may have had ulterior motives for his behavior. Or maybe not. Mr. Northam’s blank looks and measured deliveries allowed the audience to believe whatever they wanted to believe about him.

Tyler Riley, however, made it easy to imagine Dr. Barrows as “Bloody Jack.” His utterance of the cryptic (or not so cryptic) line: “Women have no energy for anything but staying alive” wasn’t the main reason, either. Mr. Riley used a voice eerily reminiscent of the great James Earl Jones playing Darth Vader. With his dark cape and hat, one could’ve imagined Mr. Riley stepping out of Whitechapel and on to the Death Star.

Mr. Riley balanced the character’s persona very well. As the show progressed, he introduced the audience to Dr. Barrows’ sensitive side. He blamed the “horrors on the street” for his lack of laughter. Mr. Riley humanized the character by smiling when talking to his love interest played by Ms. Porfano; herself also having a fondness for dark capes and sharp objects.

Mr. Riley and Mr. Wayman played a scene opposite one another that would’ve impressed Harold Pinter. Both performers brilliantly enhanced the tension through a clever use of pauses. Their skillful performances made the conversation’s resolution even more astonishing.         

Several scenes required multiple actors to handle the same prop. The performers coordinated these exchanges very well. Mr. Northam extended a book to Mr. Szablewicz. The latter lifted a similar one in front of the camera to simulate taking it. Mr. Wayman and Mr. Northam acted as though pouring liquor from the same decanter. In a very challenging scene, Regina Devitt slapped Amber Kushing (as Margaret Derry). Both actresses make the smack appear life-like.   

Bloody Jack contained an outstanding musical score. The lugubrious yet ominous string sounds enhanced the play’s dread, horror and anxiety. The chilling notes that emanated from Dr. Barrows’ violin made the character even more terrifying.

Amber Kusching’s character described herself as a “fortune telling actress.” Even with those skills, one wonders if her character could have determined the Ripper’s true identity. Those interested in “good evil” would enjoy Bloody Jack. The Virtual Studio Players handed the audience one killer Halloween treat.  

Herlock Sholmes and the Mysterious Case of the Jersey Devil at Burlington County Footlighters

In the light of a full moon with leaves falling, your correspondent watched Burlington County Footlighters fall into autumn this October 2nd. The company utilized Jim Frazier’s Back Stage to present a show written by local playwrights Brandon Monokian and Kirsten Sughre. Their Herlock Sholmes and the Mysterious Case of the Jersey Devil provided a fitting prelude to Halloween.

The playwrights demonstrated a lot of creativity with this piece. While incorporating the Garden State’s infamous legend, the play contained a parody of literature’s most popular sleuth, an element of intrigue and an abundance of comedy; including an homage to a Scooby Doo ending. These writers even worked in some musical numbers.

They chose an unusual setting for the story. The action took place in the format of an old-time radio show.

Pat Frazer made her directorial debut with Herlock Sholmes and the Mysterious Case of the Jersey Devil. She assembled a wonderful ensemble to bring this entertaining piece to the stage.                       

A murder took place at the 1909 Small-Town Fall Festival. Suspicion fell on the event’s main attraction, the Jersey Devil (played by Rico Esteves). Locals opted to call in the famous detective Herlock Sholmes (Dave Pallas) along with his sidekick Winston (Stephen Kreal) to solve the case.

Dave Pallas has experience portraying popular sleuths. In January 2020, he portrayed one of the Sherlock Holmes characters in Holmes and Watson. During that run, also presented at Burlington County Footlighters, Mr. Pallas performed the deaf, mute and blind incarnation of Holmes. When his character went under hypnosis, he delivered a gripping narrative of the detective’s final battle with his nemesis Dr. Moriarty.

Mr. Monokian and Ms. Sughrue allowed Mr. Pallas the opportunity to display his comedic capabilities. Sholmes (please call him Herlock Sholmes) combined the intellectual acumen of Inspector Clouseau with the crime solving capabilities of Inspector Gadget. The character may have lacked in those areas, but he exhibited extraordinary skill in taking credit for things other people said. Winston provided him ample opportunities to excel at the latter.

Mr. Pallas brought out these traits through his performance. He did so in a fashion that made the character funny instead of obnoxious. His most comical moment occurred when he blew bubbles out of his gourd Calabash pipe. “Smoking is bad for you,” he explained.

Stephen Kreal enacted Winston’s sagacity and frustration with his egocentric partner. He and Mr. Pallas played off of one another very well. Mr. Kreal would explain the details of his findings, Mr. Pallas would tell him to be quiet and then Mr. Pallas would repeat what Mr. Kreal said as if it were his own idea.

Few performers portray mythical creatures. Even fewer get to sing Blues numbers accompanied by a ukulele. Rico Esteves received these rare opportunities in the role of the Jersey Devil. Mr. Esteves added humor and anguish to this terror of the Pine Barrens. His lackluster roar brough out roars of laughter from the audience. Mr. Esteves’ self-described “vegan” monster could only communicate to humans through song. His vocals did so in a style that would’ve pleased the great Son House.

Mike Muller had a very busy evening. He wore so many hats in this show, it’s amazing he could do so with only one head. Mr. Muller selected an entertaining array of voices for the characters of Frank, Legend, Scientist 3, Nick and the Ringmaster.

The script contained some witty parities linking the modern world with the one of 1909. The Ringmaster displayed a drawing of a new horrifying attraction: a hamburger that didn’t contain any meat. He attached the appellation “veggie burger” to this abomination. Another character discussed upgrading her Rotary Phone 6.5 to the newer model.  The show’s conclusion included a reference to the Back Stage’s last production: a series on one act plays written by David Ives. Narrator Wayne Renbjor said, “Only bad things happen in Philadelphia.”

The set consisted of a radio show. The performers sat several feet apart. Most wore black, but some utilized clever costuming. Mr. Esteves wore an oversized pair of bat’s wings and added a fedora to the Jersey Devil’s persona. Mr. Pallas attired himself in a trench coat complete with deerstalker hat. Mr. Muller fittingly put on a series of hats to reflect which character he portrayed at the time.  

Wayne Renbjor enhanced the performance through his melodic narration. Strong vocal skills must be a Renbjor family trait. Jill Renbjor used an excellent nasal accent for one of her characters.

Other performers included: MacKenzie Smith, Becky Mosely and Lisa Croce. Chrissy Wick provided stage management.

Burlington County Footlighters enforced its COVID-19 safety measures. The performance took place upon the outdoor Back Stage. All audience members had their temperatures taken at the door. A staff member escorted each patron to the seating area and measured six feet between all attendees. Everyone brought their own chair or blanket upon which to sit. No snacks or programs were distributed and tickets were scanned at the door. The company required all attendees to wear masks when not in their designated seating place.  

“Who would have thought violence would be so entertaining?” MacKenzie Smith’s Unpaid Intern asked. The answer: this audience did. It’s scary that there are so few opportunities to see Herlock Sholmes and the Mysterious Case of the Jersey Devil after this weekend.

The show runs through October 10th at Burlington County Footlighters. For more information, consult their website at: https://bcfootlighters.com/.   

Love, Loss and What I Wore: COVID Edition at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Trendy theatre is back on display at Haddonfield Plays and Players. After fashioning an outdoor stage, the company returned Love, Loss and What I Wore to the HPP house. To keep the show from seeming retro, the producers appended “COVID Edition” to this sartorial fan favorite. This hot number sold out the evening of September 26th when your correspondent attended.

The production team took an avant-garde approach to the arts during the pandemic. Many community theatre companies now produce shows online. Haddonfield Plays and Players opted to go outside. A 24-Hour Build a Stage project replaced their 24-Hour Play Festival this summer.

The company took the proper measures to ensure audience safety. A staff member took everyone’s temperature at the entrance. Another checked-in spectators through a no touch transaction. A representative directed the patrons to their “seat” and measured six feet between spaces. Everyone wore face masks, brought their own chairs or blankets and their own snacks. No programs were distributed, either.  

Playwrights Nora and Delia Ephron adopted a Bohemian style when crafting this play. The structure consisted of a collection of vignettes shared by six women who performed as separates. The show’s foundation entailed the characters tying in the clothes they wore to key moments of their lives. The performers showed contrast through the melange between the script’s distressing moments and humor very well.

Director Tami Funkhouser ensured the performance wasn’t a knock-off, imitation or kitsch version of HPP’s original 2018 production. Ms. Funkhouser decreased the cast size from seven to six performers. Veterans of the original performance Lori Clark, Susan Dewey, Jenn Kopesky-Doyle, Nicole Lukatis and Annie Raczko returned to reprise their roles. Newcomer Lisa Heney joined the ensemble for this special performance.

The show contained a minimalist set. All the actresses dressed in black gowns. They each sat on chairs distanced six feet apart and recited their lines from a script. A rack containing multiple dresses positioned at stage left. Visual maestro Pat DeFusco projected images onto the wall of the building behind the stage.     

The clothes might not make the person, but they help to dress up a great story. The actresses delivered a series of monologs on various aspects of female attire. They ranged from clothes as a representation of one’s identity, Madonna’s influence on style, jewelry, jump suits, wedding dresses, purses and colors. The color black received its own individual section. As the director billed this as the “COVID Edition” of the Ephrons’ work, the cast performed an encore in which they reflected on masks.

The group worked as a chorus during certain scenes. After each performer explained she had “nothing to wear,” everyone shouted “nothing” in unison. They did the same when addressing the opposite dilemma: “I can’t decide.”    

All the performers delivered their lines with panache. Reprising her role as “Gingy,” Susan Dewey again showed why acting is her line. Other cast members also perfected the characters they played during the show’s original run. Lori Clark delivered a gripping reflection on her character’s breast cancer diagnosis and how it led to an interest in hats. Annie Raczko contemplated the parallels between her character losing a love and a favorite shirt at the same time. Jenn Kopesky-Doyle explored the disillusionment that accompanied her character’s fracturing marriage. Nicole Lukatis described how the miscellany one keeps in a handbag shows why “the purse is you.” (Her analysis made your male correspondent tremble at the thought of opening the trunk of his car.) The new addition to this team, Lisa Heney, delivered a horrifying tale centered on boots.  

Omi Parrilla-Dunne and Kalman Dunne managed the show’s sound. Evan Brody and his team built the stage.

This limited edition run at Haddonfield Plays and Players, Love, Loss and What I Wore concluded this weekend. It guaranteed the show will always be chic there. Some trendy styles never become deadstock. The cast ensured this classic performance will become a vintage one at HPP.

Constellations at the Masquerade Theatre

Theatre has inspired philosophical rumination throughout the ages. It led Aristotle to craft his ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ concept. Perhaps stimulated by this author of the ancient treatise Physics, playwright Nick Payne adapted principles from contemporary physics and applied them to the stage. Mr. Payne took both a creative and innovative approach to drama in 2011’s Constellations. The Masquerade Theatre presented a virtual production of the show the evening of September 25th.

Constellations well suited the company’s mission of “exploring the humanity behind the masque.” The limited setting required the characters in this piece to wear many of them. All of the action occurred in the “multiverse”: “a theoretical reality that includes a possibly infinite number of parallel universes.” The show contained just two characters: Roland (played by Andrew Spinosi) and Maryanne (Julie Roberts).

The story followed Roland and Maryanne’s relationship beginning at the time they met through its myriad joys and vicissitudes. The playwright avoided the trite “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back” formula through the multiverse setting. In some of these worlds, their relationship blossomed. In others, it ended badly. The most interesting synthesized both possibilities.

Director Megan Knowlton Balne aspired to make every multiverse a unique one. The dialog made this a challenge. As the same events took place in different multiverses, the text contained many repeated lines. The script contained two characters. Both actors performed in front of the same black canopy decorated with stars the entire show. Mr. Spinosi explained that he and Ms. Roberts analyzed and broke down the text in order to make every scene distinctive.

The story’s complexity put both characters through the entire range of human emotions. Both Mr. Spinosi and Ms. Roberts brought these feelings to the audiences’ screens. Ms. Roberts showed bursting excitement when Mr. Spinosi stumbled through one of his proposals. Her yawning during Roland’s bee lecture was both believable and understandable. She both expressed and showed intense anger when describing a person’s reaction to a cancer diagnosis. During a heated marriage proposal, Ms. Roberts leaned back and showed uneasiness.   

Mr. Spinosi portrayed the more emotional of the two characters. He cried during pivotal scenes; including great sensitivity in one where Maryann broke up with him. Mr. Spinosi showed excellent nerves and awkwardness during a chance encounter at a ballroom dancing class. Then he performed a scene that will be remembered as legendary in the annals of community theatre. While preparing to ask Maryanne to marry him, he realized that he forgot to bring the ring with him. He erupted. His temper tantrum developed into the most creative proposals ever enacted on either a virtual or physical stage.

Mr. Spinosi’s unhinged performance rivaled that of Marnie Kanarek’s portrayal of Catherine in The Heiress. Haddonfield Plays and Players produced that show in May of 2015.

Maryanne may have been a self-described “honey philistine,” but Ms. Roberts brought one sweet interpretation of her to the virtual stage. In addition to performing repetitive scenes, Ms. Roberts delivered a number of lines with repeating words herself. They included, “If you don’t want to see me again, you don’t have to see me again.” And “We have all the time we’ve always had.” Ms. Roberts made every delivery of these sentences sound as fresh as the original. Later in the show, Ms. Roberts performed Maryanne’s speaking issues both credibly and respectfully.

It seemed fitting that Andy Spinosi portrayed a beekeeper. Audiences will be buzzing about his performance for some time to come. He portrayed all his character’s complex facets very well. Mr. Spinosi brought out the nuances between a “happy drunk” and an “angry drunk” in different scenes. That showed the depth of his skill.  

The director and the actors understood the effective use of silence. The long pauses added tension to already intense scenes.

Corona made a clever cameo during the show. Ms. Roberts used a beverage of the same name during one of the restaurant scenes.

As the play took place via Crowdcast, the actors didn’t perform in the same place. Ms. Roberts played from her Chicago home as Mr. Spinosi acted from his in Philadelphia. Both showed authenticity in their interactions with one another. Using the Ask a Question button, your correspondent inquired whether or not the two performers could see one another during the show.

Ms. Roberts said that they could see each other on their screens. As she played to her webcam, Ms. Roberts could glimpse Mr. Spinosi in her peripheral vision.

She added that both she and Mr. Spinosi had worked together on other projects. They also attended the same college and received the same theatrical training. These factors aided the rapport between the two performers.

Ms. Balne said that the actors adjusted to this unconventional set-up. They heightened their listening skills in order to perform on this platform.

In one affecting scene, both actors communicated via sign language. Director Balne debated whether or not to include translations using the Crowdcast chat feature.  She made the artistic decision not to so that the audience would continue looking at the characters.

Abhinav Dani served as the project’s American Sign Language Consultant.

An original development for virtual theatre transpired during Constellations. The production team made lighting a key component of the show. Two lights shone on each performer. They positioned one in front and another one above where they sat. Lighting Designer Molly Jo Gifford used an app on her phone to control them. Director Balne described her elation over applying this feature. She said it made her, “Glad to be bringing real theatre back.”

Tommy Balne provided Stage Management, he and Ms. Balne managed the Sound Design and Ms. Roberts worked on the project’s marketing.

Ms. Balne wrote in the playbill: Constellations embodies the core of Masquerade’s mission — the exploration of our common humanity. She added that Mr. Payne’s work: served as a beautiful example of how art and science complement each other.Aristotle couldn’t have said it better.

Constellations runs for one more performance on September 26th at 8:00 PM. The Masquerade Theatre will next present a virtual performance of Great Expectations in December of 2020. More information is available on their website at: https://www.masqueradetheatre.org/.

Battles: New Plays about Conflict at the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center

The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center took the concept of conflict to a further stage this September 22nd. As part of the company’s Tuesday night readings on Zoom and Facebook, they featured three 10-minute shows in which characters didn’t just clash: they battled. To the delight of theatre afficionados and the consternation of hockey fans, most of the combatants confined their fighting to the verbal variety.

            The evening opened with Matt Levy’s Just Jokes. To add authenticity to the piece, comedienne Erica Spera wrote the play’s quips. The show featured a verbal duel in which each character (Russell Dolan and Samantha Mishinski) took part in a roasting competition versus the other. Political campaigns seemed civil by comparison. As a twist, the playwright crafted a surprise ending that gave the piece heart. Matt Maran, Nick Endo and Justine D’Souza supported the cast.

            Show Me State playwright Deborah Tagasz showed writers how to innovate. Mr. Tagasz may have written the first play to include the trio of a 90s soft drink, a Yuletide gathering at a gas station and the town of Cloverdale, Indiana. Can of Surge and the Spirit of Christmas introduced the audience to two sisters (played by Justine D’Souza and Amanda Padilla). While traveling to a family gathering on Christmas Eve, they encountered car trouble. The hospitality of the gas station attendant (Susan Roberts) couldn’t prevent these sisters from engaging in that honored Holiday tradition of letting out their repressed anger at one another.

            The battle rolled into the emergency room compliments of Jane M. Lee’s Family Emergency. The premise fused the hostility of a Jerry Springer program with the warmth and irony of an O. Henry story. It also featured an unusual setting for a family get-together. A patient (Ann Gripps) entered the ER because of a head injury. Another one (Haneen Arafat Murphy) arrived due to a broken nose. In the course of treating these women, the doctor (Seema Shahane) figured out that they were both sisters. The physician could have swapped her stethoscope for a referee’s whistle when Ms. Gripps said, “I only get into altercations once a week.” Instead, the doctor opted to counsel the siblings.          

            Anna Paone introduced the show by warning the audience that it contained some “spicy” language. This seemed superfluous. As residents of the New York and New Jersey areas: isn’t that the only kind of language we understand?

            The actors in these pieces played outstanding opposites to one another. These approaches amplified the conflict. In Just Jokes, Ms. Mishinski’s Steven Wright-esqe demeanor contrasted well with Mr. Dolan’s animated approach. Ms. D’Souza, Ms. Padilla and Ms. Roberts all delivered strong performances that allowed Ms. Tagasz’s dialog to drive Can of Surge and the Spirit of Christmas’ story. During Family Emergency, Ms. Grippo delivered her lines a bit slower than normal speech whereas Ms. Murphy spoke at an accelerated pace.

            The characters engaged in vigorous skirmishes during the three pieces. Interestingly, all three playwrights crafted positive endings for their work. If only life could imitate art more often.  

Lettice and Lovage at Virtual Studio Players

A play about a histrionic historical tour guide seemed a fitting addition to the Peter Shaffer catalog. During his career, the playwright crafted work that explored a range of topics. One delved into the lives of two classical composers; one sought to destroy his adversary as a vehicle to wage a war against the Almighty. Another of his plays related a story rife with religious themes about someone who blinded horses. It may seem odd that the same author wrote a show about a docent with a flair for creative license. Then again, why not? This was Peter Shaffer. Virtual Studio Players presented his Lettice and Lovage on September 20th

            “Without danger, there is no theatre,” Lettice proclaimed. Nevertheless, the company decided not to take unnecessary risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. They presented this show on-line via the Zoom platform.

            England has a rich and fascinating history dating to back to the Upper Paleolithic Age. Unfortunately, none of it occurred at Fustian House. One would expect a haunted house would attract curious visitors. Not this one. It happened to be “haunted by the spirit of nullity.”

Lettice Douffet (played by Phyllis Josephson) had the challenging task of guiding tours through “the dullest house in England.” Douffet decided to take creative liberties with the past. She entertained guests by embellishing the home’s role in British history.

            These colorful accounts failed to stimulate the public’s interest. They did, however, get the attention of her employer. After joining one of the tours, Lotte Schoen (Jeanne Haynes) from the Preservation Trust informed Lettice that her services were no longer needed.

            The two then formed an unexpected friendship. Drama along with wacky hijinks resulted.

            Virtual Studio Players Co-Producer / Artistic Director Greg Northam along with Co-Producer / Audio and Visual Director Peter Artale crafted an outstanding visual spectacle. The life-like backdrops appeared multi-dimensional. The Fustian House exterior with a flock of birds flying over the roof made for the most spectacular. The image of the infamous “Staircase of Enoblement” impressed much better than its history. 

Lettice admitted that she “exaggerated when history needed it.” There’s no need to embellish the quality of Phyllis Josephson’s performance. She thrilled viewers with her animated interpretation of Lettice Doufflet. Ms. Josephson added a gift for storytelling to her already extensive repertoire. She enhanced her character’s fabulist tendencies. She spoke with emphatic deliveries in a genuine British accent. Her descriptions made an uneventful building surrounded by unimpressive architecture sound as enticing as Windsor Castle. 

             Ms. Josephson engaged in hysterical hysterics upon reading Lottie’s letter of reference. Showing the full range of her considerable skill, she later dazzled with her dramatic prowess. At the show’s end, she exhibited warmth and affection towards Lottie through her tears and staggered speaking.

            Jeanne Haynes played the level headed Lotte; a person “more interested in buildings than the people who inhabited them.” To quote Lettice, Ms. Hayes showed her character to be “kind in a ruthless way.” The performer captured the persona of an impersonal bureaucrat. She knit her brow and gazed with incredulous fascination as Lettice spun her creative yarns. Ms. Hayes maintained that stand-offish personality while informing an emotional Lettice that her services were no longer needed at the Trust.Following a draught of Lettice’s special alcoholic concoction, known as Lovage, she became garrulous. Ms. e Haynes delivered a passionate summary of Lottie’s unrealized dreams. She steadily portrayed her character as less inhibited as the show progressed.   

            The cast of Lettice and Lovage reminded this reviewer of actors from the silent film era. Each performer showed immense skill in expressing themselves non-verbally. In his cameo as a tour member, Peter Artale showed the same fascination with Lettice’s lectures as a person watching someone do their taxes. The appropriately named Sam Surley (Bernard Mirandi) and Shirley Surley (Terry Bliss), Elizabethan scholars themselves, winced and knit their brows in response to the tour guide’s stories. In spite of carrying a child, the Woman with a Baby (Charlene Schmedes) seemed the most engaged.

            Susan Fowler gave Lottie’s assistant Miss Framer an interesting quirk of her own. She had the habit of finding witty sayings much more comical than their substance would warrant. She found the expression “Victorian varicose” particularly amusing. The exaggerated gasp Ms. Fowler used when Lettice described Mary Queen of Scot’s blood red dress made Miss Farmer even funnier.

            As the attorney Mr. Bardolph, Jeff Parsons showed extraordinary skill exaggerating the character’s expressions. He expressed great shock when Ms. Josephson described the incestuous charges Marie Antoinette faced. His did an awesome extension of the one syllable in the word please. Mr. Parsons added delightful comedy when pretending to play “the most dreadful drums in England.” Mr. Parsons even found a way to use a legal pad as an outstanding prop.

            “All good actors are instructors,” Ms. Josephson’s character said. Without the benefit of a classroom, she and the other cast members taught their audience how to spend an entertaining afternoon. That’s no exaggeration. The “tokens of appreciation” the audience owes the Virtual Studio Players may not be the same ones Lettuce preferred, but they are just as dear.   

            Next the Virtual Studio Players will present Tim Kelly’s Bloody Jack on October 18th.

This is Not a Play — A Play at the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center

“Everything that is so is not so,” said Feste in Twelfth Night. That sentiment could describe playwright Robert Pranzatelli’s absurdist world in This is Not a Play – A Play. This work transcended the boundaries between reality and the stage. The theme explored the need to put aside life’s rational and minutiae in favor of the mystical. Pretty heady material for a comedy. Your correspondent attended the Zoom performance presented by the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center on September 15th.

The script contained outstanding conflict between the main characters. James (played by Lawrence Paone) had some unusual beliefs. Eartha (Emily Niemeyer), to put it politely, didn’t care for his worshipping a tuba, adoration of lettuce nor for his special fondness for artichokes. While listening to James’ metaphysical meditations such as, “If tuba worship were rational, there’d be no reason to worship it,” Eartha became frustrated with his unwillingness “to take life seriously.”

A critic named Mr. Peek (Thom Boyer) participated in the play. While he introduced the story as a narrator would, he then became one of its performers. In his quest to discover the show’s theme, he used a telephone to place an order for a deux ex machina. Delivery woman (Anna Paone –who better to deliver the drama?) dropped it off later in the show.  

A Gorilla (Anna Paone) and a Girl (Laura Paone) also joined the story. Their appearance delighted Mr. Peek. The critic found the premise of a gorilla and a woman whose relationship is condemned by society a needed addition to the play.

Perhaps, the most difficult thing to believe about all this: the Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center presented the entire show in about half an hour.

The actor scheduled to play James experienced technical issues and could not perform. Unexpected understudy Lawrence Paone stepped in to play the role. His performance exceeded what one would expect from a cold reading. His casual delivery well suited the character’s relaxed personality.

Emily Niemeyer captured Eartha’s aggravation. Her heated tone of voice and tense facial expressions provided an outstanding contrast to Mr. Paone’s demeanor. Ms. Niemeyer’s character also possessed traits of the absurd. During one scene, Eartha struggled to find her vocabulary. She couldn’t speak more than two syllables until she placed something in her mouth. The performer enacted the scene wonderfully.

Thom Boyer played a splendid Mr. Peek. With pedantic pretention, he instructed the characters what literary techniques the play needed. Mr. Boyer’s best moment came with his hysterical reaction to the deux ex machina.

Catherine LaMoreau read the stage directions. They aided in understanding the world of the play. The playwright described props scattered about the stage. The expression Life is Absurd appeared on the back wall.  

The premise of This is Not a PlayA Play may remind audiences of Luigi Pirandello’s work. During the show’s talk-back session, the playwright said that he hadn’t read him when he wrote the play in 1983. While attending college, he learned about early 20th century modernist movements. That era gave rise to the “anti-novel.” It inspired him to write an “anti-play.”

Mr. Pranzatelli didn’t split the play’s comedic and dramatic parts. He explained that he, “Wanted to have comedy all the way through with the seriousness in the background and seeping through.”

He shared his process of crafting this piece with viewers.

The need to kindle a light in a person’s existence. James knows how to do this; jump past the rational to the mystical. Eartha is drawn to the minutiae. It has a philosophical theme underneath the comedy.

 James observed, “The world is full of contradictions. The world isn’t full of contradictions.” Whether or not any of that is true, theatre fans can be sure that This is Not a Play – A Play offers comedy that makes one think. There’s nothing absurd about that.

The Dragonfly Multicultural Arts Center presented this virtual performance as part of its Tuesday evening live play readings. More information is available at their website www.dragonflyartsnj.com.  

Oz.Org at the Philly Fringe Festival

It’s difficult to imagine an original take on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s already well known as a beloved novel, an inimitable film and by its subsequent theatrical adaptations. It has also inspired fan fiction and musicals. Is it possible to come up with an original spin on this 120-year old franchise? Playwright and director Amber Kusching believes she has.

This September the Philly Fringe Festival is taking her concept to the cyberstage. As part of their September program, they are presenting Ms. Kusching’s twenty first century vision of L. Frank Baum’s classic tale. Oz.Org reimagined Dorothy’s journey to the Emerald City through a world of bits, bytes and pixels. Your correspondent booted up his hard drive and logged on down the road for the evening of September 12th.

A storm rocked Dorothee’s (played by Megan Nutt) Kansas home. While on her laptop known by the acronym TOTO, she found herself drawn into a magical computer world known as Oz.Org. There she encountered a good glitch. Glinda (Meg Foley) informed Dorothee that her arrival caused the destruction of an evil malware known as the Wicked Glitch of the East.

Dorothee inquired how she could return to Kansas. After Glinda provided her with the Ruby Ram Card, she told Dorothee to follow the Yellow Brick Wall and see the Wizard (Christian Dilks). He would be able to help her.

Along the way, Dorothee encountered other characters who also needed the “Powerful Oz’s” assistance. The avian Mayor Crow (Dante Brattelli) sought a brain. The 10-Man (David Grice) wanted a heart. Lyman (Brian Wayman) longed for courage.

In the course of their travels the four encountered other colorful figures. They included a Munchkin Woman (Katherine Herbert), a Lullaby League Rep (Kate Bove) and a Lollipop Guild Rep (Emma Scherz).

Foul ransomware known as The Wicked Glitch of the West (Melynda Morrone) sought to take Dorothee’s Ruby Ram Card and foil her plans. The Wizard complicated matters by offering to grant everyone’s wish on the condition that they deliver the witch’s dead pixels to him.

Oz.Org showed immense creativity on the part of both the playwright and the production team. Ms. Kusching took ideas from a book written in 1900 and applied them as though written for the Information Age. The show itself combined the drama of theatre, the high-tech visuals of cinema and the interactive features of a video game.

Several times during the performance, actors solicited audience participation. Both Ms. Nutt and Mr. Brattelli took questions from audience members submitted via Zoom’s chat feature. During Mayor Crow’s press conference, an audience member asked Mr. Brattelli, “Who let the dogs out?” Without cracking a smile, he provided a better answer than one would have expected a brainless politician to offer.

Breakout sessions occurred when the characters went in for private meetings with the Wizard. Audience members entered private rooms with individual cast members. Your correspondent found himself in the one with Dorothee; one of his rare meetings with A-listers these days. The production team broke the fourth wall by unmuting and putting one of the audience members on video. Performer Megan Nutt spoke with the surprised spectator by asking what the Wizard wanted from her.     

Technical Director Tony Gonzalez opened the show by providing a brief tutorial on how to navigate the Zoom functions. Throughout the evening, he coordinated the sophisticated backdrops without flaw. The grids and schematics appeared just as elaborate as what one would see in big-budget movie. The metallic timber to both the voices of the 10-Man and the Wicked Glitch of the West enhanced their theatrical personas.

There’s a myth that if one plays Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon backwards it becomes the soundtrack to The Wizard of Oz. To this reviewer’s ears, McKinley Foster’s musical accompaniment to Oz.Org adopted qualities from a different progressive rock masterpiece. The sonic qualities of Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans fused with elements of Techno and Alternative. In homage to the original, Mr. Foster’s score included melodic phrasing from the music Harold Arlen wrote for the 1939 movie.         

To add to the visual experience,the performance contained costuming that rivaled the famous film’s. A green grid stretched across Ms. Foley’s Glinda face. Underneath the 10-Man’s terminator style eyepiece, Mr. Grice wore a facsimile of a UPC code. Lyman’s hirsute face gave Mr. Wayman’s the appearance of a lion’s mane.

The production team added some outstanding special effects. In order to enter the Emerald City, all the characters had to wear spectrum glasses. A rainbow shaped rectangle appeared on all the characters faces while in the city. It added to the sense of fantasy.

Director Kusching included a throwback scene that will appeal to Oz originalists. Dorothee experienced a dream in which she found herself in a world reminiscent of the one in the movie. In another example of creative costuming, Ms. Nutt along with Mr. Brattelli, Mr. Grice and Mr. Wayman found themselves in a dream world. They all wore garb comparable to their counterparts in the movie. Ms. Nutt even let down her Leiaesque pom-poms and wore braided pig tails for the scene.

Ms. Kusching added some clever uses of language to her script. Lyman mentioned suffering from a bout with “clicken pox.”He later said that the group’s situation “megabytes.” The 10-Man sardonically described the Wizard as, “Great and powerful my cache.” In a clever bit of topical humor, the newscaster (Danielle Korte) referenced “fake news” reported from Emerald City.  

While the show’s writing, creativity of concept and technical features exceeded expectations, the performances made for the show’s true highlight. To cite a few examples: Ms. Nutt used a bit of a Judy Garland voice for Dorothy while still making the role her own. Christian Dilks portrayed the Wizard as a Bill Gates style character. Mr. Wayman brought enthusiasm to his portrayal of the cowardly Lyman. Meg Foley’s combined the ethereal with the digital as Glinda.    

Other members of the cast included: Tony Gonzales, Alanna Monte, Betty Mitchell and a brief cameo by Amber Kusching.

Danielle Korte co-directed, Jon Balagtas served as Stage Manager and Rachel Genovese provided dramaturgy for the Production Team.      

Fans will never view a computer “Glitch” in the same way. Ms. Kusching’s high-tech vision showed that there truly is “no place like the home page.” The show runs through September 20th hosted by the Philly Fringe Festival. For more information, visit https://fringearts.com/event/oz-org/.

Love Letters at Burlington County Footlighters Back Stage

Love, the written word and fresh air. Burlington County Footlighters is employing this winning trifecta this September. Utilizing Jim Frazer’s latest innovation to South Jersey community theatre set design, the company is presenting AR Gurney’s Love Letters in the great outdoors of Cinnaminson, New Jersey. Your correspondent attended the September 11th performance.

As this event took place on the nineteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks upon our country, everyone observed a moment of silence for those lost.  

Community theatre legend Alice Weber is directing this run of Love Letters. While known for cerebral and thought-provoking shows such as Dr. Cook’s Garden, Coyote on a Fence and The Tin Woman. Ms. Weber’s recent projects have focused more on interpersonal relationships. Last month she performed opposite her real-life husband John in Bridge Players Theatre Company’s Zoom presentation of the Sean Grennan comedy Couples. In October of 2019, she directed Driving Miss Daisy on Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.

Love Letters combined both of Ms. Weber’s artistic interests. It surveyed the relationship of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III (played by Rick Williams) and Melissa Gardner (Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams) from childhood through middle age. As a twist, the playwright used letters, cards and postcards as the means these characters used to communicate with one another. They never interacted directly. In a sense, the script explored whether two people could maintain a strong emotional bond through only the written word.

The set framed the story excellently. Ms. Weber and Jim Frazer positioned a solid blue desk at stage right and a pink one at stage left. The latter contained an opening in front of Melissa. It reflected her willingness to expose her feelings contrasted by Andrew’s more reserved nature. That trait may have explained his preference for expressing his thoughts to a blank page instead of by speaking them directly to someone.

The two scenic designers selected outstanding props to enhance the story. Several thick books set upon Mr. Williams’ desk. The one where Mrs. Williams sat contained a desk lamp. It takes a special kind of talent to give a light significant impact on a performance. The performer and director utilized it for maximum effect.

The outdoor stage allowed for types distractions that actors aren’t accustomed to confronting. Sudden wind gusts, fluttering moths and cheering from the softball game at adjoining Wood Park all intruded. Mr. and Mrs. Williams delivered such engrossing performances that these environmental factors had negligible impact on the show. Had it not been for your correspondent’s renowned attention to detail, he wouldn’t have noticed them, either.       

Directing a show such as Love Letters creates unique challenges. It lacks scene changes and contains two characters who remain seated the entire time. The “action” entails the performers reading the script to one another for 90 minutes. This format could bore an audience. Ms. Webber along with real life husband and wife Rick Williams and Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams found creative ways to keep everyone engaged.

As with Driving Miss Daisy, Ms. Weber selected Rick Williams to play the male lead. Mr. Williams showed that his familiar baritone is but one trait among the many in his talented repertoire. He delivered his lines in the convincing voice of a youngster during the first act. Mr. Williams showed a penchant for comedy through his expression of lines such as, “(They) took my temperature the wrong way.” He also related the witty, “They had us compare all four Gospels. It’s hard to believe they’re all about the same guy.”

The performer showed that there’s much more to his abilities than a smooth voice. When Mrs. Williams related that she’d drawn naked pictures of the two, he responded with hysterical facial expressions. His limping to illustrate a groin pull brought out laughs from the audience; as did Mrs. Williams’ riposte, “I think Jenny Waters stretched your groin.”

Mr. Williams showcased the range of his dramatic capabilities. The dismissive manner in which he refused to describe Andy’s breakup with a Japanese woman showed Andy’s reluctance for expressing his feelings. Mr. Williams keen use of pauses at the performance’s conclusion made the scene more tragic than words can describe.

Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams portrayed Melissa; a difficult role. Whereas Andy’s star ascended into the stratosphere, Melissa’s life came unraveled. The family issues, substance abuse problems and career failures channeled her character into a downward spiral. Mrs. Williams gave this role the intense treatment it required.

Mrs. Williams spoke in a charming and endearing child’s voice during the show’s opening act. Her tone and presence reflected the privileged upbringing that surrounded her character.

Then things got real real quick.  

Mrs. Williams nonchalantly related how, “Mommy says I’m a self-destructive person.” Throughout the first act, she expatiated on this observation. She got in trouble at one school for smoking. Another one expelled her for drinking gin. Bad relationships and career failures followed.

This empathetic figured deteriorated into a tragic one during the second act. Mrs. Williams nipped from a glass whenever her character wasn’t speaking. She enacted the effects of depression and substance abuse with gripping realism. The performer delivered her lines with a slight slur in her voice. She still spoke clearly enough so the audience could understand her.

Mrs. Williams also played the character’s comedic side with the same passion. Mrs. Williams ripped a series of papers as Mr. Williams said he’d hoped she wasn’t mad at him. She followed this by placing the ripped sheets into an envelope that she mailed to him. This reviewer also enjoyed her yawning as Mr. Williams recited lines from Paradise Lost.

The best scene occurred when the two characters argued. They did so via their letters to one another. The clever uses of silence and pauses made the exchange believable.    

Other members of the production team included the omni-talented Jim Frazer on lighting design. John Weber managed the sound design which Peg Smith operated.

Life imitated art at the show’s conclusion. In homage to one of the references in the story, Mr. Williams’ son handed him a bouquet of red roses. Mr. Williams then presented it to his wife.   

As with all Burlington County Footlighters Back Stage performances, the company enforced COVID-19 safety measures. They conducted temperature scans on audience members prior to allowing them access to the seating area. All attendees brought either their own chairs or blankets to the event along with their own concessions. Everyone sat at least six feet apart from one another. Footlighters required that everyone wear a facemask when not in their own place in the seating area. To limit the touching of objects, the host checked audience members in on a tablet. The playbill is available on-line; no paper copies were distributed.   

Love Letters premiered in 1989. Since then, email, texting and smartphones may have made the concept of letter writing seem passe. Based on the power of AR Gurney’s play, that would the real tragedy. This show runs through September 20th at the Burlington County Footlighters Back Stage. After that, Andy’s inkwell runs dry.