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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.

Drama Review – Ruined by Lynn Nottage

You will not fight your battles on my body anymore. (Location 1906)

Lynn Nottage captured the horrific nature of war in her 2007 masterpiece Ruined. This drama elucidated the true tragedy of armed conflict by exploring its effects on civilians. This story focused on how women became its true victims during a civil war in the Congo. It explored the aftereffects of sexual assault as a weapon and its subsequent relation to social taboos. A disturbing yet unforgettable theatrical opus resulted.

I’d classify Ruined as one of those rare works of art which contained both an extraordinary setting along with compelling characters. In addition, they complimented each other very well. The drama took place at a brothel located in a small mining town in the Congo. The playwright made the woman running this establishment, Mama Nadi, a well-developed character. She protected ‘her girls’ while running the ‘business’. In the course of doing so, she balanced the careful accommodation of rebel soldiers as well as those fighting for the government. I liked how with some charm she corrected Sophie upon their introduction.

Sophie: Madam.

Mama: (Defensively) It’s “Mademoiselle.” (Location 371)

While the author made all the characters believable, I found Sophie and Salima the most remarkable. Both women had been victims of repeated sexual assaults by soldiers. Sophie’s uncle described her as physically “ruined” from her recurrent attacks. Salima’s assaults ruined her as well, but in the sense that they made her a social pariah. She delivered this heartbreaking description of her husband’s reaction to her brutalization.

He called me a filthy dog, and said I tempted them. Why else would it happen? Five months in the bush passed between the soldiers like a wash rag. Used. I was made poison by their fingers, that is what he said. He had no choice but to turn away from me, because I dishonored him. (Location 1382)

Her outcast status forced Salima to find work in the only field open to people in her situation. Later in the story her husband appeared at the brothel looking for her. She added the following thoughts on what brought her life to this point:

I walked into the family compound expecting wide open arms. An embrace. Five months, suffering. I suffered every single second of it. And my family gave me the back of their heads. And he, the man I loved since I was fourteen, chased me away with a green switch. He beat my ankles raw. And I dishonored him? Where was he? Buying a pot? He was too proud to bear my shame…but not proud enough to protect me from it. Let him sit in the rain. (Location 1428)

The fact these assaults forced victims into lives of prostitution made Ruined even more tragic. Mama Nadi delivered a somewhat ironic response to this occurrence.

You men kill me. You come in here, drink your beer, take your pleasure, and then wanna judge the way I run my “business.” The front door swings both ways. I don’t force anyone’s hand. My girls, Emilene, Mazima, Josephine, ask them, they’d rather be here, than back out there in their villages where they are taken without regard. They’re safer with me than in their own homes, because this country is picked clean, while men, poets like you, drink beer, eat nuts and look for some place to disappear. And I am without mercy, is that what you’re saying? Because I give them something other than a beggar’s cup. (Location 1731)

The civil war raging in the background added to the play’s tension. One of the characters assessed it as such.

The man I shake hands with is my enemy by sundown. And why? His whims. Because?! His witch doctor says I’m the enemy. I don’t know whose hand to grease other than the one directly in front of me. At least I understood Mobutu’s brand of chaos. Now, I’m a relative beginner, I must relearn the terms every few months, and make new friends, but who? It’s difficult to say, so I must befriend everybody and nobody. And it’s utterly exhausting. (Location 1784)

“…What those men did to me lives inside of my body. Every step I take I feel them in me. Punishing me. And it will be that way for the rest of my life.” (Location 695) It’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of trauma inflicted on women in war zones. Thanks to Lynn Nottage, the world community possesses a keener awareness because of Ruined.

 

Lecture Review – Joseph Grabas: Land Deeds and the Illumination of History

What genealogist wouldn’t want to know how contemporaries viewed his/her ancestors? Even better, what family researcher wouldn’t crave a source that described his forebears as either a “lunatic” or a “spinster”? How about a primary document in which a forefather bequeathed to a relative: “a good stout rope to hang his Irish wife”? These historical sleuths owe Joseph Grabas some serious gratitude. As part of the New Jersey History Speaks Lecture Series, presented by the Historical Society of Moorestown and hosted by the Moorestown Library on March 15, 2017, Mr. Grabas revealed a veritable “Holy Grail” of source material for such scholars.

It seemed fitting that such an unusual nature of information would come from an atypical type of historian. Mr. Grabas described himself as, “your premier forensic title expert.” Based on his extensive background in the subject, his self-designation seemed rather modest. For the last forty years he’s researched property records in the Garden State. He served as the president of the New Jersey Land Title Association. In addition, he founded the Grabas Institute for Continuing Education and instructs realtors, lawyers and insurance professionals on the nuances of land records. Somehow he found time to write Owning New Jersey: Historic Tales of War, Property Disputes and the Pursuit of Happiness which The History Press published in 2014, as well.

Mr. Grabas explained that historically American society placed more importance on land ownership than home ownership. His book opened with a witty observation from Mark Twain that explained why: “Buy land. They’re not making it anymore.” In fact, possession of land held such prominence that statutes require many records regarding it to be retained forever.

Historians and genealogists should rejoice. Mr. Gabas explained that a county surrogate’s documents are “land records.” A diverse array of sources qualifies as such. They include, but are not limited to: financing statements, deeds, mortgages, leases, inventories, liens and even manumission records. This source provides researchers the data needed to trace a chain of title, which details the ownership history for tracts of land. It allows investigators to determine how owners obtained the real estate in the form of deed recitals. Some documents also provide witty anecdotes for those exploring family histories. For example, a deed he displayed referred to a man named Zaccheus Dunn as a “lunatic” in five separate places. With this wealth of information among so called “land records,” it’s surprising, as Mr. Grabas commented, that genealogists tend not to consult them.

Many professional researchers tend to focus on theory when explaining their craft. Mr. Grabas got into the practical aspect of his work. Using how he would investigate when a particular building was erected as an example, he showed the group his process. In the eighteenth century insurance companies began using Sanborn Maps to evaluate the insurability of properties. The speaker used a series of these documents to confirm the old Masonic Hall on Main Street in Moorestown’s date of construction. The edifice’s cornerstone read 1914. The Sanborn Maps from the years prior to and after that date were consistent with the keystone.

Mr. Grabas described his goal to “educate and entertain” the audience upon beginning his lecture. He did indeed. (Forgive the pun.) With all the unusual things uncovered from the documents he discussed, I’ve decided to try something original. I’m adding a clause to my will instructing my executor to shred all my land records upon my death. Let future historians, genealogists and title researchers wrap their minds around what that means.

The Critique Compendium Interview: Gaby Affleck

gabrielle-affleck-headshotGaby Affleck advises those starting out in the arts to “never stop learning.” As she’s established a remarkable career as both an actress and director throughout the South Jersey community theatre circuit, performers would be wise to study what follows. Ms. Affleck kindly provided readers the opportunity to learn some things about her. We conducted this interview via email during the winter of 2017.

 

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

Gaby Affleck: Way, WAY back when I was in 7th grade, I saw my sister’s friend, Joan Kratowitz Tenaglia, play Julie Jordan in Carousel in a high school production. I was so enamored by her performance that I knew that’s what I wanted to do! But, alas, I was terribly shy.

When I enrolled at St. Hubert High School for Girls, I joined Glee Club, following in my sister Melissa’s footsteps. I found I could perform, but just be a face in the crowd. That was until my Glee Club instructor, Sr. Pat Cashman, encouraged me to audition for The Wizard of Oz, our Spring Musical. I was cast as part of the ensemble, and had a small role. AND…I was bitten by the Acting Bug!

 

Critique Compendium: In addition to acting, you also direct. Which do you prefer? Why?

Gaby Affleck: I don’t have a preference, per se. I like them both for different reasons. I like to act because it gives me an opportunity to show off my talents, and hone my craft. To quote one of my favorite characters, Ursula in The Little Mermaid, “It’s what I LIVE for…” Okay, let’s be honest, I do it for the applause. Applause is like a drug. Once you experience it, you want it over and over again.

Directing, on the other hand, like putting together a puzzle. It’s making sure all of the moving parts are working properly. It’s also “the thrill of the chase” finding the perfect actors, costumes, props & set pieces. I do so love working with the actors to push them to dig a little deeper and find the heart and soul of their characters. I also enjoy collaborating with the set designers and the tech gurus, the costume designers and producers, and together, as a team, building the final product! Then I get to take the credit for everyone’s hard work. (I KID! I KID!)

Directing is a different kind of satisfaction. It’s being able to look at the final outcome and say, “That’s my vison come to life!” It’s a proud moment.

 

Critique Compendium: What types of things interest you in prospective projects? Why?

Gaby Affleck: In the acting department, I like two kinds of roles: Ones that allow my current wheelhouse of talents to shine. BUT, I also love to play roles that are far from the “real me” and make me really work hard for the outcome. They are actually more fulfilling.

In the directing department, I like scripts that scream out “direct me, Gaby!” They must have meaty characters that need to be brought to life! I prefer to direct shows that aren’t often produced. I also tend to lean towards thrillers. In short, I’m drawn to scripts that speak to my soul.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s the most challenging show in which you’ve participated? Why?

Gaby Affleck: That’s a tough one. I’ve been involved with many challenging shows, from both sides of the stage.

I think I it would be when I directed Dracula at Burlington County Footlighters. Dracula was the most technically involved show I’ve ever worked on. We had a plethora of special effects: On-stage transformations, disappearing vampires, creatures with glowing eyes, books opening of their own accord, vampire stakings (complete with a geysers of blood,) crosses that caught fire, exploding coffins…just to name a few!

To accomplish all of that, you need the BEST OF THE BEST on your team! I’m looking at you, Jim Frazer (Set Design,) Bob Beaucheane (Tech. Design,) Torben Christensen (Producer,) Pat Frazer (Assistant Director,) Jasmine Chalfont (Blood FX Specialist,) Valerie Brothers (Makeup and Hair Design,) Lynne Johnson (Costumes,) Kristina VanName (Props) and Sarah Flanagan (Stage Manager.) I could not have done this show without them, and I can’t thank them enough for having faith in my ability to stage this show!

Dracula also boasted a brilliant cast, with whom I’m honored to have had the opportunity to work.

We also won a few awards that year. Best child actor (Lisa Krier as The Girl,) Best Supporting Actor (Bernard DiCassimiro as Renfield,) Best Technical Show, and Best Show! So, yeah, I’m very proud of that one!

 

Critique Compendium: Describe your most memorable theatrical moment: either performing or directing.

Gaby Affleck: Just one? That’s not easy.

I’d have to say playing Mama Rose in Gypsy to sold out houses. I’ve been lucky enough to play Rose twice, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Rose is the role of a lifetime, and she is larger than life. And based on a REAL PERSON, with so many layers to peel back. I think I’ve a lot more to learn about her.

 

Critique Compendium: In addition to acting and directing, you’re also an excellent vocalist. What inspired you to learn singing?

Gaby Affleck: I’m going to give St. Pat Cashman another shout-out here. I grew up singing for my own personal pleasure, but it was Sr. Pat who convinced me that I actually had talent. She encouraged me to audition for the school play, gave me my first solo, had me sing “God Bless America” for the Rotary Club, and she even submitted my audition tape for the 1988 Coca-Cola World Chorus (for which I went on to be a semi-finalist.) She really was my guiding force.

 

Critique Compendium: What performance artists have influenced you? Why?

Gaby Affleck: I don’t think there is any one in particular. There are some wonderful actors out there that I just adore watching because I know they always deliver. Some of them are (in no particular order): Meryl Streep, Gary Sinise, Liev Schrieber, Denzel Washington, Helen Mirren, Kathy Bates, John Malkovich…

I always enjoy when I’m watching someone perform and they deliver a line, or make a physical choice, that is so NOT what I was expecting! I think to myself “Wow! That was a fantastic choice. I never would have thought to go that way.” Then I wonder, “Was that their choice or something the director asked them to do?” I’m constantly watching from both sides.

 

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

Gaby Affleck: Again, just one?

Meryl Streep because she is an amazing actress and I think I could learn a lot from her. There’s nothing she can’t do!

I want to be Meryl Streep when I grow up!

 

Critique Compendium: What do you do when you’re not on stage? What are your hobbies and interests?

Gaby Affleck: Sleeping is a favorite. The occasional adult beverage. (stop laughing)

 

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

Gaby Affleck: I don’t. Theatre wins. Every time.

 

Critique Compendium: How do you prepare to direct a show?

Gaby Affleck: I read several scripts until I find one that speaks to me. Then I read it again to be sure. Sometimes I give it to other people to read to get their opinions. And, if it’s a tricky script, like in the case of Dracula, I put together a team before I even submit the show to a theater for consideration.

Then I read it about 20 more times, taking character, set, costume and prop notes.

If the script is based on a book, I will read that book. But, I don’t like to watch the movie, or other performances as I do not want to be influenced by other director’s choices. I want my show to be my own. (For better or worse.)

 

Critique Compendium: What do you bring to your roles that other performers don’t?

Gaby Affleck: I’m big on character development and honesty.

I develop a new character for each production I am in. I’ve never re-used a character, though I do occasionally borrow bits and pieces to create others.

For me a character is not just a voice affectation. It’s everything: demeanor, style of dress, posture, gait, how do they respond to different situations/people, what is their backstory? All of these things factor into creating a believable character.

I’m also big on research. I will scour the internet for information about eras to learn how people looked, dressed, behaved, wore their hair.

As for honesty, I believe one must literally become the character to be believable in the role. You cannot just deliver lines. You can’t pretend to cry or laugh. An audience knows when you are not being honest, and they will find you boring or stilted. To be true to the character, and the author, you must live the role. You have to feel what they are feeling, and react as they would. That’s what makes a performance believable.

 

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult part of performing in front of a live audience?

Gaby Affleck: Going up on lines. Sometimes there is just no graceful way to recover.

Oh, and there was that time I walked out on stage with my dress tucked into my pantyhose, but, I’d like to forget about that.

 

Critique Compendium: How would you like audiences to remember you?

Gaby Affleck: Well, I don’t want to be remembered as the girl who walked out on stage with her dress tucked into her pantyhose.

I’d like to be remembered for making the audience feel something. Whether I make them laugh, or cry or become angry, I want the audience to leave feeling differently than when they came in. (Same goes for when I direct.)

 

Critique Compendium: If I asked people with whom you’ve either performed or directed what it was like working with you, what would they tell me?

Gaby Affleck: As an actress I’d like to think that they would tell you I’m a hard working actress, who comes prepared and is enjoyable to work with. And that they CAN’T WAIT to work with me again!

As I director I hope people would tell you that I’m a dedicated director who has a vision, and who has the creativity and know-how to bring her vision to the stage. Also, that I’m serious, but lots of fun to work with….and that they CAN’T WAIT to work with me again!

 

Critique Compendium: What advice would you give to young people interested in the performing arts?

Gaby Affleck:

1) Never stop learning!

2) Take something away from every experience.

3) If you don’t push yourself, you won’t grow!

4) If it doesn’t scare you a little, you’re not doing it right!

 

Critique Compendium: What adjective best describes your theater career?

Gaby Affleck: Eclectic!

 

Critique Compendium: I’d like to ask a bit of a personal question involving two characters with whom you’re familiar. If you were available with whom would you rather take a Hawaiian cruise: Count Dracula or Aldolpho from The Drowsy Chaperone?

Gaby Affleck: Tough choice.

Dracula is sexy on a cerebral level. Adolpho is pure physical sexual attraction.

Dracula would hide from the sun, making it difficult to enjoy the daylight hours. While Adolpho would “keep me awake” all night, also making it difficult to enjoy the daylight hours.

I think when it comes down to it, I’d pick Dracula. He’s a man (?) with whom I could enjoy intelligent conversations and long walks on the beach (after sunset.) He’s a snappy dresser, he owns his own castle, and he won’t drink any of my…wine.

 

Critique Compendium: And the big question I know readers are curious about: are you related to Matt Damon in any way? Just kidding. Any relation to Ben Affleck?

Gaby Affleck: Me personally, no.

As to whether he is a relation of my husband…well, we don’t receive a card from him at Christmas, so….

 

Critique Compendium: What’s next for Gaby Affleck?

Gaby Affleck: (Squealing with excitement) I’m going to be playing Ursula in The Little Mermaid! A Dream Role! She’s evil yet witty, with a little sexy tossed in for good measure. And she sings the best villain song every written: POOR UNFORTUNATE SOULS!

Come see me and the rest of this amazing cast! May 26, 27, 28 June 2, 3, 4 Yardley Players Theatre Company at The Kelsey Theatre at Mercer County Community College.

 

The Critique Compendium Interview: Michael Melvin

michael-melvin

A lot of people like to complain about how busy they are. These people would be well advised not to say that to Michael Melvin.

Mr. Melvin wears so many hats that pretty soon he’s going to need more heads. He recently played Joey in Haddonfield Plays and Players production of Sister Act this February. In a few weeks he will be casting for Sister Act which he will direct at the Maple Shade Arts Council this summer.

During the day, Mr. Melvin works as an Eighth Grade Math and Science teacher in Edgewater Park, NJ. He concurrently works towards his Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership at Montclair State University.

In addition to performing and directing in South Jersey Community Theatre productions, he is the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council; a 501[c]3 non-profit organization. Its membership includes educators, parents, and the general public. The group provides entertaining, educational, and inspirational artistic programs and events for the community. Through the Arts Council, Mr. Melvin has had the privilege of directing the summer theatre campers, as well as directing the adults in the summer musical.

In the past Mr. Melvin served as a board member with Burlington County Footlighters in Cinnaminson, NJ. He also played the drums in musicals such as 13 and Avenue Q.

While Mr. Melvin is very passionate about the performing arts and education, his heart truly belongs to his fiancee, Nicole Traino. He anxiously awaits their wedding day in March 2018 and looks forward to spending the rest of his life with his high school sweetheart.

Despite an exceedingly busy schedule, Mr. Melvin genially agreed to be interviewed on February 22, 2017. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Critique Compendium: You’re a math teacher. So I’m sure you won’t mind taking a little test to prove how well you know your subject. What’s two plus six?

Michael Melvin: Eight.

Critique Compendium: (Long, long pause.) I’ll take your word for it.

Critique Compendium: You’ve taken on leadership roles with both Burlington County Footlighters and The Maple Shade Arts Council. You’re also working towards a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. What’s your definition of leadership?

Michael Melvin: To me, there are the people who sit behind the desk and then there are the people in the trenches. When I become a school administrator I’ll want everyone to know I’ll be there for them. I’m there to help them succeed.

I’m in the Arts Council because I want to see people achieve. My role is to help others achieve greatness.

Critique Compendium: What interested you in stepping up and taking on leadership responsibilities?

Michael Melvin: It all started when I was a young kid. I did summer theatre in Maple Shade. I wasn’t into sports. I was the type who liked to eat cheese fries in the stands! My mom said to try summer theatre. I did and got hooked. I continued doing theatre in high school. In college I focused on math.

In 2012 I got involved with Footlighters performing in the Wedding Singer through friends. At the time there was an opening on the board for a secretary. They asked me if I would be interested in doing it. Taking notes seemed like something I could handle so I said, “Okay.” After that was like a snowball effect.

Critique Compendium: You’re the President of the Maple Shade Arts Council. How did you get involved with that organization?

Michael Melvin: I was in their summer theatre program through the community alliance. A friend told me that the Maple Shade Arts Council was still in existence. In 2013 the Arts Council existed under the township, but no one was running it.

Due to changes in funding and the camp no longer being able to be done in the summer, I wanted to find a way to keep the summer theatre camp as is to better accommodate our campers. I wanted to keep the program I loved and grew up doing as is.  Since then it has blossomed. It’s been a blessing.

Critique Compendium: Could you describe some of the programs the Maple Shade Arts Council sponsors?

Michael Melvin: We have the summer musical for adults, as you know. The first one we did was Urintetown. I’ll say this: it made people aware of us.

We also do cabarets. We did art workshops before and we’re looking to do them again. We’ve done a Holiday heirloom workshop. We present a teen show, too.

The new thing is the junior program for kids in Kindergarten through third grade.

We’re focused on theatrical shows, but I don’t consider the Maple Shade Arts Council a “theatre organization.” We’re hoping to branch out into other performing arts.

Critique Compendium: How does the Maple Shade Arts Council select the shows it’s going to present?

Michael Melvin: We try to pick something the community hasn’t seen before. We want to do something unique that will interest people.

For our first show we figured we needed to attract actors first. We decided on Urinetown with the: “If you build it they will come philosophy.” We wanted to create a spark in the town. We created a conflagration.

The Addams Family had wider appeal. The Drowsy Chaperone featured old style music. We like to put on shows people can relate to. We picked Sister Act because a “summer show should be a fun show.” We present happy-go-lucky, make you feel good musicals for the summer.

As the Arts Council grows we’ll add more variety.

Critique Compendium: Did you perform in the Haddonfield Plays and Players version of Sister Act to get a “practice” Sister Act under your belt?

Michael Melvin: I wasn’t in Sister Act to learn about the show. I read Phyllis Josephson’s Facebook post about the auditions. I wanted to do a show with Phyllis. I sent a video submission. (Director) Chris (McGinnis) got back to me right away. I didn’t tell anyone about the Maple Shade Arts Council.

I wanted to get back to acting. I had fun diving into the role.

Now I have to delete that memory of the show. I’m working with a new production team. Darryl (S. Thompson, Jr.) is the Assistant Director. We’ll give the show a new twist.

Critique Compendium: How did the council decide to do The Drowsy Chaperone? That show was outstanding.

Michael Melvin: Thank you. It was the first time I knew I wasn’t going to direct. I asked (director) Brian Padla what he wanted to do. I knew we had a “unique space.” (Since Maple Shade High School was under renovations) we had a smaller forum (in Nolan Hall at Our Lady of Perpetual Help.) I had no clue about the show myself. When Brian suggested it I said let’s look into it. I liked the cool music. When I watched the Aldopho scene on youtube I loved it!

Critique Compendium: What are some of the challenges in running a small non-profit volunteer organization?

Michael Melvin: The key is the word volunteer. People’s lives are hectic. The hard part is how to strike a passion with people to put in that extra effort. I believe in the organization. Over the last three years I’ve seen a lot of parents putting in their efforts.

We’re doing something great in the community. We’re bringing people to Maple Shade.

It’s very challenging to rally the troops to see the vision and then get them to buy into the vision. When I see that happen is the best part.

Critique Compendium: What makes you interested in playing a role?

Michael Melvin: I’m a character actor. I like comedic parts. I know I’m not going to play the ingénue. When I played Joey (in Sister Act) I grew a crazy moustache. I like weird characters. I love comedies. I enjoy becoming somebody who has no similarities with myself.

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

Michael Melvin: I’d say Legally Blonde. I was Professor Callahan. I’d never played a villain before. That character never changed the entire show.

When I told Jill (Starr-Renbjor, the director) I was going to try out for the part she said I was, “too nice.” When I went to the audition I dressed professorial and sang a song from the musical. I got the part.

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

Michael Melvin: In my senior year of high school I played Jean Valjean. To show how much I knew about theatre at the time, I’d never heard of Les Mis! I didn’t understand the nuances of theatre then. I did a lot of research for the part. Vocally it was a challenge. The role is a tenor and I’m a bass/baritone. That was hard as was being on stage the entire show and singing the entire show.

Critique Compendium: You’ve both performed as well as directed. Which do you prefer?

Michael Melvin: After being in Sister Act I prefer directing. I feel like I get more nervous when I’m on stage. Will I forget my lines? Will I forget the music? As an actor you’re concerned about yourself.

As a director you put yourself in every actor’s shoes. It gives you the opportunity to work with people. I love directing.

Critique Compendium: Describe your most memorable moment on stage so far.

Michael Melvin: I would probably say, my senior year in Les Mis. The coolest moment was knowing it was my last show in high school. I was the last one out for curtain call. I remember the emotions that went along with that. I’d worked with these people so long. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do theatre again.

Critique Compendium: How long was it until you performed again?

Michael Melvin: I spent four or five years off stage.

I didn’t perform in college. In college theatre was for the majors. They had phenomenal talent, anyway. I was focused on math and education at the time.

Critique Compendium: You’re also a gifted singer. Who influenced you musically?

Michael Melvin: My parents brought me up listening to 60s, 70s, and 80s music; the older music. I’m not into modern music. I wasn’t influenced by one person vocally. I listen to a weird mix such as country, Hamilton (the soundtrack), and Frank Sinatra.

Critique Compendium: What actors have influenced you?

Michael Melvin: I like to look at actors I’m similar to. I’d say Kevin Chamberlain who played Horton in Seussical and Fester in the Addams Family. I like Broadway performer Brian D’Arcy James. I can relate to Patton Oswalt’s personality.

I tell kids to know your type, know who you are. Having a niche is helpful.

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

Michael Melvin: Robin Williams because of his comedy background. You can’t figure out his mind. He keeps you on your toes. He could look at a prop and turn it into a bazillion things. He forced you to up your game or say, “I can’t keep up with this!”

Critique Compendium: What do you do when you’re not on stage?

Michael Melvin: I love watching Philly sports: the Phils, Eagles, and Sixers. I collect Funko Pop. I don’t have as much free time as I used to. It’s important for me to spend time with my fiancée.

Critique Compendium: I’ve heard that you chose a very unique way to propose to her. Could you tell us about that?

Michael Melvin: I told her they were going to do a read through at Footlighters for a script a friend of mine wrote. I let her know about it months in advance. Actually, I wrote the play. Each scene was something that happened during our relationship.

On the night of the “read through” we had heart candles all around the stage. As we went through the script she realized that all the scenes were familiar. Then I proposed to her on stage. The lights came up and there were 50 to 60 people in the audience.

We both have a passion for theatre. I feel like Footlighters helped me reconnect with friends and my high school band director, which led to me accepting a coaching job at our old high school marching band. We ended up coaching together and that ultimately led to us reconnecting and getting back together. I’m grateful BCF gave me the opportunity to propose on their stage.

Critique Compendium: How do you prepare for a role?

Michael Melvin: The biggest thing is: when going into auditions don’t soley focus on one role. An actor should be diverse and understand all the parts. I read through script several times. I read it from the other characters’ perspectives. I’ll write down the line before and the line after my character’s on notecards. That helps me get a better understanding.

Critique Compendium: What do you bring to your roles that other performers don’t?

Michael Melvin: I bring dedication. When you work with me I’m all in. At Haddonfield Plays and Players (production of Sister Act) I was very quiet. I wanted to prove that I wanted to work hard. I didn’t mention anything about the Maple Shade Arts Council.

I’ll push myself in ways I don’t normally. I’ll push through things, such as singing tenor with a bass voice, even if it doesn’t come naturally to me.

Critique Compendium: What’s the most difficult part of performing in front of a live audience?

Michael Melvin: When I do comedy: not breaking character and laughing.

Haddonfield Plays and Players’ stage is close to the audience. It’s difficult with that smaller space not to laugh when you see your friends laughing.

Holding that character is tough. Becoming that other character is hard, too. Not letting Mike break through is the hardest part.

Critique Compendium: How would you like audiences to remember you?

Michael Melvin: As an Arts Council leader: I hope at the end of the day people see that I love what I do. I hope they see the passion and why I do what I do. My intentions are pure and my desire to help people is evident. I want to see the kids go off and succeed. I want to see them grow.

I want other people to find that passion that I found. That’s the ultimate gift you can give someone.

Critique Compendium: If I asked people with whom you’ve performed what it was like working with you, what would they tell me?

Michael Melvin: He’s a great guy. He can be slightly undiagnosed OCD. He’s slightly perfectionist, but in the nice way. He’s very open when he works with people.

Mike’s a “worker.” Mike does too much work. He needs to relax. I would have more of my hair this way. I need to relax.

The good news is that I’m self-aware of all this.

Critique Compendium: What adjective would best describe your theater career?

Michael Melvin: Wide ranging or diverse. I’ve had a lot of unique experiences: Directing kids, adults, shows, stage crew, and building sets. It’s always been something different.

Critique Compendium: What’s next for you?

Michael Melvin: Sister Act auditions for the Maple Shade Arts Council are on April 2nd and 4th. We’ve received a lot of great feedback, so far.

Music Man, Jr. takes place over the summer. We have 60 kids in the program.

I’m finishing my master’s program. I’m also getting a wedding together for next March.

Critique Compendium: What advice would you give to young people interested in participating in the performing arts?

Michael Melvin: Without a doubt take a chance. Take the most out of every opportunity. If you’re in the lead or ensemble every opportunity can build you up. Everything is meaningful and impactful. Stick with it.

You will never meet as many great people as in the arts. It’s a lifelong blessing for anybody who sticks with it.

More information about Mr. Melvin is available at his website: www.michaelanthonymelvin.com.

In Memoriam – Clyde Stubblefield

One of the soldiers on the forefront of the 1970 funk revolution has left us. The original “funky drummer” himself, Clyde Stubblefield, passed away on February 18th.

Mr. Stubblefield earned the distinction of being the most listened to, but least recognized performers in the history of music. His stellar instrumental break on the appropriately titled James Brown 1970 masterpiece, “The Funky Drummer” became legendary. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business called it when he instructed the drummer: “Show the people what you got. Don’t turn it loose, ‘cause it’s a mother.” The break later became the most sampled drum track in the Hip-Hop genre. It even crossed over into to pop music when Sugar Ray’s drummer mimicked it on their 1997 hit “Fly.”

It would be unfair to call Mr. Stubblefield a “one grove wonder.” The title of one of the songs on which he performed, “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved”, could have described his approach to drumming. He laid down superb beats during his tenure with the Godfather of Soul. Some of the most notable included “I Got the Feelin’”, “Mother Popcorn” and “Cold Sweat.” Perhaps his phenomenal sense of rhythm inspired Mr. Brown’s decision to “give the drummer some” on the extended version of the latter.

While not as famous as the “Funky Drummer” break, Mr. Stubblefield’s re-entry with the congas on the simulated live version of “Give it Up or Turn It Loose” deserved more recognition. In that moment, he challenged Motown session man Benny Benjamin for the title of heaviest Rhythm & Blues drummer. At the same time, he presaged the more assertive approach to R & B style drumming later associated with Chic’s Tony Thompson.

It seemed fitting that Mr. Stubblefield contributed his talents to “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I’ll Get It Myself).” Whenever Mr. Dynamite provided him the opportunity to showcase his skills, Mr. Stubblefield took advantage. Because of that, and thanks to the practice of digital sampling, he just may have played on more tracks with more artists than any other session man in history. That’s a great accomplishment for someone who started out as nothing more than a “funky drummer.”

I extend my deepest condolences to Mr. Stubblefield’s friends and family.