AJ Krier

Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park at Burlington County Footlighters

With so many focused on upcoming sporting events, it didn’t surprise that Burlington County Footlighters would host theatre’s answer to one. The opponents in their contest featured the “shirts against the skins.” In this case, it was more the “stuffed shirts” in conflict with the “barefoots” through the vehicle of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. To show just how special this event, they brought in the Ho Chi Minh University of the Arts’ most famous graduate, Tim Sagges, to direct this run. I attended the opening night performance on January 26th.

Mr. Sagges displayed his unique brand of creativity even before the show began. In his playbill bio, he described himself as having graduated Hakuna Matada with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Trapeze performance while minoring in Merkin Mastery. This director chose an excellent comedy with which to exercise his talent for wit and inventiveness.

As the NFL All-Pro game will be played during this show’s run, I thought the casting very appropriate. The performers who took the stage played like South Jersey community theatre’s version of an all-star team. It featured three-time Irene Ryan nominee, Bailey Shaw in the lead as Corie Bratter. The newest member of the royal family of South Jersey community theatre, AJ Krier, played her husband Paul Bratter. One of the most versatile performers ever to grace the stage, Phyllis Josephson, played Corie’s mother. Gifted singer, dancer and actor, Rick Williams took on the role of eccentric free-spirit, Victor Velasco. Footlighters veteran Kevin Pavon returned to the Footlighters’ stage as Harry Pepper.

Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park premiered in 1963; two years before the playwright crafted The Odd Couple. The former contained a similar premise as a nonconformist young woman, Corie (Bailey Shaw), just moved into an apartment with her conservative husband of six days, Paul (AJ Krier). The show began with the two very much in love, but various issues with their new living accommodations began straining the marriage; a flamboyant free-loader living above them, Victor Velasco (Rick Williams) being one of them.

A visit from Corie’s mother, Ethel, (Phyllis Josephson) helped clarify the conflict. Ethel described her daughter’s “impulsive” personality as the opposite of hers and Paul’s. She also reluctantly acknowledged her loneliness. With the introduction of Victor Velasco, Corie came up with a scheme to set her mother up on a blind date. The two couples ended up dining at an establishment featuring Albanian fare. Then the battle between the “stuffed shirts” and “barefoots” kicked off.

Bailey Shaw treated theatregoers to an effervescent performance. As in the farcical The Fox on the Fairway, Ms. Shaw took on the role of an emotional personality. In Barefoot in the Park, the character contained more realistic traits. The performer deftly brought them to life. She played the bubbly aspects of Corie extraordinarily well while also giving Paul a compelling “silent treatment.” While doing so she managed to keep the role funny.

AJ Krier met the challenge of getting laughs while playing an ostensibly dull character. The son of Al Krier and brother of Lindsey, AJ brought his own distinct comedy style to the role. He displayed great skill bringing out Paul’s humorous metamorphosis into a personality with Corie’s qualities. I’m sure the latest heir to the Krier family acting dynasty made Dad and Sis proud with this performance.

Phyllis Josephson possesses a gift for performing unconventional characters. Some of her most memorable include Grandma in The Addams Family, Kimberly Akimbo and a Rapping Nun. She brought the same skill to the more orthodox Ethel.

I also witnessed Ms. Josephson perform a chilling Mama in ‘night Mother. The mom in this show didn’t possess the same intensity; which I welcomed. Ms. Josephson played a convincing and entertaining Ethel. She executed the most memorable entrance I’ve ever seen. She amused through the witty way she gasped while staggering through the door.

Rick Williams took on the part of smooth-talking gourmet Victor Velasco. For such a character, Mr. Williams showed great taste and delicacy in selecting the perfect voice. His choice of accent perfectly suited both the role and his warm baritone.

I’d also acknowledge the show’s other performers. Kevin Pavon brought an authentic New York accent to the role of Harry Pepper. Valerie Brothers and Torben Christensen played members of the most memorable moving company I’ve seen.

I’d also credit Amanda Cogdell for the authentic 1960s costuming and Jim Frazer for another phenomenal set design.

One action in the play seemed a bit odd. After returning from work while wearing his business suit, Mr. Krier changed ties prior to a dinner party. I could understand Paul being a “stuffed shirt”, but this still struck me as a strange thing to do.

Neil Simon crafted several of his plays so they built towards a crucial confrontation scene. Barefoot in the Park’s consisted of a fight between Ms. Shaw’s and Mr. Krier’s characters. They delivered the conflict I would’ve expected from the two. Mr. Krier expressed his lines with the formality one would expect from a lawyer. In the heat of the disagreement, he went to his briefcase, removed some papers and soullessly outlined the business aspects of a divorce. Ms. Shaw brought out Corie’s emotional personality through her dramatic crying. She impressed with her comical use of sobbing to get laughs from the audience.

Conveniently, Footlighters’ theatre borders Wood Park in Cinnaminson. After listening to Ms. Shaw’s character express the joys of walking barefoot in the park during the winter, I thought that maybe I should give it a try. Then a cold wind blew. I decided that task best left to either theatrical professionals or fictitious characters.

For those interested in watching the “stuffed shirts” take on the “barefoot” crowd, the show runs through February 10th. The outcome of the Pro Bowl, the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics are unknown at the time of this writing. One thing is for certain about the conflict in Barefoot in the Park at Burlington County Footlighters: the audience will always end up the winner.

 

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Coyote on a Fence at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage

When I realized Alice Weber would be directing this show, I felt glad I stopped off for that extra cup of coffee before entering the theatre. Two years ago I attended a performance of Dr. Cook’s Garden which she directed at Bridge Players Theatre Company. I still lose sleep at night trying to wrap my mind around that one. To the delight of theatre fans, Ms. Walker brought her unique brand of high minded, thought-provoking drama to Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage. She selected the perfect vehicle in the form of Bruce Graham’s Coyote on a Fence.

The Cinnaminson venue continued its own tradition of intense drama, as well. I didn’t believe it possible for 2nd Stage to follow-up their October presentation of ‘night Mother with a show of comparable intensity. They sure found one; and they selected the prefect director to stage it. A haunting evening of theatre resulted. I attended the opening night performance on March 24, 2017.

Coyote on a Fence told an uncomfortable story to watch. Death Row inmate John Brennan (played by Robert Beaucheane) passed his time writing for and editing the prison newspaper The Death Row Advocate. His flattering obituaries of those executed by the State neglected to mention their crimes. This apotheosis of sociopaths gained the attention of New York Times reporter Sam Fried (played by John Weber). Upon receiving the journalist’s letter informing Brennan that he’d like to meet with and write a story about him, a new prisoner entered the next cell.

White supremacist, the loquacious Bobby Reyburn, (played by AJ Krier) occupied it. While feeling no remorse for his crime, he accepted his guilt and didn’t want to appeal or delay his execution. Ironically, he developed into the more gregarious of the two men. This conflicted with Brennan’s view that he, and all those preparing for execution, were merely “accused” and had a duty to appeal their sentences. An existential debate ensued between the educated writer and the slow minded bigot. It concerned making one’s peace with God and accepting responsibility for one’s actions. Their exchanges made for a heady 90 minutes.

The playwright didn’t reveal the nature of both men’s crimes until mid-way through the show. Not knowing what each had done kept me engaged and added a sense of mystique to the drama.

Ms. Weber made outstanding casting choices for the two lead roles. Mr. Beaucheane and AJ Krier played off each other extraordinarily well. These two thespians’ complimentary skills as a dramatic team could only be compared to the aptitude of Footlighters’ comedy legends Al Krier and Dan Brothers. (Both of whom I had the pleasure of encountering in the audience prior to the show.)

It’s difficult selecting the appropriate superlatives to describe AJ Krier’s performance. He infused a sense of boyish innocence into the character. That’s not an easy achievement when continually reciting the Aryan creed. While playing an ostensible psychopath, he still drew laughter from the audience when either delivering comedic lines or imitating a seal. The man has range. He added authenticity to his role by speaking in a Southern accent. In spite of delivering myriad lines that made the audience cringe, he still evoked sympathy through his enactment.

Robert Beaucheane shares Ms. Weber’s artistic tastes. He played the title character in Dr. Cook’s Garden. For this show, he accepted the role of another complex character. He credibly played a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, death row inmate who wrote and edited a prison newspaper. It’s difficult to animate abstract concepts such as denial, but Mr. Beaucheane established the standard for doing so. He also managed to adjust from the psyche of an austere scholar to that of someone with anger issues. His approach to the character reflected the overall play: he got me thinking. As with the role of Dr. Cook, I struggled to understand the character’s true nature.

Regina Deavitt (another cast member from Dr. Cook’s Garden) and John Weber rounded out the ensemble. Ms. Deavitt (as prison guard Shawna DuChamps) evoked sympathy for those awaiting death sentences through her moving bar-room monologs. She brought such realism to these scenes I felt like I was having a beer with her.

Mr. Weber (as Sam Fried) took on the most difficult role in the play. As a father and writer who shared many of Brennan’s views, he needed to show how the two were similar but different. Through his mannerisms, speech inflections and rational thinking he proficiently balanced curiosity and irritation in his scenes opposite Mr. Beauchane. I even jumped when he threw his wallet. Still, he kept his anger controlled.

I did have a few issues with the script. It seemed far too cliché that the playwright made the unapologetic racist a Southerner. I found that too stereotypical; especially in a play that premiered in 1997.

I also thought the story took long in developing. That’s common with ‘serious’ character driven plots. I’d encourage audience members to hang in there through the first 20 minutes of exposition. The remainder of the play made it worthwhile.

In the playbill, Ms. Weber expressed the trenchant thought:

In vivid scenes, Coyote on a Fence explores the disturbing question: Can one be innocent though proven guilty? This penetrating new drama offers no clear verdict, just utterly compelling theatre.

I always appreciate this director’s intellectually provocative contributions to South Jersey Community Theatre. I leave her shows with a broader perspective on intricate questions. I’m sure other audience members do, too. Now, is there any chance Ms. Weber would consider making a career change and become a political analyst?