Alex Levitt

24-Hour Theatre Festival at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

Once again Burlington County Footlighters proved that the spirit of American ingenuity continues to thrive among South Jersey Community Theatre performers. On Saturday, February 23, 2019 Footlighters’ 2nd Stage presented their 7th Annual 24-Hour Theatre Festival. One of the most entertaining evenings out that I’ve ever had resulted.

For those unfamiliar with the program, at 8:00 PM on Friday, February 22nd, four teams of actors assembled at the Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage theatre. They were presented with six hats. Each contained slips of paper. They contained: a genre, a prop, a character, a task, a line or quote and a delivery style. Once the teams selected one of each, they had 24 hours to write a play that met all the criteria. The curtain would go up on their creation the evening of February 23rd.

For those who are familiar with Footlighters’ 24-Hour Theatre Festival, this year the organizers added a twist. They selected a “mystery” prop that each team had to use in its play. The prop would be drawn by an audience member at random via lot. The performers wouldn’t discover what that prop was until DURING their performance.

BCF established the evening’s improvisational nature even before the festivities commenced. The emcee, Carla Ezell, stated that she discovered she’d be hosting the program just a few hours before the show. Ms. Ezell’s improvisational aptitude set a high bar for the performers to match. Would they?

Internal Affairs featuring CGI Paul Walker performed a black comedy called Lady Luck. Team members Alex Davis and Josh Ireland presented the best one act play that I’ve either read or watched. Mr. Ireland played a troubled loner with a fascination for birds. Ms. Davis took on the role of a disgruntled Dear Abby responding to his inquiries. This duo presented a 25 minute play while even working clever alliteration into their script. The writing was so good that I’d encourage them to publish the play. Although, I’m sure it wouldn’t be as entertaining without Mr. Ireland and Ms. Davis starring in it.

The Drunken Kruk team took the stage next. Performers Emily O’Connell, Susan Paschkes, Caroline Piotrowski and Ellis Skamarakas presented a pirate musical titled The Drunken Kuk and the Kracken. (You read that right: they selected “musical” as a genre. Those BCF organizers have no mercy on these participants.) The team met some other unique challenges. One character only spoke with either slogans or tag lines. They also had to work a game of patty-cake into their show. This group pushed the limits of creativity. While not asked to, they managed to do the latter while forming a conga line.

Next, the Perfect Nobodies team performed A Sleight of Hand. In this show, John Hager, Evan Newlin and Andrew Snellen presented a story about two detectives attempting to solve a murder. The narrative contained a twist in that the prime suspect could only say the opposite of whatever he meant. The group freelanced by turning this premise into an absolutely hysterical farce. They worked their “mystery” prop into the story with both brilliance and wit. I also admired how while working with a script less than 24 hours old, no one used notes. Everyone still delivered their lines flawlessly.

A love of animals bracketed the program’s play portion. (Now Internal Affairs has me doing the alliteration thing.) The Lusty Dolphins received the challenge of performing in mime and incorporating the task of playing Jenga. Performers Alex Levitt, Dave Pallas, Angelo Ratini and Chrissy Wick showed some monumental creativity on this one. They split up the duties. Mr. Levitt and Ms. Wick played a married couple preparing for a Jenga match. Mr. Pallas and Mr. Ratini performed the mime roles. They mimed the same dialog that Mr. Levitt and Ms. Wick spoke to one another. The actors used a series of different situations to do so. The cleverest came when they mimed a husband driving his pregnant wife to the hospital. Her water broke and forced the husband to deliver the baby. Without giving away spoilers, they made it apparent that the child wasn’t his.

Following the, for lack of a better word, “prepared” plays, the actors participated in a series of improv games.

For the first, performers formed teams of two each. They were tasked with delivering a line that described a situation written by a member of the audience. Once that concluded, they were asked to do something creative with props.

Three actors then played dating game contestants. They selected cards that described whom they were. An audience member played the role of either the bachelor or the bachelorette by asking them questions. The bachelor(ette) then had to guess the character’s identity.

All the contestants deserve credit for participating in these challenges. None of them were easy. Because of that I’d credit Alex Levitt and Evan Newlin for displaying two of the quickest minds I’ve encountered. They both came up with some quality material on-the-spot. Could one of them be the next Robin Williams?

Jim Frazer did fantastic work on the lighting and sound. Angel Ezell also assisted with the evening’s festivities.

Footlighters icon Alan Krier once told me: “I’ve always found that the kids that are involved in the performing arts are always the ones that are exceling in school. The two seem to go hand in hand.” The 7th Annual 24-Hour Theatre Festival showed that those same traits carry over into life after school.

On the morning of February 23rd a Facebook post announced that the theatre would open at 10:00 AM that morning. I happened to pass the building around 11:00 AM. I noticed six cars already in the parking lot.

All participants behaved like the professionals they are. No one got frustrated or gave up because their task was “too hard.”

This wasn’t a contest, either. No team was declared the “winner.” No one offered them any prize money. The actors participated because they wanted to participate. In this era that says something.

I’m no Dear Abby, because if I were I’m sure I’d conduct myself in the vein of the character envisioned by Alex Davis. Periodically, though, people still ask me for advice. Whenever someone wants to know if they should quit something, I suggest the following: “Do you like what you do? Do you want to learn how to do it better? If the answer to either of them is ‘no’, then you need to do something else.” To the delight of South Jersey Community Theatre fans, the participants in the 7th Annual 24-Hour Theatre festival showed the audience just how they affirmatively they would answer those questions.

Murder by Poe at Haddonfield Plays and Players

This Halloween several performers met their “Poe” tential at Haddonfield Plays and Players. Themes involving black cats, vengeance and murder took the stage as the company presented “a descent into the maelstrom” that was the mind of Edgar Allan Poe. I put on “the spectacles” for October 27th’s performance of Murder by Poe directed by Amber Kusching.

The story began with an “enigma.” A woman (played by Hannah Keeley) encountered a house in the forest. Upon entering she discovered a “valley of unrest.” Everyone present had committed murder. While that presented “a predicament” she then undertook a quest to determine how all their stories linked together. An evening of mystery, terror and even humor followed.

Poe was a literary innovator. A pioneer of the short story form, he invented the modern detective tale in 1841. Forty six years before Sherlock Holmes appeared in The Strand, Poe introduced American audiences to sleuth extraordinaire C. Auguste Dupin.

John Nicodemo took on this iconic role. Speaking with an authentic French accent he brought out the character’s cunning, wit and arrogance. He best animated these traits through his cocky synopsis of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.”

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher made the Dupin character much more complex than his creator did. Mr. Nicodemo met these demands. He displayed excellent chemistry working with Ms. Keeley; especially, as his character became the subject of her investigation. The performer brought out the character’s change and subsequent discomfort with it very believably.

After that performance, I have to say, “Mr. Nicodemo: ‘thou art the man.’”

Poe’s wrote during the Romantic Era. That may seem odd when considering the subjects of his poems and stories. While lacking in “romance” itself, his work contained many references to emotions and feelings. Hannah Keeley infused this sense element into her performance.

Ms. Keeley displayed the anxiety of her situation very well. Even when silent, her facial expressions conveyed the character’s inner turmoil. She complimented Mr. Nicodemo wonderfully. As his character changed, Ms. Keeley steadily altered the Woman. Throughout the course of the show her role converted from that of the emotional character into the more analytical of the two.

The show’s conclusion contained a “mesmeric revelation.” I won’t give away details, but it contained a “dream within a dream” sequence. I credit Mr. Nicodemo and Ms. Keeley for becoming new characters in the final scene.

The script provided serious challenges for the actors. Several performers accepted the task of reciting a Poe story in its entirety. This entailed delivering long monologues written in nineteenth century prose. Robert Bush (as Usher), Tony Killian (in “The Black Cat”), Dan Safeer (in “The Tell-Tale Heart”), Salina Miller (Marie Roget) and Alex Leavitt (William Wilson) all proved themselves adept storytellers.

I’d especially credit Mr. Leavitt. He delivered a rendition of “William Wilson” that made Poe’s tale sound like something out of Shakespeare.

Murder by Poe included an intricate visual spectacle, as well. Projections appeared on a wall at stage left. In addition to still images, it also displayed some live action. Shadow figures enacted key scenes from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The cast and crew kept everything in synch. One also has to credit them for drawing comedy out of these morbid scenes.

Gary Werner designed a set well suited for this show. The paintings, bookshelf and off white background reminded me of a scene from a Gothic mystery story. I did have one suggestion, though. In homage to Poe, I would’ve liked to see “the oval portrait” of him hanging somewhere.

Performers Deborah Tighe and Tina Currado rounded out the ensemble.

Unfortunately for Poe fans, theatre goers and “the man of the crowd”, for that matter, this special presentation of Murder by Poe ends October 28th.  The show would make for a great Halloween tradition. Let’s hope this isn’t “nevermore.”

 

Frost/Nixon at Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage

A flurry of entertainment masquerading as politics has infected the news cycle for the last two years. To ameliorate this madness I opted to watch a theatrical presentation exploring the thin line between politics and show business. Granted, that decision may sound like the drunken whim of a law student out celebrating the only time he ever managed to pass a bar. Nonetheless, I was sober as a judge when I attended the opening night performance of Frost/Nixon at Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage this October 5th.

Tim Kirk directed this analysis of two unlikely adversaries. Both men reached vertiginous heights of success at the summit of their professions; one in television, the other as the leader of the free world. Failures crushed each man plummeting them to the ground like modern day Icaruses. But a burning ambition ignited both to strive for that apex again. The only obstacle preventing each man’s return to glory was the other man.

A night of engaging theatre quickly transitioned into a verbal chess match. With Matt Becker in the role of David Frost and Bernard DiCasimirro portraying Richard Nixon it was game on.

Matt Becker did a wonderful job transitioning Frost from a carefree talk show host into a credible journalist. The English accent he adopted reflected the character’s cheery persona. Mr. Becker showed the audience that means of speaking masked a facade. As the show progressed, he brought out the complexities of Frost’s character. I liked the uncomfortable way he avoided the question when Caroline (played by Emily Huddell) accused him of being “sad.”

My favorite scene occurred when Frost received an unexpected phone call. Mr. Becker lamented the poor quality of the interviews and how he’d gambled his career on them. Then an inebriated Nixon contacted him. With a slight slur and an abundance of bravado, Mr. DiCasimirro drew comparisons between the two men. Mr. Becker listened while a poker face for the ages came over his expression. The look captured the character’s determination and frustration. As he sat silently listening to the President’s drunken oration, Mr. Becker drew my attention even better than Mr. DiCasimirro’s brilliant portrayal of the intoxicated former President.

Richard Nixon assured the American people that he was “not a crook.” In the role of the former President, Bernard DiCasimirro sure stole the spotlight. His witty delivery of anecdotes captured both Nixon’s disarming charm and social discomfort. His efforts to rattle Frost before he began the interviews captured the character’s ruthlessness. Through his skillful portrayal he managed to inspire empathy for the disgraced former Chief Executive; transitioning him from a cynical political operator into a vanquished and broken man. Nixon may have let down the American people. Mr. DiCasimirro certainly didn’t let down the audience at Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage.

Mr. DiCassimiro captured the character’s essence brilliantly. My favorite moment came when Nixon learned that Frost made the $200,000 down payment for the interview with his own money. Mr. DiCasimirro nonchalantly quipped to an aide: “If I’d known that, I would’ve offered him tea.”

In addition to directing, Tim Kirk played several roles in this piece. He delivered a terrific rendition of negotiator extraordinaire Swifty Lazaar. He played it so well that I had to avoid him after the show. I worried that he’d be able to talk me into spending a fortune on a pair of those Italian shoes Mr. Becker wore.

I usually don’t agree with the inclusion of a narrator in theatrical productions. Frost /Nixon featured two. To my surprise, Mr. Morgan crafted both roles very well. The playwright used them to provide insights into both the Frost and Nixon camps. The audience got to learn about the motivations behind each character’s supporters. The performers who played the narrators animated the text beautifully. Dave Pallas (as Jim Reston) presented the story from the Frost camp. I enjoyed the way brought out the anxiety and frustration with the project. Francis B. Pedersen (Jack Brennan) provided a convincing point-of-view from a dogged Nixon loyalist.

I also credit performers Richard E. Brown II, Alex Levitt, Scott Alexander Ross, Emily Huddell and Eilis Skamarakas for their contributions to the performance.

I had one criticism of the show. The story’s premise defied belief. My mind couldn’t process the idea of a Republican politician talking to a reporter not representing Fox News. I understand that the events in the story occurred 19 years prior to the network’s advent, but still: I would have found a musical version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit performed on an ice skating rink much more believable.

Media and politicians do share some common practices. In addition to sensationalism, both tend to frame issues as zero-sum games. The latter does not provide the best source material for a fun evening of theatre. The cast and crew of Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage still did extraordinary work making Frost/Nixon enjoyable. Mr. DiCasimirro’s rendition of Nixon made him into a tragic figure worthy of Shakespeare. Mr. DiCasimirro’s character told Mr. Becker’s, “Only one of us can win. The other ends up in the wilderness.” In staying true to Nixon’s personality, this statement proved inaccurate. The audience walked away the victors from this contest.

Frost/Nixon heads out to the wilderness from Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage after October 13th.

A Christmas Carol at Haddonfield Plays and Players

HPP A Christmas CarolThe originality of A Christmas Carol always impressed me. I never would’ve imagined someone spending Christmas alone while haunted by the ghosts of the past, present and future without the use of alcohol. I also found the dramatic presentation of this tale performed by Haddonfield Plays and Players to be equally distinctive. The cast delivered a stellar rendition of this sine qua non of the Holiday season. I attended the December 1, 2017 performance directed by Mark Karcher.

Michael Hicks delivered a haunting performance of a haunted man. Mr. Hicks is a superb and gifted actor. Several years ago I had the pleasure of watching his exceptional interpretation of Dr. Sloper in the Haddonfield Plays and Players production of The Heiress. (Talk about a character that reveled in bitterness and alcohol.) I relished the opportunity to watch his rendition of what began as the most miserable character in literature. This time the role required a transition into a joyous humanitarian. Would Mr. Hicks meet the challenge?

This performer went beyond what many would do in order to get into character. To adopt Scrooge’s appearance he grew mutton chops. He delivered the iconic line “bah, humbug” with suave assurance. Mr. Hicks then craftily brought the audience into the character’s metamorphosis from a self-absorbed miser into a kindly philanthropist. As morose as he portrayed Scrooge at the show’s beginning at the end he became a different character. He demonstrated the laughter and joy of a man impassioned with humanity. Dickens’ character changed dramatically, and Mr. Hicks brought that transformation to life on the Haddonfield Players’ stage.

A Christmas Carol featured an exceptional visual spectacle. I actually heard gasps from the audience when the Ghost of Christmas Past (played by Jennie Pines) made her appearance. Ms. Pines wore a white gown similar to a wedding dress. A strand of bright lights wrapped around her. The theatre became dark. As she descended down the aisle, her entrance created the illusion of an apparition floating from the heavens down to the stage. Then the rotating specks of light against the backdrop simulated snowfall. Ms. Pines costume along with the set combined for a beautiful image of a winter wonderland.

I received an early Christmas Present with Alex Levitt playing the Ghost of Christmas Present. I enjoyed watching this veteran of the Haddonfield Players return to the stage. He applied more range to the role than I would’ve expected. The character began as a jolly and merry soul. Before his exit, he delivered a minatory warning to Scrooge. Mr. Levitt selected a raspy voice in which to do so. The long beard combined with the red robe made him look like Santa Clause. The contrast between his appearance and his delivery made for an interesting scene.

George Clark’s sound design enhanced the atmospherics. The echo effect on Ms. Pines’ voice made her character even more ethereal. When used on Tony Killian’s (as the ghost of Jacob Marley) it made him much more horrifying.

While not the musical version of A Christmas Carol, the dramatic performance still showcased some fantastic singing. Nicky Intrieri (as Tiny Tim) delivered an outstanding unaccompanied solo number. The falsetto choir’s rendition of Holiday staples such as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night” emanated a superb Yuletide spirit.

I’ve written before that I don’t care for narration in live drama. John Mortimer adapted this rendition of A Christmas Carol for the stage. Instead of one story teller he decided that just about every performer should narrate some section of the tale. While I find this type of exposition annoying, in this show I also found much of it unnecessary. The most egregious offenders included:

“Scrooge sees Marley’s face on the door knocker.” A character delivered this line as I watched Scrooge both look at and comment upon Marley’s face on the door knocker.

“Scrooge hears bells.” A narrator said this line while my ears rang (no pun intended) with the sound of myriad bells going off in the theatre.

“Marley walked down the stairs dragging his chains.” This one requires no further explanation.

To all the budding dramatists out there: show or tell. Make a choice. Don’t do both.

I’d like to credit Edwin Howard for putting his power tools to proficient work on the set design. The London backdrop featuring Big Ben, London Bridge and the full moon made great scenery.

It’s also proper to recognize the other performers who rounded out a stellar cast. Their combined efforts delivered a very entertaining evening: Dan Safeer, Jonathan Greenstein, Jay Burton, Tony Killian, Jennifer Flynn, Maddox Mofit-Tighe, Gracie Sokiloff, Brynne Gaffney, Gianna Cosby, Tess Smith, Ryan McDermott, Jake Hufner, John Williams, Isabella Mulliner, John Bravo, Ricky Conway, Anne Buckwheat, Olivia Williams, Jenn Adams, E’Nubian Beckett, Jessi Gollin, Solaida Santiago, and Nadia Faulk.

It’s hard to imagine the Holiday Season without experiencing A Christmas Carol in some form. For those interested in witnessing it performed live, the Haddonfield Players are presenting a great version. That’s no “humbug.” The show runs through December 16th. After that, the Ghost of Christmas Past may just haunt you for not taking advantage of the opportunity.