Amber Kusching

24 Hour Play Festival at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Winston Churchill once observed: “It takes three to four weeks to write a good extemporaneous speech.” So just how long does it take to write a good play, manage the technical details and rehearse until the show becomes suitable for a live performance? Apparently, just a day according to Haddonfield Plays and Players. I attended their 24 Hour Play Festival on August 24th.

On the evening of August 23rd a group that included playwrights, directors and actors arrived at the Haddonfield Plays and Players’ playhouse. They formed teams and then were tasked with writing, producing and performing a one act play the following night. To ensure that no one brought a work already pre-written, these brave artists were asked to select from among a dozen settings, props and lines of dialog. They had to use the ones they chose in their respective plays. The playwrights crafted the scripts overnight. In the morning, the teams re-assembled and planned their shows.

Any speed writing contest is both intimidating and challenging. Fiction writers participate in Na(tional) No(vel) Wri(ting) Mo(nth). Every November they aspire to complete a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days. Theatrical performers may have raised the bar for speed, quality and grace under pressure with this 24 hour play dare.

In March of this year HPP’s Artistic Director Pat DeFusco orchestrated the company’s A Trip to Oz program. Through his creative wizardry, Mr. DeFusco transformed the playhouse into the Emerald City. Always the innovator, for the 24 Hour Playfest he led theatregoers through “a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are those of imagination.” This time he turned the playhouse into the Twilight Zone.

Three of the plays would’ve made Rod Serling proud and Richard Matheson jealous. Sans the Marius Constant introduction, theatregoers delved into the “middle ground between light and shadow.”

The show opened with a piece written and directed by Jennifer Wilson entitled Mutation.  While fans are familiar with “black box theatre”, this play may have added “black hole theatre” to the lexicon. Ms. Wilson and Sera Scherz performed the roles of a mother and daughter on an unusual quest. Using a space station as the setting, a walkie-talkie as a prop and the line: “Nothing you say can ever fix it”, these performers took the audience on an interstellar voyage “into another dimension; not only of sight and sound, but of mind.”

Amber Kusching’s Burden to Bear introduced theatregoers to a more grizzly answer to  “Talky Tina” in the form of Mr. Bear-Bear. Ms. Kushing wrote, directed and performed in this piece. The play utilized a jail as a setting, a teddy bear as a prop and the line: “There are costs that don’t include dollars and cents.” Performers James Cosby and Emma Scherz completed the cast. Ms. Kusching’s dialog transcended time while bridging events from the past and the present. The three actors navigated its intricacies brilliantly.

Danica Gabriele’s Change rounded out the trio of trips into the place “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Ms. Gabriele also directed and performed in this story regarding three people struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Tony Killian delivered a powerful performance of a man losing his mind. Emily Colon captured both the empathy  and eeriness in her character’s personality. Ms. Gabriele’s enactment of her character reflected the dystopian nature of the story.

In addition to the macabre, teams also presented observational humor shows.

Michael Oto’s A Shitty Situation (directed by Randy Hendler) explored the conundrum resulting when someone (played by Mark Henley) fails to clean up after one’s dog. The incident caused Adele Batchelder’s and Adam Dorn’s characters to engage in a witty banter over the difference between etiquette and being indecent. A dog park served as the set, the team selected a shovel as their prop. The play included the line: “That sounds like some kind of French fruit.”  Mark Henley portrayed the offending dog’s owner.

Casey Tingle’s Save Us Elvis (directed by Adam Dorn) reminded me of Sartre’s No Exit only presented in a lighter point-of-view. The team chose a rooftop deck as their setting, an Elvis painting as the prop and had to use the line: “I want to make sure I look good when the firemen arrive.” Performers Sophia Bollar, Gianna Cosby and Cassidy Scherz showed the ingenuity people locked on the roof of an apartment building will use to get rescued.

Like any good theatrical festival, this production included serious drama.

Sharon George’s Michael in the Middle explored one man’s journey to self-discovery. The setting took place in a coffee shop, both on Earth and in the ether. A football served as the prop and the line: “You think you can come in here and (blank)” appeared in the play. While not the “required” line, Ms. George worked an excellent one into the script: “Failing doesn’t make you pathetic; giving up does.” In addition to the playwright, the cast included Kevin Leckerman and Mark Henley. Perhaps in homage to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Mr. Henley played every major character in Mr. Leckerman’s character’s life; including one female. An exceptional show resulted.

During the 24 Hour Play Festival’s opening announcements, Mr. DeFusco explained with his dry sense of humor that “these plays didn’t exist 24 hours ago. Some of them will never be seen ever again.” Theatrical fans should hope that his Confession isn’t one of them.

Mr. DeFusco’s fans received the full Pat DeFusco experience on August 24th. In addition to producing and designing the sound and projections, Mr. DeFusco wrote, directed and performed the moving monolog: Confession. This play took place in a church, a rose served as the prop and it included the line: “If that’s true, then nothing they did was going to make a difference.” I found the piece both very well written and excellently performed. Mr. DeFusco the actor gave Confession the powerful delivery that Mr. DeFusco the playwright deserved.

The show included an outstanding technical production. It featured stellar background projections. Each one provided an authentic visual of the play’s setting. The lighting enhanced the action on stage; most notably during Change. I wouldn’t have suspected HPP’s team arranged something this professional in just a few hours.

Omi Parrilla-Dunne co-produced the program and served as Stage Manager. Kalman Dunne added his talents as the Sound Engineer. Tom Balne performed a cameo during his lyrical introduction of act two.

Nobel Laureate in Literature Winston Churchill required a month to write a “good” speech. This weekend playwrights in South Jersey showed they need just a few hours to craft wonderful one act plays. Fans didn’t need to visit the Twilight Zone to see them, either. They just had to “follow the sign post up ahead” to Haddonfield Plays and Players. With the 24 Hour Play Festival, they showed their commitment to superb theatre to be as “timeless as infinity.”

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A Trip to Oz at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Dorothy opined that “there’s no place like home,” but this weekend there was no place like Haddonfield Plays and Players. The company presented a musical tribute to L. Frank Baum’s classic tale. The encomium occurred in the form of a musical cabaret titled A Trip to Oz. Fans put on their ruby red slippers and marched down the yellow brick road until reaching the Emerald City that is Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Talk about serendipity. Last weekend I attended an online watch party. It featured a 1974 live recording of Pink Floyd performing The Dark Side of the Moon. This weekend I decided it “time” to determine the accuracy of the rumor about the album synching up with the soundtrack to the Wizard of Oz. * Haddonfield Plays and Players allowed me to “breathe” easier by helping me find the answer. I took the musical journey in the form of A Trip to Oz on March 30th.

Director/Producer Pat DeFusco and the team at HPP displayed monumental creativity with this concept. They also expanded on the company’s history of presenting shows that correspond to holidays. Just last month HPP staged Love Letters to commemorate Valentine’s Day. It surprised me that they didn’t put on a special program for St. Patrick’s Day. Then this show began. Almost every performer in this show wore green. Tami Gordon Brody even accessorized with emerald ear rings and an emerald necklace. I liked the untraditional method of referencing to the season. The use of green still alluded to the Emerald City; a key figure in Oz. Bravo for tying both together.

The cabaret featured renditions of songs performed in The Wiz, Wicked and both the film and theatrical versions of The Wizard of Oz.

The entire company took the stage at both the show’s beginning and conclusion. They opened with “Merry Old Land of Oz” and ended by performing two numbers together. Following “For Good”, they selected the perfect tune to finish the program. In perhaps a veiled public service announcement about driving home safely, they used “Ease on Down the Road” as the finale.

A Trip to Oz included some songs with mind twisting melodies. Some of them would have impressed King Crimson’s founder, Robert Fripp. Special credit goes to Alexa Gershon for her performance of “The Wizard and I” and Tami Gordon Brody for “Home.” They delivered powerful versions of very intricate material.

Evan Brody took the idea of following in his mother’s footsteps literally. He walked on stage right after his mom’s performance. He delivered what he promised in his version of the upbeat “Dancing through Life.” After the intermission he returned and delivered a moving rendition of the classic “If I Only Had a Heart.”   

Amber Kusching added the role of disco diva to her already extensive repertoire. Ms. Kusching delivered a funky toe tapping rendition of “You Can’t Win” that included a well thought out dance routine. She deserves a lot of credit for executing her moves while wearing heels. Ms. Kusching also thrilled the audience with her vocal prowess on “No Good Deed.”

The Stage Kidz added one of their dance routines to the set. Choreographer Brennan Diorio directed performers Abigail Brown, Leah Cedar, Logan Endes, Ava Favieri, Hope Gallagher, Lucas Oelten, Jesse Plumley, Tess Smith and Olivia Bee Sposa through the dance accompaniment to “The Jitterbug.”

Love stories happen even in Oz. The cabaret included two duets between performers Kristine Bonaventura and Chris McGinnis. They moved the audience with “As Long As You’re Mine” and “What is This Feeling.”

Those familiar with the Oz franchise know it includes numerous beautiful songs. The performers in this cabaret delivered some stellar versions of them. Deanna Beaucher sang a wonderful “Over the Rainbow”, Gaby Frasca performed an inspiring “Believe in Yourself” and Kate Sherlock delivered an emotional version of “I’m Not That Girl.”

Dana Masterman Weiss performed the musical apotheosis of narcissism known as “Popular.” Ms. Weiss got into character for this song. The performer added the perfect mannerisms and gestures to express her character’s self-absorption. It’s this type of skill that makes Ms. Weiss so “popular” with HPP’s audiences.

The following performers added their exceptional talents to the program as well: Isabel Bramhall sang “Defying Gravity”, Catherine Davies performed “Already Home” Eric Monzo delivered a song that lived up to its title, “Wonderful.”

In addition to producing and directing, Pat DeFusco managed the sound and projections. The pictures on the screen included images from The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz and Wicked. Mr. DeFusco even added snippets from the films for effect. Stage Manager Omi Parrilla-Dunne ensured that the production proceeded perfectly.

I found the show very entertaining and well performed. I didn’t like the fact that it began eight minutes late. I also didn’t like how 15 minutes after the show’s scheduled start time audience members were still taking their seats. When people come in late it creates a distraction for both the performers and the spectators. It’s also dangerous for people to walk around in a darkened room.

I would remind everyone of some good advice someone gave me: “If you can’t be on time: be early.”

To my ears the music from The Wizard of Oz didn’t synch up with The Dark Side of the Moon. I lost “money” on that bet. My situation reminded me of a story. Ray Bolger, the performer who played the Scarecrow in the 1939 movie, had an interesting observation regarding his own financial situation. When asked if he received a lot of money due to the film’s success, he replied, “No, just immortality. I’ll settle for that.” As the cabaret only ran for two performances, A Trip to Oz may have achieved the same status with theatregoers.

*Alan Parsons, the sound engineer during the recording of The Dark Side of the Moon, has denied this.

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.”

 

Night of 1000 Plays at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Last night I discovered one of the lesser known verities about South Jersey. The Garden State serves as home to a host of creative dramatists. Fortunately for theatrical fans, Haddonfield Plays and Players provided these budding Ibsens, Ephrons and Simons with a forum to exhibit their art. With their Night of 1000 Plays, the company turned over their stage to these newcomers. I attended the second annual installment of this program on June 8th.

The stylistic range impressed me. The evening included a host of comedies, some solid dramas as well as a topical tragedy. A cautionary tale regarding the perils of not knowing The Rules to Save a Princess framed the program.

Relationships served as the most popular muse for South Jersey’s playwrights. The excerpt from Lili Myers’ The Gentle Indifference of the World (directed by Jennie Pines) explored the dynamics between four friends played by Ms. Myers, Ricky Conway, Moses Ali and Isabella Capelli. The piece contained an impressive amount of conflict and drama. Amber Kushing’s He Loves Me Not (directed by Eilis Skamarakis) allowed performers Jessi Meisel, Jeff Skomsky, and Kahil A. Wyatt to explore one woman’s struggle through an abusive relationship. Mr. Wyatt also played a witty “bad boy” as the title character in Patti Perry’s Nephew Nemesis (directed by Jeannine James). Rebecca Dilks, San Safeer and Gina Lerario rounded out the cast in this oblivious and dysfunctional family. John Cassidy’s The Teenage Boys Society (directed by Tony Yates) focused on social as well as romantic relationships. It surveyed the trials of adolescence through performers Kahlil A. Wyatt, Ricky Conway, Tony Yates, Jennie Pines and Jeff Skomsky.

Other playwrights delivered some unconventional takes on family relationships. John Cassidy’s The Golden Rule  (directed by Jennie Pines) presented to most unusual metaphor for salted butter this reviewer has ever encountered. Performers Nicole Lukaitis, Dan Safeer, Lili Myers, Isabella Capelli and Brenna Dougherty took on the various family roles in this piece.

Playwright Rich Renner crafted two vignettes influenced by observational humor. In Lisa’s Carpet (directed by Eilis Skamarakas), performers Dan Safeer, Kahlil A. Wyatt and Sheila McDonald showed the risks of trying to cover up household accidents. The same playwright also made a spectacle of the absurdity of using too many spectacles. Night Glasses (directed by Amber Kusching) showed performers Robert Bush and Debby Tighe coping with this situation as it kept them up at night.

The three acts of Casey Tingle’s (directed by the playwright and Nicole Lukaitis) The Rules to Saving a Princess occurred at the beginning, the middle and the end of the evening. Performers Jennie Pines, Krista Reinhardt, Tony Yates, Nicole Lukaitis and Ricky Conway brought this tale to the stage.

Susan Goodell’s No History (directed by Amber Kusching) showed how an unusual classified ad can lead to an uncomfortable Holiday dinner. Performers Krista Reinhardt, Sheila McDonald and Robert Bush allowed the audience to sit in on this comical Christmas chronicle.

The comedy continued with pieces such as Patti Perry’s April Fools (directed by Jeannine James).  Performers Rebecca Dilks, Jeff Skomsky, Sheila McDonald, and Kahlil A. Wyatt enacted a macabre series of jokes that led to an unexpected consequence. John Cassidy’s Artistic Architecture (directed by Eilis Skamarakas) allowed Jessi Meisel to instruct Moses Ali, Brenna Dougherty and Ricky Conway on a rather unconventional approach to the subject.

Taylor Blum crafted a dramatic take on the theme of relationships in Shattered Glass (directed by Amber Kushing). Ricky Conaway delivered a powerful monologue to enhance the writing.

The program included two high minded dramas. Both exceeded this reviewer’s expectations.

Sera Scherz crafted an impressive piece in the form of Through My Eyes (directed by Jeannine James and assistant directed by Sera Scherz). It featured performers Brenna Dougherty and Lili Myers alternating lines as they addressed the audience. The play explored the themes of vengeance, bigotry and forgiveness. Debby Tighe, Jeff Skomsky and Ricky Conway rounded out the cast.

Amber Kusching’s haunting When I Fell in Love (directed by Tony Yates) surveyed the themes of devotion and tragic loss. The playwright placed all three characters in different locations while they spoke indirectly to one another. The play also included sophisticated symbolism. Gary Werner, Nicole Lukatis and Isabella Capelli all delivered impassioned performances bringing the script to life.

While advertised as a Night of 1000 Plays, the Haddonfield Plays and Players could have also called the evening the Night of 1000 Roles. The individuals who participated in this endeavor stayed busy. Most of the performers worked in various capacities in multiple plays. Ricky Conway performed in six of them, Kahlil A. Wyatt in five and Jeff Skomsky in four. Nicole Lukaitis performed in three and directed one. Jennie Pines performed in two and directed two. Jeannine James, Isabella Capelli, Eilis Skamarakis and Amber Kusching each directed three. Ms. Kushing also wrote two of the shows presented.

In addition to her multifarious other roles, Nicole Lukaitis served as the overall program producer. I’d compliment her and stage manager Omaira Parrilla-Dune for providing such a professional environment for these playwrights to showcase their creativity. I’d also express gratitude in allowing audiences to enjoy them.

Pat DeFusco did an exceptional job as the stage announcer. His witty asides added to the evening’s entertainment value.

In the 1930s Paris became famous for its American expatriate community. Notables such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein emigrated there to practice their craft. Just shy of a century later, South Jersey is developing into a similar community for aspiring writers and playwrights.

For those who missed the opportunity to experience Night of 1000 Plays during its limited run, don’t worry. I’m sure they’ll have the chance to attend plays written by these playwrights again. Just perhaps, the next time they’ll be featured in a city located slightly north of the South Jersey area.