Beatrice Alonna

10-Minute Comedy Play Festival at the Ritz Theatre Company

87 submissions. 14 contenders. Seven finalists. The Ritz Theatre Company’s 10-Minute Comedy Play festival once again showed that comedy is serious business. The company offered local playwrights the opportunity to write a show that they would present on the Ritz stage. Is the overwhelming response any wonder? I attended the concluding performance on June 1st.

A team of theatrical professionals evaluated the submissions. After all 14 shows were performed, they selected the top seven. The Ritz presented these plays on the evening of June 1st. Each playwright, director and actor who performed in these shows will receive two complimentary tickets to the Ritz production of The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor by Kumar Dari. At the conclusion of Saturday’s performances, a team of judges (Kumar Dari, Randy Peterson and Alex Wilkie) selected the top three. The playwright of the winner received $100, they awarded the runner-up $75 and gave the third place finisher $50.

Not to repeat myself, but comedy is serious business. All these perks seemed to inspire the playwrights to produce creative material.

The Ritz Theatre presented this event “in the round.” The seats were arranged in four sections on the actual stage. This format allowed the performers to make eye contact with the spectators. It also enabled the audience to feel like part of the show.

The plays selected for this final performance included a range of subjects. Tom Moran selected a contemporary topic for “I, Phone.” Bruce A. Curless directed performers Hannah Hobson and Giacomo Fizzano through this comical take on how technology is taking over people’s lives.

Scott Gibson’s “What You Wish For” presented a unique perspective on the “genie in a bottle” story. Ryan Strack directed this tale about a woman who discovered that a genie lived in a lamp she purchased. While attempting to return it at the department store, she told her story to another woman she encountered the line. When asked why she wanted to get rid of the wish granting genie, she gave an unexpected reason. Mr. Gibson showed a lot of creativity with plot twist on this story.

It seemed fitting that one of South Jersey’s most versatile theatre gurus, Amber Kusching, directed two shows that made the final seven. Heidi Mae’s “Meeting Heaven” was the most complex. It included five characters. Four of which were: a playwright (Kenwyn Samuel), a bartender (Melissa Mitchem), the playwright’s brother (Adam Corbett), and both the brother’s and the playwright’s love interest, “Heaven” (Sarah Baumgarten). The cast also included a narrator played by Julianne Rose Layden. The narrator was actually the playwright character delivering narration. Ms. Layden’s delivery brought to mind the voice overs common in old detective movies.

Ms. Kusching had Ms. Layden walk around the stage while delivering her lines. She spoke in a sultry voice to convey the piece’s mood. Ms. Layden also made eye contact with audience members. It created the impression that the narrator spoke to theatregoers instead of at them.

Ms. Kusching also directed Jim Moss’ “The Last Shirt off His Back.” Kenwyn Samuel and John Nicodemo performed this witty take on death. It involved a haunted apartment and a pillow made of old tee shirts. I mentioned before that these plays were creative, right?

Death is a popular topic with playwrights. In addition to Mr. Moss’ piece, two of the top three plays found humor in the subject.

Kevin O’Brien’s “Little Deaths” received the third place prize. Sara Rabatin directed performers Julianne McIntosh and Beatrice Alonna through this comical exploration of death and political correctness. One also has to credit the performers for dressing in winter attire on a humid late spring evening.

Melissa Harnois directed the runner-up: Eric Rupp’s “Snickerdoodle.” It featured a young lady (played by Alex Phillips) informing her parents (Jay Burton and Beatrice Alonna) that she planned on entering a clown college. (If that didn’t work out, her back-up career was miming.) The mother’s and father’s responses to the daughter’s craving for the craft of clowning made the show hysterical.

The judges awarded Ken Teutsch’s “What Friends Are For” the first place prize. This Mike Grubb directed piece also explored death from a humorous perspective. It featured an unlikely situation for a comedy show. A character (played by Mr. Grubb) informed his roommate (played by Kyle Jacobus) that he wanted to commit suicide. A discussion that would’ve pleased both Albert Camus and Neil Simon resulted.

The Ritz didn’t include the names of the actors in the program. It was understandable as the event was designed to focus on the work and not the performers. At the end of each play the actors introduced themselves. Due to the format I had trouble hearing everyone’s name, particularly following “What You Wish For.” All the actors performed outstanding work. They all deserve credit for their contributions to a very entertaining evening of theatre. * I would also credit the technical crew of Sadie McKenna, Brian Gensel, Sam Tait and Anastacia Swan for their work on the lighting and sound.

It’s not unusual to see typos in theatrical programs on occasion. I did think it odd to find the word playwright misspelled in the one for this event.

At the evening’s conclusion, the Ritz Theatre’s Artistic Director, Bruce A. Curless, addressed the audience. He explained that it seemed “contradictory having a contest involving art. They’re all winners.” His observation reminded me of something the late Glenn Walker said to me. I once told Glenn that every year I read the books that won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Man-Booker Prize. He replied, “Don’t worry about awards: worry about your audience.” Based on the spectators’ reaction during this festival, none of these playwrights have anything about which to worry.

 

*For all those whose names I either missed or misspelled, if you’d like to be included in this post please message me on either Twitter or Facebook. I’ll make sure to add it.

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Big River at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Matthew Weil doesn’t avoid bringing controversial subjects to the stage. For his first project since The Pillowman he selected a show based on the most frequently banned book in American history. It seems the plot twists found in his earlier work have influenced his approach to directing. In a departure from his usual repertoire, he chose a musical for his latest offering; and what a musical he chose.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspired author William Hauptman and songwriter Roger Miller to craft Big River. They allowed audiences to embark on a musical voyage with Huck and Jim until the raft moored in the hearts of theatregoers. I uh rekun they shur did when I attended the opening night performance this February 2nd at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Mr. Weil ensured all understood Mr. Twain’s influence upon entering the theatre. A sign located in front of the stage contained the following preface from the author:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.

In acknowledgement of that warning, this review will skip the usual story synopsis. It will, however, inform readers that the cast and crew presented a veritable tour de force of Mr. Twain’s concept.

Vinnie DiFilippo (as Huckleberry Finn) and Bryan M. Pitt (as Jim) set new standards for getting into character. Both selected excellent voices for their roles. Mr. DiFilippo sang and spoke with a perfect Midwestern dialect. Mr. Pitt adopted a bass vocal tone with a Southern accent for Jim. While difficult to describe anything from the mind of Mark Twain as ‘realistic’, these two performers transformed his characters into real people.

Mr. DiFilippo delivered a series of wonderful monologs. I sat just to house left of center stage. This performer made me feel like Huck shared his witty stories directly with me.

The “I, Huckleberry, Me” number allowed him a platform to showcase his vocal and dancing skills. This scene made for one of the show’s many highpoints.

Mr. DiFilipo showed great insight into Huck’s emotional journey throughout his physical travels. When appropriate, he animated the character’s boyish and carefree side. As the protagonist discovered the evils of slavery, he adjusted and delivered his lines in a more reflective and morose fashion.

Mr. Pitt brought extraordinary emotional depth to his character. I found the moving method he used to describe Jim’s dream of earning enough money to purchase his family’s freedom very effective. His expression of regret over the way Jim treated his daughter also stirred empathy. The performer brought the same sentiment to his rendition of “Free at Last.”

“The Crossing” served as the show’s seminal moment. Beatrice Alonna’s stirring Gospel vocals brought out the feelings of sorrow at crossing from freedom back into slavery.  Siarra Ingram’s beautifully executed solo dance number made the scene much more powerful.

When naming great teams of comedy villains, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from Home Alone would probably come in first. After Big River, Brian Blanks (as the King) and Nicholas French (as the Duke) could supplant them. They took their characters’ noble titles and applied them to their own performances: the two became comedy royalty. The hyper-histrionic personality Mr. French infused into the Duke made for an unforgettable performance. Mr. Blanks’ guise as “The Royal Nonesuch” did the same.

The music selection in Big River contained an unexpected treat. The song list included the greatest drinking song ever written. Steve Rogina (as Papa Finn) crooned the best intoxicated rant ever put to music. “Guv’ment” made its point very simply yet eloquently.

Well you dad-gum, dad-gum, dad-gum government

Oh don’t you know

Oh don’t you love ‘em sometimes.

Mr. Rogina’s rendition made it an entertaining concept to contemplate.

The show featured other terrific musical numbers. Kaitlin Healy, Angela Longo and Krista Reinhardt performed a fantastic Country trio on “You Oughta Be Here with Me.” The company opened with the catchy “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” While hearing the cast perform, I was already there.

If an award existed for “widest range displayed in a single show”, Brian Gensel would’ve earned it for his performance. First, he played a town resident who took lethargy to a new level of sloth. Then he demonstrated immense pride in the Natural State through his “Arkansas” number. I attended a Razorbacks basketball game in that state once. Mr. Gensel showed more enthusiasm than anyone who witnessed that contest. That’s quite an achievement.

Sensitive audience members should beware that the use of a certain racial epithet occurred throughout the performance. While I acknowledge the term’s offensive history, I didn’t have an issue with its use in Big River. Degrading treatment of African- Americans commonly occurred during the time covered in the story. Eliminating it from the text would sanitize a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. That would be a greater crime than replacing a word that we as a more enlightened society recognize as inappropriate.

Mr. Weil brought an extraordinary production team into Big River. Sarah Stouff designed authentic period costuming. Cameron Stringham served as the vocal director for this talented group. Jen Zellers handled the complex choreography. Jen Donsky did a fantastic job with the lighting design.

The stage layout improved my ability to get into the show. As in The Pillowman, it even made me feel part of it. Because of the angle Lori A. Howard and Marissa Wolf took when they chastised Huck, I felt like they were yelling at me. Since that took place prior to my posting this review, I know it was only part of the show.

I’d also credit performers April Johnson, Ricky Conway, Jackson Hummel, Dan Safeer, Taylor Brody, William Young and Gianna Cosby. They enriched an outstanding ensemble.

Big River flowed from a simple concept into a large production. With Matthew Weil’s reputation as one of South Jersey’s preeminent directors, it didn’t surprise that he’d stage a show this sophisticated and complex. While the author’s work lacked qualities of sophistication and complexity, I uh rekon it ‘ud uh still made Mr. Twain proud: powerful proud.

Big River keeps rolling along at Haddonfield Plays and Players until February 17.