Bridge Players Theater Company

Theater Review – Of Mice and Men at Bridge Players Theater Company

Finally an American has produced a drama on par with Shakespeare. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men animated the concepts of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations in a way that made them distinctly American and, yet, universal. He interwove the freedom to “live off the fatta’ the land” with the quest for love and companionship. At the same time he explored the individual’s place in a society he’s no longer of value to. The cast and crew at the Bridge Players Theater in Burlington, NJ turned in performances commensurate with such high-minded concepts.

I admire director Gabrielle Affleck’s choice of projects. Several months ago I enjoyed watching her lead a production of Kimberly Akimbo; a challenging play written by Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist David Lindsey-Abaire. For her follow-up endeavor, Ms. Affleck decided to “up her game”, if you will, and selected another story with difficult and controversial material. This time a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who also received the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote the script. This show also featured a dog (Ladybird “Lady” Ezell) in the live show. One can only respect this artist’s courage.

I found the interplay between Breen Rourke (as George) and Paul Sollimo (as Lenny) outstanding. A year-and-a-half ago I watched Mr. Rourke play Shelly “The Machine” Levine in Glengarrry, Glen Ross. I still recall the masterful way he voiced the role in a shrill, whinny voice. It made me wonder how he’d play a drifter from 1930s California. His authentic delivery of George’s diction and locution surprised me. As the show continued I realized I shouldn’t have been. He possesses superb acting abilities. He showed his character’s descent from rugged idealism to disillusionment very steadily and believably.

I also have to give Mr. Rourke credit for his performance in the opening scene. The playwright assigned most of the dialog to his character. At times I thought the scene a soliloquy. He impressed me for remembering all the words, let alone for the genuine manner he delivered them.

I found the casting of Paul Sollimo in the role of Lenny as somewhat ironic. The dialog described the character as “dumb”. Mr. Sollimo is a genius in the field of acting. I’ve watched him play several “sophisticated “characters extremely well over the years. I wondered what he would bring to the role of Lenny. It allowed him to exhibit his craft at its pinnacle. Mr. Sollimo brilliantly transformed himself into the character. He crawled around on the floor, giggled childishly and spoke like someone slow of mind. He pronounced words in the identical way I imagined the character would have when I read the novel. This outstanding performance led me to sympathize with Lenny more than I’d expected to.

I’ve always believed that no amount of histrionic prowess can rescue bad script writing. Rachel Comenzo’s performance of “Curley’s wife” proved me wrong. I’ve always believed, to put this as politely as I can, Mr. Steinbeck’s development of “Curley’s wife” in the novel was the worst character portrayal in the history of the English language. Seriously: Steinbeck couldn’t have even given her a name? (See my earlier review of the novel version of Of Mice and Men.) I thought the character description in the play version a bit better. Curley’s wife seemed misunderstood and longed to seek a better life. The author still failed to fully develop it.

Ms. Comenzo deserves immense credit for animating such a poorly written character so well. In her final scene with Lenny, she delivered an emotional exposition of Curley’s wife’s background leading into her desire to escape her unhappy surroundings. Ms. Comenzo’s pining facial expression and soft voice modulation actually made me empathize with the character. That’s difficult for a performer to do with a strong character. I never would’ve thought it possible with a weak one. It shows the immense level of her acting skills that she achieved that with so little assistance from the playwright.

Mr. Rourke, Mr. Sollimo and Ms. Comenzo put on an acting clinic. The rest of the cast delivered great performances, as well. I’d especially note that Greg Northam played a very moving Candy. His gingerly gait and slumped over posture added to my empathy for him. Richard Priest (as Crooks) and Fred Ezell (as Carlson) utilized memorable voices for the roles they played.

I would warn theater goers that some of the dialog contained racial epithets. The playwright had an ulterior motive for including it, however. Later in the show Mr. Steinbeck expressed his animosity towards this sort of racial bigotry. In a moving scene between Crooks (played by Richard Priest) and Lenny, the lone African American character discussed his disdain with the other characters for excluding him simply because of his race. As the original play premiered in 1937, I admired the then progressive view on race relations.

I’d also liked to give a shout out to Jeff Rife. The man did a phenomenal job with the set design. I also give him credit for engineering the set in such a way that made the intricate changes between scenes more manageable for the cast and crew.

The story in Of Mice and Men has become iconic in our culture. Mr. Steinbeck’s tale is a masterpiece of the highest order. It’s still well worthwhile to revisit; especially, when performed by such an outstanding cast and crew. The Bridge Players Theater Company’s presentation brought to mind a line from Henryk Sienkwiewicz’s epic novel Quo Vadis: “I only wish it was worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” The show runs through May 14.

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Theater Review – Rent at Bridge Players Theater Company

Johnathan Larson must’ve had a profound hatred for actors when he wrote Rent. This musical presented the most challenging material I’ve ever witnessed on a live stage. Watching it performed by a community theater group really impressed me. I enjoyed the stellar performances even more.

Rent featured an extraordinary array of musical styles. Tracks such as “One Song Glory” harkened back to standard Rock and Roll. “Tango: Maureen” was just that: a tango. “Seasons of Love” took me back to the age of Aquarius. The musical also had some numbers for more ‘traditional’ theater fans. I thought the titletrack probably the closest to a standard ‘show tune’ sound.

The vocal routines by this cast were mind blowing. Leilah Murphy (as Mimi Marquez) qualified for a Gold Medal in gymnastics with her performance. It’s hard to sing in front of a group of people. It’s harder to sing and dance in front of group of people. During her rendition of “Out Tonight” Ms. Murphy did these things, while swinging from a beam and then sliding down a pole. It impressed me even more that she pulled all this off without getting hurt.

Mike Wemer (as Tom Collins) also displayed some exceptional vocal skills. The reprise to “I’ll Cover You” showcased his vocal prowess the most. Mr. Wemer began the song as a baritone. A high note came in at the end that he nailed flawlessly. I should also point out that this number came up at the most somber moment of the play. Mr. Wemer sang while nearly crying. All I can say is, “Wow.”

Kiara Rodriguez (as Joanne Jefferson) gave Mariah Carey a run for her money as a singer. Several times during the evening Ms. Rodriguez hit notes close to dog whistle territory. As I told the lady sitting next to me, “She hit those notes better than I would have.”

The most challenging aspect of performing Rent involved the subject matter. It followed a group of bohemians through a year of their lives. Their struggles and heartbreaks served as the crux of the story. Most of the characters suffered from HIV or AIDS. It took a very special group of actors to animate this story in such an entertaining way. Kudos also to Amanda Frederick (as Maureen Johnson) for getting the audience involved with “Over the Moon”.

I also have to give credit to Jonathan Mosesku’s performance as Angel Schunard. (For those unfamiliar with the play, the latter character is a drag queen.) Any man who can run around a stage in high heels and not fall down certainly deserves respect. I struggle walking in flip-flops. I don’t know how the hell he pulled that off.

Matt Dotzman (as Mark Cohen), Mike Reisman (as Roger Davis), and Zack Treusch (as Benjamin Coffin III) turned in fine performances, as well.

I also credit director Chris Focarile for pulling the whole thing together. Gina Petti did an exceptional job as choreographer. (Ms. Petti also played a number of roles in the play.) Those two should qualify for a PMP for staging this production. With all the different characters and the host of intricate musical numbers, they did a phenomenal job.

Jonathan Larson may not have liked actors, but I liked the ones in the Bridge Players Theater Company. In addition, I always enjoy seeing Pulitzer Prize winning plays at community theater groups. This way my wallet doesn’t get ‘rent’.