Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

Driving Miss Daisy at the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Community theatre completists owe Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage a debt of gratitude. This October they are presenting the first play in Alfred Uhry’s Atlanta Trilogy: the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner Driving Miss Daisy. Three years ago Haddonfield Plays and Players staged the second and third parts of the series: The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Parade, respectively. I wondered when a company would provide South Jersey’s theatrical talent the opportunity to perform in one that opened it. The wait ended this October 4th at Burlington County Footlighters. Your correspondent attended that performance.

Driving Miss Daisy is a deceptively complex show to bring to the stage. It’s quite the antithesis to Parade. The latter featured an extensive cast, a high-tech spectacle and a catalog of musical numbers. Driving Miss Daisy contained no musical numbers, a sparse set and only three actors. The playwright, however, included 27 scene changes. The show did not contain an intermission, either. These unique challenges didn’t deter the cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.

Director Alice Weber has a history of directing high minded, cerebral works such as Dr. Cook’s Garden (at Bridge Players Theatre) and Coyote on a Fence (also at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage). Mr. Uhry’s exploration of race, poverty and hate crimes is still relevant today. Even with this disturbing background, the playwright infused his script with a belief in the redemptive power of humanity. I didn’t leave the theatre asking myself deep philosophical questions like I usually do after an Alice Weber show.

I asked Ms. Weber why she chose to direct Driving Miss Daisy. She replied that, in addition to liking the play, she believed it would work very well in the intimate setting the 2nd Stage provided.

For those unfamiliar with Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage, the room’s seating capacity is about 30 people. While some companies employ the theatre in the round format, the 2nd Stage uses a theatre in a semi-circle approach. The chairs are arranged in an arc consisting of two rows in front of the stage. This set-up allows the audience to watch just a few feet from the action.

Ms. Weber’s assessment proved correct. Performers Phyllis Josephson, Rick Williams and John Weber worked this close setting wonderfully.

Phyllis Josephson celebrated her birthday this October 1st. Ms. Josephson gave the audience a gift through her performance as Daisy Werthan.

In 2015 Ms. Josephson played the lead role in David Lindsey-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo; a show also presented by Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. In that production, Ms. Josephson convincingly acted the role of a teenager. For Driving Miss Daisy, she portrayed a bitter old woman with just as much realism.

Ms. Josephson executed every facet of the role to perfection. Her expressions captured the character’s inner thoughts, she maintained the accent of a Southern belle, and she showed the protagonist’s change with extraordinary skill. Ms. Josephson combined all three dazzlingly in the scene when she told her son about a missing can of sardines.

Real life anchorman Rick Williams proved he’s just as adept at making news as he is at reporting it. Mr. Williams delivered an outstanding interpretation of Hoke Coleburn.

Mr. Williams chose a very realistic accent for his character. His delivery complimented it. Both enhanced his comic timing. When asking Boolie (played by John Weber) for a raise, his cheery vocal inflection made the scene even wittier. The final line about it “feeling mighty good” to have two employers compete for his services had much more impact.

Mr. Williams’ mannerisms were among the best I’ve witnessed at a live performance. He deserves special credit for his slouching and squinting while behind the wheel. The large glasses he wore added comedic effect. His slower ambling and walking with a cane in the later scenes both appeared lifelike.

Ms. Josephson and Mr. Williams put on an acting clinic. They played the show’s dramatic scenes with the passion and poignancy the script demanded. Their portrayals during the ones where Miss Daisy taught Hoke to read, their reactions to the temple bombing and the pair’s trip to Alabama were spectacular.

Both actors clearly devoted a lot of time to preparing for this show. During the talk back session following the performance, Mr. Williams thanked his wife, Jocelyn Mitchell-Williams for her assistance when he rehearsed the role. As well as he portrayed Hoke, audiences should thank Ms. Mitchell-Williams, too.

John Weber played a terrific supporting role as Boolie Werthan. Mr. Weber served as an excellent straight man during his comedic scenes with Mr. Williams. He also captured the latent humor in Mr. Uhry’s dialog when interacting with Ms. Josephson.

Jim Frazer again treated audiences to his genius for set design. For Driving Miss Daisy, he somehow developed a way to position a portion of a car on the stage. I recalled the car he placed on the set of Footlighters’ 2015 production of Bonnie and Clyde. That vehicle entered and retracted from the center of the company’s much larger main stage. The car for Driving Miss Daisy set upon a rotating platform in the center of a small room. The headlights and gear shift even worked. Mr. Frazer continues to push the envelope for set design with every show he does.

The remainder of the production team included: Shelly Tibbets (Assistant Director), Lindsey Kilchesty (Stage Manager), Angel Ezell (Light and Sound) and Pat Frazer (Gloryboard Design).

Theatre fans will have limited opportunities to witness this masterpiece. The show runs through October 12th at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. Opening weekend sold out. Fans should purchase their tickets for next week ASAP.

South Jersey Community Theatre fans are also reminded that Alice Weber likes to direct thought provoking shows. Theatre aficionados who don’t take advantage of the opportunity to see this run of Driving Miss Daisy could very well end up the subjects of her next project.

A Night of Comedy Improv Featuring The Hotspurs! at The 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Back on February 23rd, the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters hosted their 7th annual 24-Hour Play Festival. For that endeavor, teams of actors arrived at the theatre on a Friday evening. They selected genres, props, characters, tasks, lines and delivery styles at random. They then had 24 hours to write and perform a play using these attributes. A comedy trio called the Perfect Nobodies consisting of John Hager, Evan Harris and Andrew Snellen competed. They performed a comical take on a detective noir story called A Sleight of Hand.

Building upon that successful debut, the group added members Andrew Snellen and Brendan Rucci and changed their name to The Hotspurs!  This May 25th the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters hosted an evening with this quintet. Performers John Hager, Evan Harris, Sean O’Malley, Andrew Snellin and Brendan Rucci teamed up for an hour-and-a-half of improvisational comedy. Their efforts were serious, but the results were hysterical.

It takes tremendous courage to take the stage without knowing what one will be performing. To add to the pressure Footlighters originally scheduled this event to take place in a 35 seat room. Because of the demand for tickets, the company moved the show to the 92 seat Main Stage. Even that forum sold out. At the show’s beginning, Mr. Harris announced that Burlington County Footlighters already booked the group for another show in August. “They haven’t even seen us do this one, yet!” He observed.

The bar was already pretty high before The Hotspurs! took the stage. Would their performance meet expectations?

The group selected an outstanding opening. In addition to performing in sketches, Brendan Rucci provided musical accompaniment on the keyboard. He played a somber piece written in a minor key. Then an upbeat number broadcast through the auditorium as the other performers entered the stage. It set the tone for the festivities to come.

The evening included a series of “improv games” that the performers presented. They solicited ideas from the audience and then they performed a scene based on their suggestions.

They began the show with one called Half Life. The group asked the audience to provide both a relationship and a location. Performers Sean O’Malley and Andrew Snellen enacted an exchange between a father and son at an amusement park: but with a twist. The actors had to play the same scene during five different time intervals. They first had one minute to perform it, then 30 seconds, then 15 seconds, then seven seconds and, finally, one second. Their witty banter over whether the son (Mr. Snellen) inherited his beard from his father or mother made for one of the evening’s most hysterical moments.

Mr. Harris and Mr. Hager reprised the detective noir theme from their earlier work. When asked to provide a location for the scene of the crime, the audience selected a basketball court. Mr. Harris played an investigator attempting to locate a basketball stolen from him decades prior. Mr. Hager took on the role of the thief. Mr. Hager provided creative and unanticipated responses to the detective’s inquiries. To Mr. Harris’ credit, he managed to stay in character, not laugh and work with the unusual material Mr. Hager gave him.

After soliciting ideas from the audience, The Hotspurs! added their own improvisational ideas. The audience gave the setting of a dentist’s office in Cuba for the Director game. John Hager, Evan Harris and Sean O’Malley played a group of actors performing the scene. Mr. Snellen entered and performed the role of director. He told them to re-enact the scene as an interpretive dance. Following that rendition he had them play it as an opera. After that one, he had them perform it as a PBS special for children.

New Choice made one of the more challenging games. The audience provided the setting in which Mr. Harris’ character took Mr. Hager’s to a funeral for a first date. As they improvised the scene, the other performers would say, “new choice.” That cued Mr. Harris and Mr. Hager to change their responses. That’s quite a challenge for actors making up lines on the spot while in front of a live audience. The fact that the scene entailed an $18 funeral for a dog didn’t make it any less difficult.

The Hotspurs! added the musical genre to their repertoire, as well. Mr. Hager, Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Snellen performed the role of a three headed Broadway star. The audience selected The Cows Are Coming Home as the title of the show. They tasked the performers to sing a song entitled “Milk Me.” Each performer delivered one word that the one who followed would add to.

The group concluded the show with a musical number, as well. The audience picked “having a baby” as the topic. Mr. Rucci accompanied the group on piano as they sang about the miracle of life in the form of an Irish drinking song.

All the performers showed great poise and imagination. My favorite moment occurred during the “scenes from a hat” game. When given the topic of “the world’s worst game show host,” Mr. Harris came up with the following: “One gun. Six chambers. One bullet. One million dollars.”

I had one criticism of the show. It began nine minutes late. This was more due to the audience than either the performers or the company. Long after the 8:00 PM scheduled start-time I noticed audience members still taking their seats. This isn’t an issue endemic to community theatre performances. I would remind everyone of some wise advice someone gave me: “If you can’t be on time, be early.”

Comedy is serious business. It’s always amazed me that farces such as Noises Off! and The Fox on the Fairway are more intricate and involved than anything Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill ever wrote. Improv isn’t much easier. The ability to write material on the spot that’s funny and then be able to perform it without laughing is quite a skill.  It’s a talent at which The Hotspurs! excel. The group will return to the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters on August 24th.

Red Wrench at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage

Playwright Tesia Nicoli received a unique birthday present from Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage. The company chose to present the opening night performance of this gifted playwright’s work on her actual birthday. Ms. Nicoli attended this show in-person. The audience felt like they’d received a present following this powerful performance of Red Wrench on April 5th.

This evening also featured a first for Burlington County Footlighters’s 2nd Stage. It marked the first time the group produced the work of a new playwright. They selected Ms. Nicoli’s Red Wrench for this inaugural endeavor.

Director Carla Ezell continued the tradition of bringing intense drama to the 2nd Stage. The playbill included the following tag line: Following a tragic car accident, a family struggles with their darkest secrets as their father’s life hangs in the balance. Ms. Nicoli’s website provided this summation: Once we know someone’s shocking secrets, can we still love them? The emotional turbulence in Red Wrench rivaled other works performed there.

Red Wrench told the story of a family drama. Harris family patriarch, Bill, (played by Lou DiPilla III) lay dying in the hospital following a car accident. Or was it? Speculation abounded that he intentionally collided with a tree. His son (Jonathan Edmonson), and daughters Casey (Lauren DiPilla) and Sofie (Kori Rife) gathered in the hospital waiting room. As they discussed their lives, past scandals, and family secrets bitterness came to the fore.

The resulting conflict made it seem the Harris family’s members contained more baggage than a Samsonite warehouse. The playwright offset this nicely by including unexpected sources of redemption in the forms of the eccentric stepmother Shannon Harris (Kathy Harmer) and people arriving in the visiting room from outside the Harris family: Daisy (Shay Fuller), Rosie (Stevie Neale) and Mikyla (Angel Ezell).

Ms. Nicoli provided an excellent setting for the actors to exhibit their craft. The hospital waiting room put characters that harbored deep grudges against each other in close proximity. They interrupted and spoke over one another. The behavior showed their latent animosities and lack of respect.

Lou DiPilla III delivered an impassioned performance as Bill Harris. He played an intense scene performing opposite the character’s son, Andy (Jonathan Edmonson). A discussion about Andy taking over the family business segued in Mr. Edmonson’s interjection of a family secret. The conversation became unsettling. Both performers captured the tension inherent in the moment.

Mr. DiPilla also played opposite his real life daughter, Lauren DiPilla. This dynamic carried over into the performance. Their most powerful scene together came as his character lay on his death bed. He revealed his guilt over a past action. The actors displayed the anxiety and the underlying hope in Ms. Nicoli’s dialog.

Jonathan Edmonson and Angel Ezell showed wonderful chemistry during their scenes working with one another. Mr. Edmonson played an unhappy, emotionally adrift adult while Ms. Ezell portrayed a teenage girl who collected unusual facts. This unusual pairing of characters led to one of the show’s pivotal moments. Both performers made for a memorable concretization of Mr. Edmonson’s character’s self-discovery.

Mr. Edmonson, Ms. DiPilla and Kori Rife impressed by playing the feuding siblings. They provided another one of the show’s impressive scenes. The rancor Mr. Edmonson and Ms. Rife exhibited in their performances made their exchange very realistic. Ms. DiPilla’s effort to serve as de facto referee added to the scene’s believability.

Kathy Harmer played the stepmother, Shannon Harris. Her interpretation of the eccentric free-spirit added levity to this intense drama. The playwright used the character to provide a moment of clarity for the Harris siblings later in the show. Ms. Harmer’s performance made the scene impactful.

Performers Shay Fuller, Patrice Cantrell Frazer, Stevie Neale and John Weber rounded out this extraordinary cast.

The incomparable Jim Frazer leant his stellar talents to this production. In addition to the scenic design, Mr. Frazer managed the lighting and sound. His use of the former for The Ether scenes created an unearthly ambiance throughout the theatre.

The opening night performance included a bonus for theatregoers. Following the show the company presented a “talk back” with the playwright, the director and the cast. Those in attendance were treated to insights on the writing of, rehearsal and final production of the show. Footlighters provided wine and cheese, as well. Another “talk back” is scheduled following the closing night performance on Saturday, April 13th.

An emotionally gripping story that at times became uncomfortable to watch, the theme of love ran through Red Wrench. Audiences who like their theatre to contain a lot of conflict moderated by the hope of redemption will love Red Wrench. These theatrical fans should give themselves either an early or belated birthday present by seeing it at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.

 

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.

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.

True West at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

There’s a saying in sports that, “you don’t see a lot of big plays involving two rookies.” After Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage production of Sam Shepard’s True West no one can apply that expression to theatre. It featured the debut of both a director (Edwin Howard) and a leading man (Darin DeVivo) when I attended the opening night performance on April 13th.

The show featured a creative script. Screenwriter Austin (played by Kevin Roberts) house sat for his mother (Regina Deavitt Beaucheane) during her sojourn to Alaska. His hermetic brother Lee (Darin DeVivo) ended up visiting. Austin worked on a story that he’d been pitching to a Hollywood producer. Lee discussed his travels. During the course of their conversation, Austin agreed to help Lee write a story he had in his head. Complications ensued when the producer, Saul (played by Chuck Klotz), arrived. He decided that he liked Lee’s story more than Austin’s. He wanted Austin to abandon the one he’d been working on and help his brother with his.  Perhaps as a bit of homage to Eugene O’Neil’s Beyond the Horizon, the brothers came to realize they’d been living each other’s dreams.

Edwin Howard did a superb job with Sam Shepard’s material. He ensured True West hooked the audience’s attention from the moment the lights went up.

Most theatrical shows focus on visual elements. This one placed much more emphasis on sound. It opened with an unconventional scene. Mr. Roberts sat at a kitchen table clacking on an old typewriter. Crickets chirped in the background. Mr. DeVivo walked about the stage. He used a gait that allowed his boots to tap percussively against the floor.

I first thought it brave of both the playwright and the director to begin a show with neither character speaking for several minutes. Then I realized the various sounds compensated for the silence. The performers established the mood through their actions.

Mr. DeVivo and Mr. Roberts displayed extraordinary chemistry working together. During the first act Austin’s dialog contained a lot of questions. This writing approach could have made the story drag. These two performers ensured that it stayed interesting.

Mr. Roberts looked the part of an intellectual. I thought it clever how he kept his collar buttoned through most of the show. His choice of voice sounded like that of an erudite Ivy League educated intellectual. When his character became intoxicated, he adjusted his delivery and played the scene convincingly.

Mr. DeVivo made his stage debut at Lee. He delivered such a strong performance that I have to believe the playbill contained a misprint. One has to respect his selection of such a demanding role to begin his career. He brought the character to life through both his dialog and mannerisms.

The character experienced a range of emotions during the play; the most memorable of which was anger. Mr. DeVivo portrayed the character’s temper so realistically that I flinched whenever he raised his voice. Whenever he became upset I felt uncomfortable watching him. In perhaps a theatre first, he hit a plate loaded with toast so hard that he sent the bread several feet into the air.

As memorable as I found the toast toss, my favorite scene was much more low- keyed. During one discussion, the two men stood across from one another. They each placed their hands on their hips and struck the same pose. While showing the characters’ similarity as brothers, they drew attention to the physical contrasts between them.

Chuck Klotz portrayed, Saul, the Hollywood producer. He selected the perfect voice for the role. He attempted to persuade Austin into working with Lee like a true Tinsletown dealmaker.

Even with the limited stage time afforded her, Regina Deavitt Beaucheane turned in a fine performance as the mother. The laid back approach she took towards the role contrasted well with the tension occurring on stage.

Both Edwin Howard and Jim Frazer played multiple roles behind the scenes. Mr. Howard worked with Mr. Frazer on the set design. Mr. Frazer and Tim Sagges teamed up to handle the lighting and sound.

Earlier in this review I mentioned the importance sound played in True West. Those with sensitive hearing should be aware that the show contained a lot of noise. Aside from Mr. DeVivo’s hollering, it included pots and pans getting tossed onto the floor, aluminum cans either getting thrown into a sink or being hit with a golf club and pounding on a table.

Those with an aversion to getting hit by toast may not want to sit in the front row, either.

To see newcomers perform so well with material this challenging, one wonders what kind of show would suit them for their sophomore efforts. Just a thought: are Mr. Howard and Mr. DeVivo familiar with Buried Child? Until then, True West runs through April 21st at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage.

 

 

 

Crossing Delancey at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

Vas mir. I thought I’d go meshuga when I read the glossary in the playbill. Crossing Delancey contained a host of Yiddish expressions. I felt like a schmendrik after spending my gelt to listen to dialog containing words I wouldn’t understand. Then the show started. As I heard the machers and yentas tzimis about a shadkhin the story’s zees keit moved me. Curiously, it also happened to contain the most comprehensible language I’d heard all day. F’shtast? Well, you would if you’d witnessed the show at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage.

Torben Christiansen made his directorial debut March 23rd with this romantic comedy. He explained to me that he “saw the show” a couple of years ago and “loved it.” The next day he contacted Footlighters. He asked for the chance to bring this Susan Sandler piece to their stage.

A full house attended the opening night performance. Both the audience and the company were delighted with what Mr. Christiansen did with the opportunity.

Crossing Delancey presented the story of an unconventional love triangle. Isabelle (or Izzy, played by Erin Bell) developed a crush on her favorite author, Tyler Moss (Ricardo Esteves). The latter frequented the bookstore where she worked. As she found the courage to pursue him, a complication ensued.

Her Bubbie (or grandmother, played by Susan Dewey) contacted a shadkhn (a marriage broker) named Hannah (performed by Jeanne Wayman). She tried to set Izzy up with a pickle salesman named Sam (Buddy Deal). Izzy found her affections torn between the sophisticated author and the traditional Jewish boy. A series of comical and moving scenes resulted.

Erin Bell portrayed the different aspects of Izzy’s personality with equal skill. She played a bookworm overcome by infatuation in her scenes with Mr. Esteves. When performing with Ms. Dewey, she became the dutiful granddaughter. Through her interactions with Mr. Deal she developed Izzy into a mature woman.

Ms. Bell presented her lines in a genuine New York accent. Her facial expressions enhanced her dialog very well.

Susan Dewey turned in stellar performance as the grandmother, or Bubby. She also spoke in a credible accent, sounding like a true New Yorker. She conveyed the character’s love for Izzy and genuine interest in her happiness. The way she feigned not recognizing Sam at the end of the play brought the right amount of humor to a tender moment.

The playwright gave Ms. Dewey’s character the play’s best lines. I liked the conviction with which she delivered: “loneliness is a disease.”

Buddy Deal brought immense depth to the role of Sam. He delivered his lines in a soft spoken manner allowing the power of Ms. Sandler’s words their full impact. A steady stream of “awwwww”s from the house followed his attempts to woo Izzy. I’ve never witnessed a performer draw that kind of reaction from a crowd. The women in the audience swooned over his performance.

The same audience remained silent when Sam’s romantic rival performed one scene wearing nothing but a bath towel. I guess that proves it really is all in the delivery, guys.

Ricardo Esteves played a superb villain. Through both his manner of speech and gestures, he captured the essence of the character’s arrogance and egotism. I applaud his portraying the base aspects of Tyler’s personality while still keeping the role funny.

Mr. Esteves and Ms. Bell performed the most comical love scene in the history of theatre. In enacting one of Izzy’s fantasies, they expressed their feelings for one another in the book store. They did so in an exaggerated way that made it hysterical. It impressed me that they could enact the scene without laughing or even smiling.

Jeanne Wayman really got into the role of Hannah, the marriage arranger. When she made her entrance she handed out cards to the ladies in the audience. Ms. Wayman brought a lot of passion to the role. I enjoyed her first attempt to interest Izzy in Sam.

Mr. Christiansen explained that he wanted to get the best people for this show. This cast displayed great chemistry working together. They also stood out as individuals. It’s tough to find a better combination than that.

Footlighters utilizes the 2nd Stage theatre for smaller scale productions. Crossing Delancey developed into a more high tech spectacle than I expected at that venue. I credit Jim Frazer and Mr. Christiansen for their work on the set. They designed both the kitchen and the book store sections very well. Tim Sagges and Valerie Brothers managed the lights and sound flawlessly.

Some audiences may not be familiar with the Yiddish expressions, but all theatregoers will recognize Crossing Delancey’s themes. Who can’t empathize with a character torn between infatuation and a sweet person with a good heart? Not to mention receiving pressure from family to get married. We can all understand those situations. Zie ge zunt. The show runs through March 31st.

24 Hour Play Festival at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

How’s this for a challenge? You and a group of your fellow performers arrive at the theatre. Someone hands you a hat. From it you select first a genre, then a prop, during the third round a character, after that a task, and finally a style of delivery. Then you’re given a line that must appear in the play. You and your team then have 24 hours to write an original dramatic work based on the criteria you selected. Once the time runs out, you and your team will perform the play to a live audience. Now who would have the courage to attempt this?

Well, on February 23rd, a select group of 14 brave performers accepted this dare. They chose to participate in Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage’s Sixth Annual 24 Hour Theatre Festival on February 24th. The three teams they assembled treated an audience to superb performances. They followed these shows with some outstanding improv.

The teams presented remarkable writing. All the plays included compelling characters, conflict and plot twists; that quite an achievement for works written less than a day before show time.

The one unifying factor in all the plays included the use of the line: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” All the teams worked around the difficulty of applying a statement written in the present tense to their stories.

The team called the Space Cadets opened the evening’s festivities. The troupe consisted of performers Kelly Deeny, Pat Frazer, Tim Kirk, Kathy Smith and Chrissy Wick. They presented an interstellar speed dating play called “What Planet Are You From?” The group interpolated characters from some popular space themed films, a lovelorn woman…and a cat. Even with only 24 hours’ notice to put the show together, they still engaged in some creative casting. It seemed appropriate that the gentleman named Kirk took the lead in a sci-fi story.

The Space Cadets were tasked with writing a science fiction play that included the use of an overhead projector, a character who rapped whenever speaking, and the use of “positions.” The players received instructions to deliver their lines “seductively.”

The Sutter Home Girls comprised the next team to take the stage. Its members included Angel Ezell, Carla Ezell, Tasha Holmes, Nina Law and Eylis Skamarakas. Their “Not Going Home for Christmas” show featured a melodramatic take on a group session at a mental health institution. Their assignment included use of a Christmas tree, one character who only spoke in Disney lyrics, a character who used a hula hoop the entire play and a “sweet” delivery.

I liked how they began and ended their show the same way by lighting the Christmas tree. It also impressed me how, in spite of the play’s brevity, Tasha Holmes even managed to work in a couple of costume changes.

The Chun-Kay team rounded out the evening. Members DJ Hedgepath, Stephen Jackson, Matt Maerten and Darryl Thompson presented “The Transfigured Night” in the mystery/detective genre. To craft this whodunit they received direction to use a foot measurer, include a clown as a character, and to deliver five tongue twisters excitedly.

The latter instruction served as a starting point for this group. Almost every line Mr. Thompson spoke included at least one. Even with the limited rehearsal time, he expressed the dialog clearly and without tripping over his words.

Footlighters 2nd Stage put on a much better triple bill than I expected. All the teams wrote strong scripts. Every performer sounded much more prepared than the rehearsal time allowed.

Then the real ‘improv’ portion of the program commenced. At the beginning of the show, the master of ceremonies, Gaby Affleck, asked audience members to give ideas for ‘quirky’ characters. The players then drew these suggestions from a hat.

First, the performers put on a version of a dating game. The bachelorette, Chrissy Wick, asked questions of three actors who took on the ‘quirky’ roles. Ms. Wick received the task of guessing the character’s description.  Eylis Skamarakas took on the role of a Wookie with laryngitis, Angel Ezell played a pilot who hated to fly, and Kelly Deeny performed as doctor with a case of the giggles.

Some performers as well as some daring audience members participated in the hat game. Individuals put on comical hats and then gave a brief talk as though making a dating video.

The ‘improv’ section concluded with a party scene. DJ Hedgepath played the host tasked with identifying the quirky character each guest played. Stephen Jackson performed as an angry bartender, Tim Kirk acted the role of a child learning to count, and Darryl Thompson acted the role of a disgruntled priest.

I’d also give kudos to Gaby Affleck and Jim Frazer for the professional way they ran the evening’s events.

The performers played eclectic roles extremely well and with very little preparation. That demonstrated the level of talent they all possess. While both funny and entertaining, I’d classify the evening as inspiring above all else. They proved that American ingenuity thrives in the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit.