Chuck Klotz

The Laramie Project at the Maple Shade Arts Council

On October 6, 1998 a hate crime occurred in Laramie, Wyoming. This brutal act riveted the nation. It also inspired a team from the Techtonic Theatre Company to visit the site. Their goal: to develop and understanding of the community in which the incident occurred. Following a year-long investigation they brought their findings to the stage. They called it simply The Laramie Project. This summer the Maple Shade Arts Council presented this verbatim theatre classic on their stage. I attended the opening night performance on June 21st.

During the winter of 2017, I had the opportunity to interview The Laramie Project’s director, Lori Alexio Howard. At the time she was rehearsing for a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Howard expressed the following thoughts on that drama:

 It’s a good time to be doing that show with what’s going on in the country. It will make audiences question their view of the world. It’s good to revisit and question the state of things.

Ms. Howard applied this sense of social consciousness to her latest endeavor. In the playbill she reflected upon the life of her first openly “out” friend.

I am grateful that JT has had 41 years (and counting) to be EXACTLY who he is. It’s because of who he is that I love him so. And yes, twenty years after the events in Laramie, Wyoming, things like hate, prejudice, violence, injustice, and intolerance of those who are different than us are all too common.

The Maple Shade Arts Council’s performance of The Laramie Project made for the most solemn evening of theatre I’ve experienced. All the actors delivered impassioned performances. Because of the story’s tone, no applause occurred between scene changes.

The Laramie Project contained an unusual format for a play. The scenes consisted of a series of interviews the Techtonic Theatre Company conducted with Laramie residents. They asked a variety of people for their thoughts on the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Mr. Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die tied to a fence in a remote section of the Wyoming prairie. What motivated this brutality? Matthew Shepard was a homosexual.

The script crafted these different interviews into a coherent story. Because of the myriad people involved the show’s 16 performers played multiple roles.

The nature of the text added another challenge for actors. Steven Jackson (who played Matt Galloway, Jonas Slonaker, Doug Laws, William McKinney) observed that the script contained words spoken by real people. He dedicated much time to memorizing the text in order to speak his lines as written. “It’s a deep play,” he added.

The Maple Shade Arts Council has presented their summer shows in various venues over the years. The intimate space they selected at the Maple Shade Municipal Building well suited this show. Performers walked through the aisles during the haunting candlelight vigil. Actors entered the stage from the seating area. Cast members stood in front of the stage just a few feet from the audience when speaking. Ms. Howard utilized the entire room to bring the spectators into the story.

Lighting designers / operators Michael Melvin, Lori Howard and Jackie Duran crafted and executed the lighting impeccably. They managed it so well that it functioned like a character in the show. The darkening of the stage at the appropriate times set the mood. The eerie glow enhanced the scene where the cast re-enacted the discovery of Shepard’s body. The flickering during the hospital CEO’s (played by Nicholas French) press conference imitated cameras snapping photos.

The performances in The Laramie Project will haunt theatregoers. The events it depicted occurred in the recent past. It chronicled the thoughts and feelings of real people living in a rural community. It centered upon a tragedy all too common in the modern era. In a sense it was like the director turned the theatre into a mirror. The audience watched a reflection of itself play out on stage.

In one scene performers Abby Drexler and Phyllis Josephson played Laramie locals being interviewed by a member of the Tectonic Theatre Company (played by Nicholas French). Ms. Drexler and Ms. Josephson discussed life in Laramie in a playful and relaxed fashion: until he asked about the Shepard murder. Then the performers became guarded and laconic.

Marissa Wolf delivered a soliloquy expressing her character’s disagreement with the media’s portrayal of the killing. She delivered her character’s view that Mr. Shepard was “not a saint” in a way that didn’t sound bigoted. Her delivery brought out the complexity the events engendered.

Doug Suplee turned in a powerful performance as Matthew’s father. During the sentencing of one of the killers, Mr. Suplee presented a gripping monolog. His delivery combined with the message of temperance made one of the show’s most compelling moments.

The show contained many outstanding moments. Sara Viniar turned in impassioned performances as the Islamic woman and the college professor. Brian Gensel played the young man who discovered Shepard with uncomfortable realism. Steve Rogina brought out the conflict within the doctor who discovered he treated both Shepard and one of his attackers on the same evening the incident occurred.

When directors seek performers who can play multiple roles in the same show, Nick French is becoming South Jersey Community Theatre’s “go to” guy. After playing all eight members of the D’Yasquith family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in January of this year, he cut back to just four in this show.

Mr. French portrayed the moralizing firebrand Fred Phelps. The upside down American flag he wore on his jacket accentuated his character’s views. Mr. French also played the empathetic hospital CEO with the same proficiency.

Performers Chrissy Wick, Chuck Klotz, Frank Simpson Jr., James Gallagher, Jerrod Ganesh, Kat Ross Kline and Michele Liberton rounded out the cast.

The production team included: Assistant Director Lisa Palena, Production Assistant Jackie Duran and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick. Edwin and Lori Howard designed the set.

Even with the disturbing subject matter, Ms. Howard brought out the latent message of hope at the end. As she wrote in the playbill: “All you need is love.” The Laramie Project is one small step towards making that message more common. It runs through June 29th at the Maple Shade Arts Council.

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Lost in Yonkers at the Village Playbox

The Village Playbox selected the perfect venue to present Neil Simon’s masterpiece, Lost in Yonkers. With the adoration performers show for the late playwright, it seemed fitting to present the show at a location well suited for veneration. The performance occurred at a church. This cast delivered an apotheosis of this Pulitzer Prize winning play through some inspired performances. I attended the November 1oth performance in Haddon Heights.

Steve Allen and Jenn Edwards co-directed this story of an atypical Jewish family living in 1942 New York. In order to afford his late wife’s medical treatment, Eddie (played by Doug Cohen) borrowed a large sum of money from a loan shark. Fortunately, he received a job offer that would allow him to repay the gangster in 10 months. The position required travel throughout the South. In order to accept it, he needed his semi-estranged mother (played by Phyllis Josephson) to allow his sons, 15-1/2 year-old Jay (Ricky Conway) and 13-1/2 year-old Artie (Colin Becker), to move in with her.

Grandma was an austere disciplinarian. Adding to Jay’s and Artie’s adventure, their quirky Aunt Bella (played by Lori Alexio Howard) also lived with her. Their gangster Uncle Louie (Chuck Klotz) and idiosyncratic Aunt Gertie visited.

One has to credit Mr. Simon for his creativity. It’s difficult to imagine characters this unusual coming together. It’s even more remarkable to put them all together at the apartment above a candy story in the early 1940s. He did so while still crafting a coherent, comical and at times heartbreaking story. It’s not surprising Lost in Yonkers receives the myriad accolades it does.

The cast rose to the level of this extraordinary show. Ricky Conway (as Jay) and Colin Becker (as Arty) performed well as a comic team. Mr. Conway played the more emotional of the two; often moving around and gesticulating. Mr. Becker would remain still and deliver his lines in a laconic deadpan fashion. The two roles made for a nice contrast on stage.

Mr. Conway spoke his lines with a perfect New York accent. He still allowed Jay’s excitable nature to come through in his mannerisms and dialog. Mr. Conway showed great professionalism through the subtle way he displayed the character’s personality. Even in scenes where Jay sat still, he tapped his foot.

Mr. Becker would’ve played a great ‘straight-man’; except that the playwright gave his character some funny lines. The performer’s dispassionate means of expressing them made them much more humorous than they appeared on the printed page. I enjoyed his imitation of Uncle Louie’s explanation of “moxie” the best.

Lori Alexio Howard is a Neil Simon fan. It showed. Ms. Howard portrayed Bella. The respect she has for Mr. Simon is the kind of esteem audiences will show her for this performance.

Bella is one of the more complex characters in the Simon catalogue. Ms. Howard played the character with such enthusiasm she may have elevated Bella into the category of a Willy Loman or Blanche DuBois. She captured the funny side of Bella’s personality, the sadder aspects and the heartbreaking ones all with equal skill. Ms. Howard expressed Bella’s dreams and aspirations in a deeply moving fashion. The longing look in her eye as she did so showed just how seriously she prepared for this role.

It’s difficult to select the appropriate words to express Phyllis Josephson’s skill as a performer. She turned in a terrific portrayal of Grandma. She brought out the character’s change very believably. In the opening scene, she captured the character’s stern nature without even speaking. Ms. Josephson walked in a slow gait before sitting down, maintaining perfect posture and remaining silent. When she did talk, she adopted an authentic German accent; at one point, lecturing Eddie on how she never cried.

Following the confrontation scene, she played Grandma as a mellower character. Even while allowing Eddie and the boys to kiss her and permitting music in the apartment, Mr. Josephson still retained a bit of Grandma’s tougher edge. She did so in a measured way that made the character’s transformation seem even more credible.

Ms. Howard and Ms. Josephson made the confrontation scene in Lost in Yonkers much more intense than I anticipated. The emotional turmoil generated by the argument became difficult to watch very quickly. The entire audience even gasped when Ms. Josephson dumped a cup of hot tea on Ms. Howard. All of that is a credit to how genuine the performers made the fight.

Doug Cohen played Eddie. He conveyed the character’s nervousness by dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. Mr. Cohen showed Eddie’s plight by speaking his monologs with a tint of somberness in his voice. He also delivered the most comical line in the show with perfect style. When Grandma announced that a bag of pistachios disappeared from the candy story, he exclaimed, “That’s still a problem after 35 years!”

I’d also credit Chuck Klotz and Amy Bannister for their performances. Mr. Klotz played an entertaining Uncle Louie. The cocky voice he adopted made the character an amusing presence on stage. Ms. Bannister animated Aunt Gert’s unusual tic brilliantly. Half way through her dialog she would speak while inhaling. She managed this challenging task extremely well.

Lost in Yonkers contained aspects that would give it appeal to a wide range of theatregoers. It included hysterical comic yuks along with intense drama. A person can imagine the eccentric characters as part of one’s own family. Even more important it included a compelling story. Perhaps that explains why performers have such admiration for Mr. Simon’s work. Audiences who’ve had the pleasure of seeing the show at the Village Playbox will no doubt share it.

Lost in Yonkers  runs through November 17th at the Village Playbox. After that it pulls an Uncle Louie-like disappearance.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Theatre Review – Violet at Burlington County Footlighters

Director Brian Blanks is taking theatergoers on a journey this fall. The station is Burlington County Footlighters and the vehicle is Violet; a deceptively complex musical that explores one person’s voyage of self-discovery. I bought my ticket and embarked on the show’s opening night, September 16th.

Footlighters opted to kick-off their 79th season with this lesser known piece by Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley. When I arrived a woman in the audience asked me if I’d ever heard of Violet. In fact, even the director told me that among his theatre friends familiarity with it is “about 50/50.” When I heard the tale centered on a young North Carolina woman’s bus trip across America, I figured, “Here we go: yet, another story about a small town girl heading off to Hollywood.” This piece ended up as different from that premise as one could imagine.

Violet (played by Roxanne Paul) suffered a disfiguring accident as a child when her father (played by Chuck Klotz) inadvertently hit her in the face with an axe blade. In 1964, several years following his death, she embarked on a bus trip from her North Carolina home to Tulsa, Oklahoma. She sought a televangelist (Michael Gearty) there she believed could heal her. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” During the sojourn, Violet encountered a host of interesting characters that transformed the trip from an external one into an internal voyage of discovery. During the journey she experienced a series of flashbacks that facilitated the later. All this occurred to the accompaniment of a live band (directed by Cameron Stringham) playing sensational sixties sounding music.

None of the players used microphones. They didn’t need to. Violet featured performers with very strong voices. I encountered Footlighters veteran Dan Brothers in the audience before the musical began. Mr. Brothers can project his voice better than anyone I’ve ever heard. His presence in the building may have inspired the newcomers to this theatre group. When Michael Gearty testified in the role of the evangelist I’m sure people way up in the Heavens could hear him. Soulful Tee (in the role of choir singer Lula Buffington) belted a note that made both my eardrums rattle. As a longtime Motown and Stax fan, I welcomed the volume.

Roxanne Paul delivered a stellar performance as Violet. Her music featured a range of styles, from soulful tracks to upbeat numbers to ballads. Some began a capella. I liked the soft way she vocalized the mellow, “Lay Down Your Head.” While sitting in a bed near the back of the stage, she crooned in a voice soft enough to convey feeling, but loud enough for the audience to hear.

Ms. Paul’s brilliant facial expressions and mannerisms conveyed the character’s vulnerabilities in ways that Brian Crawley’s lyrics couldn’t. Her proficiency added an element that made the serious aspects of the show more impactful.

Darryl S. Thompson Jr. turned in a moving performance as Flick. The lone African-American character in a story he played a crucial role. As the bus travelled through the Deep South before the advent of the Civil Rights Era he encountered prejudice. When a character addressed him with a racial epithet even the audience gasped. I found it interesting that they became just as affronted as the character.

Mr. Thompson also sang some challenging vocal numbers very well. He rightly drew cheers from the house during his rendition of “Let It Sing.” He delivered the number so well it made me wish the songwriter would have let his character sing more often.

Gabrielle Affleck deserves great credit for taking on multifarious, and rather diverse, roles. In this one show Ms. Affleck played an old woman, a choir singer and a prostitute. That’s range. I liked hearing her vocals on the bluesy track “Anyone Would Do.” It’s doubtful anyone would have done it as well as she did.

As mentioned, Violet featured a host of phenomenal voices. I’d compliment Nicholas Zoll, Alex Davis and Glenn Paul for their contributions to the performance, as well.

Throughout the show myriad references were made to Violet’s being “disfigured.” When the subject arose, Ms. Paul did a nice job exhibiting anxiety by wincing and nervously covering her cheek. Her face didn’t have any scars, however. Young Violet (Ms. Orlowski) didn’t either. I could overlook it in the latter case since that character didn’t have as much stage time. Ms. Paul’s Violet appeared on stage in almost every scene. Her “ugliness” served as a crucial part of the show.

Ms. Paul is a good-looking woman. As much as I tried I simply couldn’t visualize her as “deformed.” In retrospect I figured the playwright intended symbolism to show Violet as a beautiful person who needed to discover it for herself. I can accept the premise. It just took me a while to understand it. That’s a reflection on the playwright, not the cast or crew.

A true “team effort” made for the most memorable scene of this show.  With apologies to Kenny Rogers, “Luck of the Draw” just may be the best song ever written about poker. This bouncy number featured Chuck Klotz (as Violet’s father), Emily Orlowski (as Young Violet), Ms. Paul, Mr. Thompson and Brandon Zebley (as Monty) working together. They did a nice job transitioning from Young Violet’s learning the game from her father to modern Violet applying those lessons. I liked hearing so many talented vocalists on the same track.

I enjoyed taking Violet’s journey. In the playbill Mr. Blanks commented on its timeless themes. Unfortunately for theatre fans, time’s ticking on the show’s run. Take a journey to Burlington County Footlighters no later than October 1st.  Don’t miss the bus.