Commmunity Theater

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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Theater Review – Avenue Q at Burlington County Footlighters

Way back in my youth I often wondered how Sesame Street would’ve appeared if I’d been under the influence and listening to the Allman Brothers Band’s Live at the Fillmore East. Without the benefit of either of those, this afternoon I received my answer in the form of the Burlington County Footlighters production of Avenue Q. Spending a day listening to muppets curse, discuss homosexuality and internet pornography made me wish I’d put my idea into practice and made a little money off it. I have to admit author Jeff Whitty and songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx did a much better job than my meager talents could have.

Director Sean Flaherty, Musical Director Sean Mehlbaum,  and the BCF cast did a phenomenal job bringing this story to life. The cast performed superbly in presenting a pessimistic premise in a witty and entertaining way. The only times I recall the audience not laughing occurred during the musical numbers and the various applause periods.  

I’d never witnessed a community theater production before, and the level of talent I saw in the performers greatly exceeded my expectations. It takes a lot of skill to speak in different voices. It takes even more aptitude to sing in different ones while dancing and working a puppet. A special hat’s off goes to actors Matthew Holman (who played Princeton and Rod) as well as C. J. Kish (who played Nicky, Trekkie, and one of the Bad Idea Bears). I’d never seen either of these actors perform in the past, but I’d have to say I think either one of these thespians could be budding Seth MacFarlaines in terms of vocal skills.

While I would classify Avenue Q as a comedy despite the story’s pessimistic premise, the true highlight of the evening for me took place at the end of Act I. Actress Lindsey Krier’s (Kate Monster) moving performance of the ballad “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” almost brought me to tears. That’s a hell of an accomplishment for an actress playing a muppet. Before readers comment on my emotional reaction to such, here are some of the lyrics.

There’s a fine, fine line between a fairy tale and a lie.

As well as

There’s a fine, fine line between what you wanted and what you got.

And

But there’s a fine, fine line between love and a waste of your time.  

If I had to summarize Avenue Q in one sentence I’d select the first lyric cited above. In essence, the story described the tribulations of a group of people (and muppets) in their early twenties who discover that life isn’t everything they thought it would be while in college. The show included musical numbers to reflect this such as “What Do You Do with a B. A. in English?” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College.” The characters lived on Avenue Q, located far away from the upscale Avenue A. The character of Princeton searched for a purpose, while his love interest, Kate Monster, searched for a boyfriend. Other dramatis personae included two human characters Brian (Derek L. Miller) an unemployed 32 year old want-to-be stand-up comedian and his similarly unemployed girlfriend with two masters degrees, Christmas Eve (Jillian Starr-Renbjor). The cast of characters also included former child star Gary Coleman as the building superintendent (played exceptionally well by Leilah Murphy). Rounding out the line-up were the two Bad Idea Bear muppets (C. J. Kish and Kori Rife) and Lucy the Slut (played by Rachel Kapulskey). Yes, you read that correctly. One of the muppets was named Lucy the Slut. The onanistic muppet Trekkie (C. J. Kish) rounded out the ensemble.  

It would be an understatement to write that characters this diverse and quirky made for a very interesting show. Prior to the performance the announcer declared that language some would find offensive would occur in the performance. Although the main characters were muppets, this was not a show suitable for children. With my maturity level, I felt a little surprised they let me in the building.

Everyone in the cast performed magnificently in their roles. I admired the way a number of actors/actresses also served as extra puppeteers. It took a lot of talent and hard work to make this show work.

I’d also like to credit the crew for weaving together the lighting, the projections and the set with the functioning windows. The live band sounded tight.  For a high tech show, it impressed me that everything went flawlessly without technical glitches.

Burlington County Footlighters billed Avenue Q as an “adult musical.” The script dealt with adult themes in many ways. Aside from the myriad comedic yuks, it addressed the serious side of growing up. It centered on when a person recognizes the gaps between youthful expectation and grown-up reality. (There’s a fine, fine line between what you wanted and what you got.) I can think of no better testament to the skill of the cast, director and crew at the Burlington County Footlighters than to say everyone left the theater with a smile on his/her face. The show runs through May 17th.