Courtney Bundens

Proof at the Masquerade Theatre

Given: The Masquerade Theater solved a complex problem. The company showed itself equal to the combination of making a Friday evening watching a literary masterpiece of a play about mathematics exciting. In addition, they proved they could function virtually. With infinite interest, your correspondent attended the on-line performance of Proof this May 22nd.

Prove: David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama provided prime material for this theatre’s debut show. In sum, the content fulfilled the Masquerade Theatre’s mission by using theatre to unveil our masques and explore our common humanity. This reviewer found it a good sine that the production team selected a show so equal to the expectations of this company’s base audience.

Statements:                                                   Reasons:

Originally intended as a live performance, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cast and crew to experiment. They decided to perform if and only if they received the appropriate permissions from the publisher and the cast agreed to do it. The former and the playwright himself concurred. The cast members delivered a uniform positive response.

The production team had only three weeks to come up with a formula for a convergence between the live show and a virtual one. The velocity of the time limit made that combination a stretch. For a team of people having no experience with camera work, one would postulate this an impossible event to complete. The odds against a successful performance exceeded the odds for a flawless one. The chance of a perfect production seemed as nil as an imaginary number.

The flawless function of the end result showed the amount of work the cast and crew applied to this product.

The technological aspects of this production became Masquerade Theatre Managing Director Tommy Balne’s domain. After researching multiple on-line platforms, he determined that Crowdcast would become the dependent variable t0 differentiate this performance from others. This outlier production was set to become an historical one in the annals of community theatre.

Director Megan Knowlton Balne selected an excellent set of performers to animate Mr. Auburn’s text. Each of the actors completed excellent transformations into their roles. It made their interpretations of the characters distinct.

Due to the lockdown prohibiting the bonds of integration, the cast members each performed alone in their own homes. They didn’t act as if mutually exclusive, however. During each segment with multiple characters, the scene’s performers all appeared on camera. Their faces would point to the audience as though either speaking to or looking at those watching. This connection added power to their performances.

The drama encompassed multiple dimensions. Catherine (played by Courtney Bundens) became the root of all the conflict in this complex plot. Following the passing of Catherine’s father, the brilliant mathematician Robert (played by Tony Killian), sister Claire (Emily Brennan) pressured Catherine to move away from Chicago to live in New York. One of Robert’s former pupils, Hal (Jake Hufner), pestered her for access to Robert’s notebooks…and perhaps Catherine’s affections.

Catherine also suffered through intense internal conflict. During the years caring for an ailing father, the character’s identity evaporated. Catherine sacrificed hopes, dreams and ambitions for Robert’s wellbeing. The mathematician’s death forced a self-reflection; and a struggle with the fear that Robert’s psychological disorder was genetic.

The playwright gave performers with the courage to play Catherine an atypical hero’s formula with which to work. The amplitude of Courtney Bundens’ performance met this demanding role’s challenges. Courtney showed a nontrivial range of skills to bring this troubled character to life. The actor’s facial expressions conveyed this character’s emotional journey.

Courtney delivered the lines with harsh realism. Courtney’s heated exchanges with Emily became even more unsettling with Courtney and Emily looking into the camera. Courtney’s reading of Robert’s “proof” was absolutely heartbreaking. Courtney’s and Tony’s performances allowed the devastating nature of this scene to transcend the barrier between actor and audience.

In a pre-performance interview, Jake Hufner reflected that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Through that understanding, he delivered an inspired performance as Hal. Jake satisfied the character’s function as Catherine’s antagonist and, at times, love interest. Jake brilliantly showed Hal’s development from his first meeting with Catherine to their interaction years later. Jake expressed a brilliant translation of Hal’s awkwardness, indecisiveness and later the character’s confidence. Jake also showed the character had heart in Hal’s interactions with Courtney.

Emily Brennan played Catherine’s relation, Claire. The latter is one of the more controversial theatrical roles. It’s difficult to determine whether Claire’s motivation to sell her sister’s home is in Catherine’s best interest or just mean. Emily’s stern facial expressions and curt dialog made it difficult to determine. In doing so, the performer achieved a much more interesting Claire.

Tony Killian portrayed Robert, a man of eccentricity. Tony’s face kept a rational expression to reflect the academic icon being portrayed. While the character’s “machinery” may have deteriorated, the performer’s histrionic level was well above average. Tony’s disordered hair added a nice touch to the pivotal scene between Robert and Catherine.

Crowdcast did have limits of integration.

The platform couldn’t ensure that the actors would come up in the same order on the screen. Because of that, everyone played to the camera. Megan developed a bit of a corollary to Nora Desmond’s (as played by Gloria Swanson) axiom: “We didn’t need dialog. We had faces.” The camera centered on head shots as the performers faced the screen. Tangential to this, they delivered Proof’s text like they talked directly to the audience. Your correspondent enjoyed this unique theatrical innovation.

With everyone performing from their own home, it created an unusual challenge regarding staging. The cast and crew made the lack of a set into a superset. All the actors performed in front of a similar brick backdrop. The format allowed the audience to focus on the players themselves without any external distractions. For an intense character driven story such as Proof, this added power to the viewing experience.

The team addressed the divergent series of events in the script through creative costuming and prop passes. The actors executed the switching of notebooks and bottles between characters believably. Even the incidents when Courtney’s and Jake’s characters kissed came across the screen as lifelike.

The Masquerade Theatre added the opportunity for audience participation to the production. Crowdcast included a chat feature. The virtual spectators wrote comments before the show, during intermission and at the concluding question and answer period.

The team ensured that Proof included something that would please theatre purists. The show still had a 15-minute interval at its midpoint.

After the virtual curtain call, the actors and production team participated in a question and answer session. The most popular question submitted by an audience member was, “Why is Jake Hufner so cute?”

While not answered during the session, the obvious response is that Jake understands the importance of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has led by example and practiced his craft in a safe environment which limited the spread of a contagious disease. In that sense, all the performers in Proof are adorable.

The company’s two principals, however, sat together on a couch in the same room. It should be noted that the Balnes celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary this May 16th. It’s a testament to the strength of their relationship that they are willing to face these uncertain times together.

In all seriousness, I wish Tommy Balne and Megan Knowlton Balne a belated very happy anniversary and the best of success in all their future personal and creative endeavors. I’ve watched them perform on numerous occasions and am a great admirer of their work.

Following the performance, actors Jake Hufner and Emily Brennan allowed the audience to see their home sets. Emily showed infinite creativity in designing hers. Perhaps in a tangential reference to the ongoing pandemic, she may have wanted to infer the importance of good hygiene. Emily converted her shower into a stage. Compliments to both her ingenuity and excellent sound quality.

Based on the original presentation of Proof, the Masquerade Theatre should experience exponential growth. The company scheduled a live presentation of Great Expectations this December. This performance will have an audience in the building’s interior. They are also planning to shift Proof to the live stage in May 2021. The same cast is slated to perform.

That will be a solid solution to equal the expectations of those interested in the Masquerade Theatre’s function.

Q.E.D.

 

The Who’s Tommy at Haddonfield Plays and Players

No company can celebrate an anniversary like Hadonfield Plays and Players.

A half century ago on this February 14th four lads from Shepherd’s Bush London performed a concert to promote their latest release: a “rock opera” about a deaf, dumb and blind boy with a skill at playing pinball. That Valentine’s Day gig from 1970 has been immortalized by the iconic recording Live at Leeds.

Tommy extended the artistic boundaries of Rock and Roll music upon its release in 1969. Then the record’s “amazing journey” continued. In 1975, The Who decided to “join together” with director Ken Russell to “relay” it to the silver screen. Taking his own advice never to “spend his guitar or pen,” Pete Townshend (and Des McAnuff) adapted Tommy into a musical in 1992.

Adding to the concept’s “success story,” Haddonfield Plays and Players opened their 2020 season with The Who’s Tommy. Your correspondent attended this “welcome” addition to the company’s repertoire on January 31st. HPP didn’t have to “bargain” with him to do so, either.

Bill C. Fikaris proved himself a “sensation” through his direction of this show. Along with Music Director Arlo Ehly, Musical Conductor Alex Ayala and Choreographer Chris McGinnis, the team at HPP injected the spirit of Pete Townshend’s masterpiece into the performance. They presented a high energy show with a lot of movement. Can one imagine anything based on The Who’s music without it?

The Who’s fans can now claim their favorite group capable of producing a high-tech visual spectacle on par with a Pink Floyd show. The design and special effects brought the audience into the world of the story. Chris Miller’s lighting strips positioned at the four corners of the stage added a unique style of illumination to the set. Sound and Projection Designer Pat DeFusco produced stellar visuals. They simulated London flats, an RAF airfield and neon arcade signs. Set designers Ed Ortiz and Glenn Funkhouser painted a Union Jack on the stage floor. The ubiquitous smoke gave the show the aura of a rock concert.

The ambiance was vintage Who. It would have made Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry, John Entwistle and Keith Moon proud. Its authenticity made your correspondent wary of getting hit by shrapnel from smashed guitars and exploding drum kits.

In addition to his musical genius, Mr. Townshend showed creativity at crafting memorable characters. Mr. Fikaris selected gifted performers to bring them to the stage.

The show featured three incarnations of Tommy. Wesley Halloway played the four year old version, Nicky Intrieri performed the 10 year old one and Dennis Summerville took on the role of adult Tommy. All three Tommys sang the high-pitched melody from the “See Me, Feel Me” number. Their vocals sounded cleaner and more professional than those on the original 1969 album.

Mr. Fikaris utilized these performers effectively during the mirror scenes. While one Tommy stared into the looking glass, a different one gazed back. It made for one of the show’s most spectacular visuals.

Mr. Summerville played an outstanding Tommy. He enacted all of Tommy’s personality traits with equal skill. The performer stood still with a blank stare while either in front of the mirror or playing pinball. Mr. Summerville became enthusiastic following Tommy’s moment of realization. He accompanied it with a stirring rendition of “Welcome.” His impassioned vocals captured the essence of “I’m Free” after Mrs. Walker (Shaina Egan) smashed the mirror.

Listening to theatrical vocalists sing Rock and Roll songs is always entertaining. Mr. Summerville made it more of a pleasure than usual. He belted out powerful vocals on the heavier songs such as “Pinball Wizard” and “Sensation.” His soft falsetto on “See Me, Feel Me” articulated the character’s sensitive side.

Justin Walsh played Tommy’s father, Captain Walker. Mr. Walsh’s face held the look of a concerned parent all evening. During the “Acid Queen” and “Hawker” numbers, he showed the nuance between an expression of anxiety and one of repulsion. Mr. Walsh modulated the character’s outlook by singing “There’s a Doctor I’ve Found” with an optimistic tone. He also showed professional acting ability during the altercation between the Lover (played by Keian Hagstrom) and he.

Shaina Egan performed a superior Mrs. Walker. Ms. Egan adopted a very natural sounding British accent for the role. Her expressive facial movements showed the character’s inner turmoil regarding her son’s condition. Her vocals captured the upbeat sentiments of “Twenty-One” and “It’s a Boy” with sincerity. Ms. Egan expressed Mrs. Walker’s frustration through her rendition of “Smash the Mirror.” Her Townshendesqe swinging motion of the chair added a nice touch.

Gary Werner played the lovable lush Uncle Ernie. Mr. Werner added humor to the show during his “Fiddle About” and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” numbers. The performer added a slight slur to his voice. Mr. Werner did so in a clever way. One could understand his character drank. He still expressed the lyrics so that the audience could understand them.

“Acid Queen” would make the list of Tommy’s best numbers. Legends Tina Turner and Patti LaBelle even sang it with The Who. While an intimidating song to attempt, Joyel Crawford met the challenge. Ms. Crawford gave the song the sultry, soulful treatment it warranted.

Jerrod Ganesh performed the role of the sadistic Cousin Kevin. Mr. Ganesh’s vicious vocals and quick movements demonstrated he character’s malicious nature. He applied the cigarette prop for maximum effect.

Courtney Bundens portrayed Sally Simpson. With a pining look from “behind blue eyes” Ms. Bundens showed her character’s infatuation with Tommy. The performer’s vocals on “Sally Simpson” and “Sally’s Question” made the character even more likable.

Tommy even included a number written by a legendary bluesman. As the huckster Hawker, Keian Hagstrom sang Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Eyesight to the Blind.” In this sequence, performer Faith McCleery portrayed the harmonica player. Ms. McCleery made her character even more interesting than the Marilyn Monroe icon in the movie version of Tommy.

Tommy contained mesmerizing dance sequences. “Pinball Wizard”, “Acid Queen” and “Miracle Cure” featured spectacular routines. Dance Captain Nicole Lukaitis set a stellar example for the ensemble. The Lads and Lasses executed elaborate moves all evening.

In addition to some different lyrics and arrangements, Mr. Townshend added a “new song” to the musical version of Tommy. This refreshing inclusion of something different made the musical more appealing. Justin Walsh and Shaina Egan delivered a beautiful duet on “I Believe My Own Eyes.”

Other members of the Production Team included: Producer Tami Funkhouser, Stage Manager Omi Parrilla-Dunne, Set Builder Glen Funkhouser, Set Construction/Sound Engineer Kalman Dunne, Costume Designer Renee McCleery, Costume Assistant Brennan Diorio, and Properties Nicole DeRosa Lukaitis and Tami Funkhouser.

The following performers completed the cast: Audrey DiEnno, Jaime Weingard, Jonathan Greenstein, Jake Van Horn, Jake Hufner, Gia Lukatis and Gianna Leonen.

Who fans who would go “anyway, anyhow, anywhere” to experience the band’s music would be well served to go to Haddonfield Plays and Players this February. The opportunity is also a “bargain” for fans of community theatre in South Jersey. Hop in your “magic bus” and head over to the playhouse. “The song is over” this February 15th. So is this run of Tommy at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

 

 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at Burlington County Footlighters

This is not an easy show, as director Alex Davis prefaced her remarks in the playbill. That’s a trenchant point. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead included themes from the disciplines of rhetoric, philosophy and mathematics. Add to that some Shakespearean dialog and an approach to action that made sitting through a Beckett play seem like watching the X-Games. Some would argue that Tom Stoppard produced the theatrical equivalent to Jerry Seinfeld’s “show about nothing.” Whatever one’s take, I’m sure most would agree it makes for some pretty deep theatre. I attended the opening night performance on November 2nd at Burlington County Footlighters.

High minded dialog combined with stretches where little action occurs puts a lot of pressure on the actors. Ms. Davis selected the perfect duo for this challenge with Josh Ireland and Matt Dell’Olio.

One of the key precepts of writing is to hook the reader with the first sentence. The same goes for drama. Mr. Stoppard proved himself quite the iconoclast. This show began with two characters discussing the results of coin tosses for several minutes. That forced the actors to interest the audience through their histrionic skills alone. Mr. Ireland and Mr. Dell’Olio deserve great respect for meeting this challenge.

The conversations seemed to shift topic randomly. While ostensibly about dry subjects on the surface, it contained serious philosophical undertones. The dialog even modulated into Shakespearean language during several scenes. Once again: Mr. Ireland and Mr. Dell’Olio didn’t allow the difficult material to impede their performances.

Mr. Ireland played a spirited Rosencrantz. In addition to his natural means of speaking, he displayed the perfect gestures. At times they reflected my own confusion with some of Mr. Stoppard’s complex dialog.

Mr. Ireland showed poise when a miscue occurred. During the opening scene one of the coins rolled into the audience. He leapt off the stage, said, “Excuse me”, took it from the spectator who had it, and resumed playing the scene. Even during this unexpected incident, he remained in character.

In 2016 Mr. Dell’Olio took delivering a soliloquy to a new level. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone he made the selfish justifications of a narcissist sound as weighty as Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” oration. It seemed fitting that he’d play a role that interacted with the same character who delivered it.

Mr. Dell’Olio treated audiences to another sublime performance. He showed exceptional stage presence as Guildenstern. Mr. Dell’Olio displays a method of speaking that makes even the commonplace sound profound. Through his gestures he brings powerful emotion to his roles. It’s a testament to his abilities that even this material didn’t restrain him from delivering a Matt Dell’Olio style performance.

As The Player, Dennis Doherty delivered the funniest line of the show. “We’re actors! We’re the opposite of people!” Mr. Doherty also brought out one of the script’s most serious themes. His character demonstrated the subtext that explored the relationship between reality and art. Mr. Doherty executed both the humorous and serious attributes of this character brilliantly.

It’s quite an achievement to make madness and a hunger for vengeance comical. Enter John Hager. He transformed Hamlet into one of the funniest characters I’ve seen performed on stage. Mr. Hager selected the perfect voice for the role. Through his eccentric mannerisms, he made the audience laugh even when not speaking.

Performers Howard Goldberg, Jenny Scudder, David Rizzo, Liz Baldwin, Courtney Bundens, Joshua Kurtz, John Salera and Michael Mueller rounded out the cast.

This high minded show became a high tech spectacle. Jim Frazer’s set and lighting design established a perfect setting for the dramatic action. The use of projections and lighting created flawless impressions of nighttime and daybreak. Amanda Cogdell’s period costuming transformed the stage into a replica of seventeenth century Denmark.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead made for an evening of sophisticated theatre. Ms. Davis added:

You could look at it through the lens of existentialism, questioning whether or not these men truly are free to choose their own paths, or if their fate is sealed and, in turn question your own reality, and whether or not YOU choose your own destiny.

The show may not be “easy”, but the choice to see it is. For those allowing fate to decide whether they should, flip a coin: preferably one of Rosencrantz’s. For South Jersey theatregoers who prefer to control their own destinies, the show runs through November 17th at Burlington County Footlighters. After that it meets the same fate as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…and Hamlet…and Ophelia…and Polonius…and Claudius…