Dave Pallas

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.