David Auburn

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.

 

Theatre Review – Proof at Burlington County Footlighters Second Stage

Based on data accumulated over the years, I’ve developed a hypothesis that Burlington County Footlighters’ Second Stage possesses a formula for excellent shows. This derivative is congruent with the mode of an outstanding theatre company. I figured the probability of them continuing to do so variable in proportion to their locus of material. Their operation has proved my theory many times, but the outcome usually defies logic. The product they delivered in the form of Proof took their reputation to another plane.

I had the opportunity to evaluate this event on its opening night June 17th. I’m pleased to write that my reflection will not be a mean one. That’s a good ‘sine.’ Director Jillian Starr-Renbjor’s translation of the text into a stage production made for a terrific outcome.

I enjoyed the plot’s complexity. There seemed no limit to the quantity of conflict. Catherine (played by Rachel Comenzo) struggled to cope with her father’s death, her abrasive sister’s badgering her to move to New York, and the professional and possibly personal interests of one of her father’s former students. All this drama may seem unequal to the boundaries of a two hour show. But there was more. At the midpoint the play centered on Catherine’s revelation of an oblique proof of unknown origin: one that could revolutionize the field of mathematics.

When I discovered that Rachel Comenzo would be playing the role of a ‘math geek’ it didn’t add up. Much to her credit, the moment the show opened, she became the character. While the large glasses, sweat suit and hair worn back fit Catherine’s appearance, Ms. Comenzo became her. I liked her utilization of quick dialog and snappy swearing. The way she’d pause and with a wry smile sarcastically reply to Claire’s (played by Betty Moseley) strained questioning showed exceptional artistic aptitude. In the scenes prior to Catherine’s father passing away she adjusted her speaking to a more deliberate pace. Emile Zola once observed that: “To be an artist requires the gift. To have the gift requires hard work.” Ms. Comenzo showed me that she took the time to really understand and immerse herself in the character.

Watching Ms. Comenzo in a role this complex was the key feature of this run. In the past I’ve watched her play Bonnie (in Bonnie and Clyde), Morticia (in The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy) and Curley’s wife (in Of Mice and Men).  I found all of those characters to be one-dimensional, but the strength of Ms. Comenzo’s performances made every one of them interesting and memorable. I wondered how she would play a strong, multi-dimensional character. Her performance proved she was equal to the task. It’s a struggle for me to find the proper superlatives to describe how well she brought Catherine to life.

DJ Hedgepath once again showed why the theatre is his prime domain. As expected, this thespian displayed his superior range as a performer. Hal’s character required him to display the traits of a nervous suitor, a studious mathematician and a person with questionable motives; at least in the other characters’ perceptions. Mr. Hedgepath convincingly depicted them all.

As they function so well together, I welcomed the opportunity to watch Ms. Comenzo and Mr. Hedgepath share the same stage again. The contrasts between their characters allowed their reciprocal skills to feed off one another. She playing the intellectual struggling with powerful inner demons, he as her father’s ambitious former student. In Proof these opposites became an ordered pair. Their enactments showed why these two masters are fast becoming icons on the South Jersey Community Theatre circuit.

Becky Moseley delivered a solid performance as Claire. Her character couldn’t seem to get along with anybody except a few partying mathematicians, but I really enjoyed watching her. I liked her performance best during her first scene with Ms. Comenzo. The way Ms. Moseley established tension through her delayed delivery and short questions made the dialog reminiscent of Harold Pinter. I felt uncomfortable listening to her interrogation. That’s the kind of emotional response great performers bring about in audience members.

Bernard Dicasimirro took on the challenging role of Robert: a brilliant mathematician who deteriorated into a mentally imbalanced man. I always applaud performers who select these types of characters. In a sense one has to play two distinctly unique personalities during the same evening. Just like a well-educated intellectual Mr. Dicasimirro spoke very professionally and calmly in his lucid scenes. Then he ranted like a madman while explaining his groundbreaking proof to Catherine. I’d read the play, but I even jumped when he ordered Catherine to read it.

Some unnerving statistics bothered me about this show. The set had a smaller surface area than the mainstage at Footlighters, but it still seemed unequal to the lack of people in the audience. Aside from myself, I noticed only two other people who aren’t community theater performers in South Jersey. I read Proof before I saw it on the stage. While the prospect of going out on Friday or Saturday night to watch a play about math may not sound like a great option, it does explore a great human drama.

A dedicated cast and crew with the addition of a great director factor into all of BCF Second Stage’s presentations. Upon reflection I’ve found that in all probability a normal show for them will contain great emotional power; the origin of which will be the degree of talent from the combination of the performers. Their presentation of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize Winning play wasn’t an outlier. The frequency Footlighters’ Second Stage puts on such dramas is the difference. The volume of their quality of work gives them a unique angle. The $10 price tag made this showing an absolute value. For those needing an entertaining evening out in the Cinnaminson area this June, I’d rate seeing Proof the best solution to that problem.

 

Drama Review – Proof by David Auburn

Someone postulated that I should read this play. With this theorem in mind, I set out to prove it. After reasoning my way through the text, I came up with the following axiom: David Auburn’s play Proof is a work of genius that readers can appreciate on many levels. As I always strive to write professional reviews, allow me to show the work that went into my proof.

Given: David Auburn wrote Proof.

Prove: Proof showed what the best playwrights can do with complex subject matter.

Statement: Proof possessed many literary techniques that lesser playwrights could debase into banality. David Auburn crafted them with the proficiency of a conductor orchestrating a symphony.

Reason: Even in the opening pages, the dialog made me uncomfortable. The story began as Catherine’s father presented her with a bottle of champagne. How to write this delicately? This party wasn’t as upbeat or as festive as the one Harold Pinter described in The Birthday Party. (Yes, that’s saying something.) The tension in this conversation between Catherine and her father jarred me. Here’s an excerpt.

Robert: A girl who’s drinking from the bottle shouldn’t complain. Don’t guzzle it. It’s an elegant beverage. Sip.

Catherine: (Offering the bottle) Do you-

Robert: No. Go ahead.

Catherine: You sure?

Robert: Yeah. It’s your birthday.

Catherine: Happy Birthday to me.

Robert: What are you going to do on your birthday?

Catherine: Drink this. Have some.

Robert: No. I hope you’re not spending your birthday alone.

Catherine: I’m not alone.

Robert: I don’t count.

Catherine: Why not?

Robert: I’m your old man. Go out with some friends.

Catherine: Right.

Robert: Your friends aren’t taking you out?

Catherine: Because in order to for your friends to take you out you generally have to have friends.

Robert: (Dismissive) Oh-

Catherine: It’s funny how that works. (Page 7)

I almost had to close the book and walk away from it. The tension made me that uncomfortable.

Statement: Auburn’s proficient use of foreshadowing set a new standard for it.

Reason: I won’t give away spoilers. I will comment that on several occasions in the text, seemingly innocent lines or obscure observations became clever harbingers of things to come. In fact, a veiled one appeared in the lines I quoted above. I’d hope people reading Proof for the first time experience the same astonishment that I did. It made the story that much more engaging.

Statement: In the midst of a complex plot, the playwright still managed to connect with his audience on an emotional level.

Reason: This story had some parallels with the book and film A Beautiful Mind. Robert was a brilliant mathematician with schizophrenia. Unlike John Nash, Robert’s disorder rendered him incompetent and unable to practice his craft: for a time. Then his mental health improved. He expressed great optimism about his being “back in the game” in the following exchange with Catherine. She, being the dutiful daughter, had sacrificed her personal happiness to take care of him. This discussion took place after he insisted Catherine read a “major result” for which he’d just written a proof.

Catherine: Dad. Let’s go inside.

Robert: The gaps might make it hard to follow. We can talk it through.

Catherine: You’re cold. Let’s go in.

Robert: Maybe we could work on this together. This might be a great place to start. What about it? What do you think? Let’s talk it through.

Catherine: Not now. I’m cold too. It’s really freezing out here. Let’s go inside.

Robert: I’m telling you it’s stifling in there, goddamn it. The radiators. Look, read out the first couple of lines. That’s how we start: you read, and we go line by line, out loud, through the argument. See if there’s a better way, a shorter way. Let’s collaborate.

Catherine: No. Come on.

Robert: I’ve been waiting years for this. This is something I want to do. Come on, let’s do some work together.

Catherine: We can’t do it out here. It’s freezing cold. I’m taking you in.

Robert: Not until we talk about the proof.

Catherine: No.

Robert: Goddamnit, Catherine, open the goddamn book and read me the lines.

(Beat. Catherine opens the book. She reads slowly without inflection.)

Catherine: “Let X equal the quantities of all quantities of X. Let X equal the cold. It is cold in December. The months of cold equal November through February. There are four months of cold and four of heat leaving four months of indeterminate temperature….” (Pages 73 – 74)

I’m not an emotional person. When I read Catherine’s recitation of the “proof” I could almost feel my heart breaking in my chest. Kudos to the playwright on crafting this scene so well.

Statement: Proof showed what the best playwrights can do with complex subject matter.

Reason: The story contained many plot twists. They revolved around the personalities of intricate characters. The playwright also managed to work in standard literary techniques and apply them brilliantly. In acknowledgement of these efforts, Proof received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2001.

Q. E. D.