Doug Cohen

Act 1 Scene 1 One-Act Festival Weekend at The Village Playbox

South Jersey contains a lot of artistic talent. To provide a forum for these creatives to practice their crafts, many community theatre companies feature play festivals for amateur playwrights. These events tend to last one evening and conclude after just a few hours.

The team at the Village Playbox decided to make their play festival just that: a festival. Their Act 1 Scene 1 One-Act Festival Weekend occurred over three nights and featured twenty shows. I attended the performances on Thursday, September 12th, Friday, September 13th and Saturday, September 14th.

With that much time and material, it wasn’t surprising that the plays covered a wide range of subject matter. Ryan Kaminski’s The Meadow (directed by Jennifer Evans) related the story of a woman who hired a private detective to investigate her husband. She suspected both his infidelity and that he wanted to murder her. Jason Pollock’s The Caterer (which he also directed) portrayed a caterer who lacked customer service skills, but had some interesting ideas about keeping his marriage vibrant. Jennifer Wilson wrote and directed Conceit; a piece that explored the perils of narcissism.

The plays presented addressed some topical issues.

We live in an era when many Americans fear losing their jobs to robotics. Playwright Cooper Gorelic applied this concern to the domain of theater in Fifth Ed. Performers Stephen Kreal, Donna Supulski and Kacper Miklus portrayed a world where even actors aren’t immune from this phenomenon. Gary Kochley directed.

The program also included serious dramatic works.

Heidi Mae’s Black Friday surveyed one of modern society’s scourges. Performers Amy Bannister, Ariel Golan, and Kacper Miklus explored the difficult decision a woman must make about coming forward as a victim of sexual assault. Chrissy Wick directed.

Ms. Mae explained that this piece serves as Act II of a three part drama she’scrafted. I found the Black Friday segment strong enough for presentation on its own.

The measured pacing added to the story’s tension. It opened with two women recounting the events of Thanksgiving night. What began as funny recollections of an evening of hard drinking steadily transitioned into darker reminiscences. The dual meanings of the title enhanced the story’s meaning.

The festival contained several comedic pieces.

Kevin Stephany contributed a comical take on the most despicable form of life ever to inhabit the Earth: the blogging community theatre critic. In The Director Becomes the Critic Steve Allen took on the role of a director struggling to respond to a barrage of so-called “ideas” from a community theatre critic. Gregory Furman played the latter. Jenn Evans directed.

Heidi Mae wrote and directed a one-person version of Meeting Heaven for this festival. Performer Michelle Tomko played multiple roles in this tale of unrequited love in a strange love triangle.

The five person cast of Meeting Heaven made the top seven finalists at The Ritz Theatre’s 10-Minute Comedy Play Festival in June of 2020. I was curious to see how Ms. Mae would organize this play with only one actor.

Ms. Tomko took the audience on the narrator’s voyage through states of exhilaration, bliss and disappointment. She did so while reciting all the story’s dialog and narration herself. While doing so the performer added the appropriate gestures and facial expressions to enrich the tale. I also enjoyed her clever use of the Panama hat as a prop.

Ms. Mae’s text contained a host of lyrical flourishes. My favorites included.

            She wore what angels wore on their day off.

            If I had a dollar for every dame who played Emily in Our Town I wouldn’t have to write anymore.

            Meeting Heaven put me in Hell.

Cooper Gorelick gave the audience a dose of dark humor in Post Mortem. For this piece, the audience accompanied a man (played by D. Michael Farley) from his last trip to the hospital through his corpse’s journey to its final resting place. Cara Dickinson and Hayley Melvin added their comedic skills to the cast. Ashley Bianchimano directed.

Tom Chin presented a comical spin on the power of reverse psychology with Hello Again. Doug Cohen directed this tale of a cold calling salesman (played by Kevin Dahm) using unorthodox means to sell to his customer (played by Jenn Evans).

Mr. Chin also contributed two other pieces to the festival. Doug Cohen also directed the poignant The Bright Red Popsicle Sticks about two elderly women ruminating on the trials of love. Gary Kochey directed the comedy of two brothers out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Won Ton.

Cooper Gorelick put a twist on an old cliché by showing that all is fair in love and love of pie through his comical piece Pie Fight. It featured performers Ashley Bianchimano (who also directed), Cara Dickinson and Haley Melvin. These players last shared the stage together in the farcical piece Noises Off! presented by the Village Playbox in February 2019. The trio carried over the slapstick hijinks from that show into Mr. Gorelick’s piece.

No theatrical festival would be complete without serious dramatic pieces. The Village Playbox included memorable plays in this one.

Kevin Stephany’s Family Reunion concluded the opening night performance. Chrissy Wick directed the real life father and son team of Steve Allen and Kyle Allen in this story of an estranged father and son reunited at the wife/mother’s deathbed.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should inform readers that the person writing this review is the same Kevin Stephany who wrote the play. While it sounds cliché, I like to think of myself as my own toughest critic. Steve Allen’s performance made it difficult for me to find flaw with this show.

Two weeks before the play festival, Steve Allen wrote in a Facebook post:

Even though the play is only 10 minutes long, it has been the most emotionally draining and challenging experience in my theatre life.

Following the performance he added:

It may have only been 10 minutes long, it may have only been acting, but the emotion was real.

So was the passion he brought to the role.

To paraphrase something I mentioned to Mr. Allen after the show: I wrote the play. I knew the story. I still felt uncomfortable watching it. That’s a testament to the skill of Steve, Kyle and Ms. Wick.

Both Steve and Kyle executed the myriad pauses in the script perfectly. Their proficient enactments of them added even more tension to the conflict between the characters.

It would figure that the best parts of something I wrote would be the sections without any words.

Erin Blackwell’s Hey El? followed the relationship of two sisters as one suffered  from cancer.  Chal Gallagher, Carol Furphy-Labinsky and Erin Blackwell brought strong emotions into this moving drama. Their skilled portrayals allowed me to feel the sensations of love and loss between the characters. John Blackwell directed.

Prolific playwright Joseph A. Dewan contributed six pieces to the festival. He directed all of them.

Border contained an outstanding surprise mid-way through the story. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t mention it here.

Mr. Dewan wrote an excellent version of a spy vs. spy story. He included a good balance of intrigue and romance to make it more engaging.

In Exchange, Kacper Miklus and Amy Bannister played undercover agents during the Cold War; he from the United States and she from the Soviet Union. As part of a goodwill program sponsored by their governments they exchanged presents for the Holiday Season. During their ensuing conversation they discovered they had much more in common than just their occupations.

Mr. Dewan crafted a heartwarming story with a delightful twist in Nosey.  Joseph Chialastri played an embittered former clown confined to a hospital bed. Ariel Golan took on the role of a candy striper tasked with lightening his mood.

Sheltered was another well written piece. The plot contained exceptional conflict. Mr. Dewan played a bitter miser opposite Amy Bannister’s bubbly animal adoption agent. Stephen Kreal completed the cast on this entertaining tale about the redemptive power of pets.

Two one act monologues also appeared in Mr. Dewan’s repertoire. The playwright showed a lot of creativity with The C Word. In addition to the attention getting title a preacher served as the lone character. The plot contained an excellent twist when the narrator revealed the actual C word.

In Smoke, Mr. Dewan didn’t simply lead his character through a range of emotions. He enacted the entire scope of the human experience. That’s quite a feat for a one act monologue.

I’d also credit the Village Playbox for the clever bit of subliminal advertising they worked into the program. Jennifer Wilson let out a high pitched scream at the end of Conceit. Her vocal range reminded me a bit of Deep Purple’s legendary front man Ian Gillian’s.

As theatre fans know, Mr. Gillian also played the role of Jesus Christ in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. The Village Playbox will be presenting the theatrical version of it in May of 2020. Could they have included a prelude of the vocal stylings it will showcase into their play festival?

The Village Playbox production team included Producer Lauren Fabbri-Picerno, Stage Manager Mandi Heims and Gary Kochey on sound and lighting. The following completed the cast of actors who performed in the festival: Joey Bianchimano, Mary Corr Dewan, Sheila MacDonald, Jason Pollock, Thom Reese, Jessica Allen Shockley, Dee Stenton, Chrissy Wick, Jen Wilson and Nikki Zane.

September 13th may be an unlucky day for some, but the Village Playbox made it and the days around it lucky ones for theatre fans, actors and playwrights. It showed all of us how lucky we are to live in such an artistically vibrant area as South Jersey.

 

 

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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.