Eilis Skamarakas

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.

Night of 1000 Plays at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Last night I discovered one of the lesser known verities about South Jersey. The Garden State serves as home to a host of creative dramatists. Fortunately for theatrical fans, Haddonfield Plays and Players provided these budding Ibsens, Ephrons and Simons with a forum to exhibit their art. With their Night of 1000 Plays, the company turned over their stage to these newcomers. I attended the second annual installment of this program on June 8th.

The stylistic range impressed me. The evening included a host of comedies, some solid dramas as well as a topical tragedy. A cautionary tale regarding the perils of not knowing The Rules to Save a Princess framed the program.

Relationships served as the most popular muse for South Jersey’s playwrights. The excerpt from Lili Myers’ The Gentle Indifference of the World (directed by Jennie Pines) explored the dynamics between four friends played by Ms. Myers, Ricky Conway, Moses Ali and Isabella Capelli. The piece contained an impressive amount of conflict and drama. Amber Kushing’s He Loves Me Not (directed by Eilis Skamarakis) allowed performers Jessi Meisel, Jeff Skomsky, and Kahil A. Wyatt to explore one woman’s struggle through an abusive relationship. Mr. Wyatt also played a witty “bad boy” as the title character in Patti Perry’s Nephew Nemesis (directed by Jeannine James). Rebecca Dilks, San Safeer and Gina Lerario rounded out the cast in this oblivious and dysfunctional family. John Cassidy’s The Teenage Boys Society (directed by Tony Yates) focused on social as well as romantic relationships. It surveyed the trials of adolescence through performers Kahlil A. Wyatt, Ricky Conway, Tony Yates, Jennie Pines and Jeff Skomsky.

Other playwrights delivered some unconventional takes on family relationships. John Cassidy’s The Golden Rule  (directed by Jennie Pines) presented to most unusual metaphor for salted butter this reviewer has ever encountered. Performers Nicole Lukaitis, Dan Safeer, Lili Myers, Isabella Capelli and Brenna Dougherty took on the various family roles in this piece.

Playwright Rich Renner crafted two vignettes influenced by observational humor. In Lisa’s Carpet (directed by Eilis Skamarakas), performers Dan Safeer, Kahlil A. Wyatt and Sheila McDonald showed the risks of trying to cover up household accidents. The same playwright also made a spectacle of the absurdity of using too many spectacles. Night Glasses (directed by Amber Kusching) showed performers Robert Bush and Debby Tighe coping with this situation as it kept them up at night.

The three acts of Casey Tingle’s (directed by the playwright and Nicole Lukaitis) The Rules to Saving a Princess occurred at the beginning, the middle and the end of the evening. Performers Jennie Pines, Krista Reinhardt, Tony Yates, Nicole Lukaitis and Ricky Conway brought this tale to the stage.

Susan Goodell’s No History (directed by Amber Kusching) showed how an unusual classified ad can lead to an uncomfortable Holiday dinner. Performers Krista Reinhardt, Sheila McDonald and Robert Bush allowed the audience to sit in on this comical Christmas chronicle.

The comedy continued with pieces such as Patti Perry’s April Fools (directed by Jeannine James).  Performers Rebecca Dilks, Jeff Skomsky, Sheila McDonald, and Kahlil A. Wyatt enacted a macabre series of jokes that led to an unexpected consequence. John Cassidy’s Artistic Architecture (directed by Eilis Skamarakas) allowed Jessi Meisel to instruct Moses Ali, Brenna Dougherty and Ricky Conway on a rather unconventional approach to the subject.

Taylor Blum crafted a dramatic take on the theme of relationships in Shattered Glass (directed by Amber Kushing). Ricky Conaway delivered a powerful monologue to enhance the writing.

The program included two high minded dramas. Both exceeded this reviewer’s expectations.

Sera Scherz crafted an impressive piece in the form of Through My Eyes (directed by Jeannine James and assistant directed by Sera Scherz). It featured performers Brenna Dougherty and Lili Myers alternating lines as they addressed the audience. The play explored the themes of vengeance, bigotry and forgiveness. Debby Tighe, Jeff Skomsky and Ricky Conway rounded out the cast.

Amber Kusching’s haunting When I Fell in Love (directed by Tony Yates) surveyed the themes of devotion and tragic loss. The playwright placed all three characters in different locations while they spoke indirectly to one another. The play also included sophisticated symbolism. Gary Werner, Nicole Lukatis and Isabella Capelli all delivered impassioned performances bringing the script to life.

While advertised as a Night of 1000 Plays, the Haddonfield Plays and Players could have also called the evening the Night of 1000 Roles. The individuals who participated in this endeavor stayed busy. Most of the performers worked in various capacities in multiple plays. Ricky Conway performed in six of them, Kahlil A. Wyatt in five and Jeff Skomsky in four. Nicole Lukaitis performed in three and directed one. Jennie Pines performed in two and directed two. Jeannine James, Isabella Capelli, Eilis Skamarakis and Amber Kusching each directed three. Ms. Kushing also wrote two of the shows presented.

In addition to her multifarious other roles, Nicole Lukaitis served as the overall program producer. I’d compliment her and stage manager Omaira Parrilla-Dune for providing such a professional environment for these playwrights to showcase their creativity. I’d also express gratitude in allowing audiences to enjoy them.

Pat DeFusco did an exceptional job as the stage announcer. His witty asides added to the evening’s entertainment value.

In the 1930s Paris became famous for its American expatriate community. Notables such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Gertrude Stein emigrated there to practice their craft. Just shy of a century later, South Jersey is developing into a similar community for aspiring writers and playwrights.

For those who missed the opportunity to experience Night of 1000 Plays during its limited run, don’t worry. I’m sure they’ll have the chance to attend plays written by these playwrights again. Just perhaps, the next time they’ll be featured in a city located slightly north of the South Jersey area.