Emily Brennan

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.



Theater Review – Born Yesterday at Haddonfield Plays and Players

At first I thought Born Yesterday a bit dated. After all, this 1946 show featured some antediluvian characters one wouldn’t recognize in the modern era. Harry Brock was an unscrupulous businessman. He’s in Washington, D. C. ostensibly to ‘sight-see’ but in actuality to bribe a senator to pass favorable legislation for his company. Norval Hedges was a senator motivated by money, not the principles of American government. Ed Devery was a corrupt alcoholic attorney. He used to work for the Justice Department, but left public service to facilitate Mr. Brock’s unethical commercial endeavors. I’ll tell you: I really had to suspend my disbelief to buy into this story.

I had the privilege of watching the Haddonfield Plays and Players troupe present this piece on Friday, February 27th. They did an exceptional job. Al Maffei really brought Harry Brock’s character to life. He strutted about the stage like a modern day emperor surveying his domain. In the tone of a New York street thug he pretentiously barked orders to his underlings; in the character’s mind this meant everybody. The casual cigar flailing added a nice touch.

Emily Brennan turned in a fine performance as the lovable, but dull-witted Billie Dawn. I found her chemistry with her love interest/paramour/ educator Paul Verrall (played by Charlie Kirkwood) well done. It brought to mind Eliza Doolitle and Professor Henry Higgins only with much more edge to it. After Verall agreed to Harry’s offer of $200.00 per week to make Billie more compatible with Washington society, she decided to give him a bit of an education of her own. (Don’t worry, folks. If you don’t mind some bad language, you can bring the kids to this show.)

Brennan also showed outstanding chemistry with Maffei. After repeatedly describing Billie as a dullard, the two sat down to a game of gin. Unlike the audience, the two thespians managed to keep straight faces to Billie’s repeated shouts of “Gin!” To date, this scene represented the best comic exchange I’ve had the privilege of watching during live theater.

Billie’s transition served as the centerpiece of the drama.  Verrall’s exposing her to books and especially, left-wing political thought, moved the story forward. The comic japes and yuks made the story much more enjoyable. Without them, this would’ve been an evening long disquisition on the dark side of unfettered capitalism, political corruption and a jaded citizenry.

I mentioned left-wing political thought, right? I’d give the playwright, Garson Kanin, credit for not turning this into a dry polemic. I should point out that several characters described Harry Brock as a ‘fascist’. He admitted he was a dealer in ‘junk’; something he took pride in. The catalyst of Billie’s change worked as a writer for the New Republic.  Yeah, Kanin wasn’t very subtle in allowing his political views to come through in the text.

All three acts of this show took place in Suite 67D in the best hotel in Washington, D. C. The crew did a phenomenal job with the set design. It included most of the suite with the exception of the kitchen and the two bedrooms. I liked that both of the latter were up a flight of stairs. That showed good attention to detail. At first I wondered if the show would keep my attention without scene changes. Thanks to the superb direction by Susan DeMinico and the performance by the cast, this issue didn’t arise.

The show runs through March 7th. I’d encourage anyone with an interest in a quality community theater performance, to see Born Yesterday presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players. While I described the show as a comedy, I should point something out. My opening remarks in this column were meant to be humorous. The more I thought about it. Born Yesterday first premiered in 1946. Unfortunately, many of the serious themes explored in the performance are just as relevant today. No amount of histrionic prowess can make that funny.