Evan Newlin

The Hotspurs!: Spur of the Moment at the Ritz Theatre Company

Your correspondent experienced literal chills as he stood outside the Ritz Theatre on Friday night. Inside, South Jersey’s premiere improv troupe, the Hotspurs!, were about to end their three month hiatus from the stage. In retrospect, the brisk winds, frigid temperatures and alcohol withdraw may have had something to do with those shakes, too. At any rate, John Hager, Evan Harris, Sean O’Malley Brendan Rucci and Andrew Snellen returned to perform a Valentine’s Day comedy extravaganza on February 7th. Love and laugher from the audience resulted.

Mr. Rucci opened the show by singing a lugubrious love song while playing the piano. In the backdrop, hearts and red streamers adorned the Ritz stage. The rest of the group then made an obstreperous entrance as music blared over the loudspeakers.

The members expressed their confusion as to whether they were performing a Valentine’s Day or President’s Day show. Mr. Harris needled Mr. O’Malley by making a reference to President Taft. The latter, of course, is the only American President to also serve as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. This abstract allusion to the current President’s reputation for being law abiding in the wake of the impeachment trial was pretty slick. Either that or Mr. O’Malley is the most legal minded of the five. Either way, the addition of topical humor worked.

The members of the 1960s psychedelic rock group Cream said that they rehearsed the beginning and ends of their songs. Everything in the middle they improvised. The Hotspurs! plan out even less of their shows. They script the opening and plan the sequence and participants of the improv games. Everything else that happens on stage is “spur of the moment.”

The show at the Ritz Theatre lasted an hour longer than the other shows they’ve performed. It allowed the group the opportunity to bring more of their classic routines to the stage. They included their standard improv games: “Half Life,” “Pan Left,” “Twists,” “Director,” “Infomercial” as well as others. In all cases they solicited either settings, emotions or character suggestions from the audience. When someone recommended a character they had played before, Mr. Rucci asked for another idea. The original ideas the audience presented gave the traditional routines a fresh edge.

Adding to the originality, the Hotspurs! added some new games to their repertoire. They included: “Best Date / Worst Date,” “Oscar Winning Monolog” and “Start Every Sentence with a Letter of the Alphabet.”

Some Hotspurs! routines include audience participation. “Best Date / Worst Date” featured something unique. The group invited community theatre performer Michael Pliskin and his girlfriend Lauren to come up to the stage. The pair discussed some activities they like to do together. Building off of their stories, the group then performed two sketches. One enacted a perfect date between the couple, the second showed a horrible date between the two.

Your correspondent has written that no one can tell a story like Mr. Pliskin. It appears that no one can inspire a story like he does, either. Mr. Hager played him. Mr. Harris performed as Lauren. The two brought exaggerated caricatures of the couple to the stage. They acted out comical references to alcoholism and the teaching profession. “We’re teachers,” Mr. Harris said with a slur. “People trust us to work with and teach children.”

Local writer Thomas Halper expressed a theory about humor and national tragedies. He told your correspondent that the greater the tragedy the more extreme the jokes are in response to it. (A particularly gruesome one circulated after JFK’s assassination.) This reviewer found that interesting as he’d never heard anyone tell a joke referencing the events of 9/11.

Until now.

The group performed a game called “Oscar Winning Monolog.” The audience provided the “sexy occupation” of firefighter. Mr. Harris and Mr. Snellin delivered an improvised scene. At a crucial point, Mr. Rucci stopped them. He informed Mr. Harris, “Evan, this is your Oscar winning monolog.”

The spotlight shone on Mr. Harris. He improvised a speech about a fireman’s picnic that took place every year on September 11th: “except that one year.” While the group asked the audience “not to take to Twitter,” the way Mr. Newlin made the reference wasn’t offensive or in bad taste. The soliloquy about a firefighter who saves a clown, but not the children at a party however…

Comedian Bill Hicks observed: “It’s only funny until someone gets hurt. Then it’s just hilarious.” The Hotspurs! may have blazed a comedy trail regarding that one. They certainly scorched a few throats.

The “Start Every Sentence with A Letter of the Alphabet” routine required Mr. Hager, Mr. Harris, Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Snellen to deliver sentences that began with the next letter of the alphabet. In other words, if one person said something that began with the letter d, the next person would start a sentence with the letter e. But, being the Hotspurs!, the group added a twist.

Before beginning this improv game, Mr. Rucci held up a bottle of hot sauce. The label instructed that it be diluted before use. Being the rebels they are, the Hotspurs! ignored the warning. Each member of the group took a spoonful of scalding seasoning. With each other’s screams in the background, they managed to complete the exercise. The four members crafted the requisite 26 sentences.

As of this writing, one hopes everyone is okay.

Each member of the group had his own stand out moment. People will be talking about Mr. Harris’ “Oscar Winning Monolog.” During the Dating Game, John Hager performed a dramatic rendition of Spider-man’s demise. While playing the director, Mr. O’Malley instructed Mr. Hager to put bleach in his eyes. “It’s my vision,” He said. “You don’t get to have any.” Mr. Snellen crafted the best one liner of the evening. An audience member suggested the question, “What’s something you could say to a hooker and your grandmother?” Mr. Snellen replied, “Take your teeth out.”

This reviewer had one criticism of the show. It began 15 minutes after the scheduled 8:00 PM start time. Some performers like to build dramatic tension by delaying their entry. This was a comedy show. The delay wasn’t necessary.

Obviously, audiences should leave the young children at home before attending a Hotspurs! performance. Of course, if a parent thinks it’s a good idea to take a child to see comedy improv, their kids will grow up with worse problems than seeing a Hotspurs! show.

The Hotspurs! have sold out Burlington County Footlighters multiple times. They sold close to 200 tickets for this gig. They will return to the Ritz Theatre on Friday, March 27th. Those interested in attending that show are strongly encouraged to purchase tickets now. If the group decide to give it an Easter theme, they may all come out dressed as bunnies. The seats in the back will sell fast.

 

Night of the Living Hotspurs! at Burlington County Footlighters

They’re baaaack!

This October 18th marked the return of the Hotspurs! to Burlington County Footlighters. The comedy team of John Hager, Evan Harris, Sean O’Malley, Brendan Rucci and Andrew Snellin entertained the audience with their unique brand of improvisational humor. Your correspondent attended the Friday, October 18th performance.

For this Halloween themed installment of the Hotspurs! Burlington County Footlighters established proper mood. In addition to the usual multi-colored square and rectangle decorum, the organizers added a few items to create a spooky ambiance. They included a series of chains draped about the stage, along with cuffs and a dark hued tombstone. A metal tub of water set upon a pedestal. It had a more eerie purpose than serving as a means for apple bobbing, but more on that later.

For the third consecutive time tickets to a Hotspurs! performance at Footlighters sold out. The group made the announcement 48 hours before the show. So would this performance justify the hype? Or would the audience feel like they were the ones in cuffs and chains throughout the evening?

The Hotspurs! set the comedic tone upon entering the stage. All five members wore Halloween costumes. The most outrageous were Mr. Rucci in a dress and Mr. Hager disguised as a banana. The performers explained they each thought the group decided upon different Halloween themes.

The opening served as the only scripted portion of the evening. The Hotspurs! improvised all the other sketches they performed.

The team commenced their spur-of-the-moment hijinks with their classic improv game: “Half-Life.” The audience provided Disney World as a location that someone wouldn’t expect to find haunted. Performers Sean O’Malley and Andrew Snellin had one minute to enact a sketch based on that suggestion. Following that, they then had to perform it in 30 seconds, then 15 seconds, then seven seconds, then three seconds and, finally, one second. Funny (and quick) banter between Goofy and Mickey resulted.

The four members of the group then combined for another improv game. They called this one “Pan Left.” It entailed a team of two members each performing a sketch together. When Mr. Rucci yelled: “Pan left”, they would rotate and two different Hotspurs! members would act out the next sketch. Based upon the audience’s suggestions, one pair performed a scene in a church, another did one involving the internet and the last one did a routine that included a snake. As much as this challenged the performers, they executed the added task of keeping the dialog comical.

The Hotspurs! revisited their classic “Press Conference” routine for this performance. John Hager, Evan Harris, Brenden Rucci, and Andrew Snellin played reporters. The audience provided the scenario: “Hannibal Lechter becomes vegan.” Without knowing that, Sean O’Malley had to guess what the spectators suggested based upon the reporters’ questions. In addition to providing creative responses, Mr. O’Malley guessed his character.

The team also reprised their “Scenes from a Hat” routine. Prior to the performance, audience members wrote down scenes. Andrew Snellin showed that there’s a place for dark, high-minded humor even in improvisational comedy. He came up with the best line of the evening. In response to the prompt: things you would say to your best friend, but not your partner, he replied, “You’re my best friend.”

As unique as these routines were, the Hotspurs! opted to push the comedy envelope on this evening. Evan Harris and Sean O’Malley played a skit called “Pillars.” They had to improvise a sketch based on the audience’s suggestion. In this case it recommended: “crystal ball.” The group added a twist with this one.

They invited two audience members to come on stage. The participants would move the performers’ arms and legs. Mr. Harris and Mr. O’Malley would adjust the dialog based on the posture the audience members set for them. The latter proved pretty creative. One has to credit the performers for getting through the sketch without laughing: unlike the spectators.

The Hotspurs! added a dramatic scene to their repertoire. This one included a twist. Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Harris performed opposite one another while the other group members placed marshmallows in their mouths. Their comments included some of the most intelligent things this reviewer has heard in weeks.

The team included a skit called “Bartender.” Andrew Snellin played the lead role. Mr. Hager, Mr. Harris and Mr. O’Malley portrayed his customers. Each told him of a problem they had. Mr. Snellin provided advice. While a difficult endeavor to execute spontaneously in front of a live audience, the team included an additional complication: they performed all of this in song. Mr. Rucci accompanied on the keyboards. Andrew Lloyd Webber couldn’t craft as witty a take on clown assassins: and he’s had an entire lifetime to do so. The Hotspurs! pulled it off in a few minutes.

The sell-out crowd at Footlighters showed the group’s real-life skills at salesmanship. It seemed fitting that they applied them within a comedic framework. Mr. Hager and Mr. Harris acted out an infomercial. The purpose was to help people stop biting their nails. The two used a box of props. They didn’t know its contents until they opened it on stage. One must credit the performers themselves for not biting their nails when faced with this uncertainty.

As this was a Halloween themed show, the team concluded with a bit of terror. They utilized the metal tub mentioned earlier as a prop for their “Bucket of Death” routine. The audience provided the topic of “doppelganger.” Mr. Harris explained the set-up. One member of the team would have his head submerged in water at all times; they would alternate who that was throughout the sketch. The others would enact the scene until either: “it comes to a good conclusion or one of us drowns.” I guess that explains why the Hotspurs! were performing the “Bucket of Death” for the first time.

During a Jeopardy! Style game called “Nouns” the answer posed to the four group members was Hotspurs! Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Harris both came up the same question: “What is a way to waste $10?” This reviewer and the audience would disagree. The group once again provided wonderful comedy entertainment to a full house. The real question is: “What’s a bargain for improvisational comedy entertainment?”

 

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.