Gianna Cosby

24 Hour Play Festival at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Winston Churchill once observed: “It takes three to four weeks to write a good extemporaneous speech.” So just how long does it take to write a good play, manage the technical details and rehearse until the show becomes suitable for a live performance? Apparently, just a day according to Haddonfield Plays and Players. I attended their 24 Hour Play Festival on August 24th.

On the evening of August 23rd a group that included playwrights, directors and actors arrived at the Haddonfield Plays and Players’ playhouse. They formed teams and then were tasked with writing, producing and performing a one act play the following night. To ensure that no one brought a work already pre-written, these brave artists were asked to select from among a dozen settings, props and lines of dialog. They had to use the ones they chose in their respective plays. The playwrights crafted the scripts overnight. In the morning, the teams re-assembled and planned their shows.

Any speed writing contest is both intimidating and challenging. Fiction writers participate in Na(tional) No(vel) Wri(ting) Mo(nth). Every November they aspire to complete a 50,000 word novel in just 30 days. Theatrical performers may have raised the bar for speed, quality and grace under pressure with this 24 hour play dare.

In March of this year HPP’s Artistic Director Pat DeFusco orchestrated the company’s A Trip to Oz program. Through his creative wizardry, Mr. DeFusco transformed the playhouse into the Emerald City. Always the innovator, for the 24 Hour Playfest he led theatregoers through “a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are those of imagination.” This time he turned the playhouse into the Twilight Zone.

Three of the plays would’ve made Rod Serling proud and Richard Matheson jealous. Sans the Marius Constant introduction, theatregoers delved into the “middle ground between light and shadow.”

The show opened with a piece written and directed by Jennifer Wilson entitled Mutation.  While fans are familiar with “black box theatre”, this play may have added “black hole theatre” to the lexicon. Ms. Wilson and Sera Scherz performed the roles of a mother and daughter on an unusual quest. Using a space station as the setting, a walkie-talkie as a prop and the line: “Nothing you say can ever fix it”, these performers took the audience on an interstellar voyage “into another dimension; not only of sight and sound, but of mind.”

Amber Kusching’s Burden to Bear introduced theatregoers to a more grizzly answer to  “Talky Tina” in the form of Mr. Bear-Bear. Ms. Kushing wrote, directed and performed in this piece. The play utilized a jail as a setting, a teddy bear as a prop and the line: “There are costs that don’t include dollars and cents.” Performers James Cosby and Emma Scherz completed the cast. Ms. Kusching’s dialog transcended time while bridging events from the past and the present. The three actors navigated its intricacies brilliantly.

Danica Gabriele’s Change rounded out the trio of trips into the place “between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Ms. Gabriele also directed and performed in this story regarding three people struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Tony Killian delivered a powerful performance of a man losing his mind. Emily Colon captured both the empathy  and eeriness in her character’s personality. Ms. Gabriele’s enactment of her character reflected the dystopian nature of the story.

In addition to the macabre, teams also presented observational humor shows.

Michael Oto’s A Shitty Situation (directed by Randy Hendler) explored the conundrum resulting when someone (played by Mark Henley) fails to clean up after one’s dog. The incident caused Adele Batchelder’s and Adam Dorn’s characters to engage in a witty banter over the difference between etiquette and being indecent. A dog park served as the set, the team selected a shovel as their prop. The play included the line: “That sounds like some kind of French fruit.”  Mark Henley portrayed the offending dog’s owner.

Casey Tingle’s Save Us Elvis (directed by Adam Dorn) reminded me of Sartre’s No Exit only presented in a lighter point-of-view. The team chose a rooftop deck as their setting, an Elvis painting as the prop and had to use the line: “I want to make sure I look good when the firemen arrive.” Performers Sophia Bollar, Gianna Cosby and Cassidy Scherz showed the ingenuity people locked on the roof of an apartment building will use to get rescued.

Like any good theatrical festival, this production included serious drama.

Sharon George’s Michael in the Middle explored one man’s journey to self-discovery. The setting took place in a coffee shop, both on Earth and in the ether. A football served as the prop and the line: “You think you can come in here and (blank)” appeared in the play. While not the “required” line, Ms. George worked an excellent one into the script: “Failing doesn’t make you pathetic; giving up does.” In addition to the playwright, the cast included Kevin Leckerman and Mark Henley. Perhaps in homage to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Mr. Henley played every major character in Mr. Leckerman’s character’s life; including one female. An exceptional show resulted.

During the 24 Hour Play Festival’s opening announcements, Mr. DeFusco explained with his dry sense of humor that “these plays didn’t exist 24 hours ago. Some of them will never be seen ever again.” Theatrical fans should hope that his Confession isn’t one of them.

Mr. DeFusco’s fans received the full Pat DeFusco experience on August 24th. In addition to producing and designing the sound and projections, Mr. DeFusco wrote, directed and performed the moving monolog: Confession. This play took place in a church, a rose served as the prop and it included the line: “If that’s true, then nothing they did was going to make a difference.” I found the piece both very well written and excellently performed. Mr. DeFusco the actor gave Confession the powerful delivery that Mr. DeFusco the playwright deserved.

The show included an outstanding technical production. It featured stellar background projections. Each one provided an authentic visual of the play’s setting. The lighting enhanced the action on stage; most notably during Change. I wouldn’t have suspected HPP’s team arranged something this professional in just a few hours.

Omi Parrilla-Dunne co-produced the program and served as Stage Manager. Kalman Dunne added his talents as the Sound Engineer. Tom Balne performed a cameo during his lyrical introduction of act two.

Nobel Laureate in Literature Winston Churchill required a month to write a “good” speech. This weekend playwrights in South Jersey showed they need just a few hours to craft wonderful one act plays. Fans didn’t need to visit the Twilight Zone to see them, either. They just had to “follow the sign post up ahead” to Haddonfield Plays and Players. With the 24 Hour Play Festival, they showed their commitment to superb theatre to be as “timeless as infinity.”

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Big River at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Matthew Weil doesn’t avoid bringing controversial subjects to the stage. For his first project since The Pillowman he selected a show based on the most frequently banned book in American history. It seems the plot twists found in his earlier work have influenced his approach to directing. In a departure from his usual repertoire, he chose a musical for his latest offering; and what a musical he chose.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspired author William Hauptman and songwriter Roger Miller to craft Big River. They allowed audiences to embark on a musical voyage with Huck and Jim until the raft moored in the hearts of theatregoers. I uh rekun they shur did when I attended the opening night performance this February 2nd at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Mr. Weil ensured all understood Mr. Twain’s influence upon entering the theatre. A sign located in front of the stage contained the following preface from the author:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.

In acknowledgement of that warning, this review will skip the usual story synopsis. It will, however, inform readers that the cast and crew presented a veritable tour de force of Mr. Twain’s concept.

Vinnie DiFilippo (as Huckleberry Finn) and Bryan M. Pitt (as Jim) set new standards for getting into character. Both selected excellent voices for their roles. Mr. DiFilippo sang and spoke with a perfect Midwestern dialect. Mr. Pitt adopted a bass vocal tone with a Southern accent for Jim. While difficult to describe anything from the mind of Mark Twain as ‘realistic’, these two performers transformed his characters into real people.

Mr. DiFilippo delivered a series of wonderful monologs. I sat just to house left of center stage. This performer made me feel like Huck shared his witty stories directly with me.

The “I, Huckleberry, Me” number allowed him a platform to showcase his vocal and dancing skills. This scene made for one of the show’s many highpoints.

Mr. DiFilipo showed great insight into Huck’s emotional journey throughout his physical travels. When appropriate, he animated the character’s boyish and carefree side. As the protagonist discovered the evils of slavery, he adjusted and delivered his lines in a more reflective and morose fashion.

Mr. Pitt brought extraordinary emotional depth to his character. I found the moving method he used to describe Jim’s dream of earning enough money to purchase his family’s freedom very effective. His expression of regret over the way Jim treated his daughter also stirred empathy. The performer brought the same sentiment to his rendition of “Free at Last.”

“The Crossing” served as the show’s seminal moment. Beatrice Alonna’s stirring Gospel vocals brought out the feelings of sorrow at crossing from freedom back into slavery.  Siarra Ingram’s beautifully executed solo dance number made the scene much more powerful.

When naming great teams of comedy villains, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from Home Alone would probably come in first. After Big River, Brian Blanks (as the King) and Nicholas French (as the Duke) could supplant them. They took their characters’ noble titles and applied them to their own performances: the two became comedy royalty. The hyper-histrionic personality Mr. French infused into the Duke made for an unforgettable performance. Mr. Blanks’ guise as “The Royal Nonesuch” did the same.

The music selection in Big River contained an unexpected treat. The song list included the greatest drinking song ever written. Steve Rogina (as Papa Finn) crooned the best intoxicated rant ever put to music. “Guv’ment” made its point very simply yet eloquently.

Well you dad-gum, dad-gum, dad-gum government

Oh don’t you know

Oh don’t you love ‘em sometimes.

Mr. Rogina’s rendition made it an entertaining concept to contemplate.

The show featured other terrific musical numbers. Kaitlin Healy, Angela Longo and Krista Reinhardt performed a fantastic Country trio on “You Oughta Be Here with Me.” The company opened with the catchy “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” While hearing the cast perform, I was already there.

If an award existed for “widest range displayed in a single show”, Brian Gensel would’ve earned it for his performance. First, he played a town resident who took lethargy to a new level of sloth. Then he demonstrated immense pride in the Natural State through his “Arkansas” number. I attended a Razorbacks basketball game in that state once. Mr. Gensel showed more enthusiasm than anyone who witnessed that contest. That’s quite an achievement.

Sensitive audience members should beware that the use of a certain racial epithet occurred throughout the performance. While I acknowledge the term’s offensive history, I didn’t have an issue with its use in Big River. Degrading treatment of African- Americans commonly occurred during the time covered in the story. Eliminating it from the text would sanitize a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. That would be a greater crime than replacing a word that we as a more enlightened society recognize as inappropriate.

Mr. Weil brought an extraordinary production team into Big River. Sarah Stouff designed authentic period costuming. Cameron Stringham served as the vocal director for this talented group. Jen Zellers handled the complex choreography. Jen Donsky did a fantastic job with the lighting design.

The stage layout improved my ability to get into the show. As in The Pillowman, it even made me feel part of it. Because of the angle Lori A. Howard and Marissa Wolf took when they chastised Huck, I felt like they were yelling at me. Since that took place prior to my posting this review, I know it was only part of the show.

I’d also credit performers April Johnson, Ricky Conway, Jackson Hummel, Dan Safeer, Taylor Brody, William Young and Gianna Cosby. They enriched an outstanding ensemble.

Big River flowed from a simple concept into a large production. With Matthew Weil’s reputation as one of South Jersey’s preeminent directors, it didn’t surprise that he’d stage a show this sophisticated and complex. While the author’s work lacked qualities of sophistication and complexity, I uh rekon it ‘ud uh still made Mr. Twain proud: powerful proud.

Big River keeps rolling along at Haddonfield Plays and Players until February 17.

A Christmas Carol at Haddonfield Plays and Players

HPP A Christmas CarolThe originality of A Christmas Carol always impressed me. I never would’ve imagined someone spending Christmas alone while haunted by the ghosts of the past, present and future without the use of alcohol. I also found the dramatic presentation of this tale performed by Haddonfield Plays and Players to be equally distinctive. The cast delivered a stellar rendition of this sine qua non of the Holiday season. I attended the December 1, 2017 performance directed by Mark Karcher.

Michael Hicks delivered a haunting performance of a haunted man. Mr. Hicks is a superb and gifted actor. Several years ago I had the pleasure of watching his exceptional interpretation of Dr. Sloper in the Haddonfield Plays and Players production of The Heiress. (Talk about a character that reveled in bitterness and alcohol.) I relished the opportunity to watch his rendition of what began as the most miserable character in literature. This time the role required a transition into a joyous humanitarian. Would Mr. Hicks meet the challenge?

This performer went beyond what many would do in order to get into character. To adopt Scrooge’s appearance he grew mutton chops. He delivered the iconic line “bah, humbug” with suave assurance. Mr. Hicks then craftily brought the audience into the character’s metamorphosis from a self-absorbed miser into a kindly philanthropist. As morose as he portrayed Scrooge at the show’s beginning at the end he became a different character. He demonstrated the laughter and joy of a man impassioned with humanity. Dickens’ character changed dramatically, and Mr. Hicks brought that transformation to life on the Haddonfield Players’ stage.

A Christmas Carol featured an exceptional visual spectacle. I actually heard gasps from the audience when the Ghost of Christmas Past (played by Jennie Pines) made her appearance. Ms. Pines wore a white gown similar to a wedding dress. A strand of bright lights wrapped around her. The theatre became dark. As she descended down the aisle, her entrance created the illusion of an apparition floating from the heavens down to the stage. Then the rotating specks of light against the backdrop simulated snowfall. Ms. Pines costume along with the set combined for a beautiful image of a winter wonderland.

I received an early Christmas Present with Alex Levitt playing the Ghost of Christmas Present. I enjoyed watching this veteran of the Haddonfield Players return to the stage. He applied more range to the role than I would’ve expected. The character began as a jolly and merry soul. Before his exit, he delivered a minatory warning to Scrooge. Mr. Levitt selected a raspy voice in which to do so. The long beard combined with the red robe made him look like Santa Clause. The contrast between his appearance and his delivery made for an interesting scene.

George Clark’s sound design enhanced the atmospherics. The echo effect on Ms. Pines’ voice made her character even more ethereal. When used on Tony Killian’s (as the ghost of Jacob Marley) it made him much more horrifying.

While not the musical version of A Christmas Carol, the dramatic performance still showcased some fantastic singing. Nicky Intrieri (as Tiny Tim) delivered an outstanding unaccompanied solo number. The falsetto choir’s rendition of Holiday staples such as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night” emanated a superb Yuletide spirit.

I’ve written before that I don’t care for narration in live drama. John Mortimer adapted this rendition of A Christmas Carol for the stage. Instead of one story teller he decided that just about every performer should narrate some section of the tale. While I find this type of exposition annoying, in this show I also found much of it unnecessary. The most egregious offenders included:

“Scrooge sees Marley’s face on the door knocker.” A character delivered this line as I watched Scrooge both look at and comment upon Marley’s face on the door knocker.

“Scrooge hears bells.” A narrator said this line while my ears rang (no pun intended) with the sound of myriad bells going off in the theatre.

“Marley walked down the stairs dragging his chains.” This one requires no further explanation.

To all the budding dramatists out there: show or tell. Make a choice. Don’t do both.

I’d like to credit Edwin Howard for putting his power tools to proficient work on the set design. The London backdrop featuring Big Ben, London Bridge and the full moon made great scenery.

It’s also proper to recognize the other performers who rounded out a stellar cast. Their combined efforts delivered a very entertaining evening: Dan Safeer, Jonathan Greenstein, Jay Burton, Tony Killian, Jennifer Flynn, Maddox Mofit-Tighe, Gracie Sokiloff, Brynne Gaffney, Gianna Cosby, Tess Smith, Ryan McDermott, Jake Hufner, John Williams, Isabella Mulliner, John Bravo, Ricky Conway, Anne Buckwheat, Olivia Williams, Jenn Adams, E’Nubian Beckett, Jessi Gollin, Solaida Santiago, and Nadia Faulk.

It’s hard to imagine the Holiday Season without experiencing A Christmas Carol in some form. For those interested in witnessing it performed live, the Haddonfield Players are presenting a great version. That’s no “humbug.” The show runs through December 16th. After that, the Ghost of Christmas Past may just haunt you for not taking advantage of the opportunity.