Jackie Duran

The Groundling at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

The ‘garage band’ phenomena may be followed by a ‘garage theatre’ trend compliments of playwright Marc Palmieri. This writer took the concept of ‘home theatre’ to another level in The Groundling. Add a story influenced by Shakespeare to some quirky characters and an entertaining evening of theatre resulted. Your correspondent attended the February 15th performance at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage.

A production of Love’s Labour’s Lost inspired Bob Malone (played by Michael Melvin) to become a playwright. He decided to craft a play describing his and his wife Karen’s (Lori Aleixo Howard) courtship. He even hired the director of the show that led him to write, Dodd (played by Nicholas French), to direct it. Bob’s play, however, would take place in his garage and last for just one show.

Bob was no Shakespeare. For that matter, this playwright’s rhyming couplets made the airy lyrics found in popular love songs sound profound by comparison. Add to Bob’s writing “skills” the romantic tension between Dodd and leading lady Victoria (Marissa Wolf) along with the complex personalities of the other actors (Stephen Jackson and Allison Adams) and Mr. Palmieri created a comedy that would have made the Bard laugh.

Mr. Palmieri provided director Edwin Howard with an outstanding attention getting opening. Think ‘Mamet meets Mambo’ for this one. While Mr. Melvin’s and Ms. Howard’s characters engaged in an obscenity filled shouting match, ‘technical director’ Frank (Russ Walsh) proceeded to percussively pound a beam with his hammer. No audience chatter occurred after this curtain rose.

The Groundling contained an extraordinary plot twist. The cast executed Mr. Palmieri’s unexpected, but inevitable conclusion with moving realism. All the performers on stage, especially Mr. French, seemed as surprised by it as the audience did.

Michael Melvin ended a three-year hiatus from the theatre with The Groundling. He captured the full range of Bob’s emotions during his performance. He showed the character’s romantic side when discussing the play with Mr. French. The director recommended he add more “conflict” to the story. Dodd called the relationship “too smooth.” “Nothing happens,” He said. Mr. Melvin became nostalgic as he explained, “That’s how it happened.” The performer balanced comedy with anger during his arguments with Ms. Howard. Mr. Melvin made the hackneyed writer a figure of pity and empathy through his gripping delivery at the show’s end.

In her performance as Karen, Lori Howard brought out the character’s wrath and bitterness. She maintained the persona of an angry woman while providing nuances that Karen deserved sympathy. Ms. Howard measuredly revealed the character’s underlying personality during an exceptional scene opposite Ms. Wolf. The performer showed that Karen possessed heart underneath a harsh exterior.

Marissa Wolf turned in a Marissa Wolf level performance. Ms. Wolf brought out Victoria’s change with subtlety. After starting out as a bit of a diva, she became curious to learn more about the character she played in the ‘play within a play.’ In the process Victoria discovered a personal connection to her role. In the pivotal scene opposite Ms. Howard, she showed skill by adopting Ms. Howard’s tone of voice and mannerisms to play the role of Karen.

Nicholas French portrayed Dodd: a man deeply and passionately in love with his own perceived genius. When Bob expressed his admiration for Dodd’s work, Mr. French delivered a monolog in which he described his approach to Love’s Labour’s Lost. He did so with such passion it sounded like he gasped several times. His exaggerated mannerisms accentuated the character’s high-minded vocabulary. Mr. French’s moving a pencil like an orchestra conductor’s baton during the play’s rehearsal showed his artistic pretentions. The display led Allison Adams’ and Russ Walsh’s characters to mock him during this scene.

The other members of the cast added their own brands of comedy to the production. The irony of Russ Walsh’s character not being able to hear in the presence of so much noise added humor to an already funny opening. Stephen Jackson showed the humor in a composer who couldn’t compose. Allison Adams portrayed a struggling actress struggling to act.

Jackie Duran served as the Stage Manager for this project. Nicholas French became the uncredited Music Director for The Groundling. He composed the play’s music and taught performer Stephen Jackson how to play the keyboards for the show.

Shakespeare even may have influenced the seating for The Groundling. Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage is an intimate 35 seat venue. Because of the limited room, your correspondent had the opportunity to sit next to Mr. Melvin during one of the show’s scenes. This arrangement hearkened back to the Globe Theatre during the Elizabethan Era. In those days, audience members would pay to sit on stage during the performance.

Playwright Marc Palmieri attended the February 15th performance at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage. During the talkback session he was asked what he thought of this performance of The Groundling. Mr. Palmieri said that he, “Hasn’t seen better.” With the quality of community theatre in South Jersey, is that a surprise?

 

The Laramie Project at the Maple Shade Arts Council

On October 6, 1998 a hate crime occurred in Laramie, Wyoming. This brutal act riveted the nation. It also inspired a team from the Techtonic Theatre Company to visit the site. Their goal: to develop and understanding of the community in which the incident occurred. Following a year-long investigation they brought their findings to the stage. They called it simply The Laramie Project. This summer the Maple Shade Arts Council presented this verbatim theatre classic on their stage. I attended the opening night performance on June 21st.

During the winter of 2017, I had the opportunity to interview The Laramie Project’s director, Lori Alexio Howard. At the time she was rehearsing for a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Howard expressed the following thoughts on that drama:

 It’s a good time to be doing that show with what’s going on in the country. It will make audiences question their view of the world. It’s good to revisit and question the state of things.

Ms. Howard applied this sense of social consciousness to her latest endeavor. In the playbill she reflected upon the life of her first openly “out” friend.

I am grateful that JT has had 41 years (and counting) to be EXACTLY who he is. It’s because of who he is that I love him so. And yes, twenty years after the events in Laramie, Wyoming, things like hate, prejudice, violence, injustice, and intolerance of those who are different than us are all too common.

The Maple Shade Arts Council’s performance of The Laramie Project made for the most solemn evening of theatre I’ve experienced. All the actors delivered impassioned performances. Because of the story’s tone, no applause occurred between scene changes.

The Laramie Project contained an unusual format for a play. The scenes consisted of a series of interviews the Techtonic Theatre Company conducted with Laramie residents. They asked a variety of people for their thoughts on the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Mr. Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die tied to a fence in a remote section of the Wyoming prairie. What motivated this brutality? Matthew Shepard was a homosexual.

The script crafted these different interviews into a coherent story. Because of the myriad people involved the show’s 16 performers played multiple roles.

The nature of the text added another challenge for actors. Steven Jackson (who played Matt Galloway, Jonas Slonaker, Doug Laws, William McKinney) observed that the script contained words spoken by real people. He dedicated much time to memorizing the text in order to speak his lines as written. “It’s a deep play,” he added.

The Maple Shade Arts Council has presented their summer shows in various venues over the years. The intimate space they selected at the Maple Shade Municipal Building well suited this show. Performers walked through the aisles during the haunting candlelight vigil. Actors entered the stage from the seating area. Cast members stood in front of the stage just a few feet from the audience when speaking. Ms. Howard utilized the entire room to bring the spectators into the story.

Lighting designers / operators Michael Melvin, Lori Howard and Jackie Duran crafted and executed the lighting impeccably. They managed it so well that it functioned like a character in the show. The darkening of the stage at the appropriate times set the mood. The eerie glow enhanced the scene where the cast re-enacted the discovery of Shepard’s body. The flickering during the hospital CEO’s (played by Nicholas French) press conference imitated cameras snapping photos.

The performances in The Laramie Project will haunt theatregoers. The events it depicted occurred in the recent past. It chronicled the thoughts and feelings of real people living in a rural community. It centered upon a tragedy all too common in the modern era. In a sense it was like the director turned the theatre into a mirror. The audience watched a reflection of itself play out on stage.

In one scene performers Abby Drexler and Phyllis Josephson played Laramie locals being interviewed by a member of the Tectonic Theatre Company (played by Nicholas French). Ms. Drexler and Ms. Josephson discussed life in Laramie in a playful and relaxed fashion: until he asked about the Shepard murder. Then the performers became guarded and laconic.

Marissa Wolf delivered a soliloquy expressing her character’s disagreement with the media’s portrayal of the killing. She delivered her character’s view that Mr. Shepard was “not a saint” in a way that didn’t sound bigoted. Her delivery brought out the complexity the events engendered.

Doug Suplee turned in a powerful performance as Matthew’s father. During the sentencing of one of the killers, Mr. Suplee presented a gripping monolog. His delivery combined with the message of temperance made one of the show’s most compelling moments.

The show contained many outstanding moments. Sara Viniar turned in impassioned performances as the Islamic woman and the college professor. Brian Gensel played the young man who discovered Shepard with uncomfortable realism. Steve Rogina brought out the conflict within the doctor who discovered he treated both Shepard and one of his attackers on the same evening the incident occurred.

When directors seek performers who can play multiple roles in the same show, Nick French is becoming South Jersey Community Theatre’s “go to” guy. After playing all eight members of the D’Yasquith family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in January of this year, he cut back to just four in this show.

Mr. French portrayed the moralizing firebrand Fred Phelps. The upside down American flag he wore on his jacket accentuated his character’s views. Mr. French also played the empathetic hospital CEO with the same proficiency.

Performers Chrissy Wick, Chuck Klotz, Frank Simpson Jr., James Gallagher, Jerrod Ganesh, Kat Ross Kline and Michele Liberton rounded out the cast.

The production team included: Assistant Director Lisa Palena, Production Assistant Jackie Duran and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick. Edwin and Lori Howard designed the set.

Even with the disturbing subject matter, Ms. Howard brought out the latent message of hope at the end. As she wrote in the playbill: “All you need is love.” The Laramie Project is one small step towards making that message more common. It runs through June 29th at the Maple Shade Arts Council.