Jay Burton

10-Minute Comedy Play Festival at the Ritz Theatre Company

87 submissions. 14 contenders. Seven finalists. The Ritz Theatre Company’s 10-Minute Comedy Play festival once again showed that comedy is serious business. The company offered local playwrights the opportunity to write a show that they would present on the Ritz stage. Is the overwhelming response any wonder? I attended the concluding performance on June 1st.

A team of theatrical professionals evaluated the submissions. After all 14 shows were performed, they selected the top seven. The Ritz presented these plays on the evening of June 1st. Each playwright, director and actor who performed in these shows will receive two complimentary tickets to the Ritz production of The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor by Kumar Dari. At the conclusion of Saturday’s performances, a team of judges (Kumar Dari, Randy Peterson and Alex Wilkie) selected the top three. The playwright of the winner received $100, they awarded the runner-up $75 and gave the third place finisher $50.

Not to repeat myself, but comedy is serious business. All these perks seemed to inspire the playwrights to produce creative material.

The Ritz Theatre presented this event “in the round.” The seats were arranged in four sections on the actual stage. This format allowed the performers to make eye contact with the spectators. It also enabled the audience to feel like part of the show.

The plays selected for this final performance included a range of subjects. Tom Moran selected a contemporary topic for “I, Phone.” Bruce A. Curless directed performers Hannah Hobson and Giacomo Fizzano through this comical take on how technology is taking over people’s lives.

Scott Gibson’s “What You Wish For” presented a unique perspective on the “genie in a bottle” story. Ryan Strack directed this tale about a woman who discovered that a genie lived in a lamp she purchased. While attempting to return it at the department store, she told her story to another woman she encountered the line. When asked why she wanted to get rid of the wish granting genie, she gave an unexpected reason. Mr. Gibson showed a lot of creativity with plot twist on this story.

It seemed fitting that one of South Jersey’s most versatile theatre gurus, Amber Kusching, directed two shows that made the final seven. Heidi Mae’s “Meeting Heaven” was the most complex. It included five characters. Four of which were: a playwright (Kenwyn Samuel), a bartender (Melissa Mitchem), the playwright’s brother (Adam Corbett), and both the brother’s and the playwright’s love interest, “Heaven” (Sarah Baumgarten). The cast also included a narrator played by Julianne Rose Layden. The narrator was actually the playwright character delivering narration. Ms. Layden’s delivery brought to mind the voice overs common in old detective movies.

Ms. Kusching had Ms. Layden walk around the stage while delivering her lines. She spoke in a sultry voice to convey the piece’s mood. Ms. Layden also made eye contact with audience members. It created the impression that the narrator spoke to theatregoers instead of at them.

Ms. Kusching also directed Jim Moss’ “The Last Shirt off His Back.” Kenwyn Samuel and John Nicodemo performed this witty take on death. It involved a haunted apartment and a pillow made of old tee shirts. I mentioned before that these plays were creative, right?

Death is a popular topic with playwrights. In addition to Mr. Moss’ piece, two of the top three plays found humor in the subject.

Kevin O’Brien’s “Little Deaths” received the third place prize. Sara Rabatin directed performers Julianne McIntosh and Beatrice Alonna through this comical exploration of death and political correctness. One also has to credit the performers for dressing in winter attire on a humid late spring evening.

Melissa Harnois directed the runner-up: Eric Rupp’s “Snickerdoodle.” It featured a young lady (played by Alex Phillips) informing her parents (Jay Burton and Beatrice Alonna) that she planned on entering a clown college. (If that didn’t work out, her back-up career was miming.) The mother’s and father’s responses to the daughter’s craving for the craft of clowning made the show hysterical.

The judges awarded Ken Teutsch’s “What Friends Are For” the first place prize. This Mike Grubb directed piece also explored death from a humorous perspective. It featured an unlikely situation for a comedy show. A character (played by Mr. Grubb) informed his roommate (played by Kyle Jacobus) that he wanted to commit suicide. A discussion that would’ve pleased both Albert Camus and Neil Simon resulted.

The Ritz didn’t include the names of the actors in the program. It was understandable as the event was designed to focus on the work and not the performers. At the end of each play the actors introduced themselves. Due to the format I had trouble hearing everyone’s name, particularly following “What You Wish For.” All the actors performed outstanding work. They all deserve credit for their contributions to a very entertaining evening of theatre. * I would also credit the technical crew of Sadie McKenna, Brian Gensel, Sam Tait and Anastacia Swan for their work on the lighting and sound.

It’s not unusual to see typos in theatrical programs on occasion. I did think it odd to find the word playwright misspelled in the one for this event.

At the evening’s conclusion, the Ritz Theatre’s Artistic Director, Bruce A. Curless, addressed the audience. He explained that it seemed “contradictory having a contest involving art. They’re all winners.” His observation reminded me of something the late Glenn Walker said to me. I once told Glenn that every year I read the books that won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Man-Booker Prize. He replied, “Don’t worry about awards: worry about your audience.” Based on the spectators’ reaction during this festival, none of these playwrights have anything about which to worry.

 

*For all those whose names I either missed or misspelled, if you’d like to be included in this post please message me on either Twitter or Facebook. I’ll make sure to add it.

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.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird at the Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ

Harper Lee crafted a unique American take on the traditional bildungsroman. The author’s powerful exploration of a young girl’s maturation through her harsh exposure to the world around her made for the timeless novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Fortunately, for theatre fans, Christopher Sergel adapted this Pulitzer Prize winning classic for the stage. Under the direction of Matthew Weil, The Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ presented an extraordinary interpretation when I attended the March 3rd performance.

Due to the immense success of both the book and the film, most in the general public are already familiar with the story. This presents a challenge for theatrical companies. How does one make something so well-known still interesting and engaging to audiences? The answer: through phenomenal performances. To Kill a Mockingbird included a host of them.

Maude Atkinson (played by Nicky O’Neal) expressed the following thoughts on Atticus Finch: “The highest honor the town can give a man: the ability to do good.” The actor who played him (Cory Laslocky) didn’t “do good.” He did a phenomenal job in his performance. Mr. Laslocky did extraordinary work balancing the character’s complexities; most notably when he cross examined Mayella Ewell (played by Kaitlin Healy). He displayed a reserved easy going manner with his deliberate questioning. Through his words he became a man who could be firm and tough. He managed this difficult equilibrium throughout the entire show; his convincing portrayal of the character’s passionate closing argument serving as the lone exception.

The moment that affected me the most in Mockingbird occurred during Mr. Laslocky’s exchange with his witness Tom Robinson (played by Mikal Odom). Mr. Odom’s stage presence and delivery during this scene were without peer. I’ve never experienced a performer capturing a character’s emotional state so well. With a Southern drawl, shaky voice and teary eyes he explained the events leading to his false accusation. He brought out the character’s fear and anxiety in a way that I could feel.  If his awesome performance didn’t move you: you’re not human.

Shawn O’Brien delivered a memorable interpretation of the villain, Bob Ewell. This performer really got into character. His choice of voice, exaggerated mannerisms and yelling captured the essence of a bitter, alcoholic racist. Several times in the courtroom scenes his shouting and swigging of a bottle convinced me he became unhinged. During a later scene his evil laughing while wheedling a piece of wood even gave me a chill.

The show’s most unforgettable moment occurred during the confrontation scene. While Atticus stood guard outside the jail housing Tom Robinson an angry mob arrived. They’d planned on hanging the accused. Showing shades of Atticus, his daughter, Scout (played by Sofia DiCostanzo) did an outstanding job in her dialog with Walter Cunningham (played by Mike Lovell). Ms. DiCostanzo delivered her lines as a naïve child engaging Mr. Lovell’s (probably intoxicated) character in conversation. She recognized him as one of her classmate’s father. After asking him to say “hello” to his son for her, he bowed his head as if in shame. He calmly instructed the mob to disburse and “go home.” While it had a lot of competition for this title, these performers made the scene the play’s most powerful.

The playwright chose to utilize a technique about which I experienced mixed feelings. In following the book, the playwright had the character of Jean Louise Finch (the Scout character as an adult) narrate throughout the show. The performer who played this role, Nellie Brown, did outstanding work as a story teller. Her expressions and delivery were very expressive as she recounted the events that transpired both on and off the stage. In addition Ms. Brown spent most of the show in view of the audience. I liked how she smiled nostalgically as the action played out. I could envision her as a person reliving all these events in her mind. She possesses a pleasant voice. Ms. Brown would be a good choice to narrate an audio version of the book. Someone that gifted in the performing arts deserves a better role to exhibit her talent.

In my view, the role of Jean Louise Finch brought to mind the character of Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers films. A narrator’s role in a comedy is much more effective. The method of having a character do so in a live dramatic play stops the action too much for my taste. In a medium that’s very dialog heavy, I find it adds too much ‘telling’ to the script. In this case Ms. Brown’s exceptional story telling ability made the narrator’s role enjoyable. Besides, an actor’s role is to interpret the script as written: not to correct bad writing.

Sensitive theatre fans should be aware that the show contained usage of racial epithets. The language complimented the theme of the story and fit the less-enlightened historical time period. For these reasons I didn’t find it offensive.

The show featured a very unusual intermission. During the trial scene Judge Taylor (played by Andrew Kushner) came out from behind the bench and walked to the front of the stage. He announced there’d be a 10 minute “recess.” As he spoke the house lights came on. The players remained on the stage during the break. They continued playing the parts of courtroom observers waiting for the hearing to resume. From their gestures and facial expressions it looked like Lori A. Howard and Mike Lovell had a pretty interesting conversation going on. I would’ve liked to have heard it.

It made me very happy to see Paul Sollimo (who played Nathan and “Boo” Radley) back on stage again. When they find the person who started this unfounded rumor about his retirement, they should do to him what the drunken mob wanted to do to Tom Robinson. (Even theatre critics are guilty of ‘bad writing’ once in a while.)

So many performers did exceptional jobs in this show that it’s unfair to leave anyone out. I’d like to credit Kyle Smart, Carter Weiss, Rhonda V. Fidelia, Kaitlin Healy, Sean O’Shea, Jay Burton, Andrew Kushner, Doug Supleee, Ann Moser Trenka, Nicky O’Neal, Lori A. Howard and Natasha Truitt for their contributions, as well. The show wouldn’t have been as engaging without them.

The play reflected the life of one of it’s characters. Kind of like Boo Radley, To Kill a Mockingbird comes out of seclusion, makes a huge impact and then returns to exile for a while. Fans of great literature, theatre and acting would be well served to see it performed at The Ritz Theatre while they can. The show runs through March 19th.