Jennifer Wilson

Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Village Playbox

The Village Playbox is taking theatregoers back to the beach this autumn. Audiences should pack up their cars and head not to the shore, but to Haddon Heights, NJ. Something more entertaining than sand and surf awaits them there. The company is presenting first volume of Neil Simon’s Eugene trilogy: Brighton Beach Memoirs. Your correspondent attended the Saturday, 11/02/19 performance.

What is it about families that makes them so interesting? Director Steve Allen inquired in the playbill. If one is to use Mr. Simon’s fictitious Morton family as an example that answer is “a lot.” The clan included a mix of both lovable and quirky characters. Their dreams and flaws made for a lot of conflict and confrontations in a show billed as a comedy.

Ostensibly a story following Eugene Morris Jerome’s (played by Ricky Conway) transition from adolescence into manhood, the show really focused on the trials facing the Jerome’s family. Eugene’s Aunt Blanche (Jennifer Wilson) and her two daughters had moved in with his family after her husband’s passing. She’d become withdrawn and emotionally lost following the tragedy. Her youngest daughter Laurie (Sofia DiCostanzo) had a heart condition that limited her physical activity. Nora (Madeline Johnston), the elder, harbored aspirations of quitting high school to become a Broadway dancer.

Eugene’s father Jack (Dave Helgeson) worked several jobs to earn the money needed to support this extended family. The strain impacted his heath. Eugene’s brother Stanley’s (Jonathan Wallace) immaturity caused him to make reckless financial decisions. Eugene’s mother Kate (Amy Bannister) endured the most difficult task of all. She had to hold this unit together: while trying to find Blanche a husband.

Ricky Conaway played Eugene: a challenging role. Eugene served as both the narrator and a character in the story. Mr. Conway brought passion and energy to his performance. He rattled off the myriad zingers in Mr. Simon’s script with ease. The more memorable included:

“I love tense moments! Especially when I’m not the one they’re all tense about.”

“The tension in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Which is more than I could say for the liver.”

“If only I was born Italian…All the best Yankess are Italian…My mother makes spaghetti with ketchup. What chance do I have?”

Fittingly, Eugene longed to become a writer.

Mr. Conway also showed the same skill when performing dramatic scenes. He and Jonathan Wallace worked very well together. The two performers made it easy to visualize them as brothers. They showed the characters’ love for one another while still fighting like siblings. During their confrontation scene Mr. Conway showed Eugene’s change from the mindset of a child into that of an adult.

Amy Bannister wrote that she was elated to be in her sixth show by her favorite playwright in her cast bio. Her enthusiasm came through in her performance as Kate. Ms. Bannister captured her character’s essence by enacting her diverse traits. She portrayed the wise and stern mother when telling Eugene to put away the cookie he took from the kitchen. She became the empathetic confidant when telling Jack that the family would find a means of managing their financial problems. Mr. Bannister expressed strong feelings during her confrontation scene with Jennifer Wilson.

Ms. Bannister and Ms. Wilson engaged in a heated argument. As Mr. Helgeson said when refereeing this dispute, “You’re having the fight you should have had 25 years ago.” Ms. Bannister became emotional to the point of crying. She and Ms. Wilson made the fight so genuine that it became unnerving to watch.

Steve Allen has a skill for finding the latent nuances within argumentative dialog. He possesses a profound understanding of the underlying emotions the characters are experiencing. Scenes that could turn into shouting matches become much deeper and meaningful through his interpretation of them. His direction of Jennifer Wilson’s confrontation scene with Madeline Johnston served as an excellent example.

Ms. Wilson’s character loved Nora, but didn’t know how to show it. Ms. Johnson’s character wanted Blanche to love her, but didn’t feel like she did. The two performers contrasted one another very well. Ms. Wilson played the low-key character to Ms. Johnston’s more animated one. Ms. Johnson is a very expressive performer in both the way she says her lines and through her non-verbal actions. The two different styles added to the conflict and made the scene much more powerful. Thanks to Mr. Allen they did so without rattling the audiences’ eardrums.

The crew at the Village Playbox always shows remarkable skill at maximizing the space allotted to them. For Brighton Beach Memoirs, set designer/builder Gary Kochey transformed the stage into the Jerome house. It contained two upstairs bedrooms, a living room and a dining room: all with the appropriate furniture. The layout allowed performers not involved in the main action to remain on-stage. It gave the audience a real sense of being in a Brooklyn home circa 1937.

Other members of the production crew included: Producer, Stage Manager and Costumer Anita Rowland; Stage Manager Donna Allen; Set Construction and Lighting/ Sound Effects Gary Kochey and Amy Bannister along with the cast also handled the costuming.

On the weekend South Jersey residents turned the clocks back, the Village Playbox turned back time to the late 1930s. The cast and crew showed that what may seem like a simpler time was anything but. To borrow one of Mr. Allen’s observations, it did show that family can be so many things. One is a wonderful evening of entertainment when described by talented playwright and a portrayed by an outstanding cast.

Brighton Beach Memoirs runs through November 16th at the Village Playbox. After that audiences can add this production to their memoirs.

 

Act 1 Scene 1 One-Act Festival Weekend at The Village Playbox

South Jersey contains a lot of artistic talent. To provide a forum for these creatives to practice their crafts, many community theatre companies feature play festivals for amateur playwrights. These events tend to last one evening and conclude after just a few hours.

The team at the Village Playbox decided to make their play festival just that: a festival. Their Act 1 Scene 1 One-Act Festival Weekend occurred over three nights and featured twenty shows. I attended the performances on Thursday, September 12th, Friday, September 13th and Saturday, September 14th.

With that much time and material, it wasn’t surprising that the plays covered a wide range of subject matter. Ryan Kaminski’s The Meadow (directed by Jennifer Evans) related the story of a woman who hired a private detective to investigate her husband. She suspected both his infidelity and that he wanted to murder her. Jason Pollock’s The Caterer (which he also directed) portrayed a caterer who lacked customer service skills, but had some interesting ideas about keeping his marriage vibrant. Jennifer Wilson wrote and directed Conceit; a piece that explored the perils of narcissism.

The plays presented addressed some topical issues.

We live in an era when many Americans fear losing their jobs to robotics. Playwright Cooper Gorelic applied this concern to the domain of theater in Fifth Ed. Performers Stephen Kreal, Donna Supulski and Kacper Miklus portrayed a world where even actors aren’t immune from this phenomenon. Gary Kochley directed.

The program also included serious dramatic works.

Heidi Mae’s Black Friday surveyed one of modern society’s scourges. Performers Amy Bannister, Ariel Golan, and Kacper Miklus explored the difficult decision a woman must make about coming forward as a victim of sexual assault. Chrissy Wick directed.

Ms. Mae explained that this piece serves as Act II of a three part drama she’s crafted. I found the Black Friday segment strong enough for presentation on its own.

The measured pacing added to the story’s tension. It opened with two women recounting the events of Thanksgiving night. What began as funny recollections of an evening of hard drinking steadily transitioned into darker reminiscences. The dual meanings of the title enhanced the story’s meaning.

The festival contained several comedic pieces.

Kevin Stephany contributed a comical take on the most despicable form of life ever to inhabit the Earth: the blogging community theatre critic. In The Director Becomes the Critic Steve Allen took on the role of a director struggling to respond to a barrage of so-called “ideas” from a community theatre critic. Gregory Furman played the latter. Jenn Evans directed.

Heidi Mae wrote and directed a one-person version of Meeting Heaven for this festival. Performer Michelle Tomko played multiple roles in this tale of unrequited love in a strange love triangle.

The five person cast of Meeting Heaven made the top seven finalists at The Ritz Theatre’s 10-Minute Comedy Play Festival in June of 2019. I was curious to see how Ms. Mae would organize this play with only one actor.

Ms. Tomko took the audience on the narrator’s voyage through states of exhilaration, bliss and disappointment. She did so while reciting all the story’s dialog and narration herself. While doing so the performer added the appropriate gestures and facial expressions to enrich the tale. I also enjoyed her clever use of the Panama hat as a prop.

Ms. Mae’s text contained a host of lyrical flourishes. My favorites included:

            She wore what angels wore on their day off.

            If I had a dollar for every dame who played Emily in Our Town I wouldn’t have to write anymore.

            Meeting Heaven put me in Hell.

Cooper Gorelick gave the audience a dose of dark humor in Post Mortem. For this piece, the audience accompanied a man (played by D. Michael Farley) from his last trip to the hospital through his corpse’s journey to its final resting place. Cara Dickinson and Hayley Melvin added their comedic skills to the cast. Ashley Bianchimano directed.

Tom Chin presented a comical spin on the power of reverse psychology with Hello Again. Doug Cohen directed this tale of a cold calling salesman (played by Kevin Dahm) using unorthodox means to sell to his customer (played by Jenn Evans).

Mr. Chin also contributed two other pieces to the festival. Doug Cohen also directed the poignant The Bright Red Popsicle Sticks about two elderly women ruminating on the trials of love. Gary Kochey directed the comedy of two brothers out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Won Ton.

Cooper Gorelick put a twist on an old cliché by showing that all is fair in love and love of pie through his comical piece Pie Fight. It featured performers Ashley Bianchimano (who also directed), Cara Dickinson and Haley Melvin. These players last shared the stage together in the farcical piece Noises Off! presented by the Village Playbox in February 2019. The trio carried over the slapstick hijinks from that show into Mr. Gorelick’s piece.

No theatrical festival would be complete without serious dramatic pieces. The Village Playbox included memorable plays in this one.

Kevin Stephany’s Family Reunion concluded the opening night performance. Chrissy Wick directed the real life father and son team of Steve Allen and Kyle Allen in this story of an estranged father and son reunited at the wife/mother’s deathbed.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should inform readers that the person writing this review is the same Kevin Stephany who wrote the play. While it sounds cliché, I like to think of myself as my own toughest critic. Steve Allen’s performance made it difficult for me to find flaws with this show.

Two weeks before the play festival, Steve Allen wrote in a Facebook post:

Even though the play is only 10 minutes long, it has been the most emotionally draining and challenging experience in my theatre life.

Following the performance he added:

It may have only been 10 minutes long, it may have only been acting, but the emotion was real.

So was the passion he brought to the role.

To paraphrase something I mentioned to Mr. Allen after the show: I wrote the play. I knew the story. I still felt uncomfortable watching it. That’s a testament to the skill of Steve, Kyle and Ms. Wick.

Both Steve and Kyle executed the myriad pauses in the script perfectly. Their proficient enactments of them added even more tension to the conflict between the characters.

It would figure that the best parts of something I wrote would be the sections without any words.

Erin Blackwell’s Hey El? followed the relationship of two sisters as one suffered from cancer. Chal Gallagher, Carol Furphy-Labinsky and Erin Blackwell brought strong emotions into this moving drama. Their skilled portrayals allowed me to feel the sensations of love and loss between the characters. John Blackwell directed.

Prolific playwright Joseph A. Dewan contributed six pieces to the festival. He directed all of them.

Border contained an outstanding surprise mid-way through the story. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t mention it here.

Mr. Dewan wrote an excellent version of a spy vs. spy story. He included a good balance of intrigue and romance to make it more engaging.

In Exchange, Kacper Miklus and Amy Bannister played undercover agents during the Cold War; he from the United States and she from the Soviet Union. As part of a goodwill program sponsored by their governments they exchanged presents for the Holiday Season. During their ensuing conversation they discovered they had much more in common than just their occupations.

Mr. Dewan crafted a heartwarming story with a delightful twist in Nosey. Joseph Chialastri played an embittered former clown confined to a hospital bed. Ariel Golan took on the role of a candy striper tasked with lightening his mood.

Sheltered was another well written piece. The plot contained exceptional conflict. Mr. Dewan played a bitter miser opposite Amy Bannister’s bubbly animal adoption agent. Stephen Kreal completed the cast on this entertaining tale about the redemptive power of pets.

Two one act monologues also appeared in Mr. Dewan’s repertoire. The playwright showed a lot of creativity with The C Word. In addition to the attention getting title a preacher served as the lone character. The plot contained an excellent twist when the narrator revealed the actual C word.

In Smoke, Mr. Dewan didn’t simply lead his character through a range of emotions. He enacted the entire scope of the human experience. That’s quite a feat for a one act monologue.

I’d also credit the Village Playbox for the clever bit of subliminal advertising they worked into the program. Jennifer Wilson let out a high pitched scream at the end of Conceit. Her vocal range reminded me a bit of Deep Purple’s legendary front man Ian Gillian’s.

As theatre fans know, Mr. Gillian also played the role of Jesus Christ in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. The Village Playbox will be presenting the theatrical version of it in May of 2020. Could they have included a prelude of the vocal stylings it will showcase into their play festival?

The Village Playbox production team included Producer Lauren Fabbri-Picerno, Stage Manager Mandi Heims and Gary Kochey on sound and lighting. The following completed the cast of actors who performed in the festival: Joey Bianchimano, Mary Corr Dewan, Sheila MacDonald, Jason Pollock, Thom Reese, Jessica Allen Shockley, Dee Stenton, Chrissy Wick, Jen Wilson and Nikki Zane.

Friday the 13th may be an unlucky day for some, but the Village Playbox made it and the days around it lucky ones for theatre fans, actors and playwrights. The Act 1 Scene 1 One-Act Festival Weekend showed all of us how lucky we are to live in such an artistically vibrant area as South Jersey.

 

 

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.”