Sure Thing was anything but at Burlington County Footlighters Back Stage. Two rain cancellations and a “near miss,” threatened the company’s opportunity to present this series of David Ives’ one act shows. If a pandemic couldn’t stop them from entertaining South Jersey community theatre audiences, what chance did Mother Nature have? Your correspondent attended the Friday, September 4th performance.
The Back Stage is the latest of Jim Frazer’s myriad contributions to South Jersey community theatre set design. It’s also his most important. This outdoor venue allows fans to witness live theatrical performances during the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Frazer personally designed and built the stage located in the rear parking lot at Burlington County Footlighters. He also acquired the appropriate permits from Cinnaminson Township in order to do so. Fans of the arts owe him a great debt of gratitude for his efforts.
In order to ensure audience safety, a representative from Footlighters performed temperature checks prior to allowing access to the seating area. All attendees brought either their own blankets or chairs with them. The company marked off the seating area in order to ensure proper social distancing. Everyone in attendance wore face masks as required. To limit physical contact, the hostess checked your correspondent’s ticket on her tablet. The production team made the playbill available on-line.
For the first theatrical run on the Back Stage, Footlighters selected a series of one act plays written by David Ives. Lori Alexio Howard directed.
Ms. Howard made an interesting choice to follow-up on her last directorial outing. In June of 2019, Ms. Howard directed The Laramie Project at the Maple Shade Arts Council. It’s difficult to imagine a show with more disturbing subject matter. Disturbing would be the last word one would use to describe David Ives’ works. Nevertheless, Ms. Howard proved herself quite the versatile director. She showed she is just as adept at bringing comedic material to the stage.
Because of COVID-19, South Jersey community theatre performers have been on hiatus from the live stage for over five months. Edwin Howard, who also produced the show, made his return to acting following a 20-year break. These actors played like people inspired. Mr. Frazer’s stage allowed them a much a needed catharsis.
Jerrod Ganesh and Julianne Rose Layden opened the show with the title piece, Sure Thing. They portrayed the playwright’s vision of a date that included “do overs.” Every time one character said the wrong thing, a bell dinged. They then had the opportunity to correct themselves. Witty exchanges resulted.
The dialog contained a lot of repetition. Both Mr. Ganesh and Ms. Layden made each delivery of the same lines sound as fresh as they did the first time they said them.
Next, performers Russ Walsh, Edmund Howard and Gina Petti Baldasari presented Mr. Ives’ pessimistic take on the City of Brotherly Love, The Philadelphia; an interesting choice of concept from a Chicago native. Mr. Howard’s character found himself living in an alternate universe. Mr. Walsh’s character sardonically called it “the Philadelphia.” As the latter lived in one called “the Los Angeles” even the bad things in his life became positive. Mr. Howard, however, always received the opposite of the things he wanted.
Mr. Walsh selected excellent attire for his character. The sunglasses, shorts and short-sleeve shirt matched his boyant personality. Mr. Howard performed an entertaining interpretation of how his character adapted to his bizarre circumstances. Ms. Baldasari delivered the show’s funniest line by describing life in “a Cleveland” as, “Death without the advantages.”
It bears repeating: Mr. Ives hails from the Windy City.
In the program’s next show, Mr. Ives reimagined the assassination of a Bolshevik revolutionary. In Variations on the Death of Trotsky, Shawn O’Brien, Marissa Wolf and Jerrod Ganesh provided a comedic interpretation of the demise of Stalin’s nemesis. Similar to Sure Thing a bell rang following each of the protagonist’s deaths.
Shawn O’Brien kept the comedy coming throughout the sketch. He had the added challenge of performing with a replica of a mountain climbing axe stuck to his head. Marissa Wolf cleverly referenced it through her delivery of, “Get it through your skull.” Jerrod Ganesh killed it as the assassin.
The actors shows the range of their skills towards the piece’s conclusion. They performed a wonderful Mexican dance routine.
Performers Antonino Baldasari and Gina Petti Baldasari introduced the audience to The Universal Language. As a real life married couple, this doesn’t sound difficult on the surface. The text, however, provided a twist. The “Unamunda language” was a product of the playwright’s imagination. It didn’t exist.
Mr. and Mrs. Baldasari kept the audience’s attention through their expressive deliveries of words that sound like English terms, but aren’t quite. The pair delivered passionate performances that led to a heartwarming twist. They worked in a touching dance routine that appealed to the sentimental.
There’s an old adage that a group of monkeys could write Hamlet given enough time. Mr. Ives crafted a comedic vision into Words, Words, Words. Actors Nicholas French, Lisa Croce and Stephen Jackson went bananas. They got the monkey of theatre withdraw off their backs through their energetic performances. The three appeared to have more fun than a barrel full of monkeys. So did their audience.
Mere Mortals concluded the program. The show seemed ironically titled as it included a triumvirate of talent: Antonino Baldasari, Alan Krier and Alex Levitt. They performed with superhuman passion. These actors portrayed three construction workers conversing during their lunch break. In the course of their discussion, they revealed secret identities to each other. What they couldn’t keep secret was the humor.
Jim Frazer also handled the lighting during this show. Production Assistants Lisa Palena and Jackie Duran managed the sound.
To paraphrase Mr. Ganesh’s character in Sure Thing, “You have to hit these things at the right time.” Following their journey into “a Chicago” of dismal weather, Footlighters found their way into a “South Jersey.” One of Gina Petti Baldasari’s roles noted that, “language is the opposite of loneliness.” So is experiencing live theatre with an audience. The spectators at this show went ape for these performers. These actors killed in the house.
Audiences still have one more chance to do so. Sure Thing and Other One Acts ends its run this Saturday, September 5th at 8:30 PM. South Jersey community theatre fans should take this opportunity. After that, the bell goes silent. There won’t be any “do overs” this time.