John Hager

Night of the Living Hotspurs! at Burlington County Footlighters

They’re baaaack!

This October 18th marked the return of the Hotspurs! to Burlington County Footlighters. The comedy team of John Hager, Evan Harris, Sean O’Malley, Brendan Rucci and Andrew Snellin entertained the audience with their unique brand of improvisational humor. Your correspondent attended the Friday, October 18th performance.

For this Halloween themed installment of the Hotspurs! Burlington County Footlighters established proper mood. In addition to the usual multi-colored square and rectangle decorum, the organizers added a few items to create a spooky ambiance. They included a series of chains draped about the stage, along with cuffs and a dark hued tombstone. A metal tub of water set upon a pedestal. It had a more eerie purpose than serving as a means for apple bobbing, but more on that later.

For the third consecutive time tickets to a Hotspurs! performance at Footlighters sold out. The group made the announcement 48 hours before the show. So would this performance justify the hype? Or would the audience feel like they were the ones in cuffs and chains throughout the evening?

The Hotspurs! set the comedic tone upon entering the stage. All five members wore Halloween costumes. The most outrageous were Mr. Rucci in a dress and Mr. Hager disguised as a banana. The performers explained they each thought the group decided upon different Halloween themes.

The opening served as the only scripted portion of the evening. The Hotspurs! improvised all the other sketches they performed.

The team commenced their spur-of-the-moment hijinks with their classic improv game: “Half-Life.” The audience provided Disney World as a location that someone wouldn’t expect to find haunted. Performers Sean O’Malley and Andrew Snellin had one minute to enact a sketch based on that suggestion. Following that, they then had to perform it in 30 seconds, then 15 seconds, then seven seconds, then three seconds and, finally, one second. Funny (and quick) banter between Goofy and Mickey resulted.

The four members of the group then combined for another improv game. They called this one “Pan Left.” It entailed a team of two members each performing a sketch together. When Mr. Rucci yelled: “Pan left”, they would rotate and two different Hotspurs! members would act out the next sketch. Based upon the audience’s suggestions, one pair performed a scene in a church, another did one involving the internet and the last one did a routine that included a snake. As much as this challenged the performers, they executed the added task of keeping the dialog comical.

The Hotspurs! revisited their classic “Press Conference” routine for this performance. John Hager, Evan Harris, Brenden Rucci, and Andrew Snellin played reporters. The audience provided the scenario: “Hannibal Lechter becomes vegan.” Without knowing that, Sean O’Malley had to guess what the spectators suggested based upon the reporters’ questions. In addition to providing creative responses, Mr. O’Malley guessed his character.

The team also reprised their “Scenes from a Hat” routine. Prior to the performance, audience members wrote down scenes. Andrew Snellin showed that there’s a place for dark, high-minded humor even in improvisational comedy. He came up with the best line of the evening. In response to the prompt: things you would say to your best friend, but not your partner, he replied, “You’re my best friend.”

As unique as these routines were, the Hotspurs! opted to push the comedy envelope on this evening. Evan Harris and Sean O’Malley played a skit called “Pillars.” They had to improvise a sketch based on the audience’s suggestion. In this case it recommended: “crystal ball.” The group added a twist with this one.

They invited two audience members to come on stage. The participants would move the performers’ arms and legs. Mr. Harris and Mr. O’Malley would adjust the dialog based on the posture the audience members set for them. The latter proved pretty creative. One has to credit the performers for getting through the sketch without laughing: unlike the spectators.

The Hotspurs! added a dramatic scene to their repertoire. This one included a twist. Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Harris performed opposite one another while the other group members placed marshmallows in their mouths. Their comments included some of the most intelligent things this reviewer has heard in weeks.

The team included a skit called “Bartender.” Andrew Snellin played the lead role. Mr. Hager, Mr. Harris and Mr. O’Malley portrayed his customers. Each told him of a problem they had. Mr. Snellin provided advice. While a difficult endeavor to execute spontaneously in front of a live audience, the team included an additional complication: they performed all of this in song. Mr. Rucci accompanied on the keyboards. Andrew Lloyd Webber couldn’t craft as witty a take on clown assassins: and he’s had an entire lifetime to do so. The Hotspurs! pulled it off in a few minutes.

The sell-out crowd at Footlighters showed the group’s real-life skills at salesmanship. It seemed fitting that they applied them within a comedic framework. Mr. Hager and Mr. Harris acted out an infomercial. The purpose was to help people stop biting their nails. The two used a box of props. They didn’t know its contents until they opened it on stage. One must credit the performers themselves for not biting their nails when faced with this uncertainty.

As this was a Halloween themed show, the team concluded with a bit of terror. They utilized the metal tub mentioned earlier as a prop for their “Bucket of Death” routine. The audience provided the topic of “doppelganger.” Mr. Harris explained the set-up. One member of the team would have his head submerged in water at all times; they would alternate who that was throughout the sketch. The others would enact the scene until either: “it comes to a good conclusion or one of us drowns.” I guess that explains why the Hotspurs! were performing the “Bucket of Death” for the first time.

During a Jeopardy! Style game called “Nouns” the answer posed to the four group members was Hotspurs! Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Harris both came up the same question: “What is a way to waste $10?” This reviewer and the audience would disagree. The group once again provided wonderful comedy entertainment to a full house. The real question is: “What’s a bargain for improvisational comedy entertainment?”

 

The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor at the Ritz Theatre Company

Ghosts. Mystery. Murder. The Ritz Theatre Company selected the perfect show for ushering in the fall season. This September they’re presenting the world premiere of The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor. Bruce A. Curless directed this original work written by local playwright Kumar Dari. I attended the September 21st performance.

Like many aristocratic British families at the end of the nineteenth century, the Sappingtons’ profligacy resulted in financial trouble. In addition, Lord Sappington’s business partner swindled him shortly before his passing. In order to raise money his sons Edwin (played by John Jackowski) and Andrew (played by Craig Hutchings) contemplated selling the family estate, Ravenswood Manor. William’s widow, Lady Sappington (Ginna Higgins), planned on taking in lodgers to raise funds.

While this set-up made for a strong conflict, the playwright added a twist that complicated everyone’s plans: Lady Sappington revealed that a series of unexplained events occurred at Ravenswood Manor. She found paintings askew. The sound of mysterious footsteps echoed through the halls. Butler Rugggles (John Hager) discovered an expensive vase off its shelf and lying in the middle of the room. Lady Sappington surmised that ghosts haunted the manor.

To free the home of these spectral visitors, she contacted spiritualist Dr. Karmazin (Joe Carlucci). After surveying Ravenswood Manor, the latter recommended he perform a conjuring ceremony. An unexpected but inevitable result transpired.

While set in 1890 in Victorian England, Mr. Dari added contemporary themes to the show. I found it clever how the playwright drew parallels to the modern era. Andrew battled opium addiction. Edwin and Major Botwright (played by Andrew B Kushner) engaged in debates about the racial issues of the day. Lady Blackthorne (Jack Shaw) was really a transgender English lord.

One wouldn’t expect a ghost story set in Victorian society to serve as the background for a comedy. Once again, Mr. Dari showed exceptional creativity. Major Botwright (Andrew B. Kushner) had a fondness for Gilbert and Sullivan. He enjoyed transforming expressions into a jingle that would fit one of their shows. One of the catchier was:

Tuck, tuck, tuck

Into the duck, duck, duck.  

While no choreographer was listed in the playbill, the major’s “Ring, Ring, Ring for Ruggles” cadence, inspired the ensemble to perform a nineteenth century version of the Macarena.

Following the performance, the playwright and the cast participated in a talk back with the audience. Your correspondent asked Mr. Kumar what inspired him to write this story.

The playwright explained that he had ideas for a number of characters. During a process that took him three years, he refined them and decided to set the play in Victorian England.

The cast did an exceptional job of bringing Mr. Kumar’s unusual characters to life.

The randy Lady Blackthorne possessed a particular fondness for double entendres. Jack Shaw’s effeminate delivery when expressing them made these ribald references even wittier.

Of all the roles in the show, Lady Sappington was the closest to ‘normal.’ Ginna Higgins played an excellent serious character when working opposite Mr. Shaw’s comic one.

Joe Carlucci brought exceptional energy to the role of Dr. Karmazin. He danced about the stage with divining rods. The performer also spoke in a thick Balkan accent, but still expressed his lines so I could understand them clearly.

Andrew B Kushner played a wonderful Major Botwright. The walrus mustache made his transformation into the character even more believable. I also liked the pompous voice he used to tell the major’s myriad stories of personal grandeur.

John Jackowski and Craig Hutchings played the spoiled Sappington brothers. With their characters’ fondness for alcohol, one hopes they don’t strain their elbows.  It’s difficult to hold a glass for 2-1/2 solid hours.

Amanda Lynch Lizzio performed the role of Zenobia Sappington. Ms. Lizzio captured the bubbly and garrulous nature of her character very well.

John Hager added his unique brand of comic genius to the role of Ruggles, the butler. One has to credit him for keeping his torso at a 35 degree angle to the floor all evening. In addition to his professional interpretation of Mr. Dari’s script, Mr. Hager supplemented his performance with his gift for improvisation.

During the intermission I encountered Mr. Hager in the theatre. While remaining in Ruggles’ poor posture, he asked me, “Are you laughing at my pain?”

I’m sure I felt a lot more pain that Mr. Hager did. My side still ached from laughing at his performance during the first act.

Director Bruce A. Curless pulled a Hitchcock. His cameo came in the form of Lord Sappington. As with every other time Mr. Curless has taken the stage, he made his presence memorable. Without giving readers spoilers, he delivered the most haunting performance I’ve ever seen from him.

The production crew included: Technical Director Dan Rogers, Stage Manager Alexis Snyder, Assistant Stage Managers Alyssa Sendler and Gabriel Slimm, Light Designer Jennifer Donsky, Sound Designer Matthew Gallagher and Sound Board Operators Natasha Swann and Anastasia Swann.

Prior to the curtain rising, Production Manager Matthew Weil informed the audience that this run is the “world premiere” of The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor. I enjoyed the opportunity to attend. As Mr. Weil noted, “How often do you have the opportunity to see a ‘world premiere’?” While that gives theatre aficionados a strong reason to experience the production, the entertaining nature of the show serves as an even better motivation to see it.

Don’t become haunted by the specter of missing The Ghosts of Ravenswood Manor. It runs through September 29th at the Ritz Theatre.

 

A Night of Comedy Improv Featuring The Hotspurs! at The 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters

Back on February 23rd, the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters hosted their 7th annual 24-Hour Play Festival. For that endeavor, teams of actors arrived at the theatre on a Friday evening. They selected genres, props, characters, tasks, lines and delivery styles at random. They then had 24 hours to write and perform a play using these attributes. A comedy trio called the Perfect Nobodies consisting of John Hager, Evan Harris and Andrew Snellen competed. They performed a comical take on a detective noir story called A Sleight of Hand.

Building upon that successful debut, the group added members Andrew Snellen and Brendan Rucci and changed their name to The Hotspurs!  This May 25th the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters hosted an evening with this quintet. Performers John Hager, Evan Harris, Sean O’Malley, Andrew Snellin and Brendan Rucci teamed up for an hour-and-a-half of improvisational comedy. Their efforts were serious, but the results were hysterical.

It takes tremendous courage to take the stage without knowing what one will be performing. To add to the pressure Footlighters originally scheduled this event to take place in a 35 seat room. Because of the demand for tickets, the company moved the show to the 92 seat Main Stage. Even that forum sold out. At the show’s beginning, Mr. Harris announced that Burlington County Footlighters already booked the group for another show in August. “They haven’t even seen us do this one, yet!” He observed.

The bar was already pretty high before The Hotspurs! took the stage. Would their performance meet expectations?

The group selected an outstanding opening. In addition to performing in sketches, Brendan Rucci provided musical accompaniment on the keyboard. He played a somber piece written in a minor key. Then an upbeat number broadcast through the auditorium as the other performers entered the stage. It set the tone for the festivities to come.

The evening included a series of “improv games” that the performers presented. They solicited ideas from the audience and then they performed a scene based on their suggestions.

They began the show with one called Half Life. The group asked the audience to provide both a relationship and a location. Performers Sean O’Malley and Andrew Snellen enacted an exchange between a father and son at an amusement park: but with a twist. The actors had to play the same scene during five different time intervals. They first had one minute to perform it, then 30 seconds, then 15 seconds, then seven seconds and, finally, one second. Their witty banter over whether the son (Mr. Snellen) inherited his beard from his father or mother made for one of the evening’s most hysterical moments.

Mr. Harris and Mr. Hager reprised the detective noir theme from their earlier work. When asked to provide a location for the scene of the crime, the audience selected a basketball court. Mr. Harris played an investigator attempting to locate a basketball stolen from him decades prior. Mr. Hager took on the role of the thief. Mr. Hager provided creative and unanticipated responses to the detective’s inquiries. To Mr. Harris’ credit, he managed to stay in character, not laugh and work with the unusual material Mr. Hager gave him.

After soliciting ideas from the audience, The Hotspurs! added their own improvisational ideas. The audience gave the setting of a dentist’s office in Cuba for the Director game. John Hager, Evan Harris and Sean O’Malley played a group of actors performing the scene. Mr. Snellen entered and performed the role of director. He told them to re-enact the scene as an interpretive dance. Following that rendition he had them play it as an opera. After that one, he had them perform it as a PBS special for children.

New Choice made one of the more challenging games. The audience provided the setting in which Mr. Harris’ character took Mr. Hager’s to a funeral for a first date. As they improvised the scene, the other performers would say, “new choice.” That cued Mr. Harris and Mr. Hager to change their responses. That’s quite a challenge for actors making up lines on the spot while in front of a live audience. The fact that the scene entailed an $18 funeral for a dog didn’t make it any less difficult.

The Hotspurs! added the musical genre to their repertoire, as well. Mr. Hager, Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Snellen performed the role of a three headed Broadway star. The audience selected The Cows Are Coming Home as the title of the show. They tasked the performers to sing a song entitled “Milk Me.” Each performer delivered one word that the one who followed would add to.

The group concluded the show with a musical number, as well. The audience picked “having a baby” as the topic. Mr. Rucci accompanied the group on piano as they sang about the miracle of life in the form of an Irish drinking song.

All the performers showed great poise and imagination. My favorite moment occurred during the “scenes from a hat” game. When given the topic of “the world’s worst game show host,” Mr. Harris came up with the following: “One gun. Six chambers. One bullet. One million dollars.”

I had one criticism of the show. It began nine minutes late. This was more due to the audience than either the performers or the company. Long after the 8:00 PM scheduled start-time I noticed audience members still taking their seats. This isn’t an issue endemic to community theatre performances. I would remind everyone of some wise advice someone gave me: “If you can’t be on time, be early.”

Comedy is serious business. It’s always amazed me that farces such as Noises Off! and The Fox on the Fairway are more intricate and involved than anything Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill ever wrote. Improv isn’t much easier. The ability to write material on the spot that’s funny and then be able to perform it without laughing is quite a skill.  It’s a talent at which The Hotspurs! excel. The group will return to the 2nd Stage at Burlington County Footlighters on August 24th.

24-Hour Theatre Festival at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage

Once again Burlington County Footlighters proved that the spirit of American ingenuity continues to thrive among South Jersey Community Theatre performers. On Saturday, February 23, 2019 Footlighters’ 2nd Stage presented their 7th Annual 24-Hour Theatre Festival. One of the most entertaining evenings out that I’ve ever had resulted.

For those unfamiliar with the program, at 8:00 PM on Friday, February 22nd, four teams of actors assembled at the Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage theatre. They were presented with six hats. Each contained slips of paper. They contained: a genre, a prop, a character, a task, a line or quote and a delivery style. Once the teams selected one of each, they had 24 hours to write a play that met all the criteria. The curtain would go up on their creation the evening of February 23rd.

For those who are familiar with Footlighters’ 24-Hour Theatre Festival, this year the organizers added a twist. They selected a “mystery” prop that each team had to use in its play. The prop would be drawn by an audience member at random via lot. The performers wouldn’t discover what that prop was until DURING their performance.

BCF established the evening’s improvisational nature even before the festivities commenced. The emcee, Carla Ezell, stated that she discovered she’d be hosting the program just a few hours before the show. Ms. Ezell’s improvisational aptitude set a high bar for the performers to match. Would they?

Internal Affairs featuring CGI Paul Walker performed a black comedy called Lady Luck. Team members Alex Davis and Josh Ireland presented the best one act play that I’ve either read or watched. Mr. Ireland played a troubled loner with a fascination for birds. Ms. Davis took on the role of a disgruntled Dear Abby responding to his inquiries. This duo presented a 25 minute play while even working clever alliteration into their script. The writing was so good that I’d encourage them to publish the play. Although, I’m sure it wouldn’t be as entertaining without Mr. Ireland and Ms. Davis starring in it.

The Drunken Kruk team took the stage next. Performers Emily O’Connell, Susan Paschkes, Caroline Piotrowski and Ellis Skamarakas presented a pirate musical titled The Drunken Kuk and the Kracken. (You read that right: they selected “musical” as a genre. Those BCF organizers have no mercy on these participants.) The team met some other unique challenges. One character only spoke with either slogans or tag lines. They also had to work a game of patty-cake into their show. This group pushed the limits of creativity. While not asked to, they managed to do the latter while forming a conga line.

Next, the Perfect Nobodies team performed A Sleight of Hand. In this show, John Hager, Evan Newlin and Andrew Snellen presented a story about two detectives attempting to solve a murder. The narrative contained a twist in that the prime suspect could only say the opposite of whatever he meant. The group freelanced by turning this premise into an absolutely hysterical farce. They worked their “mystery” prop into the story with both brilliance and wit. I also admired how while working with a script less than 24 hours old, no one used notes. Everyone still delivered their lines flawlessly.

A love of animals bracketed the program’s play portion. (Now Internal Affairs has me doing the alliteration thing.) The Lusty Dolphins received the challenge of performing in mime and incorporating the task of playing Jenga. Performers Alex Levitt, Dave Pallas, Angelo Ratini and Chrissy Wick showed some monumental creativity on this one. They split up the duties. Mr. Levitt and Ms. Wick played a married couple preparing for a Jenga match. Mr. Pallas and Mr. Ratini performed the mime roles. They mimed the same dialog that Mr. Levitt and Ms. Wick spoke to one another. The actors used a series of different situations to do so. The cleverest came when they mimed a husband driving his pregnant wife to the hospital. Her water broke and forced the husband to deliver the baby. Without giving away spoilers, they made it apparent that the child wasn’t his.

Following the, for lack of a better word, “prepared” plays, the actors participated in a series of improv games.

For the first, performers formed teams of two each. They were tasked with delivering a line that described a situation written by a member of the audience. Once that concluded, they were asked to do something creative with props.

Three actors then played dating game contestants. They selected cards that described whom they were. An audience member played the role of either the bachelor or the bachelorette by asking them questions. The bachelor(ette) then had to guess the character’s identity.

All the contestants deserve credit for participating in these challenges. None of them were easy. Because of that I’d credit Alex Levitt and Evan Newlin for displaying two of the quickest minds I’ve encountered. They both came up with some quality material on-the-spot. Could one of them be the next Robin Williams?

Jim Frazer did fantastic work on the lighting and sound. Angel Ezell also assisted with the evening’s festivities.

Footlighters icon Alan Krier once told me: “I’ve always found that the kids that are involved in the performing arts are always the ones that are exceling in school. The two seem to go hand in hand.” The 7th Annual 24-Hour Theatre Festival showed that those same traits carry over into life after school.

On the morning of February 23rd a Facebook post announced that the theatre would open at 10:00 AM that morning. I happened to pass the building around 11:00 AM. I noticed six cars already in the parking lot.

All participants behaved like the professionals they are. No one got frustrated or gave up because their task was “too hard.”

This wasn’t a contest, either. No team was declared the “winner.” No one offered them any prize money. The actors participated because they wanted to participate. In this era that says something.

I’m no Dear Abby, because if I were I’m sure I’d conduct myself in the vein of the character envisioned by Alex Davis. Periodically, though, people still ask me for advice. Whenever someone wants to know if they should quit something, I suggest the following: “Do you like what you do? Do you want to learn how to do it better? If the answer to either of them is ‘no’, then you need to do something else.” To the delight of South Jersey Community Theatre fans, the participants in the 7th Annual 24-Hour Theatre festival showed the audience just how they affirmatively they would answer those questions.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at Burlington County Footlighters

This is not an easy show, as director Alex Davis prefaced her remarks in the playbill. That’s a trenchant point. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead included themes from the disciplines of rhetoric, philosophy and mathematics. Add to that some Shakespearean dialog and an approach to action that made sitting through a Beckett play seem like watching the X-Games. Some would argue that Tom Stoppard produced the theatrical equivalent to Jerry Seinfeld’s “show about nothing.” Whatever one’s take, I’m sure most would agree it makes for some pretty deep theatre. I attended the opening night performance on November 2nd at Burlington County Footlighters.

High minded dialog combined with stretches where little action occurs puts a lot of pressure on the actors. Ms. Davis selected the perfect duo for this challenge with Josh Ireland and Matt Dell’Olio.

One of the key precepts of writing is to hook the reader with the first sentence. The same goes for drama. Mr. Stoppard proved himself quite the iconoclast. This show began with two characters discussing the results of coin tosses for several minutes. That forced the actors to interest the audience through their histrionic skills alone. Mr. Ireland and Mr. Dell’Olio deserve great respect for meeting this challenge.

The conversations seemed to shift topic randomly. While ostensibly about dry subjects on the surface, it contained serious philosophical undertones. The dialog even modulated into Shakespearean language during several scenes. Once again: Mr. Ireland and Mr. Dell’Olio didn’t allow the difficult material to impede their performances.

Mr. Ireland played a spirited Rosencrantz. In addition to his natural means of speaking, he displayed the perfect gestures. At times they reflected my own confusion with some of Mr. Stoppard’s complex dialog.

Mr. Ireland showed poise when a miscue occurred. During the opening scene one of the coins rolled into the audience. He leapt off the stage, said, “Excuse me”, took it from the spectator who had it, and resumed playing the scene. Even during this unexpected incident, he remained in character.

In 2016 Mr. Dell’Olio took delivering a soliloquy to a new level. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone he made the selfish justifications of a narcissist sound as weighty as Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” oration. It seemed fitting that he’d play a role that interacted with the same character who delivered it.

Mr. Dell’Olio treated audiences to another sublime performance. He showed exceptional stage presence as Guildenstern. Mr. Dell’Olio displays a method of speaking that makes even the commonplace sound profound. Through his gestures he brings powerful emotion to his roles. It’s a testament to his abilities that even this material didn’t restrain him from delivering a Matt Dell’Olio style performance.

As The Player, Dennis Doherty delivered the funniest line of the show. “We’re actors! We’re the opposite of people!” Mr. Doherty also brought out one of the script’s most serious themes. His character demonstrated the subtext that explored the relationship between reality and art. Mr. Doherty executed both the humorous and serious attributes of this character brilliantly.

It’s quite an achievement to make madness and a hunger for vengeance comical. Enter John Hager. He transformed Hamlet into one of the funniest characters I’ve seen performed on stage. Mr. Hager selected the perfect voice for the role. Through his eccentric mannerisms, he made the audience laugh even when not speaking.

Performers Howard Goldberg, Jenny Scudder, David Rizzo, Liz Baldwin, Courtney Bundens, Joshua Kurtz, John Salera and Michael Mueller rounded out the cast.

This high minded show became a high tech spectacle. Jim Frazer’s set and lighting design established a perfect setting for the dramatic action. The use of projections and lighting created flawless impressions of nighttime and daybreak. Amanda Cogdell’s period costuming transformed the stage into a replica of seventeenth century Denmark.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead made for an evening of sophisticated theatre. Ms. Davis added:

You could look at it through the lens of existentialism, questioning whether or not these men truly are free to choose their own paths, or if their fate is sealed and, in turn question your own reality, and whether or not YOU choose your own destiny.

The show may not be “easy”, but the choice to see it is. For those allowing fate to decide whether they should, flip a coin: preferably one of Rosencrantz’s. For South Jersey theatregoers who prefer to control their own destinies, the show runs through November 17th at Burlington County Footlighters. After that it meets the same fate as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…and Hamlet…and Ophelia…and Polonius…and Claudius…