John Nicodemo

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.

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Murder by Poe at Haddonfield Plays and Players

This Halloween several performers met their “Poe” tential at Haddonfield Plays and Players. Themes involving black cats, vengeance and murder took the stage as the company presented “a descent into the maelstrom” that was the mind of Edgar Allan Poe. I put on “the spectacles” for October 27th’s performance of Murder by Poe directed by Amber Kusching.

The story began with an “enigma.” A woman (played by Hannah Keeley) encountered a house in the forest. Upon entering she discovered a “valley of unrest.” Everyone present had committed murder. While that presented “a predicament” she then undertook a quest to determine how all their stories linked together. An evening of mystery, terror and even humor followed.

Poe was a literary innovator. A pioneer of the short story form, he invented the modern detective tale in 1841. Forty six years before Sherlock Holmes appeared in The Strand, Poe introduced American audiences to sleuth extraordinaire C. Auguste Dupin.

John Nicodemo took on this iconic role. Speaking with an authentic French accent he brought out the character’s cunning, wit and arrogance. He best animated these traits through his cocky synopsis of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.”

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher made the Dupin character much more complex than his creator did. Mr. Nicodemo met these demands. He displayed excellent chemistry working with Ms. Keeley; especially, as his character became the subject of her investigation. The performer brought out the character’s change and subsequent discomfort with it very believably.

After that performance, I have to say, “Mr. Nicodemo: ‘thou art the man.’”

Poe’s wrote during the Romantic Era. That may seem odd when considering the subjects of his poems and stories. While lacking in “romance” itself, his work contained many references to emotions and feelings. Hannah Keeley infused this sense element into her performance.

Ms. Keeley displayed the anxiety of her situation very well. Even when silent, her facial expressions conveyed the character’s inner turmoil. She complimented Mr. Nicodemo wonderfully. As his character changed, Ms. Keeley steadily altered the Woman. Throughout the course of the show her role converted from that of the emotional character into the more analytical of the two.

The show’s conclusion contained a “mesmeric revelation.” I won’t give away details, but it contained a “dream within a dream” sequence. I credit Mr. Nicodemo and Ms. Keeley for becoming new characters in the final scene.

The script provided serious challenges for the actors. Several performers accepted the task of reciting a Poe story in its entirety. This entailed delivering long monologues written in nineteenth century prose. Robert Bush (as Usher), Tony Killian (in “The Black Cat”), Dan Safeer (in “The Tell-Tale Heart”), Salina Miller (Marie Roget) and Alex Leavitt (William Wilson) all proved themselves adept storytellers.

I’d especially credit Mr. Leavitt. He delivered a rendition of “William Wilson” that made Poe’s tale sound like something out of Shakespeare.

Murder by Poe included an intricate visual spectacle, as well. Projections appeared on a wall at stage left. In addition to still images, it also displayed some live action. Shadow figures enacted key scenes from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The cast and crew kept everything in synch. One also has to credit them for drawing comedy out of these morbid scenes.

Gary Werner designed a set well suited for this show. The paintings, bookshelf and off white background reminded me of a scene from a Gothic mystery story. I did have one suggestion, though. In homage to Poe, I would’ve liked to see “the oval portrait” of him hanging somewhere.

Performers Deborah Tighe and Tina Currado rounded out the ensemble.

Unfortunately for Poe fans, theatre goers and “the man of the crowd”, for that matter, this special presentation of Murder by Poe ends October 28th.  The show would make for a great Halloween tradition. Let’s hope this isn’t “nevermore.”

 

The Fantasticks at the Ritz Theatre Company

When I read the title of the Ritz Theatre Company’s latest production, The Fantasticks, I figured it referred to the cast.  The show featured South Jersey community theatre legends Alan Krier, Bruce A. Curless and Michael Pliskin among other notables. While the show didn’t focus on their personal stories, it sure lived up to the title. I attended the opening night performance on June 1st.

To add to the billing, Matthew Weil (with the assistance of Siarra Ingram) directed this musical. Mr. Weil has a history of organizing the stage very creatively. For The Fantasticks, he utilized a similar set-up to the one he used for Brighton Beach Memoirs. In this show, however, the audience didn’t sit around the stage: they sat on the stage. This allowed the actors to mingle a bit with the spectators while taking their places for the opening scene.

The set-up also gave the thespians the opportunity to make eye contact with the audience while performing. I didn’t just feel like the players spoke to me: they did speak to me. It made the theatrical experience much more personal.

The Fantasticks told the story of teenage beaus Luisa (played by Kristy Joe Slough) and Matt (AJ Klein). The two lived next door to one another, but their feuding fathers Hucklebee (Alan Krier) and Bellamy (Charles J. Gill) kept them apart. The dads did so both figuratively and literally. They erected a wall (played by Brian Gensel) between their properties to keep the two separated…or so they wanted their kids to believe.

In the witty duet “Never Say No” the fathers explained that kids always do the opposite of what they’re told. The audience learned these men wanted their children to marry.

Realizing that a physical boundary and a fake quarrel wouldn’t suffice to bring their scheme to fruition, the dads enlisted the aid of a professional. A man who called himself El Gallo (Michael Pliskin) offered to enact an abduction. After recruiting one time Shakespearean actor Henry (Bruce A. Curless) and his sidekick Mortimer (John Nicodemo) the gang feigned an attempt to kidnap Luisa. Following a brief sword fight, Matt ‘saved’ her and emerged the hero.

At this point in the play, I became confused. The act’s final number “Happy Ending” befuddled me even more. Matthew Weil has directed such innovative dramas as The Pillowman and The Heiress. Those plays featured some mind bending plot twists experienced by complex characters. This story concluded much more neatly than I expected.

Then Mr. Pliskin announced the show included a second act. After intermission, then it turned into what I expected from a Matthew Weil directed show. The story arcs in The Fantastics rivaled the other two shows’ I cited. I’ll spare theatregoers spoilers. They deserve the opportunity to experience Mr. Weil’s theatrical journey for themselves. As a teaser, I will note that Act II began with Ms. Slough, Mr. Klein, Mr. Krier and Mr. Gill arguing in song about a plumb being “too ripe.”

The lighting (operated by Stage Manager Sara Viniar) fashioned a spectacular ambiance. The blue shade created a perfect simulation of moonlight. The yellows illuminated the stage just like sunshine. The colors accentuated the tinsel Mr. Gensel dropped on Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough to simulate rain and the paper he fluttered to mimic snow. The lighting also made me feel like the scenes occurred during the time of year indicated by the narrator.

Here we go with ‘the narrator’ thing again. I’ve often ranted about how much I loathe when a playwright makes ‘the narrator’ a character. That was until I experienced Michael Pliskin’s performance in this show. Mr. Pliskin possesses a gift for storytelling. While the show featured excellent dance routines (choreographed by Angela Longo), stellar singing (vocally directed by Robert Stoop) and outstanding acting, Mr. Pliskin’s narration impressed me the most. No one can tell a story like Michael Pliskin. If he’d like to expand his artistic horizons, I’d suggest he consider narrating audio books.

In addition to that role, Mr. Pliskin also played the villain, the deceptively intricate El Gallo. (Phonetically that’s gah-yo, as the character would tell you.) He delivered his lines with a Spanish accent embellished just enough for comic effect. The performer also delivered the most humorous death scene ever portrayed on stage. To balance out his evening, he also sang a moving “Try to Remember” that those who heard will never forget.

Kristy Joe Slough showcased extraordinary operatic vocals throughout the evening. She performed a wonderful solo number “Much More.” Ms. Slough sang duets beautifully with both Mr. Pliskin and Mr. Klein. While doing so, she chose the perfect facial expressions to enhance the lyrics. This performer displayed great dexterity with the ballet moves she performed, as well.

AJ Klein animated Matt’s love for Luisa through both his singing and his mannerisms. He displayed great energy in utilizing the entire stage for one of his dance numbers. Mr. Klein portrayed his character’s growth very credibly. One also has to respect a performer willing to wear both a sweater and a leather jacket on a muggy evening.

The highpoint of the evening occurred when Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough sang “They Were You” together. Both performers sat in front of me while doing so. With the passion in their voices and the yearning in their eyes, they made me feel the love between the two characters.

Alan Krier and Charles J. Gill teamed up for some solid duets of their own. While doing so, they made an exceptional comedy team. Mr. Pliskin even joined them to provide a musical answer on the cost of staging a fake kidnapping. In the “It Depends on What You Pay” number, the trio brought out some pretty hearty laughter from the audience.

Bruce A. Curless and John Nicodemo played two of the funniest henchmen in the history of theatre. Brian Gensel made the most memorable surprise entrance I’ve ever witnessed. (I won’t spoil it for future theatregoers.) I’d compliment Steve Weber for providing wonderful accompaniment in the form of his piano playing. I’d also commend Brennan Diorio for the costuming and Melissa Harnois for her work as assistant stage manager.

I encountered a gentleman in the audience who’d seen The Fantasticks numerous times. As Mr. Pliskin sang the final note of the “Try to Remember” reprise, he moved this fan. One could hear this gentleman’s simple observation: “beautiful” resounding through the theatre as the lights faded. After the show I asked this theatregoer what he thought of this performance compared to the others he’d attended. Without hesitation he told me, “This is New York.” Is there any better theatrical compliment?

Perhaps, there is. With the superlative nature of this performance, it’s possible that someday Broadway audiences will say, “This is The Fantasticks at the Ritz.” That would truly be a “Happy Ending” for this run.

South Jersey Community Theatre fans can watch The Fantasticks live up to its name through June 16th.