Kumar Dari

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.

 

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.