Mark Henley

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.”

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Bright Star at Burlington County Footlighters

“Is it better to hope or to know?” Jimmy Ray (played by DJ Hedgepath) asked.

When Burlington County Footlighters announced their 2018 – 2019 season, Darryl Thompson, Jr. issued a statement via Facebook. Mr. Thompson lamented that he had to wait a year to bring Bright Star to the stage. With over 12 months to plan, organize and prepare this show, was he better off “hoping” audiences would remember it as a spectacular piece or is he now better for “knowing” the answer? I discovered for myself when I attended the opening night performance on May 3rd.

Legendary performer Steve Martin wrote the book and Edie Brickell composed Bright Star’s music. Critics heralded this show. It received myriad award nominations including one for a Grammy. It won the 2016 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music, the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Score and the 2016 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Musical. To bring a show of this caliber to the Footlighters stage, Mr. Thompson utilized that year of preparation very effectively.

Bright Star contained a very rare combination of theatrical elements. It featured excellent choreography, catchy Bluegrass musical numbers and an extraordinary story. As Alice (played by Caitlin Alvarez) sang in the opening number:

If you knew my story

You’d have a good story to tell.

The show contained two alternating plot lines. One followed the star crossed love affair between Alice (Caitlyn Alvarez) and Jimmy Ray Dobbs (DJ Hedgepath). The second showed aspiring writer Billy Cane (Robert Stoop) in his pursuit of Margo (Rachel Comenzo) while trying to get published in the Ashville Southern Journal. The latter became the harder challenge. The journal’s editor read new writers with fastidious discernment. This portion of the story occurred twenty years after the first. An older Alice worked as the journal’s editor.

It shows Steve Martin’s brilliance in that he managed to make the life of a writer sound interesting.

Mr. Thompson selected many Footlighters legends as cast members. However, he selected a newcomer to the company’s stage for the lead role. Caitlyn Alvarez earned her place among performers such as DJ Hedgepath, Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Star-Renbjor.

Ms. Alvarez’s character appeared in two different incarnations. In one story line, Alice was both the “black sheep” of her family and a love struck teenager. In the other her character became an unemotional, jaded professional more comfortable with texts than with people. Ms. Alvarez animated both aspects of Alice’s personality with equal dexterity.

Ms. Alvarez also possesses a beautiful voice. She opened the show with a wonderful performance of “If You Knew My Story.” Her duets with Mr. Hedgepath on “Whoa, Mama”, “What Could Be Better” and “I Can’t Wait” expressed the hopeful optimism of youth beautifully.

Even allowing for the high standards audiences have for Mr. Hedgepath’s work, he still managed to exceed them. One has to credit him and Ms. Alvarez for their chemistry. That’s quite an achievement for two people working together for the first time.

Several years ago DJ Hedgepath’s mother commented on one of my reviews. She expressed her pride in her son. The way I praised his abilities in my article made her cry. I replied that Mr. Hedgepath is an immensely talented actor. I suggested she start stockpiling boxes of tissues.

I’m not sure whether or not Mrs. Hedgepath accepted my advice. If she did, I’d ask that she donate some of those boxes to Burlington County Footlighters for this run of Bright Star.

Mr. Hedgepath delivered his strongest vocal performance to date in the form of “Heartbreaker.” Through his emotive signing he made an affecting scene even more intense. He and Ms. Alvarez performed a duet on “I Had a Vision” that was even more moving. Mr. Hedgepath’s performance made the audience experience the same emotions as his character. That’s genius.

In the role of Billy, Robert Stoop delivered a stellar version of the show’s title track. In addition, Mr. Stoop had a witty interaction with Ms. Alvarez. He handed her a letter claiming that author Thomas Wolfe wrote a letter praising his writing. Using a monotone voice, Ms. Alvarez informed him that Mr. Wolfe passed away several years prior.

Mr. Stoop also performed an excellent number with Nicholas French (as Daddy Cane). The two sang a banjo accompanied funeral dirge for Billy’s mother with the somber “She’s Gone.”

In the playbill, Rachel Comenzo thanked Mr. Thompson for “the opportunity to sing again.” Audiences should express their appreciation to the director, as well. Ms. Comenzo proved herself quite the country crooner with her rendition of “Asheville.” She accompanied Mr. Stoop on a wonderful duet of “Always Will.”

Ms. Comenzo has that rare gift where she truly becomes the characters she plays. In her performance as Margo she always found the proper facial expressions to accentuate the scene. Her subtle wincing whenever Max (Christian DeCola) expressed his interest made their interaction more engaging.

Fans know Burlington County Footlighters for the comedy team of Al Krier and Dan Brothers. Performers Stephen Jackson and Alex Davis showed they may be the next great comedy team to originate from that company. The two provided a much needed catharsis to the intense drama that occurred in the show. In addition to their humorous interactions, they performed a catchy song and dance number with Mr. Stoop on “Another Round.”

Audrey DiEnno-Lacroce coordinated spectacular choreography. Several numbers involved the ensemble. The cast executed the intricate maneuvers well. Their skill made an entertaining performance into an awesome one.

Thomas Stone played the villain, Mayor Dobbs. He personified Larouchefoucault’s admonition that: “the evil wouldn’t be so dangerous if it weren’t for the good in them.” Mr. Stone’s character wanted his son, Jimmy Ray, to live a rewarding life. He erred by pursuing that end with unrestrained cruelty. Mr. Stone expressed that sentiment through his excellent rendition of the “A Man’s Gotta Do” reprise. His baritone repetition of the line “a man must protect his family” made it ominous. This brings me to my one criticism of the show.

When Mr. Stone took his curtain call I heard hissing from the audience. Folks: MR. STONE IS A GIFTED ACTOR. HE PLAYED THE ROLE AS WRITTEN BY THE PLAYWRIGHT. HE DID A SUPERB JOB OF IT.

Please do not confuse performers with the characters they play. In that sense, Mr. Stone should take pride in the fact audience members found his performance as Mayor Stone so authentic.

The following performers rounded out the cast: John Romano, Jillian Star-Renbjor, Matt Maerten, Tony Flores, Becky Crunk, Ally Masson, Rachel Ricci, Audrey DiEnno, Lena Dougherty, Shaina Eagan, Gabrielle Hansson, Mark Henley, Riley Rancani, Mackenzie Smith, and Luke Szyskiewicz. Michelle Foster served as Musical Director and Chuck Jackson designed the set.

Ms. Davis’ character described the task of a writer as: “to drink alcohol and feel sorry for yourself.” After watching Bright Star at Burlington County Footlighters, theatre critics will struggle to follow that follow that advice; at least the second part of it. Mr. Thompson and his team receive this critic’s praise for giving this phenomenal show the presentation it deserved. We can all drink to that.

Bright Star will shine at Burlington County Footlighters until May 18th.