Matt Dell’Olio

A Streetcar Named Desire at Burlington County Footlighters

Several years ago it seemed like every South Jersey community theatre produced a version of Sister Act. Now it seems like they’ve graduated to more sophisticated material. Tennessee Williams has become the new ubiquitous feature on community theatre marquees.

Burlington County Footlighters presented the latest rendition of Mr. Williams’ work in the form of A Streetcar Named Desire. I attended the opening night performance on January 25th.

Streetcar told the story of down-on-her luck dilettante Blanche DuBois (played by Morgan Petronis). She’d lost her husband, her job and the family estate in quick succession. While a common theme in country music, Williams applied this trio to the stage. He did so magnificently. The show received the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the process.

Blanche’s sister Stella (played by Alex Davis) agreed to let her stay in the New Orleans home she shared with her husband Stanley Kowalski (John Helmke). Blanche found the accommodations lacking in the sophistication to which she’d accustomed herself. She also discovered Stanley to be a boorish “madman.” Stanley responded to Blanche’s contempt and haughty attitude by working to destroy her reputation.

So do audiences really need another installment of Tennessee Williams? With conflict this strong how could a real theatre fan ever get enough of it?

Tennessee Williams’ work presents a host of challenges for actors. Director Lou DiPilla selected a superb cast with which to meet them.

Morgan Petronis played an exceptional Blanche DuBois. The performer first deserves credit for taking on one of the most iconic roles in American theatre. In addition, the character presents several difficulties for those with the courage to play it. Let’s start with the writing.

Watching this show reminded me of a conversation I once had with the late Glenn Walker. In a discussion regarding HP Lovecraft, he criticized the author’s use of narration. When thumbing through one of Lovecraft’s stores, one can see blocks and blocks of text without dialog.

A reader could criticize the text of Streetcar for a similar reason. After perusing its pages just now, I witnessed blocks and blocks of dialog. This creates a problem for actors. People in the modern era are used to 5 second sound bites and Tweets of less than 140 characters. How can one engage contemporary audiences with such verbose material?

Ms. Petronis got it done. She delivered her lines in keeping with the sing-song lyricism of Williams’ dialog; adopting a very authentic Southern accent. One has to credit her for keeping the cadence without misspeaking any of her lines.

Now that was just the speaking facet of the role. Not only did Williams’ protagonist change throughout the story, the character became more of a fabulist than even Willy Loman.

Ms. Petronis played this liar very believably. Even as someone familiar with the play, I struggled to tell when Blanche told the truth or fibbed. I liked the casual ways Ms. Petronis said that she’d only have one drink…or two. She strolled around the stage in finery claiming an old suitor tried to contact her. While the audience could tell the character had begun losing touch with reality, Ms. Petronis portrayed Blanche as though SHE believed the things she said. That’s a very difficult balance and the performer executed it brilliantly.

Tennessee Williams didn’t limit himself to only making Blanche a complex character. His antagonist possessed some complexities of his own. The Stanley role reminded me a bit of the title character from Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. Only this one contained much more attitude, anger and vindictiveness. John Helmke met the role’s demands.

Mr. Helmke played well opposite Ms. Petronis. As highbrow as she made Blanche seem he enacted Stanley as the opposite. His rough accent and the way he shifted his weight while walking suited the character. With equal dexterity Mr. Helmke played a hard-drinking “one-of-the-guys”, a destructive alcoholic and a contrite husband. The latter a challenging task for a character harboring a low opinion of women. The realistic way he begged for Stella’s forgiveness made me cringe.

Alex Davis played Stella, the bridge between these two poles. The character harkened back to Shakespeare’s Brutus. Like him, Stella meant well, but always made the wrong decisions. The nonchalant way in which Ms. Davis would either make excuses for or express enjoyment over Stanley’s behavior was chilling. Ms. Davis’ rendition showed Stella didn’t see any flaws with his actions.

Fran Pedersen played a phenomenal love interest for Blanche, Harold “Mitch” Mitchell. Mr. Pedersen stumbled over his words and laughed awkwardly while attempting to woo her. When Stanley told him what he’d discovered about Blanche, Mr. Pederson adapted. With disheveled hair he raged at her, sounding almost as angry as Stanley. At the show’s end he gave her sad looks that expressed his regret better than words.

Blanche complained about her “nerves” throughout the show. After watching performances this powerful, I’m sure the audience felt a little unsettled.

The following performers rounded out the cast: Kori Rife, Matt Dell’Olio, Shay Fuller, Jeff Rife, Tim Schumann, Lauren DiPilla and Brian Wayman.

In December of 2016 I attended Burlington County Footlighters’ presentation of A Christmas Carol. Set designer Jim Frazer crafted a Christmas village that converted the stage into a real-life Norman Rockwell painting. I didn’t think it possible to create a stage set better than that one. Then came The Explorers’ Club. After this show, I’ll start adding the words to date whenever I describe Mr. Frazer’s “best.”

When I entered the building I felt like I strolled right into the French Quarter.  The set for Streetcar transformed the stage into vintage New Orleans. The broken shutters, the wood balcony and the cerulean backdrop gave the setting authenticity. The flickering streetlamps at both sides of the audience created an eerie ambiance when the house lights (also designed by Mr. Frazer) dimmed.

One wouldn’t expect a non-musical drama to contain good singing. Footlighters’ presentation of Streetcar did. Carla Ezell added her soulful vocal prowess to the production. Since the action occurred in the Big Easy, instrumental jazz music played throughout the performance.

That brings me to my one criticism of the show. With all the jazz music I’d hoped the Mike Parisi Trio would return to the Footlighters stage. They played at the Winter Warmer the company hosted in December. Their jazz stylings would have fit well with this ambiance. Maybe the next theatre company will take note when it presents Tennessee Williams.

The brutality and brilliance of A Streetcar Named Desire will never lack relevance. The cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters demonstrated why it will always be a timeless masterpiece.

While Williams’ work may be timeless, time is running out at Burlington County Footlighters. Theatre fans shouldn’t depend on the kindness of strangers to buy tickets for them. They have until February 9th to see the show. After that they can still stand outside the building yelling, “Stella! Stella!” They’ll receive a much different response than Stanley Kowalski, however.

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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…

The Explorer’s Club at Burlington County Footlighters

Explorer's Club SetThat’s got to be the most underrepresented topic in the history of theatre, I thought when Gaby Affleck described her latest project to me. As an award winning director of shows ranging from Dracula to Of Mice and Men, Ms. Affleck could’ve opted to bring any subject to the stage. Just what did she choose this time? She decided to direct her first farce: a play about explorers. While a topic traditionally overlooked by community theatre companies, the cast and crew at Burlington County Footlighters more than compensated for this history of neglect. I embarked on a voyage of laugher (and TO SCIENCE) during the opening night performance of Nell Benjamin’s The Explorer’s Club this November 3rd.

The story contained a hyper-extreme conflict by the standards of 1879 Victorian society. Explorer Phyllida Spotte-Hume (played by Rachel Comenzo) aspired to be the first woman to join The Explorer’s Club. Ms. Spote-Hume encountered resistance from the membership. Not much of a surprise, there. Initially, I thought the whole ‘farce’ premise had to do with men from that less enlightened era even allowing a woman to enter their building. At any rate, the conflict continued to build as the botanist, Lucius Retaway (played by Michael Muller) and the dashing Harry Percy (played by Tim Petrillo) competed for her affections. In addition, a native she named ‘Luigi’ (played by Matt Dell’Olio) caused an international incident by greeting Queen Victoria in his tribe’s traditional manner: he slapped her across the face. With the overall tone of the story, I wondered if the playwright used this detail to add a bit of subtext.

As one would expect from a farce, the show featured a host of eccentric characters. Also, as anticipated, Ms. Affleck selected the perfect performers to play them. Ethan Rundell met the challenge of portraying the effeminate snake lover, Professor Cope. Lou DiPilla’s expressive performance of religion scholar, Dr. Sloane, blessed the audience. Dennis Dougherty depicted Guniea pig aficionado Professor Walling. Harry Percy (played by Tim Petrillo) seemed to lose all the men who followed him on his expeditions; his latest voyage to discover the East Pole proved no exception. It’s some club when the botanist (played by Michael Muller) who named a coma and death inducing plant after the woman he loved came across as the ‘normal’ one.

Mr. Muller and Mr. Petrillo played opposite one another particularly well. Their performances concretized the conflict between the nerdy botanist and the rugged explorer. Ms. Comenzo deftly displayed interest towards their characters at different times. Her warm smiles towards Lucius and extension of her lips toward Percy in various scenes accentuated the conflict.

Theatrical shows always contain some attribute that makes them unique. Speeches served as this one’s main feature. Ricardo Estevez delivered an impassioned oration regarding his insatiable need for vengeance and retribution…while playing a monk. His inclusion of karate chops and kicks while moving about the entire stage enhanced the performance. He selected impeccable gestures to compliment his delivery.

Rachel Comenzo spoke with flawless diction when delivering her character’s opening lecture. One also has to credit her for keeping a straight face. The new society her character discovered looked like a nation of people from the Blue Man Group. This performer impressed by pronouncing place names most people can’t attempt to spell.

I also applaud Ms. Comenzo for her choice of accent. In the playbill she mentioned devoting a great deal of time towards perfecting it. Her efforts paid off handsomely. She played the dual roles of twin sisters in the show. She adjusted her voice to fit each character and make both distinct.

Matt Dell’Olio possesses a genius for delivering soliloquys. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone, he presented a monologue about Lobster Bisque soup in a method that made it rival the “to be or not to be” monolog from Hamlet. In this show, he presented a solo speech just as gripping. He did so while speaking in gibberish. With a character talking incomprehensibly, gestures and facial expressions become more crucial. He nailed them. Mr. Dell’Olio also displayed phenomenal dexterity prancing around the stage.

Last year Mr. Dell’Olio earned BCF’s Best Actor Award for his performance in Dead Man’s Cell Phone. His robust portrayal in this one may have netted him another one.

I didn’t believe it possible for Jim Frazer to design a better set than the Christmas Village he created for 2016’s A Christmas Carol. This one came close. It captured the essence of a manly “Old Boys’ Club” while including a touch of comedy. The stage featured enormous tusks arranged like an archway, the ubiquitous deer heads, bearskin rugs hung on the wall and a globe displayed off to stage left. I give Mr. Frazer credit for creativity by including the mounted walrus head made by the show’s makeup artist Jasmine Chalfont.

The bar scenes proved a challenge for the cast. Mr. Dell’Olio’s character would say, “Here’s your drink, sir.” Then he would quickly slide a glass towards the front of the counter. It amazed me that every time he did this, the character he tossed the drink towards caught it the moment it slid off the bar…at least until the very end of the show.

Bernard DiCasimirro (as Sir Bernard Humphreys) dropped a glass before taking his curtain call. This performer made the best recovery I’ve witnessed at a live performance. Burlington County Footlighters legend Dan Brothers sat in the first row. While watching the play I thought Mr. Brothers would’ve been a solid addition to this show. He inadvertently got his chance. In response to Mr. Brothers’ jeer, Mr. DiCasimirro tossed the glass’ contents at him. I credit the performer for this improvised move. It made the miscue much more entertaining than it would have been if he’d executed the scene as written.

Harry Percy discussed following up his discovery of the East Pole with a trip to the West Pole. If he embarks on that voyage of exploration, let’s hope this cast and crew is available to tell the story.

I enjoyed Ms. Affleck’s latest journey as a director. “Farce is nothing to laugh at!” She wrote in the playbill. “It’s hard work.” That work paid off in the form of The Explorer’s Club. Audiences may survey it at Burlington County Footlighters through November 18th.

Theatre Review – Dead Man’s Cell Phone at Burlington County Footlighters

It’s rare to witness that unique combination of themes such as technological obsession, the search for true love and the business of organ trafficking in the same show. Somehow, Burlington County Footlighters melded these disparate concepts in their production of Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone. Under the direction of theatre guru extraordinaire, Dennis Doherty, they did an exceptional job in the process.

Mr. Doherty’s choice for his latest project didn’t surprise me. It featured a host of really unusual and quirky characters. The ensemble reminded me a bit of roles in The Drowsy Chaperone; in which this summer at the Maple Shade Arts Council Mr. Doherty played the Man in the Chair. This time he swapped that seat for the director’s chair. When I attended the opening night performance on November 4, 2016, it made me glad he did.

For those who haven’t guessed from the dramatis personae, the playwright crafted an atypical story for this 2006 work. Ironically, it opened with a very relatable scene all too ubiquitous in the modern world. While sitting in a café, Jean (played by Alex Davis) became annoyed by a cell phone ringing behind her. When the man (Matt Dell’Olio) ignored her entreaties to answer it, she removed it from his pocket and responded for him. In the process of speaking, she discovered he was dead. After reporting his death, she opted to keep his phone and continue answering his calls. In the process she became acquainted with his brother (also played by Matt Dell’Olio), his mother (played by Jenny Scudder), his widow (played by Amanda Lizzio) and a business associate (played by Danica Harvey). Each of these individuals seemed in competition for who could be the most eccentric.

I’ve seen Alex Davis play numerous supporting roles. (She’s also a veteran of The Drowsy Chaperone.) I enjoyed watching her take the lead role in this one. It required her to carry the show and she met the challenge. Since her character didn’t know anything about the dead man, she had to talk her way through conversations with people who knew him intimately. This resulted in some awkward discussions. It’s never easy to ameliorate nervous tension through comedy, but she did so like a true theatrical professional.

Ms. Davis is very expressive with a strong aptitude for non-verbal communication. I liked the way she opened the performance by raising an eyebrow while the cell phone in the café increasingly annoyed her. She did a nice job displaying confusion while trying to explain to Gordon’s (the dead man’s) family that she worked for him in “incoming.” At the time neither the character nor the audience knew that he facilitated organ trafficking.

Matt Dell’Olio played dual roles in this show. His performance captured the essences of both the cunning narcissistic dead man as well as his timid awkward brother, Dwight. He brilliantly delivered the dead man’s soliloquy to open Act II. In the speech, the character explained how he pursued a selfish, self-absorbed existence motivated by personal gain. His speaking technique made me feel like I was listening to Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” oration. That’s quite an achievement under any circumstance. It’s even more remarkable because of the content.

I liked how Mr. Dell’Olio transformed into the timid Dwight; in some instances after playing Gordon in the preceding scene. He got into character by slouching and through some graceless laughing. With measured precision he developed a socially awkward character into Jane’s love interest.

The supporting performers portrayed their characters in ways that enhanced the play. Jenny Scudder nailed the role of the overly dramatic mother, Mrs. Gottleib. I found Amanda Lizzio’s rendition of Gordon’s widow as intoxicating as her character was intoxicated. Danica Harvey created a wonderful sense of mystery regarding Gordon’s “other woman.”

Jim Frazier did awesome work with both the set and lighting design. The contrast between the light blue and black colors underneath the multicolored lights created a very unique effect: both simple and yet abstract; just like the play itself. The combination enhanced the unusual nature of the story.

Sarah Ruhl wrote a very cerebral text for this piece. It required a lot of thought to absorb its nuances and themes. At times during the show the air conditioner activated and made it difficult to hear the performers. (Yes, even those of us in South Jersey need air conditioning in November from time-to-time.) It also distracted me from contemplating the show’s complexities. Given the choice between feeling cool and hearing the performance, I would’ve preferred the latter. Iggy Pop bled for his art. I’m willing to shed some sweat for Footlighters’.

I saw Dennis Doherty on his cell phone after the performance. That showed me just how into this project he is. Judging from the laughter and applause, I’d have to say the audience was even more into it than he. Then again no one can accuse anybody associated with the performance of phoning it in. See it no later than November 19th. After that Dead Man’s Cell Phone goes dead at Footlighters and redial won’t be available.