The drama with Amber Kusching’s debut Virtual Theatre Festival began even before the show started. Ms. Kusching’s quintet of virtual plays premiered on a summer evening with expected downpours and thunder hammering in the distance. As an editor for Broadway World, Ms. Kusching crafted a legendary review of an opening night performance on just such an evening. Her witty and detailed appraisal of the Music Man in June of 2019 serves as the benchmark for entertaining community theatre reviews.
In keeping with the social distancing requirements necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the online platform Zoom served as the virtual theatre. With that format, technical issues always concern directors. The minatory weather added another variable.
Would Ms. Kusching’s festival warrant a similar review to the one she wrote one year ago? Your correspondent learned the answer this August 7th.
The festival featured five one act plays written by Amber Kusching. The set list included material that would provide her fans with a complete Amber Kusching experience. The festival opened with a “quarantine original” called A Light in Dark Places. The two “Kusching classics” Crazy and Cloud Illusions made the bill. For those interested in the playwright’s new work, it featured world premiere plays When It Rains, Divorce and Pushing Up Daisies.
Your correspondent has described Ms. Kusching as a “theatrical guru.” Ms. Kusching could just as aptly be called “the Steve Winwood of South Jersey Community Theatre.” In addition to writing all five plays in a show that she produced, Ms. Kusching directed the original piece A Light in Dark Places.
The play was an interesting choice for a summer show. The action occurred during the winter and a ghost served as one of the characters. The drama centered on the reunion of an estranged mother named Carol (played by Sheila McDonald) and her son Chaddington (Tony Gonzalez). They’d chosen to reunite at the father’s hunting cabin following his death. The haunting presence of the past became manifest in the form of Marjorie (Betty Mitchell), a ghost with a terrifying secret.
Carolyn Tisher Messias directed the next show in the program When It Rains, Divorce. At his brother’s wedding, Daniel (Alex Levitt) prepared to deliver the toast. His mother Karen (played by director, Carolyn Tisher Messias) questioned his wife Lisa’s (Hallie Robin) fidelity. Why? Lisa wore yellow. Karen believed that color a symbol of unfaithfulness. Daniel’s suspicions arose when Lisa’s “friend from work” Rick (Beau Wade) displayed inappropriate closeness with Lisa.
Melynda Antionette directed one of Ms. Kusching’s self-described “favorites.” Crazy explored the tenuous boundaries separating the “normal” from the “deranged.” The playwright utilized a creative structure for the dialog. Psychiatrist (Sheila McDonald) asked a patient a question. After the character responded, the doctor asked a follow-up question. A different character answered and proceeded to speak. Performers Debby Tighe, Randy Hendler, David Grice, Rebekah Cianfaglione and Kat Hebert played the patients.
Ms. Kusching described the next show, Pushing Up Daisies, as: “A play that paints a picture of heartache and yearning with strokes of mystery and humor.” As with A Light in Dark Places, a haunting presence affected the character’s lives. Peter (Alex Levitt) spent his days in a dark room painting daisies. The choice of flower contained a dual meaning. His late daughter (Gracie Brown) shared the same name as the plant. His wife Nicole (Sara Viniar) implored Peter to make peace with the past and embrace the future. Megan Knowlton Balne directed this bittersweet family drama.
Most playwrights find inspiration from others who practice the same craft. Ms. Kusching showed how artists in other fields can provide dramatists with a muse. The Joni Mitchell track “Both Sides Now” stirred Ms. Kusching to craft Cloud Illusions. Melissa Harnois directed this tale of a chance encounter between workaholic lawyer Mitchell (John Nicodemo) and soon-to-be bride Joan (Allison Nicole). As a strong follow-up to Pushing Up Daisies, Cloud Illusions showed the cathartic power of living in the present.
Ms. Kusching’s prose stimulated the actors to deliver virtuoso performances. Alex Levitt and Sara Viniar played affecting characters in Pushing Up Daisies. Mr. Levitt also entertained through his comical proficiency in When It Rains, Divorce. Kat Herbert brought genuine realism to her portrayal of a schizophrenic in Crazy. John Nicodemo and Allison Nicole each brought heart-warming characteristics to their roles in Cloud Illusions.
Most virtual shows lack sophisticated backgrounds. In many, actors position themselves in front of dull colored walls. The more sophisticated perform from a den that includes a canine cameo. Thanks to Tony Gonzalez’s superb technical direction, the plays in this festival included more applicable scenery. The outdoor ambiance of Cloud Illusions and the pre-COVID-19 wedding reception in When It Rains, Divorce, gave the stories more depth. They also made it easier for audience members to suspend their disbelief.
The Virtually Possible Theatre Festival included a first for online theatre. Audience members received a stylish playbill. It included photos and bios of all cast members and directors. The layout integrated a creative use of colors as well.
To paraphrase her own text from Cloud Illusions, Ms. Kusching isn’t looking backwards or forwards. She’s looking up. The playwright presented the Virtually Possible Theatre Festival as a fundraiser for her Philadelphia Fringe Festival project Oz.org. That show will stream through Zoom in September 2020.
One more showing of this festival will take place on August 8th at 7:00 PM.
There may not have been power outages, flooding or bats flying around, but Amber Kusching’s play festival gave the audience a memorable opening night performance. Your correspondent can only hope that his review of it serves as a worthy tribute to the master.