Michael Muller

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…

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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.