Michael Pliskin

The Fantasticks at the Ritz Theatre Company

When I read the title of the Ritz Theatre Company’s latest production, The Fantasticks, I figured it referred to the cast.  The show featured South Jersey community theatre legends Alan Krier, Bruce A. Curless and Michael Pliskin among other notables. While the show didn’t focus on their personal stories, it sure lived up to the title. I attended the opening night performance on June 1st.

To add to the billing, Matthew Weil (with the assistance of Siarra Ingram) directed this musical. Mr. Weil has a history of organizing the stage very creatively. For The Fantasticks, he utilized a similar set-up to the one he used for Brighton Beach Memoirs. In this show, however, the audience didn’t sit around the stage: they sat on the stage. This allowed the actors to mingle a bit with the spectators while taking their places for the opening scene.

The set-up also gave the thespians the opportunity to make eye contact with the audience while performing. I didn’t just feel like the players spoke to me: they did speak to me. It made the theatrical experience much more personal.

The Fantasticks told the story of teenage beaus Luisa (played by Kristy Joe Slough) and Matt (AJ Klein). The two lived next door to one another, but their feuding fathers Hucklebee (Alan Krier) and Bellamy (Charles J. Gill) kept them apart. The dads did so both figuratively and literally. They erected a wall (played by Brian Gensel) between their properties to keep the two separated…or so they wanted their kids to believe.

In the witty duet “Never Say No” the fathers explained that kids always do the opposite of what they’re told. The audience learned these men wanted their children to marry.

Realizing that a physical boundary and a fake quarrel wouldn’t suffice to bring their scheme to fruition, the dads enlisted the aid of a professional. A man who called himself El Gallo (Michael Pliskin) offered to enact an abduction. After recruiting one time Shakespearean actor Henry (Bruce A. Curless) and his sidekick Mortimer (John Nicodemo) the gang feigned an attempt to kidnap Luisa. Following a brief sword fight, Matt ‘saved’ her and emerged the hero.

At this point in the play, I became confused. The act’s final number “Happy Ending” befuddled me even more. Matthew Weil has directed such innovative dramas as The Pillowman and The Heiress. Those plays featured some mind bending plot twists experienced by complex characters. This story concluded much more neatly than I expected.

Then Mr. Pliskin announced the show included a second act. After intermission, then it turned into what I expected from a Matthew Weil directed show. The story arcs in The Fantastics rivaled the other two shows’ I cited. I’ll spare theatregoers spoilers. They deserve the opportunity to experience Mr. Weil’s theatrical journey for themselves. As a teaser, I will note that Act II began with Ms. Slough, Mr. Klein, Mr. Krier and Mr. Gill arguing in song about a plumb being “too ripe.”

The lighting (operated by Stage Manager Sara Viniar) fashioned a spectacular ambiance. The blue shade created a perfect simulation of moonlight. The yellows illuminated the stage just like sunshine. The colors accentuated the tinsel Mr. Gensel dropped on Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough to simulate rain and the paper he fluttered to mimic snow. The lighting also made me feel like the scenes occurred during the time of year indicated by the narrator.

Here we go with ‘the narrator’ thing again. I’ve often ranted about how much I loathe when a playwright makes ‘the narrator’ a character. That was until I experienced Michael Pliskin’s performance in this show. Mr. Pliskin possesses a gift for storytelling. While the show featured excellent dance routines (choreographed by Angela Longo), stellar singing (vocally directed by Robert Stoop) and outstanding acting, Mr. Pliskin’s narration impressed me the most. No one can tell a story like Michael Pliskin. If he’d like to expand his artistic horizons, I’d suggest he consider narrating audio books.

In addition to that role, Mr. Pliskin also played the villain, the deceptively intricate El Gallo. (Phonetically that’s gah-yo, as the character would tell you.) He delivered his lines with a Spanish accent embellished just enough for comic effect. The performer also delivered the most humorous death scene ever portrayed on stage. To balance out his evening, he also sang a moving “Try to Remember” that those who heard will never forget.

Kristy Joe Slough showcased extraordinary operatic vocals throughout the evening. She performed a wonderful solo number “Much More.” Ms. Slough sang duets beautifully with both Mr. Pliskin and Mr. Klein. While doing so, she chose the perfect facial expressions to enhance the lyrics. This performer displayed great dexterity with the ballet moves she performed, as well.

AJ Klein animated Matt’s love for Luisa through both his singing and his mannerisms. He displayed great energy in utilizing the entire stage for one of his dance numbers. Mr. Klein portrayed his character’s growth very credibly. One also has to respect a performer willing to wear both a sweater and a leather jacket on a muggy evening.

The highpoint of the evening occurred when Mr. Klein and Ms. Slough sang “They Were You” together. Both performers sat in front of me while doing so. With the passion in their voices and the yearning in their eyes, they made me feel the love between the two characters.

Alan Krier and Charles J. Gill teamed up for some solid duets of their own. While doing so, they made an exceptional comedy team. Mr. Pliskin even joined them to provide a musical answer on the cost of staging a fake kidnapping. In the “It Depends on What You Pay” number, the trio brought out some pretty hearty laughter from the audience.

Bruce A. Curless and John Nicodemo played two of the funniest henchmen in the history of theatre. Brian Gensel made the most memorable surprise entrance I’ve ever witnessed. (I won’t spoil it for future theatregoers.) I’d compliment Steve Weber for providing wonderful accompaniment in the form of his piano playing. I’d also commend Brennan Diorio for the costuming and Melissa Harnois for her work as assistant stage manager.

I encountered a gentleman in the audience who’d seen The Fantasticks numerous times. As Mr. Pliskin sang the final note of the “Try to Remember” reprise, he moved this fan. One could hear this gentleman’s simple observation: “beautiful” resounding through the theatre as the lights faded. After the show I asked this theatregoer what he thought of this performance compared to the others he’d attended. Without hesitation he told me, “This is New York.” Is there any better theatrical compliment?

Perhaps, there is. With the superlative nature of this performance, it’s possible that someday Broadway audiences will say, “This is The Fantasticks at the Ritz.” That would truly be a “Happy Ending” for this run.

South Jersey Community Theatre fans can watch The Fantasticks live up to its name through June 16th.

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The Pillowman at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Haddonfield Plays and Players’ promotional material for The Pillowman contained a warning that they intended the show for “mature audiences.” When I purchased my ticket on-line I gave my real name. When I picked it up at the box office, I mentioned who I was to the person at the counter. In spite of the management’s repeated assertions that audience members should possess the emotional characteristics of an adult, they still allowed me to attend the show. It delighted me that they chose to be flexible with their policy. I attended the Saturday afternoon performance on May 13th.

Director and set designer Matthew Weil didn’t waste time in establishing the show’s tone. I entered the theatre 20 minutes prior to the start time. The scene that greeted me explained a lot about the “mature audiences” disclaimer. The stage contained a table, a light directly over it and two chairs against a dark background. A blindfolded performer sat in one of them. The dim lights made it difficult to see. Eerie music played in the background. I credit Mr. Weil for this creative use of ambiance. It allowed him to capture the beauty and the horror of Martin McDonagh’s piece before the story even began.

As with his direction of Brighton Beach Memoirs, (also presented by Haddonfield Plays and Players) Mr. Weil utilized an innovative stage set-up. He designed it as a square with one corner pointing to the front of the theatre. By doing so, it allowed performers to get closer to the audience during key scenes. As I sat to stage right of the corner, the angle of vision gave me a similar perspective as the protagonist when the detectives questioned him. That allowed me to empathize with the main character and really get into the story during the interrogations.

The story centered on a writer named Katurian (played by Michael Pliskin). Without understanding the reason, two police officers Tupolski (played by Michael Doheny) and Ariel (Ryan Ruggles) entered the room and began questioning him. The mystery deepened when they asked about his fiction; with particular emphasis on the ones that included child killings. They explained that someone murdered two children in a similar fashion to those described in his stories. To add to the tension, they held his mentally deficient brother Michal (played by Andy Spinosi) in the next room. They threatened to harm him if Katurian didn’t cooperate.

The story contained philosophical undertones that would’ve impressed Aristotle. As Mr. Weil wrote in the playbill:

 Camouflaged in this gripping piece of theatre are a series of meditations on the nature and existence of art. Is art capable of corrupting? Does it feed off suffering? Should writers be brought to task for dealing in violence and child abuse? Is the artist responsible for the consequences of art? What is or should be the relationship between art and politics?

Michael Pliskin delivered an impassioned performance as Katurian; with emphasis on the word impassioned. The role demanded a range of emotions from the performer. During the interrogation scenes he captured the character’s confusion and terror. Tears came to his eyes when expressing his affection for his brother. Mr. Pliskin impressed most with his skill as a story teller. In several scenes he recited stories written by Katurian. Mr. Pliskin’s awe inspiring deliveries made them much more interesting and entertaining than they would appear on the written page. It would’ve been a very satisfying evening if the show consisted of him only doing that.

In some ways similar to Lenny in Of Mice and Men, the ‘Mikal’ role challenges thespians to perform it credibly. Andy Spinosi animated the character exceptionally well. In addition to enacting Michal’s complexities, several times he did an excellent imitation of Katurian from his character’s perspective.

Michael Doheny and Ryan Ruggles delivered a remarkable take on the good cop / bad cop dynamic. A comedic performance is difficult; getting laughs with dark humor is much harder. Through their skillful interpretations, these two gifted performers made it appear facile; quite a feat with the nature of the story.

Jonathan Greenstein and Marissa Wolf each delivered terrifying performances as the Father and Mother. The two presented their roles like more frightening caricatures of Edward Gorey characters. I especially enjoyed Ms. Wolf’s evil laugh. Having to sleep with the lights on for a few nights is a small price for watching these two exceptional renditions.

Sara Scherz returned to the Haddonfield Plays and Players stage as the girl from Katurian’s “The Little Jesus” story. Aside from the usual challenges of getting into character, this role contained some added physical efforts, as well; and not just speaking in-synch with Mr. Pliskin. Ms. Scherz managed all these intricacies flawlessly.

I had one criticism regarding the script. I found it ironic that a story centered on a writer contained some very poor writing. The dialog contained A LOT of repetition. Several times in the opening scene Tuploski and Ariel repeated each other’s lines back-and-forth. That annoyed me. The second act opened with Michal repeating various things Katurian said to him. That annoyed me even more. Michal then spoke about his “itchy ass” numerous times. At that point I actually thought about leaving.

Listening to the same lines of dialog repeated verbatim over and over just strains my patience and wastes time. In fairness to Mr. McDonaugh, he did include some excellent writing; particularly in the form of Katurian’s prose. The playwright added pauses at effective times, too. With these techniques in his creative arsenal, I didn’t understand the need for characters to keep repeating the same lines.

I expressed my concern about Haddonfield Plays and Players “maturity” requirement to my friend, the esteemed actress and director, Lisa Croce. She suggested I act like I possessed the emotional intelligence to attend the show. To which I replied, “If I was that good an actor, I’d be on stage.” Well, I may have gotten in to see the show, but the skills of the cast far exceeded my meagre abilities. They delivered impressive performances of challenging roles in a very difficult play. No doubt, Mr. Weil’s tutelage contributed to that effort. That’s no fluff. The Pillowman meets the same fate as many of Katurian’s characters after May 20th at Haddonfield Plays and Players.