Ryan Ruggles

Into the Woods at the Ritz Theatre Company

Once upon a time there was a rapping witch, a comical carnivore of a wolf and a mooooving death scene involving a cow. Then a writer named Lames Lapine encountered songwriter Stephen Sondheim. They took these tales and translated them into a story for the stage. Director Craig Hutchings heard this fairy tale and decided to make it a reality. He worked his magic on the staff at the Ritz Theatre Company. Like Jack with the magic beans, he planted the idea of presenting Into the Woods this autumn. The audience who witnessed the October 26th performance lived happily ever after.

Into the Woods brought a unique concept to theatre. In essence, Lapine and Sondheim combined elements of various fairy tales and set them to music. They took the stories of “Cinderella” (played by Jenna Lubas), “Little Red Riding Hood” (played by Brittany Marie), “Jack and the Beanstalk” (Zachary Moore and Melissa Manzano), and “Rapunzel” (Jamie Talamo) and used them as part of a larger narrative (eloquently explained by Ryan Ruggles).

A witch (Jennie Knackstedt) promised a baker (Joshua Bessinger) and his wife (Megan Ruggles) that she would grant them a child if they could provide her with the following items before three midnights passed: a cape as red as blood, a strand of hair as yellow as corn, the whitest cow and a golden slipper. To my surprise, this quest concluded by the end of the first act: yet another happy fairy tale ending, right? Well…

As local South Jersey writer Christine Hardy once observed, “There’s a reason why fairy tales always end with a wedding.” Into the Woods proved this hypothesis. Act Two injected a dose of “realism” into this fantasy world.

Jenna Lubas delivered strong operatic vocals on the emotional number “Cinderella at the Grave.” Jennie Knackstedt sang a somber lament on parental estrangement with “Last Midnight.” Megan Ruggles performed a moving meditation on regret with “Moments in the Woods.”

To balance out this mood, Into the Woods contained humor. Robert Repici played the most comical death scene involving a cow possibly ever performed on stage. Brittany Marie made “Little Red” into an emotionally charged character. Michael J. DeFlorio turned the villain of her tale into quite the witty wolf. The audience echoed his howls with those of laughter.

Mr. DeFlorio also played Cindarella’s prince in this show. His scenes with another lovelorn regent (Rapunzel’s prince played by Anthony Crosby) made for the evening’s funniest moments. These pretentious princes exaggerated every action they took on stage. This included their singing on the melodramatic duet “Agony.” I also enjoyed Mr. DeFlorio’s struggles to sheathe his sword.

In keeping with the spirit of the season, Into to Woods put some outstanding costuming on display. Costuming Designer AJ Garcia took on quite a project with this show. The pauper style garb that Cinderella, the Baker and his wife and Jack and his mother wore appeared very authentic. On the upper class end of the spectrum, so did Cinderella’s gown, the elaborate uniforms worn by the princes and the witch’s elegant dress in the second act. Even without the music (directed by Collin Maier), the choreography (by Michele Romond) and the excellent acting, Into the Woods would’ve made for an entertaining Halloween parade.

The story book and forest setting (by Krysten Cummings and Joshua Bessinger) made an exceptional framework for action on the stage. The lighting (by Jen Donsky) enhanced it spectacularly.

The cast included A LOT of talent. I’d also credit Krysten Cummings, Ellorah Mead, Monette Solomon, Nicholas French, Jomarie Apelt, Chris Jewell, Maggie Harbord and Sadie McKenna for adding their skills to this stellar ensemble.

Into the Woods made for a scintillating sylvan spectacle; an awesome autumnal arboreal undertaking. The Sunderer of Sorrows and Destroyer of Delights will inflict upon it the same fate as the giant in Jack’s story after November 18th at the Ritz Theatre Company.

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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.