Steve Rogina

The Laramie Project at the Maple Shade Arts Council

On October 6, 1998 a hate crime occurred in Laramie, Wyoming. This brutal act riveted the nation. It also inspired a team from the Techtonic Theatre Company to visit the site. Their goal: to develop and understanding of the community in which the incident occurred. Following a year-long investigation they brought their findings to the stage. They called it simply The Laramie Project. This summer the Maple Shade Arts Council presented this verbatim theatre classic on their stage. I attended the opening night performance on June 21st.

During the winter of 2017, I had the opportunity to interview The Laramie Project’s director, Lori Alexio Howard. At the time she was rehearsing for a production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Howard expressed the following thoughts on that drama:

 It’s a good time to be doing that show with what’s going on in the country. It will make audiences question their view of the world. It’s good to revisit and question the state of things.

Ms. Howard applied this sense of social consciousness to her latest endeavor. In the playbill she reflected upon the life of her first openly “out” friend.

I am grateful that JT has had 41 years (and counting) to be EXACTLY who he is. It’s because of who he is that I love him so. And yes, twenty years after the events in Laramie, Wyoming, things like hate, prejudice, violence, injustice, and intolerance of those who are different than us are all too common.

The Maple Shade Arts Council’s performance of The Laramie Project made for the most solemn evening of theatre I’ve experienced. All the actors delivered impassioned performances. Because of the story’s tone, no applause occurred between scene changes.

The Laramie Project contained an unusual format for a play. The scenes consisted of a series of interviews the Techtonic Theatre Company conducted with Laramie residents. They asked a variety of people for their thoughts on the murder of Matthew Shepard.

Mr. Shepard was beaten, tortured and left to die tied to a fence in a remote section of the Wyoming prairie. What motivated this brutality? Matthew Shepard was a homosexual.

The script crafted these different interviews into a coherent story. Because of the myriad people involved the show’s 16 performers played multiple roles.

The nature of the text added another challenge for actors. Steven Jackson (who played Matt Galloway, Jonas Slonaker, Doug Laws, William McKinney) observed that the script contained words spoken by real people. He dedicated much time to memorizing the text in order to speak his lines as written. “It’s a deep play,” he added.

The Maple Shade Arts Council has presented their summer shows in various venues over the years. The intimate space they selected at the Maple Shade Municipal Building well suited this show. Performers walked through the aisles during the haunting candlelight vigil. Actors entered the stage from the seating area. Cast members stood in front of the stage just a few feet from the audience when speaking. Ms. Howard utilized the entire room to bring the spectators into the story.

Lighting designers / operators Michael Melvin, Lori Howard and Jackie Duran crafted and executed the lighting impeccably. They managed it so well that it functioned like a character in the show. The darkening of the stage at the appropriate times set the mood. The eerie glow enhanced the scene where the cast re-enacted the discovery of Shepard’s body. The flickering during the hospital CEO’s (played by Nicholas French) press conference imitated cameras snapping photos.

The performances in The Laramie Project will haunt theatregoers. The events it depicted occurred in the recent past. It chronicled the thoughts and feelings of real people living in a rural community. It centered upon a tragedy all too common in the modern era. In a sense it was like the director turned the theatre into a mirror. The audience watched a reflection of itself play out on stage.

In one scene performers Abby Drexler and Phyllis Josephson played Laramie locals being interviewed by a member of the Tectonic Theatre Company (played by Nicholas French). Ms. Drexler and Ms. Josephson discussed life in Laramie in a playful and relaxed fashion: until he asked about the Shepard murder. Then the performers became guarded and laconic.

Marissa Wolf delivered a soliloquy expressing her character’s disagreement with the media’s portrayal of the killing. She delivered her character’s view that Mr. Shepard was “not a saint” in a way that didn’t sound bigoted. Her delivery brought out the complexity the events engendered.

Doug Suplee turned in a powerful performance as Matthew’s father. During the sentencing of one of the killers, Mr. Suplee presented a gripping monolog. His delivery combined with the message of temperance made one of the show’s most compelling moments.

The show contained many outstanding moments. Sara Viniar turned in impassioned performances as the Islamic woman and the college professor. Brian Gensel played the young man who discovered Shepard with uncomfortable realism. Steve Rogina brought out the conflict within the doctor who discovered he treated both Shepard and one of his attackers on the same evening the incident occurred.

When directors seek performers who can play multiple roles in the same show, Nick French is becoming South Jersey Community Theatre’s “go to” guy. After playing all eight members of the D’Yasquith family in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder in January of this year, he cut back to just four in this show.

Mr. French portrayed the moralizing firebrand Fred Phelps. The upside down American flag he wore on his jacket accentuated his character’s views. Mr. French also played the empathetic hospital CEO with the same proficiency.

Performers Chrissy Wick, Chuck Klotz, Frank Simpson Jr., James Gallagher, Jerrod Ganesh, Kat Ross Kline and Michele Liberton rounded out the cast.

The production team included: Assistant Director Lisa Palena, Production Assistant Jackie Duran and Stage Manager Chrissy Wick. Edwin and Lori Howard designed the set.

Even with the disturbing subject matter, Ms. Howard brought out the latent message of hope at the end. As she wrote in the playbill: “All you need is love.” The Laramie Project is one small step towards making that message more common. It runs through June 29th at the Maple Shade Arts Council.

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Big River at Haddonfield Plays and Players

Director Matthew Weil doesn’t avoid bringing controversial subjects to the stage. For his first project since The Pillowman he selected a show based on the most frequently banned book in American history. It seems the plot twists found in his earlier work have influenced his approach to directing. In a departure from his usual repertoire, he chose a musical for his latest offering; and what a musical he chose.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn inspired author William Hauptman and songwriter Roger Miller to craft Big River. They allowed audiences to embark on a musical voyage with Huck and Jim until the raft moored in the hearts of theatregoers. I uh rekun they shur did when I attended the opening night performance this February 2nd at Haddonfield Plays and Players.

Mr. Weil ensured all understood Mr. Twain’s influence upon entering the theatre. A sign located in front of the stage contained the following preface from the author:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR.

In acknowledgement of that warning, this review will skip the usual story synopsis. It will, however, inform readers that the cast and crew presented a veritable tour de force of Mr. Twain’s concept.

Vinnie DiFilippo (as Huckleberry Finn) and Bryan M. Pitt (as Jim) set new standards for getting into character. Both selected excellent voices for their roles. Mr. DiFilippo sang and spoke with a perfect Midwestern dialect. Mr. Pitt adopted a bass vocal tone with a Southern accent for Jim. While difficult to describe anything from the mind of Mark Twain as ‘realistic’, these two performers transformed his characters into real people.

Mr. DiFilippo delivered a series of wonderful monologs. I sat just to house left of center stage. This performer made me feel like Huck shared his witty stories directly with me.

The “I, Huckleberry, Me” number allowed him a platform to showcase his vocal and dancing skills. This scene made for one of the show’s many highpoints.

Mr. DiFilipo showed great insight into Huck’s emotional journey throughout his physical travels. When appropriate, he animated the character’s boyish and carefree side. As the protagonist discovered the evils of slavery, he adjusted and delivered his lines in a more reflective and morose fashion.

Mr. Pitt brought extraordinary emotional depth to his character. I found the moving method he used to describe Jim’s dream of earning enough money to purchase his family’s freedom very effective. His expression of regret over the way Jim treated his daughter also stirred empathy. The performer brought the same sentiment to his rendition of “Free at Last.”

“The Crossing” served as the show’s seminal moment. Beatrice Alonna’s stirring Gospel vocals brought out the feelings of sorrow at crossing from freedom back into slavery.  Siarra Ingram’s beautifully executed solo dance number made the scene much more powerful.

When naming great teams of comedy villains, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern from Home Alone would probably come in first. After Big River, Brian Blanks (as the King) and Nicholas French (as the Duke) could supplant them. They took their characters’ noble titles and applied them to their own performances: the two became comedy royalty. The hyper-histrionic personality Mr. French infused into the Duke made for an unforgettable performance. Mr. Blanks’ guise as “The Royal Nonesuch” did the same.

The music selection in Big River contained an unexpected treat. The song list included the greatest drinking song ever written. Steve Rogina (as Papa Finn) crooned the best intoxicated rant ever put to music. “Guv’ment” made its point very simply yet eloquently.

Well you dad-gum, dad-gum, dad-gum government

Oh don’t you know

Oh don’t you love ‘em sometimes.

Mr. Rogina’s rendition made it an entertaining concept to contemplate.

The show featured other terrific musical numbers. Kaitlin Healy, Angela Longo and Krista Reinhardt performed a fantastic Country trio on “You Oughta Be Here with Me.” The company opened with the catchy “Do Ya Wanna Go to Heaven?” While hearing the cast perform, I was already there.

If an award existed for “widest range displayed in a single show”, Brian Gensel would’ve earned it for his performance. First, he played a town resident who took lethargy to a new level of sloth. Then he demonstrated immense pride in the Natural State through his “Arkansas” number. I attended a Razorbacks basketball game in that state once. Mr. Gensel showed more enthusiasm than anyone who witnessed that contest. That’s quite an achievement.

Sensitive audience members should beware that the use of a certain racial epithet occurred throughout the performance. While I acknowledge the term’s offensive history, I didn’t have an issue with its use in Big River. Degrading treatment of African- Americans commonly occurred during the time covered in the story. Eliminating it from the text would sanitize a history that shouldn’t be forgotten. That would be a greater crime than replacing a word that we as a more enlightened society recognize as inappropriate.

Mr. Weil brought an extraordinary production team into Big River. Sarah Stouff designed authentic period costuming. Cameron Stringham served as the vocal director for this talented group. Jen Zellers handled the complex choreography. Jen Donsky did a fantastic job with the lighting design.

The stage layout improved my ability to get into the show. As in The Pillowman, it even made me feel part of it. Because of the angle Lori A. Howard and Marissa Wolf took when they chastised Huck, I felt like they were yelling at me. Since that took place prior to my posting this review, I know it was only part of the show.

I’d also credit performers April Johnson, Ricky Conway, Jackson Hummel, Dan Safeer, Taylor Brody, William Young and Gianna Cosby. They enriched an outstanding ensemble.

Big River flowed from a simple concept into a large production. With Matthew Weil’s reputation as one of South Jersey’s preeminent directors, it didn’t surprise that he’d stage a show this sophisticated and complex. While the author’s work lacked qualities of sophistication and complexity, I uh rekon it ‘ud uh still made Mr. Twain proud: powerful proud.

Big River keeps rolling along at Haddonfield Plays and Players until February 17.

City of Angels at Burlington County Footlighters

I spent a long evening of being mesmerized this May 5th. The excessive amount of talent on stage nearly overwhelmed me when I attended the opening of Burlington County Footlighters presentation of City of Angels. This Daryl S. Thompson, Jr. directed piece contained superb acting, great dancing and extraordinary singing. It also featured performances by several South Jersey Community Theatre legends. DJ Hedgepath, Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor all returned to the Footlighters stage. To add to the show’s appeal, Jim Frazer designed the set and Cameron Stringham served as musical director. Mallory Beach and Erica Paloucci handled the choreography.

Well, what else is there to say?  Oh, DJ Hedgepath and Rachel Comenzo once again showed us mortals why we all need to keep our day jobs. This is the easiest review I’ve ever written. Enjoy the rest of your day.

For the benefit of those people who like details, I’ll continue.

The show applied the “story-within-a-story” approach to a musical. It told the tale of screenwriter Stine’s (DJ Hedgepath) quest to write the script for a movie called City of Angels. In the course of doing so, he battled Hollywood producer and director Buddy Fidler’s (Steve Rogina) incessant meddling, he struggled to keep his marriage to Gabby (Rachel Comenzo) together; a feat complicated by his infidelity with Donna (Jillian Starr-Renbjor), and the voice of his protagonist, Stone (John Romano), tussled with him in his head.

In a manner reminiscent of The Wizard of Oz, characters from real life ended up in the imagined story. One has to credit the performers who played dual roles during the same evening.

Kaitlyn Delengowski stood out as portraying the two most diverse characters. I really enjoyed the high-pitched squealy voice she selected for the Carla character; quite a departure from that of the haughty, Alaura Kingsley.

As to where the story went after that: your guess is as good as mine. With the Hollywood characters becoming the movie characters, the plot twists in the detective’s quest and Stine’s re-writes, I found it far too complicated to follow. It didn’t matter, though. The fantastic singing and superb performances made for a very enjoyable evening.

The story didn’t possess the same complexity as some of the melodies, however. David Zippel’s lyrics didn’t quite compliment Cy Coleman’s odd musical phrasing, either. They gave the singers a challenge.

Rachel Comenzo delivered a transcendent performance on the intricate “It Needs Work”. Perhaps inspired by her skill, DJ Hedgepath followed it up several tunes later with his stellar rendition of the equally difficult “Funny”.

The musical began with an unconventional and difficult opening to perform. It started as scat singing that transitioned into a barber shop quartet. Performers Stephen Jackson, Matthew Maerten, Emily Huddell and Kori Rife accepted the challenge of hooking the audience with this unusual material. They executed this task brilliantly.

Not many players would volunteer for the opportunity to sing a duet containing sixteenth notes. Fans familiar with them already know that Rachel Comenzo and Jillian Starr-Renbjor possess exceptional vocal prowess. They showed it with their rendition of “What You Don’t Know about Women.”

DJ Hedgepath and John Romano shared their own dual moment in the spotlight, as well. They delivered an outstanding performance on the “You’re Nothing without Me” number.

The cast delivered outstanding presentations. Mr. Romano tuned in a solid performance as the hard-boiled detective. I enjoyed his interactions with his edgy secretary (Jillian Star-Renbjor), the wealthy wife (Kaitlyn Delengowski) and the gangsters (Wayne Renbjor and the brilliantly comical Tony Flores). Noel McLeer played the missing girl very well, too. This group made me feel like I watched a musical interpretation of a Dashiell Hammett novel. Steve Rogina’s portrayal of the arrogant Hollywood director added a nice element to the story, as well.

Unlike many directors, Darryl Thompson, Jr. chose not to spend the night in the control booth. Instead, he opted to add his own superior vocal talents to the show. I’ve heard him sing bluesy and soulful material in the past. In this production, he showcased his ability to croon jazzy tracks with “Ya Gotta Look Out for Yourself” and the tender ballad “Stay with Me.”

I’d also like to credit Vitaliy Kin’s performance in the roles of Pancho Vargas and Lt. Munoz. I still remember several years ago hearing him perform Spandau Ballet’s “True” in Yiddish in The Wedding Singer. As comical as it was, he sang the tune very well. In this show, he delivered an awesome “All Ya Have to Do is Wait” number featuring a salsa and conga dance.

It thrilled me to hear Rachel Comenzo showcase her vocal talents once again. I watched her perform several non-singing roles last year. Ms. Comenzo’s rendition of “With Every Breath I Take” as nightclub singer, Bobbi, made up for the long wait. Her voice delivered great vibrato, soft inflection and outstanding modulation. I thought the band a little too loud on this number. Without a microphone, she still found a way to deliver soft notes in a manner so the audience could still hear her clearly. I’m still trying to figure out how that was even possible.

While crooning this moving number she also used extraordinary facial expressions toward Mr. Romano’s character. As difficult as this may be to believe, she conveyed Bobbi’s emotions non-verbally so well, that the scene would’ve been just as effective had she been silent.

With the possible exception of Mr. Hedgepath, I’ve never watched a performer get into character as well as Ms. Comenzo. Somehow, she manages this so flawlessly, that one sometimes loses sight of just how proficient she is at doing so. That’s talent.

It’s always difficult to select a ‘best’ DJ Hedgepath moment. His duets with Mr. Romano and monumental solo rendition of “Funny” would be good contenders. I also liked when he stepped out of the spotlight to put on the trench coat, glasses and hat and become one of the background dancers. In addition to his superior skill as a performer, you have to respect actors who are willing to accept any role to remain on the stage.

The City of Angels title aptly fit the show. The cast took the audience to heaven. The production impressed so much that “you can always count on me” to tout its praises “with every breath I take.” It’s true that “ya gotta look out for yourself.” There’s nothing “funny” about that, but “eve’rybody’s gotta be somewhere.” So why not use “the buddy system” and take a friend to go see it? “All ya have to do is wait” until the next performance.