Review: She Kills Monsters at Spotlighters Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission

Stephen Edwards, Danielle Shorts, Lanoree Blake, Rachel Verhaaren, and Amanda Harris. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Have you ever role-played with a Dungeon Master? Acted out your fantasies with a group of people in in a dimly lit basement? Sounds kinda kinky, no? Well, I’m talking about Dungeons and Dragons or D&D for those in the know. If you don’t know a damned thing about D&D, don’t feel bad, I didn’t either and never even had an inkling to dabble in it. However, I have had friends that have taken the leap and started campaigns with like minded folks and have had a blast and made some great friends. It’s almost like it’s own culture and if you do want to get an idea of what this game and culture are all about, head on down to see Spotlighters Theatre‘s latest offering, She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen, Directed by Stephanie Miller, with Set Design by Alan Zemla, and Costume Design by Lanoree Blake. With a well thought-out script and a cast who has a great comprehension of the material, She Kills Monsters is one of the best productions running at the moment.

Andrea Bush, Amanda Harris, and Danielle Shorts. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

She Kills Monsters follows the story of Agnes, an average 20-something in the mid-90s, as she struggles with the loss of her entire family in a car crash, including her younger sister Tilly, who she realizes she never really knew. Through the popular role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, and with the help of Chuck, a sort of expert of the game, Agnes navigates through a fantasy world created by sister to discover who she was and, in the midst of it all, discovers things about herself. Throw in a band of fanciful allies, an uncertain relationship with an average boyfriend, a sassy best friend, and evil cheerleaders, you have an entertaining and thoughtful story to which everyone can relate in one way or another.

The story is, in a word, brilliant. It’s funny, poignant, and well thought-out and the short scenes lend itself to good pacing. The audience is enthralled and all-in from the start creating an electrified energy throughout the small theatre. The script cleverly guides the audience into rooting for these characters and before you know it, you’re invested, which is what a good script is supposed to do.

Set Design by Alan Zemla. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Set Design by Alan Zemla is minimal, as expected for the intimate space, but that’s not to say it’s boring because that it is not. Zemla uses his space wisely and utilizes the corners of the theatre that almost gives an immersive feel to the entire production. Zemla knows his space and makes it work beautifully for this production.

Lanoree Blake’s Costume Design is spot on as this story takes place in the 90s and, at first glance, I knew exactly what time period I was in. Her attention to detail took me back to a time when Nirvana ruled the airwaves and flannel was high fashion. Her design for the fantasy world, New Landia, are also impressive and fitting for each character that is created. Kudos to Blake for her work on this production.

Rachel Verhaaren as Agnes. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

I wouldn’t do this production justice without mentioning the exquisite Sound Design by Stephanie Miller, who happens to take the helm of this production as Director, as well. The carefully chosen music for this production is on point and fits it perfectly. Mostly themes from video games, it the design has a nostalgic feel that puts the audience at ease (those who are old enough to remember these sounds from the 90s that are ingrained in our psyche).

Miller also has an exquisite understanding of this story and crafts the story in a way that’s easy to follow, even if you aren’t familiar with the nuances of the game. Her casting is superb and her vision is apparent. She guides this cast seamlessly through the complex but relatable story and the very short scenes run at a great pace but aren’t choppy helping the entire production run smoothly.

Tina James as Vera. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

As characters in the real world, Miles, the doting but average boyfriend played by Peter Daly, and Vera, the sassy best friend played by Tina James, keep Agnes as grounded as possible. James does a commendable job as Vera, portraying her as a strong-willed, sarcastic, but caring friend and her deadpan style humor, though scripted at times, works quite well for the character and adds to the character. Daly does a fine job in his portrayal but, in the intimate space, I got the feeling he was uncomfortable making a connection with his cast mates as his eyes dart all over the place, rarely making eye contact while having a dialogue with anyone and it’s somewhat of a distraction to his performance. Otherwise, he seems to understand his character quite well and is committed to his role.

Michael Crook and Peter Daly. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Michael Crook tackles the role of the very helpful, over-zealous Chuck, the resident expert of Dungeons & Dragons, and it’s as if Crook was born for this role. At times, he’s a little too much and over the top, but that very well could be the intimate space making his gesturing and voice bigger than intended. I imagine in a larger space, he’s on point. He does, however, embody a teen-aged boy excited about playing make-believe and he gives an impressive performance.

In a supporting but extremely humorous role, Sam Cure takes on the character of Steve, a fellow player of D&D who pops up in the middle of various fights Tilly’s group gets into only to be struck down, quickly, every time. Again, Cure has little stage time, but what he does have tickles the funny bone and his portrayal almost has you rooting for him.

Danielle Shorts and Amanda Harris. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Amanda Harris as Kaliope and Danielle Shorts as Lilith are stunning in their roles as members and femme fatales (but good guys) of Tilly’s rag-tag New Landia campaign. Shorts has her character down-pat and gives a confident performance with a good command of the stage while Harris’ character is more subdued but her portrayal is equally as commendable and she looks comfortable in the role. Both of these actors have great chemistry with each other making for splendid performances.

Zoe Lunga and Claire Iverson. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Taking on the villainous roles in this production, Zoe Lunga and Claire Iverson take on the roles of Evil Gabbi and Evil Tina, respectively, and they play these evil cheerleaders to the hilt. Both actresses give believable performances and I can imagine both of these bully characters roaming the halls of any high school in the country today. Along with the ultimate mean girls is Andrea Bush who takes on the role of Farrah, the smack-talking, rough-around-the-edges fairy guard who is trying to thwart our unlikely heroes. Bush is absolutely hilarious as this dirty-mouthed fairy and gives a superb, no-holds-barred performance.

Lanoree Blake as Tilly. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

A couple of definite highlights of this production are Lanoree Blake as Tilly and Rachel Verhaaren as Agnes. Both actors have great chemistry and seem to have a great comprehension of the characters. Lanoree completely embodies her character of a teen-aged “outsider” who has found comfort and a chosen family in this game and world she has created. Her portrayal of Tilly, giving her a rough exterior but a fragile soul, is top notch and makes for some very poignant scenes. Verhaaren gives an authentic performance as an older sister and has great chemistry with her cast mates. Her yearning and strife are well portrayed and you feel for this character from the get and are happy to go on this journey with her. Kudos to superb performances for both of these actors.

Stephen Edwards as Orcus. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

The standout of this production, mainly for his acting chops and comfort on stage is the funny and confident Stephen Edwards who takes on the role of Orcus, an evil soul-snatcher who has pretty much given up and called it quits on the evil business and joins our heroes on their quest to recover Tilly’s soul (more so because he’s the one that lost it and is forced to help). Edwards is a natural on stage and so comfortable in this role, he puts the audience at ease. His performance seems effortless as he throws out one-liners (many of which refer to the 90s and are dear to my heart) and, even though his character is evil, or was at one time, Edwards plays the role in such a way that he is absolutely likable. From his delivery of his lines to his movement about the stage he gives a near flawless performance that is not to be missed and I hope to see more from this actor in the future.

Rachel Verhaaren as Agnes. Credit: Spotlighters Theatre / Shealyn Jae Photography / Shealynjaephotography.com

Final thought… She Kills Monsters at Spotlighters Theatre is a fun, thoughtful piece that you do not want to miss this season. The story is deep and poignant with an important message of not only self-discovery but discovery and acceptance of those closest to you. With a brilliant, raw script and dedicated performances from a cast who gives 100%, this production of She Kills Monsters is a highlight of the season and a great way to end out for Spotlighters to end out their 55th season. Do yourself a favor and get your tickets now!

This is what I thought of Spotlighters Theatre’s production of She Kills Monsters… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

She Kills Monsters will play through June 18 at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at 410-752-1225 or purchase them online.

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Review: Noises Off at Everyman Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with two intermissions (one 15-minute and one 10-minute)

Doors and sardines! Doors and sardines! Apparently, that’s what life is all about… right? Well, maybe not, but it’s always exciting (and a little voyeuristic) to take a peek behind the scenes to see how a show is produced. I don’t know about you, but when a film or an album tickles my fancy, I always enjoy seeing a “Making of…” that particular project and Everyman Theatre‘s latest and last offering of their 2016-17 season, Noises Off by Michael Frayn, Directed by Vincent M. Lancisi, gives us a humorous, frantic peek into what it takes to get a show off the ground and that the show must go on… no matter what.

L-R Deborah Hazlett, Megan Anderson, Carl Schurr, Beth Hylton, Bruce Nelson, and Eric Berryman. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Noises Off is a “show within a show,” meaning the show itself is about putting on a show called Nothing On and Everyman Theatre has even provided the audience with a program for Nothing On, which adds to the authenticity of the piece. The show is given to us in three acts with breaks in between each act. Act I consists of the final dress, Act II takes place backstage a few months into the tour with the play still going on in the front with problems upon problems going on in the back, including cast love triangles, real and imagined, and Act III shows a performance during the last leg of the tour when everyone has lost all give-a-fuck and have stopped being nice and have started getting real, making for some interesting choices onstage. The comedy comes from the slight changes in each Act as the character flaws come to surface off-stage causing everyone to undermine their on-stage performances with A LOT of slapstick. The contrast between the fictional characters of the play Nothing On and the fictional actors playing those characters is also a great example of comic dissonance.

It’s worth mentioning that Noises Off was made into a film in 1992 and starred heavy-hitters such as Carol Burnett, Michael Cain, John Ritter, and Christopher Reeve, among other big names of the time, and, though it was a box office flop, it has since become a favorite (for those who love theatre, anyway), and has gained a sort of cult-ish following. I’m proud to say I’m a part of that group and I LOVE this film.

BACK: Bruce Nelson and Beth Hylton. FRONT: Danny Gavigan, Deborah Hazlett, and Carl Schurr. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

That being said, the production at Everyman Theatre is definitely one to contend with. With Director Vincent M. Lancisi at the helm, Everyman has made this production their own and it is difficult to compare, which is a feat in itself. Lancisi has a complete comprehension of this piece and the farcical comedy with which it comes. He keeps the action moving and the pacing, for the most part, is spot on. Most of the casting is spot on and Lancisi was wise to use the Everyman Theatre Resident Company to fill all but one role as they were splendid in the roles. Though Act I seems a bit subdued, I was at a matinee performance, so, that may have been a factor but, overall, Lancisi does a superb job presenting the never-give-up essence of this piece and brining to the audience an example of putting on a show and what happens behind the scenes as opposed to what we, the audience, sees as the final product.

L-R Beth Hylton, Bruce Nelson, Danny Gavigan, Deborah Hazlett, Emily Kester, Eric Berryman, and Wil Love. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

I would not do any favors for this review or do the production justice if I didn’t mention the set for this production. I’ve stated in the past that Everyman Theatre has yet to disappoint when it comes to their sets and this production is no different at all. Set Design by Daniel Ettinger is exquisite and complex but absolutely appropriate for this piece. Ettinger has an amazing attention to detail and from the stylish woodwork to the knick-knacks, every set piece is befitting and seems to have been carefully chosen. As the three acts require a “flipping” of the set to represent both the front of the set as well as backstage, Set Design must be handled carefully and Ettinger is on point with is design. During the breaks between acts, the set is flipped completely and while most theatres who produce Noises Off have the luxury of a revolve on the stage, Everyman Theatre crew has to manually flip individual set pieces and they do so with great precision and speed so a major shout out and kudos to Stage Manager Cat Wallis and the stage crew of this production.

Emily Kester as Brooke Ashton and Danny Gavigan as Garry Lejeune. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Costume Design by Eric Abele is appropriate as Director Vincent M. Lancisi wisely decided to keep the play set in the 1970s and all the actors were dressed in the general styles of the day with nothing too modern, and all looked comfortable, even the poor actor playing Garry Lejeune with his plaid pants and matching coat and the actress playing the scantily clad Brook Ashton running around in her underwear for most of the show. Abele’s overall Costume Design helped the setting of the piece added value to it rather than distract from it.

Lighting and Sound Design by Jay Herzog and Phillip Owen, respectively, is impressive with an acute attention to detail that added extra authenticity to the production. The slight differences between the front of the set to the back of the stage lighting is realistic as there are certainly different levels of brightness and darkness and the difference in sound is exceptional. Being familiar with being backstage during a production, it’s uncanny how Herzog manages to bring that sound to the audience – a sort of muffled, but understandable speaking to which one must pay close attention to hear what is being said. Both Herzog and Owen are to be commended on their work for this production.

L-R Danny Gavigan as Garry LeJeune, Deborah Hazlett as Dotty Otley, and Bruce Nelson as Frederick Fellowes. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

The ensemble for this production of Noises Off is top-notch and all are dedicated, committed performers who understand the piece and the comedy/farce that goes along with it.

Though all of the performances were on point, Carl Schurr’s take on the role of Lloyd Dallas, the helpless director of the runaway train of a production, falls a little flat for me. The character has peaks and valleys of frustration, calm, anger, and resignation, but Schurr doesn’t seem to invest enough emotion to show the contrast between the feelings this character is experiencing. His frustration could be much more which would make the instant switch to calm much more comedic. I can see where he is going with the character, trying to keep the calm and being a British gentleman, of sorts, but I would still like to see the desperation of the character trying to make the show work. That being said Schurr’s comedic timing is absolutely marvelous and he has great chemistry with his cast making for an fine performance.

FRONT: Bruce Nelson as Frederick Fellowes. BACK: Emily Kester as Brooke Aston. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Bruce Randolph Nelson takes on the role of the dim-witted Frederick Fellowes who is prone to nose-bleeds and isn’t a very good actor at all. In this sense, Nelson is such a good actor, he has this character down pat and certainly makes the role his own as he hits the ground running. The spirit of show is improvisation and Nelson is a hands-down expert in this area. However, there may have been times he took it a bit far, this could just be me being stuffy, but he does such a fine job with the script, too much addition takes away from the performance. This isn’t to say Nelson doesn’t do a great job because he most certainly gives an impeccable performance that will have you belly-laughing throughout his performance.

Megan Anderson as Poppy NOrton-Taylor and Eric Berryman as Tim Allgood. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Tackling the roles of the poor over-worked Stage Manager, Tim Allgood and Assistant Stage Manager, Poppy Norton-Taylor, are Eric Berryman and Megan Anderson, respectively and these two actors completely embody these roles and make them their own. In real life, the behind the scenes folks are sometimes the most dedicated to a production and Berryman and Anderson evoke that spirit in these characters flawlessly, frantically trying to keep the show on course and doing whatever they can to help. Anderson’s portrayal of the skittish, emotional Poppy makes you feel for this character from the get and Berryman’s take on the easily flustered Tim, is funny and authentic.

Danny Gavigan takes on the young Garry Lejeune, a good enough actor with a jealous streak, who involved with the older Dotty Otley and can’t finish a sentence to save his life, unless it’s scripted. Gavigan does a bang up job in this role. His contrast between the two characters he plays (the actor and the character in the play Nothing On) is clear and concise and his physical work a could be a tad more frenetic and fluid but he does a superb job, looks comfortable in the role, and has a very good command of the stage.

L-R Megan Anderson as Poppy NOrton-Taylor, Wil Love as Selsdon Mowbray, and Deborah Hazlett as Dotty Otley. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Wil Love is hilarious as Selsdon Mowbray, the aging, heard of hearing, alcoholic actor who seems to be on his own time and script, but manages to shuffle along with the rest of the show. Love’s comedic timing is spot on and he completely embodies this character making him real and a joy to watch. Emily Kester takes on the role of Brooke Ashton, the ditsy, by-the-script bombshell blond actress, and holds her own with the Resident Company members and they seem to welcome her with open arms. Running around in her unmentionables for a majority of the show doesn’t seem to faze Kester and she gives a strong comedic performance having great chemistry with her cast mates.

Beth Hylton tackles the role of Belinda Blair, the upbeat, positive (for the most part), peacemaker of the troupe and gives a beautiful performance. She’s confident and graceful as this character but also plays the comedic bits superbly, as well. Hylton’s portrayal is believable as the positive one in the group who sees the glass as half-full and is enough to get on your nerves, but also as the one who is able to keep it together when things start falling apart. She gives a committed performance that is a joy to watch.

Deborah Hazlett as Dotty Otley. Credit: ClintonBPhotography

Deborah Hazlett as Dotty Otley is absolutely believable and likable in this role and her comedic timing is outstanding. She seems to start off cautious at first, kind of like a slow burn, but then she starts to let loose and by the second act, she lets it go, especially with her quiet interactions with Gavigan who, as Garry, is the love interest to her character, and the relationship is rocky. She may lose her accent here and there, but for the most part, she has it down. Her facial expressions and mannerisms as this character are excellent and make for a very successful performance.

Final thought… Noises Off at Everyman Theatre is a madcap farce that will tickle the most stubborn of funny bones. With a witty script and a dedicated cast, we are given a peek behind the curtain of putting on a production and all that goes with it, good and bad. The entire production is well put-together and the cast has a superb comprehension of the piece. Noises Off has been popular in its own right but contending with a beloved film version (in theatre community, anyway) comparison is always a challenge. However, this production knocks it out of the ballpark. The pacing is frantic, as it should be, and the comedy is spot on making this a must see this season. I couldn’t think of a better way to end out a season so… get your tickets while they last!

This is what I thought of Everyman Theatre’s production of Noises Off… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Noises Off will play through June 18 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD. For  tickets, call the box office at 410-752-2208 or purchase them online.

Email us at backstagebaltimore@gmail.com

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Review: Jazz at Baltimore Center Stage

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission

The Jazz Age held different experiences for different folks and Harlem, in New York City, became a cultural mecca in the 1920s. Author and activist James Weldon Johnson called it “the greatest Negro city in the world” as there was a predominant African-American population, but underneath the music, dancing, and good times, many experienced the hardships and tribulations of the African-American community or, in general, just trying to get by. Baltimore Center Stage‘s latest offering, The world premiere of Jazz by Nambi E. Kelley, Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah gives us a glimpse into those hardships that transcend race but are relevant to all human beings throughout time.

Jazz covers a story of generations spanning from the late 1800s through the 1920s and follows Violet, a woman how lost her mother when she was young and sent off into the world to make her own. Along the way, she meets Joe, an eager young man who seems to want the same things in life she wants and they settle in Harlem, in New York City. After years of a seemingly good marriage, Joe strays and falls for the very young Dorcas but, after a short affair, Dorcas falls for another young man and leaves the older Joe with fatal repercussions. After the affair and a quite unfortunate incident, Violet’s life seems to spiral out of control and she tries to find the reasons why it happened while also trying to find answers from the past to explain her current state.

Production value at Baltimore Center Stage is always stellar and Jazz is no different with a minimal but very effective Set Design by Tim Macabee and Projection Design by Alex Basco Koch. The set consists of four large windows that drop in and out and various set pieces to cleverly represent different locations. The simple design helps move the story along and the representation is just enough to help tell the story and crowd the stage with unnecessary set. With help from the cast, scene changes are smooth and it’s easy to determine where each scene is taking place. Koch’s projections add much to the production and help with determining time. His use of what looks like old newsreel footage and vintage photographs gives the piece a surreal feel and moves the story along rather than distract from it. Kudos to Macabee and Basco for the Set and Projection Designs for this production.

Costume Design by David Burdick is spot on representing the styles of the eras this piece covers. His attention to detail is superb with the low waist skirts for the younger ladies and the more conservative look of the older folks. It’s worth mentioning that Burdick does a great job showing the contrast between the fashions of the generations and he understands this piece does not require the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age, but has managed to put together a wardrobe portraying the middle to low class residents of Harlem and all of his choices give the entire piece a very authentic feel.

This script jumps through time periods and points of view and if I didn’t have the program to give me a timeline of the story, I may have been lost so, I can tell it’s a challenging piece. Through his Direction of this piece, Kwame Kwei-Armah tries to keep it all together, and does for the most part, but the disorienting script is difficult to reign in and the story seems to spill out all over the place. Kwei-Armah keeps the action moving and he seems to have a good comprehension of the material but his choice of using the cast to make the minimal scene changes with no real blackouts to separate scenes might have added to the confusion concerning time periods and points of view. I totally understand his reasoning as it is a 90-minute show with no intermission so, you’ve got to keep the action moving, but perhaps at least a few projections or markers to keep the audience on track may have been helpful. Overall, Kwei-Armah does an admirable job and tells the story as best he can with the material given to him.

The entire ensemble of Jazz is committed and dedicated to this piece an, aside from the material, they all do a commendable job telling this poignant story and work hard to get the message across. Among the able ensemble, Michele Shay takes on the role of Alice Manfred and Leon Addison Brown portrays an older Joe Trace. Shay, though a bit scripted, does a fine job portraying the elderly, more wise female figure with down-home common sense and compassion. She clearly understands her character and keeps it consistent throughout the production. Brown, as older Joe, is also a bit stiff at times, but his comprehension of the character is clear and the emotion he exudes of a man yearning for something more than his lot is impressive.

Warner Miller is comfortable playing the role of Young Joe Trace, an ambitious, go-getter, and gives a believable and confident performance. Miller has a good command of the stage and makes the character likable from the get. Meanwhile, Jasmine Batchelor tackles the role of Dorcas, the young, beautiful “other woman,” and she is the epitome of a young woman in the 1920s. She’s authentic and assured, playing the character with just the right balance of naivete and rebellion that the character requires.

A couple of highlights of this production are Jasmine Carmichael as Young Violet and Shanesia Davis as the older Violet, the character around whom the story revolves. The character of Violet is the most complex and has obvious emotional problems that are not necessarily explained aside from past losses and issues but both of these actresses play the character well and with an intensity needed for the role. Carmichael is outstanding as the Young Violet and seems comfortable and assured in her objectives playing a young girl starting out while Davis portrays the character a little more beat down by the world but who is a survivor and getting by as best she can, while fighting the emotional unbalance in her. Both bring an authenticity to the role that makes the audience feel for their plight and, in the end, root for this character. Both actors have great chemistry with their counterparts (Warner Miller for Carmichael and Leon Addison Brown for Davis), and they work well with their cast mates making for exquisite performances.

Final thought… The World Premiere of Jazz at Baltimore Center Stage is a bit deceiving by name alone as it really does not concern itself with the music style but is a story of love, love loss, and how different humans deal with that loss. The script is a bit trite and jumps around between points of view with no real definition between time periods making the transitions a bit confusing, but most of the performances are top notch and it tells a good story. That being said, the script may need work but the overall production has a beautiful look with its design and complimenting projections and is well-thought out and well put-together, telling a complex story that transcends race and is just as relevant to the 21st century as it was to the early late 19th and early 20th centuries.

This is what I thought of Baltimore Center Stage’s production of Jazz… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Jazz will play through June 25 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N Calvert Street, Baltimore, MDFor tickets, call the box office at 410-332-0033 or purchase them online.

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Review: Psycho Beach Party at StillPointe Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission

So, we’re just about smack dab right in the middle of Maryland, and if you’ve been here for more than a year, you know how crazy the weather can be. It’s summer time and it feels like the middle of autumn… today… tomorrow might feel like the beginning of winter, who knows? However, seeing that we’re in the summer months, if you ever wanted to be a hep cat or a cool chick and ride the waves on the warm, summer beach, StillPointe Theatre has just the ticket for you with their latest production of the kooky Psycho Beach Party by Charles Busch, Directed by Courtney Procter with Set Design by Ryan Haase, Costume Design by Nick Staigerwald, Lighting Design by Lillie Kahkonen, and Sound Design by Todd Mion.

Briefly, Psycho Beach Party is about Chicklet Forrest, a teenager with a personality problem who desperately wants to be in the “in crowd” at Malibu Beach in 1962. Her biggest problem is her personality problem… she has too many of them! These include a Safeway checkout girl, Steve, a male model, and the entire accounting firm of Edelman and Edelman. Her biggest problem, among others, is her alter ego who is a sexual vixen leaning toward Fifty Shades of Grey who wants nothing less than world domination. Along for the ride are some beach bums, the adorable Yo-Yo and Provoloney, the dashing catch and medical school dropout Star Cat, and the King of the Beach, the surf God, Kanaka. Throw in a promiscuous Marvel Ann and Chicklet’s best friend, Berdine, and Mrs. Forrest, you have a twisted tale that’s a cross between the Hitchcock psychological thrillers, Gidget, and a Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach party all bunched up in an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-little-polka-dot-bikini.

Once again, Set Design by Ryan Haase does not disappoint. Though a little more minimal than his usual flare, his design is perfectly befitting for this piece, cleverly using the natural levels available to him in this intimate space and using more representative rather than a literal design. Haase’s creativity is impeccable with using material like laminate flooring to represent a sandy beach, which works surprisingly well. It’s minimal, but Haase trusts his actors and artistic team to tell this story and his design does not hinder the storytelling in any way, but enhances it. Kudos to Haase for another job well done.

Rex Anderson, David Brasington, and Jess Rivera. Credit: StillPointe Theatre

As this is definitely a period piece, costuming can be challenging but Costume Designer Nick Staigerwald seems to have no problem with taking us back a few decades to a Malibu Beach with authentic early 60s style swimsuits that help this piece move along. From the modest but bright and printed bathing suits of the ladies to the not-so-modest, barely-there pastel shorts of the men (which absolutely need to make a comeback), the wardrobe is totally appropriate and adds to these characters adding value to this production.

StillPointe’s Mercury Theatre space is interesting and quite intimate and seems a bit tricky for production but you wouldn’t know it with Light Design and Sound Design by Lillie Kahkonen and Todd Mion, respectively. Kahkonen’s use of isolated lighting for important points in the script is spot on and moves the story along and she cleverly uses the general house lighting, as well, to clearly light the space to make sure we see all the action. All the while, Mion’s well-suited and well thought-out Sound Design is reminiscent of the aforementioned beach movies, utilizing the guitar heavy surf-rock music of the era during the transitions that brings the entire production together.

Courtney Procter takes the Directing reigns and has a clear vision for this curious, wacky piece. She doesn’t take the piece too seriously but just seriously enough that the camp isn’t overdone and the story is clearly told. It really is like watching an early 60s teen beach movie and the pacing is on point. She knows the space well and uses what’s available to her. With great casting and intelligent blocking, Procter gives us an enjoyable evening of quirky theatre that’s perfect for Baltimore.

Moving toward the performance aspect of this production, the entire ensemble deserves props for their work in this piece. Playing 1960s beach teens is a feat in itself but all of these actors found their characters and played them well.

Andy Fleming, John Benoit, Christine Demuth, Rex Anderson, and David Brasington. Credit: StillPointe Theatre

Jess Rivera takes on the role of Marvel Ann and Bevin Keefer tackels the part of Bettina Barnes. Both of these actresses gave quite admirable performances and take the roles to heart as the vixen of the beach (Rivera) and the movie star who wants to be an actress (Keefer). Vocal choices and mannerisms drive these characters home nicely to help move the story along.

John Benoit as Kanaka, a little older and King of the Beach, is believable and has the surf tone down pat. He gives a confident performance if a bit scripted, at times, but that’s more the script itself rather than Benoit’s performance choices. Meanwhile, Andy Fleming takes on the role of Star Cat, the medical school drop-out who might have more to offer than he thinks and he plays the role with a self-assurance that is befitting of the part.

Character-wise, the cute-as-a-couple-of-buttons David Brasinston as Yo-Yo and Rex Anderson as Provoloney have to be my favorite. Did I mention the shorts? I did? I’ll say no more about it then. Brasinston and Anderson make a perfect comic team and exude a certain innocence and naivete that is spot on for these young coming-of-age characters. They play their homo-erotic subplot to the T and are hilarious in the process with their asides and quiet background interactions. The seem comfortable in these roles and look like they’re having a blast which, in turn, makes their characters even more lovable and helps the audience have just as much of a good time as they are. Kudos to these two for brilliant, funny performances.

Kathryn Falcone as Mrs. Forrest is impressive as the uptight, 50s/60s mother who seemingly only wants what’s best for her daughter and may or may not have a sordid past. Her character is already an anomaly for being a single mother in the time period but she plays it to the hilt. Mrs. Forrest does go through a comical, complex transition but Falcone plays it seamlessly giving an authentic performance and she is absolutely dedicated to the role.

Though the entire ensemble gives commendable performances, a couple of highlights of this production are June Keating as Berdine and Christine Demuth as Chicklet.

The Cast of Psycho Beach Party. Credit: StillPointe Theatre.

Keating shines as the good-goody, nerdy, but extremely intelligent Berdine portraying this character with a gentleness and purity that makes you root for her. Her subtle facial expressions and movements make her performance natural and totally believable. She’s a joy to watch and I hope to see more from Ms. Keating in the future.

As Chicklet, the most complex character in this piece, Demuth delves into this character and, for as kooky as Chicklet is, Demuth doesn’t play it too absurd and finds a good balance between camp and sincerity. Her transition from personality to personality is flawless (and quite comical, at times) and she has a great comprehension of this loony girl. Her dedication and commitment to this role make her performance a highlight to this production and a treat to experience.

Final thought… Psycho Beach Party at StillPointe Theatre is a fun, nostalgic, and comedic romp through an era when Frankie and Annette ruled the waves… in the movies, anyway, and everyone wanted to be a hep cat or a cool chick. StillPointe Theatre has managed to embody and represent this era in their intimate space with a colorful set design, authentic costumes, and, overall, a well put together production. The script is quirky and a little zany, but the cast is committed and give their all making for an enjoyable evening of theatre. If the crazy Baltimore weather is getting you down, check out Psycho Beach Party and join the grooviest kids in town for some fun in the sun!

This is what I thought of StillPointe Theater’s production of Psycho Beach Party… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Psycho Beach Party will play through June 16 at StillPointe Theatre, 1825 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, MDFor more information or tickets, log on to stillpointetheatre.com or purchase them online.

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Dear Friends at Just Off-Broadway: They May Not Be There For You

By Mark Briner

DISCLAIMERPlease note, one or more persons directly involved in this production are members of the staff of Backstage Baltimore. This individual or persons did not write or participate in writing this review. The only editing performed on this piece was for grammar, punctuation, and organization. No content editing (adding, changing, or omitting words) were completed without the expressed permission of the author.

Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission

In this internet age of 2017, there is not one person reading this column that does not have that ubiquitous, annoying friend or relative who bemoans all the woes of their lives to them personally—the sexless bedroom, the kids’ classroom struggles, the anger, hate, and silence on a daily basis—then logs onto Facebook and posts picture after picture of the perfect Osmond-like family moments, the spouse who is the love of their life, the all-American perfect 2.3 golden children who excel at everything, the blessings of family they gratefully thank God for on a daily basis, the entire “life is beautiful and I’m so thankful” package. As we find in the east coast premiere of Dear Friends by Reginald Rose, presented this weekend only at Just Off Broadway, it’s actually a tale as old as time. Except fifty years ago, the fraud was generally confined to suburban cocktail pleasantries and the annual fake Christmas card letter.

Originally a screenplay written for CBS Playhouse as part of a live television series of plays in 1967 starring such luminaries as Rosemary Harris, Eli Wallach, James Daly, Pernell Roberts, and Hope Lange, the saga opens at a dinner party for eight longtime dear friends hosted, secretly, in efforts to stage an intervention in concern for two of their group, Michael and Lois (Jason Crawford and Tracy Dye) who have recently separated. The ambush however backfires when we soon find that, like in real life, their efforts are not totally altruistic. The fact that one of their own marriages in their close-knit group could fall apart suddenly threatens each of the couples’ not so solid as they would have the others believe relationships.

Cast of Dear Friends. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

The play alternates between the events of the soireé on the traditional mainstage with flashbacks to each of the four couples in private on a satellite platform on the audience floor. In these transitions, we learn the cracks beneath each of their perfect veneers they wear for each other. In an attempt to contemporize a dated script (an affair—shocking!), director Patrick Jay Golden shakes up the gender balance (the four heterosexual white suburban couples in the script are now two straight, one lesbian, and one gay) and utilizes a welcome diverse cast of interracial relationships.

Penny Nichols and Tom Piccin. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Mature couple Lenny and Charlotte (Tom Piccin and Penny Nichols) encourage Michael and Lois to think of their children. But after a late night of Lenny “entertaining a client”, we find their marriage to be a farce fueled by a toxic cocktail of alcohol and anger. The darkest of the relationships, as they pour from a never-ending super-sized bottle of Canadian Club, they heap emotional and physical abuse upon each other in proportion to the alcohol they down. Yet the stay together because they can’t think of a better option to satisfy their individual selfish needs. Think of the children. Piccin and Nichols range from volatile to downright terrifying as the night carries on until these traits publicly unveil themselves at the gathering.

Sarah O’Hara and India Palmer. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Lesbian couple Gigi and Vivian (Sarah O’Hara and India Palmer) actually seem to have a genuine loving relationship. Their only flaw, albeit a critical one, is their disparate views on starting a family. Vivian longs for the experience of motherhood; Gigi isn’t interested. However, they have an extra dimension to their deception. Whereas all the other couples lies are ones of (significant) omission, Gigi and Vivian add a layer of active duplicity, inventing medical complications including a fake cancer scare to justify Gigi’s refusal to have children. Palmer is sweet, gentle, and loving to a fault, burying any disappointment her wife’s decision evokes behind her radiant façade. O’Hara mines an addition layer to her character, so quick to be vocally “honest” regarding the flaws and fallacies of her friends, all the while perpetuating the biggest lie that caused everyone genuine concern and unwarranted worry.

Brad Angst, Joyanne Gohl, and Emmanuel Vickers. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

As the hosts of the evening, gay couple Douglas and Sal (Brad Angst and Emmanuel Vickers) are perhaps the most stereotypically comic in their personal scenes. Angst is the gay trifecta of precision, polish, and perfection, while Vickers is hyper-emotional and tending towards the dramatic. However, when Douglas does the math and deduces that Sal has been unfaithful, the couple draws deep on restraint and inner strength to consciously maintain that perfection they apparently consider so important to their public image. Their scenes are a cool complement to the bombastic, burn the house down Albee-esque theatrics of Lenny and Charlotte.

Tracy Dye and Jason Crawford. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

All the couples in the engaging cast have strong, well defined bonds between themselves, and hide these from the group in their own manipulative ways. But it is Crawford and Dye as the couple in the center of the storm who excel. True, they are aided by the strongest storyline in script, being the only couple who is completely honest with their friends and each other. But their private scenes are not about lies and resentment, instead they are about harsh honesty and unpleasant choices. Ironically the couples with all the secreted problems manage to stay together while these two drift apart not from issues and betrayals, but from simple stagnation. Yet in the midst of the histrionics of the dinner party aimed at saving them, they actually draw closer together, defending their privacy and each other, observing the dislikeable facets of their friends which makes them appreciate the qualities they admire in each other that initially drew them together. We leave the evening in doubt about the future of every couple in the piece, but these two with their amiability and genuine respect for each other, despite actually being separated, may actually be the strongest bet for the duo to be left standing down the road.

Though Theresa Bonvegna is the Resident Set Designer for Just Off Broadway, Jason Crawford and Patrick Jay Golden take the lead on this one and do an admirable job on the main dinner party set creating the ambiance of Douglas and Sal’s gay tastes, utilizing sleek lines in the furniture and fun accents like framed Broadway playbills and a Warholian shrine to Audrey Hepburn across the back wall. Their secondary set on the floor employs sometimes extravagant touches to set the tone of locales from an Atlantic City hotel room to a garden patio brunch. Sometimes his attention to detail on the secondary set leads to extended set changes between scenes. Perhaps they could have chosen a more generic design that could flex into different locations, or have collaborated with Golden to stage them in a common room in everyone’s house. However, having seen a press preview early in production week, these lengthy set changes could have very well ironed themselves out by opening night. Lighting designer Alex Powell gives contrasting effects for the chaotic party and the more intimate scenes on the floor.

Cast of Dear Friends. Credit: Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Director Golden has assembled a very capable and engaging cast through which to interpret his revisionist piece. Golden defends his bold choices of shaking up the genders in the relationships by stating that at the core, all marriages suffer from the same base issues. (Famed gay playwright Terrance McNally might disagree). His able cast gamely embraces the challenge, but with mixed results. For instance, the gender flip of Gigi and Vivian defuses their script. A woman who isn’t interested in adopting or raising another woman’s child doesn’t carry the emotional heft of a husband who doesn’t want to have a child with his wife, the denial of a basic emotional need and betrayal of the very basis of their marriage. In the case of Douglas and Sal, however, the gender flip adds a layer of complexity when a revealed extramarital affair, a common enough issue in the gay community (famed gay playwright Terrance McNally would absolutely agree), transforms a bored bedroom dalliance amongst the group into a lie at the very core of another marriage with its down low implications of closeted homosexuality and an almost direct assault on the boundaries of the group as a corp.

Golden displays proficiencies to be a more intimate director, finding the heart in the scenes between the couples in their private territory, exploring their deceit and flaws while finding their unique pairings. He moves them fluidly through their paces and establishes their inner connections and their outward disconnects. Mechanically, though, his group scenes at the dinner party by contrast are slightly static, lacking blocking movement and physical dynamics. He is not aided by the major flaw in set design, laying out the living room like an actual living room and not a stage (or TV) set space. The sofa is centered and side chairs hug the walls completely across the stage, instead of being drawn into a more intimate central arena in relationship to the sofa and other set pieces. When actors are confined to these seats, the result is a lot of shouted unpleasantries across the room instead of the more personal, in your face assaults the words suggest. This also affects the pacing and emotional dynamics of these encounters since everyone hurls insults from a very safe distance, instead of the lines coming fast and quick, on top of and over each other in the face of the heated, impassioned revelations that unravel the group in the final scenes. Again, however, this was an early dress rehearsal and the cast may improve the pace by merely being more familiar with the scene as the week progressed.

Overall, Dear Friends is an evening of reflection that encourages one to look inward into their own relationships, and reminds us that those daily, awesome, life affirming Facebook posts those dear friends of our own make ad nauseum, usually mask, in direct proportion, the lies and insecurities that are at the heart of the exaggerations. Golden has given us a mirror in which to examine our own exteriors, and the multiple faces covering the various truths and lies that we tell the world, each other, and ourselves in order to get by at the end of the day.

This is what I thought of Just Off Broadway’s production of Dear Friends… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Dear Friends will play through May 21 at Just Off Broadway @ JELC, 4506 Belair Road, Baltimore, MD 21206. For ticket reservation information, email justoffbroadwaymd@gmail.com or purchase them online.

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Review: Little Women the Musical at Third Wall Productions

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission

Cast of Little Women the Musical. Credit: Karen Osborn, House of Bankerd

This season, I’ve seen more Victorian age stories brought to the stage than I’ve seen in my entire life (only about three, but still) and, I’m not a huge fan of this era with its stuffy clothes and attention to the particulars of etiquette and all that jazz but, I have to say, aside from the style (with which all the Costume Designers did impeccable work), I actually enjoyed to the stories being told. Thus is the case with Third Wall Productions’ latest production, Little Women the Musical with Book by Allan Knee, Music by Jason Howland, and Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, based on the novel by Lousia May Alcott. This production is Directed by Christine Thomas with Music Direction by Eliza van Kan, Set Design by Jordan Hollett, and Costume Design by Lisa Ann Dickinson and makes for a charming evening of relatable and enjoyable musical theatre.

Set Design by regular Third Wall Productions designer Jordan Hollet is massive, to say the least. Well, for the space at Third Wall Productions, it’s massive. With essentially four different scene settings, an outdoor garden, a living room, an attic, and a small parlor room, Hollet has managed to cleverly fit all of this in the space provided him. The one level design works quite well, with an elevated attic area, but there are spots in the audience where the action is not easily seen. However, that being said, it’s really the nature of the beast with spaces like this and of no real fault to the designer. Just note that the phrase, “Not a bad seat in the house” does not apply here as there are a few seats that aren’t ideal. Overall, the set design is innovative and creative and helps the story along very nicely and keeps the action interesting.

Grace Dillon, Mea Holloway, Lizzy Jackson, Maggie Flanigan, and J. Purnell Hargrove. Credit: Karen Osborn, House of Bankerd

Lisa Ann Dickson, with the help of House of Bankerd gives us an on point Costume Design for this piece. As stated, this is a Victorian era story and the wardrobe may be just as important as the story itself and Dickson knocks it out of the ballpark with this one. The attention to detail and style are exquisite and seem to be tailor made for each performer. Dickinson and House of Bankerd are to be commended for the fantastic Costume Design of this piece.

I admit I was expecting a different type of score walking into this as I had never experienced Little Women the Musical before but I was pleasantly surprised. The music for this piece is quite contemporary and entertaining and is allowed to shine under Music Direction by Eliza van Kan. The ensemble has a very good, strong sound and seems to make easy work of this score. It’s worth mentioning the pit orchestra for this piece gives a polished, accomplished performance as well. Though the orchestra may have drowned out the cast, at times, and weren’t as tight as they usually are (here and there), they still give a very good showing in this production.

Christine Thomas not only plays Marmee March in this production, but she also takes the helm of it and her vision for this piece is apparent as she brings the story of the March girls to the stage. She keeps the action moving and seems to really grasp the story of these ladies – some who are traditional for their time and some who are forward thinkers. She understands the relationship between these sisters and the different stories going on in this piece and presents them beautifully though, the link between the characters is a little weak and the chemistry is there, but at times seems as though the actors are just going through the motions. Regardless, the entire ensemble works well together and creates Thomas’ vision nicely and the solo moments are absolutely lovely. As Marmee March, she is a vocal powerhouse. She has a strong, clean vocal style and commands the stage with every note in her solos “Here Alone” and “Days of Plenty.” Her portrayal as the matriarch of four daughters is admirable and she seems quite comfortable in the role.

Producer Mike Zellhoffer steps onto the stage as the seemingly curmudgeon neighbor, Mr. Laurence, and Patricia Brunker takes on the role of the actual curmudgeon Aunt March. Both Zellhoffer and Brunker give commendable, authentic performances complimenting the story and the other characters while helping move the story forward. Brunker gives a terrific vocal performance and totally embodies the character of Aunt March and all her stuffiness, while Zellhoffer transitions nicely from stern to kind in his wonderful character work.

Grace Dillon, Mea Holloway, Lizzy Jackson, Maggie Flanigan, and J. Purnell Hargrove. Credit: Karen Osborn, House of Bankerd

Purnell Hargrove takes on the role of the amiable Laurie Laurence, quite literally the boy next door and close friend to the March sisters. Hargrove gives a committed and confident performance and has good chemistry with his cast mates. He looks like he’s having a blast up on the stage and, in his featured numbers “Take a Chance on Me” and “Five Forever,” he seems to be pushing his upper range, vocally, but still gives a commendable showing.

Taking on the role of the youngest sister, Amy March, Lizzy Jackson has a good comprehension of this character and plays her well, though, at times, is a bit scripted in her delivery. However, that being said, she nails the demeanor and personality of this character and plays the transition of Amy March beautifully.

Maggie Flanigan tackles the role of the eldest sister, Meg March, and does so with gusto. She works well with her fellow actresses and her portrayal of Meg makes her a likeable character who’s just trying to find her own way in life with Mr. John Brooke, played by Andrew Pedrick. According to his bio, Pedrick is making his way back to the stage after a decade or so and though he’s quite natural, the character gets lost, sometimes, and I see Andrew Pedrick onstage rather than John Brooke. However, as soon as Pedrick opens his mouth to sing as in his featured number “More Than I Am,” a duet with the able Maggie Flanigan, it’s pure art. He has a smooth, resonating tone and I found myself putting down my pen just to listen to him.

Patricia Brunker and Grace Dillon. Credit: Karen Osborn, House of Bankerd

Daniel Plante takes on the role of Professor Bhaer, the serious and stern fellow boarder to Jo March at a New York City boarding house. Plante’s interpretation is spot on and authentic and though he decided not to use an accent (the character is German), it doesn’t hinder his performance in the least. Vocally, Plante has a unique sound and, technically, gives a superb performance of “How I Am” making for a strong performance overall.

Regular, Mea Holloway takes on the role of the gentle Beth March, the other middle sister who has a sweetness and saintliness about her that the other sisters don’t seem to have. Holloway plays this part to the hilt and impressively portrays the sweet nature of this character consistently throughout. She impeccably interprets her featured songs, “Off to Massachusetts” and the poignant “Some Things are Meant to Be” and she embodies this character wholly.

Grace Dillon as Jo March. Credit: Karen Osborn, House of Bankerd

Grace Dillon as Jo March couldn’t have been cast more perfectly. Dillon takes this role and runs with it, making it her own while sticking to the basics of this character of the exuberant, exciting, forward thinking, middle sister, Jo March. With high energy and a seemingly complete grasp of this character and her objectives, Dillon is authentic and confident in this part. She has a great command of the stage and, aside from her acting abilities, gives an outstanding vocal performance as well. As the evening progresses, she seems to pull back, but still gives powerful performances in songs such as “Astonishing” and “The Fire Within Me”. Kudos to Dillon for a job well done.

Final thought… Little Women the Musical at Third Wall Productions is an enjoyable and stimulating piece that this company executes wonderfully. The story is entertaining and relevant, concerning itself with the struggle of woman and the different choices different women make each day, even if they are cut from the same cloth. With strong female characters, the message of finding one’s own way and overcoming any obstacle is clear and apparent. With a fun score and a clever script, the story is easy to understand and the performances are top notch. Whether you’re familiar with the story or seeing it for the first time, Little Women the Musical will delight and entertain and is a production well worth its price of admission.

This is what I thought of Third Wall Productions’ production of Little Women the Musical… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Little Women the Musical will play through May 21 at Third Wall Productions, 5801 Harford Road, Baltimore, MD 21206. For tickets, call 443-838-4064 or purchase them online.

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Review: Voices in the Rubble and Endgame at Rapid Lemon Productions – The End of the World as We Don’t Know It

By Mark Briner

Run time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

Director Lance Bankerd pairs a contemporary play by award winning Irish playwright Darren Donohue with an absurdist classic by Irish avant-garde master Samuel Beckett and delivers an evening of comic highs and depressing lows in two oddly complementary works about searching for meaning in a meaningless world.

Zack Jackson and Lee Conderacci. Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

The opening act, Dononhue’s Voices in the Rubble is a manic take on the absurdities of everyday life, marriage, the workplace, and unrealized dreams. Bankerd takes an inspired directorial take on the piece, framing the farce in the device of an idyllic 50s sitcom, albeit one on LSD. He creates an anti-Ozzie & Harriet if you will, if Ozzie and Harriet were dissatisfied, sexually out of control suburbanites of questionable mental health and David and Ricky may or may not be dead in the fridge. Lee Conderacci and Zack Jackson portray Tony and Avril, a married couple who have each lost their way and in the process discarded their values, their virtues, and all sense of discretion. Opening with a cheery, stereotypical “Honey, I’m home!”, in place of the expected trite “How was your day?” banality, Tony greets Avril with the news that he has been fired from his job for having sexual relations “in flagrante delicto” with his secretary. Avril counters that she may have killed the mailman (or the milkman, or his brother, or….) and stowed him in the refrigerator. Conderacci and Jackson flit back and forth in rapid fire scenarios that reveal their frustrations, their abandoned dreams, their loss of purpose, and, through it all, their unquestioning love in the face of their many sexual dalliances and possibly criminal activity. Bankerd filters this all through the wholesome values and suburban perfection of classic American television. Equal parts Ozzie and Harriet, Burns and Allen, and Lucy and Ricky, this pair spins a dizzying story of the events of the day, their marriage, and desperate future in the context of a standard 30 minute sitcom episode (minus commercial breaks, of course). His actors are gamely on board embracing his vision, aptly changing directions and emotions in the brief pauses where the laugh track would traditionally be inserted.  Aided by Matthew Lindsay Payne in the stock role filled by the wacky neighbor, albeit in this case one who doesn’t live next door but in the couple’s refrigerator. His George compounds Tony and Avril’s absurdity as his identity develops after his introduction as Avril’s intended victim, killed and stuffed in the fridge. The three, eventually joined by Bankerd himself as the Man, a critical cameo whose identity is best left for the viewer to learn, all play exceptionally well off each other in the manic style Bankerd has developed without losing any sincerity of the characters’ journeys, arriving in the most decidely unorthodox sitcom ending ever (not counting that horrible Will & Grace finale). Sebastian Sears and Deana Fisher Brill also deserve praise for providing minimalistic set pieces and costumes respectively that handle the constriants of the small performance space but hit all the right retro notes as far as style and colors to enhance Bankerd’s vision.

Cast of Voices in the Rubble and Endgame. Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

During intermission, the performers move the dressing room to the set and prepare with their makeup artists for the more demanding apocalyptic visuals of the act to come. This allows the audience to subtly shift gears in preparation for an experience that thematically complements where they’ve just been but approaches it from a distinctly different angle.

Bankerd blends this performance art choice seamlessly into the start of the second piece, where Payne transitions into protagonist Clov in front of, and with a costume assist from, the audience. He adeptly (through a nearly ten minute dialogue free pantomime) scours the world he now embodies like a post-apocalyptic dumpster diver acquiring supplies for the day to day survival of his makeshift nuclear family back home. His return couldn’t be any further from “Honey, I’m home”, but more of a soul crushing “Omigid, I’m in Hell.”. The dark nucleus of his family is Hamm (Jackson), who took Clov in as a child, but now sits angrily in the center of a room, blinded and confined to a wheel chair, perpetually wallowing in his helplessness and bitterness, and Hamm’s senile parent’s Nagg (Bankerd) and Nell (Conderacci), both of whom have lost their legs and live in separate side by side trash bins. (Don’t ask. Beckett.) The foursome take the audience on a jouney through their hopeless lives and lost histories. They are a study of four free falling souls adrift in the world, frequently detesting yet always depending on each other. They are physically contrasting incomplete individuals who each possess pieces of what the others have lost. Clov has a disability that leaves him with constant pain in his feet, legs that barely work, and the inability to sit down. Hamm is confined to the chair, thus can’t stand, and depends on Clov to be his legs and eyes. The parents depend on Clov to be their legs and provide their very sustenance, and for Hamm and each other to be their fading memories. The four embody all the stages of life in a world that ceases to exist as we know it, almost as the upside down, inside out, thoroughly devastating version handed us by the ancient Greeks. Clov is a young man who is physically unable to exist on his own, facing a future of nothing but pain and despair. Hamm is the middle aged man who is stranded in a bleak life he never planned. Nagg and Nell are a sad, pathetic pair representative of life on the decline, their bodies, minds, memories, and basic humanity failing them daily, the only comfort to look forward to is their impending release from it all by death.

Lee Conderacci, Zack Jackson, and Matthew Lindsey Payne. Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

Bankerd’s inspired pairing of the two pieces works for thematic purposes. He traces historically a path from the classic beginning of Beckett to an evolution of those themes via Donohue present day. Bankerd elaborates, “Both deal with the existential woes of finding meaning in a meaningless world. they share themes of routine, repetition, and people being trapped,” in these instances literally as well as figuratively. He describes the evening as an elevator ride. “Voices takes you a few floors down. Endgame cuts the cord.” In Bankerd’s able hands and finely focused vision, that elevator ride plays more like the Tower of Terror.

Zack Jackson, Lee Condericci, and Matthew Lindsey Payne. Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

Placing the two pieces together in repertory gives Bankerd two dual challenges. Voices, on one hand, requires him to interpret and visualize the world he finds on Donohue’s pages. Beckett, on the other hand, is a rare playwright that is adamant about his staging, providing stage direction and set design specifics, and has freely bashed productions who have strayed from them. Thus for the second act, Bankerd is required to filter his interpretation and visualization through the author’s concrete demands. The combination also gives the quartet of very talented actors two totally disparate vehicles in which to display their range and depth by either playing off or contrasting their two characters. Jackson at the center of each piece (quite literally for the second) is a capable and dynamic core off which to build. We watch Tony in Voices spiral out of control as he eventually comes face to face with his uncertain future. In Endgame, he displays the contempt and devastation of a man whose uncertain future has become a dreaded reality. Conderacci provides a subtle continuity. Her Nell is a Blanche duBois-like faded version of Avril, desperately depending on the kindness of others. Her Avril desperately clings to any vestige of her unattainable dreams before it is too late. In her Nell, we see a woman whose dreams not only never materialized, but the cruelties of aging and the world have assured they never will. We mourn for her yet are touched by her as the lone instance of the world’s lost gentility and refinement she retains. Bankerd is the culmination of the roller coaster comedy in Voices, and the extremely welcome sole voice of comedy in Beckett’s dreary world. An equally accomplished actor as he is a director, Bankerd unquestionably succeeds playing characters almost twice his age in both pieces, hopefully alluding to a long future for him on stage as well as behind the curtain. Payne however in a showdown wins the evening for displaying sheer range and acting prowess. His manic performance in Voices alone requires continuous flexibility and adaptability as Avril and Tony change the parameters of his existence with exhausting frequency. But in Endgame, his pathetic and emotionally wrenching portrayal of a young man trapped in a life of misery and despair, chained to people and situations that can only be remedied via death, his emotionally devoid performance is ultimately heartbreaking.

Lee Conderacci, Zack Jackson, and Matthew Lindsey Payne. Credit: Rapid Lemon Productions

Bankerd and company succeed in combining both of these works and exploring the meaningless in which they have completely thrust themselves. Voices in the Rubble allows us to laugh at the comic potential of what such an existence represents. In Endgame, they beat us down with the dread of what such an existence truly is.

This is what I thought of Rapid Lemon Productions’ production of Voices in the Rubble and Endgame… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Voices in the Rubble and Endgame will play through May 21 at Rapid Lemon Productions, Motor House, 120 W. North Avenue, Baltimore, MD. For more information, go to www.rapidlemon.com or purchase tickets online.

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