Review: The Graduate at Dundalk Community Theatre

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

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Running Time: Approx. 2 hours a 15-minute intermission

DCT Pic The Graduate. Poster

Dyana Neal as Mrs. Robinson and Stephen Edwards as Benjamin Braddock. Credit: Dundalk Community Theatre

“Plastics.” If you are familiar with this one-word movie quote, you are familiar with one of the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movie Quotes of All Time (#42), and the 1967 film The Graduate. It’s a classic film with big name stars such as Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft and gave us the musical styling of the impeccable Simon and Garfunkle, including the well-known “Sound of Silence.” In 2002, The Graduate was taken from the screen and transferred to the stage starring Kathleen Turner, Jason Biggs, and Alicia Silverstone, who were all on their games at the time and it was a critical and commercial hit during its year-long, 380 performance run. The Graduate is now Dundalk Community Theatre’s latest offering, Directed by Todd Starkey, and presents this 1960’s coming-of-age and still-relevant piece to a new generation, some of whom may be dealing with similar personal problems as the complex characters in the story.

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Stephen Edwards Rachel Verhaaren, and Elisabeth Johnson. Credit: Dundalk Community Theatre

Scenic Design by Marc W. Smith (who also wears the hats of Lighting and Sound Design, as well as Technical Director, in general) is, to say the least, exquisite. Smith, being the resident Scenic Designer for Dundalk Community Theatre, knows his space and is wise in his choice of a clean, minimal unit set utilizing set pieces to present various locations. Though the set is minimal, Smith has a great attention to detail with his choice of pieces adding a realistic, but non-hindering value to the production as a whole. With the amount of locations written in the script, the pieces are many and cause for a few lengthy transitions, but the design is superb, as a whole.

Costume Design by Eva Grove, who also graces the stage in a few supporting roles, is spot on and absolutely appropriate for the 1960s setting. Being a unique and eclectic time for fashion, Grove has managed to represent it flawlessly with loud colorful patterns, as well as subdued conservative looks that help, not distract from the action and setting. Her well thought-out, detailed design adds great value to the entire production.

Todd Starkey takes the helm of this production and, directing an adaption of an already well-known piece is always a challenge, but Starkey seems to have stepped up to that challenge. There are definite minor issues with the script, the main problem being missing information. If you’re familiar with the film, you’ll be okay, but if you are not, you might get confused as to how the relationship between the younger characters blossom and why but, taking it at face value, the gist is still intact. Starkey has cast his show well and has a good comprehension of the material and, aside from a few aforementioned lengthy transitions (the production could have done without a few of the blackouts, which broke up the momentum a bit), the pace is appropriate and consistent. Overall, Starkey should be applauded for his efforts in bringing this relevant and relatable story to the stage.

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Dyana Neal and Mrs. Robinson and Stephen Edwards as Benjamin Braddock. Credit: Dundalk Community Theatre

Moving on to the performance aspect of this piece, it’s worth stating that the entire ensemble is dedicated and gives 100% effort to this production and each player works hard to bring this material together to tell this multifaceted story.

Alice Scanlon and Thomas “Toby” Hessenauer take on the roles of the caring, but somewhat oblivious Mr. and Mrs. Braddock. Though Scanlon is a little stiff and scripted in her performance, she clearly understands the character of the hapless, naïve mother who is a woman of a different time and is content being a housewife and letting the males in her life take the lead. She pulls off the role nicely and compliments the superb performance from Hessenauer, who is a highlight of this production and who completely embodies the character of the financially and, some would consider, personally successful Mr. Braddock. He emotes the confidence and strong will of a 1960s head-of-household. He works well with and off of his fellow cast mates that makes for a brilliant and believable performance.

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Stephen Edwards as Benjamin Braddock and Elisabeth Johnson as Elaine Robinson. Credit: Dundalk Community Theatre

John Dignam as Mr. Robinson and Elisabeth Johnson and Elaine Robinson make up 2/3 of the dysfunctional Robinson family and are major players in this tawdry tale. Elisabeth Johnson does well with the role, having a good understanding of her character and the naiveté and sheltered upbringing that makes up Elaine Robinson. She has good chemistry with her cast mates and gives a commendable portrayal, save an over the top, hokey scene where her character gets drunk and Johnson is scripted and unnatural, barely getting her dialogue out, but, overall, she gives a delightful performance.

John Dignam is another highlight of this piece, portraying the at first confident, successful business man to distraught husband near flawlessly. His dramatic turn where his character breaks down and confronts Ben, his unassuming nemesis, is a bit forced and unnatural but, aside from that, his performance is strong, confident, and authentic.

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Dyana Neal as Mrs. Robinson and Stephen Edwards as Benjamin Braddock. Credit: Dundalk Community Theatre

Last but certainly not least, we have Dyana Neal as the sensual cougar, Mrs. Robinson, and Stephen Edwards as Benjamin Braddock, the young man who is just searching for purpose, like so many so soon after graduating from college. It’s clear that Neal and Edwards have a firm grasp of their characters, but, unfortunately, the chemistry between the two is just not as apparent. Both play their characters well, individually, with Neal being the stronger performer, but are missing the connection and attraction required of these two characters, not to mention the awkward, forced insinuation of sexual acts that are, I assume, supposed to be humorous to downplay the sex, but just end up falling flat. Neal is on point with the sultriness of the bored Mrs. Robinson and keeps her character consistent, as she should be portrayed. It’s also worth mentioning Neal’s velvet voice that is a pleasure to listen to and makes it easy to understand why she is on the radio. Edwards starts off portraying Benjamin Braddock as an awkward, unsure recent graduate, which works perfectly, but as the story moves forward, Benjamin is supposed to find his footing and become surer of himself and comfortable with the world around him, but Edwards can’t seem to find that arc in this character. With that being said, he exudes a certain confidence and authenticity that makes for a charming performance.

Final thought…The Graduate is a coming-of-age story with a good blend of lightheartedness and complexity that keeps this piece interesting. Being a well-known, classic film, there are built-in challenges of transferring to the live stage and for those who are unfamiliar with the film, there may be some missing pieces in the script and it may seem a little jumbled and rushed, but in the end, you get the gist of the story. The performances are commendable and, aside from the numerous blackouts breaking up the flow, the pacing is decent. The story itself is timeless and relatable, so it’s worth checking out this well put-together production.

This is what I thought of Dundalk Community Theatre’s production of The Graduate… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

The Graduate will run through March 4 at Dundalk Community Theatre, College Community Center, John E. Ravekes Theatre. For tickets call the box office at 443-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.

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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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