Langhorne Players is ambitious. They challenge themselves: their directors, set designers and actors. They strive to offer their audiences something beyond the typical community theater experience.…
Langhorne Players Presents Stop Kiss
Langhorne Players is ambitious. They challenge themselves: their directors, set designers and actors. They strive to offer their audiences something beyond the typical community theater experience. With Diana Son’s Stop Kiss, Langhorne Players succeeds again.
Stop Kiss has an ambitious format — a linear spine of flashbacks interspersed with aching limbs, all told with no intermission. The protagonist, Callie, is portrayed by the luminous Carla Ezell, who holds this gangly body together with incredible strength. Ms. Ezell is spectacular, brave, commanding — the very definition of ambitious. Callie is not.
Callie is just happy enough with her life. She has a rather public profession as an award-winning helicopter traffic reporter, but values her privacy, so much so that she feels compelled to place tape over the peephole before she lets loose with her dance moves in the seclusion of her own apartment. It’s a spacious New York City apartment, acquired through piercing heartbreak, but she allows the sanctuary of her home to be auditorily invaded twice a week by a noisy neighbor. She has friends, including one with bed privileges, which he rather abuses.
Callie may report on traffic trouble for a living, but she runs and hides from confrontation in her own life. She doesn’t even balk when a friend of a friend of a friend wants her to take in her cat.
The cat’s owner is Sara, played with restrained force by Leann Newman. Sara seeks out adventure, running after it with widespread arms, although such openness is new to her and she isn’t always up to the challenge. She recently left her longtime boyfriend, parents, and comfortable position in a private school for a teaching fellowship in the Bronx — to replace a teacher who had been shot dead by his student.
Sara was once “the kid who had the right answer, who never raised her hand, hoping the teacher would call on them.” Now she has a classroom full of them. She celebrates when a third-grader writes her own name for the first time, and is inspired when her 8-year-old student shuts down a mouthy crackhead during an after-school walk with his teacher.
“Best thing to do is to walk on by,” says Callie as Sara relates the tale.
Sara is too impressed by the boy’s backbone to listen. Her own is growing strong in her adopted city and it feels good. Sara is ready to spread her wings, finally. Thai food? Sure, she’ll try it. The subway late at night? Why not. Dancing at a lesbian bar? Come on, Sara says to Callie, let’s go.
Callie gains some momentary strength from her new friend and suggests sitting on a park bench in the wee hours of the morning, where the two women share their first kiss.
But as with the rest of their lives, nothing is private, nothing is sacred — not even a first, delicate kiss in a budding romance. They are always being watched: by the car-driving public, by impressionable schoolchildren, by violent crackheads.
Director Jack Bathke has peripheral characters on stage with the two women, always watching, always judging, as is the case with the detective, played by Vincent Pileggi who is also the assistant director, set designer and builder.
Detective Cole is condemnatory and unkind. Somehow that the two women were kissing on what becomes the worse night of their life seems important to him, as if it justifies their pain.
Sara’s ex, portrayed by Jonathan Edmondson, is in denial and overcome with jealousy. “Why was she protecting you?” he screams at Callie.
And for the self-absorbed George, played by Ken Marblestone, the women’s trauma is all about him and his pain.
Instead, it is other women who stand in witness to the ordeal Callie and Sara are suffering. Kathryn Wylde brings a jaundiced acceptance to her Mrs. Winsley character and compassion to her medical professional character. Mrs. Winsley was watching over the women from her window above and helped in the only way she could. The nurse watches over them now.
Both of Ms. Wylde’s characters acknowledge Callie and Sara’s relationship with a matter-of-factness that Callie herself hasn’t yet reached. Sara’s and her churning relationship was interrupted before Callie could get on board and now the train has chugged to the next station without her.
Callie has to decide if she will redeem her ticket or refund it. But people are watching. Callie is exposed, laid bare. In a heartwrenching scene, Callie is center stage and under the glare of the spotlight, which despite her public persona is not comfortable for her. She urges herself to “speak truth to power” but doesn’t “know what that means.”
Yet to back quietly away from the commotion would be to betray Sara. Saying nothing would permit Sara’s parents and ex to reclaim Sara for the former life she had fled, right when Sara is at her most vulnerable. Right when the two women had only just begun to love.
–by Jodi Thompson
Langhorne Players Presents Breaking the Code
Reports from survivors of the recent murders at Umpqua Community College in Oregon indicate that the killer asked his victims if they were Christian before shooting them — in the head for a “yes” response, and in the leg or body for either a “no” or no answer. Simply not responding could possibly save their lives, yet many chose to tell their truth. This is a heartrending example of a choice someone should never have to make. No one should have to lie or hide their identity in order to save themselves.
The day following the school shooting, Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code opened at Langhorne Players. The World War II-period drama, which runs through October 17, is remarkably relevant today.
Although not as instantly deadly, Alan Turing’s ordeal with Great Britain’s form of McCarthyism was as tragic. The brilliant Cambridge mathematician was recruited by the fledgling MI6 during WWII to help break the Nazi Enigma machine code. To do so would mean Allies would gain vital intelligence of enemy military movement, helping to win the war.
If you’ve already seen the film The Imitation Game, and believe you don’t need to see this production, you would miss a riveting performance by Nigel Rogers. And you would be wrong.
Once again, Langhorne Players brushes aside any common misconceptions of “community theater” and provides a production worthy of respect. This is no easy, linear play. The choices are as rife with peril as those faced by the main character. Director Jack Bathke gives it its due.
For Alan’s mother, Sara Turing, portrayed by the brilliant Carole Mancini (A LP vet whose father worked as a code-breaker!), life is much simpler. As it is for the other major influence in Alan’s life, his boyhood friend Christopher, who instilled in Alan a reverence for truth. New to the LP stage, Christopher Lapinski plays Christopher. He is nearly always on stage, mostly as Christopher’s spirit tending to Alan with gentleness, bearing quiet witness to Alan’s foibles without judgment.
It is Sara’s simple line about her son that resonates: “He’s always been his own worst enemy.”
Her son, who believes some wars are necessary, breaks the Nazi code, but as Bathke writes in his Director’s Note, also breaks “the code of society and suffer[s] as a result.”
Alan is obsessed with distilling right from wrong. He is warned by his boss (Hans Peters’ benign and fatherly Knox) to be discrete. His co-worker Pat (portrayed with keen depth by Tami Amici) offers him a closet in which to hide, namely marriage despite knowing he is not the marrying kind. Yet, could it be Pat who betrays his trust to the authorities?
If you don’t know the story of Alan Turing, he not only cracked the Nazi Enigma code, but is also credited with early “electronic brain” or computer theory. A recipient of the Order of the British Empire award, Turing was charged with “gross indecency” for his homosexuality.
In the play this occurs after admitting to an affair with a young drifter, portrayed by Christian Gonzalez. Gonzalez is making his acting debut in this production and yet he inhabits his complex character completely. Neither he nor Lapinski, both theatrical novices, allow the audience to see or feel anything close to “stage fright” or discomfort. Both men commit fully.
Vincent Pileggi and Todd Gregoire complete the cast with their portrayals of law men, for whom “Decisions have to be made. All we’ve got is the law.”
But it is the law of fear, where a small search for justice becomes an out-of-proportion witch hunt. Although, as Sara says, her son had everything to live for, Alan does not survive “the weird ideas people have about being homosexual.”
When Alan’s honesty gets him in legal trouble that threatens his work and his very being, he tells Pat, “I should have played the game and stuck to the rules.”
“Why didn’t you?” she asks.
You can’t miss Breaking the Code. Yes, it begins slowly, is at times as “baffling” as Knox says Alan’s work is, and the lighting is shadowy. But Rogers’ tour-de-force performance is invigorating, empowering. And the meaning embedded in Alan’s unbridled enthusiasm for the “electronic brain” is layered and powerful. Breaking the Code will leave you plenty to ponder.
–by Jodi Thompson
Langhorne Players Presents Good People
Langhorne Players third offering of the season is David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People. The work had a short run on Broadway and garnered two Tony awards. Not many will know the story. That’s a good thing. To miss this production would be a bad thing.
“You’re good people, Mikey. I always said that about you.”
So says Margaret, a “Southie” born-and-bred, to Mike, who escaped South Boston for a life as a successful fertility doctor. Margaret has barged into Mike’s office hoping he will find her a job. She uses the social pleasantry as much to sway him to help her as to convince herself that he is “good people.” He’s not, actually.
And it’s not that Margaret is necessarily a poor judge of character, she is just forgiving, and giving. She is “good people,” but hides it behind a sharp tongue that lashes out when she feels aggrieved.
And her old friend-made-good, Mike, does just that when Margaret shows up at his Boston office after he ignores her many phone messages. Margaret is so wounded by Mike’s rebuff that she hurls “lace-curtain Irish” his way. For a man who has a lucrative career, lovely family and fancy home, Mike is unusually sensitive to the insult of placing himself above his humble origins. He turns mean.
“I’m sorry if you made some bad choices in life,” Mike says to Margaret. “But that’s not my fault.”
Oh, the irony. Mike’s success is directly related to the one and only choice Margaret ever made.
Director Kathy Junkins, in her Director’s Note, says Good People is “about choices and the outcomes of those choices.” The thing is, poverty denies Margaret of having many options. She’s only had one real choice her entire life, and while it may not have altered her circumstances much, had she not made the one she did, it would have completely changed the outcome for another person.
That person is anything but grateful. That person is oblivious. You will be pleased with your choice should you opt to see Good People. You will laugh; you will cry. As per Langhorne Players usual high standards, the acting, directing, sets — the entire production is top-notch.
Julie Ann Marra, who plays Margaret, employs a thick accent and flings Margaret’s flares with abandon. Her Margaret is crispy crass, with a soft, chewy center.
Margaret weasels a half-hearted invitation to Mike’s house. In her attempt to dress up for the party, she wears her usual denim jacket over her “party clothes” and carries her typical sack of a purse. She even has a Band-Aid hanging from the heel of her shoe. Margaret is a fish out of water at Mike’s fancy Chestnut Hill house.
When Mike asks, “How’s the wine?” Margaret parries, “How the fuck should I know?” while sipping it.
Mike, played with appropriate unease by Bernard DiCasimirro, is not pleased when Margaret appears in his living room. She is a reminder of his old self, one he has tried to erase. The discomfort at having Margaret in the same room as his young wife is clear.
Mike’s wife, Kate, is played by Carla H. Ezell making her Langhorne Players debut. Kate, as a wealthy black woman raised in academia, has her own issues. After mistaking Margaret for the caterer, Kate jokes about being mistaken for the nanny when she takes her daughter to the park. Both women deal daily with either socio-economic or racial prejudice.
Yet is it clearly Kate who holds the cards. Margaret keeps her one ace firmly up her sleeve, refusing to play the game, because winning isn’t worth the cost — to others.
“She’s too nice,” says Margaret’s friend, Jean about her. Jean, slyly portrayed by Gabrielle Affleck (also new to the Langhorne Players stage), is fiercely loyal to her friend. Jean has Margaret’s back.
The cast includes Dottie, Margaret’s shifty landlord and unreliable babysitter. Loretta Zullo, makes her LP debut with Dottie, a woman who blames everyone but herself — Margaret’s foil. This line, about a former classmate of the three women who ends up a “bag lady” tells you all you need to know about Dottie: “It’s not right, her sleeping on the sidewalk. Makes the neighborhood look bad.”
An authentic good person turns out to be the one who opens the show by firing Margaret. Bobby Reiser plays Stevie, a dollar store manager with few choices. Life has been hard to Stevie. Stevie refuses to let it harden him. Young Reiser holds his own in the talented cast.
Because Good People playwright Lindsay-Abaire is so skillful, it is difficult to review his work without destroying what makes him so brilliant: his ability to reveal bits of history and truth in increments. Up until the last moments of the play, the audience is never quite sure of the real story, never quite certain of who is “good people” and who is less so.
Langhorne Players Presents Red
Might be best to simply go see Langhorne Players‘ second offering of the season, John Logan’s Red, without reading this review, particularly if you’ve never heard of it. Sometimes having little idea of what you are walking into is perfect. And with this Patrick Chmel-directed drama, you actually do walk in on it. The play is underway when the house opens 15 minutes before the “curtain goes up.”
During the time the audience members take their seats, hug friends, settle and chat, William Braak’s Mark Rothko stares at “his” work while listening to opera, moves canvases around, cleans paint brushes, pours a drink. Braak, new to Langhorne Players, but certainly not the stage, has a gaze so intent that I catch myself peeking over my shoulder at the empty brick wall behind me.
At first I worry the 15 minutes might be interminable, as a 90-minute production with no intermission. Then, 105 minutes later, I realize I was wrong. It is just enough time. Time to feel challenged, enlightened, emotionally pricked, and yes, entertained. Only the first three would be acceptable to the subject of the two-person play.
Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, a Russian Jew, emigrated with his family at the age of 10, speaking only Hebrew and Russian. He earned a scholarship to Yale University, only to leave after two years. In 1958, he accepted a lucrative commission to create about seven works for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram’s skyscraper. A 2010 article in The New Yorker claims Rothko thought the pieces would hang in the lobby, later pulling them when he discovered his work would decorate the restaurant. The play doesn’t mention this, but the commission — and Rothko’s conflict with taking it — is the focus of the play.
Mid-century America was a time of conspicuous consumption, bigotry and elitism. All of which helped and hindered Rothko, who was born Marcus Rothkowitz.
“No one even knows I’m a Jew,” he says in the play. After visiting the restaurant, exhausting himself trying to impress the patrons, and his wallet trying to impress the “wine guy,” he says, “I feel too God-damned Jewish for this place.”
It’s grueling to always feel as though you don’t belong. A scholarship recipient to an Ivy League school feels this, as does a poor immigrant, a non-Christian in Russia and the United States, an artist who paints in a style that is, by many, considered ideal “over-mantel” art. Yet Rothko was an artist able to command a prestigious payment.
It’s as if the artist alternates between pinching himself that people like him so much, and punching people for not respecting him enough. He tells his young (fictionalized) assistant Ken he will make the restaurant a temple, and adds later, “I hope to ruin the appetites of every son-of-a-bitch that eats there.”
Ken, played by John Patrick Mintz, contradicts him. “Your paintings aren’t weapons.”
Mintz is also new to Langhorne Players. His Ken amplifies Rothko’s fluctuating self-doubt and grandiosity. Mintz allows his Ken to follow a natural arc from corn-fed Iowan orphan, cowering like an abuse victim when the famous artist explodes, to ambitious young artist, challenging Rothko for not asking about his own work. We never learn much about Ken, only a few minutes of the most tragic day of his life. Despite his harsh realities, Ken is positive, helpful, pleasant.
In one of the play’s most active scenes, Ken readies yet another canvas for priming, he prepares two pails of maroon paint, turns the stereo on full volume, and stands in front of the piece-to-be, brush in hand, side-by-side with Rothko. In a ballet/bacchanalia mash-up, the two men slap a coat of maroon on the large canvas, every inch of white covered. The snow white canvas turned blood red is a metaphor for Ken’s most painful memory.
The young man has lived through anguish. Rothko is living torment.
“Not all art has to be psychodrama!” says Ken.
But life is drama and art is life for Rothko, who none-the-less keeps “banker’s hours” in his studio. During his nine-to-five, he creates works that he intends to “stop your heart” and “make you think.” “I’m not here to paint pretty pictures.”
When the depressive Rothko worries his “children” will be captive in the restaurant for the rest of their “lives,” Ken –with perhaps more perspective than the older man — says, “They’re just paintings.”
Rothko may use Daniel 5:27 against Ken: “You have been weighed in the balances, and have been found wanting.” However, it is the elder man’s biggest fear.
I haven’t touched on half the themes of Red. However, it is best if you just order a ticket and see for yourself. Langhorne Players rarely disappoints, and certainly doesn’t with Red.
Artist Profile: Daniel Anthonisen
Stay with me, I know there’s a lot going on. In a world of shortening attention spans, this painting requires awareness. Above the goddess in lovely lingerie hang two urn-shaped plumb lines suspended from diving rods, within a clock face dappled by snowflakes. At the top is a version of Buer. The five-legged (deer in this version, not lion to match his head) demon glows as bright as the stars on trees inside homes during the time Buer is said to appear (when the sun is in Sagittarius — November and December).
The painting, by Bucks County artist Daniel Anthonisen, embraces nature, particularly local species. It reflects Christianity, Judaism, Shamanism, Hinduism, Alchemy and more religious thought. It grows from intellectual study and quiet contemplation. A journey to find meaning.
“It’s a celebration of finding the newness of life that’s in us and around us,” says Anthonisen.
“People seem concerned at times in acknowledging the value of things by measuring with what is ‘practical.’ I actually see a wonderful combination possible, of merging the so-called ‘irrational’ with the practical self-knowledge that our lives frequently more resemble a literary novel than a series of scientific facts or experiments.”
Anthonisen tells me he is interested in the “adventure of fluidity, not knowing what is around the corner is to embark on a path of learning.”
He believes in the visual poetry of painting, but feels accountable to acknowledge a path of learning in his work. Although he isn’t fond of audio descriptions of works in museums, he rejects the “great taboo in employing verbal language to compliment a visual structure.”
I’d first written about Anthonisen more than 10 years ago. At the time he was a dedicated plein air artist, capturing the soothing essence of the Delaware River, the hills and vales of Bucks County. In the years since, he’s shown at the Woodmere and Michener museums, among other impressive venues. With a B.F.A. from Carnegie Mellon University, Anthonisen is no slouch. Not to mention his famous sculptor-father, George Anthonisen.
Daniel Anthonisen has a solo show opening October 5 at Travis Gallery in Solebury Township. I wondered how he was faring. We’d lost touch, with only an occasional email to connect the years.
I’d mentioned while setting up our meeting that I no longer earn my living writing about art and artists, that instead I clock hours in a corporate compound, with nice people but not doing work that inspires me in any way. He responded that he’s glad he has been able to avoid having to take on such uncreative employment, that he is grateful he can devote himself to his art, although it is a struggle to develop financial security.
I meet Anthonisen on a stiflingly humid morning, just up the road from a scarecrow of sorts fashioned from flowerpots sitting outside of Kinsman Company, a garden supply store in Point Pleasant. It is an imagine I will see later.
Save for a few gray hairs, little tells of the passing decade. He’s lost a few pounds. I’ve found them. When we last met he was that emboldening age of 30-something. The thirties, in my opinion, are when you first feel fully adult. Empowered, Anthonisen seized his spot among the New Hope School of Impressionists.
Now, in his early 40s, the artist is exploring the concept of home. A 2006 oil on linen, Heading Home captures Anthonisen’s quintessential ideal of home; the back of his father’s head in the bow of a small fishing boat on the Delaware River.
Anthonisen’s new work breaks from this classic concept and delves deeper. He addresses all that home embraces: his family home, where he now dwells, the river and towns he’s known since childhood. All are his inspirational muse.
“At the heart of a creative home is the access to a creative space of incubation…something everyone in the world needs,” Anthonisen writes to me. “My art experiments with expressing creative spaces of incubation whether they are riverscapes, flowerpot people or otherwise.”
His home, a carriage house high above the river, is consumed by his art. Completed pieces hang on the walls. Canvases and boards in various states of completion are stacked on every surface not covered with paints, books and items appearing in his work.
Anthonisen’s easel — a long-ago gift from his supportive parents — commands valuable floor space in the center of the room. This is home, a place that serves his creativity, his art, his passion.
The upcoming show is titled “Home: Recent Work by Daniel Anthonisen.” His Point Pleasant home is a place of reflection and introspection, as well as inspiration. His nearby Carversville studio is an extension of his home. He can often be found on the Tohickon Creek, Delaware River, or Ralph Stover State Park, sketching, painting.
Still moved by the beauty around him, Anthonisen has found new insight in the writings of Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now), Jiddu Krishnamurti (The Flame of Attention) and others.
“Our society is based on the structure of time,” Anthonisen says. A long devotee of what he calls “rivertime, where there is a pronounced sense of the past, present and future simultaneously surrounding the moment,” Anthonisen has created for himself an existence that respects and ignores time — especially with a show deadline looming.
I ask how many of the 30 pieces that he plans to show in October are completed. He tells me none. I see them. I see them as fulfilled. I remember the perfectionist I once met. He’s still there. And a lot more.
— Jodi Thompson
Where the Wildflowers Are
Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve is a wonderful place to enjoy nature and learn about native plants. Take a peek at BCP’s photographer Bailey’s visit.
Flowers fill my flickr account. Georgia O’Keefe is one of my favorite painters. Botany was among my college electives. So, it’s no surprise that blossoming beauties bewitch me: sensual, fragrant, colorful.
I shot these lovelies during a meander in the meadow at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve. Guided by Dave, the volunteer naturalist, who schooled me on the many varieties including ornamental grasses. “Sedges have edges, thrushes are round and grasses are hollow right up from the ground.” The catchy poem stays with you.
As does the sight of the afternoon light on these hardy blooms. Dave also told the group that hummingbirds love the color red. Something I must share with my mother, but I have a feeling she probably already knows.
Thanks to Dave, and his guided hour-long tour, I now know most of these native plant names. Except for these pictured above. Any guesses anybody?
Into the whimsy
Bucks County Playbook’s photographer, Bailey, visits one of my favorite places and makes some wonderful photos. Grounds for Sculpture is just over the Delaware River from Bucks County and shouldn’t be missed.
Has there ever been a place you’ve driven by a hundred times and assured yourself you’d eventually visit?
With a son living in NYC, I’d travelled to and from the Hamilton train station in New Jersey more times than I could count. Along I-295, near the exit, enormous pieces of art would capture my eye and take my breath. More pieces surround the road by the station entrance. I yearned to wander into the whimsy of their origin, but never had. Until last week.
I finally explored the Grounds for Sculpture. But only just a bit of it, as the art park was offering a twilight special. And I think at least four hours are needed to really immerse yourself in this 47-acre wonder. But go, get a glimpse, because from now until September 3, the grounds will stay open late from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for just…
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Langhorne Players Presents 33 Variations
The master’s mania inspires an academic fervor for the play’s Dr. Katherine Brandt, a compulsion that either contributes to an early death or adds depth to a death sentence of ALS. That is for you to decide.
What isn’t up for discussion is that Patricia Bartlett, as Brandt, is a concertmaster wielding a priceless Stradivarius of an instrument — her talent. To extend the metaphor, Maestro/Director Jack Bathke has arranged a symphony in which Bartlett’s voice soars. As Brandt contracts into ALS, Bartlett expands her character’s reach. With exquisite agony, you feel her pain, particularly as she undergoes an MRI, complete with strobe light and wracking sound effects.
Don’t be off-put. Despite deep poignancy, there is also grand humor. Bartlett and her cast mates have excellent comedic timing, nothing is forced. The organic laughter arising from the audience even drowns out some of the funniest lines. It nary matters. You can’t help but laugh. Human frailty and arrogance is hilarious. And this production reminds you of that often and well.
Little is as devastatingly humorous as the mother-daughter relationship. Central to the story is Brandt’s tenuous bond with daughter, Clara, played with virtuosity by Tami Feist. There isn’t a role in this play that doesn’t require courage, but Feist earns accolades among them. There is no diffidence in Feist’s Clara. Her character commits to her fear as well as her strength, coming to terms with her mother’s flaws and her brilliance. Clara, in Feist’s capable hands, discovers her own capacity to live as her mother is dying.
Aaron Wexler’s Mike Clark is a wonderful foil to Brandt’s academic snobbery. Mike bridges the mother-daughter divide with loving practicality. He is Brandt’s nurse — a personification of everything she finds mediocre — and her daughter’s savior. Wexler is as fearless as Feist. He adroitly handles Mike’s clumsiness. The couple’s first date, complete with verbalized interior monologues, is priceless.
Susan Blair, as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger is divine. At first a haughty archivist, Brandt’s fixation wins her over, making the two women the best of friends. Together they pore over Beethoven’s sketches of the variations, in an archeological dig of self-discovery.
The intricacy of this production is astounding. Dialogue overlaps between modern day and early 19th century. Every movement is absolute harmony. The set, designed by Feist, perfectly assists the transitions.Rupert Hinton portrays Beethoven, with a slight British accent that is easily overlooked considering the boisterousness he brings to the role. Physically, he commands the stage, yet also shares well with others, which is required of the part. He brings a vulnerability to the composer that is both comical (pianist Susan den Outer does her best not to laugh during one scene in which she has a particularly awkward vantage point), and tender.
Two men who equally exploit the master, Diabelli and Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s sycophant/manipulator/biographer, are portrayed by Ross Druker and Todd Gregoire, respectively. Both men are strong additions to the talented cast.
The sole remaining cast member is atypical. Pianist Susan den Outer is hardly a guest in this orchestra, nor a soloist, but instead the heartbeat of the production. With as much emotion as any actor on stage — she is always on stage — den Outer is magnificent. Her perfection is not just in the notes played, but the absolute synchronization with the action surrounding her. She is no accompanist; she is an actor with a most vital voice.
There is so much to say about the theme of this composition. But it is best experienced and shouldn’t be ruined with a spoiler of a review. Go see 33 Variations. There is really no reason every seat at each performance shouldn’t be filled. This is a fugue to experience. As Brandt says: “There is beauty in the minutiae.”
Newtown Arts Company Presents Grease
“The day the music died,” that day memorialized in Don McLean’s American Pie, happened that year. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, three rock ‘n’ roll icons, were lost in a tragic plane crash in 1959. It was also the year the U.S.S.R. launched Mechta into the first solar orbit and Alaska was admitted to the Union as the 49th state. Oh, and Barbie was introduced. Can’t forget that.
Music didn’t die, our lives are managed and monitored via satellites, Alaska is no longer the newbie state, and Barbie, she’s still damaging the body image of little girls everywhere.
That last year of the fateful decade was the cusp of big changes, yet everything remains the same. It’s the setting for the enduring musical, Grease. Newtown Arts Company is presenting Grease August 8-14 at Newtown Theatre.
Kathy Junkins is the director and spoke with me recently about her vision for the familiar musical. What those who know the story from the popular movie version forget is the musical opens at fictional Rydell High School for a class reunion.
“I do want the audience to know this is reminiscence. I think that’s often missed,” Junkins says. “That’s the entire premise of the show. We’re keeping to the script of the original Broadway musical.”
Mid-century — last century — is ripe for nostalgia, but Junkins cast is nearly all born at the very end of it. She has 16 cast members younger than 18. To prep, give some substance to the sometimes fluffy show, she had the cast research the era.
“We’re keeping it authentic to the 1950s and helping the cast understand what was going on and bring that to the audience,” she says. Junkins says she and the cast have done a lot of research in hopes of making the era more relatable to the young actors.
“This musical, although set in the 1950s, and the times, the technology, etc. were different, some of the issues concerning today’s youth are the same as they were in the ’50s.”
She’s right. Teenagers still worry about their grades in school, fitting in, standing out, getting in trouble, getting pregnant. They just have the added pressure of not being able to hide it. No gaff, goof or bad hair day goes unpublished.
“People have real concerns as teenagers,” Junkins adds, “and that carries through to today.”
Part of that perennial angst is being in the “chorus,” and not one of the leads, or even a named role. Junkins helps ease the sting by working with the ensemble on character development.
She’s assigned the roles of “nerd,” “student council president” and other archetypes roaming high school halls, to each of the eight members in the ensemble. These enhanced portrayals lend more depth to the story. And the actors get to do more than don a poodle skirt and do the “hand jive.”
Surely we don’t know who will be more successful — and happier — ten years from now, “Sandy” or the “nerd.” Hopefully, all equally so for having taken part in community theater, a summertime tradition.
As Junkins says about Rydell’s class of ’59, so goes for the cast of 2013, “This core group will always be friends. Through thick and thin, they’ll always be together and I think that’s a good message: You’ve got to stick with your friends and be there along the way.”
— Jodi Thompson