Langhorne Players Presents Stop Kiss

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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 

Nigel Rogers and Christian Gonzalez in a scene from Breaking the Code.  Photo courtesy Langhorne Players

Nigel Rogers and Christian Gonzalez in a scene from Breaking the Code.
Photo courtesy Langhorne Players

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.

Nigel Rogers portrays Alan Turing in Breaking the Code. Photo courtesy Langhorne Players

Nigel Rogers portrays Alan Turing in Breaking the Code.
Photo courtesy Langhorne Players

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.

“I couldn’t.”

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 <em>Red</em>

Langhorne Players Presents Red

Red

The first day on the job for Ken, played by John Patrick Mintz. His new employer: the formidable Mark Rothko, played by William Braak. (Photo provided by Langhorne Players)

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.”

Red, introspective

Director John Logan writes: “It is a play about one of the most troubling and universal of all themes: aging and the loss of relevancy.” (Photo provided by Langhorne Players)

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.”

Red, confrontation

“How does it make you feel?” Braak’s Rothko asks Mintz’s Ken. (Photo provided by Langhorne Players)

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.

–Jodi Thompson

Risky Business: The Kingfisher

Back in April there was a bit of a buzz about marrying early in adulthood. Julia Shaw posits on Slate that getting hitched young is the bee’s knees. Amanda Marcotte responds with stinging data indicating women who wed young are more likely to get divorced and be poorer.

William Douglas-Home’s The Kingfisher looks at marriage, both young and late in life. Langhorne Players presents the comedy through June 15 in Spring Garden Mill in Tyler State Park, Newtown. The lead female character, Evelyn, swats away both the above nuptial theses. She tied the knot young but wasn’t happily in love; a new widow, she has plenty of money.

“Love is one thing,” she tells one-time beau Cecil, whom she fled 50 years ago when he didn’t propose, “marriage is another.”

Cecil wouldn’t know matrimony if it pricked him in the butt, even though he’s had a 50-year marriage of sorts to his butler, Hawkins. If only Cecil were as enlightened as Joel Stein‘s college sweetheart. In Time, Stein points out it’s a good thing he didn’t put a ring on it — she’s a lesbian.

The Kingfisher Director Sheldon Zeff chose not to pursue the relationship between Cecil and Hawkins, allowing the subtext to tell the story. “I don’t need to beat people over the head with it,” Zeff says. Yet, a distinctive characteristic of the kingfisher is the lack of differences between the sexes, something archetypal among many orders of the bird class.

I can’t help but wonder if Zeff had chosen to embrace the implication more fully might the production have delved deeper into poignancy, rather than stayed on the comic surface of Cecil’s missed opportunity for marriage with Evelyn.

The couple kissed for the first time beneath a beech tree after spotting a kingfisher together. “Damned risky business if you ask me,” Cecil says. “Thank God I’m not a kingfisher.”

If that isn’t an expressed fear of coming out of the closet, I don’t know what is.

Yes, Cecil purchased the land around the beech tree of that long ago moment of promised intimacy — certainly a romantic gesture. But Cecil seems to mine his shared history with Evelyn more for its fodder in his successful novels than true love. He may want to pick it up again where they left off only in an effort to avoid running out of stories to tell.

Elliot Simmons’ Cecil fumes at his butler’s fussing, and takes him sorely for granted. Simmons, however, most comes to life when interacting with the luminous Gail Foulke’s Evelyn.

Foulke shines with incredible comic timing as well as physicality. Watching her weasel gossip from a side-car-fueled Hawkins while also imbibing is delightful. Both characters know full well what life is like as a “side car,” Cecil’s “favorite.”

Scott Fishman is perfectly haughty as Hawkins, fully without his prey in his talons as the moniker would imply. Fishman’s desperate anger as Hawkins takes his leave of Cecil is spot on. (I would like to put Fishman in well fitting, plain-front pants rather than baggy pleats, but that is just being picky. I also think Hawkins wouldn’t let his Sir Cecil out of the house without a crisp crease in his trousers, and he would be more fastidious with the table setting, but I digress.)

I could write an essay on Douglas-Home’s imagery, but thank goodness I don’t have to — for the reader’s sake as much as mine. While parts amuse and parts bemuse me, overall it’s fun. There’s far less social commentary available to mine in today’s increasingly progressive world, but it’s there all the same. Even this married-young person who split the outcomes can see it.

— Jodi Thompson

Langhorne Players to Present The Kingfisher

I have a particular affinity for Langhorne Players. Not only have I rarely been disappointed with time spent in their theater, but their dedication to the creative community of Bucks County speaks to my sensibilities.

Langhorne Players is in no way insular. They aren’t a pack of exclusionary “cool kids,” not an Abercrombie & Fitch among them. Each production welcomes a new artist or artisan to show in their lobby. And each new production is open to new actors, crew and directors.

zeff at mirror

Sheldon Zeff on directing: “It’s about the story, so put up or shut up. I’m putting every effort into directing.”
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

Newtown’s Sheldon Zeff will direct the company’s The Kingfisher, which opens May 31. It’s Zeff’s first association with Langhorne Players, but certainly not his first play.

“I was a professional actor in a past life,” Zeff says.

The Glassboro State College theater grad (he refuses to refer to his alma mater as Rowan University) even met his wife during a production of Fiddler on the Roof at (now defunct) Riverfront Dinner Theater, where she played Golda and he was “generic Jew number 3.”

In fact, much of his acting career has been associated with the well loved musical; he’s been in about 10 productions. Kingfisher is quite a different story.

“People don’t know this show,” Zeff says. Langhorne Players is known for selecting new or unusual works. They don’t produce the community theater canon.

The British comedy features three actors of a “certain age,” Scott Fishman, Gail Foulke, and Elliot Simmons. Zeff describes the three as very talented, with a wealth of experience. “They make my job very easy.”

Zeff feels playwright William Douglas-Home had friend and actor Rex Harrison in mind for the lead, a well heeled 70-year-old considering marriage to a newly widowed ex-flame, much to the chagrin of his long-time butler, who “has basically been his ‘wife’ for 13 years.”

zeff laughing

Zeff bears a striking resemblance to actor Mandy Patinkin, with whom he shares the role of Tevye in “Fiddler,” as well as a middle name.
Photo by Bailey Fucanan.

Zeff says the repartee resembles a verbal boxing match, quick and sharp, amongst people of means. “They don’t want for anything, except love, companionship and romance,” Zeff adds.

As is the goal of all Langhorne Players productions, Zeff wants to provoke conversation. “There are so many things [theater-goers] will relate to: What is your perception of love? What happens when you lose it? Gain it back again?”

He wants theater goers most of all to know “it’s going to be a fun night at the theater. But I want them to talk about it.”

— Jodi Thompson

Artist Profile: Miranda Leiggi

Miranda Leiggi headshotI admire gumption and artist Miranda Leiggi has plenty of it. Last July Leiggi traveled to Comic-Con International: San Diego, but not to stroll the convention center with some 130,000 comic fans, many dressed as Wolverine, Wonder Woman, and other various pop culture icons. The Wrightstown resident crossed the country with a purpose.

Artists can put their name in the hat of graphic novel companies where they might like to work. If their name is drawn, the company will look at their portfolio. It’s a huge crap shoot.

Leiggi’s name was pulled by only one company: Arch Enemy Entertainment. It was months before she heard from them. In February they hired her to be a colorist on their new comic, Game Boys.

Game Boys

Game Boys is available at USA Today.
Scroll to the bottom of the article to view the comic. Three new pages are added each Tuesday.

Arch Enemy gives her the creative freedom to color in the graphics as she sees fit. The only assigned hues are those for the hair of a couple of characters and the school colors. (The comic takes place in a high school.) Leiggi receives three new pages to color each week, which keeps her busy but won’t pay all the bills. Her goal is to one day make comic books her day job.

For now, the young Drew University grad works in administration at Bucks County Community College, but spends plenty of time putting her theater degree and talent to use. In addition her colorist work, she works front of house (box office, concessions) at Bucks County Playhouse a couple of days a month.

Additionally, Leiggi has done special effects make up for Newtown Arts Company – she will facilitate a session at NAC’s kids’ camp this July, “probably doing zombie makeup.”

She is also cast manager and make-up artist for Midnight Productions, which performs Jesus Christ Superstar at the Keswick, in addition to a haunted house venue each autumn.

“It’s nice to be involved in local theater in some way,” she says. “I like to stay busy.”

gsw to the head make up

During an FBI and SWAT training exercise, Leiggi was last to be evacuated from the building.
“Too be fair,” she says, “clearly I was dead.”

She has a history of industry. While at Drew, the FBI contacted the university looking for actors to perform in preparedness drills. Leiggi’s professor asked the FBI if they’d like special effects make-up to add to the drama. For four years, Leiggi not only performed as a “victim,” but also used her make-up skills with the FBI and Madison, N.J.’s SWAT.

Gashes, broken bones, contusions – Leiggi excels at producing them with make-up. She amps up the gore factor each fall for Midnight Productions House in the Hollow, the haunted house venue on the same property as Sleepy Hollow Hayrides.

“We were an asylum for a while,” she says with glee. “I had a lot of fun then.” She wasn’t cast manager at the time, just an actor, an actor bent on producing insomnia.

zombie hand

Zombie hand.

“I like the more subtle creepy that gives them nightmares instead of a sudden scare.”

Oh, and did she tell you that she used to work as a vet technician. “I know what the inside of a cat looks like.”

Ewww, cat guts. And I thought Wolverine and Wonder Woman were scary.

— Jodi Thompson

Langhorne Players Present ‘God of Carnage’

It’s a question people ask when there is a tragedy such as the recent Boston Marathon bombings: How did a seemingly normal kid grow up to become a murderer? Yet seeing Langhorne Players’ first production of the 2013 season, God of Carnage, might give insight. The parents in Yasmina Reza’s play could very well raise monsters.

They, themselves, are savage beasts cloaked in successful and sensitive masks. They see their children as extensions of themselves. When the 11-year-old son of Veronica Novak, played by Tami Feist, has his teeth knocked out by a playmate, she takes it personally.

Feist is pitch perfect in trumpeting Veronica’s pride in her manners, civility and mothering. Veronica is an evolved parent, basking in the “soothing powers of culture.” As a writer, she examines the brutality of Darfur as if to glow in the contrast to herself. She has an ego the size of the continent of the Africa she loves.

As the ringleader of this conference – it’s doubtful the other three would bother to meet if not for her prompting – her main objective is not to gain compensation for the dental expenses or even to soothe her son with an apology. She just needs to be right. The other boy was wrong for attacking her son.

Her husband, Michael, played by James K. Perri, is an everyday man. He sells stuff. He puts a sweater vest and clip-on tie over his khakis in an effort to be cultured. Perri effuses the dichotomy that is Michael. He exhibits hospitality to the couple whose kid knocked his in the mouth. He worries about his mother taking a medicine that might kill her. He fusses over his wife’s ruined books with as much care as the other father’s ruined cell phone. Yet, he exploits his son’s dental pain to throw the family pet out on the street – something he’s longed to do.

When he assumes his wife will fetch the refreshment he proffers their guests, you just know he will pay for it later. Although Veronica insists “Michael always loved pushing a stroller,” it’s clear he had no choice.

The father of the kid wielding a teeth-shattering stick is as disconnected from fathering as he is connected to his job as a high-powered lawyer, shown by constant interruptions via cell phone. Tim Tolen plays Alan Raleigh with aloof ease, who comes to life when introduced to food, drink or a good cigar. So what if his son is a “savage” and his client’s medicine can kill, he’s on his way to the Hague tomorrow and his wife is lovely arm candy.

That trophy wife – her nickname is “Wolf Wolf,” as in “How Much is that Doggie in the Window? Wolf-wolf” for pitty’s sake – is quietly played by Stephanie Smith. Quietly, that is, until all that pain and anger Annette holds in spews across the room. Smith is as magnificent when tightly controlled as she is when her Annette is released.

Once unrestrained, Annette defends her son. She finds her backbone, which is carefully hidden behind a trendy exposed-zippered dress, and tells Veronica to back off dictating the punishment for her son. She disabuses Michael of his smugness by identifying him as a pet killer. No longer able to contain her anger at being left to handle all things “home, school and garden,” Annette cools her rage in alcohol.

As the “civilized” caucus leaves far more carnage in its wake than the fight that provoked it, you can’t help being reminded of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Bad enough that their marriages are toxic, but these folks are raising kids.

Under the direction of DeLarme Landes, Feist, Perri, Tolen and Smith channel Reza’s heavy hand well, never letting the symbolism overwhelm or distill the commotion, resulting in civilized chaos that’s amusing to watch unfold.

— Jodi Thompson