Present Laughter (2018) – A Review

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“Alas, poor Yorick.   I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest….”  Above the fireplace within stage actor Gerry Essendine’s late 1930s flat in London is an image of the actor himself, holding a skull, which is no doubt one his own favorite images of himself from his performance as Hamlet.   Essendine’s past, present, and future are all explored in the First Presbyterian Theater’s run of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter.  Surrounded by a vivacious and eccentric cast, this play delves into the life of a celebrity within the performing arts and reminds us of how the human heart desires companionship far more than it does material wealth and momentary satisfaction.

Gerry Essendine is played by the highly talented and expressive Todd Frymier.  In capturing this self-centered, witty character, Frymier also achieves a convincing level of self-loathing.  As the play progresses, we can see how a playboy lifestyle eventually has worn on him to the point of near madness and despair.

Making her Fort Wayne stage debut is Shelby Lewis as Daphne Stillington.  Though her resume includes a number of lead Shakespearean roles, Lewis excels as a young woman who is clearly ready to shed her girlish naivete and is anxiously desiring to enter an adult relationship.  In her vibrant performance, Lewis convincingly captures a young woman whose obsession with Essendine has clouded her take on reality. Susan Kahn plays Lady Saltburn, whose perfect moniker creates a tense and incredibly awkward moment in the life of a man whose private life and desires are unravelling far faster than he cares to admit.  

Essendine’s employees include a secretary, a butler, and a cleaning woman, each of whom shape Essendine’s complex lifestyle and bitter flaws.  As the secretary Monica Reed, FPT mainstay Nancy Kartholl delivers a consistent, no-nonsense performance as a woman whose own adulthood has been devoted to working for a man whose career is framed by becoming someone different.  Kartholl’s character has, it seems, evolved as maternal, and the two of them exhibit how the balance some people have with one another can result in a lifelong friendship.

Gary Lanier plays Fred, Essendine’s personal butler.  Lanier’s jovial presence counters many of the high-anxiety moments, especially those involving Essendine’s lovers.  Lastly, Pam Karkosky delights as the chainsmoking Miss Erickson. Karkosky’s character is perhaps the truest ‘yin’ to Essendine’s ‘yang’ in that her completely unabashed views on the situations withing the apartment suggest that raw mentality most of us withold behind a filter.  

On a secondary level, Suzan Moriarty and Jim Nelson further complete the turmoiled main character.  Moriarty plays Liz Essendine, Gerry’s ex-wife, though they apparently never took the time to make that dissolution of marriage official.  Though her scenes are sporadic, Moriarty shapes our picture of Gerry Essendine by inserting a limited amount of intimate details of the famed actor.  Jim Nelson glowingly performs as eccentric Roland Maule. Maule’s desire to be near Essendine is similar to that of Daphne Stillington’s, though it is much more professionally than romantically driven.  Throughout this comic drama, Nelson excels as a quirky bystander within a deeply complex romantic web.

The remaining cast members further intensify the story, especially the latter scenes.  Andrew Gross and Jim Matusik play Gerry’s friends and colleagues, Henry and Morris, respectively.  As with every other character, these two men shape a dimension of the main character whose life seems to be crashing down with each ring of the doorbell.  Finally, Gloria Minnich performs as Joanna Lyppiatt. Minnich counters Frymier’s Essendine exquisitely through biting dialogue and a flirtatious, yet bedeviling presence. She accelerates the comic tension that had been building the entire time.  

Director Christopher Murphy selected this play after catching a performance led by film and stage legend Kevin Kline.  He notes that the plot is, perhaps surprisingly, not outdated. It seems apparent that exploring the life of an ego-centric performer is just as timely as ever, given modern society’s obsession with the privated lives of its idols within the arts.  Murphy and Rae Surface coordinated the set design, and the Essendine-as-Hamlet portrait was no accident. Hamlet, upon finding the skull of the deceased clown, reflects on his boyhood innocence, which, for this play, is a direct correlation to how Essendine longs to grasp his own true life back after having spent years being other people on stage and only a small, witty version of himself with close company off stage.  Through a balanced amount of tension and humor, Present Laughter reminds us to simply enjoy this short life we have together.  

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My Dead Clown (Review)

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Starting off the 2018-2019 season at First Presbyterian Theater in downtown Fort Wayne is My Dead Clown, an original play written by David Rousculp, a licensed funeral director from New Haven.  The story follows Bill, a funeral director whose most recent project is preparing the body of Dingy the Clown.  However, Bill’s reputation is in jeopardy because he’s shown a decline in job performance since the passing of someone close to him.  Once he inadvertently brings the clown back to life, his life becomes even more complex.

This premise offers a multitude of options for audiences to explore their own lives, which is what quality theater should do.  Of all the people in the world, funeral directors should be among the most seasoned individuals who have a firm grasp of the effects of our eventual death.  However, Rousculp’s script is evidence that even those who would presumably be the most accepting of our ultimate fate are susceptible to death’s ramifications on the soul.

Director and Stage Designer Rae Surface succeeds in creating the multi-level environment this play demands.  Surface’s chosen details found in Bill’s apartment exhibit the depth of character required to portray a troubled protagonist.  Throughout the two-hour performance, this large cast offers a story of how one’s faith can be restored from the most unexpected and unlikely sources.

Duke Roth performs as the overworked and increasingly cynical Bill, the protagonist who is rapidly drowning in work and sorrow.  Roth exhibits a strong handling of balancing the stressors of Bill’s professional responsibilities and a longing for his past while dealing with the consequences of the clown’s arrival–and unintentional re-spawning–in his workspace.

Dingy the Clown is played by Reuben Albaugh.  Albaugh’s energy and cheeriness are suitable for any successful clown.  Additionally, Albaugh succeeds throughout the play with his undying (ha!) desire to bring laughter to replace sadness and smiles to erase frowns.

Among the other “living” characters are Chuck, BIll’s boss; Nancy, his assistant; and Eric, his brother.  Tom Corron’s humorous role as Chuck serves as the embodiment of Bill’s profession demands.  Jennifer Netting’s performance as Nancy shines with an exuberant portrayal of youthful spirit, innocence, and loyalty.   Eric, Bill’s younger sibling who has yet to find any firm path in his own life, is played by Nathan Driscoll.  Driscoll’s comical presence counters Bill’s apparent stress while simultaneously portraying how inspiration can come from unexpected places and events.

This play, perhaps understandably, also features a few “deceased” characters.  Leonard, played by acting and theater veteran Scott K. Strode, humorously excels as a potential aspect of Bill’s consciousness.  Deborah Kerr’s small but impressive performance as Mrs. Sticklebush is suggestive of Bill’s devotion to his responsibilities as a funeral director.  Jennifer Poiry Prough excels as Bill’s deceased wife Mary, and, peppered throughout the performance, appears in flashbacks where she exposes those gorgeous moments that offer and explain the depth of despair Bill is experiencing in the painful time since her sudden departure.

Rousculp’s rather unpredictable script features many pleasant surprises, many of which are found in the roles of characters who rarely escape their longstanding stereotypes and stifled reputations.  Among the remaining secondary characters are strong performances by real-life married couple Robyn and Rod Pasko.  Robyn, who is performing in Fort Wayne for the first time after establishing herself on stage and screen in Chicago, turns in an animated and vivid performance as Lucy, a.k.a. The Devil.  Rod Pasko offers an unanticipated yet charming down-to-earth version of Death.

Jeanette Walsh’s costume design is poignant and effective, especially in the gimmicks and shenanigans of the title character.  Theater Manager Thom Hofrichter’s production and lighting succeed in creating the obvious balance of humor and despair when grouping a boisterous clown, a funeral home, and hell on a single stage.

Bill’s anguish is a direct result of a past tragedy.  However, that tragedy has impacted Bill’s faith and perception of humanity’s significance.  During the few glimpses from the past with his spouse, we see a jovial couple who epitomize the human desire for love and devotion.  Once that was stripped away, Bill became the universal version of humanity who is forced to question that faith.  From the moment the first corpse rises up and interacts with the protagonist, any audience member who sees My Dead Clown during its first-ever run will recognize that he or she is in for an amusing and introspective experience.

“The Gospel According to…” – A Review (2018)

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The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and the Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord (by Scott Carter)

A growing amount of the modern forms of entertainment lack that aspect that art and theater typically target and thrive upon: the demand for mental interaction and the inherent intuition on the part of the viewer or reader.  When Scott Carter was penning this impossible interaction between three of the world’s most famous and influential thinkers, he must have remembered that greatness comes from loss and mistakes; that it is also born out of perseverance and drive; and, perhaps most significantly, greatness stems from an absolute addiction to seeking and examining potential answers to the most cryptic questions of this world, regardless of the era in which one lives.

Luckily for theatergoers of First Presbyterian Theater’s final show of the 2017-2018 season, these cryptic questions are the crux of the exchange between Thomas Jefferson (d. 1826), Charles Dickens (d. 1870), and Count Leo Tolstoy (d. 1910).  Each man enters a solemn room with his most recent memory being the moment he died. Once they learn one another’s identity and general attitude toward religion and philosophy, the story shoots off in a flurry of intellectual perspectives mixed with light-hearted humor.  

Scott McMeen returns to this stage as Jefferson and provides an optimistic performance as the former president and framer of the Constitution.  This season, he warmed our souls as Ebenezer Scrooge in the modern take on A Christmas Carol.  Here, McMeen rations the widely accepted and respectable historic view of Jefferson with an introspective glance at a man whose morals on paper were, perhaps, not as sound in reality.  

Brian Enrnsberger treats us to a confident and quite humorously pompous version of Charles Dickens. While Ernsberger has performed with FPT and other Fort Wayne theaters in the past, his return to the Summit City stage fills a six-year void.  With occassional quips to “his” own works throughout the discourse among all three men, Ernsberger successfully captures the often-exaggerated aloofness of the British author.

Rounding out this tremendous trio, Thom Hofrichter enters as Count–but don’t call him that!–Leo Tolstoy.  With his convincing Russian accent, Hofricter exhibits his passion for language, philosophy, and religion in convincing fashion.  This play brings an end to Hofrichter’s twenty-first year with the theater as its Managing Artistic Director.

The story examines some of the most controversial issues of mankind, but the title is indictative of the premise of how each man had at one point in his life rewritten the opening four books of the New Testament.  The arc of this after-life summit of great thinkers examines how each man from his generation and region contemplated the biblical text and specific passages. Citations to exact verses are identified, but when some disparity and disagreement evolves, the action of the play ignites.  These men are humans after all, so even in death they find themselves desiring to be heard, wanting to be right, and verbally sparring over their points of view.

Director Chance Parker suggests that the play takes each character “on a journey through essential questions pertaining to life, truth, and faith in every meaning of the word.”   Parker, a recent graduate from IPFW, co-directed this season’s Red with Hofrichter.

Jeannie Pendleton’s resume in costume design is deep and respectable, and she brought her talents to this cast and performance.  Each character is not only distinctive in reputation and language, but each man’s clothing represents another facet of his personality and perspective.  

Rae Surface and Austin Berger return to FPT for this performance with positions as technical director/set designer and light board operator, respectively.  Surface’s simplistic set is suggestive of a cleared mind in the after-life. Though the props are minimal, they function appropriately throughout this dialogue-heavy performance.  

Bill Lane is the projection designer and operator, and Sara Ihrie–a freshman at Snider High School–returns to the sound board after a successful stint in the same position for the theater’s previous play, Hamlet.

One does not need to have a deep understanding or experience with each of these men’s accomplishments or publications for the story and its themes to resonate.  The universality of the themes shines through in each scene. Upon its conclusion, audiences are all but forced to contemplate the same issues for themselves and how the shared points of view apply to their surroundings.  This serves as a formidable end to another outstanding season from the various casts and crews who work tirelessly at the First Presbyterian Theater.