(Review) – Art – First Presbyterian Theater

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Raise your hand if you’ve committed the electronic act of unfollowing an acquaintance on a social media platform. What about subtweeting as a method of coping with someone else’s post? How about severing ties with a former classmate or coworker by deploying options such as unfriending…or, applying the more permanent form of digital removal: the high-octane capital-B Block? Though French playwright Yasmina Reza’s highly acclaimed script debuted over twenty-five years ago–well over a decade prior to the birth of social media–Art has modern-day applications and pushes viewers to examine the nature and existence of our interpersonal relationships. Thus, its inclusion in the calendar at First Presbyterian Theater is welcomed and clearly warranted, given our shifting attention concerning the public forums that social media has amplified. Director Thom Hofrichter identifies Christopher Hampton’s translation of Reza’s play as “hysterical” but also a “harbinger of the times,” suggesting that recent political tension has led many to reevaluate friendships and acquaintances, especially if both parties have drastically conflicting ideas and beliefs.

The play does involve art–focusing on the recent purchase of a controversial painting by one of the three adult male friends featured throughout the plot. The painting, though, is quickly established as a vehicle to lead viewers to grapple with the intangible issue of true friendship. The artwork’s significance and value is not equally shared by all three, which spawns the disagreement and deep-rooted discourse concerning their pasts and their observations of one another. 

Serge, the purchaser of the painting, is performed by Aaron Robertson, and Marc, Serge’s longtime friend, is played by Aaron Mann. Robertson captures the swelling hopefulness that acquiring this painting will elevate him within some circles, though Mann counters that pride in a convincingly dismissive manner. As the rapid-fire dialogue pushes their conversation forward, Robertson and Mann successfully waver the strength of their characters’ friendship through cutting dialogue and physically affected performances. Both exemplify a realistic mixture of maturity and pettiness with which most adults can likely relate, and they quickly rope the audience into their internal and external struggle with how one another has changed over the course of their years as friends. 

Nol Beckley plays Ivan, the final member of the friendship trio. As an anxious and vividly stressed man, Beckley demonstrates the pressure of finding meaning with his new career as well as being inundated by the demands and requests of various family members his upcoming wedding has created. Ivan is the type of friend whose non-confrontational complacency has evolved as counterproductive and predictable, and he has become a running joke among Marc and Serge as they ultimately dehumanize him as a weapon within their own verbal battle. Beckley’s Ivan wrestles over his own inability to be assertive, and the consequences of his refusal to remain as the trio’s punching bag dazzlingly shifts the action of the play. 

The culminating showdown among these three creates for audiences an opportunity to consider the basis for all relationships. Presumably, these three men met and began a kinship as individuals who identified a shared quality with one another, which becomes an effective universal connection for any viewer. However, as they have aged, they may have noticed that the chumminess of their conversations has been replaced by a much more personal and irritable one. This increase in hostility, too, becomes the foundation of the evocative power these performances offer. The brittle state of their friendship displayed through these performances–as grown men who had simply planned for a relaxing evening together–becomes obvious through the vibrant dialogue and comical asides. These asides shared with the audience and not the characters on stage, are a longstanding theatrical device to reveal thoughts not meant for the ears of other characters. Nowadays, we might as well nickname them “theatrical subtweets.”

Some may argue that social media has announced itself as a common and convenient supplement to face-to-face interaction, but others may warn against its increasing trajectory of use, believing that the ease with which unfollowing, unfriending, or blocking carries will escalate our collective divisiveness and dissociation. Because all phone usage is disallowed during performances at FPT, audience members can ponder these ideas as well as enjoy the opportunity to detoxify from social media activity for about eighty-five minutes. 

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THEATER REVIEW: The Importance of Being Earnest (September 2019)

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The 2019-2020 season at First Presybyterian Theater season kicks off this month with Oscar Wilde’s timeless classic The Importance of Being Earnest. This pointedly amusing story features various perspectives on the institution of marriage and the great depths we can reach to maintain our reputations. Often noted as the legendary author’s most treasured work, The Importance of Being Earnest will either introduce or remind viewers of Wilde’s distinct voice. His unique descriptions of London society and the modern world are just as applicable today as they were when it was first published in late-nineteenth century.

Aaron Mann stars as Algernon, a playboy brimming with confidence and rarely at a loss for words, and boldy rejuvenates the character director John Tolley associates the most with the Wilde himself. Chance Parker captures remarkably well the quieter, but equally clever and well-intentioned Mr. Worthing, Algernon’s acquaintance. Together, Mann and Parker loop viewers into their world and their amusing (though elitist) lives as they carry the rapid-fire pacing of the plot and dialogue throughout the bulk of the first of the two acts.

In a play replete with irony and parallel plot lines, Mann and Parker are countered by two outstanding performances by Laura Laudeman and Kelly Maloney as Gwendolyn Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, respectively. Laudeman’s consistent balance as a dutiful daughter and impassioned woman genuinely catapult the momentum of the first act. After intermission, Maloney highlights the naivete of Mr. Worthing’s ward Cecily, whose shift into adulthood has been overlooked by all of those around her. 

As the tension rises among these four individuals throughout the second act, audiences are greeted with moments in the play where Wilde is all but snagging us by the collar and expressing what we think and how we are flawed. One strong attribute of this particular performance is the presentation style where characters rarely speak in the direction of one another. By turning toward the audience, viewers themselves become the ones addressed and discussed, which adds to the universality of this examination of human desires and fragility. Through his seemingly bottomless bag of theatrical tricks, Wilde’s remarkably interwoven script lends itself to the audience in ways that other playwrights have not done and may never do. At the risk of drawing from a cliche, this play has everything. From Algeron and John Worthing’s first few lines, viewers can easily draw parallels not only to themselves, but also the themes of independence, loyalty, and even deception. 

One of the funniest characters in this play is that of Aunt Augusta, and Kate Black’s extraordinary version is not to be missed. In a role that is equal parts elitist and hysterical, Black enriches each scene with unparalleled authority and biting commentary.  

Though it is a secondary plot, be sure to watch and listen closely to the words and interactions of Marsha Wallace as Miss Prism and Scott Rumage as Reverend Chasuble. While these two combine for a comparative lower amount of overall presence, Wallace and Rumage exude  Oscar Wilde’s style and wit in perfectly timed jabs at relationships, love, and religion.  

Rae Surface and her set design team have created another appealing and appropriate stage for a play so dependent on dialogue, and Jeanette Walsh’s distinct costuming aligns well with the era of late nineteenth century London.  

We live in a time where one can curate his or her own image out to the world in ways Oscar Wilde likely never dreamed possible. However, can we ever truly love ourselves or anyone else if we misrepresent ourselves to anyone, regardless of our justifications for doing so? True love, perhaps Oscar Wilde was suggesting, is not satisfying the expectations of someone else. It is, on the other hand, acknowledging one’s own flaws and accepting the flaws of others as nothing more than a common attribute of the human condition. The play is a really good read, but witnessing it first-hand through the stellar performances of this cast is unmatched.

Review: Ben Butler – First Presbyterian Theater – April 2019

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Ben Butler

Review by Steve Lively

The 2018-2019 season ends this month at First Presbyterian Theater with Ben Butler, a play that mixes historical figures from the dawn of The Civil War with vital contemporary social issues and themes such as racial inequality and duty. Set at Fort Monroe in Virginia in 1861, General Ben Butler is suddenly interrupted by his lieutenant informing him that three escaped slaves have arrived and are essentially looking for ‘sanctuary’ from being returned to enslavement. Director John O’Connell was “struck” by the word ‘sanctuary’ in this this character-driven play and cast a quartet of exceptional performers to round out First Prez’s fiftieth year of local theater in Fort Wayne.

Thom Hofrichter, the theater’s Managing Artistic Director for the past twenty-two years, stars as the title character, a man who had been assigned this post for only a short time when the action of this play begins. Among the highlights of a lengthy career in the military, Butler is known for authoring a legal loophole that served as a step toward the emancipation of slaves. Hofrichter excels in this authoritative role and exhibits a clear level of respect of escaped slaves that is not often associated with men from this era whose obligations to their superior prevented them from being empathetic. Through his clear knowledge of Butler’s role in the Civil War and American politics thereafter, Hofrichter applies his boisterous presence and sharp wit over the course of this two-hour performance.

Butler’s subordinate, Lieutenant Kelly, is played by Kevin Torwelle, who has appeared in multiple performances this season at FPT. Torwelle again expresses his active range of emotions as a young officer whose routine life is jarred by the sudden arrival of the three slaves. Torwelle and Hofrichter execute the swelling and intoxicating momentum they had when they co-starred in last season’s RED as the situation intensifies. Throughout the opening scene together, these two performers solidify their characters’ perspectives and balance the serious nature of the established plot with moments of humor that jab at the conflicts between military order and morality.

Starring as one of the fugitive slaves who have arrived at Fort Monroe is Tony McCarrol as Shepard Mallory, the second of the two real historical figures used as inspiration for this play.

Though he hasn’t graced the FPT stage since 1999, McCarrol, though initially appearing in handcuffs, quickly establishes Mallory through a convincing nervousness and eventual blunt nature. As the tension rises in the conversation between Mallory and Butler, audiences can easily draw parallels between the anxious moments of this historical moment of the Civil War and the current-day situation at the US Southern border. With that parallel in mind, viewers are led to examine the challenges that our professional obligations at times conflict with what is commonly accepted as morally righteous choices.

Robert Phillips returns to the FPT stage as Major John B. Carey, a man who arrives under a truce flag and plans to return the trio of fugitive slaves back to their owner. Phillips and Hofrichter successfully engineer these symbolic roles as powerful men from opposing sides of the stewing war through their cutting exchange that serve as a prelude to the play’s culminating scene.

Throughout this tight, accelerated script, audiences will not have difficulty understanding the morality involved in this play and will likely leave with a fresh reminder that, in their hearts, we often know what is right. Ben Butler serves as an entertaining reminder that we sometimes allow antiquated notions and traditions to interfere with our decisions. This performance not only mixes laughs with stained portions of our country’s history, but it also reminds us that we must take advantage of every moment when the opportunity to improve social equality and moral goodness presents itself.

“The Reading” – Improptu Poem

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“It’s like we’re on

a train,” someone says.

There is four feet

of thin worn carpet

in the northernmost aisle

of this narrow bookstore

Where the local poet,

A published, prolific professor,

Prepares a Power Point

presentation prior to performing.

~Those P’s wrote themselves~

In this single aisle,

A woman has collected

seven seats, six stools

to serve as satisfactory

sitting options squarely secured

~Those S’s were stretches~

for the incoming anonymous

manifest of friends, colleagues

who conduct themselves like

strangers or companions on

a metropolitan commute or

lengthy return to relatives

whom they see less

and less each year.

We’re trained from youth

to be still, civil,

engineered from our childhood

to be polite. Always.

As the bookshop’s car

fills with late arrivals,

We shed our layers

and peel away ourselves

To become more comfortable.

And those who arrive

before the poet’s departure

from real life realize

that they are suddenly

seatless. They’ll see less

with coats draped over

their arms like towels

or plain white bedsheets

that danced in backyards

of our grandparents’ youth.

Tom and Thom’s Christmas Songs and Stories – A Review (Dec. 2018)

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Thirty-seven years ago, First Presbyterian Theater Managing Artistic Director Thom Hofrichter met Tom Didier when they performed Of Mice and Men at the Fort Wayne Civic Theater.  These two friends are now currently starring in an original performance that combines their talent and creativity as they, along with local pianist Tommy Saul, deliver a holiday-themed series of songs, stories, and surprises that celebrate the season.

Didier is a Fort Wayne theater regular with several appearances at the Civic Theatre under his belt, but this is his First Presbyterian Theater debut. Fort Wayne native Saul graduated from Bishop Luers High School and has amassed an impressive  résumé that includes being the resident music director for Three Rivers Music Theatre. Director Hofrichter is completing his 22nd year in his role with the FPT this month. Regular FPT theatergoers are no doubt familiar with Hofricther’s distinct delivery, humor, and directorial standards, and this performance does not disappoint.

.   With festive decorations as a backdrop, the “Tom, Thom, and Tommy Show” is split into two distinct acts, which Hofrichter identifies in his director’s notes as the secular and the spiritual, respectively. The opening series of passages provides a delightful soundtrack of popular songs and stories that audience members are sure to recognize. While Saul remains fixed at the keyboard, Didier and Hofrichter perform solos and duets with engaging renditions of classics such as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”  On his own, Didier stretches from crooner to rocker with exuberant versions of yuletide tunes such as “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Hofrichter intercedes the tunes with dramatic readings from classic Christmas tales by Charles Dickens and Clement Clarke Moore, the author of “The Night Before Christmas.” One of the most stirring portions of the opening act is a mixed-genre interpretation of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” which features Didier and Hofricter offering character-driven vignettes that connect with the theme of the classic song. This was a lovely segue into the second act due to its personal approach.  As the saying goes, this part alone is worth the price of admission by itself.

Hofrichter also notes in the program–and emphasizes to the audience prior to the brief intermission–that the second act is devoted to the heralded “true meaning of Christmas.”  Through poignant slivers of significant verses from the Bible, Hofrichter and Didier bookend the stage with spoken-word and musical companionship to the story of the birth of Christ.  Magically weaved into the original script is a connectivity of this beautiful theme to all viewers, regardless of their individual religious foundation. In other words, there is a distinct sense of humanity embedded in the second act.

Throughout the entire performance, viewers are likely to recall personal memories of the holiday season and reflect on the significance of those memories. The value of attending a review such as this has the same majestic power as all theater has: the opportunity to connect the performance to our own lives. Perhaps in the same was as Ebenezer Scrooge was, we are afforded the opportunity to view our pasts and re-experience those joyous innocent days of childhood when we first learned about the holiday.  With a balanced series of playful, heartbreaking, and spiritual songs and stories, this review is the perfect holiday season experience for audiences of all ages.

“Shaw Out Loud”: The Doctor’s Dilemma (Review)

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There are those who look at a night out at the theater to be an escape from the daily grind, the pressures from work, and the stress that often accompanies political discourse.  Then again, theater often upends this expectation and arrests our attention by offering, within the confines of a couple hours, a glimpse into different perspectives from past eras.  When director Thom Hofrichter selected The Doctor’s Dilemma for this season for First Presbyterian Theater, he did so by purposely connecting a modern-day moral debate with the thoughts of one of history’s finest satirists, George Bernard Shaw.  Though it was originally published over a century ago in England, Shaw’s play posits questions that force the audience to examine their moral compass and challenges its notions of empathy and compassion.

Hofrichter, who is in his 22nd year at FPT as Managing Artistic Director, elected for this performance to be a staged reading, which means that the actors carry scripts with them on stage.  This technique, he notes, allows for Shaw’s dense language and rhetoric to become the focal point. The experienced cast at FPT chosen for this “Shaw Out Loud” performance succeeds in an innovative and enjoyable manner.  

Over the course of five acts, five physicians are faced with the inability to cure all who are sick and must determine the fate of two local individuals.  Boomeranging throughout the play are the contrasting thoughts and perspectives, not of the actors or even the characters, but rather of an entire society, which is even more reason for a contemporary audience to examine Shaw’s suddenly relevant work.

With a dialogue-driven play set up in this manner, the performers become vessels of philosophical debate.  Theatergoers may notice how they will find themselves noticing less and less how each character is holding the very words he or she has been tapped to recite. This cast gracefully directs attention to the attitudes and rhetoric embedded within Shaw’s words.  By the final act, I would be surprised to learn that any viewer was acknowledging the scripts in performer’s hands. With drama, we are conditioned to identify a protagonist and track his or her progress toward becoming a more morally sound individual. Shaw’s play, however, puts this expectation on its proverbial ear and forces the audience to internalize their own beliefs and actions.  This is a testament to the combined efforts of a cast and director who share the notion that the attention should be on the essence of the play’s thematic focus and not the fate of a single character.

The chief man of medicine from the group is Dr. Ridgeon, played by Larry Bower.  Bower excels at capturing Ridgeon’s bedside manner, especially in the presence of the sick and their loved ones.  Kate Black as Dr. Walpole offers many humorous jabs that lighten the weighty plot. Rounding out the quintet of doctors are convincingly aloof performances by Orion Toepler, Brian Ernsberger, and Tom Corron.  Together these five actors succeed in exposing the audience to the disparaging egos of those whose careers hold human lives in the balance.

I particularly enjoyed Billy Hofman as Louis Dubedat in his arguably antagonistic role because he successfully presents valid arguments that eat away at the stuffy doctors and, perhaps, the preconceived notions of the audience.  Finally, Robyn Pasko, in her return after an outstanding performance in FPT’s My Dead Clown earlier this season, submits a stirring monologue toward the plays conclusion that, at least for this reviewer, instigated goosebumps.

While the first- and second acts may appear to spend a little too much time establishing the distinctions among the five doctors, the three remaining acts deliver a powerful payoff.  Among the most impressive features of this cast’s performance is how each one clearly establishes an identifiable trajectory of his or her character’s own morality.

Rae Surface’s set design is appropriately bare with its simple arrangement of metallic props serving as a subtle reminder of the sterile, callous environment often found in a doctor’s office or surgeon’s arena.  This purposeful void further reinforces the attention that Shaw’s dialogue demands.

The mastery of this early 20th century play perhaps lies in its unlikely relevance to a 21st century audience.  Shaw’s cutting language has evolved into the basis for a present-day ethical debate. The performers convincingly shuttle the audience back to 1906 and leave them impassioned about the reality and tragedy of modern morality.

 

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.