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.

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Hamlet (Review)

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This year’s Shakespearean installment at First Presbyterian Theater in downtown Fort Wayne features an all-female cast that presents The Bard’s famous vengeful son in a truly refreshing manner.  Readers are probably familiar with the highly publicized footnote that men and boys were the only performers before-, during-, and shortly after Shakespearean-era theater.  Thus, what can any cast–five hundred years after Shakespeare’s death–do to breathe new life into this story of vengeance?  While this highly talented troupe of Hamlet remains true to the Elizabethan era language, the performance simultaneously serves as an appealing alternative to those familiar with the tragedy and as a progressive introduction to Shakespeare for any young audience member.  

I’ll spare you the synopsis for two clear reasons: You either know the play (probably from high school or college), or you don’t know the play.  Members from both of these camps should catch this two-week running because Shakespeare’s words and plotlines have a proclivity to offer more to an audience each and every time. This performance can be a fantastic opportunity to ease the uninitiated into the pinnacle of the classic tragedies.  For those who know the text but have yet to see it performed live, there may not be a better opportunity to have “See a Shakespearean play” struck from a bucket list.  Lastly, for those who have seen a film version, read the play, or viewed a mixed-gender live performance, please note that it is likely that this female cast will still impress and provide something different than ever before.  

Halee Bandt exhibits great range in emotion and presence as young Prince Hamlet from the opening sequence to the final critical moments.  Her masterful handling of multiple dense monologues establishes her among the elite performers to grace this historic stage.  Fort Wayne theater veteran Kate Black excels as Claudius, whose staunchy presence builds the required, obvious tension throughout each scene.  Nancy Kartholl, who recently appeared in Faith Healer as Grace, thrives as Polonius, whose protection of his daughter and whose loyalty to the king serves as a recurring battle with the title character.   Returning to the stage after a decade-long hiatus is June Rambo, whose performance of right-hand-man Horatio was among the most noteworthy of this large cast.  Additionally, newcomer Izzy Chilian proves she belongs in the theater with her impressive secondary role as the prince’s love interest Ophelia. Kira Downey, an admitted fan of Shakespeare, astounds as the Ghost.  Her passion for Shakespeare’s language is apparent and her performance arrests the audience in each of her scenes.  Finally of note, the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are executed quite well by Tala Munsterman and Marissa Steiber, respectively.  The remaining actors of this outstanding twenty-member cast all serve as worthwhile catalysts throughout the play.  

Directed by Thom Hofrichter, Hamlet might be just what American society needs in 2018.  While it may be too soon to state that the play is experiencing a coast-to-coast resurgence, the themes within it could not be more relevant.   In his director’s notes, Hofrichter suggests there may be more to the opening line “Who’s there?” than just the curiosity of a soldier who is not sure if he’s just seen the spirit of a recently deceased king.  The play has existential undertones and guides audiences to find a part of themselves in Hamlet.   The oft-quoted reflection monologue (“To be or not to be…”) potentially encapsulates a second level of self-identity and self-worth when performed by a female.  

Not to be overlooked with this performance is the costume design of Jeanette Walsh.  Through an atypical, erratic pattern, each character’s clothes work well to suggest a profound sense of individuality–a theme that has always been apparent in this play but is even more so in this production.  IPFW theater professor John O’Connell lends his deep resumé as fight director.  Additionally, Rae Surface returns as the technical director and appears as two separate characters.   

This sturdy ensemble cast carries with it the shadows of generations of women who, it stands to reason, were unsung heroes on some level in society.  This direct challenge of theater traditions, especially with the expectations that accompany any of Shakespeare’s titles, sends a clear message that those traditions must stay in the past.  It further serves as a vivid reminder of what had to happen over the past several centuries for the public to have access to Shakespeare’s work performed by a cast of females who range from middle-school aged young ladies to seasoned stage veteran performers.  

 

Review of “Faith Healer” 

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This is my first published review.  It appeared in the October 11, 2017 issue of “Whatzup” in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  I want to thank my colleague Kevin Smith for recommending me and helping me have this opportunity!

For decades Hollywood movies and romance novels have leaned on consumers’ unwavering desire to be entertained without the nuisance of actually thinking. They apply formulaic plot lines and rarely add little more than a short-term distraction with no real substance. Conversely, live theater audiences flock to their seats because they expect to be entertained and to gain perspective. If you prefer the latter of these two groups, you will not be disappointed if you see Faith Healer, currently running in the lower-level theater of First Presbyterian Church.

At some point in life, many people may internally or externally debate whether or not faith ever really means anything or actually has any real impact. These and other questions of the soul and of our existence–and more directly how our faith in others affects each of us–are presented in this performance, which runs until October 21 in downtown Fort Wayne.  

In a drama that also deeply explores issues such as Truth and Shame, Thom Hofrichter’s 2017-2018 season directorial debut at the historic First Presbyterian Theater shifts internally and examines many of life’s toughest questions. Hofrichter chose this drama rather selfishly, he admits in his director’s notes, because he has been a long-time admirer of the language and themes of Irish playwright Brien Friel’s introspective, soul-examining play. Theatergoers are in for a monologue-driven wallop starring three seasoned First Prez veterans.

The three main characters each recall multiple events they experienced together while travelling through Wales, Scotland, and Ireland from the late 1950s to the late 1970s.  

FPT mainstay Austin Berger leads off this performance as Francis Hardy, a likeable but heavily flawed man who has spent his adult life examining his own existence and abilities through decades of performing a one-man travelling exhibition as a self-described “Faith Healer.” Because there is nary a scene where multiple characters interact, Francis (”Frank”) begins this tale by revealing what could very well be his truest self more to a non-existent listener than he apparently ever did to the two people who devoted their lives to him. It is only when the other two characters later present their stories that the audience begins to question if anything he’s said so far is true.  

Co-star Nancy Kartholl, whose FPT resume includes highly esteemed roles such as Vivian Bearing from WIT and Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello,  exquisitely performs the rather tainted and unrefined Grace Hardy. Going against the wishes of her father, she chose a life with Frank, who, when they met, seemed to be her life’s missing puzzle piece. Ironically, Grace, clearly jarred by the events recalled during her lengthy monologue, exhibits anything but what her name might indicate. Kartholl arrests the stage as she achingly dispels information that Frank had either conveniently omitted, forgotten, or perhaps did not actually occur whatsoever. Enter: the audience’s aforementioned role in deciphering the Truth.

The third member of this tragic-laden threesome is Teddy, Frank’s manager, played by a visibly (intentionally) shaken Daniel Bulau. Previous audiences of FPT might recall his stirring performance as the lovable Herman in On Golden Pond. In this role, Bulau’s Teddy, the lone American character of the trio, appears to offer an air of authority at first, but his natural ability as an entertainment manager to rake in naive customers through fast talk and quirky, sage witticisms becomes more and more obvious, forcing the audience to sort out which character has been the most truthful as they have now all recounted contradictory details of the same general memories.

In the final scene Berger as Frank returns as the final witness in this case where the audience is judge and jury. Though omitted here for obvious reasons, trust that some surprises and key insights are in store for the audience who should be thirsty by that point for a satisfying explanation.  

By the way, a subtitle I considered for this review was “In Vino Veritas” because the use of- and memories shared about alcohol adds an arguably unsavory but tremendous function in the audience’s goal in filtering out the truth from each character’s recollections.  

As for the additional production team, it is of note that Jeanette Walsh’s costume designs subtly and cleverly depict what each character has come to be at given points in time. Coupled with the these costume choices, the simple set functions quite nicely for such a series of four dense soliloquies. According to the production notes, Rae Surface (technical director) is no stranger to Fort Wayne theater but is fairly new to First Prez, and the light and sound operator-slash-stage manager is Associate Pastor for Children Bill Lane.  

This play demands your attention and patience. Audiences are bound to have varying opinions of what really happened among these three characters, but that’s among the powerful effects of live theater. In two two-scene acts, this performance lasts a little more than two hours, including one ten-minute intermission.