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

Standard

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.

Advertisements

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

Standard

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

Standard

“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.  

My Dead Clown (Review)

Standard

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.

Hamlet (Review)

Standard

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” 

Standard

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.