(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. 

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.

Twelfth Night – Theater Review (March 2019)

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There may not be a literal recipe for the perfect story, the perfect date, or the perfect performance, but there are instances when all three can mesh together on a single stage and come extremely close. This season’s installment of William Shakespeare’s plays at First Presbyterian Theater is the bard’s classic comedy Twelfth Night, a tale that centers on a love triangle, involves additional characters who seek companionship, and includes a laughable series of stumbling blocks that may allow or deny these relationships to reach fruition. Throughout the two-hour performance, audiences will enjoy the opportunity to watch love evolve from its origins and witness examples of the great lengths some will reach to find that certain someone.

Ranae Butler and June Rambo co-direct the performance, which includes the unparalleled Shakespearean verse coupled with a number of witty modern-day surprises. Though experienced Shakespeare readers and scholars will no doubt acknowledge the commitment to the script, Butler and Rambo adopt some fresh liberties that will entice viewers of all backgrounds and ages.  

Starring as the lovesick Duke Orsino is Kevin Torwelle, who appeared at First Prez last season co-starring with the theater’s Managing Artistic Director Thom Hofrichter in its January 2018 performance of RED. Once again, Torwelle masterfully displays a man whose journey toward companionship is hardly a seamless process. As Viola, Catherine Eichman submits a dedicated performance as she disguises herself as a man for a majority of the plot. Her whimsical take on the (fe-)male lead keeps the momentum high throughout this upbeat and clever love-triangle plot.  

Meagan Matlock-Vandelaar and Renee Gonzales (as Maria and Feste, repectively) shine in secondary roles within this large cast, especially after the short intermission. Matlock-Vandelaar’s character rallies some of the others and orchestrates a joke on another character in such a convincing manner that it was easy for the audience to believe they were in on the prank.  Gonzales, who was also responsible for the performance’s choreography, offers her stunning vocals in a timely song toward the play’s conclusion. Riley Newsome, who recently appeared this season in FPT’s The Christians, performs the clownish role of Sir Andrew Aguecheek with the robust, calculated energy required by any actor in a similar role found within the Shakespearean comedies. Malvolio, played by veteran actor Scott Rumage, potentially upstages his colleagues with his hilarious contribution as the snobbish servant whose own desires emerge in a comical sequence.

Rae Surface’s simple-natured yet distinguished set design serves as a perfect backdrop to this production, reminding viewers that the language drives the motion of the amusingly convoluted narrative in Shakespeare’s plays. Jeanette Walsh, the costume designer, succinctly drapes the major players in appropriate pieces in order for a particular set of shiny yellow leggings to surprise the audience at a key moment.   

In a comedic play replete with so many moving parts and plot lines, the cast and crew at First Presbyterian Theater have constructed a must-see show that features new faces and local theater mainstays. Surprise your love interest, your spouse, or your friend to an unforgettable production that bridges the past to the present through music and dance while reminding us that the giving and receiving of love pushes us to our most creative and spirited quests in this life.

First Presbyterian Theater has been celebrating its fiftieth season this year and will be hosting a celebration of its 280 productions on Saturday, April 6, 2019.

The Christians – (Review, Jan 2019)

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If you’re reading this review, there exists a high likelihood that you are conscious of a seemingly devastating and divisive trend in America over the past decade or so that has pitted us against each other when topics such as faith and politics arise. Lucas Hnath’s play, The Christians, under the direction of First Presbyterian Theater’s Managing Artistic Director Thom Hofrichter, examines these exact issues and invites the audience to move toward a higher acceptance of one another’s beliefs in hopes of avoiding irreparable harm and division. In his director’s notes, Hofrichter focuses on a line from Pastor Paul during his shocking sermon: “I have a powerful urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance between us insurmountable.” Clearly, the selection of this play is designed to encourage spirited discourse and discourage negativity or the outright abolishment of communication and debate.

Upon entering the theater, audiences are immersed in a church setting. Though there is no direct interaction with the performers, there is a distinct sensation of witnessing the internal and external conflicts among the characters. This unnamed holy house begins its service with a few verses of traditional songs which clearly serve as a welcoming device to that week’s parishioners. Once the music ends, however, the tone of the room drastically shifts based on the shocking rhetoric within the trusted words of the church’s pastor. The shock that the church’s attendees and audience experience force each of us to reflect on our own practices and beliefs, a common theme found in this year’s selections at First Presbyterian Theater.

Starring in this play is Austin Berger, an FPT mainstay who most recently appeared in last season’s production of Faith Healer. As Pastor Paul, Berger’s authentic rendition of a man of faith who is at a moral crossroads exhibits the inner turmoil that countless humans have likely wrestled with throughout history. His character has spent decades building the trust of his flock and associates, and Berger’s genuine performance as the chief pastor of what has become a mega-church provides an opportunity for viewers to understand more closely how even the holiest of us struggles with certain unanswered questions.

Riley Newsome, a graduate from Huntington University, plays the youthful associate Pastor Joshua, a man whose own checkered history is at the crux of the conflict between him and his superior. Newsome’s performance is equally convincing, especially as we see him evolve from the initial shocking sermon toward his role within religion in later scenes. Through long monologues, Newsome presents a firm counterpoint to the positions that Berger’s Pastor Paul creates at the outset.

Filling out the cast are David McCants, as a church elder named Jay; Alora Nichole, as an active congregant named Jenny; and Jennifer Poiry, as Pastor Paul’s wife Elizabeth.  Though a silent character during the church’s public services, McCants offers a stunning amount of impact with his deliberate and grave expressions of concern as a representative of the church’s board of directors. In one of the play’s most poignant scenes, McCants and Berger present one of the play’s most crucial themes: a challenge to traditional thought and practice found within the church. In her role as a faithful parishioner, Nichole does a beautiful job in vocalizing the concerns of Paul’s doubters and, perhaps, many non-believers in a succinct, yet genuinely nervous fashion. Lastly, Poiry’s tremendous exhibition as the loyal wife creates even more depth of conflict for the troubled pastor as the play unfolds.

Though there is no intermission, The Christians offers much to unpack in its ninety- minute running time. The mastery of this story is in its unique personification of our own concerns with communication among one another, and this cast offers a stirring amount of tension as the plot develops. Audience members of strong religious faith can gain just as much as those who have lengthy lists of questions and doubts. While placing the dilemma within the holy walls of a house of God, it seems clear that the play’s central message is not limited to those of faith. More significantly, the challenges and rhetoric exchanged on stage here can bridge our seemingly deteriorating and divided culture.

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.

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.