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Best of 2004/Asbury Park Press

Tom Chesek 12/20/04

Shore Stages in 2004: You Had to Be There

Any attempt to pick the Monmouth-Ocean area's most noteworthy stage presentations of 2004 has its own built-in complications; not the least of which is the fact that most theatrical companies' seasons tend to straddle two different calendar years. Sticking strictly to 2K4, though, an habitual theatergoer can discern some thematic patterns. Government and its discontents was a big motif for both professional and amateur troupes; in contexts both sobering and silly — do we smell the burnt-out embers of an election year? — and somewhere in the parade of corrupt bureaucrats, tinhorn dictators and ineffectual elected officials, a lot of creative people (many of whom have seen public funding for the arts peter out like a Texas dry hole) were blowing off a lot of steam. Beyond that, it was yet another year when the local audience, skewed as it is to an older demographic, went out and had way more wicked fun than those who opted for a movie or TV show in these increasingly content-regulated times. It was, in fact, one of the best years in recent memory on the local boards — and while this correspondent can never lay claim to catching all that there is to see over the course of the year, think of this mere handful of picks as momentary standouts in the midst of a strong ensemble.

THEATRICAL EVENT OF THE YEAR: “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” (New Jersey Repertory Company, March 15-17) This one required a category unto itself, as it wasn't so much a play — or even a “festival” of short plays — as it was a unique opportunity to see what makes the Long Branch-based NJ Rep tick, in a year that brought such strong entries to the downtown Broadway stage as “Lemonade,” “Whores” and “Old Clown Wanted.” A three-evening smorgasbord of dramas, comedies, monologues, skits, songs and surreal stuff centered around the theme of “the American Cowboy” (a favorite topic for company co-founders Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas ),this inaugural offering in a proposed Theatre Brut series of presentations brought together the talents of very nearly every actor, director and playwright who'd ever had a hand in a Rep production. As such, it was a staggeringly successful showcase — and the fact that NJ Rep was able to draw upon all of these creative energies at one time AND sell out the house during some of the iciest, most ornery weather of the year was testament to the level of passion and support this organization inspires in its extended family (another Theatre Brut event, this one built around the theme of “Sacrifice,” is slated for this coming March). Honorable mention: Brookdale Community College's outdoor frolic with Shakespeare's “As You Like It,” a genuine effort to recapture that Globe Theatre vibe; gnats and all.

BEST READING: “Dix Tableaux” (New Jersey Repertory Company, July 26) This was a particularly tough call, as venues from Eatontown Playhouse to the Strand Theatre and Sulli Studios/Black Box of Asbury Park took some interesting gambles and presented some pretty way-out works in progress throughout the year. Maybe it was the presence of famed actress Betsy Palmer here, but this very funny, very touching and VERY strange piece by Mark (“North Fork”) Dunn — set in a series of human historical dioramas at a small-town museum — broke down all resistance with its charming study of a friendship that evolves sensibly in the midst of ridicuous surroundings. Add what's probably the single most satisfying final few moments this correspondent has ever witnessed, and you've got a real crowd-pleaser that's surely as fun to watch as it is expensive to produce.

ONES TO WATCH: Ames Adamson continued to advance his career as master of his stagebound mini-universe; whether as standout member of an ensemble (“Old Clown Wanted”) or simply the whole show (“Circumference of a Squirrel”).


REVIEW: Whoring (and scoring) at NJ Rep
Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/13/04

By TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

It's the sort of thing that an earnest, crusading playwright -- flush with righteous outrage and intoxicated by sugarplum visions of Pulitzers -- would have a field day with.

Three American nuns and a Catholic lay worker are kidnapped, raped and murdered by Salvadoran national guardsmen some 20 years ago. The subsequent denials and cover-ups implicate a senior guard commander as well as the defense secretary himself, a couple of characters currently enjoying a comfortable upper-middle-class existence in these United States.


WHORES
Through Nov. 14
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
$30
(732) 229-3166


Although it never attained the cultural touchstone status of, say, Zsa Zsa Gabor slapping a beat cop, this appalling and relatively obscure real-life story continues to play out in a symphony of legal stymies and bureaucratic stonewalling.

So what in the world was Lee Blessing, award-winning author of "A Walk in the Woods" and head of Rutgers University's playwriting program, thinking when he used this tragic event as the basis for his wicked and wacky satire "Whores?" And why do audiences find it so hilarious -- with this correspondent even regarding it as the funniest show he's seen all year?

To call it a guilty pleasure doesn't even begin to address it; think about it too much, and you can almost picture the laff-riot gags being penned with the blood of innocents.

Then again, guilt doesn't play a huge part in this new, improved, 33-percent funnier version of "Whores," the play now in its statewide premiere run at New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch. The central character of the deposed Central American general -- a man known here only as Raoul Raoul Raoul de Raoul -- is a proud yet pathetic sort whose shoulders have never sagged from the weight of guilt; only the gilt-edged epaulets on the ridiculous dress uniform he continues to sport in his South Florida exile.

The action, set during the general's stateside trial for atrocities, plays out inside Raoul's head, a bizarre place that looks remarkably like a standard-issue motel room (Jo Winiarski's appropriately functional set design melts into Third World decrepitude at its edges) and features a running commentary from the martyred Archbishop Romero. It's a place peopled by what, for lack of a better term, could be called the spirits of the four murdered women -- a group of souls that have been reimagined by Raoul as a quartet of French whores.

As made manifest by Lea Eckert, Carol Todd, Lily Mercer and Corinne Edgerly, the nuns and whores are just a couple of aspects of the same multifaceted characters. These smart, strong, sexy players don full habits, severe business suits and thongs to transform themselves into everything from United States attorneys and TV network executives, to Raoul's own wife and kids. Slipping in and out doors and windows -- in and out of character -- the actresses effect lightning-fast costume changes (Todd in particular often seems to be in two places nearly at once), show off their dance moves (Eckert's formidable go-go technique would brighten the stage of any fine Jersey Shore establishment) and continually break down the wall between performer and audience, via a series of 'candid' talks that very quickly win over the crowd.


STAFF PHOTO: TANYA BREEN

Carol Todd and Jonathan Cantor are among the cast of "Whores," being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Savvy performance

This would appear at first to put Jonathan Cantor (performing but a single role as Raoul) at a marked disadvantage, and at first his broad assumed accent and bellowing, unmelodious delivery make it difficult for theatergoers to find a point of access into the character whose head we're ostensibly touring. It's not long, however, before this savvy performer manages to find a way to get the audience on the side of the despicable little tinhorn despot -- particularly in a hilarious monologue wherein the general confesses his longstanding dream of doing stand-up comedy in Miami, addressing the onlookers while juggling his stress-relieving "worry balls." Feeding off the energy of an enthusiastic opening night crowd, Cantor was obviously having an enormous amount of fun at this point, and by the time he brought down the house with a giddy victory dance, the actor had imbued the murderous martinet with a great deal of high-wattage charisma.

All of which leads back to the matter of how we can wind up laughing with a man who's responsible for the brutal killings of thousands of men, women and children -- including, of course, those ill-fated missionaries. While there's a good bit of evocative language describing the final hours of the four women (along with some pre-show expository comments from NJ Rep co-founder Gabor Barabas), it becomes evident very early on that the author's treatment of their story is way more satiric than sanctimonious -- particularly when the play opens on the general starring in a private porn-flick scenario that features an eager-to-please young nun. Blessing and director John Pietrowski spice the proceedings with a bit of striptease, lapdancing, masturbation and salty sailor-talk. While all of this sounds pretty dreadful on paper, it works, with its own skewed logic, to put across the very serious points that underpin the script (note to all you younger viewers who have been avoiding live theater: The old folks are having a lot more naughty fun than you).

This is the fourth and finest co-production of NJ Rep in cahoots with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (to whose home stage in Madison this show moves upon completion of its Long Branch engagement), and PTNJ's Pietrowski has done a great job drawing the audience into Blessing's difficult piece -- a still-unpublished play that is actually much different from the two-act script that was seen in a reading at NJ Rep just last year (a performance in which Eckert, Edgerly and Mercer participated). It's been shortened by some 30 minutes into a breakneck-paced, intermission-free series of blackouts, becoming even more savagely funny in the process and hammering home its bitter lessons with a sure satirist's touch that's rarely seen on American stages these days. (Compare it to Italian playwright Dario Fo's "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," onstage at the Algonquin Arts Theatre for one more weekend).


TWO RIVER TIMES
DRAMA, RELIGION, POLITICS, MURDER, SEX, COMEDY:

NJ Rep's “Whores” just another day at the theater

by Philip Dorian

 

            Put aside the reasonable supposition that Lee Blessing titled his play based on the murder of four American women (three of them nuns) in El Salvador Whores just because he could. And don't worry that those women are portrayed as sex workers; they are not. There's a traditional hooker or two in the play, as well as some uninhibited porno divas, and the nuns also appear; but, while they're all played by the same four actresses, the one group is not the other.

            Using the 1980 murders as a springboard, Blessing blisters the history of United States diplomatic relations with Central American dictatorships. A former dictator, now living in comfort in Florida, is on trial for the slayings. The action takes place in his mind, where justification dwells and eroticism rules. (The former drives the play's conflict; the latter its commercialism.) The particular Central American country is unnamed, but as Blessing amusingly suggests, they all merge in our minds anyway. And the generalissimo taking the heat is named Raoul Raoul de Raoul – as generic as it gets.

             To paraphrase Pogo, I have seen the whores and they is us. The real bad girl is the policy of supplying financial support and weapons to dictators, including these particular weapons of Mass destruction. Employing non-linear storytelling, off-the-wall imagery and unconventional staging, the playwright makes a case for his ungenerous political viewpoint. Ungenerous, but not unsupportable. Even the ‘guns don't kill people; people kill people' crowd must allow that guns shouldn't be handed out indiscriminately. Raoul and his ilk have a wanton disregard for human life.

            Raoul (Jonathan Cantor) is essentially alone with his thoughts in designer Jo Winiarski's excellently rendered motel room set. Clearly the four dead women who invade his memory (not his conscience – he hasn't any) are not really there, nor are the hookers or the prosecutors. His wife and his teenage son and daughter might be in real time, but it doesn't matter. With the tepid exception of the wife, they all make a strong case against Raoul. ‘I didn't know what was going on' is his one-note defense.

            Cantor plays the bad guy; he's the only male, and he's terminally horny. He's sat upon (straddled, if you must know) and danced with, accused and interrogated. He's sexually inadequate, even in his fantasies (some fantasies!), and he does a five-minute stand-up comedy riff with humor based on where he plants his hand (don't ask). The actor's Latino accent is hit-or-miss, but that flaw pales beside the range of activity he covers. It's a strong performance.

            Cantor has the advantage of four gifted co-stars, all in multiple roles, each a major contributor and none even a mite slack. Corinne Edgerly plays a pious nun, a potty-mouth porno movie director and Raoul's wife and sometime interpreter. She's sympathetic as the first, scary as the second, and dithering as the third. Lily Mercer is a stunning blonde who tangos seductively and whose striking appearance brings home the contrast between the secular and practical concerns of the play.     

             The women contemplate a TV movie about their murder (there actually was one), and Miou-Miou (Lea Eckert) hopes they get someone cute to play her. Well, NJ Rep one-upped them by casting Eckert as the original. As the youngest and the only none-nun, her soliloquy about the killing field is heart-tugging, even as she remains fresh and winsome. In a gem of an inside-show biz scene, Miou-Miou and Josette (Carol Todd) argue about addressing the audience directly. It's very entertaining and ends with Todd explaining the actor's dilemma, and she couldn't be better. These two also play Raoul's obnoxious kids, and they ace those roles as well.

 Director John Pietrowski, aided by Jill Nagle's snappy lighting, engineers the many time and place transitions well. Credit him also with ensuring that the abrupt changes in mood – from somber and pious to raucous and bawdy and back – are always distinct, never jarring.

Blessing, whose A Walk in the Woods holds up yet today even though its cold war dialogue is history, uses a similar technique in Whores. By not identifying the country or its dictator, he might have another lasting work on his hands. Scenes with near-naked women don't hurt that cause, although a reference to Lt. Calley and My Lai does. And even at ninety minutes there's repetition. It's said that written works generally improve with pruning and condensing. Given enough time and editing, you'd end up with only a sentence or two in, say, this review (okay, okay). Be that as it may, there is one line in Whores that says it all. Eschewing responsibility for the slaughter of innocents, Raoul de Raoul addresses the American court (the audience): “You sent us rifles and nuns,” he says. And…blackout.



Lee Blessing's Enticing Whores is as Provocative as its Title

Whores
Lea Eckert and Jonathan Cantor
Lee Blessing's Whores is an exceptionally provocative and promising new play. It is unusually theatrical and ribald for a play which engages the mind with strong political and social commentary.

Whores was originally produced in a two act version at a regional theatre in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. The New Jersey Repertory Theatre production is the premiere of the revised one act version. It is still a work in progress. However, it is already a superior work that can be highly recommended.

In 1980 in El Salvador, four American women, three Maryknoll nuns and a lay missionary worker were abducted, brutally raped and shot dead by soldiers of El Salvador's National Guard. It seems certain that these women were targeted for death because it was believed that they were aiding Communist insurgents. A cover-up ensued, but months later, bowing to pressure from the United States government and with the use of evidence developed by the F.B.I., five soldiers were convicted of the crime and sentenced to thirty years imprisonment.

Evidence developed over the years, led to a U.N. Truth Commission report that concluded that the Minister of Defense General Jose Guillermo Garcia and National Guard Commander Colonel Eugenio Vide Casanova participated in the cover-up. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that Casanova, who would be promoted to General and Defense Minister, had actually ordered the abductions and murders. The 12-year insurgency which resulted in at least 75,000 El Salvadoran deaths came to an end with a peace agreement in 1992.

By 1989, General Casanova had quietly left El Salvador and settled down in a posh Miami suburb, the beneficiary of permanent residency status (his wife and children had preceded him). However, the families of the slain American women, employing Federal statutes, brought a civil action against Casanova and General Garcia, who had also settled comfortably in the Miami area. The families charged these men with responsibility for the wrongful deaths of the four women.

It is at this point that the long one act Whores begins. The entire play takes place in the mind of Casanova surrogate General Raoul de Raoul. We are in Raoul's Miami suburban home during the period of his civil trial. Raoul is having fevered dreams and fantasies. These dreams and fantasies are filled with self justification, a cold eyed view of American foreign policy, sexual panic and obsession, and fear for his future. Four actresses interact with Raoul in his fevered brain. They instantly morph from one role to another with the roles often overlapping. They mostly play images of the four raped and murdered women, and prostitutes and porno actresses. Among them, they also play Raol's wife and children, lawyers, television executives, themselves and others.

Whether or not one agrees with his political, religious and social positions, Lee Blessing makes a very strong case for his views. Blessing is unflinching in his hatred of what he sees as an immoral America whose foreign policy is to support, train and arm vicious dictators who slaughter and terrorize their own people. Raoul speaks directly to us, his American audience:

... You don't prejudge me. How can you? We're on the same side. World democracy is a team effort, right? And you own the team. We don't complain. On the contrary, we spend our lives reading the fine print of your foreign policy. We read between the lines, too. "Lift up the world's poor" you say. But we know you're not serious. There are far too many of them. "Manage the poor". That's what you mean. "Keep them from rising up, from moving around-from moving to Florida". And we do. We keep them poor, we keep them ignorant, we keep them off your back. And what thanks do we get? You pretend we're not even doing this for you. And if anything goes wrong, then it's our fault. We're bad leaders, we're repressive, we don't value human life. And when we're through, and we've dedicated our lives to managing the unmanageable, so you don't have to soil your hands, do you let us retire in peace, under the Florida sun? Do you even once say, "Thank you. General de Raoul, we couldn't have done it without you"? No. You set your courts on us, as though we were common criminals. We should have known. You sent us rifles and nuns. You are the least consistent people on the face of the earth.

The amoral, murderous Raoul is rendered as sadly ordinary as many an immigrant parent when one of his spoiled suburban American children tells him and Mrs. de Raoul:

No, you listen to me! You and Dad just don't get it, do you? You're immigrants. Your whole job was to get us to America, and into good schools and good careers and then die. You did it all just fine, except the dying part. You completely screwed up the dying part!
As impressed as I am with this play, I must note that it is most explicit in its language as well as its depiction of sexuality. It is also critical of theology. Your reaction to Josette's response to Raoul's asking her why she calls him "Daddy" should give you a good indication as to whether or not Whores is for you:
I was a Catholic nun! Every man is Daddy for me! For Christ's sake, think about it. What's the Holy Trinity all about? I married my Daddy! A nun is the ultimate passive entity. I am what I submit to. Daddy, I submit to you, to the glory that is salvation and to the evil that takes my life-...

Jonathan Cantor does terrific work as Raoul. Despite his evil acts and sexual perversity (or is it because of them?), he emerges as a very understandable and convincing everyman. While much credit must go to Lee Blessing and director John Pietrowski for this, it is Cantor who must deliver the goods and he does.

The women do solid work in very difficult roles requiring split second transitions in style, character and accent. The strongest performance may be that of Corinne Edgerly (Carmencita) who has the more mature roles, including Mrs. de Raoul. However, Lea Eckert (Miou-Miou), Carol Todd (Josette), and Lilly Mercer (Angelique) are exemplary.

Director John Pietrowski has a play of true value here. Although the work of author and director still needs some fine tuning, Pietrowski has done an excellent job, solidly putting across the complex, exceedingly difficult to stage Whores.

It is not immediately or consistently clear whether all of the action is within the mind of Raoul. Pre-curtain, the audience was informed that the play in its entirety is a dream of Raoul. On balance, this is useful. However, as there are several between scene pauses in the early going, the play at first lacks the flow of a dream. As Whores progresses, the dreams became far more continuous, and the conceit works better. For me, the play plays best with Raoul in conscious control of his fantasy life. Also, as the trial progresses in a linear fashion, I think that Whores works best as a series of fantasies.

There is no nudity, although the script would seem to require it. I have been told that it is Blessing's preference. In any event, the seemingly semi-nude actress in the opening scene should not turn toward us as it seems odd after the initial illusion is established. I would also suggest that the porno film scene late in the play be moved to the end in order to bring Raoul's fantasies full circle. As it now stands, it misleadingly sends out a signal that the play is ending.

I cannot help but observe that Whores would be a terrific vehicle for Al Pacino.


An Interview with Lee Blessing About
Whores

October 7, 2004 - November 14, 2004
NJ Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch (732) 229-3166

The New Jersey Repertory Company presents the New Jersey premiere of Whores written by Lee Blessing. The play is being co-produced with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey and is directed by John Pietrowski, the Artistic Director of Playwrights Theatre.

"The heart of the play is about American foreign policy," said Lee Blessing. "It's highly critical of American foreign policy in the '80s."

Enter the depraved mind of Raoul Raoul de Raoul, a corrupt Central American general haunted by the four nuns his death squad murdered - a twisted landscape where everything and everyone can be bought and sold. Before his current trial, Raoul Raoul de Raoul was a dictator, but he cannot remember the name of the country - and his victims keep turning into different women: TV producers, actresses in a porn movie, prosecuting attorneys, dance teachers, his children, and his wife. What's more, his standup act at a Florida comedy club is 'knocking them dead,' but he never tells a joke.

Whores is a brutally funny, frank and provocative new play. Inspired by the true story of the murder of three American nuns and a Catholic lay worker in El Salvador, Blessing sets his fictitious story in the deranged mind of a general from an 'unnamed' Central American country who is being tried in civil court in the United States after receiving political asylum. The play examines the moral and political implications of what happens when America projects its ideals beyond its shores and winds up creating an environment that breeds corruption and violence. Through dark humor and heightened theatricality, Whores takes aim at the media, our legal system, and politics, and asks the question - what is true obscenity - the general's perverted fantasies, or the murder and subsequent betrayal of innocents through political expediency? The play is especially timely, for after almost twenty-five years since the murders, the story is in the news again.

This play was originally commissioned by Florida Stage. Lee Blessing said that the company found the work to be too controversial. It then made its debut at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival. Blessing, known for politically charged works like A Walk In The Woods had three straight plays commissioned by three different theaters - none of whom premiered the plays. All three plays have since premiered elsewhere.

"When you commission a writer, that writer will write it the way he or she writes it," explained Lee Blessing. "And you may not like it or it may not fit the image you want to project."

Blessing currently heads the graduate playwriting program at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He is fortunate to have reached the level where he is almost certain to have a theater interested in premiering his work if the original commissioning theatre declines. This, he admits, is a situation many of his students may not find themselves in - especially if they follow his lead and write topical or controversial work. He tells his students to be "thematically ambitious" but recognizes that can be difficult in these times.

"It's very hard to get produced if you're writing controversial right now," said Blessing. "A lot of regional theatres are scared of being controversial and turning off their subscription base. Times are tough and they read their subscription base as being more conservative and less tolerant of controversy."

Blessing believes that when the public gets polarized with its political views, as it did in the '60s, there is a rise in the amount of political theatre. It is during conservative times like this that playwrights must rise up and be heard.

"You can write a play much quicker than you can make a film," he explained. "Theatre is in a much better position to respond to the here and now. Theatre promises a very different perspective - it allows you to say more problematic things. It can talk about politics as no one else can and can challenge people to get involved.

"The impact of the arts has ebbs and flows. There are times when artists have a lot to say and people listen and other times when they don't listen as much."

Plays by Lee Blessing have won Drama Desk award, The American Theater Critics Circle Award, the L.A. Drama Critics Award, The Great American Play Award, The Humanitas Award and the George and Elisabeth Marton Award among others. He has been nominated for Tony and Olivier awards, as well as for the Pulitzer Prize. In January 2005, George Street Playhouse (New Brunswick), who staged A Walk In The Woods last season, will present a new work from Blessing entitled The Winning Streak.

-Gary Wien

'Whores' on Broadway: (Street)walking with Mr. Lee at NJ Rep
Published in the Asbury Park Press 10/08/04
By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

Don't get too upset over the title of this article: The cultural renaissance of downtown Long Branch, spearheaded in large part by the New Jersey Repertory Company, continues ever so deliberately apace -- and the only "Whores" on display at NJ Rep are the titular characters from the season-opening production, now onstage at the professional troupe's Lumia Theatre homebase.


WHORES
A play by Lee Blessing
New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; performances continue through Nov. 14
(732) 229-3166


Not that the play is really about whores, although there are several ladies of the evening represented onstage. It's also about nuns, and the nuns look an awful lot like the whores. That makes sense because they are the same characters -- except they may not be true characters in and of themselves, but rather fantasy figments from the fractured yet fertile imagination of an egotistic, opportunistic male character.

Some explanation is in order. "Whores" is a five-actor play from the pen of the renowned Lee Blessing, who heads up the playwriting program at Rutgers University's prestigious Mason Gross School of the Arts. He's best known for "A Walk in the Woods," the oft-revived Cold War reverie that's become a universally hailed study in the ways that humans talk over their conflicts.

The Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated Blessing (whose play "The Winning Streak" initiates its East Coast premiere at New Brunswick's George Street Playhouse in January) took as his inspiration for this surreal comedy a very real tragedy that occurred during Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Calling "Whores" a "political play and one of moral outrage," New Jersey Repertory executive producer Gabor Barabas said the script was "inspired by a true event, the murder of four innocent Catholic women from the heartland of America, on a mission of mercy in El Salvador. . . . more than 20 years later, they are largely forgotten and justice has still not been served."


TANYA BREEN photo

The cast of Lee Blessing's "Whores" includes (from left) Carol Todd, Lea Eckert, Jonathan Cantor, Corrine Edgerly and Lily Mercer.
In an e-mail regarding the production, Barabas observed that "whenever we align ourselves with repressive governments because of political expediency, there is a great danger that we may be sowing the seeds for unleashing destructive forces that are in conflict with the very ideals that we are trying to promote."

In this work that's been variously branded both "brutally funny" and "very serious," Blessing presents a portrait of a tinhorn dictator by the name of General Raoul Raoul de Raoul -- sort of a standard-issue Latin American generalisimo of the type that used to be overthrown weekly by TV's "Mission: Impossible" team. He's a man whose shoulders have never sagged beneath the weight of guilt, merely the gilt-edged epaulets of his uniforms.

While engaged in an endeavor to gain asylum within the friendly borders of the United States, the exiled leader (played here by Jonathan Cantor) is more or less "haunted" by manifestations of the slain nuns and missionaries. The four women (portrayed by NJ Rep company members Lea Eckert, Corinne Edgerly, Lily Mercer and Carol Todd) appear not only as "themselves," but as the aforementioned whores, a cadre of network execs and a number of other personas. It's an aspect of the script that's intrigued the quartet of featured actresses, most of whom reprise their roles from NJ Rep's original presentation of "Whores" as one of the troupe's script-in-hand readings.

According to Lily Mercer, "It's a lot of fun to take on multiple roles, but the most fun, or the biggest challenge, is taking on the General himself."

"Even though these four women and the various roles they play are figments of General Raoul's twisted imagination, none of the characters are victims," Corinne Edgerley agreed. "They constantly get the upper hand."

Lea Eckert (who co-starred in the 2003 smash "The Good Daughter") maintains that Raoul "creates multifaceted superwomen who can give him what he is lacking. He wants to possess them (and), of course, he fails miserably."

According to director John Pietrowski of the Madison-based Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey (whose stage will present this production after its Long Branch run), the women in Blessing's play "are not concepts, they are mental forces driving Raoul to confront himself."

This is the fourth collaboration between Pietrowski's PTNJ and the folks at NJ Rep, a happy symbiosis that began a few seasons back with "Big Boys" and most recently spotlighted "The Circumference of a Squirrel."

And this being New Jersey, some observers have worked hard to draw some pretty threadbare parallels between this show and the likes of "GoodFellas," particularly a certain dream-sequence-obsessed HBO series about mafia life. It's an idea that's whacked in a businesslike fashion by Lee Blessing.

"It's easy to have 'The Sopranos' on the brain these days, particularly in northern New Jersey, but I don't think that 'Whores' much evokes that show. It's a play about international relations, first and foremost," the author said. "One might see a useful analogy perhaps between the way criminal organizations work and the way our State Department works with some Third World nations . . . that people get away with their crimes and feel the right to move in among us is definitely something that both presentations have in common."

Having arrived with a pair of preview performances yesterday, "Whores" concludes its preview engagement tonight and opens in earnest with an 8 p.m. show tomorrow and a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee. The play then continues its Long Branch run with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 14. For reservations and other information, call NJ Rep at (732) 229-3166.


Politics, and other strange bedfellows
Published in the Asbury Park Press 9/19/04

Two River Theatre Co., NJ Rep stage a cool-weather coup

By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

A scathingly slapstick indictment of the process that perverts American ideals, when said ideals are shoe-horned into cultural settings that are arguably ill-prepared to receive them. A bureaucratic burlesque that hangs overzealous enforcers of homeland security by a noose of their own transcribed natterings. A pair of bitterly funny works that were inspired by some decidedly unfunny events -- a bombing in a public space, and the cold-blooded killing of a group of nuns.

With that inkiest of all black comedies -- the Race for the White House 2K4 -- lumbering through its hopelessly drawn-out third act, it's probably no coincidence that the Shore's two major professional theater companies have each opted to inaugurate their 2004-2005 season with a couple of sociopolitical satires that really put the tasers to such institutions as cops, judges, the media and other fearless leaders.

So, as the nation patiently awaits the appearance of some Great Pumpkin figurehead (while perhaps realizing too late that we were once again tricked out of our treats), things are about to get really interesting on the local boards.

While 2005 is slated to be the year that the Two River Theatre Company finally fulfills its destiny -- moving into a custom-constructed Red Bank showplace venue that bears its name -- the acclaimed troupe will present the first few offerings of the season on their longtime "temporary" home stage at Manasquan's Algonquin Arts Theatre. Overseen by executive producer Robert Rechnitz and artistic director Jonathan Fox, it's an ambitious series that starts on Sept. 30 with a new production of a controversial favorite by Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo.

Based on a 1969 bombing that killed and injured dozens of people in Milan -- and the officially-ruled "suicide" of a leftist suspect in police custody (the detainee perished when he plunged four stories from an office at police HQ) -- "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" has become a calling card for Signore Fo (who, despite the musty mantle of the Nobel laureate, has his roots in the down 'n dirty world of satirical cabaret revues). The play's enormous impact (more than half a million people saw it in its original run) resulted in the eventual exoneration of the unfortunate anarchist and his incarcerated compadres, and led to Fo himself being barred from public performance - not in his native Italy, but in the Reagan-era United States.

Running through Oct. 17, "Anarchist" (for which the author incorporated actual transcripts from the 1970 police investigation to expose "hilarious gaps in logic and blatant abuses of power") fuses its creator's own instincts for both timeless clowning and edgy topicality, for a piece that seems to retain its comic energy even as it displays new colors through the prism of current events.

Two River Theatre Company returns in 2005 with a new production of Martin McDonagh's 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane' (Jan. 20-Feb. 6), a powerful mix of whimsical humor and jarring dramatics that was seen a couple of seasons back at Monmouth University. Pamela Glen's "The Syringa Tree' (March 24-April 10) is a tale of forbidden love in Apartheid-era South Africa that features a single actress performing some two dozen parts. Finally, TRTC christens its new home stage with a revival of "You Can't Take It With You" (May 5-22), the golden-age Broadway ensemble smash by Kaufman and Hart that's retained its power to win over audiences via cheerful eccentricity and sheer joie de vivre.

As always, the Two River people will be offering a variety of show times and pricing structures for all shows on their schedule. Subscriptions for the 2004-2005 season (featuring some deep discounts for theatergoers under age 26) are available from Two River Theatre Company at (732) 345-1400. The company also offers special senior and group discounts and specially enhanced performances for visually and hearing-impaired audiences. More information can be had by calling the box office hotline or logging on to www.trtc.org.


Meanwhile, up on Broadway in Long Branch, New Jersey Repertory Company kicks off a new season of productions beginning on Oct. 7, with the state premiere of "Whores." The play by acclaimed author Lee Blessing (whose best known work "A Walk in the Woods" continues to resonate far beyond its Cold War-era origins) marks the relatively young company's fourth collaboration with fellow professional group Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey -- and, like so many of the troupe's mainstage offerings at their Lumia Theatre home, this production began in earnest as one of their Monday-evening series of script-in-hand readings.

Running through Nov. 14, "Whores" is set largely within the twisted psyche of one General Raoul Raoul de Raoul -- exiled dictator of some unnamed Central American republic, candidate for political asylum in America, and a man apparently haunted by the quartet of nuns and missionaries who were brutally slaughtered by his goon squads. The female characters recur throughout in a variety of guises, including the titular ladies of pleasure -- think Neil Simon's "Jake's Women" as interpreted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with just a dash of "GoodFellas" at the end.

NJ Rep resumes its schedule in 2005 with the world premiere of Mary Fengar Gail's fantasy-tinged meditation on art and love, "Touch of Rapture" (Jan. 13-Feb. 20). Another world premiere, Ruth Wolff's "Aviators" (March 31-May 8) presents a story of an academic couple whose relationship is tested by the appearance of a mysterious young woman. The long-awaited East Coast premiere of Richard Strand's comedy "Ten Percent of Molly Snyder" (May 19-June 26) uses a trip to the dreaded DMV to embark upon a Kafka-cum-Serling bureaucratic daymare. The world premiere of Vincent Sessa's "A Child's Guide to Innocence" (July 7-Aug. 14) follows three generations of an Italian-American family over the course of a half century.

Still another world premiere derived from a script-in-hand reading, Dan Dietz's "Tilt Angel" (Oct.14-Nov. 20) is a "blues-infused fairy tale" about a Southern family coming to uncertain terms with their matriarch's untimely death and uneasy transition to the afterlife. Yet to be confirmed is another new play scheduled to be presented from August 25 through October 2 of next year.


Theater Notes: Hollywood or 'Bust'
Published in the Asbury Park Press 9/03/04

Film projects are a wrap at NJ Rep

By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

While Labor Day weekend is traditionally something of a siesta for most area stages, the actors, directors, playwrights, producers and tech types who make up the quasi-official stock company at New Jersey Repertory have been laboring overtime to preserve some of their very special stuff on the much-maligned (by theater-snob types) medium of celluloid.


THE NEW JERSEY REPERTORY COMPANY
179 Broadway, Long Branch
(732) 229-3166
www.njrep.org

A close look at the actor bios in any of the NJ Rep mainstage or script-in-hand productions is enough to show that there's no real 'anti-cellulite' snobbery in effect among these working actors of the tri-state area -- and any longtime NJ Rep subscriber who also happens to follow the NYC-based "Law & Order" franchise on TV has surely been able to place a few familiar faces among the shows' grand parade of suspects, witnesses and victims.

Currently in post-production -- having gone before the lens in mid-July -- the independent short film "Bust" is an ambitious little feature with a marked NJ Rep pedigree. The capsule crime drama was scripted by one of the most familiar faces in the Long Branch-based troupe -- Dana Benningfield, who also co-stars as a Russian prostitute. The actress -- seen most recently on the stage of NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre as a young mom tempted into an extramarital affair in Mike Folie's sweetly sour comedy "Lemonade" -- has never let her leading-lady good looks interfere with her choices as an accomplished character player ("North Fork") or as a promising new director. She appears in her own tale with a lead actor who undoubtedly rings a few bells with TV watchers: Dan Lauria, the dad from the old "Wonder Years" series -- here in the somewhat uncharacteristic role of a "tough-as-nails detective investigating a mob-related murder."

The cast under the direction of Maplewood native Duncan M. Rogers also features Rep regular Philip Lynch, an actor who's lit up the Lumia with some stellar work in both leads ("The Adjustment") and slightly surreal support ("Spain"). This linchpin of the NJ Rep family co-starred in the company's very first mainstage offering, and appeared alongside director Rogers in the troupe's inaugural script-in-hand reading, to boot. Rogers, meanwhile, has busied himself as an indie filmmaker; having completed a couple of short features -- "The Able's House is Green" and "The Reader," the latter starring Tony winner Elizabeth Franz.


New Jersey Repertory Company members Philip Lynch and Dana Benningfield are featured in a scene from 'Bust,' one of several short film projects now in the works from NJ Rep regulars.
Long Branch residents who get an opportunity to view the finished film (plans are in effect to submit the work to several film festivals, and even to pitch it as a possible TV pilot) might spot yet another familiar face in a cameo -- city police Sergeant Frank Rizzuto, who served the production as a Law Enforcement Consultant. He's joined by several other community businesses and entities -- including the Long Branch Arts Council, Siperstein's, Amy's Omelette House, Casey Jones Restaurant, Wilson's Ice Cream, Island Grille and Attilio's -- who lent a helping hand to the homegrown opus.

Also pitching in on the project were a number of NJ Rep stalwarts -- from production manager Rose Riccardi to craft services coordinator Lina Moccia -- who have been integral members of the extended family headed by company founders Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas. This clannish vibe was perhaps never more apparent than in "My Rifle, My Pony and Me," a three-day festival of short works (all of them built around the theme of the American Cowboy) presented last winter as the first in the troupe's projected series of Theatre Brut productions -- with the Brut-al weather failing to stop this sold-out showcase from assembling a virtual 'Who's Who' of regional creative and performing talent; a homecoming for practically everyone who ever made a contribution to this still-young company's already formidable legacy. The only thing this observer disliked about "My Rifle" was that all of the playlets were presented exactly one time only, ostensibly never to be seen again -- until now. With the formation of NJ Rep Film Brut Production Company, director Eric Stannard is getting underway with plans to film several of the cowboy-inspired one-acts for posterity. While the segments have yet to be cast or even selected, there's been mention made of two pieces that originally involved the talents of Dana Benningfield: the Folie monologue "There's a 200 Foot Cowboy in Istanbul" (in which she starred as a disillusioned but sadly seductive tobacco company exec) and Dickie Nessinger's 'Harvest Moon,' which she directed as a gently hilarious tall-tale slice of magical realism.

New Jersey Repertory inaugurates its new season this October with a production of Lee ("A Walk in the Woods") Blessing's sociopolitical satire "Whores."


Old Clown Wanted Provides Rewards for Adventuresome Theatergoers

The enterprising New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch is presenting the American premiere of Old Clown Wanted by internationally acclaimed Romanian (expatriated to France since 1987) playwright Matei Visniec. This absurdist work is being presented in a well acted and directed production which serves to introduce an intriguing writer new to American audiences, and makes for a thought provoking and rewarding evening of theatre.

An apercu on the roots of Visniec's absurdist style is needed here. In the post Holocaust era of the late 1940s and 1950s, an avant-garde school of playwriting emerged from Europe which had a most significant impact on our theatre. In his seminal work of theatre analysis, Martin Esslin deftly defined it as The Theatre of the Absurd. Among its earliest practitioners were Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet. Harold Pinter brought an English sensibility to this style, Tom Stoppard brought a cheerier viewpoint, and Edward Albee uniquely among American playwrights found in it a means for expressing his anomie.

To quote from Esslin's brilliant analysis, absurdist theatre mirrors a world in which there is no meaningful communication, in which man cut off from his roots flounders in a void bereft of all certainty. With its meaningless plots, repetitive dialogue and dramatic non sequiturs, it is the artistic expression of the philosophy of Albert Camus that life is inherently absurd, as well as the theatrical incarnation of dreams.

Old Clown Wanted is a classic throwback to the pure absurdist style of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot right down to its rich vein of humor. Not so strangely at one point in composing this review, I erroneously wrote Old Men Waiting in lieu of its correct title.

Set in a nightmarish, windowless, misshapen anteroom in Italy, the play depicts three elderly men, old friends as it turns out, armed with suitcases for their props, who arrive singly in response to a flyer advertising Old Clown Wanted. As no one appears to interview them, it is not even clear whether any job is actually available.

Viewed as a dream depicting man's fear of competition, joblessness, rejection, obsolescence, poverty, helplessness and death, the ensuing, non-linear events brilliantly depict the logic of dreams. However, you may well find for yourself a different prism from which to view and interpret this play.

An added edge here is the fact that all of the characters are artists, the most insecure and abused professionals on earth.

Old Clown Wanted
Ugo Toppo, Al Mohrmann, Ames Adamson

Three excellent actors form a smooth ensemble. The first arrival, Niccolo (we may view him as the dreamer), the most insecure of the three, is played by Ames Adamson. Niccolo is the centerpiece of the play and of the hilarious extended second act set piece in which the three depict routines from their glory days as circus clowns. Adamson is appropriately hilarious, ridiculous and poignant in a performance that evokes memories of the great Bill Irwin. Adamson would be even more poignant if he did not let his youthfulness show through. However, in total, his is a very superior performance.

Next on stage is Filippo, a bullying, domineering type, played by Al A. Mohrmann. His fine performance always keeps Filippo's insecurity near at hand, just below his blustering surface.

Lastly, we have the dapper Peppino effectively portrayed by Ugo N. Toppo. Seemingly, the most urbane and confident of the three, Toppo chillingly turns out to be the cruelest clown of all.

The English translation by Alison Sinclair appears felicitous. Director Gregory Fortner creates a consistent sense of unease and elicits excellent performances from his trio of actors. His inventive direction catapults the “performance” sequence to heights of hilarity. In a coup de theatre therein, the audience contributes to a “magic trick” of Filippo. Whether credit is due to the director or author, it is quite effective.

Americans are less receptive than Europeans to The Theatre of the Absurd. I think that this is because our history and good fortune have made us more optimistic and allowed us to believe that we are in control of our own lives. While such a belief inevitably contains elements of naivety, it is quite a wonderfully enabling way to view our world.

However, if you have ever enjoyed the early European absurdists (even with the estimable help of performances by the likes of Bert Lahr or Zero Mostel), you will certainly want to make the acquaintance of Matei Visniec.

Certainly, Visniec's Old Clown Wanted is well worth our time and attention. The New Jersey Rep is to be cherished for bringing it to us.


Sending in the 'Clown' at NJ Rep
Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/13/04

By TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

LONG BRANCH -- While some theatrical professionals might view it as a handicap, the absence of a curtain on the modestly-scaled main stage of the Lumia Theatre sometimes works to the advantage of the productions presented by New Jersey Repertory Company.

In the case of Romanian-born Matei Visniec's "Old Clown Wanted" (an oft-produced work now making its American debut on the Long Branch stage), the pre-show sneak peek at the unsettling scenic design by Carrie Mossman turns out to be a crucial component in the way that the audience experiences this latter day bit of absurdist theater -- it helps to foster the impression that this airless, oppressive, blandly nightmarish place has been there, waiting, long before any of the show's characters arrive.

OLD CLOWN WANTED
Through Aug. 15
New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
$30
(732) 229-3166
Into this setting come Niccolo (Ames Adamson) and Filippo (Al H. Mohrmann), a couple of past-their-prime circus performers responding to a vague advertisement for an "old clown" -- although exactly who they're supposed to meet, and when (and why) are just a few of the script's built-in mysteries.

While the two applicants enact a hearty embrace upon recognizing each other, things go from convivial to cut-throat as the desperate entertainers attempt to psych out the competition; jockeying for favored position and opening a Pandora's box of head games.

When fellow veteran clown Peppino (Ugo N. Toppo) arrives, the two quickly form an alliance against the elderly interloper. That union ultimately turns deadly serious even after it spurs some genuine laughs.

Visniec's 1992 piece (performed here in a translation by Alison Sinclair) was first mounted in France and became a popular item throughout Europe. The NJ Rep production (nimbly directed by Gregory Fortner, who was instrumental in bringing the show to these shores) is not only the American premiere of the play (known as "Petit Boulot Pour Vieux Clown") but the first of the eminent Romanian playwright's works ever to receive a full American staging.

With its circus-as-society metaphor and bleakly by-the-numbers existentialism, it could be argued that Visniec's point of view is a tad too European for mass American consumption -- even though most of its points resonate in a universal way. The end result appears equal parts Sartre and Rod Serling, with a cup of Kafka and maybe a boullion-cube of Beckett for flavoring.

While there's nary a gob of greasepaint or a Bozo shoe in sight (costumer Patricia Doherty has effectively outfitted the actors with blemished suits, battered hats and biohazard handkerchiefs), there's some very funny business at hand here -- particularly in the revved-up interludes that occur immediately following intermission, as the trio endeavor to one-up each other with some classic routines.

NJ Rep stalwarts Adamson and Mohrmann, who have starred in numerous offerings both comic and tragic (appearing together in "Maggie Rose" a couple of seasons back) continue to cement their standing as linchpins in what has become an extraordinary stock company. The seasoned veteran "newcomer" Toppo cuts an impressive figure as well -- his still-dapper but fast-fading Continental character delivers a formidable first-act soliloquy of sorts. It is no offense to note he evokes the dented dignity of the great Bela Lugosi in the perigee of his career.

Indeed, each of these fine actors (who originally performed the play as a script-in-hand reading at NJ Rep in 2003) gets his chance to shine, but none more so than the always-impressive Adamson who carried this season's "Circumference of a Squirrel" by his lonesome and who delivers a very lengthy, very physically demanding and very hilarious demonstration of misconceived mime that's the high point of this production. While nowhere near as old as the clown he portrays, the actor does a pretty convincing codger when he has to -- often looking for all the world like he stepped off the cover of Jethro Tull's classic rock album "Aqualung."


Old Clown Wanted

from Variety.com

By ROBERT L. DANIELS
The premiere of "Old Clown Wanted" by the New Jersey Repertory Co. marks the long-awaited U.S. debut of prolific Romanian-born playwright Matei Visniec. Inspired by Federico Fellini's 1970 pic "The Clowns," Visniec has crafted a chilling, compelling charade of a trio of old circus clowns who have arrived at a booking office in response to an advertisement. However, the casting director, like Samuel Beckett's nebulous and enigmatic Godot, is an elusive and ominous no-show.

Ames Adamson, fresh from his giddy comic perf as Holoferenes in "Love's Labour's Lost" at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, is Niccolo, the disillusioned, dusty clown who mourns the fact the circus is not what is used to be: "Nobody laughs at somersaults anymore."

In a desperate attempt to prove his point, Niccolo demonstrates with an exhaustive pantomime of a man who ascends a staircase, steals a melon and is chased and beaten by an angry pursuing crowd. Unable to convince his doubting colleagues that the skit is an inspired piece of comic business, he repeats the routine again and again. Adamson turns the long sequence into an inventive tour de force of frustrated desperation.

Filippo (Al H. Mohrmann), in an attempt to triumph over his wary partners, produces a magic black box that (with the help of the audience, which returns from intermission to find a necessary prop on each seat) miraculously produces a stageful of colored balloons.

"I always made them laugh," brags the nattily dressed and articulate Peppino (Ugo Toppo), a veteran burned-out clown of 50 years who has long harbored the secret of his art. To illustrate his talent, Peppino feigns a devastating heart attack that panics and angers his partners.

Adamson, Mohrmann and Toppo play well off each other, keenly balancing the grim attitude, verbal tension and dark corners of the play with a generous dose of Three Stooges slapstick.

The play ends where it begins and, like the Beckett of long ago, "nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it's awful." Yet one leaves the theater with a mind awhirl with speculation.

Director Gregory Fortner has harnessed a well-tuned ear to the play's inner rhythms, staging it with an exacting balance of the wit and the sobering aspects of the text. Sans intermission, the piece would clock in more comfortably at an uninterrupted 70 minutes, but those balloons have to be set in place. (The obvious answer is to drop them from above, but then again, I have never been one for audience participation.)

The ominous and dingy antechamber designed by Carrie Mossman is a stark, grimy and windowless waiting room, furnished with two chairs and a teetering metal filing cabinet.

Jill Nagle's sharp and keenly defined lighting design accents the faded glory of circus days and the ominous atmosphere of a dark future.


07/11/2004
Old Clown Wanted
By: Simon Saltzman

Long Branch – The notice posted on the door says "Old Clown Wanted." That's a good enough hint to the purpose and identity of Niccolo (Ames Adamson), the tired older man fast asleep in one of only two straight-back chairs in a virtually barren windowless anteroom. His beaten up suitcase sits on the floor. Another hint as to what awaits him and us is the room itself. The two-toned walls are slightly tilted, as is a lone file cabinet giving the room a skewed sense of reality. Filippo (Al H. Mohrmann), another weary-looking man enters the room. He also has a suitcase.

Not only is it evident that he too has come to see about the job but that he also knows the other man. Filippo isn't terribly happy to find out that he isn't going to be the first to be interviewed, but he appears happy to be unexpectedly reunited with Niccolo, whom he hasn't seen since their circus days. Filippo says it was the way that Niccolo blows his nose that made him remember him. But quite soon Filippo, braced by the contents of his flask, begins to bait and taunt his old friend challenging the veracity of his tales and repeating rumors of Niccolo's death.

Insults are punctuated with embraces as the two reminisce about their lives and their travels. Filippo's insults prompt Niccolo to demonstrate his agility by doing a headstand against the wall. In the meantime, they wait for someone in authority to come. Someone does come, but it is Peppino (Ugo N. Toppo), yet another old clown with a suitcase. You can expect that long festering rivalries will be brought to the surface, and they are.

The New Jersey Repertory Company, known for its policy to produce new plays, is presenting the U.S. premiere of Romanian playwright Matei Visniec's (born in 1956) "Old Clown Wanted." Visniec's play is a either a tribute or a throwback to the "theater of the absurd," an expressionistic style of theater in which a world that is no longer rational is turned into a world of the absurd. Either way you look at it, it is clearly prompted by the kind of surreal theater that flourished during the 1950s and 1960s. The most famous play of the genre being Samuel Beckett's " Waiting for Godot." Since then many playwrights, including Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee, and Sam Shepard have been influenced by this kind of theatrical literature that stressed poetic metaphors.

Written about ten years ago, "Old Clown Wanted" is a curious but compelling dark comedy with its roots buried in the tradition of ground-breaking existentialist playwrights Beckett, Jean Genet and Eugene Ionescu (to name a few). It resonates boldly with its kinship to "… Godot," especially in the thrust of its so-called plot in which three forlorn but plucky fellows find solace in each other while futilely waiting around for the answers to their questions.

Amidst the enjoyment of watching three accomplished actors careen through circular antics, redundant arguments, and friendly and hostile combat, there is the playwright's agenda to consider. Visniec, who is currently alive and well and living in Paris, was given political asylum in France in 1987. But since the fall of communism has become one of Romania's most performed playwrights. Niccolo, Filippo and Peppino are also perplexed by the circumstances in which they find themselves. Each is filled with anxiety and even still yet a hopeful wonder about what the future holds. A final image of (well, I won't spoil it for you) allows us to consider whether what has happened has been a fantasy, dream or nightmare.

Whether this production by the N.J. Rep will activate American interest in Visniec's more than thirty plays remains to be seen. "Old Clown Wanted" is neither dense nor obscure, but it is somewhat retro in its conceits. Although director Gregory A. Fortner's forte is primarily opera, his theater credits are growing. A few seasons ago, he assisted director Stephen Wadsworth in his production of Moliere's "Don Juan" at McCarter. Fortner provides a firm grip on this play that could otherwise get lost in abstractionism. He inspires some very clear and touching performances, particularly as the three relive their old clown act in a whirl of funny mime and, of course, growing menace.

As the defensive Niccolo, Adamson gets a lot of mileage out of an aggressively used handkerchief and his amusingly eccentric body language (most recently put to memorable use as Holofernes, in the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey's production of "Love's Labour's Lost"). Mohrmann is eerily effective as the enigmatic provocateur Filippo, while Toppo, as the dapper and condescending Peppino, their senior and mentor, gives the most poignant performance. He is unmercifully derided by his colleagues because he has found a modicum of success as, of all things, an actor.

Translated from the French by Britisher Alison Sinclair, this play might appear even better with an American translation that would soften the slightly arch text. Praise to Carrie Mossman's off-kilter set design, Merek Royce Press's multi-channel sound design, and Jill Nagle's stark lighting. "Old Clown Wanted" is not especially innovative, but it is intriguing. This is a play that I would recommend for all those interested in getting a perspective on international theater.


Romanian comedy strikes a chord

Monday, July 12, 2004
BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

Leave it to the adventurous New Jersey Repertory Company to find, of all things, a Romanian playwright's absurdist comedy that was banned in his own country.

Now, in Long Branch, the troupe is presenting the American premiere of "Old Clown Wanted" -- which turns out to definitely be a play for our times.

Darnit.

For Matei Visniec's 1992 play deals not only with an individual's profound anxiety that comes from being unemployed, but also with the genuine fear that he's too old for the job market. He knows that, in a world that prizes youth, he has as much chance of getting hired as this year's Montreal Expos have of getting to and winning the World Series.

While there are more job opportunities in America than in Romania, only the rarest of theatergoers won't know someone who is sitting at home and suffering just as much as Niccolo, Filippo, and Peppino.

Niccolo is the first to see the placard "Old Clown Wanted." He's overjoyed at the prospect of finally getting an interview, let alone a job, in his chosen profession.

But soon Filippo arrives. The two were old friends, and, under different circumstances, they'd be thrilled to see each other. But now they're immediate rivals.

What's worse is that Peppino, their old mentor, shows up for the job as well. He was once their greatest friend, and suddenly, he's now their greatest enemy.

For 100 minutes, all of them try to one-up the other, all in hopes of proving that he's the best possible clown for the position. Meanwhile, no one's in any hurry to interview anyone.

Director Gregory A. Fortner, who saw the play in a Portuguese production, brought it to New Jersey Repertory. Could he have imagined when he persuaded the theater to do it that he'd find three actors who could make it work as splendidly as the trio he now has?

Ames Adamson, who's Niccolo, can get a laugh just from way he walks across the stage. But he does much more than that in this physically demanding show. In the second act, he has a protracted mime scene that he turns into one of the standout moments of the season. When it comes to body English, Adamson shows that he's a genuine valedictorian.

What makes this scene funnier, though, is that Adamson leavens it with frustration, for he expects the other two to guess what his mime means. They can't. Or are they pretending not to, so they can make him think that he's lost his edge, and thus ruin his confidence? That's always a possibility in this play.

Al H. Mohrmann is Filippo, ostensibly the evening's straight man who uses words more than his body. The actor is deliciously droll when he says to Niccolo, who's rolling all over the floor, "You're ruining your suit. They won't let you rent it again" -- not allowing for the possibility that Niccolo might in fact own it. This is the typical insult that Filippo makes all night long, and Mohrmann has a most amusing way of delivering these digs in a pseudo-innocent manner.

Ugo N. Toppo, the best of the three at seeming European, shows that Peppino is intent on remaining elegant at all costs. Still, he ensures that the clown can't keep his desperation from poking through every now and then.

While "Old Clown Wanted" definitely tells of a breakdown in our society, Long Branch audiences will be breaking up with laughter -- for at least the first act of the play. Then they'll be nodding in agreement and understanding when they see what happens to inherently nice people who are pushed to the brink.


Waiting for Bozo: NJ Rep's 'Old Clown' heralds a new voice on U.S. stage

Published in the Asbury Park Press 7/09/04

By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

An advertisement appears, seeking applicants for a position that, as it turns out, may or may not even exist. A trio of hopefuls -- "three men used up and discarded by a world that has never really wanted them" -- gather to await consideration for this phantom situation; a collection of lost souls who "battle each other with wit and humor, as they reminisce about painful failures and long-forgotten triumphs."


OLD CLOWN WANTED
A play by Matei Visniec
New Jersey Repertory Company
Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday
Performances through Aug. 15
$30
(732) 229-3166


If that hits a bit too uncomfortably close to home for anyone who's made the rounds of job fairs over the course of these past few uncertain years, it's likely just a minor point among the major salvos fired by Romanian-born playwright Matei Visniec in his bittersweet play "Old Clown Wanted."

As the title suggests, the protagonists of this story are all members of that tragicomic subculture known as clowns. Their story transpires in an oppressive and vaguely "foreign" setting, and the play -- a familiar one to European audiences in the years since its 1992 debut -- makes its U.S. premiere this weekend (as the first Visniec work to receive a full-fledged American staging) in a new production by Long Branch- based New Jersey Repertory Company.

According to director Gregory Fortner, the Visniec text is "one of those pieces that, after you see it, just stays with you . . . I first saw a production in Rio de Janeiro in 2001, and I kept thinking about how timely the message was for us here in the U.S."

When Fortner brought the semi-obscure work to the attention of NJ Rep literary manager Kittson O'Neill, he set off a chain of events that culminated in the play's first American performance as a script-in-hand reading at the troupe's Lumia Theatre. That test-run led (as it so often does) to the show's appearance on the 2004 schedule as a fully-staged premiere.

Originally presented under the title "Petit Boulot Pour Vieux Clown," Visniec's script has been translated into English (having been written in Romanian and initially performed in French) by Alison Sinclair. If you're wondering why Romania's leading dramatic voice is mainly heard in the Gallic tongue, it's probably due to the fact that Visniec has adopted France as his home country since his defection from Ceausescu-era Romania in 1987. Audiences there have embraced the one-time refugee as their own, with "Old Clown" and more than 20 other Visniec plays having been performed and/or premiered at major French venues over the past decade.


STEVE SCHOLFIELD photo

Ames Adamson rehearses a scene from "Old Clown Wanted," premiering this weekend at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.
It was on a junket to France at the invitation of a literary foundation that Matei Visniec requested political asylum. Following the overthrow of the Communist leadership in 1989, the onetime poet and journalist took his place as one of the preeminent literary lights of his homeland. To date, over 30 Visniec plays have been presented in Bucharest and elsewhere -- and a 1996 retrospective festival saw some dozen companies producing Visniec works concurrent with each other. Although it's making its maiden voyage to our shores, "Old Clown Wanted" has been a genuine calling card for its creator, having been staged not only in France, Brazil and Romania but in Germany, Denmark, Austria, Poland, Italy, Turkey, Finland and Moldavia as well.

Observing that the author took his inspiration for the piece from Federico Fellini's film "I Clown" -- and its sad take on the traditional circus -- the director maintains that Visniec is able to 'make a clearer expansion of the metaphor so that it could apply now to any institution -- governmental, cultural, economical -- that is in a state of decline."

As to precisely why this prominent playwright hasn't become a household name in this neck of the woods, Fortner speculates that "maybe since things were so good in the '90s we didn't need his message -- times have changed and I think Matei's writings could teach us a lot or at least give us the inspiration to stand up and take notice of what is going on around us."

Veteran New Jersey Rep subscribers and supporters should have no difficulty recognizing a couple of the old clowns on hand. Ames Adamson and Al H. Mohrmann both have put their talents for broad comedy on display with their respective turns in "Panama" and "Big Boys" (the two actors were also among the comic ensemble in "Maggie Rose"). They've further exhibited a feel for more poignant material: Mohrmann as a suicidal patient in "Til Morning Comes," and Adamson in the nearly unclassifiable solo tour-de-force "Circumference of a Squirrel."

The two NJ Rep mainstays are joined here by Ugo N. Toppo (a familiar presence as actor and director on major stages from coast to coast, as well as a familiar voice from scores of literary recordings and commercials). All three players work under the supervision of Fortner, an accomplished director of operas and dramas here making his NJ Rep debut.

"These are the same three guys that did the reading last summer, and when we had auditions there were no three guys that we could put together that had the chemistry of these three," the director maintains. "You really get the sense that these (characters) do like each other -- however, when times are tough and there is only one job for three applicants, a sort of basic survival instinct takes over."


Independent voices: NJ Rep's play-reading series provides forum for original work

Published in the Home News Tribune 7/09/04
By LAURIE GRANIERI
Pulse Writer

Perhaps you've grown weary of sitting through one too many revivals of "My Fair Lady" or yet another reheated production of just about anything by George Bernard Shaw. If so, the New Jersey Repertory Company's latest offering could be just what your inner indie has been craving.

New Jersey Repertory Company
Ben Masur and Dana Benningfield starred in New Jersey Repertory Company's recent production of "Lemonade." The play was featured in the theater's collaborative Script-In-Hand New Play Series last year.
NJ Rep's Script-in-Hand New Play Series, an integral part of the Long Branch theater's mission since 1998, is the brainchild of Artistic Director SuzAnne Barabas. The latest installment of the quarterly play-reading series will run over the next five Monday evenings.

"It's kind of nice to see new pieces," Barabas says. "There's certainly a need for the classics and revivals, but there needs to be theaters that take the chance to present new works, because you won't have your future Arthur Millers and Eugene O'Neills if you don't start taking chances now."

The series is critical to the playwright's development, Barabas says. In a way, it also eliminates the proscenium, allowing audience members to feel as if they are an integral part of the often-mysterious creative process.

Barabas says the post-reading give-and-take between artist and the audience is "really important because they ask questions that perhaps have not been answered by the play. It sort of points to holes in the play. It really is a very helpful tool. So the discussion . . . is one of the key elements to the collaborative nature of this."

She says NJ Rep's mainstage season is often drawn from the series. Mike Folie's "Lemonade" was part of the series in July 2003, and the full production recently closed at NJ Rep. Matei Visniec's "Old Clown Wanted," which opened yesterday, was read in August. Other plays have gone on tour or have been published, Barabas says.

And the participants are impressive: Lee Blessing's "Whores," which was read there last year, is part of Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey's new season. (Blessing will also have a work on George Street Playhouse's mainstage next season.)

The process generally goes like this: NJ Rep receives submissions (the theater accepts work from all over the world), then the staff chooses a director and assembles a cast of actors from the company. The artists are given 15 hours of rehearsal time and a spot in the series.

"We're not a closed shop here," Barabas says. "We're always open to new adventures, new ideas, new, young directors coming in who make bold choices."

Sometimes these "bold choices" take off, Barabas admits, and sometimes they fizzle. No matter: She says the journey is always an interesting one.

"They get to see (the work) without all the bells and whistles, and they get to really hear the words and make intelligent comments," Barabas says.

"Sometimes the plays are not wonderful," she adds, "but the audience discussion is fabulous . . . They take their job very seriously."


Bridge and tunnel productions worthy of awards

Sunday, June 06, 2004
BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

Take it from someone who's seen virtually every professional and semi-professional production at New Jersey theaters for the past 11 seasons: 2003-04 was the strongest in more than a decade.

So creating this list -- which poses the question, "If New Jersey gave out its own Tony Awards, who would win?" -- was painfully hard. Over the past 12 months, there have been so many more extraordinary performances than usual.

How else to explain the omission of both men (David Adkins and Mark Hammer) in "A Walk in the Woods" and all three women (Suzzanne Douglas, Laurie Kennedy and Maria Dizzia) in "Agnes of God"? Both were terrific productions at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. Tony winner Priscilla Lopez and Tony nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega (both in "Anna in the Tropics" at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton) couldn't crack the list, either.

Here are nominees and winners of this mythical contest:

Best Musical New to New Jersey: "The Big Bang" by Jed Feuer and Boyd Graham (Tri-State Actors Theatre, Sussex); "Dragons" by Sheldon Harnick (Luna Stage Company, Montclair); "The Full Monty" by Terrence McNally and David Yazbek (New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark); "Passing the Blues Along" by Mississippi Charles Bevel and Chic Street Man (Crossroads Theatre Company, New Brunswick); "tick, tick ... BOOM!" by David Auburn and Jonathan Larson (George Street Playhouse)

Winner: "tick, tick ... BOOM!" How can a struggling songwriter please his girlfriend, who doesn't quite believe he'll succeed? How can he not succumb to his best friend's advice to join him in the corporate world? Here is the story of Jonathan Larson -- who resisted both and wound up writing the mega-hit "Rent."

Best Play New to New Jersey: "The Adjustment" by Mike Folie (New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch); "The Afghan Women" by William Mastrosimone (Passage Theatre Company, Trenton); "Anna in the Tropics" by Nilo Cruz (McCarter's Berlind Theatre); "The Chosen" by Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok (Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn); "A Wilderness of Mirrors" by Charles Evered (George Street Playhouse)

Winner: "The Afghan Women," Mastrosimone's timely tale about an Afghani-American who returns home to help an orphanage -- but runs into a warlord. Those who missed it at Passage can catch it starting this week at the Garage Theatre Group in Teaneck.

Best Musical Revival: "Baby" (Paper Mill Playhouse); "A Child's Christmas in Wales" (Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Madison); "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road" (Women's Theater Company, Wayne); "My Fair Lady" (McCarter/Berlind); "The Tragedy of Carmen" by Brook and Bizet (Two River Theatre Company, Manasquan)

Winner: "Baby." Three women from three generations meet in the obstetrician's office and become good friends. Anyone who's ever been a parent -- or a godparent, uncle or an aunt -- could relate to this tender tale.

Best Play Revival: "Agnes of God" and "Lips Together, Teeth Apart" (George Street Playhouse); "King John," "Pygmalion" and "That Scoundrel Scapin" (Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey)

Winner: "Lips." A Fourth of July weekend with friends and relatives? Everyone knows how fun-filled and painful such an outing can be -- but in director Michael Morris' hands and playwright Terrence McNally's words, it was memorable, too.

Unique Theatrical Experience: Ames Adamson in "Circumference of a Squirrel" (New Jersey Repertory Company); Cynthia Adler in "Downloaded -- and in Denial" (Passage Theatre Company); Kathy Cogan in "Late Nite Catechism" (Resorts, Atlantic City); Francesca Faridany in "Fraulein Else" (McCarter/Berlind); Richard Furlong and Steven Cole Hughes in "Stones in His Pocket" (What Exit? Theatre Company, Maplewood)

Winner: "Fraulein Else." Faridany blithely played a young Viennese woman without a care in the world -- until her parents asked her to prostitute herself so they can pay their sky-high bills. Faridany showed a girl who is flirty and brave at meeting her Mr. Wrong, before descending into a harrowing spiral.

Best Musical Actor: Ian August and Eben Gordon ("The Big Bang"); Michael Cumpsty ("My Fair Lady"); Colin Hanlon ("tick, tick ... BOOM!"); Aaron Serotsky ("The Tragedy of Carmen")

Winner: Cumpsty. Many men have acted Professor Henry Higgins to perfection, but they speak, rather than sing, the songs. Cumpsty let us hear the notes composer Frederick Loewe had in mind.

Best Musical Actress: Nancy Barry ("I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road"); Margaret Bell ("If These Hips Could Talk," Symphony Hall, Newark); Kate Fry ("My Fair Lady"); Cassandra McConnell ("The Tragedy of Carmen"); Sandra ReAves-Phillips ("The Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz," Crossroads Theatre Company)

Winner: ReAves-Phillips. No entertainer on Jersey stages this year worked as hard to seduce and entertain an audience as this ample-bodied, moon-faced dynamic diva, who saluted Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson.

Best Featured Musical Actor: Andrew Blau ("Oliver!," NJPAC); Alan Gillespie ("Miss Saigon," NJPAC); Michael McCarty ("My Fair Lady"); Michael Rupert ("Baby"); Paul Whelihan ("Dragons")

Winner: Whelihan. As a timid man who is threatened by a dragon, he was a hilarious nervous wreck, blinking and babbling while bobbing about. After the dragon is slain, and he comes to power, he exudes smarmy confidence, noting that power may corrupt -- "but if you're rotten to begin with, what harm can it do?"

Best Featured Musical Actress: Meg Bussert ("The Sound of Music," Paper Mill Playhouse); Carolee Carmello ("Baby"); Sarah Litzsinger ("tick, tick ... BOOM!"); Jane Connell ("My Fair Lady"); Nicole Ortiz ("Black Nativity," African Globe TheatreWorks, Newark)

Winner: Ortiz. In celebrating the birth of Christ, the doe-eyed, high-cheekboned beauty revealed a voice that resonated like a cello, and sang as sultry as Dinah Washington and as exciting as Diana Ross.

Best Play Actor: Egon P. Davson ("A Streetcar Named Desire," African Globe TheatreWorks); Brian Dowd ("Twilight of a Warrior," Celtic Theatre Company, South Orange); Glenn Jones ("Cafflin' Johnny," Celtic Theatre); Paul Niebanck ("Pygmalion"); James Michael Reilly ("That Scoundrel Scapin"); Carl Wallnau ("Engaged," Centenary Stage Company, Hackettstown)

Winner: Wallnau. Playing a Victorian dandy, Wallnau was indeed dandy. His character's fatal flaw was that he couldn't help himself from proposing marriage to every woman he met. "I am a man of quick impulses. I see, I feel, I speak," Wallnau said most accurately, perfectly replicating the manner of matinee idols a century ago.

Best Play Actress: Karen Case Cook ("Wit," Women's Theater Company); Wendy Barrie-Wilson ("The Glass Menagerie," Shakespeare Theatre); Victoria Mack ("Pygmalion"); Cigdem Onat ("Attacks on the Heart," George Street); Liz Zazzi ("Pterodactyls" at the Theatre Project, Cranford, and "The Adjustment")

Winner: Zazzi. All five were brilliant, but Zazzi's the one who was brilliant twice -- first as a confident political lobbyist who's surprised when she turns out not to have all the answers, then as a constantly complaining mother who doesn't know how wonderful life is.

Best Featured Play Actor: Austin Colaluca ("King John"); Kevin Carolan ("Lips Together, Teeth Apart"); John Lloyd Young ("The Chosen"); Jimmy Smits and David Zayas ("Anna in the Tropics")

Winner: Colaluca. Though the character was supposed to be a 16-year-old king, Colaluca has just finished fifth grade. Yet he was superb at delivering the dense language, and amazingly conquered a scene where he must use grace and psychology to keep from being blinded by enemies.

Best Featured Play Actress: Vanessa Aspillaga ("Anna in the Tropics"); Alison Fraser ("Lips Together, Teeth Apart"); Leslie Lyles ("Wilderness of Mirrors"); Gerrianne Raphael ("A Delicate Arrangement," TheatreFest, Montclair); Dana Jones ("The Other Side of Newark," Luna Stage)

Winner: Fraser. She played a community theater actress who's part diva, part flibbertigibbet, and all free spirit. Yet when she had to come down to earth, she also came down to brass tacks -- and used those tacks to burst everyone else's bubbles.

Best Director of a Play: SuzAnne Barabas ("The Adjustment"); Bonnie J. Monte ("Pygmalion"); Emily Mann ("Anna in the Tropics"); Paul Mullins ("King John"); John J. Wooten ("A Delicate Arrangement")

Winner: Mullins. Staging "King John" was no easy task, for the play doesn't hold together, though it has many compelling scenes. Mullins simply didn't worry about the former problem, but made each scene dynamic and compelling.

Best Director of a Musical: Jonathan Fox ("The Tragedy of Carmen"); James Glossman ("Dragons"); Gary Griffin ("My Fair Lady"); Mark S. Hoebee ("Baby"); David Saint ("tick, tick ... BOOM!")

Winner: Hoebee. If he'd staged this show on Broadway in 1983 with such precision and clarity, it would have been a hit.

Best Choreography: John T. Booth ("Black Nativity"); Dawn Ward Lau ("The Rocky Horror Show," Forum Theatre Company, Metuchen); Jenn Warnock ("The Big Bang")

Winner: Booth. The 19-year-old shows he's wise beyond his years in the deft and unexpectedly delightful hip-hop, tap and jazz steps he gives his dancers.

Best Book: David Auburn and Jonathan Larson ("tick, tick ... BOOM!"); Boyd Graham ("The Big Bang"); Sheldon Harnick ("Dragons"); Terrence McNally ("The Full Monty")

Winner: McNally. He didn't edit the 1997 British film, but adapted it for Americans, setting it in Buffalo, N.Y. He succeeded in making the audience care about a new set of guys who were out of work and didn't know that to do next.

Best Score: Boyd Graham and Jed Feuer ("The Big Bang"); Marcus Devine, Michael and Alexis Allen ("If These Hips Could Talk"); Sheldon Harnick ("Dragons"); Jonathan Larson ("tick, tick ... BOOM!"); David Yazbek ("The Full Monty")

Winner: Larson. A plot point in the musical is that Stephen Sondheim, Broadway's premier composer-lyricist, winds up a fan of Larson's work. No wonder, given the 14 songs in this score.

Best Sets: Tim J. Amrhein ("The Merry Wives of (West) Windsor," Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival); Nora Chavooshian ("Immoral Imperatives," Luna Stage); Andrew Lieberman ("Wintertime," McCarter Theatre); Thomas Lynch ("Fraulein Else"); Michael Vaughan ("A Walk in the Woods")

Winner: Amrhein. In this update of a dim Shakespearean comedy, he provided a replication of Mercer County -- down to the train platform in Princeton Junction and the tony suburban homes of West Windsor.

Best Costumes: Cathleen Edwards ("The Sound of Music"); Karen A. Ledger ("Pygmalion"); David Murin ("Lips Together, Teeth Apart"); Mattie Ullrich ("That Scoundrel Scapin"); Anthony Ward ("Oliver!")

Winner: Ullrich. For this free-wheeling commedia dell'arte, she provided elegant clothes for the high-born characters and colorful rag-tag duds for the lower-borns.

Best Lighting: James H. Aitken ("That Scoundrel Scapin"); Peter Kaczorowski ("Anna in the Tropics"); David Lander ("Wilderness of Mirrors"); Steven Rosen ("Pygmalion"); Shelley Sabel ("Much Ado about Nothing," Shakespeare Theatre)

Winner: Lander. He took a terrifying tale of what the espionage game is really like, and lit it so it appeared to be a film noir, with layer upon layer of shadows.

Regional Theatre Award: George Street Playhouse. Every one of the six plays scored at least one nomination, from the scary "Wilderness of Mirrors" to the scarier 9/11 drama "Attacks on the Heart," to the erudite "A Walk in the Woods," the sizzling "Agnes of God," the hilarious "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," and the edgy "tick, tick ... BOOM!" Every theater should have such a season.


 
A Tart 'n Tangy 'Lemonade' at New Jersey Rep
Published in the Asbury Park Press
By TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

As this touch-and-go Jersey Shore spring edges its way from frigidly finicky to tentatively torrid, one might be seized by a yen for some good ole lemonade. Then again, one might also be possessed of a hankering for a good ole sex comedy.

STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK

Ben Masur (left) and Bruce Faulk are among the cast of "Lemonade."

Well, now there's no need to drive all over creation in an attempt to satisfy that craving at curbside -- the lemonade, that is. If the evening of April 23 was any indication, the cool quencher is available in the lobby of New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch -- peddled from a little stand that was manned, at least for a portion of opening night, by author (and former Middletowner) Michael T. Folie. The company playwright-in-residence was on hand because the folks at NJ Rep (the same people who've premiered at least five major Folie works) were staging the East Coast debut of his funny four-character sex comedy -- also called "Lemonade" -- for an appreciative audience that seemed thirsty for something a bit more tart and tangy than the usual watered-down dinner-theater fare.

"Lemonade" the show takes its title from the observations of dedicated wife and mom Jane (Dana Benningfield), who muses that sex is like lemonade, in that it's naturally bitter and requires the sweetening of romance -- and that, like lemonade, you don't want it all the time.

STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK

Ben Masur (left) as Jim, Dana Benningfield as Jane and Bruce Faulk as Carl, all from New York, are among the cast of "Lemonade."

This is just one character's opinion, of course. Jane, a naturally radiant creature who's put her glamorous art-world career on hold to raise an infant daughter, happens to be married to public-relations pro Carl (Bruce Faulk), a stockily built and self-absorbed cad to whom sex is more like a tankful of high-test in the Hummer. When not busy grappling with his roles as helpful hubby and doting dad (not to mention a devotee of the hyper-fashionable Asian lifestyle discipline Chu Wa), Carl has been carrying on an extended fling with his client -- and Jane's old college buddy -- Betsy (Stephanie Dorian), a driven type who seems every bit the polar opposite of his sweet, sacrificing spouse.

Carl's chance meeting with old acquaintance Jim (Ben Masur) -- the two men are introduced playing a tableside game in which they assign dollar values to female passersby -- leads to an invitation to a dinner party; an event for which the guest list boils down to just Jim (himself a follower of competing Asian discipline 'Sha Zen') and, much to Carl's dismay, Betsy. Naturally, Jane thinks it would be a cute idea to fix Betsy up with Jim.

While the Jim-and-Betsy thing works on the surface (the two enjoy a sexually robust relationship of their own), it's complicated by Jim's knowledge of the Betsy-Carl affair -- as well as by the fact that Jim's first glimpse of Jane "sets his insides vibrating." This is just the start of the festivities, as it turns out, since Jim and Betsy are openly scheming to split up the Carl-Jane marriage and divvy up the spoils for themselves.

STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK

Dana Benningfield (left) and Stephanie Dorian as Betsy.

Although things really accelerate from that point, it's not giving too much away to suggest that each participant in this four-sided equation winds up with the best possible partner by play's end. And, even if the plot seemingly spins off in a dozen different directions at once, Folie keeps the tightly-constructed comedy's focus zeroed in on the way we messed-up moderns view our relationships through the distorted prisms of our own pathetic egos. In other words, "Lemonade" is as cold and sour, yet refreshing, as its namesake.

In his first-ever NJ Rep outing, director Evan Bergman puts his talented professional cast -- all but one of them newcomers to the Lumia stage -- through some precision maneuvers. Working up a sweat as the character most held up for ridicule by the author, Bruce Faulk invests his numerous scenes with a comic intensity that somehow never paints Carl as a truly bad guy, no matter how much we know not to trust him at his word (his first-act confrontation with Betsy, rife as it is with pusillanimous back-pedaling and fad-therapy doubletalk, is a particular gem).


STAFF PHOTO: BOB BIELK

Bruce Faulk (left) and Ben Masur.
While Ben Masur's Jim comes across as the Nice Guy simply by default, his character (an insufferable macrobiotic dieter, to boot) wears his ulterior motives on his sleeve and ultimately seems to be acting as impulsively as Carl. Sure, the male characters come off looking pretty silly here -- but that adds up to more laugh-getting opportunities for Faulk and Masur, particularly in their slapsticky "Chu Wa vs. Sha Zen" showdown.

Still, neither Jane nor Betsy is entirely clear on exactly who they are or what they want -- and Dorian projects both comic vulnerability, and a confidence that makes her Betsy a completely believable magnet for the two insecure guys. Although Benningfield is seemingly saddled with the play's most "boring" part -- she's forced to spend much of her time fussing with a baby carriage -- the NJ Rep mainstay comes off most like a real person; warm and caring and generous at heart, but also prickly and not averse to using the aforementioned pram as a deadly weapon.

Make no mistake, this sharply written comedy of couples is no static talkfest; the silly "slow martial arts" duel is followed immediately by a frenetic cat fight scene, and the action-packed second act is further punctuated by a well-staged interlude in which the characters have at each other via the magic of cell phones. A succession of short, sharp scenes - coupled with the lighting and sound work of Jeff Greenberg and Merek Royce Press -- keep the actors in constant motion across Jo Winiarski's versatile, vaguely Metropolitan Home-looking set design.


 
Michael T. Folie's hard 'Lemonade'

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/23/04

Shore-area playwright serves up a cool comedy at New Jersey Repertory

By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

"Sex is like lemonade," opines one of the lead characters in "Lemonade," the comedy of modern manners opening tonight in a new production by Long Branch's own New Jersey Repertory Company. "It's refreshing, but it's naturally bitter. You have to add the sugar of romance yourself. . . and like lemonade, you don't want it all the time."


LEMONADE
A play by Michael T. Folie
New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
Performances through June 6
$30
(732) 229-3166


Like the beverage that inspired its title, Mike Folie's play has become something of a cool seasonal signifier as the weather takes a turn for the tepid. Originally penned prior to such previously produced Folie fare as "Slave Shack" and "Panama," "Lemonade" was first served on the stage in sunny Southern California, in a production starring TV faces Maxwell Caulfield and Heather Tom. A revised version reached NJ Rep's Lumia Theatre as a script-in-hand reading in July 2003 -- a point in time when the current mainstage offering was a little thing called "The Adjustment," by one Michael T. Folie.

Indeed, the happy symbiosis between the Shore-based professional troupe and the former Middletown resident turned NJ Rep playwright-in-residence has included such early successes as "Naked by the River" and "An Unhappy Woman." These productions really helped put the fledgling company on the map, and the Rep braintrust even raided the Folie folio for sketch contributions to the occasional 'Underground Rep' comedy cabarets.

The prolific playsmith describes "Lemonade" as "the fifth play I wrote, but in some ways it feels like my first play. I think it was the first play that was truly mine; that was a true expression of my own individual voice as a writer."


BOB BIELK photo

"Lemonade" cast members (from left) Bruce Faulk, Dana Benningfield, Stephanie Dorian and Ben Masur rehearse a scene at the New Jersey Repertory Company theater in Long Branch.
A convoluted but cunningly constructed study of floating fidelities, mix-and-match monogamy and other under-covers intrigue, "Lemonade" presents a quartet of itchy characters -- no, not Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, but Jane and Carl and Betsy and Jim -- under the direction of Evan Bergman in his rookie outing with NJ Rep. Public-relations guy Carl (Bruce Faulk) and vitamin-salesman Jim (Ben Masur) are a pair of miserable moderns who are obsessed with faddishly "ancient" Asian lifestyle disciplines. They attend workshops in both masculinity and femininity, employ such empty concepts as "creative actualization" to rationalize their irresponsible impulses and spend a good portion of their liquid-laden business lunches rating female passersby as to how much money they'd pay to have sex with them.

Noting that "both men are simply taking on the coloration that they think will get them what they want," Folie confesses that "I'm probably being a traitor to my own gender here, but I just think men are so much sillier and less grounded than women are in every way -- and this attitude does reveal itself in almost all of my plays."

When Carl invites his single buddy to a dinner party at the home he shares with his wife Jane (Dana Benningfield) and their infant daughter, it seems innocent enough -- but when the rest of the guest list dwindles down to just Carl's co-worker Betsy (Stephanie Dorian), things get a tad tight. You see, Carl and Betsy have been carrying on an affair for some time -- and Jane's notions of fixing up Betsy with Jim are complicated by Jim's falling more or less in love with Jane at first sight.

Confused already? It gets even more baroque, with the four points of this romantic rectangle mixing it up in ways you might not have thought possible at first -- and with each little competing alliance packing an ulterior motive that's designed to rearrange these musical chairs in the way that will ultimately work out best for all concerned.

"A lot of the play seems to be about how we try to adapt our external selves to fit in with current sensibilities," the playwright observes. "Much of the tension of modern life comes from trying to reconcile how we think we should be with how we really are."And, despite Folie's formidable history at the Lumia, this "Lemonade" looks especially refreshing in that it involves a number of faces that are new to the Rep stock company. In addition to director Bergman, three of the four actors are making their debuts on the Long Branch stage -- the exception being Benningfield, the longtime company mainstay ("Laramie Project," "North Fork," "Winterizing the Summer House" and numerous other offerings) whose efforts as both actor and director in their recent "Theatre Brut" festival included a stunning performance in the Folie one-acter "There's a 200 Ft. Cowboy in Istanbul."

"I actually don't think sex is much like lemonade," Folie sums up. "But Jane in the play thinks it is, and a lot of people seem to respond to the analogy. I think sex is more like 12 year-old Jameson's Irish whiskey."

Having arrived with a pair of preview performances yesterday, "Lemonade" initiates its "stand" this weekend and continues with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through June 6. For reservations and other information, call NJ Rep at (732) 229-3166.

from the Asbury Park Press

Published on April 23, 2004


 
Review: Long Branch troupe ponies up the goods
Published in the Asbury Park Press 3/24/04
By TOM CHESEK, CORRESPONDENT

'Tweren't a fit night out for man or hoss during much of New Jersey Repertory Company's "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" - a three-part festival of new short plays and the first in a projected series of programs organized under the title "Theatre Brut." But inside the professional troupe's Lumia Theatre in downtown Long Branch, the big-sky sun was blazing over a modestly-produced affair that stood as one of the most engaging regional stage events of the past several seasons.

Organized around the theme of the American Cowboy - and involving the talents of dozens of NJ Rep's ever-burgeoning roster of actors, directors and playwrights - "Pony" was mounted on the evenings of March 15-17 as a vehicle for showcasing an amazing variety of new works (most, if not all, created expressly for this occasion) in a "raw" setting, with the pleasant side effect of acting as a most excellent sampler for this busy company's wares.

Having literally written the book on the topic (their comprehensive guide to "Gunsmoke" stands as both the first and last word on the classic series), NJ Rep guiding lights Gabor and SuzAnne Barabas invested this project with a heaping helping of heart and soul. That so many of their regular creative contributors and loyal supporters braved the ornery weather to participate in this unique event stands as testament to the enormous amount of faith and fervor that the company has built up in just a few short years.

While such festival-style smorgasbords are hit-or-miss almost by definition -- with interludes of brilliance often jockeying for pole position with poorly rehearsed, script-in-hand works-in-progress -- the 19 little playlets on the program happily favored the inspired over the insipid. The participating authors (including such NJ Rep veterans as Mike Folie, Joel Gross, Gino Dilorio and D.W. Gregory) ran a gamut from magical realism and surreal slapstick to grim bits of frontier Americana and contemporary social commentary - with just a few of the scribes going off-message to deliver distracting diatribes on South American dictatorships, CIA skullduggery and other dog-eared pages from the playwright's playbook.

What remained was right purty indeed, with many of the assembled talents working double-overtime to bring this one to market. The prolific Folie (whose many NJ Rep-produced plays include the upcoming "Lemonade") offered up a pair of his caustically comical satiric sketches, while Joel Stone upped the ante by directing both of his written submissions. Not to be outdone, David Tyson not only wrote and directed the absurd burlesque "Western Water Revenge," but displayed the classic clown's gift for controlled chaos in the starring role as well.

The masterful comic actor Michael Irvin Pollard ("'Big Boys') delivered a pair of tightly rehearsed, dialogue-intensive characterizations (in Folie's 'Human Resources' and Mary Fengar Gail's 'Tall in the Saddle') that went above and beyond the call of duty for works that were scheduled to be performed only once. And Dana Benningfield excelled as both actress (playing a disillusioned tobacco company exec in a Folie piece cleverly staged by Jonathan Hadley) and as director, transforming Dickey Nesenger's gently hilarious tall tale 'Harvest Moon' into a bit of wistful wizardry that provided a perfect capper to Tuesday evening's ticket.There was much more good stuff on hand, including the wondrous Betty Hudson's monologue as Calamity Jane; Susan G. Bob's virtuoso impersonation of an old swayback filly; Stephen Innocenzi's singing-cowpoke turn and the usual fine work by Rep regulars Ames Adamson, Barney Fitzpatrick, David Foubert, Phillip Lynch and Brian O'Halloran, to name a few. An all-star assemblage not seen since the days of the Long Riders, to be sure - and therein lies the real strength of this program.

While Gabor Barabas has composed a very eloquent mission statement/manifesto for the Theatre Brut project, it doesn't even begin to touch upon the festival's appeal as a true showcase for this company's formidable human resources. It's a unique primer for anyone interested in the best and the brightest of the area's stages, and a genuine social occasion for all those who've long championed the good work of this crew. Far from the "outsider art" that inspired the festival, "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" was the ultimate "insider" event for anyone who's truly passionate about theater here on our fair Shore -- a place to be among friends; in the company of people who really love what they do.

The only catch? This particular presentation has rode off into the sunset, likely never to return in this exact form. It seems a safe bet that there will be other Theatre Brut presentations to come. In the meantime, audiences can savor a bit of this vibe with NJ Rep's ongoing series of Sunday and Monday evening readings of new plays in development. The series resumes on Sunday with "Wandalaria" by Dave Valdes Greenwood. Tickets, $10, can be reserved by calling (732) 229-3166.


 
Theater Notes: Cowboys in Long Branch
Published in the Asbury Park Press 3/12/04

A hats-off to an American icon at NJ Rep By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

The American Cowboy is a figure who once upon a time bestrode our national culture like a colossus. For three nights during this coming week, however, this popular icon will be center-stage for a theatrical festival of short works presented under the umbrella title "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" and hosted by New Jersey Repertory Company, in the rootin'-tootin' frontier town of Long Branch.


MY RIFLE, MY PONY AND ME
7 p.m. March 15-17
New Jersey Repertory Company
179 Broadway, Long Branch
$15
(732) 229-3166


There's a precedent here, of course. The name of Miss Kitty's bar on the long-running "Gunsmoke" TV series was none other than the Long Branch Saloon, and NJ Rep co-founders SuzAnne and Gabor Barabas are the authors of "Gunsmoke: A Complete History and Analysis of the Legendary Broadcast Series." There was even a real-life Long Branch Saloon on lower Broadway in the city's wilder and woolier days.

But this is 2004, Festus, and nightlife on Broadway in Long Branch is now centered around the acclaimed professional stage troupe and its Lumia Theatre home base, where the festival will take place March 15, 16, and 17. It's the midweek interlude between performances of "Emil," the comedy that continues its world-premiere run through April 4.

That fragrance you're detecting is the scent of "Theater Brut," the new series of experimental limited-engagement presentations of which "My Rifle" is the inaugural production. Said Gabor Barabas, "The cowboy embodies our most potent myths of America: the independent spirit, the man who speaks the truth, the man who metes out simple justice, the trailblazer, the one willing to die for the democratic ideal, and the white-man battling the elements and a savage foe."

The true nature of the cowboy and America is, of course, much more complex, Barabas continued. "It is this conflict between the ideal and the real that provides a fertile arena for exploration as well as the starting point for drama, comedy, pathos, and self-recognition," he said.


Actor James Arness played Marshal Matt Dillon on the television series "Gunsmoke."
The inspiration for the "Theater Brut" name derives from "Art Brut" (or Raw Art), a phrase first used to describe the work of Hans Prinzhorn, a Weimar-era German psychiatrist who collected and published the psychotic art of patients who resided in asylums for the insane.

"It's a concept better encapsulated as outsider art; the creative impulse unfettered by social and artistic convention," said Barabas, adding the theater selected 18 out of 100 submissions for inclusion.

Avid friends and followers of NJ Rep will recognize such familiar playwrights as Mike Folie (whose numerous productions include "Naked by the River" and the upcoming "Lemonade"); Joel Gross ("The Color of Flesh"); D.W. Gregory ("The Good Daughter"), and Gino Dilorio ("Winterizing the Summer House"). Cast and directors read like a virtual all-star team of regional regulars, with Ames Adamson, Dana Benningfield, Barney Fitzpatrick, David Foubert, Kathleen Goldpaugh, Davis Hall, Philip Lynch, Brian O'Halloran, Kittson O'Neill, John Pietrowski, T.R. Shields and Peter Zazzali just a few of the familiar names.

With material spanning a spectrum from reverential to revisionist and points beyond, the collected pieces range from traditional morality plays, to "anti-hero treatments involving fantasy to commedia del arte and everything in between," SuzAnne Barabas said.

Tickets for "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" are $15 each performance, or $40 for all three programs (student discounts are also available).

All shows are at 7 p.m.; for schedule details, reservations and other information, call NJ Rep at (732) 229-3166.


Rodent ripple effect: One-person play gathers plaudits despite nutty title

Tuesday, January 27, 2004 BY PETER FILICHIA
Star-Ledger Staff

John Walch isn't making it easy on himself.

The playwright could have called his new script by any number of names, but what he ultimately chose turns out to be the worst title of many a season: "Circumference of a Squirrel."

But the one-person play is much better than that clumsy title would indicate -- especially as enacted by Ames Adamson in James Glossman's compelling production at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Any theatergoer who doesn't raise an eyebrow at the awkward title might be discombobulated by the show's opening image. After all, not every play starts with a man's chomping into a tire's inner tube and keeping it clenched between his teeth.

Does that magazine Weird New Jersey ever publish plays? This one's a natural for its next issue.

Adamson plays Chester, a thirtysomething who still feels responsible for what happened to his father many years ago. His daddy was pushing him on a swing -- before being attacked by a squirrel. Dad had to go to the hospital for some painful treatments.

After that, squirrels became his father's archenemies. Dad even encouraged Chester and his brother to kill them every time one came near. He rewarded them if they engineered novel ways of slaughtering the rodents.

"Circumference of a Squirrel" will not be voted Play of the Year by PETA. But Walch uses his plot to make a strong statement about hate. Now -- will the son of this obsessive go nuts himself?

What's sad is that Chester's father doesn't restrict his terrible swift sword to squirrels. There's a certain portion of the human race he hates, too. But the hatred of the father is passed to the son in a way that Chester's old man could never have predicted.

En route, Chester tells Everything You Never Wanted to Know about Squirrels But Didn't Care Enough to Ask. Did you know their incisors would grow 6 full inches each year if they didn't wear them down by chewing? That Aristotle was instrumental in naming them? Now you do.

Adamson shares the stage with a park bench, which he's able to leap over in a single bound. He romps on it with the greatest of ease -- with a squirrel's ease, in fact. All the while he's talking nonstop for 85 solid minutes in what is certainly a yeoman performance. He first engages the audience's interest, then its sympathy, and then its solid admiration for a job superbly done. What's more, he must adopt a number of voices for the various members of his family, and he sustains them to the point where an audience easily comes to recognize which of his characters is doing the talking. Credit, too, to Glossman for guiding him well.

Finally, with only a few minutes to go, Adamson lounges on that bench, using the inner tube as a pillow. No one will deny him his right to his rest.

Walch includes an astonishing amount of circular imagery in his script. There are references to doughnuts, life savers, bagels, silver dollars, wedding bands, and that aforementioned inner tube. But the story does not go round and round; rather it centers on an important message of how two and plenty more wrongs don't nearly make a right.

To use more circular imagery, "Circumference of a Squirrel" ranks much closer to a 10 than a 0.


BACKSTAGE - REGIONAL ROUND-UP
New Jersey

If Circumference of a Squirrel sounds a bit wacky—a story about an inner tube, a bagel, a donut, a lifesaver, and a squirrel—that's probably because it is. This one-man show with bite features Ames Adamson as Chester. For 90 minutes, he regales us with stories about his past, including witnessing his father attacked by a squirrel. Neither he nor the old man was the same afterward. As Chester scurries around the stage, jumping on and off a park bench, he takes us on a journey into his past as a former student (who hangs around the campus to remain part of a family), as an ex-husband, and as a son. He employs different voices for each character and pulls off the conceit with flair. Under director James Glossman, John Walch's somewhat absurd play is captivating—and fun. It continues at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Feb. 15 and is a co-production with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey.

Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen

 
Review: The circle in the 'Squirrel'
Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/27/04

By TOM CHESEK
CORRESPONDENT

Turns out that Willie Shakespeare and any dramatist who ever picked up a quill in his wake were on the wrong track all along -- while those guys expended vats of ink and enormous amounts of energy trying to determine the Measure of a Man, Texas-bred playwright John Walch has seen the whole meaning of Life Itself in "The Circumference of a Squirrel."

It's a one-man rumination on family ties, lost love, missed opportunities and the burdens of petty hatreds passed down through the generations -- all of it filtered via the distorted prism of "rodentophobia." Walch's bizarre little 'riff with an inner tube stands as a somewhat unorthodox opener for the 2004 season of productions at New Jersey Repertory Company.


CIRCUMFERENCE OF A SQUIRREL
Through Feb. 15
New Jersey Repertory Company's Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
$30
(732) 229-3166


Last year's final main-stage offering at the professional troupe's Lumia Theatre in Long Branch was D.W. Gregory's epic slice of Americana "The Good Daughter," a family drama that pulled out all the technical stops and opened a fair number of emotional floodgates to boot. By contrast, "Squirrel" is as small and speedy as its namesake, and is presented without intermission in the Lumia's modestly-scaled Dwek Performance Space. Its big themes are channeled into the sparse furnishings of a bench, a tire inner tube, and a strange young guy named Chester.

As embodied by NJ Rep veteran Ames Adamson ("Panama," "Maggie Rose" and numerous readings), Chester is a former student (one who continues to hang around the old campus for the sense of belonging), an ex-husband and a once-and-forever rodentophobe. This fear and loathing of rodents -- specifically, the long-toothed, bushy-tailed species of rascal Aristotle called a "skiouros" -- is the lasting gift bestowed upon poor Chester by his father, a bigoted old-school enigma who may or may not have contracted some weird strain of rabies from a savage squirrel-bite incident (an attack that's been embellished into legendary proportions in the retelling).

Not to be sneezed at is this thing against squirrels -- it manages to infect every aspect of Dad's life; from cursing his golf putt with a vicious "yip" to somehow nourishing the old man's anti-Semitism. Chester has consequently grown up to be terminally cautious; a conflicted ouch-cube of jangled nerve endings with "issues" far beyond the old National Geographic magazine he carries around like a hoarded acorn.

Take Chester's obsession with circular objects -- it's the sight of a squirrel lugging an impossibly disproportionate bagel that sets him off on this rant -- a fascination that reverberates throughout numerous references to doughnuts, washers, lifesavers and wedding rings. It might call to mind the Circle of Life, with Chester and Dad a pair of shaky stand-ins for Simba and his Lion King pops.

What actually gets driven home is that our protagonist perceives a great big void in the middle of his soul (his happiest childhood memory revolves around eating the "holes" peddled by the local doughnut shop); a hole that can only be closed up by coming to terms with his feelings for Dad.

Armchair analysis aside, this ultimately sweet-natured comedy-drama hybrid is still a bit of a difficult sell -- particularly in opening-weekend weather fit for neither man nor squirrel -- and one that demands an actor who can invest this fragile doughnut of a character with a real center.

Lucky theatergoers who caught Adamson's "Panama" turn in five extremely nutty roles know that he can be a show unto himself. Here, he brings a heart as big as that oversize bagel, presenting an earnestly sympathetic Chester in addition to wife, parents, squirrels and assorted peripherals. To call it a tour de force somehow makes it sound gimmicky and showy -- the actor is more force of nature; grounded and at harmony with his stage environment.

He doesn't do it completely by himself, of course. Director James Glossman has worked hard to find the real play in something others might dismiss as an extended sketch. With dozens of rapid-fire cues, lighting designer Richard Currie and sound sultan Jeff Knapp play crucial roles in the proceedings -- while the inner tube essays the parts of bagel, steering wheel, holiday wreath and numerous other objects with great flexibility.


 

11/05/04 - Posted from the Daily Record newsroom

Ames Adamson plays Chester, a man suffering from an obsession with squirrels, in 'Circumference of a Squirrel' at Playwrights Theatre. Jennifer DeWitt / Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey
"CIRCUMFERENCE OF A SQUIRREL"

Through Nov. 14 Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, 33 Green Village Road, Madison Tickets are $22.50-$27.50; Students $10 Call (973) 514-1787, ext. 30

Web: www.ptnj.org


'Circumference of a Squirrel' is a tour de force for Ames Adamson

It's hard to know if actor Ames Adamson ever watched "Rocky and Bullwinkle" or "Secret Squirrel" as a child, but his signature character certainly never did.

Adamson, the affable star of "Circumference of a Squirrel," currently onstage at Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison, plays Chester, a troubled soul whose father taught him to fear, hate, stalk and murder the furry little scamps.

"I'm either compelled or repulsed by them," says Chester, "Like a car wreck."

On its own, Chester's "rodentophobia" represents a relatively harmless fetish. But what of the other lessons he was taught by his dad? Chester explores many dark corners of his past, and his present, in John Walch's fascinating, funny and frequently touching one-character play.

A co-production with the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, "Circumference of a Squirrel" made its New Jersey premiere to rave reviews last autumn at New Jersey Rep. Since then, Adamson, one of the busiest actors in the Garden State, has starred in "Foreign Exchange" at Playwrights Theatre and played a supporting role in "Love's Labour's Lost" at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Next month, he'll return to the Shakespeare Theatre for "Illyria."

NJ Rep is now staging its second co-production with Playwrights Theatre, the New Jersey premiere of Lee Blessing's "Whores," while Playwrights Theatre takes its turn letting Adamson loose in a role that seems to fit him like a glove. His everyman quality helps you identify with Chester. Everybody knows a guy like Chester, a decent sort of guy whose childhood scars give him a few quirks. As we meet him, some of those quirks are catching up with him. His wife has filed for divorce and his graduate-school advisers have convinced him it's time for a hiatus from his microbiology studies.

"The bacteria will be here when you get back," they promise, but Chester's not so sure. At the moment, he's not sure about anything except the sight of a squirrel trying to carry a bagel up a tree, which pops the cork on a bottle of troubling memories.

From the perspective of an 8-year-old boy, witnessing a squirrel bite his father was like watching a bloody mauling. His father's reaction and subsequent obsession with squirrel-ocide reinforced the trauma of the event.

Tales of his childhood alternate with more recent recollections of bringing his Jewish fiancée home to Kansas City to meet mom, who blissfully indulges her own obsession with decorative wreaths, and dad, a passionate anti-Semite. Later, in the emotional climax of the story, Chester is summoned home to pay respects to his dying father.

In between, there are lectures on squirrel biology and other relevant issues, along with imaginary slide shows and visual aids that Chester presents with a pointer and a hand clicker.

There's a great deal of comedy and indeed, this show is essentially a comedy. But because Adamson never crosses the line into caricature, you can never forget that his character is wracked with pain. You laugh along as Chester and his brother dream up new ways to kill squirrels, even though you know their father's hatred is poisoning them like second-hand smoke. Then, as the entire family chases a squirrel loose in the living room, the hunt takes a dramatic turn.

Adamson accomplishes his mission on a simple stage with only a few props to keep him company. In the middle of the stage is a wooden bench, sturdy enough for Adamson to sit, lie or jump on when the mood strikes.

The central prop is an old-fashioned rubber inner tube, one of many circular objects that weave their way into this less-than-linear story. Wedding rings, washers and Life Savers all appear before Chester's tale comes full circle and offers a sense of hope, if not resolution.

It's a squirrelly tale to be sure, but even if what's described above doesn't turn you on, consider "Circumference of a Squirrel" just so you don't miss one of the best onstage performances of 2004. Or 2003, for that matter.


A drama with bite
Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/23/04

Squirrel attack propels story at New Jersey Repertory

By MICHAEL KAABE
Correspondent

Director James Glossman has been gushing over the entire experience of staging the New Jersey premiere of "Circumference of a Squirrel."

"It's a piece that is emotionally moving, comical, and yet is also redemptive. . . . and the whole thing is no more than 75 minutes."


CIRCUMFERENCE OF A SQUIRREL
A play by John Walch
Presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company and Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey
Performances through Feb. 15
179 Broadway, Long Branch
$30
(732) 229-3166


So what? We all have heard that good things come in small packages -- or in this case, short ones -- but more importantly, directing a work of this nature in New Jersey means a great deal to Glossman. Originally trained as an actor at the Yale University School of Drama, Glossman became a director nearly by accident.

"I staged a play that I wrote, and other drama students were very impressed with me as a director," he said recently over the phone from his home in Madison. "I became interested in what a director's job really is -- providing the spark of inspiration for actors, so that they can grow."

And Glossman feels that even though his current project is a one-act play that features one character, a director makes all the difference in achieving the artistry of the finished product.

"Circumference of a Squirrel" is one man's journey to a difficult time of his past in order to be able to face the future. It opens this weekend at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

"In order to deal effectively with our present and future, we must rid ourselves of any emotional baggage of the past that we may be carrying around with us. A person must face what he's most afraid of in order to free himself and face the future," Glossman explained.


MIKE McLAUGHLIN photo

Ames Adamson portrays a character coming to grips with the emotional baggage that accrued after witnessing his father being bitten by a squirrel in "Circumference of a Squirrel," opening this weekend at the New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch.
"Here, we have a character who is a graduate student in microbiology. He had a very difficult relationship with his father. One time in his boyhood, he witnessed his father getting bitten by a squirrel, and the experience colored everything in his life," Glossman explained. "In the play, the memory serves as a catalyst for dealing with earth-shattering issues -- issues to which we can all relate -- and issues that we must deal with in order to go on and live an effective and emotionally satisfying life."

Yet even with a well-written script, Glossman feels that there is still a big job for himself as a director.

'I have the privilege of working with a wonderful actor, Ames Adamson, who has a wonderful sense of presence and weight of character," Glossman said. "He has the unique ability to be simple and underplay passeges, then snap into comic flourishes. As his director, I first take note of the fine material and the many unique crafts that Ames brings to it; then I become the outside eye that decides what form the production will take, then provide the spark that allows the actor to grow in the role. I help the actor bring his many talents together and make sure that they all mesh effectively."

"Circumference of a Squirrel" is presented as a collaboration of New Jersey Repertory Company and Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey.

Glossman, who has directed in many regions of the country favors this kind of collaboration, as well as the advent of working in the Garden State.

"It's just that New Jersey has so many regional theaters that are willing to do new material," he explained. "Even though this play has been done in other theaters in the U.S., a director needs a place where an actor and director can have time and space to breathe . . . and be concerned with the artistic partnership and its effective result. Also -- right now New Jersey is an exciting place for theater because you can do so much so often -- and with this collaboration of theaters, new plays can be seen by audiences in more than one region."

SuzAnne Barabas, artistic director of NJ Rep, agrees.

"(When) the play is seen by more audiences, the playwright has the opportunity to further promote and develop his work, and the theaters share the production costs . . . it's a win-win situation whose time is long overdue."


 

from Restore by the Shore 88.1 FM

Ames is fabulous in "Circumference..." his one man show!!! John Walch is a master of language. His circularly plotted scenes are brilliantly executed thru James Glossman's direction. With the agility of a squirrel, Adamson has us eating out of his hand every minute. Note: yes, the park bench is specially constructed for his hijinx by the very  talented scene designer Jessica Parks.


 

Like father, like son: Spirit of Rutgers educator lives in NJ Rep comedy 'Emil'

Published in the Asbury Park Press 2/27/04 By TOM CHESEK
Correspondent

Emil Gadaletta is a man who believes in the healing power of love, even if it has to be prodded along at the point of a gun.


EMIL
A play by Ben Bettenbender
New Jersey Repertory Company Lumia Theatre
179 Broadway, Long Branch
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; performances continue through April 4
$30
(732) 229-3166


Lording over the living room of the North Bergen ranch house that he shares with his grown-up daughter Beatrice (Elizabeth Audley), Emil (Barney Fitzpatrick) simply wants to see his only child paired off with a man who's level-headed, devoted and dependable -- qualities that seem to be in short supply with Todd (Calvin Gladen), a neighborhood lout with anger issues who "would count as two picks in the NFL draft."

When an awkward former Rutgers classmate of Bea's by the name of Michael (Jacob Garrett White) appears at the Gadalettas" doorstep -- having taken a bus all the way from Chicago just to maybe catch a glimpse of the girl who's never so much as acknowledged his existence -- Emil sees his window of opportunity.

Michael and Bea are an arranged match made in suburban heaven: Never mind such variables as his fatal lack of confidence, her complete lack of interest, and the fact that a murderously furious Todd is on his way over to settle a score over some missing money and a wrecked 'Vette.

The comedy by Jersey-bred playwright Ben Bettenbender originally was workshopped by the Cape Cod Theatre Project in 1996. It is being promoted by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, where it opens tonight, as a " 'Father Knows Best' for the new millennium."

While it's never quite clear exactly how household-fixture Emil makes his living in this world, the resemblance to Robert Young's iconic TV dad pretty much ends there.


BOB BIELK photo

Members of the "Emil" cast include (from left) Calvin Gladen, Elizabeth Audley, Jacob Garrett White and Barney Fitzpatrick.
Favoring average-joe flannels over Ward Cleaver suits and ties; forcing pre-made sandwiches upon his guests; encouraging fisticuffs and casually cleaning his gun as tensions flare, this patriarch takes a perverse delight in pitting one person against another. Still, if there's an agenda at work, it's one that's rooted in Emil's own (not always successful) wooing of Bea's mother all those years ago -- and his desire to see true romance conquer all at the end of the day.

"I'd have to say that in spirit, the character of Emil is very much based on my father," observes Bettenbender, who considers Highland Park his hometown and who attended the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers. "He was a hopeless romantic who, fortunately, found his true love both romantically and professionally, and lived his life encouraging others to do the same."

John Bettenbender, a director and educator, was a legendary figure in the arts at Rutgers University. He was the first dean of Rutgers University's School of Creative and Performing Arts, a predecessor of the Mason Gross School. He died in 1988.

"Hell, he inspired me to be a writer -- he was a director; a great director, in fact -- but it was watching him in meetings with some wonderful writers he worked with that got me hooked."

Under the direction of NJ Rep co-founder SuzAnne Barabas, the cast of "Emil" features a number of company stalwarts, with veteran TV and stage actor Fitzpatrick ("All My Children," "Law & Order" and many others) remembered from "The Girl with the High Rouge," and White a major player in such past productions as "Panama" and "The Color of Flesh." Gladen reprises the role of Todd, having performed the character in a script-in-hand reading at the Lumia a couple of seasons back.

"Most of the characters I get interested in have a background story that might read something like Michael's or Emil's or Bea's," said the playwright. "The belief in the redemptive power of a one true love is something I keep exploring; the only difference is sometimes the characters find it, and sometimes they don't."

Featuring a set by Andy Hall and costume designs by Patricia Doherty, "Emil" goes up this weekend and continues with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through April 4. For reservations and other information, call NJ Rep at (732) 229-3166.

from the Asbury Park Press

Published on February 27, 2004