Results tagged “region 2” from Drama Queen

The 2010 Region II Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival O'Neill Critics Institute winner is...

Villanova University graduate Student Mark J. Costello (From now on, he'd like to be referred to by his professional name, "SarcMark").
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Our alternate is Muhlenberg College freshman Amy Asendorf.
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But really, all the students are winners. Under ordinary circumstances that might sound pretty trite. However, these weren't ordinary circumstances. The class' late nights, early mornings, dedication to the work, and support for one another was remarkable. The night they wrote their final reviews, they also critiqued a group speed-writing exercise, tweeted with me about the assignment at 3 a.m., and still showed up early for our 9:30 a.m. class. I mean, I took writing workshops in college, and I guess we must have worked, but I sure don't recall anyone working like that.

Much thanks and deep respect to this year's critics, and also to over 2,000 people who followed the critics' progress on this blog; it was really helpful and motivating for these new, young writers to know they had a built-in audience. 
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Also, special thanks to Clarion College English professor Ralph Leary, tireless organizer of the OCI and one of the few people on earth who every year spends a week with a room full of critics and still walks away with glowing reviews.
January 17, 2010 8:00 PM | | Comments (1)
This is it. 

The KCACTF2 OCI critics, on very, very little sleep, focused the last of their remaining energies on a previous review, crossed their fingers and hit "send." I'm reading through these all day and announcing a winner at IUP tonight, on this blog tomorrow. Over 2,000 visitors read the students' work online this week and I hope some of you will offer your choice for a winner and alternate. The winner gets to attend the national Kennedy Center event this spring, and if their work wins against the top critics in every other region, they get an all-expenses-paid trip to the Eugene O'Neill Critics Institute this summer. 

These reviews represent the range of shows the students saw here in a whirlwind three days--seven productions in all. But they also represent a massive amount of hard work. Check our Twitter list to peek in on some of our wee-hour conversations; check below to see the fruits of all that late-night labor.

Shot!
Shawn Arnold

How can a just society operate when violence is the only means of communication? Temple University strives to examine this question in their new drama set in turbulent North Philadelphia (known as "Beirut"). Shot! explores how violence can be prevented and a caring community reestablished.

Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon's play is a grab-bag of material examining the violent culture of northern Philly. Including poems, rap, videos, and interviews, it creates a night of experimental, innovative theatre that pushes its edgy voice through vignettes. Gangsters vs. warriors, young mothers, the police, education, alcohol and drugs, and the homeless share a Zen-like balance topically. The play's core, however, contains a wealth of interviews that paint a rich image of the real people of Beirut.

The citizens of North Philadelphia are genuinely brought to life through the ensemble. To create this sense of specificity, director Douglas Wager emphasized the importance of the interviews. Not merely become other human beings, the cast conducts their dialog as if answering interview questions. The importance of every little "um" or "ah" is clear. By focusing on the actual community of Beirut, Wager has successfully transported them on stage.

Williams-Witherspoon literally employs her own narrative voice in the piece to mixed results. In some occasions her poetry vividly encapsulates the moment. Her valorous verse on the difference between a gangster and a warrior provides a stirring example on how to fight for one's cause when, "many are dying, few people are trying." Other times, sadly, her meter becomes overwhelming. While riffing about young women with babies, Williams-Witherspoon slides into a series of clichés: "non- existent sugar daddies" and "children with children."

Jessica Wallace's visually stunning lighting design inspires awe with its bold color choices and stark images. Ron Ron, an up and coming rapper, is at the end of his rope. Pointing a gun at himself, he says, "click." Abruptly the lights cut to black, and as he lay dying, a screen of crimson floods the backdrop.

A desolate wasteland, Kyle Melton's set design reflects North Philly's poverty. The choice to use three simplistic, worn stoops and doorways, however, also fosters a sense of community within the play in scenes such as when the elderly generation is reminiscing of the old days.

Shot! -- with its multiple performance levels - takes a look at the raw life of North Philadelphia. In the words of Williams-Witherspoon, many youths are, "killing each other over garbage." The play presents many ways this violence can be combated. Perhaps by raising the price of bullets. Perhaps more measures to inform the community. Perhaps if more Americans stand up to the racial intolerance that is blatantly still present. There still is a shot at hope, "We need more love, we need more understanding."  

Home
Amy Asendorf

Forget a click of the heels and a wave of the wand; there's a new homecoming vehicle on the rise, and this one requires no ruby-studded mantras. Arcadia University's production of Samm-Art Williams' Home rekindles the human faith in a promised land, proving that the long-awaited fields of green are not a destination, but a discovery.

Home first premiered in 1979 as a production of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), whose  mission of developing plays by African-American writers achieved instantaneous acclaim. Home proceeded to earn a Tony nomination for Best Play in 1981. As the 70's were wrought with African-American political defiance sparked by stagnant Civil Rights efforts, the piece was eschewed by the Black radical movement, yet otherwise enjoyed widespread fame. Praise for this play has not since dwindled, and in the past couple years America has witnessed its resurfacing popularity.

The stubborn soul-aching by Jamal Douglas' farmer Cephus Miles erected the possibility for a man to be devoid of religion, yet rich in faith. The devil himself must have been summoned as Douglas flirted with the memory of his Sunday dice games in the graveyard with an expression of youthful disobedience and limberly slunk to ignite the sparks of affection in his love, Pattie Mae (Briana Pope-McBride). But even amidst these games, Douglas humbly deflated his pocket of self-worth as he crouched to raise odes for the crickets and birds above those for himself.

Two female muses, Pope-McBride and Taysha Canales as Woman Two, glorified the soulful direction of Mark Wade with explosive guardian-angel-on-the-shoulder flashbacks to the human blessings along Cephus' quest for home. Somehow, despite Cephus' stabs at God's vacation to Miami (leaving him helpless and forlorn) and the slurred syllables with which the women's damning judgments were delivered as he drank and gambled, Cephus continued to keep the faith kite aloft through God's gracious gift of perseverance. Together as ensemble, the trio balanced the duality of belting lyrical poetry and hip-jiving to jazzy reader's theater.  

Unfortunately, the lighting by Robin Stamey detracted from the storyline toward the beginning of the piece with completely unwarranted transitions between artistic visions: imagine a friend detailing a lengthy dream while shifting seats every thirty seconds, and a similar effect is attained.

Arcadia's set, designed by Chris J. Kleckner, centered on a ramshackle rancher resembling a deck of cards in need of a good shuffling. Angled wedge platforms and wooden crates were so versatile that they at once fostered a downtown bar and a Sunday school classroom. Most pivotal to the play's theme, however, was the looming telephone pole and wire that boldly convened to form a cross. Evidently, God had not slipped away to Miami after all.

With the recent inauguration of President Obama, the promises of the Civil Rights movement for which the NEC sought have been fulfilled at last. In effect, Home has again surged in popularity, testifying to the power of faith among all people to reclaim a home that was always theirs from the start.

Shot!

Nicholas Barilar

On the steps before a green door of a ghetto home sit photos, stuffed animals, and lit candles as part of a public display of love and mourning. Around the steps, people are gathered:  some hold each other, some stare in bewilderment.  At the top of the steps stands a young man - arms folded and eyes closed. A mother weeps and as she cries a cascade of crimson envelops the proceedings.  With a sudden pivot of the head, the mourners spit a single word that rips through the heart with the cold burn of an icicle:  Shot!

Temple University's production consists of Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon's poetry combined with verbatim interviews of the characters presented.  The first act introduces a brief history of Philadelphia's violent street history and segues into stories concerning the demons of their homes - poverty, drugs, "babies with babies," etc.  Finally, it calls for change.

Williams-Witherspoon also leads the ensemble in the show.  Her play presents a gift to the world and an effective motivator; however, her poetic presence on stage conveys the classic strutting with pride saloon-cowboy rather than a voice of hope for the people.

While some of this poetic dialogue might be effective, such as discussing how men leave their girls with little more than a tattoo upon their breasts, much of it is unnecessary, such as the long speech about the difference between a warrior and a gangster - something that is not brought up for the rest of the play. If cuts could be made, the slightly dragging two-act could be consolidated into a single sitting of a clearer and quicker moving play. 

The acting of the ensemble might be more genuine than Williams-Witherspoon, but it is the fact that they are students that make them so effective - within their age group the play most pushes for a radical change. During a section entitled "Anatomy of a Bullet" the students portray doctors and describe the horrific surgical procedure to treating a bullet wound with the similar effect of an Iraqi Muslim describing the waterboarding process - instilling a moment of awkward discomfort that twists the stomach.

Director Douglas C. Wager employs excellent use of his lights, designed by Jessica Wallace, bringing sharp color changes about quickly. A foreboding red lingers, a gunshot rings out with a blinding white light and fades to a now bloody red. 

The simple set, by Kyle Melton, consists of a stage-length long platform upon which stand three different doors with stoops leading to the floor of the stage - illustrating the broken displacement and near ruination of home in this war-torn neighborhood - in addition to telephone cords that run above with a pair of shoes flung over the cord. 

At its heart, Shot! calls for change to a city plagued by violence, drugs, homelessness, and other evils. One of the doctors says, "Once it becomes alright you become a part of the problem." Shot! demands that "alright" not come for those that are lucky enough to witness the play.

A Year with Frog and Toad

Robby Bassler

Wake up!  Come on, hibernation is over!  No it doesn't matter what your age is, because Willie Reale's adaptation of Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad series titled A Year With Frog and Toad presented by Indiana University of Pennsylvania transports both young and old on an adventure as large as your wildest imaginations.

A waterfall of shrill trumpets, finger-snapping bass riffs, and bells that turn into swirling leaves (Musical direction by Tom Octave) propel director Rob Greta's paint by imagination environment.  Frog and Toad (Sean Barrett and Joe York) pop out of two oversized matchbox beds, with a puddle-splashing ode about meeting in each other's dreams during hibernation.  Despite awkward pauses before, during, and after various critters' swan songs, playful singing voices lure even the most lethargic slugs to frolic about in a pool of catchy musical slime.

Frog and Toad outshine expectations from the most dedicated toad-toting toddler or teen.  Set and costume designer Dan Iwaniec flies the enormous children's book cover that starts and ends the show into the sky to clear a path for Frog and Toad.  Wise, dry-humored Frog chuckles to himself as his best pal Toad runs with the staggering gate of Chris Farley across the stage and up into the audience, trying as hard as he can to fly his big red kite.

As Toad as Frog's unique friendship takes flight, Frog accepts Toad's quirks as Frog squeezes the murky lake water out of the spongy sandwiches that Toad used as a floatation device.  Iwaniec dresses this loveable, laughable Toad in a Dr. Seuss-like polka-dotted bathing suit equipped with 1920's swimmer cap.  Doo-wop birds change scenery in costumes with lace wings and a feather hat to guide the silly pair of amphibians in discoveries comparable to entering a new room of Willy Wonka's Charlie Factory.

No matter how great, a journey is not complete without its obstacles.  Woodland creatures squint hard at their poorly lit path guided by spotlights meandering around stage like lightning bugs.  Brown blobs topped with a light bulb (supposedly moles) scurry around stage, content with digging small holes to temporarily trap adventurers.  The letter-toting mail-snail crawls onstage with enjoyable dialogue, but often delays Frog and Toad with her lackadaisical comedic timing.

Toad and Frog's platonic book-ending in which they summarize the action of the entire show patronizes adults and children but stands out as an exception for the play as a whole.  Throughout the rest of the adventure, jokes about birds getting the flu and cookbooks titled Betty Croaker raises expectations for all children's theatre.  So for all those parents that would rather be hibernating, use your children as an excuse to lick this toad and ride out the multi-colored shockwave of fun.

Shot!

Michael Cook

Guns, teen pregnancy, and drugs.  Is that the latest news report on what is destroying our nation?  Shot! is a 'docu-drama' performed by Temple University which addresses this matter in regards to the North Philadelphia neighborhood known as Beirut.  This play had an unconventional genesis which helped shape it into a unique production: Eugene Martin, Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, and Douglas C. Wager are all credited with conceiving the show. 

Shot was created through interviews and videos shot of several residents of Beirut by residents. This neighborhood is located very close to Temple University's campus which allowed for a lot of interaction between the production and residents. 

The play explored how a neighborhood descended into the place it now is, and leaves audiences with a sense of community and a wish to get closer to their neighbors and look after each other. To say that this is the work of a playwright is to spit in the faces of the many people who were interviewed, and the actors who then recreated those interviews in a brilliant naturalistic manner. While it was somewhat 'controversial' that 'multimedia' was used in this performance, it was used in a manner like some theatre practioners as early as the early 20th century did. 'Controversial' in the manner that every technological innovation to theatre is met with initial resistance and several theatre practioners are adamantly against it.  The 'multimedia' aspects of t he show were very well done and always seemed to re-enforce what was going on in the play. 

The actors played many different characters, and aside from the professor who helped write the play  (Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon) it is difficult to put names and faces together, which helped solidify the fact that these events could happen anywhere and aren't specific to North Philadelphia.  Characters were recreations of actual people which created an element of reality of the show. 

The play was also complemented by a minimalist set by Kyle Melton. The set used very little to establish the front porches of three houses in a neighborhood, but it worked out quite nicely. There were three doors and three sets of stairs leading up to a slightly higher platform. 

All of these elements helped contribute to the idea that this just isn't about North Philadelphia, I personally am from rural Northwest Ohio so a lot of the play was lost to me. However, some of the play was so universal that I didn't have to be from Philadelphia to grasp what was going on with the play to fully understand it and feel for the characters. 

This was the first production of this play at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (it has made script changes since it's debut) and it is safe to say that this is not the last time this show will be seen by anyone.

Shot!

Mark Costello

Please, Douglas C. Wager: it's time to upgrade to a better toolbox.

The director of 2007's In Conflict has returned to the banality of mass media talking points to harness yet another American tragedy: the poverty and crime of North Philadelphia. Temple University's Shot! is In Conflict moved from Afghanistan and Iraq to Broad and Diamond. Soldiers' blank verse has become citizens' Def Jam slam poetry. Men and women crippled by careless government still die stagnant deaths.

The crimson projections and lackluster tableaux of In Conflict are two more albatrosses that have clung to Wager's neck as he developed the mise en scene for Shot! Again, we see the entire cast repeatedly lined up, left to right, facing the audience in confrontation. Blood and figurative (or real) explosions abound in both works and sadly, both are as intriguing as a conversation overheard on the C-bus.

This piece's failure comes from Wager's reliance upon a parasitic art form. Docudrama culls together snippets of interviews, histories, and newspaper articles to create a script from which drama is supposed to magically arise. In many instances, such as In Conflict or Robbins' Dead Man Walking, these works are about as engaging as a staged scrapbook.

Much of the first and the entirety of the second act drag accordingly. Protean actors wander back and forth, up and down, speaking the words of real North Philadelphians. Wager's staging has men and women face downstage while singing the horrors of malt liquor, treating a serious problem for the African-American community like a hokey after-school special with an easy moral. The candor of the actors' voices takes on a lightness that betrays their would-be pain.

Thankfully, the production manages to rise under the power of Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon's writing and performance. Decked in loose corn-rows and an understated black pant-suit, Williams-Witherspoon commands awed silence with the practiced stride of a feared schoolmarm. When she screams: "No one can lift themselves up by their bootstraps!" the room erupts, and in that moment she could sell hot coal in hell. Her poetic testament can knock down the giants who keep her town starved in their shadows while raising her neighbors to the status of supermen.

The production is at its strongest when Wager departs widely from the work he's done before. Kyle Melton's inspired three stoop set transforms slowly into a roadside altar in memoriam of a boy slain by circumstance; the boy's mother collapses on it, wailing, sorrow hanging thick in the air like Philadelphia humidity. Would that this passion were the norm, but sadly, the play is far more concerned with telling us about the hell these characters live through. Rarely does it let us see.

Shot! loses its deeply felt message in Wager's inability to make art of reality. As it is, his unwillingness to trade in his old bag of tricks makes for a stale piece, sometimes melodramatic, rarely awe-inspiring, without much to brag about outside of Williams-Witherspoon's magic.

Please, Mr. Wager: revamp your toolbox.

A Year with Frog and Toad

Connor Davis

"Crisp, but not overly brittle, just a scintilla of spice, and cunningly soft in the middle." Claims the delightful Frog as he relishes a fresh cookie from his pal Toad. Coincidentally, Frog is also describing Indiana University Pennsylvania's production of A Year with Frog and Toad. Based on the classic children books by Arnold Lobel, this cheery musical chronicle the events of two best friends through one year.  Warmly acted and agreeably sung, this production was as tasty and enjoyable as the first bite of a chocolate-chip cookie right out of the oven.

Under the delicate and careful direction of Rob Gretta, the small ensemble remains true to the script and does not favor an adult or children's audience. With Robert Reale's score, which ranges from brisk jazzy melodies to breezy country tunes, and Willie Reale's witty libretto this production neither plays down to a child nor flashes a wink to an adult.

At the center of this production were a charming and playful Sean Barret as Frog and the sincere and sometimes doleful Joe York as Toad. Both embodied their characters fully, keeping the audience engaged through inside jokes, and amusing sight gags. Take a look at Toad's outrageous swimsuit, and Mr. Barret's amusing leaps onto his companion's shoulders. The ensemble works hard, and seamlessly with the audience to tell a warm story of friendship and devotion.

Brandon Beale & Anthony Lombardi's lighting design does a fine job in using bright yellows, and cool blues to depict the various seasons. However, their use of follow spots is questionable. The spotlights washed out the actors' faces, and took away from the rich colors thety created for the atmosphere. Shockingly, there were moments when actors could not find their light, and could not be seen by the audience. It was the one area of this production that appeared burnt and overcooked.

Charming costumes by Dan Iwaniec provided depth to characters, with bright colors and vibrant patterns that leap off of the stage like a children'spop-up book. Carefully and expertly detailed, such as Frog's sharp striped suit, with green leggings, and Toad's polka dotted suit, complete with converse sneakers. The costumes provided another layer for actors to dig deeper into their amphibian characters.

Zipping along at a quick 90 minutes, this delightful musical comedy reminds audience members that simple is better. Many contemporary musicals today try and boast flashy technical elements to wow the audience over, yet contain hollow librettos and scores that are consistently unmemorable. It is refreshing to spend time with an airy piece of theater that plays homage to the good old days of musical theater when artistic integrity trumps financial success. A Year with Frog and Toad is deliciously consumed from first bite to last and profoundly memorable long after it has been fully digested.

Home

Valerie Gibbs

Worn wood, chipped paint, and a sunken porch might not sound much like home, but hasn't it been said that "home is where the heart is?" Well, heart is definitely found in Arcadia University's Home, by Samm-Art Williams. This classic, performed on Broadway back in 1980, has been brought back to life by director Mark Wade who inspires three actors to make the lives and stories of over 25 characters beat as one. As the program states, Home, a story originally created for an audience dealing with the effects of the Civil Rights movement and in the midst of the Vietnam War, is "a stirring portrait of what it means to embrace the future while honoring the legacies of the past." 

Young African American Cephus Miles struggles to find himself during the racial crossroads in American history. He was born to be a farmer, but soon hears the echoing call of the city to hop on the subway and experience the high life. Actor Jamal Douglas portrays Cephus with conviction and authentic passion and holds nothing back. Douglas has an amazing understanding and awareness of his body and uses it to emphasize his every word. When Cephus falls to alcoholism in the city and comes to the realization that he has lost everything he has ever known, he collapses to the ground and emits one scream containing all the elements of anger, pain, frustration, regret, and more. 

Supporting cast members Briana Pope-McBride and Taysha Canales also let the emotions of the text stir them to dancing, shouting, whispering, running around in a fury, or standing still staring off into space. Both speak with their entire body, not just their mouths. Emotion is not solely heard in their voices; it is freely personified for all to see.  The show's heartbeat never slows, and music, dancing, singing, and poetic language fill the stage with an immense fever that cannot be ignored. 

The set is comprised of a small deteriorating farmhouse center stage and two angled platforms on either side, often transformed into various locations such as a bar or Sunday school classroom. The openness provides a blank canvas for hues of emotion to shine through. Lighting designer Robin Stamey captures the essence of every moment presented on stage. The moment Cephus' friend is killed in Vietnam, the screen burns a crimson red and a single white light beams on the cross-like telephone pole in Cephus's yard. This visual pierces the heart and humbles the soul.

Today's audience is much different than the one Williams wrote for, but Home still relates to people today. Every individual goes through a time of self-discovery.  Many experience a love like Cephus and Pattie Mae, the struggle between desire and duty, and often wonder if God has "taken a vacation to Miami" in order to get away for awhile.  But in the end, this show proves that as long as we remain true to ourselves, we will find ourselves at home - no matter where that might be.

Increased Difficulty of Concentration

Peter Starr Northrop

1. At the center of a quiet den Dr. Huml stands rigid in terror. He is completely surrounded by a mad swirl of people and unavoidable questions while lights pop and flash all around him. For the first time in his life, Huml has lost control. Yes, Muhlenberg College's production The Increased Difficulty of Concentration by Vaclav Havel has pinpointed the craziness that comes from simply knowing people so exactly that it actually gets frightening. This is a show that--in typical absurdist fashion--pokes fun at man's need for understanding and his quest to make everything into a science, rather than letting natural things be natural.

6. In crafting this play, Havel essentially took the concept of time and smashed it.   Scene changes are abrupt and rarely in chronological order. Audience members all around me gave bewildered groans as they tried to follow the maddeningly frenzied pace Havel's time shifts created. But, if you manage to keep up with this review, then you'll do fine with Havel's script. 

3. The set consisted of a semicircle of four enormous column-like doors looming over a quiet living room. From the start, the doors give  the impression that they will become a threat to the serenity of this place. The walls are all painted olive green, a shade that completely matches Julie Henegan's costumes.

2. A product of the late 1960s during the Soviet Union's iron reign over the Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel was completely against the exasperating communist bureaucracy that gripped his country. His plays usually make great fun the attempt to make a science out of everything. Havel's victim in this show? Sociology!

5. And in his costume, Joe Feilding plays a marvelous Huml. He is earthy and smooth like pipe smoke. He can put any situation to ease--especially when both his wife and the woman with whom he is having an affair interrogate him in separate scenes.  They both ask desperate him questions to see if he is ready to leave the other. But, Fielding deflects their inquiries with incredible ease.

4. In this case, Huml's costumes are an olive green suit and a plaid creamsicle set of pajamas. These complement the set's color and give the firm notion that this is Huml's space.

7.  Vanessa Lancellotti's direction takes this crazy time scheme and brings order to it. From matching set and costume designs to casting Huml's two love interests so they look alike, Lancellotti weaves together all these chaotic elements so anyone can be guided through the pandemonium.

8. The show focuses around Huml's encounter with a set of fellow social scientists and their quest to make a scientific formula for the interactions of man. After the madhouse climax where everything goes wrong for the scientists, Huml completely loses control of his life for just an instant. Afterwards, Huml finally understands where he's gone wrong and the point of the show becomes clear. "The fundamental key to man does not lie in his brain, but in his heart."

Love@1stPlight

Nathan Taylor

Click.  The buckle opened as I pushed inward on the release.  The straps swung slowly, back and forth, almost pleading with me not to go through with it.  Ignoring their appeal, I put my hands to my head and took a deep breath before yanking off my thinking cap.  It was the only way to even remotely enjoy W&J Student Theatre Company's original play Love @ 1st Plight.

Imagine an episode of Family Guy for a basic understanding of the jests writer Drew Aloe uses; lines like "holy cow on a hamburger" sacrifice pacing for humor, resulting in a Möbius strip of predictable clichés.  Tiresome jokes assist in unraveling the script; in ninety minutes, main character Spools (David Doom) manages to repeat his name more times than Bob Dole has in an entire lifetime.  No help is received from director T.S. Frank, who endorses a hamfisted style of acting.

Mate the voices of Harvey Fierstein and Scooby Doo with the comedic talent of Carlos Mencia, and out pops Doom's portrayal of Spools.  The character is tricky; with lines like "Bullshit! From his ass!" and "Let's hug it out bitch," it's little wonder Doom trips over this complicated role.  Yelling every line, he presumably researched his part at an elementary school recess.

Roommate Rich (Johnny Galli) is more of an unabridged collection of Shakespeare's works than an actual character.  Galli delivers his lines with all the wooden acting ability of Keanu Reeves.  There's no chemistry between him and Doom, but it's hardly a surprise watching him ineptly serve his lines to the audience instead of his partner.

Not all performances are as threadbare - understudy Sophia Tsiris's Daisy demonstrates potential despite the figurative manhandling she receives attempting to flirt with Doom.  And ironically enough, the foreseeable plot allows Dent Holden's cameo Phil to produce the most massive laugh.  Expecting Daisy underneath a mask, the prancing, southern accented Denton bursts free in a welcome divergence from the stagnant plot.  Busily hitting himself with a program for most of the play, the guy in front of me stopped long enough to shout out "It's Phil!" when Holden saved the play for yet a second time.

Enough praise, the crowd demands more blood!  Dan Shaw's set design is a sloppy mess of ideas, unpolished and uninspired.  Such clutter is absent from the dorm room that includes nothing more than two beds and a desk.  Stylistically, the only item missing is a John Belushi poster.  The door to said room was set in the middle of a large, white, sparkly fairytale castle.  Why is still a mystery; I'll wish upon a star and get back to you.

With all the wit available at a college party, Love @ 1st Plight would have been much more satisfying with a beer in hand.

Home

Jensen Toperzer

Rhythm and motion - this is what defines Arcadia University's production of Samm-Art Williams' Home, a show that in almost every aspect, a production that stands out as a true gem amidst the shows presented at this year's Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

The script itself would feel clichéd if not for the cadence of Samm-Art's dialogue, evocative of the works of Langston Hughes or Ntozake Shange. Taysha Marie Canales' character, listed only as 'Woman Two', shows this in the lines of a speech about going to the city - 'Take it to the city', she says, and in her words we can hear the rumble of trains and the flow of people, the skyscrapers towering overhead.

Even more than in their voices, the actors' mastery of their own bodies is nearly perfect. James Douglas' lithe movements are each well thought out, not a single one wasted as he conjures vignettes, stories, and locations from Cephus' life. For example, when he tells the story of the "Black Indian" he leans on his porch to speak to the (not physically present) man, then stands up bolt straight with his arms close to his body to mimic and parody the deluded fake-Indian before shifting back to his own confidant yet relaxed posture. Everything seems planned, from the confidant and sly way he moves as a young man to the subtle tremors in his hands as a shoe shiner in the twisted canyons of New York City. These careful considerations of movement, beat, and voice combine to take a script which can be boiled down to a story about finding oneself and coming home to spectacular heights.

Robin Stamey's lighting is almost as much of a character as the actors. Though some cues are slightly mis-timed and on occasion the actors are left in shadow, it is clear that this is a problem of the space and short amount of time to put on the show, not the show itself. The warm, almost buttery tones used to recall Crossroads, North Carolina, emphasizing the warm memories and feelings that Cephus has of the area. Violet light is used when Cephus first travels to New York, showing how foreign and exotic it appears to the country-born Cephus, before it changes to a chill ice blue, paralleling the alienation and neglect Cephus later experiences in the city. Violent red light calls to mind the war in Vietnam, while sickly green shows the malady of spirit that Cephus feels during his wrongful imprisonment for draft dodging.

There are some questions about the possible relevance of the play to modern audiences - originally produced in the late 70's, the play speaks on issues concerning Vietnam and black rights.Yet the themes addressed seem just as relevant to the modern day: Cephus' treatment as a man who 'spits on the flag' after he refuses to fight in the war for religious reasons is especially relevant considering the pervasive conservative attitude towards objectors to the war in Iraq during the last decade.

Rhythm and motion - this is what defines Arcadia University's production of Samm-Art Williams' Home, a show that in almost every aspect, a production that stands out as a true gem amidst the shows presented at this year's Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

The script itself would feel clichéd if not for the cadence of Samm-Art's dialogue, evocative of the works of Langston Hughes or Ntozake Shange. Taysha Marie Canales' character, listed only as 'Woman Two', shows this in the lines of a speech about going to the city - 'Take it to the city', she says, and in her words we can hear the rumble of trains and the flow of people, the skyscrapers towering overhead.

Even more than in their voices, the actors' mastery of their own bodies is nearly perfect. James Douglas' lithe movements are each well thought out, not a single one wasted as he conjures vignettes, stories, and locations from Cephus' life. For example, when he tells the story of the "Black Indian" he leans on his porch to speak to the (not physically present) man, then stands up bolt straight with his arms close to his body to mimic and parody the deluded fake-Indian before shifting back to his own confidant yet relaxed posture. Everything seems planned, from the confidant and sly way he moves as a young man to the subtle tremors in his hands as a shoe shiner in the twisted canyons of New York City. These careful considerations of movement, beat, and voice combine to take a script which can be boiled down to a story about finding oneself and coming home to spectacular heights.

Robin Stamey's lighting is almost as much of a character as the actors. Though some cues are slightly mis-timed and on occasion the actors are left in shadow, it is clear that this is a problem of the space and short amount of time to put on the show, not the show itself. The warm, almost buttery tones used to recall Crossroads, North Carolina, emphasizing the warm memories and feelings that Cephus has of the area. Violet light is used when Cephus first travels to New York, showing how foreign and exotic it appears to the country-born Cephus, before it changes to a chill ice blue, paralleling the alienation and neglect Cephus later experiences in the city. Violent red light calls to mind the war in Vietnam, while sickly green shows the malady of spirit that Cephus feels during his wrongful imprisonment for draft dodging.

There are some questions about the possible relevance of the play to modern audiences - originally produced in the late 70's, the play speaks on issues concerning Vietnam and black rights. Yet the themes addressed seem just as relevant to the modern day: Cephus' treatment as a man who 'spits on the flag' after he refuses to fight in the war for religious reasons is especially relevant considering the pervasive conservative attitude towards objectors to the war in Iraq during the last decade.

A Comb and a Prayer Book

Kelly Wetherald

Awareness of the Holocaust is an event that individuals cannot avoid for we are educationally bombarded with images and horrific details in American history classes nationwide.  Modern society knows this.  But what about "genocide in Darfur, Rwanda, or Yugoslavia"?  What about those people and their suffering?  Stockton College's A Comb and A Prayer Book simply did a disservice to all remaining survivors; Holocaust or otherwise.  Elizabeth Blum Goldstein's story should be cherished and remembered for centuries to come, but this production should be removed from the theatrical circuit. 

A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story's central theme struggled.  Was the vision to tell one person's history or to heighten awareness of genocide and humanistic cruelty?  The play had an unclear objective and static storyline which in turn made the performance boring and unbearably annoying.  The production was just another attempt to do justice to a riveting memoir that turned out to be an epic failure on stage.

I cannot blame the painful performance solely on the actors at Stockton College, but I can however place direct blame on director Pamela R. Hendrick.  In her own words, "scripts that attempt a realistic representation of the Holocaust are problematic because such an extreme event is impossible to recreate realistically in live performance".  I wish that she actually took some of her own advice.  Anne Frank for example could convey an authentic sense of history in her memoirs and on stage.  A Comb and a Prayer Book however could not.

Hendrick also chose to incorporate chamber theatre techniques while directing This technique includes using as much original text as possible while telling the story through a couple main characters.  Unfortunately, Lauren Suprenant playing Shana Fogerty delivered unmotivated monologues with a monotone voice.  It is hard to believe that such vivid textual images such as "barren bed chambers", "saturated piss stains", and "starvation to the point of eating worms" could still come across so bland.   The lack of ensemble interaction and clear disconnect to the story only added to the antsy atmosphere felt in the theater.

One positive aspect of this production A Comb and a Prayer Book was the technical lighting and set design.  Varied lighting angles and color helped create a somber, death stricken mood that the actors themselves couldn't naturally create.  The lighting provided depth, a sense of time and helped to make the minimalistic set spring to life.  Metal scaffolding, ominous hanging lights and block platforms blended into the background yet also chilled the tone of the piece.  The basic set design allowed for imagination to drive visual images. 

The high hopes that I had for this production after their nomination to KCACTF were shattered within twenty minutes.  I found myself longing for the end or at least for the nonexistent intermission to take a break from the monotonous one dimensional narration. 

 

January 16, 2010 1:08 PM | | Comments (1)
My Critics Institute students got a real challenge yesterday: review Indiana University of Pennsylvania's production of the charming family show A Year with Frog and Toad, and then review Stockton College's A Comb and a Prayer Book, a first-person account of the Holocaust. So yeah, they had one helluva day. Here are those reviews (I gave the option of choosing which one to post).

What we'd like to know is this: what works for you and what doesn't. Pick your favorite review and tell that critic why you liked it. Find common threads that run through the reviews and point out who expresses those themes most successfully and why. Tell the students what you want from a review, and let them know if anyone delivered.

A Year with Frog and Toad

Robby Bassler

Wake up! Come on, hibernation is over! No it does not matter what your age is, because Willie Reale's adaptation of Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad series titled A Year With Frog and Toad presented by IUP takes both young and old on an adventure as large as your wildest imaginations.

We are going to start our adventure off in a waterfall of shrill trumpets, finger-snapping bass riffs, and synthesizers that outlive their reputation. With a little help from your imagination, bells turn into swirling leaves to create the environment. Occasionally, critters will sing along with these background beats, but you must watch out for awkward pauses before, during, and after these animals begin their swan songs. Fortunately the beautiful woodland voices cover up any murky water in the composition and you will be singing along with them in your head long after the adventure is over.

The guides of our adventure, Frog and Toad as played by Sean Barrett and Joe York respectively, outshine expectations from the most dedicated toad-toting toddler or teen.  They will take us through relatively simple book-cover set that is transformed by the imaginations of the animals and audience. The wise, dry-humored frog guides Toad, the physical, Chris Farley doppelganger as they fly kites, splash in a swimming hole, and bake cookies. You will surely learn and laugh along as the lanky frog and the large, loveable toad learn more about their unique friendship.

Wacky yet simple props give the illusion of magical flower-growing, springs shooting out of an alarm clock, and sponge sandwiches dripping water. Toad's polka dotted yellow bathing suit equipped with 1920's swimmer cap and an ensemble of doo-wop bird outfits of lace wings and a feather hat highlight the Dr. Seuss-like costume choices. The doo-wop birds fly in with the props or scenery changes to make sure that there are no pauses in the adventure.

No matter how great, an adventure is not complete without its precautions. On your adventure you must watch out because the poorly lit path equipped with purposeless spotlight-ningbugs may have you missing important moments in the show. Not even the brown blobs topped with a light bulb can help you as underdeveloped characters prevent them from ever illuminating the situation. You might not even be able to see the snail that will leave poor timing slime all over your knickers and slow down your journey to an awkward pace merely to sing about how everyone should take a "real good look at her."

Toad and Frog's platonic book-ending where they meet each other in their dreams and summarize the entire show might be the only failure of the script not to dumb down the message for kids. Throughout the rest of the adventure, you will be treated as an intelligent member of Toad and Frog's witty, vaudevillian comedy. So dads that would rather hibernating, use your children as an excuse to lick this toad and ride out the multi-colored shockwave of fun.

Mark J. Costello

Frog and Toad Not Just Child's Play

Mention "children's theater" to any member of the arts set and watch them convulse. The mere utterance calls up images of well-meaning but generally inept production teams staging concentrated saccharine on DayGlo sets. The fear is that easy physicality might trump complex story and that no thread, thought, or moment will last longer than 30 seconds. It's a rule that children's productions are little more than distracting chaos unleashed, because kids are dumb, right?

Absolutely not, booms the reply from IUP's Theatre-by-the-Grove. A Year With Frog and Toad is the latest volley against drivel in the war for legitimate children's theater. Sean Barret's Frog and Joe York's Toad guide us through a whimsical, musical world in which snails deliver mail, a protean chorus of birds croon in Andrews Sisters melodies, and most importantly, no one in the audience is talked down to.

A simple set (a storybook backdrop, a few sticks of furniture, and two white picket fences) allows for an expansive space in which magic can be made. And magic it truly is: IUP's production teaches that in a world where we value and care for each other more than ourselves, the things we want simply appear in the wings. Lovingly holding a flowerpot allows flowers to grow (quite suddenly!) and seats appear when tired bones call out to them. Frog and Toad's child-sized bromance envelops the stage in a magical ether where innocence is rewarded.

The show's tech aspects are at once its blessing and its curse. Spring-loaded alarm clocks and flowerbeds, sharply colored 1930s-chic costuming, and punny cookbooks ("Betty Croaker"--go ahead and groan) create a whimsy one settles into readily. Meandering spotlights, however, sometimes distractingly light up barren stretches of empty stage. The pit overpowers the cast often (especially Barret, when he slips into his low register), and one must endure uninspired, repetitive choreography during frequent musical interludes.

Strong performances save us from these wanting moments, however. York can pull laughs out of the audience simply by twitching his eyes or muttering innocent epithets under his breath. His and Barret's comedic timing fire with Annie Oakley-like precision. Veronica Wilt (at various points a Bird, Mouse, Turtle, and Mole) pulls at her whiskers or flicks her beak in so meticulous-yet-subtle a way that one, at once, notices the skill of the actress and senses the breathing reality of the animal. And, most impressively, not once do the performances push into condescension: at all points, IUP asserts complicated theatrical conventions (for example: see this man in a suit? He's actually a frog--run with it) and fully expects kids to come along for the ride.

Their willingness to respect child intelligence is rewarded in the formation of a well-rounded, respectable production. They have told children that it's okay to dream, to love simply, and to put others before all things.

Maybe it isn't really children's theater after all.

Connor Davis

Sweet, with an Excellent Crunch

"Crisp, but not overly brittle, just a scintilla of spice, and cunningly soft in the middle." Claims the delightful Frog as he relishes a fresh cookie from his pal Toad.

Coincidentally, Frog is also describing Indiana University Pennsylvania's production of A Year with Frog and Toad. Based on the classic children books by Arnold Lobel, this cheery musical chronicle the events of two best friends through one year. Warmly acted and agreeably sung, this production was as tasty and enjoyable as the first bite of a warm chocolate-chip cookie right out of the oven.

With Robert Reale's score, which ranges from brisk jazzy melodies to breezy country tunes, and Willie Reale's witty book the play has something for everyone. This is not your average children's play that uses witty dialogue to play down to a young child or over their heads. Under the delicate and careful direction of Rob Gretta, the small ensemble remains true to the script and does not favor an adult or children's audience. The show portrays a simple friendship that is strong and can't be broken in half like a cookie.

At the center of this production were a charming and playful Sean Barret as Frog and the sincere and sometimes doleful Joe York as Toad. Both embody their character fully, keeping the audience engaged through inside jokes, and amusing sight gags. The ensemble works hard, and seamlessly with the audience to tell a warm story of friendship and devotion.

If there is any burnt or overcooked element in this production, it came from Brandon Beale & Anthony Lombardi's lighting design. While creating beautiful atmospheric looks to Dan Iwaniec's minimalist set, their use of follow spots was the only stale part of this production. At times the actors were not in their light, and could not be seen by the audience. Not to pin all the blame on Beale & Lombardi, Gretta stages several scenes extremely down stage creating impossible positions to hang and focus lights.

Dan Iwaniec's charming costumes provided depth to characters, and caused the characters to jump out of the stage like a children's pop-up book. Carefully and cleverly detailed, the costumes gave each character their own distinct style. From Frog's sharp striped suit, with green leggings, to Toad's poke-a-dotted suit with converse sneakers, the costumes gave the actors another layer to dig deeper into their amphibian characters.

Zipping along at a quick ninety minute pace, this delightful musical comedy reminds audience members that simple is better. Many contemporary musicals today try and boast flashy technical elements to Wow the audience over, yet contain librettos and scores that are hollow and flat. A Year with Frog and Toad is consumed like a chocolate-chip cookie, delicious from first bite to last and profoundly memorable long after it has been fully digested. 

Valerie Gibbs

Is Spring Here Yet?

A lot can happen in a year, especially when you're hanging out with two energetic amphibians like Frog and Toad. Indiana University of Pennsylvania's production of A Year with Frog and Toad takes this classic children's story and brings it to life in a vibrant way. These two amphibious pals will keep you leaping with laughter through every season, no matter what your age. Who ever said there was an age limit to children's theater? This show definitely proves that anyone can rediscover their inner child and enjoy the innocence of a make believe world in which animals can sing and dance.

The five person cast took on the challenge of over thirteen different characters and performed a show enjoyable for the entire family. The girls of the ensemble sung as sweetly as any Lady Bird and had tight harmonies and full voices that produced the sound of a much larger ensemble. Sean Barrett (Frog) and Joe York (Toad) did not have to work hard to gain the complete attention and approval of the audience. They were engaging and easy to watch, and when they had fun, the audience had fun too. They had a strong connection and portrayed a lifelong friendship. They showed us just how fun baking cookies, flying kites, and sledding with your friends can be. Frog and Toad were best friends, and as we journeyed through the year with them, we learned more and more about what true friendship looks like. Though the story is technically meant for children, the script kept the parents in mind as well with jokes about the bird flu, the wittiness of "snail mail," and various other things that any child would probably not notice. There was something entertaining for everyone to enjoy.

Though the set was minimal, the costumes and props were more than enough to create the fun-filled atmosphere of this show. With the exciting little tricks of the springing alarm clock and the growing flowers in the garden, to the cleverness of using sponges for soggy sandwiches, the props added a youthful, excitement and mystical element to the show.  The vintage style of the costumes gave the show the feel of a sophisticated fairytale. The textures and fashions coordinated perfectly with the jazz era musical style as well. Even those in "the pond pit" were dressed to match. This show was unified across the spectrum.

The only thing that needed more attention was the lighting. The follow spots struggled to keep up with their actors and at one point, the audience members somehow became illuminated as well. The house lights flickered at one part too, which could have easily been prevented. The overall lighting was sloppy and flat and did not do much to enhance the atmosphere of the show. However, all the other elements worked so well together that I was willing to overlook the unimpressive lights and still enjoy an experience that had me ready to spend another year with the wonderful dynamic duo, Frog and Toad.

Nathan Taylor

There Could Be No Better Friend Than IUP

Frogs and toads and snails - oh my! No, it wasn't an aquatic version of "The Wizard of Oz," but rather Indiana University of Pennsylvania's production of A Year with Frog and Toad, a children's theater musical whose title couldn't be more truthful. Exploring the bonds of friendship, Frog and Toad bake cookies, ride a sled, and rake each others leaves as the seasons pass.

Even before the musical begins the audience is immersed into the storybook world of these lovable characters when musical director Tom Octave introduces the orchestral "pond." Though the set is minimalistic, nothing besides a few choice pieces are ever needed; the production is carried primarily through the actors, props, and costumes, a welcome change from the growing trend of spectacle heavy musicals.

Sean Barrett's Frog provides an air of cordiality without ceding any of the downright neighborly vibes towards Joe York's ragamuffin Toad. Their relationship was like a G-rated version of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple;" despite the clear differences in their characterizations, there was never any doubt about how much each actor cared about the other - it was in their voices and physicality. Even with an over the top style conducive towards children's theatre, their believability never faltered.

Both Barrett and York utilized melodious voices that rose to the belting occasion when required. What was truly impressive was their ability to keep their respective character voices when doing so; Barrett's was deep and rich, while York's was more nasally and high pitched. The main difference between the two, and the divergence between a good performance and a great one, were their capabilities with comedic timing. While not awful, Barrett mistimed a fair number of his jokes which turned the show's intended steady stream of laughter into shorter gale force bursts.

Helping York with his masterful use of comedy were a plethora of props produced by Natalie Brown and Amber Musselman. Adding to the cartoonish nature of the show were their rather numerous creative devices; memorable ones include a breakable alarm clock that shot springs, a bed of soil from which flowers popped up, and sponge burgers which wrung out water onto the stage.

Supporting actresses Jamie Markel, Whitney Weimer, and Veronica Wilt made full use of Dan Iwaniec's inventive costumes that were quite congruent with the nature of the props.  With ears made of springs, shells made of blankets, and miner's head lamps made from plastic wine glasses, Iwaniec's design never showed a lack of ingenuity without impeding any functionality.

"A Year with Frog and Toad" is best described in the words of the titular characters when they sing "it's inconceivable! It's unbelievable!" The only thing they leave out is that IUP's musical is a whole heap of fun, unrestricted to age and guaranteed to make audiences giggle.

A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story

Shawn Arnold

"Survivor Story" Needs a Little Help

Okay, epic story, guys! Elizabeth Goldstein, a young Hungarian Jew, is uprooted thanks to the Holocaust. She embarks on a perilous journey from concentration camp to concentration camp. Along the way she loses most of her family, but refuses to lose her own will. She even manages to escape the bloody Nazi regime and passes down her story to her granddaughter. If this were a play, sounds like it would make for some assuredly gripping theater, right? Epic stuff!

Richard Stockton College's production of A Comb and a Prayer Book does not quite live up to this epic-ness. In an attempt to avoid a "typical" Holocaust play, director Pamela Hendrick decided to create a text-based piece stylistically employing chamber theater (think books on tape, but instead onstage). Although it attempts to send a clear message home, the end result of this "creative" endeavor is a muddy mix that has moments that stun as well as bore.

The piece visually nails it. Dan Wright and Chuck Cole's use of side/down light casts huge shadows and creates an ominous sense of foreboding. This is most intense when a Nazis' Greek chorus is rambling off a cacophony of legislation on the suppression of Jews.

The sound design by Jessica Schon includes bold and haunting choices. Most notably is a sequence where she uses John Hobbie's versatile set as a means to create sounds of a munitions factory. By hitting, scraping and slamming the set, the cast viscerally brings the world of the factory to life.

Pamela Hendrick's cast clearly brings the message home that the play is about preventing genocide. There is also an intense focus on presenting the source material as written. This non-traditional interpretation becomes old quickly, however, as the audience is hammered over the head again and again with presentational narration on level with Ben Stein's droning.

One would think that Hannah Hendry's Goldstein would experience a wave of emotions induced by PTSD while recalling her horrific past. Sadly, trying to find this development is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Hendry's portrayal is monotonous, and in the few months when she is overcome with emotions, they disappear as quickly as they arrived.

Lauren Suprenant's young Elizabeth has more redeeming qualities than her counterpart. Yes, she does fall into the trap of monotony quite a few times when discussing the taking of her father, but her struggle with optimism is generally clearer.

A Comb and a Prayer Book is neither stellar nor terrible. Some brave choices that don't completely work might cost Richard Stockton College the patronage of the audience member who likes a more "typical" Holocaust play (a la Anne Frank or Playing for Time). However, those that want to explore a more presentational text-centric piece, it might be for you.

Amy Asendorf

When A Comb and a Prayer Book Are Your Only Hope

Family Separation. Back-breaking labor. Painful humiliation. Torturous starvation. And all because she was Jewish. A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story, as performed by the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, is an original verbatim theater production based on the memoir of Holocaust victim Elizabeth Blum Goldstein. Because the majority of the production accentuated the dismal trials of life amidst concentration camps, the display of Goldstein's miraculous hope and resilience served merely to remind us of the hope for human tolerance, but lacked a firm basis in reality.

Director Pamela R. Hendrick chose to utilize alternating patterns of narration, dialogue and dramatic action which produced a haunting rhythm to which the audience travelled alongside Goldstein. The use of overlapping served multiple purposes as the lines between Elizabeth Goldstein (Hannah Hendry) and Young Elizabeth (Lauren Suprenant) established a clear distinction between Goldstein's recollection and the interview between Goldstein and Shana Fogarty (Lauren Suprenant) at present. In addition, the overlapping lines of the Hungarian government officials, played by the ensemble, drowned the audience in a spinning whirlpool of hatred and fear. The nearly monotone montage of voices took on a distinctly robotic nature, completely unidentifiable with human emotion and empathy.

Hendrick also established the idea of rigidity within the lives of the Holocaust victims. The meticulously equal spacing between characters as well as the stiff stances of the Hungarian officials and camp guards suggested the immutability of Goldstein's situation. Ironically, the actors playing the siblings and parents of Goldstein's family also play the guards and officials who condemn them. This intriguing duality asserts that both sets of individuals are equally human.

Hannah Hendry provided a breathtakingly chilling portrayal of the disturbed Goldstein. Her rich Hungarian accent combined with her meek hesitancy naturally evoked pity and fear. It was as if Hendry were a hypnotist as the audience fell powerless to the horrors of her account. Each time she nearly stopped the story due to her fragile and painful memories was like a sudden return to reality. Unfortunately, the potential cathartic effect of Hendry's performance was hampered by her young counterpart, Lauren Suprenant. Suprenant ultimately failed to express the horrors of her own present reality as young Goldstein. In fact, there seemed to be no audible change in voice or physical change in stance and presence as Suprenant oscillated between her two roles. The calmness of Shana, the interviewer, seemed to carry over into Young Goldstein, the mildly disturbed, if that.

Due to the complete lack of comic relief, the closing of the production was only slightly palatable. The audience was abruptly shifted froma pathos-ridden tale to a sudden public service announcement: What can we do to help stop genocide? Unfortunately, it's hard to call an audience to action when they are overwhelmend by emotional hypnosis.

Nicholas Barilar

Holocaust Play Proves to Be Devastating

Three multi-leveled scaffold towers loom before you. The house lights slowly darken.  The ominous sound of a Yiddish tune on pipes is suddenly heard.The lights come up and the Brechtian A Comb and a Prayer Book:  A Survivor's Story plunges us into the tragic world of a holocaust survivor. Unfortunately, this production proved tragic as well.

It shares the story of Elizabeth Blum Goldstein who, after facing a brutal experience in six different concentration camps, tells her story for the first time to her granddaughter for a class project. We see both happening at the same time. 

I loved the set design by John Hobbie. It was balanced as well as extremely usable for such a stylized show. 

The lighting, by Daniel Wright and Charles Cole III, was effective, specifically, in the use of a projection that placed barbed wire across the entire stage provided a sharp jab to the stomach in not only separating the characters from the world outside the concentration camps but from the audience as well.

Perhaps the most helpful in the actual storytelling, though, was the combination of properties and sound designs, by Jessica Schön and Patrick Judd, respectively. When the set is pounded by billy clubs to create gunshots that create sounds that crawl over and through you like an ocean wave the result is chilling. Still, one of the hardest images to shake comes when the family is forced into labor and create, using the props and their bodies, the sounds of the factory. But, then there will be occasions when non-live sounds were used and they simply failed to have the same impact.

The acting was largely executed in a very unrealistic manner. These moments were probably the most effective at the beginning when laws regarding the rights of a Jewish person were recited in a chaotic unison. However, for the actual action of the play, it proved to be irritating because the best moments of action where acted realistically.

The cast comes across as awkward, however, the fault probably lies in the direction. It became very clear that what was and wasn't real or "in the moment" wasn't real because it failed to connect and just lacked life. Coupled with pacing problems, the direction was simply stagnant. Toward the end of climax-devoid staging, it all just seems the same, that being too long and slow.

The final scene between Elizabeth and her granddaughter are amongst the most tender in the show.  However, it moves quickly from actual action immediately to what could be described as a Brecht after-school-special for action against genocide. This is the moment when the playwright/director decided to hit the audience over the head just to make sure that it understood the message of the play. Thanks. We got it through the telling the story of a historical genocide through the eyes of someone who experienced it in a contemporary setting in a contemporary way. But thanks for making sure. 

Michael Cook

A Comb and A Lack of Justice Done

A Comb and a Prayer Book is a play about a woman revealing her experiences in the holocaust for the first time since the events transpired. This sentence seems to be the basis for several other books, plays, and movies. However, A Comb and a Prayer Book claims to be much more and falls short of those claims. The story is one of hope and the subject matter of the Holocaust is a familiar tale to many people who are taught not to forget the past. 

Before the play started, I noticed the unconventional size of the program and read the director's notes which stated that the director wished to portray the reality of the holocaust using Chamber Theatre (a style of theatre which seeks to use as much of the original text from which it was adapted) because every other play the director read resorted to expressionism or metaphor to convey this. However, upon viewing this play I would certainly say that expressionism is a large influence on the play. However, the costumes didn't lend well to either idea. The men were in costumes that suggested Jewish apparel of the time, but the female characters were wearing black leggings and jumpers, which could have suggested that the play is a memory, and some of the details of the memory aren't as strong. While some may argue that this was the entire point in doing so, it is also possible that it was entirely unnecessary. The music seemed to cut off the actors' lines at times and at other times it was almost overwhelming viewing the play, the acting itself was good and the actors had to play several different characters, changing many conflicting mindsets and personalities in a matter of minutes, and the lighting helped establish the cold nature of the Holocaust, and the warm nature of the family.

The story itself would have been worth hearing regardless of how its presented but I often found myself asking if the story was being dealt justice during my viewing. However, the ending seemed to pull me entirely out of the story and could've been a reminder that injustice carries on to this day, but instead seemed awkwardly executed and killed the mood of the play, instead of portraying reality it felt too much like I was watching a group of actors trying to raise awareness about a cause. 

While it was an ambitious first production, I feel as if this script has the possibility of being executed well, but for now that will have to wait. 

Peter Starr Northrop

A Comb and a Prayer Book and Not Much Else

Ah yes, the Holocaust. It was one of the harshest crucibles that mankind has ever had to endure. By now, we've all heard the terrible stories of that dreadful time, from Anne Frank's heartbreaking diary to the power and fury of Ellie Weisel's Night. The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey has tried to add one more side to this terrible chapter with A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story.

Comb tells the story of one Stockton grad's grandmother's struggle after the Nazis took over her homeland and sent her to concentration camp after concentration camp. It then goes on to tell very little else. In fact, by the end it ends up being very little more than an infomercial, listing several genocides that are ongoing asking the audience what they have done to stop the horror.

But, storytelling aside, this show looked fantastic. Set designer Jon Hobbie really accomplished something special for this show. His design is made entirely out of layers and stacks of skeletal scaffolding backed by grey scrims. This, paired with Daniel Wright's chilled lighting design really sombers up the audience even before the show begins. The whole thing is cold and grey--a cloudy December afternoon on an industrial beachfront. This spartan design leads to some incredible stage pictures. We see a whole family crammed into the cattle car of one scaffold while bright jagged squares of light play off their frightened faces. But these beautiful and shudder-inducing images do little to save the show from it's greatest flaw: the story.

The tale is told essentially through a 90 minute intermissionless monologue shared by Elizabeth Blum (Hannah Hendry) and her granddaughter, Shana Fogarty (Lauren Suprenant.) The show went live in the massive Fischer Auditorium, though it became abundantly clear that Comb felt more at home in a smaller space. Suprenant simply could not project to fill that whole auditorium, and Hendry did not fare any better. Their speeches took on a ghostly, distant aspect that made it difficult for the audience to make any emotional connection.

The show is more of a torture story than a survival story. Elizabeth doesn't tell us how she survived--she just shows that she was ripped from her home and sent to six concentration camps where the Nazis were very mean. Then she gets liberated. Then she goes to New Jersey. The end. The program tells a better story than the actual play, saying that Elizabeth triumphed over the holocaust--surviving and raising a family in South Jersey despite what she had been through. What I would have loved to see was a second act--where Elizabeth gets out of Europe, goes to Jersey (survives Jersey) and raises that family. That would make an audience stand up and cheer. I want to see the triumph, not just the mere survival of someone.

While Comb is a very important story, it simply does not tell enough of it to make the experience have anything other than a slight educational value. 

Jensen Toperzer

A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story

In literary fiction, there is an adage that one should always show, not tell - that is, a character should not simply state "I am angry," but show their rage through their actions and reactions. It is advice repeated to the point of near absurdity, but that does not change its relevance, and it is at this very task that Pamela Hendrick's adaptation A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story utterly fails.

There's a certain irony in this, as the theater is a medium precisely for showing, not telling, but many parts of A Comb and a Prayer Book feel like a book report rather than a play, with the narrators both seeming emotionally distant from their subject matter - a true shame, as the story itself should be incredibly moving. We speak here of a story about a woman who managed to survive not one, but six concentration camps, and who is alive to this day with grandchildren.

The primary problem comes from director Pamela Hendrick's choice to create the play as a Chamber piece. While the style has been used effectively in other contexts - such as The Grapes of Wrath - in this case, it serves to create a gulf of emotional distance between the audience and a subject that should, by all means, be emotionally raw. While the director's stated goal of neither sanitizing nor romancing the Holocaust is an admirable one, it is one the piece ultimately falls short of. Indeed, A Comb and a Prayer Book does feel sanitized. For example, there is one scene in which a young Elizabeth describes the horror of her first day at Auschwitz. A woman lay on her back beside the line as she and her family were shuffled through the gates, screaming - she realized, watching, that the woman was giving birth. The Nazi officers merely watched until the baby came out, and only then shot her dead, letting her suffer as much as possible. This is a scene that should be gut-wrenchingly powerful, that should induce a truly visceral reaction in the audience, an idea further punctuated by the dramatic change in the lighting from light to dark. Yet the way the lines are written coupled with a flat delivery mean that the scene evokes no reaction whatsoever. It is simply a fact reported to the audience, like watching a documentary or reading a history book, not a visceral, immediate truth of the horrors present in history. 

The ending of the play feels ham-handed, with the actors listing off modern genocides in an effort to brain the audience with the fact that the Holocaust "could happen again." But because the horrors of the Holocaust were not presented in a way that could evoke an emotional response from the audience, this list falls as flat as the rest of the production, feeling more like the sort of thing told to middle school history classes.

In the end, A Comb and a Prayer Book manages to do the very thing it set out to avoid - it sanitizes the Holocaust and worse yet, Elizabeth's story, turning it from a real account of a horrible time in someone's life into a dull diatribe about why one shouldn't commit genocide.

Kelly Wetherald

Operation Comb and A Prayer Book: Mission Failed

The Holocaust of World War II is an event that educated individuals cannot avoid learning about for we are bombarded with images, events and horrific details in American history classes nationwide. Nearly six million Jews were murdered, tortured and humiliated all to indulge the egotistical control freak, Adolf Hitler. Modern society knows this. But what about genocide in Darfur, Rwanda, or Yugoslavia, that was randomly mentioned at the end of the show? What about those people and their suffering? What about the confinement of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. If we are obsessed with the Holocaust because we as Americans feel guilty, then why aren't we creating theatrical pieces expressing other areas of humanistic suffering? As messed up as it sounds, our culture has become desensitized to the horror of the Holocaust. 

The main area I am struggling with was whether the purpose of A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story was to tell one person's history or to heighten awareness of genocide and humanistic cruelty. The play had an unclear objective and static storyline which in turn made the performance boring and unbearably annoying. To me it was just another attempt at making a Holocaust memoir that turned out to be an epic fail.

I cannot blame the painful performance solely on the actors at Stockton College, but I can however place direct blame on director Pamela R. Hendrick. In her own words, "scripts that attempt a realistic representation of the Holocaust are problematic because such an extreme event is impossible to recreate realistically in live performance." I wish that she actually took some of her own advice. There are certainly successful Holocaust survival stories that have been turned into books and plays. Anne Frank for example could convey a sense of fear, sympathy, strength, and most of all history in her memoirs. That particular interpretation was focused and knew how to appeal to an audience without being overwhelming. A Comb and a Prayer Book however did not.

Hendrick also chose to incorporate Chamber Theatre techniques while directing A Comb and a Prayer Book: A Survivor's Story. This technique includes using as much original text as possible while telling the story through a couple of main characters.  Unfortunately, Lauren Suprenant playing Shana Fogerty and Hannah Hendry playing Elizabeth Blum Goldstein's monotone vocal qualities, unmotivated monologues and lack of ensemble interaction put me to sleep. 

One positive in this production of A Comb and a Prayer Book was the technical lighting and set design. The use of top, side and blue light helped to create a somber, death stricken mood that the actors themselves couldn't naturally create. The lighting created depth, a sense of time and helped to make the minimalistic set spring to life.

The high hopes that I had for this production after their nomination to KCACTF were shattered within twenty minutes. I found myself longing for the end or at least for the nonexistent intermission to take a break from the monotonous one dimensional narration.

January 14, 2010 7:53 PM | | Comments (1)
The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II O'Neill Critics Institute starts at Indiana University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday. I know that's a lot of qualifiers, but I, for one, am unqualified in my excitement about this year's event. Thus far, we're set to have the largest enrollment ever in this region, plus, two of last year's contenders will return to try again for their chance at the golden ticket. This is a big deal because, as you may have heard, the profession is in a bit of a holding pattern (cough, nosedive, cough) right now. But it does my heart good to see this many students undeterred; the more young, creative, tech-savvy minds willing to give arts journalism a go, the likelier it is that someone will grab the controls and steer us in a new direction. That would be nice, since spending so long preparing for impact really has me cramped up. 

As was the case last year, readers of this blog (and especially KCACTF participants) are invited to chime in with feedback for our writers. Ready to meet them? 

Shawn Arnold.jpgShawn Arnold is a senior at Clarion University and theater fanatic! He is currently pursing a B.F.A in acting, B. A. in history, and B. S. in secondary social studies education. His most recent stage appearance was in Clarion's production of David Mamet's one man show, Mr. Happiness. Some of his other theater appearances on the Clarion stage include a company member in the neo-futurist play 43 Plays for 43 Presidents, George in the dark one-act Shel Silverstein play Wash and Dry, and Mark Twain in Hauptman and Miller's musical Big River. Aside from theater and history, Shawn is also obsessed with the silly dead-pan antics of The Office and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He is excited to join Wendy and the institute again in its new incarnation following last year. He cannot wait for another chance to do it again . . . "That's what she said." [Ed. Note: Assuming here Mr. Arnold isn't referring to his teacher.]

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Nic Barilar is a southern California native who fell in love with theatre at the Pantages in Los Angeles. He currently resides in the tundra of western Pennsylvania where he is a BFA acting major with technical theater and English literature minors at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. As an actor, he has been seen in such productions as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor DreamcoatPsycho Beach PartyMuch Ado About Nothing, and Brigadoon. Theatrically speaking, Nic also is interested in playwrighting, set design, and improvisation. Nic is an avid fan of the work of Stephen Sondheim. Apart from theatre, he enjoys reading the works of Stephen KingVictor Hugo, and Voltaire as well as playing piano, singing, and waxing humorous with his chums. Nic hopes to learn about a vital aspect of the theatrical world as well as improve his analytical abilities.

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Robby Apple Bassler is currently enrolled as a senior in his last semester at James Madison University where he studies theater and English. This is his second time participating in the Kennedy Center's Critic's Institute; he received the runner up award during last year's competition in Region IV. Robby is also a playwright, director, actor, and technician but enjoys the potential of combining his knowledge of all of these elements in the world of critiquing. In his near future, Robby hopes to join Teach For America teaching theater in New York City and pass down what he has learned at the Kennedy Center's Critic's Institute.

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Michael Antonio Cook has been practicing theater in some form for almost half of his life. From an early age he has developed the ability to quickly form opinions and impressions on things and has an incredible memory. Because of this he has decided to try his hand at being a critic to share these insights he has with the world.

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Mark Costello is a second-year Master's student in the theater program at Villanova University where he focuses primarily on dramaturgy and playwriting. Most recently, he has served as the production dramaturg for Villanova's 2009 run of The Zoo Story; he is currently serving as the assistant dramaturg for the Philadelphia Theatre Company's world premiere of Terrence McNally's Golden Age. As a dramaturg, he believes that an easy and free flow of culturally relevant information helps a production inform both itself and its audience; as such, he's excited to begin doing critical work with the O'Neill Critics Institute so that he can engage with audiences instructionally through print and internet media.

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Connor Davis: I am a junior theatre major at James Madison University. At JMU I worked extensively as a stage manager and director. In high school, I directed an "abridged" 30-minute version of The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). The show competed in the Bucks County Playhouse Secondary School Festival, where I was named Best Director. This February I will direct Adam Rapp's Red Light Winter, and stage manage CharlesMee's bobrauschenbergamerica in May. After attending multiple productions in and outside of New York, I started to write down things I liked and disliked. This began as an exercise to help my directing, but has evolved into something I enjoy. I have never considered myself to be a great writer, but this is something I think I could be good at.  Through this workshop I hope to begin developing and working on the technique of writing critiques.

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Valerie Gibbs: I am currently a junior theater major at James Madison University. I have been interested in theater practically my entire life, but most of my interest was in the performing aspect of it all. It was not until college that I started exploring the other aspects as well.  In college, we have to write papers on the various shows we see, and through the now two-and-a-half years of doing this, I have gained a greater appreciation for theatrical critiques. I have never been extremely confident in my writing capabilities, but I have improved and I want to continue learning how to master this trade. One of my professors suggested the Critics Institute at KCACTF to me, and upon further thought, I decided it would be a great learning experience. It might be tough for me at times, but I am definitely up for the challenge.

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Peter Starr Northrop is a Memphis-born, Pennsylvania-based writer with no style and an awkward sense of humor to match. He is currently a junior at Elizabethtown College, where he is frantically throwing together a double-major in English and theater. Mostly he divides his time between working as the head features editor for his school newspaper--The Etownian, heading the writers of a sketch comedy group, and attending the occasional class. When it comes to theater, Peter has recently stuck to the directing side of things. He just wrapped up a production of David Ives' English made Simple and is currently assistant-directing Elizabethtown College's production of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.


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Nathan Taylor is a junior at James Madison University, currently working on a double major in theater and English. He has been involved with theater since he was a young boy, appearing in several shows in the Washington D.C. area during his childhood. It was not long before Nathan realized that he had to be involved in some facet of theater for the rest of his life. Coincidentally, he has also been involved with the English language since he was a young boy, attending elementary school and learning the alphabet during his childhood. It was not long before Nathan realized that he had to both be able to speak and read the English language if he was going to be successful in his adulthood. With the love of both writing and watching a production, he naturally has a passion for critiquing shows of all types.


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Barbara Toperzer: I first became involved with the theater at the age of two as a baby in The King and I. The trauma of the experience meant that I've not been on the stage much since, but it seems like I just can't get away from it completely, no matter how hard I try to pretend I want nothing to do with it. I've been involved on the edges of the theater at McDaniel College since my freshman year, mostly by helping out with tech and somehow always ending up in housing with theater people. I have a huge respect for the process and everything that goes into it, and I do love to watch live theater whenever I can. Learning to do reviews seems like a great way to combine my love of theater with my love of writing. 

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Kelly Wetherald: I am a junior musical theater major and nonprofit studies minor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. I got involved with theatre in eighth grade and my passion for the arts has grown exponentially from there. Over the past few years at JMU I have explored multiple aspects of theater including performance, directing and criticism. With support from my parents and professors, I have learned that there are a variety of ways to express one's creativity in the realm of theatre. Theatrical criticism is honestly a foreign avenue for me, but I think that my love for the written word as well as my passion for theater will blossom with this program. I look forward to exploring and improving my criticism skills as well as opening up new possibilities for the future. 

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Meredith Young: I'm a senior theater major at James Madison University. My life of crime started about 10 years ago in community theater productions. I loved performing, so I decided to parlay that enthusiasm into a bachelor's degree. At JMU, I got involved with other production areas like costuming and directing until landing in nerd heaven with dramaturgy. One of my favorite things about experiencing a show is listening to others discuss it and piece together meanings for themselves. Theater criticism affords me the opportunity to be a part of that dialogue. I could talk about a show until the cows come home, but as I understand it, the difficulty lies in having the vocabulary to do more than slam or laud (as well as in finding a balance between reviewing and analyzing). This puts the onus on a critic to be as informed as possible. I look forward to stretching and learning at KCACTF this year.

A few of the students haven't sent their bios yet, so if they show up on registration day, you'll meet them too. Hopefully, you'll also show up on registration day and throughout the festival to check in with our participants, chart their progress, scan the multiple platforms we'll be using, and help us pick a winner. 
January 10, 2010 10:09 PM | | Comments (1)
So this is it. We've come to the end of our weeklong foray into the exciting world of theater journalism (which this week conveniently managed to get a bit more exciting than usual). Though all our students stretched their fledgling critiquing muscles, there's only one empty chair at the Kennedy Center waiting to be filled by a Region II critic, and one waiting in the wings for an alternate. Those seats are so tough to come by I'm not even invited, which, you know, kind of hurts my feelings, but whatever. I'm sure whomever I picked will have a great time, and maybe bring me back a snowglobe or something.

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Without further ado, the winner is: Devin Dippold. Our alternate is Jessica Hinds-Bond. Coincidentally, both are grad students at Villanova University. Congratulations to them, and it was particularly gratifying, after agonizing over this choice for several hours, to see that you favored the same writers.  Everyone who was kind enough to comment on the students' critiques should know their comments were seen and discussed by all involved.

And one more thing: it ain't easy to make a profession sound exciting and glamorous when it's fighting for its life. The reason I posted this event here is because I figured we might as well get online and get used to interacting with an audience as quickly as possible, since that's the journalistic world these writers will inhabit once they graduate. And while watching the old newsroom model fade into oblivion is depressing as hell, on the flipside, if you're just stepping out of the collegiate cocoon, well, it's a pretty exciting time to be a writer. I know the economy's against them right now, but when that's all over (heaven help us), these students will be free to make their own rules and redefine arts criticism any damn way they please. 

The last time I taught at the University of the Arts, it was for a 'zine-making class. Remember those? DIY photocopied tracts you'd leave on the windowsill at coffeehouses? Like, not Starbucks, but dingy, poetry-reading-hosting independently-owned places that served espresso thick as mud? No? Then you're either too young or too old. There was a very narrow period when 'zines were all the rage, and when the internet appeared, they disappeared, and you're looking at what replaced them. The point is, with or without an established publication, writers will write, and the good ones will find an audience, and the scrappy ones will figure out a way to make it pay, too. Get enough scrappy ones together and you've got yourself a whole new arts journalism paradigm. It's our job as journalists and teachers to make sure the next generation doesn't flee from journalism, but instead leaves school ready to tear it free from its present bondage. I hope this year's Region II National Critics Institute has done its small part to feed this revolutionary spark. 


January 18, 2009 5:36 PM | | Comments (3)

Ralph.JPGLater today, I'll post the students' final reviews so you can have the pleasure of critiquing the critics, but first, without further ado, our merry--though exhausted--men and women, in their own words. P.S.: Ralph Leary (at left), who shows up in a couple of the entries, is the National Critics Institute Coordinator for Region II, and a professor of English at Clarion College in Clarion, Pa.

Jennifer Ford

I liken the past 60 hours to the first time I ever put contact lenses in my eyes: the National Critics Institute experience has sharpened my focus for watching and thinking about theater. Charged with the job of critiquing the shows in the festival, I found myself paying closer attention to a show's costuming, lighting, and set design, whereas in the past I was mostly attentive to the acting. The teaching also unveiled to me the absolute requirement for a critic to back up every assertion they make about a show. To do this, I had to practice cataloging a show's memorable moments and producing them as evidence to my claims.

The challenge to describe theater in fresh, crisp language and to choose the most important points to put on paper is harder than I thought. It has been especially humbling to work side by side peers who picked up the skills quicker than I did. At the same time, I deem "most valuable" the chopping-block class feedback sessions where every student had a chance to chime in and point out strengths/flaws in each other's writing. It was a safe environment for evaluation because we not only shared our amateur status, but we mutually understood that all of us were here to learn and grow.

Both Wendy Rosenfield and Ralph Leary have been gems: encouraging, witty, and specifically helpful. The only thing that would make this experience better is a longer week.

Jessica Hinds-Bond

The NCI schedule reminds me of tech weekends spent at the theatre, both in that we're so incredibly busy (over 12 hours on Thursday), and in how much is accomplished in such a short time period. Between attending critics sessions and performances, writing responses, and commuting to and from Center City every day, calling the program "intensive" would be an understatement. In spite of the long hours, I'm definitely enjoying the experience. I'm learning to approach theatrical performance in a new way, and getting to try my hand at some non-academic writing for a change. The sessions with my fellow critics have been fantastic because the broad range of backgrounds and interests enriches the discussion. I've noticed immediate improvement in my writing, and I have learned so much about the different ways in which critics, audiences, and theatre artists approach reviews.

Devin Dippold

One of my long-standing issues as a theatregoer was a tendency to be too kind to the performance. Rather than state my opinions honestly, I chose to either soften or outright conceal any strong criticism I had for a production. That attitude had to change at the NCI conference. It was one thing to say kind words about a production when your words were just those of a typical audience member. When you are supposed to provide expert commentary, however, kindness isn't really in the job description.

Learning to express my critical ideas wasn't so much a long discovery process as it was a rapid change. I had to say what I felt. I had to present an honest review every day, and it had to be driven by something real. If I hated a show, I couldn't just pretend it was good; I had to be honest with myself and admit that it was bad. It sounds simple enough now, but I just never let myself think that way. Now, I've found it impossible to go back to being nice. I tried during today's productions (which I am not reviewing) to relax and just enjoy the shows. Instead, I found myself critiquing everything onstage. Why is there a blackout here? Why is the pacing slow there? I can't turn it off anymore. And I don't want to, either.

P.S. Northrop

When we arrived at the Doubletree Hotel for the ACTF conference I picked up the keys for myself and my three other roommates.

'What's our room number?" One of the guys--Sam--asked in the lobby as I handed him his key.


"Uhh..." I looked at the little pamphlet I'd been given. "1408" I said.


"...The haunted hotel movie?" Gilliam asked.


I stopped--trying to think. A group of other conference participants sitting at a couch near us and clearly eavesdropping suddenly burst out laughing. Sure enough, there's a horror movie entitled 1408 where an evil hotel room all but eats John Cusack.


We took this in stride, figuring there was no such thing as evil hotel rooms. But, sure enough, the next day another roommate turned on the tv and what else was on the screen but Jon Cusack getting told by Samuel Jacksion that room 1408 was evil. We'd been there a day and already the place was fucking with us.


This forms part of the reason why I'm glad I got involved with the National Critics Institute competition here at the festival. I leave my hotel room every morning, turning to my roommates and saying "Don't die...please", at 9 and usually don't return until about 11 at night. 1408 doesn't get much of chance to hate me.


But really--NCI proves to be an incredible experience, haunted hotel rooms aside. Theater criticism is a beautiful mashup of the rigid journalistic world and the ethereal land of the theatre. Most of my counterparts have come from the theatre side of the collision, whereas I am the stuffy journalist of the group. I'm pretty sure this makes me the luckiest member of our little band, as I am surrounded with brilliantly minded actor-types with huge knowledge of the stage and all the crazy shit that goes on behind it. I've learned more in the past few days than I did in a good half of my last semester. I love the thirst for knowledge and the need to write displayed by all of these guys.


And all the while, I've been on an endless stress-high since about midday Wednesday. I love deadlines, the way they inexorably approach, threatening to wash over you, whether or not you and your writing are ready for them or not. I thrive off of that sense of urgency--because when I'm writing furiously, I swear it's one of the few times where I truly feel alive. It's the worlds greatest feeling--and the style of theater criticism allows you to let loose the chains that boring ol'regular journalism nomrall imposes on you. I love this writing, I love this festival, and not even room 1408 destroying us could take away the joy of it.

Yeah, sure--that end was abrupt, but if I didn't stop you know I would go on, reaching (and most likely surpassing) Valare-lengths. And no one wants that.

Until next time, kids.

Shawn Arnold

So I have to sneak back into classes Tuesday. On top of that I have to make up the things I missed this week(thank you). Ouch! However, I couldn't have asked for a more educational, more fun reason to miss than NCI. Although time consuming, it was such a free and thought
provoking process, yet it was so much fun. It was such a relief to find a group of individuals who can actually talk about theater in more than "good" or "bad." I mean is that too hard to ask for? Also I have learned a ton about how important it is to remain concise when writing
a review. The harsh world of editorial criticism has it limits on article size, and this forces the writer to keep the meat and remove the fluff. I have got to thank Wendy for her guidance in this process. I especially must thank her for helping me find my voice a bit more in
my writing. Plus she is a fan of The Office and Flight of the Conchords which makes her the coolest person ever. Major props Wendy! Anyways this week has been such a wonderful experience. Thanks to everyone involved!

Amy Martin

The overall effect of the NCI workshop experience has reestablished my personal relationship to theater. Having entered the world of criticism from an interest in dramaturgy I believed the class would improve my analytical skills, but the effect is much deeper. Although I love dramaturgy and working with the text, I found myself in conflict with many of the directorial choices and learning critical writing skills has provided an outlet for my beliefs. While watching a production, the arrogance that I once felt for defending a script has faded and been replaced by a more objective critical eye. Being a critic at the KCACTF festival has been a life-altering experience, for which I am entirely grateful. In addition, working in a writing class has brought attention to my writing style and technique. The great part about being a student is the ability to try new things and expand as an individual.

Savannah Ganster

So, I came to the American College Theatre Festival in Philadelphia this week expecting to sit in on playwriting workshops. Instead, I ended up participating in the National Critics Institute workshops. I know, I know... It's slightly shocking that I'd rather learn to be a theatre critic and review invited productions, than attend the playwriting workshops that I had looked so forward to. But fear not, the shock ends there.

The NCI workshops have been amazing! I feel like I've bonded with people who understand the theatre and who aren't afraid to write about their opinions. Regardless of the bad rap generally assigned to theatre critics, I can assure you that none of the nine people sharing this room with me throughout the NCI workshops are the asshole type. In fact, they've become some of the most supportive peers that I've known. As we sit in our workshop sessions critiquing our play reviews from the night before, no one is afraid to share their work. We provide each other with words of encouragement and constructive criticism and laugh and joke and talk theatre.

I couldn't have learned more about the journalistic art of review throughout the duration of this festival had I tried. Wendy and Professor Leary, our mentors, are treasure troves of knowledge concerning critiquing theatre. They've provided a great amount of support and criticism to aid us in our journeys as critics and as writers.

Despite the fact that I didn't attend any playwriting workshops, I feel as though my writing abilities have been nurtured and have grown. Everything that I've learned through the NCI workshops can be taken and applied to what I know about playwriting, which means that I've learned more than how to be an effective critic while I'm here. I've learned how to be an effective critic, how to be a better playwright, how to hone the art of writing into the veins of journalism, creative writing, etc., and how to let my unique voice of authority shine through all of my writing.

Tammy Bateman

I sat down on the first day of this week with the National Critic's Institute and I was incredibly overwhelmed. I am not comfortable with others reading my writing. I am a performer and therefore somewhat fearful of critics. So what brought me to this particular workshop at the festival? Well, with a small attempt at theatre criticism (more praising than criticizing due to the nature of the program) in high school, I thought that this could be another chance to learn this profession in a more serious way. And boy was it! I was not prepared for the amount of work and difficulty I would have trying to keep up with the other, more advanced writers in the workshop. But once I got past my initial discouragement, I was able to find the positive in this situation, as I try with all things. For one, my colleagues weren't condemning me for my short comings. They were all surprisingly supportive of my meager attempts at a few reviews, (and let's remember that they're aspiring critics--so now I know they really are nice people even if they may be critical in their writing). Aside from that, as an actor, listening in on what the critics look at can be majorly beneficial. While a review may be informative, in this environment I got the chance to listen to everyone's opinions (and not in 500 words or less) and really hear what they look for. I have a newfound admiration for this profession and what these writers do. I now understand the effort they put into their work. While I may have realized that maybe this career isn't for me, I've experienced a week of yet another part of this wonderful business and that counts as a success in my book!

 

January 17, 2009 10:38 AM | | Comments (1)

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Savannah Ganster, Tammy Bateman and Amy Martin quietly rain down the pain in their ledes. And also illustrate why that MTV Rolling Stone intern reality show didn't exactly make compelling television.

Here's the deal: the students saw two productions last night--Penn State Altoona's Big Love, by Charles Mee, and SUNY Oswego's Honor and the River, by Anton Dudley. They wrote full reviews, turned them in this morning and were either critiqued into submission or inspiration, and perhaps some combination of the two. So I'm not going to post those full reviews here.

Instead, have a look at these ledes for today's production of Love's Labour's Lost (brought to the festival by Albright College) and tell our critics whether they've made you want to read more or if you've seen all you need to see of either review or production.

Love's Labour's Ledes

Devin Dippold

Battle lines are drawn. On one side stands a wild forest, filled with lovers frolicking. On the other side stand three columns, atop which the busts of Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates look down upon all they "see." A man under their watchful eye partitions off these columns from the rest of the world. The Domino Players' production of Love's Labour's Lost prepares two sides for war, but does anyone really want to fight?

 

Jessica Hinds-Bond

A forest of lanky paper trees covered in cursive handwriting dots the stage. Three grown men hide unseen behind a narrow pillar, a skeletal podium, and a short bench. Women of radically different heights, dresses, and hair accessories don eye-masks and exchange scarves, fooling their lovers into proposing to the surrogate women. Sudden news of a parent's death spurs four betrothals and a happy ending. Only in Shakespeare are such things possible. In the Albright College Domino Players' production of Love"s Labour's Lost, they are not only possible but compelling and magical.

Shawn Arnold

Who wants to watch a boring old British play? Nothing is less entertaining to a contemporary audience than a stuffy portrayal of the classics. George Bernard Shaw, whose bulk of work is less than a century old, had the assistance of Lerner and Loewe to keep one of his plays fresh in the 50's. If Shaw is an issue, the Bard trumps them all. Too many productions of Shakespeare's works are often stilted and hackneyed. Albright College, however, does not follow down this boring path. The Domino Players Theatre Company of the college presents an uproariously flirtatious production of Bill's Love's Labour's Lost.

Savannah Ganster

The stage is set. Tall white trees shadowed with calligrapher's script create a poetic forest, which sets the mood for an elegant Shakespearian production, thanks to scenic design by Lisi Stoessel. Cue the classical music. Enter the characters dressed in their period costumes, courtesy of Paula Trimpey. As this show begins, so does the teeth gritting. Albright College Domino Players' presentation of Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare at the Merriam Theatre in Philadelphia makes for some laborious viewing.

Tammy Bateman

As The Domino Players of Albright College so wonderfully portrayed, Love's Labour's Lost is a hilarious comedy about friendship, knowledge, and love.  Filled with misguided courtships to make even a modern day soap opera seem simple, William Shakespeare's comedy shows four Lords of Navarre together in their pursuit of the noble ladies of France. The solidarity displayed by the Domino Players' ensemble is not only necessary for such a production, but executed with believability and success.

P.S. Northrop

From the moment the burgundy, 19th century floral print program for Albright College's production of Love's Labour's Lost is placed in your hands, you just know you're in for a ridiculous and stylized experience. Indeed, the players and designers of that show make good on the program's promise--delivering an ostentatious performance that makes fun not only of itself, but of the world that it comes from. Even if you hate the showier side of Shakespeare, this interpretation brings a delightful touch of youthful immaturity that makes Love's Labour's Lost a worthwhile endeavor.

Amy Martin

The current production of William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, by William Shakespeare, at the Merrian Theater in Philadelphia, works to ensure that the language is not a hindrance for the cast. The Albright University production features strong voices and distinct faces that successfully carry the weighty language, but the production neglects to incorporate the actors onto the set, which causes the two separate levels to emerge. Director Julia Matthews' blocking creates a silhouette drama where the actors appear foreign to the space, as if their heads are detached from their bodies.

Next time on Everyone's a Critic

Tomorrow marks our last full day for classes and theatergoing, and Saturday is judgement day, though you wouldn't know it by the way this group encourages and gently critiques each other. It's all very un-Real World, and frankly, kind of disappointing, but UArts wouldn't give us a hot tub, so I guess that's that.

Friday I'll post the results of another short exercise, and Saturday the full reviews will be up so you can help decide who gets the comp. Our winner then heads to the Kennedy Center for its College Theater Festival, and the winner at that event--who will be judged on the review they've written here--heads up to New England for a sweet two-week getaway (that is, if your definition of "getaway" is "really hard work" ) at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Critics Institute. It's pretty astonishing that there are still students motivated enough by their love of the arts to want to buck the trend and spend their free time trying to master this craft in what may be the most difficult moment of its evolution. I hope you'll encourage them to continue exploring this uncertain--but certainly worthwhile--path.

Shawn.jpgShawn Arnold. He's so our Suede. Ok, not really, but get a load of this crazy action shot!

January 15, 2009 3:33 PM | | Comments (4)
231149641_3641a7bef9.jpgToday was the first full day of the National Critics Institute meeting at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, and with it came a few new faces. Welcome is in order for Grove City College's Jennifer Ford, Penn State Berks County's Savannah Ganster, and SUNY Buffalo's Amy Martin. Madi Distefano (pictured here in a scene from her show Eye-95), a Philadelphia director/actor/playwright and founder of Brat Productions visited the class to talk about the effect of theater criticism on the theater community--not that I think it should guide the students, but certainly so that they may be aware of the heavy responsibility placed upon them as keepers of the cultural flame. 

What also worked out nicely was that Distefano's main gripe (What's with all the plot description?) and main suggestion (If you're going to criticize something, make sure you back it up with evidence.) dovetailed neatly with what we'd been discussing before she arrived. So it's settled: critics and the critiqued both want the same things out of a review. Glad we can agree on something.

The students also saw two challenging productions, which they'll be reviewing tomorrow. Stay tuned for the results. In the meantime, though Savannah and Amy didn't get a chance to craft their query letters, here are two more for your consideration. Any interested editors out there?

Query 1

Dear (Editor),

 

As a senior English major, I believe that Shakespeare's characters are a treasure bestowed to anyone who speaks the language he helped invent.  However, in the week prior to Grove City College's production of As You Like It, I kept hearing "Is the whole thing going to be in Old English?" in whiney, disinterested tones.  I wanted to explain no, Shakespeare was not Anglo-Saxon and in fact wrote in modern English, but perhaps he just possessed a broader vocabulary than you?   But I held my tongue.

 

Instead of responding directly to my peer's ignorant qualms, I'd like to write a 800 word article titled "Shakespeare-Induced Psychogogia."  Psychogogia refers to the process of one's soul being drawn upward towards truth, which is exactly what I believe happens in a (good) Shakespeare production.  This article will explore the process of approaching a Shakespeare text and will highlight different techniques that Grove City actors used to guide audience understanding in their recent production of As You Like It.   I also want to write about the attractiveness of Shakespeare's plays and bemoan their suffering popularity in contrast to contemporary theater's "cutting edge" sexual-awakening themes. 

 

To read a Shakespeare play is a rigorous but rewarding process, but then to transport his scripts onto the stage with the combination of dramatic lighting, exquisite costumes, and invigorating actors is to evoke a magical spirit.  Throughout the production of As You Like It, I most enjoyed the rehearsals when I could hear new understanding in a voice or see new relish a face.  Everyone contributed to breathe life into a text written in 1599, and the result was true beauty, realized on a stage. 

 

Overall, this article will point to the purpose for theater criticism: to put our mouths out of taste for bad theater and to instead instruct us towards what we should be watching.  The Grove City community should know that the college's production of As You Like It is accessible and hilarious.  Even if Shakespeare is not within one's personal realm of taste, Grove City's As You Like It has the power to change a mind. I can have this article to you within five days of your consent.  

 

Ardently,

Jennifer Ford


Query 2


Ms. Rosenfield,


Last year approximately fifty students participated in Elizabethtown College's Shorts Fest, a two-night event of short plays.  This year, the college is increasing its student participation by having not only student performers, directors, and designers, but making the event a major display of all types of theatrical talent within the college.  Billed as "The New Playwrights Festival," the collection of ten-minute plays of a widely varying nature has been written by the ten students in last semester's Playwriting class. 


I would like to write an article titled "Etown Theatre: Room for Everyone," that praises the theatre department and their bold steps to encourage such a wide array of theatrical talent.  In 1500 words I would like to cover the various forms of student participation for this event.


This piece will examine the extensive work done by the students in class with their drafting and revisions, as well as the creative process of selecting directors and casts for their plays.  I will discuss this process and how it has aided in the education of these students to the real world of theatre.  Another important aspect of this event is the production team, including stage and production management, box office, and front of house staff, as well as publicity committees.  I want to cover the work of all the students involved in this endeavor.  Lastly, I would like to include commentary from the faculty and students on their thoughts regarding this great opportunity.  


As an active member of Elizabethtown College's Theatre and Dance Division, I am very dedicated and proud of this event.  I was a member of the Playwriting course last semester, so I have been lucky enough to see this project from its earliest stages - a blank sheet of paper.  As a first-time playwright, I feel strongly about this opportunity and the opportunity it presents to all the students' various interests in the theatre world.  In 2005 & 2006 I was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer for my reviews for The Greater Philadelphia Cappies, demonstrating my strong passion for the world of theatre.  


I hope that my passion for this event has piqued your interest and that you would like to hear more about this event.  If you are interested, please let me know, and I can have an article to you within a week of your acceptance. 

Thank you for your time,


Tammy Bateman


January 14, 2009 11:31 PM | | Comments (0)
This week I'm macking on: the brave, bold participants of Project Everyone's a Critic. These students will all be attending the Region II National Critics Institute of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival--and here, a monent of respect is due, because setting their sights on arts journalism at this particular historical/economic/technological/journalistic moment proves just how brave and bold they are. We may have more students signing up at the last minute, so stay tuned for the full cast credits. I will begin posting their writing on Wednesday, January 14 and hope to see you there.

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Jessica Hinds-Bond is a second-year theatre M.A. student at Villanova University. While completing her undergraduate degree in theatre design at Auburn University in Alabama, she discovered a love for dramaturgy and theater research. She is the dramaturg for Cabaret, Villanova's final production of the 2008-2009 season. She has been a member of the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Literary Committee for the past three years, reading and responding to plays submitted by students to the annual Playwriting Festival.


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Devin Dippold graduated with honors from McKendree College, where he directed, wrote, and starred in Chosen Reject, a one man show based on the writings of Kurt Cobain. He is currently a second year student in the M.A. program at Villanova University, where he recently dramaturged their production of Le Dindon by Georges Feydeau. He also stage managed last season's production of The Illusion. Acting credits include Gus in The Dumb Waiter, Tartuffe in Tartuffe: Born Again, and Ed in Defying Gravity. In his spare time, Devin plays guitar and is a martial arts instructor. 


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Shawn Arnold loves theater and love to analyze it. He is a Central Pennsylvania resident from Philipsburg. Shawn is currently attending Clarion University of Pennsylvania with a double major in both the BFA acting and secondary education social studies programs. In addition to his interest in theater, Shawn is also a lover of history and all things about the past. Shawn has also taken an active step to foster theater in his home town. He has been heavily involved in the creation of both a community and youth theater program in the area. 


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Peter Starr Northrop is a Memphis-born, Pennsylvania-based writer with poor fashion sense and an awkward sense of humor to match. He is currently a Sophomore at Elizabethtown College, where he is slowly dragging out a double-major in English and theater. There, he divides his time between working as a writer and editor for the school newspaper--The Etownian, pretending to run the newly founded sketch comedy group Sketch-E's writing department, and attending the occasional class. Peter's theater background is limited to only three years spent in a high-school improv troupe, having minor roles in a few college mainstage and one-act productions, and writing/performing for his aforementioned sketch comedy group. His other varying hobbies include cooking, hiking and most of all, discovering all sorts of things about the crazy world in which we live.


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Justin Fitzpatrick is a freshman theatre major at Albright College. He avidly participates in theater in many ways such as performing, directing, choreographing, and vocal coaching. His passion lies with musicals. Past shows on which he has worked include: On Broadway: A Scene Study (Link Larkin), Footloose (Garvin), Oklahoma! (Will Parker), Bye, Bye Birdie (Co-Director), The Secret Garden (Lt. Wright), The Sound of Music (Rolf), Seussical: The Musical (Horton the Elephant/Vocal Coach), The Pirates of Penzance (Co-Director/Vocal Coach/Choreographer), High School Musical (Mongo), You Are Here* (Jimmie), Love's Labour's Lost (Forester/Mercade).   Recently, Justin realized that he has a natural habit of critiquing every type of performance he sees, and has decided that being a part of the National Critics Institute at the KCACTF would be a beneficial experience.


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Tammy Bateman is a junior at Elizabethtown College. A major in both Business Administration and Theatre Performance, Tammy enjoys all aspects of the theater world. She has been performing for the last seven years and served as a critic for the Greater Philadelphia Cappies program at Ridley High School. At Elizabethtown she currently serves as Vice President for the drama club, Sock and Buskin, and manages the Tempest Theatre Box Office. In her spare time she can be seen performing with the college's all-female a capella group, Melica. She is very excited to be a part of the National Critics Institute and competing as an Irene Ryan Nominee for Region II at this year's festival.  

This week I'm hating on: The fact that not a month after Dance Dance Revolution closed, the Ohio Theatre--which housed it--is closing too. Not only that, as I'm getting ready to work on a piece about new play development, one of the plays I'm covering, Christina Ham's After Adam, was cut from Luna Stage's roster because of the theater's "survival" issues. Though Broadway's darkened doors get all the major press, I'm guessing that in the end, they'll be okay. The real theatrical victims of this economic iceberg are houses willing to take chances on exciting, experimental and ultimately galvanizing new work, because they're so much more vulnerable and once they're gone, their founder's often very particular aesthetic goes with them. 

The good news? Hey, how about this: Even though these days newspapers are less about "all the news that's fit to print" and more about "whatever print still fits," the Inquirer is mulling over adding three new theaters to our reviewing circuit. Proof that at a time when theater critics are an endangered species, we're needed more than ever.
January 9, 2009 8:41 AM | | Comments (0)
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At this remarkably glum moment for the arts and arts journalism (I'd link to some examples, but you're probably depressed enough already), I'm stepping into the Guest Critic position at the Region II National Critics Institute of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Next week, for five days, it will be my job to convince a half-dozen or so aspiring young writers that theater criticism is a worthy professional goal. 

But I've got my game face on, and you know why? It's because the current crop of college-age kids are undoubtedly the ones who will transform arts criticism. They're not used to reading a pulp-and-ink newspaper, and they probably don't expect to get a job at one. But they're online ALL THE TIME, and whether they blog or use social networks to share information, they're not wringing their hands over the lack of "classically trained" online journalists. Though the nuts and bolts of good writing certainly don't change, that classical training is in dire need of the kind of overhaul that many journalism professors just aren't qualified to offer, at least not yet, while the dust is still stirring and no one knows quite how it will settle. 

So here's what I'm thinking: I'm going to mix it up a little and run this Institute like a mini-Project Runway: welcome to Project Everyone's a Critic. From January 13-17, the students and I will attend shows, talk about them and write about them. At session's end, I will channel my inner Klum and choose one student to attend the national festival at the Kennedy Center this spring. 

That's where you come in. 

The students, all either college- or graduate-level, have agreed to let me post their writing here--reviews, ledes, whatever they've got--and in an effort to blend new media with old-school written critique, I'd appreciate it if you'd weigh in with your assistance, guidance, words of encouragement, and yes, some critique of your own (remember please, they're still aspiring critics). I'm not collecting votes or anything, but if you have a clear favorite, by all means, let me who it is and why. This is my attempt to give them a taste of what it's like to write as journalists for an audience of internet strangers who have the ability to talk back and aren't afraid to use it.

I'll post the participants' bios in tomorrow's Mack Attack. Until then, I dunno... What's my tagline? Maybe, "Exeunt, stage left."
January 8, 2009 5:30 PM | | Comments (5)
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