Barefoot in the Park – Clove Creek Dinner Theater

Photo credit: Louisa Vilardi

Clove Creek Dinner Theater’s production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, directed by Joe Eriole, is a production carried by brilliant acting and thorough character work. The play premiered on Broadway in 1963, and the play’s writing doesn’t entirely withstand the test of time– a true challenge for modern audiences and especially for modern actors. However, this cast meets the challenge head on: they take the trope-ridden characters the play gives them and return full, well rounded people that a 2020 audience can not only relate to, but can root for.

               The play centers around young newly-weds Corie and Paul, who are in the tumultuous process of moving into their first apartment together after six blissful days of marriage. Their marriage is a classic example of opposites attracting: Corie is spontaneous, whimsical, and romantic, while Paul is ambitious and practical. Their apartment is tiny, cold, and on the sixth floor–facts which Paul can’t help but notice–but Corie sees it as an opportunity to make a home that’s all their own.

               It would be very easy for an actor to get lost in the allegory of these characters, but Lauren Silverman and Wilhelm Anderson go above and beyond to bring modern awareness, drive, and humor to the piece. Anderson doesn’t allow Paul to be an unfeeling 1960s businessman—he’s as wryly funny as he is practical, and it’s clear that he’s genuinely trying to support Corie even when he’s unable to share her enthusiasm. Equally adept in thoroughness of character is Silverman. Silverman’s Corie is fun, genuine, and inspiring in her passionate optimism. She’s not ridiculous or deluded—when she says she loves her tiny, bare-bones apartment, she truly does. Her enthusiasm is infectious and you can’t help but smile with her; when the apartment is finally furnished and we watch her putting her finishing touches on the decorations, you share her sense of pride. Corie’s zeal for life is palpable, and only withered by a desire for validation from one person—her mother.

Lauren Silverman & Wilhelm Anderson as Corie and Paul
(Photo Credit: Katherine Abell)

               Laurel Riley-Brown is immediately charming as Mrs. Banks; although she is a timid, reserved counterpoint to Corie, she is endlessly supportive of her daughter nonetheless. She expertly toes the line between wanting to be involved in her daughter’s life and finally letting her go. Similarly, Corie seems to grapple with wanting distance from Mrs. Banks, while at the same time wanting to meddle in her affairs. This meddling comes in the form of Corie trying to set her mother up on a blind date with her eccentric upstairs neighbor, Mr. Velasco.

               Dan Anderson’s Mr. Velasco is fun and impressively genuine in his eccentricity; the things he says and does are completely bonkers, yet Anderson says and does them with such conviction it’s hard not to be charmed by his quirks. A romance between Mr. Velasco and Mrs. Banks is one of the play’s strained writing moments—Corie’s reasoning is that Mrs. Banks is alone and thus should desire companionship, and Mr. Velasco is, well, a person. Yet Anderson is so utterly entrenched in his character that it’s believable that the reticent, careful Mrs. Banks might find herself unexpectedly smitten with him.

Dan Anderson & Laurel Riley-Brown as Velasco and Mrs. Banks
(Photo Credit: Katherine Abell)

               One of the mysteries of the play is Corie’s complicated relationship with her widowed mother Mrs. Banks – she is desperate to please her mother, which implies that her mother is difficult to please; yet when we meet Mrs. Banks, she’s perfectly amiable and actually seems desperate herself to show Corie how much she supports her. Corie and Mrs. Banks seem to think that they’re very different from one another, yet it’s clear from their shared affinity for well-meant meddling that they’re far more alike than different. There are even moments in the production in which Laurel Riley-Brown and Lauren Silverman use matching mannerisms—it’s unclear if this was a clever, subtle choice or a happy accident, but the impact is the same: their chemistry is so true that one could believe the two were related.

This production leans into the similarities between its supposedly ‘opposite’ characters, and it’s a smart choice—because the tensions found between characters’ similarities is significantly more emotional than those found between their differences. This is true of the relationship between Corie and her mother, and even more apparent between Corie and Paul.

Lauren Silverman as Corie & Laurel Riley-Brown as Mrs. Banks
(Photo Credit: Katherine Abell)

               The play paints Corie and Paul as opposites, yet Silverman and Anderson present their characters as equals in passion and drive; they’re both opinionated, stubborn, and desperately in love. Playing these characters as similar and truly devoted to one another makes it significantly more heartbreaking when they stumble into an explosive fight.

               The subtle decline of their relationship is a result of brilliant acting and stellar directing. At the beginning, the two are wholly smitten with each other, with only one or two points of tension. But as the play progresses, we slowly see animosity creep in, in which the earlier minor qualms they have with one another become more and more insurmountable. It’s heartbreaking because it’s an accurate depiction of the challenges faced in young relationships—problems that were easily swept under the rug during the honeymoon phases’ whirlwind of love and lust become chasms between them once the dust settles. While the show is overall a fun, light romp, the audience is hit hard by one heavy scene in which Paul and Corie have their first long, painful fight and ultimately decide to get divorced. It hurts especially because the audience can so clearly see that they love and care for each other, and neither wants to be having the fight—they keep each trying to leave and are dragged back into the fray by the other. The production is so strong because it knows at its core that this is a fun romantic comedy, yet it isn’t afraid to delve into true emotion when it’s called for. This creates a beautiful contrast that leaves the audience delighted then Corie and Paul, inevitably, fall back in love.

Lauren Silverman as Corie &
Denis Silvestri as Telephone Repair Man
(Photo Credit: Katherine Abell)

               Clove Creek’s production of Barefoot in the Park is a smart, well-acted take on a rather dated play. The production knows the writing’s shortcomings—acknowledging the play’s problematic aspects directly in the director’s note—and to remedy this, it does everything it can to bring the charm of its characters to the forefront. It’s impossible to dislike any of the characters, between our two sets of lovers in Corie and Paul and Mrs. Banks and Mr. Velasco, and Denis Silvestri as a beleaguered telephone repairman. Silvestri holds his own as a quiet source of situational comedy and well rounds out this accomplished cast. This production is a fun, light but smart romp, and an enjoyable evening for anyone—in love, out of love, or anywhere in between.

Lauren Silverman & Wilhelm Anderson as Corie & Paul
(Photo Credit: Katherine Abell)

A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play – Clove Creek Dinner Theater

Review By Joe Eriole

Even the most beautiful things in our midst can fall prey to the curse of the familiar. This may be especially true where the wondrous thing seems to have been with us forever, and we observe it from a vantage point obscured by the false certainty of the modern world. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol may well have slipped into that place in our collective consciousness. We know it so well, we think, that we watch it, if we watch it at all, as pure nostalgia. Its themes are plain: live a better life, appreciate your blessings and spread them abroad…just in case you have to answer for it. The end may come at any time, and not all of us have a ghostly friend like Marley to warn us that we drag a heavy chain of transgressions behind us. These are indeed the headlines. We moderns may be less inclined than our predecessors to believe in the reckoning which turns old Scrooge about, perhaps to our peril; but no matter. It’s a nice idea; we get it…

Patrick Spaulding & Aaron-Noel Treppeda
(Photo: Katherine Abell)

But, there are numerous reasons why A Christmas Carol should be approached each year with a new and unbiased ear. First, whether one’s goal is to get to Heaven or simply to do no harm while here on earth, the tale of Scrooge & Marley reminds us that what we do impacts others, whether we are conscious of it or not. That being the case, even from a purely utilitarian perspective, doing good makes the world around us a healthier, kinder, and more peaceable place.

Second, no matter what our stance on the afterlife is, the tale puts us in touch with everything we love about the Season, and everything which so many find bleak and hopeless about it, all at once. Even the smallest acts of kindness are amplified to provide sustenance in mind and body, and this applies to both the benefactor and the beneficiary. Likewise, to the oppressed and the melancholy, the joy attending Christmas serves as a reminder of happiness they cannot access – Scrooge cannot pinpoint the moment when he crossed the line to the camp of those in pain, but his isolation is his daily reminder that he has certainly done so.

And, third, there is the sheer beauty of the language of the 19th century and of Mr. Dickens at the height of his craft.

It is at this perfect intersection of the most laudable aspirations of the Christian era (“Peace on Earth, Good Will to men”), the high language of 19th Century literature in the hands of one of its masters, and the nostalgia attaching to the accoutrements of the Season from our youth, that A Christmas Carol lives, and that is why it will always be central to the celebration of Christmas.

Steven Bendler
(Photo: Katherine Abell)

This precise admixture of elements make the Radio Play format the perfect way to experience the familiar this year. Director Teresa Gasparini’s adaptation for Clove Creek Dinner Theater is true to both Dickens’ original language and the 1940’s heyday of radio programming. For that reason, the experience is auditory above all else; we must listen. Listening intently results in a new experience of the familiar; the language is beautiful, the sentiment strongly conveyed by the “radio personalities,” and even the radio show format has the unique charm of another bygone era, which feels nearly as distant now as Dickens’ London. Ms. Gasparini has even put the intrepid Clove Creek Dinner Theater’s stage manager Katherine Abell on stage in period dress as the studio’s Foley artist, providing sound effects throughout the presentation in the style of the old-fashioned crackle-laden shows. Ms. Abell does not disappoint in giving the audience everything from Marley’s clanking chains to the opening and shutting of doors and the time-warping sound of ghostly visions past, present and future.

The preeminence of the listening experience notwithstanding, due attention has been paid by Ms. Gasparini to the costuming of the cast and the dressing of the set in the style of the radio voices they are playing. From holiday dresses to Victory-roll hairstyles for the ladies, to bow ties, suspenders and high-waisted slacks for the gentlemen, the iconic look of the set and the actors are a pleasure. Completing the look and feel of the production are Ms. Gasparini’s radioland-style commercials for the show’s actual sponsors.

Louisa Vilardi
(Photo Credit: Katherine Abell)

The “tight-fisted, hand at the grindstone” Scrooge is well played by Jeff Scully, who imbues Scrooge with all the crotchety indifference the early frames require, as well as a dramatic and deeply effective portrayal of his sadness and pleas for a chance at redemption.

Apart from Scrooge, all the actors play numerous roles, and each present their differing characters with a wide range of age-appropriate voice and accent talents. The effect is never confusing, and indeed, often integral to the entirely amusing quality of the show. The ensemble cast of Patrick Spaulding, Brendan Jennings, Steven Bendler, Aaron-Noel Treppeda, and Louisa Vilardi, each turn in truly charming performances, and all of them have moments of real connection to the language of the story and the audience. Gabriella Fryer’s musical direction is in equal measure lovely supporting interludes in the classic and authentic style of the radio era, and traditional Christmas Carols which add to the ambiance of the play and the Season.

Brendan Jennings
(Photo: Katherine Abell)

The adaptation is presented at a lively one-act pace, after a good dinner complemented by attentive and friendly service. The evening concludes with a heartwarming Christmas sing-along, in which even the least nostalgic attendee will participate with a smile, and a traditional holiday send-off written by Ms. Gasparini which will do much to melt any icy heart.

When Scrooge is confronted by one vignette of his Christmas past, his ghostly companion, noting the emergence of a tear on his cheek, asks, “Your lip is trembling. And what is that upon your cheek?” Scrooge, not quite ready for the catharsis that will soon follow, denies it is anything at all. In Clove Creek Dinner Theater’s A Christmas Carol, you will be drawn into your own Christmas pasts, and you may find something has appeared on your cheek as well. Don’t wait as long as Scrooge to acknowledge what it really is – Christmas, past, present and future have come to claim you again. May it be said of us, that we “knew how to keep Christmas well.” A fresh ear for Clove Creek’s A Christmas Carol will be a fine start. 

A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play shows for one more weekend at Clove Creek Dinner Theater. Tickets can be reserved online at http://www.clovecreekdinnertheater.com or by calling the box office at 845.202.7778.

Jeff Sculley as Ebenezer Scrooge
(Photo: Katherine Abell)

The Snow Queen – Ancram Opera House

Review by Joe Eriole

In the modern era, many have come to the unfortunate conclusion that the supernatural is nothing more than that which science has not yet, but inevitably will, explain. “The Snow Queen” reminds us that for most of human history, the supernatural was understood to be real and ever-present. And, in the ordinary course of things, its spirits and forces were thought to operate with gleeful enmity toward our simple joys. Taking advantage of our human frailties, the legends of our ancestors illuminate a world in which the elements against which we struggled for survival were personified by spirits, who interfered whenever they could to stop us in achieving the peace and prosperity we sought in this life. The “fairy tales” of every era, no less dark and filled with very grown up cautionary lessons than the epic tales of any Norse or Greek mythological deity, have, in our skeptical age, been softened to become G-rated children’s films.

Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen  was first published in 1844, at a time when our modern age was finding its legs, but the ancient legends and beliefs still held sway in most of the world. Even now, the reality of things supernatural seems to hold on most tenaciously in places where the elements continue to challenge us most. In the ice-locked northern world of Andersen’s story, one finds it easy to believe in another dimension – the landscapes are breathtaking and bone-chilling all at once, and the solitary sounds of the rare things that can live in those places carry over those illuminated landscapes like the cries of ghosts to this day.

The story centers on the odyssey of Gerda as she seeks to find and free her childhood friend, Kai. From the clutches of the Snow Queen. The malevolent Queen has bewitched Kai so that he no longer wants, or even sees, the simple joys of their childhood life together, nor is he the least bit concerned with pursuing the inevitable love story for which he and Gerda were obviously destined.

In the adaptation presented at Ancram Opera House, Barbara Weichmann, laudably, gives us the haunting story much as its author first presented it. The elevated and poetic language of the 19th century is preserved, and the magical quality of the story is likewise elevated as a result.

Weichmann also wrote the lyrics to the music written by Lisa Dove. The music is complicated; one senses that it was not easy to master for the musicians or the vocalists. To Dove’s credit, she has not written a conceit – despite the clear sense that the compositions are ambitious; they are also unpretentious and melodic. The show’s Musical Director, Elizabeth Gerbi, is also the show’s conductor and pianist, and her work is among the most notable in the entire production. The three musicians (Gerbi, piano, Louis Rizzo, cello and Emma Piazza, violin) remain on stage throughout the show, and each display a mastery of their instrument. In addition to conducting and playing, Gerbi also uses the piano and leads the musicians in providing not just support for the vocalists, but as needed, cheerful or haunting ambience and even sound effects, throughout the play.

The intimate Opera House space is decked entirely in white, and dressed with white cutouts dangling from the ceiling that give the impression of jagged and dangerous snowflakes. The effect is mesmerizing. Much credit is due the team responsible for the engaging sense of place achieved despite limiting themselves to the single, and stunning, white palette (Scenic Design, Sarah Edkins, Lighting Design, Ayumu “Poe” Saegusa, Set Construction, Doug Diaz). As soon as you enter the space, you know you have left one realm and entered another; it is not just the Snow Queen’s world; it is the effect theater itself can have when a set is thoughtfully designed and constructed.

Photo Credit: B. Docktor

The costumes (Denise R. Massman) are appealing takes on 19th century style, designed to stand out against the glowing whiteness of the set, while remaining evocative of the icy world in which the characters operate.

The result of this careful attention is that the play is immediately and always visually pleasing and immersive. Director Jeffrey Mousseau has brought together with great care the promise of both a vision and an ethos in this presentation, and his cast delivers on the promise.

As a general observation, the most notable weakness of the adaptation is that, despite its title, the audience is given too little of the sinister Snow Queen herself. Cheyenne See’s robust voice and commanding presence gives us every bit the menacing spirit she is meant to be; it is a credit to the quality of her performance that we wish we saw the Queen more often.

The play opens with Shawn Adiletta endearingly playing “Boy”, listening with youthful wonder to his older self (played with stately sensitivity by James Occhino) as he relates the memory of the dream which drives the plot. But Adiletta gives an equally effective turn as the mature narrator of his own story , who confidently wrests control as the narrative closes.

The couple whose love story provides the engine for the play are played by Adam Basco-Mahieddine  as Kai and Katie Birenboim as Gerda. Basco-Mahieddine captures the eerie distant countenance necessary to drive the plot as the bewitched Kai. Birenboim is equal parts delight and resolve, in fine voice throughout and delivering a Gerdas who is charming while always giving the sense that she is up to meeting the challenges she faces on her journey.

Lauren Bell’s Robber Girl is a scene-stealing whirlwind of a character. In less capable hands, Robber Girl might be limited to comic relief – and indeed, Ms. Bell is funny. But even in this flight of imagination and fancy, Bell provides us the most intriguing and subtle character of the play; her Robber Girl makes us laugh, expresses our less noble inner dialogues, and then breaks our heart with the story’s most compelling turn. 

In the dual roles of Grandmother and Lapp Woman, Sandra Boynton is a joy. Boynton lifts the energy of the show and starts the true narrative on its path with a rousing song as Grandmother that lights up the stage, and every time we see her on stage again, we are happier for it.

Photo Credit: B. Docktor

Rounding out the appealing cast is Brian Demar Jones, rendering a sweetly tragic and very funny Crow, Sandy York, who provides jolts of energy in each of her appearances as Old Woman & Robber Mother, and David Perez-Ribada as Prince/Bae. Perez-Ribada is particularly enchanting as the noble Bae, a reindeer struggling against his own oppressions as he helps Gerda in her journey. Perez-Ribada’s Bae is dear to us as soon as we meet him.

 As in all “hero’s quest” stories, Gerda must pass through various trials and tribulations, alternately helped and thwarted by those she encounters along the way; the kindness of strangers and the unpredictable treachery and danger they present are a reflection of each of our lives. We are called, at our best, not to a life free of such risks, but to soldier on despite them. In Andersen’s story, Gerda, of course, saves Kai with Love’s true kiss. Ah…the ending we need, indeed. We do not give too much away, I assure you; the intention is to encourage you to see Gerda’s journey unfold in Ancram.

Ancram Opera House continues to make intriguing choices in its program, and The Snow Queen is evidence of its commitment to the whole sense experience that such an intimate house cabn generate when attention to talent and detail is properly paid.

Photo Credit: B. Docktor

The Crucible – The New Deal Creative Arts Center

Review By erin hebert

Atmosphere was the first thing you noticed about New Deal Creative Arts Center’s production of The Crucible. The Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church in Staatsburg, where the production was staged, is foreboding as you drive up to it. Proud Roman columns stand guard outside, backlit in stark white light, and there’s even (presumably for Halloween) a set of stocks outside. The location is immediately intimidating and upon entering the church, the feeling that you’ve been transported back to the founding days of the Hudson Valley is inescapable.

Upon entering the church, we were told that the heat inside must be turned off during the performance to improve sound quality, and we are encouraged to take blankets to keep warm. The ushers apologized for this, but they could not have foreseen how intensely this cold would add to the ambience—it crept in slowly throughout Act 1, and by the time the lights came up for intermission, it was impossible to discern shivers of cold from shivers of fear. Bundled in our blankets, we almost felt like kids hearing a ghost story—one that really happened, could happen again, and is all the more frightening for that.

Much work is done for the production by the space, before the actors even step on stage; but when they do, they take the ambience and magnify it through stellar performances, high tension, and great use of space.

Chuck Fager, Farrell Reynolds, Austin Carrothers and Joe Eriole

The act begins at a breakneck pace with Denis Silvestri’s Reverend Parris at his daughter’s bedside, distraught and desperate to know the cause of her sudden incapacitation. Having discovered his daughter and some other local girls dancing in the woods the night, Parris is terrified by the idea that his daughter may be struck down by witchcraft. He questions his niece, Abigail Williams, but she stands strong in her claim that she and the other girls were only dancing. Throughout the opening scene, Silvestri’s trepidation is palpable, and the rapid-fire pace of his discussion with Abigail sets the tone for the rest of the show.
 

After Parris leaves, Abigail meets with the other girls to threaten them into silence about what they were actually doing in the forest the night prior. Abigail, played by Steavie Hergenrader Reed, accomplishes an impressively immediate shift in attitude when alone with her compatriots: to her uncle, she’s the perfect, pious, well-behaved young woman, but to the other girls in town, she is a figure to be respected, obeyed, and most importantly, feared. Abigail’s partners in crime, Mercy Lewis and Mary Warren, played by Jess Lyke and Lauren Silverman respectively, are standouts in their own right. The group as a whole deftly walks the line between innocent young women and women capable of murder; they evoke the ruthlessness of teenagers mixed with the naivete of not truly understanding the gravity of what their accusations will accomplish.

Steavie Hergenrader Reed as Abigail Williams

Soon Parris returns with other townsfolk to discuss his daughter’s condition, and it’s in these large group scenes that the acting truly shines. Thomas and Ann Putnam, played by Kevin McCarthy and Tessa DeBella, played off each other brilliantly. McCarthy’s Thomas was suitably proud and smug, feeling reinforced against the scourge of witchcraft by his wealth and influence in the town. DeBella’s Ann Putnam was the polar opposite: manic, terrified, and ready to accuse someone of witchcraft at the drop of a hat. DeBella’s tension and desperation was compelling, and her borderline hysteria drove the scene into the powderkeg it becomes.

The Putnams are joined in Parris’ house by Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey, two elders of the town, as well as Reverend John Hale, an official hired to investigate the witchcraft, and John Proctor, a local farmer and the object of Abigail Williams’ infatuation. Rebecca Nurse, played by Marie Hasenpflug, and Giles Corey, played by Farrell Reynolds, were both portrayed with impressive conviction and even understated comedic timing—neither will have anything to do with the witchcraft rumors and treat it as ridiculous. However, their voices of reason are no match for the mob mentality that is beginning to seep in, and the scenes which follow become progressively more difficult to watch—because of the skill of the actors involved and the dark, timely nature of the source material.

The first of many troubling scenes is when Parris questions Tituba, his slave, about what happened in the forest the night before. Although the audience knows that Tituba was not responsible for what happened, we must watch in uncomfortable silence as Parris rails against her with such blind fury that she eventually confesses. It’s a scene that offers a glimpse into life for an enslaved woman of color in the Puritan era, and it’s chilling to watch her white enslaver scream at her until her will is broken. Gabrielle St. Evensen plays Tituba with understated strength and such genuine emotion that her plight becomes one of the most sympathetic in the production.

Farrell Reynolds, Mark Grunblatt, and Lauren Silverman

It’s clear that the hunt for witches and the hysteria therein is the crux of the play, but the prowess of Joe Eriole’s John Proctor and Alex Petrova’s Elizabeth Proctor, steals the show when they are featured. Both are remarkable in the depths of their characters individually; Joe Eriole’s John Proctor is unflappable, an oasis of calm in the midst of hysteria, a man of pride—except in his transgressions. Alex Petrova Emisi’s Elizabeth Proctor is a woman of ice; stern, pious, and the epitome of Puritan womanhood. Both actors were consistent, thorough, and utterly genuine in their characters, and when they interact onstage, it’s magic. In the wake of John’s adultery with the now scheming Abigail, a former Proctor household servant, Eriole and Petrova Emisi’s delivery of the couple’s terse conversations overlayed a deeply felt emotion, hurt, and yearning for reconciliation, that neither are sure will ever come. But Elizabeth is never outwardly angry with John, she never yells or berates him—her anger takes the form of calculated stoicism, immovable by John’s pleas for forgiveness, and Petrova’s precision in this resolve was beautifully wrought.   

How the righteous characters are utterly broken by the witchcraft hysteria was deftly done by the actors, and this was shown particularly well in Austin Carrothers’ Reverend Hale. Carrothers crafted an impressive character arc throughout the show: in the beginning, filled with pride and self-righteousness, but also the patience to question those accused of witchcraft with kindness and respect. He never devolves into the hysterics that Reverend Parris and Ann Putnam exhibit, and Carrothers was notable in his ability to remain calm in the manic environment provided by those characters.  However, by the end of the play, Hale’s faith is shaken enough to quit his participation in the trials entirely. The shell that remains of Reverend Hale by the play’s conclusion is heartbreakingly far from who he was at the beginning. To see a man fall so far in his faith, battered so thoroughly by human ruthlessness, is one of the production’s many well-executed tragedies.

Michael Frohnhoefer as Deputy Governor Danforth

The scariest thing about the show is the hysteria, at its Broadway premiere and still today, is the paranoia, and the destruction of innocent people in the name of fearhmongering witchhunters—but a close second in New Deal’s production was Michael Frohnhoefer as Deputy Governor Danforth. His performance was captivating and terrifying all at once. Danforth  is a man so utterly malevolent, serious, calculated, and self-assured in his viciousness that the ends always justify the means, even if those means include killing dozens of people. Any objection is met with a glance that could shake a mountain, and every word Froenhoeffer speaks was spoken with such conviction, precision, and a justice so devoid of mercy that it’s staggering.

Chuck Fager, Denis Silverstri, Austin Carrothers, and Joe Eriole

New Deal’s production of The Crucible was a powerhouse of acting ability, ensemble cohesion, and deep emotion. The story is a timely one—the power of a mob is indisputable and terrifying, and while this hysteria is now approximately 400 years old, the human capability of such a tragedy again is alive and well. Led by Thom Webb’s able direction, the actors took the space and source material and elevated it to such a height that the audience left feeling utterly shaken and emotionally drained. New Deal continued to show itself an innovative and creative company since its inception just two years ago.

Erin Hebert

Erin has performed with multiple community theater groups in the Hudson Valley. Most recent productions include Matilda and Jesus Christ Superstar with The Center for the Performing Arts at Rhinebeck. She works at IBM as a physical design engineer. 

Cast members of The Crucible

Editing note: Hudson Valley Ovation notes that due to the connection of persons involved in the production reviewed, Ms. Hebert’s review was edited by a freelance editor retained by HVO for that purpose.

The Women – CenterStage Productions at The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck

Review by Erin Hebert

The CenterStage Production of The Women, directed by Lisa Lynds and produced by Lou Trapani, delivers a rare insight into the lives of the most glamorous, wealthy, and miserable socialites of Manhattan—and each quip and catty comment is an absolute delight.

The Clare Boothe Luce play, which first opened on Broadway in 1936, centers around four socialites—Mary Haines, blissfully in love, Sylvia Fowler, the busybody and leader of the group, Edith Potter, ever-pregnant and ever-sullen, and Peggy Day, the least wealthy of the group and always somewhat out of the loop because of it. These four are a microcosm of the upper-class white woman of the 1930s—privileged, not working outside the home, and bored out of their minds with nothing better to do than gossip and worry about their husbands’ fidelity.

Amy Gustin Millin as Sylvia in The Women

The tone of the play is set quickly by a vicious game of bridge between Mary, Sylvia, Edith, Peggy, and Nancy—the unmarried rarity of the group. The friends are supportive and nasty to each other in the same breath, trading clever insults with each card. The nastiness is goaded by Sylvia, the obvious queen bee of the group, who knows everybody’s business before they do (played stellarly by Amy Gustin Millin). Sylvia will talk about anyone the second they leave the room, especially when a hot piece of new gossip is discovered. The driving force of the show is one particularly juicy piece of news—Mary’s husband of twelve years is having an affair, and everyone knows except Mary.

The actresses portraying the bridge club all do so with aplomb, playing off each other with ease, each distinct and consistent in their characters. Gustin’s Sylvia is graceful, poised, and ready to strike at all times. One can always expect a laugh from Molly Feibel’s Edith, whose constant battle with pregnancy is simply hilarious. Vera Perry’s Peggy is delightful in her wide-eyed innocence, and Emily Depew’s Nancy stands as a refreshing foil to the group—she’s the only one who sees marriage as the prison that it was for women of the time period. She’s blunt and honest with her friends, and her disillusionment with marriage is a welcome change of pace.

Jessie Turin and Tamara Cacchione in The Women

Rounding out the group is Mary, the show’s heroine, played with delicate strength by Tamara Cacchione. She refuses to be pulled into the nastiness Sylvia orchestrates, and even when we see her discover her husband’s affair, she does so with an almost heartbreaking grace

The show’s leading ladies are rivaled in the effectiveness of their performances by their ‘other women’—Crystal Allen and Miriam Aarons, who make off with Mary’s and Sylvia’s husbands, respectively.  Portrayed by Sabrina Roberts and Jessie Truin, these women are powerhouses who steal scenes as easily as their characters do husbands. Roberts’ Crystal is a tour-de-force of glamor, sensuality, and ambition; the meek, complacent Mary of Act 1 doesn’t stand a chance once Crystal decides she wants to sink her claws into Mr. Haines. From the first moment you see Roberts on stage, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her; she could eviscerate you with a look and you would thank her for it. Her character is thorough and consistent, from her ever-present smirk to her trans-atlantic accent, which immediately sets her apart from Cacchione’s prim and proper Mary.

In contrast to the vicious ambition of Roberts’ Crystal Allen, Jessie Truin’s Miriam Aarons accomplishes the same goal of stealing the husband of a wealthy socialite, but she gains no joy from it. It’s clear that Aarons knows marrying above her social status is the only way she can get ahead, and she will, but she feels no need to tear down the women around her in order to do it. Whenever Truin is on stage, it’s obvious how comfortable she is there; when Aarons is giving advice to Mary and The Countess (a hilariously batty Diane Preston), she does so while lounging on the arm of a sofa with such ease that we feel as if we’re in Truin’s living room and we half expect to be offered a cup of tea.

Cast members of The Women

Mary and Sylvia visit the Countess and Miriam in Reno to escape the stress of their husbands’ infidelity (although in Sylvia’s case, she was having an affair before her husband).  This scene shows Gustin’s Sylvia pushed to the breaking point as she learns that her husband is leaving her for Miriam, which results in a cat fight that leaves the ever-composed and in-control Sylvia in a tearful heap. She turns to Mary for help, but Mary has finally realized the insidiousness of Sylvia’s friendship and takes Miriam’s side. Upon realizing that she is no longer in complete control of her relationships, Sylvia breaks down. Gustin executes Sylvia’s fall from grace expertly; you watch her ever-so-slowly become rattled by Mary’s growing independence, and when the two break ties completely, Sylvia never truly recovers. She attempts to build up a similar friendship with Crystal Allen, but Sylvia is different now—manic and desperate for control of the relationship (which Crystal would never allow). Gustin’s ability to display the subtle shifts in her character without compromising consistency are laudable; the Sylvia of the end is a weathered, beaten-down shadow of her former self.

Sylvia’s power in the show is inversely proportional to Mary’s—as Sylvia’s influence falters, Mary’s increases. Mary’s development throughout the play is nurtured expertly by Cacchione. When Mary first learns of her husbands’ infidelity, she is broken, desperate, and willing to forgive her husband at every turn. In the end, Mary still seeks reconciliation with her husband, but she does so because her husband is the man she loves and she feels that she deserves the love that she wants. Mary could easily be frustrating in her unwillingness to give up on a man who no longer loves her, but it is impossible not to feel for her due to the genuineness with which Cacchione plays the role. Cacchione’s Mary is a capable woman who also happens to be desperately in love. Mary brings this burgeoning independence into her relationships with her daughter and mother and ends up developing these relationships in turn. Mary’s daughter (a delightfully mischievous Jane Langan) finds the claws to take on her dreadful stepmother, and Mary’s mother (a very impressive Louise Pillai) finally admits in the end that husbands may be more trouble than they’re worth.

Cacchione’s Mary is truly exemplary, but she is far from alone in her skillfulness in this production. A true ensemble piece, every woman in the all-female cast has an opportunity to shine and they do not disappoint. There’s a hilarious scene in which Jane, Mary’s maid played by Madison Anthony, reenacts a dramatic argument between Mr. and Mrs. Haines with notable comedic chops. Wendy Urban-Mead portrays multiple supporting characters impressively, imbuing each with distinct physicalities and thorough personalities. The ensemble is rounded out by Emily McCarthy, Alexis Sullivan, Diana Perretti, Kathy Varadi, Matrix Odlum, and Tricia Franklin, all delivering solid performances with clever quips throughout.

Wendy Urban-Mead in The Women

On a surface level, the play and its characters seem vapid—it’s hard to say whether the play was intended by Luce to be satire, or if her mid-1930’s script is as blissfully unaware as its characters. However, this production breathes incredible life and intelligence into what could be a very dated, out-of-touch show. It would be very easy to allow the characters to become pithy caricatures, but this production rises to the challenge of making The Women more than that; they have done the work to make each of their characters real women, and it shows. The strength of the ensemble as a whole is possible because of the clear respect each of the women on stage has for her cast mates, and the result is truly commendable. Between hearty laughs and numerous outstanding performances, this production should not be missed.

Erin Hebert

Erin has performed with multiple community theater groups in the Hudson Valley. Most recent productions include Matilda and Jesus Christ Superstar with The Center for the Performing Arts at Rhinebeck. She works at IBM as a physical design engineer. 

Tamara Cacchione, Molly Feibel, Emily DePew and Amy Gustin Millin

PREVIEW: The Crucible – The New Deal Creative Arts Center

The New Deal Creative Arts, a non-profit performing arts group based in Hyde Park, offers a gripping rendition of Arthur Miller’s 1953 drama, The Crucible. The play opens this Friday, November 8, and runs for two weekends.

Written by Wendy Urban-Mead

In the spring of 1692 in present-day Danvers, Massachusetts, began a series of events that led to the execution of 20 people. Scores more were accused and jailed. The fear of witchcraft was hanging in the air. Had the disreputable Sarah Goode, or the upright church-member Goodwife (“Goody”) Nurse signed the Devil’s Book?  Seventeen-year-old Abigail Williams, formerly in service at John and Elizabeth Proctor’s homestead, had been hired by no one since being dismissed from their employ eight months earlier. Why? Why was Abigail leading the cluster of girls making the accusations? Why was Abigail’s aunt, Ann Putnam, afflicted with multiple births of babies who died within days? Did the Putnam family’s enslaved servant, Tituba, with her knowledge of the occult, have a role in the misfortunes?  What stew of generational, class, and gendered rivalry was feeding this storm?

New England’s English settlers were in an Atlantic world that belied its seeming isolation and ostensibly single-minded focus on the Puritan religion. War between England and France, lethal attacks by Native Americans, a smallpox epidemic, and the hardscrabble challenge of making the rocky Massachusetts soil yield a prosperous living informed the stark social climate. Their world intersected with economic, social, cultural, and religious forces from the Caribbean, the African slave trade, and the New-World colonial rivalries among the British, French, and Spanish powers.

Photo Credit: Louisa Vilardi

Fast-forward three centuries. Playwright Arthur Miller found himself aghast at the unfolding of the Red Scare in the early 1950s. The fear of communism was high; people accused of being closet Communists lost their careers, social networks, and friends. The heavy hand of Cold War paranoia affected every facet of life in the US at that time. Keen to find a way to capture this dynamic in a stage play that might goad its audiences to wake up and see the damage being done to people’s lives and the soundness of the American republic, Miller ultimately decided to triangulate, by looking at the events in Salem. Miller pored over the records of the court trials, and ultimately settled on the story surrounding John Proctor as the centerpiece of the drama.

The Crucible is one of the most-often produced plays in North America, and indeed around the world. Why go to this one here in Hyde Park, this month? My answer is, because this production will take you by the throat and not release you until the heart-rending final scene. Because there is an impressive collection of talented actors bringing their best to tell this story from 17th Century Salem, Massachusetts. The members of the cast have moved deep into that moment defined by intrigue, witchcraft, sexual tension, vengeance, human frailty, peak courage, and political paranoia. Because the production’s physical setting takes you back to the spatial sense of the era. The performance space is at Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Fiddler’s Bridge and Hollow Roads. The church is tucked at the edge of a great wall of rock, at a sharp bend in the narrow road, and sits under a canopy of tall, dark trees. It is as if time has rolled back several centuries.  The audience sits inside the church’s plain white walls, illuminated with natural light through plain glass windows, under the high peaked roof, in the simple dark-wood pews. The building’s stark simplicity portends the stern lessons that unfold over the course of the play. Am I at the Salem courthouse after all? Behold, I see the demure white head coverings on the women, their wide white collars and sober, dark dresses, the leathern tunics of the farming men and lacy jabots pouring out of the black great-coats of the court officials and clergy. 

In short, there is pitch-perfect costuming by Tory Elvin and the decision by producer Teresa Gasparini to set the play at this church was a brilliant move. The director, Thom Webb, is an actor’s director. Himself an accomplished stage performer, Webb brings both his respect for the actor’s creative process and his sharp historical knowledge to bear in this, his newest work as an emerging director of merit. The scenes unfold briskly and audiences are taken deep into the story, ably held by the strength of the acting.

Joe Eriole concedes that playing John Proctor is a dream come true. Proctor’s iconic line, “[b]ecause it is my name, because I cannot have another in my life,” with which he urges court officials to take his soul, but not his name, is for Eriole the heart of his character. 

Joe Eriole as John Proctor
(Photo Credit: Louisa Vilardi)

Steavie Hergenrader Reed plays Abigail Williams, the young girl who saw in her employer Proctor’s sexual advances a promise – that she would replace his wife Elizabeth. Instead, Proctor repents of his lust, and agrees when Elizabeth insists that Abigail be turned out. Reed reflects: “for a young girl who feels so utterly misunderstood and wronged, Abigail has the exhausting and exhilarating journey in The Crucible of concealing, adjusting, and attempting to control, which has been the most challenging and enjoyable part of this process.”

Elizabeth Proctor’s composed, if not chilly, demeanor conceals someone who never believed she could win someone’s love. She ultimately concedes that “suspicion kissed you when I did; I never knew how I should say my love.” For actor Alexandra Petrova-Emisti, whose rendering of Elizabeth is compelling – both restrained and powerful – this is the critical moment when Elizabeth’s reserve slips to show her vulnerability; till then she had looked outside herself to find the source of blame for all that went wrong. 

Cast members of The Crucible
(Photo Credit: Louisa Vilardi)

These are the insights of just three of the actors in what is a large, lively cast. Andy Crispell’s Hathorne, Austin Carrothers’ Reverend Hale, Denis Sylvestri’s Parris, and Michael Froehnhofer’s Governor Danforth are notable for their vivid, distinct renderings of the individuals making up the gang of powerful men at the top of Salem’s social-political scene. Hale’s character arc, ending in a compelling speech about the sanctity of life, is haunting. In the midst of the tragic chaos of the hangings, an easily forgettable line became the one that pierced my heart on the lips of Maria Hasenpflug’s Rebecca Nurse, who remarks on her way to the gallows: “I have not had my breakfast.”

In a 1996 article in which playwright Miller reflected on why he wrote The Crucible, he observed that “below its concerns with justice the play evokes a lethal brew of illicit sexuality, fear of the supernatural, and political manipulation, a combination not unfamiliar these days.”* He might as well have written that in 2019.

New Deal Creative Arts Center’s production of The Crucible plays in a setting that strongly evokes the stark feel of the Puritan meeting house central to the telling of this story. It is a drama which – rather soberingly – continues to resonate, goad, and haunt. Performed by a committed and talented group of seasoned local actors, under able direction, this must-see offering of The Crucible runs November 8, 9, 15 & 16 at 7:30 PM and November 10 at 2 PM, at the Pleasant Plains Presbyterian Church, 2 Fiddler’s Bridge Road, Staatsburg. Tickets are $20 in advance (newdeal-thecrucible.eventbrite.com) or $25 at the door. Student tickets are also offered at the door for $10.

Gabrielle St. Evenson as Tituba with members of the cast of The Crucible
(Photo Credit: Louisa Vilardi)

*(Arthur Miller, “Why I Wrote The Crucible: an artist’s answer to politics,” The New Yorker, October 13, 1996.  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1996/10/21/why-i-wrote-the-crucible )

REVIEW: Sweeney Todd – The Two of Us Productions/RARE Inc.

Review by Tamara Cacchione

            Many did indeed “attend the tale of Sweeney Todd,” in the beautiful Taconic Hills Auditorium up in Claverack, NY.  This bold and elegant production, produced by The Two of Us Productions and The Roving Actors’ Repertory Ensemble was a captivating and moving theater experience in a busy regional theater season.

            When audience members first enter this grand auditorium, they encounter an 18-piece orchestra, a rare treat for a musical playing in community theater in the area, and an indication of the company’s goal of bringing high-quality, full-scale theatrical productions to the local stage.  The producers noted in the program that “live full-orchestra music is an integral part of (their) shows & provides the musical support that this show is designed to present to …audiences.”  Conducted by director Stephen Sanborn, the orchestra is a true gift in this production.  It is thrilling and provoking to hear a strong orchestra underscoring a deeply moving musical, and it is imperative for Sweeney Todd, as music plays throughout much of the action of the production, with unique harmonies and sinister tones that support the dark subject matter of 19th century London. 

            Sweeney Todd, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, is the tale of a deeply damaged man determined to find some ease of mind by seeking revenge on those who destroyed his family.  To give you an idea of what type of resolve Sweeney has, he has escaped prison in Australia to get back to London and find Judge Turpin and the Beadle, whom he holds responsible for the death of his wife and the kidnapping of his daughter. He has literally traveled across oceans to seek revenge. Once arriving back in London, there is no stopping him. Sweeney connects with Mrs. Lovett, whose affection for Sweeney causes her to assist him by adding her own personal flair to his madcap plan to murder those who have hurt him and his loved ones.  When Sweeney’s initial plan does not go as he hoped, he uses his anger to murder nearly everyone who sits in his barber chair.  What to do with the victims of Sweeney’s sharp knives? Business begins to boom in Mrs. Lovett’s meatpie shop now that the new supply of meat bcomes bountiful.  Together, they seek to find happiness- for Lovett, this means happily married to her the murdering barber, perhaps by the sea, while for Sweeney, this means blood to satisfy his desire for retribution.

Joshuah Patriarco and Constance Lopez

            Director Steve Sanborn and Assistant Director Constance Lopez’s ambitious undertaking of a complex score with such dark and intense life struggles can only succeed with a strong cast and ensemble, and this production’s cast did not disappoint. 

            In the role of Sweeney Todd was the powerhouse force of Joshuah Patriarco.  Patriarco’s strong command of his rich baritone voice and his nuanced choices displayed the depths of Sweeney’s pain and journey in a way that made a murderous barber somehow more humane.  From the moment Patriarco arrived on the stage, the fire behind his eyes and full commitment to this bizarre and dark world was palpable, enabling audience members to root for the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Patriarco’s performance was intriguing and tittilating while being moving thanks to his subtle shifting of character throughout Sweeney’s time on stage. Patriarco’s bold choices were paired with many precise movements that punctuated his journey from anguished survivor to cold-blooded killer. His range of movements and actions was entrancing to watch, from a sharp and unusual rising from a shallow grave to the smooth and precise slashing of throats, almost a balletic and rhythmic dance. 

            Constance Lopez’s beguiling Mrs. Lovett was a gift of quirk and charm.  Lopez was clearly enjoying herself, as the Lovett character requires in order for her not to seem one-dimensionally twisted and maniacal. Lopez makes the endearing and powerful choice to remain deeply rooted in love, which is evident in her chemistry with the actors around her, in particular with Sweeney and Toby, (a youngster who she encounters through her escapades with Sweeney).   Lopez’s Mrs. Lovett provided a light to Sweeney’s darkness that allows the audience a respite from some of the more intense plotlines and subject matter.   

            Sam Sultan shone as Pirelli, a rival barber.  Sultan demonstrated his keen gift for humor with pinache in the song entitled “The Contest”, in which Pirelli brags about his skills as a barber while competing with Sweeney for the closest shave.  Sultan found every moment for jocularity possible while remaining true to the character to the point that one wishes that he would repeat his scenes so that one could catch the jokes that rapidly poured forth in his performance.

            As the Beggar Woman, Benita Zahn dazzled with humor and pathos.  Zahn created an engaging character whose droll oddity belied her darker struggle for survival. This made Zahn’s performance particularly poignant. Zahn’s multi-dimensional choices represented to audience members one important facet of the struggles of the inhabitants of London and demonstrated the survival of the most devastated, those who have the least, (such a home and many of her faculties).  It might have been easy to fall into stereotypical choices that audience-members might have laughed at, and while there was humor, the Beggar Woman resonated thanks to Zahn’s dedication to the role and the work that she clearly put in to create a realistic and sympathetic woman who was down on her luck. 

            Another joy of the production was the beautiful voice and energy of William Flaim as Anthony Hope. Flaim’s renditions of Johanna (both when he first falls in love with her and when he realizes that his new paramour is not free to love whomever she wants), were both poignant and moving.  It would be difficult not to root for Flaim’s hopeful ambitions; the character of Anthony stops at nothing to be with the woman he loves while remaining somewhat idealistic and determined in a more pure way than those around him.  Flaim’s gleam is a harsh contrast to those who are clawing for survival and any brief balm that might ease their suffering in the dark underbelly of London. 

            The splendid voice of the striking Isabel Costa was a strength of another the effectiveness of the production. As Johanna, Sweeney’s long lost daughter and the paramour of Anthony, ward of the sinister Judge Turpin, she is called upon to represent the show’s beacon of beauty and hope in an otherwise desolate landscape, and Costa does not disappoint, demonstrating earnest romanticism generating from a bruised heart.

            As Judge Turpin, Frank Leavitt was abe to represent the monster who Sweeney blames for the destruction of his family, and turn him into a captivating human being.  Leavitt found the vulnerability of the man (as when he attempts a courtship).  Of particular note was his haunting rendition with Patriarco of “Pretty Women” and his remarkable and hair-raising monologue as he convinces himself that the best thing for his ward is to wed her. 

            As Judge Turpin’s diligent henchman, The Beadle, Brian Yorck created a sinister character mixed with a tinge of jollity.  Yorck’s choice to bring some geniality to the hard-working bad-guy sidekick allowed The Beadle to become even more deliciously smarmy.  Yorck’s smooth voice further enhanced the creep-factor, in songs such as “Parlor Songs”, where Yorck’s suited and efficient singing belies the threat of destruction that he might bring upon the meatpie shop he has come to inspect.   At other times, such as in the song “Ladies and Their Sensitivities”, Yorck seemed to be the voice of reason, slowing down some of the destruction that Judge Turpin hopes to force upon his ward, Johanna. Yorck was a delight to watch. 

            As Toby Ragg, Carmen Lookshire was charming and astute.  Her fun and quirky choices were highly entertaining to watch. Lookshire is an actress masterfully in control of her craft in this production; she initially masks Toby’s deeply-rooted pain, and gradually revealed her character’s strong desire for love and ultimate deference to those she loves.

            Mark Luening was solidly menacing and effectively domineering as the master of the lunatics asylum, Jonas Fogg.

            One would be remiss not to acknowledge the strong ensemble, without which Sondheim productions can devolve into cacaphony; a committed and effective ensemble is essential for any production of Sweeney Todd to be entertaining. It did not disappoint here. Many actors doubled up roles in order to flesh out the world of Victorian London.  One standout number was“City on Fire”, in which each actor plunged themselves into the gripping and unorthodox moves of patients in an asylum. Chloe Conway, Lucia Martin, Zach Nayer, Molly Oliviera, Karissa Payson, and Lauren Wicks each created varied characters in scenes such as at the contest between Pirelli and Sweeney, in Mrs. Lovett’s meatpie shop, dancing at a sinister party at Judge Turpin’s abode, and being murdered by Sweeney.  William Flaim, Frank Leavitt, Mark Leinung, Carmen Lookshire, Sam Sultan, and Brian Yorck also seamlessly blended into different characters in various scenes to become ensemble as well, which further enhanced the story and the trajectory of Sweeney Todd. 

            While a capable musician himself, director Steven Sanborn and Assistant Director Constance Lopez emphasized the music in this production by bringing on Paul and Joanne Schubert, as vocal directors, which reflects their respect for the music and a deep need for strong voices in this production.  The Schuberts demonstrated masterful skill, guiding the cast through some of the most complex and challenging music written for the stage. Their ability to flesh out both the subtlety and the heat in the score’s vocals was evident in the diverse and rich voices within this production.  Sanborn and Lopez’s blocking and choreography further augmented the text, particularly in group scenes where the ensemble was so very important to the story.  Costumes, by Kim Mauch further strengthened the grim and mysterious world of this production of Sweeney Todd.  With sets developed by Michael Rivenburg, Scenic Art by Michael Virtuoso, and a macabre lighting design, each element of the production seemed to work seamlessly together to support the text.

The Two of Us Productions and RARE Inc. has been a long standing staple in the Hudson Valley theatre scene for decades. If you have not had the opportunity to attend one of their shows, we implore you to do so as their mission to bring quality productions to local audiences is being met with each endeavor. Their 2019 season is not over yet! Mark your calendars for their dinner cruise murder mystery The Science of Murder on Saturday, October 26th, Karaoke night on Saturday, November 2nd, and in conjunction with Hudson Valley Academy for the Performing arts, a presentation of The Nutcracker on Sunday, December 1st. Find out more information about The Two of Us Productions/RARE Inc. by visiting their website: http://stephensanborn.tripod.com/thetwoofusproductions/