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 ( 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. )

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:

Tough Topics and A Powerful Reading

Article by Tamara Cacchione & Joe Eriole

A New Work by a Local Playwright Leaves its First Audience Moved and Intrigued

A sold-out crowd of theater-goers mingled over wine and cheese at the Clove Creek Dinner Theater on the last Sunday evening of September.  As the audience found their seats, Louisa Vilardi thanked them for attending the debut of her new and moving play, Tough Love, produced by The New Deal Creative Arts Center.

With light blocking at important moments and a cast of five skilled actors who have worked with her throughout the development of the piece, Vilardi was able to convey the vision she has for her new work. 

A simple black curtain, actors in all black, and a strong, clear voice reading important stage directions (David Perez-Ribada), allowed audience members to imagine with sufficient clarity what a fully staged performance might look like.

Photo Credit: Louisa Vilardi Photography

Vilardi has set her play at Sunday dinner in an Italian home which she acknowledges is reflective of her own family history. Indeed many of the most endearing and eclectic aspects of the Sunday dinner setting and the family dynamics themselves, are drawn from her own experience, such as the fact that they eat in the basement of their modest home on Sundays, and that the possibility that there will be no bread at dinner rises to the level of tragedy. The same mix of her own experience and original creative process colors her characters, as well. But the play is not strictly autobiographical.  “I am inspired by people I love. And I am inspired by people I can’t stand. So, I took a bunch of those people and threw them in a play,” Vilardi says.

For many families, Sunday dinner is a time to connect with loved ones, a time to rest and recuperate from a long week, and a time to share exciting and important news. For the Marino family, this particular Sunday dinner does not go as planned. The elder Marinos, Rae and Lou, have an announcement they’d like to make, which they assume will be the main event of the afternoon. But each of their two children have news of their own to report, which throws their revelation to the back of the line in a hurry. Their oldest son, Eric, announces he has made partner at his job.  After the excitement of this announcement dies down, lackadaisical son Danny, still living at home and typically sleeping until noon, announces that he is moving out and has taken a “lover” (a word to which he is gleefully and obstinately attached despite the rest of the family’s cringing each time it is uttered).  But even these momentous changes will not be center stage for long. As the evening continues, the reverberation of these announcements and the further unfolding of more personal concerns, begin to threaten the Marino family’s precarious stability.  Secrets are revealed and hidden feelings verbalized, ensuring that the Marino family will never return to quite the same Sunday dinner table again.

Vilardi smoothly takes the audience on a journey that begins, and is laced throughout, with uproarious laughter.  The show, however, often evokes tears and delivers many poignant moments as well.  Vilardi’s dialogue is witty and natural, her characters fully fleshed out people that the audience will surely recognize.  It is a testament to the effectiveness of the dialogue that in the talk-back conducted after the show, the audience participated enthusiastically in musing about the possible futures of the family, as well as the connections they felt to their own past which were aroused by the show.

Laurel Riley-Brown (Rae) ably demonstrated the aching desire of the Marino matriarch to see all of her children at peace without shaking up the status quo of the family.  Riley-Brown’s ability to bring character and charming personality to her role, while maintaining her naturalism is no small feat. It would be quite easy to fall into a satire of an Italian mother, but Riley-Brown’s deep respect for the text created a humorous and lovable Rae. 

Joe Eriole skillfully captures the flawed but well-meaning patriarch, Lou.  We don’t know precisely  what Lou is going to announce to his family, but it is clear that there is a crisis  in the Marinos’ marriage, and Eriole deftly gives us the impression that one of them may be less convinced of the impending course than the other. Lou’s journey throughout the play may seem more slight than that of other family members, but it is no less penetrating thanks to the execution of Eriole, who nabbed the subtle moments and seized key opportunities to evoke a layered and complex character, emoting moments of pathos, humor, anger, and bumbling confusion.

Kate, Eric’s long-suffering wife, is stunningly portrayed by Teresa Gasparini.  Gasparini gracefully creates a Kate filled with compassion and a gentleness that belies a deep fire underneath. As the play turns from humor to something more sobering, Kate’s transformation entranced the audience as Gasparini subtly shifted and revealed a powerhouse of pain and strength.

As Danny, Austin Lightning Carrothers’ sleek portrayal of the youngest Marino was a delight.  Carrothers breezily rolled through the hills and valleys of showing us what happens when a laid-back young man is forced into the spotlight of a serious family drama.

Steven Bendler, as older brother Eric, gave a superb performance. There was a fire in his eyes as Eric hid his stress and anxiety behind anger, and tears in his eyes as secrets were revealed.  Eric is a man hinged on trying to make everything work out the way he thinks will be best. Bendler’s portrayal of what happens when he can’t control what other people do and the outcome was captivating.

Austin Carrothers and Teresa Gasparini at a table read of Tough Love
Photo Credit: Louisa Vilardi Photography

Vilardi says the script will continue to develop, and that the comments and reactions of a live audience are vitally important to her developing a script that will move audiences to feel the wide range of familial tensions and connections which she seeks to present in Tough Love. Vilardi elaborates, “I’ve had to pick up a lot of pieces in life, not only for myself, but for others, and that’s what Tough Love is really about: giving up or giving in when things fall apart, and the strength that comes from picking up those pieces.”  

While rooted in the mind’s eye of its playwright’s personal experience, any success in its future will be due to the universality of its themes of familial love and tension. In her own words, “What’s most important to me right now is getting the words heard in front of audiences and to get feedback.”

If the feedback Ms. Vilardi received at this reading is any indicator, it is not difficult to imagine its path to a wider audience, beginning in our own backyard. Produced by New Deal Creative Art Center, a quickly expanding local arts outlet based in Hyde Park, the reading was as much event as theater; New Deal’s founder and Executive Director, Teresa Gasparini, who did double duty as the script’s Kate, says, “this public reading brought a new work to life and brought a wide range of audience members at no cost to experience this regional premiere, which sets New Deal apart from other arts organizations in the Hudson Valley.”

Vilardi has the long play in mind. She notes, “I do hope to see it on small stages, big stages and being read in people’s hands.” Tough Love is off to a rousing start. Vilardi has written a winning play with characters and storylines the audience will find both familiar and unexpected.

The cast of Tough Love (l. to r.) Austin Carrothers, David Perez-Ribada, Joe Eriole, Teresa Gasparini, Laurel Riley-Brown, Steven Bendler, and playwright Louisa Vilardi.
Photo Credit: Tav Images Photography


Ms. Vilardi is a writer and theater director originally from Northern New Jersey where she taught high school English and Creative Writing for over a decade before moving to the Hudson Valley. Louisa was formerly a resident director and producer for New Players Company (Ridgewood, NJ). She is a proud member of The Dramatist Guild of America. Her writing has been featured by The Huffington Post, Today Parenting Team and Scary Mommy. 

The New Deal Creative Arts Center, founded in 2017, is a non-profit 501©3 arts organization located in Hyde Park, NY. New Deal is strongly following their mission that includes new opportunity for both artists and audiences alike. This is not a one off for the young organization as they are currently accepting new works now through November 15th for a chance to be fully produced by New Deal. More information can be found on their website:

ForAll Theater Makes its Debut in Peekskill, NY

ForAll Theater gears up for a production of Macbeth opening October 11th!

See a need, fill a need. This is exactly what brought Nils Sawnson to open ForAll Theater in Peekskill earlier this year. An emigrant to the Hudson Valley from Colorado by way of New Jersey, Swanson was in search of a theater company in the area with which he could connect, and most importantly, create. He and his wife, Amy, fell in love with the Peekskill area for both its beauty and its thriving fine and visual arts culture, but his search revealed a gap when it came to the performing arts. 

Serving as ForAll Theater’s Artistic Director, Swanson’s first step in seeking  to fill that gap was to form a meet up group to gauge interest and support for a local company. After several “think tank” meetings, he and his colleagues were well on their way bringing this to fruition. Established as a 501(c)3 non-profit, ForAll Theater found their first home in an old dance studio which has been transformed into a charming, 50-seat, black box theater. 

Swanson notes the space is open to the community and is not just intended for theatrical productions. He promotes it as a mixed use space. Currently the theater is being used for a zumba class, Sunday service, a rehearsal space for a local comedy improv group, and of course, theatre performances.

ForAll Theater’s opening show earlier this summer was an original work by local high school students entitled Alone in Paris. A unique and bold choice for an opening show of a brand new theater company, Swanson made it clear that this space was for both traditional theater as well as new works.

ForAll Theater’s future look bright with an appealing upcoming season and long term  plans. This fall they will be presenting a three-weekend run of Macbeth opening October 11th. Shows will be Thursday-Sunday with tickets ranging $20-$23. Swanson has ideas for holiday offerings, as well, including Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol and Santa Land Diaries.
Swanson is already heavily invested in the community, offering local businesses “dinner and show deals,” inviting business owners to dress rehearsals, and dubbing all Thursday shows as “pay what you will” performances.

ForAll Theater is an intriguing name with a fascinating logo and meaning behind it. “This all came together about five minutes before our meeting to incorporate.” says Swanson. The the upside down “A” is the universal quantification symbol; it’s a shorthand character in symbolic logic. For Swanson, the symbol’s universality “is a sign meaning, ‘for all,’ and everything just fell into place with that name.” 

Swanson’s main goal is to bring theater to the masses. Whether it’s the first time theater attendee, someone who hasn’t been to theater is years, or the regular theater-goer. The name, and the message rings loud and clear: this theater company’s mission, vision and future is an invitation to all to come experience the unique and ever-new wonder of live theater. 

ForAll Theater
Nils Swanson, Artistic Director
706 N. Division Street
Peekskill, NY 914.817.8334

The Fantasticks – Rhinebeck Theatre Society

Magic and Mood in Rhinebeck

“Without a hurt, the heart will hollow.”

This painful truth is nearly hidden in the lilting, nostalgic melody of The Fantasticks’ iconic opening song, “Try to Remember.” It is fitting, really, that it should be so, since much of the staying power of this record-setting show is to be found in how effectively its whimsy veils the depth of its commentary on how we love and lose our way.

One of Broadway’s most beautiful songs opens the show with a melodic simplicity to which the score never returns. Indeed, Tom Jones’ and Harvey Schmidt’s score presents considerable challenges for the musicians and the vocalists. In this Rhinebeck Theater Society production, the score is ably carried by musical director and pianist Michael Berkeley and harpist Teresa Mango, to great effect. The production’s standout vocalist is Rhinebeck newcomer Katie Nicole Weiser in the role of Luisa, and Austin Lightning Carrothers sets the tone for the romantic fable with a thoroughly inviting rendition of “Try to Remember.”

Austin Carrothers as El Gallo

As Director Tina Reilly points out in her notes, the playwrights intended to both celebrate and mock romanticism, in Jones’ words, “to touch people, and then to make them laugh at the very thing that touched them.” Like any enduring fairy tale, the lessons to be learned are obvious to us all; yet we fall for it again and again. The romantic ideal is at once our fundamental virtue and flaw.   

The story is of the young Luisa and her paramour, Matt (Chris Backofen); enamored of each other due, in equal measure, to their youthful notions of romance and their fathers’ pretended objections to their pairing. Their scheming fathers enlist the aid of the enigmatic El Gallo, who doubles as a narrator, to stage a pretended abduction of the fair Luisa, from which Matt will appear to “save” her. In Act Two, we are reminded that “what at night may seems oh so scenic, may be cynic by and by,” and the two young lovers learn that more than romance is required for true love to prevail. The show will not be spoiled by revealing here that love triumphs in the end.      

Amber McCarthy as The Mute, Katie Nicole Weiser as Luisa, and Chris Backofen as Matt.

Carrothers is an elegant stage presence and is just as dastardly and dashing as the part of El Gallo requires. His partners in the staged rescue of Luisa are the Shakespearean actor Henry (Lou Trapani), whose thespian gifts are comically fading, and his trusted sidekick Mortimer (Thomas G. Byrne). Trapani’s Henry is entirely endearing and effective, and Byrne gives a slapstick performance as his aide reminiscent of Vaudeville and Hollywood’s earliest comic characterizations. Amber McCarthy, who gives the show a natural but professional energy as the show’s choreographer, also plays The Mute, who adds to the magic of the show with, well…the occasional magic trick, among other flights of fancy. Andy Crispell and Michael Britt are a delight every time they are featured in the roles of the fathers.

Weiser and Backofen are utterly charming as the protagonists. Each bring an exuberance to their portrayals which make them entirely believable as the youth who open the show, deep in puppy love. Weiser gives us a precocious Luisa who is not entirely without an instinct for self-determination. Backofen’s Matt is equal parts naïve and noble; we buy him as the varsity letterman when the show opens, while it is no stretch to think he might be a perfectly capable hero if called upon in something other than a rouse.

Andy Crispell and Michael Brit

Reilly’s choice to present the instruments and the vocals unamplified, against the minimalist set reflective of that which exemplified the more than 17,000 performances of the show in its original off-Broadway run, are wise and creditable choices. It adds to the organic intimacy of the show, which is undoubtedly part of its enduring appeal. Likewise, the show is costumed by Donna Letteri in an easy and playful style that calls to mind playing “dress-up” out of a trunk full of vintage clothes found in the fantastical attics of idyllic youth.  The Fantasticks runs through October 6 at the Center for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck. Tickets are available online (, by phone at the box office (845.876.3080), or at the door (661 Route 308 Rhinebeck, NY)

The cast of The Fantasticks