White Rabbit Red Rabbit at Alleyway Theatre

The cast of White Rabbit Red Rabbit at Alleyway Theatre.

The Alleyway Theatre is looking very snazzy under the new management of Chris J. Handley. The lobby, in particular, has had a terrific makeover and now sports a glorious full wall mural by Audra Linsner. There are more beverage options at the bar than there used to be, and munchies have started to be introduced, too. The times, they are a-changing! 

The WNY premiere of White Rabbit Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour opens the Alleyway season. This theatrical piece is performed by one actor and the role can be played by an actor of any age, gender, or appearance. I saw the production on September 24 and the actor that evening was Don Gervasi.

I had asked our editor for a ticket for either the night Mr. Gervasi or Todd Benzin was performing as I had heard that feeling comfortable with improv would be a real asset for whoever performed this piece, and Don Gervasi and Todd Benzin are the absolutely top improvisers in town. I was glad that I saw the play on the night that Mr. Gervasi was starring because his onstage ad libs were the funniest lines in the show.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit was written in 2010 by a young man who couldn’t leave Iran because he refused to serve in the military but who wanted his voice to be heard around the world. Playwright Soleimanpour’s wish was certainly granted — this theatre piece has been a huge hit worldwide with productions in more than 20 different languages.

The gimmick here is that there is a new actor every night and this actor is handed the script, in a sealed envelope, onstage and performs a cold reading. I love this concept – it’s sounds fresh and exciting – but parts of this play are very wordy and a cold reading of page after page is not necessarily the best way to keep an audience’s attention. 

Styles, tone, and mood change considerably throughout the evening. My companion and I enjoyed Mr. Gervasi’s humor and confidence. We liked the audience participation element very much – although some of the set-ups weren’t taken to completion. I can’t be more specific. The audience is not supposed to give away anything about this play. This is by no means the fault of Mr. Gervasi. The play itself takes strange twists and turns — sometimes philosophical, sometimes Pirandello-esque.

The set by Christopher Swader and Justin Swader is clean and stark with appropriately red touches. Emma Schimminger’s lighting is very effective. 

Kudos to Don Gervasi, Todd Benzin, and all the other courageous “rabbits” for tackling this demanding assignment! 

Next onstage at the Alleyway Theatre is a brand new Golden Girls show directed by Todd Warfield and tickets are going fast! Incidentally, there was a nice sized audience at White Rabbit Red Rabbit, too. I was thrilled about seeing so many theatre goers downtown again. Audiences members must show proof of vaccination and wear masks throughout the evening.

White Rabbit Red Rabbit runs about 85 minutes, depending on the actor’s delivery and the audience participation element. For more information, click here.

“To the New Girl…” at New Phoenix Theatre

Sarah Emmerling as Elissa

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

And if that woman has your address  – physical or email – there’s a good chance you’re gonna hear from her.

Sharing pearls of personal wisdom between the about-to-be-ex and the trade-in is the premise behind To The New Girl from the Former Mrs. ___: Sound Advice for my husband’s new wife or mistress on stage now at the New Phoenix Theatre. Playwright and filmmaker Samantha Macher wrote the stage version in 2011 (she later adapted it to a film) with 10 different women actors delivering epistolary monologues. The one thing they all have in common:  they have something to say to the person who now is the proverbial apple of her husband’s eye.

Each monologue is a story onto itself and the actors range in age, marital (or not) commitment, and social status. Infidelity is the great equalizer here.

The staging is simple: maybe one or two set pieces are moved to a dark stage with as many props per scene. It’s stark which adds extra emphasis on the works and the delivery.

It starts off innocent enough, with even a bit a humor. Zoe (Jessie Miller) is a former internet dominatrix whose beau has an adult baby fetish (yup, he’s the baby) and she aghast that there’s another woman in town willing to play mama. Next up is Miriam (Kathleen Recchione), a Jewish grandmother whose husband announces at Seder that he’s starting over…with a Catholic woman. Bethany (Vanessa Shevat) is calculating as she is charming as she plans how to manage her televangelist husband’s fling with…a man. Davida Tolbert is Sheila, a woman who can’t bring a pregnancy to term who learns her husband’s  new interest gave birth to twins. Her anger fierce, her disappointment in her body is palpable, and she manages to land some of the only purely funny lines of the night (“I hope your baby is as fat as Oprah in the ‘90s…”).  Ciara Davie is Faye, the youngest of the team, whose ex is a felon holding her engagement ring hostage. Alexis (Kari Becker) is the wealthy social climber, who coldly tells her daughter’s nanny that her husband’s abuse is part of the gig. Karen (Kathryn Schneider) is the teacher who finds a former student is her husband’s new study buddy.  Melanie (Pandora Kew, also the co-producer) is completely enraged as she offers strong warnings to her replacement, as sheshares horrific details of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse. Elissa (Sarah Emmerling) dons her bridal gown as she reflects on her husband’s admission of longing for his high school sweetheart. Mary Craig ends the show on wistful, bittersweet note as Give ‘Em Hell, Harriet, whose loving husband Harold lives his final days in a nursing home as his withering capacities direct him to a fellow patient.

It is an emotional roller coaster with 10 different highs and lows of heartbreak, disappointment, anger, and a twist of revenge planning, too.  With only a few minor quibbles (Elissa’s bed might have been angled differently and Karen’s story seemed a bit disjointed) , each actor does a solid job telling their character’s story, from Alexis’ frosty facts of privileged life  to Zoe’s kitten-with-a-switch outrage. It’s Kew and Craig who make you sit a little straighter in your seat. Kew is visibly trembling with anger from the moment her light comes up. Her jaw is tensed so tightly the words growl from her lips. Two scenes later, Craig is tender and loving as her memory is fading from her husband’s mind. They were married 57 years (58 in August), she says, and as he turns his affection to someone else, he is still her great love. This was the perfect way to end this often biting and bitter show. Sometimes love shouldn’t, couldn’t fade away, even in the ultimate betrayal.

Permit me one minor rant here: I love everything there is about WNY theatre, from big to small, Theatre District across town to the ‘burbs. All live theatre is good (even when it’s not) and deserves support and engagement. That’s my main reason for volunteering as a reviewer (I’m the first to admit I’m not the theatrical authority, I’m just a Buffalo gal who wants to encourage others to support local theatre). It’s not lost on me that the house at New Phoenix was pretty light in its second weekend, while a few blocks east, another theatre was packed and enjoying a stunningly presented fantasy about two other less than real women. There is room for fantasy and reality in life and on stage. It’s my hope that the fantasy seekers also make the time and allocate personal resources to see locally produced shows, too, whether it is another musical, drama or comedy.  Rant over.

“To the New Girl…” runs a tight 90 minutes with no intermission until October 3. Visit www.newphoenixtheatre.com for details and tickets.

It’s a New Camelot at MusicalFare

“Camelot” at MusicalFare. Picture courtesy of the theatre.

Sometimes the simple joys of maidenhood are experienced in a comfortable theatre watching a classic piece of American musical theatre re-imagined on stage. Who thinks that? C’est moi, of course.

MusicalFare Theatre opened its 2021-22 season on a resonant high note with Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot taking a fresh new spin.  If the title conjures up imagines of President John F. Kennedy and his bride listening to the album with the voices of Richard Harris, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet (le sigh), fie on those 1960s memories! This re-imagined version still has all the chivalry, passion, and infidelity you love with a lively new beat and a more casual vibe.

Co-directors Carlos R.A. Jones and Victoria Perez set the show in a tropical setting, with a group of beachy-clad friends hanging out and putting on a show. Outside of Ex Calibur, swords became wood poles and shields are pieces of found driftwood. King Arthur’s crown was a fedora with a bird of paradise rising from the hat band. The call to battle was sounded from a seashell. Music director Theresa Quinn matched the mood with Latin and island rhythms for every tune.  Chris Cavanagh’s set was sandy-perfection, complete with a waterfall and a boardwalk. Camp shirts, neon rompers, and floral prints replaced armor and flowing chiffon gowns.  The whole effect was oddly reminiscent of early stagings of Godspell (without the clown clothes and street setting). It was fun and inviting after our 18 month intermission.

Jones and Perez couldn’t have found a better cast. Gabriella McKinley is stunning as Guenevere. Her voice is incredible: rich when she’s in her lower register and lilting and controlled when her soprano soars. Her duets with both King Arthur (Darryl Semira) and Lancelot (Alejandro Gabriel Gomez) are lovely and Quinn’s arrangements graciously accommodate the vocal shifts for each pairing. Semira’s King Arthur is disarming and charming, boyish at first glance and rooted and mature in both conviction and confusion. Gomez’s  take on Lancelot is earnest and his gentle passion in the role’s signature song “If Ever I Would Leave You” is beguilingly beautiful.  

The ensemble is fun, with gender-crossing double roles for every member. Arin Lee Dandes is at her best as the cunning Mordred. Every movement and stage cross is a dance and it’s so fun, you almost forget to despise Mordred’s scheming.

Jones and Perez created something very special; they asked us to suspend our memories of past stagings or the movie and see past those images. What if Camelot was created in a different space by different people? Does that make the musings and vision of a King any different? Quinn’s interpretations brought a  freshness to the score that was lovely to hear, too. Her band – Joe Donohue on guitar and violin, Jim Runfola on reeds, and Jim Linsner on drums – was just right and fine.

If you have any qualms about coming inside for theatre, MusicalFare diligently checked vaccine cards/Excelsior passes and required facemasks, there are no more physical tickets, and playbills are irksomely online only. Relax and escape to this most congenial spot.

Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot is onstage now until October 15; the show runs a good two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets, playbill, and temptingly lovely videos are online at www.musicalfare.com.

“Frozen” kicks off National Tour at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre

Disney Theatrical Productions under the direction of Thomas Schumacher presents Frozen, the North American Tour, music and lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and book by Jennifer Lee directed by Michael Grandage with: Caroline Bowman (Elsa), Caroline Innerbichler (Anna), Mason Reeves (Kristoff), F. Michael Haynie (Olaf), Austin Colby (Hans), Jeremy Morse (Weselton)

For the first time in forever, Shea’s is back with LIVE theatre! Kicking off the 2021-22 season for shows is Disney’s Frozen: The Hit Broadway Musical. Anyone familiar with the animated film will be familiar with the show’s storyline: two young sisters, Anna (Victoria Hope Chan) and Elsa (Natalie Grace Chan), live in the country of Arendelle with their parents, the King (Kyle Lamar Mitchell) and Queen (Marina Kondo). The eldest sister, Elsa, has magical powers over ice and snow that enchant her younger sister until one night she loses control and shoots an icy blast straight at Anna. Concerned for Anna’s safety, the King and Queen decide it’s best to keep the sisters separated until Elsa learns to control her powers and to have all of Anna’s memories of her sister’s magic erased. The King and Queen set off on a journey to seek answers regarding their daughter’s powers but are swept away at sea and never return. Back at the palace, the sisters grow up isolated from each other and the kingdom until Elsa (Caroline Bowman) comes of age to be crowned the next queen of Arendelle. On Coronation Day, Anna (Caroline Innerbichler) gets carried away in the excitement of the celebration and meets Prince Hans (Austin Colby) who she immediately falls in love with. After their swift engagement, Elsa refuses to give her blessing to her sister’s marriage. A fight between the two causes Elsa to have an outburst of anger that sends her powers out of control and frightens the citizens of Arendelle. She flees the palace leaving Anna responsible to find her and end the eternal winter set off by her magic. 

First off, it felt amazing to be back in Shea’s and experience Frozen with an audience full of excited patrons and younger children. You are required to wear a mask throughout the entire performance regardless of your vaccination status, but I found that wasn’t uncomfortable in the slightest as it’s easy to get lost in the world of Frozen and forget your surroundings. I was immediately impressed with the young cast opening the show. Natalie and Victoria Chan performed the Tuesday evening show I attended and were absolute pros onstage. They had the audience engaged and laughing right off the bat. Later when adult Anna started singing “For the First Time in Forever”, I began to tear up. Innerbichler is the perfect Anna and truly embodies the character in every way. Her voice is stunning, and the song really resonates with a lot of us now as we’ve all felt shut away from people and “normal life” throughout the pandemic. Bowman is an absolute powerhouse as Elsa and brings such strength to her pieces. I found it amusing that in real life, Caroline Bowman is married to Austin Colby or Prince Hans. 

Mason Reeves brings a refreshing take on Kristoff and is immediately likeable. He appears with his infamous sidekick, Sven, who is played by two different actors depending on the performance due to the physical demands of the role. On Tuesday evening, Evan Strand did a phenomenal job with the body contortion and puppetry required for the role that allows the effect of a realistic reindeer onstage. I truly hope the show has a traveling chiropractor specifically for Sven! Olaf (F. Michael Haynie) was another character using puppetry. Haynie provided comic relief and stole the show during “In Summer”. 

In addition to the well-known songs from the movie, the musical offers new numbers to fill the show and add to our understanding of character development. One of my favorite additions is “What Do You Know About Love?” sung by Anna and Kristoff. A strange addition I could have done without was the song “Hygge” that is sung primarily by Oaken (Michael Milkanin) who is then joined by Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and the Family & Friends from the sauna. While this song was fun, it mainly felt like an unnecessary filler with a strange concept and odd use of implied nudity. Because this is a Disney show, rules are stricter when it comes to things like this. When the Family & Friends appear to dance nude out of the sauna covered only by leaves and branches, they are actually wearing mesh, skin-toned body suits to cover any bare skin. While I’m sure the effect is more believable farther away, from closer up it was very strange and noticeable.  

While enjoying this show, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between Frozen and Wicked. After all, Idina Menzel, the voice of Elsa in the animated film, was also the original Elphaba on Broadway. Oddly enough, Caroline Bowman who portrays Elsa in this performance also previously played Elphaba on Broadway. Like Elphaba, Elsa has powers she can’t control that others view as frightening and dangerous. She ends Act 1 with the famous “Let it Go” which can be likened to Wicked’s Act 1 closer of “Defying Gravity”. Both are incredible, show-stopping numbers involving high belts, stunning visual effects, and acceptance of one’s own power and destiny. The mob format of Hans and his men coming to put an end to Elsa is reminiscent of Wicked’s “March of the Witch Hunters”. The focal point of Frozen is the relationship between Elsa and Anna which could be related to the friendship of Elphaba and Glinda. All of these similarities are very interesting to examine and may be the reason certain elements of Frozen are so successful. It makes sense to model a show after one so wildly successful that it has been on Broadway for 18 years. Frozen is Disney’s Wicked

A final element I wanted to discuss was the extravagance of the show’s visuals. Elsa’s ice powers are conveyed through a combination of projection, fake snow/confetti, and set pieces. The overall impact is mesmerizing and includes hundreds of thousands of glittering crystals. Elsa’s quick costume change in “Let it Go” had the audience cheering mid-song and is a spectacular reveal. Overall, Frozen: The Hit Broadway Musical is sure to delight Disney-fanatics of all ages and provides a little bit of something for everyone. While I suspect it may not go on to become a top hit like Disney’s The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, it’s sure to stick around for years to come bringing magic to audiences everywhere. 

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 Minutes with one 15-minute intermission.

Frozen runs until September 24, 2021 and is presented at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre. For more information, click here.

It’s a Hoot at D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of From Honky Tonk To Protest: A Woman’s View of Country Music at D’Youville Kavinoky Theatre

I’ll put this right upfront: I’m not a country music fan. That didn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying From Honky Tonk to Protest: A Woman’s View of Country Music onstage now at D’Youville Kavinoky Professional Theatre (note the new variation on the name, please).

Conceived by the theatre’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell, this show is part juke box musical, part survey of the genesis of American country music, and part women’s history retrospective with a healthy dose of social justice. And it is just plain fun.

This was a pandemic passion project for O’Donnell who spent part of that time in her hometown of Boonville, NY, with her dad in his last months of life. More time spent in rural Adirondack foothills drew her to country music. She began to appreciate the deeper nuances of the lyrics and the people who penned them. She learned, too, that women played a relevant role in the genre…even when they were marginalized by good ol’ country boys.

O’Donnell  assembled a stellar production team to unite many moving parts, plus a great line up of musicians, actors, and dancers to bring her vision to stage.  There is a lot going on here.

First, the band.  Dee Adams – musical director, singer, guitarist, and mandolin player – has a great, tight group. Kathryn Koch (guitar, harmonica), Helen Butler Ceppaglia (violin, accordion),  Elton Hough (drums, a real kit, mind you),  John Martz (steel guitar, banjo, dobro),  and Charlie Gannon (stand up bass, electric guitar) have the sound.  I loved how costume designer Andrea Letcher drove home one of the shows key messages by dressing the men in black and the women in vibrant traditional cowgirl fringed dresses. Her recreations of Shania Twain’s decidedly non-traditional Country costumes were spot on, too.

Then, the singers. O’Donnell is the narrator and lends her big beautiful voice to Dolly Parton’s iconic “Jolene” and the wistful  “I Hope You Dance.” Adams and Koch come center stage to perform country standards “Crazy” and “Harper Valley PTA.”  Renee Landrigan, doubling on keyboards and melodica, is a kick singing Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill.”  But my oh my, it’s Annette Daniels Taylor who gives these country tunes their soul.  She’s both powerful and tender in her storytelling and singing and her “Down to the River to Pray” was passionate and moving. Drummer Hough stepped out from the kit and picked up an African drum to accompany her.

Lynne Kurdziel Formato is the director/choreographer, and she had folks moving to and fro on stage and a trio of dancers on videotape in a variety of local places. Dancers  Aurora Hastings, Christina Tribo, and Evan Matthew Stuart share Zodiaque Dance Company roots among their bone fides. They rock the Company’s  angular, contemporary frame  that gave an interesting juxtaposition against the show’s contemporary Country pieces especially in the second act. Brian Milbrand used the stage screens to full advantage with some historic photos and lots of interpretive dance interludes. Regrettably, some of the dance numbers that were “green screened” to appear happening in rushing waters looked a bit odd and not well connected to the narrative.

While there were some gaps in the history – notably missing was Tammy Wynette, often called “The First Lady of Country Music,” June Carter and Mother Maybelle Carter, and the entire 1980s decade (O’Donnell acknowledged this and said it’s coming in the sequel) – the personal storytelling and musical selections really drive home O’Donnell’s key points about women in the industry and social justice.

Most importantly, this was a love letter to O’Donnell’s late parents and a poignant reminder that sometimes the music we hear in our youth will sound very different to us again as time marches on.

It’s worth noting that D’Youville has invested in some truly lovely upgrades to the theatre over the past few seasons and it looks spectacular. New seats are bright and cozy. No more physical tickets or playbills (find it online here) and required face mask on campus) should make all theatre goers feel comfortable. One more thing: if you wear one of those over-sized signal watches that illuminates every time you get a text or an email, please tuck it under your sleeve or turn it off. It’s as bright as a cell phone and is super distracting to those around you. (And I mean you, lady who was in the middle of my row the other night.)

From Honky Tonk to Protest: A Woman’s View of Country Music is on stage until October 3.  It’s a toe-tapping two hours with a 15-minute intermission. Visit www.kavinokytheatre.com for details and reservations.

“Art” on Stage at O’Connell & Company

It’s so good to finally write these words after the longest intermission ever: welcome to a new theatre season, Western New York.

O’Connell & Company started the season with a surprise: a comedy and not the typical musical. “Art” was written by Yasmina Reza and translated by Christopher Hampton. It was first performed in London and Broadway in the 1990s.

This three-hander has a curious plot: Serge (played by John Kreuzer) buys a pricey modern painting. It’s a tone on tone canvas which could easily be named” Polar Bears in a Blizzard Eating Marshmallows.” His friend Marc (Rolando M. Gomez ) doesn’t get it: to him, it looks like a “white piece of $hit” and he can’t get past his friend’s attraction to it. The third friend, Yvan (Joey Bucheker) tries to mediate his two friends’ verbal battle on this canvas, which later spirals into deeper conflicts.  Ah, but Yvan has his own drama-within-the-comedy: he’s about to be married and is also adapting to a career change, too.

Director Victoria Perez uses some clever and attractive stage devices at the very beginning and end of this one-act piece.  Here the characters shares their point of view in monologues in front of a projected white rectangle of light between the soft-focused muted floods of color.  It does just what it needs to do to direct your focus.

Between the effecti ve beginning and end motiffs, there’s a long and rather loud middle section that is mostly progressively higher pitched yelling. The barbs fly as Marc and Serge drag the canvas and their friendship through the mud. Regrettably their vocal pitch keeps rising, too, almost to the level of hausfrau chick-fighting. It’s easy to lose focus here and forget the bickering buddies are supposed to be professional men of means having an emotional and intense (and metaphorical) discussion.  The frenetic energy leads to a well-staged fist fight that felt almost too slapstick:  ratcheting down the shrill screeching might have brought more tension to this moment.

It’s the painting itself that helps settle the riff: Serge demonstrates his friendship and Marc steps up, too, in a surprising moment that would make any art collector shudder.  

There were a couple opening night distractions. An intermittent buzz in the audio will need to be worked out and there were a few dropped lines here and there that were artfully covered by this veteran trio. Costuming and set design (I didn’t understand that it was supposed to flip between three apartments until I read the playbill) were functional but not commanding: the painting itself (by artist Sara Jo Kukulka) and creative lighting by Reuben Julius grabbed attention.

O’Connell & Company has all the right protocol in place for making patrons feel comfortable coming back inside, including an online playbill. Executive artistic director Mary Kate O’Connell’s onstage greeting is verbal hug and ‘welcome home’ that we’ve been waiting for.

“Art” runs 90 minutes with no intermission until September 19.  Click here for details.

Love, Linda at MusicalFare is Wunderbar

In brief: It’s de-lovely.

That made-up contraction by the inimitable Cole Porter is the perfect way to describe “Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter,” on stage at MusicalFare Theatre  to July 18.

Debbie Pappas gracefully commands the stunning set with her elegant portrayal of Linda Lee Thomas Porter, Porter’s wife of 35 years,where she tells her story in words and selections from her husband’s songbook.  Pappas  is every inch the Art Deco-era social maven, in a satiny, sparkly gown, triple strand of pearls, Revlon red lipstick and just-so curled bob.  But oh it’s the music, whimsical (and sometimes plaintive) words, and her magnificent voice that make this experience so special. That’s what this show is: an experience where for an hour and five minutes, you’re immersed in a salon of storytelling and song in a period appropriate atmosphere.

The narrative is woven around the songs with compelling simplicity. Unlike the typical musical where the songs advance the storyline, the song selections – representing all parts of the Porter canon – mesh with her story in surprising ways.  For example, she speaks of her husband’s homosexuality and his dalliances with a forthright and gentle hand, punctuated by “Let’s Be Buddies,” written for “Anything Goes.” Perhaps a bit wistful  and not as jovial as the lyrics portend, it’s a poignant moment with a smile and a heart full of love.  

The narrative hits the high (and low) notes of their marriage, their social circle, mutual love for Paris, her disdain for Hollywood, and his passion for the good life. It’s the music, that glorious music, with familiar tunes like “I Love Paris,” “Night and Day,” “Begin the Beguine” and a dozen more that is so grand. Theresa Quinn is behind the screen at the piano and her interpretation is lush as ever.  Nick Corallo on drums is fun, albeit sometimes a distraction in the softer moments.  Pappas’ voice is clear and powerful in each number, giving each song its own distinct tone and mood.

Chris Cavanagh created a beautiful set that’s reminiscent of a circa 1920 parlor. Images of Porter and production handbills fill two screens. The sisters Drozd – Kari and Susan – nail the attire and the look. Director Norman Sham is working with pure gold from the team to the material with his Wunderbar real-life wife. As the song says, “C’est Magnifique.”

“Love, Linda: The Life of Mrs. Cole Porter” runs an hour and five minutes with no intermission, to July 18. COVID protocols are in place and the audience seating is thoughtfully spaced. Visit www.musicalfare.com for tickets. It’s so good to be back.

Hi Honey, We’re Home….Alleyway Theatre Starts Live Season

15 months is a long time to wait for a Quickie…even six quickies.

In this case, Alleyway Theatre ‘s 30th annual New Play Festival celebration Buffalo Quickies 2021 was worth the wait.  In an practically perfect post-pandemic stroke of theatre genius,  Alleyway’s new Executive Artistic Director Chris J Handley and his team created an inside-outside experience that is a production in itself. The audience was divided into small groups and each group rotated between Main Street store front windows for each Quickie. The actors were behind glass and the audience was outside, listening to crystal clear (except was the Light Rail roared by) audio through properly sanitized headsets. Ushers led you between performance settings and the printed program and color coded lights in your headset made the process flow easily. Intermission was staggered and there was no awkward ‘cross over’ time where groups crossed paths. The slow stroll between locations was easy and enjoyable.

It was a wonderful entrée back to in person Buffalo theatre.

On our night, the companion of choice and I were in Group A, and our first stop was the Shea’s Courtyard for  the world premiere of the 2020 Mazumdar New Play Finalist “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a musical version of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 short story. (This was required reading for those of us who took Feminist Lit or Women’s Studies classes in college.) Kelly Copps plays the mother of a new born babe and her (likely) post-partum depression prompts her doctor to prescribe isolation and rest. Her shabby room overlooks a garden, but the shadows that haunt her from the torn yellow wallpaper command her attention. Copps’ real life husband is her stage hubby, too, and her sis Amy Jakiel is her sister-in-law. The Mrs. Copps’ torment is palpable, even under glass, as she tries to free her paper demon. It’s eerie and strangely beautiful.  A clever staging moment has Mr. Copps and Jakiel in a second floor window, looking down as Mrs. Copps struggle with the power of her mind. The only musical of the night, he trio’s sumptuous voices rose above the mediocre score. An early and not too well explained treat was the solo voice of Kristen Tripp Kelley reading  from the original story that was in our headsets before the show began. It set the stage for creepy.

Next up was “In Transit,” in front of Shea’s 710. Written by Rachel Lynett, it features Victoria Perez and Smirna Mercedes as ex partners who cross paths in an airport. The repartee, the memories, the questions, the heartbreak….it’s all here in under 10 minutes and it’s glorious to watch. Perez and Mercedes were a treat to watch: you could picture them as a couple, with their foibles driving each other crazy and their passion making their hearts soar. But is it meant to be? Director Josie DiVincenzo kept the action simple and poignant.  The ending left me wondering…just what good theatre is supposed to do.

After our just-right intermission, we move to 678 Main St. to meet “Grown-Ass Louis,” by Bruce Walsh. David C. Mitchell and Trevor Dugan are in side-by-side windows as Louis comes to terms with his father’s death. Mitchell shows his chops playing multiple gruff adult characters.

Next up was “Lily and Tessa’s Super Star Show, Episode 37,” by Devon Hayakawa, another world premiere.  What ‘tween girl hasn’t sung or acted into her hairbrush (or in this case, a curling iron) while performing to an adoring crowd of stuffed animals and celebrity posters? Jane Hereth is solid as the solo star who’s missing her co-host. There’s a subtle and disturbing twist here, coming from a one-sided phone conversation with the missing co-host’s mother.  This powerful plot twist leaves you wanting more of this story. Director Robyn Lee Horn created the ultimate in ‘tween chaos in the bedroom/set and even ‘broadcast’ it on the exterior wall to play on the TV show theme.

The Shea’s Smith window became the private lair in “Helen Mirren Takes a Day Off,” another solo show starring Shanntina Moore as Mirren. And oh what a life….there are relentless phone calls from Fifi the dog’s vet, Dame Judi Dench, Mirren’s pro…what’s a Diva to do?  It was funny and Moore as Mirren was charming, but this was a long 10 minutes.

Our final show was “Pay Your Ferryman” by Lauren Davenport, another world premiere, directed by Handley himself with Victor Morales in the solo role. This was the only inside (mask it up) show and the scant audience seating was well spaced and just right.  Morales is commanding as always, this time portraying Charon, the figure from Greek mythology, the cruise director on the boat of Hades.  The faux gilt bars on each seat must be paid – or not, in the case of my rebel companion – to Charon cross you across Styx. Morales is scary and hysterical as he grumbles in his workaday life.

What’s notable is that the cast and crew repeat their magic as many as five or six times each performance, as new groups saunter up to their windows. Kudos to the six assistant stage managers and the tech team who keep the proverbial train on track. There’s a new position in the Production Staff – COVID Compliance Office – who made sure all rules were followed and all headsets and chairs and touch points were properly sanitized. So welcome back to a new season of theatre:  Alleyway’s clever and inventive staging makes  this a great way to begin.

Buffalo Quickies runs an easy two hours with a 15-minute intermission, now until July 10. Visit www.alleyway.com for tickets and details.

Road Less Traveled Productions and Big Foot – A Killer Combo

It’s a production almost a century in the making, combining aural tradition of AM radio (first heard in WNY in 1920) and the ubiquity of Zoom, the 21st century answer to human relations during a pandemic.

Playwright Jon Elston admits to being intrigued by the late radio show host Art Bell and his call in show “Coast to Coast AM” that’s an homage to unexplained phenomena everywhere. Elston said, “I appreciate the opportunity he would get people to come on his show and given them a forum to say wild things. He let people come on his show and say whatever they wanted.   He was a right leaning libertarian with broad views.” One mystery in particular – Big Foot – is a topic, Elston said, that is “near and dear to my heart for close to 40 years.”

Elston’s fear and fascination with this creature was the inspiration for his play “Big Foot, A Live Virtual Theatrical Experience,” presented by Road Less Traveled Productions for two performances on October 2 and 9.

Yes,  Big Foot. Myth? Legend? Beast? Hoax?  Well, even science isn’t really sure.  There’s even a branch of pseudoscience – cryptozoology – devoted to the study of the existence (or not) of Sasquatch and his brethren, For Elston, the mystery (or is it suspended reality?) is part of the allure that makes for interesting theatre during these unprecedented times.

“I wanted to write about this,” Elston said, “and Scott Behrend (RLTP’s artistic director) knew this, and he has been amused by it as most people are. But desperation is the mother of invention, so he offered me the opportunity to write the play and see it become a reality online.”

For director John Hurley, that was the key: Elston wrote the play to be produced in the online environment.  “Jon wrote the play for Zoom,” said Hurley, “so we’re not trying to adapt the play to this format.”

Running only 35 minutes, the actors – Jake Hayes, Lisa Vitrano (veteran of other Elston world premieres), Robyn Horn and Peter Horn – will perform from the safety of their homes. There was only one scene shot on location. Sara Foote, stage manager, will be in the theatre, calling the show, give the prompts, and – from her position at the computer – controlling what the at-home audience will see on screen. Elston said, “I don’t think it would have been possible to do this show in the live theatre environment.

The story is set in Niagara County, as married couple Charlie and Bea (the real life married Horns) listen to a late night radio program on the paranormal hosted by Wild Doug Wilford (Hayes) with paranormal expert Earlyne Harvest Smith (Vitrano) as his subject matter expert guest. But wait? Is that….Sasquatch himself roaming the woods surrounding Charlie and Bea’s home? Elston adds to the nuance of the story by building a twist of conflict. “There’s a nice debate in the shows,” he said. “ It’s funny, there’s a kind of humor and real situation and it’s serious, too,” Elston said. If writing about giant man-animal-being isn’t surreal enough, creating theatre to be performed for an online audience, viewing it on a screen and not on a stage like the rest of our current situation: unprecedented. Elston said, “This is an exciting time and a scary time. People haven’t done this before. We’re learning in real time from each other. There’s a lot at stake here: do we just go without theatre for six months or a year or longer?”

“Big Foot, A Live Virtual Theatrical Experience,” presented by Road Less Traveled Productions for two performances on October 2 and 9, 8pm and runs a brisk 35-minutes, possibly shorter than any Zoom. Reservations at $15 and should be made prior to two hours before show time. Find details at https://www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org/bigfoot-a-live-virtual-theatrical-experience

Alleyway Theatre’s Current: 716 Reflects On Stage Online

March feels like such a long time ago, especially for our theatre community. That’s when we last set foot in a local theatre.  When it was clear that live theatre wasn’t coming back any time soon, theatre companies began planning  new iterations on alternative platforms. While nothing can take the place of a real live in-theatre experience, I’m glad and grateful for all that creative ingenuity.

This is a particularly poignant time for Alleyway Theatre. Last season it celebrated a landmark anniversary and its founder and leader – Neal Radice – stepped down, as did its grande dame Joyce Stilson. That in itself is a major transition for any theatre company. Add in the complication of COVID-19 and a theatre season interrupted and it’s another unprecedented event. Alleyway is coming back this month to launch its 2020-2021 season with a hometown theme. Currents: 716  is a series of 15 short monologues written by a variety Buffalo playwrights. The entire pastiche is videotaped and pieced together with no defined intermission. Consider this a new take on Alleyway’s iconic Buffalo Quickies. Only “The Box,” the opening vignette, uses Alleyway’s stage. Who needs the four walls of a theatre when you have a whole city full of neighborhoods and landmarks to use as COVID-friendly backdrops?

The whole production is a pretty wild romp with interstitial music by local musicians. Love the cross-genre support for all local performers.

Most of the plays have a corona virus theme while others focus on social justice. “What She Remembers on a Walk” by Gary Earl Ross is an outlier: Mary Craig portrays a woman reflecting and imagining her life as a caregiver pushes her wheelchair through east side neighborhoods. It’s sweet and heartbreaking.” Waste to Wealth on the Waterways of Western New York … Or,“Padon tells Parsifal How to Save the Planet” is a send up to environmental activism  Elizabethan-style.  Imagine if the Sierra Club wrote its call to action missives in rhyming couplets, the likes of “Without sustainability, there can be no more humanity,” or “You throw away this used once, is acting like a stupid dunce.”

There were some truly lovely moments. In “Close Up”the black girlfriend of woman clashes with her good ol’ guy Polish dad, and then bond over their shared connection with Buffalo’s Central Terminal. “Signs of the Divine” is performed in American Sign Language (and dubbed) and asks how you can hear the word of God? Ed  Taylor sums up Buffalo spirit perfectly in “Black Nikes” when his character – a ride share driver talking about his fares – says “In Buffalo hope f$*%ing springs eternal.”  In “Almost April,” Pamela Rose Mangus is banished to her basement to quarantine by her COVID-phobic husband and makes a video for their daughter while she endeavors to sort the clutter.  “Monologue #6”, set in on Carlton St. bench with Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in the background  was focused and purposeful – a life lesson for the insidious forms of racism and judgment. This one is subtle and brilliant. Donna Hoke’s  “Same New Story” has Peter Palmisano on a perfectly-paced rant against COVID, like a more stylish and controlled Howard (“mad as hell and not going to take it anymore”) Beale from the 1976 film Network.

Admittedly there are things that are less appealing. There’s some (perhaps deliberately) shaky camera work that my eyes found tedious and the (almost) constant barrage of corona virus situations didn’t transport me to that delicious place away from the real world (like theatre is often wont to do).

There’s more virtual theatre to come this fall; get over your Zoom fatigue and take a chance on this alternative theatre permutation. You’re still supporting our creative class and you’ll see some familiar faces, too.

Currents:716 is online Thursday, Friday, Saturday to September 26. It runs just under two hours if you don’t pause for bio breaks or libations. While an occasional curse word doesn’t distract when we’re in the theatre for reals, there is some non-family-friendly language if there are little ones in your viewing parlor. Details at www.alleyway.com.