Theatre Review: ‘The Nether’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

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Steve Jakiel and Eve Everett in “The Nether” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

Welcome to the Nether, a look into the not-too-far future, of an online world, a utopia to roam and spend time and pleasure without consequence. In the Nether’s total sensory immersion, users can simply log in, choose a persona, and indulge in whatever you desire. Though during an investigation of a particularly sinister realm of the Nether, a young detective becomes obsessed and convoluted the deeper and darker she goes.

. . . a story that stays with you long after you’ve left the theater. One of the most original plays I’ve seen.

“The Nether,” written by Jennifer Haley, and winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, explores the fascination of the world of the Internet, how it’s grown and consumed our way of learning, thinking, and even feeling. Coupled with the ever pressing issue of pedophilia while exploring the disturbed minds of the predators, imaginations come to life in this virtual world with an in-your-face realism that is as disturbing as it is provocative.

The play opens in an interrogation room, Detective Morris (Eve Everette) harshly questioning a middle-aged man, Mr. Sims (aka Papa), who remains stubborn and elusive. He is being detained, for what the audience pieces together as the story continues. Detective Morris has evidence that Mr. Sims is the creator of the Hideaway, a secret realm in the Nether for older people to come and act on sexual and violent fantasies of little girls. In Sims’ (Steve Jakiel) defense, nothing heinous is being committed. It’s all online, the girls aren’t real, and isn’t it safer for pedophiles to embrace who they are in the world of virtual reality?

The way these characters speak, how they defend themselves and how they break, is truly remarkable writing and acting, for you start to sympathize with these men being interrogated. Mr. Doyle (Dave Marciniak) is the second man Morris questions throughout the story, a man who constantly goes to Sims’ Hideaway and refuses to give up information about him. Morris seems to go in circles for most of the time spent with these men… admitted pedophiles but only in their imagination.

Steve Jakiel gives a stellar performance as Mr. Sims, in that I felt myself cringe whenever he was on stage, sinking into my seat. Jakiel’s subtle villainous stares and mannerisms together with his jovial and guiltless behavior speaks volumes on how real life pedophiles lure their victims and their sympathizers. By the end I was confused and angry with myself for even considering that what these men accused Detective Morris of (shaming them and telling them their love was farce), were at least a little worthy of understanding.

Though Morris, as we find out, isn’t the cool-headed, hard talking detective she at first presents herself to be. As the interrogations continue, her own darkness comes to light, as well as a past she can’t keep from conflicting with the case. I don’t mean to be vague, but I absolutely can’t give away too much detail, the ending is a twist I was not expecting. Eve Everette as Detective Morris was the surprise of the show, taking her character’s hits and misses with authentic emotion and conviction that nearly left me with whiplash.

The lights and stage setup is immersive in the cold, stone walls of the interrogation room, and inside the realm of the Hideaway itself, floors and windows shining with colors of activity. The small stage presents an ambiance for a futuristic sci-fi crime drama that isn’t cheesy or over-done. Perhaps it’s easy to think a world like this could exist, a world devoid of organic human emotion, chosen instead to live virtually, because we are already so close to it. Epic props to director Katie Mallinson for taking such an unsettling, sensitive topic and presenting it so fiercely and ruthlessly.

“The Nether” is a story that stays with you long after you’ve left the theater. One of the most original plays I’ve seen. There is so much to discuss: the future of technology, the intangible value of human life, the touchy debate over pedophilia (and why it’s being debated at all) and, surprisingly, human affection.

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Advisory: Strong language and adult themes.

“The Nether” runs until February 11th, 2018 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House

The cast of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ by Rocking Horse Productions at Lancaster Opera House

Even if you’ve never seen “It’s A Wonderful Life,” you’re probably familiar with the story, or the memorable “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” line. The stage adaption by Rocking Horse Productions brought back memories of my childhood, sitting in the living room with my family on Christmas week and marathoning holiday movies, but with a better understanding of “It’s a Wonderful Life’s” concepts like money and hopelessness and finding the strength to get through it all.

. . .charming in its simplicity and it’s family friendly quality.

From what I remember as a kid, the play stays true to the 1946 classic. The show opens on George Bailey, standing at a snow covered railing on Christmas day, ready to end his life. We don’t know why yet, until Clarence Odbody arrives, claiming to be George’s guardian angel. Clarence takes George through events in his life, hoping to show George his accomplishments and remind him of the happy life he has lived. We see a young George with big dreams of going to college, being an architect, meeting his future wife, Mary. We see how, as a child George saved his brother from drowning, addressed a medication mix-up at a job he had, and won a decision against the richest man in town, Mr. Potter, from taking his family business. It’s through these flashbacks that we begin to understand who George Bailey is and his impact in the town of Bedford Falls.

The story comes full circle as George’s uncle Billy takes $8,000 to deposit for George’s company the Building and Loan, and accidentally misplaces it right into Henry Potter’s possession. Potter, the main antagonist of George’s life, seizes the opportunity to hide the money and claim a scandal against George and his company, calling the police on him after George desperately runs to him for a loan, unknowing that he has the money. A mess of events follow, and George laments to Clarence that life would be better if he’d never been born. Clarence makes it so, and takes George through a montage of what life would be without him in it. George’s brother would have died because George wasn’t there to save him, his employer would go to jail because of the medication mix-up, and the Building and Loan would have ceased to exist, prompting his uncle Billy to lose his mind.

I won’t spoil the ending, just in case. This stage adaption of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is very well done, reflecting all the original elements of kindness and family that made the film a classic. However, perhaps because of that, the production falls a little flat, it’s tame, safe, unable to stand out or stay with you after the show is over. Sometimes classics are classic for a reason, but there was a missed opportunity to make the narrative of “It’s a Wonderful Life” stand out for a 21st century audience. This is the same story we’ve all heard before, told through awkward stage cues and a chemistry between Mary (Robyn Baun) and George (Angelo Heimowitz) that wasn’t there until the second half.

Some standout performances came from our villain, Henry Potter (Tim Joyce), and exuberant, money grabbing old man intent on making George’s life miserable. And Michael Breen, who plays the guardian angel Clarence Odbody, quietly captures the audience’s attention with a serene presence and calming tone of voice that sounds sincere and helpful. The set (designed by Chuck Ziehl) is simple yet effective, able to be mixed and matched up to establish new locations and settings (my favorite was the Bailey house, decorated in Christmas décor).

In all, Rocking Horse Productions rendition of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” although not unique or daring, is charming in its simplicity and it’s family friendly quality.

Running time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” runs until December 10th, 2017 and is presented at the Lancaster Opera House. For more information and tickets, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Men on Boats’ by UB Theatre and Dance at The Center For The Arts

Modern takes on historical events are one of my favorite approaches to storytelling. Writing about an exploration that took place in 1869 for a 21st century audience can be tricky, I was expecting something corny like the classroom plays my American history class used to present back in middle school. I should have known better, the department of theatre and dance at University of Buffalo always exceeds my expectations.

. . .exciting and comical. . .

“Men on Boats” chronicles the expeditions of John Wesley Powell and his group of selected men investigating and documenting the Green River and the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Reading the program, the casting for this seemingly predictable show has already flipped the narrative on its head by replacing the men with an entire female cast. Each woman portrays their male figures, but it adds hilarity and quirkiness when the actors low voices suddenly raise in high pitch screaming, shouting, or brief singing.

Jaclyn Blackhaus’ script stays true to the adventure Powell and his crew embarked on, including the men who left the party, the hidden barrel of whiskey upon the wrecked No Name, to the tiny details such as the often forgotten moment of when Powell was near death, dangling from a rock ledge, saved by Andy Hall taking off his pants and using them to pull Powell to safety. Though the historical accuracy is impressive, it’s the satirical and tongue-in-cheek moments that make this story stand out and stay with you long after the show is over.

The entire cast was phenomenal, each woman embracing her character and making them unique and memorable. By the time the play is over, it’s hard to not empathize with these men, and the struggles they went through (no matter how parodied the situations were at times). Julia Krieter commands the stage as Powell, speaking the loudest among the men, strutting with an exaggerated confidence, but still caring for each member of the exploration crew, especially as their numbers dwindle. Perhaps my favorite though was Michaela Pace playing Old Shady (Powell’s brother). The quietest member of the group, Shady would often break a silence with odd humming, confuse everyone with sudden singing, or spook the group with a harmless trick, all while completely deadpan and unconcerned.

Director Eero Laine presents “Men on Boats” as an exciting and comical rehash that also provides commentary on how history is retold and interpreted. Even if you are unfamiliar with Powell’s geographic exploration, I highly recommend this show for the talent and creativity the cast and crew exudes.

Running time: 1 hour with no intermission.

“Men on Boats” runs until Sunday October 29, 2017 and is presented at The Center For The Arts at the University at Buffalo. For tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Bunnicula’ at Theatre of Youth

Celebrating it’s 46th season, Theatre of Youth presents “Bunnicula,” a whimsical, only slightly frightening tale, of a rabbit with long fangs and a suspicious fear of garlic. Based on the children’s books by Deborah and James Howe, “Bunnicula” tells the story of the vampire rabbit of the same name, who wreaks havoc on the household vegetables, as well as the family cat. No plump, colorful vegetable is safe from Bunnicula’s thirst for juice, and Chester the cat is convinced that soon the rabbit’s appetite will turn into a hunger for blood.

. . .a lighthearted, easy to follow horror-comedy that is perfect for children. . .

Meet Harold the dog (Rich Kraemer) and Chester the cat (Annie Roaldi), pets of the Monroe family, who live a quiet and content life inside the safe four walls of their master’s home. One fateful day sees the family come home from the cinema, where they had been watching “Dracula,” with a new addition to the household that instantly causes Chester’s fur to stand on end.

The adorable bunny found at the cinema is not what he seems, for at night he grows fangs, shines his bright red eyes, and is able to escape his cage without any limitations to feed on the vegetables in the Monroe’s fridge, draining the juice from them and turning them white. The family, Mr. and Mrs. Monroe (John Profeta and Jenn Stafford, respectively) and their two children, Toby (Tyler Eisenmann) and Pete (Ayden Herreid) discover Bunnicula’s first victim the morning after his arrival: a white tomato. With some over-the-top acting that reminisces a Shakespeare play and dramatic lighting, the family leads the audience into thinking they may suspect something truly heinous is happening… but to a gag reveal that “Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing…” proceeding to come up with the most blissfully ignorant excuses as to why the tomato (and subsequent vegetables) are dried up and white.

The play proceeds with Chester the cat nearly losing his mind over attempting to convince both the humans and Harold the dog to understand that Bunnicula is a blood thirsty vampire, and their lives are in danger. With some superb acting by Roaldi, the cat jumps onto every conceivable surface with ease, paws at a suspicious white zucchini, and sits and speaks with a confident swagger that hilariously resembles how real cats behave. Harold, either by choice or because he just wants a new friend to play with, is on the fence with his kitty counterpart, wanting to believe that there’s nothing wrong with Bunnicula, insisting Chester reads too much. Kraemer also shines as Harold the dog, prancing around the stage excitedly or in fear, twitching his head at every sound, and generally reflecting what dogs do best, being loyal and silly.

Bunnicula himself is controlled by the talented Christine Cooke-Macvittie, who brings the puppet to life in how she moves him around the stage, turns his head cutely (or menacingly) and wiggles his ears, among other acts. Eisenmann and Herreid also impress as Toby and Pete, able to bounce off of their co-stars smoothly and effectively, and perhaps giving the best projection during the musical numbers.

“Bunnicula” really shines in its music (Chester Popiloand) and lighting (Todd Proffitt), matching a comical rendition of creepy organs blaring (like you’d hear in classic vampire flicks), with focused spotlights and flashes of lightning from the set’s tall, ominous windows.

“Bunnicula” is a lighthearted, easy to follow horror-comedy that is perfect for children on Halloween (I mean, October). It’s frightening Dracula inspiration is downplayed by the adorable pets and the silly humans who think they know better. There’s many laughs and thrills to be had, recommended for ages 6 and up.

Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes with one 10 minute intermission.

“Bunnicula” runs until October 29, presented at Theatre of Youth. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Pretty/Funny’ at MusicalFare Theatre

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You’ve seen it before: the lonely girl, an outcast, worrying her way through life until something happens to help her come out of her shell and realize her worth… but not told like this. Through musical comedy, dance, and modern media, Marisa Guida (conceiver, Book, co-lyrics) takes us on a predictable coming of age journey for Genny (Arin Lee Dandes), with a unique and fun twist… encouraging us to clown around and shine in your own light.

“. . .the perfect feel good show. . .”

Meet Genny, a lovable girl entering the unknown horrors of middle school with her parents, Mom (Amy Jakiel) and Dad (Louis Colaiacovo), totally stoked and eager to support their little princess. However, Genny’s excitement soon turns sour after she meets up with her best friend (Leah Berst) who’s just returned from camp, smart phone in hand and a new clique to bond with. Life only goes downhill from there. With the current day media telling girls how to look and behave, unfair behavior at school both from students and a teacher, Genny’s mother working for a beauty campaign across the country, and her father being fired from his job, Genny starts to crumble under the pressure.

Then, as fate would have it, Genny accidentally finds solace in Imogene Coca, the pioneering female comedian that no one’s heard of. In an attempt to cheer his daughter up, Dad suggests that Genny write her term paper on Coca, explaining in great detail (and song) all about the wondrous woman from the black and white era.

This is where “Pretty/Funny” shines, in it’s ability to recreate not only a real-life Imogene Coca (Nicole Marrale Cimato), but to dim the lights and reveal demonstrations of how early 1900’s vaudevilles performed on stage. Kudos to producer/director Randall Kramer for effortless transitions/combinations between reality and daydreams. Constantly during a musical explanation of something requiring visual aid, actors would dance in and out of the scene without disruption or confusion, purely there for comedic effect or just a fun dance number.

The entire cast works so well together, the enjoyment each actor exudes on stage beams to the audience and sets the mood for the duration of the show. Doug Weyand’s tasteful choreography includes hip hop, tap, ballet, and physical comedy routines that adds that little something extra to every musical number or scene. Of course the music, composed by Philip Farugia, combined with toe-tapping dance numbers, creates annoyingly catchy tunes that you’ll be humming days later.

“Pretty/Funny” is the perfect feel good show that will inspire you, educate you (right after the performance I went home and Googled Imogene Coca, what a legend), and make you reflect on the social expectations forced upon little girls today, which could be the main, underlying focus of this show. Why is society so glued to the media? Why do we need that product that promises us to look younger? Why listen to what a magazine says you should look like? Don’t conform to today’s “beauty” standards, don’t let anyone try to put you in a box. “Pretty/Funny” insists you can do better; you can stand out and be the most wonderful version of you, be yourself despite anything.

Running Time: 2 Hours with one 15 minute intermission.

“Pretty/Funny” runs until August 13, 2017 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre. For more information, click here.