Little Women…now…At Last!

Louisa May Alcott’s coming of age chick lit classic Little Women has been required reading since its 1868 publication. Hence, it’s multiple iterations on stage and screen: everyone loves the four plucky sisters of Concord, MA, their stalwart mother, and the men who dance around their periphery of their lives. Except me. I know, some may think I need to revoke my woman card, but the book and its adaptations have never appealed to me.

Major props to playwright Donna Hoke for tackling this old chestnut and bringing it to 2022 relevance. Little Women…now made its world-premiere at Road Less Traveled Theatre after two years of Covid delays. The family is now at home in Western New York, Father is in the midwest helping his ailing cousin, and the four sisters still adore each other when they’re not dreaming and bickering.

Director Doug Weyand has an A-list cast and crew for this long-awaited production. The March sisters (Brittany Bassett as Meg, Sabrina Kahwaty as Amy, Heather Gervasi as Beth, and Alexandria Watts as Jo) play off each other well enough as they cope with their financial woes and general growing pains. Beth is no longer in scarlet fever’s grip: her maladies are anxiety-based with hints of long-haul Covid and perhaps an eating disorder as she raises her fist for social justice. Gervasi plays Beth frail and pale with determination. Bassett’s Meg is ready to be the young bride of John Brooke (Ricky Needham); he’s perfectly earnest and endlessly patient. Kahwaty’s Amy is the most transformed of the quartet: in Act 1, she’s the annoying and whiny adolescent and by Act 2 she’s matured into the sister with a secret love and the realization that her girlhood dreams can grow into another direction. Watts is a delight as Jo the ‘tomboy’ (who now is a women’s studies major) aspiring writer who isn’t ready to accept Laurie’s (so well played by Jake Hayes) affection. Lisa Vitrano rounds out the cast as Mom. The role model of pluckiness, she’s working in a diner to keep her quartet afloat. She’s wonderfully weary and wise, although at times she feels more like sister number five and not the matriarch.

Dyan Burlingame built a set that morphs from March family living room (obviously in a lovely home that’s starting to a get bit shabby as the finances run down) into the “Sister House” beach house. Some clever shutters here and slipcovers there do the trick, along with some beachy art and other objects deftly assembled by prop master Diane Almeter Jones. Nicholas Quinn has some fun with the sound design; the production is really a series of vignettes that span several years. Quinn connects these moving parts with period-appropriate song snippets. John Rickus adds his magic with focused lighting and illuminated “chapter titles” in the set’s TV screen.

The show gets laughs in the right places, sighs when necessary, and some tears when the family tale is most poignant. There’s one lovely scene where Jo’s writing comes to life, with some silhouette lighting and some expert stagecraft by Watts. This shouldn’t be a spoiler alert, but after almost two hours of foreshadowing, Beth’s death is an odd moment of melodrama complete with a gasp and a grasp to the white light.

Little Women…now is onstage until May 22. It runs a full two hours with a brief intermission. Find details and tickets at http://www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

Families and Cultures Clash in Tribes

Families and cultures: sometimes they connect and sometimes they don’t. Tribes, now on stage at Road Less Traveled Theatre, makes that point very clear.

Playwright Nina Raine crafted an interesting take on a family story. Parents and two of the three adult children are so wrapped up in their own orbits that they chose not to meet youngest son Billy in his unique culture. Billy was born deaf and his family’s choice was to fit him with hearing aids, teach him to read lips, and expect him to fit in. But those who live with a hearing impairment have their own culture, their own way of expressing themselves, that is different from hearing culture. This family, instead of embracing it, shut it down and the consequence is that Billy’s life has its arc. In this family unit, he is often the observer to their twisted family dynamic.

It took me a while and some reflecting to embrace this production for the fine work that it is. At face value, it’s a study in narcissism for the parents and a “finding their way” study for the older siblings. Act one is full of shouting. But it’s also clear that no one – except Billy – is actively listening to the words and the spaces between. Through the high decibel dialogue we meet oldest son Daniel (Johnny Barden) who is writing his thesis on how language is used, while getting over a break up, smoking pot, and dealing increasing levels of mental illness. Younger sister Ruth (Anna Krempholtz) is an aspiring singer who is struggling to launch her career in opera. Mother Beth (Margaret Massman) is trying to write a novel and patriarch Christopher (David Marciniak) is an academic learning Chinese…often wearing a headset when he’s not yelling and swearing. Billy (Dave Wantuck) has just moved home from university. He begins attending Deaf social event where he meets Sylvia (Melinda Capeles) and is drawn to her lively personality and connection to the Deaf community. She was raised by Deaf parents and is fluent in sign language.  It’s her story that adds more depth to the script: she is losing her hearing – as did her sister, a genetic malady – and through her we learn the difference between being deaf and learning how to be Deaf.

Capeles is remarkable in her role. The vibrance of her Artie Award-winning role in La Lupe: My Life, My Destiny from 2019 is tempered with a different kind of passion here. She’s caring, intense, and frightened by the changes in her life. She’s a good foil for Wantuck (who is new to the professional stage and quite remarkable here): where his character is ill at ease, she’s comfortable and accepting. One of the finest scenes is in act two when – for a brief few minutes – we share Billy’s point of view, thanks to a shift in sound design and lighting , expertly crafted by sound designer Katie Menke and lighting designer John Rickus.

Director Doug Zschiegner wove in exquisite layers of nuance with the dialogue and how it’s delivered. Many moments in act two are signed: subtitles on projection screens share the dialogue. The contrast between acts one and two is well handled and effective.

While it’s a struggle to fine anything likeable in the parents and sister Ruth, the interplay between Daniel and Billy and their complicated relationship is compelling. The brother who is studying language and the brother caught between two distinct communications modalities create the heart of Raine’s script. Daniel’s struggle with mental illness and the return of his childhood stutter are powerful backstories that further emphasize this family’s dysfunction.

A strong, solid cast, an introspection on how we communicate, and love story that struggles to hold on to love….Tribes is complex and well crafted by this expert cast and crew.

Tribes runs a little more than two hours with a 10 minute intermission and is onstage to March 27. Find tickets and details at http://www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

Hand to God Returns to Road Less Traveled Theater

Sabrina Kahwaty and Dan Urtz

I saw Road Less Traveled Theater’s production of Hand to God for the first time on March 8, 2020. It was the last show I saw that season before The Long Intermission.   It was a complete production, full of heart, humor, hell, and hope. RLTP wisely re-opened its 18th season by bringing it back and – if that’s possible – it’s gotten even better.

Robert Askins  penned a modern-day horror story, set in a Texas church, with  grieving widow Margery (Jenn Stafford), her shy son Jason (Dan Urtz), their earnest pastor (John Kreuzer), bad boy Timmy (Henry Farleo), and sweet teen Jessica (Sabrina Kahwaty, replacing Maura Nolan Coseglia from the 2020 crew).  Pastor Greg advises Margery to work through her grief by organizing a teen-driven puppet theatre, aptly named The Christkateers. Timmy is there to avoid a less than happy home life. Jason’s engaged because, well, Mom is the leader, and Jessica admits to an interest in puppetry. As they build their puppets in preparation for their first performance at service, Jason’s puppet persona Tyrone becomes aggressively Satanic. Even an attempt at exorcism (“Do Lutherans even do exorcism,” asked a quizzical Jessica) can’t break Tyrone’s hold over Jason.  Yup, there’s plenty of power in a cast-off sock with fluffy yarn hair.

Kudos go to designer/puppeteer Adam Kreutinger for creating the sock-alter egos. Set designer Dyan Burlingame created a main space that brought back plenty of church basement memories (I loved the “time out” cornered tricked out with the hell on earth motif), with its inspirational posters, cheery colors, and kid-size accoutrements assembled by props master Diane Almeter Jones. Shelby Converse got to choreograph some pretty outlandish fight scenes, too.  Director John Hurley had an A-list team for sure.

Urtz earned a 2020 Artie Award (Outstanding Actor in a Play) for his portrayal of meek Jason and the devil Tyrone. The sheer physicality of the role was impressive enough, then layer on the expressive emotional shifts and his whole performance is amazing. Stafford is a repressed randy mama when she’s not the demure church goer: her range is extraordinary. Farleo’s Timmy is hard to like and just as he should be. Kreuzer brings a quiet strength to Pastor Greg (who lands one of the funniest lines of the show if you remember The Exorcist), and Kahwaty’s sweetness as Jessica (with some spiciness as puppet Jolene) help bring the needed turn-around to Jason. All told, it’s a fine ensemble.

My frequent theatre companion won’t see shows a second time: for him the experience is one and done. I disagree: sometimes the second go-round brings out things you missed or you just see differently. That’s the case with Hand to God; I saw Margery’s pain manifest itself more deeply, and Jason’s sense of loss and confusion over his dad’s death simmering under the surface. There are some fine laughs and absurdity, too, but the poignancy of this story prevailed even moreso the second time around.  Even if you were among couple 2020 audiences, Hand to God is well worth revisiting.

Hand to God runs two hours with a 15-minute intermission to December 5. All COVID policies are in place (your vax card and ID will be checked at entrance and masks are required): you will feel comfortable in a safe place…even when Satan speaks.  Visit www. roadlesstraveledproductions.org  for details and tickets.

Patience is Indeed a Virtue for All for One Productions

For the cast and crew of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, the past 19 months must have been pure agony. The show was shut down opening night (thank you, Covid) after months of prep by All for One Theatre Productions, (the collaborative comprised of Shea’s 710 Theatre, MusicalFare Theatre, Irish Classical Theatre Company, Theatre of Youth, and Road Less Traveled Productions). Imagine the agony of sitting on this exquisite production. It was truly worth the wait.

Based on British author Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, playwright Simon Stephen’s script  begins with a neighborhood tragedy: a teen discovers that his neighbor’s dog has been killed. The distraught owner is quick to blame the teen. Thus begins a two-hour journey of a painful truth, deliberate deception, and a young man’s search for order in a very disorganized world.

Samuel Fesmire gives a mesmerizing performance as Christopher, the accused neighbor. While not specifically called out, Christopher appears to live on the autism spectrum, high-functioning and brilliant with mathematics, and sometimes childlike in his need for routine and order. He walks in straight lines and turns at precise right angles, marks his steps as he walks (“Remember your rhythms,” says is teacher Siobhan played by Sara Kow-Falcone), and cubes prime numbers to reduce stress. Fesmire’s movements capture the tics and quirks of someone whose mind is always racing.  Kow-Falcone’s carefully measured passion and commitment to her student paint the perfect picture of an ideal teacher.

While searching for Wellington the dog’s killer, Christopher learns some hard truths about his dad (Anthony Alcocer),  his mom (Candice Kogut) and Wellington’s owners (Wendy Hall and Ben Michael Moran).   Moran and Hall also do double duty as part of the ensemble, too, playing minor characters and set pieces. That’s actually a pretty cool part of the production. People are often miming walls and doors on the Spartan grid set. Even in the opening scene, lighting outlines Wellington’s dead body along with the murder weapon. 

No surprise that a collaborative performance has a super-size production team. Director David Oliver and assistant director Lucas Lloyd built a good team with Lynne Koscielniak doubling up on scene and lighting design, Christopher Ash and Brian McMullen on the projection (there’s plenty of that, too, against the grid set), Gerry Trentham as movement director, and Jean Toohey as dialect coach to keep the British accents on point and in check.  It this was a band, it would be described as tight.

Overall, it’s a fine interpretation of the novel and a good depiction of what it’s like to live in a world that you often don’t understand when you’re otherwise abled. Fesmire as a Christopher will win your heart as you empathize with his daily challenges. I was less focused on the parental lying and infidelity: the acting quartet handled that well. It’s a tribute to the production company and its choice of show to see marquee actors like Pamela Rose Mangus and David Marciniak in ensemble roles here, too.

The show’s timing may feel uneven at times (the first act felt long and a trusted colleague felt act two dragged) but like Christopher, once you feel the rhythm of the story, it makes sense.

Thanks to All for One for bringing this powerful show to the 716 and not giving up on it when Covid  was threatening, This is good stuff.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is a solid two hours with intermission and is onstage at Shea’s 710 Theatre to November 14.  Details and tickets at www. sheas.org.

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

‘Hand to God’ at Road Less Traveled

The cast of “Hand To God” at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

Poor Margery. She’s dealing with the loss of her husband by using liturgical puppets as a ministry at her Christian church. She’s not a puppeteer by trade, and she can’t sing or preach, she says, so she will show her love for the church through the Christkateers puppet club and it will be her path to salvation. That is until her son Jason’s puppet Tyrone becomes possessed by Satan, and the church pastor comes on to her in a sweet and gentle way which is NOT the way the teen Lothario of the puppet club declares his desire for her. What’s a mother to do?

So that’s the innocent set up of “Hand to God” the wickedly funny and very moving show on stage at Road Less Traveled Productions, now until March 29. It took a couple years for RLTP to finally get Robert Askins’ Tony-nominated show on stage in Buffalo, and – hand-to-God –  it will be one of the best shows you will see all season.  The script is both hilarious and deeply moving and the performances by Jenn Stafford as Margery and Dan Urtz as her son Jason are outstanding.

There’s a lot of love about this show. Dyan Burlingame’s set nails the typical church basement classroom and she cleverly drops in a concealed space that serves as two rooms in Margery and Jason’s home. Diane Almeter Jones was in touch with her inner child in searching out perfect props to add to the spaces. My favorite was the toy automobile console and steering while that Stafford “drove”  with deadpan perfection. Tyrone and Jolene – the puppets – were the work of designer Adam Kreutinger. Tyrone the sock puppet started out as a goofy gray sock dressed in child-friendly primary colors and evolved into the devil incarnate with teeth that draw blood and a demonic expression. Jolene is all woman with extra large sequin nipples. Hysterical.

It’s the acting that makes this wild ride of a script so sublime. Stafford is flat out amazing as the perfect Christian mom full of pent up sexuality covered in Southern charm. She’s exactly how you never want to imagine your mom. John Kreuzer is the slightly sweaty Pastor Greg who lusts in his heart for Margery while teaching the good word to his flock. Teen lover-boy Timmy is the kid you love to hate and Henry Farleo has the swagger to pull it off. Maura Nolan Coseglia is Jessica, the kind hearted girl in puppet club who is designing Jolene with a little bit of bad girl. It’s Dan Urtz as Jason that owns almost every scene. As Jason he’s soft-spoken and child-like; when he’s Tyrone, his voice is angry and evil and full of potty-mouth-puppet rage. He shifts gears between personae effortlessly. John Hurley’s direction keeps the show tight and on target. The funniest scene has to be when puppet Jolene tries to calm Tyrone’s inner beast with her womanly charms. If you had your fill of puppets enjoying sock-on-sock action in “Avenue  Q,” this is a whole different story. Urtz and Nolan Coseglia took this to the limit.

Underneath the loads of laughs and the twisted story of sock puppets with a mind of their own, the human story is poignant. Loneliness and isolation harm the human psyche. Dealing with loss and absent parents – through death or their own despair – have deep residual impacts. How we deal with the life we’re handed can be a painful struggle to survive, fit in, and find love. Role playing can indeed bring out our demons until our authentic selves take charge.

“Hand to God” is  great fun and an outstanding showcase for some of our region’s finest theatre talent. It run just two hours with a 15-minutre intermission to March 29. Find details and tickets at www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

A Sure Sign of Spring: Shea’s Announces Next Season’s Schedule

Shea’s Buffalo Theatre is going back to its roots as a movie house with the M&T Bank 2020-21 Broadway Series. Six of the seven mainstage offerings either began their lives on the silver screen or have already been made into films. Venerable producing partner Albert Nocciolino joined Shea’s  President  Michael G. Murphy to announce next year’s season at a subscriber’s event held Tuesday night.

An exciting kick off to the season – and another economic boon for Buffalo – are two national tours are launching on Shea’s stage. This also means that Shea’s will host the tech and stage crews for extended stays, with an estimated $3 million in regional economic impact for the region, says Murphy, along with creating work for local theatre technicians.  This is made possible by a New York State program that incents Broadway productions to launch from an upstate – in our case a Western New York – theatre, an opportunity enjoyed by our city coffers for five years.

The first of these productions is “Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,” starring Richard Thomas, August 15-22. This is Aaron Sorkin’s script which was produced this season at the Kavinoky Theatre. Thomas – long remembered for his TV character John Boy Walton – will star as Atticus Finch.

Next up and the second national launch is the stage version of the 1982 comedy “Tootsie,” October 3-10. It’s the same fun story: an out of work actor wins roles when he dresses in drag, with a score written by David Yazbeck who also the score for “The Band’s Visit” coming to Shea’s this April, along with “The Full Monty” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

The next movie on stage in “Pretty Woman The Musical,” where the hooker with a heart of gold wins over emotionally remote rich dude. All the scenes you loved in the 1990 movies are tied together with a score by Canadian rocker Bryan Adams and his longtime song writing partner Jim Vallance.

The 2019 Tony award winning revival of “Oklahoma” is on stage January 26-31. The New York Times called it the “the coolest production of the year is from 1943” because of its inventive restaging of an American classic and the fresh arrangements of the lovely Rodgers and Hammerstein score.

Another classic,  the Lincoln Center Theater Production of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” follows March 23-28.

The season’s juke box musical is “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, The Life and Times of The Temptations,” dances on stage May 11 to 16.

Closing out the season is another hit from the snowy silvery screen, “Frozen,” June 16-27.

Two special engagements round out the season: “Hamilton” returns November 3-20. Season subscribers may opt to include this as part of their season; and “Dear Evan Hansen,” April 13-18.

Murphy also announced the new seasons for Shea’s other theatre properties.  For the third season, O’Connell & Company will be in residence at Shea’s Smith Theatre. This season begins with “Nunsensations A-Men,” January 8-17, followed by “SUDS: The Rocking ‘60s Musical Soap Opera,” March 5-14, and the return of “Betsy Carmichael’s BINGO PALACE, “ April 29-May 2. Also in residence at Shea’s Smith is Second Generation Theatre. This company’s season begins October 16 with the play “Constellations,”  until November 1, followed by Jason Robert Brown’s lush musical “Songs for a New World” February 5-21, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel adapted for stage “The Secret Garden,” May 21-June 6. 

At Shea’s 710 Theatre, Road Less Traveled Productions will stage “Slow Food, “a comedy, September 10-27. MusicalFare Theatre follows with the musical “In the Heights,”December 3-20. The theatre collaborative All for One Theatre Productions (MusicalFare Theatre, Road Less Traveled Productions, Irish Classical Theatre, Theatre of Youth) bring love and comedy to the stage with “Shakespeare in Love,”February 11-28. Irish Classical Theatre brings” Farinelli and the King,”a drama, to this stage April 8-18. Finally MusicalFare Theatre returns with the regional premiere of Kinky Boots, May 6-23.

Full descriptions and ticket information is online at www.sheas.org.

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Opposites Attract and Repel in “The Antipodes”

The cast of “The Antipodes” at Road Less Traveled Theatre. Photo by Gina Gandolfo.

The art and process of storytelling is the central theme of ‘The Antipodes’ on stage now at Road Less Traveled Productions.

Storytelling is a cross cultural tradition that spans the ages. It’s a form of communication, level setting, and oral history gathering. It’s as natural as sunshine and can be as processed as a rectangle a bright orange cheese. And sometimes it’s just a bit creepy.

Finding the next ‘big’story is the goal for a group of storytellers that comprise this cast. The head of the project is Sandy, (South Buffalo’s Sean Cullen), and he is where the creepiness gets in. Sandy is a glad-hander, the lover of all, the hugger, the one who seems nervous about pleasing the mysterious boss on the VR screen. He comes, he goes, he returns a hot mess. As the group sits around a corporate board room table kicking around ideas for apparently no reason, you’re left to wonder why. Movie script? TV show? Vainglorious exercise in futility with a regular paycheck (for some) and  a catered free lunch?  Nice gig.

We meet Eleanor (Kristen Tripp Kelley), the only woman storyteller who knits are she spins her personal yarns. Dave (Dave Hayes) and Danny 1 (John Hurley) revel in their roles as the only repeaters on Team Sandy. Danny 2 (Dave Marciniak) is handsomely shallow as he steals one of Eleanor’s tales as his own (her glower is worth the price of admission alone). Shy guy Josh (Ricky Needham) is tricked out as a young exec and he stands alone as the one whose payroll isn’t processed and whose ideas aren’t recorded by hero-worshipper Brian (Adam Yellen). Sarah (Cassie Cameron) is the perky admin who makes sure lunch is ordered and that Sandy’s wishes are fulfilled. Cameron channels a younger Sarah Jessica Parker, down to her quirky hair tosses, side glances, and punchy delivery Carrie Bradshaw-style.

Annie Baker’s script is more character study than storytelling as it depicts everything bad about corporate brainstorming sessions. Personalities emerge and are thwarted. Weak leadership curry favor, earn praise, and retreat into their self-absorbed worlds. Earnest participants get shot down and are defeated. What starts out feeling fresh and interesting seems to spin itself into unresolved circles. Perhaps that was Baker’s intention:  a look into a world of joyless striving where the resolution is an enigma.

Lynne Koscielniak’s set is sleek and clean: corporate America with no clutter. Maura Price’s costumes fit the personalities perfectly, from Eleanor’s soft coziness to Brian’s disheveled duds. Director Scott Behrend’s direction nails the timing of ins and outs of a corporate meeting and the give-and-take around the conference table, practiced to nonchalance perfection.

‘The Antipodes’ is onstage until February 9: visit www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org. The show runs a long-feeling two hours with a 15-minute intermission and a fun opportunity to snap a selfie with the cast around the corporate table.

Theatre Review: ‘Interrogation Room’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

 

John Vines as Det. Bremens grills Matt Witten as Gordon Peck as Nick Stevens as Det. Janetty listens in.

Interrogation Room written by local playwright and Road Less Traveled Theatre Productions co-founder Jon Elston debuted as RLTP’s second offering back in 2003.  It’s back in season 16, and remains a true edge-of-your-seat drama, very worthy of its 2004 Artie Award for Outstanding New Play. Frankly, it deserves more.

Set in (you guessed it) the interrogation room at the local police headquarters, this four-hander is all about the dialogue and the intense conversations between police and those accused (or not) of a horrific crime: an 11 year old girl is raped and murdered in her own home. Who would do such a thing? Her parents and older sister are white, and her older adopted brother is black. The family lives in refined neighborhood where murder doesn’t happen…and white parents adopting a black son may not always be embraced.

Mikey (played by Dave Tyrik) is the son in the interrogation room hot seat. Detective Bremen (John Vines and  Detective Janetty (Nick Stevens) are assigned to the case. Janetty is convinced that they have their man,  but Bremen isn’t sure. Mikey’s statement has some holes in it and while he’s cooperative, something isn’t coming together.

 But did Mikey murder his pretty little sister Ashley or not?

It’s all about the psychology of the investigation here; the proverbial good cop bad cop ballet where they dance to extract a confession from a question-weary subject. But Mikey has more to hide; he’s a young black man raised by white parents, afterall, and disappointing them is not something he is wont to do. But this white detective isn’t like his folks, there’s an animosity here that Mikey doesn’t understand, and the black detective – the authority figure who reminds him to sit up straight and dignified – commands his respect based on the race they have in common.

Neighbor Gordon Peck – craftily played by Matt Witten – insists on visiting the interrogation room; he  is sure that Mikey is guilty. He is certain beyond doubt that he saw the young suspect entering the home in a suspicious manner.  And he would know that declaratively, observing this on his carefully timed nightly walk around the neighborhood  he professes to love and wants to protect.

Director Scott Behrend had the winning combination here: a robust, relevant, layered  story and four solid actors who wrapped themselves around Elston’s words. Tyrick captures Mikey’s ‘I’m guilty of something but not murder’ nuances to a t. Stevens (last season’s Elvis in MusicalFare’s Million Dollar Quartet) balances Janetty’s love of family with his tough-talking streetwise need to have justice served now. Vines’ calm simmers low and slow throughout his performance. It’s amazing that he stepped into this role with only 17 days to prepare after two other actors bowed out. His occasional dropped lines and tiny fumbles are very forgivable and almost play into his character’s struggle to find the right words at the right time. His last scene is pure triumph – perfectly underplayed and extraordinarily powerful.

It’s Witten – who played Janetty in 2003 – that stands out. He is the smarmy guy you love to hate, with his entitled pedigree and smug attitude.  He’ll remind you of the way Jeremy Irons played Clau von Bulow in the 1990 film Reversal of Fortune. Like Claus, he has plenty to hide: watch his jumpy leg and twitchy pinky finger. That’s the kind of physical cues the cops observe when your words and your actions aren’t coming together.  Witten is deliciously wicked, cunning, contemptible.

Elston’s story is character- and dialogue-driven with intensity and fire. He creates a mood – against Dyan Burlingame’s stark set – that makes our need to live in a socially just world very real. We want to fight for it, like Bremen and Janetty so the Mikeys and Ashleys never have to be victims again. Interrogation Room runs until November 24. It’s an emotional two hours and some change (including intermission), and well worth it. Tickets and details here.

Theatre Review: ‘The Authentic Life Of Billy The Kid’ at Road Less Traveled Productions

The cast of ‘The Authentic Life of Billy The Kid’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre.

Picture it: New Mexico, 1908. An old acquaintance knocks at your door. He brings his silent (at first) mysterious driver: could he really be someone who thought has been dead for 27years? 

From its very dramatic stop-action opening scene, ‘The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid’ which opens Road Less Traveled Productions’ new season, ignites you into a strange psychological drama. It’s indeed a dark and stormy night when the former sheriff Pat Garrett (Daniel Greer) opens his cabin door to welcome former newspaperman Ash Upson (Peter Palmisano).  Amidst plenty of thunder claps and lightning cracks, Garrett flashes back to the night he shot the Kid dead at the Maxwell ranch after the Kid escaped from prison. Well, that’s what Garrett thinks and what the history books tell us, but was that really what happened? What does this do to the former Sheriff’s identity? As he says “I spent the last 25 years trying to be the man I meant to be.”

. . . ignites you into a strange psychological drama.

Playwright Lee Blessing’s story takes us down a different path. What if the Kid had master-minded a fake death with a stand in, and he’s lived an OK life under a new identity? With a little bit of Agatha Christie-esque intrigue (think ‘The Mousetrap’) and a dash of urban legend (“Elvis is alive and working at a McDonald’s in Michigan”) the story plays some mind games on Garrett while his old buddy Ash spins out his own plan to make some money on this sideshow.

Dave Mitchell is a perfect enigma as Billy the Kid. He has that cunning, haunting look about him, and he gives a little side-eye as Ash directs and coaches him along with the show he’s scripting. The interaction between these two is wild: “I’m am impresario,” Ash proclaims as he silently coaches the Kid how to illustrate a night of passion on a wooden chair and how to deliver his lines with equal passion.  Garrett is skeptical, and even though he acknowledges that “the west is what you make of it,” he’s not ready to join this circus. Yet. Ash tries to prove the Kid is the real deal, and even asks him to drop his trousers to reveal the wound Garrett caused to the Kid’s hind (“you’re staring in the face of history here,” proclaims Ash). Enter Jim P. Miller (Patrick Cameron), a surprise guest and a visitor from Texas who’s ready to buy Garrett’s property, until he gets caught up in the story. Funny how the thought of making a little extra cash can change someone so fast.

While Blessing’s story had some slow-to-emerge parts, this ensemble – directed by Road Less Traveled’s leader Scott Behrend is great.  Mitchell as the Kid lets his character delectably, slowly roll out from servant to gunslinger. Palmisano plays Ash with gusto: even when Ash nods off his chair, he’s dreaming of his next money making scheme. Greer as Garrett is solid, a force, the rock who wants what history told him he did….but some money would be good, too. It’s Cameron as Miller that is captivating: he’s all Texas charm until he weaves himself into the narrative.

Once again Dyan Burlingame’s set is dead-on, from the plank walls to the glowing kiva in the corner. Special effects, fight scenes, and ambiance are all there, bringing a little bit of outback New Mexico to downtown Buffalo. RLTP begins this season with a literal bang.

Opening night may have had a stumbled line or two (totally forgivable), but the woman next to me who whipped out her phone a few times – lights and all – to check the time…not so much. Seriously.

Running Time: 2 Hours with a 10-minute intermission.

 “The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid” runs until October 6, 2019 and is presented at Road Less Traveled Theatre. For more information, click here.