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BWW Review: THE EXONERATED at Vagabond Theatre Company
On Sunday, February 25, I had the pleasure of seeing THE EXONERATED at the historic Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport, CT. This was my first time at this theatre and my first show that I have seen put on by the Vagabond Theatre Company. I hope to see many more in the future, as this show is amazing, based on true stories, and sends some deeply impacting messages that touch the emotions to the core, in a good way. It opens awareness in the minds of the audience, about things not always being as they seem, and people not always being who they may appear to be.
This show, adapted by Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen is directed brilliantly by Richard Mancini. The cast of ten are all convincing in their roles, conveying an energy that cuts deeply in this powerful drama. We get to hear the true stories of six people who individually were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for murder that they had not committed. The cast members are seated up on stage in two rows of five, the front row being five of the wrongfully convicted while the back row has one of the wrongfully convicted sitting in the middle, with two people seated on each side of him, each who play multiple accompanying roles in this drama. Slides are shown on a screen behind the cast, including slides that show pictures of the actual people who are represented by this stellar cast. While the stories of the convicted are unrelated to each other, the distribution of the stories is interspersed throughout the show, so the audience gets a sense of each of the six stories, throughout the show, as opposed to a straight sequencing of one story to completion after the next story to completion, for six stories. I found that this style of pacing worksvery well in this show.
Warren Richards portrays David Keaton, who was a man of Christian faith, while in prison. I look at his story from the perspective that his wrongful conviction may have been used to help lead fellow prisoners to the Lord, bringing about the ultimate good we trust upon in the promise of Romans 8:28.
Jehan Abdurraheem portrays Delbert Tibbs, another person who, moved by grace, showed the positive message of not clinging to bitterness, and keeping a positive view of America, and people from all racial backgrounds, despite the real life race based injustice that he experienced in the American legal system. By God's grace, attitudes like his could help revolutionize America in a positive way. He was faced with the challenge of learning how to feel, emotionally, once again.
Elijah Manning portrays Robert Hayes, with an excellent southern drawl, a character who experienced further injustice, through mistreatment at the hands of guards, after his wrongful conviction. We see, in Robert Hayes, how wrongful convictions that are overturned can still come with complications that further hinder the exonerated from acquiring legal documentation required to move forward in some aspects of life.
Monica M O'Brien portrays Sunny Jacobs, a woman who got arrested after being kidnapped, along with her children, by a man who she had witnessed murder two police officers. The man managed to pull strings to pin the murders on her, separating her from her children, and from her husband. Nevertheless, she kept up hope in God and refused to allow herself to play the victim. Her prayers are believed to have helped lead to a powerful movement of grace that would be too much of a spoiler to describe in any more detail.
John R. Smith, Jr. portrays Gary Gauger, a man who found himself under arrest for the murder of his own parents, within hours of experiencing the trauma of finding them dead. He still remained an inspiration, insisting that the real killers not be placed on death row, as such would not bring his parents back.
Avery Jade, Sue O'Hara, Rob Pawlikowski, and Tim Brandt round out the cast, convincingly playing multiple roles of characters in the lives of the wrongfully convicted.
The heart-wrenching stories which were so movingly conveyed by this talented cast who all remained in character at all times should make all audience members think twice before pointing fingers at anyone, including those convicted of criminal felonies. Sometimes, violent crimes that cry out for serious punishment are prosecuted in sloppy or outright corrupt ways that become huge injustices both towards the falsely prosecuted, and towards the original victims of the crimes. What makes matters worse is that, once the innocent are exonerated, procedure can inhibit their immediate release from prison, as if completion of paperwork, scheduling, and other technicalities are valid grounds to keep the wrongfully convicted incarcerated.
I highly recommend THE EXONERATED which is scheduled to continue to run, courtesy of the Vagabond Theatre Company, at the Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport, CT, next weekend, on Friday March 2 at 8:00 PM, Saturday March 3 at 8:00 PM, and Sunday March 4 at 5:00 PM. For tickets, please go to http://www.vagabondbpt.org/exonerated.
Wayne Keeley/Stephanie Lyons-Keeley
Did you ever wonder how some shows like South Park, Saturday Night Live, Family Guy, etc. get away with making fun of certain people, places or things with complete impunity from lawsuits? It’s called satire and parody. Both are general exceptions to defamation and other suits that might ordinarily fall under the ambit of copyright infringement. That’s not to say that the line can never be crossed – SNL has had its share of lawsuits and they generally have won all of them (at least on the appellate level).
Wearing multiple hats every day can be daunting. Sometimes it’s extremely hard to reconcile all the roles we play with our perceptions and opinions about things. Vagabond Theatre Company, still in its embryonic stages (pun intended) chose to close out its eclectic first season with this satirical parody of the internationally famous Peanuts comic strip by the late Charles M. Schulz. I was truly torn in Sybil-esque fashion seeing it unfold. As an intellectual property attorney (and despite the satirical aspects of the play), I still wondered how the author, Bert V. Royal, escaped unscathed by our legal system. As a childhood reader of Peanuts, I mourned the loss of my innocence (and that of the Peanuts characters as well). As an artist, I believe in free expression and first amendment protection where an artist can express him or herself in any conceivable way possible as long as it doesn’t involve child pornography. As a theatrical producer and director myself, I was jealous that I did not produce and direct the play with its very talented cast. As an audience member and reviewer (and sitting in dark theatres, this is the most important hat that trumps all the others), I thoroughly enjoyed VTC’s Dog Sees God.
VTC changed up its previous casting scheme by offering a young, talented, vibrant cast. The acting and casting was as solid as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Ryan Shea (whom Pillow Talking enjoyed as Randall in Bring It On: The Musical) made the perfect CB. His soft-spoken, subtle passive-aggressiveness, everyman approach to the portrayal of his character really made CB come alive as a flesh and blood, three-dimensional character. Those were real tears he shed at the end! To slightly corrupt Dr. Seuss’ famous quote, “[he] cried because it was over, but [we] smiled because it happened.” Ian C. Smith (a young dead ringer for his actor/producer dad) was positively perfect as Van, the stoner. (Ian proves Newton’s laws of gravity – or maybe it was Kirk Douglas’ – that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.) His performance reminded me of both Alex Winter’s and Keanu Reeves’ performances as Bill and Ted in the successful film franchise of the same name. April Lichtman was wonderful as Van’s Sister f/k/a Lucy. I almost lost it completely when she started doing Stephen King’s “redrum, redrum” on her hands and knees in her James Joyce-like stream of consciousness rant. Karl Hinger (who Pillow Talking loved in And Then There Were None) brought just the right mix of vulnerability and charm to the role of Beethoven. Joe Zumbo was spot-on as the germaphobe, homophobe Matt – and we would expect no less since this was his fifth time playing Matt. Anna Lynch making her VTC debut was MasterCard priceless as CB’s goth sister (formerly Sally). Last, but not least, shout-outs must go to the duo with the best chemistry, Vicky Pelletier as Tricia York and sidekick Marcy played by Hannah Pearsall. They made awesome Valley dudettes and stole many a scene.
While there were many F-bombs and other rather risque elements, in the wake of irreverent plays like Avenue Q and Book of Mormon, Dog Sees God is rather tame and housebroken (pun intended). And rather than distract or merely being gratuitous additives, the elements serve to underscore the satirical wit of the play. Despite the often side-splitting humor, the play does deal with important thematic issues like bullying and acts of violence in the school system.
Kudos to the director, Michael R. Mele, and the producers, John R. Smith Jnr and Tanya Feduik-Smith for this well-staged, well-directed and well produced hilarious satire.
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I’m sure this generation is tired of hearing parents say things like I am about to, but when I was a kid, it was a time when we could find a multitude of fulfilling and engaging ways to amuse ourselves; and that was because it was long before the technology explosion which has, in many ways, bound today’s children to limiting, constraining pursuits. Pursuits which in many respects have fractured imagination, creativity, communication, physical activity, and even morality. And while in my youth I commonly occupied myself with outside recreation with other people (instead of sedentarily staring at flat screens), I also talked (instead of texted), built things (instead of playing virtual games), and I read, read, read.
As for the latter, among my choices I fondly remember the arrival of the Sunday newspapers – from which I excavated and then dove headlong into the “funnies” (not that comics aren’t still found in the archaic birdcage liners, but who even buys a hard copy of one anymore?) Among my favorites was always Peanuts, the brilliantly conceived wonderment by the prolific Charles M. Schulz – 17,897 strips ran in all. He penned his iconic characters of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Woodstock, Lucy, Linus, Pig-Pen, Schroeder, Sally, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and so many others for nearly a half century and they were taken well beyond newsprint into books, movies, and countless ancillary products. His stories, often told in just a mere handful of panels, delved into psychological, sociological, and philosophical themes surrounding the human condition including loneliness, insecurity, resilience, bullying, friendship, love, loss, grief, anxiety, and hope, among others – and it all has had a profound and lasting influence on our culture.
Schulz began his musings in 1950 and ended in 2000 just before his death; but if we fast forward just a few years to 2004, a young American casting director and budding playwright decided it was time to take the leap from the focus on wide-eyed childhood innocence to angsty and troubled adolescence for the Peanuts gang. And he did so successfully – at just 27 years of age, Bert V. Royal (also known for the 2010 high school comedy Easy A starring Emma Stone) reimagined Schulz’s colorful troupe and turned it into edgy fodder for his provocative Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead. I daresay Mr. Schulz is either rolling in his grave or ROFL somewhere in the heavens – there’s no in between – and the Vagabond Theatre Company has done a fabulous job putting it out there so that you may decide for yourself.
This is not your typical morality play, and on the surface it may not even seem like one. But cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder discussed how our judgments guide us, drawing upon “three distinct but coherent clusters of moral concerns.” While Royal has crafted each character as having a very different personal worldview based on their varied life experiences, the themes throughout this work are the overriding elements of the ethics of autonomy (that people can do what they want as long as it doesn’t hurt others), the ethics of community (people must consider how their actions affect others), and finally, the ethics of divinity (people are spiritual subject to divine authority).
While alternatingly raunchy, funny, and dark, Dog Sees God explores all of this in its entirety. It is a poignant look at real-life situations and real people, albeit over-the-top ones. But like in life, some people (or dogs) will bite you in the ass if given the opportunity. This one is surely a must-see, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Anyway, thank goodness Snoopy’s already been taken down – you won’t need to visit the vet beforehand for a rabies shot.
(Because of Stupid Page Length Limits, You can read the rest here: THE REST)
From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2: Column 23, A Review: "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" (Vagabond Theatre Company)
James V. Ruocco
It's not that Charlie Brown isn't really a good man any more. It's just that his entire world has changed. I mean, really changed.
Worse yet, growing up in "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead," isn't all that it's cracked up to be. It's crazy. It's unpredictable. It's nightmarish. It's freaky. It's messy. It's unexplainable.
And, oh, yes, it's totally, totally fucked up.
Snoopy, for example, is rabid. He's also been put down to sleep after hovering around in the corner of his beloved doghouse covered in the blood of that strange, endearing little yellow bird that once was his pal for so many years.
Linus is a stone head who has burnt his blanket and mixed its ashes with his favorite weed and smoked the living crap out of it.
Lucy is a lithium-addicted mess and mental patient at the Daisy Hill Mental Hospital. Why? She's been locked up for lighting the little red-headed girl's hair on fire. She also claims to have had sex with Charlie Brown.
Peppermint Patty and sidekick Marcie are now trendy, valley-type girls obsessed with materialism, popularity, boys, booze, sexual fantasies and juicy gossip that comes in every color of the rainbow.
Schroeder still loves the piano and Beethoven. But oddly, the "Charlie Brown" gang doesn't really like him anymore. They've also branded him a homosexual.
Matt is completely homophobic and forever shouting "Queer," "Fag" and "Faggot" at boys he deems homosexual. Or boys who are obsessed with giving or getting blow jobs. He's also somewhat OCD and loves to intensely masturbate.
Lastly, there's Charlie Brown. He's still completely lovable and charming. But here, he too is messed up. He misses Snoopy, has problems relating to girls. And get this, he not only falls in love with Schroeder, but they also have some pretty hot, passionate sex.
Brash, crazy, exciting and hilariously conceived, "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" is one of the most innovative productions of the theatrical year. It has great fun deconstructing the "Peanuts" story of yesteryear and plunging the reimagined characters into a messed-up world of sweetness, craziness, confusion and angst. It also takes its audience on a thrilling, non-stop roller-coaster ride far beyond the gumdrop-colored world of Mr. Schulz, the "Peanuts" gang and Dear Penpal. And therein, lies its enjoyment.
"Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" is being staged through June 4 at The Warehouse Blackbox Theatre (Performing Arts Center of Connecticut, 18 Lindeman Drive, Trumbull, CT)
Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m.
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Nancy Sasso Janis - OnStage Connecticut Critic/Connecticut Critics Circle
You know they say a dog sees God in his master. A cat looks in the mirror. - ‘Dog Sees God’
Trumbull, CT - ‘Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead’ is a play first presented at the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival and then went on to Off-Broadway. The playwright is Bert V. Royal. As the word “blockhead” suggests, the unauthorized parody involves the characters from the comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz, but comes with a stern disclaimer that the piece “has not been authorized or approved in any manner by the Charles M. Schulz Estate or United Features Syndicate, which have no responsibility for its content.”
Five minutes in the audience can see why this is the case. The beloved young peanuts have grown to become truly degenerate teenagers. The play addresses drug use, suicide, eating disorders, sexual identity, child sexual abuse, homophobia, bullying, and teen violence, all in ninety minutes. The show slyly disguises the identity of each of the classic characters, perhaps to draw more focus to the myriad of issues rather than trying to guess who is who. While parts of the dialogue are bitingly funny, the emotional effect of the piece comes from the harsh look at the self-discovery of the teenage years.
‘Dog Sees God’ (don’t miss the palindrome) is the last of the three plays that Vagabond Theatre Company salvaged for their inaugural season from the season originally intended for their old home. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ was produced in October of last year and I reviewed ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’ in March. All three plays struck a chord with Artistic Directors John R. Smith Jnr and Tanya Feduik-Smith because they take a stark and honest look at some important topics as they continue their mission of “a non-profit theatre dedicated to promoting new works and encouraging new talent while providing an alternative theatre choice to the people of the Greater Bridgeport area.”
So this play is certainly not for children (“THIS IS NOT A CHILD-APPROPRIATE PERFORMANCE” is noted on Facebook) and probably not for everyone because of very strong language, skimpy costumes and the aforementioned issues it examines. However, it is cleverly constructed and under the direction of Michael R. Mele, the cast made us laugh and ultimately tear up during the one and half hour play presented without intermission. The director and the two artistic directors are credited with the production design.
The only member of the cast I had ever seen onstage was Karl Hinger, when he played Cornelius in Musicals at Richter’s ‘Hello, Dolly,’ This WCSU student makes his VTC debut in the role of Beethoven the pianist and used every bit of his impressive acting ability to bring the bullied character to life.
Ian C. Smith, who graduated from Housatonic Community College the day before opening night, played the role of Van, a stoner who smoked the remnants of his iconic blanket. April Lichtman also makes her VTC debut as his sister, but she has also played the role of Tricia in a production at One Shot Theatre Co. Her take on the bossy girls who has been institutionalized for setting the Little Red-Haired Girl’s hair on fire was quite amazing and I left wishing she had been given more to do.
Hannah Pearsall makes her VTC debut in the role of the bespectacled Marcy, who slipped only once and addressed her party girl gal pal Tricia York (...Peppermint Patty) as “sir.” Vicki Pelletier branched out to play this girl who grew up to dress as a 90’s pop icon; she played Van’s Sister for 7 Ronin Productions in Baltimore. Both young women nailed teenaged girl-speak.
Ryan Shea did so well in the role of the blockhead CB that we didn’t need the black zigzags on his costume to know who he was. The character arc of this “good man,” who begins the play by burying his beloved dog, was the driving force of this show. Anna Lynch (VTC debut) did very well with the role of upgrown Sally (billed as CB’s sister); she has gone Goth, at least for this week. Joe Zumbo, a 2014 graduate of Dean College’s School for the Arts, marks his fifth time performing as Matt in ‘Dog Sees God’ and of course did very well with the character who has internalized his dirtiness and become a pathological germaphobe. The character of Freida is never seen, but suffers from an eating disorder.
Don’t miss the cover of the program that features the cast marked with a one-word label on their forehead. ‘‘Dog Sees God’ runs weekends, May 26 - June 4, 2017 Fri and Sat @ 8 pm Sun @ 5 pm, The Warehouse Blackbox is at Performing Arts Center Of Connecticut, 18 Lindeman Dr Trumbull, CT 06611 General Admission - $20, Students/Seniors - $15, Pre-Order Online and save $5 Group Discount Rates Available.
Wayne Keeley/Stephanie Lyons-Keeley
Courtroom, n. A place where Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot would be equals, with betting odds in favor of Judas. –H. L. Mencken
Thought-provoking, intense, intellectually stimulating, engrossing. These are just some of the descriptive words that could be ascribed to The Vagabond Theatre Company’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (Judas). I can say a lot more and will before this review is finished.
There were three stand-out performances that must be noted. Even though John R. Smith Jnr. was in a catatonic state through the majority of the play as the main character, Judas Iscariot, his presence was felt throughout primarily as a result of his commanding stage presence. (Pillow Talking has followed John as an actor as well in a number of past performances.) Like Ainsley, John gave yet another strong performance whether catatonic or not. Maggie Pangrazio was MasterCard priceless as the Bailiff and Simon the Zealot. (I wasn’t sure the same person played both of those parts until the curtain call!) As the Bailiff, she was positively hysterical and scene stealing as the lollipop-addicted, devil-fearing, double eye-glass wearing court guard. (She absolutely convinced me that she was really reading that novel while the court antics proceeded – you just have to see her performance to understand.) And last, but certainly not least, was Eric James Dino’s wonderful performance as Satan. Smarmy, disarming with a commanding stage presence all his own, Eric made Satan’s character come to life with an incredibly layered and complex performance. There was a well-defined arc to Satan’s character that by the end of the play, you had to admit he did not seem like a bad chap after all. Watching his performance reminded me of the smarmy but charming portrayal of Satan by Ray Wise in the short-lived but devilishly entertaining TV series Reaper. And I positively loved his heart-shaped tattoo with GOD written through it and a little arrow pointing upwards.
Lord, forgive me if I am a Judas goat, but I must lead you to VTC’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot before the door to Purgatory closes!
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I know a fair amount about a lot of things and I know a lot about fewer things, which I guess makes me pretty darn typical; however, sometimes the areas where I’m lacking come back to haunt me. You see, I set about to pen an earnest review of the powerful The Last Days of Judas Iscariot written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Mat Young, and performed by the Vagabond Theatre Company of Greater Bridgeport; but as I did, I was attacked by a bit of guilt (I am the product of Catholic and Jewish parents) over my minimal knowledge of the Bible.
The Warehouse Black Box Theater, temporary home to the wandering “Vagabonds” for this production and their next, Dog Sees God, is the perfect blank slate for this particular type of work, where the audience is intimately seated close to the action and made to feel as if they are actually in the courtroom of “Hope” in the Downtown Purgatory subway station. Accused apostle Judas sits stage right for most of the production, head-hanging and nearly comatose. Vagabond’s Co-Founder/Co-Artistic Director John R. Smith, Jnr. Is an impeccable Judas; intense at times, yet morose and broken, with shoulders slumped and long-hair shrouding a guilt-ridden face.
The story takes us through the darkly comedic trial of Judas Iscariot, who according to the Bible, famously betrayed Jesus Christ, then hung himself. The play explores Judas’ motives and asks whether he, like all others, can be forgiven by a merciful God, or must he spend eternity in Hell? Punctuating the court scenes are flashbacks to moments in Judas’ life as well as monologues by many who knew him, including the virtuous Mary Magdalene (an excellent Alynne Miller) and the fiery, outspoken Saint Monica (a spirited, on-point, F-bomb-dropping portrayal by Giovanna Olcese). The play opens with Judas’ mother, Henrietta Iscariot (a fabulously powerful performance by Justine Wiesinger), who agonizes over the fact that she’s had to bury her son. Then the trial that almost wasn’t begins after some very fancy footwork by the strong-willed defense attorney and agnostic, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (a flawless Lynette Victoria whom we’ve seen before in Educating Rita at The Ridgefield Theater Barn). Cunningham has had to convince the ornery judge by getting a writ signed by St. Peter and God. Judge Littlefield (the fantastic John T. Liszewski has an incredibly dynamic presence) presides and they are joined by prosecutor Yusef El Fayoumy (a wonderful Juan Ayala). The Dum Dum lollipop-loving, novel-reading Bailiff (played to the hilt by Maggie Pangrazio – I just love her facial expressions!) adds a hefty dose of comic relief as does Butch Honeywell, the foreman of the jury played superbly by Patrick Duffy.
Throughout the trial many witnesses step forward including the hilarious Mother Teresa (also played by Weisinger), The High Priest Caiaphas (also Liszewski), Pontius Pilate (an brilliant performance by Ainsley Andrade), the self-important Sigmund Freud (another comical delivery by Wiesinger – there’s some psychology for me!), and Satan among others. The grandiose and sharp-tongued Satan is a scene-stealer played by a resplendent Eric James Dino, clad in a tan leisure suit and looking every bit like a sleazy, hedonistic pimp. He is slick and sly, and disconcertingly charming all at the same time, but one would expect just that of the Devil himself.
Nearly all of talented cast play multiple roles. Of those not mentioned above, Andrade also plays Saint Matthew; Miller also plays Gloria, Saint Peter, Matthias of Galilee, and Soldier 3; Olcese also plays Sister Glenna, Loretta, and Soldier 2; Pangrazio also plays Simon the Zealot; and Wiesinger also plays St. Thomas and Soldier 1.
The Vagabonds did a wonderful job of evoking the feel of a dim, dark Purgatory and made great use of multi-media projections as well. They impressively bring this rich text to life; and despite being a rather long production, moved well with effective staging and pacing. Shout outs also to the production staff, including Ian Smith as Stage Manager/Production Assistant; John R. Smith, Jnr. and Tanya Feduik-Smith as Producers and Production Designers (along with Mat Young); Mat Young for video design.
A flamboyant piece with both colorful characters, and sharp, witty, bold dialogue The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is most assuredly a terrific success for this infant troupe. It also proves you don’t always need to know the backstory or to have seen the prequel to enjoy new works. Bravo Vagabond Theatre Company and best wishes for your continued success!
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Nancy Sasso Janis - OnStage Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle
I share the backstory of this group because I think it explains why they chose ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot’ by Stephen Adly Guirgis as their next production. The play was originally produced off Broadway and was directed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The dark comedy fits well with the Vagabond’s mission and former limitations. Director Mat Young writes that “on the surface it is an absurdist courtroom drama about Judas Iscariot and the idea that: if Jesus died for everyone’s sins, shouldn’t Judas be forgiven?” He goes on to say that the play is more about us and our ability to forgive ourselves and points out that the playwright layers these ideas with colorful characters and biting and humorous dialogue, yielding a full theatrical experience. By day, Mr. Young is a Theatre and Tech teacher at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School in New Haven.
So a catatonic Judas is on trial in the courthouse at Hope Station in the Purgatory Subway System during the summer of 2004. The play effectively uses flashbacks to the betrayer’s childhood and the testimonies of varied witnesses including Mother Teresa, Saint Monica, Sigmund Freud, Pilate and Satan. Many of the characters have vulgarity-laced monologues, thereby losing that family-friendly status. While there were perfectly appropriate costumes and a very effective small projection spot set up (with video design by the director,) there was definitely a bare bones look and feel. The opening night audience had no choice but to focus on the performances, that ranged from very good to outstanding, and the almost three hours of words.
The cast had to cover a lot of characters, so two ladies had to play five distinct roles; others had only two, but all had large monologues to memorize and every one of them did well with bringing the biblical/historical characters to life, sometimes switching genders to do so. While the penultimate scene of the accused conversing with Jesus embodied by the other cast members was very strong, the final more quiet scene was, for me, a less effective way to end the three hours.
Ainsley Andrade was Pontius Pilate with an attitude, as well as St. Matthew the apostle. Juan Ayala, a founding member of VTC and their graphic designer, played the prosecuting attorney Yusef El Fayoumy; unfortunately I missed several of his lines in the first act, but it got better in the second half. Bridgeport native Lynnette Victoria was a stand out in the role of the feisty defense attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham. Congratulations to this young woman on her spectacular character development.
Eric James Dino in his VTC debut embodied the role of the devil, clad in a classic leisure suit and it worked. Patrick Duffy played the foreman of the jury, a man named Butch Honeywell. John T Liszewski (in his VTC debut) tried to run the trial as Judge Littleton but recused himself to testify as biblical Caiaphas the Elder. Alynne Miller did well with her various roles of an angel named Gloria, a demure Mary Magdalene, St. Peter, Matthias of Galilee and a soldier. Giovanna Olcese, born in Lima, Peru, was a strong and foul-mouthed St. Monica, but also played three other small roles. Maggie Pangrazio was a fun bit of comic relief during the courtroom scenes as the lollipop-fueled bailiff and she also played Simon the Zealot with aplomb.
Justine Wiesinger was outstanding in all of her demanding roles. She opened the show as the grieving mother of Judas, Henrietta Iscariot, the beloved Mother Teresa, St. Thomas, Sigmund Freud and a soldier. This young woman is a Yale Ph.D. candidate and recently returned from studying Japanese film and theater on a Fulbright scholarship. Co-Artistic Director John R Smith Jnr took on the sullen role of the title character; his wife Tanya Feduik-Smith shares the role of artistic director with him. Ms. Feduik-Smith served as producer and is credited with the perfect lighting.
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Stephanie Lyons-Keeley/Wayne Keeley
The ghost of high school past – English class to be precise – came for a visit at Fairfield University for Vagabond Theatre Company’s inaugural production, The Scarlet Letter. It’s been more years than I care to recount since I’ve read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “masterwork” of adultery, sin, lies, hypocrisy, judgment, and revenge, set against the backdrop of Puritan Boston; so seeing playwright Phyllis Nagy’s retooling of the classic was in a sense, refreshingly new to me. And while there had been a hitch the Vagabonds’ scheduling, forcing them to create a makeshift “stage” in Bellarmine Hall on Fairfield’s campus, the intense and commanding edifice worked nicely to create a feeling which was commensurate with my own literary “zone” and with the tone of the play. In fact as I climbed the handsome interior staircase, I commented to my daughter that it felt like the kind of building that had some sort of rich, ghostly lore behind it.
The tale of Hester Prynne is not new to most (except perhaps to the numerous young people in the audience, which included some of my own brood). With dark humor, sensuality, a bit of witchery, and on-point narration by Hester’s young and unruly, illegitimate daughter Pearl (mischievously played by the very talented Betzabeth Castro), we learn how Hester (a fiercely passionate Thursday Savage) came to be the adulteress forced to wear a red “A” on her dress as punishment for her guilty crime; and see as she stands tall in dignity and refuses to name the child’s father. Enter her long-lost, deformed, and vengeful husband, Roger Chillingworth (played with chilling remorselessness by Ainsley Andrade, whom we’ve seen in numerous productions at Bridgeport’s recently closed Bijou Theatre) who poses as a doctor and is pure poison to the weak and pathetic, tormented local minister, Arthur Dimmesdale; a convincing portrait of cowardice skillfully portrayed by Juan Ayala.
Hester and Pearl live a shunned life on the outskirts of town and must dodge persistent insults and hatred from the townsfolk, most especially that from the local witch, Mistress Hibbins, who also is sister to Governor Bellingham. Director Tanya Feduik-Smith wore many hats in this production (production design, producer, and set construction) but also bit wholeheartedly into the role of Hibbins, bringing the sheer evil and ugliness of this warped tale of Puritan society to the forefront. Bellingham, played by David Gant, was terrific as the eloquent aristocrat; and Enrique Rivera as Master Brackett excellently rounded out the cast.
Feduik-Smith did an outstanding job of bringing out the strength and fierce independence of The Scarlet Letter’s female characters, all who remain firm in their beliefs, despite the deep-rooted patriarchal conceptions and control of the era. With a simple set design (we’d love to have had the opportunity to have seen what else she had in store when the play ultimately moved to Gonzaga Hall’s auditorium, however), the story and the skilled acting remain the primary focus. And as Vagabond’s works are a “family affair,” kudos to the rest of the Smiths for their many contributions: daughter, Maig Smith, as assistant director and stage manager; son, Ian Smith, as assistant director, associate producer, and booth operator (along with Max Graham); and husband, John R. Smith Jnr, as producer. The entire family lent capable hands to set construction as well.
The Vagabonds have shown from the outset that hurdles are things to be conquered and never sources of defeat. After the untimely closure of The Bijou where The Scarlett Letter originally was to have been staged, the troupe pulled themselves together and pressed on with heads held high, much like Hester Prynne. There also were multiple scheduling issues resulting in staging changes and even casting changes – but the Vagabonds have proven to be resilient, passionate, dedicated, and strong. I’m personally looking very forward to their next production and many more to come.
Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you – Nathaniel Hawthorne
I recently had the great pleasure of seeing true art performed by true artists. I am speaking of the embryonic Vagabond Theatre Company’s presentation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter adapted by playwright and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy. It is somehow apropos that Vagabond’s maiden production is a play about archetypal and universal themes: undying love, passion, revenge, sin, resurrection, redemption, and morality.
While the play follows the basic plot of Hawthorne’s classic about a convicted adulteress forced to wear a scarlet “A,” there is an undeniable panoply of distinct levels of character and morality that transcend the novel’s rather black and white metaphors of good and evil, right and wrong. Indeed, Nagy’s version could have been called The Scarlet Letter: Fifty Shades of Gray, if the subtitle were not forever married to the bestselling book by E. L. James. The play’s recurrent themes of decomposition and decay are balanced by immortal love and passion and we are left with a sense of hope at the end which is not present in the novel.
Considering the hurdles that Vagabond faced in obtaining the rights to the play, rehearsal space, a performance venue, last-minute changes in casting because of schedules, it’s a wonder that the play was performed at all. The fact that it was performed with such a high caliber of professionalism and artistry is amazing. The husband-and-wife producing team of Tanya Feduik-Smith and John R. Smith, Jr. (Pillow Talking knows how formidable those types of unions can be) did a fantastic job of bringing this play to life.
Ms. Feduik-Smith was more than a triple threat, producing, directing, acting and being involved in production design. Her staging and blocking was exemplary. Ms. Feduik-Smith, who did such a great job directing last year’s Bijou production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, did not disappoint. Nor did the talented cast that she assembled, including Thursday Savage (Hester Prynne), Juan Ayala (Arthur Dimmesdale), Ainsley Andrade (Roger Chillingworth), David Gant (Governor Bellingham), and Enrique Rivera (Master Brackett). Special shout out goes to Betzabeth Castro who played Hester’s young daughter, Pearl. An adult playing a child is tricky at best with the most experienced actors. Ms. Castro pulls it off with a perfect mix of naïveté, vulnerability, and sharp wit.
As Jerzy Kosiński said, “The principles of true art is not to portray, but to evoke.” Vagabond more than succeeded in this aim with The Scarlet Letter. I was both honored and thrilled to be at the birth and launch of this new theatre company.
From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2: Column 11, A Review: "The Scarlet Letter," presented by the Vagabond Theatre Company
James V. Ruocco - From the Desk of Jim R, Take 2
Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" begins in 1642, when the infamous Hester Prynne stands before a crowd on a Boston scaffold with her daughter Pearl, wearing the red letter "A" that brands her an adulteress. She refuses to confess the name of the child's father. The husband she once thought to be dead, suddenly resurfaces. The puritanical residents of her town condemn her to a life of misery. And, eventually, the identity of the baby's father is revealed.
Who is it, you ask?
No secret here. It's the guilt-stricken, local pastor.
Prynne's journey is the centerpiece of Phyllis Nagy's reimagined, passionate telling of "The Scarlet Letter," which was staged last weekend at Fairfield University by the Vagabond Theatre Company. The production, features a cast of seven, including the tremendously talented Thursday Savage, who portrays adulteress Hester Prynne.
Savage, takes center stage for nearly two hours and offers theatergoers a solid, thoughtful, evocative lead performance, so heartfelt, so honest, so compassionate, it's impossible to take your eyes off her for a moment.
As Prynne grapples with her demons, her past sins, her uncertain future and certain villagers who damn her soul to hell, Savage unflinchingly taps into her characters dilemmas so believably, the production, never once loses it focus, its energy or its purpose. She is completely attuned to the complex, instinctive give and take nature of Nagy's playscript.
In turn, her tears are real. Her shame is real. Her passion is real. Her allure is real.
Tanya Feduik-Smith, the very capable director of "The Scarlet Letter," works triple-time to sustain interest in Phyllis Nagy's edgy, ethereal telling of Nathaniel Hawthorne's passionate novel. Her staging is raw, simple and natural. Since there's literally no set to speak of, just scattered set pieces placed strategically in front of the Gonzaga Auditorium stage curtain, the audience is asked to imagine the backgrounds, the settings, the time frames and the mood swings, much like theater students at a university.
All of which proves, quite exciting, depending on the theatergoer's background, imagination, dramatic flair and literary tastes, The artists themselves, including the stage and lighting crew, subsidize what goes on as "The Scarlet Letter" unfolds and builds to its dramatic conclusion.
The actual production, in turn, is quite easy to follow, as the director deposits us into Nagy's retelling, always knowing what buttons to push and how to shift the play's moral and immoral compass, its hypocrisies, dangers and moralistic twists of fate. Still, as a minor footnote, it does help if you're familiar with Hawthorne's original work or "Letter's" many cinematic incarnations.
The beguiling Betzabeth Castro, is perfectly cast as Pearl, a young child and adult, who acts as the production's storyteller. Her presence, her line delivery and her interaction with the entire cast, is "spot on." As she blurts out the terrible truth's and ugliness of life in colonial Boston, none of what she says, sounds remotely rehearsed. Instead, she makes us believe that she is really from a time and place that has been long forgotten.
As Rev. Arthur Dimmsdale, Juan Ayala easily communicates his character's guilt, shame and confusion. It's a part he plays to perfection. His final scenes in Act II, are brilliantly acted and orchestrated under Feduik-Smith's steadied direction.
Supporting cast members, Feduik-Smith, David Grant, Ainsley Andrade and Enrique Rivera, also contribute to the evening's success.