Review: 'Macbeth' at Phoenix Stage Company

Nancy Sasso Janis

When shall we three meet again?
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurly-burly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.

Oakville, CT - Phoenix Stage Company at Clockwork decided to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death with a production of the tragedy of ‘Macbeth.’ In his notes, director John Long declines to jump into the controversy of who actually wrote the plays credited to the Bard, but writes that during the rehearsal process he and the cast were reminded of the greatness of the Scottish play. Scholars have argued over the both the meaning of the play and especially of the importance of the “weird sisters.” While some maintain the three witches simply prophesize the future, this production has the witches using magic to control the future. Therefore, the three sisters “take on additional roles that are instrumental in pushing Macbeth and other characters toward the resolution the witches desire.”

Assistant Director Tori Richnavsky is a former student of the director, as is her husband, the Fight Director Rob Richnavsky. Jameson Willey, the Lighting Designer is another former student. The talented Burton Tedesco, the chair of the department of the arts and instructor of theater at Naugatuck Valley Community College who takes on the title role, is joined onstage by five students from his program. The director concludes,  “These connections have helped us create an ensemble in which everyone has devoted a great deal of time to make a very old play come to life for a modern audience.”

I am well aware that a Shakespeare play is not everyone’s idea of a good time, especially the tragedies. I honestly cannot recall if I have ever seen a full production of ‘Macbeth,’ but I am sure that I have read it because I found myself saying many of the lines in my head along with the character. Of course Shakespeare requires intense concentration to follow the action (and to enjoy the language) and the PSC production was worth the effort. The fight scene that opened the tragedy, convincingly choreographed by Mr. Richnavsky, was the first of many and we knew that it would not end well.

Brian Bowyer made his PSC debut to play Banquo and Young Siward. Michael Calabrese returned to this stage as Fleance/Lord/Servant and Brian Elser, a castmate from ‘The Last Supper’ got to sit at another PSC table as a Lord, as well as Ross and Donalbain. Deborah Goodman was the doomed Lady McDuff and Daniel Morrow, who I saw in NVCC’s ‘Hairspray’ and CT Theater Company’s ‘Noises Off’ played McDuff and a soldier. 

The three sisters/witches were well-played by Lindsey Halliwell, Simone Matusevice and Beth Steinberg; Ms. Steinberg used her low voice so effectively. Preston James, another former castmate from an elementary school production, showed maturity in his acting as Malcolm. Retired professional actor Will Jeffries was a regal King Duncan and Kathryn Lynch made her community theatre debut as a gentlewoman. Aric Martin appeared as a soldier, Banquo’s son, a lord and a messenger. NVCC graduate Edward Montoya was a soldier, a lord and Seyton, while Leland M. Schick returns to this stage in the funny role of a porter, as well as a doctor. 

Phoenix Stage Company veteran Kristen Jacobson was spot on as Lady Macbeth; luminous as always, she made clear the level of her character’s ambition and her descent into madness. Mr. Tedesco brought tremendous acting skill to the role of Macbeth and gave special care to the delivery of the classic lines written by the Bard. I was engrossed in the performance of both halves of the royal couple. 

The stage was essentially bare, with only a black raised platform on one side, backed by a white screen that used projections to suggest locations and shadow puppets to get into the head of Macbeth. The costumes designed by Ed Bassett were Elizabethan in tone and very impressive, especially the costumes of Lady Macbeth, Hecate (Elizabeth Fricke) and the hoods of the three witches. Preston James and Aric Martin were in charge of make-up and the hair of Lady Macbeth done by production stylist Ms. Lynch was both intricate and flattering.

The play that must not be named inside the theater runs through June 18 at the Clockwork.

Review: 'The Dining Room' by Phoenix Stage Company at Clockwork

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic
  • @nancysjanis417

Oakville, CT - Colleen Renzullo directed the fine production of A. R. Gurney’s ‘The Dining Room’ running at Phoenix Stage Company at Clockwork. The play is comprised of 19 vignettes set in the  dining room of a well-to-do household as members of the resident family gather for meals and various special occasions. The scenes move along swiftly when performed by eight versatile actors and give us a portrait of the lifestyle of the vanishing breed known as the upper-middle-class WASP. 

The actors change roles, ages, personas and costumes with skill to portray a large number of characters in the interrelated scenes. Some are very funny, some touching, some quite rueful and because each vignette introduces a new set of people and events, the audience is required to pay close attention. There is a lecture by a father to his teenaged son, an aging grandmother facing senility, an adult daughter pleading to return home, a young boy pleading with a maid to stay on and so much more. It might sound chaotic but is really an experience with impressive range, humor with compassion and a knowing comment on humanity. 

Ms. Renzullo, who also directed ‘Veronica’s Room’ with Script Tease and ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’ in Goshen as well as two children’s productions, writes that she is “really enjoying this directing thing.” It is apparent in this production as the actors manage the frequent entrances and exits, quick changes and multiple characters. Kudos to stage manager Lori Poulin and her assistant Lori Richnavsky for their work backstage.

The actors, some PSC veterans and some new faces, kept up with the action, played a huge number of roles and made it all appear easy. The lovely Tracy Brown appeared in the PSC’s 2014 One Act Festival and played very well a couple of maids as well as a cheating wife. Kristine Donahue, who appeared in Ms. Renzullo’s production in Goshen, made her PSC debut as mostly younger characters. Gary L. Kline also made his debut on the PSC stage but has many recent credits with other theatres. He played characters both young and old and was memorable as the son of an aging father in “Arrangements.” 

PSC veteran Joshua Luszczak smoothly transitioned from child to grandfather. Simone Matusevice made her debut with this company and will return in June for ‘Macbeth.’ This play was on the bucket list of Tim Phillips, another veteran with the PSC, and marks his third foray into the A.R. Gurney catalog, having already done ‘Sylvia’ at the Thomaston Opera House and ‘Love Letters’ with United Arts. My favorite of his ‘Dining Room’ roles was the title role in “Standish Defends His Brother.” KC Ross and Jonathan Ross, both veterans of the PSC stage, always do well with any role they take on. 

The set designed by Harold Pantely and lit by him and Al Hathway was upper middle class without being over the top. A wide array of costumes by Renee C. Purdy and Ed Bassett were extremely flattering and perfectly suited to each scene. Scenic and costume design are very important to the effectiveness of this piece; this production team were well aware of this and pulled it off impressively. 

Before the show, special guest Harold Pantely came out to assure everyone that he and his wife Susan are enjoying their retirement. He congratulated the Phoenix Stage Company on the hard work that they have done to transition to the new and larger space of the Clockwork and prevent the space from being converted to a warehouse.  He appealed to the Clockwork patrons in the audience to consider supporting this company by becoming a season subscriber.

I had the pleasure of being seated next to two of the actors in the upcoming production of ‘Macbeth.’ Kristen Jacobsen will take on the role of Lady Macbeth and NVCC’s Burton Tedesco will play the title character in the Shakespeare classic play coming to the Clockwork stage for five performances only June 10 through June 18. John Long is directing, Tori Richnavsky is assistant director and her husband Rob serves as fight director.  I can’t wait to see Shakespeare on the Clockwork stage, or anywhere for that matter. 

Review: 'Three Murders and It's Only Monday' at Phoenix Stage Company

Nancy Sasso Janis

Phoenix Stage Company has produced many a fine comedy and just as many marvelous mysteries. With their latest show, ‘Three Murders and It’s Only Monday,’ the PSC has combined both with a piece written by Pat Cook. Ed Bassett directed nine talented local actors who cover 14 roles in a clever play full of plot twists peppered with lots of laughs.

Phoenix Stage veteran Tim Phillips leads the cast wonderfully as a private eye named Harry Monday investigating three murders at the Peaceful Pines Sanitarium. “It was the kind of night when you caught yourself holding your breath for no reason at all,”  he says to the audience. A slew of mourners of various occupations show up as Monday tries to figure out who killed an old sea captain, a ventriloquist and a tramp. The lawyer Lilly Dramkean holds the wills of two of the deceased and a sultry soon-to-be heiress named Tara has the gumshoe befuddled. 

Pictured: The cast of ‘Three Murders and It’s Only Monday’ Photo courtesy of Phoenix Stage Company   

Pictured: The cast of ‘Three Murders and It’s Only Monday’ Photo courtesy of Phoenix Stage Company

 

Mr. Bassett directed this with tongue firmly in his cheek and that makes it all the more enjoyable. Rob Richnavsky served as fight director of some relatively mild altercations. The costumes by the director suit each character perfectly and those that must play more than one use them to change completely. 

The script is full of puns and clever connections and patrons are invited to the stage during intermission to look for clues to the identity of the murderer, although it didn’t help me at all. The solution was not all that simple and the ending unexpected, at least to me. 

Michael Calabrese (‘Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol’) plays the quickly deceased Capt. Mandrake, actor Larramore Mandrake and boxer Thunder O’Brien and does well with all three. Aric Martin has lots more lines in his second PSC show as the aforementioned ventriloquist Danny O’Donnell, Manny and Hans the gardener. Tony Benedetti appears in his fifth PSC production as the tramp and an Indian named Humphrey Hopkins

Teresa Moran is quite funny as the sanitarium nurse and Leland M. Schick returns to the PSC as the mysterious Dr. Morrissey. My onstage sister from ‘The Last Supper: A Musical Enactment’ Marsha Gaylord took time away from planning her wedding to play the far from dumb blonde bombshell Tara Dillaise. Heide Wallace was convincing as the lawyer and neighbor Rhea Tetley. Beth Steinberg (‘The Cemetery Club’) was lovely as a socialite relative.

‘Three Murders’ continues at the Clockwork Repertory Theatre in Oakville through March 12, 2016 Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 3:00pm.

Review: 'Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol' by Phoenix Stage Company at Clockwork

Nancy Sasso Janis

Everyone knows that Jacob Marley was dead to begin with…

In the mesmerizing production of ‘Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol’ running at the Phoenix Stage Company at Clockwork through Dec. 13, audience members are shown what happens after Ebenezer Scrooge’s old business partner passes over to the other side. In a very clever backstory that ultimately runs parallel with Dicken’s version (as ‘Wicked” does with ‘The Wizard of Oz,’) the playwright Tom Mula mixes the old with a bit of the new in this often funny and very moving story. Lori Poulin smartly directed the four men that make up the cast in this first production of the first season in the PSC’s new home in Oakville CT.  

It seems that Marley has been predictably condemned to a hellish eternity, complete with a private sprite-like creature to torment him. He is offered one chance to free himself and he takes it. In order to free himself of his chains, he must redeem his miserable former partner. Marley knows that it will not be an easy task, and the two acts take us on his journey of laughter and terror, as well as redemption for both Scrooge and himself. The lines seamlessly switch from third-person stage direction to actual dialogue in order to move the action along, making for a unique theatre experience. 

Scrooge was played by a founding member of the PSC, the one and only Ed Bassett. He has appeared in many a production with the company he serves as its managing director, most recently in ‘Almost Maine’ and ‘The Butler Did It!’ Here he gave a wonderful performance as both the eager young man and the miserly “Scrooge” that he becomes, without ever going over the top; in fact, my favorite part of his performance was when, after his transformation, he went around the perimeter of the stage wishing audience members a “Merry Christmas” by name. 

Michael Calabrese had previously run the lights and sound backstage at the Clockwork, but joined this cast onstage for the first time since high school to play the role of Bogle, the hell-sprite. Dressed completely in white and using a high-pitched voice, he captivated the audience with his fine performance as a spirit-facilitator and I look forward to seeing him in more community productions. Brian Elser, another young man who is usually behind the scenes at PSC, played a multitude of roles, sometimes two in the same scene, and pulled off every one of them. It has been inspiring to see Mr. Elser mature in his acting skills as he has worked his way through many comedies and whodunits (and one musical ‘Last Supper’) for this company. 

Which brings me to another member of the ‘Last Supper’ cast, Rob Richnavsky. This talented actor/fight choreographer has appeared in a long list of shows with Phoenix Stage Company and always gives a memorable performance. As Jacob Marley, he needed to be the driving force of this play and his Shakespeare training served him well in the role. 

Although he did not have quite as many characters to cover as Mr. Elser, he made the audience know when he was switching into a different ghost, even without a costume change. For me, Jacob Marley will stand out as one of Mr. Richnavsky’s most brilliant performances of his career. Next up for this actor will be the role of Barberson in the upcoming PSC production of ‘COPS,’ for which he will also be a member of the production team. 

Most of the afterlife and ‘ A Christmas Carol’ action happens on a minimal black set designed by Ms. Poulin, illuminated with magnificent lighting designed by Mr. Bassett. While I can imagine how the set would have looked on the intimate stage in Naugatuck, it was a much better fit for the unique stage of the Clockwork. There were some spooky, in the shadows scenes on the both sides of the stage that were very effective. No one is credited in the program with props because there were none, but the period costumes were done by Ms. Poulin and Mr. Bassett. Debbie Cryan served as stage manager. 

In his beautifully written message from the managing director, Mr. Bassett takes a look back at how far the Phoenix Stage Company has come in five years, and welcomes the followers of the Clockwork Repertory to the PSC family. ‘Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol’ is firmly on my highly recommended list and probably the best holiday piece I have seen this season. I am sure that it will place high on my year-end list of best plays as well. Don’t miss it!

‘Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol’ at the Phoenix Stage Company, 133 Main Street, Oakville. 
Running November 20 - December 13, Friday and Saturday night performances are at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday matinees are at 3:00 p.m. Call the box office: 860-417-2505 for more information or to reserve tickets.

Pictured:(from left) Brian Elser, Rob Richnavsky as Marley, Michael Calabrese as Bogle and Ed Bassett as Scrooge in 'Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol' at PSC Photo by Sharon A. Wilcox

'One Night with Fanny Brice' by Phoenix Stage Company

Nancy Sasso Janis

Don’t miss the chance to spend ‘One Night with Fanny Brice’ by the Phoenix Stage Company at that will open on Friday at the Clockwork Repertory Company in Oakville.

 The Phoenix Stage presented this one-woman show several years ago in their former location in Naugatuck with Mary Cantoni Johnson in the title role. Ms. Johnson then reprised the role Off Broadway at the 13th Street Repertory Theater in NYC. Now Connecticut theatre lovers have an opportunity to see the New York version with a far easier commute.
 
The well-researched musical written by Chip Deffaa premiered in 2010 in New Jersey. It is a trip down memory lane with the ghost of the comedian/singer/actress.   The story she tells is far more accurate than the version of her life that is depicted in the highly fictionalized film ‘Funny Girl’ and its sequel ‘Funny Lady.’ The musical and the films were produced by Ray Stark, who was Brice's son-in-law via his marriage to her daughter Frances, and starred Barbra Streisand. 

 ‘One Night with Fanny Brice’ is interspersed with many of Miss Brice’s signature songs in chronological order.The music director, TJ Thompson in a tux, sits onstage to accompany Ms. Johnson’s dramatic recreation of the various songs. At one point Fanny acts him a question; otherwise he simply enjoys her performance as he waits at the piano for the next musical number. The first act ends with the first time that Ms. Brice confirms that Nicky Arnstein has been cheating on her and the second act includes many of her more “plaintive” songs. The show is well-paced throughout and director Sharon A. Wilcox knows this show so well that she continues to make it shine. 

 As Fanny Brice, Ms. Johnson is completely convincing, despite the fact that she is prettier than the lady in the black and white posters that adorn the set. I got so wrapped up in her narrative that I immediately forgot that Ms. Brice has been dead for a very long time. The talented actress embodies the character in a way that mesmerizes the audience and I hung on her every word and note. I enjoyed ‘I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” “Rose of Washington Square,” and “Second Hand Rose” and I appreciated the torch song “My Man.”

 The set by Ed Bassett has expanded somewhat since the PSC’s presentation; it includes many posters from the time, framed black and white photos, two chairs and many authentic props. One of the two beautiful costumes by Renee Purdy are different than I remember; the first is a lacy lilac ensemble that is covered with a magnificent black coat with a white fur collar and jaunty hat as the actress enters the stage. The second act is performed in a beaded black dress that moves beautifully. The beautiful lighting at the Clockwork only enhances both the set and the costumes.
 
I am disappointed that I didn’t get to see ‘A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder’ when it played at the Hartford Stage. I was grateful to win a ticket to see ‘Amazing Grace’ when it was presented at the Norma Terris, but was asked not to write a review of the work in progress. Now I am thrilled to be able to review again this work that has been presented to critical acclaim Off Broadway and returns to Connecticut. 

 Don't miss what the director calls “this charming snippet of American Theatre History.”  ‘One Night with Fanny Brice’ runs August 21, 22, 28 & 29 at 8pm and August 23 & 30 at 3pm.John Dressel will accompany Ms. Johnson August 28-30. The historic Clockwork Repertory Theatre is located at 133 Main Street Oakville CT. 

 Pictured: Final dress rehearsal photo by Sharon A. Wilcox 

Review: 'Mama Won't Fly' at Phoenix Stage Company

Nancy Sasso Janis

‘Mama Won’t Fly’ or will she?

 ‘Mama Won’t Fly’ is the title of the James Hope Wooten comedy that is the next presentation by the Phoenix Stage Company at their temporary summer home at the Clockwork Repertory Theater in Oakville.

 This quirky piece is filled with shall we say “unique characters” and lots of laughs delivered with fine comic timing by the large cast. “Large” being a relative term for the PSC and the majority of them playing at least two roles. It was an ambitious choice for this company, especially for the large number of set changes required. Of course, director Ed Bassett pulled it all off with the help of stage manager Lori Poulin and running crew Debbie Cryan and Brian Elser.

Pictured: (from left) Kathy Cook as Savannah, Kristen Jacobson as Haley and Donna Storms as Mama in 'Mama Won't Fly Photo by Sharon A. Wilcox

Pictured: (from left) Kathy Cook as Savannah, Kristen Jacobson as Haley and Donna Storms as Mama in 'Mama Won't Fly Photo by Sharon A. Wilcox

 Savannah (Kathy Cook) promises her brother that she will get their feisty mother Norleen Sprunt from Alabama to California in time for his wedding, but, you guessed it, Mama won’t fly. The four days that they have to drive cross country in Mama’s vintage sedan is the setting for this fun comedy.  

 Complications begin with the arrival of the bride-to-be Haley Quinn, who has the type of luck that few would envy. The bubbly young lady is delighted to meet her future in-laws and looks at the trip as the perfect way to bond with them. The journey begins badly and comedic chaos follows, including the theft of their car and all their clothes, a visit to an underwear museum, an accidental homicide of an elderly Texas relative, a crazy dash across the desert in a big rig and a detour to a Las Vegas wedding chapel with an ordained showgirl/minister. Not necessarily in that order of course.

 Timothy Cleary, with loads of PSC and Clockwork credits to his name, played a host of crazy supporting roles. Roseanne Elliot was a hoot as the docent at the brassiere museum, an ancient aunt named Pawnee and an angry ex-wife in LV. John Fabiani was at his zaniest as four nutty guys. 

 Teresa Moran of Naugatuck, who has some credits with Shakesperience in Waterbury, made her PSC debut as three strange ladies. Jeff Savage is always good in PSC comedies and this one was no exception; he played three supporting roles, with “Spud” performed in drag. 

 Denise Whelan appeared in another PSC production of a play by this team called ‘The Red Velvet Cake Wars.” Here she played both Fanny and Kiki and looked completely different as the two, as did all the character actors thanks to great wigs, makeup and costume changes overseen by the director and Lori Poulin. Heidi Wallace made her stage debut as four characters, and boy, they were characters. Kudos to her on coming out to audition for this fun piece.  

 Donna Storms was the meddling Mama and played the whole thing with a twinkle in her eye and admirable comic timing, even when dressed like a nun. Kristen Jacobson was a beautiful bride to be and worked the bad luck elements of her character so well. Ms. Cook, a PSC veteran and always funny, brought her comic sense to the role of the “successful” business owner who has been unlucky in love. These three actresses helped the comedy achieve what I thought was a superb final scene where everything is wrapped up in a neat little package. 

“Mama” won’t be flying but will be doing plenty of driving at Clockwork through July 31.  

Review: One Act Play Festival by Phoenix Stage Company at Clockwork

Nancy Sasso Janis

Phoenix Stage Company is holding it's third annual One Act Play Festival "Playfest" this weekend, but this year the short performances are being held at their temporary home, Clockwork Repertory Theatre in Oakville. I was able to attend the casual festival opening on Thursday evening and got to see six plays featuring small but mighty casts of local community theatre actors.

According to PCS partner Ed Bassett, the company put out the call for one act plays and received over 450 submissions. They were narrowed to 25 and each director was given five choices and the freedom to cast the one they chose as they wished. The festival features 18 plays of various genres and the remaining will roll over the next year.

'Irish Stew' by Dramatists Guild member Cary Pepper opened the festival, featuring performances by Beth Steinberg and John Fabbri. PSC partner Ed Bassett directed the story about an aging couple dealing with cognitive issues. Both actors gave believable performances in this sweet and funny piece.

'Duet in Platinum' was written by New York based playwright Allston James and was performed by the luminous Tori Richnavsky as the woman and Mr. Bassett as the man on a long airplane ride. Ms. Richnavsky sported an English accent in the play that dealt with wedding rings and the lack thereof. Lori Poulin directed this piece with love.

'Dancing with the Bears' by Joe Novara of Michigan was a piece about two senior citizens with Timothy Cleary as an aging comedian contemplating an appearance on 'Dancing with the Stars.' Jeff Savage played Vinnie, a retired barber. These two comedy veterans were directed by Donna Storms.

After intermission, Kate Samberg and Frank Beaudry, under the direction of Colleen Renzullo, brought to life 'The Age of Ugly Shoes' by San Francisco's Jeff Carter. The two actors played a couple trying to get ready for a gathering with their friends and it was probably my favorite of the evening.

'A Rebel Among the Wretched' by Andrew Biss was directed by Jonathan Ross and featured the talents of the marvelous Helen Adams as a elderly mother and her long suffering offspring played by KC Ross and Chris Simo-Kinzer. This piece broke the fourth wall and was quite funny.

The final piece was 'Biff Bang, American Hero' and the playwright Ronald V. Micci was in the audience for the performance of his silly and very funny radio play in costume.   John Fabiani directed the piece performed well by Brian Hoerbel as the title character, Jollian Cook as his girl Penny and Anthony Eurillo as the fearless radio announcer. I enjoyed this quirky one act.

The Phoenix Stage Company's Playfest continues Saturday evening at 8:00pm. Plays ranging in length from ten to 30 minutes, comedies, dramas and farces will be performed in this hosted event. SCHEDULE CHANGE - The Sunday performance for the One Act Festival has been cancelled. There are still tickets available for Saturday night's performance. For tickets please call 860-417-2505 or you can purchase at the door. Next up by PSC will be 'Mama Won't Fly' July 11-31.

Here is a complete list of the plays featured in this year’s festival: IRISH STEW by Cary Pepper of San Francisco CA, DUET IN PLATINUM by Allston James of New York NY, BLOOM by John C. Davenport of Seattle WA, A REBEL AMONG THE WRETCHED by Andrew Biss of Philadelphia, PA, THE AGE OF UGLY SHOES by Jeff Carter of San Francisco CA, BIFF BANG, AMERICAN HERO by Ronald V. Micci of Rutherford NJ, EASTSIDE ROULETTE by Burton Swartz of New York NY, EGGS OVER EASY by Rich Rubin of Portland OR, DARN IT, DARLA by Lavinia Roberts of Brooklyn NY, DANCING WITH THE BEARS by Joe Novara of Kalamazoo MI, THE STARLIGHT BALLROOM, by Jim Gordon of Norwalk CT, SPEED BUMPS by Brett Hursey of Farmville VA, THE BOXER AND MARY by Matthew Mutrie, New Hampshire, PSYCHE, WITH AN E by John C. Davenport of Seattle WA, BLACKBIRD by Julian Olf of Sarasota FL, WEDDING BELLES by Brett Hursey of Farmville VA, A THING OF BEAUTY by Michael Edan of Southfield NY, and THE OPERA SINGERS by Matthew Mutrie, New Hampshire.

Review ~ 'Almost, Maine' by the Phoenix Stage Company

Nancy Sasso Janis

'Almost, Maine,' a comedy by John Cariani, is currently running at the Clockwork Repertory Theater in Oakville. It is a co-production of the Phoenix Stage Company, formerly of Naugatuck, and the Clockwork and is probably the first time that two area theaters have collaborated on a single production.
 
A little back story is required...I actually began writing theatre reviews soon after the Phoenix Stage Company had the ribbon cutting ceremony at their first space on Rubber Avenue. Naugatuck Patch posted a notice online that they were looking for contributors and I came up with the idea of writing a review of the shows that I was attending at the Phoenix in an effort to encourage Patch readers to support the brand new Naugatuck theater.
 
Because of my lack of experience, I called myself a "theater critic wannabe" and hoped for the best. The Patch editor at the time was Ron DeRosa and thankfully he was eternally supportive. I soon had the confidence to write about the productions at other area theaters, post previews of upcoming shows in the area and reach out to press contacts for electronic press releases. And that is how this all began.
 

Ed Bassett, Deborah F. Goodman and Becky Fico in 'Almost, Maine' Photo by Sharon A. Wilcox

Ed Bassett, Deborah F. Goodman and Becky Fico in 'Almost, Maine' Photo by Sharon A. Wilcox

So it was a little hard for me to drive to Oakville to review the latest PSC production. I immediately missed my absolutely shortest commute to a venue (Waterbury's Palace Theater will now hold that title!) I missed the crazy rug and the familiar purple chairs (for which I had printed seat labels to make it easier for ushers to find the correct seats for patrons.) However, the Clockwork is a great space and right away I felt comfortable. The familiar Phoenix faces on the stage also helped considerably. I would encourage PSC patrons to follow along with them during this time of transition. Many loyal patrons in the matinee audience did just that and sounded happy that they did. 
 
The setting of this show is a cold, clear, moonless night in the middle of winter in the remote, mythical town of Almost, Maine. The northern lights are in the star-filled sky while the residents fall in and out of love in very funny ways. Hearts are broken and some almost mend in the eight two-person vignettes, each no more than fifteen minutes. There is also a prologue, an “interlogue,” and an epilogue and these are even briefer than the vignettes. 
 
Donna Storms directed all the little pieces with love. Rob Richnavsky helped the actors stay safe as the fight director, lest we think it is all hearts and flowers. Many of the actors played more than one part and had to change their appearance accordingly. Only two appear more than once, although some are referred to by name in subsequent scenes.
 
One very familiar face on this new stage was PSC founding member Ed Bassett. He gave his preshow speech and then headed backstage to await his entrance. Timothy Cleary and John Fabiani worked their usual magic. Becky Fico played ladies with odd names and  Deborah F Goodman was a riot as a waitress. Alana Kingsley and KC Ross played two roles each, as did Tim Phillips and Mike Ritts. Every member of this cast made the most of their brief appearances and it all felt very comfortable.
 
The very effective lighting by Clockwork's Harold Pantely and Ed Bassett and brief video projections by Debbie Cryan and Mr. Bassett added to the look of the scenes. The layered costumes by Mr. Bassett and the cast members must have been warm for the actors on the warm Sunday afternoon that I attended. 
 
Next up at Clockwork will be the Phoenix Stage Company's One Act Play Festival, four days of original one act plays from around the world June 18-21. All tickets for 'Almost, Maine' are $19.00 and reservations are strongly recommended, especially for Saturday nights. The Clockwork is located at 133 Main Street in Oakville CT. 

Review ~ 'Secondary Cause of Death' at Phoenix Stage Company

Nancy Sasso Janis / OnStage Critic 'Secondary Cause of Death' is the sequel to 'Murdered to Death' that ran at the Phoenix Stage Company back in 2012. The play is the second in the Inspector Pratt trilogy of spoofs of the Agatha Christie 'whodonnit' genre written by Peter Gordon.

The time has moved to 1939 in prewar Europe. Colonel Charles Craddock (brought to life once again by Rob Richnavsky) has converted Bagshot House into a hotel for an interesting mix of discerning visitors. The bumbling Inspector Pratt (this time played by Evan Grabenstein in his PSC debut) comes back once again to Bagshot House. In this sequel we meet Joan Maple’s sister bossy Cynthia (who bore a remarkable resemblance to her sister because both of them were played by Kathy Cook) who arrives to stage a murder mystery evening. It’s not long before Pratt’s visit turns into a chaotic nightmare as the bodies pile higher than ever in this murder mystery.

The inspector is really the star of the show and Mr. Grabenstein was spot on in his bumbling delivery and rapid fire malapropisms that kept those of us that were able to follow along laughing often. The sheer amount of his lines must have been overwhelming and his obligatory trench coat was almost his costar. I hope to see this talented actor in other productions.

Many of the characters had foreign accents and everyone did well with them; the script required some of them to come and go by design. Kristen Jacobsen was the perfect upper crust Lady Isadora Pollack with a secret. Alana Kingsley was the mysterious Captain Henrietta Woolmer-Cardinton with a great hairstyle and immaculate military uniform.

Mr. Richnavsky also appeared as the actor Cardew Longfellow and the audience had little trouble telling them apart...usually. Roseanne Elliot, also a member of the cast of 'Murdered to Death,' now played the colonel's nurse instead of his wife. Chris Evans returned for the sequel but has switched from a constable to a strange Polish count. Mr. Evans will be appearing in the upcoming production of 'Avow' at the Warner Theatre.

Lori Poulin played the cook Lily Tuthill...or was she? And Deborah Goodman played the maid Martha Armstrong.Ed Bassett has directed this piece with sharpness. The period costumes he designed were perfect and the hair styles by Lori Richnavsky brought even more authenticity to all the characters. The set designed by the director was a clever one and Lori Poulin, Nancy Dodge and Laurie Phillips did an amazing job with its decoration.

This show had lots of humor mixed in with the rising body count. There were plenty of twists and turns to satisfy Agatha Christie lovers. Because many performances of this show were cancelled due to weather, 'Secondary Cause of Death' has been extended to March 6, 7 and 8. Tickets are available.

Connecticut ~ Review: "Master Class" at Phoenix Stage Company

by Nancy Sasso Janis, OnStage Critic The Phoenix Stage Company is presenting 'Master Class' this weekend. It is not your typical master class mind you, but the play 'Master Class' written by Terrence McNally ('Ragtime.') The Tony Award winning play is based upon the legendary series of master classes given by the opera diva Maria Callas at Juilliard.

So the diva herself, masterfully embodied by Marilyn Olsen, enters the stage to teach said master class in front of an audience, played by us, the packed opening night Phoenix Stage audience. An accompanist named Emmanuel Weinstock (played by the talented musician and relatively new actor John Dressel) is ready to do her bidding. Three "victims" have bravely lined up to perform for the diva, played by Deborah Goodman as Sophie De Palma, Leland M. Schick as Anthony Candolino and Sybil Haggard Chamberlin as Sharon Graham.

The premise reminded me of two other "a woman and her accompanist" productions. The first was Chip Deffaa's 'One Night with Fanny Brice' with the amazing Mary Cantoni Johnson in the leading role and TJ Thompson on the piano. I saw this wonderful show at the PSC before it went to New York. I also thought of Priscilla Squiers as Florence Foster Jenkins in Westport Community Theater's 'Souvenir.' Interestingly enough, Ms. Squiers has also played the lead in WCT's production of 'Master Class.'

Lucia Dressel has directed this cast so very thoughtfully and notes that "learning Italian, opera pieces and lengthy monologues is no easy undertaking and they have risen high above the task." The opera pieces were relatively incidental and take a back seat to the force that is Maria Callas. She dishes about her career in the opera world. As the victims sing, she goes into a sprawling interior monologue about one of her own performances and some heartbreaking experiences in her personal life. She literally and figuratively pulls back the curtain on the life of this opera legend, the details of which I found to be quite interesting.

Ms. Olsen has a long list of credits to her name but this might be her most brilliant. She truly embodies this larger-than-life figure in her appearance and performance. When Callas recalls her affair with Aristotle Onassis, this talented actress must play the roles of both the diva and Onassis in a dramatic conversation. It was spellbinding to watch. She is glamorous as she commands the stage (and the audience) and is so very funny. In the words of community theater vet Lyle Ressler, "Is there nothing this woman can't do?" The answer would be: apparently not.

Ms. Goodman does a fine job as Sophie, a ridiculous, overly-perky soprano. Mr. Schick sings in his beautiful tenor voice and the lovely Ms. Chamberlin professionally sings her opera piece and gives a wonderful performance as Sharon, the talented soprano, as well. PSC founding partner Agnes Dann has a fun cameo as the beleaguered stagehand while serving as the stage manager in real life.

The simple set did not overpower "La Divina" and the costumes by Ed Bassett, Ms. Dann and the cast were just enough. Ms. Dann also coordinated the props. Mr. Dressel's piano work was flawless.

The opening night audience was a virtual 'Who's Who' of Connecticut community theater. In attendance was a contingent from the Backyard Theater Ensemble, KC and Jonathan Ross, Amy Rebekah Derrick-Ulsh (Mother in 'Ragtime,') Holly McCann, Dianna Waller and James Wood, Kristen Jacobson, Michael Elser, Tom Sheehan, Jim and Kate Luurtsema, Jeff Savage, Beth Steinberg and some I have probably missed. The praise for this wonderful production was unanimous.

'Master Class' is scheduled for only two more performances. Opening night was sold out, but there are still some good sets left for Saturday and Sunday. Call the theater at 203-632-8546 to make your reservation.