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Vpstart Crow Productions - ARCHIVE
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October 7 - 23, 2005
Bell, Book and Candle

Reviewed October 16
Running time 2:15 - two intermissions
An earnest mounting of a lighthearted romantic comedy with an supernatural gimmick

Click here to buy the script

A witch with a cute cat and an aunt who uses her powers for pranks. A publisher who wishes he could get a contract for a book on magic. Put them together in a lighthearted romance and mix thoroughly. The result can be diverting. Vpstart Crow mounts this piece of 1950s froth with a bit of a heavy hand, but the structure of the play is solid enough to keep your interest and the result is an enjoyable outing. By the way, the title refers to the Catholic Church's excommunication ceremony - ring the bell to announce the ceremony, close the book to deny access to the holy word and blow out the candle to end the ceremony.

Storyline: A young woman living an otherwise ordinary life in her apartment in midtown Manhattan in the 1950s has one peculiarity - she is a witch. Her neighbor upstairs is a mere mortal. They meet and are attracted. After using some of her special abilities to get the relationship started, she finds that she is getting in too deep, for she will lose her powers if she falls in love with a mortal.

This pleasant comedy is a fine example of the kind of light entertainment once designed for the proverbial "tired businessman" that was the demographic of choice for Broadway theater in the post-war era of the 1950s. It had a then-healthy 250 performance run, making it the kind of one-season hit that attracted a Hollywood contract. Indeed, a film was made which reunited Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak after their success in Vertigo. It offers bright conversational dialogue, simple plot complications and a general feeling of good will.

Vpstart Crow's production at the Cramer Center is in the tradition of light entertainment. They even include a musical touch by placing pianist/vocalist Pat McInerney to the side of the stage to perform standards of the time (many with titles or lyrics that tie to the theme of the show - "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "That Old Black Magic"). McCall Noelle Farrell leads off the light-entertainment feel by singing "I'll Be Home for Christmas" at the start of the first act, which fits since it is set on Christmas Eve. She then assumes the role of the romantic lead, the witch who falls for mortal Matthew Craig. Farrell is good with the light patter dialogue while Craig seems just a bit wooden in return.

Jay Tilley plays the witch's warlock brother in a very broad-brushed approach, and Bob Lavery goes even further into shtick with his drunk act as an author of a book on the supernatural. The production maintains the three-act, two-intermission structure that served theatergoers in the 50s who wanted a drink and a smoke periodically during their evening out. While there's no smoking in the Cramer Center, you are welcome to take your soft drink or coffee back to your table in the theater.

Written by John Van Druten. Directed by Don Petersen. Design: Stephen J. Cramer (set and lights) Hannah Dise (costumes) Melissa Jo York-Tilley (photography and stage manager). Cast: Jan Boulet, Matthew Craig, McCall Noelle Farrell, Robert Lavery, Pat McInerney, Jay Tilley.

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October 3 – 25, 2003
The Nerd

Reviewed October 11
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes

A light and lively comedy relying on both humorous situations and funny dialogue is given a thoroughly competent presentation that earns lots of laughs and a few knowing nods from the audience as the cast of seven go through their paces. The script is replete with laugh-lines and this cast puts most of them over with a fine sense of comic timing, a very effective pacing and a clarity of delivery that must be credited to director Dave Wright who manages to get an ensemble performance out of the group that transcends the quality of most of the individual portrayals.

Storyline: A young professional has his world turned upside down at just the wrong time as he has a small birthday party with his best friend, his girl friend who is about to move away, and his new client who has brought his wife and son along for the dinner party. Into this mix comes an obnoxious, demanding and absolutely clueless fellow who explains that he is the one who saved the host's life back in Viet Nam. They never met since they were sent to different hospitals but the host had written to express his gratitude saying “if you ever need or want anything, just ask.” Can the host avoid loosing his new client’s business, his girlfriend’s affection, his best friend’s respect and his own sanity without telling this nerd to leave?

At the heart of the piece, of course, are Colby Codding as the nerd and John Tweel as his host. Codding avoids going too far over the line with his bumbling cluelessness but Tweel doesn’t always pull off the various signs of frustration that are intended to give the piece its flow. Bruce Rauscher has the bulk of the flippant remarks and does them with aplomb as the best friend who happens to be a theater critic.  Heather Enloe is almost too normal as the girlfriend but Antigone Juvelis as the boss’ wife is hilarious when her anxiety over the behavior of the nerd gets so strong she needs to ask for something to break. When Tweel and his friends try to out weird the weird one himself, they are put through some strange paces, giving Ted Ballard as the host’s boss the opportunity to bring down the house with a one word line - “Gun.” (It will make sense if you see it.)

The script is not without gaps in the progress of the story but it does have the virtue of light banter so well written that you rarely see the flippant remark or retort coming. Scenes don’t take detours for the sake of setting up a joke and all of the people stay in character. The snappy comebacks and witty asides - and they are legion - are just the type of thing the character would really say, or at least what they would like to have said had they thought of it in time. Only once does the staging seem to have been designed just for a gag. That is when the host happens to have struck an unlikely pose with his right hand on his hip and his left arm extended out from his body and then stammers on the line “I’m...” so his friend can complete it with “a little tea pot?” Other than that, the lines come thick and fast directly out of the interchange between the characters.

It all takes place in the apartment of the host. Dave Wright has designed a substantial set which is well detailed with Beatles and “The Rat Pack” posters and a stuffed raven in the book case. The apartment does seem to be missing any phonograph records even though there is dialogue about his $700 stereo and his records. There is no credit for a costume design, which is often the sign that the cast has been asked to dress themselves. While this comedy is set in the not-too-definite past and, therefore, clothes out the closet aren’t inappropriate, this is a missed opportunity to solidify an otherwise very satisfying production.

Written by Larry Shue. Directed by Dave Wright. Design: Steve Cramer (set/lights) Lynn Duesterhaus (stage manager). Cast: Ted Ballard, Colby Codding, Heather Enloe, Tim Hannon, Antigone Juvelis, Bruce Rauscher, John Tweel.   

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May 31 – June 28, 2003
Cyrano de Bergerac

Reviewed June 1
Running time 3 hours 15 minutes

The flash of swords meets the panache of language in Edmond Rostand’s 1897 tale of love -- love of a lady, love of companions, love of duty and love of words. The play fills the stage and the aisles of the theater with a large cast led by a performance filled with vigor and emotion from Robert Leembruggen who wears the hero’s elongated nasal prosthetic as a badge of distinction. Strangely, though, for a play that is as much about the love of language and the power of words, the play seems wordy and, while there are lines that you’d love to linger over, it seems to run too long.

Storyline: Within the court guards in seventeenth century Paris, serves Cyrano de Bergerac, a poet of immense pride, defensive about his extremely large nose and convinced that no woman could love a man so disfigured although his heart be pure. The lady of his affections, however, has eyes for another member of the guards who is beautiful but pretty much a dolt when it comes to matters of the heart. Which is more important -- external or internal beauty? The poet agrees to provide the words which the dolt may use to press his suit but war intervenes, and they are shipped off to battle. The letters Cyrano writes as if from his colleague are so seductive that the lady falls hopelessly in love. When the dolt is killed in battle, Cyrano decides to maintain the fiction rather than expose himself to rejection.

Leembruggen strides across this small stage with a powerful performance that dominates the production. He makes Cyrano a very sympathetic heroic character despite the fact that the story has him making some highly questionable decisions. It would be easy, in lesser hands, to find Cyrano a slave to a kind of reverse vanity but Leembruggen gives him such magnetism that he is a force of nature, not simply a man too concerned over appearances.

The two key supporting characters are, of course, the lady so lovely that Cyrano can’t resist her and the suitor who needs Cyrano’s words to woo her. Sarah Ecton Luttrell has the type of delicate beauty that seems just right for the period and her performance is strong enough to hold up in scenes with Leembruggen’s oversized Cyrano. Tim Olson, however, looks entirely too contemporary with his short hair and his slouching posture when a strutting peacock of a poster-boy is called for, and he manages to show little of the angst the poor fellow is supposed to feel over his inability to say what is in his heart.

Director Timothy S. Shaw designed a functional set for this small facility, using a garden wall that is a background for stage-filling sword-fights and battles but is moved forward for the tender balcony scene where Cyrano in the shadows provides the words to woo the lovely lady. Lighting designer Steve Cramer might well use the title “darkness designer” for he creates atmospheres through the creative use of shadows and patterns of light and dark which is both very effective and also very appropriate for the time setting. The production also benefits from the services of Geoff Thompson who, as an actor takes the role of Captain of the Guards and as a fight director choreographs the battle scenes and swordfights with assurance.

Written by Edmond Rostand. Translated and adapted by Mike Field and Roger Poirier. Directed by Timothy S. Shaw. Fight direction by Geoff Thompson. Design: Timothy S. Shaw (set) Amber Hayes (costumes) Steve Cramer (lights)  Sean Clark (stage manager.) Cast: Sally Cusenza, J. Owen Dickson, Peregrine Herlinger, Rick Herlinger, Kathryn Kelly, Robert Leembruggen, Sara Ecton Luttrell, Tim O’Kane, Tim Olson, Matthew Pauli, Geoff Thompson, Stephon Walker, Steve Wannall, Sarah Wharen, Matt Williams., Dave Wright

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April 6 – 27, 2002
Dream Date

Reviewed April 13
Running time 50 minutes
t Potomac Stages Pick

The only thing wrong with this delightful almost-hour with talented mime/clown Matthew Pauli is its title – some parents will assume anything about a "date" is going to be a bit advanced for children not yet approaching dating age. Pitty! The show is perfect for three year olds, six year olds, nine year olds and on up to sixty year olds.

Storyline: Our hero is cleaning his room, brushing off his coat, pouring the drinks and cooking the spaghetti in preparation for a date. When "she" calls, he hops on his scooter to go pick her up. End of story.

Pauli, listed as a Ringling Brothers-trained clown, is a young man with a very polished act. In minimal white-face and small red clown nose, he looks more like a young man than a clown which makes it easy for the youngest kids to identify with him. He encourages exchange with the audience, soliciting and then reacting to their laughs and applause as he gets them into the fun. Half way through he even gets an audience volunteer to participate in a skit. It is an indication of just how successful he is at putting everyone at ease that there didn’t seem to be anyone trying to be inconspicuous in order to avoid being selected for the skit.

Part of the technique of classic clowning in the silent tradition is the logical progression of bits so the audience can anticipate what is coming next. Pauli structures his bits with just that logical approach. He burns his hand on the lid of a spaghetti pot. Then he burns it again. Then he burns both at the same time. This, of course, leads to getting them stuck in flower pots and tumblers into which he plunged them to cool them down.

He also knows when to stop. The old adage "leave ‘em wanting more" is important for a kids show and this one ended with the youngsters and the oldsters still fully engaged and happy. Then Pauli came out into the lobby to hug any kid who would accept it and pose for photos. A lot of happy kids drove away returning his wave from the steps of the Cramer Center.

Conceived and performed by Michael Pauli.

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November 23 -  December 2, 2001
A Civil War Christmas

Reviewed November 23
Running time 2 hours 5 minutes

Part silly comedy, part holiday sing along, part stylish ghost story, part civil war history, part supernatural love story, part telling of the nativity story – A Civil War Christmas mixes it all together and comes up with an entertaining and occasionally fascinating evening.

Storyline: Fifty years after the end of the Civil War, the new owners of an old house in Manassas throw a Christmas costume party with a civil war theme. It is a stormy night and not all guests can get to the party and those that do become stranded. They exchange ghost stories to pass the time but the stories reveal more about their own pasts and the history of the house than they expect.

This is an original play by Mike Field, produced regularly by Vpstart Crow as a holiday event since 1998 when it was titled Manassas: A Civil War Christmas. Vpstart Crow’s Executive Director Timothy Shaw and a cast of seven veterans of the company give it a pleasant production with some highlights of note. Most notable are Lisa Ricciardi’s over-the-top comic turn as a stranger than strange maid, and Sarah Ecton as the guest the hosts most hoped wouldn’t attend. Both have very funny moments but both pull off very effecting serious ones as well.

The wide range of material requires a wide range of delivery styles and not all of the cast pull off all of the different segments. But each has at least one moment that shines as the slightly over-long evening proceeds. It seems over-long because it is performed without an intermission. Instead, two breaks are built in where the audience is asked to stand and sing a Christmas Carol.

The period is well established with a nicely detailed, substantial set and effective period costumes, especially the twin red dresses of the hostess and guest. Steve Cramer devised a very busing lighting design with multiple settings and extremely tight spots. Some of the effects were a problem on opening night either because they were too tight or because not all of the actors hit their marks. Still, the blackouts, the candle lit ghost stories, as well as the final two bright spotlight effects added a great deal to the evening.

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September 14 - October 6, 2001
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

(Produced in association with Keegan Theatre
 and playing through November 18 in Arlington)

Keegan’s stunning production of Tennessee William’s classic is every bit as good as its considerable reputation would lead you to expect. Five years ago, it was the first play the newly formed company put on and it was received with praise. Earlier this year it was revived for a three-city tour of Ireland. Again it earned plaudits. Opening in Arlington Virginia for a one month run, it delivers the expected impact and then some.

Storyline: The cat of the title is Maggie, the childless wife of Brick, the youngest son of Big Daddy whose family has gathered to get the results of Big Daddy’s cancer exam. Brick, a former athletic star in school has turned to drink and their marriage has degenerated into a sham for reasons partially revealed during the play.

Mark Rhea, Keegan’s Artistic Director co-directed the original production and is credited as the sole director this time out. He also stars as Brick, just as he did five years ago. Often such dual duty can signal an unbalanced production as it takes unusual artistic strength as a director to bring an even hand to the entire cast. Here not only is there no sign of favoritism or unbalance, the production is unique in the generous support Rhea’s performance gives first to Susan Grevengoed who is captivating as Maggie and then to Robert Leembruggen who is fascinating as Big Daddy.
That the first act belongs to Grevengoed is both by the playwright’s design and the result of her performance. She brings a strength to Maggie that makes the events in the climax both believable and somehow inevitable. Rhea resists all of the scene stealing potential in the script to give a very supportive performance.

The second act belongs to Leembruggen but the demands of the play require more action out of Rhea and he gives it. As the act reaches its peak the two men strike a performing partnership that is a pleasure to watch.

The third act briefly belongs to Peggy McGrath as Big Mamma gets her big scene, but for most of the act it is pure ensemble work. There are fine contributions from Jim Jorgensen and Charlotte Akin as the eldest son of Big Daddy and his fertile wife.

The original production was staged at the Church Street Theater in Washington. This time it is in the black box that Keegan frequently creates in the basement of the Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church at 1500 N. Glebe Road. The intensity of the play is heightened by the immediacy of the space with no more than about 20 feet between the stage and any seat. Set designer George Lucas has done his usual fabulous job of creating a visually effective playing area in the limited space available. Particularly effective is the ceiling fan he manages to install where there is no ceiling.