Strong Performances, Unsettling Play PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Wednesday, 15 April 2015 18:43

How do you describe a play about sexual role playing and domination as “A sexy comedy”?

Venus in Fur South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreObviously, director and cast must make sure that every humorous moment is played out — obviously. Which is just what the cast of two — Anthony Panzica and Libby Unruh — and directors Rick Ellis (primary) and Steve Gergacz (assistant) have done with “Venus in Fur,” the current production of South Bend Civic Theatre.

It is based on the 1870 novel of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. No surprise that the term “masochism” came from the author’s name. No surprise that masochism is a major plot line in “Venus.” So, if being hurt and humiliated by a sex partner is appealing, no surprise that this is the play for you.

Material aside, the performances by Panzica and Unruh are solid, with both handling the double sides of each role distinctly and believably, however uncomfortable that might be.

It is not everyone’s material.

The tendency to shift in your seat is a reaction to watching a growing relationship that is increasingly intimate and certainly not what is generally considered “normal,” but given the success of the “Fifty Shades” books and movie, that “normal” might be changing.

As the auditioning actress and the demanding director gradually reverse roles, the accompanying dialogue and actions are, for wont of a better comparison, like watching a small train wreck or the approach of a deadly viper.

Venus in Fur  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreIt’s definitely difficult to look away.

Never mind trying to figure out just who this actress really is — her name, Vanda , is too close to that of the play’s leading character, Wanda — and she comes prepared with an entire script memorized and appropriate costumes for both characters, which she pulls from her large bag a la Mary Poppins.

As thunder and lightning rage outside the audition room, the man and woman circle, advance and retreat, with control of the situation moving from one to the other and, inevitably, to Vanda.

Who likes what and where will the power eventually reside? The answers to those questions become increasingly apparent with only the origin of the mysterious Vanda left to the individual imagination.

In addition to her multi-level performance, Unruh deserves applause for the ease with which she handles her costumes (from all-enclosing to hardly there) and the killer heels on which she stakes her claim to the role and the director.

Panzica has an even more difficult task. To make the eventual submission of the initially commanding director believable and even understandable. It is a task he handles well.

There is no intermission in the play and actually I could not think of a spot where a division would be doable without instantly destroying the intense atmosphere the actors create.

Jill Flora Hillman’s scenic design sets the right atmosphere, augmented by the lighting and sound designs.

“Venus in Fur” is not, in the long run, an easy play to watch. Like other modern scripts, however, it allows a look at a side of human nature that may be more familiar than most would like to admit.

“VENUS IN FUR” plays today through Sunday and April 24-26 in the SBCT Warner Theatre, 4303 N. Main St., South Bend. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or visit

Sondheim Musical Has Murderous Theme PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Monday, 13 April 2015 16:23

There is one thing about musicals by Stephen Sondheim.

Assassins Elkhart Civic Theatre Bristol INYou either love them or, well, hate is a rather strong word, but dislike is a reasonable substitute.

Probably this reason, as well as the fact that plotlines tend to be a bit skewed — a murderous barber, an obsessive spinster, mix-and-match fairy tales — and the scores deceptively difficult, is why the works of a composer generally regarded as the greatest in his generation are not regularly scheduled by all levels of theater companies.

Assassins Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INFan or non-fan, when the opportunity to attend the performance of a Sondheim work is available it should be at the top of the must-see list.

In 1990, “Assassins” by Sondheim and frequent collaborator John Weidman premiered off-Broadway and, after a brief run, retreated to other locations until finally making it to Broadway in 2004 where it earned five Tony Awards.

“Assassins” opened Friday evening in the Bristol Opera House. The Elkhart Civic Theatre production is under the direction of Jerry O’Boyle, assisted by Amy Pawlosky. It features a cast which ranges from very strong to trying hard, the usual mix for a community show. The result is a memorable if not completely satisfying evening.

The premise of “Assassins” gives new meaning to the term “off beat.” In an abstract setting (originally a shooting gallery) are gathered nine actual historical characters, each successful — or not — in killing a president of the United States.

From John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, with stops at several lesser known shooters, Sondheim’s music examines the individAssassins  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol INuals behind the historical figures. None of their reasons for considering assassination are the same. None are portrayed as sympathetic characters yet each is sadly human in his/her search for solutions. That most find it in a gun is dreadfully relevant today and, in the end, is no solution at all.

Standouts in the ECT production are John Shoup as Booth, the actor and Southern sympathizer who killed President Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago, on April 14, 1865. Both Shoup’s characterization and his vocal interpretations are highlights. The same solidly hypnotic work is delivered by Jacob Medich as Leon Czologosz, a deeply angered factory worker who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901.

Deron Bergstresser creates a tragically delusional Charles Guiteau, whose dance to the gallows for the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield is a time step of black humor.

Brock Butler is a brooding John Hinckley. His duet with Kellie MacGowan as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme is one of the show’s best known numbers, “Unworthy of Your Love.” The unattainable objects of their devotion were actress Jodi Foster and Charles Manson, respectively, and the survivors of their murderous attempts, President Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford.

Ford also was the target for Sara Jane Moore whose aim was as off as her reason. As Moore, Joan Troyer steals every scene, even without a vocal solo assignment, and offers some well-deserved and much needed laughs.

Assassins  Elkhart Civic Theatre  Bristol  INAs a drunken Samuel Byck in a Santa suit, Michael Flauding’s alcoholic monologues are uncomfortably close to home as he attempts to pilot a commercial jet into the White House of President Richard Nixon.

Dustin Crump as Guiseppe Zangara turns abdominal pains into a reason for an assassination attempt on President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The final assassin to join the “family” is Lee Harvey Oswald (Joe Covey), depicted here (with obvious literary license) as an unhappy misfit planning on suicide but re-directed at the urging of his fellow killers.

Also woven into the various stories are anarchist agitator Emma Goldman (April Sellers), David Herold (Brent Graber) who helped Booth in his escape attempt, and Billy Moore (Christian Yoder), son of Sara Jane, whose ear-splitting demand for ice cream receives an hilarious parental response.

Serving as Balladeers are Annie Kron, Katie Ouellette, Joshua D. Padgett, Jane and Manda Payton, Rick Regan and Zach Rivers.

The excellent orchestra under the direction of keyboardist Roy Bronkema includes Miriam Houck, Kelly Rider and Aaron Nichols.

Shoup designed the rather abstract setting, with lighting design by Stephanie Isley, sound by Garry Cobbum and video by Graber and O’Boyle.

“ASSASSINS” plays Friday through Sunday in the Bristol Opera House. For performance times and reservations, call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays or visit

A Big Hand For 'Behanding In Spokane' PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Monday, 30 March 2015 20:11

A “black comedy” is defined as “a comedy dealing with unpleasant subjects” and, solo or en masse, those are the subjects definitely dealt with in “A Behanding in Spokane,” the pitch black comedy which opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Firehouse Theatre.

A Behanding in Spokane South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreI am sure there are those who will try to make sense out of the infinitely skewed characters and situations in this work by Irish playwright Martin Mcdonagh.

These would not be those who have seen any — or all — of Mccdonagh’s earlier plays, the best known being ”The Beauty Queen of Lenane,” “The Cripple of Inishmann” and “The Pillowman.” The last is definitely not a comedy. The “Cripple” recently played on Broadway with “Harry Potter” star Daniel Radcliffe in the title role.

All this to say that even though Mcdonagh’s plays have not been in the top 10 for community theaters to produce, they should be among the top 10 for audiences whenever they have the opportunity to see one.

A Behanding in Spokane South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreNow back to the “Behanding,”which features an incredibly disgruntled protagonist, Carmichael (played with increasingly frustrated intensity by Mark Moriarty), who has been searching for his missing left hand for 27 years. He waits now in a seedy motel room for its possible return.

Promising to make this happen are a pair of bumbling lovers/petty crooks, Marilyn (Lisa Tuholski) and Toby (Jessie Lott Jr.), who have answered Carmichael’s offer of $500 for the return of his hand, planning to take the money, return a very mismatched hand and run.

Of course, their plan backfires with darkly hilarious complications, none of which are made simpler by the mind-boggling aid/interference of the hotel desk clerk Mervyn (Casey St. Aubin). A poster adult for ADD, Mervyn skips from one topic to another in his meandering chain-of-consciousness monologues, never staying focused for more than a few sentences on each one and twitching incessantly.

A Behanding in Spokane South Bend Civic (IN) Civic TheatreAdd a “digitally-stuffed” suitcase, a do-it-yourself bomb (which on opening night resulted in one of the evening’s most prolonged — and unintentional — laughs), and a mother (Carmichael’s) whose frantic calls only exacerbate the situation and you have an evening of black comedy during which it is difficult to stop laughing even when feeling a bit guilty for doing so.

The proximity of the actors (St. Aubin delivers one speech walking through the audience) only increases the absurdity of their plight as does their ability to play straight every ridiculously convoluted segment.

Fast-paced direction by Tucker Curtis allows little time for logical dissection of the plot and/or the characters. There is only time to sit back and enjoy it. Logic can come later.

NOTE: Strong language, especially the use of the f word and the n word, is extreme throughout.

“A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE” plays at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday in The Firehouse Theatre, 701 Portage Ave. South Bend. It is performed without intermission. For reservations, call (574) 234=1112.

Precision Missing In SBCT Search For Grail PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marcia Fulmer   
Tuesday, 17 March 2015 18:55

In October 1989, six of the wackiest minds ever to join forces created a TV show for the BBC titled “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

Spamalot  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreTo my knowledge, there never was an actual Monty Python, but the off-the-wall humor of its writer/performers (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle Terry Jones and Michael Palin) resulted in a form of comedy that continues to flourish more than 25 years later.

Spamalot  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThe TV show ran for 45 episodes which led to five motion pictures and several Python-like comedy groups. From one of the films, 1975’s “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” came the Broadway musical “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”

With book and lyrics by Idle and music by Idle and and John Du Prez, “Spamalot” earned 14 Tony Award nominations and three wins, including Best Musical of 2005. In the years since then, Idle’s hilarious distortion of the Arthurian legend has played in 20 countries and on the stages of countless community theaters throughout this country.

Among these is the production that opened Friday evening in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Wilson Theatre. It is not necessary to be familiar with Python to get the humor. “Spamalot” is a farce which, as some may be aware, if my least favorite form of comedy.

Unless it is done well.

Doing it well requires knowing that precision is a necessity in making the seemingly shapeless physical humor more than just a bunch of bodies flailing around as plague victims or Laker Girls or Broadway tappers who (not intentionally) can’t tap or … you get the idea.

Spamalot  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreIt’s attention to details. For example, in order to land the joke, the mourning monks should have been hitting themselves with their tablets (think that’s what they were carrying) in unison and not randomly. It’s making sure that guards absurdly arguing the merits of swallows as coconut-carriers are able to be seen (and heard) by all sections of the audience, ditto the French Taunter whose verbal abuse from high up on a castle wall defeats the cowering English knights.

Once again, the directionless acoustics of the auditorium made it difficult for anyone not sitting in the center section to comprehend most of the dialogue and a large portion of the lyrics.

“The Song That Goes Like This,” sung endlessly by Sir Galahad (Jeremy Weyer) and The Lady of the Lake (Allison Jean Jones), is a blatantly unmistakable homage (?) to Andrew Lloyd Webber, while Jones’ “Diva’s Lament” is more “pitchy” than funny and both are

Spamalot  South Bend (IN) Civic TheatreThere are some plusses here, although not nearly enough. Patsy, the keeper of the coconut hoofbeats and Arthur’s dogsbody, is played by William Heckaman who sings well and taps well and is in control of his character. The Black Knight is handily dismembered, the Knights Who Say Ni are reasonably annoying and the Killer Rabbit is deliciously bloody. These, however, are small islands of coherent humor in a flimsy sea.

Choreography is mostly non-existent and uncoordinated. The rear-screen projections are used well, making the graphics one of the major assets of this show.

The ”orchestra” is on a recorded track with which the singers — solo and ensemble — primarily keep track.

King Arthur (Mark Torma) and his knights (William Loring, Nicholas Hidde-Halsey, Weyer and Gary Oesch) have more than a dozen performances remaining in which to find their grail while continuing to look on the bright side of life.

“SPAMALOT” plays Wednesdays through Sundays through April 4 in SBCT’s Wilson Theatre. For performance times and reservations, call (574) 234-1112 or online at SBCT.ORG.
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