Review: Steel Magnolias, a Theater, Interrupted Production

I won’t lie. I love Steel Magnolias. It’s a sweet southern story full of humor, emotional swings, and strong women that are impossible to forget. The film, which hit theaters to great fanfare in 1989, was cast to perfection (Shirley MacLaine as Ouiser and Dolly Parton as Truvy in particular have always stuck with me in their roles). However, most who know the film may not be aware that it was based on a play, written by Robert Harling, which premiered in 1987.

There are notable differences in the storytelling structure from stage to screen, as one might expect. Film offers more opportunity to drift from location to location, following characters as they go, capturing every element of what takes place. The stage requires more subtlety. More story within singular locations. The stage version of Steel Magnolias takes place through several scenes within Truvy’s salon, over the course of nearly two years. There we meet Truvy, Clairee, Annelle, Shelby, M’Lynn, and Ouiser, as we follow the story of Shelby, from her wedding day to her funeral.

In the hands of Face to Face Films showrunner Anthony M. Laura, as a part of their Theater, Interrupted series of virtual productions, Steel Magnolias remains as vibrant and poignant as ever. Cast wonderfully, it’s a testament to the original material, and an ode to the power and strength of women who can cry, laugh, and stand tall against any obstacle.

As Truvy, Vivien Cardone conjures memories of Dolly, quick with her wit, charming to no end, and as captivating as ever. Chelsea Renae captures the “do as I will” nature of Clairee, flippant and owning every line. Rheanna Salazar beautifully takes on the innocence of Annelle, easily lifting the demure character in line with the powerhouse women she comes to know. As Shelby’s mother M’Lynn, Kristen Hasty brings equal doses of protective mother and loving caregiver, offsetting her daughter’s care-free nature. To which, it must be noted that Matigan Nagle’s graceful performance as Shelby cannot be understated. Michelle Miner’s take on Ouiser, a spitfire honest enough to admit she just been “angry for forty years”, is pure venom, harsh and brutal with the hidden heart revealed only in the story’s most tender moment.

The cast carried the production, bringing familiar characters to life as if they’d played them for years. And once again, Laura directs them with precision, leaving no doubt that he understands how to bring the most out of his team. If you are a fan of the film, or if you’ve seen the play, this production of Steel Magnolias is one you simply must watch. Stop what you’re doing, settle in with some sweet tea and chocolate, and laugh yourself to tears, so you can then cry yourself into laughter.

Review: Everything Counts, an upcoming web series by Face to Face Films

In 1996, Bill Gates penned an opinion that proclaimed, “content is king.” As prescient as Gates proved to be in the world of tech, even he couldn’t have forseen the entertainment gap left in the wake of a global pandemic. Without theaters, without the stage, without a means to go and see whatever it is that brings us entertainment and joy, we were left to our own devices. And laptops. And televisions. Those who could produce content maintained–or even grew–their audiences. Those who didn’t may not be around when the New Normal returns.

Anthony M. Laura, of Face to Face Films, wasted no time, spinning his growing theater production company into a virtual wonderland of entertainment, aptly named Theater, Interrupted. Now, with more than a year’s worth of productions available on their YouTube channel for audiences to watch any time they wish, Laura is turning his attention to the future. To what his company will be when Covid-19 is no longer an impediment.

In addition to an eventual return to the stage, Face to Face Films is brewing even more content, by way of sneak peeks of future web series. The first, Sensing Astrid, premiered in April. On the heels of that, comes Everything Counts, a mind-twisting journey into the disappearance of a young woman who may, or may not, exist.

Starring Dan Kelly as Campbell Leonard, a young man suffering from germaphobia and OCD, the sneak peek of Everything Counts covers four brief scenes, giving the viewer a taste of Campbell’s challenges to come. Opening with a visit with his therapist, we’re introduced into Campbell’s world, his personal struggles, and his obsession with a girl from high school–Emerald Mason–who would greet him in the hallway. That obsession is elevated by the inability of his friends to recall the existence of any such schoolmate, driving Campbell to hire the services of Detective Breyer, a private investigator played by Prentice Myles, in the hope the truth about Emerald’s existence can be uncovered.

Kristen Seavey, as Campbell’s friend Amelia, offers more resistance to his insistence Emerald is out there, hammering home the desperation that has possessed him. “What’s your endgame here?” she asks, to no reply. “You find her and she thinks you’re a stalker.” Liana Womble rounds out the cast as Fiona, a woman claiming to be Emerald’s former therapist, who deepens the mystery by acknowledging Emerald’s existence but warning Campbell she’s no longer around and that he must let his pursuit go. “It’s not going to end well, Campbell,” she says. “For anyone.”

Laura scores again with solid writing, excellent pacing, and a deft directoral hand. The performances of the entire cast are precise and played to perfection–emotional, yet guarded, taking the viewer on a ride with the pendulum, leaving reason to question whether or not Emerald is, in fact, real.

In the end, this preview accomplishes exactly what it needs to. We want to know more. We want to learn whether Emerald is real and in trouble, or if Campbell’s need for her to be real outweighs the truth he’s buried.

Review: Rabbit Hole, a Theatre, Interrupted Production

Theater, Interrupted, the ongoing web-series of theater performances by Face to Face Films, has offered its followers an non-stop stream of quality plays since the beginning of the pandemic. Though we await, with great anticipation, the opportunity to sit quietly in a darkened theater, drawn into the emotional journeys of characters, wowed by performances of ACTUAL ACTORS ON A STAGE, this series continues to fill the gap admirably.

With Rabbit Hole, director and Face to Face Films frontrunner, Anthony M. Laura tackles the grief of a family dealing with the loss of their 4-year-old son. Written by David Lindsay-Abaire (debuting on stage in 2006), the journey delves deep into the myriad ways in which we process grief and loss, and the damage we absorb along the way.

Starring Kristin Seavey and Gabe Calleja as Becca and Howie, mother and father to their late son Danny, we’re propelled into a world of anger and anguish. The duo not only carry the weight of the pain their characters feel, they connect us to their lives and to their struggle with ease and precision, leaving the viewer feeling less a body on the other side of a screen than a visitor in their home longing to help them make it right.

As Jason, the young high school student responsible for Danny’s death, Alex Commito brings warmth and innocence, opening our lens to grief through the eyes of a young man processing his sense of responsibility through stories and a need for closure. Through only a handful of scenes, Commito wastes nothing, his delivery and expression showcasing Jason’s struggle.

Nicole Townsend, as Becca’s sister Izzy, and Gabrielle Arles, as Becca and Izzy’s mother Nat, round out the cast with solid performances, bringing a sense of fullness to the family dynamic. Townsend, in particular, plays off Seavey in their shared scenes as only sisters can, stealing a good bit of the virtual spotlight along the way.

One hopes that the end is near. That the stage will again open soon. That we will be able to return and congregate to watch these fabulous performances. But for now, Theater, Interrupted continues to offer quality performances that quickly make one forget they are cozy at home watching on screen (for free at that!). Anthony M. Laura and the team at Face to Face Films should be commended, remembered, and supported wholly for all they do.

Sneak Peek at Sensing Astrid

A successful run of virtual performances hasn’t slowed down Face to Face Films frontrunner, Anthony M. Laura. In addition to his on-going Theater, Interrupted series of plays, Laura has dipped into the creative pool for his upcoming original series, Sensing Astrid. Following the life of a young actress struggling to manage multiple personalities, Laura returns to a strength showcased in 2019’s The Girl With the Red Hair. With an eye for the emotional torment of a fractured mind, Laura delves into the struggles of young Astrid with the delicate touch of a master.

Though the series will arrive to audiences later this year, Face to Face Films recently offered a sneak peek into the world of Astrid by way of four short scenes. Covering a year plus of Astrid’s life and introducing a few characters pivotal to her journey, these four scenes open a world of questions and intrigue.

The writing is on point. Articulate and concise. Nothing speaks to this more than the lingering need to know where her story goes from here. As sneak peek’s go, this one was less a teaser than a full on heart-gripping tattoo on the soul.

This short collection is utterly and decisively stolen by Rand Faris, in the lead role of Astrid Regan. From the opening scene, her emotional connection to Astrid is vibrant and potent. As we delve into the multiple personalities plaguing her mind (Taylor, her current role in film, is an active presence from the second scene on), Faris digs in. Deep. Through her performance, thirty minutes of struggle with Astrid feels like a lifetime of torment. By the time we reach the final scene, in the office of Astrid’s therapist, we are gut-punched by the weight of her pain. Describing her recent role as Taylor, she describes a moment in which Taylor took over. “I couldn’t find Astrid. Then suddenly I was back. And it wasn’t great,” she says.

Joined by Megan Schmitt and Nicole Townsend, in the roles of Bailey and Celine, with music by Philip Lauto, Sensing Astrid is a brilliant opening to what should be a difficult, but captivating, series. Waiting for the next installment is the hard part.

Review: The Nina Variations, a Theater, Interrupted Production

Theater, Interrupted, the series of virtual theater performances created by Face to Face Films director and writer Anthony M. Laura, has offered a consistent run of quality theater over the past year, despite the pandemic. The frustration over our inability to sit and see these takes on stage has waned as the production and performances have gained in momentum.

Their latest, The Nina Variations, written by Steven Dietz is no less impressive.

Company singer Madison C. Gray, opens with a cappella versions of On My Own, from Les Miserables and her haunting rendition of When September Ends by Green Day. She is a great talent and leading these performances with her soothing tones sets the mood for the story that follows.

Taken from the final scene in Anton Chekov’s The Seagull, The Nina Variations is a complex, yet straightforward, take on the difficulties of human emotion, born within the love and devotion to an idea never to be realized. Over 42 scenes, the audience is offered alternate endings to Chekov’s classic work. Though separate and disconnected, they give a full view of the relationship between the writer, Treplev, and Nina, the actress he loves.

Kristen Seavey plays the role of Nina, a young woman blessed with a depth of innocence, humor, and unwavering affection for Treplev’s rival, Trigorin. She captures the full spectrum of Nina’s playfulness and heart with precision, leaving little doubt to the full range of her acting ability.

Matching her scene for scene, Prentice Myles carries the weight of Treplev’s distress and melancholy as if it were his own. He captures the raw excitement of an artist driven by the presence of Nina, while adeptly dipping into the unrelenting chasm of despair in the man’s desperation for Nina’s love.

The performances of Seavey and Myles make The Nina Variations a must watch, despite the overall complexities of the play’s concept. Familiarity with The Seagull does make the viewing an engaging take on the culmination of a classic but is hardly necessary.

Review of Doubt, an online reading

2020 continues to do its thing, offering one alarming raise to the pot of a nerve-wracking poker game we didn’t plan on playing. A fallout—one of many, to be sure—has been the continued shutdown of the entertainment industry. Film and theater have been forced out of production, screens and stages remain dark, and a world in need of entertainment hunts for ways to stave off the stir-crazy building within.

That said, there have been efforts to create alternate routes to entertainment. One of them comes from Face to Face Films. On the heels of their May reading of Little Women, which included a stellar performance from a cast of skilled actors, the online reading series returned in June to take on Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley.

Centered on three main characters—Sister Aloysius Beauvier, played by Vivien Cardone, Father Flynn, played by Alex Commito, and Sister James, played by Rhenna Salazar—Doubt unravels a potential scandal at St. Nicholas, a Roman Catholic elementary school. The course of the drama leaves one riddled with doubt, uncertain as to what is truth and what is deception.

From the production side, Face to Face Films once again stood up to the challenge of presenting a play online, complete with costumes, as well as a complimentary composition from Philip Lauto. Producers Casey Hartnett and Anthony Laura impressed with the quality of the presentation, and with the seamless transition from scene-to-scene with the assistance of narrator Sophie Licata.

All three performances of the main characters were stellar, though it was impossible not to focus on the emotional and captivating take of Sister Aloysius by Vivien Cardone. Played with a sense of urgency that drove the story forward, Cardone stole the show, drawing both ire and compassion from the viewer as the story further detailed the suspicious behavior of Father Flynn toward the school’s only black student, Donald Muller. Alex Commito and Rhenna Salazar balanced the back and forth battle between Aloysius and Flynn with great poise. Salazar captured the innocent idealism of Sister James so effectively it forced the viewer to take the dance of doubt along with her, questioning both Aloysius’ claims and Flynn’s denials.

Not to be ignored, Isha Sumner’s performance as Donald Muller’s mother, Mrs. Muller, was profound and emotional. Despite the limited screen time, Sumner added a sense of gravity to the story that could not be shaken.

At the conclusion of the performance, the cast and crew remained available to answer viewer questions, while the tandem team of Hartnett and Laura announced that the next reading will take place August 1st, with a reading from the screenplay of The Hours by David Hare.