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.

Production in a Pandemic: Vivien Cardone and Anthony Laura

In 2019, I was given the opportunity to conduct a series of interviews on The Girl With the Red Hair, a play by writer/director Anthony Laura. Starring Casey Hartnett as Hayley Jones and featuring Vivien Cardone as Doctor Watkins, The Girl with the Red Hair, is an exploration of the damage rendered by sexual abuse, of a mind in turmoil as it attempts to cope with experiences far too extreme to process. In the ever-deepening shadows of the girl she once was, who is Hayley Jones, and will it be enough to simply be a survivor?

As the cast and crew prepped The Girl With the Red Hair for a limited run in December (a run that received great praise and fanfare), I had the pleasure of discussing the process and direction of the play with Anthony and Casey, as well as supporting actors, Viven Cardone, Samatha Yestrebsky, and Alexandra Rooney. This not only offered the opportunity to discuss each actor’s approach and vision for their character, but also offered the rare opportunity to follow a work as it progressed from script to the stage.

But, then 2020 happened and the world ground to a halt. Which left me wondering: What happens to a stage production when there’s no stage available?

One answer, which is not addressed in the interview that follows, is taking the stage online. After a successful online reading of Little Women, Face to Face Films is currently working on Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, featuring Vivien Cardone, Alex Commito, Rheanna Salazar, and Isha Sumner. The performance is slated for Saturday, June 27th at 2pm via Zoom.

Production in a Pandemic: Vivien Cardone and Anthony Laura

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Getting the primary question out of the way: How is the current pandemic shutdown affecting your work on The Girl with the Red Hair?

VIVIEN: I guess the most obvious change would have to be the transition to virtual workshops and rehearsals, which does come with its challenges. But I think we have all navigated the new dynamics fairly well. We have still made wonderful progress with peeling back the layers of the story and the characters. Personally, I have noticed that the social distancing has taken a bit of a toll on my emotional and mental health, as I am sure it has for many of us. I have been struggling a bit with trying not to bring that into our company. But there is overwhelming support and understanding from the group, especially from our director Anthony, that has been a great source of comfort to me through all of the isolation.

ANTHONY: We have been lucky enough to be able to continue workshopping through Zoom during the pandemic.  Though we are still unclear where the future will take us in terms of theater openings, I feel we have been maintaining a good flow of work to be ready once we can start in person rehearsals and begin pinning down more specifics for the 2020 run.  All of the actors have been wonderful in embracing this odd virtual process and I think we’ve all become more creative for it.

It would seem that your work together has created a bit of a bond. How has your friendship influenced continued work on the play? 

VIVIEN: Anthony and I hit it off almost immediately, and he has quickly become my closest friend. We have the same sense of humor, we share a passion for our craft, and we have similar artistic visions. We really think on the same wavelength when it comes to our work, so Anthony really doesn’t have to give me much direction for me to understand what he is envisioning for the scene or the character. And I think because we have become so close, and we are so similar in our thinking, we have made tons of progress with Dr. Watkins. Because there is a deep level trust between us, I feel at ease with stepping out of my comfort zone and tackling on the emotionally taxing scenes and character developments that he throws at me. It’s very rare that you encounter such an easy working dynamic, so I feel very blessed to have developed such a close, trusting friendship with him. And it’s great when you are able to separate your working relationship from your personal relationship like we do. We can be poking fun at each other and acting like total idiots one minute, and then the next moment switch into ultra-serious, professional Director/Actor mode. And really, who doesn’t feel ecstatic to get to work closely with their best friend? 

ANTHONY: I agree with Vivien.  We hit it off almost immediately upon meeting and we have continued to become closer as we worked and have gotten to know each other.  She’s someone I trust and who I am always confident understands the direction I’m heading, in terms of Doctor Watkins and other characters.  It’s a blessing to know someone of Vivien’s experience level and to hear her feedback, as we do have similar storytelling goals and I’ve gained so much knowledge just from talking various aspects of projects out with her.  Needless to say, I also have a ton of fun with her.  We laugh and understand each other in a way that is rare, I think.  I second the ecstatic feeling about being able to work with your best friend.  It’s a complete joy and privilege.

And beyond the play, you’ve developed a working relationship within Face to Face Films. In what way has that played out?

VIVIEN: Being part of the company has been such a blessing. Because I am currently in college, I have had to take a bit of a step back from the acting world, which has not been easy for me. But Anthony has been so wonderful with making sure I am welcomed and involved in the company as much as I possibly can be. When I initially started with the company, I was cast as Natalie in “The Rabbits,” and now I am getting to experience the world of theater for the first time. And it has been an incredible journey. Face to Face has become my escape from the stress of school and the pandemic. I have enjoyed every second of being a part of this company. And I am ready to take on any new role Anthony is willing to offer me. Anthony has recently spoken to me about getting more involved in company decisions being made behind the camera and stage, and I have eagerly accepted. So, I am very excited to see how this new working relationship develops.

Circling back to The Girl With the Red Hair, you’re in the process of workshopping for another run later this year. How has the character of Doctor Watkins changed over the entire process?

VIVIEN: I think the biggest changes that have happened with Watkins is in her humanity and her vulnerability. We have been really working to explore who Watkins is outside of her profession, and how that affects her approach with her patients, especially Hayley. We wanted to see how much Watkins’ personal life compared to or paralleled the experiences of her patients. And we wanted to see how much of her past has influenced the doctor she has become. So, it’s been a lot of developing backstories and exploring the different personalities and moods that Watkins might experience from day to day. It’s been a challenge, but in the most rewarding way.

ANTHONY: There’s been a good amount of change with Doctor Watkins.  I think Vivien and I were very interested in exploring aspects of her softer side and how that would conflict with the way she is professionally.  Watkins is a very different character than she originally written, with a large thanks to Vivien.  She opened her up with an empathy and compassion that forces us to examine her rough exterior on the outside.  My hopes are that the audiences can see Watkins’ suffering and get a peek at what she might be hiding beneath her shell.

Life events can often influence art, sometimes even in subtle ways. Has the current pandemic, and outpouring of support for our health care workers, influenced the approach to Doctor Watkins and her place at the center of chaos?

VIVIEN: I would say that the current pandemic has had a greater effect on me emotionally and mentally than I anticipated it would. And that has made me rethink how Watkins might feel or react in stressful situations. It has made me question how much of Watkins’ professional demeanor is a façade and how much of it is sincere. People have a tendency to wear masks as a way of covering up what is really going on beneath the surface. And I think I have come to realize that Watkins is an expert at doing just that. So, Anthony and I have been experimenting with what it might be like for Watkins to peel away that mask a bit, so we can see more of what’s really going on in her mind, and the results have been truly eye-opening.

ANTHONY: That’s a really great question.  One of my hopes once the play sees its next performance is the compassion we have for anyone who treats us.  As we have seen, we often take people on the front lines for granted until we so desperately need them, and Doctor Watkins is no exception to that.  She is someone who cares about the people she treats and works with, even if it’s hard for her to show.

Vivien, you’ve portrayed characters on both the stage and screen. Between the two, what is the biggest difference in your approach?

VIVIEN: I don’t think the difference is as much my own approach as it is the contrast in production styles. Stage and film are two very different animals. In my personal experience with film, a majority of my prep work was done at my own discretion. When you are working on a film set, you are shooting scenes completely out of order. So, you have to take it one scene at a time, emotionally preparing yourself for that particular moment of time in the story. The director will guide you on the right track, but for the most part the prep work is all on the actor to do what they need to, to get where they need to be emotionally for that scene.  With stage productions, you are telling the story from start to finish with no break in between (except for a short intermission). So, all of the prep work you do is to make sure your storytelling is seamless, and that means everyone on and off stage is present and actively involved in every step of the process.

I’ve spent this year asking this question to writers and performers alike, and I’d love your thoughts on it: What do you value more, the mechanics of writing or storytelling?

VIVIEN: I think mechanics are an important component to any art form. But art is nothing without a message to drive it. Anyone can plug and play with textual formulas to create a written work. But I think true storytelling comes from the artistic vision of the writer, and purpose they have for writing. And that message is what people walk away remembering. 

ANTHONY: For me personally, I approach what the story means to me and what my vision and hope is in reaching an audience with it.  I don’t need to have experienced what I’m writing myself, but I need to deeply feel for each character why I’m presenting them to the world and why they are different than other characters or people we’ve seen.  I tend to find the more I think about dialogue, the more wooden it becomes, so most of the dialogue I write comes for a first or second pass and then I run it with the actors to see if it feels natural to them.  So, I suppose, it’s storytelling for me, because I think the perfect omission of information and how it’s structured can stay with an audience more than exactly how it’s written.

Review of Little Women, an online reading

This year has introduced the world to challenges new and difficult to face. The Covid-19 pandemic effectively shut down our daily lives, reducing them to around the clock adventures within the confines of our homes. And though some elements of life are attempting a return to normal, there’s still a gap we used to fill with measures of entertainment to both pass time and to leave lasting impressions on our creative souls.

The Arts have taken a notable hit, from the film industry to publishing to theater. It is the latter that drove me to one effort to bring an element of entertainment to those at home. On Saturday, May 23rd, Face to Face Films launched the first in an ongoing reading series, offering a full company production of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Partners Casey Hartnett and Anthony Laura of Face to Face Films designed and produced a full reading of the script, utilizing Zoom as a platform. Much like a table reading—if said table were cut into 12 pieces and placed in 12 different homes—the cast took on the roles and weaved through the story as if prepping for an upcoming stage run.

As an audience member, the experience was unique, yet not entirely unlike attending a full production. Tickets were not a requirement, but registration was, and took little to no time at all to complete. A well-worn theater seat facing a stage was replaced by a cozy and familiar chair at my desk. Several minutes prior to the reading, an email arrived, carrying with it not only a link to lead me to the show, but a program as well. My lights may not have dimmed, but as the music faded and Anthony appeared, I felt the same sense of excitement I would have felt watching a curtain rise. Then the reading began, with the aid of Stage Manager and Narrator Sofia Licata.

There were a few technical glitches along the way, though nothing that disrupted the reading, or went beyond tolerable. The experience of watching actors emote and pantomime eating or dancing on the screen without costume or set felt a little invasive and awkward at first, but quickly became an endearing and enjoyable addition. The cast found a nice groove almost immediately, bringing the story to the forefront, slipping from scene-to-scene seamlessly. As a viewer, I was drawn in. Despite the script’s continued time shifts, following the action was easy and enjoyable, a true testament to the production team as well to the skill of the actors.

In particular, the work of Samantha Yestrebsky as the aloof but determined Amy March was delightful to watch. She fully captured the raw emotion and strength of the character as if it were an extension of herself. Rheanna Salazar and Alexandra Rooney brought a consistent energy and timeless feel to Beth March and Young Beth March, respectively, while Alex Commito, taking on the role of Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, paired with the acting team of the March sisters with effortless precision.

The entire cast came prepared, gave life to their characters, shifted from role to role clearly, and captured the emotional depth of the story well. I would be remiss not to fully appreciate the work done by Josh Adwar, Gabe Calleja, Vivien Cardone, Emma Davidov, Casey Hartnett, and Kristen Hasty (Anthony Laura popped in as multiple characters as well!). Additionally, their willingness to stick around after the performance for a round of Q&A with attendees was highly appreciated and a great addition.

All-in-all, it was an experience worthy of theater and a wonderful use of technology at a time when we’re all a bit entertainment-starved. I applaud the production work of Face to Face Films (as well to their work to raise money for Covid-19 relief) and look forward to June’s presentation of Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, featuring Vivien Cardone, Alex Commito, Rheanna Salazar, and Isha Sumner. We may not be able to journey to the theater for some time, but it’s comforting to know that the theater has found a way to come to us.