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.

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.