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.

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: RFK, a production by Theater, Interrupted

Face to Face Films took its cue from the global pandemic in 2020, offering fans of the theater an opportunity to see and experience quality productions from the cozy confines of home. While props and music and staging has evolved since the initial production, the talent and direction has remained top notch.

For its latest production, Theater, Interrupted staged the one-man performance of RFK, written by Jack Holmes.

To begin the production, Face to Face company singer Madison C. Gray welcomed the audience with beautiful acapella renditions of Song of Silence and American Pie, setting the stage for the emotional journey of Robert Kennedy with a haunting sweetness.

Staged at the desk of RFK, the fiery politician framed by an American flag and portrait of sailboats, director Anthony M. Laura gives an online audience the presentable look of a staged performance. Accompanied with music by Philip Lauto, the experience of streaming theater is no longer a novelty, but rather a pleasant and welcomed new normal. With RFK, Theater, Interrupted has once more shown that theater can be an experience to behold, no matter where or when it is viewed.

RFK begins in 1964 and covers the span of 4 years, as Robert Kennedy copes with the loss of his brother, struggles with his political future, the enemies he made as Attorney General, his place in the family, and finds a voice during a time of civil unrest and war.

Dan Kelly portrays Robert Kennedy with an engaging mix of passion and uncertainty, channeling the insecurities and frustrations of a charismatic politician who could never live up to the towering shadow cast by his brother, John F. Kennedy. Kelly brings charm and flair, capturing the heart and charisma—and Boston accent—embodied by RFK.

From the opening scene nine months after his brother’s assassination, to his appearance in the 1968 primaries that brought an end to his life, the journey of RFK is well told, conceived beautifully, and a performance to be remembered.

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.