Unique Experience at SENE 2017


The South East New England Art, Music and Film Festival (SENE) completed its 9th year at the end of April in Providence. It is well-organized, affordable, exciting, welcoming, inclusive and run by some of the nicest people on the planet. That’s no easy feat. After five days packed with events, and a year of preparation, the two original co-founders, Don Farias and Phil Capobres, look so calm and unruffled, it’s almost unnatural. Along with Sheri Hooten, the managing director, these principals manage to put the emphasis on the music, artwork and films, as well as their creators. This selfless devotion of the organizers is one of the main reasons the experience at SENE is unique. An overall upbeat, yet calm and positive vibe permeates the proceedings.

There are a plethora of film festivals around the world. They are well-attended and enjoyed by filmmakers and film fans alike. These events provide a buffet of delights for the attendees: an opportunity to view a wide variety of stories, ideas, techniques, viewpoints and genres, and hob-nob with the artists as well. For the filmmakers accepted into a festival, it’s an opportunity to show their work, observe audience reaction, receive feedback from peers and professionals, network, learn, teach and have a lot of fun.  Many fests have become genre, or otherwise, specific, which follows the theory of development in every new applied idea or technology. It starts out as a general interest, but eventually evolves into specialties.

SENE seems to cover so much ground. Only at a much larger festival, for example SXSW, does one find other art forms highlighted. SENE puts the focus on art and music as well. Does New England have a deep well of artists and musicians? Have you been to New England? That’s not to say that creative people the world over are barred from SENE. In fact, the International Shorts segment is always one of the most interesting. It’s a chance to see what people are living, dreaming and fighting on the other side of the world. Shorts this year include films from Spain, France, Nepal, Ireland and Turkey.

It’s not all grim, of course. Comedy abounds, as in the award-winning feature, On the 7th Date by Chris Goodwin, featuring award-winning actress Anna Rizzo. The award-winning short Spice, by Shoot the Moon Films, is also hilarious. Both involve the obstacles around romance, but in very different stories. In addition, Shakespeare made an appearance with the award-winning feature Midsummer Night’s Dream, creatively reimagined in colonial times by director Richard Griffin.

SENE is a festival that is willing to take risks, which also is one of the main reasons one should go to a fest – that is, to broaden your mind and perspective. The main feature on Saturday evening was the dramatic feature Trinity by Skip Shea. Trinity has won several awards in foreign and genre-specific fests. It was shot in a very European style, not the usual sharp narrative, but almost a rambling, disconnected affect. It’s an unflinching look at the metaphorical evisceration of a young man thrown into a disturbing dissociative state when he runs into the priest who sexually abused him as a youth.

Next year should be even more exciting as SENE celebrates their 10th. Phil Capobres is retiring from his day job, but will still be co-producing the festival. Good news since Capobres, Farias and the team has such a winning formula. SENE was recently named one of the Top 50 Festivals Worth the Entry Fee by Moviemaker Magazine. For a complete list of films, awards and information, visit senefest.com.

Medical Cannabis for Boomers and Beyond

Wait a minute, should this even be a thing? Those born from 1946 to 1964, now aged 53 to 71, are the “Baby Boomer” generation. Weren’t we the ones who turned the establishment upside down in the Sixties and Seventies with “the Pill,” with “free love,” with protesting (sometimes violently) about the Vietnam War, with cheering on the anarchy of the “Chicago Seven,” with disrupting college campuses, with tripping out on LSD? So what’s the big deal about marijuana for us?

Well, in actuality, after my own research and interviewing many of my peers, let me dispel the myth that those behaviors were universally embraced by everyone in that same age bracket. The ideals of the “Boomers” were widely adopted: embracing the need to save the planet, recycling, having fewer children, planting trees, refusing to blindly accept everything our government tells us, becoming more active in governmental policy – but reality and ideals are not the same. Few traveled the path of “turn on, tune in, drop out.”

It was easy to adopt a more relaxed dress code, challenge your parents’ attitudes and rules, and stop going to church every Sunday, but weed would have crossed a line. We knew that everything around us would have a certain smell and our eyes might give us away. We never had any extra cash and a lot of us were non-smokers to start with, so weed-smoking was hardly alluring.

Not everyone went to college back then. Ready access to drugs didn’t exist if you stayed in our own small hometown where most college students came from, a product of very conservative parents who struggled and sacrificed to give us a better opportunity. My mother had a high school diploma; my father never finished high school because of the depression. In interviews with my peers, we remember that it was the few wealthy students who were first to have a ready supply of the drugs. Their parents visited campus in fur coats and expensive cars, but mine came in a Studebaker. It was easier for the rich kids to buck the system because they knew they always had their family’s wealth to fall back on. Most of us had to get that college degree for our futures.

Because of finances, the man I married was in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), a direct path into the armed services, partially because of the draft – the government decided when you, personally, went to war – and partially because it helped pay his way through school. Yes, we felt a bit torn between that conservative commitment and the more liberal pull from some of our friends, but our goals for life were clear, predicated on the securing of a college degree. So we did not partake.

Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that from 2002 to 2014, marijuana use in our age group rose from 1.1 percent to 6.1 percent, which equals a 455% increase. Now, we are collectively older: Some disabled from the wounds of Vietnam, some simply from age, and some from cancer.

In every stage of life, someone draws the short straw. My brother at 63 is completely disabled from an aggressive and unrelenting form of degenerative rheumatoid arthritis. He is in a high level of pain constantly. Nodes have infiltrated his lungs. He’s on oxygen. There’s a drug called Subsys, a more powerful form of fentanyl. It is now the only pharmaceutical that will give him any relief from his chronic, high-level pain and inability to move or even stand. The pharmaceutical company gave him the Subsys for a few months on a trial. He’s now cut off.

The irony is that, in New Hampshire, there is an opioid epidemic killing hundreds of people. What is the main black market drug? Subsys. I have contemplated standing on a street corner trolling for this drug for my brother. Recently, the state in which he lives allowed medical marijuana use. The family agreed that he should use it, yet we hesitated, old tapes playing in our heads. Would this, now, still be a betrayal of our parents’ trust?

We think in this instance, even our long deceased parents would agree that it is all right. What about any residual brain damage? My brother knows he’s near the end of his life. There will be no getting better. What if you’re not terminal? Is it still okay? What if you’re over 70: Should you use medical marijuana? Consider if, as with any treatment, the side effects will be worse than the disease you are suffering from? Not likely. You’ll hesitate due to old programming, but your aim is not to experience a high, not to drop out of society, not to abdicate any responsibility – it’s ultimately to improve the quality of your life – yet we do think about that because old programming runs deep.

Are you planning on going back to school for a Ph.D.? Planning on research, or any other activity demanding heavy thought? That’s not a slam to older people, nor is it meant as form of discouragement. Nor is it admitting that there are long lasting side effects. It’s a reality check.

Long ago we were raised to be rule followers but we readily broke many of those rules. When you age, a more reasoned approach settles back upon you. We will think about it, some of us more than others, before we act. Changes in the laws do much to assuage our concerns.

Angel Street at The Theatre Company of RI


droppedImageLiving in the big city, like Providence, can be fun. But sometimes, it’s good to get away from the city, especially in the summer. The Theatre Company of Rhode Island, at the Purple Cat Winery in Chepachet, presents the play Angel Street (Gaslight), through June 26. It’s the story of a husband versus his wife and a wily police detective, two of whom are after a reported treasure trove of rubies. Who will crack under the pressure first?

Set in 1880s London, the play is a Victorian thriller written by Patrick Hamilton, often most remembered as Gaslight. It is set in a time when although people were generally polite, they could be cruel. It was also a time before homes were wired with electricity. In London and the United States, gas lines were run so that illumination could be provided for the entire house. In fact, gas lighting was, for a while, in competition with electric lighting since an entire network of gaslight lines were run throughout most cities. There were idiosyncrasies to the old fuel source, and therein lies a crucial element on which the plot of Angel Street turns.

Thurber, ever the professional, looks dapper in his pin-striped suit, playing the amiable, yet insistent detective Rough from Scotland Yard.  Rough suspects the proper Mr. Manningham, played with vile haughtiness by Steven Taschereau, might actually be a murderer from a crime committed 15 years prior. Mr. Manningham has bullied his poor wife for years, under the guise of wanting to “take care of her.” She has not one shred of confidence left in herself or her own thoughts. The older housekeeper Elizabeth (Elizabeth Hopkins) tries to calm Mrs. Manningham, who is played with building, appropriate hysterics by Lisa Scotti-Johnson. The “red herring” in the group is the sassy, young maid Nancy (Sarah Keable), a part filled in the early days on Broadway by a very young Angela Lansbury. The action runs at a heart-pounding pace.

The intimate theater is set with lovely antique pieces to create the right atmosphere. Seating is in a semi-circle, but all seats bring one very close to the action. The only distraction is a middle-of-the-ceiling gaslamp that is never actually lit (but is supposed to be). Since Thurber is quite tall, he nearly runs into it every time he crosses the room. It is a key prop to the scene, but perhaps it could be lifted just a bit higher so the audience doesn’t worry about a head injury befalling a lead player.

Artistic director Michael Thurber has chosen the right mystery to chill from the heat this time of year in his season of mysteries. Patrons are not apprised of the exact play until two weeks before it opens. If you want to get in on the inside scoop, sign up for the mailing list when you are at the theater. At intermission, free refreshments are served along with a few wines (at a small cost) from the resident Purple Cat Winery.

The drive through the lake-like region to the theater takes you through several charming towns like Harmony and Greenville. The road is lined with generous green trees, ponds brimming with blue water and other people enjoying the leisure benefits of Rhode Island by fishing, kayaking and antiquing. The Purple Cat Winery is set in a relaxed setting, back off the road, and contains the winery, café, reading room, screening room, plenty of walkabout land and the cozy playhouse on the lower level.

Angel Street continues with performances at the Winery at 8pm on Friday, June 24 and Saturday, June 25, and a matinee performance at 2pm on Sunday, June 26. For more information about The Theatre Company of Rhode Island please visit tcrionline.com.

The Taming of the Shrew Brings Joy to Outdoor Venue


Bob Colonna as Mama BaptistaThe summertime tradition of Shakespeare in the park is truly delightful. This year The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre (TRIST) presents Taming of the Shrew at the Roger Williams Memorial, North Main Street, Providence. Directed by Bob Colonna, this production is great entertainment for a summer’s eve. Colonna directs with an eye for the outdoor space, and knows how to make the most of his actors’ strengths in this lively battle of the sexes.

As usual, there are some accommodations made to the text for the outdoor venue. The characters all bear some resemblance to those often found on Federal Hill in Providence. Colonna does double-duty, donning the drag apparel of Mama Baptista Minola. In Shakespeare’s time, this was the tradition, since women were not allowed to perform. Colonna’s portrayal of the elder lady is hysterical, which adds an extra dimension to the comedy.

Taking care of her daughters’ future, the wealthy Mama Baptista decrees that the elder sister Katarina (Cherylee Dumas) must be wed before the younger sister Bianca (Jackie Aguirre). Bianca has many suitors because she is gracious, humble and beautiful. Katarina, on the other hand, is fair of face, yet foul-mouthed, loud, aggressive and stubborn. Katarina has already driven off a number of potential suitors.

A newcomer to the region, Lucentio (Patrick Connelly) arrives with his sister Tranio (Lauren Annicelli) to study, but puts that pursuit aside when he is smitten by the image of the fair Bianca. He soon learns that he must not only get in line to court Bianca, but he must help plan to marry off Katarina first. Meanwhile, two local suitors, Gremio (Geoff White) and Hortensio (Andrew Conley), argue over Bianca. Nearly everyone ends up in disguise to attain their desires.

Katarina (Dumas) and Petruchio (Kane)Thickening the plot further is the arrival of Hortensio’s friend Petruchio (David Kane), a brash, spirited young man in search of a wife. He is accompanied by his loyal servant Grumio (Justin Paige). Petruchio proclaims his desire to marry into a wealthy family and cares not what the demeanor of the potential bride may be. Of course, Hortensio recommends Katarina. Sight unseen, Petruchio vows to marry Kate no matter what. Comedy chaos ensues.

Colonna has assembled a wonderful troupe of players who carry a high level of energy throughout the play, and make good use of the physical space of the Roger Williams Memorial. A striped cabana, a bench and a picnic table are all they need along with their skills to engage the audience. We even enjoy the arrival of the reputed capo Don Vincenzo (Mark Carter), whose name brings trepidation to all who hear it. Rounding out the band of merry players are The Widow (Nicole Pellegrino), the Tailor (Simone Pelligrino) and the Haberdasher (Anika Poshkus).  Stage Manager is Kat Brown.

David Kane and Cherylee Dumas give terrific performances as the leads Petruchio and Katarina. But there is not a slouch in the bunch as the story flies by in the night, undeterred by an ambulance or firetruck siren. Admission is FREE. Performance starts at 8pm, Thursday through Sunday nights through June 5.


Persistence Brings Success to Young Filmmaker

Chris Esper_FilmmakerThe Southeast New England Film, Music and Art Festival wrapped on April 23, 2016. It featured Artwork at the Warwick Museum of Art, Music at the Arctic Playhouse in West Warwick, and film screenings in East Greenwich, West Warwick and Providence, RI. For a full list of Jury and Audience Award winners please go to the website, www.senefest.com. While in attendance at the fest, I was particularly impressed with one young filmmaker, Chris Esper. Only a few years out of school, he had three films accepted into the SENE fest, has won numerous awards around the film fest circuit, and has produced an impressive body of work. He just founded his own production company, Stories in Motion, and has a book coming out, The Filmmaker’s Journey, in June. Nothing seems to hold him back, so I took some time out to interview Esper about his career. He graciously gave his time to answer these questions.

Mary DeBerry: What motivated you to pursue filmmaking as a career?

Chris Esper: I have had a love for film since I was a child. My parents always let me rent a movie from the video store or took me to the theater, and I just always enjoyed it. When I was around age 10, I saw Ghostbusters for the first time and loved it for its comedy and science fiction elements. It was because of that influence that I attempted to write a sci-fi/comedy in that same vein about a boy and his robot, which I called Boy Bot. I went as far as to find the producer of Ghostbusters and sent him my 30-page script, thinking it could be made. About 6 months to a year later, I got my script back with “Return to Sender” stamped on it.

Surprisingly, none of this derailed me in any way. If anything, it just fueled my energy. Not only did I love movies, but I loved the arts altogether. During my teenage years, I tried my hand at acting, stand-up comedy, animation, photography, puppetry and much more. When I was 17, I got my first camera and started making YouTube short films. I did basically everything. It was a fun time of self-discovery.

When I was 18 I decided that film would be my career path. The way I see it, I could combine all the art forms I loved into one medium. Eventually, I attended New England Institute of Technology for video/film production and graduated in 2012, and have been professionally working in film and video ever since.

MD: You’re from New Jersey. What brought you to RI for school?

CE: I moved to Rhode Island in 2004 when I was 14 years old. Due to a change in my family at that time, my whole family packed up and moved to Lincoln. Currently, I live in Attleboro, Massachusetts. I chose New England Tech because it was a very hands-on education, which I loved. At first, I wanted to go to a film/art school more than anything else, but I realized that it wasn’t fully possible due to high tuition and other concerns. I think I made the right choice.

MD: What’s the up side, or benefits to the Rhode Island filmmaking community? What are the challenges? 

CE: I think the up side to Rhode Island filmmaking is the close-knit community where everyone is willing to pitch in and help on any project, and also how personal and independent the stories are. They come from the heart. The down side can be trying to secure enough funding to capture the vision that we have in our heads. Because we’re small as a community, it’s hard to compete with the big leagues. It can also be challenging to deal with folks who are unrealistic in their approach. Instead of trying to hide your limitations, I believe you should embrace them, which can lead to creative ideas.

MD: You always seem to maintain a positive attitude. How do you overcome challenges, or do you only see opportunities?

CE: The way I see it, things happen all the time, and all you can do is face those challenges head on. Sure, I can be negative and even get aggravated by challenges I face, but everything happens for a reason. I see it as an opportunity to become a better filmmaker each time around.

MD: Which project are you most proud of so far and why?

CE: This is really hard because each project has a special place in my heart. If I had to choose one, I think I would say Still Life, purely from a story perspective. I say that film because it was personal and close to my heart. I always feel the need to make films that are close to me and dig into my soul. Still Life was that project for me, not just because I wrote it, but because it came from feelings I was going through at the time. The idea is very simplistic and perhaps has been done hundreds of times before, but it was my own story, which I think makes it stand out. It came from my days in college when I would present work to my classes and received feedback. At the time, I wasn’t very thick skinned about receiving criticism, so I took these feelings and expressed it in a screenplay and eventually on film. In the end, the film ended up playing at nine film festivals and received great critical acclaim around the world. Showing the film at a local theater was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had as a filmmaker.

MD: I’ve seen stop action, comedy, music videos and dramas you have done. Do you have a preferred genre? Do you plan to remain diverse or develop a particular focus?

CE: Yes, I do plan to remain diverse. I think that’s one of things I love about what I do is being able to do almost anything and not be tied down to one genre or style. Certainly, there are certain genres or styles I wish to explore more than others, such as drama and psychological thrillers/horrors. The main thing for me is that the film explores something deeper and perhaps shed some light on life, no matter the genre I choose to work in.

MD: Who are your film influences?

CE: There are a lot of directors I love. Martin Scorsese is my favorite director by far. I love his visual style, his human stories and how far he takes his character exploration. More importantly, his passion for cinema is contagious. It was after seeing Raging Bull for the first time that I knew that I wanted to be a director.

I also love Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick for their stories and visual styles. David Cronenberg for his symbolic imagery and recurring themes, Terrance Malick for his beautiful cinematography, Francois Truffaut for his personal storytelling, Darren Aronofsky for his deep characterizations, Charlie Chaplin for his visual comedy and Jim Henson and Walt Disney for their imagination.

MD: How do you secure funding for your projects?

CE: I’ve self-funded my films and also used crowdfunding such as IndieGoGo to raise funds. I’ve been lucky in being successful in both areas. Raising funds is the hardest part of filmmaking, I feel. The more money available, the more I could create the images I see in my head. Sometimes, I simply just need to work with what I have,  which doesn’t always satisfy my mind’s eye, but satisfies my ability to think outside the box as needed.

MD: I believe you said you’d like to be known as a director. Is that with a DP on set?

CE:  I much prefer to have a DP. I used to shoot my own films when I was college, but I quickly discovered that while I knew how to light and shoot pretty well, I found it difficult to direct and also DP my own film. I find myself being so focused on my framing and lighting that I forget about my actors and story, and vice versa. It always helps to have that extra pair of eyes behind the camera to be objective and tell me what works and what doesn’t. The same goes for editing. I feel as though I can’t be objective when I do it all. At the end of the day, I feel it’s more important as a director to have a shot list and storyboard in mind, and shots and lighting I want, but my main focus is on my actors and the direction of the story.

MD: You have a vlog for filmmakers. How do you plan it and choose what to talk about?

CE: I started the vlog because I felt that there was a lot of information that filmmakers don’t know about. And they don’t know how handle the hardships of this career. There’s a ton of information about what kind of equipment to get and how to make movies, but there’s no information about the psychology of filmmaking, and how to handle rejection. Also, there is not much information available on where to submit to your work. I choose my topics based on subjects that I’ve always wanted to know to about, or wished someone had told me about when I was first starting out. I try to film about three to five episodes in one day to have episodes backed up and ready for each week.

MD: I hear you have a book coming out. When does it come to market and where?

CE: The book is based on my vlog, also called The Filmmaker’s Journey. The book is about the same topics I talk about in the vlog, but in a longer form. Also, there’s a lot of things I don’t always get to say in 5 minutes or less. It will be on Amazon both in digital on Kindle and on paperback on June 24.

MD: You had three pieces in the Southeast New England Film, Music and Art Fest recently; two music videos and a comedy. Which best represents your work? Please tell me about your awards.

CE: I think of the three projects that were selected this year, Please Punish Me best represents my work because it’s also a personal film about doing what you love without settling for less.

As for awards I’ve won, I’ve been lucky to have won awards both locally and also around the country. My short film, Still Life, won the award for Best Film Editing (Jill Poisson) at the Motif Magazine Theater and Film Awards, Steak Knives won an award for Best Opening Scene at the Stories by the River Film Festival and Best Comedy Short at the Culver City Film Festival, Always a Reason won an award for Excellence in Storytelling at the Stories by the River Film Festival, two of my music videos, I Hear the Future and Come Back won awards at TEXAS Ultimate Shorts Film Festival, my music video Hold Tight won the honorable mention award for Best Music Video at SENE Film, Arts and Music Festival in 2015. Finally, I was honored to have won the award for Outstanding Guest Director for Angelwood Pictures series, In the Bedroom for the episode Out the Window.

MD: You’ve gotten good press early on. I’m sure others may wonder how that’s done.

CE: It’s rather easy to get press for your work these days. With the advent of technology and the internet there’s a lot of resources. There are many websites and blogs that review independent films and short films. It’s great to get a review because then readers outside of your area will find out about your work, and it’s also a great way to see how others look at your work in an honest way.

MD: Any words of wisdom to other aspiring filmmakers? 

CE: The best advice I could give is to just keep making movies and never give up. It’s easy to crack under pressure and just stop altogether because of how difficult it can be. But everything eventually falls into place with persistence and determination.

Chris Esper’s work can be seen at storiesmotion.com


High School Revenge Murder Mystery at Artists’ Exchange

Murder Myster AEIf high school was the best time of your life, and you feel like that’s when you met your best, lifelong friends, High School Revenge Murder Mystery is for you. As soon as you enter the door at the Artists’ Exchange on Rolfe Square, the energy and excitement hit you. You’ll never be so warmly welcomed at any other reunion you attend. There’s plenty of upbeat attitude to spare. You too can share in the fun, especially if you just play along and let yourself enjoy. You can even sing along with the old school fight song – lyrics are provided.

You’ll recognize the usual “types” of people who populate any high school. There’s the fashionista Tina Manning (Jessica Chace), the eternal wise guy Zack Foster (David Kane), the rock star Dwight Dingley (Tom Chace), the emotional, trying-too-hard Amy Wallace (Anna Correa), and many more. The Class of 1996 of the fictional Sprague High School is hosting the party with members of the current class and future classes involved. Every detail has been prepared right down to the Reunion Weekend Schedule of Festivities and Activities (which doubles as the program). Get a balloon animal, pop into the photo booth with a friend, buy a cupcake at the bake sale, and make sure you pick up a copy of the trivia quiz. The Revival Brewing Company is the sponsor and serves beer, available for those over 21, at the show.

High School Revenge Murder Mystery is the brainchild of the talented Jessica Chace, the artistic director, and Tom Chace, the musical director at the Artists’ Exchange. Jessica also directed the show and Tom wrote all the songs, including the school fight song. The high-octane reunion also celebrates the Hip with Humanity cast (a smash show by the 1996 class) and upcoming tour. The younger students are also hopeful to begin a junior version so they can bring the arts into school. The celebration is well underway when two gun shots are heard. A wounded alum staggers to the main stage and collapses, and the murder mystery begins.

Audience members are very much into the game, enthusiastically searching for clues, questioning suspects and choosing whom they think is the culprit, booing and clapping where appropriate. Many suspects have motive, but only one has the right opportunity as well. It’s a multi-media presentation with a special surprise guest making an important video-taped appearance.  Be sure to wear comfortable shoes because the clues are scattered throughout both levels of the Artists’ Exchange, and you don’t want to miss anything!

High School Revenge Murder Mystery continues at the Artists’ Exchange, 50 Rolfe Square, Cranston, through April 2. For tickets and show time information call 401-490-9475 or visit their website at artists-exchange.org.

Say Amen to Mass Appeal

Mass Appeal Sackal_Colonna copyThe Catholic Church has been embattled in scandal about priest sex abuse since the original reporters of Spotlight (same as the recent film) broke the story in Boston. However, the current production of Mass Appeal, playing at 2nd Story Theater in Warren, shows that a variety of closed-minded biases have existed in the church for a very long time. Luckily, this show is heavy on the comedy and light on the drama, although there are a number of messages in the text if you listen. Raised in the regime of the Catholic Church myself, it’s nice to laugh at some of the old notions young seminarian Mark Dolson blows up in sedate, old Father Farley’s face.

Mass Appeal was written by Bill C. Davis in 1980. Artistic director, Ed Shea, has taken some “literary license” to update the dialogue for contemporary audiences, making reference to Hillary Clinton, for example. I saw the show in previews, yet all the important elements were in good shape. In fact, the real gem here is the top-notch performance of Bob Colonna, whose well-drawn portrayal of Father Tim Farley is spot on, and whose comic timing is impeccable. Colonna’s turn in Mass Appeal should not be missed. David Sackal does a fine job as Mark Dolson, the “apprentice” – known as a seminarian or deacon in the church. And no, you don’t have to be Catholic to get the jokes.

The young firebrand Mark Dolson (Sackal) shows up to see Father Farley (Colonna) in running clothes with exposed legs and no socks. That’s horror enough for Farley, but Dolson also appeared at Mass the previous Sunday and challenged Fr. Farley publicly about women becoming priests. Farley is outraged since he does not tolerate perceived disrespect and has become set in his ways. He is the “king” of his congregation. A glass of scotch always in hand (outside of church), Farley has perhaps given up on the idealistic goals of his youth. Both of the characters travel through a nice arc of emotions during the play. Eventually, after much kicking and screaming, they become invested in each other’s path.

Shea announced this comedy-drama show is a change in the schedule for 2nd Story. He intimated that he thought we have all had enough angst from the zeitgeist.  Therefore, 2nd Story has lightened up the fare a bit with shows not steeped in bile. I can recommend Mass Appeal as a refreshing change of pace. The audience laughed nearly every minute. There are some sad moments, of course, when the higher ups in the chain of command exert pressure on both Fr. Farley and Dolson to conform to expectations.  The sparring of the pair, the old and the new, is entertaining and invigorating. It might even raise some questions in your own mind.

Specific lighting of different “locations” on the set (pulpit in church, Farley’s office, etc.) is effective, but the sound design puzzles me. I thought the organ music could have started sooner before the play began to help set the mood. In addition, the random secular music during one of Colonna’s monologues and at intermission is off-putting. Perhaps “Get Me To The Church On Time” or “Going to the Chapel,” or something similar would have made more sense.

Mass Appeal plays at 2nd Story Theater March 11 through April 3. For more information and tickets please visit 2ndstorytheatre.com/show/mass-appeal/.

Invisible Upsouth, the Journey Continues

Invisible UpSouth is an original stage work currently playing at the Wilbury Group’s space at the Southside Cultural Center in Providence. The work is the brain-child of Christopher Johnson and Vatic Kuumba, inspired by the book from 50 years ago, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, 1952, addressing issues facing African-Americans of the time. Through a combination of theatrical formats, Invisible UpSouth examines what life is like in a “post-racial” society. How far have we come? What everyday fears and prejudices remain? How can we get our message across in another way? The piece came to fruition through the Wilbury’s New Works program, produced by Kate Kataja. It packs a powerful punch, and the Q and A afterward with the audience is lively.

Clips of film, television and newscasts flood the large projection screen as the audience enters. Projected images range from 1915’s The Birth of a Nation with its hooded KKK members, to Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl half-time show. It’s a diverse collection of depictions of African-Americans and their persecutors, peers and leaders (eg, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr.). Many of the clips are cringe-worthy, and rightfully so (black-face makeup use with dim-wit personas). As a very young child in the 1950s I remember watching our church put on a minstrel show with white men in blackface. And this was in “better-educated” New England. Sometimes, it isn’t until these realities are reflected back to us do we actually know what we have done.

Guilt trips are not the goal of Christopher Johnson and Vatic Kuumba, who both give outstanding performances as Old Man and Young Man respectively. They seek solutions. Invisible UpSouth grew out of conversations and the desire to inform, educate and encourage change. The material is gritty, real, emotional, begs questions and demonstrates how powerful language is – depending on who is speaking and in what context it is used. Complicated issues are made easier to understand through characters, poetry, vignettes and scenes from a story about Young Man’s search for work as a black man, and the constant worry about his friends being shot.

The work is heart-wrenching, funny at times, thought-provoking and straight from the hip about the African-American experience in current times. The issue of police shootings is central. But there is much, much more. We’re reminded that anyone’s perspective on a subject depends on where they are standing.

Christopher Johnson is a published and international spoken-word artist and poet (and occasional Motif contributor). Currently in residence at AS220 where he has honed his work, he has many awards to his credit. He recently toured the United States with The Freedom Project.  Johnson says people don’t really understand “Black Lives Matter” when they say, “All Lives Matter” or they don’t see color. By not acknowledging our differences, it makes African-Americans invisible. We admit that most of society expects assimilation. Everyone should “learn the right language,” adopt a “mainstream hairdo,” etc. But, there has to be a middle-ground where we can celebrate our differences, yet be accepted by and accepting of others who do the same.

Vatic Kuumba relocated to Providence in 2012 and has been a fan and a favorite at Providence Poetry Slam. In 2015 he gave a TEDx Talk on Rap Slam and his vision of the future of hip-hop. Rap Slam is a hybrid of performance poetry and competitive rap. “I am driven by ideas,” says Kuumba. “My passion belongs to creation. Words are the most economical medium. One can create a universe with words and not spend a penny.”

Invisible UpSouth continues through March 6 at the Wilbury’s Southside Center location in Providence. For times, tickets and more information about this still developing work go to thewilburygroup.org.

Ant’ny Claus — A Dysfunctional Family Christmas

antnyIf you’re looking for something completely different (nods to Monty Python) this holiday season, take time to see this uproarious original story, Ant’ny Claus: A Dysfunctional Family Christmas, produced by the Academy Players.  The character and the play spring from the mind of Rhode Island comic, actor and director Frank O’Donnell. So yes, expect a certain amount of irreverence. It’s all in fun as the play follows the story of Santa’s younger brother, Ant’ny (Anthony), as he waits through yet another Christmas Eve to see if he gets a turn in the big guy’s sleigh.

Bobbi Ricci plays the nervous Ant’ny. His family is like many families “youse” might know here in Rhode Island. There’s the favorite daughter, the beleaguered son and the over-bearing mother-in-law who won’t let anyone leave the house without having some of her delicious food. The visitors include some local broadcasters who just happen to wander in. Each night a special guest appears as part of the cast. Keep an eye out for a local weather, news or sportscaster you might recognize.

You don’t have to be Italian to enjoy the show, but many of the jokes are infused with familiar Italian phrases, and of course, there’s that one older, hard-of-hearing relative who manages to hear everything. Kimberly Harper as Carmella, Ant’ny’s wife, is beautiful and holds her own against myriad crazy characters. Connie Anderson is a scene-stealer as Carmella Senior, who always says what’s on her mind. And there’s a spirited talking reindeer, Bennie Blue Balls (Lynn Nadrowski), who tries to keep Ant’ny up to speed on what’s happening in the North Pole.

Previously produced at Theater Works in Woonsocket, the Academy Players welcomed the show into their new space in Providence near Buttonwoods Golf Course. The character of Ant’ny emerged about 20 years ago to entertain at holiday parties, but became so popular over time that he took on a life of his own. Four years ago, O’Donnell felt there was enough material to craft a two-act play, and so the saga about Santa’s younger brother and his family, Ant’ny Claus: A Dysfunctional Family Christmas was born.

There’s an enthusiastic group of young people who play various parts including a group of carolers who keep coming back to the Claus’s door, again and again.  The Academy Players has a strong contingent of young actors who are active in their Stage Door programs. O’Donnell is active in helping many charitable causes. There’s a 50/50 raffle during the show with proceeds benefiting the Stage Door programs. At the top of the show the young people show their singing skill again with a charming intro about the show, written to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Notfanuttin’ but youse should see dis show. Ant’ny Claus: A Dysfunctional Family Christmas plays through December 13. For tickets or more information call 401-830-0880 or email AcademyPlayers@gmail.com or visit their website at academyplayersri.org.  Programs are only available online, as part of their Green Initiative.


TAPA Students Chosen for National Event

TAPAPressPhotoIn December, Providence’s own TAPA: Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts, Providence’s premiere school for the integration of the arts and academics, along with the URI Providence Campus Arts & Culture Program, will bring Prospect High: Brooklyn to Rhode Island audiences. TAPA will be the one and only school in Rhode Island and New England to premiere the new play in a national release event. The play is written by Rhode Island native and URI graduate Daniel Robert Sullivan and the 46th St. Collective; a group of New York City teens. Prospect High: Brooklyn is a unique theater experience with emotional and timely content. It will have a simultaneous rolling premiere in 23 high schools across the country throughout the current academic year.

TAPA will premiere this stirring and important work on December 2 and 4, 2015, at 7pm at URI’s Paff Auditorium on Washington Street in Providence. Admission is free. TAPA theater teacher, Daniel Lee White, who is also an actor, director and filmmaker, will lead the project here. Says White, “The students of TAPA have been working hard since September breaking down the work, finding the root of the characters and bringing the piece to life. We are approaching the work in an experimental style that allows the focus to be on the characters and their relationships. The students have been excited to tackle the difficult content and find real characters and emotions that drive this piece to a climactic conclusion. We have also integrated the topics into our ELA classes allowing all of TAPA’s students to reflect on the social topics that are displayed in the show. TAPA is proud of the students’ and staff’s dedication to this piece of art and a final production that will be the culmination of months of hard work.”

The play focuses on four intelligent, highly energized students, and one seriously apathetic teacher. The themes address issues important to the youth of today, which Sullivan gleaned from his work with New York City students. Themes include apathy, revenge, friendship, casual racism, acceptance of trans-people and the power of both good and bad advice from teachers. It is all set against the backdrop of a huge Brooklyn High School.  Author Sullivan says, “I wanted to create an issue-driven, age-appropriate, ethnically-diverse, flexible-cast play that represents the extremes inherent in an urban high school environment.” In other words, issues important to youth today.

In selecting TAPA to premiere the production, playwright Daniel Robert Sullivan notes, “There is so much energy and power in teenage theater makers, but that positive force is often felt only locally. After much research, we chose 23 of the boldest high school theater departments from across the country and can use this first ever high school rolling world premiere to recognize them and expose their power at a national level.”

In addition to director Daniel Lee White, the production includes a cast of four students and one faculty member. Prospect High: Brooklyn stars students Everlee Rodriguez, Steven Rosario, Oscar Soto-Quiñones and Idallis Taylor, all of Providence, and TAPA instructor Ammar Zia. Asher Couto and Vanida Pell, also of Providence, make up the stage management crew as well as serving as understudies for the production. Rachel Nadeau, adjunct theatre artist in Residence is the production’s chief designer.

Nanci DeRobbio, TAPA’s head of school asserts that she is thrilled for TAPA students to receive this recognition on a national scale. For more information, please contact Patricia Hawkridge, Dean of the Arts at ms.hawkridge@tapaprovidence.org, or visit their website at: tapaprovidence.org.