Rep’s ‘Actors’ Features Two of the Best Local Talents

Rochester Repertory Theatre’s “Don’t Talk to the Actors” cast, from left, Rene Stiller, Laurie Helmers, Larry Sinak, Rich Manfield, Christina Stier and Nick Rudlong.
Andrew Link

 

What a treat it is to watch two “seasoned” pros at work.

We’re talking about Larry Sinak and Laurie Helmers, two Rochester stage veterans, who play a couple of seasoned actors in the comedy “Don’t Talk to the Actors,” which opened Friday at the Rochester Repertory Theatre.

The play, by Tom Dudzick, is about Jerry, a young playwright from Buffalo, N.Y. Jerry’s script has been picked up by a Broadway producer. It’s Jerry’s first trip to the big city, and he and his fiance, Arlene, can’t believe their luck as they arrive for rehearsals.

And to make it even more exciting, Arlene’s favorite actor, Curt Logan, has agreed to do the play. Of course, Curt’s got more on his mind than playing the milquetoast character Jerry has written.

The Rep’s production, directed by Mary Bruns Pyfferoen, reaches for all the farcical comedy there is in the script — and then some, thanks to Sinak, as Logan, and Helmers as bawdy actress Beatrice Pomery.

Sinak, who is normally seen in dramatic roles, here pulls out all the stops to create a character who is grounded just enough in reality to be both hilarious and sad.

Helmers also stretches herself, applying a comic twist to her musical-theater talent.

Watching Sinak’s Logan and Helmers’ Beatrice battle it out during rehearsals and rewrites of Jerry’s play is an absolute delight.

“I thought you were dead,” Beatrice says when she meets Logan at the first rehearsal.

“Death is looking pretty good right now,” he answers.

When one of the two isn’t on stage, the play seems more frenetic than focused. There is good, clever dialog in the script, although some of the jokes announce themselves in advance, and others — one character’s complaints about how much things cost in New York, for example — wear out their welcome in a hurry.

Nick Rudlong, a reliable comic actor, portrays Jerry as an awestruck nervous wreck. Rich Mansfield is Mike, the director, who tries to get Jerry’s show off the ground. Christina Stier has fun as the finicky stage manager (who for some reason is written as a British expat), and Rene Stiller makes her Rep debut as Arlene.

Is this really how a Broadway show is made? If so, there’s a lesson here for all aspiring playwrights who dream of Broadway, a Tony and a Pulitzer: Be careful what you wish for.

As for us, we wish for another show with Sinak and Helmers going toe-to-toe.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   May 6, 2019

Rep’s ‘Don’t Talk to the Actors’ Goes Behind the Scenes

Rochester Repertory Theatre’s “Don’t Talk to the Actors” cast, from left, Rene Stiller, Laurie Helmers, Larry Sinak, Rich Manfield, Christina Stier and Nick Rudlong.
Andrew Link

 

Ever wonder what goes on behind the curtain at a play?

It’s not always pretty, but it is funny, according to “Don’t Talk to the Actors,” a comedy opening Friday at the Rochester Repertory Theatre.

“It gives you an inside look at what goes on behind the scenes,” said Mary Bruns Pyfferoen, who is directing the play. “The playwright based it on his own experiences.”

But, she added, “It kind of goes over the top.”

Then again, so do some actors and directors — it’s part of being in theatre, we’re led to assume by this script.

Does it ring true? “Some of it,” Pyfferoen said.

In the play, a young playwright and his fiance anticipate his big break when his play is optioned for Broadway. But they quickly become overwhelmed by what passes for normal behavior in the ego-driven New York theater world.

Pyfferoen said when she first read the play, she had local actors in mind for some of the script’s characters. Her mind was changed a few times as actors at auditions read for roles in the play. “They fit into their parts perfectly,” she said.

She ended up with a cast of Nick Rudlong, newcomer Renee Stiller, Rich Mansfield, Christina Stier, Laurie Helmers and Larry Sinak. For Sinak, best known for dramatic roles in recent years, it’s a rare comedy role. Helmers is stepping away from her specialty of musicals. “She’s also stretching herself,” Pyfferoen said.

At this stage in rehearsals, she said, the actors are still cracking up at each other’s lines. The audience should have the same experience when viewing the play. “You won’t be able to help yourself,” she said.

In any event, the play promises to be eye-opening for audience members who do not routinely take part in the production of a play. “They may get a different idea of what goes into putting in a play,” Pyfferoen said.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   May 2, 2019

Lives They Lived: Theater Community Mourns Loss of ‘Gentle Genius’

The Rochester theater community this week is mourning the loss of Eric Donaldson, a tech wizard and quiet giant of a man who died unexpectedly last Friday.

“Truly, it’s just a terrible loss,” said Jeanne Skattum, a director at the Rochester Repertory Theater. “The whole theater community is in shock.”

Skattum learned of Donaldson’s death after the opening of “Avenue Q” Friday night at the Rep. Donaldson had assisted Skattum with that production, devising the video monitor hookup on which part of the play is projected.

It was typical of Donaldson, friends and colleagues said, to come up with a high-tech solution to a stage problem, and use his own donated equipment to make it work.

“He was generous and gave and gave and gave as much of himself as he could,” said Sue Schnell, who worked closely with Donaldson not only on plays, but also on marketing videos for the Rep. She called him a “gentle genius.”

Donaldson, 57, was born at a Navy hospital in California, but grew up in Dodge Center. He graduated from Dodge Center High School in 1979, and then earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from St. Olaf College. He worked in the energy, software and video fields, but devoted much of his time to Rochester’s various theater companies.

Early on, he made his mark on stage. “The most memorable in my opinion as well as many others, was his performance as Lenny in ‘Of Mice and Men’ at the Civic Theatre in the early 2000s,” said Bill Schnell, a local actor and director.

Donaldson was an early member of Vertigo Theatre and the Theater du Jour sketch comedy troupe. “That’s where be began his reign as community theater technical king,” Schnell said. “Sound, lighting, special effects, video and audio recording, and much of it on equipment he purchased and donated.”

Schnell remembered the time during a Theater du Jour rehearsal at the Civic Theatre when Donaldson started up a fog machine in the lobby. The fog set off smoke alarms and brought the fire department racing to the scene. “He never lived that one down,” Schnell said.

Sue Schnell said Donaldson specialized in Rep and Theater du Jour marketing videos that went way beyond a casual shoot. “Every project became more amazing once he got his hands on it,” she said.

“He helped every theater company in town,” Skattum said. “He was brilliant.”

Donaldson is survived by his mother, Ruth Donaldson, of Dodge Center and two brothers, Mark and Kurt.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   March 21, 2019

 

Rep Theatre Wants to Purchase Building in Which it Performs

Rochester Repertory Theatre might be on the verge of finally owning the building in which it rehearses and produces its plays.

“We have the option to purchase the Rep building,” Mark Masbruch, president of the Rep’s board of directors, announced March 15 before the opening of the current production, “Avenue Q.” “We just need to come up with a down payment.”

The building in which the Rep performs, at 103 Seventh St. NE, is owned by William P. Kolb, according to Olmsted County Records.  The estimated market value for tax purposes is $283, 100.

It’s those taxes that the Rep would get out from under if the organization is able to purchase the building. As a non-profit organization, the Rep would be excused from property taxes if it owned the site. But the Rep’s lease agreement requires it to pay the property taxes on the site, which Masbruch said are about $10,000 annually.

“It would be economically advantageous” Masbruch said.

It is not known what the asking price of the building is, but Masbruch indicated the Rep would need about $80,000 for a down payment.

To get a start on that, the Rep will hold its annual “Build Our Future” fundraising event April 13. That, combined with some matching grants and other donations, could get the Rep about halfway to its goal, Masbruch said.

“Then we’ll start calling some people,” he said.

The Rep’s annual budget has inched up to about $120,000 in recent years. It is an all-volunteer organization with no permanent paid full-time staff. The theatre just announced its 36th season, which will include an expanded lineup of seven plays.

Masbruch listed a redesign of the performance space, an increase in the number of seats, and expanded bathrooms as key projects if the building is purchased.

The Rep formerly performed on the second floor of a building that no longer exists at 314 1/2 S. Broadway. When forced to move from that site in 2007, the Rep was able to secure performance space in the current location, which had been the home of the now-defunct Studio Academy arts school.

The 9,256-square-foot building was constructed in 1957.  The Rep uses the front of the building facing Seventh Street Northeast, as a lobby/reception area and ticket office. The performance space, which has 90 seats, is at the rear of the building. A second, smaller rehearsal/performance space is located on the second floor.

Those interested in supporting the Rep’s fundraising drive may go to rochesterrep.org/about or call (507) 289-1737.

 

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   March 20, 2019

Rep’s ‘Avenue Q’ Unlike Anything Else on Local Stages

It isn’t always easy to find truly daring productions in community theater.

But Rochester Repertory Theatre has broken out of the box in a big way with “Avenue Q,” a wonderfully witty show that opened last Friday. This adults-only version of “Sesame Street”-related characters and lessons–complete with Muppet-style puppets-is not your standard fare.

“It took a lot of courage for us to do this,” one Rep board member said after Friday’s opening. The Rep was rewarded Friday with a sold-out house, raucous cheers and a standing ovation.

It’s fitting that this show is directed by Jeanne Skattum, who was a co-founder of the Rep 35 years ago, because “Avenue Q” hews closely to the Rep’s original and long-standing mission to stage works that challenge actors and audiences alike.

The obvious challenge for both in this show is the puppetry. For actors, the ability to create a character while simultaneously working a puppet, is paramount. For audiences, it takes a few scenes to get past the puppetry and realize it’s not just a gimmick.

In no time at all, though, we are caught up in the real-life challenges of these characters who are adjusting to young adulthood. They struggle to start careers, pay rent, find love.

The central characters are Princeton and Kate Monster, puppets in the capable hands and voices of Dylon Starr and Krista Monson. They are joined by Rod and Nicky (modeled on Bert and Ernie?) who are worked by Jace Gray and Eric Pahnisch. Trekkie Monster (who unlike Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster prefers internet porn to cookies) is handled by Rich Mansfield. Rae Ann Gotch handles the seductress Lucy, while Ethan Scot Savage and Eleanore Sutherland are the Bad Idea Bears.

Meanwhile, Casey Saunders, Alicia Frarck and Dominique Jones are non-puppeteers. Jones has a fun part as Gary Coleman, the former child TV actor.

Song titles such as “It Sucks to Be Me,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada,” and “I Wish I Could Go Back to College,” hint at the irreverent nature of this show. The music is directed by Jon Davis, with vocal direction by Catherine Davis.

The unusually colorful set is by Paul Skattum, with lights by Ben Hain.

“Avenue Q,” written by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty, is naughty, demented, clever, sweet, and once in a while a bit too cute. Its message of inclusion and empathy and helping others, though, can’t be repeated often enough.

Finally, “Avenue Q” is unlike anything else you’ll see on local stages. Luckily,  they Rep has the courage to present it.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   March 18, 2019

 

Rep Follows ‘Avenue Q’ Back to its Early Days

Cast of the Rochester Repertory Theatre production “Avenue Q.”

 

Jeanne Skattum feels a recent Tony Award winner can take Rochester Repertory Theatre back to its roots.

Skattum is directing the Rep’s production of “Avenue Q,” which won the Tony in 2004 for Best Musical. The play’s cast includes Muppet-like puppets as residents of a New York City apartment building.

“I think it’s part of the Rep’s role to introduce to the community the kind of theater being done everywhere else,” said Skattum, who was co-founder of the Rep 35 years ago. And to the kind of theater not being done elsewhere in Rochester, she might have added.

Skattum who directed dramas for years, and only recently turned to lighter fare, sounds reinvigorated by working on this play.

“I didn’t know it was going to be this much fun,” she said. “This has been a really unique show for us. I have a full crew of people I have not worked with before. It’s been terrific.”

“Avenue Q” is about a young man who graduates from college and heads to the big city to seek fame and fortune. He has no money, no job and few prospects. But he shares a community with his neighbors. “They are diverse,” Skattum said. “There are some monsters, some puppets, some humans.”

Auditions for the show attracted 25 people, Skattum said. “I was just amazed at the turnout,” she said. “They all knew the show, they knew the songs, and they were so enthusiastic. It was electrifying.”

That enthusiasm has carried over to ticket-buyers; the entire first weekend is sold out.

Meanwhile, Skattum’s cast is working around snow days to familiarize themselves with handling the puppets in the play. “Part of the the challenge is allowing how the characters feel to be transmitted through the puppets,” she said. “It’s challenging from an acting perspective, but also a physical challenge. Those puppets are big.”

Familiar names in the cast include Dylon Starr, Alicia Frarck, Dominique Jones and Ethan Scot Savage. Choreography is by Missy Hagen, with Catherine and Jon Davis as music directors.

“I saw the show seven years ago,” Skattum said. “I always thought it was a show that should be done in Rochester. I submitted it and here we are. It’s totally out of my comfort zone.”

While it concerns youthful characters, the play can speak to all ages, Skattum said. “It deals with issues that young people deal with all the time,” she said. “If you’re not dealing with them now, you did at one time.”

The play, which runs March 15-31, is recommended for mature audiences only, due to language and content.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   March 7, 2019

Review: Rep’s ‘Three Hots and a Cot’ Deserves a Wide Audience

Almost right from the start, “Three Hots and a Cot” grabs you and won’t let go until it’s over.

This locally written prison drama/musical had its world premiere Friday at the Rochester Repertory Theatre and, as promised, it makes human beings out of what to most of us are too often simply nameless, faceless inmates.

The play, developed by Debbie Fuehrer and Theo St. Mane two decades ago at the Federal Medical Center prison in Rochester, focuses on four main characters as it portrays life behind bars–from mail call, to lousy food, to family visits to finally completing a sentence and getting released.

Jake Dreher, as inmate Artie, narrates much of the story, while Dylon Starr is a balladeer whose songs connect and describe the scenes.

Sean Lundberg is nicely cast as a hot-headed career criminal who is also a jailhouse lawyer. The scene in which he’s waiting for a visit from his girlfriend is especially heart-tugging.

Alexandro Rox gives an absolutely brave performance as a transgender inmate, while Mitch Gibson is an inmate with mental health issues. At the end of the first act, the voices in his head come to life in the form of surreal tap-dancing inmates.

Also in the cast are Luke Langseth, Theo St. Mane, Dominique Jones, Chuck St. Mane, and Raymond Feston, all inmates with hurts and hopes of their own.

Music is by Greg Hintermeister, who wrote the songs, on guitar, and Mark McGlinch on bass.

We follow these characters as they stand in line at the commissary window to buy snacks, and watch them in a particularly touching scene when they make phone calls to loved ones, and listen as they talk about the horrors of night time in a prison cell.

Despite that, the overall feel is not depressing. There is a good amount of wit and grace, and the entire script is more subtle than might be expected.

What is perhaps missing is a more forceful recognition that these guys didn’t end up in prison by accident. We get snippets of their versions of what put them behind bars, but victims advocates would likely say that’s not the complete, or even truthful, story.

The main attraction of this play is that it provides a window to a world most of us luckily never experience. While watching these characters navigate their “time,” we can’t help but put ourselves in their shoes.

What makes all of this especially haunting is that we know, since this play was developed in a prison, it is authentic.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   January 14, 2019

Rep’s ‘Three Hots’ Based on Stories of Federal Medical Center Inmates

Cast members from left Luke Langseth, Jake Dreher, Mitch Gibson, and Dominique Jones from the Rochester Repertory Theatre’s Production of “Three Hots and a Cot” Photo by Joe Ahlquist

 

A dusted-off, 20-year-old script is about to become a world premiere production at Rochester Repertory Theatre.

“Three Hots and a Cot,” developed two decades ago by Debbie Fuehrer and Theo St. Mane along with inmates at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, will debut Jan 11 at the Rep.

Fuehrer said she came across the script last year. “I called Theo and said, ‘Hey, remember when we were going to do that on the outside sometime?’” she said.

Yes, St. Mane did remember, and he was only too anxious to get to work on a public production of “Three Hots” outside the walls of the prison. The play has only previously been performed in a workshop version by inmates at the FMC.

Now, with a cast of local actors, some script refinements and new music written by Greg Hintermeister, “Three Hots and a Cot” is ready for an ‘outside’ audience.

The play came out of a counseling program Fuehrer ran at the prison for 12 years. But it wasn’t easy. “I had to convince the Bureau of Prisons why this would have therapeutic value,” she said.

Once approval was obtained, the script was built upon suggestions from inmates about their daily life.

“We took all these stories and experiences and put them together in the script,” St. Mane said. “Right from the start, these guys though it should be told more with humor than drama.”

It would have to be in order to be palatable to a general audience, one suspects.

“We want audiences to see these people, to see that we share humanity with them,” Fuehrer said. “To see what they go through. I can tell you I’m still haunted by what I saw there.”

The idea, St. Mane said, is that “People are people.”

The all-male cast consists of Jake Dreher, Sean Lundberg, Mitch Gibson and Alexandro Rox as four main inmates, backed by a chorus of Luke Langseth, Theo and Chuck St. Mane, Dominique Jones and Raymond Festen. Dylon Starr is an inmate balladeer.

Despite the subject matter, Theo St. Mane said, “People aren’t going to come out of this depressed.”

“We have enough humor in it,” Fuehrer said.

The staging of the play, so long after it was originally developed, has been rewarding, St. Mane said.

“I’ve been doing theater in this town for a long time, and this is one of the most exciting projects I’ve been involved in,” he said. “This is a career highlight for me.”

The Rep is advising that this show is not appropriate for ages 16 and younger.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   January 7, 2019

Rep Tells ‘Every Christmas Story Ever’ with Infectious Humor

Some things are sacred, but Christmas isn’t one of them, at least not in the hands of the Rochester Repertory Theatre.

The Rep’s reprise of “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some!)” gleefully pokes fun at and satirizes everyone’s favorite Christmas productions, from the Grinch and Frosty to the granddaddy of them all, “A Christmas Carol.”

The play, which opened last Friday, is directed by Bill Schnell and features returning cast members Lisa Modry and Dave Derby alongside newcomer (to this show anyway) RJ Traff.

Derby clearly has issues, in the funniest sense of that phrase, and gets some of the craziest bits, as a classical ballerina in “The Nutcracker,” and a tipsy commentator at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Modry’s comedy is based in part on her ability to project an innocent, wide-eyed wonderment at everything the holiday season offers to us.

Traff, meanwhile, is the steady hand drawn into this maelstrom of dementedness against his wishes.

The setup is this: Traff is launching yet another holiday performance of “A Christmas Carol,” but Modry and Derby claim to be tired of that old chestnut, and want to act out other holiday favorites. Traff assents, so long as they eventually get to “A Christmas Carol.”

And they do eventually get to Dickens’ classic, but not before deconstructing and lampooning all the holiday stories we hold dear.

Modry, for example, wants to act out “A Child’s Christmas with Whales,” while Derby hosts a game show about fruitcake. A spoof of the Rudolph story goes a bit too long, but nearly everything else they try is witty and sharp. Listen closely or you’ll miss some of the dozens of pop culture references that litter the script.

When they finally get to “A Christmas Carol,” it’s a speeded-up version that somehow gets mixed up with “It’s a Wonderful Life”

After such a rambunctious take on the holiday season, Modry, Derby and Traff come back on stage to sing Christmas carols–and these favorites, too, are mashed together to create one entirely new song of the season.

If nothing else, this show proves that laughter is habit-forming. Once the jokes start picking up steam, the laughter of the audience gets rolling like a snowball going downhill. It’s infectious.

Granted, much of this show is just plain silly, but there’s nothing mean-spirited about it. Just sit back, laugh and enjoy.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   November 26, 2018

‘Every Christmas Story Ever Told’ is Back at Rep

Cast of “Every Christmas Story Ever Told” by the Rochester Repertory Theatre are, from left, Lisa Modry, R.J. Traff and Dave Derby.
Andrew Link / alink@postbulletin.com

 

Christmas is back by popular demand.

Well, there’s nothing unusual about that. After that ugly election season, we could all use a little Christmas.

But audiences at the Rochester Repertory Theatre will get more than a little Christmas this year. They’ll get “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some!)” – a reprise of last year’s holiday hit, which opens Nov. 23.

“When it finished last year, people were asking us about it,” said Bill Schnell, who directs the show. “People couldn’t get tickets because it sold every seat. So they asked if we’d be willing to do it again.”

The answer was yes, especially since this is a crazy show, and Schnell likes crazy. “It’s a fun show to do,” he said.

The play is about a small theater troupe that is faced with doing, yet again, “A Christmas Carol” for the holiday season. But the actors are tired of that old chestnut and start heading off in different directions, spoofing holiday favorites, trampling on traditions, and finally getting around to a hasty version of “Carol.”

This year’s production won’t be an exact copy of the 2017 version, Schnell said. For starters, R.J. Traff has joined the cast in place of Jeff Goihl, who had family commitments. “He’s the standard straight man,” Schnell said of Traff, and the role is supposed to be for a straight man.” In other words, Traff will try to maintain a calm equilibrium as the craziness goes on around him.

Returning from last year’s cast are Lisa Modry and David Derby.

In addition, Schnell has received permission from the playwrights to eliminate one scene and tweak some other aspects of the show. “We made some subtle, technical changes,” he said.

As an added treat for opening weekend, Maggie Hendrickson and Kasey Kuker will perform holiday music before the show Friday night, with more pre-show music by Melissa and Anastasia Goihl planned for Saturday night.

And about that opening: Black Friday would seem like a crowded day to open a play. However, it worked last year, and Schnell anticipates it will again.

“It was so successful,” he said. “Black Friday was wonderful. We said, ‘You’ve got family in town, come and be entertained.’”

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin   November 15, 2018