Theater Review: Theater Barn Cast Definitely Not Phoning It In

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A wrong number leads to some interesting possibilities for Verna (Linda Seay), Kathy Ann (Stefanie Rosenberg), Diane (Frances McGarry) and Rose (Laurel Letteri), in a scene from Old Ringers, playing through February 23rd at Ridgefield Theater Barn.
(Paulette Layton photo)

By Elizabeth Young

February 07, 2019 at 07:00 am

The Newtown Bee

Frances McGarry is a brave scene stealer. A gifted comedic actor, she takes hold of her character and plays her at full tilt.

RIDGEFIELD — The phones are ringing off the hook at Ridgefield Theater Barn, and for good reason. They are being answered by crafty women of a certain age who provide a certain kind of comfort for lonely souls. Joe Simonelli’s Old Ringers is on stage for a full-on hilarious evening of theater.

A group of New York women gather frequently in the Bronx apartment of one very sassy and bawdy Diane (played by Frances McGarry). Diane lives in the home she shares with her religious and uptight daughter, Amanda (Sarah J. Ahearn). Constantly at odds with the other’s concept of a good life, they exasperate each other.

Diane is well fortified by her drop-in lover, Harry (Mark Rubino), her cadre of likeminded friends, and vodka. Amanda is appalled.

Sexually charged Verna (Linda Seay) has not been active for some time and is highly motivated to end this drought. Rose (Laurel Lettieri) suffers from a sore hip and rejection. Rounding out this posse is Kathy Ann (Stephanie Rosenberg), a youngish widow with a naïve charm, until she gets the hang of her calling.

Financially fragile, these women gear up to earn some cash in a modestly illegal immodest manner. With support from Harry, in chaps, the calls for their services just keep coming, until Police Officer Tony Rumson (Joshua Adelson) starts stopping by to woo Amanda, with whom he is instantly infatuated.

This adorable play is a very funny in the hands of this comedic cast, who appear to be enjoying every minute of the ribaldry. The direction of Carol Dorn allows the determination and unity of this group of sisters in kind to shine. The laughs are as easy as the action is unforced.

Frances McGarry is a brave scene stealer. A gifted comedic actor, she takes hold of her character and plays her at full tilt.

Linda Seay is gorgeous as the long tall wannabe seductress, Verna.

Rigid and demanding, until she is not, Amanda is wonderfully rendered by Sarah J. Ahearn. She energetically lets her character loose with expert timing.

As a shy and very innocent Kathy Ann, Stephanie Rosenberg is sweetly befuddled. The reticence of her character is the perfect contrast to her enthusiasm as she gets the hang of her new job.

Laurel Lettieri is lovely as the older and more worn out Rose.

Playing the sidekick to Ms McGarry, Mark Rubino is a hoot. He is gleeful in this role and super fun to watch.

The soulful performance by Mr. Josh Adelson, as his Tony falls in love for the first time, is authentic.

The set, designed and constructed by Nick Kaye, is wonderfully cozy and worn. The design provides large spaces for the actors to gather and move, yet retains a small-space feel. Much credit to Will Heese for fabulous and funny costuming.

The Barn is the absolute perfect venue for this light-hearted fare that pairs excellently with a snack and beverage. Make the call, ring the bell, and get yourself a ticket.

Performances continue weekends through February 23, on Friday and Saturday evenings as well as the afternoons of Sundays, February 10 and 17. Visit ridgefieldtheaterbarn.org for full performance and ticket details, directions, and reservations.

 

Finding Home: Migration, Exile, and Belonging

Theatre Communications Group Essay Salon

 

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Lady Liberty’s Worst Day Ever:  J.Dolan Byrnes (Vinnie) and Frances McGarry (Lady Liberty)

 

 

BY MONICA BAUER

On the last day of the run of the “three plays against Islamophobia”, Aizzah Fatima called me to come down from the audience to share our final bows together. She told the story of this crazy Christian woman who called her out of the blue months earlier to brainstorm ways to use theater to confront Islamophobia. At that moment, we both felt “mission accomplished.” We had met each other in common cause, to do our jobs to tell the truth in front of an audience.

In May of 2016, I watched with horror as Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee for President. Back then, we all knew what he’d said about Muslims. Still to come would be the horrendous attack on the Khan family after Khizr Khan, father of American hero Captain Humayan Khan, spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Ever since I graduated from playwriting school at Boston University in 2004, I had been sharpening one tool for communicating to the world; theater. I knew I wanted to say something theatrically about Trump, particularly about his fanning the flames of Islamophobia.

Much of my passion to fight against Islamophobia comes from my personal history: I spent a year teaching at the American University in Cairo, in the 1990’s. I didn’t just come for a weekend seminar. I was there for a year, living in the suburb of Ma’adi, having serious conversations with my students, some taking up the hijab out of devotion, some proudly wearing their hair in the latest styles and wearing the tightest jeans they could buy. And I was teaching in a delicate area- Political Science. So I had good reason to lead some very sensitive discussions with my students about politics. I had one student, a serious looking young man, whose answer to everything was “Islam is the answer.” As often happens, they taught me more than I taught them.

When I came back to the U.S., I was changed forever. I was attuned to the problems of the Middle East. When 9-11 happened, and Bush turned to bomb Iraq after Afghanistan, I felt like I was a tiny voice screaming at the top of my lungs “Saddam Hussein is Sunni and secular and Osama bin Laden is Wahhabi and they hate each other!” And I knew right away there’d be a wave of Islamophobia washing over America. I was pleased when George W. Bush refused to use Islamophobia as a political weapon, but furious he was taking us into Iraq. By 2016, I had seen Trump use Islamophobia to gin up hatred against an entire world religion that he obviously knew nothing about. And I was pissed.

When you’ve lived in another culture, “they” are no longer “the other.” They are your friends and neighbors. They have names: Mohammed, Kareem, Fatima. Majidah. So when Trump turned his toxic spotlight on the Muslim community, I had to do something.

 

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Dirty Paki Lingerie, Aizzah Fatima

 

Luckily, one of my playwright pals is Aizzah Fatima, a Pakistani-American artist I first met at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I was over there producing a play of mine, “Made for Each Other,” and doing some blogging for the Huffington Post. They wanted short pieces from Americans doing their first Edinburgh Fringe, so I signed up, and decided to review Aizzah’s show, “Dirty Paki Lingerie.” Her one woman show blew me away– I felt I suddenly knew six different Muslim-American women, each with an important story about being Muslim in America. The show was theatrical, well-written, funny, poignant, and Aizzah was perfect in all six roles. That’s how we became friends.

In May of 2016, when I wanted more than anything to hit Trump’s Islamophobia full force with theater, I knew exactly who to call.

I put up the money from my retirement savings, rationalizing that if I lost it all I’d just have to die a few months earlier. Aizzah put up her talent and connections with the Muslim, Arab, and Middle Eastern theater community in New York. I wanted to showcase her performances in “Dirty Paki Lingerie”, which I knew she had just toured to the UK and Pakistan. She’d already done several runs of the show in New York as a solo show artist, and she said we needed to do something more to get audience and press. At first we wanted to call it “A Theater Festival Against Trump,” but our landlords at Urban Stages Theater said that was too political. They’d help us promote our show, but only if their Board didn’t deem it “too political.” That’s when we came up with the title, “The Lady Liberty Theater Festival.” I wrote a short play as a curtain raiser called “Lady Liberty’s Worst Day Ever,” a two-hander between Lady Liberty and her agent Vinnie, who gives her the bad news that Trump wants to buy her and rebrand her as “Lady Trump.” I even managed to create a rap based on the Emma Lazarus poem on the statue’s base!

We had a 60 minute show (“Dirty Paki Lingerie”) and a short curtain raiser. If we didn’t add anything else, it would be a short lopsided night of theater, with no intermission. So I expanded a short play called “No Irish Need Apply,” which had just been done at the Kennedy Center’s “Tiny Plays for Ireland and America.” The play is about a Syrian refugee looking for a job, and an old Irish-American woman who may or may not be prejudiced. Now we had one play by a Pakistani-American, and two short plays by me. We needed more diversity.

Could we expand into a real festival with numerous plays by a wide variety of playwrights? It was just the two of us, Aizzah in New York and me currently based in Tucson, Arizona. We quickly realized we didn’t have the organization necessary to run anything approaching a real festival. But we could manage one day of staged readings! We made the connection that our rental at Urban Stages included September 11th, so we began to plan for a two-fold event: an evening of three plays against Islamophobia running nightly from September 7th through the 25th, and a day long festival of staged readings against Islamophobia, showcasing the work of a diverse group of writers, actors, and directors for the 15th anniversary of September 11th.

On September 11th we produced staged readings collaborating with a diverse group of actors, directors, and writers: Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Zoroastrians from Iran, plus the usual theater percentage of agnostics and atheists. Participants included director Kareem Fahmy, from an Egyptian family that settled in Canada, and Ali Andre Ali, an actor whose background is half Palestinian and half Irish! The playwrights included Mona Mansour, Maximillian Singh Gill, Emma Goldman-Sherman, and me. Aizzah Fatima played two roles in the reading of my play “Anne Frank in the Gaza Strip.” We asked for donations for the International Rescue Committee for Syrian refugees.

On the last day of the run of the “three plays against Islamophobia”, Aizzah Fatima called me to come down from the audience to share our final bows together. She told the story of this crazy Christian woman who called her out of the blue months earlier to brainstorm ways to use theater to confront Islamophobia. At that moment, we both felt “mission accomplished.” We had met each other in common cause, to do our jobs to tell the truth in front of an audience. We had gone beyond just talking about creating theater to actually creating theater, putting up money and talent and time. Not everyone is able to do these things. Most of us are living day to day and can’t spend the time and effort to do this sort of work. It was a joy and a privilege for Aizzah and me to actually roll up our sleeves and get it done, during the most important election season in our life times, in the home town of Donald Trump.

bauer_smallMONICA BAUER
Full length plays produced Off Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, regionally in Denver, Boston, Providence, Omaha, Detroit, Tucson, and internationally in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Brighton (England) Fringe Festival. Education includes a B.A. from Brown,
M. Div. from Yale, M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska. Monica was the 2004 Teaching Fellow in the Graduate Playwriting Program at Boston University, where she received an MA in playwriting. Short plays produced in the Boston Theater Marathon, National 15 Minute Play Festival, and many others. Conferences include Sewanee, Great Plains Theater Conference (twice), Kennedy Center Summer Playwriting Intensive, and Kenyon Playwrights’ Conference. Outstanding Playwriting of a New Script, for “The Higher Education of Khalid Amir,” Midtown International Theater Festival, 2008. Her musical, “Lighter”, for which she wrote book, music, and lyrics, was presented at the New York Musical Theater Festival in 2009. Her full length play about race, “My Occasion of Sin,” was part of the 2014 season of the Detroit Repertory Theater. Her play for one actor, “Made for Each Other” has been in various production since 2009. In September of 2014, “Chosen Child” was given two staged readings in New York as part of the Indie Theater Now/Stage Left Studio Reading Series, directed by Austin Pendleton. “Chosen Child” was also part of the 2014-2015 season at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, where it was nominated for an IRNE (Independent Reviewers of New England) award for Best New Play. Heideman Finalist for multiple award-winner “Answering,” published by Heuer. Winner, Emerging Playwright Award, Urban Stages. Winner, Kennedy Center’s Tiny Plays for Ireland and America, 2016, for “No Irish Need Apply.” Plays published by Heuer, Brooklyn, and online at Indie Theater Now. Proud member, Dramatists Guild and League of Professional Theatre Women. Full production history at www.monicabauer.com.

ruthsmallBLOG SALON CURATOR

Ruth Margraff is a playwright and writing program chair at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Margraff’s plays, poetry and opera works include Anger/Fly; Three Graces; Temptation of the Fresh Voluptuous; Cafe Antarsia Ensemble; Seven; Stadium Devildare; The Cry Pitch Carrolls; The Elektra Fugues; Night Vision; Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon, Voice of the Dragon 1,2,3; Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling; All Those Violent Sweaters; Red Frogs; Night Parachute Battalion; The State of Gristle; Centaur Battle of San Jacinto; Wallpaper Psalm. Her work has been performed at various festivals and venues throughout USA; UK; Canada; Russia; Romania; Serbia; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Greece; Turkey; Slovenia; Czech Republic; Croatia; France; Austria, Sweden; Japan; Egypt; India, Azerbaijan. She is recipient of numerous awards from institutions including Rockefeller Foundation; McKnight Foundation; Jerome Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Theater Communications Group; Fulbright; New York State Council on the Arts; Illinois Arts Council; Arts International; Trust for Mutual Understanding of New York, CultureConnect.

Off-Broadway Review: ‘The Lady Liberty Theater Festival’ at Urban Stages

New York Theatre Guide Posted By: Jacquelyn Claire on: September 10, 2016

LLTF promo poster June 24

“The Lady Liberty Theater Festival,” presented by Aizzah Fatima and Monica Bauer, comprises three short punchy plays and a song in praise of freedom and against Islamophobia. As I arrived in the theater, the soundtrack was blasting out music with American themes. I got into the mood as Neil Diamond sang, “they’re coming to America.” As a recent immigrant to the shores of the Land of the Free, I felt the need to sing along, quietly.

. . .deeply satisfying. . .

The scene setter was a quirky comedy called “Lady Liberty’s Worst Day Ever,” written by Monica Bauer. Lady Liberty (Frances McGarry) has been summoned to her agent Vinnie’s office (J.Dolan Byrnes), and if she can stay off her cellphone for long enough, he will tell her the shocking news that Trump is about to rebrand her in his image and do away with the Emma Lazarus poem on her pedestal.

Cheryl King directs this comedic sketch, where she crafts a pithy little satirical stab at the “Orange” man who has literally forgotten where he comes from. Byrnes and McGarry charge around the stage with enough energy to set the Lady’s torch on fire. They have great stage chemistry together and seem to really enjoy their volleys of dialogue, served forcefully at each other.

Dolan Byrnes soulfully covered the scene change with a rendition of the Irish traditional folk song “No Irish Need Apply,” beautifully setting the context of bigotry and exclusion through the ages in Manhattan. We segued into the next movement, “No Irish Need Apply,” written by Monica Bauer and directed by Cheryl King. Joan Fitzgerald (Frances McGarry) is a shop owner looking to hire a new employee. Ahmed Famy (Ali Andre Ali), a Shi’ite Muslim, enters to apply for the position. He takes one look at the image of the “Bleeding” Christ on the wall and decides he would not be welcome.

What follows is a very clever job interview which exposes prejudices and cultural assumptions in a refreshing way. Ali is powerful as the defensive and stoic academic. He has a wonderful command and ease on stage, which makes him extremely watchable. McGarry was lovable and charming as the irreverent and open-minded Irish widow. It feels like this sort of situation is happening all over the city on a daily basis, but I am not sure that the outcomes are as congenial and generous as this pleasant oasis.

The final element of the theatrical Lady Liberty hat-trick was “Dirty Paki Lingerie,” brilliantly written and performed by Aizzah Fatima, with direction by Erica Gould. This was more of a standard one-woman show length, so it was deeply satisfying. The other performers had joyfully served up the appetizers and entrees so that we could sink our teeth into this delicious main course. Fatima and her transforming piece of green fabric weave a tale of various Pakistani women living in the U.S. who are torn between cultural expectation and their personal desires. She inhabits mothers, strong independent woman, children, teenagers, and traditional girls who show the diversity of experience of being a woman in their community and in the United States. The six Muslim-American women were drawn from real-life incidents and interviews, which lends a truthfulness to the production that is spellbinding.

Gould has ensured a piece that has flawless transitions between characters and situations, allowing Fatima to excel in birthing this wide range of distinctive female Pakistani dreamers. Fatima is an extraordinary performer with a vocal range that is impressive, and she is enormously funny. This piece will definitely have a long life ahead of it!

“The Lady Liberty Theater Festival” celebrates freedom of speech, the power of artists to defy oppression, and the ability to heal after traumatic life events. On the eve of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11, this festival is a perfect way to honor the past by submerging oneself in the shadow of Lady Liberty to remind ourselves of our glorious freedom.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.

Advisory: Adult language makes this production inappropriate for some audiences. Recommended for ages 16 and up.

“The Lady Liberty Theater Festival” plays through September 25, 2016 at Urban Stages in New York City. For more information on this festival, click here.