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Looking Back on the Blackfriars Guild Fall Play

November 21, 2017

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By John Schoeph '95

I am really happy about the fall play’s success the first weekend of November —how it was received by the audience and how well the students did. What could come off as an outdated and obscure piece by Mark Twain instead radiated frivolity, timeliness and vitality, thanks in large part to David Ives’s skill at adaptation but also to the BFGers’ work. Really, the whole process brought plenty of instances of happiness.

As a teacher of American literature, a Twain piece appealed to me, even though I knew he isn’t particularly known for his plays. I thought it had a lot of potential and would fit well with the type of productions BFG likes to produce. When I read the David Ives adaptation, I was sold. A period-piece farce by two well-known playwrights—this play was sure to maintain the caliber of play that makes the BFG stage and to go over well with our audience. I knew BFG producer, Roger Finnell '59, loves farce, so getting him on board didn’t take long, especially after he read the reviews of the Broadway production. It has been a while since I’ve been more excited than nervous going into production.

BFG actors have those certain qualities that consistently place our shows on a tier above typical high-school productions. Most come to every rehearsal with that special something extra — extra talent, extra drive, extra dedication, extra preparation. They want to excel and are perfectly comfortable walking the uncomfortable tightrope between throwing themselves into a role and not getting sloppy with it. They take direction well.  They are willing to give and to try and to explore. That’s what I had to work with every day at rehearsals, and it’s a blessing.

In one scene, Chicago (Liam Mahon) accidentally jostles his friend Millet (Tom Latz), who is dressed up like a widow. The “widow” then slaps Chicago and stomps off. At the first rehearsal of this scene, Tom asked, “Should I really slap him?” to which Liam responded, “I want you to really slap me.” Liam jostled Tom, Tom looked out at the audience affronted, paused and slapped Liam; Liam spun around in a 360, went airborne and plopped onto the floor. I hadn’t blocked it so specifically yet. The cast was in stitches. From the timing to the expressions and exaggeration, it was so perfectly done. “Can we keep that?” Liam asked. “We’re keeping it!” I said. That’s the type of actors I’m working with — ones who take direction well but also think and give of themselves.

Of course, we also encountered a few challenges, one of which included working within the genre of farce. Some of our BFG actors struggled with presenting a caricature instead of a truly realistic character; some felt ill-at-ease exaggerating facial expressions, intonation and gestures. A few actors initially had issues with playfully going overboard, but in their own way and at their own pace, they came not only to distort their portrayals in farcical fashion but to enjoy doing it. 

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The camaraderie the students brought to this production was special, both among cast and crew, and between the two groups. As Laura Kelly (Cecile LeRoux) told the cast, “We’re all working toward the same goal: to put on a great production.” The supportive and merry interaction among the actors glowed from the stage that first weekend of November as relationships came to life.  Consistently receiving audience accolades was the lively relationship fostered in the painters’ friendship of Millet (Latz), Chicago (Mahon), O’Shaughnessy (Jimmy Brown and Gabriel Mikowski) and Dutchy (Dylan Ward and Louis Quigley).  Another highlight included the droll rivalry between the sisters LeRoux (Grace Toriello and Maria Frech as Marie, and Kelly and Susie Nash as Cecile) for the affections of their father (Davey Sullivan and Cassidy Winston), something the students brought to the table themselves. And for some, the camaraderie was especially evident in the united front of the three compassionate but perhaps intrusive Mesdames (Frenchy Rogozinski, Victoria Brzostowski, Tatiana Jusino, Michelle Saganich, Izzy Bucolo, Caroline Fahey, Lillian Gihl and Morgan Bicknell).

I always enjoy hearing from audience members about who their favorites were, and this year, like last year, one of the show-stoppers was Spencer Gallagher portraying the dastardly Bastien André, a villain, who, as Spencer pointed out, has no friends or allies in the entire show; he alone is pitted against the rest of the ensemble. Spencer’s knack for well-timed lines allowed him to amplify the farce by interrupting what the audience was expecting on certain deliveries. The effect brought the house down at times. Another standout was the pill of an art dealer, Thorpe (Brzostowski, Emmett Husmann and Gigi Barnett), who incidentally poses the title question, “Is he dead?” The question and the answer propel the plot, hurling the scheming into the ridiculous!

The experience of this year’s fall play was a positive one, from rehearsals to closing night. As a director, seeing the audience burst out laughing time and time again is a neat feeling. The actors and crew hear it, react to it, feed off it — but I get to observe it and be in it, and it’s so great. I’m really happy the cast and crew had the pleasure of nailing it every night and enjoying such a positive response.

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In addition to directing BFG/Fenwick's fall plays, Mr. Schoeph is Chairperson of the English Department and also teaches French.

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