The long established Theater Project, billing itself as company on the move, has, at least through August 7, moved into West Orange's New Jersey Arts Incubator.
That means there are several evening or matinee performances remaining to see their hilarious production of "Penny Penniworth," the award winning Chris Weikel's madcap spoof of all things Dickens. First performed at the very hip New York City Fringe Festival in 2003 and brought to the attention of The Theater Project by actor Rick Delaney, the show was instantly declared a "must see."
I agree, go see. Go more than once and bring all your friends.
It's a comedic tour de force by a foursome of outstanding actors — two women, two men — taking on 14 roles under the deft direction of The Theater Project's founding artistic director Mark Spina. In recent years, Spina has received two Best Director awards from long time drama critic Peter Filichia. Filichia, no stranger to Dickens as a playwright himself, was present and accounted for at the show's opening night this past Thursday July 14.
More about how The Theater Project came to NJAI later in a moment. First, on to the show.
"Penny Penniworth" is one hour and fifteen breakneck minutes of side-splitting laughter and split second timing. It's a romp through Charles Dickens, especially as presented on Public Television by "Masterpiece Theater," now "Masterpiece Classic." It skewers "Nicholas Nickleby," "Great Expectations", "Bleak House", "Little Dorrit", "Oliver Twist", "David Copperfield," "A Christmas Carol," "A Tale of Two Cities", "The Old Curiosity Shop" and probably more Dickens that I haven't read nor seen. The main story line follows the rapidly changing fortunes of young heroine Penny Penniworth with the usual — which this being Dickens — means highly unusual cast of heroes, villains, dotty eccentrics, suitors, anonymous benefactors, go betweens, solicitors, pick pockets and many more.
There are more plot twists and turns than switchbacks on a road through the Apennines and great sight gags. There are also decidedly un-Dickensian double entendres and sexual politics. Not to mention Rick Delaney's show stopping send up of Broadway divas with his rendition of "Happy Days Are Here Again."
The cast are all long-time veterans of The Theater Project; four actors brilliantly playing fourteen roles plus the occasional horse, monkey and inanimate object. Along with the terrific Delaney — who appears most of the time in "Charley's Aunt" style drag as Penny's mother, Mrs. Penniworth — are the rubber faced Harry Patrick Christian as Stryfe etc., the remarkable Jenelle Sosa as Penny etc. and Terri Sturtevant as the pitch perfect narrator, Miss Havasnort and solicitor Bunting of Bunting, Bunting and Swag, among others.
All the actors are pitch perfect as they take on an array of accents, freely cross gender lines and deliver tongue twisting line such as "perplexed by their precipitous penury."
"We've done a few shows with each actor playing several characters. All my best friends are in the show," Spina said in a pre-performance conversation. "All are long time actors at the Theater Project and extremely accomplished in rapidly changing characters through body language, gesture and voice."
"It's hilarious, family-friendly and Dickens for all ages," Spina said.
Before the show, Robert and Rhoda Roper raved about the company; "We've seen many of their shows; we think they're great," Robert said. "Harry Patrick Christian is my favorite actor," said Rhoda, "If I could have him for my very own, I would."
The multi generational audience, about 40 strong in about a 60-seat house, enthusiastically agreed: "Bravos" broke out mid-performance, as did as frequent applause and laughter throughout. "Absolutely fabulous," "terrific," "hilarious" were the words of the evening as people exited.
Most of the audience members were long time supporters of The Theater Project who made their way to the NJAI from their Middlesex and Union counties homes. The company long presented their full season of shows in the Roy Smith Theater at the Cranford campus of Union County College but had to find another space when the college's administration had other uses for the space.
Spina's journey to West Orange and NJAI had almost as many changes of fortune as in "Penny Penniworth."
"We didn't know where we would be playing, but I was determined to have our regular summer season. I chose a trunk show — all the props and costume changes can come out of a trunk — and I knocked on many doors," Spina said.
A friend of a friend of a friend told Spina about NJAI and he called Carol Berman, of Livingston, the not for profit NJAI's executive director and an actor herself. "There were some delays, but I called her back and she said, ‘Yes, come on down; we'd love to have you.'"
Scenic designer Tom Rowe, lighting designer Mark Reilly, properties designer Madelyn Morrison Lichtman, sound designer Michael Magnifico and stage manager Stephanie Simons Neal have all worked magic in transforming NJAI into a theater, and a very comfortable one with perfect sight lines from all seats. You know you are in expert hands as soon as you park — near Panera's or Petco's is best — and see the costumed usher directing you to the venue, down the plaza and to the right of the AMC mural. There, a festive outdoor canopy greets you with lights, some chairs and a marquee.
And, in case you haven't noticed, this is a rave review.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. and take place at the New Jersey Arts Incubator in the Essex Green Shopping Center, 495 Prospect Avenue in West Orange, just south of route 280. Tickets range from $10-25 and are available at Brown Paper Tickets at 800-838-3006 or at www.brownpapertickets.com Tomorrow, July 17 only there is a special senior citizen matinee ticket price of $15. More information is available at www.TheTheaterProject.org or www.NJAI.org or by calling (908) 809-8865.