Threatre Review: Wacky Neil Simon Classic ‘The Odd Couple’ at TAP

Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” produced by Tred Avon Players (TAP) and currently playing at Oxford Community Center, may be one of the most successful of Simon’s plays – and considering his long and fruitful career, that’s saying a lot.

The basic concept is simple – two friends who are very different and the conflicts that occur when they become roommates.  One is fastidious, the other a carefree slob. But how many Broadway plays of any era have spawned not only a hit movie but three TV sitcoms – plus various other spin-offs including an animated cartoon and a TV sitcom version (by Simon himself!)

Simon’s play, which premiered in 1965, features mismatched roommates Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison – the one an uptight “neat freak,” the other an easy-going slob.

The original production starred Walter Matthau as Oscar and Art Carney as Felix. The play took home four Tony Awards: Best Actor (Matthau), Best Author (Simon), Best Director (Mike Nichols) and Best Scenic Design (Oliver Smith). Matthau reprised his role in the 1968 film, with Jack Lemmon taking the role of Felix. And in the long-running TV series (1970-75), Matthau was replaced by Jack Klugman and Tony Randall played Felix. For some unknown reason, the TV series changed the spelling of Felix’s name from “Ungar” to “Unger.”  At TAP, they stick to the original.

In this female version, the fastidious roommate was played by Sally Struthers of “All in the Family” fame where she played Gloria, the ditzy daughter of Archie and Edith Bunker and “Meathead’s” wife.  Rita Moreno, who is well-known for her role in “West Side Story” played the messy roommate.  Moreno is one of only twelve performers who have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony.  This is definitely a story concept with characters that have drawn major talents over the decades.

The plot revolves around the personality clash between the two roommates – Oscar’s life, like his apartment, is a shambles, with unpaid bills, broken appliances, and a failed marriage, but he takes it all in stride, although he gets a bit misty eyed when his five-year-old son calls him on the phone. Meanwhile, his fellow journalist Felix is a hypochondriac who fusses over every detail of his life.  Everything must be  just so! Felix upbraids himself – and everyone around him – when things are not up to his impossible standards.  Every glass must have a coaster. But he’s a terrific cook!  The situation is ideal for comedy – in fact, it’s been used or adapted many times, including in the current TV hit, “The Big Bang Theory.”

Best friends, Oscar and Felix, have at it!    

The play opens at the Friday night poker game in Oscar’s apartment in New York City, sometime in the early 1960s. Four of the six regulars are at the table. The interplay between the characters and several comic bits – the soggy potato chips and “green” sandwiches Oscar brings the other players, due to a broken refrigerator – make it clear that Oscar is a complete slob and living on the edge of financial disaster.  As the evening goes on, it becomes evident that one of the regular players, Felix, is missing – and then they find out that Felix and his wife are getting separated.  Now they’re really worried.

The weekly poker game

But then Felix shows up, quite late, and everyone feigns indifference as he wanders about the room, clearly at his wits’ end. Oscar offers him a bed for the night, and Felix accepts – and after the other players leave, he offers him a place to stay. The basic premise of the play is now set up – in effect lighting the fuse for an explosion the audience senses is bound to happen. But, of course, it would spoil the fun to give much more away.

Cast and crew of “The Odd Couple”

The Tred Avon Players’ production, directed by Ed Langrell, assembles a reliable cast of regulars from local theater productions. Click on link for a Spy interview with the two lead actors, Bill Gross as Oscar and Bob Chauncey as Felix.

Bill Gross takes the role of Oscar,  Loud and physical, he is convincing as a macho ‘60s sportswriter. He does a good job of portraying the character’s growing annoyance with his fastidious roommate, despite his carefree attitude toward most of the rest of his daily life.

Oscar, Vinnie, and Murray the cop listen at the bathroom door, ready to bust in in case Felix tries to “harm himself.”  

Bob Chauncey projects a nice nervous energy as Felix, capturing the suggestions of femininity as the character cooks, cleans, and performs the other duties of Oscar’s missing wife – and reveals an emotional softness that must have seemed far stranger in 1964 than it does now. He is a snappy dresser and his hair looks perfectly sculpted. Chauncey is hilarious when he loudly attempts to clear his sinuses,

While Felix and Oscar get star billing, the rest of the ensemble plays an important part in the play. The four poker buddies – all recognizable New York character types – are very well cast.

Patrick Fee does a fine job as Murray, the street-wise cop with a heart of gold. His mobile face and physical presence are just right for the character. A solid job by one of the Shore’s more versatile character actors.  Most recently, he played Bottom the Weaver in Shore Shakespeare’s production of “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.”

Felix makes sure that each poker player has a napkin and a coaster – and uses them!

Roy, Oscar’s accountant, is played by Paul Briggs who deftly shows his character’s exasperation and concern about Oscar’s irresponsible finances. Briggs holds his nose and drops the stinky garbage out the window.  But he keeps his feelings  in check when Felix appears, becoming reasonable and pragmatic when it is needed, just like an accountant.

The cynical Speed is played by Brian McGunigle, who is now completing  an impressive run of five roles in a row in plays varying from Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” to Tred Avon’s “A Man of No Importance.” His character’s feigned indifference is well conveyed. But of course, Speed really does have compassion for Felix and McGunigle makes these two seemingly opposite emotions believable.

Zach Schlag is cast as mild-mannered Vinnie, whose henpecked home life is a contrast to the broken marriages of the two main characters. The character’s pliability is the source of several entertaining bits, providing great physical comedy as Vinnie slips and falls while frantically racing around the room to help save Felix.  Although he doesn’t have as many lines as some others, his expressions can be hilarious as he reacts to the other characters.

Felix and the two sisters have a good cry. He’s such a sensitive man!

Lisa Roth and Anna Kusinitz-Dietz play the Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn and Cecily.  The sisters, a divorcee and a widow,  are originally from England and now live in a neighboring apartment.  They have taken quite a shine to the roommates. Their interactions with Felix and Oscar are a fine bit of Neil Simon comedy, well acted by the sisters as they flirt mischievously or cry copiously.  Their giggles and glances are infectious and the audience loved them. On Thursday night when we were there, the audience broke into spontaneous applause as the sisters left the stage.  It was not the end of the scene.

The set, consisting entirely of Oscar’s living room, is worth walking up for a closer look at intermission or after the play closes – details such as an old manual typewriter and a beat-up baseball glove are letter-perfect. The subtle changes in the room as Felix’s “neatnik” influence begins to be seen are nicely done, as well. The costumes are also right on – especially the Pigeon sisters’ early-‘60s colorful dresses with bright, shiny pocketbooks and knee-high boots, Oscar’s #7 Yankees jersey and Speed’s Hawaiian shirts. The soundtrack – designed by Fee – has a nice selection of period-perfect music. A pleasure to see the little touches so well taken care of.

The 50-plus years since the play was written are evident in many details of the plot and dialogue. For example, it’s no longer that unusual for a man to be a good cook – as Felix is. The sums of money mentioned – 34 cents for a pack of cigarettes, for example — are vivid reminders of what inflation has done, while the characters’ concern over the cost of a long-distance phone call is a historical curiosity in today’s era of unlimited cell phone plans.

And hints – quite humorous hints! – that the relationship between Felix and Oscar echoes their failed marriages, probably seemed edgy if not outright taboo in the early ‘60s.  The uptight culture associated with the 1950s lingered into the early ’60s. Hippies hadn’t happened yet and the sexual revolution was still on the horizon. Simon was exploring new territory. He used comedy to explore relationships and situations that would raise few eyebrows today but were uncomfortable for most people at the time. Divorce, separation, alimony, all these were looked upon very differently then than now. Those who lived through those times will find the contrast from today both interesting and amusing; younger audiences may find it an entertaining history lesson. But this is all subtext, the play is a comedy about relationships and surviving breakups, whether it be with spouses or friends. It asks whether people can change and grow. And it ends with hope and a laugh.

There were plenty of laughs in the large audience for Thursday’s performance, which director Langrell described as a “pre-opening” opening. If you’re in the mood for a classic comedy, with  nostalgia for a different time, it’s well worth the trip to Oxford Community Center, 200 Oxford Road. It’s about an hour from Chestertown or 15 minutes from Easton. The play runs just over two hours.  Remember it starts at 7:30 not 8 p.m.!

“The Odd Couple” is playing through August 20. Shows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday are at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Admission is $20 for adults, $10 for students. Call 410-226-0061 for reservations – which are strongly recommended, judging by the sizable audience Thursday.  This Sunday’s matinee, we are told, is practically sold out already!

Photos in this article are courtesy of Randy Bachand. Thank you, Randy!

Check back – we’ll be posting more photos.

Felix straightens a picture. It was just a tiny bit off-kilter. And it was driving him crazy!

She likes me!

L-R Standing: Speed, (Hawaiian shirt), Murray, Vinnie, Briggs, Oscar,  Seated – Felix

Murray, Speed, and Oscar

Vinnie tries to sweet-talk Felix into some sense.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why is George Smiling?

Don’t Worry.  We’re Happy! Say Washington College students.

The Princeton Review ranks Washington College among the top twenty schools in the nation with the happiest undergraduates.

According to The Princeton Review, Washington College is among the nation’s very best institutions for undergraduate education, but its distinctive approach to mentoring students has propelled the college to the top of the chart that measures the happiness factor. Washington College is ranked 16th in the nation for Student Happiness, as noted in the 2018 edition of The Best 382 Colleges released Aug. 1.

Only about 15 percent of America’s 2,500 four-year colleges and two colleges outside the U.S. are profiled in the book, which is one of The Princeton Review’s most popular guides. Published annually since 1992, it has detailed profiles of the colleges with rating scores in eight categories. The book also has ranking lists of top 20 schools in 62 categories, including the Happiest Students category. The Princeton Review’s results are valuable since they are based on surveys of actual students attending the colleges.

Happy WC students on the deck of the Literary House during the 2017 Cherry Tree Young Writers’ Conference.

“I’m delighted to see Washington College featured in The Princeton Review as one of the best 382 colleges for 2018,” said college President Kurt Landgraf. “Washington College is all about the students, and I am proud to know that our high ‘Student Happiness’ ranking reflects that student-centric focus. This cornerstone of who we are and what we do results in memorable experiences that have a positive impact on students’ personal and professional lives.”

In its profile on Washington College, The Princeton Review praises the college for its “truly personalized education,” and quotes extensively from Washington College students. Among their comments: “Living at Washington College is as good as a college experience can get.”

What a smile! Intern Hebs Guerra-Recinos expresses his approval!

“We chose Washington College for this book because it offers outstanding academics,” said Robert Franek, Princeton Review’s editor-in-chief and author of The Best 382 Colleges. “Our selections are primarily based on our surveys of administrators at several hundred four-year colleges. We also visit dozens of colleges each year and give considerable weight to opinions of our staff and our 24-member National College Counselor Advisory Board. Most importantly, we look at the valuable feedback we get from each school’s customers—our surveys of students attending them. We also keep a wide representation of colleges in the book by region, size, selectivity, and character.”

The Princeton Review does not rank the colleges from 1 to 382 in any category. Instead, it uses students’ ratings of their schools to compile 62 ranking lists of top 20 colleges in the book in various categories. The lists in this edition are entirely based on The Princeton Review’s survey of 137,000 students (358 per campus on average) attending the colleges. The 80-question survey asks students to rate their schools on several topics and report on their campus experiences at them. Topics range from their assessments of their professors as teachers to opinions about their school’s career services. The Princeton Review explains the basis for each ranking list here.

Other “Happy Schools” include Rice University, College of William and Mary, Colby College, and Vanderbilt.  The University of California at Santa Barbara is also in top twenty happy schools but they’re practically on the beach so, of course, they’re happy.  St. John’s in Annapolis also made the list.

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Mid-Shore Education: A Chat with Washington College’s New President Kurt Landgraf

New Washington College President Kurt Landgraf had been in office not quite two weeks when the Spy staff dropped into his Bunting Hall office for an interview on July 13. In a wide-ranging conversation, Landgraf was frank and ready to ask questions of his own, a good sign that he will be open to give-and-take with other stakeholders in the college community.

As the interview begins, he is answering a question about what attracted him to Washington College. Later, he responds to a question about a recent poll result showing that some 60 percent of Republicans believe that a college education is not good for society. Landgraf disagreed strongly and went on to to express his belief that the liberal arts curriculum helps provide a good foundation for citizenship in a democracy. Click on the picture above to see the video, which runs just over seven minutes.

The new president began with a brief autobiography, not included in the video. He was born in Newark and raised in Rahway, both in New Jersey. He attended Wagner College on an athletic scholarship and played baseball with the Reading Phillies for a while before joining the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam war. After the service, he had a number of jobs, including a short stint at ETS, the Educational Testing Service, before ending up at DuPont, where he spent a major part of his career, overseeing divisions both in the US and abroad.

He worked in the pharmaceutical division and noted that the opioid antagonist drug Narcan was developed during his time there. He spent ten years as head of the European division of DuPont, and was under consideration to become CEO of the entire company. When that position went to someone else, Landgraf was recruited by Educational Testing Services, which at the time was on the verge of liquidation. He turned the company around, stayed there 13 years, and became very interested in education. During that time, he became chairman of the New Jersey Higher Education Commission, which oversees all colleges in the state. Then in 2015, he was contacted about the Washington College presidency.

After the initial phases of the search process, Landgraf was one of the finalists for the WC job — which eventually went to Sheila Bair. When he was on campus for interviews, he said, he asked one young student what was the most important thing he had learned at the school. “Moral courage,” said the student. Landgraf was so impressed that a young person could cite that quality that he decided on the spot that, if he was offered the job, he would take it. That opportunity came this June, when Bair tendered her resignation.

Asked the difference between his former position as a CEO at DuPont and his new one, Landgraf said that a CEO has nearly absolute power in decision-making, whereas a college president is in a position of co-governance with the board. On the other hand, he said, all institutions “are made up of the same kind of mammal;” with human nature the constant.

Washington College has substantial assets that offer high value to prospective students, he said. He cited the waterfront campus, which is currently under development, the Rose O’Neill Literary House, with its strong program of readings and publications; and the Douglass Cater Society, which supports undergraduate students in self-directed research projects all over the world. He plans to continue and, where possible, expand these programs and their impact. Landgraf said the college needs to market these assets to reach its full potential.  These are wonderful programs, offering outstanding opportunities for students and most people

Landgraf is also aware of the college’s relationship with the town of Chestertown. He has already met with Mayor Chris Cerino, he said, and he is planning to attend the town council meeting July 17 to introduce himself. He said he isn’t concerned with past relations between the two entities; “We need to go forward,” he said. He said he plans to work with the Save the Hospital group, to get involved with United Way of Kent County.  It is very important, he said, for the town and the college to support one another.

In explaining the value of a college education in today’s society, Landgraf said that the U.S. depends on three pillars: capitalism, the rule of law and democracy. An educated populace is needed for each of these to carry its weight. A liberal arts education, while it may not appear to prepare students for specific roles in the workforce, is the best preparation for citizenship in general, he said.

It will be interesting to see how Landgraf’s presidency develops. As one college staff member observed, there have been four presidents in five years, with significant turnover in senior staff. The college can obviously benefit from a period of stability, and given Landgraf’s comments on the need to work with the board and his interest in making the college and the town closer than they have been, friends of the college may be encouraged to hope that this is the beginning of a time of stability and regeneration.

Church Hill Theatre: “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”

 

Charlie Brown (Matt Folker) consults “Doctor” Lucy (Becca Van Aken)

Church Hill Theatre’s summer musical this year is “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” directed by Sylvia Maloney. “Charlie Brown” is, of course, based on the popular comic strip, “Peanuts,” by Charles M. Shultz, which in its heyday may have been the most widely read newspaper strip of all time. (One of its rivals for that distinction, “Li’l Abner,” was also the inspiration for a Broadway musical.)

The show was created by song writer Clark Gesner in 1966, near the height of the strip’s popularity. Gesner originally wrote a series of songs based on the “Peanuts” strip, but after Shultz gave his permission, he released a concept album with Orson Bean singing the title role. Eventually, “Charlie Brown” was developed into a full-fledged musical that appeared off-Broadway in 1967 and ran for 1,597 performances. It opened on Broadway in 1971, and had a short run, but the off-Broadway performances had already established it as a hit, A 1998 revival added new dialogue and songs, but the CHT production uses the original script.

The cast of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” performs a musical number

“Charlie Brown” has been one of the most popular shows for school and community theater – I know of at least two previous productions in the local area, one at Kent County High School (also directed by Maloney) and one at Centreville High School (directed by Shelagh Grasso). The premise of the comic strip – children performing their normal activities while expressing deeper, more adult thoughts – nicely translates to the stage, with adults cast in the role of the Peanuts characters. This is part of the fun – that traditionally all the roles are played by actors “remembering” what it was like to act and think like an elementary school or pre-school child. The youngest actor here is in junior high, while the oldest ones are over 50.

Like the newspaper strip, the play is largely episodic – there is no long-range plot, and the characters remained essentially unchanged over the course of the comic strip. It is, in effect, a series of brief gags strung together – some developed at a bit more length, and of course there are repeated themes, but if you go to the theater expecting a “story,” you won’t get one. Instead, it depicts typical activities of a child’s day.

That said, almost all the famous bits “Peanuts” readers would expect are here. Snoopy takes on the Red Baron in a World War I dogfight; Schroeder plays Beethoven on his toy piano; Lucy steals Linus’s security blanket; Charlie Brown pines for the little red-haired girl but never gets up the courage to go talk to her; and the gang manages to extend what must be the longest losing streak in baseball history. About the only iconic gag that doesn’t get portrayed onstage is Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick – and that really depended on its repetition over several years, which Charlie Brown falling for the same trick again and again.

Despite having been originally conceived as a song cycle, “Charlie Brown” does not have a particularly memorable musical score. The lyrics to the songs are undeniably witty – given the source, how could they be anything else? — and the CHT cast performs them with plenty of spirit. The ensemble numbers, including “Beethoven Day,” “The Book Report,” “The Baseball Game” and “The Glee Club Rehearsal” are probably the strongest. In the performance I saw, there were a few spots where the lyrics of solo songs got covered up by the orchestra – that’s too bad, because they really are the whole point of the songs, which are basically sung dialogue.

Schroder (David Ryan) plays Beethoven for Lucy (Becca Van Aken)

Matt Folker takes the role of Charlie Brown, and he does a great job with the character, making very effective use of facial expressions and body language. It’s a tribute to his acting that, in spite of being the tallest person on stage, he clearly projects Charlie’s vulnerability and insecurity. Another strong performance by one of Church Hill’s most reliable leading men.

Becca Van Aken plays Charlie’s nemesis, Lucy. She is superb in conveying the character’s bossy and crabby nature – an almost perfect bit of casting. And then, after the other kids responses to a survey convince her they think she really is crabby, Van Aken nicely conveys her crushed ego and sense of remorse – a surprising switch that many actors would have trouble portraying.

The role of Linus, Lucy’s younger brother, is taken by Elliott Morotti, a freshman in Archbishop Spalding High School in Severn. Despite his youth, he is already a veteran of musical theater, with appearances in several CHT performances and the Chesapeake Children’s Theater. His does a good job capturing the character’s combination of immaturity and philosophical depth.

David Ryan, who is pastor of First and Christ Methodist Churches in Chestertown, is making his CHT debut as Schroder after several roles at the Garfield. He portrays the character enthusiastically, really getting into playing Beethoven on the toy piano.

Sally, Charlie Brown’s younger sister, is played by Maya McGrory, a CHT veteran despite her young age. She gives a charming performance as the young girl who’s still struggling with challenges from jumping rope to school assignments.

Julie Lawrence takes the role of Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s super-talented beagle, and she turns in one of the best performances in the show. It’s a great comic role, with lots of physical schtick and mugging, and Lawrence takes it all easily in stride. As a bonus, she  has one of the best singing voices in the cast. I especially enjoyed her dance routine, Snoopy’s version of the old soft shoe, complete with top hat and a bone for a cane.

Snoopy (Julie Lawrence) does the old soft shoe

Another half dozen characters make up an ensemble, though they each get a few scenes where they can establish themselves. In the CHT production, Morgan Armstrong plays Frieda, Jarrett Plante plays Pig Pen, Samantha Smith is Peppermint Patty, Amy Gillilland is Violet, Faith McCarthy is Marcie and Katie Sardo is Woodstock, Snoopy’s birdie friend. They did a good job of portraying the moods and activities of young school children — skipping, agonizing over homework, licking lollipops, and playing games.

The orchestra for this performance includes Ellen Barry Grunden as pianist and conductor; Tom Anthony on bass; Ron Demby on clarinet and flute; Frank Gerber on percussion; and Jane Godfrey on violin. There were a few tuning problems early at the performance I saw, but the group came together and delivered a good performance overall.

Michael Whitehill and Brian Draper designed and built the set for the show, and it captures the spirit of childhood. Oversize items – a bench, Snoopy’s doghouse, building blocks – emphasize the fact that the characters are all supposed to be small children. So when Folker has to pull himself up on the bench, it makes it easier to forget that he’s six-foot-something instead of a typical first-grader.

The audience had a good time at the production I saw – Saturday night of opening week. A lot of them were clearly long-time “Peanuts” fans, and they empathized with poor Charlie and laughed at the antics of Snoopy and Woodstock. This is really a show that delivers a lot of laughs and sends the audience home with a warm feeling – just what the doctor ordered as an antidote to the evening news. It’s a good show for children, too.

“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” continues through June 25, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for CHT members and $10 for students. For reservations or more information, call the theater office at 410-556-9003 or visit the theater website.

Photos by Steve Atkinson

Maryland 3.0: WC “Dream Team” Creates Apps in NASA Competition

A group of Washington College students and faculty sat down at the beginning of May to work on “You Are My Sunshine.”

No, they weren’t rehearsing old folk songs. Instead, they were working on a NASA space challenge – an international effort to find ways to educate the public about solar power and its possible benefits both for ordinary people and for a possible exploring party on Mars.

Washington College Associate Professor Shaun Ramsey of the “Dream Team” writes data on the wall of the Hot Desks center as other team mebers watch. From left, Joseph Erlandson,, Luis Machado, Katie Walker and Ian Egland.

Taking part in the project were Ian Egland, a 2016 WC graduate in Computer Science; Joseph Erlandson, a senior Computer Science major; Katie Walker, a Senior majoring in Environmental Studies; Luis Machado, a 2013 graduate now working as a project manager at the college’s Geographic Information Systems laboratory; and Associate Professor Shaun Ramsey, of the Computer Science and Mathematics departments at Washington College.

The group began work at the “Hot Desks” co-working center  at 903 Washington Ave. Michael Thielke of the Eastern Shore Entrepreneurship Center and Jamie Williams, Kent County Economic Development Coordinator, arranged for them to use the facility before the official opening

The “Dream Team,” as they named themselves, went to work  at 8 a.m. Saturday, April 29, for a 48-hour “hackathon.” Williams and Thielke were on hand to assemble furniture for the hot desk center and to provide breakfast and other meals during the project. The team set up computers in the large main room, using the facility’s high-speed wifi connection. They even took advantage of the dry-erase walls to jot down computations, web links,  and other information for handy reference.

Ramsey said the project was related to one that NASA is conducting in Hawaii right now, simulating conditions on Mars. “In space, power usage is variable, and mission critical, and essential to life,” so understanding power consumption is essential, he said. “The app that we’re developing is for everyday people to better understand their power consumption,” he said. Since solar power is freely available in space, the project focuses on that form of energy.

The Dream Team compiled a list of several typical home appliances – refrigerator, microwave, TV, air conditioner, etc. – and listed their typical power usage. In each case, the power draw listed is an average. Older, less efficient appliances will use more than new ones designed to minimize power consumption.

They also looked at the amount of sunlight available in Kent County over different seasons, so as to get a practical estimate of what kinds of equipment could be run on solar alone.

Ramsey said the group was one of 74 different teams from all over the world that worked on their particular problem. Presumably they’d all come up with different solutions, though the teams were allowed to share ideas, and NASA might well choose to combine results from several different teams once the project was completed.

Overall, the competition had five different categories, each of which included several different projects. Ramsey said it would be several weeks before NASA announces the results.

Ramsey updated the status of the project in an email, June 1. He wrote, “In the end, we created two applications that are useful, intuitive and that showcase solar power.” He said he had three goals for the competition: “To contribute to the overall community. To make an application of which I’d be happy to claim ownership. And the last was to have something that could inspire and grow. Something that could spawn other ideas and be developed into something larger if someone were inspired or interested. I definitely feel we accomplished all three of those.”

As of the date of writing, he said, “The awards have not yet been announced. We’re not in the finalists for people’s choice, but that’s to expected with such a smaller network compared to, say, a big school in a big city. It is possible we “win” one of the other awards, but there have been no posted results yet. (…) I do feel like we will be in the running,” he said. He said he would let the Spy know when results were announced.

Ramsey said the Dream Team had posted a brief video telling about their work. They also posted an update with more details. He also provided a like to an overview of the NASA challenge.

Click here for information on the “Hot Desks” facility.

An Enchanted Midsummer Evening with Shore Shakespeare

With its production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shore Shakespeare brings one of the bard’s most fanciful comedies to the stage.

Nominally set in and around Athens during the golden age of Greek culture, the play quickly expands its classical setting to bring in a group of English tradespeople – and then shifts gears yet again to the magical world of elves and fairies. And just to make sure nobody leaves the theater without something to remember, the play includes a love story, a series of magical enchantments, songs, dances, and a play within the play. Shakespeare was clearly having fun when he concocted this one – and the Shore Shakespeare production makes sure that comes across to the audience.

This is Christian Rogers’ debut as a director, and he has done a fine job of bringing the play to life. One of the founders of Shore Shakespeare, Rogers has played major roles in a number of the company’s productions, including MacDuff in last year’s “MacBeth,” Rogers said after the Sunday performance at Adkins Arboretum that he wished he could be on stage instead of watching from the sound booth. But he shows real talent as a director, and while it would be a pity to lose him completely as an actor, the impact of this production makes one hope that he will take the opportunity to direct again not too far down the road.

There are essentially three plot lines in the play. The first involves a love story in the Athenian aristocracy. Lysander and Hermia love one another and wish to marry; but Demetrius also loves Hermia, and wishes to marry her – and her father favors Demetrius’ case. Meanwhile, Helena, who loves Demetrius, is out in the cold. And by Athenian law, Hermia must obey her father or forever renounce marriage – or be put to death. Lysander and Hermia take matters in their own hands and flee for a remote village, where they plan to marry – and hope the law will not reach them.

Meanwhile, in that same village, a group of tradesmen is planning to put on a play in hopes of winning a prize. The theme is the love story “Pyramus and Thisbe,” and the incongruity of the casting and the amateur actors’ attempts to adjust the plot so as not to frighten ladies in the audience make up much of the fun of this subplot.

The third plot brings in Oberon, king of the faeries, who is arguing with his queen Titania. To get his wishes, Oberon sends his servant Puck to find a magical flower that will make his queen fall in love with the first thing she sees upon awakening, hoping to use the spell to get her to accede to his wishes.

Of course all three groups end up in the same section of the forest, where the mingling of mortals with magic generates much confusion and many laughs. But we don’t need to summarize the whole plot – everybody read the play in high school, right?

Rogers has assembled his cast from among the regulars at Shore Shakespeare, and there’s not a weak performance among them. At the center of the play are the four lovers.

Lovers face off in the enchanted forest in Shore Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Troy Strootman plays Lysander, and Robbie Spray is Demetrius; Heather Oland takes the role of Helena and Christine Kinlock that of Hermia. All four have numerous credits in local theater, though Oland and Strootman are making their first appearances with Shore Shakespeare. All carry their parts well, running the gamut of emotions from besotted love to jealous fury. Bravo to each! The lovers’ fight scene near the end is especially well-played and well=choreographed, with Helena jumping on Lysander’s back and the two men circling each other angrily.

The Athenian nobles and the faery royalty are played by two actors: Brian McGonigle takes the roles of Oberon and of Theseus, Duke of Athens, while Colleen Minahan plays Titania and Hippolyta, Theseus’s bride. Since the characters are never onstage at the same time, this works – and it gives an interesting parallelism to the two courts. And, since Oberon and Titania have far more active parts in the play, it gives them something interesting to do while making sure there are good actors in the secondary roles. Greg Minahan also takes two parts, as Hermia’s father Egeus and as Peter Quince, leader of the troupe of  tradesmen/actors. He distinguishes the two characters nicely – in fact, he’s so good that some audience members might not realize the same actor is playing both.

One of the key roles in the play is Puck, the mischievous faery who does Oberon’s bidding. Avra Sullivan, one of the founders of Shore Shakespeare, is a delight in the role – darting around the stage, mugging, pantomiming magical spells, and on the whole giving a memorable performance. Hard to believe this is the same actor who played Lady MacBeth so effectively last summer! Sullivan trained as a Shakespearean actor, and it has shown clearly with every role she has played with the company.

Bottom (Patrick Fee) and Puck (Avra Sullivan)

The other prime comic role in the play is Bottom the weaver, played broadly by Patrick Fee, another fixture in the Shore theatrical community. Bottom is one of Shakespeare’s most iconic comic characters, the country bumpkin who finds himself in exalted company and proceeds to muddle through. Fee does the character proud – one of his best performances.

The other rustic characters are played equally broadly, with good comic effect. They include Sarah Gorman, Josh Hansen, and Jane and John Tereby. Hansen, a ninth-grader at Wye River Upper School, has already accumulated several theater credits, including two roles in last year’s Shore Shakespeare “MacBeth.” He is appropriately amusing as Flute the bellows-mender, cast as Thisbe, the female lead in the artisans’ play, reciting his lines in a high, squeaky “female” voice. John Tereby gets great fun out of being cast as a wall that separates the lovers; and Gorman, wearing an orange mop, does a nice comic turn as the roaring lion in the tradesmen’s play – a wonderful send-up of amateur theater that rings as true today as it must have in Shakespeare’s time.

The villagers rehearse their play , checking to see if the moon will be full on the night of the performance.  It will.  From left, Greg Minahan, Jane Tereby, Josh Hansen and John Tereby

Lindsey Hammer, making her Shore Shakespeare debut, plays a faery who assists Puck in some of his magical exploits. Her dancing and graceful leaps add greatly to the choreography.

With the performances all taking place outdoors, the sets are minimal. There is effective use of colorful movable trees in some of the forest scenes, especially when the lovers are running through the wood at night, unable to find one another because of Puck’s enchantments. A backdrop with columns gives the general impression of Athens, and a few strategically placed stumps give the actors a chance to rise above the scene for a moment. That’s about it – but it’s effective, and likely true to the way the play would have been staged in many productions in Shakespeare’s era.

The costumes are visually attractive and evoke both the era and the distinct groups of characters. It’s amusing to see the rustics dressed in what could be working-class uniforms – with items such as straw hats, suspenders, vests –  from almost any historical era from the 1600s to today.  It nicely distinguishes them from both the noble Athenians and the flamboyant Faery court, while making a sly nod to the fact that the characters might as well be English country folk of Shakespeare’s time. Kudos to Barbi Bedell and Marcia Gilliam for their costume work.

One of my few quibbles with the production was the decision to represent Puck’s transformation of Bottom’s head into that of a donkey by simply adding donkey’s ears to his straw hat. Granted, a more traditional papier-mache donkey’s head could cause problems for the actor in seeing and moving, as well as being uncomfortable if the temperature climbs too high – as it can in June. But with nothing more than the ears on his hat, the other actors’ horrified reaction to Bottom’s transformation seems less believable. Something along the lines of a “Groucho” nose or a donkey’s tail would add humor and help the audience see the magic come alive.

A nice touch is the background music, which mingles Felix Mendelssohn’s score for the play with more modern pieces, including selections by Gounod, Stravinsky, Ravel and Prokofiev – plus some original music by Greg Minahan. The music for the rustics’ final exuberant dance, choreographed by Minahan, is especially appropriate – it’s a nice bit of fun I won’t give away here.

For that matter, the whole production is fun. The actors are clearly enjoying themselves, and it’s contagious. Be sure to see it when it comes to your part of the Shore — and bring the whole family. You couldn’t ask for a better way to spend a summer evening.

Shore Shakespeare will be presenting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” this coming Friday and Saturday, June 9 and 10, at Oxford Community Center, and Sunday, June 11 at Idlewild Park in Easton. The next weekend, the production moves to Long Wharf Park in Cambridge for one performance, Friday, June 16. Saturday and Sunday, June 17 and 18, Shore Shakespeare will be on Cray House Lawn in Stevensville. The summer run closes with two performances in Chestertown’s Wilmer Park, Friday and Sunday, June 23 and 25.
Admission to all performances is free; audience members should bring lawn chairs or blankets to sit on. Performances are at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. For more information, visit shoreshakespeare.com.

Photos by Jane Jewell

Washington College Journalist Wins Kerr Prize

Catalina Righter has won the 2017 Sophie Kerr Prize at Washington College. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the award.

Catalina Righter – winner of 2017 Sophie Kerr Prize at Washington College in Chestertown, MD

Righter is an English major from Manchester, Md., who served as editor-in-chief of the Elm, the student newspaper. Her portfolio combined journalism, a travel essay on New Orleans, and a selection of her poetry.

In addition to editing the student newspaper, Righter was a poetry screener for Cherry Tree, the national literary journal published by the Literary House Press. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the Douglas Cater Society of Junior Fellows, Sigma Tau Delta (the English honor society), and was active in the sailing and dance clubs. After graduation, she plans to look for a newspaper job, she said in an interview with the Spy when she was chosen as a finalist.

Poet Elizabeth Spires announced the award Friday night at a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the nation’s largest undergraduate writing award, this year valued at $65,768. The cash award totals more than the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Penn Faulkner prize combined, according to Professor Kathryn Moncrief, Chair of the English department and Sophie Kerr Curator.

Accepting the award, Righter thanked her family, saying that “that my most true and unwavering sense of self comes from you.” She also thanked her teachers, and her friends and fellow writers, “especially anyone who has trusted me to read a piece of that work.” Finally, she said,  “Thank you for anyone who came today because you love someone enough to tell them to continue to write.”

Catalina Righter rises to accept award as finalists Allison Billmire, Ryan Manning and James P. Mitchell, and Washington College president Sheila Bair applaud.

“Catalina has an eye for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. She brings to bear on her poems a reporter’s objectivity and a journalist’s sense of what makes a story both memorable and beautiful,” said James Hall, Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House.

“Catalina’s writing evinces her remarkable ability to capture both the outrageous and the mundane, and to find surprising humor and beauty in both,” said Moncrief.

The ceremony, which drew a large crowd to the college’s Hotchkiss Recital Hall, showcased the five finalists reading from their work, which covered a range from poetry to political commentary.  (See more photos below article.)

Catalina Righter accepts Sophie Kerr Prize. Poet Elizabeth Spires looks on.

Spires, a faculty member at Goucher College, began her teaching career at Washington College in 1981. In a speech preceding the announcement, she reminisced about her days at the college, with memories of fellow faculty members Bob Day and Bennett Lamond, and offered advice to the finalists. Among her tips were learning from rejection slips and resisting the temptation to lose themselves in the online world.

The Sophie Kerr award is named for a popular writer of the early 20th century, Eastern Shore native Sophie Kerr, who published 23 novels, hundreds of short stories, and even a cookbook. When she died at 85 years old, she bequeathed the College a half-million-dollar trust fund, stipulating that half of the annual earnings go to a graduating senior who shows the most promise for future literary endeavor. The other half funds student scholarships, visiting writers and scholars, and library books.

Catalina with friends at reception after presentation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Allison Galbraith Announces for Congress

Allison Galbraith is running for Congress.

Allison Galbraith

A small business owner and single mother from Harford County, Galbraith threw her hat into the ring on May 12 as a Democratic challenger for Rep. Andy Harris’s First District seat. Following the official campaign kickoff in Bel Air, she traveled to Chestertown and Salisbury to begin building a base of supporters on the Eastern Shore.

Galbraith’s Chestertown stop was at the Book Plate bookstore. About 20 attended, and the candidate, instead of giving a stump speech, engaged in a lively 40-minute question-and-answer session.

Tom Martin, owner of the store, opened the session by asking Galbraith about her background.

Galbraith said she is the daughter of two college professors. A University of Maryland graduate, she is “amicably separated” from her husband, a military veteran, and has a 9-year-old son and a stepson. She said her business specializes in program management and streamlining projects for the Department of Defense and in consulting with industries bidding on federal contracts involving medical technology that often ends up in civilian applications.

Asked why she is seeking the congressional seat, Galbraith said, “I think we need the perspective of the people in Congress.” The money it takes to run, and the sacrifices it takes to run are a deterrent to “everyday people” who might seek office, she said. “Right now, everything in our lives is under attack; we don’t know what’s going to be taken from us.”

She said her business was made possible by her ability to purchase private health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Gender-based criteria such as having had a C-section were considered pre-existing conditions, making the rates unaffordable for her before the ACA. “If they’re going to take my health insurance and they’re going to take my business, I’m going down fighting,” she said. “And it’s not just for me, it’s for every one of us who isn’t adequately represented in Congress. Our voices are not heard, especially with Andy Harris,” who she said votes for the interests of his financial supporters “on the backs of working Americans.”

“I’m one of the working Americans,” Galbraith said. “Aren’t you sick of being trampled on by the  Republicans in government?”

Galbraith said she had spent considerable time traveling throughout the First District even before launching her campaign, “and I don’t intend to stop.” She said candidates from both parts of the district, the Eastern Shore and the Western Shore, tend to neglect the other half of the district, “and it’s not doing any of us any good.” She said she planned to visit each county “at least quarterly,” and that she would be available through social media and texting. “I have a lot of energy, I can run around the district and put 20,000 miles on my car. We deserve that from our reps, right?”

In terms of strategy, she said the Democrats need to flip about 45,000 votes to take back the district. To do so, she said she would probably fight for progressive values using “more conservative framing” of the issues. “If there were a party of critical thinking, that’s what I’d run as,” she said, but she places great importance of issues of personal rights and individual freedoms.

Other questions went into specifics including gun control (“responsible gun ownership is not a threat”), health care (“the health care system will never work out for us as long as they’re profiting by denying us care”), infrastructure (“we’re one of the richest states in the country, and there are parts of this district that don’t even have reliable internet access”), and public education (“if we care about the future, we need to care about education and preparing people for their future.”) Her answers were detailed and energetic, often drawing on personal experience.

A telling moment came when an audience member challenged her to respond to what he said would be the Republican characterization of her as “a tax-and-spend liberal” who doesn’t care about fiscal responsibility. “I have a proven record of saving millions of dollars a year for the federal government,” she said. “In terms of fiscal responsibility, I have a one-up on (Harris) because I actually save the government money.”

At the end of the visit, Galbraith’s campaign manager said her website,  gives her positions on a range of issues. Also, anyone interested can sign up on the site for notifications of events near them, he said. He said she plans to have a serallison@allisonforcongress.comies of small, informal meetings to allow people to meet her and discuss issues with her in a living-room type setting. If her appearance at the Book Plate is any sample, they would appear to be well worth attending.

Mid-Shore Culture: History on Display at Chestertown Electric

Want to buy an old telephone – one with a real dial? How about one of the “candlestick” models we’ve all seen in old movies? Check out David Hoatson’s Chestertown Electric, at 324 Cannon Street. It’s just the place you’ve been looking for.

Hoatson opened his shop last October. For now, he’s open Friday evenings, 5 to 7 p,.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Or if you’re in the market for something special and can’t get by during regular hours, call him at 410-778-0313. He’ll also answer the door bell if he’s home – he might be working in the large workshop/storage area in back or just upstairs. He lives in the apartment above the store.  He plans to expand the store’s hours in the near future.

Among the vintage items on display are ceiling and table fans,

Small electric fans – all restored and operational.

some as old as 1919 – all in perfect working condition. The old ones were more solidly made than newer models, with metal parts built to last, Hoatson said when the Spy visited his shop April 29. He began collecting old fans, lamps, and other antique electronics just about five years ago.

He’s done any necessary maintenance and restoration on the fan motors himself, supplied new blades where needed, and touched up the trim to make them look practically new.  For some of them, all he had to do was clean them up, plug them in, and they ran. The best electrical appliances were made before the Great Depression, he said.  Back then moving parts – gears, ball bearings – were made of good quality metal, not plastic like many of today’s appliances. Dayton, Ohio was once the electric fan capital of the world.

Hoatson is happy to talk about his collection – he has a story about almost all of them. Showing a stockpile of fan motors in his back room – which doubles as a storeroom and a workshop – he said, “I think some of these were stolen.” He told of a man in the 1930s who would check into hotels, take down the ceiling fans and lower them out the window to load them in his car. Hoatson came by them honestly, though – he found most of them at an antique fan dealer’s convention.

His collection of old phones – all of them in working order – includes some with 11 holes in the dial – the ten numbers plus a dedicated one to dial the operator directly, Many were made by Western Electric, but he also has some from Northern Electric – the Canadian branch of the company. Some of them need adapters to connect to modern outlets, but they all work perfectly.

There plenty more in the store – pre-1905 electric lights with carbon filaments, a hand-pumped vacuum cleaner from 1919, an Emerson brass desk fan from 1911 – and Hoatson can tell you the history of all of them. It’s like visiting a museum – with the added benefit that if you really like something, you can take it home.

Currently he is in the process of buying the building next door to his store.  He plans to move the family’s high-end audio store from Baltimore to Chestertown in the near future.  His son will manage the new store.

A native of Baltimore County, Hoatson attended Georgia Tech before returning to his home turf, where he worked as an electrical engineer for AAI Corporation, an aerospace and defense contractor in Hunt Valley. Among his projects was designing a special planetarium for the military – used to train antiaircraft crews. It’s in use in countries from Italy to Australia, as well as by the U.S. military.

Dave finds the old fans, phones, and electronic parts in many places – on e-bay, through an antique fan society, in second-hand stores,  at flea markets, etc.  Oddly enough, he says he hasn’t bought anything at Crumpton’s auction yet.  That may change, though.

 

Review: Plenty of Laughs in “Lend Me a Tenor”

If you’re in the mood for a good belly laugh, we recommend a trip to Oxford Community Center to see the Tred Avon Players’ production of “Lend Me a Tenor,” directed by Zack Schlag.

The play, written in 1986 by Ken Ludwig, first appeared in a summer theater production in New Hampshire. The British director David Gilmore read it and took it to the London stage, where it ran for ten months. Its Broadway run began in 1989 and it ran for 476 performance, picking up three Tonys and four Drama Desk awards. Philip Bosso won both as best actor in the role of Sanders, and Jerry Zaka won both for best director. The play has also been adapted as a musical, which played in London in 2011.

“Lend Me a Tenor” is set in Cleveland in 1934. As the curtain opens, the local opera house awaits a performance of Verdi’s “Otello” by the most celebrated Italian opera star of the time – Tito Merelli, whose libido is as big as his voice. But as the curtain opens, Merelli still hasn’t arrived in town – and Henry Saunders, the opera manager, is in a panic. He’s got a sold-out house, but with no star, there’s no show.

Waiting with Saunders in the hotel suite reserved for the visiting tenor are his daughter Maggie, an opera fan who worships Merelli, and his much-put-upon assistant Max. Mild-mannered Max is himself an amateur tenor, and he is in love with Maggie, who has so far done little to reward his devotion.

As Saunders becomes more and more frantic about the possibility of having to cancel the production, Max suggests he might fill in. He’s learned the role and would be glad to help out. But Saunders shoots the idea down with a full load of sarcasm. Most of the audience will demand an instant refund, and those who stay for the show will want to kill him after hearing Max.

At last Merelli arrives, and it looks as if everything is back on track. But the tenor declares he will skip the dress rehearsal – he ate too much on the train and needs to rest. Merelli’s hot-tempered wife Maria complains that he ate too much because of a shapely waitress on the train and that he won’t take the sleeping pills his doctor prescribed. Meanwhile, everybody in town – Maggie, the Chairwoman of the Opera Guild, the seductive soprano cast as Desdemona in the opera, even the hotel bellhop – wants to meet the famous singer. And at this point, everyone’s plans collide and hilarity ensues – and to find out more, you’ll just have to see the play.

Jared Koenig makes his Tred Avon debut in the role of Max. He’s a nice fit for the part, which runs a gamut from being the long-suffering target of his boss’s sarcasm and anger to outright slapstick, especially in the second act. It’s not an easy part, and he handles it convincingly.

Craig Brittingham, who has numerous acting credits on the lower shore, is thoroughly amusing as the blustering Saunders. Whether he’s blowing his top at Max’s efforts to corral the wayward tenor or breaking down in sobs as he anticipates the failure of the opera, Brittingham is at the focus of almost every scene he’s in, and he doesn’t disappoint. Excellent job.

Jackie Boyer takes the role of Maggie, and she’s charming as the young opera lover who wants to get closer to her idol Merelli. This is another role that requires a wide emotional range, and she makes the character believable – naive one moment then sexy and sophisticated the next.

Nick Grande, a TAP veteran, is well cast as Merelli, deploying an broad Italian accent and extravagant style to convey the character of the temperamental tenor. It’s a role that invites chewing the scenery, and Grande plays it to great comic effect. He’s especially entertaining in the second half, when he finds himself the target of two star-struck fans. A fine job in a central role – bravo!

Alison Lynch, a TAP regular, gets a plum role as Merelli’s hot-tempered and jealous wife Maria. She makes the part amusing without becoming too much of a caricature – not an easy job.

The other roles are also well cast. Patrick Jurena plays the wisecracking bellhop with just the right edge. Ashley Chroniger is appropriately sexy as Diana, the voluptuous soprano. And Melisa Barcomb-Doyle projects the right blend of snobbery and air-headedness as Julia, the head of the opera guild.

The set, which shows two rooms of the hotel suite at once, was designed by Lawrie Jessup. It’s functional and attractive – and the Murphy bed, perhaps the most comical piece of furniture ever invented, nearly steals the show. Needless to say, the comic potential of the bed is thoroughly utilized in the script. Shakespeare would have loved a murphy bed! There are also five doors – to hallways, closet, bathroom, etc. – each of which is slammed, knocked up, as the characters race in and out and hide from each other.

The costumes, from the women’s attractive formal gowns to the stage costume for Otello, are first-rate. Kudos to the costume crew!

The play as a whole is classic risque farce, built on elements that have been comic staples for centuries – it may be the best opera spoof since the Marx brothers’ “A Night at the Opera.” You don’t have to be an opera fan to enjoy it, though; the music is minimal – just a few snatches of song – and is incidental to the comedy. There were a couple of points where the pace might have been picked up in the performance we saw, but on the whole there’s little to criticize – and a lot to laugh at.

“Lend Me a Tenor” continues this weekend, with shows at 7:30 Friday and Saturday and a matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission, with discounts for students and TAP members.