Tag Archives: Antonio TJ Johnson
Antonio “T.J.” Johnson reflects on his choice to include Savage in Limbo, John Patrick Shanley’s homage to the dark nights of the soul that can only be found in the wee hours of a Bronx bar, in this year’s Staged Reading Series lineup. The play will be read on Monday evening at the Encinitas Library.
“I was cast as Murk in a New York reading of this play and I was very impressed by the diversity of the cast and how the story was not affected by that diversity,” says T.J., who will direct the reading with a smart and savvy cast, including Sherri Allen, Bryan Barbarin, Carol Cabrera, Jeffrey Jones and Jennifer Eve Thorn.
This universality is one of the things that drives this playwright’s work. Well known for his recent Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Doubt, even in this early play, Shanley drives home themes and situations that resonate regardless of race, background or geographical location. Everyone can relate to the fight to prove the truth of one’s own instincts against a sea of opposition. Everyone can relate to the realization that one’s life direction might be unclear, or in limbo.
“There are no heroes. There are only human dealings,” says T.J., explaining that while Shanley introduces these themes, he very rarely becomes didactic in his writing. “He leaves the conclusion to the journey of the individual in the audience. I think the debates go on into the night.”
Although Savage in Limbo was written 30 years ago, the play’s urgent message to “break the sameness” is still just as relevant, and watching the story of these 30-somethings unfold as they attempt to solve their life problems over booze and banter is a testament to the theatrical power of the bar setting to elicit truth-telling.
“I am intrigued by plays set in bars,” admits T.J. “A lot of truths are spoken there, such as in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Turning points are reached as the truth serum flows. Lies are exposed and feelings may be hurt, but always with the right intentions. We get to witness it and live in New York for a short time with these characters.”
Part of what makes this invitation to the party so realistic is the powerful accuracy of Shanley’s dialogue. D.C. Theatre Scene reviewer Steven McKnight commented that “few people can write successfully for realistic characters in such a lyrical manner. Shanley can be fiercely funny or brutally honest while still maintaining compassion for the lovable losers that populate many of his works.”
This realism, while effective, can also present a challenge to the actors as they work to capture the various tempos, rhythms and speech patterns of their characters.
“As this is one of his early plays, Shanley has fun with snide New York dialogue delivered in rapid pace,” says T.J. “We have to trust that dialogue and find the rhythms.”
Join us Monday evening, and enjoy a glass of wine as you find your own reserved seat at the bar. The company is guaranteed to entertain.
Savage in Limbo by John Patrick Shanley, a staged reading. Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, May 18: 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. $15. Rsvp to firstname.lastname@example.org and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase tickets online.
Audiences leapt to their feet night after night throughout this past closing weekend of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical. It was just the kind of reception that the company had been hoping for from their very first rehearsals – and one that was often repeated throughout the run of the show. Apparently, there was much magic in the music, and many of those who entered the theater new to Shakespeare left wondering what took everyone so long to infuse it with catchy tunes.
“It really makes it so accessible,” one theater-goer said, grinning from ear to ear as she left the theater humming “So Happy Together.” Another patron noted that he had been to the show three times. “I never saw the same play twice,” he said, referring to the energy and acrobatics of the actors and the music. “It was different each time.” Another audience member was regretful that she waited until closing to see the show because it was something she would have liked to share with others and to see again. “Oh, well,” she said. “I’m sad it’s over.”
She’s not the only one. After months of time spent in these characters, it takes a minute sometimes for the actors to step away – not only from the show, but from each other. “I’ll miss everyone,” says Sandy Campbell with a bittersweet smile, as the actors gathered in the lobby to greet family and friends after the final performance. “This show has really grown and we’ve grown together.”
Savvy Scopelleti agrees. “It’s really blossomed,” she says.
Eddie Yaroch weighs in. “The best stage entrance in any play I’ve ever done,” he says, referencing his cruising “Life Could Be a Dream” basketed bicycle ride.
Taylor Peckham admits that he now considers himself a Shakespeare veteran. Remarkably, this stint as Puck (as well as being the musical director of the entire show), was Taylor’s first experience performing the Bard. “And I’m not the only one,” he says, puckishly, looking across the lobby at David McBean, Sandy Campbell, and Lauren King.
Tom Stephenson ponders the nomadic nature of theatre as he glances around the bustling lobby. “It’s always like this,” he says. “You develop camaraderie for such a short, intense time. Then you may not see someone for three years, until you do another show together. But, we’ll always have this – this show will always connect us.”
It is certainly hard to let go of something that has been such an investment of time, talent, and energy. But it has to happen. And in the theatre world, it happens quickly. The company is already looking forward to beginning rehearsals for the next production, Hamlet, which opens in January. And no, Hamlet will not be a musical, even though the question has been posed by at least one audience member at almost every performance.
But there is one more step to complete before this next journey can begin.
Silently observing the festivities in the lobby, electric drill in hand, Michael McKeon, set designer, waits patiently for his cue. “Strike,” as it’s known in the theatre world, is usually a group effort, taking place immediately after the last show, when everyone comes together to dismantle the set. Already some actors have changed into sweats and sneakers to help with the impending task. There is no room for sentimentality about holding onto things in this place. Once the last bow is taken, it is time to move on.
Spotting Sean Cox, co-artistic director of the company, Michael calls out over the crowd, “Is it time?”
A few hours later – sets broken, curtains packed, rope swings untied – it’s as if nothing has happened here. The stage is once again bare, awaiting its next adventure. — T.T.
“…Swift as a shadow, short as any dream; brief as the lightning in the collied night…” (I.i)
Closing weekend descends upon us, and we are stunned that we are preparing to sing our last “So Happy Together!” Even though this production has moved swiftly though performance phase, we are so thrilled to have pulled off our Shakespearean musical motif with flair and sh’boom. But before we start patting ourselves on our own creative backs, we thought it might be a good idea to take a journey down a Shakespeare-inspired lane. Maybe these previous concoctions of Midsummer and music need a nod from our 60s set list as well.
Shakespeare penned MND in the 1590s and included some fairy lyrics for his flighty characters. But how long would it be before the idea of a full-fledged musical would enter the picture?
Meet Henry Purcell and his 1692 semi-opera, The Fairy Queen, which kept most of Bill’s original text but infused the play with masques to illuminate its themes of love and marriage, including one featuring the Greek goddess Hymen. Shockingly, it was widely misunderstood by Restoration Era audiences.
Unshockingly, David Garrick also had to have his operatic Midsummer say. His opera, entitled The Fairies, premiered in 1755 and featured only the storylines of the forest (sorry, Mechanicals!). All singing, all the time, there were 28 added airs, duets, and choruses in addition to the recitatively-crooned dialogue. Reception was mixed, but a publication called The Tuner deemed it “a laudable attempt to encourage native musical Productions.” (Future musical productions thank you for the vote of confidence!)
Moving forward…some midsummer trivia! Did you know that Felix Mendelssohn’s famous “Wedding March” was written in 1842 as incidental music for a German production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Writing the music to accompany this play actually spanned the composer’s entire lifetime, as he was 17 years old when he penned the overture and then completed the score a few years before his death.
Over the years, Mendelssohn’s music has also been choreographed into ballet by masters like Marius Petipa, George Balanchine, and Frederick Ashton.
Of course, in modern times, there have been a slew of looser adaptations which have woven music through the storyline of this play. Recently, the off-Broadway hit, The Donkey Show, featured the basic storyline set to 70s-era disco music, dance club style.
Which brings us to our own little corner of the Shakespearean musical anthology – an intermingling of nostalgia and poetry that has been tugging heartstrings and garnering smiles of familiarity since our opening two weekends ago. And it’s no wonder – when the cast sings about fairy tale love on summer nights in between their soliloquies and witty banter, the flow is so seamless, it’s hard to believe that infusing Midsummer with music isn’t what Shakespeare had intended all along. After all, wasn’t he the first to point out that “life could be a dream”? — T.T.
Dateline: Rehearsal. Wednesday, August 29, 745 pm
‘Twas the night before previews
And in the Clayton E. Liggett
Were just the sounds of fine-tuning
And a director shouting, “I dig it!”
The rope swings were hung
From the stage grid with care
In hopes that “knot spacing”
Was finally secure.
Patrick was tucked
In the sound booth and gave
Life to the piano
When Taylor would wave.
And what was there left
on the list to complete?
Sharon just smiles and says,
“I can’t feel my feet.”
The actors run round
In costumes and curls
Rehearsing their harmonic
It was nigh around eight
When the last rehearsal began
The bower finally hung
As the actors filed in.
The company’s final attempt
To make everything right
Knowing tomorrow’s first preview
Would be a memorable night.
As Intrepid embarks on its first musical spectacular, and we find ourselves analyzing the text of the Bard against a backdrop of doo-wop and dance steps, we also find ourselves again in amazement at one of the things we love most about WS – that is, the unique ability of this playwright’s anthology to be interpreted in a variety of time periods, settings, and, apparently, musical scores. The fact that we spent this week rehearsing “Sh’Boom” with the Mechanicals in a way that totally makes sense, is really kind of cool.
So, if the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be told in a variety of ways, we were also curious as to how the actual idea of “midsummer” came to be in the first place, and why does it work so well in three-part harmony? We decided to do a little digging.
First, the Online Entymology Dictionary tells us that the word is derived from “midsumor,” meaning, well, the middle of summer. So, yeah, that was a shocker. We decided to dig a little deeper.
According to the Farmer’s Almanac:
June 21 marks the Summer Solstice, the day of the year when the sun reaches the Tropic of Cancer, its highest point in the Northern Hemisphere. The summer solstice is also the longest day of the year for those of us living north of the Equator.
Modern calendars refer to this day as the first day of summer, though ancient reckoning actually viewed May 1 as the beginning of summer, and the Solstice as “Midsummer,” the halfway point of the season. Because the Solstice marks not only the Sun’s greatest potency, but also the turning point at which the length of days begins to wane, this older viewpoint does make sense.
So, the “beginning” of summer on our modern calendars is actually the middle of the season. Well, whaddya know? Fortunately, modern Scandinavians are well aware of this fact, holding days-long midsummer celebrations to honor the eternal sunlight of their northern locale.
The Summer Solstice itself has always held significance for ancient religions and cultures, and can be tied historically to earth-related occurrences, such as the possible meaning behind the creation of Stonehenge and the Egyptian calendars which begin by marking the annual rising of the Nile. In fact, celebrations of the solstice are still held throughout the world that stem from these types of events and traditions.
Historically, the church recognized these pagan celebrations of the Summer Solstice by choosing June 24 as the feast day of St. John the Baptist. In Ireland, this midsummer feast day is also known as a bonfire night (not to be confused with Guy Fawkes Day – also “Bonfire Night” in the UK), which pre-Christianity, was actually celebrated to honor Aine, the Celtic goddess of love and fertility with feasting, singing, and dancing around – you guessed it – bonfires.
In the old days, the ashes of the fires were then mixed with the seeds that would be soon be planted in order to bring good luck to the harvest. At this time, young couples would also perform what was called a “handfast,” where they would wind a ribbon around their wrists as a sign of binding, and then hope to be expecting their own, er, seedling, come the fall. The woman would then wear the ribbon as a symbol of their union.
Interestingly enough, midsummer celebrations in Ireland are still greatly associated with…fairy activity! (Hmm, we are sensing a connection here!) In short, it’s no wonder that Shakespeare chose this historic and celebratory time of year to give his tale of love and dreaming a little magical color. Oh, and if you are in the mood to celebrate and find yourself dancing around a midsummer bonfire one day, here’s a tip: Wishes will be granted when you whisper them into a small stone and cast it into the fire…whether or not the fairies are involved, though, is anyone’s guess. – T.T.