Good news! A new theatrical organization is making its first venture onto local stages.
The Winged Ox Players -- founded by members of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, in Jamestown, but open to the general public - will be performing the play "God's Favorite," by famed playwright Neil Simon, on Friday and next Saturday, and also Sept. 21 and 22, at the Robert H. Jackson Center. The theater is at the rear of the Jackson Center, at the intersection of Prendergast Avenue, and Fifth Street. The curtain goes up at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $10. Purchase them at the office of St. Luke's, which is located in the church's Parish House, which is immediately adjacent to the church, or by telephone at 483-6405 or at 665-5977. At the time of the interview, the company was negotiating with other sites for ticket sales, but the ones named are certain. All proceeds from ticket sales will be shared among four organizations: The American Red Cross, Love Inc., Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, and St. Susan's Center. The director stressed that the performances are not a benefit for St. Luke's, but for the organizations named above.
The cast of the play 'God's Favorite,' which will be performed next weekend and the following weekend, by Winged Ox Players. From left to right, actors are Miguel Covarrubias, Cathy Covarrubias, Donna Philippi, Adam Hughes, Steven Cobb, Marlene Mudge, Michael Frank, and Jack McCray.
I've recently had a conversation with the production's director, Daniel "Deacon" Pierce, and I'd like to share that with you, followed by some information about the play and its writer.
Regular attendees at local theatrical venues, such as the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown (LBLTJ) and the Spoon River Project, as presented for several consecutive summers in the Lake View Cemetery, are well familiar with the play's director.
Whether playing a leading role or a small part, or serving as a trustee of one of the organizations, or handing out honors to students who have participated in contests, Pierce has been a familiar presence in local theater.
He told me that Winged Ox Players take their name from the traditional symbol in Medieval art, for the Gospel writer, St. Luke. In the dark ages, the vast majority of people never learned to read, so the church attempted to teach people through visual images and symbols. The Evangelists who wrote the Gospels were represented by an angel or winged man, representing St. Matthew; a winged lion, representing St. Mark; the winged ox of St. Luke; and the eagle, representing St. John.
"About a year ago, a discussion began among members of our church about how many of our parishioners are actively involved in theater and performing arts. A group of eight of us met in the home of our deacon, Cathy Smith, and her husband, Matt Smith, and began discussions about how we might use those interests to accomplish outreach for our beliefs," he told me.
"For quite a while, we found ourselves what you might call 'stuck in committee,' with different people having different ideas of how to proceed," he said.
Last May, Pierce and his wife, Jennifer, attended a performance of the play "Tuesdays with Morrie," by Mitch Albom, which was presented at The Spire, the new theatrical facility, directly across Third Street from the U.S. Post Office, in the former Congregationalist Church. They encountered the Smiths in the audience as well.
The two couples fell to discussing their project, and they decided to try performing a play which dealt with moral issues. "God's Favorite" is the result.
Pierce had come across the play while reading scripts as a member of the Play Selection Committee at the Little Theatre. The script seemed to offer both genuine moral inquiry, as well as a goodly amount of humor and entertainment. Pierce was asked to direct, while his wife filled the challenging role of producer. The Smiths volunteered to cover the stage manager role and to supervise the technical aspects of performances.
The Rector of St. Luke's, the Rev. Eric Williams, believed the project was a genuine example of Christian outreach, and on his recommendation, the church's vestry voted to pay the royalties which make it possible to perform a writer's play, as well as some start-up costs.
The company investigated a number of potential sites for the performance, and decided that the Jackson Center offered the best price as well as the opportunity to rehearse on the actual stage of their theater. Typically, performing companies practice in a room somewhere and only get to practice on the actual stage a small number of times before the opening performance.
"We invited the entire community to audition, and 12 people turned out. The cast required eight actors. The chosen performers will be Miguel Covarubbias, who is St. Luke's youth minister; his wife Cathy Covarubbias; Donna Philippi, who is one of the church's two wardens; Adam Hughes; Steven Cobb; Marlene Mudge; Michael Frank; and Jack McCray," Pierce said. He pointed out that Ms. Mudge is appearing in "God's Favorite" for the second time, having performed it with the Little Theatre a number of years ago.
For several years, a while back, LBLTJ had working there one of the most gifted set designers I've ever encountered in a long life of play going. Ron Gasparinetti designed the original Chautauqua County production of the play, and the Winged Ox Players have been able to benefit from photographs and blueprints which he left behind to produce what the director feels is a very professional and attractive set, with the understanding that the Jackson Center stage doesn't have space above the plays for scenery to "fly," nor much wing space to move things to the side, and limits of that nature.
The director indicated that all kinds of projects require a while to get started, especially in a small town such as Jamestown. "If this succeeds and the participants feel good about it and have a good time, they'll tell their friends and neighbors, and the next time we hold auditions, more people will turn out," he said.
In addition to the people already named, the director said Janet Card has volunteered to do costumes, Lisa Yaggie has volunteered to do publicity, and the ushers of St. Luke's have volunteered to fulfill their ushering duties for the performances, as well.
Pierce said what nearly everyone I interview says: He wants to thanks the many people who are participating in the productions, but is reluctant to start naming them, because in the heat of the moment, someone is certain to be left out, or to join after the interview is already over and not be included. Still, he felt it was important to try.
Among those who have given time and talent to the production of "God's Favorite" have been Bill Thomas, who is their technical director, St. Luke's Thrift Shop, which has provided clothing to be used as costumes and other items needed for performances; LBLTJ, which has been helpful in providing needed items; the Spire and its owners, Angelo and Ylsa Giuffre; Anne Thorpe; Peter Dawson and the Jamestown Fire Department; Anne Thomas; Marge Fiore; Carol Drake of the Jackson Center; and many others whose names temporarily escaped a harried director, or who made their contribution after we left the meeting.
I expect it will be a very well-presented production, indeed.
ABOUT THE PLAY
"God's Favorite" was written by award-winning playwright and comic writer Neil Simon, known as the creator of "Barefoot in the Park," "The Odd Couple," "The Sunshine Boys," and dozens of other successful and long-running plays.
The play is based upon the Bible's "Book of Job," in which a God-loving man is visited by a long list of bitter sufferings, but who remains faithful.
The play takes place in a mansion on New York's Long Island. Joe Benjamin, the Job character, lives there with his wife, his prodigal son, twins Ben and Sarah, plus a maid and a butler. One night a supernatural visitor who calls himself Sidney Lipton arrives and offers Joe all sorts of temptations to abandon his faith in God. When that fails, the visitor sends a long list of torments, to test his faith, and yet Joe remains true.
The play opened on Broadway in 1974 and played through much of 1975. While not one of Simon's most successful creations, the play was received positively by most critics.
Clive Barnes, writing in the New York Times called the play "Probably Simon's most imaginative creation."
ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT
Neil Simon was born in 1927, and is now 85 years old. He has received more nominations for Oscars, Emmies, and Tony Awards than any other person, and has been frequently described as the most commercially successful writer in American literary history.
Some literary critics have faulted his creations for being based on jokes and one-liners, rather than on dramatic structure, while a sizable school of critics have said that Simon is under-appreciated because nearly all his creations are comic, rather than dramatic.
Simon grew up in New York City during the Great Depression, and a number of his plays deal with young men who are forced to rely on their own moxie to survive conditions of poverty, unstable families, and economic hardship.
He began his career as a writer, creating scripts for television programs such as the "Phil Silvers Show" and the "Sid Caesar Comedy Hour." Among his co-writers were Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.
His first successful play was "Come Blow Your Horn," which ran for nearly two years, beginning in 1961. In 1983 he had four different plays on Broadway at the same time. That year, the Neil Simon Theater was named in his honor.
In the 1990s, he began to turn away from the snappy comedies of his younger days, and to write autobiographical plays about marital discord, children dealing with difficult parents, and other such serious subjects. In 1991, he won the Pulitzer Prize for "Lost in Yonkers," a play about two motherless young Jewish boys whose father must leave them with his demanding and seemingly cold-hearted mother, while he earns his living as a traveling salesman.
Lucie Arnaz had a long run on Broadway as the boys' loving but socially challenged Aunt Bella, who tries to provide the mothering they need, and can't seem to get otherwise.
Simon's older brother, Danny Simon earned his living as a comedy writer, mostly for television, but never successfully wrote for the theater.
The writer's characters have been described as flawed and unheroic, yet good hearted and well meaning, and almost entirely inspired either by people who affected his own growing up, or by his own coping with the various challenges of adult life. "God's Favorite," for example, was inspired by Simon's eager searching through the "Book of Job," for answers for why good people sometimes suffer, while bad people sometimes seem to live easy lives, when his wife at the time, was afflicted by cancer.
Last week, I told readers I hadn't received any information about Buffalo's annual Curtain Up! Weekend, which has been an annual celebration in which the Queen City recognizes the importance of theater in the city's cultural life, with street dances, a big formal banquet and productions playing at every one of the city's many performing arts companies.
In the subsequent week, I have received two releases from individual companies who will be taking part in Curtain Up! 2012. It turns out that the big event will take place on Friday of the coming week.
Theatre of Youth, for example, will celebrate on Friday at 8 p.m., with a formal red carpet, balloon arches, bunny desserts, and bunny-related foods and beverages, and a production of the play "The Full Knuffle Bunny: a Cautionary Musical," by Mo Williams and Michael Silversher. The play will continue to be performed Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., through Oct. 7.
The company performs at the Allendale Theatre, on Allen Street, just off Elmwood Avenue in downtown Buffalo. For ticket information, phone them at 884-4400, or go to their website at www.theatreofyouth.org.
Also, the building which formerly held the much-lamented Studio Arena Theatre is re-opening at last, now to be called by its address: 710 Main Street. The first performance will be Friday evening at 8 p.m., when they will present "Seth's Big Fat Broadway Show," a one-man performance featuring Seth Rudetsky, a personality on Sirius Radio.
Sept. 21 and 22, there will be three performances of John Lithgow's theatrical memoirs, a one-man production, titled "Stories by Heart."
For information about either of those shows, go to www.sheas.org/710Main. The facility is now being managed by Shea's Performing Arts Center, and will be available for rental and use by other performing-arts companies in Buffalo. We'll tell you what else they're doing, when they tell us.