Hysterical COOLERS at Perkins Art Center in Collingswood

by Jack Shaw

(L. to R.)T. Clark Sweeney (Stan), Kumar Dari (O'Malley), CJ. Sikorski (Freddy), Melissa Connell Mary), Karl Babij (Frank Rogers): It's prohibition, and vaudeville is fading away, losing to the new popular media of the day--motion pictures. Fellow performers share libation to prepare for a bad show in COOLERS, a new play at the Perkins Center of the Arts, Collingswood, NJ through March 12.

I had fun tonight. There were moments I was filled with hysterical and historical laughter—if that’s even possible. I found myself laughing with many other audience members at the jokes and bits from Vaudeville long before my time and at jokes so old they shouldn’t have been funny today. And, yet they were. New jokes and bits propelled the play along at a breathtaking pace.

I just saw COOLERS, an Imagination Creation, in conjunction with The Perkins Center of the Arts and Bravo Entertainment production of an original comedy with music at The Perkins Center for the Arts in Collingswood, NJ, and enjoyed it immensely.

COOLERS is advertised as “a valentine to the days of vaudeville and to the entertainers who kept all of America singing and laughing into a new century!” It certainly is that. Local playwright Alex Wilkie created an enormously entertaining play with delightful characters, while he pays tribute to the glory and decline of Vaudeville days and remembers the troupers—some of whom were quite the performers as well.

“Coolers,” if you didn’t know, is the name that was given to the vaudeville performers who kept the audience entertained while the movie projectors cooled and new movie reels could be loaded.

Chuck Gill, who produced and directed the show, put together a true ensemble production. He also gave us some unusual but effective staging like keeping the entire cast on stage most of the time, giving us almost a chorus line effect. That only added to the chaos and delight. When the individual acts start rehearsing on their own, we are treated to stronger reminders of how good these acts could be, and that they weren’t as bad as they thought they were. When characters dialogued, you heard their personal stories.

I like plays with heart–plays that are more than a vehicle for catchy tunes and this is one. COOLERS was well performed from “Bill’s” gruff opening to the play’s final heartfelt song that seemed genuinely shared with the audience. Without gushing, I can say I enjoyed each individual performance of each distinct character. I know Melissa Connell is capable of fine singing because I have heard her sing in other shows so I was naturally impressed when she faked not being able to sing. That’s harder to do than you think.

I could easily mention every single performance as a standout performance and not be exaggerating. Alex Wilkie’s characters are also stars. They seem real, as if based on real vaudevillian performers, and if they aren’t, he did as great a job creating them as the actors did bringing them to life.

Generally, crowded stages bother me, but it seemed here that it was intentional. I would have liked a larger stage for the actors rather than fewer actors on stage to give them room for their own individual and special moments, but that’s me and my style of directing.  But this only proves, there can be a time for a crowded stage.  I learn more about theatre everyday and I continue to be amazed.

Chuck Gill did a terrific job of directing an original play in conjunction with the writer in untested venue as well. Kudos also to the rest of the production staff that included Andre Vermeulen, the Music Director, Travis Lawrence, the Technical Director, Jeff Bettencourt, Lighting Design, Jason Gonserkevis, Sound Design, Frank Caputo for Props and Rob Paluso for Costumes.

This was the first play performed in the Loft of the Perkins Center for the Arts this year and should it prove successful, I’m sure there will be others. In my mind it was a definite success. The usual theater amenities are lacking at this point but with such a good show, the audience is forgiving. The stage could have been higher or the seats elevated in the back, but when you’re new, resources are an issue and you don’t have the luxury of having a complete set of dinnerware—if you get my drift. And, in many ways, it was a test to see if an audience would come. Those amenities will come in time. Meanwhile, the space is flexible and all a theatre company really needs is an audience.

For actors: Plays have been written about how much “fun” that can be, but most of the time it really is a great experience for everyone involved. I was in a play called PLAY ON! in which the playwright kept changing the play at the last minute. I’ve done three original plays and they become a special part of your repertoire–for your acting resume, for the list of shows you want to direct, if you do that. Acting or directing a show is a creative process all by itself. Add in working with the playwright, hearing from him or her about the intent of this or that scene, understanding the play directly from his or her point of view is a learning experience every performer should have.

I admit it makes me nervous to be part of a brand new untested play, but after having done it, I even have the courage to take a failed play, discover what made it fail, correct those mistakes and make it work the way it should. I will also admit that I sit in the theatre when an original play is being presented, as I did with this one, and wonder if it’s going to measure up to the standards of plays I know have stood the test.

For COOLERS: Here’s the test — Is the writing worthy of an audience, or does the audience have to forgive too much, or must the actors become the creators of more than their own characters? This play is excellent; it gets a very good grade from me, for what it’s worth, and passes the test. The play has a few days left in its short run: March 5, 11th and 12th. I hope you get to see it.

by Alex Wilkie
Directed/Produced by Charles J. Gill
March 5 – 12, 2011
Imagination Creation (in conjunction with The Perkins Center of the Arts and Bravo Entertainment)
Perkins Center of the Arts
30 Irvin Avenue
Collingswood, NJ

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