New Voices launches with “Madame Bonaparte”

PLAYERS BY THE SEA THEATRE REVIEW

A Dual Critics Review by Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

Jacksonville Beach’s Players by the Sea opened the world premiere of the captivating “Madame Bonaparte” on May 26, which will run through June 3, 2017.  Call 249-0289 or visit playersbythesea.org for additional information and reservations.

This work launches Player’s “New Voices,” a landmark addition to Jacksonville’s theatre scene which is designed to support the development of new plays, and will be continued next season. While Players has earned a reputation for encouraging and supporting new playwrights in the past, New Voices provides writers with guidance, advice, compensation for their efforts, and, best of all, a fully-staged production.

The author of the first play in this series is Kelby Siddons, a local teacher with a passion for theatre who has written a number of plays that have found their way to production. She is also an accomplished actor and director.

“Madame Bonaparte” is adapted from “Wondrous Beauty,” a biography written by Carol Berkin about Baltimore’s Elizabeth Patterson, a remarkable woman who defied the wishes of her wealthy father by marrying Jerome Bonaparte in 1803; he was a French citizen who was Napoleon Bonaparte’s youngest brother. We have all heard of and read about this famous ruler, who controlled France for many years and wanted to control the lives of his relatives. He did not approve of Jerome’s marriage, and in 1804, when Jerome and Elizabeth — now pregnant — traveled to France to attend his coronation as emperor, he would not allow her to disembark. Betsy’s child, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, was born in London in 1805; a French court annulled the marriage in 1806. Afterward, Jerome married an European princess, and acquired a title as king of Westphalia; his brother Napoleon would die in exile several years later.

These facts were so well presented that we were enthralled by Betsy’s unlikely but true story. She was a headstrong woman who fought for her rights and continued to defy her father during a period when women just didn’t do such things. She spent long periods of time residing in Europe, where she became a socialite with many prominent friends.

We won’t provide additional information about the content, as we believe that endings are best left intact for the audience to experience firsthand. 

The play was directed by Harolyn Sharpe who has been involved in drama and education for thirty-five years. During this time, she has directed eighteen performances, appeared in many shows from comedy to classics, and received a Best Acting Award from theatre Jacksonville for her role is “Is He Dead?” She has staged this show with solid craftsmanship and selected a remarkable cast.

All eight members of this cast are on stage for the entire two hours and each makes a bold impression. Milan Alley, the leading lady, is superb as Betsy Bonaparte, a demanding role where she is either playing to the audience from center stage or in constant contact with other performers. Ms. Alley has appeared in a number of other productions, which include “Twelfth Night” in Tallahassee, Florida; “Hamlet,” “Celebration,” and “Merrily We Roll Along” at Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre; and “Hand to God” at Players. She is a director’s dream and an audience favorite with her marvelous voice and skilled projection.

Well-known local theatrical artist, Jason Woods, plays both Betsy’s husband Jerome and her son Bo. For his latest creation, “Mr. Toad’s Wild Expedition,” he wrote the script, music, and lyrics, then followed up with set design, casting, and directing. 

Veteran actor Bill White appears as Betsy’s irascible father William, as Napoleon, and as a Prosecutor. There was apparently no love lost between William and his daughter, whose oppositional position was “Whatever you will as long as I am in your will!”

An interesting aspect of this play is the number of accents used by the cast. Betsy’s speech is unaccented, but from others we heard British, Dutch, French, Irish, German and Russian accents, and there were probably a couple more that we missed.

Actress Leslie Richart provided a lesson in accents as she played Eliza, Sydney, Pauline and Susan — four women involved in various aspects of Betsy’s life. Leslie is more often seen in musicals, and won a Pelican Award for her role in “Next to Normal.”

The multi-talented Franklin Ritch was Edward, Turreau, Alexander, and a Judge. We especially enjoyed his portrayal of a Russian aristocrat. Mr. Ritch is currently working on multiple film projects, and is an excellent character actor as well. And he is a playwright; “Let’s Kill Greg” was recently staged by The 5 & Dime Theatre Company.

Actor John Cadwell plays eight different characters including the famous Tartuffe. A St. Johns River State College student, he nonetheless is a very busy actor and has appeared in a number of productions, including “City of Angels,” “Eurydice,” and “Macbeth.”

Gretta Russe has been on stage in dozens of plays in the Jacksonville area, and can do it all, whether comedy or drama. Her most recent appearance was as Lady Macduff in ABET’s production of “Hamlet.”  At Players, she portrays four women who were close to Betsy and her family.

There were many details we have not commented upon since we don’t want to spoil the excitement of the show as it unfurls. The characterizations are bold, varied, and unfailingly convincing.

The Crew included Frankie Rady who handled the sound and projection. The Lighting Engineer was Sara Stansel; large photos of people in Betsy’s life and places mentioned in the script were projected on the back wall.

“Sentences,” the second New Voices production, will be staged during June 9 – June 17, 2017. The play, by Drew L.  Brown, is based on a true story about the unjust prison sentence of a Southern woman.

Of additional interest, the Grune Family Gallery at Players is currently featuring photos by Rachel Jones, a DASOTA and University of Florida graduate who traveled to North Dakota to cover Oceti Sakowin Camp activists who were protesting the building of a pipeline. The photos are marvelous, which is yet another reason to plan a trip to Players. 

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.
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