Thirst-E Thespians, Black Box Beats

Anthony Younes, Samantha Ambler, Jason Propst, Rudy Palma and Tammy Owens stand ready to quench your desire for something a bit more refreshingly tart in summertime theater, as Thirst-E Productions stages Nicky Silver’s THE MAIDEN’S PRAYER at The ShowRoom in Asbury Park.

Seems as if we’ve been posting a lot of stories lately about The Theater here on the Upper WET Side, and while we don’t deny it — it is, after all, our longtime beat and supposed specialty over at what’s lately been rebranded NJ Press Media — we could tell you in our defense that there’s been some intriguing stuff going on, well beyond the usual Nunsense.

So if we’re guilty of outright neglecting an event like last weekend’s VTAF — a press pass would’ve fixed that in a little old souped-up jiffy — we’ve also been working overtime, burning the midnight oil up in our crumbly Victorian garret, to reinforce the fact that there’s more going on ‘neath the summer-stage sun and stars than Grease and The Music Man (not that there’s anything wrong with a top-shelf treatment of a well-turned warhorse; witness our latest post about what’s up down at the Surflight). In recent days we’ve hepped you as to ReVision Theatre‘s Carousel gambit with Spring Awakening; alerted you to the latest endeavors of Cabaret for Life, and kept you in-the-loop and loopy over the ongoing mission of NJ Rep.

With the dogday doldrums of August keeping many of the more “serious” regional stages dark as downtown LB, a couple of small and highly mobile Asbury-based entities have re-emerged to stake their slice of late-season, magic-hour light — one a relatively new enterprise made up of actors who are thirsting for something a bit different; the other an illuminating discovery within the wreckage of a proudly pedigreed guerrilla arts group.

Pay attention next time you’re stuck slogging your way through your niece’s summer-stock production of Sound of Music or Fiddler: one of the actors — maybe one of those convent sisters or Cossack troops? — might have some faraway look in the eye; might be planning a furtive scene-change conference with a fellow cast member, with the aim of staging scripts that were a little more adult; a bit more brutally honest and sexy. That’s essentially what transpired a couple of years back between Samantha Ambler and Tammy Owens, a couple of friends and local stage performers who had the moxie to believe that the suburban audience was ready to make that quantum leap beyond Neil Simon.

Throwing caution to the winds, the two Monmouth County women conjured into being the thing called Thirst-E Productions — characterized as “a labor of love” for obvious reasons. Recruiting some talented fellow players (as well as frequent collaborator and director Steven Hirsekorn), the fledgling company set about assembling a production of the Tennessee Williams classic A Streetcar named Desire — a property which, despite its standing in the American stage canon (and the iconic image of Brando’s “STELLL-AAAA!!”), ain’t seen nearly as much as you’d think outside the big cities.

“We played up the violence and the sexual angle,” says Ambler of the 2009 production, presented under the banner of the Shrewsbury Players and hosted at the Presbyterian Church House in the borough’s historic district. “We were excited about the results; we were asking each other, what can we do next?”

Whatever was next, it probably wasn’t going to be taking place at the Presbyterian Church — and after a brief search, the Thirsters settled upon a host venue that’s offered snug harbor to all three of their subsequent offerings. The ShowRoom had already begun to push the parameters of the nickelodeon niche, with a slew of music, comedy, spoken word and panel events — and the storefront screening space welcomed Thirst-E to the mix for their Spring 2010 production of Closer, Patrick Marber‘s tart-tongued, sex-infused ensemble piece about infidelity, identity and those indelible first impressions.

Despite the production’s shoestring budget (it would’ve been shoestring if they could afford shoes), the Thirst-E thespians let everything ride on that first, make-or-break show — and the results were encouraging enough to mount a second production in August of last year. A relatively little-known piece by playwright and filmmaker Neil LaBute, reasons to be pretty brought the writer’s signature themes of lovers behaving badly (and lookers taking the spoils) to the portable postage-stamp stage of the ShowRoom. Reviewing for the Asbury Park Press, we praised the show for its “tightly wound scenes of confrontation, betrayal and attempted reconciliation — played out against the working-world settings of break rooms, mall food courts and softball fields, by characters who can’t always articulate their emotions in family-friendly language.”

We also added, “Now if the Thirsters could get those characters to maintain an onstage Swear Jar, they might just find a new way to monetize their own productions.”

With proper hydration once again paramount here in August, Thirst-E Productions returns to the Cookman Avenue Arts Bloc for five performances of The Maiden’s Prayer, a rarely revived 1998 play by Nicky Silver in which, according to Ambler, “there are two different love triangles…it’s about all different types of love; between a husband and wife, between two sisters, and the love of a man who’s got a gay crush on his straight best friend.”

“Unrequited love, and how we deal with it, is the real situation here,” she continues. “There are no weaker or lesser parts in this script…we just had to do it.”

Determined not to have her own love for the play go unrequited, Ambler sold Owens on the production — and together they brought on board frequent co-star and “go-to guy” Anthony Younes to join them for a third time at the ShowRoom. The cast also features a couple of Thirst-E firsties: Jason Propst, and Rudy Palma, appearing here as four different characters — three of whom (a series of dates for the gay character Paul) each get to deliver a monologue in very short order.

The Maiden’s Prayer goes up for 8pm performances on the next two Fridays and Saturdays (August 5-6 and 12-13) — preceded on Thursday, August 4 by what’s become a newly minted Thirst-E tradition: a fundraiser performance for a selected local charity, in this case the Jersey Shore chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Tickets for all performances are priced at $20, and can be reserved by calling 732.495.9591 or by emailing Thirst-e@hotmail.com.

Scooter Lib: The spoken-word, performance-art, motivational force that is Pandora Scooter returns to Asbury Park, as part of the Black Box ReBoot on August 14.

A Black Box is by definition — well, one of them, anyway — an intimately scaled performance space, able to be reconfigured as the situation warrants and usually given over to offerings of an edgier, more experimental nature than what you’ll find booked into some ornate auditorium with a fixed seating plan. Then again, most of us know the phrase as a recording device; a collector of data and observations — a thing to be recovered in the event of unforeseen awfulness.

For more than a decade — dating back to a point well before the arrival of most of the arts and entertainment entities on the current cityscape — the nonprofit arts org Black Box of Asbury Park has been the first and most genuine voice for arts stuff that’s a bit off center, under the radar, sometimes over the top. While it’s often appeared to go dormant for long stretches of time, “Asbury Park’s Multicultural Arts Incubator” has lent its imprimatur to a variety of endeavors, from music and poetry to visual art and even a monthly Black Box Ink of Asbury Park Open Writers Forum that takes place right here where we live, work and kvetch — the literarily legendary Stephen Crane House.

That said, we first encountered the Black Box team (including our good friend Terri Thomas, since relocated to Oregon) as producers of live theater — in particular a Women’s Arts Festival that has re-appeared sporadically in various shapes and sizes over the years. The B-Boxers even boasted their own (temporary) storefront theater space on the “old” Cookman Ave, moving in “hermit crab” style after that to such available venues as the Berkeley Hotel and (pre-Madison Marquette) Lance & Debbie’s Wonder Bar.

Here in 2011, the people of the Box have a newly articulated mission to “support the evolution of projects and collaborations not possible under the constraints of regular commercial theatre” — and it’s a mission that’s due to hit fruition on the weekend of September 9-11, when, in observance of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Midge Guerrera‘s original play Email 9/12 will premiere in performance at VFW Hall 1333. It’s a fundraiser for the Asbury Park Fire Department, the local PBA and the VFW — and details are promised soon at the event’s Facebook page.

Thus does it become necessary to recover the Black Box — to Re-Boot, as it were, with a wine ‘n cheese reception scheduled for the evening of Sunday, August 14 inside Chico’s House of Jazz — the same venue that hosted the Box-sponsored engagement of Maureen Nevin‘s fact-based, Asbury-centric black comedy Ocean Mile in 2010.

Before all that Re-Booting, however, comes The Great American Beat-Off — the name for “an Annual Event where the poetically inclined get together to poke fun at all things beat.” The Saint is the scene for this madcap matinee event, going down between the hours of 2:30 and 4:30pm on Saturday afternoon, August 6 — with all you power-jack Kerouacs and flash-stick Ferlinghettis invited to “Come and Listen, Come and Read or Come and Play,” and those possessed by bongo fury asked to “simply write a piece or two that either pokes fun at, parodies mocks or pays homage to (in and off-beat way of course) the Beat Poets and their work.”

There’s more in store Saintside, as the afternoon’s activities include a round of Pin the Syringe on the Junkie, Bobbing for Cucumbers (reportedly the favorite party game of Allen Ginsberg), The William Tell Burroughs Pistol Target Contest (look it up) — and An Off-Beat Tribute to a Ginsberg, in which entrants are asked to “write a piece about a Ginsberg that is any Ginsberg except Allen…for example, Moe Ginsburg, the clothing retailer”).

A $10 cover charge includes “food, fun, prizes,” and inquiries are to be directed to another local entity making a welcome comeback — artistic director George Hansel, whose hearty Ed McMahon-like laughter was much missed inside area playhouses during a couple of years in which he was busy caring for family members. You can contact George at asburyparkblackbox@yahoo.com.

Now about that Re-Boot. It’s being billed as a chance to “reconnect with old friends, make new ones, and preview ideas for next year’s season at Black Box of Asbury Park” — a fabulously free smorgasbord of sorts that’s “filled with snippets of entertainment from events planned for the rest of this season and those we hope to produce in the next.”  It’s an event that will preview a selection from the aforementioned Email 9/12, and it’ll feature the contributions of some artists who’ve worked under the Black Box banner in the past — including Carlton Wilkinson, the astonishingly eclectic composer, producer of the Music of Invention series, and, as fellow contributor to The Press, the finest and most perceptive writer on classical music we’ve ever read.

Also making an Asbury encore is Pandora Scooter, the “QueerMamaSapien” writer, performance poet and spoken word artist whose previous solo stints on local stages displayed a dynamic presence who can be as challenging as the most in-ya-face performance art, and funnier than the vast majority of the stale stand-ups you’ll experience in your lifetime. She’ll be delivering excerpts from OUTwardly FABulous, a new one-woman show with an Anti-Bullying message.

The arty buffet stretches on toward the horizon with scenes from the Gay and Lesbian Restoration Comedy (with kinky overtones) Any Which Way Thou Wouldst Have It, and a reading from Pam Steadman Munson‘s Veteran’s Day piece Home Front: Between the Lines.

Musical numbers include selected singers from the New Voices Cabaret series; singer and variety artist RJ Lewis performing material from his new show Naked Magic; something called A Burly Man Sings Girly Songs — and a tribute to Bennie Martini, the Tin Pan titan who composed the Ella Fitzgerald song “Don’t Cry Baby” AND the theme from The Honeymooners!

Running from 7 to 10pm, the event is as free as it as fabulous — with attendees urged to RSVP at asburyparkblackbox@yahoo.com, “so we can assure there is enough of everything for everyone.”

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