when-in-carthReviewed by Nancy Oliveri

When the Cider Mill Playhouse’s Artistic Director, Gail Belokur, commissioned hometown theatrical wunderkind Santino DeAngelo to write a farce, she knew exactly what she was doing. And, apparently, so does DeAngelo.

The playwright,/composer/lyricist/commercial producer, now based in New York, has already had his work seen in the Big Apple. His musical Foolerie won the New York Musical Festival’s 2015 Next Link Project, and he has been mentioned in The New York Times. He is never working on fewer than two or three projects at once …  and he’s only 25.

When in Carthage is a brand new two-act farce about a hapless Roman sailor, Hero (Josh Sedelmeyer); his superstitious commander, Captain Credulus (Chris Nickerson), and his best (and only) friend, Gaius (Andrew Simek).

They’ve run aground on a beach in ancient Carthage, where all signs point to trouble for the captain and crew. Watching how they get out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into is definitely worthwhile.

The sheer physical comedy of When in Carthage is astounding. Couple that with split-second timing, priceless facial expressions and a clear understanding that what makes a line work is often the delivery, and you have a laugh-out-loud funny show. I did that a lot during the performance I saw on Friday (Sept. 16), the show’s second performance  ever in front of a live audience.

The dialogue is snappy, funny and definitely bawdy, but the actors handle it with such humor that it never crosses the line to crass.

The flexible floozy, Fellatia (Marjorie Loren), and confident courtesan, Chlamydia (Jessica Nogaret) — OK, take a moment to digest those two names — are amazing. The women, essentially prostitutes in Carthage, are in stiff competition for being the best at what they do, and the chemistry between the two actresses is terrific. Think Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, or Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance. Their character developments are an important facet of the story.

Appearing as the fierce General Hannibal is Equity actor Christopher Spare. He is appearing at the Cider Mill for the first time, having spent much of his long career in Pittsburgh and Erie, Pa. His love scenes with Sedelmeyer reap the requisite snorts and guffaws from a receptive audience, which ours definitely was.

Although DeAngelo didn’t necessarily write the part for her, or with her in mind, Sybil (the annoying sea hag who has lost her love) is wonderfully and energetically portrayed by DeAngelo’s own mom, Shannon Roma DeAngelo. At an informal post-show talk-back, the playwright assured us that she is neither annoying, nor a hag, but plays those two character traits with abandon. Her fearless performance makes it clear where at least half of DeAngelo’s comic DNA comes from.

The part of Credulus was, on the other hand, written specifically for Nickerson,  a local actor who is always working on something. His performances are consistently great, whether he is in a comedy or a drama. He is a perfect foil here for Sedelmeyer and Simek, as they, by turns, try to save or sabotage Credulus’ beached ship.

Carthage has its share of gender-bending, cross-dressing and hilariously romantic comedy, and benefits from the very clever use of multiple floor-level hatches on the deck of the “ship.” Actors disappear and reappear from the floor with increasing vigor and frequency. A great deal of care and awareness by each of the actors must be taken to ensure everyone’s safety, but they make  it look so easy. In a typical farce, the story is almost always advanced by the coming and going of characters behind a series of slamming doors. Here it just happens mostly from the floor, which creates a whole new set of challenges for the cast, including gravity.

According to DeAngelo, Carthage is inspired by the classical Greek myth of Queen Dido, which also includes love (with Aeneas), a shipwreck and tragedy, but this time proceeds with a twist, or two, or three. He said their story was “ripe for the taking.”

Some of the writing and rehearsals were taking place at the same time, and tracking the progression of the story, is critical to its cohesiveness.  DeAngelo said he often overwrites (easier to cut stuff than add more later), but he depends on the feedback of the cast and his director — in this case, Tim Mollen — to help him keep the story literally in line. 

He also said that writing a farce is like “working a math problem backwards” or like stacking pieces one on top of the next for the whole thing to make sense and hold together.  Since his play is still basically a work in progress, some pieces work better than others, he said, and lines had been cut as recently as last Thursday night. This added another challenge for the actors, who may have just nailed down what they knew to be their lines the day before. Act one is six minutes shorter than it was after the first run through (which is funny here for a whole other reason, but I won’t spoil it).

Shannon Roma DeAngelo said during the Q&A session that the changes were not that hard to remember, because they helped make the story easier to follow and helped it make more sense.

The good news is that the audience doesn’t have the script, so a missed line, for capable actors, can be absorbed without anyone being the wiser. Santino DeAngelo made another great point, regarding this kind of comedy: “As soon as it becomes intellectual, I’ve lost the audience.” But there are enough literary and historical references to keep well-read members of the audience entertained and engaged.

I’ve been to many shows at the Cider Mill Playhouse, and its proximity to a set of railroad tracks always makes me wish a playwright, or an actor unafraid to ad lib once in a while, could find a way to incorporate that familiar rumble of a passing train into a script. The trains don’t come through at the same time every night, but at Friday night’s show, I got my wish. Thank you, Josh Sedelmeyer!

And, if you, Santino, ever want to write a musical version of this  — yes, please. I know that you have some terrific singers in your cast. I did love the choice of incidental music, but I won’t give that away, either. 

Kudos must go to the creative team, headed by Kathryn McGeorge, scenic designer; Erik Herskowitz, lighting designer; Josh Samuels, sound designer; Lia Maynard, costume designer; Alexander Pitt, technical director, and Sean Woods, sound engineer.

IF  YOU GO: When in Carthage continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday through Oct. 2 (no matinees) at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 748-7363, or by visiting www.cidermillplayhouse.org.