Sunday, July 17, 2011


If you're a fan of 19th century novels (particularly those by Charles Dickens) and Masterpiece Theatre's costume dramas, then Penny Penniworth is just the ticket for you.

The folks at The Theater Project (late of Cranford and ensconced for this production at the Arts Incubator in West Orange) have pulled out all the comedic stops to produce a zany, madcap romp through a myriad of Dickens novels and Masterpiece Theatre programs. The result is side-splitting and head-spinning, to say the least.

Mark Spina once again flexes his directorial chops getting four brilliant comedians to assume a myriad of roles, merely by donning wigs, switching a cape to become a skirt or a hood, and changing a voice or accent to suit the particular character called for.

PennyPenniworthcast_TheTheaterProject_2The plot is as silly as any found in a 19th century novel: When the Penniworth family loses its fortune and manor house to a bad (for them) investment made with Septimus Stryfe (good for him), they seek guidance from Mr. Penniworth's solicitors, Bunting, Bunting and Swag. Told that their manor house is worth "squat," young Penny is forced to go into service as a companion to the batty, forever-grieving Miss Havesnort. Informed by Malodorous Dump that an anonymous benefactor has put up money to get her out of bondage, Penny rejoices at first, only to learn that her rescuer is none other than Rupert Stryfe ("heir to the House of Stryfe," as we're continually reminded), an odious young man she abhors. When she runs into the rain to escape Rupert, Penny is saved by Baron de Loogie, with whom she falls instantly in love. That's all I'll tell you about the plot so as not to ruin the fun, but suffice it to say that the tying up of loose ends is absolutely preposterous and very funny. (Above: Rick Delaney as Hoch Spit, Jenelle Sosa as Penny Penniworth, Terri Sturdevant as Miss Havesnort and Harry Patrick Christian as Rupert Stryfe)

PennyPenniworthcast_3If you are a fan of local professional theater, you will be familiar with the actors who cavort onstage as over 14 characters. With her curly hair and big brown eyes, Jenelle Sosa as Penny (left) is the quintessentially sweet young thing, naive and trusting, who is at the center of all melodramas, yet she is even more hilarious as Malodorous Dump, especially when she has to portray the two characters at the same time. (I won't tell you how Sosa does it, but it is hilarious.) Rick Delaney (center) plays multiple roles, from Penny's mother to Hoch Spit (Penny's childhood squeeze); Dodgeful Archer, a child thief; Hoch Spit with a nearly incomprehensible Scottish accent; and the Baron de Loogie. Terri Sturdevant (right), she of the adorable dimples and wide-eyed look, is a riot as Miss Havesnort, the expert mourner and both Buntings, even the one who is supposed to be dead. And finally, Harry Patrick Christian (center on Delaney’s back) is the epitome of comic timing as the nasty Rupert Stryfe, a monkey, and Mr. Pinch Nose, who spits all over everyone when he emotes. What a motley crew these characters are. . .and how very funny yet true to the stereotype they can be.

Playwright Chris Weikel has pulled out all the stops to satirize Dickens' penchant for funny character names and the "it was a dark and stormy night" cliché that begins many a Victorian novel (if not literally, then figuratively). Along the way he references A Tale of Two Cities, Nicholas Nickelby, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and even Jane Eyre. I've probably missed a few, but I think you get the idea.

Penny Penniworth is performed without an intermission and, except for a few double entendres, is appropriate for most audiences. While young people might not get the literary inside jokes, they will love the wacky screwball plot and acting that make The Theater Project's most recent production worthwhile to see. And for folks in Essex County unfamiliar with this troupe's offerings, here is a chance to make a new "friend." No matter where The Theater Company lands after its eviction from Union County College, you will put it on your list as a place to visit if you love theater.

Penny Penniworth will be performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM through August 7 at the New Jersey Arts Incubator in Essex Green Mall, 495 Prospect Avenue, West Orange. The theater is in the "corridor" behind Panera and is easy to reach from Route 280, Exit 8, Prospect Avenue South. There is good signage in the plaza next to Panera. For information and tickets, call 908.809.8865 or online HERE