Hilltop Players bring words to life with staged readings

Seven o’clock on Friday evening, Nov. 10, found Framingham State University’s student theater troupe, The Hilltop Players, in the Ecumenical Center, along with about 30 audience members. They were gathered for the Players’ production, which consisted of three staged readings of different plays by Bekah Brunstetter, David Ives and David Mamet.

The event began with a brief introduction before the lights dimmed and the cast of the first show took the stage.

Unlike a fully realized production, a staged reading only requires the actors to dramatize the language of the play, rather than perform every scene.

In the first show, “Be a Good Little Widow” by Bekah Brunstetter, the entire cast consisted of five players, including a narrator reading the stage directions, played by Timothy McDonnell. The actors sat across the apron of the stage, each carrying a copy of the play. During their scenes, they would stand and read out the lines.

While one may be skeptical about the entertainment factor in watching actors read a play out loud, The Hilltop Players showed that authentic relationships could be developed and emotions evoked, all with a script in hand.

The lack of blocking allowed the language to shine, and the players portraying the main characters Melody, Hope, Craig and Brad embodied them and brought them to life, using only their words.

The first show, which was performed almost in its entirety, lasting approximately one hour, followed the story of Melody, a young wife inexperienced in loss, who is suddenly forced to cope with widowhood when her husband dies in a plane crash.

The sad but humorous look into the grieving process is made more complex by the presence of Hope, Melody’s mother-in-law and a seasoned widow. Hope’s overwhelming condescension was simultaneously scathing and funny, hyperbolized by actress Danielle Umanita’s strong vocalization.

After the first show, and a 10-minute intermission, during which the audience was sternly reminded to turn off their cell phones (about three went off throughout the first show! This is seriously basic theater etiquette, people!), the second show was able to get underway.

Both the second and third productions, “English Made Simple” by David Ives and “Speed the Play” by David Mamet, ran under 10 minutes long.

The former focused on the relationship of two characters, Jack and Jill, portrayed by Patrick Keene and Gina Uacoviello, respectively.

The wordy comedy utilized quick pacing, tightly synchronized lines and an omniscient narrator commentating on Jack and Jill’s series of awkward romantic encounters to provide the laughs. The audience’s reaction was testament to the cast’s clear preparedness.

The show was like verbal slapstick, with puns flying like whipped cream pies.

The final show, “Speed the Play,” featured several rapid-fire vignettes, in which the actors would pop up to read extremely short scenes, giving an almost whack-a-mole impression that was very entertaining.

The narrator, played by Andrew Carten, was braggadocious, a Mamet-esque figure who achieved a brilliant and hilarious image of a masculine stereotype. Carten drove the play’s action with brutal efficiency, along with a healthy dose of the F-word.

After the shows, I caught up with one of the cast members from “English Made Simple,” Daniel Regnier, who played the god-like Loudspeaker Voice. He said he hoped seeing the staged readings would make audiences “feel something that isn’t sadness, which is impressive.”

Other students, including freshman Kyla Mucciaroni, said they enjoyed the show, and would want to come back to see other Hilltop Players’ performances. Mucciaroni also added her favorite was “Speed the Play.”

Luckily, there are many upcomming opportunities to catch more great theater at FSU. The Hilltop Players’ improv comedy troupe, the Suit Jacket Posse, will be performing on Monday, Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. in the Forum. There will also be full productions of “A Piece of My Heart,” by Shirley Lauro, Nov. 16-18 in DPAC at 7 p.m., and a run of Stephen Sondheim’s acclaimed musical “Into the Woods,” Dec. 7-9 at 7 p.m. in DPAC.

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