Richard Epstein and Aaron Morse (left) and Emmadora Boutcher (right) in “The Required Man”, one of six one-act plays to be staged by the Rock River Players.
Annie Landenberger/The Commons
Richard Epstein and Aaron Morse (left) and Emmadora Boutcher (right) in “The Required Man”, one of six one-act plays to be staged by the Rock River Players.

‘An essential part of who we are’

Rock River Players will bring nearly two dozen actors in six plays — all locally written — to the stage in Williamsville

WILLIAMSVILLE-That a village of only a few hundred people has sustained its own theater group for nearly nine years is pretty impressive; that it keeps going and growing is a testament to its tenacity - and to the vision, stance, and openheartedness of its leadership.

Since its founding in 2015, the Rock River Players (RRP), with co–artistic directors Bahman Mahdavi and Amy Donahue, has offered comedies and dramas, new works and old chestnuts, a musical, many cabarets, improvisation workshops, and various evenings of one-act plays.

With many new faces and a half dozen original works by local writers, the RRP will offer yet "Another Evening of One Acts" this weekend, produced by Donahue for the first time.

"In producing the one-acts," Donahue says, "the challenges have come from a great bit of progress, which is that we have so many people involved this year that it has been a challenge in a purely logistical sense to make sure everyone has what they need to make a show."

She counts off six plays with five directors, seven playwrights, and 22 actors - nine of them new to RRP - "it's a ton of people to keep track of and answer to and support and run the goodwill for." Still, Donahue says, "on the flip side of that is a growing company of people who are really enthusiastic.

"I stepped into an already robust community that had been well established," she says. "It's been interesting for me from a producer's standpoint to see all [the directors'] different approaches. [They] really feel like a team, though. [...] There's a camaraderie building."

Donahue continued, "In terms of this annual production, I'm so, so excited that we have a lineup of all original works - all locally written, and a really diverse spread, too," in terms of form, content, style.

"It speaks to the vibrant artists' community we're surrounded by and I hope to build that out so we can present even more original pieces in the future," she says.

* * *

In the lineup is Triangle, written and directed by Patrick Keppel of Brattleboro, which explores the reality of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as three seamstresses come to learn about their forewoman's complicated relationship with the tragedy that killed 146 garment workers.

"One very important part of the play is simply to remember those women, to conjure them, and let them tell their very real, tragic stories," says Keppel, who chairs the Liberal Arts department and teaches dramatic literature and performance at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

The piece "was originally a scene in a longer play called The Freeing of Mollie Steimer. I adapted the scene into a one-act play, and then in 2011, with the support of the Henson Foundation, composer Bradley Kemp and I created a multimedia version with puppetry and improvisatory music."

Keppel says the play, performed at the Center for Performance Research in Brooklyn, at Sandglass Theatre in Putney, and the New England Conservatory, is "not just the commemoration of a lamentable tragedy in US labor history, but a reminder that this kind of thing is still happening today."

"While the Triangle fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards," Keppel continues, conditions didn't really improve. "The doors were still locked. Eventually more stringent restrictions were put in place, but that just made businesses move elsewhere, to places with weaker or nonexistent labor laws."

The play "also seeks to remind us of where we see (or don't see) similar events today," he says.

"Several years ago, an eight-story garment factory in the capital of Bangladesh collapsed, killing over a thousand people. It's not that the people running these businesses are 'evil'; they're just doing what they're supposed to be doing - maximizing profit for themselves and their investors. It's a systemic thing. But the human cost is clear. And the play believes we should see and feel that cost."

Of his first experience with the RRP, Keppel says he "absolutely love[s] the vibe" of the Rock River Players.

"I love how in community theaters like this, everyone - actors, playwrights, directors, and audience - are participating in theater simply because they love it, because everybody needs it so much that that's the whole purpose," he says. "The audiences are coming because they need it too."

Keppel emphasizes that, "In an era of video saturation and endless solitary scrolling, the RRP community is a great reminder of why live theatrical performance has always been such an essential part of who we are."

"There's some good work here," he adds. "You can have on stage people who have done some [or a great deal of] acting before - and then in our piece I cast someone [Terry Sylvester] who's never acted at all before, ever."

Sylvester is joined by Cris Parker-Jennings, Magdalena Keppel, and Donahue.

* * *

Also on the bill are two works by Michael Nethercott of Guilford. Bacchus' Bar & Grill features the titular Roman god of wine during an evening shift at the bar where gods and goddesses come and go when they need a break from ruling the universe. With a cast that includes Tracy Berchi, Alex Lacey, Walter Cramer, Dawn Slade, Emmadora Boutcher, and Nick Morgan, RRP's Sue Kelly directs.

"This is a bigger scale of directing than anything I've done before, and it's a lot of fun," Kelly says. "It's been high-energy: a group of people who came into it not knowing each other and now we feel like we've coalesced. We see these deities interacting with Bacchus and showing humanity, even though they are gods. [Nethercott] gave it to me as a finished product, but I had a couple things I wanted to add."

And the playwright was game. "He's been wonderful to work with," says Kelly.

Nethercott himself directs his own The Required Man, with Richard Epstein, Aaron Morse, Jan Van Oene, and Boetcher.

"It's always exhilarating to bring a new play to the stage," he says.

"These past few weeks have been particularly so for me: The process has been a pleasure, largely due to the focus and professionalism of my cast," who enact a story set in the home of a 1930s suburban housewife, whose world is turned upside down when her estranged brother takes a bad turn and arrives with his conniving cohorts, including a wounded man with an incredible claim.

Nethercott, a seasoned and accomplished theater person, says, "it's been great working with the Players. Amy has been fantastic as a producer and really easy to work with."

* * *

Written by Kevin Stine and directed by Randy Lichtenwalner, A Boy's Will follows eager college students (Peter Broussard and Tino Benson) traveling to Vermont to seek wisdom from the elusive Robert Frost (John Moran), who instead offers a game of ball.

"In reviewing the play submissions [this year]," says Lichtenwalner, "I was drawn to [Stine's play] because it seemed like a quintessential Vermont experience: a short play about Vermont's beloved poet, Robert Frost, written by a playwright from East Dover, performed by community players in a former Vermont Grange Hall!"

He added that "in eight short pages, Kevin gives us a glimpse into the complicated and contradictory life of America's beloved 'everyman, simple farmer' poet who adopted Vermont as his home."

Lichtenwalner describes the Rock River Players as "an encouraging and supportive group of people who really bring out the 'community' in community theater."

* * *

Written by Robert Cullinane of Brattleboro, Clown finds Tracy Berchi in her directorial debut with a cast that includes Cris Parker-Jennings, Jess Guerrero, Shey Nessralla, Mickey Parker-Jennings, and Rose Watson.

In the office of a tech company, we see two prospective employees with wildly different professional backgrounds arrive to interview for the same position. Saying anything more would be a spoiler, Berchi says.

"I'd previously acted in two of [Cullinane's] plays and I think he's very funny; this play is hysterical. I chose [it], though, because it has a lot of heart," she says.

"The whole heart of this, the thing that struck me the most, is that this play is a lot about not judging a book by its cover," Berchi continues. "There are some very beautiful moments in this play where you have two people who are completely different ending up bonding over similar situations."

I Love You, Too, written by Susan O'Hara and Georgie Runkle - until recently of Marlboro - with Jessey Ine-Lee, is set in the present day and centers on an aging widower discovering the benefits and perplexities of modern technology.

O'Hara says the play "grew from a collaboration of three friends. It began in a shared experience with artificial intelligence. […] We are grateful to Sue Kelly and her cast - John Ogorzalek, Tracy Berchi, and Shafiya Finger - for making our play come alive."

Donahue, well known on the Rock River Players stage, says she's found her "favorite role."

"I'm happy as a clam this season," she says. "I'm doing a bit of acting and a lot of producing. That feels like my happy place. Last year I was only directing - directing comes least naturally to me."

With producing, though, she can exercise her attention to detail and draw on her stage experience to offer herself as a resource for - even a collaborator with - directors.

"I want to do all I can to help make their pieces sing," Donahue says.

* * *

"Another Evening of One Acts" runs Friday, May 31, and Saturday, June 1, at 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday June 2, at 2:30 p.m., at Williamsville Hall, 35 Dover Rd. Tickets are $15 ($12 for students and seniors), and can be purchased in advance at or at the door (by cash or check). For more information, contact Amy Donahue, the show's producer, at [email protected].

Annie Landenberger is an arts writer and columnist for The Commons. She remains involved with the Rock River Players, the community theater that she founded and directed for years. She also is one half of the musical duo Bard Owl, with partner T. Breeze Verdant.

This Arts column by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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