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Curtain Rises: Making a play for radio plays at Cedar Crest

For theater departments at colleges and universities, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and social distancing guidelines creates huge challenges in presenting live performances.

At Cedar Crest College, Allentown, the performing arts department decided to take an older style of theater and make it new with CDC, state and local COVID-19 safety measures firmly in place.

Cedar Crest theater students are presenting performance live on the stage of Samuels Theatre of a 1940s radio play by acclaimed English novelist Agatha Christie.

It is the third in “Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Studio,” a series of the author’s radio plays that is being presented at Cedar Crest.

“Butter in a Lordly Dish” will be performed live at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17.

Joann Wilchek Basist, who co-directs with Brian Foley, says the college was originally slated to present “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in October, but it was determined that the musical would be difficult to pull off following CDC guidelines.

She says the idea of doing Christie’s radio plays was in the back of her mind and when she suggested it, Cedar Crest jumped at it.

“I’m very proud of Cedar Crest and that they were willing to forge ahead with this,” Wilchek Basist says.

She says the timing is perfect since 2020 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Christie’s first novel.

“This introduces a new generation to her writing,” Wilchek Basist says. “And it also introduces the concept of radio plays.”

“Butter in a Lordly Dish” was originally broadcast in 1948 on The BBC as part of a series of six plays written by different members of the Detection Club, a society devoted to maintaining the standards of the crime novel. The members included A. B. Cox, Dorothy L. Sayers and Christie.

The play is presented as if the actors are in a 1940s era radio station and are performing it for a broadcast.

“The great thing about a radio play is the actors can be six feet apart,” Wilchek Basist says. “They can wear face shields and it’s hardly noticeable. It gives them a new challenge as artists.”

She says set designers Richard Kendrick and Victoria Neal have created a replica of a 1940s radio station and each actor has his or her own microphone station on stage.

The vintage-looking microphones were created using a 3-D printer.

“It’s a perfect marriage of the old and the new,” Wilchek Basist says. “This pandemic has given us the opportunity to think outside the box to deliver live theater in a safe way.”

There’s limited seating in Samuels Theatre because of social distancing. There will be additional screening rooms on the Crest campus where the play will be streamed live.

Rehearsals were held via the Zoom online platform until tech week. There was very little blocking required since the actors simply enter as if they are coming in to work at the radio station.

“It’s been a very unique experience,” Wilchek Basist says. “And it has given 28 actors an opportunity to perform live on stage.”

The production has on-stage sound effects by Omar Sanchez. The library of BBC sound effects is available for the show.

In the show, Julia Keene (Sieanna Rahatt) is staying in a boarding house and calls Sir Luke Enderby (Zach Einstein), a lawyer who recently came into the public eye for convicting a serial killer who targeted women with blonde hair.

The play exploits the author’s skill at twisting expectations just before the final curtain.

The title is a Biblical reference from Judges, 5:25, in which Jael confronts Sisera: “He asked water, and she gave him milk: she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.” The quote is referenced in the latter half of the play.

The cast includes Becky Andruchak, Destiny Farmer, Susanna House, Mackenzie Lewis, John Corl and Madison Anusky.

Previous installments were “Personal Call” and “Yellow Iris.” Other performers include Chelsi Fread, Steve Molloy, Rosie Kramer, Grace Hurd, Thomas Riley, Valen Cruz-Sinner, Zack Lentz, Cindy Lozada, Mark Ingram, Owen Wilburn, Jarrod Yuskauskas, Emily Badman, Aislinn Kertesz, Mike Russell, Anthony Rizutto, Will Windsor Erwin, Sarah Inhoff, Katie Graham and Todd Croslis.

Tickets: There is no admission charge. Information: www.cedarcrest.edu/stage; 610-606-4600

Sing for America “Twilight Zone”

Sing for America, made up of five siblings from Palmer Township, travels back to the early 1960s for a live performance that revisits the classic spooky TV show “The Twilight Zone.”

The performance is inspired by the anthology television series created by Rod Serling. Episodes, which ranged from science fiction to supernatural drama, often concluding with a macabre or unexpected twist, and usually with a moral. The series, shot in black and white, ran on CBS for five seasons from 1959 to 1964.

The Gilbert family, which includes sisters and brothers Taryn, Tasia, Teara, Jewel and Jorne, says the performance is an interactive experience in a comfortable and intimate setting.

The family produces shows to raise funds for Blue Star Mothers of Lehigh Valley’s emergency fund, which helps local military families with bills, travel expenses and other needs. Their first production was “Cinderella” in 2011 and they have raised more than $50,000 for the Blue Star Mothers to date.

“The Twilight Zone,” 7 p.m. Oct. 17; 5 p.m. Oct. 18, The Complex, 90 Highland Avenue, Bethlehem. There will be food and drink for sale. Information: 610-417-2189

“Festival UnBound” concludes

The final show of Touchstone Theatre’s “Festival UnBound” is “Dictators 4 Dummies … and more!,” a retrospective of original political satire just in time for the general election.

Directed by Touchstone ensemble member Christopher Shorr, the show takes a look back at the original, political, satirical musicals that Touchstone has created over the last decade, which are performed live as a cabaret by members of the Touchstone company.

The evening concludes with Shorr’s original 2018 musical “Dictator 4 Dummies,” now re-imagined as a feature-length movie with an action-figure cast.

“Something that I love about Touchstone is that it steps up during election years and deals directly with the issues of the day,” says Shorr.

“For this night of musical satire, we will look at the perils of competition, the buffoonery we often see in Washington and the danger of complacency. As a society, we need to stay engaged and alert now more than ever.”

“Dictators 4 Dummies… and more!,” parking lot, Touchstone Theatre, 321 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem. Information: www.touchstone.org

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Thomas Riley, Chelsi Fread, “Agatha Christie's Murder in the Studio,” Cedar Crest College, Allentown.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Mark Ingram, Grace Hurd, “Agatha Christie's Murder in the Studio,” Cedar Crest College, Allentown.