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Michael Tessler

By Heidi Sutton

The 1,000-seat theater at Stony Brook University’s Staller Center was filled to capacity last Sunday night as the community came out in droves to celebrate the first screening of TBR News Media’s feature-length film, “One Life to Give.” And what a celebration it was.

“I have to say this exceeds our highest expectations. We are so thrilled,” said TBR News Media publisher Leah Dunaief, scanning the packed house as she welcomed the audience to “what has been a year’s adventure.”

“I am privileged to be the publisher of six hometown papers, a website, a Facebook page and, now, executive producer of a movie,” she beamed.

TBR News Media publisher Leah Dunaief addresses the audience.

Dunaief set the stage for what would be a wonderful evening. “I’m inviting you now to leave behind politics and current affairs and come with me back in time more than two centuries to the earliest days of the beginning of our country — the start of the American Revolution.”

“We live in the cradle of history and I hope that when you leave tonight you will feel an immense pride in coming from this area,” she continued. “The people who lived here some 240 years ago were people just like us. They were looking to have a good life, they were looking to raise their children.” Instead, according to Dunaief, they found themselves occupied by the British under King George III for the longest period of time.

Filmed entirely on location on the North Shore in 16 days, the film tells the story of schoolteacher turned spy Nathan Hale and how his capture and ultimate death by hanging in 1776 at the age of 21 led to the development of an elaborate spy ring in Setauket — the Culper spies — in an effort to help Gen. George Washington win the Revolutionary War.

Scenes were shot on location at Benner’s Farm in East Setauket, the William Miller House in Miller Place, the Sherwood-Jayne Farm, Thompson House and Caroline Church of Brookhaven  in Setauket and East Beach in Port Jefferson with many local actors and extras, period costumes by Nan Guzzetta, props from “TURN” and a wonderful score by Mark Orton.

The film screening was preceded by a short behind-the-scenes documentary and was followed by a Q&A with Dunaief, producer and writer Michael Tessler and director and writer Benji Dunaief along with several key actors in the film — Dave Morrissey Jr. (Benjamin Tallmadge), Hans Paul Hendrickson (Nathan Hale), Jonathan Rabeno (John Chester) and David Gianopoulos (Gen. George Washington).

“It says quite a bit about our community that we could pack the Staller Center for a story that took place over two hundred years ago,” said Tessler, who grew up in Port Jefferson. “I hope everyone leaves the theater today thinking about these heroes — these ordinary residents of our community who went on to do some extraordinary things and made it so that we all have the luxury to sit here today and enjoy this show and the many freedoms that come with being an American.”

Director Benji Dunaief thanked the cast, crew and entire community for all their support. “In the beginning of this project I did not think we would be able to do a feature film, let alone a period piece. They say it takes a village, but I guess it actually takes three.”

From left, Jonathan Rabeno, David Gianopoulos, Hans Paul Hendrickson and Dave Morrissey Jr. field questions from the audience at the Q&A.

“Our cast … threw themselves 100 percent into trying to embody these characters, they learned as much as they could and were open to everything that was thrown at them — I’m blown away by this cast. They are just incredible,” he added.

“The positivity that was brought to the set every day made you really want to be in that environment,” said Rabeno, who said he was humbled to be there, and he was quick to thank all of the reenactors who helped the actors with their roles.

One of the more famous actors on the stage, Gianopoulos (“Air Force One”) was so impressed with the way the production was handled and often stopped by on his day off just to observe the camera shots. “I really enjoyed just watching and being an observer,” he said, adding “It was just such an honor [to be a part of the film] and to come back to Stony Brook and Setauket where I used to run around as a little kid and then to bring this story to life is just amazing.”

According to the director, the film has been making the rounds and was recently nominated for three awards at Emerson College’s prestigious Film Festival, the EVVY Awards, including Best Editing, Best Writing and Best Single Camera Direction and won for the last category. 

Reached after the screening, Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) said the film was the essence of a sense of place. “I thought it was spectacular. I thought that it was one of the highlights of all of the years that I have lived in this community.”

He continued, “It all came together with local people and local places talking about our local history that changed the world and the fact that it was on the Staller Stage here at a public university that was made possible by the heroics of the people who were in the film both as actors today and the people that they portrayed.”

For those who missed last Sunday’s screening, the film will be shown again at the Long Island International Film Expo in Bellmore on July 18 from 2 to 4 p.m.

Filming for a sequel, tentatively titled “Traitor,” the story of John André who was a British Army officer hanged as a spy by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, will begin in two weeks.

Special thanks to Gold Coast Bank, Holiday Inn Express, Island Federal Savings Bank and Stony Brook University for making the evening’s screening possible.

Photos by Heidi Sutton and Rita J. Egan

Above, a battle scene shot at Benner’s Farm in East Setauket last summer.
Film showcased at SBU’s Staller Center for the Arts

By Talia Amorosano

The wait is over. On Sunday, June 24, an integral piece of U.S. and Long Island history will be revisited in the geographic location where much of it actually took place. At 7 p.m., the Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, 100 Nicolls Road, Stony Brook, will host the first major public screening of “One Life to Give,” a film about the friendship and lives of young American heroes Benjamin Tallmadge and Nathan Hale, whose actions would lead to the creation of a Revolutionary spy ring based on the North Shore of Long Island.

Presented in the Main Theater, doors will open at 6:45 p.m. After a message from publisher Leah Dunaief, a short behind-the-scenes documentary will be shown followed by the main film screening. After a message from the creators, the evening will conclude with a Q&A with the cast and crew. Admission to the event is free, courtesy of TBR News Media. No reservations are necessary.

Cast and crew gather around a camera to view playback last summer.

The film’s co-producer and writer, Michael Tessler, describes the film as an exploration of historical events with a human focus. “After spending several years researching Benjamin Tallmadge and the other heroes featured in our film, I began to look at them not as detached names in a textbook, but more so as real people, with real stories that deserve to be told,” he said.

 Dave Morrissey, the actor who portrays Tallmadge in the film, describes his character as a “22-year-old kid,” who, despite his relative youth, is “focused” and “grounded,” propelled into action by the death of his brother at the hands of the British. “When something like that happens to you, you turn into a machine … into something else,” said Morrissey. “If you channel the energy and do what’s right, the possibilities are endless.”

By focusing a metaphorical macro lens on the multidimensional characters of Tallmadge and Hale, the film traverses consequential moments of American history: the Battle of Long Island, the anointing of America’s first spy and the events that would lead to the creation of the Culper Spy Ring, a group of men and women who risked their lives and status to gather British intelligence for the Revolutionary cause. 

Though Tessler notes that the film is, at its heart, a drama, he and the film’s director and co-producer Benji Dunaief stress the cast and crew’s commitment to accuracy in their interpretation of historical events. 

“The history comes second to the narrative in most [other film adaptations of historical events],” says Dunaief. “Our approach with this film was the exact opposite. We wanted to see where we could find narrative within [pre-existing] history.” 

“Many of the lines from the film were plucked directly from the diaries of the heroes themselves,” stated Tessler. “We worked closely with historians and Revolutionary War experts to achieve a level of accuracy usually unseen in such a local production.”

The fact that many scenes from the film were shot in the locations where the events of the real-life narrative took place helped give the visuals a sense of truthfulness and the actors a sense of purpose.

“The location took production to the next level. It’s really crazy how closely related the sets we used were to the actual history,” said Dunaief, who specifically recalls filming at a house that contained wood from Tallmadge’s actual home. “It helped to inspire people in the cast to get into character.” 

Morrissey recalls spending a particularly inspiring Fourth of July on Benner’s Farm in East Setauket. “We were filming the war scenes with all the reenactors … in the cabin that we built for the set … in the town where the battles and espionage had really happened. There were fireworks going on in the background while we sang shanty songs. It was amazing.”

The Continental Army shoots off a cannon at Benner’s Farm.

Though locational and historical accuracy played a large role in making filming a success, ultimately, Dunaief and Tessler credit the resonance of “One Life to Give” to an engaged and participatory community. “This was a community effort on all accounts,” says Dunaief, noting the roles that the Benners, Preservation Long Island, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, the Three Village Historical Society and others played to bring “One Life to Give” to fruition. 

The fact that the screening will take place at the Staller Center, in the heart of the community that helped bring the film about, represents a full-circle moment for the cast and crew. “We’re calling it a screening but it is so much more,” said Dunaief. “It is a fantastic example of how the community has stood by this film, from beginning to end.”

“We’re beyond honored and humbled to use a screen that has seen some of the greatest independent films in history,” said Tessler. “Stony Brook University has been a wonderful partner and extremely accommodating as we work to bring our local history to life.” 

Tessler projects confidence that viewers will leave the screening with a similar sense of gratitude. “This story shows a part of our history that I think will make the audience very proud of the place they call home.”

The future of ‘One Life to Give’: 

Michael Tessler and Benji Dunaief plan to show the film at festivals around the country, to conduct a series of screenings on Long Island, and to partner with local historical societies that can use it as an educational tool. Additionally, a sequel to “One Life to Give,” titled “Traitor,” is already in the works. Filming will begin this summer.

All photos by Michael Pawluk Photography

This dragoon coat, worn by actor Seth Numrich in AMC’s ‘TURN’ series, will be one of the items auctioned off on May 19. Photo courtesy of AMC

UPDATE:

I-Spy TURN Auction & Spy Themed Event for May 19 has been canceled
Due to the excessive rain and water on the property this week and with the prediction of additional rain over the weekend, the Three Village Historical Society feels it is in the best interest of guests and volunteers to postpone the event.  “We will reschedule I-Spy for a date in the future when we can provide the best experience for all. Cancelling this event was a hard decision to make and we apologize for any inconvenience,” said the Society.

By Michael Tessler

The Three Villages is home to a remarkable Revolutionary history that for over a century remained elusive to the American people … all except in Setauket where local lore and legend preserved a tale of spies, lies, petticoats and the exceptional bravery of everyday citizens who risked everything to liberate their homes and loved ones from tyranny.

General George Washington established the Culper Spy Ring in 1778 by recruiting Benjamin Tallmadge, a would-be lieutenant colonel and future congressman who called the quaint village of Setauket home. He recruited friends and schoolmates to establish a secret network, eluding the mighty British Empire that had been occupying Long Island since August 1776. Their efforts turned the tides of war in favor of the Continental Army and forever altered the course of history.

It wasn’t until 1939, when amateur historian Morton Pennypacker began to decipher secret aliases and uncover the true identities of the Culper spies. In 2014, the legend of the Culper Spy Ring finally entered the public zeitgeist with the premiere of AMC’s television drama series “TURN: Washington’s Spies,” a historical fiction piece that chronicled the Culper Spy Ring. 

“If it weren’t for Setauket, we would have lost the war,” declared Three Village Historical Society President Steve Healy. “If Washington had been caught, he would have been hanged. They stopped that, they saved the [American] Revolution.” And just as the Culper spies saved the fledgling United States, the Three Village Historical Society has made it its mission to keep the Culper Spy Ring and the local history of this community alive.

When “TURN” ended last August, the Three Village Historical Society reached out to the show and received a very special donation: props, costumes and other memorabilia actually featured on the show during the series’ four-season run. On Saturday, May 19, the public will have the opportunity to own these pieces of history during a silent auction fundraiser on the society’s front lawn starting at noon. Bidding closes at 4:15 p.m.

According to TVHS board members Cathy White and Janet McCauley, the most sought after item of the day will be a dragoon (18th century cavalry) coat worn by the actor who played Benjamin Tallmadge, Seth Numrich. “It’ll be fun to see where it ends up,” said McCauley. “Either way, it is a wonderful tool to educate our community about the area that they live in.” 

Other items in the auction include a reproduction of a 1730 Dublin Castle Long Land (1st Model) Brown Bess musket; autographed sheet music; a portrait of King George II, c. 1730, reproduction on canvas; as well as maps, letters and artifacts such as an astrolab, horn bowls, British army drumsticks, pewter pitchers, posters, an uncut sheet of Continental currency and more.

In addition to the silent auction, there is a flurry of activities scheduled throughout the day. From noon to 4 p.m. community educator Donna Smith, portraying Anna Smith Strong, will hold invisible ink demonstrations while noted children’s author Selene Castrovilla will be selling and signing copies of her books. Visitors will also have the opportunity to meet Benjamin Tallmadge, portrayed by TVHS past president and trustee Art Billadello. The historical society’s two exhibits, SPIES: How a Group of Long Island Patriots Helped George Washington Win the Revolution and Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time, and gift shop will be open as well. 

At noon, historian Margo Arceri will lead a Tri-Spy Walking Tour, which starts at the post office next to Frank Melville Memorial Park, 101 Main St. in Setauket. Historian Beverly C. Tyler will give a Walk Through History with Farmer and Spy, Abraham Woodhull, guided tour at 2 p.m. starting at the front parking lot of the Caroline Church of Brookhaven, 1 Dyke Road, Setauket. 

From 3 to 5 p.m., “Wine and cheese will be served while we have Colonial music performed by Natalie Kress and Kevin Devine of the Three Village Chamber Players,” said Sandy White, TVHS office manager, adding, “We want to create a dialogue about our community’s history. ‘TURN’ helped start that conversation. We’d like to continue it.” 

The Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket will host an I-Spy “Turn” Auction fundraiser on May 19 from noon to 5 p.m. (rain date May 20). Tickets, which are $25 adults, $5 for children age 14 and younger, cover participation in all of the day’s events, including both walking tours. To order, please visit www.TVHS.org or call 631-751-3730.

Mothers embrace one another during a Hope Walk for Addiction rally at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai last year. Photo by Kevin Redding

TBR News Media raked in 11 New York Press Association awards last weekend.

The company won prizes across the gamut of categories, from news and feature stories to photos and advertisements.

“I am so proud of the staff at TBR News Media that works hard to deliver the news each week,” Publisher Leah Dunaief said. “We are delighted to be among the top winners in the contest, as we are every year.”

“Comprehensive, sustained coverage of a life-or-death infrastructure issue. Lede with compelling citizens rather than reports from bureaucrats or written statements.”

— NYPA judges

In the feature story category, TBR News Media had two winners for its division amongst publications with similar circulation. Port Times Record Editor Alex Petroski won first place for his story on how a local political party boss helped President Donald Trump (R) win Long Island votes.

“Following the election, many wondered, ‘How did Trump win?” judges wrote about Petroski’s piece titled “One on one with the man who helped Donald Trump win Suffolk County,” which profiles Suffolk County Republican Committee Chairman John Jay LaValle and details his relationship with the president. “This story answers that on a micro level with an in-depth interview of the man who helped Trump in Suffolk County. I think more papers would have been well served to seek out similar stories.”

Reporter Kevin Redding took third in the same category for his story for The Village Times Herald on a spooky local bar in Smithtown.

“A perfect pre-Halloween story about the haunted local watering hole,” NYPA judges said. “Plenty of examples of what some have seen, heard and felt, which is just what you’d want from a story about a haunted building.”

Petroski also won second place in Division 3 for his ongoing coverage on a boat ramp in Port Jefferson Village where two people had died and at least one other was severely injured, in the news series cateogry. Times of Huntington Editor Sara-Megan Walsh took third place in the same category.

“Comprehensive, sustained coverage of a life-or-death infrastructure issue,” the judges wrote of Petroski’s five-piece submission that included three stories, a front page and editorial on the topic. “Lede with compelling citizens rather than reports from bureaucrats or written statements. Narrative scene-setting ledes can make stories like this more important and compelling.”

Alex Petroski’s story on how Donald Trump won Suffolk County won a first-place feature story prize.

Redding also roped in a second award, getting a third-place nod in feature photo Division 2 for a picture he took for The Village Beacon Record at Hope Walk for Addiction at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai.

“There was tight competition for third place, but the emotion on the faces of the people in this photo put it a step above the rest,” the judges said of the women hugging and crying in the photo, who’d lost loved ones to battles with addiction.

Arts and Lifestyles Editor Heidi Sutton won first place in the Division 2 picture story category for her layout of local Setauket resident Donna Crinnian’s photos of birds in Stony Brook Harbor. The picture essay was titled “Winged Wonders of Stony Brook.”

“Elegant way to showcase nature of our feathered friends,” NYPA judges wrote.

Director of Media Productions Michael Tessler received an honorable mention in Division 2 coverage of the arts for his review of Theatre Three in Port Jefferson’s rendition of “A Christmas Carol.”

“Nice photos and an insightful story on the characters portraying a beloved classic,” judges said.

The Village Times Herald won first place for its classified advertising, as judges said it was “clean, precise, well-spaces and not crowded,” and Wendy Mercier claimed a first-place prize for best small space ad. TBR News Media’s Sharon Nicholson won second place for her design of a best large space ad. The Village Times Herald ranked in the Top 5 in total advertising contest points with 50, good for fourth place. The first-place winner, Dan’s Papers, received 90.

Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig star as a husband and wife who consider shrinking themselves in order to simplify their lives. Photo courtesy of Venice Film Festival

By Michael Tessler

Several months ago I stumbled upon the trailer for “Downsizing” and its concept really struck me as something special. In an era of reboots and sequels it was so refreshing to hear an idea I’d never heard before. Judging from the trailer, the film appeared to be a fun-sized science fiction comedy perfect for families during the holiday season. What was delivered, however, was something entirely different for better or worse, I’m still not quite sure, and it’s definitely not kid friendly.

Here’s what you need to know: With the global population swelling, scientists in Norway discover a formula that shrinks people to miniature size. In the years that follow, communities begin popping up around the world that allow “downsized” individuals to live like kings in idealistic domed neighborhoods. Since everything is smaller, it is significantly cheaper … allowing people who’d otherwise be poor or in the middle class to enjoy life in massive mansions with the most expensive foods and goods at their pint-sized disposal.

Udo Kier, Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz in a scene from ‘Downsizing’

Directed by Alexander Payne, the story follows occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), your generic middle-class man who is forced to live in his childhood home after his mother gets sick. He and his wife, played by SNL alumni Kristen Wiig, attend a high school reunion where they discover that two of their old friends have downsized. After having them over for dinner, they make a trip to visit one of these pint-sized communities. Ultimately the couple decides to move forward with being downsized, selling their home, possessions, and planning to enjoy life as millionaires in the idealistic Leisureland Estates.

Separated by gender, Damon’s character undergoes the procedure first. It hilariously involves the shaving of his eyebrows and facial hair, among other things. He awakes as a small person, about 6 inches tall, and is shocked to discover that his wife has backed out at the very last minute, leaving him alone in a small, small world.

From there the story flashes forward and takes a few unexpected turns as we are introduced to eccentric millionaire Dusan Mirkovic, played by the enormously talented and multifaceted Christoph Waltz (“Inglorious Bastards,” “Django Unchained”) and, among the most unanticipated turns, the introduction of Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese civil rights activist who gets downsized by her government as punishment for staging a series of protests. In the process she loses her leg and lives in the slums outside Leisureland working as a maid. Portrayed by the lovable Hong Chau, this character adds an exciting dimension to the story.

The cast also includes brief but memorable appearances by the likes of Margo Martindale, Jason Sudeikis, Udo Kier, Laura Dern, Niecy Nash, Kerri Kenney and Neil Patrick Harris.

Visually, this film is stunning, especially in its ability to make you thoroughly believe in these downsized communities. Where this film flops is its inability to figure out what it wants to be and accomplish. “Downsizing” has the perfect cast to get the job done, but the screenplay doesn’t quite deliver. It has some very funny moments though, to the point where belly aching laughter was heard throughout the theater on various occasions. It also has some serious undertones about purpose and conserving the world we live in. By the end of the film, however, I didn’t quite feel the story was neatly tied up … and the writer’s vision fell a little flat.

In an effort to achieve too much, “Downsizing” misses the mark. Forgetting its own lesson in the process, that bigger isn’t always better. Though certainly entertaining, I’d give “Downsizing” a generous 6/10.

Rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use, “Downsizing” is now playing in local theaters.

By Michael Tessler

Theatre Three delivers perhaps one of my most favorite holiday traditions: a classic retelling of Charles Dickens’ most beloved work, “A Christmas Carol,” right in the heart of downtown Port Jefferson. This stage adaptation is so beautifully conceived and has been so well refined over the years that it’d appear Dickens’ 174-year-old novel jumps quite literally from the pages onto the stage in a fashion that can be best described as magical.

This particular production, which is celebrating its 34th year, is nothing short of miraculous, not just for its stunning set design, incredible wardrobe and perfectly planned lighting and sound … but also for the fact that somehow each and every year the show (while familiar) feels brand new.

Jeffrey Sanzel, the show’s director and the actor behind the famous literary curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge, shuffles the cast, set and various elements of the show, refining it and bringing new life to it each and every season. In the long and impressive shelf life of “A Christmas Carol” there has never, in my opinion, been a better Scrooge than Jeffrey Sanzel. No actor has ever lived and breathed that character for so long and with such passion as Sanzel. Watching his character’s transformation unfold on stage is pure delight.

This year’s show beams with talent. One can’t help but admire the incredible skill of the show’s youngest cast members who perform alongside their adult counterparts as equals both in professionalism and talent. Not for a moment does any actor’s performance take you out of this whimsical Dickensian world Sanzel creates.

Steve Wangner shines as Bob Cratchit, bringing to life all the warmth and love of Scrooge’s least favorite employee. Wangner had big shoes to fill, replacing Douglas Quattrock who has long held the role. No doubt Quattrock should be proud of his successor who masterfully carried Tiny Tim (portrayed jointly by Ryan Becker and Cameron Turner) upon his shoulders. His family dynamic especially with his wife (Suzie Dunn) and children is wonderfully endearing.

My personal favorite of the ensemble cast is Mr. Fezziwig portrayed by the cheerful George Liberman. Though I’ve got the bias of loving his character, this actor’s presence puts an instant smile on your face and reminds you of the wholesome fun of Christmas time. His partner in crime, Mrs. Fezziwig, is portrayed by the wonderful Ginger Dalton who also excels as Mrs. Dilber … the cockney maid of Scrooge whose comedic ability is unparalleled in the two-act show.

Megan Bush brings to life Belle, the first and only love of Scrooge and daughter of Fezziwig. Though her character’s time on stage is brief, she so perfectly captures the innocence of a first love and shows us a side of Scrooge we often forget. Steve McCoy, the wildly talented Theatre Three veteran, brings to life (and death) Scrooge’s late business partner Jacob Marley. His performance is haunting in the best kind of way. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the kind and loving Fan performed both by Heather Kuhn and Sophia Knapp. Her special relationship with young Scrooge (Kiernan Urso and Alexander Yagud-Wolek) encapsulates the special bond reserved just for siblings.

This year the three spirits have outdone themselves — beginning with the stunningly talented Jessica Contino whose Ghost of Christmas Past comes to life in almost angelic form. She is followed by the hysterical and larger-than-life Antoine Jones as the Ghost of Christmas Present, whose epic bellowing laughter echoes through the historic Athena Hall. Last, but certainly not least is the incredible puppetry of Dylan Robert Poulos as the Ghost of Christmas Future who also shows off his talent as an actor in the role of Scrooge’s orphaned nephew Fred Halliwell.

Randall Parsons and Bonnie Vidal bring 19th-century England to Port Jefferson with stunning production design and impeccable costuming. Robert W. Henderson Jr. transports you to the past, present and future with some mesmerizing lighting. This year’s production also welcomed newcomer Melissa Troxler as stage manager who ran the set flawlessly from an audience perspective. Brad Frey provides some wonderful musical direction in addition to the late Ellen Michelmore, whose lasting legacy at Theatre Three can be heard with the beautiful musical conception and sound effects that remain a centerpiece of this production.

Leaving the theater I found my heart filled with a joy and merriment only felt in those special moments when you’re surrounded by family and huddled around a great big Christmas tree. For that wonderful moment, I felt the spirit of Christmas itself … and what a wonderful gift it was to receive from the cast and crew of Theatre Three’s “A Christmas Carol.”

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “A Christmas Carol” now through Dec. 30. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students and $20 children ages 5 to 12. (Children under 5 are not permitted.) To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

 

All photos by Brian Hoerger, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

TracyLynn Conner and Brian Gill in a scene from 'The Bridges of Madison County'

By Michael Tessler

You know you’ve seen an incredible production when you find yourself pondering your own life and place in the universe after exiting the theater. That was the case last Sunday afternoon after attending a production of “The Bridges of Madison County” at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson.

TracyLynn Conner and Brian Gill with the cast from ‘The Bridges of Madison County’

Based on the award-winning novel by Robert James Walker and the beloved film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, this musical adaptation has a score worthy of Broadway, and Theatre Three provides a cast equally deserving of that designation.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, this is an unconventional love story. Not cliched but brutally honest and so refreshingly human.

As not to spoil much, we meet our protagonist Francesca, an Italian refugee fleeing a war-torn Italy and a life she’s ready to leave behind. To accomplish this she marries Bud Johnson, a simple-minded but well-meaning American soldier who left life on the farm to serve his country. Both travel back to the United States where they build a home and a beautiful family. Their son Michael doesn’t want to live the life of a farmer like his father; their daughter Carolyn, however, embraces it as she trains an award-winning steer for the annual state fair.

Francesca, lovingly called Fran by her husband, longs for the life she dreamed of as a little girl. She feels it is far too late to begin anew, and while there is food on the table, there’s no money for her to visit her home in Italy and the life she left behind. So she settles for a life as a farmer’s wife, trying to find contentment packing lunches.

From left, Marissa Girgus, Dennis Creighton, Steve McCoy, TracyLynn Conner, Matthew Rafanelli and Ella Watts in a scene from ‘The Bridges of Madison County’

Everything changes for Fran when her husband and children take a trip to the state fair. She gets a rare opportunity to breathe and relax. That is until a beat up pickup truck rolls into her driveway and with it the arrival of Robert Kincaid — a professional photographer from National Geographic putting together a photo series on bridges throughout the United States. He’s lost and needs some directions. He’s well-traveled, having just recently visited Italy and having seen every corner of the globe. Fran invites him into her home and, by extension, her life. Thus her world changes forever.

Though I won’t spoil the rest, the show is a real treat. You’ll feel just about every emotion in the book in this two-act musical. Once again Jeffrey Sanzel shines as a director capable of any genre. His unique vision can make a timeless story feel brand new again.

Undoubtedly some lines are picked up directly from the book and film adaptation, but Sanzel’s production takes you for a ride in that worn down pickup truck. You get a glimpse into someone’s world, and that’s a beautiful thing. Sanzel guides his incredibly talented cast, making it impossible not to feel for these characters. I found myself so invested in characters who managed to emote so much in such a short time. Sanzel has no problem setting the bar higher and higher with each passing performance.

This show’s phenomenal cast certainly made his job easier though! Leading the production is the show’s star, TracyLynn Conner who portrays Francesca. First off, her accent is marvelous and never breaks even once. Her voice is one of the finest I’ve ever heard on a stage. Operatic, emotional and just so beautiful to listen to.

Much credit goes to Jeffrey Hoffman who handled the show’s musical direction and turned this small cast into an incredible musical ensemble.

Matthew Rafanelli and Ella Watts

Fran’s husband Bud is played by Dennis Creighton, who really captures the essence of the character and shows his musical tenor in the show’s second act and final number. He’s accompanied by two incredible young actors — Ella Watts as their daughter Carolyn and Matthew Rafanelli as her bookish brother, Michael. I was particularly impressed with Watts. This former star of NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live!” has a voice so incredibly refined that you wish she had even more time on stage. Rafanelli really shines in his role and you’ll find yourself constantly rooting for him and his dreams and flashing back to your own childhood sibling drama. No doubt we’ll be seeing both actors on stage many times in the future!

Theatre Three veteran and Bryan Cranston look alike Steve McCoy remains one of my favorite company members. He plays Charlie — the friendly, simpleton neighbor of the Johnsons and provides comic relief throughout some of the show’s tougher moments. His wife Marge provides nonstop laughter followed by some incredibly endearing scenes. She is portrayed by the incredibly talented Amy Wodon Huben.

Brian Gill’s low and powerful voice brings Robert Kincaid, the world traveling photographer to life. His duets with Conner are some of the highlights of the show. His personality is infectious and translates beautifully on stage.

Last, though certainly not least, is the incredibly diversified performances of Marissa Girgus who plays not one but over four roles. She steps into each of them flawlessly, creating performances both touching and comedic. I felt all sorts of emotions during her nothing short of groovy performance of “Another Life.”

Being a smaller cast, you can get a sense that each character was crafted to perfection not just by the actors but by their director. They feel so real and so dynamic, which is exceptional as several actors play multiple roles … something that usually takes you out of an experience but now suddenly enhances it.

Brian Gill and TracyLynn Conner

My favorite part of the show (outside of its cast) was its unique score, which combines two radically different genres to make something genuinely unique. Strings played as though from the Italian countryside, harrowing and haunting — a reminder of an old world, an abandoned life combined with the lively sound of the great American Midwest, and the wholehearted lifestyle of the American farmer. For a brief moment these sounds clash into something unique and unforgettable.

This may be one of the most beautiful sets I’ve seen at Theatre Three. Randall Parsons transports you to the great American Midwest. Robert W. Henderson Jr., the show’s lighting designer, ensures the light breaks through the barn wood in spectacular ways. One can’t help but feel nostalgic when looking at the kitchen they designed as well.

From top to bottom this show is local theater at its finest. Provoking several audible gasps from the audience followed by thunderous rounds of applause, “The Bridges of Madison County” is something you wish you could photograph and treasure forever.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “The Bridges of Madison County” on the Mainstage through Oct. 28. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 ages 5 to 12. Children under 5 not permitted. Contains adult subject matter. Parental discretion is advised.

A special event, “Behind the Curtain with ‘The Bridges of Madison County’” will be held on Oct. 22. Join Director Jeffrey Sanzel, musical director Jeffrey Hoffman and actor TracyLynn Conner for a freewheeling exploration of this powerful contemporary musical. The full buffet supper and talk will begin at 5 p.m. $30 per person. The event will be followed by the Mainstage performance of “The Bridges of Madison County” at 7 p.m. Tickets for the performance may be purchased separately.

For more information, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

All photos by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

Filming the Battle of Long Island scene at Benner's Farm. Photo by Michael Pawluk

By Jenna Lennon

History came to life on Long Island this summer with the production of TBR News Media’s first feature-length film, “One Life to Give,” which paints a picture of the events leading up to the formation of America’s first band of spies, the Culper Spy Ring.

The Culper Spy Ring was organized by Benjamin Tallmadge under orders from General George Washington in the summer of 1778. Tallmadge recruited a group of men and women he could trust in Setauket and, for the remaining years of the war, collected information regarding British troop formations, movements and plans.

The spy ring became the most successful intelligence group on either side of the war during the course of the Revolution. Its existence was unknown to the public until the 1930s when Long Island historian Morton Pennypacker analyzed handwritten letters to Washington and discovered that Robert Townsend and Samuel Culper Jr. were, in fact, the same person.

A battle scene shot at Benner’s Farm. Photo by Michael Pawluk

Based on these true events, “One Life to Give” follows Tallmadge (Dave Morrissey Jr.) and Nathan Hale (Hans Paul Hendrickson) in the early stages of the war and plays off of the speculation that Hale’s famous last words, “My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country,” were inspired by Joseph Addison’s “Cato, a Tragedy.”

“Tallmadge and Hale are both very motivated individuals. They graduated from Yale at the same time in 1773, and they are good friends. They’re schoolmates and they spent a whole bunch of time at Yale together, but they are very different,” said director, Benji Dunaief, an incoming junior at Emerson College in Boston. “In a lot of ways, they are kind of yin and yang. They’re opposites and opposites that attract and opposites that ultimately prove to be the pieces that transpired into the Culper Spy Ring,” he said.

Colonel John Chester (Jonathan Rabeno), a fellow Yale graduate along with Hale and Tallmadge, tasks Tallmadge with the duty of convincing Hale, who has enlisted in his local militia, to actively join the cause.

“I play Colonel John Chester. He’s from Connecticut. He went to Yale, and he’s friends with Benjamin Tallmadge and Nathan Hale,” Rabeno said. “He kind of acts as a recruiter for getting them involved more in the cause. … so this is really right in the beginning stages of it.”

Cast and crew gather around a camera to view playback. Photo by Michael Pawluk

Hale not only enlists, but eventually is Washington’s (David Gianopoulos) first volunteer to go behind enemy lines and gather British intelligence. Soon after, Hale is captured by Robert Rogers (George Overin), and General William Howe (Jeffrey Sanzel) sentences him to death for committing acts of espionage.

With the motivation of the loss of one of his dearest friends and his brother, William (Aaron Johnson), Tallmadge and Washington form the Culper Spy Ring. “This is a guy who experienced something very traumatic when his brother William died, and it changed the course of history. He took that energy, and he inspirationally manifested it into something so incredibly positive for all of us that we are all benefitting from today,” Morrissey said.

He continues, “As someone who’s brother has died who is also named Will, this was an inspiration for me to be able to hopefully manifest it into something that other people will benefit from in the future. That’s why this is so important for me. I loved working on this film, and I am never going to forget this ever. This one’s for you, Will.”

The producer of “One Life to Give,” TBR’s director of media productions Michael Tessler, grew up “with Setauket in my backyard” and has always had a fascination with Revolutionary War history. “I’m grateful that historians, authors, and film producers have finally brought the narrative of the Culper Spy Ring to life. This history remained elusive for so many years and has evolved from local lore into a spectacular chapter of our founding story,” said Tessler.

Above,the Continental Army shoots off a cannon at Benner’s Farm. Photo by Michael Pawluk

“As a lover of history, the question that kept me up at night and acted as the muse for this piece is simply what tragedies had to occur that would cause the heroes of the Culper Spy Ring to risk everything? Digging into textbooks, letters and the memoir of Benjamin Tallmadge, it became apparent to me that there was an important story to tell, one too often forgotten in the annals of history,” he said, adding “When all is said and done, this is the story of two best friends who saved the Revolution and changed the course of human events.”

While working to write and produce their first feature film beginning in March, Dunaief and Tessler were also tasked with finding a talented cast, a passionate crew and period-appropriate locations where they could tell this story.

“Everyone on the crew I’ve either worked with, somebody on the crew had worked with, or we had just heard really good things about,” Dunaief said.

“I think I wouldn’t do it any other way. We had 12 people on our crew to make a feature film in 16 days. That’s like bare bones. That’s like barer than bare bones. But the fact that everybody was doing two or three jobs at the same time, everyone was pulling their weight and more by a lot really speaks volumes about the kind of people that we had on the crew and had it been a different group of people, I really don’t think we would have been able to finish,” said Dunaief.

Benji Dunaief, left, directs a scene at the Caroline Church of Brookhaven with actor Dave Morrissey Jr. Photo by Jenna Lennon

“We had the most phenomenal cast, crew and community behind us. All of our locations are genuine historic properties beautifully preserved by local organizations — places these heroes actually lived, worked and played. That’s a benefit not afforded to those using sound stages in Hollywood,” Tessler said.

Filming took place over the course of 16 days at many local historic locations including the Caroline Church of Brookhaven, the Sherwood-Jayne House and the Thompson House in Setauket along with the William Miller House in Miller Place.

Scenes were also shot on location at Port Jefferson’s East Beach and Benner’s Farm in Setauket, where a trench with palisades, a fort and nearly 100 reenactors, acting as both Continental and British troops, staged the Battle at Bedford Pass.

“Though exhausting, this was the most rewarding experience of my professional career. Waking up after sleeping in Washington’s marquee tent and seeing a trench, palisades, cannon and an actual Continental Army was just an indescribable experience,” Tessler said.

“This happens to be a local story, but it’s a great story, and it’s a story worth telling,” Dunaief said. “You don’t come across a story like this every day that’s as powerful, as meaningful, as patriotic. There have been so many movies that have been made that have glorified the Revolution, that have taken insane liberties and basically just use it as a backdrop for their own narratives,” he said. “But this is a film that truly pays homage and respect to real people who lived and died for our country, and I think it’s an incredibly important story.”

“One Life to Give” is scheduled to premiere on Sept. 22, the 241st anniversary of Nathan Hale’s execution.

How to defeat ISIS, save the economy and reunite the country

By Michael Tessler

Michael Tessler

Historically speaking, the United States economy tends to thrive in wartime. Americans become patriotic when faced with a great foreign menace. In times of crisis, we tend to buy American products. Our star-spangled workforce works harder and innovates quicker. Our domestic political disagreements seem smaller when we tackle something larger than ourselves. In these moments of dire necessity, we find common purpose. Under that pretense our nation was founded and through the centuries has propelled it to unparalleled success.

Thankfully, we do not need another world war to accomplish this spirit of unity. This may all feel impossible as the gap between our political factions has never felt wider. On every issue it seems partisanship dictates idleness and/or delinquency. So how do we bridge that gap? How do we break the ice? Well the answer is simple — by protecting it.

Climate change is the key to a new era of American greatness. Now, even if you don’t believe in climate change, hear me out. Before we can proceed, please remove the term “climate change” from your mind as some abstract scientific concept. Let’s personalize it, treat it in the same fashion we’d treat any great and terrible foreign power or dictator. It helps to imagine it with an evil little mustache. Envisioning it now? Good.

This Blue Scare (yes, as in excess water) threatens our homes, our livelihoods and our way of life. If we lose this literal “Cold” War, our cities and towns could be decimated not by atomic fire but by superstorms, erosion, dust bowls and flooding. Each day we wait, the Blue Menace grows stronger, melting glaciers and capturing our territory, inch by inch.

Let us form an iron curtain around the ozone layer, protect it from further damage and economically punish those who aide in its destruction. We must establish a great coalition of all civilized nations to combat this threat in an act of global unity, all the while strengthening and cementing our role as an international leader.

This Blue Menace has allied itself with our nation’s greatest physical enemy, ISIS. Their terrorist organization wants nothing more than for us to continue to ignore this mighty faceless foe. According to the United States Treasury and Dubai-based energy analysts, ISIS receives nearly $1 to $3 million a day selling oil. Meanwhile, the United States continues to be the global leader in daily oil consumption accounting for 20 percent of all global use each and every day.

By ending our addiction to oil, we could decimate the so-called Islamic Caliphate without dropping a single bomb. Without the money from that precious resource, they would be unable to remain an effective fighting force. Our nation would no longer have to maintain alliances with false friends, who have used their swaths of oil as leverage over our current state of dependence.

Meanwhile, we can commit that all investments in green energy jobs must be American. We can hire every single unemployed American to help build a modern and green infrastructure. We will see the greatest investment in public works since President Eisenhower built the interstate highway system. We will create a new generation of energy-producing highways (yes, that’s an actual thing), new energy fueling stations, bullet trains, green appliances and the vehicles of tomorrow.

Industry will boom and the workforce will grow as we upgrade and innovate many existing products and power plants. Regardless of how one views climate change, the economic possibility is real and should not be ignored.

One of the biggest concerns I’ve heard is how will communities that produce outdated energy sources be impacted? Though the merits of “clean coal” can be debated, it is simply not a renewable resource. Our economy cannot survive or remain competitive in the 21st century using finite resources.

We cannot and will not abandon those who live in coal and oil country either. We will continue to ensure that their communities thrive by transforming them into clean energy economic hubs, providing not just new jobs, but training and tax subsidies to aide in their transition. Their concerns are genuine and have a right to be heard.

As long as the United States can be fundamentally held hostage by oil, we are at-risk. We owe it to all those who have sacrificed, to our children, born and unborn, to the ideals of America itself, to create a country that relies solely on the ingenuity of its people rather than foreign pipelines and the fuel of a bygone century.

So let’s defeat ISIS, let’s grow the economy, let’s reunite our country, let’s do something bold — we have landed a man on the moon, and with that same American tenacity, we can harness the power of the sun.

From left, Brian Smith, Steven Uihlein, Phyllis March and Joan St. Onge in a scene from ‘Lower Education’. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

By Michael Tessler

Raw, imaginative, thought-provoking and brave. Unafraid to push the envelope and tackle some of society’s most dynamic and difficult issues. At times, irresistibly funny, wildly inappropriate and enormously fun. There are so many ways to describe Theatre Three’s Festival of One-Act Plays but ultimately it comes down to this: theater at its absolute finest.

Tucked below the main stage of Theatre Three’s Athena Hall is a black box theater named after the late Ronald F. Peierls. This second stage creates a wonderfully intimate atmosphere for the audience and provides a perfect venue for all seven shows.

Since the 1998 to 1999 season, Theatre Three has received an incredible 8,000 one-act play submissions. Of those entries, it has presented 113 world premieres by 79 different playwrights. What you’re seeing really is the best of the best.

Clockwise from left, Antoine Jones, Kate Keating, Joan St. Onge and Jacqueline M. Hughes in a scene from ‘Counting Sheep’. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

One-acts, for those who are not familiar, are just that — a single-act show. Often varying in length and subject matter, they are given the flexibility to tackle things playwrights would usually be unable to address with a mainstage production. In my mind, a great one-act is a lot like the center of an Oreo. They skip all the fanfare and get right to the creamy good stuff in the middle. They rely not on orchestra pits, colorful costumes or dynamic sets but rather on vigorous acting, quality writing and superb direction.

“Counting Sheep” by Jae Kramisen, “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?” by Patrick Gabridgen, “The Kitchen Fairy” by Scott Gibson, “Lower Education” by Lewis Shilane, “A New Lease” by Tony Foster, “Upset over Nothing” by Robin Doupé and “When Driven” by Melanie Acampora all made their debut last Saturday afternoon. These writers vary in age, gender and at least one was from out-of-state.

Just prior to the premiere I had the opportunity to talk to Theatre Three actress and playwright Melanie Acampora. “I started writing three years ago” delving into the process of creating a one-act. It’s less pressure than acting,” she said. One of the hardest parts of writing a script is seeing how it’ll be adapted. When asked if she was pleased with Theatre Three’s adaption, Acampora replied,“It’s even better than in my head, thanks to Jeff [Sanzel].”

From left, Skyler Quinn Johnson and Brian Smith in a scene from ‘How Does It Feel to Be a Problem.’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions, Inc.

Sanzel, the festival’s founder and director of all seven shows, proves once again what enormous talent we have right here on Long Island. His skills transcend genre and are wonderfully on display — up close and personal for the whole audience to enjoy. How a person could direct so many shows while finding time to sleep is beyond me!

This emotional roller coaster will have you leaving the theater with a newfound appreciation for playwrights. Unlike the bravado of Broadway, they cannot hide behind the pomp and circumstance of massive musical numbers or high-priced sets (although I do love a good ole’ kickline).

Each show’s success depends almost solely on its craftsmanship and its cast. That being said, there was not a single actor I didn’t love during these seven performances. Many of the actors took on not just one role but several in multiple shows, displaying their incredible capabilities and range as performers.

Whether you are a theater aficionado or a first-time theatergoer, get yourself a ticket before they sell out. This wonderful experience is only on stage for a limited time. To the playwrights, my hat is off to you, brava and bravo. Hoping to see more of your work soon!

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson, will present The 20th Annual Festival of One-Act Plays through April 1 at The Ronald F. Peierls Theatre on the Second Stage. Tickets are $18 per person. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

Please note: Adult content and language. Parental discretion is advised.

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