Welcome to the world where gay is the new straight


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ZannaBy Richard Ades

Sean Felder seems a bit miscast as Steve, the football star in Zanna, Don’t! He sings and acts just fine, but the gridiron doesn’t usually attract guys with such a slight build.

Then again, there’s nothing usual about the world portrayed in Tim Acito’s “musical fairy tale.” It’s set at Heartsville High School, where being gay is the norm and being hetero is so unheard of that the head of the drama club is scandalized when a member suggests doing a musical about straight people.

Just as unconventional is the students’ attitude toward extracurricular activities. Though Steve is such a talented jock that he wins a game by actually passing the ball to himself, the school’s biggest celebrity is chess champion Mike (Ricky Locci). But the real key to popularity, as new student Steve recognizes, is joining the drama club.

Obviously, this is the school many a gay student has dreamed of attending. As written and scored by Acito (with help from Alexander Dinelaris), Zanna, Don’t! brings the dream to fizzy, tuneful life.

In Evolution Theatre’s production, director Brent Ries captures the piece’s mood with the help of Shane Cinal’s imaginative set, Danielle Mann’s playful choreography, music director Tim Sarsany’s well-heeled band and, most importantly, a lovable cast.

In the center of it all is William Macke as the title character, a wand-carrying, spell-casting student whose only desire is to hook up everyone with his or her same-sex soulmate. Indeed, Zanna devotes so much time to others’ happiness that he neglects his own. His sole friend is Cindy, an exotic bird portrayed by puppeteer Mike Writtenberry.

Even when trouble rears its head, Zanna does his best to keep romance alive. After Roberta (Tahrea Maynard) learns that girlfriend Karla (Alex Lanier) has been unfaithful, Zanna immediately points her toward Kate (Jordan Shafer). In general, everything is sweetness and light until a girl and boy come to the reluctant realization that they’re attracted to each other. The resulting controversy threatens the school’s loving atmosphere, forcing Zanna to respond with a spell that has unforeseen consequences.

Also in the cast are Laura Crone as the bossy Candi, Brian C. Gray as the put-upon Arvin and T. Johnpaul Adams as radio deejay Tank.

Everyone does a good or better-than-good job on the show’s songs, which represent vintage pop-rock and other lighthearted genres. Though the actors don’t appear to be miked, most put out enough volume to be heard over the carefully modulated band. That’s not to say the show wouldn’t benefit from more amplification, which would add to the fun quotient, but it functions just fine without it.

Despite its satirical, upside-down view of reality, Zanna, Don’t! mostly serves up frothy fantasy. As a theatrical work, it’s about as slight as the build of Heartsville High’s star football player, but its tunefulness and charm make it a modestly pleasant diversion.

Evolution Theatre Company will present Zanna, Don’t! through Nov. 21 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors, $30 for “generosity seating” (second or third row center). 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

Boyfriend and ex vie for woman’s affection


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James Harper, Beth Josephsen and Danny Turek (from left) in Devotion (A&B Theatrical photo)

James Harper, Beth Josephsen and Danny Turek (from left) in Devotion (A&B Theatricals photo)

By Richard Ades

Local playwright Bill Cook has been known for plays about men in nightmarish situations.

In two of his previous works (Love in an Age of Clamor and The Promised Land), the nightmare was mainly financial in nature, but a woman also played a role. It seems that in Cook’s world, as in real life, romantic relationships can be both complicated and precarious.

In his new play, Devotion, those relationships move to center stage. Set in New York City, it’s about Tricia (Beth Josephsen), a struggling artist with two men in her life: current boyfriend James (James Harper), a video artist; and former boyfriend Alex (Danny Turek), an actor.

As the play begins, both James and Alex are sharing Tricia’s loft, but Alex keeps promising to move out as soon as he finds a new place. This irks James, who suspects Alex is biding his time while he looks for ways to con his way back into Tricia’s good graces. And his distrust seems justified, especially after Alex claims he’s met an art buyer who can help boost Tricia’s career.

Who will end up with Tricia? It’s hard to feel we have a horse in this race, as we don’t particularly like any of the characters. However, we may well recognize them, as Cook injects their interchanges with verbal slings and arrows that many will find wincingly familiar. Director Pamela Hill builds on the script’s strengths by encouraging the actors to dive headfirst into their characters.

On opening night, Harper gave the most understated performance as James—to the extent that, at times, it seemed he had yet to fully invest in the character. Turek started out with the opposite problem, overplaying his first scene. Overall, though, he gave a spirited and entertaining interpretation of the glib, conniving Alex.

Even more impressive is Josephsen’s performance, despite an occasional tendency to mumble her lines. Whether Tricia is keeping Alex’s advances in check or greeting James’s pronouncements with maternal disapproval, she creates a convincing portrayal of a woman who likes to be in control.

Though Devotion differs from Cook’s earlier works in some ways—for example, the tone is naturalistic rather than surreal—it retains the previous plays’ cinematically short scenes. This means the action has to stop every few minutes while stagehands adjust Peter Pauze’s appropriately realistic scenery. The pauses would be more of a distraction if the interludes weren’t accompanied by well-chosen mood music.

Another, more unfortunate, way in which Devotion resembles other Cook plays I’ve seen is that its ending doesn’t quite work. At least, it doesn’t quite work for me. At a certain point, two of the three characters begin acting in ways that make no psychological sense. I can hazard a guess as to why Cook has them behave this way, but sorry, I’m just not buying it.

Until the final scene, however, Devotion is a low-key but interesting take on the Battle Between the Sexes.

A&B Theatricals will present Devotion through Nov. 14 at MadLab Theatre, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors. 614-441-2929 or ab-theatrical.com.

Period piece favors outrageousness over logic


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Kathryn Miller, Colleen Dunne and Melissa Bair (from left) in Skillet Tag (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

Kathryn Miller, Colleen Dunne and Melissa Bair (from left) in Skillet Tag (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

By Richard Ades

Pete Bakely’s Skillet Tag is about a company team-building exercise that turns into a night of mayhem and menstruation. It’s just the kind of diversion we want and expect from MadLab for the Halloween season.

Well, with one exception: It would be nice if it came with a few more laughs.

Yes, there are chuckles and snickers, but they mostly come from Bakely’s willingness to push beyond the boundaries of good taste. For instance, characters come up with a myriad of terms for the menstrual cycle after it develops that every woman in the office is “entertaining the Red Army” simultaneously. And, oh yes, a used tampon makes a sudden appearance right before an act of onstage coitus.

Gross? Yes. Funny? Well…

One problem is that none of this makes much sense. From the beginning, it’s obvious that Bakely is more interested in setting up outrageous developments than he is in making them believable.

Why does host Jeff (Jason Sudy) insist that his underlings play “tag” by bonking each other over the heads with skillets? And when the hazardous game produces the first of the evening’s multiple fatalities, why is Neal (Chad Hewitt) nervous that the result will be a visit by murderous thugs? After all, this is a company that prints greeting cards, not a branch of the Mafia.

There’s a vague explanation that the staff long ago got bored and began venturing into dangerous sidelines, but logic clearly is not one of the playwright’s strengths.

Working under Michelle Batt’s direction on Brendan Michna’s handsome set, the actors dive gamely into the one-dimensional characters.

Gamest of all is Colleen Dunne as Becky, a secretary who seems to take a monthly trip to the edge of insanity. Others include Kathryn Miller as a recently hired attorney, Casey May as a dimwitted IT expert and Melissa Bair as the office lush. In her usual thoughtful fashion, Bair manages to suggest that her character actually has something going on beneath the surface, but she’s limited by a script that mostly confines her to swilling copious amounts of alcohol.

Also making brief appearances are Lance Atkinson and Chelsea Jordan as cops who are called (separately) to the scene after the corpses begin piling up. Incidentally, Atkinson’s cop may be unprofessional, but his female counterpart is totally incompetent. When you combine that fact with the evening’s liberal helpings of menstrually inspired mayhem, you might conclude that feminism falls somewhere under logic on Bakely’s list of attributes.

Then again, you probably won’t, because it’s hard to take any of this seriously. It’s simply an excuse to take a jokey, blood-spattered journey to the edge of propriety.

If you aren’t too squeamish about how you get there—or where that blood comes from—you might enjoy yourself.

Skillet Tag continues through Oct. 31 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Tickets are $15, $13 students/seniors, $10 members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

Waltzing through a tender tale of longing and infidelity


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One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)

One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)

By Richard Ades

To succeed, a musical production needs basic ingredients such as strong singing, a good band, pretty scenery, etc. If a show has all of these things, it’s probably worth seeing.

But it can be so much more if the director has a feel for the material’s subtleties (assuming there are any) and knows how to communicate them to the cast and crew. Then the musical becomes a transcendent experience.

At Short North Stage, I’ve seen two such productions, both written by Stephen Sondheim: 2013’s Sunday in the Park With George and, now, A Little Night Music. In the current show, a bittersweet reverie on love and regret, director Michael Licata and his cast bring out every knowing chuckle and every tender, aching moment.

Adapted by Hugh Wheeler from the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, the 1973 Tony winner centers on two Swedish households at the turn of the last century.

In one, middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Mark A. Harmon) lives with young wife Anne (Jennifer Barnaba) and his son from a previous marriage, seminary student Henrik (JJ Parkey). In the other, Madame Armfeldt (Linda Dorff) cares for granddaughter Fredrika (Maria Delanno) while the girl’s mother, actress Desiree (Marya Spring), is off touring with her latest play.

From the start, it’s apparent that the Egerman household is emotionally unstable. Fredrik loves his girlish wife but is frustrated by her reluctance to take part in marital relations. When Desiree’s touring show arrives in town, he can’t resist going to see the woman with whom he had an affair some 14 years earlier.

This leads to a night of passion that arouses the suspicions of Desiree’s current lover, the pinheaded Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Nick Lingnofski). Being a first-class male chauvinist, he then complains about his mistress’s indiscretion to his long-suffering wife, Charlotte (Kate Lingnofski).

All the desires, suspicions and resentments that were fomented in Act 1 come to a delicious head in Act 2, when everyone converges at Madame Armfeldt’s estate for a country outing.

It’s hard to find fault with the large cast, except to note that Barnaba’s Anne sometimes fades into the woodwork and that her pretty soprano voice was occasionally overwhelmed by the band on opening night. Really, though, there are no weak links.

Spring exudes worldly confidence as Desiree, which makes her vulnerable rendition of the show’s most memorable tune, Send in the Clowns, all the more devastating. As former lover Fredrik, Harmon offers a deftly sketched portrait of a decent man tottering on a tightrope between obligation and desire.

Parkey, a familiar visitor on the Short North stage, gives one of his best performances yet as Henrik, a young man pulled in opposite directions by his religious ideals and his unspoken love for his 18-year-old stepmother. Another career-topping performance is given by Dorff as Madame Armfeldt, whether she’s tackling Sondheim’s tricky melodies or waxing philosophical about roads not taken.

Several hearty laughs are earned by Nick Lingnofski as the preening, adulterous count, while Kate Lingnofski communicates all of the conflicting emotions felt by his wronged but loving wife, Charlotte. In another important supporting role, Eli Brickey gives a saucy but warmhearted portrayal as Petra, Anne’s maid and confidante, and delivers a rousing rendition of The Miller’s Son, a Celtic-flavored statement of female self-sufficiency.

Meanwhile, young Maria Delanno shows remarkable poise as the wise-beyond-her-years Fredrika—to the extent that she didn’t even flinch when a piano bench collapsed under her on opening night.

Adding to the production’s texture are the varied voices who serve as a sort of musical Greek chorus, as well as the backstage musicians who perform under Lloyd Butler’s direction. Interestingly, nearly all of the songs are written in waltz time, which makes it fitting that the most prominent dance numbers (choreographed by Dionysia Williams) are actual waltzes.

Like the troupe’s 2013 staging of Sunday in the Park With George, the current show is a visual treat thanks to Ray Zupp’s gauze-strewn scenery, Adam Zeek’s ethereal lighting and a colorful array of costumes supervised by Stephanie Keller. But perhaps the most important of the backstage talents is sound designer Michael Mason, who succeeds in making nearly every syllable come through clearly—not an easy feat in the Garden Theater’s cavernous main auditorium.

With A Little Night Music, Short North Stage proves once again that it understands Sondheim. The show is tender, wise, witty and—for devoted fans of the composer/lyricist—completely unmissable.

Short North Stage will present A Little Night Music through Nov. 1 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

You say kabuki, I say ka-pokey…


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Julie Klein, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Billy DePetro (from left) in The Tenshu (Shadowbox Live photo)

Julie Klein, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Billy DePetro (from left) in The Tenshu (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

No one ventures outside its comfort zone more than Shadowbox Live.

The troupe could play it safe by sticking to its usual formula of skits and rock tunes, but it continually pushes beyond that SNL-like envelope by putting on ambitious, original shows. In recent years, those shows have largely been huge successes.

With The Tenshu, the kabuki-inspired tale that opened last week, Shadowbox pushes the envelope more than ever. Not only has it consulted with an international collaborator for the first time, but it’s completely redesigned its space—to the extent that its other current productions had to be placed on hold for the show’s three-week run.

What a shame that all of this effort has added up to a decidedly mixed success.

Visually, the show is striking, thanks to Britton Mauk’s Japanese-style scenery, Linda Mullin’s ornate costumes, David Mack’s macabre makeup and Aaron Pelzek’s lighting, along with puppets designed by Beth Kattelman and others.

Musically, the show is a bit less satisfying, though the original score is an interesting attempt to combine traditional Japanese sounds with rock beats.

But it’s in the drama department that the show really lags, suggesting that there’s a reason kabuki has never caught on in America. Adapted from a play written by Izumi Kyoka and translated from the Japanese by Hiromi Sakamoto, it lacks the unifying plot that Western viewers expect from a theatrical work.

Instead, it’s united by a single character and her mysterious home. All of the events occur in and around an ancient castle whose fifth floor is inhabited by a ghostly noblewoman named Tomihime (Stacie Boord) and her entourage.

Act 1 deals with Tomihime’s preparations for a visit from her friend Kamehime (Leah Haviland), as well as her use of supernatural powers to repel a band of samurai warriors led by the evil Lord Harima (Jimmy Mak). There are moments of enchantment and beauty, but much of the time is spent simply telling stories or exchanging gifts and pleasantries.

Act 2 finally gets to the meat of the tale: Tomihime’s potentially romantic encounter with a disgraced samurai named Zusho (JT Walker III). Unfortunately, the encounter proceeds so slowly that viewers’ patience may be put to the test.

Throughout, director Stev Guyer has the actors speak in a deliberate, declamatory manner. It’s probably meant to mimic the style of kabuki acting, but the approach makes it even harder for Western viewers to maintain interest in the slow-paced tale.

Shadowbox head writer Mak tries to make up for the script’s talkiness by adding action scenes reminiscent of Japanese samurai flicks or anime cartoons. Among them are two intricately choreographed swordfights and an attack by a huge, flying creature with glowing eyes.

Dancing also plays a role, courtesy of Katie Psenicka’s choreography. The most memorable dance represents a battle between a falcon (Nick Wilson) and a crane (Amy Lay).

The dance numbers are graceful, while the action sequences are thrilling. There just aren’t enough of them to make up for the show’s long stretches of lifeless dialogue.

The talent is all top-notch, both onstage and off-, but it’s not enough to sell the exotic story. Maybe what’s needed are subtitles—not to translate what happens but to explain why we’re supposed to find it compelling.

The Tenshu continues through Oct. 25 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40, $10 for ages 12 and under. An abridged version will be presented at 1 p.m. Friday (doors at noon). Running time: 45 minutes. Tickets are $10, $5 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Shoemaker sets out to save cross-dressers’ soles


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The touring cast of Kinky Boots, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (photo by Matthew Murphy)

The touring cast of Kinky Boots, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

I have to admit I went into Kinky Boots with a small chip on my shoulder.

In 2013, Matilda the Musical was expected to win a slew of Tony Awards, including for best musical. Instead, despite having opened to mixed reviews, Kinky Boots danced away with the top prize.

Full disclosure: I love Matilda the Musical. Seeing it was my favorite Broadway experience since Memphis. After Kinky Boots beat out the magical lass for the top prize and others, including Cyndi Lauper’s win for best score, I decided it had better be damn good.

Anyway, that was my mindset going into the Ohio Theatre on Tuesday night, which helps to explain why it took me a while to warm up to the show. Eventually, though, I came around.

Adapted by Harvey Fierstein from a 2005 movie, Kinky Boots is the story of Charlie (Steven Booth), a young Englishman who’s preparing to move to London with his fiancée, Nicola (Charissa Hogeland). In the process, he’s leaving behind the family business, a Northampton shoe factory run by his father (Tom Souhrada).

No sooner does Charlie get to London, however, than he learns his father has died. As if that weren’t enough bad news, he then realizes the company is going broke because it can’t compete in a market flooded with cheap, foreign-made shoes.

Enter Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker), a drag performer whose chief problem seems to be her inability to find high-heeled boots strong enough to support her male frame. Thanks to a suggestion from factory worker Lauren (Lindsay Nicole Chambers), Charlie realizes the only way to save the business—along with the jobs of the people he grew up with—is to find a niche need and fill it. His solution: Start making sturdy, yet stylish, footwear for the discriminating cross-dresser.

I said I eventually came around on Kinky Boots, but that doesn’t mean I love everything about it. You don’t have to be an expert on Morse code to recognize that Fierstein is telegraphing plot points well in advance, including the fate of Charlie’s relationship with the sour-tempered Nicola. And things get even more transparent in the second act, when Fierstein manufactures conflicts by having Charlie act in totally unconvincing ways.

The show’s salvation is Lauper’s genre-hopping score, which earns its Tony. A couple of the songs strike me as derivative, but they’re generally enjoyable and catchy.

Of course, any production rises or falls on the strength of its cast, and this touring show’s cast acts, sings and dances delightfully under the guidance of director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell. At the top of the bill, Booth is relatable as Charlie, while Parker is nothing short of amazing as the sassy, yet soulful, Lola.

Some early critics complained that the show loses steam in the second act, but I actually like it better because it gives Lola a chance to grow into something beyond a flashy stereotype. Yes, Lola’s production numbers with her lascivious “Angels” are fun, but Parker’s best moment comes when Lola slows down for the Act 2 lament Hold Me in Your Heart. It’s a true show stopper.

Visually, the show is equally impressive, thanks to Gregg Barnes’s costumes, Kenneth Posner’s lighting and David Rockwell’s glorious scenery.

The one place the touring show could stand improvement is in the area of the sound. On opening night, whole lines of dialogue and lyrics were indecipherable. The English accents were partially to blame, but poor mixing seemed to be the main culprit. Hopefully, that problem will be fixed as the week goes on.

Did Kinky Books deserve to steal the top Tony away from Matilda? Not in my book. But it does give musical-loving theatergoers a colorful, toe-tapping good time.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Kinky Boots Oct. 6-11 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $33-$118. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Maybe the goat ate his moral compass


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(Martin) Tim Browning and Stevie (Sonda Staley) find themselves in a romantic triangle with a barnyard animal in The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? (photo by Matt Slaybaugh)

(Martin) Tim Browning and Stevie (Sonda Staley) find themselves in a romantic triangle with a barnyard animal in The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? (photo by Matt Slaybaugh)

By Richard Ades

What’s a guy to do?

Martin Gray loves his wife and has been faithful to her throughout their marriage. Then, during a visit to the countryside, he meets and instantly falls for a beautiful, sweet-natured female—a female who just happens to be a goat.

D’oh! Or rather: Doe!

In The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, esteemed playwright Edward Albee charges headfirst into the prickly topic of bestiality, and he doesn’t exactly handle it with kid gloves. Instead, he uses Martin’s predicament to question traditional concepts of love and morality.

Yes, Albee holds Martin up to some degree of satirical ridicule, but not because a barnyard creature has turned the architect into a bleating-heart liberal on the topic of interspecies romance. No, it’s Martin’s personality that makes him the butt of Albee’s jokes.

Martin (Tim Browning)—like wife Stevie (Sonda Staley) and, to a lesser extent, son Billy (Jesse Massaro)—is depicted as a superficial intellectual. He’s so enraptured by his own cleverness that he periodically interrupts even the fiercest argument to compliment a particularly apt comment or to question a grammatical choice.

Another early source of humor is Martin’s self-admitted forgetfulness. Apparently distracted by his secret affair with a four-legged lover, he simply can’t hold onto the threads of conversations with either his wife or his best friend, Ross (Todd Covert).

Is The Goat a comedy? That seems to be Albee’s goal at first, but later it hops the fence into the realm of tragedy as Martin’s new love places him on the horns of a marital dilemma.

At any rate, it’s not a gut-busting comedy, seldom generating more than the occasional chuckle in Red Herring’s current production. The main problem is that Albee tries to milk Martin’s forgetfulness for so many laughs that few materialize.

Then again, neither is it a great tragedy, unless you relate to Martin’s quandary—and unless you find the ending far more shocking than I did. Though I’m far from prescient, I saw it trotting my way from a mile off.

Working under Michael Herring’s direction, the actors generally play their characters naturalistically, though sometimes with a tinge of satirical exaggeration. Personally, I found Staley and Massaro the most convincing, but that’s partly because their characters are the most relatable for those of us who haven’t gone looking for love in the nearest stall. Stevie and Billy greet the news of Martin’s bucolic canoodling with understandable fury and disbelief.

As for Browning, he plays Martin as a man so obsessed by his bearded lover that he’s basically sleepwalking through life. That’s an appropriate interpretation, but I still don’t get the character. It might help if Albee had allowed Martin to go into more detail about the moment he first fell in love with a creature whose greatest joy comes from licking the glue off tin cans.

But he doesn’t, because Albee is more interested in fomenting an audience reaction than he is in an actual interspecies relationship. Before the play is over, he’s brought up such equally scandalous topics as incest and sexual attraction toward an infant.

Most provocatively of all, he has Martin attack his son’s homosexuality, as if that were somehow analogous to his own love for Sylvia. No, huh-uh. There’s no analogy between the two, despite what fear-mongering opponents of gay marriage might tell you. Consenting adults can do whatever they want, but farm animals can never be said to have free will.

Herring’s set design of the Grays’ home is modern and avant-garde, which seems fitting. On opening night, however, individual pieces had problems: a pedestal nearly falling over, a chair partially coming apart, two vases falling off shelves seemingly of their own volition. Though these appeared to be accidents, I couldn’t help wondering whether Herring meant for at least some of them to happen as symbols of the Gray family’s precarious equilibrium.

Another production oddity: Though the play was designed to be performed in one act, Red Herring adds an intermission about 35 minutes in. It serves no obvious function, as it follows a dramatic development that will come as no surprise to 99 percent of the audience.

Will the Gray family survive Martin’s barnyard dalliance? It seems that Albee wants us to care whether they do, but truthfully, I didn’t. Though parts of it are entertaining, the play as a whole is hard to take seriously.

Yes, it won a Tony (in 2002, for best play), but it’s disappointingly shallow, especially coming from the man who gave us theater’s greatest marital spat of all time: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Other than their author and the titular question marks, the two works could not be more different.

Red Herring Theatre will present The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? through Oct. 10 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 in advance, pay what you want at the door. 614-723-9116 or redherring.info.

Comedy has Texas-sized helping of humor, heart


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Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

Judging from the size of Friday night’s audience, Sordid Lives looks like one of Evolution Theatre Company’s more popular productions.

It’s not hard to see why. Del Shores’s comedy has become a cult hit since it first appeared in 1996 and subsequently spawned a movie and a short-lived TV series. It may not be a great work of art, but it’s a fun piece of theater.

In Evolution Theatre Company’s production, it benefits from a seasoned group of performers who seem to enjoy sinking their teeth into Shores’s juicy Texas stereotypes.

Pam Welsh-Huggins gets each of the four scenes off to a tuneful start as vocalist/guitarist Bitsy Mae Harling, who sings and strums her way through a handful of mood-setting tunes. Also establishing the proper mood is Shane Cinal’s Texas-centric set design, complete with homey furniture and the skull of a longhorn steer.

The scenes nearly function as separate set pieces except that they’re connected by a recent death: Peggy Ingram, a mother and grandmother, died after tripping over the wooden legs of neighbor G.W. (Ralph Edward Scott). Making her departure not only painful but embarrassing for her family, the accident happened while she and the married G.W. were sharing a motel room.

The scenes also have a thematic connection in the form of repressed sexuality. Peggy’s son, Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger), has been institutionalized in an attempt to “cure” him of his gay, cross-dressing ways. And her grandson, New York-based actor Ty (Andrew Trimmer), is struggling to come to terms with the homosexuality that he’s afraid to reveal to his family, especially strait-laced mother Latrelle (Lori Cannon).

The first scene takes place at the home of Peggy’s sister Sissy (Betsy Poling), who is attempting to grieve and quit smoking at the same time. It features the awkward reunion of Peggy’s younger daughter, LaVonda (Danielle Mari), and Noletta (Kathy Sturm), wife of the philanderer whose prosthetic legs were responsible for Peggy’s death.

The second scene is set in the local bar owned by Wardell (David Vargo), who is still ashamed that he and G.W. once gay-bashed Brother Boy, an act that may have led to the latter’s institutionalization. Also present are barflies Juanita (Vicky Welsh Bragg) and Odell Owens (Jeb Bigelow).

What makes these scenes work is that director Beth Kattelman seems to have encouraged the actors to invest in the characters rather than trolling for laughs. This allows the humor to flow naturally from the absurd situations and down-home dialogue.

However, the production doesn’t really hit its peak until after intermission. That’s when we finally meet the much-discussed Brother Boy, along with his therapist, Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg). Schwamberger is a revelation as the long-institutionalized patient, who gamely puts up with Bolinger’s attempts to “de-homosexualize” him in hopes he’ll finally be allowed to go home. His portrayal is both hilarious and touching.

So, for that matter, is the scene itself. Adding to its effectiveness are Nitz (Curtis) Brown’s dramatic lighting and Sternberg’s crafty portrayal of the ruthless Bolinger.

Not surprisingly, the play ends with Peggy’s funeral and the tying up of the comedy’s various threads.

According to an ETC Facebook post, last Saturday’s performance of Sordid Lives sold out. With raunchy regional humor and an uplifting message, the comedy is likely to continue pulling in crowds. Translation: Order your tickets now.

Evolution Theatre Company will present Sordid Lives through Sept. 26 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20, $15 students/seniors. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

A clown, a rabbit and a llama walked into a TV studio…


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Appearing in MadLab’s production of Clowntime Is Over are (from left) Shana Kramer as Susie the Bunny, Andy Batt as Max and Chad Hewitt as Tidy the Llama (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

Appearing in MadLab’s production of Clowntime Is Over are (from left) Shana Kramer as Susie the Bunny, Andy Batt as Max and Chad Hewitt as Tidy the Llama (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

By Richard Ades

Clowntime Is Over has been touted as a typical MadLab play, and that’s an accurate description. Written by Joseph E. Green, it’s the kind of small, dark and weirdly offbeat work we’ve come to expect from the theater on North Third.

But that’s not the only reason MadLab fans will eat it up. The play also gives them the chance to see two familiar actors spread their wings in unfamiliar ways.

Andy Batt (who also directs) has never been averse to trying new things, but he’s seldom stretched himself as far as he does here. As TV clown Max P. Twinkle, he’s sardonic, morose and morbidly philosophical. He also has great comic timing, which helps to keep Green’s play from getting bogged down in existential angst.

The equally familiar Stephen Woosley is normally less chameleonic than Batt, but there’s nothing Woosley-like about Paco, the mouse he plays during a short but spirited appearance. Just as Batt’s Max brings humor to the tale, Woosley’s Paco brings energy, and lots of it.

Adding to the novelty of their performances is Suzanne Camilli’s liberally applied makeup, which ensures that neither Batt nor Woosley looks anything like himself.

Green’s metaphorical story is set in the TV studio where Max normally presents his children’s show. One fateful day, however, he arrives to find his crew is AWOL. Even more strangely, the “bunny” and “llama” who also appear on the show seem to be just that: a bunny and a llama. At any rate, their costumes have no zippers in sight.

Shana Kramer and Chad Hewitt play Susie the Bunny and Tidy the Llama, respectively. Of the two, Kramer’s Susie makes a stronger impression. Hewitt has been great in other shows—most notably as Nick in an early-2015 production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—but his portrayal seemed a bit too understated on opening night.

The four actors—as well as an unseen snake that plays a pivotal role—do their thing on Brendan Michna’s creatively designed set.

So what is Green’s play about? Oh, about 75 minutes. Sorry. I normally would have resisted such an obvious joke, but the show’s brevity happens to be one of its best qualities. It has some funny moments, as well as some biblically inspired ponderings about life and death, but it doesn’t hang together well enough to support a longer running time.

You want my best guess? I think Green meant it as a Christian metaphor, but that doesn’t explain everything.

Of course, one advantage of the show’s brevity is that you’ll have plenty of time to head to a bar or coffee shop afterward and look for your own meaning. And even if you don’t find any, at least you can bask in the memory of witnessing two familiar actors doing very unfamiliar things.

Clowntime Is Over runs through Sept. 5 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Tickets are $15, $13 students/seniors, $10 members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

I knew Will Shakespeare, and Mr. Moliere, you’re no Will Shakespeare


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Appearing in Actors’ Theatre’s production of The Miser are (from left) Danny Turek as Cleante, Ted Amore as Harpagon and Elizabeth Harelik as Elise (photo by Nick Pershing)

Appearing in Actors’ Theatre’s production of The Miser are (from left) Danny Turek as Cleante, Ted Amore as Harpagon and Elizabeth Harelik as Elise (photo by Nick Pershing)

By Richard Ades

Actors’ Theatre has gone through quite an evolution.

Shakespeare in the park has always been the troupe’s bread and butter, but recent years have seen the Bard’s stage time reduced. In his place, Actors’ has tried to attract families with swashbuckling adventures, some of them written especially for Schiller Park. Vintage comedies by other playwrights, such as the current production of Moliere’s The Miser, have also been tried.

It’s been an interesting experiment, and no doubt it’s paid off in some ways. For one, the kids who enjoy plays such as Treasure Island (2010) or Robin Hood (2012) may well return to the park when they’re older to watch more-challenging works.

But where does that leave those of us who already enjoy more-challenging works, especially those written by one William Shakespeare? We’ve had to get by with a single helping of the Bard per summer.

Adding insult to injury, that single helping is sometimes delivered in a high-concept production that overwhelms the original tale. This summer saw an unconvincing attempt to turn Richard III into an American gangster saga. And in 2013, the charming Twelfth Night was raucously updated to the 1980s, complete with pop-culture references to Miami Vice and Ghost Busters.

It’s almost as if Actors’ Theatre has decided it can’t sell Shakespeare without a gimmick.

But Shakespeare still works just fine on its own, as last year’s outstanding production of Hamlet proved. Sure, it had a gimmick of sorts, in the form of the untraditional casting of a teenage girl (Grace Bolander) in the title role. But the real “gimmick” was talent: Under the co-direction of Nick Baldasare and the late John S. Kuhn, every member of the cast found depths of nuanced meaning in each and every line.

That’s not to say there’s no value in giving stage time to other playwrights. It was certainly educational seeing the current production of The Miser. Namely, it taught me that Moliere is no Shakespeare.

To be fair, I might appreciate Moliere’s satire more if I could enjoy it in its original French. In Miles Malleson’s English adaption, unfortunately, it often comes off as heavy-handed and predictable.

Compounding the problem, some of the scenes are delivered in an exaggerated farcical style that underlines the comedy’s heavy-handedness. Especially guilty of this approach are Ted Amore as the stingy Harpagon and Danny Turek as his lovelorn son, though both are otherwise impressive.

Working under Pamela Hill’s brisk direction, most of the cast members are more restrained. They include Andy Falter as the brown-nosing Valere, David Harewood as the devious LaFleche and Michael Neff as the eager-to-please Master Jacques, along with all of the major female players: Elizabeth Harelik as Harpagon’s daughter, MB Griffith as matchmaker Frosine and Lexi Bright as a young woman caught in a romantic bind.

The show also benefits from Trent Bean’s colorful set, Emily Jeu’s imaginative costumes and sparkling clear sound designed by William Bragg and engineered by Catherine Rinella.

Yet, despite all of these strengths, the production is truly funny in only one scene toward the end, when a trio of actors offer deadpan deliveries of monologues accompanied by equally deadpan background music. Otherwise, the show is merely pleasant.

Pleasant entertainment is better than none at all, but I’d rather be challenged, touched and transported, as I am by a good production of Shakespeare. How about it, Actors’ Theatre? Is it time to return the Bard to top billing?

Actors’ Theatre will present The Miser through Sept. 6 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: Pay what you will. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.


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