Fitzgerald’s Gatsby reborn as a dancing lesbian

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The cast of Broken Whispers includes (clockwise from front): Miriam King as Daisy, Amy Lay as Gatsby, Nikki Fagin as Jordan, Robbie Nance as Nick and Andy Ankrom as Tom. (Shadowbox Live photo)

The cast of Broken Whispers includes (clockwise from front): Miriam King as Daisy, Amy Lay as Gatsby, Nikki Fagin as Jordan, Robbie Nance as Nick and Andy Ankrom as Tom. (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Is it possible to sprain your hands by clapping too hard? I came close to doing that during Shadowbox Live’s new dance-centered drama, Broken Whispers.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Broken Whispers is Shadowbox’s take on The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s cautionary tale of envy and obsessive desire in the Roaring ’20s. Like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece has come to define a troubling era. Just as Twain’s young narrator stands in for America’s conscience in slave-holding, pre-Civil War America, Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway serves as our conscience and guide in a decade marked by greed and irresponsible hedonism.

Does Shadowbox’s version match the brilliance and depth of Fitzgerald’s original? Not overall, but it reimagines the tale in a way that is brilliantly innovative.

Whispers differs from Gatsby in several ways, but the most obvious is that the title character has been changed from a man who made his fortune from bootlegging to a woman who made it from running a brothel. Despite this, it sticks remarkably close to Fitzgerald’s tragic plot.

Our guide and narrator remains Nick (Robbie Nance), a young man who’s struggling to establish a career selling bonds in New York. Though not rich himself, he’s pulled into the lives of the wealthy by his cousin, Daisy Buchannan (Miriam King), and her husband, Tom (Andy Ankrom), as well as Nick’s high-living neighbor, Gatsby (Amy Lay).

It’s through Daisy and Tom that Nick meets and starts a relationship with a woman named Jordan Baker (Nikki Fagin). And it’s through Gatsby that Nick becomes involved in a dangerous attempt to reclaim the past.

Gatsby once had a secret fling with Daisy, but it ended when Daisy married Tom. Now that Gatsby has made her fortune, she believes she can win Daisy back, especially since Tom is a serial cheater who often deserts her for his married mistress, Myrtle Wilson (Edelyn Parker).

Changing a beloved novel into a dance-centered stage piece, and changing the sex of its protagonist along the way, is a tricky endeavor. That director Stev Guyer accomplishes it so well is a tribute to the skill of his cast and many collaborators, especially choreographer Katy Psenicka, writer Jimmy Mak and music director Matt Hahn.

Gatsby (Amy Lay, left) gets reacquainted with the love of her life, Daisy (Miriam King). (Shadowbox Live photo)

Gatsby (Amy Lay, left) gets reacquainted with the love of her life, Daisy (Miriam King). (Shadowbox Live photo)

First of all, the cast is great, especially when it’s expressing itself through dance. Psenicka’s choreography is stellar throughout, but if I had to pick my favorite sequences, it would be the two that define the rekindled relationship of Lay’s Gatsby and King’s Daisy. At first they dance lithely and joyfully to the tune of Foo Fighters’ Everlong. Later, suggesting a more intimate encounter, they perform moves that are both athletic and sensual to the strains of Sade’s The Sweetest Taboo.

In addition to dance, the actors rely largely on facial expressions and posture to define their characters, who are given only minimal dialogue. For the most part, they succeed.

Nance easily communicates the discomfort Nick feels as he’s forced into one morally questionable situation after another. As Tom, the philanderer who sometimes puts him in those situations, Ankrom wears the personality of a man who assumes his gender and wealth allow him to walk over anyone to get what he wants.

Like her literary counterpart, Lay’s Gatsby is self-contained mystery whose main attribute is her optimism that her eternal love for Daisy will be vindicated. Meanwhile, Fagin’s Jordan—unlike her own literary counterpart, whose motivations are hard to pin down—emerges as an instigator who takes perverse pleasure in others’ misfortunes.

My main disappointment among the characterizations is that King’s Daisy doesn’t exhibit as much charm as she does in the novel, perhaps because Shadowbox’s adaptation eliminates the flirtatious dialogue with which Fitzgerald defines her. This Daisy mainly comes across as a victim of Tom’s unfaithfulness, making it easy to understand her susceptibility to Gatsby’s advances but hard to understand why Gatsby is devoted to her in the first place.

As for the music, it’s just as impressive as the choreography it accompanies. Surprisingly, Shadowbox has opted to use relatively recent cover songs rather than actual music from the 1920s, but the songs are cleverly arranged and performed in a way that makes them seem almost era-appropriate. In the first song, Muse’s Feeling Good, vocalist Stephanie Shull’s voice even seems to be amplified in a way that suggests the tinny sound equipment of the period.

Shull is just one of the many fine singers featured. Others include Julie Klein, Noelle Grandison, Stacie Boord, Lukas Tomasacci, Guyer and Kevin Sweeney, who holds forth while manning the band’s keyboard. All are impeccable, but the closest thing to a showstopper occurs when Leah Haviland accompanies a Tom-Myrtle dance duet with the gorgeous Radiohead lament Creep.

Remember when I wondered whether you can sprain your hands by clapping too hard? This is why.

Haviland also sings the lead vocals when the band gives an inspired performance of the familiar George Michael hit Careless Whisper. Keyboardist Sweeney leads his fellow musicians through abrupt changes of tempo and rhythm as Fagin and other dancers perform the Charleston at one of Gatsby’s wild parties. Amazing!

Amazing in general is the amount of sound that comes from leader/guitarist Hahn’s four-piece band, which also includes standup bassist Buzz Crisafulli and drummer Brandon “Dreds” Smith.

Behind the scenes, Aaron Pelzak’s dark lighting sets the proper mood, while images projected on a video screen establish the proper place, allowing the production to skip over scene changes. A quartet of costume designers clothe the characters appropriately and often beautifully.

Seeing Broken Whispers is no substitute for reading The Great Gatsby. For one thing, the show only hints at the class consciousness and envy that are at the heart of the novel. But there’s no reason why you can’t do both. In fact, knocking off the novel—something that can be accomplished in an afternoon—may well add to your appreciation of one of Shadowbox’s most remarkable achievements yet.

Broken Whispers continues through Nov. 10 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, plus 7 p.m. this Sunday (Aug. 28). Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Wilde comedy pits blackmailer against a ‘dandy’ hero

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Mrs. Chevely (Beth Josephsen) blackmails Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley) into supporting a scam in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. (photos by Richard Ades)

Mrs. Chevely (Beth Josephsen) blackmails Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley) into supporting a scam in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. (photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

Wilde in the Park hasn’t been nearly popular as Shakespeare in the Park, but Actors’ Theatre’s production of An Ideal Husband shows it can be done.

I had my doubts at first. Set in London in 1895, the play opens with a party scene during which a stageful of upper-crust Brits trade some of Oscar Wilde’s wittiest comments about society, the sexes and sundry other topics. But on the muggy night I attended, they had to compete for viewers’ attention with noisy insects and other commotions from both inside and outside Schiller Park. Added to the fast pace of the repartee, that meant few of the satirical jokes got much reaction from the overheated audience.

Luckily, the situation improved once the plot kicked into gear. Even the insects quieted down, as if they were eager to learn what would happen next.

The gears begin to mesh when the nefarious Mrs. Chevely (Beth Josephsen) offers a shady proposition to the party’s host, Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley). Revealing that she knows a damaging secret about Chiltern, a rising member of the House of Commons, Chevely threatens to spill the beans unless he throws his support behind a scam involving the construction of a canal in Argentina.

Chiltern reluctantly agrees, fearing a scandal would wreck both his career and his marriage. However, his sudden about-face on the bogus canal raises the suspicions of his wife (Sonda Staley), a former classmate of Chevely who knows all too well what kind of mischief she’s capable of. Lady Chiltern asks for help from the couple’s close friend, Lord Goring (Amari Ingram), who has his own reasons for distrusting Chevely.

Lord Goring (Amari Ingram, left) hears a startling confession from his friend Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley).

Lord Goring (Amari Ingram, left) hears a startling confession from his friend Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley).

In effect, Goring is called on to save the day, but we’re given little reason to think he’s up to the task. A “dandy”—which seems to be something like a fop but with fewer effeminate mannerisms—Goring is fixated on his appearance and clothes and restricts his conversation to the most trivial of concerns. Is such a person capable of saving Sir Robert from the conniving Mrs. Chevely? The answer to that question is left unanswered until the intrigue-filled second act.

A comedy like An Ideal Husband—a witty period piece with a dandified hero—could well have tempted its cast to farce things up. Instead, director Philip J. Hickman keeps portrayals sufficiently grounded that we actually care what happens.

Josephsen is blithely calculating as Mrs. Chevely, while Shirley and Staley earn our sympathy as the flawed Lord Chiltern and his upright wife. Ingram is mostly solid as Goring, though some of his lines could be delivered with more conviction. (Maybe he was distracted by a headset mike that occasionally malfunctioned on the night I attended.)

In an important secondary role, Robyn Rae Stype is amusing as Chiltern’s sister Mabel, who trades flirtatious quips with Goring. Funniest of all is Troy Anthony Harris as Goring’s dad, the Earl of Caversham, who never misses an opportunity to tell his frivolous son what a disappointment he is.

Supporting roles are nicely played by Joyce Leahy, Camille Bullock, AJ Copp and Ben Sostrom. All of the players are elegantly attired by Dayton Willison, whose costume designs are unobtrusively framed by Andrew Weibel’s white-on-white set.

Besides its absorbing plot, An Ideal Husband is an interesting portrait of the sexual roles and attitudes in the late 19th century. Lady Chiltern is clearly an early feminist, but some of her female friends are more than content to leave politics and other intellectual pursuits to the men.

Meanwhile, Wilde’s story of an ambitious politician who can’t resist the temptation of an underhanded deal remains, sadly, as timely as ever.

Actors’ Theatre will present An Ideal Husband through Sept. 4 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are pay what you will (donations requested). Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org

Love of cartoons opens door to boy’s closed mind

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Owen Suskind, whose struggle to reconnect with the world is the subject of Life, Animated.

Owen Suskind’s struggle to reconnect with the world is the subject of Life, Animated.

By Richard Ades

The first time we meet Owen Suskind, it’s in home movies that show him as a young boy playing with his father and brother and watching Mickey Mouse on TV. The second time we meet him, he’s a 20-something man muttering to himself in cartoon-like voices.

The connection between the child and the man is explained in Life, Animated, a documentary that is both uplifting and heartbreaking. Directed by 2010 Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence), it’s about a family’s struggle to connect with a son afflicted by severe autism.

According to Owen’s father, former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, the first signs of trouble arose after his son turned 3. Though Owen had been developing as expected until then, he suddenly stopped communicating or learning new language, and he regularly had trouble sleeping.

Ron said he and his wife, Cornelia, tried to find out why, but it was like “looking for clues to a kidnapping.” The Owen they knew seemed to have disappeared.

The only bright spot in young Owen’s life was that he appeared to love watching the family’s VHS collection of Disney animated films. But it wasn’t until Ron made an astonishing discovery that this proved to be the key that would unlock the door to his son’s private world.

One day, in a desperate attempt to reopen communications with Owen, Ron greeted him with a squawking impersonation of Iago, the parrot from Aladdin. To his surprise, Owen responded with lines from the movie. The father soon realized that Owen had memorized not just Aladdin but all the Disney flicks, a fact he used to open up more channels of communication.

Though Life, Animated is about a man mesmerized by Disney tales, don’t expect it to follow a simple path to a Disney-like happy ending. The documentary frankly shows the ups and downs Owen encounters as his family tries to push him toward leading a full, independent adult life.

Romance is a particularly difficult problem. Even though Owen begins hanging out with a young woman he considers his girlfriend, he has no idea what a romantic relationship entails. “Disney doesn’t help with sex,” notes his concerned brother, ironically named Walt.

The film uses original animation to bring to life the characters Owen has imagined on his own.

The film uses original animation to bring to life the characters Owen has imagined on his own.

Helping director Williams tell this fascinating story are animators Mathieu Batard and Olivier Lescot and animation producer Philippe Sonrier, who bring to life the cartoon characters and dramas Owen imagines on his own. A couple of celebrity voice actors also show up in a surprise visit to a class Owen organizes for people who share his challenges.

If the movie has one element that may rub some the wrong way, it’s that the background music is occasionally on the manipulative side. Mostly, though, it’s as on target as the rest of this unique and heartwarming film.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Life, Animated (rated PG) opens Friday (July 29) at the Gateway Film Center, 1550 N. High St., Columbus. For tickets and show times, visit gatewayfilmcenter.org.

Like ‘Othello,’ but with yuks and yokels

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Leontes (Andy Falter, left) accuses Hermione (Kathryn Miller) of infidelity in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (photos by Richard Ades)

Leontes (Andy Falter, left) accuses Hermione (Kathryn Miller) of infidelity in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

Actors’ Theatre’s production of The Winter’s Tale is, at first glance, an impressive achievement. Directed by Micah Logsdon, it creates a crowd-pleasing evening out of a play that presents thespians with a couple of difficulties.

First difficulty: After introducing an unjust charge of marital infidelity much like the one depicted in Othello (which led off the troupe’s summer season), Shakespeare then all but abandons this tragic plot as he plies us with one comic scene after another.

Second difficulty: Shakespeare eventually returns to the original tragedy by setting up a scene that promises to heal old wounds while revealing mistaken identities. But he then allows this “scene” to transpire offstage, so that we hear about it only through peripheral characters.

Facing these challenges head on, Logsdon’s production makes the most of the comic scenes by employing talents such as former Shadowbox Live performer JT Walker III. It also adds interest by relocating the action from Sicily and Bohemia to turn-of-the-last-century Sicilia, Ky., and Bohemia, N.C. This not only allows the cast to speak the Elizabethan dialogue with an Appalachian accent, but it allows a trio of “balladeers” to punctuate the action with aptly chosen backwoods tunes.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell:

King Leontes (Andy Falter) of Sicilia is hosting an extended visit from King Polixines (David Widder-Varhegyi) of Bohemia when he begins to suspect his childhood friend has been having an affair with Leontes’s now-pregnant wife, Hermione (Kathryn Miller). Becoming insanely jealous, he orders one of his lords, Camillio (Christina Yoho), to murder the visiting monarch.

Leontes orders Camillio (Christina Yoho, left) to kill his wife’s suspected lover, but Camillio has other ideas

Leontes orders Camillio (Christina Yoho, left) to kill his wife’s suspected lover, but Camillio has other ideas

When that doesn’t happen—the decent Camillio instead warns Polixines and flees with him to Bohemia—Leontes completely loses it. He throws his wife into prison despite her protestations of innocence, and after she gives birth to a daughter, he orders an underling to abandon the suspected bastard in the wilderness. Sadly, Leontes doesn’t realize Hermione is innocent until his actions have led not only to the infant’s supposed loss but to the deaths of both his wife and their adolescent son.

All of this happens in Act 1, and it’s mostly handled well in Logsdon’s production. Falter delivers too many of Leontes’s lines at a pissed-off yell, but he eventually joins other cast members in giving a more nuanced performance. Among the others, especially memorable are Miller as the wronged Hermione and Jennifer Feather Youngblood as her righteously angry defender, Paulina.

After intermission, however, the strains of dealing with the play’s challenges begin to show.

Set in Bohemia 16 years in the future, it introduces us to Polixines’s son, Florizel (a relatable Robert Philpott), and the country lass who’s won his heart, Perdita (a sweet but feisty Madelyn Loehr). In the end, it also returns to a now-contrite Leontes and supplies partial closure for the tragedy that unfolded in Act 1.

For the most part, though, Act 2 is so dominated by comic scenes that it seems to have little connection to the somber developments in Act 1. I would blame this entirely on Shakespeare’s plotting if I weren’t haunted by a wonderful production of The Winter’s Tale that I saw more than two decades ago in Schiller Park.

Brilliantly directed by Mark Mann, it managed to slog through Act 2’s comedy without losing sight of the play’s central theme: redemption. It all culminated in one of the most moving finales I’ve witnessed on any stage, ever.

Further complicating my reaction to the current show is a 2004 production of The Comedy of Errors that first introduced Columbus to the novelty of delivering Shakespeare’s dialogue with an Appalachian accent. Director Frank Barnhart and his cast not only proved that it can sound very natural, but they did it without turning the characters into backwoods stereotypes.

In contrast, peripheral characters in the current production sometimes come off as generic yokels, undercutting the play’s serious overall theme. And as for that final scene, it’s further undercut by a revelation that comes minutes too soon.

As I said, there’s much to enjoy in Logsdon’s production. Besides its achievements in acting and musicianship, perks include the lighting and sound effects with which it creates the storm that ends Act 1.

It’s what happens after the storm that disappoints me, weakening the Bard’s morality tale with a trip into Hee Haw country. The detour adds brand new problems to a script that already has more than its share.

Actors’ Theatre will present The Winter’s Tale through Aug. 7 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Admission is free, but donations are requested. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

Reopened theater hosts revisited sitcom characters

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Patsy (Joanna Lumley, left) and Eddy (Jennifer Saunders) toast what they hope is their good fortune in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

Patsy (Joanna Lumley, left) and Eddy (Jennifer Saunders) toast what they hope is their good fortune in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

By Richard Ades

Absolutely fabulous. That’s the only way to describe Bexley’s renovated Drexel Theatre.

New décor. New seats. Best of all, new restrooms that are finally worthy of the well-heeled suburb where the landmark cinema sits. Their rundown predecessors were scarier than the average horror flick, but the new ones are so gorgeous that patrons will be tempted to gulp down a super-sized soda just so they’ll have an excuse to visit them.

Overall, the recently reopened Drexel is so posh that Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone would feel right at home there.

Wait. Who?

For those who don’t recognize those names, Edina “Eddy” Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) are the anti-heroines of both a film that opens at the Drexel this weekend and the classic British sitcom that spawned it. Both the series and the film are called Absolutely Fabulous.

Whether you think the film lives up to that name may depend on whether you were a fan of the series. Directed by Mandie Fletcher and written (like the TV show) by Saunders, the comedy jumps into Eddy and Patsy’s gaudy, glitzy world so abruptly that “Ab Fab” neophytes will have trouble getting their bearings.

In case you fit into this category, here’s a head start:

Officially, Eddy is in public relations and Patsy is a fashion editor, but they actually spend most of their time partying, getting high and trying desperately to hang onto their youth. Among the many people who share their world are:

▪ Eddy’s mother (June Whitfield)
▪ Eddy’s divorced daughter, Saffron (Julia Sawalha)
▪ Saffron’s teenage daughter, Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness)
▪ Eddy’s bizarrely dressed personal assistant, Bubble (Jane Horrocks)

The far-fetched plot involves real-life model Kate Moss, whom Eddy desperately wants as a client. Eddy enlists Patsy and Lola in a scheme to meet Moss at a party, but all goes tragically wrong when the model falls off a balcony and into the Thames, where she’s lost and presumably drowned.

Suspected of pushing Moss to her death, Eddy ends up fleeing to the south of France with her lifelong friend. There they face the sobering fact that they’ll soon be destitute unless one of them finds a meal ticket, and fast. The result is a subterfuge that involves a fake mustache and a lonely, gullible billionaire.

Along its way to a finale that intentionally calls to mind Some Like It Hot, Absolutely Fabulous hopscotches its way through lots of beautiful scenery, lots of colorfully grotesque characters, and lots and lots of cameos (though few of them involve celebs familiar to Americans). Through it all, Eddy and Patsy remain as self-centered and immature as they’ve been since the series debuted in 1992.

Ab Fab newbies may get a few chuckles out of this meandering comedy, once they’re gotten past the unfamiliar accents and characters. As for longtime fans, they may get a few more—heck, they started laughing as soon as Eddy and Patsy made their first appearance at the screening I attended. But I suspect even they will admit the film’s real draw is the chance to see their favorite scamps one more time.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5) for Ab Fab newbies, 3½ for Ab Fab fans

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (rated R) opens Friday (July 22) at the Drexel Theatre and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

Missionaries have close encounter of the Merman kind

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By Richard Ades

The Book of Merman is to The Book of Mormon what a Pekingese is to a bulldog: It’s smaller, fluffier and far less funny.

To be fair, The Book of Merman isn’t entirely fluffy, as it does have a message about being true to oneself. But you’ll see that coming so far in advance that it doesn’t have much impact.

Written by Leo Schwartz, the musical starts out with a clever premise. It’s about a pair of Mormon missionaries who come face to face with a woman who claims to be someone she clearly isn’t. Or is she?

We first meet Elders Shumway and Braithwaite (Nick Hardin and T. Johnpaul Adams) as they’re bickering their way from one suburban doorbell to the next while trying to avoid their territorial rivals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The bickering stems from the fact that Braithwaite is far more into their two-year mission than Shumway, who seems so averse to all things Mormon that he can’t even stand Salt Lake City.

Then they end up at the door of a woman who calls herself Ethel Merman (Gina Handy). Shumway, a fan of Broadway in general and Merman in particular, is overcome with joy. He immediately believes she’s who she says she is, even though the real Ethel Merman reportedly died in 1984. In no time, he’s chatting with her about his own dreams of becoming a Broadway composer and star.

For his part, Braithwaite doesn’t even know who Merman was—or is. He just wants to give this odd woman the word of Mormon so they can get on with their mission.

Working under Bryan Adam’s direction and Bryan Babcock’s musical direction, all three cast members give likable and tuneful performances.

Hardin is particularly convincing as the stage-struck Shumway, while Adams, by a slight margin, exhibits the most commanding voice. As Merman, Handy isn’t always as big and brassy as she could be, especially when she’s speaking. But when she really lays into a song, her Merman impersonation is nearly impeccable.

The songs themselves are sometimes takeoffs on Broadway tunes that became Merman standards. For example, Most People fills in for Some People from Gypsy, while You’re the Best replaces You’re the Top from Anything Goes. These are OK, but they suffer from comparison to the hits that inspired them.

Some of the Schwartz’s original songs are more entertaining, especially the Act 2 tribute Because of You, beautifully sung by Adams. Babcock’s spirited piano provides the musical accompaniment.

In between the songs, and even during one of them (Son of a Motherless Goat), the humor often pokes fun at the Mormons’ squeaky-clean ways, such as their refusal to curse. These jokes quickly suffer from diminishing returns.

More impressive than the script is the set on which it’s performed. Director Adam’s scenic design, showing Merman’s living room, is far more detailed than anything we’re used to seeing in the Columbus Performing Arts Center’s cozy Van Fleet Theatre.

With a handsome set, an endearing cast and a timeless moral, The Book of Merman adds up to a harmless diversion. If you want more than that, you’ll have to hold out for The Book of Mormon.

Evolution Theatre Company will present The Book of Merman through July 30 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday (no show July 27). Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 seniors, $15 students. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

Vengeful count transformed into vengeful countess

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The unjustly imprisoned Amelie Dantes (McLane Nagy, left) develops an informative relationship with a fellow inmate (Catherine Cryan) in Actors’ Theatre’s world-premiere production of The Countess of Monte Cristo (photo by Richard Ades)

The unjustly imprisoned Amelie Dantes (McLane Nagy, left) develops an informative relationship with a fellow inmate (Catherine Cryan) in Actors’ Theatre’s world-premiere production of The Countess of Monte Cristo (photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

Actors’ Theatre seems to be focused on giving adults a good reason to come to Schiller Park this season. Judging from the huge crowd that gathered there last Saturday night, it seems to be succeeding.

The troupe launched the season with Shakespeare’s Othello, a tragedy in which the key murder was depicted in such painful detail that it could well have terrified impressionable youngsters. The current play has nothing that grim, but it does feature a complex plot and a large cast of characters that likely would confuse younger patrons.

Based on Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, The Countess of Monte Cristo is a world-premiere drama written by Philip J. Hickman and Jennifer Feather Youngblood and directed by Youngblood and Adam Simon. Recasting its protagonist as an early 19th century Frenchwoman named Amelie Dantes (McLane Nagy), it begins as she prepares for her upcoming marriage to Merced Herrera (James Harper).

Amelie’s happiness turns out to be short-lived. Thanks to the machinations of George Danglars (Benjamin Isaiah Black) and Fernanda Mondego (Kasey Leah Meininger)—who wants Merced for herself—Amelie is accused of possessing a treasonous letter that she actually knows nothing about. At first, it appears prosecuting attorney Gerard Villefort (Ken Erney) will right the wrong, but he changes his mind after realizing his own family will suffer if the contents of the letter become public.

Amelie ends up in prison, where she spends long, miserable years wondering just how she got there. It’s only after she meets a fellow inmate named the Abbess Faria (Catherine Cryan) that she finally figures out who put her there and why. It’s also thanks to the Abbess that Amelie eventually escapes and reinvents herself as the mysterious and vengeful countess of Monte Cristo.

Fernanda (Kasey Leah Meininger) convinces Merced (James Harper) to betray his fiancee, Amelie

Fernanda (Kasey Leah Meininger) convinces Merced (James Harper) to betray his fiancee, Amelie

All of this happens in the first act, which benefits from breezy storytelling and punchy portrayals by all concerned. Nagy is consistently watchable as Amelie, who makes a believable transition from a naïve fiancée to the fierce and resourceful countess. Memorable supporting roles are played by Meininger as the ruthlessly ambitious Fernanda; Harper as the weak-willed Merced; Cryan as the wise and kindly Abbess; and Derek Faraji as Ali, an enslaved doctor who is promised his freedom if he aids Amelie’s fight for justice.

Remember that I said the plot might confuse younger viewers? Truth is, I was confused myself after Amelie’s search for vengeance brought her into contact with the grown daughters of those who did her wrong. One problem is that we meet Alberta Herrera, Valentine Villefort and Eugenie Danglars (Mary Paige Rieffel, Myia Eren and Maggie Turek) totally apart from their parents, and it’s hard to keep it straight who’s related to whom.

Act 2 also suffers from talky scenes whose relationship to the plot isn’t always clear. Meanwhile, key developments take place offstage, making it even harder to follow the progression of Amelie’s quest for vengeance.

Sarah Fickling’s costume designs are handsome and sometimes glamorous, especially the gowns the countess wears before she, for reasons that aren’t quite clear, begins donning masculine clothes. Sound-wise, one or two characters’ mikes seemed under-amplified at the performance I attended, but otherwise the dialogue comes across remarkably clearly for an outdoor production.

Like most new works, The Countess of Monte Cristo has room for improvement—specifically, improvement that would make it easier to keep characters and plot developments straight. Still, playwrights Hickman and Youngblood deserve credit for what they’ve accomplished. Feminizing the Dumas classic was a daunting task, but they’ve done it in a way that allows them to explore gender issues without undercutting the original’s intriguing tale.

Actors’ Theatre will present The Countess of Monte Cristo through July 17 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Admission is free, but donations are requested. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

Otterbein world premiere is an actor’s delight

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Benjamin Folts, Grace Hoover and Evan Moore-Coll (from left) share a scene in Otterbein Summer Theatre’s production of Invention of Theater (photo by Ed Syguda)

Benjamin Folts, Grace Hoover and Evan Moore-Coll (from left) share a scene in Otterbein Summer Theatre’s production of Invention of Theater (photo by Ed Syguda)

By Richard Ades

The four actors appearing in Invention of Theater appear to be having fun. As well they might. Sean Murphy’s world-premiere one-act lets them show off their chops in styles reminiscent of playwrights ranging from Shakespeare to David Mamet, Arthur Miller and Neil Simon.

As if that weren’t enough, the play has two cast members walk through a scene while stepping over and around imaginary furniture, then repeat the same scene at breakneck speed.

So Invention of Theater is fun for the actors, especially student actors eager to demonstrate their range. As for the audience, it offers knowing chuckles for those savvy enough to realize that when, say, Murphy places two sexist, macho men in an office environment, he’s spoofing Mamet.

More generally, it offers a lighthearted look at the nature and current state of theater, mixed in with some frankly silly jokes and puns. For example, the style of the Shakespearean segment is said to be inspired by the character named Elizabeth (Grace Hoover) and is thus labeled “Elizabethan.” Groan.

Working under Melissa Lusher’s direction, the cast throws itself whole-heartedly into Murphy’s spoofs, which are the most entertaining part of the show.

The action begins when Kevin (Benjamin Folts) and Elizabeth meet on a bare stage and announce that they love each other. Though Kevin seems sincere, the woman sees the declaration as simply the jumping-off place for a theatrical piece about two people’s search for romance.

As their piece becomes increasingly complex, they’re joined by Toby (Evan Moore-Coll), who plays Kevin’s rival. Completing the cast, a producer named Avery (Steven Meeker Jr.) emerges from the audience and offers to help them turn their play into a profitable product.

When Murphy isn’t spoofing theatrical icons or indulging in silly puns, he clearly aims to say something profound about theater and the artistic process in general.

For example, when Avery starts changing the others’ theatrical piece with an eye toward maximizing profits, Kevin complains that he’s subverting their creation. Kevin decides to go along only after admitting he’d prefer to make his living acting rather than remaining at his current job as a customer-service representative.

It’s the kind of compromise many young actors and other artistic types will find familiar. Then again, does it really compromise one’s integrity to do theater in the style of icons like Shakespeare, Miller and the others? Those guys were pretty good.

At the very end, Murphy does say something pretty profound about the nature and appeal of theater. Otherwise, he does better when he sticks to spoofing theater rather than trying to explain it.

Otterbein Summer Theatre will present Invention of Theater through June 25 in Cowan Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, plus 2 p.m. Friday. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.

Blues-centered drama could use more tonal modulation

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Ma Rainey (Wilma Hatton) sings the blues with Toledo (Will Williams, in front) and the rest of her band (from left): Levee (Bryant Bentley), Cutler (Chuck Timbers) and Slow Drag (Ron Jenkins) (photo by Mark Clayton Southers)

Ma Rainey (Wilma Hatton) sings the blues with Toledo (Will Williams, in front) and the rest of her band (from left): Levee (Bryant Bentley), Cutler (Chuck Timbers) and Slow Drag (Ron Jenkins) (photo by Mark Clayton Southers)

By Richard Ades

As near as I can tell, I’ve reviewed exactly one August Wilson play during all the decades I’ve been covering Columbus theater. That suggests there’s a real need for Short North Stage’s yearlong August Wilson Festival, which allows viewers to get acquainted with a prominent African-American playwright whose works are seldom seen locally.

However, it’s an open question whether the festival’s current production is the best way to get acquainted with Wilson. As seen in the Garden Theater’s intimate Green Room, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom comes off as talky and occasionally preachy.

Though that’s partly because the script itself is talky and occasionally preachy, I suspect it might be partly due to the way it’s presented by director Mark Clayton Southers and his cast. It’s not that the players aren’t strong. In a way, they’re too strong.

At last Thursday’s performance, nearly every scene was filled with so much heat and passion that there was little room for dramatic ebbs and flows.

One big caveat: This was a preview performance, so it’s possible Southers and his cast hadn’t finished honing the production. The director has done wonderful past work at Short North Stage (I’m thinking of 2013’s Passing Strange), so there’s no reason to believe he can’t get equally fine results out of the talented cast he’s assembled for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Set in the 1920s at a white-owned recording studio in Chicago, the play’s loose plot revolves around a recording session with real-life blues singer Ma Rainey (Wilma Hatton).

Arriving first are backup musicians Cutler (Chuck Timbers), Toledo (Will Williams), Slow Drag (R. Lawrence Jenkins) and Levee (Bryant Bentley). As the four squabble about matters both large and small, tensions develop among band leader Cutler, the philosophical Toledo and the ambitious Levee, who dreams of starting his own band. A major disagreement arises over Levee’s insistence that they perform his updated arrangement of the title song, which he claims is more in line with current tastes.

Meanwhile, studio owner Sturdyvant (Geoffrey C. Nelson) becomes nervous when Rainey doesn’t appear at the promised time and takes out his frustrations on her long-suffering manager, Irvin (Jonathan Putnam). It only makes matters worse when Rainey finally arrives with an angry cop (Ryan Kopycinski) in tow following a minor traffic accident. Adding to the confusion is her entourage: Dussie Mae (Rachel Bentley), her glammed-up girlfriend, and Sylvester (Taylor Martin Moss), her shy and stuttering nephew.

It’s a sign of the production’s problems that the character who generates the most sympathy in this black-centered drama is Rainey’s white manager, played by Putnam with a permanent hangdog expression. The character who generates the least sympathy is Rainey herself, who insists on getting her way no matter how unreasonable her demands. Hatton would make the character more likable—or, at least, more relatable—if she added a touch of vulnerability, making it clear that Rainey’s diva-like ways are a reaction to the white racism she’s had to fight throughout her career.

Bentley earns a little more of our sympathy as Levee, whose ambitions run into their own racist roadblock. But he and some of the other “musicians” need to moderate their portrayals to give a sense of progression as the play moves forward. On Thursday, their arguments tended to be equally fierce throughout, adding up to a fatiguing viewing experience.

Not surprisingly for a play set in a recording studio, the characters sometimes break into song. Hatton, Bentley and Jenkins all excel at bluesy vocals, while the other “musicians” do a good job of miming in time to the recorded accompaniment.

Rob Kuhn’s set design is full-featured despite having to depict two separate rooms in the cramped space. Cheryl M. El-Walker’s costume designs are colorful and era-appropriate.

First staged in 1984, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is part of Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, which depicts African-American life in each decade of the 20th century. As such, it’s an important political and cultural document. With a little more honing, Short North Stage’s production could also become a rewarding dramatic experience.

NOTE: This production is historic for reasons beyond the play itself, as it’s an opportunity to see local theater stalwart Geoffrey Nelson one more time before his upcoming move to Louisville. It’s an added treat that he shares the stage with frequent collaborator Jonathan Putnam. Thanks to Short North Stage for arranging this nostalgia-filled reunion.

Short North Stage will present Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom through June 19 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Tale of jealous Moor presented with passion and power

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Othello (Christopher C. Austin III) consults with his trusted lieutenant, Iago (Matthew Michael Moore), in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Othello (photo by Richard Ades)

Othello (Christopher C. Austin III, left) consults with “honest Iago” (Matthew Michael Moore) in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Othello (photos by Richard Ades)

 

By Richard Ades

A stirring production of Othello offers evidence that Central Ohio’s Shakespeare-in-the-park troupe remains in good hands.

This is the first season Actors’ Theatre has put together under the leadership of Philip J. Hickman, who was elevated to artistic director following the untimely death of John S. Kuhn early last year. The lineup is promising and challenging, with an Oscar Wilde comedy and a new adaptation of an Alexandre Dumas potboiler in addition to two of the Bard’s strongest works. And if the first production is any guide, that lineup will be brought to the stage with consummate skill.

Directed by Matt Hermes, the troupe’s production of Othello is brisk and passionate. At a key moment, it’s also horrifying—to the extent that parents might want to leave their most impressionable children at home.

Unusually for a Shakespearean tragedy, Othello keeps its focus almost exclusively on its three central characters: Othello, a Moorish military hero who has recently fallen in love and married; Desdemona, the young Venetian woman who has become his wife; and Iago, an ensign who is determined to get revenge after Othello passed him over for promotion. All three are given compelling portrayals in the Schiller Park production.

Desdemona (Lindsey Fisher) finds her new husband (Christopher C. Austin III) is becoming increasingly suspicious

Desdemona (Lindsey Fisher) finds her new husband (Christopher C. Austin III) is becoming increasingly suspicious

As Othello, Christopher C. Austin III is the image of militaristic dignity when he’s functioning as a commanding officer, but he’s so smitten by his new love that he can’t help showing his feelings whenever his bride is around. As Desdemona, Lindsey Fisher is guileless and genteel but just as smitten. The result is that PDAs abound whenever the newlyweds are in the same room.

As Iago, the play’s true protagonist, Matthew Michael Moore comes across as an evil puppeteer. He clearly looks down on those around him and coolly uses their loves, desires and prejudices to his advantage. Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most devious villains, and Moore plays him with subtlety and dark humor.

Updated here to the 1820s—a change that affects the costumes and weapons but otherwise has little impact—the tragedy centers on Iago’s campaign to awaken in Othello the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy. To do this, he invents reasons to suspect Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio (David Tull), the lieutenant who was promoted in Iago’s place.

Two people play willing or unwilling roles in the campaign: Roderigo, who lusts after Desdemona; and Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid. David Widder-Varhegyi plays the former as a scamp and a gullible fool, while Susan Wismar plays the latter as a decent woman who is cowed into obeying her husband but is appalled when she realizes what he’s up to.

Andrew Weibel’s set seems more elaborate than usual for the outdoor troupe, even including a small fountain. Emily Jeu’s colorful costumes help to define the time and place.

The sound, designed by William Bragg (with Fia Friend operating the sound board), is as clear as I’ve ever heard it at the Schiller amphitheater. At last Friday’s performance, the only distortion occurred when Austin’s Othello shouted his most dramatic lines, overwhelming the amplification. A little restraint may be needed to avoid that problem in the future.

As one would expect in a Shakespearean tragedy, there are deaths. Two of them happen so quickly, and on such a crowded stage, that many viewers will miss them. On the other hand, one murder is the most protracted and horrific act of violence I can remember seeing at the Schiller amphitheater.

Is it excessive? Not at all. It’s merely the final evidence that Actors’ Theatre takes its role as Columbus’s Shakespeare-in-the-park troupe very seriously.

Actors’ Theatre will present Othello through June 19 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: pay what you will (bring a blanket or lawn chair); reserved seats or blankets are available for $20. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

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