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.

Ear pod plays starring role in ‘Best of Shadowbox 2016’

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Amy Lay holds forth in Ex’s and Oh’s, one of the cover songs featured in Best of Shadowbox 2016 (photo by Jeffery Crisafulli)

Amy Lay holds forth in Ex’s and Oh’s, one of the cover songs featured in Best of Shadowbox 2016 (photo by Jeffery Crisafulli)

By Richard Ades

When I head to Indiana for my high school reunion in a few weeks, I can only hope it will be half as much fun as another reunion of sorts I attended recently: the annual Best of Shadowbox show.

Just as reunions give you the chance to get reacquainted with old friends, Best of Shadowbox gives you the chance to get reacquainted with skits you’ve seen over the past year. In most cases, it’s a pleasure to see them again, especially since the writers and cast members often find ways to improve them in reaction to audience response.

One skit that didn’t need much improving is The Ear Pod, featuring Tom Cardinal as a husband who hates to miss a big football game to attend a counseling session with his wife (Julie Klein). Trying to have it both ways, he secretly listens to the game via an ear pod while his wife vents about all that’s wrong with their relationship. The misunderstandings multiply hilariously as Cardinal’s enthusiastic reactions to the game are misinterpreted by his angry spouse and the diplomatic counselor (Michelle Daniels).

At least a couple of skits seem more entertaining this time around.

Sexy Nurse imagines what would happen if hospital employees really dressed the way they do in our pornographic fantasies. It centers on a patient (Robbie Nance) who’s excited when his nurse (Amy Lay) shows up in a barely there uniform. It’s still not a laugh riot, but it’s good, raunchy fun.

Also slightly improved—though it was pretty funny to begin with—is Job App. It’s about what happens when a job applicant (Nance) has a social-media history that contradicts everything he says about himself. Klein is admirably restrained as the dubious interviewer, allowing the momentum to build toward the show’s strongest punchline.

Romeo (Robbie Nance) and Juliet (Amy Lay) discover they share singular tastes in 50 Shades of Romeo (photo by Jeffery Crisafulli)

Romeo (Robbie Nance) and Juliet (Amy Lay) discover they share singular tastes in 50 Shades of Romeo (photo by Jeffery Crisafulli)

On the other hand, 50 Shades of Romeo seems less amusing on second viewing. Merging Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with E.L. James’s kinky best-seller is a clever idea, but much of the humor consists of adding “-eth” to sundry words (including F-bombs) to make them sound Elizabethan. As if to make up for the labored jokes, Lay slaps on an extra layer of ditsiness as the S&M-prone Juliet, but it doesn’t help.

Among the skits I missed the first time around, the funniest is Happy Haunting, in which two fey ghosts (Jimmy Mak and Brandon Anderson) try to protect their unaware roommate (Leah Haviland) from her boorish date (Nance). The weakest is Camping Without a Net, in which a group of millennials are terrified to learn they’ve lost their Internet connection. The skit itself seems lost, generating more than one “huh?” moment as it meanders toward an unsatisfying ending.

But there’s nothing unsatisfying about the show’s musical numbers, which mix great singing with great musicianship on the part of the house band. The highlights (and their lead singers) include Life in the Fast Lane (Klein), Walk on the Ocean (Cardinal) and Sexual Healing (Noelle Grandison and Guillermo Jemmott).

Even more fun is the number that ends Act 1, Elle King’s Ex’s and Oh’s, sung by a deliciously attired Lay, Haviland, Ashley Pearce, Chyna Cheaney and Katy Psenicka. And most fun of all is the final song, Meat Loaf’s Paradise by the Dashboard Light, featuring a back-and-forth duet by Klein and Lukas Tomasacci. Amusing interplay among the backup singers is an added bonus in a number that I wouldn’t mind getting reacquainted with a few more times.

Best of Shadowbox 2016 continues through Sept. 3 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (no 10:30 performances July 22 or 29). Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Staged ‘Dirty Dancing’ best seen through nostalgia-tinted glasses

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Baby (Rachel Boone) and Johnny (Christopher) share a few steps in the national tour of Dirty Dancing, presented by Broadway in Columbus (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Baby (Rachel Boone) and Johnny (Christopher Tierney) practice their moves in the national tour of Dirty Dancing, presented by Broadway in Columbus (photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

If you’re a fan of Dirty Dancing, you may not have the time of your life watching the stage show, but it’ll probably do until the next time you catch the 1987 flick.

Adapted by original screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, the theatrical version tries to recapture the magic of the Jennifer Grey-Patrick Swayze romance but starts out with several strikes against it.

The first strike, of course, is that it features neither Jennifer Grey nor the late Patrick Swayze. In their place, the current touring show has Rachel Boone as Frances “Baby” Houseman, who’s vacationing with her family at a Catskills resort in 1963; and Christopher Tierney as Johnny Castle, the working-class dance instructor who attracts her attention.

Boone earns our sympathy and sometimes our laughs as the high-minded Baby, but Tierney’s Johnny is rather stiff except when he’s strutting his stuff on the dance floor. The two generate so little chemistry that when Baby finally announces her feelings for Johnny, it comes as a surprise even though we know that’s what the whole show is about.

It’s not entirely the actors’ fault. The second strike against the show is its episodic structure, especially in the hectic first act. Scenes fly by so fast that there’s no time for any emotional depth to develop.

Strike three is the quirky nature of the show, which can’t be called a real musical because it denies its stars the chance to express themselves in song. Most of the vocal numbers are delivered by minor characters such as Elizabeth (Adrienne Walker) and Billy Kostecki (Doug Carpenter). Both sing beautifully, but in the process they effectively put both Johnny and Baby in the corner.

All of this would have been enough to strike out the average show, but it hasn’t seemed to hurt Dirty Dancing, which has become a worldwide hit. The only explanation is that the show effectively, if imperfectly, rekindles viewers’ affection for the film.

The vintage pop tunes are back, along with several more that couldn’t be obtained for the film. They include Do You Love Me?, If You Were the Only Girl and the beloved finale, (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life. All are accompanied by a boisterous and brassy onstage (but usually hidden) band led by Alan J. Plado.

Also back are the early 1960s idealism and conflicts, including references to the Peace Corps and the civil rights struggle. It’s in this unstable atmosphere that Baby steps forward to help Penny (Jenny Winton), a friend of Johnny who has been impregnated by her well-to-do boyfriend. That sets up a misunderstanding that drives a wedge between Baby and her previously doting father (Mark Elliot Wilson).

Best of all, the dancing is back, courtesy of Michelle Lynch’s high-kicking and high-lifting choreography.

James Powell’s direction makes the most of the flashier moments, particularly when special effects are used to “show” Baby and Johnny practicing their dance moves in the middle of a forest, a field and even a lake. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set designs and Jon Driscoll’s video and projection designs are the real stars here.

The supporting cast is all strong, with some of the funniest moments provided by Alex Scolari as Baby’s bratty and vocally challenged sister, Lisa.

The stage version of Dirty Dancing is hardly a classic, but it does have the advantage of reviving viewers’ memories of a classic. For many, that will be enough.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Dirty Dancing through May 22 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, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $58-$153. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Theatre Roulette offers snappy mix of shocks and guffaws

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Appearing in The Jar are (from left) Nikki Smith as Cricket, Greg Payne as Praying Mantis, Laura Spires as Julie, Travis Horseman as Daddy Longlegs and Kim Martin as Karen (photo by Michelle Diceglio)

Appearing as insects caught in The Jar are (from left) Nikki Smith as Cricket, Greg Payne as Praying Mantis, Laura Spires as Julie, Travis Horseman as Daddy Longlegs and Kim Martin as Karen (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

By Richard Ades

Seven plays in less than an hour? It must be some kind of record.

Director Amanda Bauer wastes no time with Black Night, one of the three collections of playlets in MadLab’s Theatre Roulette 2016. On opening night, she didn’t even bother introducing the evening, let alone individual works.

At the end of each play, the stage lights are simply turned off, the scenery is rearranged and the lights come back on, all in the space of a few seconds. The efficiently is dazzling.

What goes on between the scene changes is equally impressive, at least as far as the production is concerned. The acting and pacing are spot on, and many of the costumes are ingenious.

And the writing? Not everything works equally well, but most of the plays earn extra points for originality.

Let’s take them in order.

MooMaid by Rick Park: Josh Kessler plays Mitchell, a dad who can’t stop boasting about his unseen daughter. But something seems off. He drops a lot of F-bombs, and he starts stripping off clothes to prepare for an activity that isn’t revealed until the end. The piece expertly builds a sense of dread that turns out to be justified.

The Prodigal Cow by Mark Harvey Levine: A calf (Laura Spires) is thrilled to be the only farm animal invited to her owner’s dinner party. If you know the New Testament at all, you’ll probably guess where this one is going. It’s also weighed down with weak puns. And how come the calf actually looks something like a cow, but her best friend, the kid (Nikki Smith), looks nothing like a goat?

Absolutely Unbelievable by Bella Poynton: Larry (Greg Payne) goes on a radio show claiming to be a time traveler from five years in the future. The piece has some amusing moments as hosts Sam and Anna (Alex Green and Kyle Jepson) beg for news of technological advancements beyond Larry’s iPhone 8. Disappointingly, though, they never bring up the one question the average American would have asked first: Who’s the next president?

The Lovers by Kirsten Easton: A man and a woman (Chad Hewitt and Kim Martin) try to recall the details of their first meeting while two shrouded figures (Travis Horseman and Colleen Dunne) act out the event. Though nicely performed, the piece gives us little reason to care whether the two have a future together.

Date #3 by Alex Dremann: Will they or won’t they? Ethan and Lynne (Jason Sudy and Spires) deal with that question at the end of the all-important third date. Laughs are provided by various passers-by played by Jepson and Kessler—especially Kessler’s Frenchman, whose accent is as amusingly stereotypical as his philosophical wisdom about the ways of the heart.

A Couple of Inappropriate Jokes and a Story (or Two) by Kelly Lusk: Hewitt plays a man who alternately tells jokes and shares personal tragedies. The incongruous mix makes this the evening’s most unconventional work, but it also means the piece never develops enough gravitas to pull off its would-be shocking ending.

In the Jar by Levine: The evening’s funniest play is about various bugs who get caught by a young boy and imprisoned in a jar—a jar that, they’re terrified to learn, has no air holes. Payne’s unctuous praying mantis gets the most laughs, but all of the insects sport personalities that are as entertaining as their costumes.

Other collections in Theatre Roulette 2016 are Red Night (featuring works by various playwrights) and Green Night (featuring six plays by Erik Sternberger). See below for specific dates and times.

Theatre Roulette 2016 continues through May 28 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, plus 2 and 4 p.m. May 28. Running time for Black Night: 55 minutes. Remaining dates: Green Night: 8 p.m. May 19 and 27, plus 4 p.m. May 28; Black Night: 8 p.m. May 20 and 28; and Red Night: 8 p.m. May 21 and 26, plus 2 p.m. May 28. Tickets are $15, $13 students/seniors, $10 members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

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