The Tenshu (Shadowbox Live – Columbus, OH)

I’m sure it can sometimes be difficult to know when a work is done and ready to present to an audience, perhaps even more so if it sets its own precedent as a mix of elements heretofore unexplored. Sometimes a work has to be mounted and shown so that the audience can help guide its further refinement; that’s how I feel about Shadowbox Live’s The Tenshu, an ultimately unsatisfying and overlong excursion with flashes of wonder and innovation sprinkled throughout.

 

Photo: Shadowbox Live
 

The Tenshu was written by Izumi Kyoka (as Tenshu Monogatari, originally produced in 1951), and it has been translated to English by Hiromi Sakamoto and further adapted by Jimmy Mak; it is the story of a spirit named Tomihime and a samurai named Zusho, how they meet and fall in love, and how their different worlds conspire to keep them apart. Executive producer Stev Guyer said in a speech before the performance that this was an attempt to bring an eastern work to a western audience, to adapt its story and setting to make it more palatable. He went on to describe the international collaboration between Shadowbox Live and a group of artists from Japan to make this hybrid, something he says is a conglomeration of kabuki, rock music, and performance art. Mr. Guyer set the stage for quite an ambitious work, and The Tenshu is certainly unlike anything I’ve seen before; it’s dripping with effort and self importance. This was my first experience attending a performance at Shadowbox Live, and I enjoyed myself overall (the food and drinks helped) even though the production itself left a lot to be desired.

 

Photo: Shadowbox Live
 
The highlights of the show are a series of ballets choreographed by Katy Psenicka (my favorite being one where the dancers are representing birds), some truly odd but delightfully weird business with a severed head, the puppets (designed and constructed by Beth Kattelman, Lukas Tomasacci, Nikos Fyodor Rutowski, and Nikki Fagan – the best being a banshee-like creature), and Stacie Boord’s singing voice (so pure and sweet that she could sing the phone book and make it palatable). The costumes by Linda Mullen and make up by David Mack are striking and boldly colored as well, and the effort involved in their overall design is quite apparent.

 

Photo: Shadowbox Live
 
The production is at its worst during most of the first act, which takes an excessive amount of time to set up characters that only feature minimally in the overall plot. The music by Light is fine and consistent (meaning it all sounds alike), but the material has been over musicalized with lyrics that don’t convey emotion or plot well at all. The opening scene and song involving the little girls of the castle “fishing for flowers” is nauseatingly saccharine and even unintentionally funny as the girls all look like the children of the damned with He-Man haircuts. The dialogue does little to help engage western audiences as so many concepts such as honor and love and death are merely told rather than expressed; characters don’t seem to have any deep emotions or feelings based on what they say or sing, and so it is difficult to care much what happens to them. The extensive plot summary and cast list in the program is daunting, so many parts assigned names and descriptions that prove to be unnecessary.

  

The Tenshu ultimately tries to be too many things all at once; it’s a love story, a sword and samurai adventure, a story of ghosts and the afterlife, an example of kabuki theatre, a rock opera, a ballet, a two-act musical with food and drinks, and a kid-friendly puppet show. It reminds me a bit of the hibachi restaurant around the corner that offers General Tso’s chicken alongside tater tots, pizza, and Oreos. There is potential in the material, but this is a piece that needs to be more clearly defined; it has the taste of something that has had too many cooks in the kitchen. With some judicial editing this could be quite a good hour-long diversion, but in its current incarnation it comes off as an indulgent work in progress.

** out of ****

**/ out of **** (with the food, drinks, and ambiance factored in)

The Tenshu continues through to October 25th at Shadowbox Live located at 503 South Front Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shadowboxlive.org/light/the-tenshu

Sordid Lives (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

Texas has its own brand of southern charm different from the rest, and Del Shores is just the playwright to bring it to life. He has made a career of writing about the exploits of some rather unsavory characters, though whether or not they are unsavory depends on how you look at them. They could just as well be heroes.

Sordid Lives, Shores’s fourth play, tells the story of how a small town and family reacts to the accidental death of one of their own, an elderly woman who tripped over her married lover’s wooden legs on the way to the toilet and bashed her head in. Yes, you read that correctly, and yes, it’s a comedy full of some of the strangest characters you’re likely to see this side of “Hee Haw.” Death and infidelity are tricky to make funny, but the enduring popularity of this 1996 play and it’s 2000 film incarnation show that Mr. Shores has found a way to make it work for a great many people.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Danielle Mari (LaVonda), Betsy Poling (Sissy), and Lori Cannon (Latrelle)
 
It’s a real joy to see a comedy with such a large cast, and the characters are so delightfully varied that it would be difficult to confuse one for the other. There are three performers that stand out in the ensemble and make this production worth seeing if for no other reason than to see them at work. Lori Cannon leads the charge as Latrelle Williamson, the uptight eldest daughter of the deceased, playing her part with all seriousness, as do David Vargo as Wardell “Bubba” Owens and Vicky Welsh Bragg as the drunken barfly Juanita Bartlett. They each play this material with such sincerity and emotion that the comedy hits and lands perfectly. Ms. Cannon, Mr. Vargo, and Ms. Bragg never make a false move, even if some of their scene partners aren’t playing their parts with the same kind of gravity. When Ms. Cannon shrieks, “I don’t want to know the truth,” it’s because you know she already does and can’t face it; it’s funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Mr. Vargo shows real remorse when he reflects on how he treated Brother Boy in the past, making his rescue of him from the hospital that much more meaningful. And Ms. Bragg brings the house down when – in the middle of a scene involving guns and violence – she asks in all seriousness, “Do you think I’m pretty?” These three know exactly what they are doing.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) David Vargo (Bubba), Ralph Edward Scott (G. W.), and Jeb Bigelow (Odell)
 
Also worthy of honorable mention is Kathy Sturm as Noleta Nethercott, who impressed me when she accidentally splashed some mashed potatoes on her wrist during an early scene while she was helping herself to a snack. Without missing a beat, she piggishly lapped it up with her tongue and went on. And maybe it wasn’t an accident or an ad lib after all; it was done so naturally that I could believe it was planned, though executed by someone fully in the moment with a real firm grasp on her character.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Noleta) and Betsy Poling (Sissy)

I must say that one character that slightly disappoints is Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram played by Mark Phillips Schwamberger. Mr. Schwamberger certainly knows his lines and appears to be having a ball in drag, but his interpretation of the character stays firmly on the surface, perhaps owing to the director, Beth Kattelman. While some of his cast members chose to go with the seriousness of their parts to great effect, this Brother Boy doesn’t appear to have any real emotion, not even when he sees his mother in a casket. His final words to her are underplayed in a way that the audience at the performance I attended wasn’t sure that the play had even ended as the moment felt half baked, like it was leading up to something more. A moment of reflection, a half smile that is quickly stifled – something was warranted in that final moment that just wasn’t there. It’s not like it ruins the play or anything, but I did see it as a missed opportunity.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Still, the audience was primed and ready for every comedic moment to play out, no doubt having seen the popular film adaptation, and there was an energy in the crowd that was palpable. I enjoyed this production far more than the film, and it’s a worthy successor to the other fine shows that Evolution Theatre Company has put on so far this season. 

*** out of ****

Sordid Lives continues through to September 26th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org