The Shadow Box (Adrenaline Theatre Group – Columbus, OH)

An ex of mine once detailed his mother’s slow death from cancer, noting how her final month was spent indoors with family around trying to keep her as comfortable as possible. “I’m sure it was awful for her,” he said, “but for us it was a kind of blessing. We had time to say all of the things that needed to be said before she was gone. People who die unexpectedly in an accident don’t have that privilege.” It’s that privilege that is the core of Adrenaline Theatre Group’s production of Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, a play first produced forty years ago about three families dealing with loved ones suffering from terminal illnesses.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio
 

The Shadow Box takes on the grounds of a hospital where three patients are residing in cabins awaiting their imminent deaths. There is Joe, a big, tough-looking guy, with a wife and son; Brian, an older gay man being cared for by his much younger boyfriend; and Felicity, an angry woman hiding within thick sunglasses and a turban, cared for by one of her daughters. One by one these patients consent to interviews by an unseen psychologist (Travis Horseman, who sounds like he is reading and has no bedside manner). During these sessions, I had the same feeling I had when seeing A Chorus Line; it was as if Joe, Brian, and Felicity were dancers auditioning not for a part in a Broadway show but for death itself. It’s an odd conceit in this production directed by Chad Hewitt, but not a bad one. The set design by Brendan Michna includes large empty frames, a rather heavy-handed reference to the title of the play. Shadow boxes are used to store and display mementos or photos to remind one of a particular time or event; the relevance here is that these three patients have limited time remaining in which to create any memories, their cabins being their final homes before they pass on – the cabins themselves serving as metaphors for shadow boxes (that’s how I interpreted it anyway).

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Jennifer Feather Youngblood (Beverly), Audrey Rush (Maggie), Jim Azelvandre (Brian), John Conner (Mark), and Julie Azelvandre (Felicity)
 
It’s the performances of three women that make this production worth seeing: Jennifer Feather Youngblood as Beverly, Audrey Rush as Maggie, and Julie Azelvandre as Felicity. Ms. Youngblood plays tipsy and giggly extremely well, and she brings much needed energy into her scenes with ex-husband Brian (Jim Azelvandre, who is trying way too hard) and Brian’s lover and caretaker, Mark (John Connor, as darkly handsome as he is stoic). Ms. Youngblood doesn’t just say lines – she feels and recites them rather adroitly, seeming to be in on a private joke for which everyone else is oblivious.

Ms. Rush is a doting and smart-mouthed, Jersey-sounding housewife, quick to change the subject when it turns to her husband Joe (Scott Douglas Wilson, epitomizing the look of every forty-year-old’s dad in the 1970s) and his illness. Ms. Rush has a speed and immediacy that builds tension, coming to a head in a moment of violence that is shocking because it is so out-of-character but real for the moment. In fact, each of the three interwoven stories have a similar explosion of emotion that is sharp and focused, so intense that I looked away and closed my eyes each time because they seemed so raw and naked.
 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) John Conner (Mark), Cat McAlpine (Agnes), and Jennifer Feather Youngblood (Beverly)
 
Ms. Azelvandre is the wheelchair-bound Felicity, hanging on to life for a daughter who will never visit while ignoring Agnes (Cat McAlpine, also quite good as her exhausted caretaker), the daughter who stayed behind. I did a double take when I saw Ms. Azelvandre’s photo in the program as she is unrecognizable in her role, disappearing into a web of bitter contrariness and sickness, looking somewhat like a defeated Anne Bancroft. Her performance is the closest to what we all fear having to experience with our parents, one of a slow winding down into a kind of dreamworld in which we don’t play a part.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Evan Farrenkopf (Stephen), Jim Azelvandre (Brian), and Scott Douglas Wilson (Joe)
 

The Shadow Box is the kind of play that is sure to affect people in different ways; it’s a work that allows for interpretation while also being accessible purely on what is on the surface. This production has some really terrific performances, and it’s far funnier than one might surmise based on the subject matter. What’s notable is that the best parts and performances on display here are for and by women, something unfortunately rare in theatre and worthy of celebrating.

*** out of ****

The Shadow Box continues through to March 5th in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North Third Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://adrenalinetheatre.squarespace.com/

Skillet Tag (MadLab – Columbus, OH)

We all have “work friends” and “real friends,” and I’m sure we’ve all had social gatherings with our work peers rife with awkwardness as everyone adjusts to seeing people outside of the work environment. It can be odd, like seeing your high school English teacher at Target, realizing people have a life outside and apart from how you know them. Most of these meldings of different worlds go off without a hitch, but what if they result in violence and murder? Now that is a party, and that is what happens in MadLab’s production of Pete Bakely’s Skillet Tag, a dark comedy with slight echoes of Killing Zoe and Heathers with some Keystone Cops thrown in for good measure.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Kathryn Miller, Colleen Dunne, Casey May, and Jason Sudy
 

Skillet Tag is about Jeff (Jason Sudy, in a goofy but unabashedly confident performance), an obnoxious boss at a greeting card company who gathers a group of people from work into his home for a game of tag involving skillets. There is Katie (Kathryn Miller), the new company lawyer; Neal (Chad Hewitt), the handsome and cocky office jerk; Greg (Casey May), the introverted IT guy; Jennifer (Melissa Bair), the office lush who can’t be fired; and Becky (Colleen Dunne), Jeff’s frazzled assistant. What appears to be a contrived team building exercise is actually an excuse for Jeff to fire someone, and it isn’t long before tensions erupt. Police are called (Lance Atkinson and Chelsea Jordan), but even they are dragged into the action as the body count rises and allegiances are made and broken.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Casey May and Chad Hewitt
 
Director Michelle Batt keeps the pace up and the tone light even when dealing with violence and murder; the brutality is cartoonish complete with sound effects and fake blood, and the audience has full permission to laugh at the antics of this rather unlikable group of people. Brendan Michna’s fine set is of Jeff’s living room complete with bar, leather furniture, and a fish on the wall; it’s sturdy enough for all the running around and faux fancy enough to fill us in on Jeff’s character (though Mr. Sudy needs no help at establishing his character in his Spandex wrestling suit and padded headgear).

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Colleen Dunne and Melissa Bair
 
The cast is uniformly good, but though there are notable standout performances by Melissa Bair and Colleen Dunne. Ms. Bair takes the part of the lush and doesn’t overplay it; she’s natural in a way that shows restraint and proves to make every scene she is in funnier than it would be otherwise. Ms. Dunne is a bit too quick to respond as the play begins, but she finds her stride when her character goes off the deep end, fearlessly pouncing, stripping, and bludgeoning when the moment calls for it, returning to a “Did I do that?” kind of expression throughout that is delightfully twisted.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Jason Sudy and Casey May
 

Skillet Tag is irreverent and delightfully naughty; this isn’t the play for your conservative grandparents used to the umpteenth production of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show – this is for the disillusioned twenty to forty-somethings working office jobs on the verge of going postal. This is theatre for people who don’t like traditional theatre, and it’s daring in a way that other companies would avoid for fear of offending someone. And at around seventy-five minutes, Skillet Tag is just the right length for the wacky story it has to tell.

*** out of ****

Skillet Tag continues through to October 31st in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North Third Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://madlab.net/skillet-tag.html

   

 

Clowntime is Over (MadLab – Columbus, OH)

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I read the intentionally vague synopsis and saw press photos of MadLab’s production of Joseph E. Green’s Clowntime is Over. I was concerned that I would be seeing actors making animal sounds and walking on all fours as a clown read limericks as if they were written by The Bard while intermittently spouting expletives. Thankfully, Clowntime is Over isn’t experimental in that trite kind of way; it’s a dark comedy filled with witty dialogue that can be enjoyed at face value or analyzed for a deeper meaning. I have my own interpretation of what the play meant, and I’m sure everyone that sees it will have their own explanation of its meaning, all perfectly valid. It’s that kind of piece, art that morphs and shifts perspective depending on what you bring to it.

Clowntime is Over begins on what appears to be the set of a children’s television show circa 1960 with Max P. Twinkle speaking out to his viewing audience before realizing he’s alone; no crew is around and there are no voices over the PA system telling him what to do. As he questions whether he is having a dream or has died, his co-stars begin appearing as their characters in the show, unaware of their alter egos and responding only to their character names. There is Tidy the Llama, Susie the Bunny, and Paco the Mouse, and a snake represented by large, glowing red eyes in an open cage. Over the course of three short acts spanning the timeframe of a month, the characters bicker and bond with no apparent way out of the situation save for the final escape offered by the snake who eventually will need to be fed.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – Chad Hewitt (Tidy the Llama), Andy Batt (Max P. Twinkle), and Shana Kramer (Susie the Bunny)
 
Andy Batt’s Max P. Twinkle runs the gamut from being the character the audience identifies with the most to being the one we understand the least. Mr. Batt has created a voice for Max that is booming one minute and subdued the next, perfectly manic in the style of perhaps a former vaudevillian that has gone from projecting to the back of the balcony in a theatre to a control booth in a television studio. Mr. Batt’s own voice heard during a brief speech after the show confirmed what a performance he was putting on as he sounded and seemed nothing like the character. At first glance he looks like a bit like Emmett Kelley (the famous hobo clown from the 40s and 50s) but his voice and manner is quite different, deadpan but very human. When asked why he smokes Marlboro cigarettes, he snaps back, “Because I’m out of weed.” When it appears he has lost all sense of reason he begins spouting Bible verses to his bewildered co-stars, and his words are dripping with feelings that leave so much up to interpretation, which seems to be the point of this piece. Mr. Batt also directed this production, only misstepping in the prolonged breaks between acts when the characters mingle about with rapidly changing lighting to signify the passage of time; the interludes were too long, and it didn’t seem like the characters had enough business to do in order not to appear awkward.

Chad Hewitt’s Tidy the Llama is quick and alert with perfect timing. There is a moment early on when he moves his head in such a way as to make his llama ears twitch that is eerily authentic, and he really knows how to hold an expression to get a laugh a la Bea Arthur. Mr. Hewitt uses his body with skill without actively trying to be a real llama. His character is one of a man in a llama costume but doesn’t realize it, or at least that was the way I saw it. Mr. Hewitt demonstrates his remarkable ability to listen as Tidy, with his face often responding when words aren’t necessary. When he does speak, Mr. Hewitt has a way of spitting out his words like bullets, very effective in defining his character.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – Chad Hewitt (Tidy the Llama), Stephen Woosley (Paco the Mouse), Shana Kramer (Susie the Bunny), ans Andy Batt (Max P. Twinkle)
 
Shana Kramer is sweet and meek as Susie the Bunny, soft spoken but sometimes feisty. Her hair and makeup is the most impressive of the characters with no line of demarcation between her dark hair and her hairline with a solid black face and fine, white whiskers (not represented in the press photos in this post, which were taken while changes were still being made). Stephen Woosley’s Paco the Mouse is peppy and seemingly fearless. He has a smidgen of glitter on his pink nose that makes it appear wet; it’s a small detail but caught my eye. Mr. Woosley can wail in pain with the best of them but makes it very funny. He speaks like he believes what he is saying, and the scene of his demise is creative and even looks a bit hazardous. In a way he plays the most rational part, one who knows his final destination and heads towards it of his own free will. His performance, though brief, makes an impact.

 

Photo: Chad Hewitt – Set & Lighting Design: Brendan Michna
 
The technical aspects of the show are flawless. Peter Graybeal’s sound design insures that everyone can be heard clearly along with the sound effects at natural levels; this was probably the first performance I’ve seen in months without crackling from wireless mics or screechy, over modulated sound – bravo! The lighting by Brendan Michna is excellently ethereal and appears to breathe, some of the cues being so subtle that they drift out of the storytelling rather than framing or informing it like with so many other productions. Mr. Michna also designed the set with a clock missing most of its digits, large boxes filled with paraphernalia labeled “Box of Stuff” and “Box of Knowledge,” and a cage with twisted and broken bars labeled “Serpent Lair”; it all fits into a wide shot, exactly as would be needed for a “Captain Kangaroo”-type early kid’s television show. The makeup by Suzanne Camilli and Mary Sink is quite elaborate with fine details that hold up under scrutiny in the intimate performance space, and the costumes by Melissa Bair, Michelle Batt, and Nikki Smith serve each character, appear sturdily constructed, and seamlessly blend with the character makeup. This is one talented team, make no mistake.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – Shana Kramer (Susie the Bunny), Andy Batt (Max P. Twinkle) , and Chad Hewitt (Tidy the Llama)
 

Clowntime is Over defies classification in a way; it’s as challenging as you want it to be. It’s a very dark comedy one minute, a heartbreaking drama the next, and then it all appears to be some sort of existentialist exercise. It doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, lasting seventy-five minutes with no intermission, and it’s definitely the kind of play you won’t see anywhere else in Columbus. And that’s the point; MadLab performs only new works, and therefore there is a freshness to everything they do (or at least everything I’ve seen them do). That doesn’t mean everything is good, mind you, but the fact that I’m still mulling over Clowntime is Over a day later means something. I laughed out loud, cringed a bit, and thought a lot; what more can I ask for from theatre? If I want to see yet another production of The Music Man, Rent, or The Fantasticks (all of which have been or will be performed by at least three different troupes in Central Ohio over the course of a year), I can – MadLab offers something different.

*** out of ****

Clowntime is Over continues through to September 5th in the MadLab Theatre on 227 North Third Street, and more information can be found at http://madlab.net/clowntime-is-over.html

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – Chad Hewitt (Tidy the Llama) and Shana Kramer (Susie the Bunny)