Looped (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

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What’s it about?

It’s 1965, and stage and screen star Tallulah Bankhead has seen better days. Suffering the ill-effects of a lifetime of boozing and doping, she is called in to re-record (or “loop”) one line for what would be her final film, Die! Die! My Darling! Based on a true event, Ms. Bankhead makes sure to put the sound engineer and film editor through the ringer before they get what they want out of her, playing up to their expectations of what a quarrelsome and demanding woman she can be. Looped enjoyed a brief run on Broadway in the spring of 2010, garnering Valerie Harper a Tony Award nomination as the beleaguered Tallulah Bankhead.

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Photo: Jerri Shafer – Vicky Welsh Bragg (Tallulah Bankhead) and Jon Osbeck (Danny Miller)

Is it worth seeing?

Looped is the kind of play where the concept is much better than its execution. Who wouldn’t enjoy seeing a comedic piece about a loud-mouthed lush, a star of both stage and screen, showing off her bad behavior? There are plenty of zingers to be had in Matthew Lombardo’s script, but at nearly two hours with an intermission (placed at a particularly contrived moment within the play), there doesn’t seem to be enough there to justify that much of an investment. However, Looped is that rare play that improves greatly in its second half, even if it gets rather maudlin and embarrassingly overwrought dealing with a discussion of homosexuality in the era. Mixing comedy with drama is tricky, but luckily the moments where the balance is completely off are brief and don’t sink the show. This is far from a great work, but, with the right crowd and performers, it’s more good than bad.

Vicky Welsh Bragg makes a fine Tallulah Bankhead, sounding a great deal like the actress, speaking in a low register that must be a challenge. Ms. Bragg is engaging if less biting that one might expect playing a drug-addicted alcoholic, but she is consistently interesting to watch and embodies the proper spirit to make her part work. Jon Osbeck as Danny Miller, the put-upon film editor struggling to corral Ms. Bankhead, performs as beyond irritated from the get-go, not allowing much room to grow all that much more frustrated with Ms. Bankhead’s shenanigans without yelling expletives that I doubt any studio employee would use towards a star, even a drunken one. Part of the problem is in the writing, but Mr. Osbeck is to blame for his entirely false crying scene near the end of the second act. It often feels like Mr. Osbeck thinks that he is part of a duet when it is quite clear that Ms. Bragg and her character is the star here.

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Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jon Osbeck (Danny Miller) and Vicky Welsh Bragg (Tallulah Bankhead)

Technically, the show is quite impressive, with a detailed black, white, and gray set by Jeffrey Gress complete with a boom mike that looks right out of that era. Nitz Brown’s lighting is detailed down to the ever-so-slight reflection of the film being projected (which we don’t see) for Ms. Bankhead to use as a reference for her vocal performance. Rebecca Baygents Turk’s costumes, from Ms. Bankhead’s improbable red gown (looking much like Bette Davis’s frock in All About Eve) to Danny Miller’s high-waisted slacks and slick shoes impressively represent a 1965 as one might imagine it from seeing sitcoms of the era; too perfect to be real, but too defined and attractive to ignore.

Ultimately, Looped misses its target, but not by as much as it could’ve had Evolution’s production not had such a proficient design team and game cast. At its best moments, when Ms. Bragg’s lines elicit honest laughter and Mr. Osbeck‘s exasperated look relaxes a bit in intensity, the production is quite enjoyable, though it takes someone with an appreciation of the era, film making, and that special kind of smoky female brashness to hang on through the more awkwardly written moments (like the ending that feels right out of Casablanca). Note to other playwrights: exercise caution when including excerpts from vastly superior works (in this case, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire) into your script.

My rating: ** 3/4 out of ****

Looped continues through to September 24th 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

Play On! (Standing Room Only [SRO]- Columbus, OH)

In lieu of a full review, I offer up this promotional video I produced for Standing Room Only’s [SRO] Play On!

Play On! continues through to July 2nd in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North Third Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org/play-on.html

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

“The sooner you understand it ain’t what you say, or what Mr. Irvin say… It’s what Ma say that counts,” says Cutler, who plays guitar and trombone and is the unofficial leader of the band. The Ma he is referring to is Ma Rainey, and the argument is over which version of a song she will sing in August Wilson’s seminal Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, currently being presented by Short North Stage as part of a year-long festival of Mr. Wilson’s works.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Of course, the play isn’t really about music – it’s about power, and in a time and place like Chicago in 1927, being black and female would normally place one near the bottom rung in the pecking order of the day. Ma Rainey is no ordinary woman though, and she knows that she has something that Irvin, her white manager, and Sturdyvant, her white record producer, want desperately, but she’s going to make them work for it. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is about the rehearsal and recording session for the song of that same name; her trumpet player, Levee, has written a new arrangement for the song, but Ma Rainey is not a woman who is about to do anything she doesn’t want to do, and that includes doing a favor for the pushy Levee. The rest of her band is ready to follow her lead, but Levee feels that siding with Irvin and Sturdyvant against Ma will put him in their good graces, enabling him to embark on a career of his own. 

Photo: Jerri Shafer

“They don’t care nothing about me,” Ma confides to Cutler. “All they want is my voice. As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on.” Ma knows that she holds all the cards but that her power is transient; when all is said and done, she’ll be dismissed until she is needed again. This is why Ma Rainey has demands she makes sure are met; it’s not just for her, but for all of the people who don’t have a voice to command the same kind of respect for themselves. In the same position, wouldn’t we all play up the opportunity to throw our weight around before the clock strikes twelve and the coach turns back into a pumpkin again?

Photo: Jerri Shafer

“As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say… As long as he looks to white folks for approval… Then he ain’t never gonna find out who he is and what he’s about. He’s just gonna be about what the white folks want him to be about,” Toledo, Ma’s piano player, wisely tries to explain to the hot-headed and ambitious Levee, though it’s a lesson Levee must learn the hard way. This is a time when segregation is still strictly enforced, and even up north, where the social situation is far more open, black people are still regarded with skepticism and a side eye. It’s enough to make anyone restless and frustrated, something with which
people who have been subjugated be it for their color or sexuality or some other reason can surely relate; remove “colored” and “white” from Toledo’s advice and it still rings true. This might be a “black play,” but its story about the disenfranchised and repressed is universal. The characters live in a time when racism is pervasive in a way that could make many complacent – but not Ma Rainey or Levee, one fighting quality which they both share.

So much of the play is spent with Ma’s band as they discuss and argue about life, all the while waiting for Ma to make her appearance and then be ready to record. The band members discuss women, money, philosophy, and even their ancestors in Africa; their conversation flows so naturally (a credit to Mr. Wilson’s genius) that it isn’t immediately apparent the relevance it will all have in the play. It’s during all of this that the audience gets to know and care for the characters as real people; we all become invested in how the session is going to play out because we get to know these people and how they think. This makes the startling finale all the more heartbreaking, a perfect demonstration of the misguided aggression that can result from broken promises and shattered dreams.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

As directed by Mark Clayton Southers, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a tight drama with enough genuine laughs and tense moments to feel thrillingly real. Mr. Southers doesn’t allow any of August Wilson’s spry dialogue to be tossed about or sped past; everyone in the cast gives the appearance of being united to tell this story without sounding too precious or studied. It’s a landmark work, but this fine cast thankfully doesn’t tiptoe around the material; many of the characters aren’t exactly endearing or likeable, but that’s completely beside the point.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Standouts in the cast are Wilma Hatton as the persnickety but in demand Ma Rainey; Chuck Timbers as Cutler, the voice of reason in the band; Will Williams as Toledo, the pianist who knows a little bit about most everything; Taylor Martin Moss as Sylvester, Ma’s stuttering nephew; and Ryan Kopycinski as the policeman who just can’t quite believe Ma Rainey could own a car or is as important as she claims.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

The real treasure though is to be found in Bryant Bentley’s performance as Levee, the bullish trumpet player who is as uneducated as he is blindly ambitious. Mr. Bentley takes a character who often rubs people the wrong way and makes him unexpectedly sympathetic; we understand why he is the way he is, and we want him to find some measure of success because we can see that he wants it so badly he can taste it. Levee’s disillusionment is felt by the audience all because of Mr. Bentley’s commitment and instinctual quickness; his performance rises to be the equal of this material, a daunting feat indeed.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

One could quibble about the prerecorded music and the fake playing of the instruments being handled in a way that is less than optimal, but Short North Stage’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is so alive and otherwise involving that it is futile to deny its charms and power. This is the second work of August Wilson I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this year. Mr. Wilson is hailed as one of America’s foremost black playwrights, though I think the qualifier is unnecessary; August Wilson is one of America’s foremost playwrights, period, and his Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not to be missed.

**** out of ****

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues through to June 19th in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/536

Precious Heart (Eclipse Theatre Company – Worthington, OH)

What exactly is “dessert theatre?” It’s like dinner theatre but just with dessert, which is the perfect supplement to spending a couple of hours with Fleeta Mae Bryte, a sixtyish Texas spinster with a vivid imagination and a cartload of stories to tell about herself, her family, and her hometown, Precious Heart, Texas. Precious Heart is a “dessert theatre” event, the second production by the Eclipse Theatre Company occupying a cozy performance space off the beaten path in Worthington, Ohio.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Precious Heart by Ted Karber, Jr., began life in the early 1990s as a submission to a theatre festival in Dayton, going on to enjoy many full productions throughout Ohio and Texas, at long last premiering just outside Columbus. The show is all about Fleeta Mae and her memories of her high school rivalries (you’ll hear a lot about a coy bitch named Emmaline), the lives of those around her in the little town, and her encounters with nymphomaniac armadillos, clandestine waltzing with her dress form, and a strange little creature that may or may not have been an alien. Anything is possible in Fleeta Mae’s world as she has retained a child-like wonder many people loose as they pass into adulthood. There is a certain kind of Grey Gardens-type charm to Fleeta Mae’s hoarding; a reference to the popular paperback Scruples by Judith Krantz being found in her basket of goodies particularly tickled me, as it would any other fan of trashy, soap opera fiction from the “Dynasty” era.

Photo: Craig Roberts – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Greg Smith recreates his performance as Fleeta Mae having performed the role in many productions over the years. Mr. Smith has the part down like a bad habit, but he doesn’t play it as a man in drag; this is not a campy performance that pokes fun at anyone, but rather a man completely embodying a woman’s role as a woman. The show has a few moments with a bit of audience interaction, but this is not an audience participation show at all. Mr. Smith as Fleeta Mae might point you out, make eye contact, or even take a Polaroid with you, but your main job is to sit back, enjoy some sweets, and let the laughter flow.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Mr. Smith makes sure Fleeta Mae’s feelings are known through a pile of expressions that show what she’s really thinking even if she’s trying her darnedest to be polite. Mr. Smith has a way of flicking his Gene Simmons-like tongue out to express Fleeta Mae’s dislike for her nemesis Emmaline that never gets old, and he is great at bringing out props like Fleeta Mae’s scrapbook to share with the audience. Fleeta Mae uses terms like “TV television” and “icebox” taking no mind of how redundant or outdated they may be, and Mr. Smith’s affection for the character is very clear in how he makes her in charge of all of the jokes rather than letting the jokes be on her.

Vintage photo of Fleeta Mae (far left)

The show only feels a bit heavy handed at the very end when the background music rises in volume and Fleeta Mae begins a new adventure with a gentleman caller (who may – or may not – actually be there). Something about the blissfully optimistic scene feels saccharine to me, but I can imagine many would find it an uplifting end to a show full of laughter and old fashioned kitchen table talk.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Precious Heart is unlike anything I’ve seen in or around Columbus, and that’s a shame. Where else can one get a wide selection of delicious desserts and enjoy a hilarious one-woman show in an intimate setting with plush, comfortable table seating? Fleeta Mae is one of those eccentric characters who is difficult to forget, and Precious Heart is just that: precious with heart.


Take note that the evening performances begin at 7:30pm instead of the usual 8pm, but I recommend arriving closer to 7pm to secure one of the limited seats (there are only five tables with eight chairs each) and getting first dibs at the dessert buffet (I recommend the cream puffs, lemonade, and the streusel-covered apple pie). 

*** 1/4 out of ****

Precious Heart continues through to June 19th at 670 Lakeview Plaza Blvd, Suite F, Worthington (less than 30 minutes from downtown Columbus), and more information can be found at http://eclipsetheatrecompany.org/

The Oldest Profession (Eclipse Theatre Company – Worthington, OH)

Photo: Greg Smith – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Edna), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Linda Browning (Mae), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Linda Goodwin (Ursula)

Where does one begin when starting a new theatre company? Should one start with a modern classic by Tennessee Williams, something by Shaw or Ibsen, perhaps a well-known musical? Or how about opening with something off the beaten path, something interesting and fresh that the area has likely never seen before. Eclipse Theatre Company’s premiere production is of Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession, a quirky and entertaining show with plenty of laughter and heart, definitely a standard deviation from anything else currently being performed in or around Columbus.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), Linda Browning (Mae), and Kathy Sturm (Edna)
 

The Oldest Profession is about a group of aging prostitutes struggling to remain relevant in New York, a city that is beginning to change at the dawn of the 1980s. These five women have been in “the life” for over fifty years, harkening back to the days of Prohibition in the late 1920s, which would put most of them in their seventies (or older). These women may look like quaint, blinged-out grandmas (whatever you do, don’t call them that!) with their overstuffed hair and painted faces, but they are rather refined ladies for hire with an ever dwindling clientele. These aren’t your typical streetwalkers turning tricks in alleys for drugs; these are women who want to bring joy to their gentlemen callers while supporting themselves. The changing economics of the time are reflected in how they live their lives and run their business, demonstrating how living in a city teetering on the brink of bankruptcy effects everyone. The program has a quaint glossary of terms printed on the back along with a short essay putting the story into historical context. I’m not sure anyone could misinterpret the meaning behind “dip his wick,” though some of the French euphemisms were helpful to know. Still, I don’t think “poontang” means hooker; I’m pretty sure it means any piece of female action one can get.

 

Photo: Greg Smith – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Edna) and Linda Browning (Mae)
 
Standouts in the cast are Kathy Sturm as Edna, the big earner of the group with heels to match; Linda Goodwin as Ursula, the Republican hooker, as cold as one would expect; and Terry Sullivan as Lillian, the theatre cat, always up for a good time out among the footlights. Linda Browning as Mae, the madam, has some strong moments, particularly one in which she defends her turf against some new trade. Tobi Gerber as Vera, the somewhat dim and gullible member of the group, has one of the best lines in the piece: “I’m gonna scratch her snatch!” The actresses interact well with each other, and if there are a few pregnant pauses here and there or a few false starts with their line delivery, it all somehow works. These are elderly women the performers are playing after all, though I was surprised at how youthful they each appeared sans wig and heavy makeup after the performance.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Kathy Sturm (Edna)
 
A nice element of the rather unconventional performance space Eclipse Theatre Company has secured is how intimate it all feels. The area is draped into a square, and there are only fifty seats located directly in front and to the left and right of the action. There isn’t a bad seat to be had, and the acoustics are perfect for allowing each word to be heard with little to no apparent amplification. Greg Smith’s set consists of a bench in front of a black iron gate bridged by stone pillars and streetlights with a mostly full trash bin off to the side and a concrete floor complete with some gum residue; what more is needed to illustrate the perimeter of a park? Mr. Smith also directs this piece, inserting an intermission about forty-five minutes into the play where it was designed to be performed in one continuous 105-minute stretch. The break occurs at a decent enough spot save for making the second act a quarter hour longer than the first, but it isn’t a problem. These ladies are worth the time.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Linda Browning (Mae)
 

The Oldest Profession is laugh-out-loud funny as these feisty old women argue, debate, and talk business about things women a third of their age would probably be too embarrassed to discuss. It’s also terribly poignant as these women one by one pass on, the real heartbreak is discovering which will be the one who’s left behind. This is an R-rated show to be sure, but it isn’t as expletive-laden as one might expect. These are ladies, after all, the last vestiges of a bygone era that ended during the ’80s when Ronald Reagan was president and New York City began its transformation into the tourist-friendly (though arguably character-less) landmark it is today.

*** out of ****

The Oldest Profession continues through May 1st at 670 Lakeview Plaza Blvd, Suite F, Worthington (less than 30 minutes from downtown Columbus), and more information can be found at http://eclipsetheatrecompany.org/

   

   
  
 

You Can’t Take It With You (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
“Life is kind of beautiful if you just let it come to you,” says Martin Vanderhof, the patriarch of the unconventional Sycamore family; he also states, “The world’s not so crazy – it’s the people in it!” There is a lot of wisdom in Mr. Vanderhof’s words, and the “crazy” he speaks of might just be his own family of misfits; they are the focus of the delightful classic comedy You Can’t Take It With You, currently enjoying a splendid run courtesy of Curtain Players in Gahanna, Ohio.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 

You Can’t Take It With You premiered on Broadway in 1936, ran for two years, and was adapted (and extensively rewritten) into a 1938 Academy Award-winning film by Frank Capra starring James Stewart. Written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, the play revolves around the Sycamore family, a rather unconventional group of people that explore their hobbies with gusto but are traditionally unemployed; that is, except for Alice Sycamore (Madison Garvin Lee), the only household member with a regular job. When Alice gets serious with the boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Jack Miller), it becomes time for her family to meet her beau and his family; after all, a man doesn’t just marry a woman – he marries her family too. Think of it as a less vulgar version of Meet the Parents, the 2000 comedy film starring Ben Stiller, which owes a lot to this play. The requisite mayhem ensues as the Sycamore clan clashes with the Kirby society folk (or is it the other way around?), but the real joy is seeing how everything will play out. Martin Vanderhof, Alice’s grandfather and the wise patriarch of the household, justifies his family’s pursuit of their passions by stating, “You can’t take it with you,” referring to money (the preoccupation of the Kirby family) as well as time. His daughter writes plays, his son-in-law creates fireworks in the basement, one granddaughter is a budding (but uncoordinated) ballerina, his grandson-in-law enjoys playing with his printing press – everyone has a hobby that means something to them even though it may seem strange to outsiders.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
The aforementioned Martin Vanderhof is played by Larry Cole as gentle, loving, understanding – essentially every quality one would want in a grandfather, but perhaps without the snakes he collects. He is matched on the other end of the spectrum by Doug Browell as Tony’s blustery father, Mr. Kirby, who says more with a scowl and glance than many performers could get across in a full page of dialogue. Mr. Cole and Mr. Browell are the two stage veterans that anchor this production, and they hold their own alongside some of the best character actors in the area in the many supporting parts of this piece.

 

Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
Standouts in the supporting cast are Julie Emmert-Silvius as Penelope Sycamore, the playwriting matriarch of the household; Kirsten Peninger as Essie, her would-be ballerina daughter; Jeff Kemeter as Ed, Essie’s doting printer/xylophonist husband; Sean Coffman as Boris Kolenkhov, Essie’s Soviet ballet instructor; and Linda Goodwin as Mrs. Kirby, the disapproving mother of the potential groom. Each of these supporting cast members threaten to upstage each other at any moment and yet don’t; there are more than enough wacky and uncomfortable moments to go around, and these supporting players are particularly gifted at playing it all honestly without mugging, which only makes it funnier. I don’t mean light giggle funny; I’m talking laugh-out-loud funny, especially the moments when Ms. Peninger suggestively stretches and arches, blissfully unaware of how inappropriate she looks doing so.
 
Photo: Stephen Elliot Moore – Edited by Chuck Pennington III
 
Director Kate Tull has her hands full with this cast of sixteen but makes it all work. Even though the characters are often saying and doing odd things, they play it quite seriously, free of the mugging and sly glances that show that they are in on the joke, a consistent problem I find with stage comedies. Being blissfully unaware of how their eccentricities look to those around them helps every comedic moment come across to maximum effect. Another observation I had was that if the play were to be set in the present time surely most of the Sycamore family would be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome; it seems everything that diverges from the norm nowadays needs to be labeled.

Having seen the 1938 film and a production of the play in college, I had no idea how funny the play is because it wasn’t until now that I have witnessed it being performed properly. Minor quibbles are the extended scene changes with music that sounds too dramatic for this material as well as the sound effects of the firecrackers and explosions being quite timid in impact and volume (I have heard that this has since been corrected).

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull
 
Booth Muller’s set is award-worthy, with furniture and decoration extending out to the far corners of the stage (set decoration by an uncredited Ms. Tull and the cast). Somehow it never looks cramped, even when sixteen different characters are on stage all at once. It really looks like a living room of the period, though with humorous touches I don’t want to spoil by detailing here. Try to count all of the clocks on the stage, each set to a different time, a visual metaphor if ever I saw one. So much thought and care has gone into representing the interests of each of the characters in this set that it only serves to reinforce the reality of the situation; the set and its decoration is an unflinchingly honest as the characters who live there.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull
 

You Can’t Take It With You is a real gem of a play, dated only by its reference to there being forty-eight states, the presence of a rotary dial phone, and the now politically-incorrect use of the term “colored.” It makes sense that for many years this was the most-produced play in American high schools. There is a kind of optimism in the Vanderhof household free of the tinge of cynicism that seems to taint all of our entertainment nowadays. Even if you’ve seen the Oscar-winning Frank Capra film, you owe it to yourself to see the original play. The innocently naughty humor and unabashed honesty of the material is brilliantly presented in Curtain Players’ production; this isn’t one to miss.

*** 3/4 out of **** (yes, that’s 3.75 out of 4)

You Can’t Take It With You continues through to April 3rd in the Curtain Players Theatre located at 5691 Harlem Road in Galena (a little over half an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.curtainplayers.org/season/2015-2016/5_cant_take.php
 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: Booth Muller – Set Decoration: Kate Tull
 

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/

Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)

 

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,” wrote Thomas Wolfe; that’s the thought that filled my mind while seeing the Curtain Players production of Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a play about a reunion of James Dean fans flocking back to their Texas hometown twenty years after the actor’s death. Of course, some of the women never left, some left and came back, and still others are returning for the first time; and then there is one who can never come back as they are no longer the same person.

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona), Kasey Meininger (Sissy), and Erin Dilly (Joanne)
 

Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was first performed in Columbus forty years ago, eventually making its way to Broadway and then to film in 1982. Set in a 5 & Dime store in McCarthy, Texas, the play shifts time periods from 1975 to 1955 to tell the story of a group of friends from high school reuniting to catch up on their lives and commemorate the life of their teen heart throb, James Dean. There is Mona (Kathylynn St. Pierre), who stayed behind and raised her son Jimmy Dean, whom she says was the result of a one-night stand with James Dean while he was on location in nearby Marfa filming Giant; Sissy (Kasey Meininger), the buxom wild girl who left town but returned five years earlier after a divorce; Stella May (Adriana Pust), the pushy, loud and proud Texan; Edna Louise (Sara Priest), eternally naive and pregnant; and then there is Joe (Patrick Petrilla), who has returned as Joanne (Erin Daily), shocking the group with his transition but also prepared to reveal the truths so many of them have hidden. 

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona)
 
Standouts in the cast are Kathylynn St. Pierre as a willowy Mona, both fragile and stubborn at the same time, trying so desperately to hold up a useless facade; Erin Daily is often inscrutable as Joanne, making her revelations about the women all the more surprising and powerful; Kasey Meininger plays Sissy quite a bit like Cher did in the film while still bringing a vitality all her own; Adriana Pust is a strong and domineering Stella May; and Patrick Petrilla is a sensitive and forelorn Joe, a tricky part as it requires him to come off as closeted while also genuinely infatuated with the young Mona.

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Erin Daily (Joanne) and Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona)
 
Director Mark Blessing expertly navigates telling parallel stories and switching time periods using the same location and most of the same actors (the exceptions being Carly Young playing Mona and Caitlin Brosnahan playing Sissy as teenagers). This switch proved to be confusing in Robert Altman’s film version, but the subtle shifts in lighting as well as costume Mr. Blessing employs here do the trick perfectly. The director and his wife, Deborah, are also responsible for the meticulous set decor of the Five & Dime, with the set designed with a real eye for the time period and requirements of the story by Drew Washburn. There is even a vintage menu with movable letters and prices for the food items for sale at the counter; it truly looks like a shop open for business!

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Caitlin Brosnahan (Sissy as a teen), Carly Young (Mona as a teen), and Patrick Petrilla (Joe)
 
Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was certainly ahead of its time by bringing up the subject of being transgendered forty years ago, though I wouldn’t call this a gay show by any means. In fact, the story comes off like Joe transitioned because he found it more acceptable to become a woman rather than being gay, not because he was fulfilling a dream of being his “authentic self” like is the accepted narrative of today; this stereotype that gay people actually want to be the opposite sex has surely been debunked by now. Still, I get the impression that Joe reappeared as Joanne in the play as a device to show how people can make a complete 180, and how our memory of people may be frozen in time and bear no relation to the reality of the moment. Joanne holds a mirror up to Mona, Sissy, and Juanita (Kate Charlesworth-Miller, the proprietor of the 5 & Dime shop) to reveal truths about their past that they would prefer remain hidden, all the while coming from someone who is familiar to them as Joe while still being a stranger as Joanne. The discussion of being transgendered or transitioning is fairly superficial in this piece, but the fact that it was a plot point at all was certainly revolutionary for the time even if in retrospect it represents a rather archaic view of the topic.

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Erin Daily (Joanne), Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona), Kasey Meininger (Sissy), and Adriana Pust (Stella May)
 
Curtain Players’ Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is nostalgic in the best way, a play about memories, the past, and the challenges of friendship. Sometimes it takes a very dear friend to tell you the truth about yourself in a way that you can understand and accept, and this message of the play is quite clear in this handsome production. This is one of those plays that works all on its own but can also instigate a lively discussion afterwards.

*** out of ****

Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean continues through to February 21st in the Curtain Players Theatre located at 5691 Harlem Road in Galena (a little over half an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.curtainplayers.org/season/2015-2016/4_five_and_dime.php

Clever Little Lies (Westside Theatre – NYC)

I remember hearing Jack Lemmon discuss his part in the classic Billy Wilder film Some Like It Hot, divulging that a core ingredient of the best comedies is an element of deceit, some facade just waiting to unravel. The time between when the lie begins and it falls apart is fertile ground for all kinds of funny things to happen, the suspense of waiting for the moment when “the jig is up” adding to the effect. Joe DiPietro’s Clever Little Lies, in its final week at the Westside Theatre after opening last fall, takes infidelity, one of the most tried and true wells for comedy (see the sitcom “Friends” and Ross and Rachel’s “we were on a break!” argument that was a running gag for years), and pairs it with former “That Girl” Marlo Thomas and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” lead Greg Mullavey to mine the rather sordid subject for laughs and uncomfortable situations.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy

Clever Little Lies begins after a game of tennis between father and son in a locker room where Billy confides to his father Bill about an affair that he is having with a personal trainer. Billy, who is married to Jane and has an infant child, swears his father to secrecy, but it doesn’t take long for Alice, Bill’s wife, to sense that something is wrong. Alice takes it upon herself to invite her son and daughter-in-law over to confront the issue, and what ensues is a night of revelations that leave everyone surprised. It turns out that the “lies” of the title are neither “little” nor “clever” after all.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Marlo Thomas plays Alice with a light touch, enjoyably sneaky as she butts in on problems within her son’s marriage but sly enough to get away with most anything. Ms. Thomas knows how to play this material to land every laugh, and the play comes alive only upon her entrance in the second scene when she grills her husband to extract information about her son, knowing full well that he promised not to say anything. She bypasses this by throwing out all kinds of guesses, quickly followed by, “Don’t say anything if I’m right!” Ms. Thomas turns a character who could be quite a harpy and unlikable into the kind of quick-witted matriarch anyone would be fortunate to have on their team, insidious as she may be.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Greg Mullavey plays her husband Bill, powerless to resist falling under his wife’s control but instilled with a loyalty and understanding that only comes with time. Mr. Mullavey is just as skilled as Ms. Thomas in eliciting laughter from the audience, some of the biggest using his deadpan expression when faced with surprising facts about his wife and son’s secrets. I really bought Mr. Mullavey and Ms. Thomas as a married couple, and it is their chemistry and delivery that makes the piece work.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
I’m not quite sure what to make of George Merrick as the couple’s son, Billy, or Kate Wetherhead as his wife, Jane. Mr. Merrick is quite attractive, but he acts mostly with a scowl and furrowed brow; his intensity works against the comedic qualities of the writing, and his timing is often off in a way that kills lines that would be funny if played differently. Take for example his first scene in the locker room when he confesses his affair to his father; Mr. Merrick rushes into a forced stage cry where he covers his face, his timing so abrupt that at first it appears that he is laughing. It’s hard for me to believe that two people as enjoyable to be around as Ms. Thomas and Mr. Mullavey could have such a jerk as a son, and that’s exactly how Mr. Merrick comes off. Ms. Wetherhead as his wife seems to think going nasal is a part of playing comedy, her voice often pitched higher than expected, though she at least has more to work with once her husband’s indiscretions are revealed; still, I found her only mildly more bearable than her on stage spouse, a most unlikeable couple that deserves each other. It’s almost as if Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead, who have not a thimbleful of chemistry, are from another play or are performing in some acting exercise in which they were carelessly paired up together.

Director David Saint keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, seemingly knowing that it’s his showbiz veterans that will carry the piece, though it’s hard to understand how some glaring flaws in the production appear to have passed by him unchanged. The scene in the car between Mr. Merrick and Ms. Wetherhead is startlingly stale, and the vehicle is positioned at an angle on the stage that doesn’t line up with the rear projection footage. Why bother with having the car and the background footage if it is going to be handled so poorly? At least the set of Alice and Bill’s living room designed by Yoshi Tanokura looks inviting, tastefully upscale with a lived in appearance. The majority of the action takes place on this lovely set, which makes the scene in the car and opening scene at the tennis club locker room feel like cheap afterthoughts in comparison.

 

Photo: Matthew Murphy
Still, Clever Little Lies is a cute, compact show with several laugh out loud moments. Though I think it resolves itself a bit too easily at the end and half the cast was not to my liking, it has the feel of a jumbo-sized sitcom, appropriate as it is a great vehicle for its two veteran stars of popular television comedies from the ’60s and ’70s. At just under an hour and a half in length, Clever Little Lies doesn’t outstay its welcome, though it is the crackling chemistry and timing of its stars from yesteryear you’ll remember when it’s all over.

**/ out of ****

Clever Little Lies continues through to January 24th upstairs in the Westside Theatre at 407 W. 43rd St. (at 9th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.cleverlittlelies.com/

The Great American Trailer Park Musical (Dare to Defy Productions – Dayton, OH)

Trailer parks get a bad rap. I’m not saying a lot of the stereotypes aren’t true (there’s often a kernel of truth in such preconceived notions, though often warped), but I’m sure that there are plenty of kind, sane, and peaceful people that live in double wides. Fortunately, none of those people are in Dare to Defy Productions’ The Great American Trailer Park Musical, a rollicking indictment against the inhabitants of a trailer park where life is a soap opera but with bigger hair and more makeup.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical, with music and lyrics by David Nehls and a book by Betsy Kelso, ran for a few months off-Broadway in the fall of 2005; since then it’s become a favorite of regional and non-professional groups across the country looking for a musical more contemporary than the usual stalwarts of West Side Story and Annie. Set in Armadillo Acres, a trailer park in Starke, Florida, the story focuses on Norbert, a toll collector, and his agoraphobic wife, Jeanne, and how their lives are turned upside down when bad girl stripper Pippi becomes one of their neighbors; little does everyone know that Pippi is on the run from a crazy ex-boyfriend who is hot on her trail. Did I mention that some of the other residents are named Linoleum and Pickles? 

 

Photo: Matthew Smith
 
There isn’t a bad performance in the show, with special recognition earned by Tia Seay, Lisa Glover, and Angie Thacker. Ms. Seay really whoops it up as Betty, the queen bee and manager of the trailer park, her strong and bold voice a pleasure to enjoy as she comments on the action of the residents. Lisa Glover is similarly fearless as Pippi, the stripper without a heart of gold; she and Ms. Seay hit the fiercest notes and wear the tackiest clothing without fear. Ms. Thacker’s Jeannie is the only character with any deep pathos in the play, so it’s only natural that she doesn’t come off as comical as everyone around her; what’s unnatural is the unexpected sweetness of her singing voice, clear and with vulnerability that is disarming.

Rob Willoughby (who also plays the befuddled Norbert with prickly grit) has outdone himself in designing the set for Armadillo Acres in such a small space. The trailer facades are colorful and functional, especially the way the large picture window of Norbert and Jeannie’s trailer allows us to see directly into their home and glimpse the funny photos on display and odd furniture. A sign in the rear rotates when the location changes to “The Litter Box Show Palace,” the strip club where Pippi (Lisa Glover) works, and Jason Vogel’s lighting changes accordingly to perfectly fit the shift.

 

Photo: Matthew Smith
 
Director Matthew Smith stages and moves the actors quite specifically so that they don’t feel like they are on top of each other or in each other’s way, a definite problem that has been sidestepped in working in what could be seen as quite a cramped space. The only time when the presentation falters is when action is blocked by the first few rows of the audience when activity takes place too far downstage to the right, namely during Ms. Glover’s dance routine in which she motorboats Ms. Seay and walks away with lipstick marks around her décolleté. It’s a bold moment where Ms. Glover really goes for it, but I wonder if it was obscured for a lot of the audience (it was partially hidden where I was sitting) because it wasn’t being performed on some sort of raised platform.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical is intended to be performed in two acts, but this production is presented with no break for around an hour and forty minutes. The limited stadium seating and the closeness of the set and actors to the audience makes this a wise decision as any stragglers would have to walk through the action to get to their seat, a difficult interruption of the all-important fourth wall. This approach also helps the play keep up a certain momentum that would be less effective with a break. So remember – get your potty break in before the show, and know that there will be no late seating! 

 

Photo: Matthew Smith
 
My friend and I enjoyed Dare to Defy’s The Great American Trailer Park Musical, but our laughter was no match for all the giggles heard all around us. The show isn’t deep, keeping its comedy very much on the surface, and that’s just the way it is played here. I’ve seen the show before, and yet somehow a few of the plot twists still threw me this time around! Some of the language and situations push this into PG-13 terrain, but I’d still consider it a fun show for families with teens. In fact, it’s irreverent shows like The Great American Trailer Park Musical that may connect with younger audiences wanting to look beyond the typically “safe” plays performed at their schools. If having a restaurant named “Grits and Tits” offends you, stay home; if, like me, you find it funny, get a ticket before they’re all gone.

*** out of ****

The Great American Trailer Park Musical continues through to January 16th in the Mathile Theatre at the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center located on West 2nd Street in downtown Dayton (about an hour outside of Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.d2defy.com/