The Countess of Monte Cristo (Actors’ Theatre of Columbus – Columbus, OH)


“Evil deeds cost the doers in the end,” says the bitter and jealous Fernanda Mondego just before she finalizes plans to basically destroy the life of Amelie Dantes. Little does Fernanda know how prophetic her words would be, as the wronged Amelie Dantes will one day return with power and vengeance on her mind as The Countess of Monte Cristo, the Actors’ Theatre of Columbus production currently being performed in Schiller Park. Based on the Alexander Dumas classic The Count of Monte Cristo, this adaptation by artistic director Philip J. Hickman and co-director Jennifer Feather Youngblood reimagines the story with a woman as the lead, shifting the locus of power within the story from male to female, presenting a different portrait of what female revenge can look like to those of us familiar with it only from Stephen King’s Carrie.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Amelie Dantes has her world turned upside down when she is imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit through the efforts of Danglars, an envious captain; the aforementioned Fernanda Mondego, a bartender with her eyes set on nabbing Merced Herrera, Amelie’s fiancée; and Villefort, a Magistrate with family secrets to hide. Each has something to gain by getting Amelie out of the picture, but they don’t count on her meeting and being tutored by Abbess Faria in prison, escaping her life sentence after fourteen years, or claiming a hidden fortune; this enables her to return with the wealth and influence necessary to exact veiled revenge on each of them.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

I was completely unfamiliar with the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo before seeing this production, which was both a blessing and a curse. The story was new and fresh to me as a result, but it was also quite difficult to follow at points. The summary I’ve presented here doesn’t go into the pirates, kidnapping, the involvement of the daughters of the Countess’s enemies, the cargo ship business, and several incriminating letters that fall into the wrong hands. The intricacies of the story may not be completely clear (I thought of the business with the letters as simply a MacGuffin, a trigger for the plot), but the overall theme of female empowerment and growth is very much in evidence. It is clear that Amelie’s enemies don’t recognize her upon her return, and it is indeed interesting to see how the Countess infiltrates their lives to bring about their ruin.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

It must be a special kind of challenge to perform outdoors with unpredictable weather and technical aberrations (one performance I attended was plagued with intermittent static) and still find a way to tell the story. This talented cast manages to perform grandly to reach an audience spread out over the park on lawn chairs and blankets without appearing to be yelling or overacting, no small feat considering this material or venue. Standouts in the cast are McLane Nagy as Amelie Dantes, the Countess of Monte Cristo; Kasey Leah Meininger as the conniving Fernanda Mondego; James Harper as Merced Herrera, Amelie’s handsome but doomed former fiancée; Derek Faraji as Ali, Amelie’s faithful companion; and Catherine Cryan as both the nurturing Abbess Faria and the caustic Madame Villefort (wife of one of Amelie’s enemies).

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Ms. Nagy is sweet and unassuming as Amelie, plaintively stating, “I am a woman. I wouldn’t presume to concern myself with matters of state,” during her interrogation; her metamorphoses into the formidable Countess is complete when she wails, “I die, and all forgiveness with me!” Ms. Nagy brings an athletic agility necessary for us to believe in her journey, and yet her heart isn’t frozen; “I would never wish to instill vengeance in your heart,” she says to a daughter of one of her enemies, her delivery making clear the burden that kind of anger can have on a person.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Ms. Meininger’s Fernanda is boldly conniving, forcing Amelie out of the picture to claim Merced for herself. The way that she embraces Merced from behind as she coos to manipulate him into framing his fiancée demonstrates that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants, making her ultimate comeuppance all the more enjoyable to witness. Ms. Meininger has a bigger than life performance style uniquely suited to playing such a heartless villain the audience loves to hate.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Mr. Harper’s Merced is powerless to resist Fernanda, but his internal agony at having played a part in Amelie’s imprisonment shows in his posture and movement when he returns to the story. Mr. Harper can play conquered without appearing weak or simple, turning his anguish inward at himself; as such, he comes off as the only one of Amelie’s enemies with any kind of conscience. His breakdown when the Countess reveals herself to be Amelie is devastatingly intense, his actions those of a tortured soul.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Mr. Faraji as Ali submits to the Countess’s wishes and yet is not a subservient person; he chooses to do her bidding instead of coming off as obligated. It’s clear from Mr. Faraji’s gaze this his character’s respect for his mistress blossoms into love as he assists in her quest. Ali emerges as the kind of ally we should all be so lucky to have, his interactions with the Countess revealing a genuine affection for her and her plight; he was also wronged in his past when he was sold by Merced, so helping her enact revenge supports his motive as well.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Ms. Cryan makes the most out of playing Abbess Faria, the knowledgable tutor who becomes a surrogate mother to Amelie in prison. She is able to convey a maternal warmth that is welcoming while still being a force to reckon with; she teaches Amelie how to fence and quizzes her on Latin because these are the only gifts she has to give while they are both imprisoned. Ms. Cryan and Ms. Nagy are able to share moments together on stage that feel intimate and quite personal even across an audience spread about on the grass. Ms. Cryan’s touching performance as Abbess Faria is nearly matched when she reappears as Madame Villefort, a woman so morally bankrupt that the idea of poisoning her family in the pursuit of wealth and power seems like a good idea. Her Madame Villefort sinks to depths that are startling in their disregard for human life, and the audience reacts with glee when her husband Gerard Villefort (played menacingly by her real-life husband, Ken Erney) turns on her in the end.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

It’s nice to see smaller character parts imbued with the kind of life that Elizabeth Harelick, Michael Carozza, and Cat McAlpine bring to them, demonstrating that there are no small parts, just small actors. Ms. Harelick is giddy with madness as de Bouville, the mistress of a prison; Mr. Carozza brings wide-eyed comedy to the fore as Peppino, a thickly-accented member of the Countess’s gang; and Ms. McAlpine uses her substantial height and imposing presence as both Marie and Pastrini, and then switches things up again as Louise, an unexpected romantic interest for Eugenie Danglars (Maggie Turek). 

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Directors Adam Simon and Jennifer Feather Youngblood have their work cut out for them with a plot of this complexity and size. The show is a bit rocky at first, opening with a pantomimed scene in a bar with music in the background, all of it going on far too long before we get to some substantial dialogue. Too many scenes end awkwardly, with a lull before the next scene begins. When this break is to denote a passage of time it’s understandable, but too often it just slows down the action. The three daughters of Amelie’s enemies (Mary Paige Rieffel as Alberta Herrera, Myia Eren as Valentine Villefort, and Maggie Turek as Eugenie Danglars) are also presented in a manner conducive to generating confusion, each with brown hair styled up and similar costume coloring. This isn’t so much a problem up close, but much of the audience is spread far out from the stage where the similarities between their appearance is amplified. The personalities of the characters are all quite different, but more care should be taken to help them stand apart as it just adds confusion to an already densely plotted story.
Photo: Jerri Shafer

I find it odd that as Amelie gains power and wealth that she becomes more masculine in appearance. She begins as a pretty young bride on her wedding day, is reduced to rags while in prison, reappears as the Countess in an Arabian-inspired hooded cloak covering what looks like lounging pajamas, and at last has her hair pinned back and is dressing in a suit like a man. This conceit reminds me of a moment in the film Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels first appears to audition for a strong female role in a soap opera and is rebuffed as being “too soft and genteel” by the director. “You want some gross caricature of a woman to prove some idiotic point that power makes women masculine or masculine women are ugly,” Mr. Hoffman says as Ms. Michaels, wagging a finger with, “Well shame on the woman who lets you do that or any woman that lets you do that!” It’s this stereotype that I feel is being perpetuated in the visual transformation of Amelie’s character in this piece. Why couldn’t she have grown more glamorous and beautifully stylish as each bit of retribution is delivered, showing how power and strength can also still be incredibly feminine and alluring? Images of dangerous but strong women from old ’40s noir films come to mind when I think of the ways Amelie as the Countess is able to manipulate events in her favor once she returns to her old stomping ground, except she doesn’t rely on sex to do it (another stereotype). The costumes that Ms. Nagy wears as the Countess are often quite ornate and attractive; I just don’t agree with the way femininity is drained from her appearance as her strength increases.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Despite some storytelling and design shortcomings, The Countess of Monte Cristo is a lively production that only improves as it continues to play out. Some familiarity with the plot of the original story might help those who might otherwise stumble to connect all of the plot threads (I saw it twice and still didn’t catch everything); still, there is enough action, drama, and raw emotion on display to keep a crowd of hundreds focused on the stage. This is the kind of show that is worth seeing for its cast, a veritable “who’s who” of some of the best actors in Columbus. These performers work together to create an experience that is more than the sum of its parts, and Actors’ Theatre of Columbus is to be commended on tackling such a complicated tale with this fresh reworking that emerges as a real crowd pleaser.

*** out of ****

The Countess of Monte Cristo continues through to July 17th in Schiller Park at 1069 Jaeger Street, and more information can be found at http://theactorstheatre.org/2016-season/the-countess-of-monte-cristo/

Photo: Jerri Shafer

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