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
 

Mr. Scrooge (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)

I wonder just how many adaptations there are of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol for the stage as well as on film. I know there are several different musicalizations of the story, created by talents as diverse as Alan Menken (the 1994 stage version, which was made into a 2004 TV movie starring Kelsey Grammar) and Leslie Bricusse (as Scrooge!, the 1970 film starring Albert Finney, which was subsequently adapted for the stage). And there are films of the story starring George C. Scott, Alastair Sim, Jim Carrey, and even Scrooge McDuck! Perhaps playing the greedy and cantankerous Ebenezer is a rite of passage for many performers, as one has to age into the role to be suitable to play it.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Dayton Duvall (Jacob Marley) and William Goldsmith (Ebenezer)
 
Columbus Children’s Theatre now presents their version of this classic story as Mr. Scrooge, in an adaptation written by their artistic director William Goldsmith (who plays Ebenezer) and with songs by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman. With a running time of around an hour and a cast full of lively children, this version of the familiar story of the stingy Ebenezer Scrooge and how his attitude towards people and life changes after visits from several ghosts on Christmas Eve is a strong alternative to some of the heavier variations of this tale to be found elsewhere this season.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand
 
The action takes place in front of a set representing the front of a stone building with doors, windows, and passageways. At times this is the front of Scrooge’s home, at other times the interior, and sometimes it is just another home in the background where action takes place out on the street, all delineated with some excellent lighting effects by Derryck Menard. The large cast mingles in character with the audience as they enter and take their seats, noted as the “Nicholas Nickleby motif” in the program; this helps not only adults get into the spirit of the piece but also eases new, young theatregoers gently into the experience. Though a musical, the songs are usually quite brief and the dancing limited to appropriate moments only. The scenes involving the ghosts are handled very lightly and are a bit eerie without being disturbing or too intense; this is a family show, after all. My favorite scene is the number “Ebenezer Scrooge,” where the grumpy businessman is encircled by chanting children that he is attempting to shoo away. The children in this show are many and know their parts well; they are never cloying or overly cute at all, a blessing to those of us with a low tolerance for that kind of saccharine.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – William Goldsmith (Ebenezer)
 
William Goldsmith is fine and reserved as Ebenezer Scrooge, firm in his resolve as the play begins but susceptible to melting as the piece goes on. It’s a difficult balancing act to allow for that transition to occur and feel unplanned, but Mr. Goldsmith handles it quite well. He doesn’t come off as a stereotype like so many other Scrooges that I’ve seen; he plays the part earnestly without exaggeration. Mr. Goldsmith’s Ebenezer reminds me of that persnickety far right conservative relative who posts rhetoric on Facebook that makes you roll your eyes, but you can’t unfriend or block him for fear of the repercussions it might cause. He is surrounded by a solid cast, including the humorously intense Dayton Duvall as the ghost of Jacob Marley.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Jennifer Feather-Youngblood (Ghost of Christmas Present) and William Goldsmith (Ebenezer)
 
Jennifer Feather-Youngblood is a major standout, turning in a riotous performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present, joyfully romping around in her Santa-like robe, wreath atop her head, with a jug of spirits in tow. Ms. Feather-Youngblood injects some good old vitamin B-12 into the proceedings when she appears and, as capable as the rest of the performers are, she’s a difficult act to follow and is missed when her character departs.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – Abby Zeszotek (Mrs. Dilber)
 
There is one character and sequence in this adaptation that I don’t quite understand, and that is of Mrs. Dilber played by Abby Zeszotek. Mrs. Dilber is Ebenezer’s rather shiesty housekeeper who is missing a front tooth and steals some of his silverware. Ms. Zeszotek is quite funny and gruff with a cockney accent in the part (the audience gave an guttural “yech!” when she dished out gruel), but her character and scene go nowhere; Ebenezer doesn’t catch her stealing or confront her about it, and at the end of the play he is generous and kind to her. The impression given is that it is okay to steal as long as you aren’t caught and if the person that you’re pilfering from is stingy anyway.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand
 

Mr. Scrooge is overall a sweet, family-friendly show that tells its story succinctly and with charm. The environment at Columbus Children’s Theatre is one that is quite pro family and children, which is sometimes rather difficult to find in the theatre scene around Columbus. I’ve seen adaptations of A Christmas Carol that run more than twice as long as this one and aren’t half as good. You don’t need to bring kids along to enjoy this one.

*** out of ****

Mr. Scrooge continues through to December 20th in Columbus Children’s Theatre located at 512 Park Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/mr-scrooge.html

An Enemy of the People (The Ohio State University Department of Theatre – Columbus, OH)

We all like to think we’d do what is right when faced with a situation involving safety, but Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People puts forth a situation that has dire consequences no matter the decision. Though first performed in 1882 and set in a coastal Norwegian town, this story about a doctor standing up to show that the lucrative tourist-heavy town baths are cesspools of disease has a lot to say about commerce and health even today in the fine production being performed by the Department of Theatre at The Ohio State University.

 

Photo: Matt Hazard – Zack Meyer (Dr. Stockmann)
 
Zach Meyer plays Dr. Thomas Stockmann, the man who has proof that the town baths are toxic, with a kind of verve that is admirable. Mr. Meyer is jovial and likable at the beginning, and he is terrific at expressing confusion that others don’t see the correct course of action to take – or even that there is an option. His Dr. Stockmann isn’t afraid to stand alone, even when his wife and some friends have their doubts. Mr. Meyer doesn’t fall into coming off like a sanctimonious martyr, a danger in this material; he’s a doctor and a man of science and wealth – but he’s also quite human and sensitive to the health of the community.

 

Photo: Matt Hazard – Blake Edwards (Peter)
 
Mr. Meyer is paired against Blake Edwards as Peter Stockmann, the brother who wants to silence Dr. Stockmann’s report as closing the baths would mean financial ruin for the town. Mr. Edwards has some of the best lines in the piece, and so many are delivered with fire and conviction. “The world doesn’t revolve around your science,” he snarls to his brother, “It’s about money!” Mr. Edwards ostensibly plays the villain of the piece, but he isn’t all bad, really. He makes plenty of good points, even though they are morally and ethically questionable. What he says isn’t far off from what I have heard during some of our presidential debates. Mr. Edwards walks and talks with real authority, and one can understand why he tends to get his way. When his brother asks him how he expects the public to respond if he recants his statements as requested, Mr. Edwards responds simply, “The public is like a woman: fickle.” The audience groans, but don’t we all know people similarly sexist?

 

Photo: Matt Hazard
 
Aside from the excellent performances by Mr. Meyer and Mr. Edwards, the impressive set by Joshua Quinlan is reason enough to see the show. Constructed of high panels that zigzag across the stage to represent doorways and walls within the Stockmann home, the set is a real beauty, the panels translucent depending on the lighting to allow us to see action going on in other rooms. Lighting designer Andy Baker is also to be commended for illuminating just the rights spots to direct our attention to important action happening in other areas of the sprawling stage. 

 

Photo: Matt Hazard
 
Director Lesley Ferris does a marvelous job of taking a play written over a hundred years ago and making it feel relevant in today’s world (in no small part aided in this adaptation by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, with dialogue that sounds current but not out of character with the setting). Ms. Ferris ingeniously even transports the audience at the beginning of the second act into being a part of the action as part of the stage descends and the audience is plunged into a town hall meeting. Planted actors in the audience stand up and shout as part of the play, and it’s a thrilling moment that serves to engage spectators environmentally in an unexpected way.

 

Photo: Matt Hazard
 
The only part of this production that rubbed me the wrong way was the use of a chorus of women that often appear in shadow around the set or dimly lit behind scrims. All they do is stand and stare clad in rags, and their presence is not acknowledged. It feels too “arty” to me to have this chorus of women (that’s how they are billed in the program) hiding under chairs and standing in corners, especially during the final scene. Perhaps they are representing the oppressed workers that are being made to suffer by working at the town baths, or do they represent the poverty of the past and the impending future? None of it was clear, and perhaps it shouldn’t be – but in a play with so many strengths and impassioned scenes, this kind of interpretive element I found distracting.

 

Photo: Matt Hazard
 

An Enemy of the People is the kind of play – and this the kind of production – that inspires debate and discussion. So much of it is relevant today, and we can see techniques of public discourse and the twisting of facts demonstrated here going on in our current political battles. That such a talented group of students are a part of such a thought provoking production – one that doesn’t attempt to update the source with cell phones and other anachronisms – gives me hope for the future of theatre.

***/ out of ****

An Enemy of the People continues through to November 15th in the Thurber Theatre at the Drake Performance and Event Center on the Ohio State University campus at 1849 Cannon Drive in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://theatre.osu.edu/events/enemy-people

The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943) by Charlotte Armstrong

The strange title and cover art drew me to The Case of the Weird Sisters, a vintage thriller by Charlotte Armstrong, a familiar name as I have other paperbacks written by her with similarly intriguing artwork. Though this is a 1965 paperback reissue via Ace Books, I was surprised to find that the novel was actually originally released in 1943! The artwork is typical pulp that doesn’t really bare any resemblance to the novel within; the sisters aren’t triplets and don’t look alike. Oh, and one isn’t green either.

The story begins when Alice Brennan, a young secretary, agrees to marry the much older (but rich) Innes Whitlock. Alice doesn’t love him, and she’s quite honest about marrying him for his money, but Innes seems to be fine with it as long as she is a good little wife who cooks and cleans. They make an unexpected trip to the home of his three older spinster half sisters, where he lets them know that he is engaged and will be taking over their financial affairs; they collectively have squandered their inheritance, and Innes is done with bailing them out. After knowingly serving their brother meatloaf containing veal (it used to make him terribly sick as a child), Innes and Alice are stranded at the home of the three sisters until his illness passes. And that’s when unfortunate events start happening, as it appears that one of the sisters is out to murder her brother rather than have his fiancée stand to inherit his fortune.

What is interesting is that each of the three sisters has a disability; Gertrude is blind, Maud is deaf, and Isabel is missing an arm. Whether this makes them “weird” as indicated in the title is something that I wouldn’t say is accurate, but that appears to be the intent. It’s refreshing to read about differently-abled people that aren’t sanctified and can have serious personality flaws, something the political correctness police frowns upon nowadays whether it is true or not. They are also referred to at times in the novel as “cripples” as well, a pejorative term not used in today’s more enlightened and polite society.

There is another aspect that is very much of its time and unfortunate: the description and characterization of a Native American named Mr. Johnson. He is of course called an “Indian” and further described as “not a Negro” but having “a flaring line from his nostrils to the tip of his nose that [is] both foreign and familiar,” possessing “dirty fingers” and that he “belongs in the barn,” and described as having a foul “Indian” smell. Sometimes he is just referred to as “the Indian” and nothing more. Most of this kind of talk is in the narrative, not things the characters say outright. There is the implication that one of the three sisters is carrying on with Mr. Johnson and as such she must be “lustful, horrible, disgusting” and having “no moral starch in her.” Mr. Johnson’s ethnicity makes him game for ridicule, and this novel is an unfortunate document representing a popular sentiment of that time.

There are a few coincidences in the plot that defy reality, such as the fact that a former college professor of Alice’s, MacDougal Duff, who is an amateur sleuth, just happens to be renting a room in a guesthouse on the property. Now that’s convenient, isn’t it? Mr. Duff had lost contact with Alice, but here he is renting a room in the home of one of her future in-laws in another town. Of course he and Alice team up to examine the clues and interview the sisters, and their discussions contain some excellent deducements that help to solve the mystery. 

I finished this novel in a day, finding it more entertaining that I had expected despite my reservations once I learned just how old it was. Gone was the expectation of some tawdry moments or rough language, but the basic story and outline of the plot holds up remarkably well. I was able to finger the culprit before the ending, but I didn’t expect just how everything would unravel. Let’s just say there is a strange fact about the Whitlock house that is revealed nonchalantly early on in the novel that figures into the climax, one I certainly never saw coming. This is exactly the kind of mystery novel I like, and it’s a testament to Ms. Armstrong’s skill that it is still a page turner more than seventy years later.

*** out of ****

 

Back of the 1965 paperback reissue

 
Teaser on the first page