Sticks & Stones (Evolution Theatre Company & CATCO – Columbus, OH)


“There’s always a price to being included,” Janice Sanders says in Cory Skurdal’s Sticks & Stones, the final play in this year’s Local Playwright’s Festival presented by Evolution Theatre Company in partnership with CATCO. The specifics behind Ms. Sanders’ statement become clear throughout the play, a thought-provoking and honest exploration of the prejudices that exist around being true to oneself, be it openly gay, trans, or anything considered other than the norm. No, on second thought, perhaps it’s about jealousy and self-hatred. Actually, there are many different themes covered in this story of two women fighting over words, the kind used to classify as well as subjugate people.


Mr. Skurdal’s play won the 2014 CATCO/Greater Columbus Arts Council Playwriting Fellowship; this is its first full production after a reading last year. On the surface, Sticks & Stones is about the aforementioned Janice Sanders, a popular art critic, who feels she has been libeled by Kyle, a transgender blogger, after certain innuendos are made about her private life online. Janice is quite conservative and traditional, and it’s easy to see that the uninhibited Kyle is the polar opposite – or is she? Both women know what it’s like to struggle with their identity, but they deal with it in completely different ways: Janice goes inward and keeps her cards close to her chest while Kyle lets “Kylie” (the name she calls herself) out for the world to see. The action unfolds as each woman relays her interpretation of the conflict to their respective lawyers, putting the audience in the position of being the jury.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Mr. Skurdal’s writing is uncommonly rich with dialogue that flows naturally and makes a point without being preachy. “You’re sick with shame,” Kyle shouts at Janice, only to have her hurl back, “And you ought to be!” So much judgmental and prejudicial rhetoric comes from Janice that it brings to mind those impassioned but completely misguided and embarrassing Facebook rants we all see posted by former high school friends or distant cousins. The only thing constant in life is change, and that’s one point which Janice struggles to accept based largely on the feelings of her family.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Josie Merkle (Janice) and Kim Garrison Hopcraft (Susan)

Women are the stars of this piece, and it is their actions that drive the plot. Some men are on hand in the cast, but what a rare treat to see a play with so many important roles for women in a culture where being white and male is flaunted as the ultimate prize in the genetic lottery. Director Joe Bishara keeps things moving at a swift rate, incrementally increasing the pace until an inevitable emotional (and physical) confrontation occurs between Janice and Kyle; the moment is so heated and real that I had to suppress the urge to jump in to break it up.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Josie Merkle (Janice) and Frank Barnhart (Dana)

Josie Merkle is the cantankerous Janice Sanders, ostensibly the villain of this work. She has no trouble delivering her caustic remarks with relish; and yet, Ms. Merkle allows us to see Janice as sympathetic as well, a product of her environment from a time when going against the grain was not much of an option. Playing her as an unrepentant harpy would’ve been too easy with this material, and Ms. Merkle has an instinctive biting delivery that would’ve made that a walk in the park for her; instead, she chooses another path, one laced with frustration born out of years and years of paying the price for inclusion.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Staley Jophiel Munroe (Kyle) and Priyanka Shetty (Kendall)

As competent as the cast and script is, the show would not function half as well without the glorious performance of Staley Jophiel Munroe as the fearless Kyle, a trans woman who manages to push the buttons of most everyone in her vicinity, sometimes just for fun (as when she challenges the personal space of her lawyer Kendall, played by Priyanka Shetty, who squirms uncomfortably and believably at the intrusion) but more often for just being true to herself and refusing to allow the opinions of others to bring her down. I gather Ms. Munroe has a deep well of life experience that informs her portrayal; the flashback scene with her father is particularly heartbreaking, surely touching a nerve with any LGBT person who has faced hostility from their family. “He can’t be this way!” her father shouts, while Ms. Munroe’s plaintive, “I AM this way!” is so nakedly honest that I defy anyone to walk away unmoved. After the performance, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Munroe, who was quite modest about her abilities, stating that she had never acted on stage before; what’s wonderful is what she does here doesn’t feel like acting at all – it’s simply being – and I sincerely hope this is but the first of many performances she will gift to us.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Staley Jophiel Munroe (Kyle)

Sticks & Stones is compact at just over an hour in length, but it has so much to say about our outside differences, deeply-held prejudices, and fear. People tend to fear the unknown, and the very nature of being trans means that there isn’t a “one size fits all” way of classifying them; they may or may not have had certain surgeries to change the anatomy with which they were born, but that’s for each trans person to know and share (or not) with whom they please. For some people it’s easier to manage fear if they have a way of categorizing things, setting apart what they do understand from what they don’t. What Sticks & Stones drives home is that all of the important characteristics of being a human are there within all of us; love, sadness, longing, betrayal – these emotions feel the same to each of us on the inside no matter what we look like on the outside.

***/ out of ****

Sticks & Stones continues through to June 12th 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

Skylight (Columbus Civic Theater – Columbus, OH)

Imagine an experiment where the script is the control and the production the variable; do that and you’ll get a sense of the expectations when staging a work that has been preserved in performance and is out there for study. Often what comes before is used as a kind of yardstick to measure future productions. That’s not to say the original cast recording of a musical or filmed production of a play is definitive or even the best, but it does cut its own path, against which what comes later is measured in standard deviations. Has there ever been a production of Gypsy that wasn’t informed by Ethel Merman, or of A Streetcar Named Desire in which Marlon Brando was not used as a point of comparison? I ask this question because I just saw what Columbus Civic Theater is doing with David Hare’s Skylight, a play that just won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play in 2015 and was chosen by patrons as the “audience choice” play of their season, and it led me to view a video of the 2014 London production that made for an interesting comparison – more on that later.

Skylight premiered in London in 1995 and then on Broadway a year later. It is about Kyra Hollis, a youngish teacher visited by two men from her past, Tom and Edward Sergeant, a father and son. Kyra worked for the family years ago, having left abruptly when it was discovered that she was having an affair with Tom, the father. Tom’s wife has now died, and Edward visits Kyra out of worry for how his dad has been dealing with it. Tom arrives later the same day to hash things out with Kyra, perhaps in an attempt to rekindle what they once had. The entire play takes place in Kyra’s apartment in a less than glamorous section of London, and over the course of the night Tom and Kyra debate the merits of their past as well as their current lives, separated so drastically by differences of social class.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design by Richard Albert
 
I went into this production not knowing the story and not having seen the recording of the recent London run. The first thing I noticed was the terrific set designed by Richard Albert representing Kyra’s run down apartment. The space looks lived in and worn, bookshelves and cabinets looking lovably less than perfect, with a raised area for a small fridge, sink, and stovetop, all functional. I’ve seen many plays at Columbus Civic with a variety of sets – some awful, some very good – and this is the best; it makes terrific use of the space and its part in telling the story.

 

Photo: Columbus Civic Theater – Edwyn Williams (Tom) and Priyanka Shetty (Kyra)
 
Edwyn Williams is Tom, the successful and rich restauranteur, and his performance is all bluster and consonants, forcefully spraying his words like a pushy salesman. Mr. Williams plays Tom as bossy and charmless, and even a bit whiny. He has what Oprah calls an “ugly cry,” as in an emotional moment near the end his entire countenance puckers, revealing his struggle to produce tears. I sensed not a drop of chemistry between his Tom and Kyra, played rather demurely by Priyanka Shetty. Ms. Shetty has wonderful, crisp diction, and a strong speech in the second act in which her passion runs true, but I can’t grasp what she could have ever seen in Tom, and because of that I can’t follow why Kyra makes the decision to revisit her past with Tom at the end of the first act. As someone who has “revisited” the past with exes after the breakup, it is always bittersweet, reminding me both of why I was attracted to them in the first place while also reinforcing why we were no longer together; I don’t sense any of this with Kyra, who smiles frequently and comes off as submissive without much reason.

 

Photo: Columbus Civic Theater – Matthew Sierra (Edward) and Priyanka Shetty (Kyra)
 
Matthew Sierra plays Tom’s concerned son Edward, whose appearances bookend the play. Mr. Sierra’s hairstyle and clothing look right out of 1995 (as they should – the play is set in that year), and he has a kind of nervousness that is difficult to interpret. His wonky British accent doesn’t help much, as it changes sometimes mid-sentence; it adds to an off-kilter malaise that clouds this production and its characters. I will say that his reappearance at the end was most welcome, as his chaste affection for Kyra is more clear and he seems far more relaxed.

At the end of the day, Columbus Civic Theater’s Skylight is not an embarrassment to anyone, but I don’t feel that it shows any of the artists involved (save for Richard Albert and that great set) in the best light either. It’s a bland, mediocre production that flounders, neither entirely fish nor fowl. The actors appear to be trying so hard to tell this story on stage without the proper guidance. A different interpretation would be fine, but I felt like this production lacks any interpretation at all, any distinctive personality or viewpoint. It is performed in a pattern of line *pause* line *pause* that is unnatural and stilted, more like a staged reading.

 

Photo: Columbus Civic Theater – Priyanka Shetty (Kyra) and Edwyn Williams (Tom)
 
The audience seemed to like Skylight the night that I attended with my friend, but we left the show bewildered and feeling like we were missing something. The production left me puzzled, and the story didn’t make much sense to me. I thought, “It must be the play.” Later I saw the National Theatre Live film of a performance of the 2014 revival of Skylight (the same production and cast that traveled across the ocean this year to win the Tony Award); that’s when I realized that the problem wasn’t with the play – it was this production. I viewed the video of the London production, and suddenly the play made sense! The script was the same, but the performances so completely different in a way that supported and enhanced the material. I didn’t know so much of the play was funny! Bill Nighy is quick and witty as Tom, and it’s easy to see what Carey Mulligan as Kyra would see in him. Lines that land with a thud in Columbus Civic’s production were greeted with laughter in London, and moments where characters experience shifts in mood were now clear and easy to follow.

Is it fair to compare this video to the production at Columbus Civic Theater? I don’t see why not, as both have the same script from which to work. I didn’t go in with preconceived notions by having seen the London production first; I entered blank, wanting to be entertained, and only afterward sought out the other production.

** out of ****

Skylight continues through to November 22nd in the Columbus Civic Theater located at 3837 Indianola Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuscivic.org