Young playwrights aim high

The spirit of George (Sean Reid) watches as his wife (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr, left) and daughter (Lexy Weixel) deal with his loss in Neither Here Nor There (photo by Michelle Batt)
The spirit of George (Sean Reid) watches as his wife (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr, left) and daughter (Lexy Weixel) deal with his loss in Neither Here Nor There (photo by Michelle Batt)

By Richard Ades

When MadLab launched its Young Writers Short Play Festival last year, I was pleasantly surprised to find the high school playwrights taking on mature topics and storylines. Though they spent their days in the classroom, they demonstrated that their imaginations were fully capable of roaming the world at large.

This year—in the first of the festival’s two collections, at any rate—the writers seem to have graduated from mature topics to “big” topics. Friday night’s plays deal with, in order, death, religion, nuclear war and gay identity. Kudos to the kids for their social consciousness.

But, of course, good intentions don’t guarantee good results. No matter how big its topic is, a play rises and falls on such details as characters, situations and dialogue, not to mention the strength of the acting and directing.

Due to all of these factors, the first play of the evening does nothing but rise. Emily Cipriani’s Neither Here Nor There takes on a potentially manipulative and hackneyed situation and creates an inventive combination of laughs and tears.

Working under Becky Horseman’s sensitive direction, Sean Reid stars as George, a man who suddenly finds himself in a hospital room looking down at an unconscious accident victim. Thanks to the appearance of a doughnut-downing Grim Reaper (Peter Graybeal), he learns that the victim is a brain-dead version of himself. Being an invisible spirit, George is then forced to watch helplessly as his wife (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr) and daughter (Lexy Weixel) attempt to deal with a loss that is all the more difficult because it’s not yet final.

Actor Weixel, by the way, is also a featured playwright in the festival (her Dead End being included in the Saturday collection). In the first of her two Friday appearances, her unfussy portrayal of the daughter is one of the production’s many strengths.

None of the Friday collection’s remaining plays are as fully realized as Neither Here Nor There, but all are worth seeing—if for no other reason than because they offer a rare glimpse into the minds of thoughtful high-schoolers. The other works:

Priestly, by Kinsey Cantrell, dramatizes the clash between an up-and-coming filmmaker (Stephen Woosley) and his religion-fixated mother (Randi Morgan). The play benefits from funny lines, but Cantrell and Morgan are less successful in their attempts to humanize the largely stereotypical mom. On opening night, the production’s timing was also a bit sluggish.

In Love and War, by Amelia Koontz, throws a teenage girl and boy (Weixel and Joe Liles) together on the brink of nuclear annihilation. The resulting romance-in-the-face-of-destruction is reminiscent (probably unconsciously so) of the 2012 flick Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, but Koontz’s tale is less cloying than that oddball rom-com.

The playwright and director Woosley and his two actors actually do a good job of portraying the lonely teens’ attempts to understand and support each other. However, as in the movie, the characters’ interactions can’t help being overshadowed by the end-of-days setting.

Closing Closet Doors, by Hannah Russell, centers on Lydia (Brigid Ogden), a young lesbian who has come out to her family and now has to suffer the embarrassing consequences. It’s a brave effort, but the work has so many characters offering so few revelations that it almost seems like an outline for a play rather than the play itself.

Despite its spareness, Closing Closet Doors did win loads of laughs on opening night. That’s partly because the script gives director Woosley and his cast abundant opportunities to throw in comic business.

Truthfully, it also didn’t hurt that friends of the playwright and cast had turned out for the show and were eager to show their support. But just think of that: high-schoolers being celebrated, not for shooting baskets or making touchdowns, but for creating theater.

One more reason to cheer the Young Writers Short Play Festival.

The Young Writers Short Play Festival continues through Aug. 10 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday (featuring plays by Emily Cipriani, Kinsey Cantrell, Amelia Koontz and Hannah Russell) and 8 p.m. Saturday (featuring plays by Em Hammett, Anna Mulhall, Sarah Fornshell, Lexy Weixel and Abigail Goodhart). Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

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Second helping of ‘Burlesque’ outshines the first

Amy Lay, Morgan Mosley, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Edelyn Parker (from left) in Burlesque Behind the Curtain (Shadowbox Live photo)
Amy Lay, Morgan Mosley, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Edelyn Parker (from left) in Burlesque Behind the Curtain (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

One of the most surprising letters I ever got during my time at The Other Paper was from a theater troupe seeking more publicity. What surprised me was the letter’s explanation that troupes need as much ink as they can get because, according to statistics, more people are into sado-masochism than are into live theater.

After getting over my shock at the unlikely comparison, it occurred to me that it’s probably possible to remedy the situation by mounting shows that would appeal to these non-theater-going S&M-ers. Shadowbox Live’s original Burlesque de Voyage, for example, offered a satisfying release, in the form of laughs and sexual energy, but only after forcing viewers to sit through a rather tedious first act. Punishment and reward: Surely that would have attracted members of the whips-and-chains crowd if only they’d known about it.

Unfortunately, this demographic is less likely to be attracted to the follow-up show, Burlesque Behind the Curtain, which stubbornly insists on being entertaining all the way through. The sequel is again centered on a traveling burlesque troupe, but writer Jimmy Mak wisely altered the format in a couple of key ways.

Stacie Boord as Della Clayton (Shadowbox Live photo)
Stacie Boord as Della Clayton (Shadowbox Live photo)

While 2012’s Burlesque devoted its entire first act to backstage dramas that were uninvolving because we hadn’t been properly introduced to the characters, 2013’s sequel alternates such scenes with songs and skits from the fictitious troupe’s stage show. Moreover, it adds interest to the backstage scenes by giving them a focus: the arrival of new cast member Della Clayton (Stacie Boord), a grownup child star with a talent for rubbing people the wrong way.

Act 1 still isn’t perfect—the backstage dramas are fairly shallow (and were sometimes sluggishly performed on opening night), and the comedy skits are so-so. But the song-and-dance numbers are both tuneful and provocative.

The show’s first infusion of lust is Maintenant, sung in French by emcee Busty (Julie Klein) and accompanied by classy/sexy dancers who soon strip down to their bras. (Pasties and thongs make an appearance before the show is over.) Continuing in the same mood, Robbie Nance sings the Coasters’ Little Red Riding Hood while the Big Bad Wolf (Jim Andes) “eats” Grandma (Boord) in a way that was never intended in the original fairy tale.

Finishing up the act, Jeff Simpson sings You Look Like Rain with tones just as beautiful as the notes band member Nicole Rachelle coaxes out of her saxophone solo.

But if Act 1 sounds good, just wait. Act 2 is five times better. Especially improved are the comedy sketches, which consist of vaudeville-type routines performed in the vaudeville style.

The evening’s first huge laugh comes courtesy of Monkey Business, delightfully delivered by Mak as a police detective and Amy Lay as a semi-clothed secretary whose boss has just jumped out of a 20th-story window. Even more laughs come courtesy of the double entendres in The Court of Last Retort, starring Brandon Anderson as the D.A., Mak as the lascivious judge and a cigarette-holder-toting Lay as the witness.

Yet even those laughs are topped by the guffaws Klein and others drag out of a naughty audience-participation bit set to the tune of I Wanna Be Loved by You.

Speaking of which, there’s still plenty of sexual content in Act 2, including a number that might even appeal to S&M types: Director Stev Guyer sings John Legend’s Who Did That to You while scantily clad “Avengers” beat a woman-abusing man (Andes) within an inch of his life.

Laughs, music, dance, nubile bodies and a feminist revenge tale: Really, what more could you ask from a show?

Burlesque Behind the Curtain will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays through Oct. 10 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. (No performances Aug. 28; Sept. 4, 11, 12, 25, 26; Oct. 3, 9.) Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

If Miracle-Gro doesn’t work, try blood

Seymour (Preston Pounds) and Audrey II are surrounded by “Urchins” Monica Brown, Marina Pires and Haley Jones (from left) in Little Shop of Horrors (photo by Ed Syguda)
Seymour (Preston Pounds) and Audrey II are surrounded by “Urchins” Monica Brown, Marina Pires and Haley Jones (from left) in Little Shop of Horrors (photo by Ed Syguda)

By Richard Ades

One of my favorite musical experiences of all time was Otterbein’s 2011 production of The Drowsy Chaperone, whose many perks included Preston Pounds’s portrayal of the agoraphobic central character.

Now Pounds is back as Seymour, the unfortunate plant-shop employee in Little Shop of Horrors. His presence guarantees that the movie-based musical will have a core of likable vulnerability that keeps it from drowning in silliness.

The presence of director David Hemsley Caldwell, an old hand at Otterbein musicals (including Chaperone), is another harbinger of good things to come. Caldwell keeps things fun and quirky while only occasionally allowing the proceedings to descend into self-conscious campiness.

With a book by Howard Ashman and based on Roger Corman’s 1960 cult flick, Little Shop is set in a Skid Row plant shop that’s seen better times. (Or maybe it hasn’t—it is located on Skid Row.)

After suffering through a particularly slow day, owner Mushnik (an extravagantly accented Kyle Hansen) threatens to fire both Seymour and fellow employee Audrey (a glamorously attired but flighty Madison Tinder). But then Seymour reveals that he’s discovered a strange plant—some kind of flytrap, he thinks—and has named it “Audrey II” in honor of the woman for whom he secretly lusts. Once word of the exotic plant gets out, the customers start flocking in.

Just a slight problem: Seymour learns that Audrey II thrives on one thing and one thing only: human blood. Is he willing to become a murderer in order to keep his new meal ticket alive? Pounds imbues Seymour with just enough humanity to clarify the struggle between his basic decency and his desire for success, which he hopes will finally impress the beautiful Audrey. Audrey, meanwhile, suffers from such low self-esteem that she seems incapable of escaping the abusive clutches of her sadistic boyfriend, Orin (Harry Sanderson).

Obviously, Little Shop of Horrors deals with dark subjects, but the overall atmosphere is as goofy and gleefully malevolent as Audrey II herself (a puppet voiced by John Henry Carter). Helping to set the mood is a slyly sexy trio of “Urchins” (Monica Brown, Haley Jones and Marina Pires) who serve as a sort of Greek chorus.

But what really keeps things lively is the score, a collection of songs by Alan Menken (music) and Ashman (lyrics) that capture the flavor of early rock, blues and folk. Hummable favorites include the Prologue (sung by the Urchins) and Suddenly, Seymour (sung by Seymour and Audrey). Both the solos and the harmonized numbers are nicely handled by the cast and the offstage band led by Dennis Davenport.

Rob Johnson’s clever and realistic set, Andy Baker’s mock-scary lighting and Julia Ferreri’s playful costumes add to the entertainment value of this drolly bloodthirsty musical comedy.

Otterbein Summer Theatre will present Little Shop of Horrors through July 27 at Cowen Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (July 14 only), plus 8 p.m. July 18 and 2 p.m. July 19. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.

All Shakespearean updates are not created equal

Susan Wismar (Maria), Andy Falter (Sir Toby), Jesse Massaro (Malvolio) and Adam Poe (Sir Andrew) in a scene from Twelfth Night (photo by Dale Bush)
Appearing in a scene from Twelfth Night are (from left) Susan Wismar (Maria), Andy Falter (Sir Toby), Jesse Massaro (Malvolio) and Adam Poe (Sir Andrew) (photo by Dale Bush)

By Richard Ades

There’s more than one way to update Shakespeare.

One approach, perfected by Josh Whedon’s modern-dress film version of Much Ado About Nothing, is to ignore the time period and concentrate on the story. The effect is to emphasize the timelessness of the characters and their predicaments, even if their language is a particularly flowery form of Elizabethan English.

Another approach is to use the time period and setting to add another layer of meaning to the play—for instance, by relocating Macbeth to a politically unstable part of the world.

Yet a third approach is to use the time period as a way to make the play more accessible to the average theatergoer. That’s the tack Actors’ Theatre has taken with its 1980s version of Twelfth Night.

To tell the truth, I tend to see this approach as a form of surrender. It’s like the thespians have decided it’s too hard to persuade viewers to appreciate Shakespeare for his own sake, so they add a veneer of recognizable references. It’s particularly puzzling when they apply this method to Twelfth Night, which may be the most likable of all the Bard’s comedies.

That said, it must be stated that much works just fine in the production director Mandy Fox has put together on the nifty pastel-colored set Trent Bean has designed for the Schiller Park stage.

Most importantly, Kayla Jackmon is appealing as Viola, the young woman who washes ashore in an unfamiliar land following a shipwreck. We automatically root for her as she responds to her dire situation by disguising herself as a male eunuch and going to work for the love-struck Duke Orsino (Andrew Blasenak).

Also working just fine are the comical figures we meet at the house of the noblewoman Orsino is love-struck for, Olivia (Ashley Frisch). Andy Falter is a Miami Vice-attired hoot as her drunken uncle, Toby Belch, while Adam Poe puts his short stature to humorous use as Olivia’s would-be suitor, Sir Anthony Aguecheek. In addition, Liz Light sings nicely as Olivia’s fool, Feste, and Susan Wismar earns laughs with a Valley Girl interpretation of Olivia’s conniving servant, Maria.

From a comedy standpoint, all this sounds pretty good. But the problem is that director Fox seems to have decided that everything in this updated Twelfth Night has to be played for laughs. Not only does this approach rob the tale of some charming moments, but it forces the actors to find humor in characters that aren’t meant to be funny.

In the first scene, while Viola worries that she lost twin brother Sebastian (Cornelius Hubbard Jr.) in the shipwreck, Ben Sostrom depicts the sea captain who rescued her as a fey stereotype. Needless to say, this undercuts the sadness of the moment.

Viola (Kayla Jackmon, left) unwittingly wins the love of Olivia (Ashley Frisch) while masquerading as a man in Twelfth Night (photo by Dale Bush)
Viola (Kayla Jackmon, left) unwittingly wins the love of Olivia (Ashley Frisch) while masquerading as a man in Twelfth Night (photo by Dale Bush)

Later, we’re introduced to Orsino and his ongoing attempt to woo Olivia despite her pledge to spend the next seven years mourning her late brother. In most productions, Orsino is depicted as a soulful romantic, making him a fitting target for the adoration the disguised Viola comes to feel for him. Here, though, Orsino comes across as a love-struck buffoon, making Viola’s crush seem shallow and inconsequential.

The worst part of all this is that, having played the comedy’s gentler moments for laughs, the actors are forced to up the ante by playing the more-boisterous moments for even bigger laughs. As the show goes on, some cast members over-emote in a style that seems more appropriate for the vaudeville era than the 1980s.

When Olivia falls for the young “man” Viola is impersonating, Frisch turns her into a caricature of a woman in heat. When Olivia’s dictatorial steward, Malvolio (Jesse Massaro), is fooled into thinking he’s the object of his lady’s desires, he shouts his protestations of love so loudly that you’d think he was courting someone in the next county. Then, just in case the odd audience member is still unaware that something funny is supposed to be going on, Toby and his friends take the stage decked out in Ghost Busters paraphernalia.

All this overwhelms the alternately clever and tenderly romantic tale that is Twelfth Night, which could have absorbed the 1980s pop references but can’t survive all the bombast.

“Prithee read i’ thy right wits,” Olivia pleads at one point as Feste is reading a letter out loud and making a mockery of it in the process. You can’t help wishing the director and her cast had taken her words to heart.

Actors’ Theatre will present Twelfth Night through July 28 at the amphitheater in Schiller Park, 1069 Jaeger St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Admission is free; bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.