Mark, we hardly knew ye

By Richard Ades

Available Light has always pushed boundaries. Shows that incorporate multimedia, song, dance, movement and improvisation are all par for the course.

All that’s well and good. What’s not so well and good is the troupe’s occasional tendency to confuse plays with lectures, sermons or, worst of all, consciousness-raising sessions. That’s the wrong turn Available Light takes with its latest self-written work, Glue.

It starts out with the appearance of four people who introduce themselves as longtime friends of Mark, a man who recently died. They inform us that they put this show together in response to their loss.

“It’s about friendship,” we’re told.

In an attempt to bond with the audience, they then have specific viewers read statements about friendship that apparently were passed out in advance. Each of these—including the comment that our best friends sometimes have four legs—is met with uniform smiles of support from the people onstage.

“Maybe by the end of the show, we’ll all be best buddies,” one declares brightly.

If all of this smiling supportiveness is meant to be taken with a cynical grain of salt, it’s not apparent in the production director Matt Slaybaugh has put together with actors Acacia Leigh Duncan, Jordan Fehr, Elena M. Perantoni and Michelle G. Schroeder. Instead, all four characters seem to be unvaryingly nice.

They’re too nice, in fact, to tell us anything less than positive about their lost friend. As a result, we never really get to know Mark, any more than we would get to know a real-life stranger whom we “met” only through to his eulogy.

We learn that Anna (Duncan) and Rebecca (Perantoni) dated Mark at various times; that Brian (Fehr) created comic books with him; and that Julie (Schroeder) was once his roommate. Schroeder’s description of Julie’s close but oddly chaste friendship with Mark does strike an emotional chord, but otherwise he remains only a slightly clingy but wonderfully empathetic person.

The problem is not only that Anna, Rebecca, Brian and Julie are too nice to say anything negative about Mark—sometimes they’re too busy sharing general aphorisms about friendship to talk about him at all: “To connect, you’ve got to make yourself vulnerable.” “Love is an act of will.” And so on.

A little of this goes a long way.

Watching Glue is sort of like scrolling through Facebook for 90 minutes, except that this is a version of Facebook without the jokes, topical comments or political harangues. Instead, you get only the friends who ply you with sentimental advice while other friends tell them how wonderful they are for sharing it.

Another difference: You can’t log off.

As in its most-creative shows, Available Light concocts Glue out of a variety of ingredients, including projected images, recorded voices, music and movement. If you’re into adventurous theater and performance art, this is a plus.

But unless you also have a high tolerance for being lectured to, Glue’s 90 minutes will go by very, very slowly.

Available Light Theatre will present Glue through Nov. 23 at MadLab Theatre & Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 90 minutes. Tickets are $20 in advance, “pay what you want” at the door. 614-558-7408 or avltheatre.com.

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I want a table, and I want it now

Jeff Horst plays 40 different characters in CATCO’s one-man show Fully Committed (Red Generation Photography)
Jeff Horst plays 40 different characters in CATCO’s one-man show Fully Committed (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

And I thought I had it bad.

During the two years I waited tables, my worst experience came when our cook fell off the wagon and showed up drunk. When the lunchtime crowd arrived, I had to keep dropping off orders in the kitchen even though I knew it was like dropping them down a well. I then had to make excuses to our customers about why their burgers and Reubens never seemed to materialize.

But all that was a walk in the park compared what Sam goes through in Fully Committed. Working the reservation desk at an exclusive New York restaurant, the would-be actor regularly has to put up with an egotistical chef, an uncooperative maître d’ and self-important customers who make impossible demands.

Written by Becky Mode, the one-man play follows Sam on a particularly difficult day. A co-worker has failed to show up, leaving Sam to deal with all the crazies on his own. Adding to the pressure, his father keeps calling and asking if he’s coming home for Christmas. Plus, another actor makes frequent calls whose apparent purpose is to rub his own success in Sam’s face.

One of my quibbles with a show like this—in which one person plays a plethora of roles—is that many of the characters invariably come off as stereotypes. It’s hard not to fall back on ethnic clichés in such a situation, especially if your aim is to provoke laughs.

In CATCO’s production, however, actor Jeff Horst and director Steven Anderson avoid taking that easy route. Sure, the chef is a haughty Brit and the maître d’ is a snooty Frenchman, but the 40 or so characters seldom fit into overused pigeonholes. They may not be as grittily believable as Michael S. Brewer’s messy set, but they’re far from one-note creations.

“Fully committed,” by the way, means a restaurant is completed booked, but it also describes an actor who invests himself totally in his characters. That’s something Horst does many times over.

Particularly memorable are the AWOL co-worker, who exudes an oily Jack Nicholson-like aura; the gangster who caresses himself while speaking in a voice filled with menace and power; and Sam’s folksy father, who is too self-effacing to admit how desperately he wants his son to come home for the holidays.

And then there’s Sam himself, who seems to have inherited his dad’s decency. Or maybe he’s decided that being calm and diplomatic is the only way to survive in a job that regularly requires him to walk through a minefield filled with explosive egos.

Whatever his motivation, he manages to keep himself together through most of his hectic day, but he eventually starts to lose his equilibrium. And that’s when things start to get interesting.

Until then, truthfully, this supposed comedy is more annoying than funny, with characters who are as unpleasant as the constantly ringing phones. For much of its running time, the show’s main draw is the opportunity to see Horst earn his keep in what reportedly is his first role as a member of Actors’ Equity.

But that should be enough for many viewers. After all, Horst’s performance, even more than his union card, proves that he’s a full-fledged professional.

CATCO will present Fully Committed through Nov. 24 in Studio Two, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Tickets are $45, $11.50 for Wednesday matinees. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Gangsters hold forth in second operatic update

One of the dancers from Danny’s nightclub in The Merry Widow (photo courtesy of CAPA)
One of the dancers from Danny’s nightclub in The Merry Widow (photo courtesy of CAPA)

By Richard Ades

Shadowbox Live and Opera Columbus had so much success with last year’s update of La Boheme that they decided to do it again. This time, the collaborators’ target is the 1905 operetta The Merry Widow.

As before, the lyrics have been translated to English while the action has been truncated and relocated to Columbus. Donathin Frye adapted the Franz Lehar/Victor Leon/Leo Stein work and directed the production, which again unfolds amid the tables of Shadowbox’s Backstage Bistro.

The verdict: It’s a pleasant way to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, especially if you combine it with one of the bistro’s tasty appetizers. Though not as involving or moving as La Boheme (not surprisingly, given the original’s comic nature), it features strong voices singing pretty solos and duets. Like the updated La Boheme, it amounts to a good introduction to opera for the uninitiated.

Whether opera buffs like it probably depends on their tolerance for deviations from the source material. And Frye does do a lot of deviating.

In place of the original work’s European nobles, Frye fills his tale with Columbus mobsters who are terrified of upsetting their Chicago-based boss, Don Mondo. The problem is that Hanna (Kristen Kurivial) has inherited $20 million from her late husband, and the unseen Mondo wants to ensure that she remarries someone who will keep the money in the family.

Mondo’s preferred husband-to-be is his nephew, Danny (Daniel Scofield), owner of a nightclub of slightly ill repute. Unfortunately, Danny and Hanna have a troubled history that has left them with a love-hate relationship.

Now, you, I and the bedpost know Danny and Hanna will eventually transcend the “hate” part, but in the meantime local crime boss Don Zeta (David Weaver) is worried Hanna will end up with someone who’s not only unrelated but a cop to boot: Detective Cameron (Robert Bux). Little does he know that Cameron is actually in love with Zeta’s own semi-faithful wife, Valerie (Katherine Petersen).

Frye plays up the adaptation’s mobster element with stereotypical jokes and characters that would become tiresome if the tale weren’t so breezy and good-natured. Besides, the point of all this is to hear good music, and on that score, the show delivers.

Performing under Jason Hiester’s musical direction and to pianist James R. Jenkins’s sprightly accompaniment, the cast raises voices that range from good to great. Scofield’s baritone is especially aria-worthy, but other leading players hold their own.

Petersen displays fine pipes as the teasing Valerie, and her duets with her panting admirer, Bux’s Cameron, are both tuneful and sexy. Kurivial’s solos as Hanna benefit from her own sweet voice, though it’s a little odd that she suddenly develops an Appalachian-like accent when she’s not singing.

As for Frye’s lyrics, they’re fun, if occasionally silly. “You may think that it’s a joke,” Valerie sings to the seductive Cameron, “but it will end with guns and smoke.” And that sounds like Shakespeare compared to “Tippy dippy,” a line from a later song performed by the raunchy dancers who headline Danny’s club.

Then again, if you were worried about rampant silliness, you probably wouldn’t be attending this updated, gangster-filled operetta. In fact, you probably wouldn’t be attracted to opera in the first place.

Opera on the Edge (a collaboration Shadowbox Life and Opera Columbus) will present The Merry Widow through Nov. 17 and Jan. 11 through Feb. 2 at the Backstage Bistro, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 4 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes. Tickets are free (selected seats are $10); reservations are recommended. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.