Columbus School for Girls grad excels as melancholy Dane

Grace Bollander, a graduating senior at Columbus School for Girls, plays the conflicted title character in Hamlet (photo by Nick Pershing)
Grace Bolander, a graduating senior at Columbus School for Girls, plays the conflicted title character in Hamlet (photo by Nick Pershing)

By Richard Ades

Can an 18-year-old high school student do justice to one of the greatest roles in the English language? When that student is Grace Bolander, yes, indeed.

Actors’ Theatre has pushed the envelope with its season-opening production of Hamlet, giving the title role to an actor who is not only a teenager but a female to boot. If you suspect the casting is simply an attention-getting gimmick, you obviously haven’t seen the show. Once you do, you’ll realize that Bolander was simply the best person for the part.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed various takes on the Danish prince, all attempting to explain a puzzling man who seems eager to avenge his father’s murder, yet keeps finding excuses to delay action. Bolander quickly puts her own stamp on the character, portraying him as tearfully emotional one moment and wickedly humorous the next.

She also ups the tempo at key moments, allowing the familiar words to tumble out in a dazzling torrent. Once or twice, the words come a little too fast, rushing the dialogue, but overall her performance is remarkable.

Despite Bolander’s star-making turn, the best thing about Actors’ Theatre’s production is that every performance is remarkable. Co-directed by Nick Baldasare and John S. Kuhn and set in the late Victorian era, this Hamlet interprets each character with clarity and conviction.

John Heisel is a combination of dull-witted malice and honest remorse as King Claudius, the uncle who allegedly stole his throne by murdering Hamlet’s father. As Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and Claudius’s new bride, Janetta Davis exhibits both wifely support and—after her distraught son shows signs of mental instability—maternal concern.

Josh Katawick is a rock as Horatio, the one friend Hamlet trusts. John Quickley and Sarah Gehring portray Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as such superficial simps that it’s clear why they’re the friends Hamlet doesn’t trust.

As the aged Polonius, John Feather is humorously doddering and sanctimonious. As Ophelia, his daughter and the object of Hamlet’s affection, Rachel Gaunce projects sweetness and innocent virtue.

More solid work is turned in by John Connor as Laertes, Greg Hoffman as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Jordan Estose as Osric/Messenger, John Beeler as Marcellus/Lucianus, Andy Falter as the Leading Player and Christina Yoho as the acrobatic Player Queen.

Providing able technical support are designers Trent Bean (set), Emily Jeu (costumes), Jarod Wilson (lighting) and William Bragg (sound). Jason Speicher choreographed the climactic fight scene.

In recent years, Actors’ Theatre has branched out from its traditional focus on Shakespeare in an attempt to broaden its audience. And when it did take on the Bard, it sometimes did so in a way that was designed to amuse non-Shakespeare fans: for example, by mixing puppets with live actors (good idea) or by adding jokey pop-culture references and slapstick (bad idea).

Despite its unconventional casting, the current production provides welcome evidence that Actors’ remains capable of doing Shakespeare straight and putting on a great show in the process.

Actors’ Theatre will present Hamlet through June 22 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Admission: Pay what you will. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

Special event: A memorial for Columbus actor Carl Novak, who died unexpectedly last month, will be held at 2 p.m. Friday (May 30) at the Schiller Park amphitheater.

‘Mormon’ musical isn’t just a raunchy satire

Elder Price (Mark Evans, left) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) are given a rousing sendoff as they prepare to take the Mormon message to Uganda (Broadway.com photo)
Elder Price (Mark Evans, left) and Elder Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) are given a rousing sendoff as they prepare to take the Mormon message to Uganda (Broadway.com photo)

By Richard Ades

The Book of Mormon has finally arrived in Columbus, and I’ve now had the chance to form a second opinion on the show I saw nearly a year ago on Broadway.

That opinion: I like it even better the second time.

Admittedly, the first act was a bit of a letdown when I attended the show Wednesday at the Ohio Theatre, partly because it had lost the element of surprise. But the second act delivered even more of a payoff, both comically and emotionally.

Emotionally? Yes. This hit musical by Avenue Q’s Robert Lopez and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone does have some inspiring and heartfelt moments in between all the F-bombs and sexual references.

You’ve probably heard that The Book of Mormon takes a satirical look at the titular faith, including its odd belief that Jesus visited what is now upper-state New York during the brief time between his crucifixion and his resurrection. Yes, it has religious zingers aplenty, and they’re both sly and hilarious. At its core, though, this is the story of a friendship between two young missionaries.

Elder Kevin Price (Mark Evans) is the fair-haired child of his missionary class, so flawless that people assume “Heavenly Father” will grant him any wish he desires. And what Kevin desires is to be assigned to spread the Mormon message in Disney-fied Orlando, which he considers the most perfect place on earth.

Elder Arnold Cunningham (Christopher John O’Neill) is Kevin’s opposite, a roly-poly ne’er-do-well with a propensity for stretching the truth. Kevin is chagrined to learn that he and Arnold have been assigned to spend their two-year mission together, and he’s even more chagrined to learn that they’ll be spending it in northern Uganda.

His chagrin turns to terror when he learns that the local people are oppressed not only by poverty, AIDS and superstition, but by a warlord who threatens to “circumcise” (i.e., genitally mutilate) all the women. After the colorfully named General Butt Fucking Naked (Corey Jones) proves his ruthlessness by shooting a detractor in the face, Kevin decides his best option is to request a transfer out of this godforsaken land.

The Book of Mormon’s success depends most heavily on Arnold, an irresponsible scamp who ultimately is forced to Man Up, as he sings in the rousing number that caps off Act 1. In the touring production at the Ohio, O’Neill hits every note just right whether he’s singing or speaking. Over the show’s 2½ hours, he builds a portrayal of a lovably needy but surprisingly resourceful man-child.

Evans also hits every note just right as Kevin, revealing a sweet voice and an innate decency hiding just beneath the character’s self-important surface. He even projects a modicum of vulnerability after a guilty conscience lands Kevin in the middle of a Spooky Mormon Hell Dream. The gaudy musical number surrounds him with threatening demons, a dismissive Jesus and even dancing Starbucks cups. (Mormons, of course, are forbidden from drinking either alcohol or caffeine.)

The show’s third important character is Nabulungi (Alexandra Ncube), a young village woman who responds to the Mormon message because it offers her hope in a hopeless world. Ncube projects charming naiveté and a beautiful singing voice, particularly in her wistful solo Sal Tlay Ka Siti.

Parker co-directs the large and energetic cast with choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who fills the production numbers with clever, spirited dance steps. Justin Mendoza conducts the orchestra, which puts forth a full and satisfying sound despite relying heavily on keyboards. Scott Pask’s scenery, augmented by Brian MacDevitt’s lighting, efficiently moves the action from continent to continent and century to century as needed.

Though The Book of Mormon delights in ridiculing the most eccentric beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it can’t really be described as anti-religious. It accepts and even celebrates religion’s ability to offer hope to people who need it.

The show may not inspire to re-evaluate your beliefs the next time men in white shirts and dark ties ring your doorbell, but you probably won’t slam your door in their faces, either.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The Book of Mormon through May 25 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $43-$145. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Past, politics put a damper on family gathering

By Richard Ades

Other Desert Cities may be one of those plays that you either love or you hate.

A New York Times critic praised the family drama when it opened at Lincoln Center and subsequently moved to Broadway in 2011. But some viewers who responded to his opinions clearly hated the play, even going so far as to leave at intermission.

After seeing Gallery Players’ production, I can understand where they’re coming from. Jon Robin Baitz’s work starts with at least two strikes against it.

First, there are the characters of Lyman and Polly Wyeth, a secular Jewish couple living in Palm Springs. Lyman is a former movie star who became an ambassador during the Reagan administration, and both he and his wife have immersed themselves in right-wing politics. Trouble is, they’ve immersed themselves so totally that, when faced with a painful dilemma involving their grown children, they respond with conservative talking points. Polly, in particular, is little more than a living, breathing cliché.

Add to that Baitz’s tendency to have his characters “communicate” by making long-winded speeches at each other. In the current production, at least, that adds up to uncomfortable moments during which everyone else is reduced to standing or sitting around in stiff silence.

Faced with the play’s shortcomings, director April Olt and her cast have a tough theatrical row to hoe. Despite this, a couple of the performances do manage to bear dramatic fruit.

Jill Taylor is intense and believably agitated as Brooke Wyeth, an author who’s struggling to recover from a seven-year bout with depression. Brooke is visiting her parents on Christmas Eve, 2004, with manuscripts of her new tell-all book about Henry, a brother who apparently committed suicide after being involved in a leftist-inspired bombing. She wants her parents to approve the book even though it basically blames them for Henry’s death.

Even more energy is provided by Jay Rittberger as Brooke’s surviving brother, Trip. The producer of a TV reality show, Trip finds himself in the middle of the resulting battle between his parents and sister. Thanks to Rittberger’s hyper and earnest performance, his response results in some of the production’s most compelling moments.

Tom Holliday and Catherine Cryan have less success as parents Lyman and Polly. Cryan doesn’t seem monstrous enough to say some of the horrible things that come out of Polly’s mouth, while Holliday delivers his lines as if ex-actor Lyman were simply playing one of his old Hollywood roles. And neither Holliday nor Cryan manages to inspire much sympathy, an admittedly hard task but one that is probably necessary in order to keep viewers involved.

Similarly unconvincing is Cheryl Jacobs as Polly’s sister Silda. Jacobs doesn’t convey enough edge or bitterness as the alcoholic ex-screenwriter, who plays a continually developing role in the battle of wills between Brooke and her parents.

In general, what’s missing from the production is a sense of the connections and tensions that would help the characters rise above their often cliché-ridden and wordy dialogue. At least Jon Baggs’s handsome set gives viewers something to look at while they endure all the speechifying.

Baitz does look at interesting questions in Other Desert Cities, such as whether an author has the right to use her own life as subject matter regardless of its impact on those around her. He also rewards viewers’ patience with some startling revelations.

But his play presents many obstacles to both actors and viewers, and the current production hasn’t been able to overcome them.

Gallery Players will present Other Desert Cities through May 18 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 ($15 JCC members), $18 for seniors ($13 JCC members), $10 for students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

Great art inspires great music

Amy Lay as one of several mutated creatures that appear in Gallery of Echoes’ take on the sculpture Bird by Aldo Casanova (Shadowbox Live photo)
Amy Lay as one of several mutated creatures that appear in Gallery of Echoes’ take on the sculpture Bird by Aldo Casanova (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

My Free Press preview of Gallery of Echoes describes it as an experiment in “art appreciation.” If that sounds dull to you, buck up. Shadowbox Live’s offbeat show does try to be educational, but it works even harder at being entertaining.

Taking a break from its usual skits and rock cover songs, the troupe spends about two hours examining 21 pieces from the Columbus Museum of Art’s permanent collection. It does this with the help of narration, dance and video projected on a 9-by-27-foot screen. Best of all, it does it with original music composed and performed by an in-house band called Light.

Seriously, no matter how impressed you are by the show in general, you can’t help being blown away by the music. Shadowbox has thrown original numbers into its shows from time to time, but these pieces are in a class by themselves. The best ones complement their respective artworks perfectly, and all are flawlessly performed by Stev Guyer, Gabriel Guyer, Jennifer Hahn, Matthew Hahn, Brandon Smith and Brent Lambert, along with occasional vocalists and a host of auxiliary players.

Other elements of the show also have their moments, sometimes even overshadowing the music. That’s the case in the first number, based on King Lake, California, an 1870s oil painting by Albert Bierstadt. Though the music for this piece is not particularly memorable, the video images allow viewers to feel like they’re exploring Bierstadt’s untamed Western landscape.

When a segment is really cooking, though, all of the elements combine to create an experience that stands on its own, regardless of how you feel about the featured artwork.

One of my favorite pieces is based on Bird, a sculpture by Ohio State-educated (and environmentally conscious) artist Aldo Casanova. While the band plays one of the show’s nicer instrumental numbers, a succession of actors pose and strut across the stage in the guise of bizarre, mutated birds. Brava to Linda Mullin for the ingenious costume designs.

Another favorite is Shadowbox’s take on The Assassination by James Ensor. As the video explores every detail of the grotesque painting, the band nimbly picks its way through appropriately shrill music with unbelievably intricate timing.

Since Shadowbox bills Gallery of Echoes as an aid to appreciating the featured art, it’s fair to ask whether it accomplishes its task. In this respect, it’s a mixed success.

The narration sometimes offers valuable background information, as when we’re told that German/Danish artist Emile Nolde created Sunflowers in the Windstorm (1943) after the Nazi Party had forbidden him from painting. But the video then goes on to insert images of marching soldiers and even Hitler himself in the midst of the swaying flowers. It seems like overkill, and it doesn’t help us to understand Nolde’s position as a Nazi whose style of art had fallen out of official favor.

Art enthusiasts may also be bothered by various segments’ attempts to interpret their respective works. One of the joys of great art is that it invites viewers to come up with their own interpretation.

Yes, Gallery of Echoes does sometimes work as an unusually lively class in art appreciation. But it’s best enjoyed as an innovative show that uses classic artworks as a jumping-off point: the inspiration for graceful dancing, colorful costumes and some really fine music.

Gallery of Echoes will be presented through Sunday (May 4) at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Remaining show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40, $20-$35 for students, seniors, military and Columbus Museum of Art members. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

You’ve seen the show, now see the art

Despite renovation projects now going on at the Columbus Museum of Art, 11 of the 21 pieces featured in Gallery of Echoes are currently on display. They are:
King Lake, California by Albert Bierstadt
Thunderstorm by Arthur Dove
The Assassination by James Ensor
Into the Past by Hananiah Harari
The Swimmer by Yasuo Kuniyoshi
Sunflowers in the Windstorm by Emile Nolde
Female Nude by Pablo Picasso
Bouquet of Light by Christopher Ries
Melanie, the Schoolteacher by Chaim Soutine
Cornice by George Tooker
Portrait of Andries Stilte II by Kehinde Wiley
For more information, visit columbusmuseum.org.