The fun really starts when Dorothy meets Pink Floyd

Another Brick in the Wall, one of the many Pink Floyd numbers featured in Shadowbox Live’s Which One’s Pink? (Studio 66 photo)
Another Brick in the Wall, one of the many Pink Floyd numbers featured in Shadowbox Live’s Which One’s Pink? (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

Far out! Excuse the hippie talk, but there’s no other way to describe Shadowbox Live’s most mind-blowing musical-tribute show yet.

You may have thought the Beatles retrospective Bigger Than Jesus was great, and it was. You may have thought Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman was a treat, and you were right.

But wait till you see Which One’s Pink? What director Stev Guyer and his cast and crew have pulled off is an out-and-out marvel.

I never was a Pink Floyd fan back in the ’60s and ’70s. Nor was I into psychedelic drugs. (I’m probably being redundant there.) Now, thanks to this new tribute show, I have some idea of what I was missing.

The show starts out with a look at the life of the band’s early front man, Syd Barrett. If you appreciate Barrett, or just brilliant but tormented souls in general, you’ll find this fascinating. And even if you don’t, you still get to bask in a collection of Pink Floyd numbers that augment the biographical details.

The singers and musicians are great as always, and Katy Psenicka’s choreography is more varied and expressive than ever. But what really sets the show apart is Shadowbox’s first collaboration with the Columbus College of Art & Design, whose talented students complement the songs with eccentric and psychedelic videos.

Act 1’s many highlights include:

Happiest Days of Our Lives/Another Brick in the Wall, everyone’s favorite anthem of youthful rebellion (and the band’s only hit single);
Mother, sung by Andy Ankrom and accompanied by a huge puppet of an overprotective “mom” with glowing eyes;
Young Lust, sung by Guyer alongside video images of nubile female silhouettes in the process of stripping off their underwear; and
Comfortably Numb, sung by Guyer as a drugged-out rock star and JT Walker III as his tormenter.

My only problem with the show’s focus on Barrett is that Pink Floyd’s greatest achievements actually arrived after his brief tenure with the band (1965-68). That includes all but one of the songs presented during the Barrett-centered first act. Another Brick in the Wall, for example, was written by subsequent front man Roger Waters as part of the 1979 rock opera The Wall. Here, however, it could be misinterpreted as the product of Barrett’s difficult childhood.

That quibble aside, the first act is consistently entertaining. Yet it pales next to Act 2, which may be Shadowbox’s most intricate and innovative creation to date.

After Pink Floyd released its 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon, many fans claimed it synchronized perfectly with the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. These fans could well have been under the influence of mind-altering drugs, but you don’t have to be similarly impaired to appreciate Shadowbox’s take on the phenomenon.

The troupe reimagines the fabled synchronization by combining (1) footage from the film, (2) interpretive video footage provided by CCAD students, (3) live re-enactments of scenes from Oz featuring Dorothy (Amy Lay) and other characters, and (4) live performances of the Pink Floyd music. The technical prowess it took to pull this off is nothing less than breathtaking.

More importantly, the end result is a total blast. It’s an experience like none other.

I may have misspoken in the beginning. There probably are several ways to describe what Shadowbox has wrought here, including “awesome” and “glorious.” But nothing sums it up quite as well as “far out!”

Which One’s Pink? runs through Aug. 2 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday (no shows May 24, 27, 28, June 25, July 1, 2, 12, 19, 26 or 29). Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25; $20 for students, seniors (55-plus) and military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

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Where’s President Bartlet when you need him?

By Richard Ades

As a writer, Aaron Sorkin has had much success.

On TV, The West Wing was a critically praised hit. Onstage and at the cinema, A Few Good Men was a triumph.

But Sorkin also has had some failures. The most obvious was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a much-anticipated series that didn’t outlast its first season.

Then there’s The Farnsworth Invention, originally written as a movie that never quite came to fruition. Sorkin then rewrote it as a play that opened on Broadway in late 2007 and closed three months later after receiving mixed reviews.

It’s probably unfair to label this reality-inspired drama a failure, but you can’t really call it a success. Yes, you do learn something about the invention of television, but you can’t take this history lesson too literally, as Sorkin bends the facts to suit his purposes. What’s worse, even after taking liberties with the truth, he still doesn’t manufacture enough drama to yield an absorbing story.

Director John Dranschak and a strong cast do what they can to sell the tale in Gallery Players’ production, but they fail to weave Sorkin’s straw into theatrical gold.

The play tells the life stories of David Sarnoff (Ian Short), an immigrant who becomes a top executive in America’s early broadcast industry, and Philo T. Farnsworth (Stefan Langer), an American genius who’s determined to invent television. From the beginning, it’s obvious the two are antagonistic toward each other, but it’s not until halfway through that we actually find out why.

Did I mention that the play lacks drama? Fortunately, it also has some strengths.

If you’re into science, you may learn some interesting tidbits about the challenges Farnsworth and others faced as they tried to send images through the air electronically. If you’re into broadcasting, you may learn something about the early days of radio and television.

And if you’re just generally into American history, circa the 1920s and ’30s, you’ll no doubt glean some new understanding of the era. For instance, did you know that pretty much everyone back then had a potty mouth? Or, at least, they do in Sorkin’s version of that time period.

Cursing or otherwise, the supporting cast does a decent job of portraying the people who played major and minor roles in the development of television. Particularly prominent is Robyn Rae Stype as Farnsworth’s loving wife, Pem. Their sturdy efforts, along with those of Short and Langer, help to keep us from tuning out entirely as the play follows its anemic dramatic arc.

One more problem with the play: One gets the feeling that Sorkin is going out of his way to put Sarnoff’s actions in the best possible light—even when he uses questionable means to get what he wants, and even when Farnsworth gets screwed over as a result.

But don’t worry too much about Farnsworth. He actually came out better in real life than he does here, both during and after his run-in with Sarnoff.

To sum up: good production, bad history, bad drama.

Gallery Players will present The Farnsworth Invention through May 17 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Thursday (May 14 only). Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 ($15 JCC members), $18 for ages 60-plus ($13 JCC members), $10 for students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.

Up-and-coming playwright is both depressing and hysterical

Taylor Moss and Susie Gerald in The Bully Composition, one of four Will Eno plays featured in Over the Edge (photo by Allan Burkman)
Taylor Moss and Susie Gerald in The Bully Composition, one of four Will Eno plays featured in Over the Edge (photo by Allan Burkman)

By Richard Ades

Back in March, Wild Women Writing presented a collection of pieces about people On the Edge. This month, it’s offering plays about people who’ve gone Over the Edge.

What’s the difference? Rick Gore of Short North Stage (which is co-presenting the production) offered an explanation during a post-performance talkback. He pointed out that the characters in the earlier show often pushed their relationships to the brink of separation but then pulled back, whereas in this show, relationships are more likely to be doomed.

Both shows feature one piece by Samuel Beckett and several short works by another playwright. In On the Edge, the second playwright was Britain’s Harold Pinter; in Over the Edge, it’s contemporary American playwright Will Eno.

Given the contrast between the two shows, could it be that Eno has an even bleaker view of life than Pinter? Maybe so, but he sometimes leavens that bleakness with a sly sense of humor.

This comes out most clearly in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain, in which a man and a woman (John Hawk and Heather Caldwell) are shown recording videos for a dating website. The recording sessions seem to be going on in separate locations, as there’s no connection between the man and the woman. And judging from the way they describe themselves, neither of them is likely to forge a connection with anyone else, either.

Delivered with droll matter-of-factness by Hawk and Caldwell under Katherine Burkman’s direction, their comments are hilariously banal and random. “I’m good at grocery shopping,” the man says, while the woman admits she’s never understood why breaking the sound barrier has to create so much racket. Both are desperate to share their lives with someone, but neither has any idea how to bring that about. Their situations are at once laughable and pitiable.

The other Eno pieces have a similarly downbeat viewpoint, though it’s delivered more straightforwardly.

In The Bully Composition, two people (Taylor Moss and Susie Gerald) set out to re-create a classic photo of soldiers posing between battles during the Spanish-American War. Treating the audience as their models, they urge viewers to imagine they’re in a time and place where life could take a turn for the worse at any moment. The comparison between war and our everyday reality is hard to miss.

In Behold the Coach, in a Blazer, Uninsured, the title character (David Fawcett) holds a press conference to explain why he failed to lead his team to victory during the past season. “It was a building year,” he starts out, but his defenses eventually crumble—much as his team’s defenses undoubtedly crumbled on the playing field. Before it’s over, he’s revealed way too much about the insecurities that plague every aspect of his life.

The piece has resonance, particularly in a football-obsessed town like Columbus, and is my second-favorite Eno playlet (after Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain). However, Fawcett could give it even more resonance, along with a few more chuckles, if he threw himself into the part a bit more.

Speaking of Columbus, the show’s one Beckett work is called Ohio Impromptu. Its name notwithstanding, it has nothing to do with the Buckeye State except that it was first performed here.

The play features a white-bearded Richard Green reading from an apparently personal essay while an identically bearded Fawcett listens and occasionally raps on the table when he wants Green to stop or repeat something. Basically, it’s a stylish and macabre rumination on death, much like Beckett’s Rockaby from the March show.

Wrapping up the evening is the most unvarnished expression of Eno’s dark outlook, Oh, the Humanity. It begins with a bickering couple (Gerald and a particularly convincing Green) attempting to drive somewhere in a car, which is represented by two chairs. Strangely, they can’t agree on whether they’re going to a funeral or a christening, but this becomes a moot point when the man realizes that they can’t go anywhere because their “car” is—you guessed it—two chairs.

Adding to the piece’s self-conscious theatricality, a third character (Hawk) introduces himself as “The Beauty of Things.” He mostly just observes the couple’s troubles, but at one point he turns to the audience and tells us he knows we expect him to say something reassuring. The line probably would work better if we hadn’t just seen enough Eno to realize that reassurance is not what the playwright is about.

My first take on Eno is that he’s a serious artist who can be hysterically funny when he’s not being annoyingly pretentious. Clearly, though, he’s worth paying attention to, since he’s an up-and-comer who had plays both on and off-Broadway in 2014. Many thanks to Wild Women Writing for giving Columbus a chance to meet him.

Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage will present Over the Edge With Beckett and Eno through May 10 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.