A clown, a rabbit and a llama walked into a TV studio…

Appearing in MadLab’s production of Clowntime Is Over are (from left) Shana Kramer as Susie the Bunny, Andy Batt as Max and Chad Hewitt as Tidy the Llama (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)
Appearing in MadLab’s production of Clowntime Is Over are (from left) Shana Kramer as Susie the Bunny, Andy Batt as Max and Chad Hewitt as Tidy the Llama (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

By Richard Ades

Clowntime Is Over has been touted as a typical MadLab play, and that’s an accurate description. Written by Joseph E. Green, it’s the kind of small, dark and weirdly offbeat work we’ve come to expect from the theater on North Third.

But that’s not the only reason MadLab fans will eat it up. The play also gives them the chance to see two familiar actors spread their wings in unfamiliar ways.

Andy Batt (who also directs) has never been averse to trying new things, but he’s seldom stretched himself as far as he does here. As TV clown Max P. Twinkle, he’s sardonic, morose and morbidly philosophical. He also has great comic timing, which helps to keep Green’s play from getting bogged down in existential angst.

The equally familiar Stephen Woosley is normally less chameleonic than Batt, but there’s nothing Woosley-like about Paco, the mouse he plays during a short but spirited appearance. Just as Batt’s Max brings humor to the tale, Woosley’s Paco brings energy, and lots of it.

Adding to the novelty of their performances is Suzanne Camilli’s liberally applied makeup, which ensures that neither Batt nor Woosley looks anything like himself.

Green’s metaphorical story is set in the TV studio where Max normally presents his children’s show. One fateful day, however, he arrives to find his crew is AWOL. Even more strangely, the “bunny” and “llama” who also appear on the show seem to be just that: a bunny and a llama. At any rate, their costumes have no zippers in sight.

Shana Kramer and Chad Hewitt play Susie the Bunny and Tidy the Llama, respectively. Of the two, Kramer’s Susie makes a stronger impression. Hewitt has been great in other shows—most notably as Nick in an early-2015 production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—but his portrayal seemed a bit too understated on opening night.

The four actors—as well as an unseen snake that plays a pivotal role—do their thing on Brendan Michna’s creatively designed set.

So what is Green’s play about? Oh, about 75 minutes. Sorry. I normally would have resisted such an obvious joke, but the show’s brevity happens to be one of its best qualities. It has some funny moments, as well as some biblically inspired ponderings about life and death, but it doesn’t hang together well enough to support a longer running time.

You want my best guess? I think Green meant it as a Christian metaphor, but that doesn’t explain everything.

Of course, one advantage of the show’s brevity is that you’ll have plenty of time to head to a bar or coffee shop afterward and look for your own meaning. And even if you don’t find any, at least you can bask in the memory of witnessing two familiar actors doing very unfamiliar things.

Clowntime Is Over runs through Sept. 5 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Tickets are $15, $13 students/seniors, $10 members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

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I knew Will Shakespeare, and Mr. Moliere, you’re no Will Shakespeare

Appearing in Actors’ Theatre’s production of The Miser are (from left) Danny Turek as Cleante, Ted Amore as Harpagon and Elizabeth Harelik as Elise (photo by Nick Pershing)
Appearing in Actors’ Theatre’s production of The Miser are (from left) Danny Turek as Cleante, Ted Amore as Harpagon and Elizabeth Harelik as Elise (photo by Nick Pershing)

By Richard Ades

Actors’ Theatre has gone through quite an evolution.

Shakespeare in the park has always been the troupe’s bread and butter, but recent years have seen the Bard’s stage time reduced. In his place, Actors’ has tried to attract families with swashbuckling adventures, some of them written especially for Schiller Park. Vintage comedies by other playwrights, such as the current production of Moliere’s The Miser, have also been tried.

It’s been an interesting experiment, and no doubt it’s paid off in some ways. For one, the kids who enjoy plays such as Treasure Island (2010) or Robin Hood (2012) may well return to the park when they’re older to watch more-challenging works.

But where does that leave those of us who already enjoy more-challenging works, especially those written by one William Shakespeare? We’ve had to get by with a single helping of the Bard per summer.

Adding insult to injury, that single helping is sometimes delivered in a high-concept production that overwhelms the original tale. This summer saw an unconvincing attempt to turn Richard III into an American gangster saga. And in 2013, the charming Twelfth Night was raucously updated to the 1980s, complete with pop-culture references to Miami Vice and Ghost Busters.

It’s almost as if Actors’ Theatre has decided it can’t sell Shakespeare without a gimmick.

But Shakespeare still works just fine on its own, as last year’s outstanding production of Hamlet proved. Sure, it had a gimmick of sorts, in the form of the untraditional casting of a teenage girl (Grace Bolander) in the title role. But the real “gimmick” was talent: Under the co-direction of Nick Baldasare and the late John S. Kuhn, every member of the cast found depths of nuanced meaning in each and every line.

That’s not to say there’s no value in giving stage time to other playwrights. It was certainly educational seeing the current production of The Miser. Namely, it taught me that Moliere is no Shakespeare.

To be fair, I might appreciate Moliere’s satire more if I could enjoy it in its original French. In Miles Malleson’s English adaption, unfortunately, it often comes off as heavy-handed and predictable.

Compounding the problem, some of the scenes are delivered in an exaggerated farcical style that underlines the comedy’s heavy-handedness. Especially guilty of this approach are Ted Amore as the stingy Harpagon and Danny Turek as his lovelorn son, though both are otherwise impressive.

Working under Pamela Hill’s brisk direction, most of the cast members are more restrained. They include Andy Falter as the brown-nosing Valere, David Harewood as the devious LaFleche and Michael Neff as the eager-to-please Master Jacques, along with all of the major female players: Elizabeth Harelik as Harpagon’s daughter, MB Griffith as matchmaker Frosine and Lexi Bright as a young woman caught in a romantic bind.

The show also benefits from Trent Bean’s colorful set, Emily Jeu’s imaginative costumes and sparkling clear sound designed by William Bragg and engineered by Catherine Rinella.

Yet, despite all of these strengths, the production is truly funny in only one scene toward the end, when a trio of actors offer deadpan deliveries of monologues accompanied by equally deadpan background music. Otherwise, the show is merely pleasant.

Pleasant entertainment is better than none at all, but I’d rather be challenged, touched and transported, as I am by a good production of Shakespeare. How about it, Actors’ Theatre? Is it time to return the Bard to top billing?

Actors’ Theatre will present The Miser through Sept. 6 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: Pay what you will. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

One man’s quest to fly under the gaydar

Director David Thorpe (center) and friends in Do I Sound Gay?
Director David Thorpe (center) and friends in Do I Sound Gay?

By Richard Ades

David Thorpe likes being gay. He just doesn’t like broadcasting his sexual orientation every time he opens his mouth.

Thorpe’s attempt to avoid that is the subject of his new documentary, Do I Sound Gay?

The flick’s theme is bound to raise questions right off the bat. For starters: Why would an openly gay man want to disguise his gayness, especially in an era when society finally seems to be becoming more open-minded about homosexuality?

Thorpe has trouble answering this question, noting only that he’s in his 40s, still single and lacks confidence—all of which “might be why I’m obsessed with sounding gay,” the first-time director says.

But if Thorpe has trouble explaining why he wants to get rid of his gay voice, at least he does a good job of explaining what a stereotypical gay voice is. While careful to note that not all gay men sound gay—and, conversely, not all men who sound gay really are gay—he has a speech therapist lay out its components. They include nasality, high pitch, careful enunciation and a tendency to prolong vowels and “s’s.”

With the therapist’s help, Thorpe works to expunge any such qualities from his speech patterns. At the same time, he talks to friends about their own attitudes toward “sounding gay.”

Also interviewed on the subject are gay celebs such as sex columnist David Savage, Project Runway’s Tim Gunn and Star Trek alum George Takei. Most say it really doesn’t matter what one sounds like, but David Sedaris reveals mixed feelings about his own high-pitched voice. The writer admits that he sometimes worries it will turn off other gay men and the world in general.

Other gay men? The film points out that gay porn invariably features actors with deep, manly voices. Sounding gay is fine in the living room, it suggests, but a no-no in the bedroom. Hmm, maybe we’re getting to the root of Thorpe’s motivation.

The film covers lots of other territory, including the long history of stereotypically gay characters in Hollywood movies.

In one of the more serious segments, it also acknowledges that sounding and acting gay can be dangerous, even in our supposedly enlightened era. The proof is Zach, a flamboyant teen who proudly labels himself a diva but is secretly traumatized by the backlash he receives from classmates.

Thorpe is familiar with such backlash, recalling that, as a youngster, he toned down his own flamboyant tendencies to avoid being bullied by classmates. It wasn’t until much later, he learns from a cousin, that he reclaimed his gay mannerisms.

Given the director’s closeness to the topic, it’s not surprising that Do I Sound Gay falls short of being a great documentary. After more or less stumbling into the controversial subject and attacking it from every possible angle, Thorpe walks a tightrope at the end, trying to wrap things up in a way that placates anyone he might have offended.

Even so, give him credit for tackling the prickly topic in the first place and for examining it in a way that’s entertaining and sometimes even enlightening.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Do I Sound Gay? (unrated) opened Aug. 7 at the Gateway Film Center, 1550 N. High St. For information, visit gatewayfilmcenter.org.

Beware of ex-classmates bearing fish

Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (from left) in The Gift (photo by Matt Kennedy/STX Productions LLC)
Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (from left) in The Gift (photo by Matt Kennedy/STX Productions LLC)

By Richard Ades

Joel Edgerton is determined to set our nerves on edge with The Gift, and he succeeds pretty well. The writer/director/co-star knows just how to push the audience’s collective buttons.

The tale revolves around Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), who no sooner move into their new California home than they run into one of the husband’s old classmates: Gordo. Thanks to Edgerton’s subtly creepy portrayal, we instantly distrust this guy—to the extent that our stomachs tighten a little when Gordo overhears the couple’s new address.

Sure enough, he’s soon showing up unannounced, invariably when Robyn is home alone. Annoyed, Simon recalls that Gordo was always a “weirdo” and suggests that he has the hots for the pretty Robyn. She, on the other hand, thinks he’s just trying to be helpful.

Robyn, as we eventually learn, is not an accomplished judge of character.

As Gordo’s behavior grows more and more erratic, director Edgerton builds tension by supplying a series of shocks constructed in the time-honored fashion: He primes us with scenes of quiet dread followed by a sudden sight or sound. These are fun, especially when experienced with a vulnerable audience.

But Edgerton’s goal ultimately extends beyond eliciting Pavlovian responses. We learn that Simon has more history with Gordo than he’s willing to admit. It’s an ugly history that Simon would like to forget and that Gordo is unable to let go.

Frankly, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the early scenes, with their stock shocks, and the third act, with its unexpected complexity. That’s one of the few signs that this first-time director has more to learn.

A bigger disappointment is that the tale’s female lead is less interesting than her male counterparts.

Edgerton’s Gordo, as stated, is wonderfully creepy, while Bateman’s Simon has a tendency toward ruthlessness that becomes increasingly obvious as the story unfolds. As for Hall’s Robyn, we never quite get a handle on her.

We know she’s an accomplished interior designer, mostly because her husband tells us she is. We also know she has a history of pregnancy-related trauma and addiction. But she mainly comes across as simply a woman in danger—more of a plot device than a flesh-and-blood character.

Hall makes her watchable, but Edgerton’s script fails to make her knowable. The result: Even though The Gift continually scares us and surprises us, it never quite moves us.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Gift, rated R, opens Friday (Aug. 7) at theaters nationwide.