Period piece favors outrageousness over logic

Kathryn Miller, Colleen Dunne and Melissa Bair (from left) in Skillet Tag (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)
Kathryn Miller, Colleen Dunne and Melissa Bair (from left) in Skillet Tag (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

By Richard Ades

Pete Bakely’s Skillet Tag is about a company team-building exercise that turns into a night of mayhem and menstruation. It’s just the kind of diversion we want and expect from MadLab for the Halloween season.

Well, with one exception: It would be nice if it came with a few more laughs.

Yes, there are chuckles and snickers, but they mostly come from Bakely’s willingness to push beyond the boundaries of good taste. For instance, characters come up with a myriad of terms for the menstrual cycle after it develops that every woman in the office is “entertaining the Red Army” simultaneously. And, oh yes, a used tampon makes a sudden appearance right before an act of onstage coitus.

Gross? Yes. Funny? Well…

One problem is that none of this makes much sense. From the beginning, it’s obvious that Bakely is more interested in setting up outrageous developments than he is in making them believable.

Why does host Jeff (Jason Sudy) insist that his underlings play “tag” by bonking each other over the heads with skillets? And when the hazardous game produces the first of the evening’s multiple fatalities, why is Neal (Chad Hewitt) nervous that the result will be a visit by murderous thugs? After all, this is a company that prints greeting cards, not a branch of the Mafia.

There’s a vague explanation that the staff long ago got bored and began venturing into dangerous sidelines, but logic clearly is not one of the playwright’s strengths.

Working under Michelle Batt’s direction on Brendan Michna’s handsome set, the actors dive gamely into the one-dimensional characters.

Gamest of all is Colleen Dunne as Becky, a secretary who seems to take a monthly trip to the edge of insanity. Others include Kathryn Miller as a recently hired attorney, Casey May as a dimwitted IT expert and Melissa Bair as the office lush. In her usual thoughtful fashion, Bair manages to suggest that her character actually has something going on beneath the surface, but she’s limited by a script that mostly confines her to swilling copious amounts of alcohol.

Also making brief appearances are Lance Atkinson and Chelsea Jordan as cops who are called (separately) to the scene after the corpses begin piling up. Incidentally, Atkinson’s cop may be unprofessional, but his female counterpart is totally incompetent. When you combine that fact with the evening’s liberal helpings of menstrually inspired mayhem, you might conclude that feminism falls somewhere under logic on Bakely’s list of attributes.

Then again, you probably won’t, because it’s hard to take any of this seriously. It’s simply an excuse to take a jokey, blood-spattered journey to the edge of propriety.

If you aren’t too squeamish about how you get there—or where that blood comes from—you might enjoy yourself.

Skillet Tag continues through Oct. 31 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.

Advertisements

Waltzing through a tender tale of longing and infidelity

One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)
One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)

By Richard Ades

To succeed, a musical production needs basic ingredients such as strong singing, a good band, pretty scenery, etc. If a show has all of these things, it’s probably worth seeing.

But it can be so much more if the director has a feel for the material’s subtleties (assuming there are any) and knows how to communicate them to the cast and crew. Then the musical becomes a transcendent experience.

At Short North Stage, I’ve seen two such productions, both written by Stephen Sondheim: 2013’s Sunday in the Park With George and, now, A Little Night Music. In the current show, a bittersweet reverie on love and regret, director Michael Licata and his cast bring out every knowing chuckle and every tender, aching moment.

Adapted by Hugh Wheeler from the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, the 1973 Tony winner centers on two Swedish households at the turn of the last century.

In one, middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Mark A. Harmon) lives with young wife Anne (Jennifer Barnaba) and his son from a previous marriage, seminary student Henrik (JJ Parkey). In the other, Madame Armfeldt (Linda Dorff) cares for granddaughter Fredrika (Maria Delanno) while the girl’s mother, actress Desiree (Marya Spring), is off touring with her latest play.

From the start, it’s apparent that the Egerman household is emotionally unstable. Fredrik loves his girlish wife but is frustrated by her reluctance to take part in marital relations. When Desiree’s touring show arrives in town, he can’t resist going to see the woman with whom he had an affair some 14 years earlier.

This leads to a night of passion that arouses the suspicions of Desiree’s current lover, the pinheaded Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Nick Lingnofski). Being a first-class male chauvinist, he then complains about his mistress’s indiscretion to his long-suffering wife, Charlotte (Kate Lingnofski).

All the desires, suspicions and resentments that were fomented in Act 1 come to a delicious head in Act 2, when everyone converges at Madame Armfeldt’s estate for a country outing.

It’s hard to find fault with the large cast, except to note that Barnaba’s Anne sometimes fades into the woodwork and that her pretty soprano voice was occasionally overwhelmed by the band on opening night. Really, though, there are no weak links.

Spring exudes worldly confidence as Desiree, which makes her vulnerable rendition of the show’s most memorable tune, Send in the Clowns, all the more devastating. As former lover Fredrik, Harmon offers a deftly sketched portrait of a decent man tottering on a tightrope between obligation and desire.

Parkey, a familiar visitor on the Short North stage, gives one of his best performances yet as Henrik, a young man pulled in opposite directions by his religious ideals and his unspoken love for his 18-year-old stepmother. Another career-topping performance is given by Dorff as Madame Armfeldt, whether she’s tackling Sondheim’s tricky melodies or waxing philosophical about roads not taken.

Several hearty laughs are earned by Nick Lingnofski as the preening, adulterous count, while Kate Lingnofski communicates all of the conflicting emotions felt by his wronged but loving wife, Charlotte. In another important supporting role, Eli Brickey gives a saucy but warmhearted portrayal as Petra, Anne’s maid and confidante, and delivers a rousing rendition of The Miller’s Son, a Celtic-flavored statement of female self-sufficiency.

Meanwhile, young Maria Delanno shows remarkable poise as the wise-beyond-her-years Fredrika—to the extent that she didn’t even flinch when a piano bench collapsed under her on opening night.

Adding to the production’s texture are the varied voices who serve as a sort of musical Greek chorus, as well as the backstage musicians who perform under Lloyd Butler’s direction. Interestingly, nearly all of the songs are written in waltz time, which makes it fitting that the most prominent dance numbers (choreographed by Dionysia Williams) are actual waltzes.

Like the troupe’s 2013 staging of Sunday in the Park With George, the current show is a visual treat thanks to Ray Zupp’s gauze-strewn scenery, Adam Zeek’s ethereal lighting and a colorful array of costumes supervised by Stephanie Keller. But perhaps the most important of the backstage talents is sound designer Michael Mason, who succeeds in making nearly every syllable come through clearly—not an easy feat in the Garden Theater’s cavernous main auditorium.

With A Little Night Music, Short North Stage proves once again that it understands Sondheim. The show is tender, wise, witty and—for devoted fans of the composer/lyricist—completely unmissable.

Short North Stage will present A Little Night Music through Nov. 1 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

You say kabuki, I say ka-pokey…

Julie Klein, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Billy DePetro (from left) in The Tenshu (Shadowbox Live photo)
Julie Klein, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Billy DePetro (from left) in The Tenshu (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

No one ventures outside its comfort zone more than Shadowbox Live.

The troupe could play it safe by sticking to its usual formula of skits and rock tunes, but it continually pushes beyond that SNL-like envelope by putting on ambitious, original shows. In recent years, those shows have largely been huge successes.

With The Tenshu, the kabuki-inspired tale that opened last week, Shadowbox pushes the envelope more than ever. Not only has it consulted with an international collaborator for the first time, but it’s completely redesigned its space—to the extent that its other current productions had to be placed on hold for the show’s three-week run.

What a shame that all of this effort has added up to a decidedly mixed success.

Visually, the show is striking, thanks to Britton Mauk’s Japanese-style scenery, Linda Mullin’s ornate costumes, David Mack’s macabre makeup and Aaron Pelzek’s lighting, along with puppets designed by Beth Kattelman and others.

Musically, the show is a bit less satisfying, though the original score is an interesting attempt to combine traditional Japanese sounds with rock beats.

But it’s in the drama department that the show really lags, suggesting that there’s a reason kabuki has never caught on in America. Adapted from a play written by Izumi Kyoka and translated from the Japanese by Hiromi Sakamoto, it lacks the unifying plot that Western viewers expect from a theatrical work.

Instead, it’s united by a single character and her mysterious home. All of the events occur in and around an ancient castle whose fifth floor is inhabited by a ghostly noblewoman named Tomihime (Stacie Boord) and her entourage.

Act 1 deals with Tomihime’s preparations for a visit from her friend Kamehime (Leah Haviland), as well as her use of supernatural powers to repel a band of samurai warriors led by the evil Lord Harima (Jimmy Mak). There are moments of enchantment and beauty, but much of the time is spent simply telling stories or exchanging gifts and pleasantries.

Act 2 finally gets to the meat of the tale: Tomihime’s potentially romantic encounter with a disgraced samurai named Zusho (JT Walker III). Unfortunately, the encounter proceeds so slowly that viewers’ patience may be put to the test.

Throughout, director Stev Guyer has the actors speak in a deliberate, declamatory manner. It’s probably meant to mimic the style of kabuki acting, but the approach makes it even harder for Western viewers to maintain interest in the slow-paced tale.

Shadowbox head writer Mak tries to make up for the script’s talkiness by adding action scenes reminiscent of Japanese samurai flicks or anime cartoons. Among them are two intricately choreographed swordfights and an attack by a huge, flying creature with glowing eyes.

Dancing also plays a role, courtesy of Katie Psenicka’s choreography. The most memorable dance represents a battle between a falcon (Nick Wilson) and a crane (Amy Lay).

The dance numbers are graceful, while the action sequences are thrilling. There just aren’t enough of them to make up for the show’s long stretches of lifeless dialogue.

The talent is all top-notch, both onstage and off-, but it’s not enough to sell the exotic story. Maybe what’s needed are subtitles—not to translate what happens but to explain why we’re supposed to find it compelling.

The Tenshu continues through Oct. 25 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40, $10 for ages 12 and under. An abridged version will be presented at 1 p.m. Friday (doors at noon). Running time: 45 minutes. Tickets are $10, $5 students/seniors/military. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Shoemaker sets out to save cross-dressers’ soles

The touring cast of Kinky Boots, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (photo by Matthew Murphy)
The touring cast of Kinky Boots, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

I have to admit I went into Kinky Boots with a small chip on my shoulder.

In 2013, Matilda the Musical was expected to win a slew of Tony Awards, including for best musical. Instead, despite having opened to mixed reviews, Kinky Boots danced away with the top prize.

Full disclosure: I love Matilda the Musical. Seeing it was my favorite Broadway experience since Memphis. After Kinky Boots beat out the magical lass for the top prize and others, including Cyndi Lauper’s win for best score, I decided it had better be damn good.

Anyway, that was my mindset going into the Ohio Theatre on Tuesday night, which helps to explain why it took me a while to warm up to the show. Eventually, though, I came around.

Adapted by Harvey Fierstein from a 2005 movie, Kinky Boots is the story of Charlie (Steven Booth), a young Englishman who’s preparing to move to London with his fiancée, Nicola (Charissa Hogeland). In the process, he’s leaving behind the family business, a Northampton shoe factory run by his father (Tom Souhrada).

No sooner does Charlie get to London, however, than he learns his father has died. As if that weren’t enough bad news, he then realizes the company is going broke because it can’t compete in a market flooded with cheap, foreign-made shoes.

Enter Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker), a drag performer whose chief problem seems to be her inability to find high-heeled boots strong enough to support her male frame. Thanks to a suggestion from factory worker Lauren (Lindsay Nicole Chambers), Charlie realizes the only way to save the business—along with the jobs of the people he grew up with—is to find a niche need and fill it. His solution: Start making sturdy, yet stylish, footwear for the discriminating cross-dresser.

I said I eventually came around on Kinky Boots, but that doesn’t mean I love everything about it. You don’t have to be an expert on Morse code to recognize that Fierstein is telegraphing plot points well in advance, including the fate of Charlie’s relationship with the sour-tempered Nicola. And things get even more transparent in the second act, when Fierstein manufactures conflicts by having Charlie act in totally unconvincing ways.

The show’s salvation is Lauper’s genre-hopping score, which earns its Tony. A couple of the songs strike me as derivative, but they’re generally enjoyable and catchy.

Of course, any production rises or falls on the strength of its cast, and this touring show’s cast acts, sings and dances delightfully under the guidance of director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell. At the top of the bill, Booth is relatable as Charlie, while Parker is nothing short of amazing as the sassy, yet soulful, Lola.

Some early critics complained that the show loses steam in the second act, but I actually like it better because it gives Lola a chance to grow into something beyond a flashy stereotype. Yes, Lola’s production numbers with her lascivious “Angels” are fun, but Parker’s best moment comes when Lola slows down for the Act 2 lament Hold Me in Your Heart. It’s a true show stopper.

Visually, the show is equally impressive, thanks to Gregg Barnes’s costumes, Kenneth Posner’s lighting and David Rockwell’s glorious scenery.

The one place the touring show could stand improvement is in the area of the sound. On opening night, whole lines of dialogue and lyrics were indecipherable. The English accents were partially to blame, but poor mixing seemed to be the main culprit. Hopefully, that problem will be fixed as the week goes on.

Did Kinky Books deserve to steal the top Tony away from Matilda? Not in my book. But it does give musical-loving theatergoers a colorful, toe-tapping good time.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Kinky Boots Oct. 6-11 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $33-$118. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Maybe the goat ate his moral compass

(Martin) Tim Browning and Stevie (Sonda Staley) find themselves in a romantic triangle with a barnyard animal in The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? (photo by Matt Slaybaugh)
(Martin) Tim Browning and Stevie (Sonda Staley) find themselves in a romantic triangle with a barnyard animal in The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? (photo by Matt Slaybaugh)

By Richard Ades

What’s a guy to do?

Martin Gray loves his wife and has been faithful to her throughout their marriage. Then, during a visit to the countryside, he meets and instantly falls for a beautiful, sweet-natured female—a female who just happens to be a goat.

D’oh! Or rather: Doe!

In The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, esteemed playwright Edward Albee charges headfirst into the prickly topic of bestiality, and he doesn’t exactly handle it with kid gloves. Instead, he uses Martin’s predicament to question traditional concepts of love and morality.

Yes, Albee holds Martin up to some degree of satirical ridicule, but not because a barnyard creature has turned the architect into a bleating-heart liberal on the topic of interspecies romance. No, it’s Martin’s personality that makes him the butt of Albee’s jokes.

Martin (Tim Browning)—like wife Stevie (Sonda Staley) and, to a lesser extent, son Billy (Jesse Massaro)—is depicted as a superficial intellectual. He’s so enraptured by his own cleverness that he periodically interrupts even the fiercest argument to compliment a particularly apt comment or to question a grammatical choice.

Another early source of humor is Martin’s self-admitted forgetfulness. Apparently distracted by his secret affair with a four-legged lover, he simply can’t hold onto the threads of conversations with either his wife or his best friend, Ross (Todd Covert).

Is The Goat a comedy? That seems to be Albee’s goal at first, but later it hops the fence into the realm of tragedy as Martin’s new love places him on the horns of a marital dilemma.

At any rate, it’s not a gut-busting comedy, seldom generating more than the occasional chuckle in Red Herring’s current production. The main problem is that Albee tries to milk Martin’s forgetfulness for so many laughs that few materialize.

Then again, neither is it a great tragedy, unless you relate to Martin’s quandary—and unless you find the ending far more shocking than I did. Though I’m far from prescient, I saw it trotting my way from a mile off.

Working under Michael Herring’s direction, the actors generally play their characters naturalistically, though sometimes with a tinge of satirical exaggeration. Personally, I found Staley and Massaro the most convincing, but that’s partly because their characters are the most relatable for those of us who haven’t gone looking for love in the nearest stall. Stevie and Billy greet the news of Martin’s bucolic canoodling with understandable fury and disbelief.

As for Browning, he plays Martin as a man so obsessed by his bearded lover that he’s basically sleepwalking through life. That’s an appropriate interpretation, but I still don’t get the character. It might help if Albee had allowed Martin to go into more detail about the moment he first fell in love with a creature whose greatest joy comes from licking the glue off tin cans.

But he doesn’t, because Albee is more interested in fomenting an audience reaction than he is in an actual interspecies relationship. Before the play is over, he’s brought up such equally scandalous topics as incest and sexual attraction toward an infant.

Most provocatively of all, he has Martin attack his son’s homosexuality, as if that were somehow analogous to his own love for Sylvia. No, huh-uh. There’s no analogy between the two, despite what fear-mongering opponents of gay marriage might tell you. Consenting adults can do whatever they want, but farm animals can never be said to have free will.

Herring’s set design of the Grays’ home is modern and avant-garde, which seems fitting. On opening night, however, individual pieces had problems: a pedestal nearly falling over, a chair partially coming apart, two vases falling off shelves seemingly of their own volition. Though these appeared to be accidents, I couldn’t help wondering whether Herring meant for at least some of them to happen as symbols of the Gray family’s precarious equilibrium.

Another production oddity: Though the play was designed to be performed in one act, Red Herring adds an intermission about 35 minutes in. It serves no obvious function, as it follows a dramatic development that will come as no surprise to 99 percent of the audience.

Will the Gray family survive Martin’s barnyard dalliance? It seems that Albee wants us to care whether they do, but truthfully, I didn’t. Though parts of it are entertaining, the play as a whole is hard to take seriously.

Yes, it won a Tony (in 2002, for best play), but it’s disappointingly shallow, especially coming from the man who gave us theater’s greatest marital spat of all time: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Other than their author and the titular question marks, the two works could not be more different.

Red Herring Theatre will present The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? through Oct. 10 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20 in advance, pay what you want at the door. 614-723-9116 or redherring.info.