Love of cartoons opens door to boy’s closed mind

Owen Suskind, whose struggle to reconnect with the world is the subject of Life, Animated.
Owen Suskind’s struggle to reconnect with the world is the subject of Life, Animated.

By Richard Ades

The first time we meet Owen Suskind, it’s in home movies that show him as a young boy playing with his father and brother and watching Mickey Mouse on TV. The second time we meet him, he’s a 20-something man muttering to himself in cartoon-like voices.

The connection between the child and the man is explained in Life, Animated, a documentary that is both uplifting and heartbreaking. Directed by 2010 Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence), it’s about a family’s struggle to connect with a son afflicted by severe autism.

According to Owen’s father, former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, the first signs of trouble arose after his son turned 3. Though Owen had been developing as expected until then, he suddenly stopped communicating or learning new language, and he regularly had trouble sleeping.

Ron said he and his wife, Cornelia, tried to find out why, but it was like “looking for clues to a kidnapping.” The Owen they knew seemed to have disappeared.

The only bright spot in young Owen’s life was that he appeared to love watching the family’s VHS collection of Disney animated films. But it wasn’t until Ron made an astonishing discovery that this proved to be the key that would unlock the door to his son’s private world.

One day, in a desperate attempt to reopen communications with Owen, Ron greeted him with a squawking impersonation of Iago, the parrot from Aladdin. To his surprise, Owen responded with lines from the movie. The father soon realized that Owen had memorized not just Aladdin but all the Disney flicks, a fact he used to open up more channels of communication.

Though Life, Animated is about a man mesmerized by Disney tales, don’t expect it to follow a simple path to a Disney-like happy ending. The documentary frankly shows the ups and downs Owen encounters as his family tries to push him toward leading a full, independent adult life.

Romance is a particularly difficult problem. Even though Owen begins hanging out with a young woman he considers his girlfriend, he has no idea what a romantic relationship entails. “Disney doesn’t help with sex,” notes his concerned brother, ironically named Walt.

The film uses original animation to bring to life the characters Owen has imagined on his own.
The film uses original animation to bring to life the characters Owen has imagined on his own.

Helping director Williams tell this fascinating story are animators Mathieu Batard and Olivier Lescot and animation producer Philippe Sonrier, who bring to life the cartoon characters and dramas Owen imagines on his own. A couple of celebrity voice actors also show up in a surprise visit to a class Owen organizes for people who share his challenges.

If the movie has one element that may rub some the wrong way, it’s that the background music is occasionally on the manipulative side. Mostly, though, it’s as on target as the rest of this unique and heartwarming film.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Life, Animated (rated PG) opens Friday (July 29) at the Gateway Film Center, 1550 N. High St., Columbus. For tickets and show times, visit gatewayfilmcenter.org.

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Like ‘Othello,’ but with yuks and yokels

Leontes (Andy Falter, left) accuses Hermione (Kathryn Miller) of infidelity in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (photos by Richard Ades)
Leontes (Andy Falter, left) accuses Hermione (Kathryn Miller) of infidelity in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

Actors’ Theatre’s production of The Winter’s Tale is, at first glance, an impressive achievement. Directed by Micah Logsdon, it creates a crowd-pleasing evening out of a play that presents thespians with a couple of difficulties.

First difficulty: After introducing an unjust charge of marital infidelity much like the one depicted in Othello (which led off the troupe’s summer season), Shakespeare then all but abandons this tragic plot as he plies us with one comic scene after another.

Second difficulty: Shakespeare eventually returns to the original tragedy by setting up a scene that promises to heal old wounds while revealing mistaken identities. But he then allows this “scene” to transpire offstage, so that we hear about it only through peripheral characters.

Facing these challenges head on, Logsdon’s production makes the most of the comic scenes by employing talents such as former Shadowbox Live performer JT Walker III. It also adds interest by relocating the action from Sicily and Bohemia to turn-of-the-last-century Sicilia, Ky., and Bohemia, N.C. This not only allows the cast to speak the Elizabethan dialogue with an Appalachian accent, but it allows a trio of “balladeers” to punctuate the action with aptly chosen backwoods tunes.

Here’s the plot in a nutshell:

King Leontes (Andy Falter) of Sicilia is hosting an extended visit from King Polixines (David Widder-Varhegyi) of Bohemia when he begins to suspect his childhood friend has been having an affair with Leontes’s now-pregnant wife, Hermione (Kathryn Miller). Becoming insanely jealous, he orders one of his lords, Camillio (Christina Yoho), to murder the visiting monarch.

Leontes orders Camillio (Christina Yoho, left) to kill his wife’s suspected lover, but Camillio has other ideas
Leontes orders Camillio (Christina Yoho, left) to kill his wife’s suspected lover, but Camillio has other ideas

When that doesn’t happen—the decent Camillio instead warns Polixines and flees with him to Bohemia—Leontes completely loses it. He throws his wife into prison despite her protestations of innocence, and after she gives birth to a daughter, he orders an underling to abandon the suspected bastard in the wilderness. Sadly, Leontes doesn’t realize Hermione is innocent until his actions have led not only to the infant’s supposed loss but to the deaths of both his wife and their adolescent son.

All of this happens in Act 1, and it’s mostly handled well in Logsdon’s production. Falter delivers too many of Leontes’s lines at a pissed-off yell, but he eventually joins other cast members in giving a more nuanced performance. Among the others, especially memorable are Miller as the wronged Hermione and Jennifer Feather Youngblood as her righteously angry defender, Paulina.

After intermission, however, the strains of dealing with the play’s challenges begin to show.

Set in Bohemia 16 years in the future, it introduces us to Polixines’s son, Florizel (a relatable Robert Philpott), and the country lass who’s won his heart, Perdita (a sweet but feisty Madelyn Loehr). In the end, it also returns to a now-contrite Leontes and supplies partial closure for the tragedy that unfolded in Act 1.

For the most part, though, Act 2 is so dominated by comic scenes that it seems to have little connection to the somber developments in Act 1. I would blame this entirely on Shakespeare’s plotting if I weren’t haunted by a wonderful production of The Winter’s Tale that I saw more than two decades ago in Schiller Park.

Brilliantly directed by Mark Mann, it managed to slog through Act 2’s comedy without losing sight of the play’s central theme: redemption. It all culminated in one of the most moving finales I’ve witnessed on any stage, ever.

Further complicating my reaction to the current show is a 2004 production of The Comedy of Errors that first introduced Columbus to the novelty of delivering Shakespeare’s dialogue with an Appalachian accent. Director Frank Barnhart and his cast not only proved that it can sound very natural, but they did it without turning the characters into backwoods stereotypes.

In contrast, peripheral characters in the current production sometimes come off as generic yokels, undercutting the play’s serious overall theme. And as for that final scene, it’s further undercut by a revelation that comes minutes too soon.

As I said, there’s much to enjoy in Logsdon’s production. Besides its achievements in acting and musicianship, perks include the lighting and sound effects with which it creates the storm that ends Act 1.

It’s what happens after the storm that disappoints me, weakening the Bard’s morality tale with a trip into Hee Haw country. The detour adds brand new problems to a script that already has more than its share.

Actors’ Theatre will present The Winter’s Tale through Aug. 7 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Admission is free, but donations are requested. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

Reopened theater hosts revisited sitcom characters

Patsy (Joanna Lumley, left) and Eddy (Jennifer Saunders) toast what they hope is their good fortune in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie
Patsy (Joanna Lumley, left) and Eddy (Jennifer Saunders) toast what they hope is their good fortune in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

By Richard Ades

Absolutely fabulous. That’s the only way to describe Bexley’s renovated Drexel Theatre.

New décor. New seats. Best of all, new restrooms that are finally worthy of the well-heeled suburb where the landmark cinema sits. Their rundown predecessors were scarier than the average horror flick, but the new ones are so gorgeous that patrons will be tempted to gulp down a super-sized soda just so they’ll have an excuse to visit them.

Overall, the recently reopened Drexel is so posh that Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone would feel right at home there.

Wait. Who?

For those who don’t recognize those names, Edina “Eddy” Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) are the anti-heroines of both a film that opens at the Drexel this weekend and the classic British sitcom that spawned it. Both the series and the film are called Absolutely Fabulous.

Whether you think the film lives up to that name may depend on whether you were a fan of the series. Directed by Mandie Fletcher and written (like the TV show) by Saunders, the comedy jumps into Eddy and Patsy’s gaudy, glitzy world so abruptly that “Ab Fab” neophytes will have trouble getting their bearings.

In case you fit into this category, here’s a head start:

Officially, Eddy is in public relations and Patsy is a fashion editor, but they actually spend most of their time partying, getting high and trying desperately to hang onto their youth. Among the many people who share their world are:

▪ Eddy’s mother (June Whitfield)
▪ Eddy’s divorced daughter, Saffron (Julia Sawalha)
▪ Saffron’s teenage daughter, Lola (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness)
▪ Eddy’s bizarrely dressed personal assistant, Bubble (Jane Horrocks)

The far-fetched plot involves real-life model Kate Moss, whom Eddy desperately wants as a client. Eddy enlists Patsy and Lola in a scheme to meet Moss at a party, but all goes tragically wrong when the model falls off a balcony and into the Thames, where she’s lost and presumably drowned.

Suspected of pushing Moss to her death, Eddy ends up fleeing to the south of France with her lifelong friend. There they face the sobering fact that they’ll soon be destitute unless one of them finds a meal ticket, and fast. The result is a subterfuge that involves a fake mustache and a lonely, gullible billionaire.

Along its way to a finale that intentionally calls to mind Some Like It Hot, Absolutely Fabulous hopscotches its way through lots of beautiful scenery, lots of colorfully grotesque characters, and lots and lots of cameos (though few of them involve celebs familiar to Americans). Through it all, Eddy and Patsy remain as self-centered and immature as they’ve been since the series debuted in 1992.

Ab Fab newbies may get a few chuckles out of this meandering comedy, once they’re gotten past the unfamiliar accents and characters. As for longtime fans, they may get a few more—heck, they started laughing as soon as Eddy and Patsy made their first appearance at the screening I attended. But I suspect even they will admit the film’s real draw is the chance to see their favorite scamps one more time.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5) for Ab Fab newbies, 3½ for Ab Fab fans

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (rated R) opens Friday (July 22) at the Drexel Theatre and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

Missionaries have close encounter of the Merman kind

By Richard Ades

The Book of Merman is to The Book of Mormon what a Pekingese is to a bulldog: It’s smaller, fluffier and far less funny.

To be fair, The Book of Merman isn’t entirely fluffy, as it does have a message about being true to oneself. But you’ll see that coming so far in advance that it doesn’t have much impact.

Written by Leo Schwartz, the musical starts out with a clever premise. It’s about a pair of Mormon missionaries who come face to face with a woman who claims to be someone she clearly isn’t. Or is she?

We first meet Elders Shumway and Braithwaite (Nick Hardin and T. Johnpaul Adams) as they’re bickering their way from one suburban doorbell to the next while trying to avoid their territorial rivals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The bickering stems from the fact that Braithwaite is far more into their two-year mission than Shumway, who seems so averse to all things Mormon that he can’t even stand Salt Lake City.

Then they end up at the door of a woman who calls herself Ethel Merman (Gina Handy). Shumway, a fan of Broadway in general and Merman in particular, is overcome with joy. He immediately believes she’s who she says she is, even though the real Ethel Merman reportedly died in 1984. In no time, he’s chatting with her about his own dreams of becoming a Broadway composer and star.

For his part, Braithwaite doesn’t even know who Merman was—or is. He just wants to give this odd woman the word of Mormon so they can get on with their mission.

Working under Bryan Adam’s direction and Bryan Babcock’s musical direction, all three cast members give likable and tuneful performances.

Hardin is particularly convincing as the stage-struck Shumway, while Adams, by a slight margin, exhibits the most commanding voice. As Merman, Handy isn’t always as big and brassy as she could be, especially when she’s speaking. But when she really lays into a song, her Merman impersonation is nearly impeccable.

The songs themselves are sometimes takeoffs on Broadway tunes that became Merman standards. For example, Most People fills in for Some People from Gypsy, while You’re the Best replaces You’re the Top from Anything Goes. These are OK, but they suffer from comparison to the hits that inspired them.

Some of the Schwartz’s original songs are more entertaining, especially the Act 2 tribute Because of You, beautifully sung by Adams. Babcock’s spirited piano provides the musical accompaniment.

In between the songs, and even during one of them (Son of a Motherless Goat), the humor often pokes fun at the Mormons’ squeaky-clean ways, such as their refusal to curse. These jokes quickly suffer from diminishing returns.

More impressive than the script is the set on which it’s performed. Director Adam’s scenic design, showing Merman’s living room, is far more detailed than anything we’re used to seeing in the Columbus Performing Arts Center’s cozy Van Fleet Theatre.

With a handsome set, an endearing cast and a timeless moral, The Book of Merman adds up to a harmless diversion. If you want more than that, you’ll have to hold out for The Book of Mormon.

Evolution Theatre Company will present The Book of Merman through July 30 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday (no show July 27). Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 seniors, $15 students. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

Vengeful count transformed into vengeful countess

The unjustly imprisoned Amelie Dantes (McLane Nagy, left) develops an informative relationship with a fellow inmate (Catherine Cryan) in Actors’ Theatre’s world-premiere production of The Countess of Monte Cristo (photo by Richard Ades)
The unjustly imprisoned Amelie Dantes (McLane Nagy, left) develops an informative relationship with a fellow inmate (Catherine Cryan) in Actors’ Theatre’s world-premiere production of The Countess of Monte Cristo (photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

Actors’ Theatre seems to be focused on giving adults a good reason to come to Schiller Park this season. Judging from the huge crowd that gathered there last Saturday night, it seems to be succeeding.

The troupe launched the season with Shakespeare’s Othello, a tragedy in which the key murder was depicted in such painful detail that it could well have terrified impressionable youngsters. The current play has nothing that grim, but it does feature a complex plot and a large cast of characters that likely would confuse younger patrons.

Based on Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, The Countess of Monte Cristo is a world-premiere drama written by Philip J. Hickman and Jennifer Feather Youngblood and directed by Youngblood and Adam Simon. Recasting its protagonist as an early 19th century Frenchwoman named Amelie Dantes (McLane Nagy), it begins as she prepares for her upcoming marriage to Merced Herrera (James Harper).

Amelie’s happiness turns out to be short-lived. Thanks to the machinations of George Danglars (Benjamin Isaiah Black) and Fernanda Mondego (Kasey Leah Meininger)—who wants Merced for herself—Amelie is accused of possessing a treasonous letter that she actually knows nothing about. At first, it appears prosecuting attorney Gerard Villefort (Ken Erney) will right the wrong, but he changes his mind after realizing his own family will suffer if the contents of the letter become public.

Amelie ends up in prison, where she spends long, miserable years wondering just how she got there. It’s only after she meets a fellow inmate named the Abbess Faria (Catherine Cryan) that she finally figures out who put her there and why. It’s also thanks to the Abbess that Amelie eventually escapes and reinvents herself as the mysterious and vengeful countess of Monte Cristo.

Fernanda (Kasey Leah Meininger) convinces Merced (James Harper) to betray his fiancee, Amelie
Fernanda (Kasey Leah Meininger) convinces Merced (James Harper) to betray his fiancee, Amelie

All of this happens in the first act, which benefits from breezy storytelling and punchy portrayals by all concerned. Nagy is consistently watchable as Amelie, who makes a believable transition from a naïve fiancée to the fierce and resourceful countess. Memorable supporting roles are played by Meininger as the ruthlessly ambitious Fernanda; Harper as the weak-willed Merced; Cryan as the wise and kindly Abbess; and Derek Faraji as Ali, an enslaved doctor who is promised his freedom if he aids Amelie’s fight for justice.

Remember that I said the plot might confuse younger viewers? Truth is, I was confused myself after Amelie’s search for vengeance brought her into contact with the grown daughters of those who did her wrong. One problem is that we meet Alberta Herrera, Valentine Villefort and Eugenie Danglars (Mary Paige Rieffel, Myia Eren and Maggie Turek) totally apart from their parents, and it’s hard to keep it straight who’s related to whom.

Act 2 also suffers from talky scenes whose relationship to the plot isn’t always clear. Meanwhile, key developments take place offstage, making it even harder to follow the progression of Amelie’s quest for vengeance.

Sarah Fickling’s costume designs are handsome and sometimes glamorous, especially the gowns the countess wears before she, for reasons that aren’t quite clear, begins donning masculine clothes. Sound-wise, one or two characters’ mikes seemed under-amplified at the performance I attended, but otherwise the dialogue comes across remarkably clearly for an outdoor production.

Like most new works, The Countess of Monte Cristo has room for improvement—specifically, improvement that would make it easier to keep characters and plot developments straight. Still, playwrights Hickman and Youngblood deserve credit for what they’ve accomplished. Feminizing the Dumas classic was a daunting task, but they’ve done it in a way that allows them to explore gender issues without undercutting the original’s intriguing tale.

Actors’ Theatre will present The Countess of Monte Cristo through July 17 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Admission is free, but donations are requested. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.