Offbeat ‘Tempest’ cuts scenes, reassigns genders and adds politics

Prospera (Susan Wismar, left) tells daughter Miranda (Hannah Roth) how they arrived at a mysterious island in Actors’ Theatre’s production of The Tempest. (Photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

The Tempest is thought to be Shakespeare’s last play, which has led to the theory that its protagonist, Prospero, is a stand-in for the Bard himself. When the aging sorcerer gives up his magic at the end, it’s interpreted as symbolic of the playwright’s decision to stop favoring us with the literary magic that flowed from his pen.

Less favorably, some have viewed The Tempest as a reflection of Britain’s centuries of colonialism. This criticism stems from Prospero’s domination of Ariel and Caliban, inhabitants of the island he fled to after being cheated out of his rightful position as duke of Milan.

In the “director’s statement” for the current Actors’ Theatre production, David Harewood makes it clear he’s inspired by the latter interpretation, though he’s broadened the focus to touch on our own society’s faults. Sample critique: “A profit-driven justice system routinely robs men and boys younger than Caliban of their dignity, their lives, or both…”

Harewood’s determination to bend the text to address such political concerns helps to explain why what’s going on in Schiller Park seems unfamiliar even to those who’ve seen The Tempest multiple times. Harewood even goes so far as to deep-six the happy ending by reinterpreting the final speech.

There are other reasons the work seems unfamiliar, including the fact that scenes have been cut, one character has been eliminated and others have been given gender reassignments. To wit: Prospero is now Prospera (Susan Wismar), usurping brother Antonio is now usurping sister Antonia (Kasey Meininger), and royal councilor Gonzalo is now the sword-wielding Gonzala (Wilma Hatton).

The changes work particularly well in the case of Prospera, as Wismar makes her a forceful presence even when she’s being a devoted mom to naïve daughter Miranda (Hannah Roth). The only jarring aspect of Wismar’s performance is that she’s meaner than the sorcerer normally is, especially when she’s torturing the monstrous Caliban (Christopher “Casanova” Jones). The apparent reason: to underscore her identity as a colonizing presence on the island.

Trying to survive a storm conjured up by Prospera are (from left) King Alonso (Michael Neff); Gonzala (Wilma Hatton) and Antonia (Kasey Meininger).

The other changes also work well except that they add occasional confusion about the identities of various characters and their relationships with others. But the confusion mainly arises from other factors, including sound effects that drown out much of the dialogue during the storm Prospera conjures up to bring King Alonso (Michael Neff) and his entourage to the island in an attempt to right old wrongs. As a result, many viewers will struggle to figure out who’s who when Alonso and others reappear on the shore.

About the only shipwreck survivor whose identity is clear from the start is the one the others fear has drowned: Ferdinand (Tom Murdock), the king’s son, who soon justifies Prospera’s hopes by awakening the libido of the long-sheltered Miranda. (Note: Ferdinand and several other roles have been recast since the printed program was compiled.)

Another alteration from the original is the division of the spirit Ariel into three individuals, played by the sweet-singing Dakota Thorn and Shanelle Marie and the balletically lithe Christina Yoho. This is an interesting experiment whose only drawback is that the three can be hard to understand when they speak in unison, especially since they, like Jones’s Caliban, display Jamaican accents.

Ariel times three, played by (from left) Dakota Thorn, Shanelle Marie and Christina Yoho

How, you might ask, did Jamaicans end up on an island off the coast of Italy? And why does one of them (Caliban) make an entrance while singing an American spiritual? Such questions are overshadowed after the comically drunk Stefano (Tony Ludovico) and the clownish Trincula (Heather Gorby) show up, as both speak with an Appalachian twang. Their repartee is funny, but the unexpected accent is a jarring distraction.

Though nearly everyone from Wismar on down performs well, and though some of the innovations are interesting, the overall impression is that political posturing has taken much of the fun out of what should have been a magical night at the theater.

You’ve heard of “director’s cuts” that rob films of their popular appeal? This is a like a director’s cut of The Tempest.

Actors’ Theatre will present The Tempest through Sept. 3 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are pay what you will. Bring a blanket or lawn chair; reservations for seats or keepsake blankets are available for $20. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

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Frantic search for amore (and laughs)

Though Catholic, Domenico Nesci is not above donning a yarmulke for a romantic encounter arranged through JDate. (Photo courtesy of Random Media)

By Richard Ades

The Lonely Italian is being marketed as the “Borat of online dating.” I doubt many fans of that raunchy 2006 comedy will think it measures up, but there are a couple of similarities.

First, the star (L.A.-based TV and radio host Domenico Nesci) has an accent, though in this case it’s an actual accent. And second, most of the folks who meet Nesci in the documentary-style film are apparently unaware they’re being used as comic foils.

Directed by Lee Farber, the flick’s premise is that Nesci is frustrated over his inability to find female companionship. His explanation is that modern women have their noses buried so deep in their computers that it’s impossible to strike up a conversation with them.

Figuring the only way to meet them is through those computers, Nesci throws himself into the online dating scene with a vengeance. Once he finds Tinder, for example, he figures he’s hit the motherlode and “swipes right” on every profile he finds.

Other sampled sites include the old staple, Match.com, as well as more specialized offerings such as JDate. The latter is a stretch for Nesci because he’s Catholic rather than Jewish, but he doesn’t seem to care. After landing a date, he simply dons a yarmulke and fakes it until he thinks the woman is sufficiently charmed to overlook his duplicity. (She isn’t.)

In another stretch, Nesci tries DateMeDateMyPet.net and scores an impromptu meetup for which he’s forced to borrow a dog from a reluctant friend. This leads to a somewhat amusing encounter during which Nesci tells the woman his pooch is a 26-year-old female, only to be informed that 26 is improbably old and that the dog clearly has a penis.

Several of the dates fall into the “somewhat amusing” category because it’s all too obvious Nesci is doing a comic shtick by being either impossibly dense or willfully coarse. For the most part, the women react with smiling indulgence, though it’s not clear whether they give him a pass because (1) he’s an immigrant and they figure he doesn’t know better, or (2) they suspect it’s all a joke.

One date in which a woman doesn’t react with smiling indulgence is also one of the funnier episodes. When Nesci offers the woman a meat-and-cheese sandwich, she reminds him that she clearly told him she’s vegan and eats no animal products. The encounter goes downhill after the hungry Nesci tries to sneak a piece of meat himself.

Though the dates are hit or miss in terms of laughs and credibility, they generally fare better than staged scenes that feature Nesci and a concerned friend named Marquesa (Mark Chuakay). Especially unwelcome is a belated attempt at drama that sees Nesci supposedly having an attack of conscience over the self-centered way he’s been pursuing romance.

Yeah, right. Nesci clearly has been pursuing laughs rather than love, making this development about as convincing as the average online dating profile.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

The Lonely Italian was released Aug. 15 through VOD outlets.

Supernatural steed leads motherless kids on a flight from the law

By Richard Ades

A magical horse is helping Tantrum Theater continue its tradition of ending the summer with a work that complements the annual Dublin Irish Festival.

In 2016 (the troupe’s debut season), the selection was a beautifully staged production of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. This year, it’s Into the West, adapted by Greg Banks from a 1992 film about two Irish youths who go on a dangerous journey with a mysterious white steed.

Though not quite as sophisticated or rewarding as Lughnasa, it was an apt choice for any families who made it over to the Abbey Theater from last weekend’s festival. In both subject matter and length, it’s eminently kid-friendly.

Director Jen Wineman and her cast of three spin the lively tale with crucial help from onstage musician and sound designer Robertson Witmer. Each actor plays a leading role in addition to multiple supporting roles.

Turna Mete and Blake Segal portray Ally and Finn, Dublin youths who still grieve for the mother they lost years earlier. Greg Jackson plays their father, whose own reaction to his wife’s death has been to dilute his sorrow with booze. First, though, Jackson plays the grandfather who encounters a white horse and decides to leave it with his grandkids.

Ally and Finn are determined to keep the horse even though they live in a high-rise apartment building. Once their father sobers up enough to realize he has a new four-legged roommate, he naturally demands that they get rid of it. He relents after realizing the horse seems to help Ally’s asthma, but by then the animal has caught the eye of a police official who is determined to make a profit by putting it up for auction.

Desperate, the siblings steal the horse and take off on a cross-country journey with the law on their trail. What they don’t know is that the horse is a supernatural being who will ultimately lead them back into the sea from whence it came.

Into the West’s mixture of loss and Irish mythology may remind some of Song of the Sea, a wondrous 2014 animated film that also centers on motherless siblings. The play can’t match the film’s immersive power, but it’s entertaining, often humorous, and concludes on a note that will leave few viewers with dry eyes.

Mete and Jackson are particularly affecting as the fragile Ally and her repentant father, but Segal also is solid as the stalwart Finn. Deb O’s scenic design complements the production’s minimalist nature by depicting the tale’s multiple settings with the help of a few wooden pallets and barrels and yards of wrinkled, translucent plastic.

Dublin’s Irish Festival may be over, but Into the West gives families a good reason to return to the suburb with the Irish name.

Tantrum Theater will present Into the West through Aug. 19 in the Abbey Theater, Dublin Recreation Center, 5600 Post Road, Dublin. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (except Aug. 13), 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Tickets are $28, $26 seniors (65-plus), $10 students with a valid ID. 614-793-5700 or tantrumtheater.org.

Summer camp, with togas

Cleopatra (Nick Hardin) gets acquainted with Julius Caesar (Doug Joseph) in Charles Busch’s Cleopatra, running through Sunday at Short North Stage’s Garden Theater. (Photos by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Charles Busch’s Cleopatra could be called a funnier take on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Then again, the one time I saw the Bard’s original, it seemed pretty funny.

That’s because the lead actors overplayed the title roles so thoroughly that each seemed to be trying to upstage the other. What’s worse, Antony did his emoting in such a juicy fashion that while the audience was being bathed in pathos, poor Cleo was being showered with spit. Needless to say, the tragic ending failed to move anyone to tears.

The situation is entirely different in Columbus Immersive Theater’s intentionally humorous production of Cleopatra. Though Busch’s approach to comedy could never be called dry, at least the spit spraying is kept to a minimum. That’s fortunate, because the stage runs across the middle of the intimate Green Room, which means no viewer is far from the action.

Working under Edward Carignan’s direction (and in the colorful costumes he designed), the actors stay true to the work’s campy sense of humor.

Seeking friends in high places: Nick Hardin as Cleopatra

In the title role, Nick Hardin is spectacularly on target as the Egyptian queen who must curry favor with her country’s Roman conquerors. Hardin’s Cleo is a mixture of innocence and ruthless cunning, with occasional winking references to the 1940s movie stars who are a favorite camp inspiration.

The two Romans who become her love interests, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, are played with surprising restraint by Doug Joseph and Rob Philpott, respectively. Fans of Joseph’s drag performances will be happy to know he later gets the opportunity to appear as Caesar’s justifiably jealous wife, Calpurnia. Though all too brief, it’s one of the show’s more hilarious moments.

In another dual role, Kate Lingnofski is a convincingly naïve as Octavia, but on opening night she was less successful as Octavia’s brother, Octavian. That may be a reflection of this fundraising production’s speeded-up rehearsal schedule and isn’t necessarily indicative of how Lingnofski will do in remaining performances.

Cleopatra’s underlings are entertainingly played by Ricky Locci as Apollodorus (AKA “Dorus”), Kelsey Hopkins as Charmion and Laura Falb as Iras, a new hire who at first foments Charmion’s ire and later arouses another emotion entirely. Perhaps the actor who makes the most of his role’s potential is Nick Lingnofski, who’s a hoot as the anxiety-inducing (and anxiety-prone) Soothsayer.

It should be noted that all of the actors are performing gratis to support the work of Short North Stage.

If Cleopatra isn’t quite as funny as some of Busch’s other creations—for instance, Die, Mommie, Die!, a Short North Stage hit in 2016—it may be because the playwright was shackled by characters he didn’t invent. But the comedy is still fun, thanks to a cast and director who know how to make the most of its campy take on an iconic romance.

Columbus Immersive Theater will present Cleopatra through Aug. 6 at Short North Stage’s Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.