You probably weren’t there, but you’ll wish you were

Brandon Anderson (left) and Leah Haviland sing Mellow Yellow in a scene from Underland (photo by Mark Bealer)
Brandon Anderson (left) and Leah Haviland sing Mellow Yellow in a scene from Underland (Studio 66 photo)

By Richard Ades

I didn’t make it to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district until several years after the 1967 “Summer of Love.” By then, most of the flower children seemed to have disappeared.

What I found, instead, was dog poop. Mounds and mounds of dog poop, effectively turning the sidewalks into obstacle courses. It seemed that curbing your dog, much less picking up after it, was a foreign concept in this former capital of the counter-culture.

As a result of my tardy arrival at the Haight, I reacted to Shadowbox Live’s Underland much like I reacted to its earlier original musical, the Woodstock-based Back to the Garden. In each case, I was left with a feeling of wistful nostalgia—wistful because I hadn’t experienced either Woodstock or the Summer of Love. I only wished I had.

Written by Shadowbox’s Jimmy Mak, both musicals attempt to re-create a bygone era with the aid of a sketchy plot and memorable musical hits of the day. Both accomplish the task, but Back to the Garden did it a bit more successfully: The story was more compelling, and many of the rock songs were sung by facsimiles of the original performers, raising the fun quotient.

But Underland, directed by the always-inventive Stev Guyer, is impressive in its own right. It’s impossible not to enjoy a show that starts with If You’re Going to San Francisco, ends with A Whiter Shade of Pale and includes more than a dozen other classics in between. Music director Matt Hahn captures their original sound and spirit so effectively that suspicious patrons may think the performers are simply lip-synching to the originals. (They’re not, of course.)

Tying it all together is a plot that’s a mixture of Alice in Wonderland-inspired fantasy and wartime reality.

Albert (Robbie Nance), a vet who served as a sniper in Vietnam, arrives in the Haight in search of his missing daughter. His quest brings him into contact with local eccentrics such as Father William (JT Walker III), who doles out drugs along with spiritual guidance. More disturbingly, Albert encounters mystical characters seen only by him: the supportive Mouse (Edelyn Parker), the hyper-critical Cat (Amy Lay) and the gung-ho warrior Greenie (Tom Cardinal).

As Albert, a sincere Nance fulfills his main purpose, which is to anchor this return to a time and place that helped to define a decade. Still, his part is rather thinly written. More interesting than Albert’s search are the sights and sounds he encounters along the way.

The sights include the Diggers, a group of thespians who supplied the real-life Haight with both political satire and food. In Underland, they force Albert to take part in a skit involving a giant head representing LBJ.

But the sounds, in the form of ’60s rock hits, are the real backbone of Underland’s appeal. Oddly, the most fun of all is the laid-back Mellow Yellow, thanks to inspired performances by Brandon Anderson as an animated shopkeeper and Leah Haviland as his downer-addicted wife.

Among the most beautiful numbers is Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, sung by Walker’s Father William and a series of strangers who wander by. Others include How Can I Be Sure, sung by Nikki Fagin with a rich voice that may remind you of Karen Carpenter.

Purists may complain about the way some classics are used. The Who’s I Can See for Miles, for example, is about an unfaithful lover, not about a struggle for battlefield survival. That said, Underland’s version, sung by Cardinal and accompanied by video images of wartime violence, does achieve a kind of surreal power.

A more serious complaint is that a couple of songs are cut off in the prime of life. It’s especially annoying that Respect ends just as vocalist Katy Psenicka and the band really start cookin’.

All will likely be forgiven by the time Julie Klein wraps up the show with a gorgeous rendition of Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, but still. After waiting 46 years for Shadowbox’s take on the Summer of Love, we can certainly wait a few minutes more for it to come to an end.

Underland continues through May 19 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

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Dittohead with a grudge against the health-care system

By Richard Ades

Mercy Killers is a play with a message.

Playwright/actor Michael Milligan makes no attempt to hide that fact. And even if he did, the secret would be out as soon as you hit the ticket table and found it littered with handouts from a group called the Single-Payer Action Network.

The one-man play’s message is that America’s health-care system leaves people vulnerable to physical and financial ruin. And that’s true even if they have health insurance.

Fortunately, Ohio State alum Milligan is a thespian rather than a clergyman. As a result, the play is much more than a glorified sermon.

As Joe, a car mechanic who’s a fan of Rush Limbaugh, Milligan tells a tale involving a cancer-stricken wife and an insurance company that finds an excuse to bail as soon as the medical bills start piling up. It all unfolds in the form of a rambling statement made to an unseen police officer who suspects Joe of committing a serious crime.

The nature of that crime is unspecified until the end, but Milligan throws in enough foreshadowing to give it away to all but the most optimistic viewers. Despite this, all but the most hard-hearted audience members are likely to find themselves tearing up when the moment of truth finally arrives.

Up until then, the tale is slightly hampered by its structure. The play’s setup—not to mention the title—gives us no reason to believe things will go well. So when Joe relates the ups and downs of his relationship with his wife, Jane, we know better than to hope for the best.

It’s also not hard to see the author’s politically motivated thought processes at work: Joe is portrayed as a Limbaugh dittohead in order to give more weight to his eventual indictment of the health-care system.

But two things work in the play’s favor.

First, it’s filled with details that are both plausible and relatable. And second, Milligan is a very good actor, allowing him to breathe touching reality into what could have come off as a mere propaganda piece.

Will the Affordable Care Act, once it’s fully implemented, prevent tragedies such as the one that befalls Joe and Jane? Hopefully it will make them less likely, but Milligan and the group that’s helping to coordinate the show clearly feel more change is needed. For a look at what the group is advocating, visit spanohio.org.

For a refresher course on why the health-care system is in need of change, see Mercy Killers.

On the Verge Productions will present Mercy Killers through March 9 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Show times are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour. Free; donations encouraged. Mercykillerstheplay.com.

Artist’s biopic is less opaque than his work

By Richard Ades

If you want to get acquainted with artist Mark Rothko before seeing his exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art, one way is to visit the National Gallery of Art’s website (http://www.nga.gov/feature/rothko/). It has a beautifully illustrated biography of the artist’s career.

It will help you to understand where all those nonrepresentational images and subtly modulated colors come from.

If you prefer a more dramatic (if less factual) introduction to the artist, CATCO’s production of Red fills the bill. John Logan’s 2010 Tony winner imagines that Rothko hired an assistant in 1958 and spent roughly two years lecturing him on art, history and philosophy.

Does an artist really need to know Nietzsche to create paintings that basically consist of rectangular blocks of color? Yes, according to Logan’s Rothko, if he wants those blocks to impart profound meaning to those who see it.

But then the question becomes: Will viewers understand all that profundity if they fail to approach it with a similar amount of knowledge and thoughtfulness? Rothko doubts that they will, one of many worries he shares with Ken, his assistant.

From an arts-history standpoint, Logan’s journey inside the head of a successful but self-tortured artist is fascinating. From a dramatic standpoint, it’s somewhat less so, in spite of good efforts from director Jimmy Bohr and his cast of two.

Kevin McClatchy communicates Rothko’s self-impressed and self-absorbed nature without turning him into a hateful caricature. Tim Simeone provides a convincingly evolving portrayal of Ken, whose worshipful timidity eventually gives way to wry comments on his boss’s eccentricities.

Despite Ken’s growth, the two men’s relationship is essentially static because the egotistical Rothko simply doesn’t care about him. “These paintings deserve compassion,” he says as a pre-emptive strike against critics. But he has none for Ken.

The play’s lack of dramatic development leaves it feeling talky at times, but it’s talky in a historically and artistically interesting kind of way.

Michael S. Brewer’s set is a realistic depiction of Rothko’s cavernous studio. Jarod Wilson’s lighting, like the lighting Rothko prefers for his exhibition spaces, is low enough to retain an air of mystery.

You may not come out of the play feeling like you know Rothko, but you’ll at least have an inkling of how much thought—and ego—went into those huge blocks of color.

CATCO will present Red through March 3 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $26-$41, $11.50 for Wednesday matinees. 614-469-0939, catco.org or ticketmaster.com.

“Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade 1940-1950” will be on display through May 26 at the Columbus Museum of Art, 480 E. Broad St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (evening hours extended to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday). Museum admission is $12, $8 students (18-plus) and seniors (60-plus), $5 for ages 6-17, free for children 5 and younger; free for all on Sunday. 614-221-4848 or columbusmuseum.org.