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.

Romance takes back seat to social satire in charming Austen adaptation

Mr. Darcy (Justin King) busies himself writing a letter while the woman he pines after, Elizabeth Bennet (Elizabeth Harelik, in yellow dress), visits her sister Jane (Beth Josephsen) in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Pride & Prejudice. (Photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

In his printed “Director’s Statement,” Mark Mann complains that some of us—and by “us,” I mean men—tend to dismiss Pride & Prejudice as a “chick flick.”

Technically, what’s going on in Schiller Park isn’t any kind of flick because it’s live theater, but we take his point. Jane Austen’s original novel was more interested in critiquing society than in giving her readers a soggy love story. And that comes through in Jon Jory’s stage adaptation and in Mann’s production of that adaptation.

Set in early 19th century England, the tale revolves around the Bennet household, which consists of a father (David Jon Krohn), a mother (Danielle Mann) and their five daughters. Because Mr. Bennet is not allowed to leave his estate to a female heir, Mrs. Bennet is determined to secure their daughters’ fortunes by finding them well-off husbands. Hence, she’s excited when the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Trenton Weaver) moves into the neighborhood.

Mrs. Bennet’s hope is buoyed when this financially worthy gentleman seems taken with her eldest daughter, Jane (Beth Josephsen). However, things go less smoothly when Bingley’s even wealthier friend Mr. Darcy (Justin King) meets second-oldest daughter Elizabeth (Elizabeth Harelik). Darcy seems fascinated by the outspoken young woman, but he’s so haughty and untactful that he immediately puts her off.

Mr. Bingley (Trenton Weaver, left) and Mr. Darcy (Justin King) are both attracted to Bennet sisters, but the former does a better job of showing it.

That sets up a romantic dance as nuanced and delicate as the period-appropriate choreography Meghan Western provides for the play’s party scenes.

Elizabeth’s opinion of Darcy sinks lower and lower, especially after she meets his estranged childhood friend, Wickham (JT Walker III). As for Darcy, he finds Elizabeth increasingly attractive, but he’s so stiff and socially inept that she doesn’t have an inkling of his true feelings. Meanwhile, others conspire to keep the two apart, including the smitten Miss Bingley (Natalia White) and the regal Lady Catherine (Cate Blair Wilhelm).

Andrew Weibel’s pastel scenery and Pam Bloom’s costumes help to define a formal era when even Elizabeth’s long-married parents still address each other as “Mr. Bennet” and “Mrs. Bennet.”

Director Mann occasionally allows his cast to farce things up for comedic effect. This is particularly true of Douglas Gustafson’s Mr. Collins, whose high-pitched cackle make it immediately clear that his suit to make Elizabeth his wife will be rejected with extreme prejudice. But the production’s real charm stems from subtle portrayals—such as Walker’s Wickham—that prevent us from predicting just how it will arrive at a suitably happy ending.

Most of all, its charm stems from Harelik’s heroic but gullible Elizabeth and King’s excruciating awkward Darcy. We suspect the two are destined to be together, but the actors turn them into such an odd couple that it’s hard to believe they’re ever going to get there.

Actors’ Theatre will present Pride & Prejudice through July 16 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 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.

Wilde comedy pits blackmailer against a ‘dandy’ hero

Mrs. Chevely (Beth Josephsen) blackmails Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley) into supporting a scam in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. (photos by Richard Ades)
Mrs. Chevely (Beth Josephsen) blackmails Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley) into supporting a scam in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. (photos by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

Wilde in the Park hasn’t been nearly popular as Shakespeare in the Park, but Actors’ Theatre’s production of An Ideal Husband shows it can be done.

I had my doubts at first. Set in London in 1895, the play opens with a party scene during which a stageful of upper-crust Brits trade some of Oscar Wilde’s wittiest comments about society, the sexes and sundry other topics. But on the muggy night I attended, they had to compete for viewers’ attention with noisy insects and other commotions from both inside and outside Schiller Park. Added to the fast pace of the repartee, that meant few of the satirical jokes got much reaction from the overheated audience.

Luckily, the situation improved once the plot kicked into gear. Even the insects quieted down, as if they were eager to learn what would happen next.

The gears begin to mesh when the nefarious Mrs. Chevely (Beth Josephsen) offers a shady proposition to the party’s host, Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley). Revealing that she knows a damaging secret about Chiltern, a rising member of the House of Commons, Chevely threatens to spill the beans unless he throws his support behind a scam involving the construction of a canal in Argentina.

Chiltern reluctantly agrees, fearing a scandal would wreck both his career and his marriage. However, his sudden about-face on the bogus canal raises the suspicions of his wife (Sonda Staley), a former classmate of Chevely who knows all too well what kind of mischief she’s capable of. Lady Chiltern asks for help from the couple’s close friend, Lord Goring (Amari Ingram), who has his own reasons for distrusting Chevely.

Lord Goring (Amari Ingram, left) hears a startling confession from his friend Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley).
Lord Goring (Amari Ingram, left) hears a startling confession from his friend Sir Robert Chiltern (Ross Shirley).

In effect, Goring is called on to save the day, but we’re given little reason to think he’s up to the task. A “dandy”—which seems to be something like a fop but with fewer effeminate mannerisms—Goring is fixated on his appearance and clothes and restricts his conversation to the most trivial of concerns. Is such a person capable of saving Sir Robert from the conniving Mrs. Chevely? The answer to that question is left unanswered until the intrigue-filled second act.

A comedy like An Ideal Husband—a witty period piece with a dandified hero—could well have tempted its cast to farce things up. Instead, director Philip J. Hickman keeps portrayals sufficiently grounded that we actually care what happens.

Josephsen is blithely calculating as Mrs. Chevely, while Shirley and Staley earn our sympathy as the flawed Lord Chiltern and his upright wife. Ingram is mostly solid as Goring, though some of his lines could be delivered with more conviction. (Maybe he was distracted by a headset mike that occasionally malfunctioned on the night I attended.)

In an important secondary role, Robyn Rae Stype is amusing as Chiltern’s sister Mabel, who trades flirtatious quips with Goring. Funniest of all is Troy Anthony Harris as Goring’s dad, the Earl of Caversham, who never misses an opportunity to tell his frivolous son what a disappointment he is.

Supporting roles are nicely played by Joyce Leahy, Camille Bullock, AJ Copp and Ben Sostrom. All of the players are elegantly attired by Dayton Willison, whose costume designs are unobtrusively framed by Andrew Weibel’s white-on-white set.

Besides its absorbing plot, An Ideal Husband is an interesting portrait of the sexual roles and attitudes in the late 19th century. Lady Chiltern is clearly an early feminist, but some of her female friends are more than content to leave politics and other intellectual pursuits to the men.

Meanwhile, Wilde’s story of an ambitious politician who can’t resist the temptation of an underhanded deal remains, sadly, as timely as ever.

Actors’ Theatre will present An Ideal Husband through Sept. 4 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). Tickets are pay what you will (donations requested). Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org

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.

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.

Tale of jealous Moor presented with passion and power

Othello (Christopher C. Austin III) consults with his trusted lieutenant, Iago (Matthew Michael Moore), in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Othello (photo by Richard Ades)
Othello (Christopher C. Austin III, left) consults with “honest Iago” (Matthew Michael Moore) in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Othello (photos by Richard Ades)

 

By Richard Ades

A stirring production of Othello offers evidence that Central Ohio’s Shakespeare-in-the-park troupe remains in good hands.

This is the first season Actors’ Theatre has put together under the leadership of Philip J. Hickman, who was elevated to artistic director following the untimely death of John S. Kuhn early last year. The lineup is promising and challenging, with an Oscar Wilde comedy and a new adaptation of an Alexandre Dumas potboiler in addition to two of the Bard’s strongest works. And if the first production is any guide, that lineup will be brought to the stage with consummate skill.

Directed by Matt Hermes, the troupe’s production of Othello is brisk and passionate. At a key moment, it’s also horrifying—to the extent that parents might want to leave their most impressionable children at home.

Unusually for a Shakespearean tragedy, Othello keeps its focus almost exclusively on its three central characters: Othello, a Moorish military hero who has recently fallen in love and married; Desdemona, the young Venetian woman who has become his wife; and Iago, an ensign who is determined to get revenge after Othello passed him over for promotion. All three are given compelling portrayals in the Schiller Park production.

Desdemona (Lindsey Fisher) finds her new husband (Christopher C. Austin III) is becoming increasingly suspicious
Desdemona (Lindsey Fisher) finds her new husband (Christopher C. Austin III) is becoming increasingly suspicious

As Othello, Christopher C. Austin III is the image of militaristic dignity when he’s functioning as a commanding officer, but he’s so smitten by his new love that he can’t help showing his feelings whenever his bride is around. As Desdemona, Lindsey Fisher is guileless and genteel but just as smitten. The result is that PDAs abound whenever the newlyweds are in the same room.

As Iago, the play’s true protagonist, Matthew Michael Moore comes across as an evil puppeteer. He clearly looks down on those around him and coolly uses their loves, desires and prejudices to his advantage. Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most devious villains, and Moore plays him with subtlety and dark humor.

Updated here to the 1820s—a change that affects the costumes and weapons but otherwise has little impact—the tragedy centers on Iago’s campaign to awaken in Othello the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy. To do this, he invents reasons to suspect Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio (David Tull), the lieutenant who was promoted in Iago’s place.

Two people play willing or unwilling roles in the campaign: Roderigo, who lusts after Desdemona; and Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid. David Widder-Varhegyi plays the former as a scamp and a gullible fool, while Susan Wismar plays the latter as a decent woman who is cowed into obeying her husband but is appalled when she realizes what he’s up to.

Andrew Weibel’s set seems more elaborate than usual for the outdoor troupe, even including a small fountain. Emily Jeu’s colorful costumes help to define the time and place.

The sound, designed by William Bragg (with Fia Friend operating the sound board), is as clear as I’ve ever heard it at the Schiller amphitheater. At last Friday’s performance, the only distortion occurred when Austin’s Othello shouted his most dramatic lines, overwhelming the amplification. A little restraint may be needed to avoid that problem in the future.

As one would expect in a Shakespearean tragedy, there are deaths. Two of them happen so quickly, and on such a crowded stage, that many viewers will miss them. On the other hand, one murder is the most protracted and horrific act of violence I can remember seeing at the Schiller amphitheater.

Is it excessive? Not at all. It’s merely the final evidence that Actors’ Theatre takes its role as Columbus’s Shakespeare-in-the-park troupe very seriously.

Actors’ Theatre will present Othello through June 19 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: pay what you will (bring a blanket or lawn chair); reserved seats or blankets are available for $20. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

Front Street troupe was particularly ambitious in 2015

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

I try not to play favorites when I’m making out my annual “best of” list, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that one Columbus theater company was a dominant force in 2015. Shadowbox Live had so many great and unique shows that I could just about draw up a separate list devoted solely to the troupe on Front Street.

To some extent, this is no surprise. Shadowbox is by far the biggest and busiest company in town. At any given time, it divides its week up among multiple productions.

In 2015, though, Shadowbox seemed to be trying harder than ever. Not only were several of its variety shows particularly enjoyable, but it launched all-new productions that were like nothing we’d ever seen.

Shadowbox’s ambition didn’t always pay off. After putting everything else on hold for its fall production of The Tenshu, the kabuki-inspired tale turned out to be visually exhilarating but dramatically dull. But Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman was a joyful musical tribute, while the Pink Floyd retrospective Which One’s Pink? had moments of pure genius.

To top the year off, Shadowbox announced plans to purchase its expansive Brewery District venue. It’s a gutsy move, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Stev Guyer and company.

Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza), who’s being detained by two local constables (Derryck Menard and Emerson Elias) in this scene from Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza) in this scene from Gallery Players’ production of Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Beyond Shadowbox, my 2015 was highlighted by two wonderful musical productions: Gallery Players’ Les Miserables and Short North Stage’s A Little Night Music. The former was the year’s biggest surprise. I’d previously seen four productions of Les Miz, including two touring shows and the 2012 film version, but I’d never found Jean Valjean’s saga as moving as it was on the Jewish Community Center stage.

On a more modest scale, several of the year’s biggest treats were provided by little Evolution Theatre Company, which staged gay-centered shows that were at once enjoyable and consciousness-raising. Especially rewarding were the WWII musical Yank!, the historical drama The Temperamentals and the Texas-based comedy Sordid Lives.

Also interesting: Wild Women Writing’s On the Edge and Over the Edge, collaborations with Short North Stage that featured short works by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and contemporary American playwright Will Eno.

A few of the other shows were mixed successes for me: I had reservations about the works themselves, but I admired the way they were staged. Warehouse Theatre Company’s This Is Our Youth, Available Light Theatre’s The Christians, MadLab’s Clowntime Is Over and A&B Theatrical’s Devotion all fell into this category.

Outright disappointments? Of course there were some, but maybe the biggest was that I missed many shows that doubtlessly were worthwhile. Often I was too busy or out of town. In the case of one popular show staged in a relatively small space, I simply couldn’t get a ticket. At any rate, it should be remembered that any “best of” list is limited by what that particular critic has or hasn’t seen.

Obviously, 2015’s biggest shock was the unexpected death of Actors’ Theatre artistic director John S. Kuhn in late February. Though it was a great loss to the company and the theater community at large, Actors’ staff and supporters came together to ensure that the outdoor troupe’s summer season went forward as planned. Since then, Actors’ Theatre has named Philip J. Hickman as its new artistic director and announced a promising 2016 season, offering hope that the troupe will continue to build on the gains it made under Kuhn’s leadership.

On that somber but optimistic note, here’s my list of the best productions and performances of 2015:

Best play: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Adrenaline Theatre Company. Director Audrey Rush and her cast brought fire and commitment to Edward Albee’s tale of a monstrously dysfunctional relationship.

Best musical (tie): Les Miserables, Gallery Players; and A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. The former demonstrated that Les Miz still has the power to move us. The latter proved once again that Short North Stage has a way with Sondheim.

A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)
A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)

Best variety show: Sex at the Box, Shadowbox Live. The show’s many highlights included Shadowbox’s funniest skit in years (Funk Daddy Love, starring Brandon Anderson) and perhaps its best cover song ever (Ball and Chain, with Julie Klein expertly channeling Janis Joplin).

Best touring show: Anything Goes, Broadway in Columbus/CAPA. Watching the seagoing musical was like crossing the Atlantic while time-traveling back to the 1930s.

Best new work: Krampus: A Yuletide Tale, Short North Stage. Created by Nils-Petter Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist, the musical was a delightfully menacing alternative to A Christmas Carol. Honorable mention: The Great One: A Hockey Musical, Short North Stage.

Best “far out!” moment: Act 2 of Which One’s Pink?, Shadowbox Live. Footage from The Wizard of Oz was combined with live re-enactments of scenes from the film, live performances of music from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon album and interpretive video by CCAD students. Bravo to director Stev Guyer and his talented collaborators.

Best direction (tie): David R. Bahgat, Les Miserables, Gallery Players; and Michael Licata, A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. Both directors performed miracles with the help of talented casts and crews. Bahgat made the familiar Les Miz as affecting as ever, while Licata brought out every tender, aching moment in Sondheim’s tale of longing and regret.

Best performance, female: Marya Spring, A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. Spring exuded both worldly confidence and vulnerability as glamorous actress Desiree.

Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Best performance, male: Bill Hafner, Les Miserables, Gallery Players. Hafner sang beautifully while portraying Jean Valjean with just the right combination of nobility and humility.

Best cross-dressing performance: Mark Phillips Schwamberger, Sordid Lives, Evolution Theatre Company. The musical shifted into high gear only after Schwamberger appeared as the pitiable but hilarious “Brother Boy.”