2014: A brilliant ‘Hamlet’ and a sad departure

Grace Bolander plays the title role in Actors' Theatre's production of Hamlet (photo by Richard Ades)
Grace Bolander plays the title role in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Hamlet (photo by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

Two of the most memorable theatrical events of 2014 took place in Schiller Park.

The first was Actors’ Theatre’s production of Hamlet. Though it garnered the most attention for its offbeat casting of a teenage girl in the title role, what really set the show apart was its overall quality. Every role—from the Danish prince to the lowly gravedigger—was cast and performed to perfection.

The second event was the May 30 memorial for actor Carl Novak, who died unexpectedly last spring. I first met Carl several years ago when he approached me during intermission at a local show and said some nice things about my reviews—frank but fair, something along that line. I didn’t yet know who he was other than a familiar face at opening nights, but I appreciated the supportive words.

It was only after Carl’s death that I learned he’d said equally supportive things to many people. On Facebook and at the memorial service, people described him as a man who went out of his way to make others feel important and appreciated.

Though I don’t share the strong Christian faith that guided Carl, it’s hard for me to think of him without recalling words from the New Testament: “Go and do likewise.” What a world it would be if we all followed his example.

Back to business: This being the end of the year, it’s time for me to share my list of the best theatrical performances and productions I saw in 2014. Notice the “I saw.” No one has time to see everything, and I almost certainly missed many worthy contenders.

Thanks to everyone who made 2014 a good year to go to the theater.

Best Play: Hamlet, Actors’ Theatre. Co-directors John S. Kuhn and Nick Baldasare coaxed incisive performances from the entire cast, starting with Grace Bolander, the high school senior who gave such a brilliant interpretation of the title prince. Runner-up: How We Got On, Available Light Theatre.

Best Musical: The Producers, Gallery Players. Director Mark Mann and his crew paid amazing attention to detail while creating a tuneful show with many laugh-out-loud moments. The entire cast performed with spirit, but special commendations are due to supporting actors Doug Joseph (as Roger De Bris, alternating with Stewart Bender) and Brooke Walters (as Swedish secretary Ulla). Runner-up: Always…Patsy Cline, CATCO.

Best New Work: Memory Fragments, MadLab. Sam Wallin’s “cyberpunk” mystery constantly shifted between the present and the past, and between physical and virtual reality, but director Andy Batt handled the changes with aplomb. Runner-up: Gallery of Echoes, Shadowbox Live.

Best Revised Work: Evo, Shadowbox Live. Stev Guyer’s Evolution was an ambitious but plodding work from the troupe’s early days. The new version, which Guyer revised with help from head writer Jimmy Mak, musical director Matthew Hahn and choreographer Katy Psenicka, was just an ambitious but far more watchable.

Best Touring Show: The Book of Mormon, Broadway in Columbus. Only a poor sod with maggots in his scrotum could fail to enjoy this raunchy but warmhearted satire.

Worst Trend: musicals with canned accompaniment. CATCO’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels handled the prerecorded soundtrack pretty well, but taped music drained much of the life out of SRO’s The Sound of Music. Besides, musicians need the work!

Best Direction: Hamlet, John S. Kuhn and Nick Baldasare, Actors’ Theatre. Every role was handled with such clarity that even Shakespeare buffs probably gained new appreciation of the venerable tragedy.

Best Performance, Male: Isaac Nippert, My Name Is Asher Lev, CATCO/Gallery Players. As Asher, Nippert expertly navigated a role that required him to narrate his own tale while playing himself at ages ranging from youngster to adult.

Best Performance, Female: Grace Bolander, Hamlet, Actors’ Theatre. Casting a teenage girl as the melancholy Dane might seem like a gimmick, but Bolander gave an impassioned yet witty performance that proved she was simply the best person for the part.

Mark, we hardly knew ye

By Richard Ades

Available Light has always pushed boundaries. Shows that incorporate multimedia, song, dance, movement and improvisation are all par for the course.

All that’s well and good. What’s not so well and good is the troupe’s occasional tendency to confuse plays with lectures, sermons or, worst of all, consciousness-raising sessions. That’s the wrong turn Available Light takes with its latest self-written work, Glue.

It starts out with the appearance of four people who introduce themselves as longtime friends of Mark, a man who recently died. They inform us that they put this show together in response to their loss.

“It’s about friendship,” we’re told.

In an attempt to bond with the audience, they then have specific viewers read statements about friendship that apparently were passed out in advance. Each of these—including the comment that our best friends sometimes have four legs—is met with uniform smiles of support from the people onstage.

“Maybe by the end of the show, we’ll all be best buddies,” one declares brightly.

If all of this smiling supportiveness is meant to be taken with a cynical grain of salt, it’s not apparent in the production director Matt Slaybaugh has put together with actors Acacia Leigh Duncan, Jordan Fehr, Elena M. Perantoni and Michelle G. Schroeder. Instead, all four characters seem to be unvaryingly nice.

They’re too nice, in fact, to tell us anything less than positive about their lost friend. As a result, we never really get to know Mark, any more than we would get to know a real-life stranger whom we “met” only through to his eulogy.

We learn that Anna (Duncan) and Rebecca (Perantoni) dated Mark at various times; that Brian (Fehr) created comic books with him; and that Julie (Schroeder) was once his roommate. Schroeder’s description of Julie’s close but oddly chaste friendship with Mark does strike an emotional chord, but otherwise he remains only a slightly clingy but wonderfully empathetic person.

The problem is not only that Anna, Rebecca, Brian and Julie are too nice to say anything negative about Mark—sometimes they’re too busy sharing general aphorisms about friendship to talk about him at all: “To connect, you’ve got to make yourself vulnerable.” “Love is an act of will.” And so on.

A little of this goes a long way.

Watching Glue is sort of like scrolling through Facebook for 90 minutes, except that this is a version of Facebook without the jokes, topical comments or political harangues. Instead, you get only the friends who ply you with sentimental advice while other friends tell them how wonderful they are for sharing it.

Another difference: You can’t log off.

As in its most-creative shows, Available Light concocts Glue out of a variety of ingredients, including projected images, recorded voices, music and movement. If you’re into adventurous theater and performance art, this is a plus.

But unless you also have a high tolerance for being lectured to, Glue’s 90 minutes will go by very, very slowly.

Available Light Theatre will present Glue through Nov. 23 at MadLab Theatre & Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 90 minutes. Tickets are $20 in advance, “pay what you want” at the door. 614-558-7408 or avltheatre.com.

Troupe, playwright take another shot at literary romance

Robyn Rae Stype as the title heroine and Jeff Horst as the mysterious Rochester in Jane Eyre: A Memory, a Fever, a Dream (photo by Matt Slaybaugh)
Robyn Rae Stype as the title heroine and Jeff Horst as the mysterious Rochester in Jane Eyre: A Memory, a Fever, a Dream (photo by Matt Slaybaugh)

By Richard Ades

Don’t boys ever read Jane Eyre? Playwright Daniel Elihu Kramer seems to assume it appeals only to girls in his new stage adaptation, Jane Eyre: A Memory, a Fever, a Dream.

Maybe, maybe not. I know I read it during the youthful years when I was addicted to the Victorian novels of Dickens and others.

But maybe Kramer is right that Charlotte Bronte’s gothic romance means the most to girls. If his onstage “interviewer” (Jeff Horst) were to ask what the book meant to me, I’d have trouble coming up with answers as personal as those of the female “readers” who show up throughout the play.

You probably remember Kramer from his earlier literary adaptation, Pride & Prejudice, which Available Light premiered in 2010. In both works, Kramer periodically interrupts the British tale with digressions that are meant to increase our understanding and appreciation. With P&P, they were explanations of the period’s mores and mindsets; with Jane Eyre, they’re faux interviews with various girls and women who formed a special bond with the fictional Jane.

Personally, I like the new approach better. It seems less like a series of professorial asides, and it occasionally offers interesting insights, such as how girls react to the heroine’s self-described physical plainness. Even so, I feel about Kramer’s Jane Eyre much like I felt about his Pride & Prejudice: It’s most engrossing when he focuses on the original story. Director Acacia Leigh Duncan and her cast do an admirable job throughout, but it’s during the scenes from the book that the production really shines.

Well, maybe “shines” isn’t the best word, because the most memorable moments benefit from Carrie Cox’s dark and moody lighting. It combines with Brian Steinmetz’s roughhewn set and Jordan Fehr’s atmospheric sound design to create an aura of mystery and dread.

Robyn Rae Stype stars as Jane, an orphan who survives a deprived childhood and goes to work as a governess in a house run by the secretive Rochester (Horst). Stype makes an appealing heroine, but her performance is strangely opaque. It’s not a grave failing—we know what she’s thinking thanks to the presence of the narrator (the always good Michelle Gilfillan Schroeder)—but it would be nice if she occasionally allowed Jane’s thought processes to be more apparent.

In contrast, Horst is unfailingly expressive as Rochester, making him the kind of charismatic figure who could win the lonely Jane’s heart without really trying. Elena M. Perantoni is equally emotive as the warm-hearted Mrs. Fairfax and other female characters.

Michelle Whited’s costumes are simple but effective. Except for Schroeder’s outfit, which is modern and rather unflattering, they manage to suggest mid-19th century fashions while coming off as basically timeless.

Pride & Prejudice was a popular production that Available Light has brought back more than once. Kramer’s take on Jane Eyre deserves to enjoy just as much success, and maybe even a bit more.

Available Light Theatre will present Jane Eyre: A Memory, a Fever, a Dream through June 8 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, plus 8 p.m. June 6. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Tickets are $20 in advance or “pay what you want” at the door. 614-558-7408 or avltheatre.com.