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.

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Third time is hardly a charm for Shakespeare’s Falstaff

Appearing in The Merry Wives of Windsor are (from left): Elizabeth Harelick as Mistress Ford, Adam Simon as Sir John Falstaff and Michelle Weiser as Mistress Page (photo by Nick Pershing)
Appearing in The Merry Wives of Windsor are (from left): Elizabeth Harelick as Mistress Ford, Adam Simon as Sir John Falstaff and Michelle Weiser as Mistress Page (photo by Nick Pershing)

By Richard Ades

Fat and vain, cowardly and conniving, Sir John Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s greatest comic inventions. But you have to catch him in one of the Bard’s Henry IV plays to see him at his best.

In The Merry Wives of Windsor—which some believe was written because Queen Elizabeth I wanted to see more of the entertaining scamp—he’s simply the butt of the joke. The result is a comedy that’s less fun than it would have been if he were as sly and resourceful as he is in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.

On the Schiller Park stage, director Beth Kattelman and her cast try their hardest to extract laughs from his misadventures, and sometimes they succeed. More often, though, they merely succeed in raising the volume with shouted lines and over-the-top acting.

The plot starts promisingly enough. While staying at an inn in Windsor, Falstaff (Adam Simon) realizes he can no longer afford his hard-partying lifestyle. He quickly comes up with the idea of improving his finances by romancing Mistresses Ford and Page (Elizabeth Harelick and Michelle Weiser), two local married ladies.

Unfortunately for Falstaff, the ladies are close friends who share everything—including the identical love notes he sent them. Insulted, they agree to concoct a romantic trap in order to teach him a lesson.

What happens next should be a delicious case of comeuppance, and it would be if Falstaff weren’t so darn gullible. Instead, he’s such an easy mark that the wives are able to fool him over and over. What starts out amusingly soon becomes predictable and repetitious. And it doesn’t help matters that the mostly admirable Harelick and Weiser go overboard on the faux melodramatics whenever they’re conning the lascivious knight.

An added complication provides a few chuckles. After Falstaff’s disgruntled former servants tell the wives’ husbands what their ex-boss is up to, the jealous Ford (Micah Logsdon) decides to investigate. Introducing himself as a man named Brook, he tells Falstaff he has long lusted after Mistress Ford but can’t persuade her to abandon her marital vows. He invites Falstaff to compromise her integrity in order to make her more open to his advances.

The early scenes between Falstaff and the disguised Ford are nicely handled by Simon and Logsdon, but the latter eventually gives in to the production’s tendency toward over-emoting.

A romantic subplot involves the Pages’ daughter, Anne (a winsome Cecelia Bellomy), who is being courted by a trio of suitors. Here, some characters stand out thanks to inspired comic performances, including the idiotic Slender (Dayton Willison), the extravagantly French Dr. Caius (Daniel Turek) and Caius’s mischievous servant, Mistress Quickly (Jennifer Feather-Youngblood). Meanwhile, Jesse Massarro shows welcome restraint as third suitor Fenton, as does Nick Baldasare as Anne’s father.

Stefan Langer also fares well as Welsh clergyman Sir Hugh Evans. He doesn’t actually display the incoherent accent that others joke about, but it’s hard to blame him for that. Apparently the Welsh accent was pretty heavy in Shakespeare’s time, but nowadays it’s far more subtle.

Thus, the Welsh jokes fall as flat as pretty much everything else in this heavy-handed comedy.

Actors’ Theatre will present The Merry Wives of Windsor through Aug. 31 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Admission is “pay what you will.” Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

Columbus School for Girls grad excels as melancholy Dane

Grace Bollander, a graduating senior at Columbus School for Girls, plays the conflicted title character in Hamlet (photo by Nick Pershing)
Grace Bolander, a graduating senior at Columbus School for Girls, plays the conflicted title character in Hamlet (photo by Nick Pershing)

By Richard Ades

Can an 18-year-old high school student do justice to one of the greatest roles in the English language? When that student is Grace Bolander, yes, indeed.

Actors’ Theatre has pushed the envelope with its season-opening production of Hamlet, giving the title role to an actor who is not only a teenager but a female to boot. If you suspect the casting is simply an attention-getting gimmick, you obviously haven’t seen the show. Once you do, you’ll realize that Bolander was simply the best person for the part.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed various takes on the Danish prince, all attempting to explain a puzzling man who seems eager to avenge his father’s murder, yet keeps finding excuses to delay action. Bolander quickly puts her own stamp on the character, portraying him as tearfully emotional one moment and wickedly humorous the next.

She also ups the tempo at key moments, allowing the familiar words to tumble out in a dazzling torrent. Once or twice, the words come a little too fast, rushing the dialogue, but overall her performance is remarkable.

Despite Bolander’s star-making turn, the best thing about Actors’ Theatre’s production is that every performance is remarkable. Co-directed by Nick Baldasare and John S. Kuhn and set in the late Victorian era, this Hamlet interprets each character with clarity and conviction.

John Heisel is a combination of dull-witted malice and honest remorse as King Claudius, the uncle who allegedly stole his throne by murdering Hamlet’s father. As Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and Claudius’s new bride, Janetta Davis exhibits both wifely support and—after her distraught son shows signs of mental instability—maternal concern.

Josh Katawick is a rock as Horatio, the one friend Hamlet trusts. John Quickley and Sarah Gehring portray Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as such superficial simps that it’s clear why they’re the friends Hamlet doesn’t trust.

As the aged Polonius, John Feather is humorously doddering and sanctimonious. As Ophelia, his daughter and the object of Hamlet’s affection, Rachel Gaunce projects sweetness and innocent virtue.

More solid work is turned in by John Connor as Laertes, Greg Hoffman as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, Jordan Estose as Osric/Messenger, John Beeler as Marcellus/Lucianus, Andy Falter as the Leading Player and Christina Yoho as the acrobatic Player Queen.

Providing able technical support are designers Trent Bean (set), Emily Jeu (costumes), Jarod Wilson (lighting) and William Bragg (sound). Jason Speicher choreographed the climactic fight scene.

In recent years, Actors’ Theatre has branched out from its traditional focus on Shakespeare in an attempt to broaden its audience. And when it did take on the Bard, it sometimes did so in a way that was designed to amuse non-Shakespeare fans: for example, by mixing puppets with live actors (good idea) or by adding jokey pop-culture references and slapstick (bad idea).

Despite its unconventional casting, the current production provides welcome evidence that Actors’ remains capable of doing Shakespeare straight and putting on a great show in the process.

Actors’ Theatre will present Hamlet through June 22 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Admission: Pay what you will. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

Special event: A memorial for Columbus actor Carl Novak, who died unexpectedly last month, will be held at 2 p.m. Friday (May 30) at the Schiller Park amphitheater.