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.

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Fading film star shares stage with oversized suppository

Doug Joseph (standing) and Ralph E. Scott in Die, Mommie, Die! (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Doug Joseph (standing) and Ralph E. Scott in Die, Mommie, Die! (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

I first saw Die, Mommie, Die! in its original off-Broadway production back in 2007. Strangely, I don’t remember much about it other than the fact that playwright Charles Busch played Angela Arden, a once-big Hollywood star whose career is as tattered as her marriage.

I think I got a few laughs out of the New York show, but I got many more from Short North Stage’s current revival of the campy comedy. Directed by Edward Carignan, the production boasts all sorts of strengths, starting with its cast.

Filling in for Busch as Angela, Doug Joseph proves once again that he’s the master (mistress?) at this kind of cross-dressing role. He plays the aging diva with just enough exaggeration to make it clear we’re watching a spoof. Specifically, we’re watching a spoof of “hag horror” flicks such as Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Die! Die! My Darling!

Equally on the mark is Ralph E. Scott’s portrayal of husband Sol Sussman, a producer who knows Angela has been fooling around while he’s been away raising money for his latest epic. But his wife’s infidelity is no higher than third on his list of problems, which include a business transaction with the mob and a killer case of constipation.

My main reservation about the production is Nick Lingnofski’s take on Angela’s not-so-secret lover, former TV star Tony Parker. Lingnofski can usually be counted on to improve whatever show he’s in, but here he spends so much time preening and posing that the character never comes alive. It’s like Lingnofski is playing a hack actor playing a hack actor, an approach that seems distractingly out of place.

Erin Mellon is fun as daughter Edith, who hates her mother nearly as much as she loves her father—and who expresses that love in ways that border on incest. Johnny Robison has his hands full playing her brother, Lance, a character marked by (1) mental challenges, (2) awakening sexual urges and (3) an out-of-control temper. On opening night, I didn’t always feel he combined all three in a coherent way, but he mostly succeeded.

Rounding out the cast, Josie Merkle does a fine job as longtime maid Bootsie Carp, whose loyalty to Sol makes her a liability to Angela.

In tune with the “hag horror” theme, the 1967-set tale includes murderous plotting on the part of Angela. In tune with the campy atmosphere, the story is spiced up with copious amounts of outrageousness, including an encounter with a painfully large suppository.

Bill Pierson’s set design perfectly captures 1960s decorating trends, right down to the planter and the star-shaped clock on the wall. Rob Kuhn’s lighting, along with well-placed sound effects and snippets of mood music, underline the faux-melodramatic atmosphere.

One reason this all plays so well is that it unfolds in the Garden Theater’s intimate Green Room, which allows viewers to catch the actors’ every glance, leer and frown. But of course, that’s an advantage only because nearly every glance, leer and frown is delivered so flawlessly.

Short North Stage will present Die, Mommie, Die! through Feb. 21 at Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25 general seating, $30 reserved. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

Hockey musical is gone, but spoofy sand-and-surf tale remains

Chicklet (Nick Hardin) gets a lift from friends (from left) Provoloney (Andrew Trimmer), Star Cat (Jason Crase), YoYo (Luke Stewart) and Kanaka (Dan Montour) in Psycho Beach Party, one of two plays opening this week at Short North Stage (photo by Jason Allen, Second Glimpse Photography)
Chicklet (Nick Hardin) gets a lift from friends (from left) Provoloney (Andrew Trimmer), Star Cat (Jason Crase), YoYo (Luke Stewart) and Kanaka (Dan Montour) in Psycho Beach Party (photo by Jason Allen, Second Glimpse Photography)

By Richard Ades

It was one busy week at the Garden Theater.

Last Wednesday, Short North Stage opened its first original work, The Great One. Timed to complement the National Hockey League’s All-Star Game in Columbus, the musical focused on a traumatic moment in western Canadian history: the Edmonton Oilers’ 1988 trade of star player Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.

With direction by Scott Hunt, who also co-wrote the book and lyrics, it boasted a committed cast of five and some surprisingly pretty tunes by composer James Higgins. In just about an hour, it neatly summarized the profound impact a local team’s ups and downs can have on members of its community. (That’s something you don’t have to be Canadian to understand, eh?)

Unfortunately, the show’s run was as short and sweet as its running time. Its last performance ended before Sunday’s All-Star Game.

However, last week’s other Garden Theater production will continue through this weekend. A new troupe called Columbus Immersive Theater is reviving Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party in the venue’s main auditorium.

That’s a big room, but director/choreographer Edward Carignan is living up to the “Immersive” moniker by cramming the audience onto the stage with the players. That makes this tale of a troubled teenage girl named Chicklet a pleasantly intimate experience.

I first saw Busch’s campy comedy nearly a quarter-century ago at the old Reality Theatre. It was pretty entertaining, even though the troupe took the unorthodox tack of having Chicklet played by an actual woman.

In Immersive’s production, thankfully, tradition reigns. A cross-dressing Nick Hardin makes such a hilarious Chicklet that you can’t help wondering why anyone would want to do it the other way. Just as funny is Doug Joseph as her protective and borderline-abusive mom, Mrs. Forrest.

Set in Malibu Beach in 1962, Psycho Beach Party spoofs both Hitchcock-style psychodramas and old sand-and-surf epics like Beach Blanket Bingo. As in the latter, everyone is G-rated innocent—on the surface. Underneath, sexual tension rears its head, sometimes even between a couple of suspiciously compatible guy friends.

Most misleading of all is Chicklet, a going-on-16 girl who spends her time hanging out with bookish friend Berdine (Vera Ryan Cremeans) and begging the local beach bums to teach her how to surf. She seems harmless, but if you make her mad, a dominatrix-like alter ego named Ann Bowman suddenly appears. And that’s only one of Chicklet’s multiple personalities, all played to a comic “T” by Hardin.

Other cast members include Dan Montour as surfing ace Kanaka, Kaitin Descutner as popular mean girl Marvel Ann, Bria Schultz as movie star Bettina Barnes, Jason Carl Crase as Star Cat, Luke Stewart as YoYo and Andrew Trimmer as Provoloney. All give likable but restrained performances, basically acting as “straight men” to Hardin and Joseph.

The result is that the show isn’t really at its funniest unless Chicklet and/or Mrs. Forrest are center stage. But when they are, it’s a spoofy blast out of the past.

Immersive Theater Company will present Psycho Beach Party through Feb. 1 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20. Contact: beachpartycolumbus.com or shortnorthstage.org.