Recorded memories prove invaluable in dystopian murder mystery

Sharing a rare moment of peace and happiness are (from left) Cloud (Stephen Woosley), Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), Charlotte (Colleen Dunne) and Mordecai (Travis Horseman) in the world premiere of Memory Fragments (photo by Andy Batt)
Sharing a rare moment of peace and happiness are (from left) Cloud (Stephen Woosley), Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), Charlotte (Colleen Dunne) and Mordecai (Travis Horseman) in the world premiere of Memory Fragments (photo by Andy Batt)

By Richard Ades

Following the world premiere of Memory Fragments last week, playwright Sam Wallin described the mystery as an example of “cyberpunk.” He explained that this is a form of science fiction that mixes a futuristic setting with elements of film noir.

Well, it’s definitely science fiction, and it’s definitely set in the future. The film-noir part isn’t quite so obvious. The scene breaks are accompanied by the kind of jazzy noodlings that would have made Sam Spade feel right at home, but the scenes themselves fail to capture the dark moodiness that characterized Spade’s world.

No matter. Memory Fragments may not be noir-ish, but it’s never boorish. As long as you don’t mind being confused for much of the running time, it’s an intriguing murder mystery.

The hero is a police detective named Cloud (Stephen Woosley) who’s assigned to investigate the death of a barista named Mordecai (Travis Horseman). Cloud’s first job is to determine whether the man was murdered or committed suicide.

In this version of the near future, people’s memories are recorded and stored so that they can be played back as needed. Ordinarily, this makes Cloud’s job pretty easy. In Mordecai’s case, however, the fatal wound destroyed all but 17 fragments of the victim’s memory. Along with Jerome (Andy Woodmansee), an annoying stranger who inserts himself into the investigation, Cloud begins watching the fragments in hopes of solving the case.

It’s through the recorded memories that we meet a number of people who played a role in Mordecai’s final days, including a new girlfriend (Colleen Dunne), a male psychiatrist (Andy Batt), a lascivious female psychiatrist (Laura Spires) and a mysterious man in a brown suit (Erik Sternberger). Cloud attempts to sift through the clues with help from his late wife, Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), whom he frequently resurrects in the virtual world where he spends most of his time.

Eventually, the mystery of Mordecai’s death is solved, but not until more people have died—and not until Cloud has followed the evidence to the upper echelons of the two huge corporations that control this future society.

Speaking after Thursday’s preview performance, Wallin and director Batt revealed that MadLab spent two years planning the play’s premiere. Part of the delay was due to the problem of portraying the work’s frequent shifts between the present and the past, and between physical reality and virtual reality.

With help from designers Brenda Michna (scenery and lighting) and Peter Graybeal (sound), Batt’s production succeeds admirably. Especially effective are the gauzy curtains that separate the present from the past, as represented by the recorded memories.

Also admirable is the large cast, which also includes Julie Ferreri and MaryBeth Griffith. The portrayals are rooted in emotional reality, which helps to ground a play that otherwise could disintegrate into a confusing mixture of sci-fi jargon and dystopian paranoia.

To be sure, Memory Fragments still challenges viewers to keep up, but MadLab keeps them so entertained that they’re happy to make the effort.

Memory Fragments will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Nov. 1 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $12, $10 for students/seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

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Hollywood has-been seeks comeback in Webber musical

Norma Desmond (Gina Handy) tangoes with Joe Gillis (Chris Shea) in Short North Stage’s production of Sunset Boulevard (photo by Heather Wack)
Norma Desmond (Gina Handy) tangoes with Joe Gillis (Chris Shea) in Short North Stage’s production of Sunset Boulevard (photo by Heather Wack)

By Richard Ades

One of Sunset Boulevard’s two most famous lines comes early on. When a struggling writer stumbles into Norma Desmond’s Hollywood mansion and tells her she “used to be big,” the former silent-film star replies: “I’m still big. It’s the movies that got small.”

Movies may or may not be smaller nowadays, but movie-based stage musicals are often extravaganzas. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film certainly was. In fact, the 1994 Broadway production was so expensive that it ran for more than two years and still managed to lose millions.

Short North Stage’s production isn’t quite that big, but it’s still huge by Columbus standards. Michael Brewer’s two-story set effectively stands in for Norma’s grandiose mansion and other locations, with help from video segments projected on two large screens. Moreover, music director P. Tim Valentine’s offstage band is sizable enough to handle Webber’s soaring score.

If director Scott Hunt’s staging fails to consistently match the power of Wilder’s classic, it’s partly because the nourish film is tricky source material for a stage musical. Just the right touch is needed to carry off its blend of cynicism, desperation and passion.

One problem is that leading lady Gina Handy only occasionally projects the brittle mixture of grandiosity and insecurity that marks Norma Desmond, an ex-celeb who clings to the belief that the world is eager for her return. At Thursday’s preview performance, Handy also was decidedly pitchy on her first big solo (Surrender), though her voice was better on later, quieter numbers.

Jarod Wilson’s bland lighting design is another disappointment. This tale of a woman lost in the caverns of her ego-driven delusions cries out for uber-dramatic lighting effects, and it seldom gets them.

Most of the cast does strike the right chords, beginning with Chris Shea as Joe Gillis, the struggling screenwriter who wanders into Norma’s abode and ends up falling under her dangerous spell. Perhaps Shea could project a bit more world-weariness as Joe, who has become tired of the ass-kissing it takes to prosper in Hollywood, but he has no trouble earning our attention and concern.

As Max, Norma’s mysterious butler, Christopher Moore Griffin is appropriately reserved and sings with the show’s deepest, richest voice. The only drawback is that Max’s lyrics sometimes get buried under a droning German accent, so a little more enunciation would be helpful.

The fourth major character, script editor Betty Schaeffer, is played by Cassie Rae. The perky blonde proved in Short North Stage’s early-2014 production of A Grand Night for Singing that she’s a charismatic performer with an irresistible voice. She proves it again here, to the extent that Betty’s growing affection for Joe becomes one of the show’s strongest threads.

Smaller parts are divided among a group of worthy actors who each play multiple roles. Doug Joseph, for example, portrays “Finance Man #1” in addition to legendary director Cecil B. DeMille.

Of the nearly sung-through musical’s two acts, Act 2 is stronger, as it contains several dramatic payoffs. They include the show’s other famous line, Norma’s surreal announcement that she’s ready for her close-up.

Surprisingly, this is the first time we see clearly just how many years separate Norma from the glamorous, youthful image she carries around in her head. Up until then, she’s appeared to be little older than the writer who’s joined her household.

If only she’d posed for that close-up a couple of hours earlier, the depths of her delusion would have been easier to understand.

Short North Stage will present Sunset Boulevard through Oct. 19 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.