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.

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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.