Theatre Roulette offers snappy mix of shocks and guffaws

Appearing in The Jar are (from left) Nikki Smith as Cricket, Greg Payne as Praying Mantis, Laura Spires as Julie, Travis Horseman as Daddy Longlegs and Kim Martin as Karen (photo by Michelle Diceglio)
Appearing as insects caught in The Jar are (from left) Nikki Smith as Cricket, Greg Payne as Praying Mantis, Laura Spires as Julie, Travis Horseman as Daddy Longlegs and Kim Martin as Karen (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

By Richard Ades

Seven plays in less than an hour? It must be some kind of record.

Director Amanda Bauer wastes no time with Black Night, one of the three collections of playlets in MadLab’s Theatre Roulette 2016. On opening night, she didn’t even bother introducing the evening, let alone individual works.

At the end of each play, the stage lights are simply turned off, the scenery is rearranged and the lights come back on, all in the space of a few seconds. The efficiently is dazzling.

What goes on between the scene changes is equally impressive, at least as far as the production is concerned. The acting and pacing are spot on, and many of the costumes are ingenious.

And the writing? Not everything works equally well, but most of the plays earn extra points for originality.

Let’s take them in order.

MooMaid by Rick Park: Josh Kessler plays Mitchell, a dad who can’t stop boasting about his unseen daughter. But something seems off. He drops a lot of F-bombs, and he starts stripping off clothes to prepare for an activity that isn’t revealed until the end. The piece expertly builds a sense of dread that turns out to be justified.

The Prodigal Cow by Mark Harvey Levine: A calf (Laura Spires) is thrilled to be the only farm animal invited to her owner’s dinner party. If you know the New Testament at all, you’ll probably guess where this one is going. It’s also weighed down with weak puns. And how come the calf actually looks something like a cow, but her best friend, the kid (Nikki Smith), looks nothing like a goat?

Absolutely Unbelievable by Bella Poynton: Larry (Greg Payne) goes on a radio show claiming to be a time traveler from five years in the future. The piece has some amusing moments as hosts Sam and Anna (Alex Green and Kyle Jepson) beg for news of technological advancements beyond Larry’s iPhone 8. Disappointingly, though, they never bring up the one question the average American would have asked first: Who’s the next president?

The Lovers by Kirsten Easton: A man and a woman (Chad Hewitt and Kim Martin) try to recall the details of their first meeting while two shrouded figures (Travis Horseman and Colleen Dunne) act out the event. Though nicely performed, the piece gives us little reason to care whether the two have a future together.

Date #3 by Alex Dremann: Will they or won’t they? Ethan and Lynne (Jason Sudy and Spires) deal with that question at the end of the all-important third date. Laughs are provided by various passers-by played by Jepson and Kessler—especially Kessler’s Frenchman, whose accent is as amusingly stereotypical as his philosophical wisdom about the ways of the heart.

A Couple of Inappropriate Jokes and a Story (or Two) by Kelly Lusk: Hewitt plays a man who alternately tells jokes and shares personal tragedies. The incongruous mix makes this the evening’s most unconventional work, but it also means the piece never develops enough gravitas to pull off its would-be shocking ending.

In the Jar by Levine: The evening’s funniest play is about various bugs who get caught by a young boy and imprisoned in a jar—a jar that, they’re terrified to learn, has no air holes. Payne’s unctuous praying mantis gets the most laughs, but all of the insects sport personalities that are as entertaining as their costumes.

Other collections in Theatre Roulette 2016 are Red Night (featuring works by various playwrights) and Green Night (featuring six plays by Erik Sternberger). See below for specific dates and times.

Theatre Roulette 2016 continues through May 28 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, plus 2 and 4 p.m. May 28. Running time for Black Night: 55 minutes. Remaining dates: Green Night: 8 p.m. May 19 and 27, plus 4 p.m. May 28; Black Night: 8 p.m. May 20 and 28; and Red Night: 8 p.m. May 21 and 26, plus 2 p.m. May 28. Tickets are $15, $13 students/seniors, $10 members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

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This ‘Roulette’ isn’t that much of a gamble

Melissa Bair as an accident victim and Chad Hewitt as her mysterious benefactor in Holy Hell, part of Theatre Roulette’s Ladies Night (photo by Andy Batt)
Melissa Bair as an accident victim and Chad Hewitt as her mysterious benefactor in Holy Hell, part of Theatre Roulette’s Ladies Night (photo by Andy Batt)

By Richard Ades

A couple more shows like this, and MadLab may have to ditch the name “Theatre Roulette.”

The annual festival’s moniker is a joking reference to its hit-or-miss nature, since it consists of three collections of mostly unknown short plays. But when MadLab fills one of those collections with works by an interesting writer like Barbara Lindsay, success is pretty much guaranteed.

That’s the case with Ladies Night, which launched the 2013 festival last week and alternates with two more-typical Roulette shows. Each of the featured Lindsay playlets is at least worth the time it takes to watch it. Some are even worth the additional time it takes to process the complex questions and emotions they raise.

The most thoughtful piece is the first, Holy Hell, featuring Melissa Bair as a woman who was involved in a tragic accident and Chad Hewitt as a man who mysteriously shows up to help her move on with her life. What the woman doesn’t know is that the man is motivated by guilt, not charity, as he believes he’s the cause of her woes.

As the woman, Bair proves once again that she’s incapable of registering a false emotion. Though Hewitt’s performance is more surface-bound, this series of alternating monologues resonates as a portrayal of the secret pains and motivations we sometimes bring to our relationships.

Not all of the plays are this serious. Some are outright comedies, but even they mix in elements of psychological truth that are sometimes tinged with sadness. With few exceptions, director Michelle Batt helps each piece realize its full potential by pulling finely honed performances out of her actors.

The funniest piece is Spinsters, starring Natasha Ward as the self-doubting Terry and Audrey Rush as the relatively confident Laura, a friend who urges her not to bail on their double date. Rush is especially hilarious, but both exhibit spot-on comic timing in this take on women’s insecurities.

The female psyche also engenders laughs in Cosmic Goofs, mostly thanks to Jennifer Barlup’s witty portrayal of a woman who ties herself in knots over the sudden reappearance of an irresistible but unreliable ex (a smirking Hewitt). The play wanders into less-rewarding territory after a second woman (Erin Prosser) appears, but until then it’s a hoot.

If Cosmic Goofs goes on too long, On the Line seems surprisingly short, but maybe it’s just as well. Brendan Michna is fine as Joe, who’s forced to man a suicide line by himself on Valentine’s Day, but the character’s unprofessionalism strains credibility. Adding to the piece’s problems, Becky Horseman underacts to a debilitating extent as a caller who seeks his help.

Another type of performance problem rears its head in Fighting Mr. Right, about a woman (Brigid Ogden) who tells her date (Travis Horseman) she won’t sleep with him until they’ve had at least three fights. It’s a clever idea—her explanation is that she wants to know whether he’s going to flee at the first sign of trouble—but Ogden talked so low and so fast on opening night that it was hard to catch her lines.

The evening’s most puzzling piece is Spirit That Won’t Let Me Go, starring a wonderful Courtney Douser as a romance-minded woman having dinner with her boyfriend (Travis Horseman). The puzzle revolves around the “spirit” (Bair), an unseen being who seems to have an unsettling effect on the man. Who is she? If you aren’t too distracted by the question, it’s a bittersweet study of the baggage we all bring to relationships.

The night ends with The Psycho Bitch and the Throbbing Blue Veiner, directed by Amanda Bauer (rather than Batt) and starring Prosser and Erik Sternberger as a couple in the awkward final moments of their first date. Shana Kramer and Michna portray their respective thought processes, which reveal that the two don’t understand each other as well as they think.

Though it’s raunchy, and though it sounds like the kind of “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” humor we’ve seen in the past, playwright Lindsay isn’t satisfied with just making us laugh. The pair’s misunderstandings may also leave you feeling just a bit sad. Like much of what precedes it, the play affects the viewer on more than one level.

Theatre Roulette”? If trips to the Hollywood Casino paid off this consistently, it would quickly go out of business.

Ladies Night will be repeated at 8 p.m. May 17 and 25 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 90 minutes. Other Theatre Roulette collections are Local Brew, 8 p.m. May 18 and 23 and 2 p.m. May 25; and Mixed Drinks, 8 p.m. May 16 and 24 and 4 p.m. May 25. Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.