Hoping to spell their way to happiness

Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)
Japheal Bondurant as competitor William Barfee in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Red Generation Photography)

By Richard Ades

A confession: I was disappointed when I heard CATCO had booked The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for its new season.

That was partly because I’d rather see Columbus’s premier troupe tackle works that aren’t quite so familiar. Mostly, though, it was because I’d seen a touring production come through town several years back and hadn’t fallen in love with it.

But you know what they say about love being better the second time around? Maybe that also applies to this quirky musical. Thanks to CATCO’s personable production, I now love both it and its nerdy characters.

With a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn (Falsettos), Spelling Bee is like a comedic and tuneful version of the 2002 documentary Spellbound. Like the film, it delves into the personalities of the young contestants in an attempt to explain how they became spelling whizzes and why parlaying their skills into victory is so important to them.

It could be that director Steven Anderson’s long submergence in children’s theater has served him well here, because his production’s greatest strength is its ability to turn each of the competitors into a recognizably and lovably eccentric individual.

Early laughs are won by Leaf Coneybear (Patrick Walters), whose behavior is even odder than his helmeted and caped attire. Also attracting our attention is the Korean-American Marcy Park (Nicolette Montana), who only later reveals why she seems annoyed by the whole event.

The richest portrayals are provided by Japheal Bondurant as the plus-sized William Barfee—whose haughtiness could well be both a reflection of his brilliance and a defense against an often-hostile world—and Elisabeth Zimmerman as the lonely Olive Ostrovsky. Played by Zimmerman with a deer-in-the-headlights expression and a lovely voice, Olive reveals the direness of her situation in the show’s most touching number, The I Love You Song.

Also taking part in the competition are Chip Tolentino (James Sargent), whose struggle to repeat last year’s victory is complicated by his dictatorial libido, and Logainne Schwarzandgrubenierre (Emily Turner), whose gay fathers encourage her to win at any cost.

Four pre-selected audience members play additional competitors and frequently come in for witty and personalized jibes from the spelling bee’s hosts, Rona Lisa Peretti (Krista Lively-Stauffer) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Ralph E. Scott). Panch, by the way, has many of the show’s funniest lines—which usually follow the question “Can you use it in a sentence?”—and Scott delivers them with deadpan perfection.

The cherry on the show’s comical sundae is Mitch Mahoney (Geoffrey Martin), a scruffy ex-con who was sentenced to perform community service by acting as the competition’s “comfort counselor.”

Michael S. Brewer’s set design captures the look of a school auditorium right down to the cinder-block walls and the “Putnam Piranhas” wall signs. A band led by Matt Clemens is a spirited presence despite being hidden backstage.

With tuneful tunes, heartfelt performances and more laugh-out-loud moments than you can shake a dictionary at, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is simply irresistible.

CATCO will present The Twentieth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee through Aug. 18 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $41 for Thursday and Sunday performances, $45 for Fridays and Saturdays, $11.50 for Wednesday matinees. Student tickets are available for $15 two hours before non-sold-out performances. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Young playwrights aim high

The spirit of George (Sean Reid) watches as his wife (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr, left) and daughter (Lexy Weixel) deal with his loss in Neither Here Nor There (photo by Michelle Batt)
The spirit of George (Sean Reid) watches as his wife (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr, left) and daughter (Lexy Weixel) deal with his loss in Neither Here Nor There (photo by Michelle Batt)

By Richard Ades

When MadLab launched its Young Writers Short Play Festival last year, I was pleasantly surprised to find the high school playwrights taking on mature topics and storylines. Though they spent their days in the classroom, they demonstrated that their imaginations were fully capable of roaming the world at large.

This year—in the first of the festival’s two collections, at any rate—the writers seem to have graduated from mature topics to “big” topics. Friday night’s plays deal with, in order, death, religion, nuclear war and gay identity. Kudos to the kids for their social consciousness.

But, of course, good intentions don’t guarantee good results. No matter how big its topic is, a play rises and falls on such details as characters, situations and dialogue, not to mention the strength of the acting and directing.

Due to all of these factors, the first play of the evening does nothing but rise. Emily Cipriani’s Neither Here Nor There takes on a potentially manipulative and hackneyed situation and creates an inventive combination of laughs and tears.

Working under Becky Horseman’s sensitive direction, Sean Reid stars as George, a man who suddenly finds himself in a hospital room looking down at an unconscious accident victim. Thanks to the appearance of a doughnut-downing Grim Reaper (Peter Graybeal), he learns that the victim is a brain-dead version of himself. Being an invisible spirit, George is then forced to watch helplessly as his wife (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr) and daughter (Lexy Weixel) attempt to deal with a loss that is all the more difficult because it’s not yet final.

Actor Weixel, by the way, is also a featured playwright in the festival (her Dead End being included in the Saturday collection). In the first of her two Friday appearances, her unfussy portrayal of the daughter is one of the production’s many strengths.

None of the Friday collection’s remaining plays are as fully realized as Neither Here Nor There, but all are worth seeing—if for no other reason than because they offer a rare glimpse into the minds of thoughtful high-schoolers. The other works:

Priestly, by Kinsey Cantrell, dramatizes the clash between an up-and-coming filmmaker (Stephen Woosley) and his religion-fixated mother (Randi Morgan). The play benefits from funny lines, but Cantrell and Morgan are less successful in their attempts to humanize the largely stereotypical mom. On opening night, the production’s timing was also a bit sluggish.

In Love and War, by Amelia Koontz, throws a teenage girl and boy (Weixel and Joe Liles) together on the brink of nuclear annihilation. The resulting romance-in-the-face-of-destruction is reminiscent (probably unconsciously so) of the 2012 flick Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, but Koontz’s tale is less cloying than that oddball rom-com.

The playwright and director Woosley and his two actors actually do a good job of portraying the lonely teens’ attempts to understand and support each other. However, as in the movie, the characters’ interactions can’t help being overshadowed by the end-of-days setting.

Closing Closet Doors, by Hannah Russell, centers on Lydia (Brigid Ogden), a young lesbian who has come out to her family and now has to suffer the embarrassing consequences. It’s a brave effort, but the work has so many characters offering so few revelations that it almost seems like an outline for a play rather than the play itself.

Despite its spareness, Closing Closet Doors did win loads of laughs on opening night. That’s partly because the script gives director Woosley and his cast abundant opportunities to throw in comic business.

Truthfully, it also didn’t hurt that friends of the playwright and cast had turned out for the show and were eager to show their support. But just think of that: high-schoolers being celebrated, not for shooting baskets or making touchdowns, but for creating theater.

One more reason to cheer the Young Writers Short Play Festival.

The Young Writers Short Play Festival continues through Aug. 10 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday (featuring plays by Emily Cipriani, Kinsey Cantrell, Amelia Koontz and Hannah Russell) and 8 p.m. Saturday (featuring plays by Em Hammett, Anna Mulhall, Sarah Fornshell, Lexy Weixel and Abigail Goodhart). Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

Second helping of ‘Burlesque’ outshines the first

Amy Lay, Morgan Mosley, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Edelyn Parker (from left) in Burlesque Behind the Curtain (Shadowbox Live photo)
Amy Lay, Morgan Mosley, Nikki Fagin, Stacie Boord and Edelyn Parker (from left) in Burlesque Behind the Curtain (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

One of the most surprising letters I ever got during my time at The Other Paper was from a theater troupe seeking more publicity. What surprised me was the letter’s explanation that troupes need as much ink as they can get because, according to statistics, more people are into sado-masochism than are into live theater.

After getting over my shock at the unlikely comparison, it occurred to me that it’s probably possible to remedy the situation by mounting shows that would appeal to these non-theater-going S&M-ers. Shadowbox Live’s original Burlesque de Voyage, for example, offered a satisfying release, in the form of laughs and sexual energy, but only after forcing viewers to sit through a rather tedious first act. Punishment and reward: Surely that would have attracted members of the whips-and-chains crowd if only they’d known about it.

Unfortunately, this demographic is less likely to be attracted to the follow-up show, Burlesque Behind the Curtain, which stubbornly insists on being entertaining all the way through. The sequel is again centered on a traveling burlesque troupe, but writer Jimmy Mak wisely altered the format in a couple of key ways.

Stacie Boord as Della Clayton (Shadowbox Live photo)
Stacie Boord as Della Clayton (Shadowbox Live photo)

While 2012’s Burlesque devoted its entire first act to backstage dramas that were uninvolving because we hadn’t been properly introduced to the characters, 2013’s sequel alternates such scenes with songs and skits from the fictitious troupe’s stage show. Moreover, it adds interest to the backstage scenes by giving them a focus: the arrival of new cast member Della Clayton (Stacie Boord), a grownup child star with a talent for rubbing people the wrong way.

Act 1 still isn’t perfect—the backstage dramas are fairly shallow (and were sometimes sluggishly performed on opening night), and the comedy skits are so-so. But the song-and-dance numbers are both tuneful and provocative.

The show’s first infusion of lust is Maintenant, sung in French by emcee Busty (Julie Klein) and accompanied by classy/sexy dancers who soon strip down to their bras. (Pasties and thongs make an appearance before the show is over.) Continuing in the same mood, Robbie Nance sings the Coasters’ Little Red Riding Hood while the Big Bad Wolf (Jim Andes) “eats” Grandma (Boord) in a way that was never intended in the original fairy tale.

Finishing up the act, Jeff Simpson sings You Look Like Rain with tones just as beautiful as the notes band member Nicole Rachelle coaxes out of her saxophone solo.

But if Act 1 sounds good, just wait. Act 2 is five times better. Especially improved are the comedy sketches, which consist of vaudeville-type routines performed in the vaudeville style.

The evening’s first huge laugh comes courtesy of Monkey Business, delightfully delivered by Mak as a police detective and Amy Lay as a semi-clothed secretary whose boss has just jumped out of a 20th-story window. Even more laughs come courtesy of the double entendres in The Court of Last Retort, starring Brandon Anderson as the D.A., Mak as the lascivious judge and a cigarette-holder-toting Lay as the witness.

Yet even those laughs are topped by the guffaws Klein and others drag out of a naughty audience-participation bit set to the tune of I Wanna Be Loved by You.

Speaking of which, there’s still plenty of sexual content in Act 2, including a number that might even appeal to S&M types: Director Stev Guyer sings John Legend’s Who Did That to You while scantily clad “Avengers” beat a woman-abusing man (Andes) within an inch of his life.

Laughs, music, dance, nubile bodies and a feminist revenge tale: Really, what more could you ask from a show?

Burlesque Behind the Curtain will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays through Oct. 10 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. (No performances Aug. 28; Sept. 4, 11, 12, 25, 26; Oct. 3, 9.) Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30, $20 students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

If Miracle-Gro doesn’t work, try blood

Seymour (Preston Pounds) and Audrey II are surrounded by “Urchins” Monica Brown, Marina Pires and Haley Jones (from left) in Little Shop of Horrors (photo by Ed Syguda)
Seymour (Preston Pounds) and Audrey II are surrounded by “Urchins” Monica Brown, Marina Pires and Haley Jones (from left) in Little Shop of Horrors (photo by Ed Syguda)

By Richard Ades

One of my favorite musical experiences of all time was Otterbein’s 2011 production of The Drowsy Chaperone, whose many perks included Preston Pounds’s portrayal of the agoraphobic central character.

Now Pounds is back as Seymour, the unfortunate plant-shop employee in Little Shop of Horrors. His presence guarantees that the movie-based musical will have a core of likable vulnerability that keeps it from drowning in silliness.

The presence of director David Hemsley Caldwell, an old hand at Otterbein musicals (including Chaperone), is another harbinger of good things to come. Caldwell keeps things fun and quirky while only occasionally allowing the proceedings to descend into self-conscious campiness.

With a book by Howard Ashman and based on Roger Corman’s 1960 cult flick, Little Shop is set in a Skid Row plant shop that’s seen better times. (Or maybe it hasn’t—it is located on Skid Row.)

After suffering through a particularly slow day, owner Mushnik (an extravagantly accented Kyle Hansen) threatens to fire both Seymour and fellow employee Audrey (a glamorously attired but flighty Madison Tinder). But then Seymour reveals that he’s discovered a strange plant—some kind of flytrap, he thinks—and has named it “Audrey II” in honor of the woman for whom he secretly lusts. Once word of the exotic plant gets out, the customers start flocking in.

Just a slight problem: Seymour learns that Audrey II thrives on one thing and one thing only: human blood. Is he willing to become a murderer in order to keep his new meal ticket alive? Pounds imbues Seymour with just enough humanity to clarify the struggle between his basic decency and his desire for success, which he hopes will finally impress the beautiful Audrey. Audrey, meanwhile, suffers from such low self-esteem that she seems incapable of escaping the abusive clutches of her sadistic boyfriend, Orin (Harry Sanderson).

Obviously, Little Shop of Horrors deals with dark subjects, but the overall atmosphere is as goofy and gleefully malevolent as Audrey II herself (a puppet voiced by John Henry Carter). Helping to set the mood is a slyly sexy trio of “Urchins” (Monica Brown, Haley Jones and Marina Pires) who serve as a sort of Greek chorus.

But what really keeps things lively is the score, a collection of songs by Alan Menken (music) and Ashman (lyrics) that capture the flavor of early rock, blues and folk. Hummable favorites include the Prologue (sung by the Urchins) and Suddenly, Seymour (sung by Seymour and Audrey). Both the solos and the harmonized numbers are nicely handled by the cast and the offstage band led by Dennis Davenport.

Rob Johnson’s clever and realistic set, Andy Baker’s mock-scary lighting and Julia Ferreri’s playful costumes add to the entertainment value of this drolly bloodthirsty musical comedy.

Otterbein Summer Theatre will present Little Shop of Horrors through July 27 at Cowen Hall, 30 S. Grove St., Westerville. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (July 14 only), plus 8 p.m. July 18 and 2 p.m. July 19. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-823-1109 or www.otterbein.edu/drama.

All Shakespearean updates are not created equal

Susan Wismar (Maria), Andy Falter (Sir Toby), Jesse Massaro (Malvolio) and Adam Poe (Sir Andrew) in a scene from Twelfth Night (photo by Dale Bush)
Appearing in a scene from Twelfth Night are (from left) Susan Wismar (Maria), Andy Falter (Sir Toby), Jesse Massaro (Malvolio) and Adam Poe (Sir Andrew) (photo by Dale Bush)

By Richard Ades

There’s more than one way to update Shakespeare.

One approach, perfected by Josh Whedon’s modern-dress film version of Much Ado About Nothing, is to ignore the time period and concentrate on the story. The effect is to emphasize the timelessness of the characters and their predicaments, even if their language is a particularly flowery form of Elizabethan English.

Another approach is to use the time period and setting to add another layer of meaning to the play—for instance, by relocating Macbeth to a politically unstable part of the world.

Yet a third approach is to use the time period as a way to make the play more accessible to the average theatergoer. That’s the tack Actors’ Theatre has taken with its 1980s version of Twelfth Night.

To tell the truth, I tend to see this approach as a form of surrender. It’s like the thespians have decided it’s too hard to persuade viewers to appreciate Shakespeare for his own sake, so they add a veneer of recognizable references. It’s particularly puzzling when they apply this method to Twelfth Night, which may be the most likable of all the Bard’s comedies.

That said, it must be stated that much works just fine in the production director Mandy Fox has put together on the nifty pastel-colored set Trent Bean has designed for the Schiller Park stage.

Most importantly, Kayla Jackmon is appealing as Viola, the young woman who washes ashore in an unfamiliar land following a shipwreck. We automatically root for her as she responds to her dire situation by disguising herself as a male eunuch and going to work for the love-struck Duke Orsino (Andrew Blasenak).

Also working just fine are the comical figures we meet at the house of the noblewoman Orsino is love-struck for, Olivia (Ashley Frisch). Andy Falter is a Miami Vice-attired hoot as her drunken uncle, Toby Belch, while Adam Poe puts his short stature to humorous use as Olivia’s would-be suitor, Sir Anthony Aguecheek. In addition, Liz Light sings nicely as Olivia’s fool, Feste, and Susan Wismar earns laughs with a Valley Girl interpretation of Olivia’s conniving servant, Maria.

From a comedy standpoint, all this sounds pretty good. But the problem is that director Fox seems to have decided that everything in this updated Twelfth Night has to be played for laughs. Not only does this approach rob the tale of some charming moments, but it forces the actors to find humor in characters that aren’t meant to be funny.

In the first scene, while Viola worries that she lost twin brother Sebastian (Cornelius Hubbard Jr.) in the shipwreck, Ben Sostrom depicts the sea captain who rescued her as a fey stereotype. Needless to say, this undercuts the sadness of the moment.

Viola (Kayla Jackmon, left) unwittingly wins the love of Olivia (Ashley Frisch) while masquerading as a man in Twelfth Night (photo by Dale Bush)
Viola (Kayla Jackmon, left) unwittingly wins the love of Olivia (Ashley Frisch) while masquerading as a man in Twelfth Night (photo by Dale Bush)

Later, we’re introduced to Orsino and his ongoing attempt to woo Olivia despite her pledge to spend the next seven years mourning her late brother. In most productions, Orsino is depicted as a soulful romantic, making him a fitting target for the adoration the disguised Viola comes to feel for him. Here, though, Orsino comes across as a love-struck buffoon, making Viola’s crush seem shallow and inconsequential.

The worst part of all this is that, having played the comedy’s gentler moments for laughs, the actors are forced to up the ante by playing the more-boisterous moments for even bigger laughs. As the show goes on, some cast members over-emote in a style that seems more appropriate for the vaudeville era than the 1980s.

When Olivia falls for the young “man” Viola is impersonating, Frisch turns her into a caricature of a woman in heat. When Olivia’s dictatorial steward, Malvolio (Jesse Massaro), is fooled into thinking he’s the object of his lady’s desires, he shouts his protestations of love so loudly that you’d think he was courting someone in the next county. Then, just in case the odd audience member is still unaware that something funny is supposed to be going on, Toby and his friends take the stage decked out in Ghost Busters paraphernalia.

All this overwhelms the alternately clever and tenderly romantic tale that is Twelfth Night, which could have absorbed the 1980s pop references but can’t survive all the bombast.

“Prithee read i’ thy right wits,” Olivia pleads at one point as Feste is reading a letter out loud and making a mockery of it in the process. You can’t help wishing the director and her cast had taken her words to heart.

Actors’ Theatre will present Twelfth Night through July 28 at the amphitheater in Schiller Park, 1069 Jaeger St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Admission is free; bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

The souse who would be king

John Tener (left) as Falstaff and David Tull as Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part One (photo by Matt Hermes)
John Tener (left) as Falstaff and David Tull as Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part One (photo by Matt Hermes)

By Richard Ades

Central Ohio Shakespeare fans currently have an embarrassment of riches. Besides Josh Whedon’s wonderful film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, they have three outdoor theater productions to choose from.

If you’re serious about the Bard, your best bet may be the work you’re probably the least familiar with: Henry IV, Part One. Yes, it’s a history play, but you don’t have to know your Tudors from your Plantagenets to enjoy it. That’s because the central character is a timeless archetype: a son who’s torn between his father’s expectations and his own fun-loving inclinations.

The son is Prince Hal, who likes nothing better than to spend his days drinking and getting into mischief with his tavern buddies, especially the disreputable but somehow lovable Sir John Falstaff. Hal’s lifestyle is extremely troubling to his father, King Henry IV, especially after sundry noblemen begin plotting against the crown.

Will Hal step up to his princely duties in time to help his father survive the threat to his reign? You could cheat by looking it all up on Wikipedia, but it’s more fun to watch the tale unfold on the New Players stage.

Directed by the Bard-literate Robert Behrens, the production benefits from a trio of great performances.

John Tener is a delight as Falstaff, an oversized and comical character who proved so popular that Shakespeare brought him back in two subsequent adventures. As Hal, David Tull is a nice blend of youthful indiscretion and innate decency.

In the scenes revolving around the developing revolt, Rick Clark’s Henry has a rather uncommanding presence, but Chris Austin gives a charismatic and powerful performance as the hot-tempered rebel known as Hotspur. Also making a strong impression, though he ventures right to the edge of a Scottish stereotype in the process, is Scott Willis as the Earl of Douglas.

The talk of rebellion eventually explodes into actual combat, and Behrens makes the most of it with well-staged action scenes involving swords, quarterstaffs and fisticuffs.

It’s noteworthy that, of the three local Shakespeare productions, Henry IV is the only one that isn’t updated. However, that doesn’t mean costume designer Natalie Cagle is a stickler for historical correctness. The men look vaguely 15th-century, but some of the women flit about in short skirts or dresses. One gets the impression that Cagle had to pull out all the creative stops in order to clothe the cast on a limited budget.

Scenic designer Peter Pauze also had to make do with more creativity than cash, it appears. Sometimes the scene changes involve such minor alterations that they hardly seem worth the effort. Still, the choreographed changes are performed with so much spirit that they’re fun to watch.

Anyway, the costumes and scenery are almost beside the point. What makes the production fun is the joy and devotion that Tener, Tull and the rest of the cast bring to this seldom-seen gem from the Shakespeare canon.

Note: New Players Theater is presenting Henry IV, Party One in repertory with The Taming of the Shrew (see previous review). The third local Shakespeare production is Actors’ Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night (review to come).

New Players Theatre will present Henry IV, Part One through July 28 at the Mill Run Amphitheater (behind Church at Mill Run), 3500 Mill Run Drive, Hilliard. Show times are 8 p.m. July 5, 13-14, 18 and 25-28. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Offered on alternate evenings is The Taming of the Shrew, which will be presented at 8 p.m. June 30, July 6-7, 11-12 and 19-21. Tickets: Pay what you will (bring a blanket or lawn chair); “premium reserved seats” also available with reservations. 614-874-6783 or newplayers.org.

Daring to spoof Broadway

By Richard Ades

Appearing in Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 are (from left) Dionysia Williams, Joe Bishara (front), Christopher Storer and Dionysia Williams (Red Generation Photography)
Appearing in Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 are (from left) Dionysia Williams, Joe Bishara (front), Christopher Storer and Liz Wheeler (Red Generation Photography)

Lighthearted summer musicals have become a staple with CATCO, and the troupe’s patrons seem to approve. They’ve bought so many tickets that both Evil Dead: The Musical (2011) and Avenue Q (2012) were extended and/or revived.

This year’s offering, Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, appears to be continuing that tradition. The satirical revue opened just last week, and it’s already been extended by four performances.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer cast—or one that’s harder-working. Joe Bishara (who also directs), Christopher Storer, Liz Wheeler and Dionysia Williams reveal impressive singing and improvisational skills as they storm their way through an evening filled with take-no-prisoners lyrics and blink-of-an-eye costume changes. Their purpose: to spoof a slew of well-known Broadway shows and stars.

Created and written by Gerard Alessandrini, Forbidden Broadway has been updated numerous times since it opened off-Broadway in 1982. The latest New York version included takeoffs on current Broadway blockbuster The Book of Mormon and on Hugh Jackman, star of last year’s cinematic production of Les Miserables.

Not surprisingly, the Greatest Hits show is less up to date. Some of its satirical targets, in fact, are more than a bit dusty.

Williams does a nifty impersonation of Liza Minnelli in Liza One Note, for example, but when was the last time the star of the silver screen’s Cabaret has grabbed the spotlight? And the show’s version of America, featuring Wheeler as Chita Rivera and Williams as Rita Moreno, really tests the audience’s long-term memory—since it jokes about a presumed rivalry between the performers who played Anita in the Broadway and Hollywood versions, respectively, of West Side Story.

Some of the targeted shows are equally ancient. Cats? Yes, it ran longer than any other Broadway show except The Phantom of the Opera, but the New York production used up the last of its nine lives 13 years ago.

Still, even when the subject matter seems past its prime, the cast members are always admirable. And when their talent combines with one of Alessandrini’s particularly clever conceits, the results are sublime.

Yes, Ethel Merman is long gone, but Wheeler brings her back in all of her full-throated glory in a piece that takes aim at modern singers’ tendency to let the amplification do the heavy lifting. Among the male impersonations, the funniest is Bishara’s take on “male chanteuse” Mandy Patinkin in an Over the Rainbow spoof that’s understatedly named Somewhat Overindulgent.

Of course, satire wouldn’t be satire if it didn’t rub some people the wrong way.

If you worship at the altar of Stephen Sondheim, you may be put off by a segment that rips into the composer/lyricist’s tendency to pack a whole lot of words and ideas into small amounts of time and melody. Even the audience gets into the act on this one, courtesy of a sing-along that eventually accelerates to breakneck speed.

And what will fans of Les Miz think of Forbidden Broadway’s eight-song attack on the mega-musical? Well, they’ll probably be won over multiple times. The best part comes when Jackman’s version of Jean Valjean (Storer) sings the words that probably have been on the mind of every man who’s ever attempted the plaintive Bring Him Home: “It’s too high.”

Adding to the show’s fun is the fact that it’s performed in an intimate cabaret setting on a tiny stage the performers share with music director and accomplished pianist Matt Clemens. The glitzy set, lighting and costumes—designed by Michael S. Brewer, Curtis “Nitz” Brown and Marcia Hain, respectively—are further pluses.

Satire is said to be something that closes on Saturday night, but CATCO’s latest summer musical is proving to be an exception to the rule.

CATCO will present Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 through July 14 in Studio Three, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (no show July 4) and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $35. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Making patriarchy palatable

Amanda Cawthorne as Kate and Tim Browning as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew (photo by Matt Hermes)
Amanda Cawthorne as Kate and Tim Browning as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew (photo by Matt Hermes)

By Richard Ades

There are two Shakespeare plays that are hard sells because they’re based on outmoded mores. Of these, the more difficult is The Merchant of Venice, not so much because it has a Jewish villain but because its punishment for his villainy is to force him to convert to Christianity.

If Shakespeare were alive today, I’d sure he’d long since have had an Exodus International-style change of heart and issued an apology.

The other tough sell is The Taming of the Shrew, but after seeing the play twice in the past year, I suspect it may be due for a partial reprieve. The comedy is as patriarchal and sexist as ever, but if it’s done with heart and sensitivity, viewers might be able to overlook its dated viewpoint.

Admittedly, I first came to this conclusion after seeing it performed at London’s Globe Theatre, where I joined the other “groundlings” standing at the foot of the stage. Not only was the production a witty delight, garnering the biggest laughs of any Shakespearean outing I’d ever seen, but the theater’s 16th-century design might have made it easier to dip one’s mental toes into the mindset of the Bard’s era.

Still, you don’t have to go to the Globe to appreciate Shrew. If it’s been reprieved, the probable reason is simply that women’s place in the world has changed.

When a character declares that wives owe their husbands obedience because the men are the ones who go out and earn a living, we know she’s talking about a time that’s safely in the past. For most of us living in 21st-century America, the play’s sexism is too anachronistic to be threatening.

As I said, the comedy still must be performed with heart and sensitivity in order to work. New Players Theater’s current production, directed by Jocelyn Wiebe, is not perfect. But it does get the all-important relationship between Katherina (the “shrew”) and Petruchio (her would-be “tamer”) exactly right.

The situation: Baptista (Scott Willis), a rich resident of Padua, Italy, has two daughters of marriageable age. The gentle Bianca (Erin Mellon) has several suitors, but Baptista insists that her older sister, Kate (Amanda Cawthorne), must be married first. Trouble is, Kate’s mercurial temper scares off all prospective husbands.

Enter Petruchio (Tim Browning), who’s in search of a rich wife and insists that he can mold Kate into a devoted spouse. With help from his long-suffering servant, Grumio (Todd Covert), he sets out to do just that by adopting a plan of action that convinces her and everyone else that he’s outlandishly eccentric and possibly insane.

What makes all this palatable is that Browning portrays Petruchio as manipulative but never disrespectful toward Kate, while Cawthorne portrays Kate as ill-tempered but never undignified. Besides, we can’t help suspecting that these two fiery spirits are well-suited to each other.

A subplot involving Bianca’s suitors is marked by the typical Shakespearean disguises. Both Lucentio (Austin Andres) and Hortensio (Matthew Moore) pretend to be tutors in order to gain alone time with her (a goal that will resonate with fans of The Bachelorette), while Lucentio’s servant Tranio (Clifton Holznagel) masquerades as his master. The ruses are good for a few laughs, but the funniest suitor of all, thanks to Miles Drake’s crusty portrayal, is the doddering Gremio.

Mellon’s Bianca seems a tad too shallow to justify all the attention she receives, but the acting in the subplot is mostly on-target. Unfortunately, this part of the play is weakened by hackneyed bits of slapstick accompanied by overbearing sound effects (“Boing!”) and musical flourishes (“Whah, whah, whah, whah”). To be sure, slapstick has a place in Shakespeare, but it should serve the plot rather than acting as an over-the-top distraction.

Director Wiebe seems to set the tale somewhere in the mid-20th century, judging from the recorded musical accompaniment and Natalie Cagle’s costume designs. Again, the music is sometimes overbearing, but the costumes are distinctive and attractive. Alas, none is as daring as the ass-less outfit Petruchio wore to his wedding at the Globe, but that approach probably would have gotten the troupe thrown out of Hilliard.

And that would have been a shame. Despite its outdated attitudes, The Taming of the Shrew remains a clever and entertaining take on the war between the sexes.

New Players Theater will present The Taming of the Shrew through July 21 at the Mill Run Amphitheater (behind the Church at Mill Run), 3500 Mill Run Drive, Hilliard. Show times are 8 p.m. June 20-23 and 30, and July 6-7, 11-12 and 19-21. (Henry IV, Part One will be presented at 8 p.m. June 27-29, July 5, 13-14, 18 and 25-28.) Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: Pay what you will. “Premium reserved seats” are available with paid reservations; otherwise, bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-874-6783 or newplayers.org.

Obscure production has impeccable timing

Appearing in The Empire Builders are (from left): standing—Travis Horseman (Neighbor), Audrey Rush (Mug, the maid); seated—Jim Azelvandre (Father), Mary Beth Griffith (Zenobia), Mary-Aileen St. Cyr (Mother); on floor—Stefan Langer (the Schurz) (photo courtesy of MadLab/Shepherd Productions)
Appearing in The Empire Builders are (from left): standing—Travis Horseman (Neighbor), Audrey Rush (Mug, the maid); seated—Jim Azelvandre (Father), Mary Beth Griffith (Zenobia), Mary-Aileen St. Cyr (Mother); on floor—Stefan Langer (the Schmurz) (photo by Michelle Batt)

By Richard Ades

MadLab and Shepherd Productions’ staging of The Empire Builders serendipitously arrives on the heels of an event that raised similar issues: Namely, how much should one be willing to give up in the name of safety, and how does one distinguish between justifiable concern and rampant paranoia?

Well, actually, there were two such events, if you count the revelations of government spying on private phone and Internet usage. But I was speaking mainly of something more local: The Night of the Derecho.

On Wednesday (June 12), Central Ohio TV stations devoted the entire evening to endless reports of tornado warnings, tornado watches and, most frighteningly, of a straight-line storm approaching from the west. We learned that weather patterns over northern Indiana were conspiring to create a threat even more dangerous than the folks E. Gordon Gee referred to as “those damn Catholics” at Notre Dame.

Perhaps sensing that viewers were having trouble worrying about all this while the skies over Columbus remained calm and clear, weathercasters trotted out maps showing developing tornados up north and that treacherous storm system out west. And lightning! Lots and lots of lightning!

And the worst was yet to come, they warned, as the derecho was due to hit Columbus sometime after 1 a.m. The folks at Channel 6 went so far as to advise us to take refuge in our basements in case the fierce winds sent trees crashing into our homes.

I remained skeptical, but I couldn’t dismiss the warnings entirely, especially since a mature ash tree stood right outside my bedroom window. Though I didn’t hide in the basement, neither did I escape into dreamland. Instead, I lay awake and watchful until the storm arrived, right on time, left a few drops of rain and departed. The total damage: an overturned mat on the back porch. Except in parts of Hilliard and Canal Winchester, it seemed, the derecho was a nonevent.

It’s in the aftermath of this harrowing experience—and of the NSA/Verizon revelations—that The Empire Builders arrived at MadLab last week. It was pretty neat timing, considering that French playwright Boris Vian’s 1957 work is about a family that goes to great lengths to protect itself from a vague threat.

Each time they hear a mysterious and ominous noise, Father (Jim Azelvandre) and Mother (Mary-Aileen St. Cyr) drag their daughter (Mary Beth Griffith) and maid (Audrey Rush) upstairs one flight. And each time they move, they end up in a smaller apartment than the one they had before, though only daughter Zenobia seems to realize this. She points out, in vain, that they started out with six rooms and now have only two.

She also points out that it wasn’t until they’d moved the first time that their living space was shared by a silent beast known as the Schmurz (Stefan Langer). But again, the parents are oblivious. They refuse to even acknowledge the creature’s existence, though they periodically pause to attack it with their hands, feet, belt or whatever else is handy.

This is obviously an extremely odd work, and it only gets odder as it goes along—odder and harder to interpret. But many viewers will see that as a challenge.

Inspired by recent events, they may compare the Schmurz to the NSA, or maybe to the terrorist threats that spur it on. They may compare the family’s increasingly smaller apartments to our loss of privacy, or perhaps to our loss of regular TV programming on Wednesday night.

And what does the mysterious noise represent? Edward Snowden? Chris Bradley?

The play’s obscure theme is actually less of a problem than the fact that it’s about as repetitious as Wednesday’s weather reports. For example, it’s fun to watch Father and Mother beat the tar out of the Schmurz two or three times, but by the sixth or seventh time, the slapstick routine has grown stale.

It definitely helps that director Andy Batt has gathered a good cast, which includes Travis Horseman as the Neighbor and the estimable Azelvandre as the Father, who becomes the prime protagonist. But there’s only so much the actors can do to maintain interest in characters who don’t develop or behave in a rational manner.

Griffith has an advantage over the others, playing someone who actually appears to have a working brain, and she makes the most of it with an appealing performance. Weirdly, though, the only character who evolves in the course of the play is the Schmurz, who grows increasingly menacing. Langer does a commendable job of giving the specter a personality without saying a word.

Behind the scenes, Anthony Pellecchia’s lighting, Dave Wallingford’s sound design and Deb Dyer’s bizarre set combine to give the show an eerie personality.

The Empire Builders is a gutsy choice for Shepherd’s third annual production, being relatively unknown compared to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (2011) or Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (2012). Having recently carped about another local troupe’s unadventurous programming, I can’t fault Shepherd for taking a risk.

But it’s also good to remember that when a vintage play has sunk into obscurity, there’s often a reason.

MadLab and Shepherd Productions will present The Empire Builders through June 22 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors, $10 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

Duck-centered talk is both funny and philosophical

Poster for the debut production of Geoff Nelson's new troupe, A Portable Theatre
Poster for The Duck Variations, starring Jonathan Putnam (seated) and Geoffrey Nelson (photo courtesy of A Portable Theatre)

By Richard Ades

After watching a local 2012 production of November, David Mamet’s clunky attempt at political satire, it was hard to get enthused over the prospect of seeing another Mamet comedy.

On the other hand, it was easy to get enthused over the prospect of seeing the debut of Geoffrey Nelson’s new touring troupe, A Portable Theatre. Especially since the production starred both Nelson and longtime cohort Jonathan Putnam.

The two CATCO alums have been doing theater together for more than 30 years, as Nelson noted on opening night, and it shows in the easy way they play off each other. Working under Nelson’s direction, they mine every bit of humor from Mamet’s two-person one-act, The Duck Variations.

The surprising bonus, for those who suffered through November, is that the one-act has quite of bit of humor to mine. Written in 1972, when Mamet was just closing in on the quarter-century mark, it’s basically a wide-ranging conversation between two strangers who meet in a park.

Politics, economics, friendship, pollution—these and more topics come up. But the conversation starts with and often returns to ducks, with which each of the men seems to identify in various ways. Being at an age when they’re aware of their own mortality, they particularly sympathize with the males who attain leadership roles only to be replaced by younger males when they’re felled by death.

It’s all a bit profound, and just a little sad. Mostly, though, it’s funny, thanks to the personality clashes that arise.

Emil (Nelson) is frankly lonely and is happy to find someone to talk to, but he can’t help being annoyed by his companion’s tendency to bloviate on subjects he obviously knows little about. George (Putnam), for his part, becomes both annoyed and defensive when his misstatements are questioned.

At one point, George goes so far as to insist that birds are the only animals capable of flight. Only later, after Emil drops the subject, is he willing to admit that insects also have been known to take wing.

In a talkback session after the opening-night performance, Nelson explained that the characters are meant to be in their 60s. That probably seemed ancient to the then-20-something playwright, who imbued them with several familiar characteristics of old age.

Being in his 60s himself, Nelson said, he actually thinks of the men as being in their 80s. However, neither actor makes an obvious effort to age his character. This subtle approach allows Emil and George to come across, not as stereotypical oldsters, but as individuals who are touchingly vulnerable and recognizably—and hilariously—human.

A Portable Theatre will present The Duck Variations through June 23. Show times are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the BalletMet Performance Space, 322 Mount Vernon Ave.; and 8 p.m. Wednesday and 11 a.m. Thursday at Abbey Theater of Dublin, 5600 Post Road. Running time: 50 minutes. Tickets are $20, $10 students ($15/$10 students at Thursday matinee). Aportabletheatre.com.