Front Street troupe was particularly ambitious in 2015

One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)
One of the beautiful stage pictures offered by Short North Stage’s production of A Little Night Music (photo by Ray Zupp)

By Richard Ades

I try not to play favorites when I’m making out my annual “best of” list, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that one Columbus theater company was a dominant force in 2015. Shadowbox Live had so many great and unique shows that I could just about draw up a separate list devoted solely to the troupe on Front Street.

To some extent, this is no surprise. Shadowbox is by far the biggest and busiest company in town. At any given time, it divides its week up among multiple productions.

In 2015, though, Shadowbox seemed to be trying harder than ever. Not only were several of its variety shows particularly enjoyable, but it launched all-new productions that were like nothing we’d ever seen.

Shadowbox’s ambition didn’t always pay off. After putting everything else on hold for its fall production of The Tenshu, the kabuki-inspired tale turned out to be visually exhilarating but dramatically dull. But Joe Cocker: Mad Dog and Englishman was a joyful musical tribute, while the Pink Floyd retrospective Which One’s Pink? had moments of pure genius.

To top the year off, Shadowbox announced plans to purchase its expansive Brewery District venue. It’s a gutsy move, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Stev Guyer and company.

Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza), who’s being detained by two local constables (Derryck Menard and Emerson Elias) in this scene from Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza) in this scene from Gallery Players’ production of Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Beyond Shadowbox, my 2015 was highlighted by two wonderful musical productions: Gallery Players’ Les Miserables and Short North Stage’s A Little Night Music. The former was the year’s biggest surprise. I’d previously seen four productions of Les Miz, including two touring shows and the 2012 film version, but I’d never found Jean Valjean’s saga as moving as it was on the Jewish Community Center stage.

On a more modest scale, several of the year’s biggest treats were provided by little Evolution Theatre Company, which staged gay-centered shows that were at once enjoyable and consciousness-raising. Especially rewarding were the WWII musical Yank!, the historical drama The Temperamentals and the Texas-based comedy Sordid Lives.

Also interesting: Wild Women Writing’s On the Edge and Over the Edge, collaborations with Short North Stage that featured short works by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and contemporary American playwright Will Eno.

A few of the other shows were mixed successes for me: I had reservations about the works themselves, but I admired the way they were staged. Warehouse Theatre Company’s This Is Our Youth, Available Light Theatre’s The Christians, MadLab’s Clowntime Is Over and A&B Theatrical’s Devotion all fell into this category.

Outright disappointments? Of course there were some, but maybe the biggest was that I missed many shows that doubtlessly were worthwhile. Often I was too busy or out of town. In the case of one popular show staged in a relatively small space, I simply couldn’t get a ticket. At any rate, it should be remembered that any “best of” list is limited by what that particular critic has or hasn’t seen.

Obviously, 2015’s biggest shock was the unexpected death of Actors’ Theatre artistic director John S. Kuhn in late February. Though it was a great loss to the company and the theater community at large, Actors’ staff and supporters came together to ensure that the outdoor troupe’s summer season went forward as planned. Since then, Actors’ Theatre has named Philip J. Hickman as its new artistic director and announced a promising 2016 season, offering hope that the troupe will continue to build on the gains it made under Kuhn’s leadership.

On that somber but optimistic note, here’s my list of the best productions and performances of 2015:

Best play: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Adrenaline Theatre Company. Director Audrey Rush and her cast brought fire and commitment to Edward Albee’s tale of a monstrously dysfunctional relationship.

Best musical (tie): Les Miserables, Gallery Players; and A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. The former demonstrated that Les Miz still has the power to move us. The latter proved once again that Short North Stage has a way with Sondheim.

A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)
A sampling of the characters and costumes featured in Sex at the Box (Shadowbox Live photo)

Best variety show: Sex at the Box, Shadowbox Live. The show’s many highlights included Shadowbox’s funniest skit in years (Funk Daddy Love, starring Brandon Anderson) and perhaps its best cover song ever (Ball and Chain, with Julie Klein expertly channeling Janis Joplin).

Best touring show: Anything Goes, Broadway in Columbus/CAPA. Watching the seagoing musical was like crossing the Atlantic while time-traveling back to the 1930s.

Best new work: Krampus: A Yuletide Tale, Short North Stage. Created by Nils-Petter Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist, the musical was a delightfully menacing alternative to A Christmas Carol. Honorable mention: The Great One: A Hockey Musical, Short North Stage.

Best “far out!” moment: Act 2 of Which One’s Pink?, Shadowbox Live. Footage from The Wizard of Oz was combined with live re-enactments of scenes from the film, live performances of music from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon album and interpretive video by CCAD students. Bravo to director Stev Guyer and his talented collaborators.

Best direction (tie): David R. Bahgat, Les Miserables, Gallery Players; and Michael Licata, A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. Both directors performed miracles with the help of talented casts and crews. Bahgat made the familiar Les Miz as affecting as ever, while Licata brought out every tender, aching moment in Sondheim’s tale of longing and regret.

Best performance, female: Marya Spring, A Little Night Music, Short North Stage. Spring exuded both worldly confidence and vulnerability as glamorous actress Desiree.

Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)

Best performance, male: Bill Hafner, Les Miserables, Gallery Players. Hafner sang beautifully while portraying Jean Valjean with just the right combination of nobility and humility.

Best cross-dressing performance: Mark Phillips Schwamberger, Sordid Lives, Evolution Theatre Company. The musical shifted into high gear only after Schwamberger appeared as the pitiable but hilarious “Brother Boy.”

George and Martha go at it again in troupe’s premiere production

By Richard Ades

A statement printed in the program of Adrenaline Theatre Company’s first production calls Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “perhaps the greatest single play in American theatre.”

You may or may not believe that. The important thing is that director Audrey Rush appears to believe it. That’s obvious from the amount of care and passion she and her cast have invested in Edward Albee’s tale of a spectacularly dysfunctional marriage.

The fireworks begin when history professor George (Stefan Langer) and his wife, Martha (Vicki Kessler), return from a faculty party at 2 a.m. The party was at the home of the college president, Martha’s father—which is an automatic source of tension.

George was hired with the expectation that he would rise to become the head of his department and eventually inherit his father-in-law’s position, but none of that happened. It’s a failure that Martha never tires of throwing in his face.

At any rate, George is ready to turn in, but Martha surprises him with the news that they have guests coming: Nick (Chad Hewitt), a new member of the biology department, and his wife, Honey (Marybeth Griffith). Once the younger couple arrives, the gloves really come off.

First produced in 1962 and set during the same era, the play is divided into three acts with distinct personalities.

Act 1 introduces George and Martha’s no-holds-barred approach to hosting, which includes lobbing barbed comments at each other and even at their guests. It’s often darkly funny, as when George spins his theory that Nick and his fellow biologists will use genetics to remake humanity in their own image.

Act 2 is grimmer, as grudges, ambitions and copious amounts of alcohol form a combustible combination. But the real combustion comes in the shocking and cathartic Act 3.

Through it all, Langer is properly the strongest of the cast’s four strong links. Whether he’s skewering his guests with sarcasm or blowing up over Martha’s latest insult, his George is always the prime protagonist.

Kessler’s Martha is a worthy opponent, to the extent the script allows her to be. Martha lacks George’s glib command of the language, but she makes up for it in the depth of her anger and her willingness to express it at the top of her lungs.

The oddly touching thing about George and Martha’s relationship is that, as much as they detest each other, they also need and care about each other. That comes across in Langer and Kessler’s portrayals.

As Nick, Hewitt captures the younger man’s surface civility and just-below-the-surface ambition and ruthlessness. As Honey, Griffith offers an amusing portrait of naïveté and brandy-fueled obliviousness.

The full and homey-looking set is lit by Rob Philpot in a manner that’s mostly just functional, though it turns effectively dramatic for a key development.

You may or may not agree that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the greatest American play, but you have to admit it’s a powerful piece of theater in the right hands. In its first production, Adrenaline Theatre Company proves it has the right hands.

Adrenaline Theatre Company will present Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? through Feb. 7 at MadLab Theatre & Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes (including two intermissions). Tickets are $15. Contact: madlab.net.