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

You might want to brush up on your Kierkegaard first

Colin (Erik Sternberger, left) strikes a typically dejected pose while Fran (Katharine Pilcher) practices “existential yoga” in The :nv:s:ble Play (photo by Andy Batt)
Colin (Erik Sternberger, left) strikes a dejected pose while Fran (Katharine Pilcher) practices “existential yoga” in The :nv:s:ble Play (photo by Andy Batt)

By Richard Ades

It’s ironic that Alex Dremann’s The :nv:s:ble Play is about a group of book editors. The two-act, two-hour work offers interesting food for thought, but it would benefit from a little editing.

While philosophy majors may be amused by its subtle existential humor, most folks would find it far more palatable if a few minutes—60, say—were cut from its running time.

Set in a New York publishing house that specializes in existential literature, The :nv:s:ble Play is about employees who are so shy and retiring that they gradually disappear from sight. At the center of the action is Colin (Erik Sternberger), who is trying to finish editing a romance novel when he discovers that neither his co-workers nor the book’s author (an unusually hammy Courtney Deuser) can see or hear him.

Actually, saying Colin is at the center of the action is misleading. It would be more accurate to say he’s in the center of the inaction, as he spends scene after scene hunched over his desk in a state of dejection while his oblivious co-workers go about their lives.

Since those lives consist mainly of gossiping about who’s romancing whom and which employees are destined to be laid off, Dremann seems to be suggesting that people like Colin are doomed to be the unappreciated backbones of their companies while their shallow but flashier colleagues gain all the glory.

There’s also a romantic element to the story, but its point is a bit murky. Colin may be in love with Fran (Katharine Pilcher), the Yale-educated woman in the next cubicle, but he also may not be, as he’s not even sure he believes in the emotion. So why should we care? Because a fellow invisible worker comes up with a theory—presumably after watching Beauty and the Beast—that one way to break the spell of invisibility is to make another person fall in love with you.

This sets Colin on a quest to get Fran to fall for him, which means he first must get her to notice him. His bumbling efforts result in several frustratingly slow scenes, including one cribbed from the 1989 rom com Say Anything.

One bright spot in all this is that MadLab’s cast, like most recent MadLab casts, is uniformly good. Director Andy Batt pulls generally well-crafted performances out of his actors.

Besides Sternberger and Pilcher, the leading players include Chad Hewitt as the sleazily ambitious Tim, Shana Kramer as the pregnant Carmen and Megan Corbin as their scary supervisor, Nancy. Most lovable of all is Michelle Batt as Ramona, a self-described asexual arborist who, like Colin, has become invisible to her co-workers.

Rounding out the cast are Joe Liles as Lawrence, an IT guy who has become invisible even to Colin and Ramona, and Deuser as Cass, an aging editor who is unseen because her desk is on the far side of the room.

Speaking of the room, Brendan Michna’s set design is a series of cubicles that will remind many office workers of their place of employment. It certainly reminded me of my former office, except that I don’t remember my days there being quite so uneventful.

The :nv:s:ble Play will be presented at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 14 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $12, $10 for students and seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or