In a world where men hide and women preside…

Shana Kramer, Cat McAlpine and Kyle Jepson (from left) in MadLab’s world premiere of Scritch Scritch by Christopher Lockheardt (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

Shana Kramer, Cat McAlpine and Kyle Jepson (from left) in MadLab’s world premiere of Scritch Scritch by Christopher Lockheardt. (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

By Richard Ades

Scritch Scritch is pretty enjoyable, if a bit puzzling.

Christopher Lockheardt’s world-premiere comedy begins as Rebecca (Kyle Jepson) is observing her 32nd birthday. While she and her mom (Mary Sink) celebrate, Rebecca mentions that she’d like to get married and have children, but she has no idea where to find a husband. Oddly, though most mothers with grownup children are eager to become grandmothers, Rebecca’s mom urges her to remain single.

Another puzzling development arises before the little party breaks up: Rebecca begs for stories about her long-lost father, but her mom refuses to talk about him.

The mystery deepens when Rebecca’s friend Daley (Shana Kramer) drops by, and the two hear the scratching sounds that give the show its title. Deciding Rebecca’s home has attracted a mouse, they call in an exterminator (Cat McAlpine), who quickly determines they have a much bigger problem: “You have a man in the house.”

In this world, it seems, men are considered pests who don’t fit in with society because of their dirty, noisy and annoying ways. Therefore, they must be trapped using lures such as beer and remote controls and “poisoned” with multivitamins, nutrition being lethal to their male constitutions.

But wait a minute, you’re probably asking yourself if you’re anything like I was at this stage in the play. Wasn’t Rebecca just saying she wants a husband but doesn’t know where to find one? Why, then, would she want to exterminate the presumably available man who’s taken up residence in her house?

The answer to this is something I didn’t figure out until later, so skip over the rest of this paragraph if you want to remain equally in the dark. Rebecca doesn’t know that husbands are men! Not only that, but she doesn’t know fathers are men, which becomes apparent much later.

There are a few things Mom (Mary Sink, right) hasn’t told her daughter (Kyle Jepson) about the facts of life. (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)
There are a few things Mom (Mary Sink, right) hasn’t told her daughter (Kyle Jepson) about the facts of life. (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

The play is easier to understand once you know this, so I’m not sure why playwright Lockheardt wanted to keep it a secret. Or maybe he didn’t mean to but simply failed to make it clear.

At any rate, even if you don’t totally understand the peculiarities of the play’s female-centered society, you’ll catch on that Lockheardt is poking fun at male stereotypes such as their supposed love of drinking beer, eating junk food, playing loud music and generally making a mess. There’s nothing particularly original about these observations, and they don’t completely explain why they’ve made men pariahs. After all, Rebecca’s friend Daley has some of these same tendencies, proving that gender stereotypes don’t always hold true. Still, they’re good for a few chuckles.

Helping to sell the flawed script is a cast that gives punchy performances under Jim Azelvandre’s direction (with assistance from Becky Horseman). Jepson and Sink’s portrayals are enough alike that it’s easy to believe Rebecca and her mom are related. As the eccentric exterminator, McAlpine is humorously deadpan, and Kramer adds loads of energy as the fun-loving, wise-cracking Daley.

Though the play is a comedy, it does have some somber and even touching moments, especially toward the end. These are nicely handled by the cast and augmented by Rob Philpott’s lighting. As with the comic moments, they would be easier to appreciate if the mindset behind the play’s matriarchy were a little less confusing.

So how can a work this flawed be more or less enjoyable? Maybe it has something to do with the play and the production’s laidback nature and lack of pretentiousness. Since they don’t seem to take themselves that seriously, it’s hard to take their missteps all that seriously either.

Scritch Scritch continues through Sept. 3 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $15, $13 students/seniors, $10 members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

Chekhovian angst mined for Durang-ian mirth

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and SpikeBy Richard Ades

There’s nothing quite as fun as watching Christopher Durang take on the Catholic Church, as he proved in his classic satire Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. But seeing him take on Anton Chekhov is also good for laughs.

He does so in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a 2013 Tony Award winner that borrows names and themes from the dour Russian, along with a general air of depressed malaise. That is, the characters suffer from depression; the audience is in hysterics.

CATCO’s current production benefits from a director with a flair for comedy—David Hemsley Caldwell—and two lead players who are equally adept. Jonathan Putnam and Danielle Mann are quietly masterful as Vanya and Sonia, the 50-something siblings who share a miserable existence in the home once owned by their deceased parents.

The first scene establishes their flinty relationship. Sonia brings Vanya his morning coffee, only to learn he’s already poured himself a cup. She complains that he’s deprived her of one of her few daily pleasures, leading to an argument that eventually ends in broken china.

Sonia, we learn, was adopted. We also learn that she’s attracted to Vanya despite his protestations that he marches to a “different drummer”—i.e., he’s gay. Putnam and Mann inhabit the unhappy pair so thoroughly that their personalities come through even when they’re just sitting and glumly observing the world.

Meanwhile, Chekhov is referenced in multiple ways, including Sonia’s insistence that a nearby stand of 10 or 11 trees constitutes a “cherry orchard.” But don’t worry if you’re rusty on the playwright’s works—Durang throws in enough explanations to keep everyone in the loop.

In a nod to Greek mythology, he also makes sure we know why a character named Cassandra is doomed to making dire predictions that no one believes. Shanessa Sweeney is a live wire as the housekeeper, whose ability to see the future comes in handy following the sudden appearance of Sonia and Vania’s successful sister, Masha (Lori Cannon).

The movie star barges in with her younger lover, Spike (William Darby), and begins talking about a change that will upset her siblings’ boring but stable existence. Narcissistic and overbearing, Masha proved a difficult character to enjoy at Wednesday’s preview matinee, especially since Cannon at first had trouble playing her with more than one note. Cannon fared better after intermission, when Masha’s insecurities bubbled to the surface and made her recognizably—and hilariously—human.

As Spike, Darby has some nice comic moments but is mostly limited to stripping off his clothes and showing off his physique. In a more nuanced role, Kristen Krak is lovable as Nina, an aspiring actress who quickly forms a bond with the man she insists on calling “Uncle Vanya.”

Completing the near-perfect production, Eric Barker’s painterly set is expressively lit by Jarod Wilson to suggest the passage of time as the action wends its way from morning to night and back to morning. It’s an entertaining and surprisingly warm-hearted trip, and one that’s well worth taking.

CATCO will present Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike through April 24 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St., Columbus. A preview will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (April 7). Regular show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $17 Wednesday, $30 Thursday, $40 Friday-Saturday and $35 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Comedy has Texas-sized helping of humor, heart

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)

By Richard Ades

Judging from the size of Friday night’s audience, Sordid Lives looks like one of Evolution Theatre Company’s more popular productions.

It’s not hard to see why. Del Shores’s comedy has become a cult hit since it first appeared in 1996 and subsequently spawned a movie and a short-lived TV series. It may not be a great work of art, but it’s a fun piece of theater.

In Evolution Theatre Company’s production, it benefits from a seasoned group of performers who seem to enjoy sinking their teeth into Shores’s juicy Texas stereotypes.

Pam Welsh-Huggins gets each of the four scenes off to a tuneful start as vocalist/guitarist Bitsy Mae Harling, who sings and strums her way through a handful of mood-setting tunes. Also establishing the proper mood is Shane Cinal’s Texas-centric set design, complete with homey furniture and the skull of a longhorn steer.

The scenes nearly function as separate set pieces except that they’re connected by a recent death: Peggy Ingram, a mother and grandmother, died after tripping over the wooden legs of neighbor G.W. (Ralph Edward Scott). Making her departure not only painful but embarrassing for her family, the accident happened while she and the married G.W. were sharing a motel room.

The scenes also have a thematic connection in the form of repressed sexuality. Peggy’s son, Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger), has been institutionalized in an attempt to “cure” him of his gay, cross-dressing ways. And her grandson, New York-based actor Ty (Andrew Trimmer), is struggling to come to terms with the homosexuality that he’s afraid to reveal to his family, especially strait-laced mother Latrelle (Lori Cannon).

The first scene takes place at the home of Peggy’s sister Sissy (Betsy Poling), who is attempting to grieve and quit smoking at the same time. It features the awkward reunion of Peggy’s younger daughter, LaVonda (Danielle Mari), and Noletta (Kathy Sturm), wife of the philanderer whose prosthetic legs were responsible for Peggy’s death.

The second scene is set in the local bar owned by Wardell (David Vargo), who is still ashamed that he and G.W. once gay-bashed Brother Boy, an act that may have led to the latter’s institutionalization. Also present are barflies Juanita (Vicky Welsh Bragg) and Odell Owens (Jeb Bigelow).

What makes these scenes work is that director Beth Kattelman seems to have encouraged the actors to invest in the characters rather than trolling for laughs. This allows the humor to flow naturally from the absurd situations and down-home dialogue.

However, the production doesn’t really hit its peak until after intermission. That’s when we finally meet the much-discussed Brother Boy, along with his therapist, Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg). Schwamberger is a revelation as the long-institutionalized patient, who gamely puts up with Bolinger’s attempts to “de-homosexualize” him in hopes he’ll finally be allowed to go home. His portrayal is both hilarious and touching.

So, for that matter, is the scene itself. Adding to its effectiveness are Nitz (Curtis) Brown’s dramatic lighting and Sternberg’s crafty portrayal of the ruthless Bolinger.

Not surprisingly, the play ends with Peggy’s funeral and the tying up of the comedy’s various threads.

According to an ETC Facebook post, last Saturday’s performance of Sordid Lives sold out. With raunchy regional humor and an uplifting message, the comedy is likely to continue pulling in crowds. Translation: Order your tickets now.

Evolution Theatre Company will present Sordid Lives through Sept. 26 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20, $15 students/seniors. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.

Schumer leaves her mark on raunchy rom-com

Bill Hader and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (Universal Pictures)
Bill Hader and Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (Universal Pictures)

By Richard Ades

We knew Amy Schumer was funny. Likewise, SNL alum Bill Hader.

But who knew LeBron James could slam-dunk a joke almost as easily as he does a basketball? That’s just one of the revelations crammed into Trainwreck, a raunchy rom-com that’s awash in hilarious surprises.

Written by and starring Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow (Bridesmaids), Trainwreck is tailor-made for the current queen of provocative comedy. Schumer even plays a New Yorker named Amy who, like her stage persona, indulges in a life of bed-hopping abandon.

That is, she does until she meets Aaron Conner (Hader), a sports physician who volunteers for Doctors Without Borders when he’s not keeping James and other athletes in competition-worthy shape. Assigned to interview Aaron for the aggressively hip magazine that employs her, Amy soon finds herself questioning the prejudice against monogamy that she learned from her cynical father (Colin Quinn).

Incidentally, the scene in which Dad imparts that advice to an adolescent Amy and her little sister is the first of the flick’s hilarious surprises. But since comedy is always better when it catches you unawares, I’ll say nothing more about that moment except to advise you to get to the theater on time.

Throughout the movie, Schumer is a delight, whether Amy is having her way with a one-night stand or trying to convince Aaron she really does know something about sports. Schumer even handles the rare detours into pathos with aplomb. Maybe she’s not quite as versatile as Bridesmaids star Kristen Wiig, but she’s no one-trick pony, either.

Even more surprising is screenwriter Schumer’s ability to make the most out of the film’s innumerable supporting players, including prominent sports figures.

Appearing as himself, James generates laughs whether he’s arguing over a check or talking up the hometown that welcomed him back after his sojourn in Miami. Fellow NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire also is effective, playing himself during one of his bouts with knee injuries.

Funniest of all is the WWE’s John Cena, who plays the pre-Aaron Amy’s closest thing to a steady guy. A particularly funny bedroom scene even finds a way to utilize Cena’s fluency in Mandarin Chinese.

Non-sports-related players include familiar Saturday Night Live faces such as alum Quinn and current cast member Vanessa Bayer. Also prominent are Tilda Swinton as Amy’s blithely nasty boss and Brie Larson as her happily married sister.

Is there anything wrong with Trainwreck? Well, some of the transitions seem a bit abrupt, if you want to be picky. I also could have done without the “homage” to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Not only does it remind us of an even better film (never a good idea), but it includes a humorless dig at Allen himself.

A more welcome detour consists of scenes from a fictitious avant-garde movie about a dog walker played by Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe. Trainwreck is so full of such throwaway moments that it’s one of the few flicks that would benefit from a second viewing, just so you can catch the subtle jokes you missed the first time.

In recent weeks, Schumer has been criticized for making supposedly misguided jokes about racial and ethnic matters. After initially explaining that the comments were made in the guise of the clueless chick she used to play in standup routines, she vowed to do better.

Let’s hope Schumer doesn’t censor herself too much. Her first big-screen vehicle demonstrates that we’re all the winners when Amy is free to be Amy.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Trainwreck, rated R, opens Friday (July 16) at theaters nationwide.

Explicitly sexual and deliriously funny

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)

By Richard Ades 

Is your heart healthy enough for Sex at the Box?

This may not be Shadowbox Live’s sexiest show—that honor belongs to the midweek offering Burlesque Biographie—but it’s easily Shadowbox’s funniest show of recent memory. If you’re not sure whether your body is up to two hours’ worth of hearty guffaws, you’d better get your doctor’s approval before attending.

A few more distinctions held by the theme show:

  • Funniest Shadowbox skit in years.
  • Most explicit skit in the history of Sex at the Box.
  • Best Shadowbox cover song of all time.

Just in case you’re wondering whether you should bring your children or parents to Sex at the Box, I’ll start with the “most explicit” skit. Called Holy Hell, it stars Tom Cardinal as a priest and JT Walker III as Henry, an unmarried parishioner who seeks forgiveness for what he describes as the best sex he’s ever had. When the priest demands details, Henry provides them at length and with great specificity.

Should you bring your kids or parents to the show? Unless the former are very mature or the latter are very broadminded, absolutely not.

Most Shadowbox theme shows have at least one or two good skits like this one. What sets Sex at the Box apart is that just about every skit is top-drawer from beginning to end. Other winners include:

  • In a Bar: A squeaky-voiced would-be Lothario (Brandon Anderson) has no luck attracting the opposite sex until he’s aided by the “In a world…” tones of a movie-trailer announcer (Walker).
  • The Friend Zone: The Twilight Zone’s Rod Sterling (Robbie Nance) narrates the spooky tale of a man (Jimmy Mak) whose amorous feelings are strangely invisible to the woman he desires (Amy Lay).
  • Life Duet: Mak and Lay silently portray a couple whose changing relationship is defined by the music they play on the car radio.
  • Sneak a Peak—Dirty Movies: In the funniest episode yet of the faux movie-review show, hosts Shelly and John (Julie Klein and David Whitehouse) look at various porno scenes that invariably climax in the appearance of the heroine’s sexy sister.

As it plans to do throughout its 25th-anniversary season, Shadowbox also brings back a vintage skit. The Pyramid Game, a TV-style competition pitting a geeky Upper Arlington couple (Mak and Katy Psenicka) against a pair of South Siders (Whitehouse and Lay), is cute, but it’s not as consistently funny as some of the newer sketches.

And nothing is as funny as Funk Daddy Love, in which the titular soul singer is put on trial for the “crime” of being too sexy. Anderson gives a hilarious portrayal of Love, who breaks into one of his down-and-dirty ballads whenever the mood hits him.

Musically, Sex at the Box offers an embarrassment of riches. The best covers and their lead singers include Just Like Heaven (Anderson), Sex and Candy (Walker) and Glorybox (Lay). The BillWho? band provides its usual spot-on accompaniment, as when it backs up Lay’s vocals with unmistakably Portishead-like sounds.

The most surprising cover is the last: Queen’s gospel-style Somebody to Love, sung by an eight-person chorus. The most familiar is The Way You Make Me Feel, which finds Noelle Grandison returning to Michael Jackson mode while lithe dancer Nick Wilson accompanies her with Jackson-like moves.

What’s the best cover of all—in fact, perhaps the best cover tune ever heard on a Shadowbox stage? No contest. It’s Klein’s flawless and passionate take on Janis Joplin’s Ball and Chain.

Even if your heart is healthy enough for Sex at the Box, your voice might not survive the hootin’ and hollerin’ you’ll want to do once this gem is finished.

Sex at the Box continues through March 21 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (no shows March 6, 7 or 14). Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

Shadowbox gets anniversary season off to a freaky start

 

By Richard Ades

Fabulous costumes, a smokin’ guitar solo and a very funny Jack Hanna. These are some of the highlights of Shadowbox Live’s Freak Show.

More generally, the show offers some really smart comedy, including a vintage skit that’s being repeated as part of the troupe’s 25th anniversary celebration.

Let’s start with Jack Hanna. The Columbus Zoo’s director emeritus has demonstrated his deadpan sense of humor over the years during his many appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman, but he’s never been funnier than he is here.

In a video segment, Shadowbox executive producer Stev Guyer seeks out Hanna’s advice on how to keep the troupe going for another 25 years. Instead, Jungle Jack begins paddling down a stream of consciousness that carries us into areas that are hilariously personal.

As for the guitar solo, it takes place in a cover of Van Halen’s House of Pain and features the nimble fingers of Brent Lambert. Amy Lay ably handles the vocals, but make no mistake: Lambert’s screaming guitar is the tune’s reason for being.

And the costumes? Designed by Linda Mullin, Nick Wilson and Lyn Walker, they accentuate the show’s spooky theme while turning several musical numbers into visual as well as aural treats. My favorites include the colorful tutus lead vocalist Anita McFarren and her backup singers don for Mz. Hyde.

Comedy-wise, Shadowbox theme shows easily beat the success ratio of Saturday Night Live, but that’s really damning with faint praise. For Freak Show, director Guyer, head writer Jimmy Mak and the cast actually approach the success ratio of Modern Family.

Not everything inspires big laughs. Jason’s Scary Poem, a narrated and mimed homage to Dr. Seuss, is more apt to inspire appreciative nods and chuckles. And Zombie or Not to Be?, a faux TV show about the undead, is mostly unfunny. But an astounding number of skits are ingeniously written and brilliantly performed. Some of the standouts:

Modern Day Freaks: A carnival barker (JT Walker III) introduces such contemporary oddities as a 6-year-old girl who hates Frozen and a tea partier who’s down with gay marriage.

Literal Wizard: A substitute teacher (Tom Cardinal) uses his wizardly skills to instruct his students on the proper use of the word “literally.” (English majors will love this one!)

The Line: Disney makes a horror film inspired by Disneyland’s scariest attraction of all: those endless lines.

Haunted House Training: The socially inept Gary (Mak) thinks he knows how to scare people at a Halloween haunted house because he’s so good at inadvertently scaring them in real life.

Captain’s Kirk’s Advice: Office worker Herb (Jamie Barrow) is too shy to ask out co-worker Lisa (Carrie Lynn McDonald) until he’s goaded on by video clips of that planet-hopping Lothario himself, James T. Kirk.

Incidentally, McDonald is a former Shadowbox regular who’s making a return visit for this show, probably in honor of the anniversary season. Other welcome returnees include the final skit, The Exorsister, and the spectacular final tune, Thriller, featuring vocals by Leah Laviland and a stageful of creepy dancers.

There’s much more of worth in Freak Show, including such musical numbers as Save Me (sung by a gruff-voiced Walker) and the familiar Mama Told Me Not to Come (talk-sung by Brandon Anderson).

Even the video segments, which normally function as semi-cute fillers, are great. Besides the Jungle Jack interview, my favorite is Flashback, in which a prophetic spirit tells young Shadowbox founder Steve Guyer to postpone his ambitious dream of staging original rock operas and concentrate on sketch comedy. And, oh yes, he’s advised to change his first name to Stev.

Sure, it’s self-referential and maybe even self-indulgent. But after 25 years, Shadowbox is entitled.

Freak Show continues through Nov. 1 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

‘Sex Tape’ is a case of comedius interruptus

Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Sex Tape
Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel in Sex Tape

By Richard Ades

Sex Tape actually isn’t terrible until they decide to do it doggie-style. Comedy, I mean.

It all starts promisingly enough. Like many longtime couples, Jay and Annie (Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz) have seen their sex life whittled away by familiarity and the demands of parenthood.

The solution they come up with is to record their lovemaking on Jay’s iPad. The resulting three-hour marathon has its desired effect on their libido, after which Annie feels it’s served its purpose and orders Jay to erase the evidence.

Unfortunately, Jay doesn’t. Instead, he accidentally shares the video with previous iPads that he’s given to family members and acquaintances. They include Annie’s mom and Hank (Rob Lowe), a corporate executive who could become Annie’s new boss. Panicked, the couple set out to recover the devices.

The real trouble—for them and for us, the viewers—begins when they arrive unannounced at Hank’s mansion. Rather than thinking of a logical excuse for getting their hands on the iPad, they come up with the most absurd plan imaginable: Hank asks to use the bathroom so he can search the house while Annie keeps their host engaged in conversation.

That’s when the canine antics get under way. A vicious guard dog begins chasing Jay from room to room, taking a bite out of him whenever he catches up. Meanwhile, Annie reluctantly accepts Hank’s invitation to indulge in a little cocaine.

The concurrent chasing and snorting do result in a few laughs. In the process, though, they completely derail the flick’s original premise. What had been a lighthearted look at a racy anecdote to marital boredom becomes a scattershot affair that misses its target because it can’t decide just what that target is.

Director Jake Kasdan (Bad Teacher) has a game cast, especially in his butt-baring leads. But they’re all stymied by the three-person writing team, which consists of Kate Angelo (The Back-up Plan), Segel and Nicholas Stoller (co-writers of The Muppets).

Like a stereotypical committee, they’ve concocted a mess that lacks a unifying structure. Rather than building on the theme of marital ennui, they’ve thrown together a hodgepodge of unlikely and unfunny developments.

They can’t even decide on a proper tone, ricocheting from The Hangover-style raunchiness to pure mush. At its mushiest, Sex Tape actually has the head of a porn website preaching to Jay and Annie on the importance of remembering the love that drew them together in the first place. Good grief.

Great title, great premise, likable cast and enough nudity and sexual shenanigans to justify its “R” rating. It’s just too bad the script didn’t rise to the occasion.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)