2014: A brilliant ‘Hamlet’ and a sad departure

Grace Bolander plays the title role in Actors' Theatre's production of Hamlet (photo by Richard Ades)
Grace Bolander plays the title role in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Hamlet (photo by Richard Ades)

By Richard Ades

Two of the most memorable theatrical events of 2014 took place in Schiller Park.

The first was Actors’ Theatre’s production of Hamlet. Though it garnered the most attention for its offbeat casting of a teenage girl in the title role, what really set the show apart was its overall quality. Every role—from the Danish prince to the lowly gravedigger—was cast and performed to perfection.

The second event was the May 30 memorial for actor Carl Novak, who died unexpectedly last spring. I first met Carl several years ago when he approached me during intermission at a local show and said some nice things about my reviews—frank but fair, something along that line. I didn’t yet know who he was other than a familiar face at opening nights, but I appreciated the supportive words.

It was only after Carl’s death that I learned he’d said equally supportive things to many people. On Facebook and at the memorial service, people described him as a man who went out of his way to make others feel important and appreciated.

Though I don’t share the strong Christian faith that guided Carl, it’s hard for me to think of him without recalling words from the New Testament: “Go and do likewise.” What a world it would be if we all followed his example.

Back to business: This being the end of the year, it’s time for me to share my list of the best theatrical performances and productions I saw in 2014. Notice the “I saw.” No one has time to see everything, and I almost certainly missed many worthy contenders.

Thanks to everyone who made 2014 a good year to go to the theater.

Best Play: Hamlet, Actors’ Theatre. Co-directors John S. Kuhn and Nick Baldasare coaxed incisive performances from the entire cast, starting with Grace Bolander, the high school senior who gave such a brilliant interpretation of the title prince. Runner-up: How We Got On, Available Light Theatre.

Best Musical: The Producers, Gallery Players. Director Mark Mann and his crew paid amazing attention to detail while creating a tuneful show with many laugh-out-loud moments. The entire cast performed with spirit, but special commendations are due to supporting actors Doug Joseph (as Roger De Bris, alternating with Stewart Bender) and Brooke Walters (as Swedish secretary Ulla). Runner-up: Always…Patsy Cline, CATCO.

Best New Work: Memory Fragments, MadLab. Sam Wallin’s “cyberpunk” mystery constantly shifted between the present and the past, and between physical and virtual reality, but director Andy Batt handled the changes with aplomb. Runner-up: Gallery of Echoes, Shadowbox Live.

Best Revised Work: Evo, Shadowbox Live. Stev Guyer’s Evolution was an ambitious but plodding work from the troupe’s early days. The new version, which Guyer revised with help from head writer Jimmy Mak, musical director Matthew Hahn and choreographer Katy Psenicka, was just an ambitious but far more watchable.

Best Touring Show: The Book of Mormon, Broadway in Columbus. Only a poor sod with maggots in his scrotum could fail to enjoy this raunchy but warmhearted satire.

Worst Trend: musicals with canned accompaniment. CATCO’s production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels handled the prerecorded soundtrack pretty well, but taped music drained much of the life out of SRO’s The Sound of Music. Besides, musicians need the work!

Best Direction: Hamlet, John S. Kuhn and Nick Baldasare, Actors’ Theatre. Every role was handled with such clarity that even Shakespeare buffs probably gained new appreciation of the venerable tragedy.

Best Performance, Male: Isaac Nippert, My Name Is Asher Lev, CATCO/Gallery Players. As Asher, Nippert expertly navigated a role that required him to narrate his own tale while playing himself at ages ranging from youngster to adult.

Best Performance, Female: Grace Bolander, Hamlet, Actors’ Theatre. Casting a teenage girl as the melancholy Dane might seem like a gimmick, but Bolander gave an impassioned yet witty performance that proved she was simply the best person for the part.

Great art inspires great music

Amy Lay as one of several mutated creatures that appear in Gallery of Echoes’ take on the sculpture Bird by Aldo Casanova (Shadowbox Live photo)
Amy Lay as one of several mutated creatures that appear in Gallery of Echoes’ take on the sculpture Bird by Aldo Casanova (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

My Free Press preview of Gallery of Echoes describes it as an experiment in “art appreciation.” If that sounds dull to you, buck up. Shadowbox Live’s offbeat show does try to be educational, but it works even harder at being entertaining.

Taking a break from its usual skits and rock cover songs, the troupe spends about two hours examining 21 pieces from the Columbus Museum of Art’s permanent collection. It does this with the help of narration, dance and video projected on a 9-by-27-foot screen. Best of all, it does it with original music composed and performed by an in-house band called Light.

Seriously, no matter how impressed you are by the show in general, you can’t help being blown away by the music. Shadowbox has thrown original numbers into its shows from time to time, but these pieces are in a class by themselves. The best ones complement their respective artworks perfectly, and all are flawlessly performed by Stev Guyer, Gabriel Guyer, Jennifer Hahn, Matthew Hahn, Brandon Smith and Brent Lambert, along with occasional vocalists and a host of auxiliary players.

Other elements of the show also have their moments, sometimes even overshadowing the music. That’s the case in the first number, based on King Lake, California, an 1870s oil painting by Albert Bierstadt. Though the music for this piece is not particularly memorable, the video images allow viewers to feel like they’re exploring Bierstadt’s untamed Western landscape.

When a segment is really cooking, though, all of the elements combine to create an experience that stands on its own, regardless of how you feel about the featured artwork.

One of my favorite pieces is based on Bird, a sculpture by Ohio State-educated (and environmentally conscious) artist Aldo Casanova. While the band plays one of the show’s nicer instrumental numbers, a succession of actors pose and strut across the stage in the guise of bizarre, mutated birds. Brava to Linda Mullin for the ingenious costume designs.

Another favorite is Shadowbox’s take on The Assassination by James Ensor. As the video explores every detail of the grotesque painting, the band nimbly picks its way through appropriately shrill music with unbelievably intricate timing.

Since Shadowbox bills Gallery of Echoes as an aid to appreciating the featured art, it’s fair to ask whether it accomplishes its task. In this respect, it’s a mixed success.

The narration sometimes offers valuable background information, as when we’re told that German/Danish artist Emile Nolde created Sunflowers in the Windstorm (1943) after the Nazi Party had forbidden him from painting. But the video then goes on to insert images of marching soldiers and even Hitler himself in the midst of the swaying flowers. It seems like overkill, and it doesn’t help us to understand Nolde’s position as a Nazi whose style of art had fallen out of official favor.

Art enthusiasts may also be bothered by various segments’ attempts to interpret their respective works. One of the joys of great art is that it invites viewers to come up with their own interpretation.

Yes, Gallery of Echoes does sometimes work as an unusually lively class in art appreciation. But it’s best enjoyed as an innovative show that uses classic artworks as a jumping-off point: the inspiration for graceful dancing, colorful costumes and some really fine music.

Gallery of Echoes will be presented through Sunday (May 4) at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Remaining show times are 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40, $20-$35 for students, seniors, military and Columbus Museum of Art members. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.

You’ve seen the show, now see the art

Despite renovation projects now going on at the Columbus Museum of Art, 11 of the 21 pieces featured in Gallery of Echoes are currently on display. They are:
King Lake, California by Albert Bierstadt
Thunderstorm by Arthur Dove
The Assassination by James Ensor
Into the Past by Hananiah Harari
The Swimmer by Yasuo Kuniyoshi
Sunflowers in the Windstorm by Emile Nolde
Female Nude by Pablo Picasso
Bouquet of Light by Christopher Ries
Melanie, the Schoolteacher by Chaim Soutine
Cornice by George Tooker
Portrait of Andries Stilte II by Kehinde Wiley
For more information, visit columbusmuseum.org.