Federal snoops offer lusty help for the lovelorn

Appearing in The NSA’s Guide to Sex and Love are (from left): Scott Clay as Chuck, Alanna G. Rex as Daisy, Colleen Dunne as Gabrielle and Scott Douglas Wilson as Tom (photo by Michelle Diceglio)
Appearing in The NSA’s Guide to Sex and Love are (from left): Scott Clay as Chuck, Alanna G. Rex as Daisy, Colleen Dunne as Gabrielle and Scott Douglas Wilson as Tom (photo by Michelle Diceglio)

By Richard Ades

The NSA’s Guide to Sex and Love has one big problem: the script. Don Zolidis’s would-be satire is a leaden flight of fancy that hops from one topic to the next with all the finesse of an oversized sledge hammer.

Partially making up for this weakness is the fact that it’s sexy as hell, particularly as it’s staged in MadLab’s world-premiere production. Working under Stephen Woosley’s direction, the seven-member cast eagerly throws itself into all manner of seductions, fantasies and other erotic situations.

The actors’ energy is particularly impressive considering what they have to work with. It’s easy to be committed to a quality script, but it takes guts to commit yourself to this hit-or-mostly-miss collection of jokes and set pieces.

Sometimes the punchlines come and go before we can figure out what their point was. When the National Security Agency proclaims that ferret owners tend to become suicide bombers, are we supposed to interpret this as a knock at ferret owners or at the government’s flawed methods of data analysis? Who knows?

Adding to the confusion is an overall framework that can only be described as “stream of consciousness”—or, more accurately, “stream of unconsciousness.” After introducing itself as a “TED Talk” led by NSA representatives Tom and Gabrielle (Scott Douglas Wilson and Colleen Dunne), the play jumps around among such topics as hooking up, marriage and gay sex.

The weird premise is that the NSA wants to use its data to improve citizens’ love lives. It then proceeds to help pair up two couples: Dan (Casey May) with Alana (Laura Spires), and Daisy (Alanna G. Rex) with Chuck (Scott Clay). Assistance is provided by the silent Agent Lance (Lance Atkinson).

Dunne and Wilson work the hardest as Gabrielle and Tom, who fiercely defend the importance of NSA espionage when they’re not sniping at each other over gender issues. May and Spires are more low-key as Dan, a man afflicted by awkward come-ons and premature ejaculation, and Alana, the woman he sets his sights on.

As the other lovebirds, Clay nicely underplays the frumpy Chuck while Rex effortlessly exudes class as Daisy—perhaps too effortlessly in terms of projection, as some of her lines were barely audible at Thursday’s preview performance. The odd couple is fun to watch during escapades such as their attempt to spice up their love life by playing characters from Game of Thrones.

Brendan Michna’s set design mostly consists of a bed, a sofa and several large, hanging discs that can be lit up at opportune moments. Jonathan Calig’s slide show augments the action by projecting information supposedly provided by the NSA.

Though political satire is obviously Zolidis’s main aim, the play delves nearly as much into the politics of gender. The latter subject is attacked with slightly more subtlety than the former, but with little more originality. In the playwright’s view, men are as simple-minded as they are single-minded, while women are devoted to two things: relationships (starting them) and chores (getting men to do them). Few laughs result from such musty observations.

On the other hand, viewers in the proper frame of mind may well get a libidinous lift from the couples’ more carnal interactions. That makes the play, for all its flaws, a nice choice for date night. Just remember to leave the kids at home.

The NSA’s Guide to Sex and Love continues through April 9 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Tickets are $15, $13 students/seniors, $10 members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

‘Best of Burlesque’ strips out the plot, leaves the stripping

Leah Haviland, one of the featured performers in The Best of Shadowbox (Shadowbox Live photo)
Leah Haviland, one of the featured performers in The Best of Burlesque (Shadowbox Live photo)

By Richard Ades

Shadowbox Live’s annual Best of Shadowbox shows often benefit from honing—the honing that takes place once the players have enough performances under their belts to realize what does and doesn’t work.

You’d think the same would apply to the current Best of Burlesque show, which repeats the best skits and song/dance/striptease numbers from the three previous Burlesque shows. But it doesn’t, at least as far as the skits are concerned.

Since they’re based on actual routines that were performed in old vaudeville houses, director Stev Guyer and his cast probably don’t feel free to tweak the material. And since the acting is based on the over-the-top clowning that was practiced back in the day, Shadowbox doesn’t have much room to tweak that, either.

The result is that if you’ve seen these skits before, you won’t find much that’s fresh here. Of course, if you haven’t been to the previous Burlesque shows, you’ll likely enjoy the comedy, assuming you have a high tolerance for corny jokes about the kinds of things our grandparents or great-grandparents found amusing.

Fortunately, the rest of the show bases its appeal on something that’s more timeless: sex. Because The Best of Burlesque omits the loose storyline that tied its predecessors together, it can pack in more song-and-dance numbers that inevitably leave women stripped down to their pasties and/or men stripped down to their skivvies.

Not all of these numbers are equally inspired. But when the songs are strong, the costumes are colorful and the stripping is done with panache and attitude, you can’t help sitting up and taking notice.

One number that combines great singing and great stripping is Bang Bang, with lead vocals by a fearless Leah Haviland. Shadowbox wisely places it at the end of Act 1, which allows viewers to step outside and cool off during intermission.

Act 2 kicks back into high gear with The Mating Game, in which vocalist Amy Lay holds forth in an impossibly tall and feathery hat while fairy-like creatures cavort around her. That’s soon followed by a funny and sexy take on the Coasters song Little Red Riding Hood. Brandon Anderson handles the vocals while a raunchy version of the titular fairy tale is acted out by Nikki Fagin as Red, Stacie Boord as Grandma and Guillermo Jemmott as the lascivious Wolf.

A dark perversion of sexuality is represented by Sweet Dreams, sung by Fagin and Jemmott while Jack the Ripper (Andy Ankrom) saunters around in search of his next victim. It’s one of several numbers that owe much to Aaron Pelzek’s moody lighting.

Also memorable: You Look Like Rain, with lead vocals by Kevin Sweeney and tasty instrumentals by guitarist Matthew Hahn and his band.

As stated earlier, The Best of Burlesque dispenses with a storyline. Partially taking its place are video biographies of Gypsy Rose Lee and other iconic strippers of years past. These are scattered throughout and offer interesting tidbits of information, such as the fact that erotic dancers were sometimes featured at world’s fairs. I’d always assumed these were more family-friendly affairs.

The videos made me wonder whether Shadowbox might decide to re-create some of these ladies’ classic dances for future Burlesque shows. From a historic, nostalgic and, ahem, every other standpoint, they’d be a great addition.

The Best of Burlesque continues through April 17 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 student/senior/military. Special Valentine’s Day packages are available for Feb. 14 performances. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.