Charles Busch’s Cleopatra could be called a funnier take on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Then again, the one time I saw the Bard’s original, it seemed pretty funny.
That’s because the lead actors overplayed the title roles so thoroughly that each seemed to be trying to upstage the other. What’s worse, Antony did his emoting in such a juicy fashion that while the audience was being bathed in pathos, poor Cleo was being showered with spit. Needless to say, the tragic ending failed to move anyone to tears.
The situation is entirely different in Columbus Immersive Theater’s intentionally humorous production of Cleopatra. Though Busch’s approach to comedy could never be called dry, at least the spit spraying is kept to a minimum. That’s fortunate, because the stage runs across the middle of the intimate Green Room, which means no viewer is far from the action.
Working under Edward Carignan’s direction (and in the colorful costumes he designed), the actors stay true to the work’s campy sense of humor.
In the title role, Nick Hardin is spectacularly on target as the Egyptian queen who must curry favor with her country’s Roman conquerors. Hardin’s Cleo is a mixture of innocence and ruthless cunning, with occasional winking references to the 1940s movie stars who are a favorite camp inspiration.
The two Romans who become her love interests, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, are played with surprising restraint by Doug Joseph and Rob Philpott, respectively. Fans of Joseph’s drag performances will be happy to know he later gets the opportunity to appear as Caesar’s justifiably jealous wife, Calpurnia. Though all too brief, it’s one of the show’s more hilarious moments.
In another dual role, Kate Lingnofski is a convincingly naïve as Octavia, but on opening night she was less successful as Octavia’s brother, Octavian. That may be a reflection of this fundraising production’s speeded-up rehearsal schedule and isn’t necessarily indicative of how Lingnofski will do in remaining performances.
Cleopatra’s underlings are entertainingly played by Ricky Locci as Apollodorus (AKA “Dorus”), Kelsey Hopkins as Charmion and Laura Falb as Iras, a new hire who at first foments Charmion’s ire and later arouses another emotion entirely. Perhaps the actor who makes the most of his role’s potential is Nick Lingnofski, who’s a hoot as the anxiety-inducing (and anxiety-prone) Soothsayer.
It should be noted that all of the actors are performing gratis to support the work of Short North Stage.
If Cleopatra isn’t quite as funny as some of Busch’s other creations—for instance, Die, Mommie, Die!, a Short North Stage hit in 2016—it may be because the playwright was shackled by characters he didn’t invent. But the comedy is still fun, thanks to a cast and director who know how to make the most of its campy take on an iconic romance.
Columbus Immersive Theater will present Cleopatra through Aug. 6 at Short North Stage’s Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.
Hand to God has moments of hilarity, along with moments of horror. It starts, though, with a moment of disorientation.
Because set designer Bill Pierson has reconfigured the Garden Theater’s Green Room to resemble a church rec room, and because guests are handed a “church bulletin” on their way in, they may be unprepared for what happens next. A puppet appears on the “stage” of a miniature theater set up on one side of the room. But rather than offer the expected Christian message, he begins talking about “extracurricular fucking” and other things that are bad but “unavoidable.”
This, we learn, is Tyrone, and he’ll be saying and doing things that are even more outrageous before the show is over. Is he the devil, or is he simply a manifestation of a teenage boy’s inner thoughts and desires? That’s one of the questions playwright Robert Askins raises in his religion-taunting comedy.
The sacrilegious fun starts in earnest when we meet the flesh-and-blood characters who come into contact with Tyrone (and lose a little flesh and blood in the process).
Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) is a recently widowed mom who is supervising a puppet-making project at the Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Cypress, Texas. Taking part in the project are teenagers Margery (Barbara Weetman) and Timothy (Chad Goodwin), along with Jessica’s son, Jason (Danny Turek). Overseeing it all is Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam), who hopes the puppets will be used to spread the Gospel.
Thanks to Tyrone, that never happens. Created by Jason and attached more or less permanently to his left hand, the puppet appears to have a mind of his own. And what a disturbing mind it is—by Texas Lutheran standards, at least. He insists on blurting out thoughts that the shy and conflicted Jason would prefer to keep private, such as his carnal feelings toward Margery. Saddled with what amounts to a dual role, Turek does an admirable job of switching back and forth between the put-upon Jason and his vicious alter ego.
Working under Edward Carignan’s exuberant direction, the other cast members perform at the same high level. Weetman makes Margery an appealing combination of sweetness and pluck, while Putnam gives Pastor Greg a believable blend of human fallibility and heroic strength. As the frustrated Jessica and the hormone-driven Timothy, Lingnofski and Goodwin create big laughs while acting out an encounter that is aggressively kinky and probably illegal.
My only quibble with Askins’s comedy is that it tries too hard to be outrageous. OK, I can buy that Bible Belt Christians have secret frustrations and desires that sometimes lead them into unspeakable acts, but would they really drop so many F-bombs in the process? That’s a minor point, though.
Overall, the show is a provocative delight. As a bonus, it even leaves viewers with a final thought from Tyrone that gives them something to mull over on the way home.
Short North Stage will present Hand to God through March 5 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday (no 3 p.m. show Feb. 25), and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.
Molina (Scott Hunt, left) has an uneasy relationship with cellmate Valentin (Joe Joseph), a leftist revolutionary, in Short North Stage’s production of Kiss of the Spider Woman (photo by Jason Allen)
By Richard Ades
Molina prefers fantasy to reality. Small wonder: As a gay man living in a South American dictatorship in the 1970s, he’s too shy and scared to act on his romantic desires.
One of his fantasies involves his fevered friendship with Gabriel, a straight man who can’t give him the love he craves. Mostly, though, his fantasies revolve around Aurora, a movie star who embodies the feminine grace and beauty he tries to re-create in his job as a department-store window dresser.
Then Molina is thrown into prison on the trumped-up charge of making advances on an underage male. It soon becomes evident he’s being pressured by the warden to glean information out of Valentin, the leftist revolutionary who shares his cell. After avoiding reality all his life, Molina suddenly finds himself in a horrifying dilemma that not even fantasies of his beloved Aurora can block out.
Kiss of the Spider Woman is based on a novel by Manuel Puig that previously inspired a 1983 stage play and a 1985 movie starring William Hurt and Raul Julia. The stage musical—with book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb—opened on Broadway in 1993 and won that year’s Tony for best musical.
After seeing the film, the play and the musical, I still find the film the most moving interpretation of the story. But Short North Stage’s production of the musical, directed by Michael Licata (who also helmed 2015’s wonderful A Little Night Music), is impressive on several levels.
Scott Hunt gives a relatable portrayal of the in-over-his-head Molina and backs it up with a beautiful singing voice. Joe Joseph is macho but vulnerable as Valentin and also displays strong pipes, especially in an Act 1 lament about Marta, the woman he loves.
As Aurora, the movie star who dominates Molina’s fantasies, Eli Brickey often is required to sing while swinging (upside down, even) from a suspended sash. Though she aces this dizzying task, at other times her breathy voice seems stretched by the role’s vocal demands. She also projects less glamour than one would expect from such a fantasy figure, though she has no trouble projecting a satirical take on glamour, as she does during a Betty Boop-style number in Act 2.
Key supporting roles are nicely handled by Todd Covert as the manipulative warden; Alex Armesto and Amari Ingram as the abusive prison guards; James Schoppe as Molina’s friend, Gabriel; Danielle Grays as the sexy but unreliable Marta; and Linda Kinnison Roth as Molina’s loving mother.
Visually, the production boasts a weathered-looking two-story set designed by Jason Bolen. Though not lit as dramatically as it might be by Adam Zeek, it allows the action to skip effortlessly between terrifying reality and the musical fantasy sequences that represent the inner workings of Molina’s troubled mind.
Speaking of those fantasy sequences, they benefit from Edward Carignan’s playful and sometimes kitschy choreography and are ably accompanied by musical director Philip Brown Dupont and his mighty backstage band.
As a final bonus, every word of dialogue and lyrics comes through clearly, not the easiest feat in the Garden Theater’s acoustically challenging auditorium.
Add all this to the fact that this is the area premiere of Kander and Ebb’s award-winning work, and the show becomes a top priority for fans of musical theater.
Short North Stage will present Kiss of the Spider Woman through Nov. 20 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$42. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.
Troy Maxson, a black man who collects trash for the city of Pittsburgh in the 1950s, is a combustible mixture of pride and anger. In many ways, that’s good.
At work, it allows him to question the assumption that only white guys get the relatively cushy job of driving the truck. But at home, it sometimes complicates his relationship with his wife and sons.
Troy is a complex man, and it will be interesting to see what Denzel Washington does with the role (which he’s already played on Broadway) when a film version of August Wilson’s Fences comes out in December. Meanwhile, we get to see what Mujahid Abdul-Rashid does with the part at Short North Stage.
Directed by Mark Clayton Southers—the main force behind the troupe’s yearlong August Wilson Festival—this is a handsomely mounted production. Edward Carignan’s scenic design is a realistic depiction of the Maxsons’ yard, complete with a two-story brick house and massive tree. Mark Whitehead’s sonic design adds realistic ambient sounds.
Against this backdrop, the cast gives gutsy and naturalistic performances, even if they don’t always gel is the most dramatically effective way.
Abdul-Rashid is solid as Troy, who is stern toward teenage son Cory (Taylor Moses), sarcastic with perpetually broke older son Lyons (Bryant Bentley) and affectionate but dictatorial toward wife Rose (Rita Gregory). As the breadwinner, he expects his word to be law.
About the only time Troy relaxes is when he shares an after-work swig with friend and co-worker Jim Bono (Victor D. Little). And the only time he shows compassion is when he comes to the aid of addled brother Gabriel (Lawrence Evans), who hasn’t been the same since he suffered a head wound fighting in World War II. However, this compassion may stem from guilt as much as brotherly concern, as Troy was able to buy a house only because he appropriated the compensatory payment Gabriel received for his injury.
All of the cast members—including Faith Bean, who plays a late-arriving character—bring ample talent to the production. Yet at Thursday’s preview, the emotional nuances and crescendos sometimes failed to develop. And a key scene, which should have been a combination of sorrow and joy, seemed to ignore the former in favor of the latter.
Lengthy scene changes also weakened the work’s dramatic arc, especially when the accompanying music bore little relationship to what came before.
Despite such problems—many of which likely will recede over the course of the run—the production is sturdy enough to reveal why the play won both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize after opening on Broadway in 1987.
Part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of plays about African-American life in the 20th century, Fences had its first performance in 1985, only one year after Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (which was presented by Short North Stage in the late spring). As a result, there are obvious similarities between the two, but there also are key differences.
The biggest is that Fences seems less self-consciously representative of African-American struggles. Troy, for example, complains that Major League Baseball’s old segregated ways kept him from pursuing a professional career in the sport, but it’s suggested that he was hampered by his age as much as his skin color, having spent 15 of his young-adult years in prison.
Fences is filled with social consciousness, but it’s primarily the tragic story of one flawed but very human man. By the end, we’ve gained enough understanding of the forces that shaped him that we can’t help mourning—not the man he’s become but the man he could have been.
Short North Stage will present Fences through Sept. 25 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$42. 614-725-4042 or shornorthstage.org.
As near as I can tell, I’ve reviewed exactly one August Wilson play during all the decades I’ve been covering Columbus theater. That suggests there’s a real need for Short North Stage’s yearlong August Wilson Festival, which allows viewers to get acquainted with a prominent African-American playwright whose works are seldom seen locally.
However, it’s an open question whether the festival’s current production is the best way to get acquainted with Wilson. As seen in the Garden Theater’s intimate Green Room, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom comes off as talky and occasionally preachy.
Though that’s partly because the script itself is talky and occasionally preachy, I suspect it might be partly due to the way it’s presented by director Mark Clayton Southers and his cast. It’s not that the players aren’t strong. In a way, they’re too strong.
At last Thursday’s performance, nearly every scene was filled with so much heat and passion that there was little room for dramatic ebbs and flows.
One big caveat: This was a preview performance, so it’s possible Southers and his cast hadn’t finished honing the production. The director has done wonderful past work at Short North Stage (I’m thinking of 2013’s Passing Strange), so there’s no reason to believe he can’t get equally fine results out of the talented cast he’s assembled for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Set in the 1920s at a white-owned recording studio in Chicago, the play’s loose plot revolves around a recording session with real-life blues singer Ma Rainey (Wilma Hatton).
Arriving first are backup musicians Cutler (Chuck Timbers), Toledo (Will Williams), Slow Drag (R. Lawrence Jenkins) and Levee (Bryant Bentley). As the four squabble about matters both large and small, tensions develop among band leader Cutler, the philosophical Toledo and the ambitious Levee, who dreams of starting his own band. A major disagreement arises over Levee’s insistence that they perform his updated arrangement of the title song, which he claims is more in line with current tastes.
Meanwhile, studio owner Sturdyvant (Geoffrey C. Nelson) becomes nervous when Rainey doesn’t appear at the promised time and takes out his frustrations on her long-suffering manager, Irvin (Jonathan Putnam). It only makes matters worse when Rainey finally arrives with an angry cop (Ryan Kopycinski) in tow following a minor traffic accident. Adding to the confusion is her entourage: Dussie Mae (Rachel Bentley), her glammed-up girlfriend, and Sylvester (Taylor Martin Moss), her shy and stuttering nephew.
It’s a sign of the production’s problems that the character who generates the most sympathy in this black-centered drama is Rainey’s white manager, played by Putnam with a permanent hangdog expression. The character who generates the least sympathy is Rainey herself, who insists on getting her way no matter how unreasonable her demands. Hatton would make the character more likable—or, at least, more relatable—if she added a touch of vulnerability, making it clear that Rainey’s diva-like ways are a reaction to the white racism she’s had to fight throughout her career.
Bentley earns a little more of our sympathy as Levee, whose ambitions run into their own racist roadblock. But he and some of the other “musicians” need to moderate their portrayals to give a sense of progression as the play moves forward. On Thursday, their arguments tended to be equally fierce throughout, adding up to a fatiguing viewing experience.
Not surprisingly for a play set in a recording studio, the characters sometimes break into song. Hatton, Bentley and Jenkins all excel at bluesy vocals, while the other “musicians” do a good job of miming in time to the recorded accompaniment.
Rob Kuhn’s set design is full-featured despite having to depict two separate rooms in the cramped space. Cheryl M. El-Walker’s costume designs are colorful and era-appropriate.
First staged in 1984, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is part of Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, which depicts African-American life in each decade of the 20th century. As such, it’s an important political and cultural document. With a little more honing, Short North Stage’s production could also become a rewarding dramatic experience.
NOTE: This production is historic for reasons beyond the play itself, as it’s an opportunity to see local theater stalwart Geoffrey Nelson one more time before his upcoming move to Louisville. It’s an added treat that he shares the stage with frequent collaborator Jonathan Putnam. Thanks to Short North Stage for arranging this nostalgia-filled reunion.
Short North Stage will present Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom through June 19 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.
How desperate would you need to be to go onstage and bare it all before a few hundred friends and strangers?
The men in The Full Monty are plenty desperate, having lost their jobs when the local steel mill closed down. Some are afraid they’re going to lose even more if they don’t find work soon.
Adapted by Terrence McNally from the 1997 film, the musical version of The Full Monty relocates the action from Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, N.Y., and adds melodies and lyrics by David Yazbeck. But the basic situation remains the same.
For some of the characters, their very manhood feels threatened by the role reversals they’ve experienced since losing their jobs. After being the main breadwinners throughout their marriages, they now find themselves relying on their wives to bring home the paycheck.
The central protagonist, Jerry (David Bryant Johnson), has an even more basic worry. He’s separated from his wife (Jackie Comisar) and fears he’ll lose joint custody of his son (Kyle Klein II) if he doesn’t find a way to pay up on his child support.
For Jerry and the others, all of this adds up to more than enough reason to throw caution (and their clothes) to the wind by staging a striptease act that goes the Chippendales one better by climaxing in full frontal nudity.
Though the men’s emotional stress is well expressed in McNally’s script and Yazbeck’s catchy tunes, it doesn’t come across as well as it could in Short North Stage’s production. This is largely due to the central relationship between Jerry and his weight-obsessed friend, Dave (John McAvaney). Johnson’s Jerry is more laid back than one might expect for someone in his situation, while McAvaney plays Dave as a goofy sidekick.
Perhaps director/choreographer Edward Carignan decided to keep things light to find the laughs inherent in the characters’ situation, but “light” mostly comes off as simply “bland.” A bit more gritty reality is needed to sustain our interest in a tale that demands nearly three hours of our time.
On the other hand, little needs to be added in terms of music, movement or spectacle. Other than some songs and scenes that end in an awkwardly anticlimactic fashion, the production excels on all three fronts.
Johnson has a particularly nice voice, and the rest of the cast sings serviceably, at least, and often beautifully. Backing them up, music director Jeff Caldwell leads a band that is equally adept at the jazzy overture, the bluesy Big Black Man and the pretty You Rule My World.
Carignan’s choreography is fun and funny, particularly in a number (Michael Jordan’s Ball) that mimics basketball moves. Just as impressive is Dick Block’s set design, which features weathered interiors and exteriors that roll in and out of sight with dazzling efficiency.
Along with all its other strengths, the production boasts two supporting players who are comedic standouts: Linda Kinnison Roth as veteran rehearsal pianist Jeanette Burmeister and R. Lawrence Jenkins as would-be stripper Noah “Horse” T. Simmons.
Two additional supporting players make indelible impressions playing spouses. Gina Handy combines a healthy libido with loving patience as Dave’s wife, Georgie. And as Vicki, wife of laid-off efficiency expert Harold (Ian Short), Danielle Grays kicks out all the stops on the Latin-flavored number Life With Harold.
Finally, something needs to be said for Adam Zeek’s lighting, which allows the show to live up to its name without becoming excessively graphic. Thanks to split-second timing, the inevitable male nudity is glimpsed just long enough to assure us that Jerry and his Buffalo pals do, indeed give us the “full monty.”
Short North Stage will present The Full Monty through April 24 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.
I first saw Die, Mommie, Die! in its original off-Broadway production back in 2007. Strangely, I don’t remember much about it other than the fact that playwright Charles Busch played Angela Arden, a once-big Hollywood star whose career is as tattered as her marriage.
I think I got a few laughs out of the New York show, but I got many more from Short North Stage’s current revival of the campy comedy. Directed by Edward Carignan, the production boasts all sorts of strengths, starting with its cast.
Filling in for Busch as Angela, Doug Joseph proves once again that he’s the master (mistress?) at this kind of cross-dressing role. He plays the aging diva with just enough exaggeration to make it clear we’re watching a spoof. Specifically, we’re watching a spoof of “hag horror” flicks such as Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Die! Die! My Darling!
Equally on the mark is Ralph E. Scott’s portrayal of husband Sol Sussman, a producer who knows Angela has been fooling around while he’s been away raising money for his latest epic. But his wife’s infidelity is no higher than third on his list of problems, which include a business transaction with the mob and a killer case of constipation.
My main reservation about the production is Nick Lingnofski’s take on Angela’s not-so-secret lover, former TV star Tony Parker. Lingnofski can usually be counted on to improve whatever show he’s in, but here he spends so much time preening and posing that the character never comes alive. It’s like Lingnofski is playing a hack actor playing a hack actor, an approach that seems distractingly out of place.
Erin Mellon is fun as daughter Edith, who hates her mother nearly as much as she loves her father—and who expresses that love in ways that border on incest. Johnny Robison has his hands full playing her brother, Lance, a character marked by (1) mental challenges, (2) awakening sexual urges and (3) an out-of-control temper. On opening night, I didn’t always feel he combined all three in a coherent way, but he mostly succeeded.
Rounding out the cast, Josie Merkle does a fine job as longtime maid Bootsie Carp, whose loyalty to Sol makes her a liability to Angela.
In tune with the “hag horror” theme, the 1967-set tale includes murderous plotting on the part of Angela. In tune with the campy atmosphere, the story is spiced up with copious amounts of outrageousness, including an encounter with a painfully large suppository.
Bill Pierson’s set design perfectly captures 1960s decorating trends, right down to the planter and the star-shaped clock on the wall. Rob Kuhn’s lighting, along with well-placed sound effects and snippets of mood music, underline the faux-melodramatic atmosphere.
One reason this all plays so well is that it unfolds in the Garden Theater’s intimate Green Room, which allows viewers to catch the actors’ every glance, leer and frown. But of course, that’s an advantage only because nearly every glance, leer and frown is delivered so flawlessly.
Short North Stage will present Die, Mommie, Die! through Feb. 21 at Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25 general seating, $30 reserved. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.
At one point during the Theatre Roundtable’s annual Awards Night on Sunday, a presenter joked that it was just like the Oscars because we’d been there two hours and were only halfway through. He was exaggerating a little, but the show did run quite a bit longer than usual.
At least the weather was cooperative—unlike last year, when an incoming winter storm darkened the usually festive atmosphere. Besides, there were enough high points that most people probably didn’t mind sticking around.
The Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle provided one of the highest points: an appearance by Ed Graczyk. He received the circle’s Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award for, among other things, leading Players Theatre Columbus for many years and writing the groundbreaking play Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.
Also honored by the critics were Evolution Theatre Company, Short North Stage, Shadowbox Live and MadLab’s former artistic director, Andy Batt. Before walking off with his citation, Batt delighted the audience by turning the tables on the critics, passing out both praise and pans to the people who’d long been judging his work as an actor and director.
Later—much later—in the evening, critic Michael Grossberg received an honor of his own: the Roundtable’s treasured Harold Award. The group probably chose to present it this year because Grossberg officially retired in 2015 when The Columbus Dispatch’s new owners made dozens of staff cuts. But fortunately for the local theater scene, the Dispatch is still counting on him to lead theater coverage, the only difference being that now he’s doing it as a freelancer.
The evening also included excerpts from 2015 musicals that were nominated for Roundtable awards. For me, the most exciting moment came when Gallery Players’ Les Miserables cast reassembled for a rendition of One Day More. It was a spectacular reminder of just how great that production really was.
For a list of Sunday’s nominees and winners, visit www.theatre-roundtable.org. It includes everything but the citations presented by the Central Ohio Theatre Critics Circle, which are listed below:
▪ To Evolution Theatre Company and managing artistic director Mark Schwamberger for a lineup of 2015 productions that entertained viewers while fulfilling the troupe’s refocused mission of advancing the understanding of gender issues and exploring gay and lesbian themes.
▪ To Andy Batt, who stepped down as MadLab’s artistic director at the end of 2015, for leading the troupe through 13 years of growth and development that included its 2012 launch of an annual festival for high school playwrights and its 2010 purchase and renovation of a performance space and gallery that has helped to nurture both the performing and visual arts in Downtown Columbus.
▪ To Short North Stage for making a major commitment to nurturing new musicals in 2015 with its successful world premieres of The Great One, The Last Night of Disco and Krampus: A Yuletide Fable.
▪ To Shadowbox Live for celebrating its 25th anniversary by stretching itself with inventive rock tribute shows and collaborations, both local and international.
▪ A Roy Bowen Lifetime Achievement Award to Ed Graczyk, an accomplished director and nationally known playwright, who led Players Theatre Columbus from the 1970s into the early 1990s and wrote Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a pioneering transgender comedy-drama that premiered at Players in 1976, ran on Broadway and became a Robert Altman film in 1982 and is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2016.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Christmas, at its essence, is a holiday devoted to hope and redemption.
Thus, it’s not surprising that redemption is at the heart of the granddaddy of all holiday yarns, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. And it’s also at the heart of Krampus: A Yuletide Tale, a musical that’s wrapping up its world-premiere run this weekend at Short North Stage’s Garden Theater.
Another similarity to A Christmas Carol: The road to redemption is a scary one indeed, probably too scary for small children. But for adults and mature youngsters, Krampus is a bracingly original journey.
With music by Nils-Petter Ankarblom (who also leads the three-piece band), and book and lyrics by Ankarblom and Carrie Gilchrist (who also directs), Krampus feels like an instant classic. The songs are beautiful and varied, and the story is thought-provoking and involving.
The title character (JJ Parkey) is a demon-like figure from Austro-Bavarian folklore who is said to kidnap and punish naughty children during the Christmas season. In this story, he sets his sights on siblings Flora (Emma Lou Andrews) and Bruno (William Gorgas), the offspring of penniless widow Anna Schlecht (Stephanie Prince).
Flora and Bruno aren’t really bad kids—they simply make a bad decision in order to help Anna avoid being evicted by their money-grubbing landlord, Herr Ulrich (Luke Stewart). But this momentary lapse is enough to remove them from the good graces of St. Nicholas (Edward Carignan), the forerunner of our modern Santa Claus.
Contributing to the tale’s charm is the intimate way it’s presented. Viewers sit on the stage of the Garden’s big auditorium, placing them a handful of feet away from Carignan’s storybook-like set. The imaginative costumes (also designed by Carignan) and the dramatic lighting add to the magical atmosphere.
The only production’s only technical shortcoming is that the band occasionally overpowers the vocals. This is mostly a matter of sound mixing, but Prince adds to the problem by singing some of her lines at a nearly inaudible level.
In the two showiest roles, Parkey and Carignan are spectacularly successful. Parkey makes a fearsome but somehow vulnerable Krampus, while Carignan is a surprisingly officious St. Nicholas. (Those of a spiritual bent may read religious significance into the implication that the mythic figures are but two sides of the same coin.) Both actors sing beautifully, but Carignan’s rich voice is put to particularly good use on St. Nick’s introductory solo, On This Night of December Fifth.
Among the human characters, Andrews’s Flora is the most engaging, but all of the cast members display heart and commitment.
Any new work can benefit from a tweak or two, and Krampus could stand to whittle down some of its sappier elements. Otherwise, this new work is just about perfect.
As I said, an instant classic.
Short North Stage will present Krampus, a Yuletide Tale through Dec. 20 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Tickets are $25, $15 for children. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.