Looped (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

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What’s it about?

It’s 1965, and stage and screen star Tallulah Bankhead has seen better days. Suffering the ill-effects of a lifetime of boozing and doping, she is called in to re-record (or “loop”) one line for what would be her final film, Die! Die! My Darling! Based on a true event, Ms. Bankhead makes sure to put the sound engineer and film editor through the ringer before they get what they want out of her, playing up to their expectations of what a quarrelsome and demanding woman she can be. Looped enjoyed a brief run on Broadway in the spring of 2010, garnering Valerie Harper a Tony Award nomination as the beleaguered Tallulah Bankhead.

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Photo: Jerri Shafer – Vicky Welsh Bragg (Tallulah Bankhead) and Jon Osbeck (Danny Miller)

Is it worth seeing?

Looped is the kind of play where the concept is much better than its execution. Who wouldn’t enjoy seeing a comedic piece about a loud-mouthed lush, a star of both stage and screen, showing off her bad behavior? There are plenty of zingers to be had in Matthew Lombardo’s script, but at nearly two hours with an intermission (placed at a particularly contrived moment within the play), there doesn’t seem to be enough there to justify that much of an investment. However, Looped is that rare play that improves greatly in its second half, even if it gets rather maudlin and embarrassingly overwrought dealing with a discussion of homosexuality in the era. Mixing comedy with drama is tricky, but luckily the moments where the balance is completely off are brief and don’t sink the show. This is far from a great work, but, with the right crowd and performers, it’s more good than bad.

Vicky Welsh Bragg makes a fine Tallulah Bankhead, sounding a great deal like the actress, speaking in a low register that must be a challenge. Ms. Bragg is engaging if less biting that one might expect playing a drug-addicted alcoholic, but she is consistently interesting to watch and embodies the proper spirit to make her part work. Jon Osbeck as Danny Miller, the put-upon film editor struggling to corral Ms. Bankhead, performs as beyond irritated from the get-go, not allowing much room to grow all that much more frustrated with Ms. Bankhead’s shenanigans without yelling expletives that I doubt any studio employee would use towards a star, even a drunken one. Part of the problem is in the writing, but Mr. Osbeck is to blame for his entirely false crying scene near the end of the second act. It often feels like Mr. Osbeck thinks that he is part of a duet when it is quite clear that Ms. Bragg and her character is the star here.

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Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jon Osbeck (Danny Miller) and Vicky Welsh Bragg (Tallulah Bankhead)

Technically, the show is quite impressive, with a detailed black, white, and gray set by Jeffrey Gress complete with a boom mike that looks right out of that era. Nitz Brown’s lighting is detailed down to the ever-so-slight reflection of the film being projected (which we don’t see) for Ms. Bankhead to use as a reference for her vocal performance. Rebecca Baygents Turk’s costumes, from Ms. Bankhead’s improbable red gown (looking much like Bette Davis’s frock in All About Eve) to Danny Miller’s high-waisted slacks and slick shoes impressively represent a 1965 as one might imagine it from seeing sitcoms of the era; too perfect to be real, but too defined and attractive to ignore.

Ultimately, Looped misses its target, but not by as much as it could’ve had Evolution’s production not had such a proficient design team and game cast. At its best moments, when Ms. Bragg’s lines elicit honest laughter and Mr. Osbeck‘s exasperated look relaxes a bit in intensity, the production is quite enjoyable, though it takes someone with an appreciation of the era, film making, and that special kind of smoky female brashness to hang on through the more awkwardly written moments (like the ending that feels right out of Casablanca). Note to other playwrights: exercise caution when including excerpts from vastly superior works (in this case, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire) into your script.

My rating: ** 3/4 out of ****

Looped continues through to September 24th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org

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Sticks & Stones (Evolution Theatre Company & CATCO – Columbus, OH)


“There’s always a price to being included,” Janice Sanders says in Cory Skurdal’s Sticks & Stones, the final play in this year’s Local Playwright’s Festival presented by Evolution Theatre Company in partnership with CATCO. The specifics behind Ms. Sanders’ statement become clear throughout the play, a thought-provoking and honest exploration of the prejudices that exist around being true to oneself, be it openly gay, trans, or anything considered other than the norm. No, on second thought, perhaps it’s about jealousy and self-hatred. Actually, there are many different themes covered in this story of two women fighting over words, the kind used to classify as well as subjugate people.


Mr. Skurdal’s play won the 2014 CATCO/Greater Columbus Arts Council Playwriting Fellowship; this is its first full production after a reading last year. On the surface, Sticks & Stones is about the aforementioned Janice Sanders, a popular art critic, who feels she has been libeled by Kyle, a transgender blogger, after certain innuendos are made about her private life online. Janice is quite conservative and traditional, and it’s easy to see that the uninhibited Kyle is the polar opposite – or is she? Both women know what it’s like to struggle with their identity, but they deal with it in completely different ways: Janice goes inward and keeps her cards close to her chest while Kyle lets “Kylie” (the name she calls herself) out for the world to see. The action unfolds as each woman relays her interpretation of the conflict to their respective lawyers, putting the audience in the position of being the jury.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Mr. Skurdal’s writing is uncommonly rich with dialogue that flows naturally and makes a point without being preachy. “You’re sick with shame,” Kyle shouts at Janice, only to have her hurl back, “And you ought to be!” So much judgmental and prejudicial rhetoric comes from Janice that it brings to mind those impassioned but completely misguided and embarrassing Facebook rants we all see posted by former high school friends or distant cousins. The only thing constant in life is change, and that’s one point which Janice struggles to accept based largely on the feelings of her family.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Josie Merkle (Janice) and Kim Garrison Hopcraft (Susan)

Women are the stars of this piece, and it is their actions that drive the plot. Some men are on hand in the cast, but what a rare treat to see a play with so many important roles for women in a culture where being white and male is flaunted as the ultimate prize in the genetic lottery. Director Joe Bishara keeps things moving at a swift rate, incrementally increasing the pace until an inevitable emotional (and physical) confrontation occurs between Janice and Kyle; the moment is so heated and real that I had to suppress the urge to jump in to break it up.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Josie Merkle (Janice) and Frank Barnhart (Dana)

Josie Merkle is the cantankerous Janice Sanders, ostensibly the villain of this work. She has no trouble delivering her caustic remarks with relish; and yet, Ms. Merkle allows us to see Janice as sympathetic as well, a product of her environment from a time when going against the grain was not much of an option. Playing her as an unrepentant harpy would’ve been too easy with this material, and Ms. Merkle has an instinctive biting delivery that would’ve made that a walk in the park for her; instead, she chooses another path, one laced with frustration born out of years and years of paying the price for inclusion.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Staley Jophiel Munroe (Kyle) and Priyanka Shetty (Kendall)

As competent as the cast and script is, the show would not function half as well without the glorious performance of Staley Jophiel Munroe as the fearless Kyle, a trans woman who manages to push the buttons of most everyone in her vicinity, sometimes just for fun (as when she challenges the personal space of her lawyer Kendall, played by Priyanka Shetty, who squirms uncomfortably and believably at the intrusion) but more often for just being true to herself and refusing to allow the opinions of others to bring her down. I gather Ms. Munroe has a deep well of life experience that informs her portrayal; the flashback scene with her father is particularly heartbreaking, surely touching a nerve with any LGBT person who has faced hostility from their family. “He can’t be this way!” her father shouts, while Ms. Munroe’s plaintive, “I AM this way!” is so nakedly honest that I defy anyone to walk away unmoved. After the performance, I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Munroe, who was quite modest about her abilities, stating that she had never acted on stage before; what’s wonderful is what she does here doesn’t feel like acting at all – it’s simply being – and I sincerely hope this is but the first of many performances she will gift to us.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Staley Jophiel Munroe (Kyle)

Sticks & Stones is compact at just over an hour in length, but it has so much to say about our outside differences, deeply-held prejudices, and fear. People tend to fear the unknown, and the very nature of being trans means that there isn’t a “one size fits all” way of classifying them; they may or may not have had certain surgeries to change the anatomy with which they were born, but that’s for each trans person to know and share (or not) with whom they please. For some people it’s easier to manage fear if they have a way of categorizing things, setting apart what they do understand from what they don’t. What Sticks & Stones drives home is that all of the important characteristics of being a human are there within all of us; love, sadness, longing, betrayal – these emotions feel the same to each of us on the inside no matter what we look like on the outside.

***/ out of ****

Sticks & Stones continues through to June 12th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org

Yank! The Musical (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

All I knew of Yank! The Musical before seeing the Evolution Theatre Company production of it (twice) this past week was that it was about gay men in the military during WWII. And, yes, very generally it is about that, but it is also so much more. Written by David & Joseph Zellnik (brothers, not lovers) and first publicly performed in 2005, the show ran off-Broadway in early 2010 (as Yank! A WWII Love Story) for just over a month. That cast was reunited for the belated 2013 recording of a cast album, and now here we have the Midwest theatrical premiere of this notable and important show.

The show opens with a millennial talking about an old, abandoned journal that he found in a thrift shop, and from there the history of the journal plays out from when it was first given to Stu (Nick Hardin) as he heads off to basic training. Stu just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the guys, the kind that trash talk and are vulgar and seem at home in the military, but he is quickly befriended by Mitch (William Macke), a guy everyone in the squad likes. In between drills and polishing shoes, Stu develops feelings for Mitch, and it appears that to some extent Mitch does the same for Stu, but neither knows what to do about it. Ah, this was the ’40s, when being “light in the loafers” was synonymous with “faggot,” and you’d better lust after Betty Grable or otherwise face ridicule. Fortunately, Stu meets Artie (Brent Fabian), a photographer for “Yank Magazine” (published for servicemen) and who is also gay (but has embraced it on the sly). Artie gets Stu a journalist position with the magazine, and they leave to cover stories, with Artie showing Stu all the tricks to finding men and being convert. When Stu and Mitch meet up again after some time has passed and the war has started to take its toll on them both, they find that their feelings are still there and decide to explore them in secret.

As long as there have been people there have been gay people, and yet I never thought anything about gays being in the military and what that was like especially during WWII until this play. I had heard about men meeting in public restrooms and various tapping and hand gestures meant to signal to those in the know, but that is all of a different generation. I think it is hard for younger people to understand just how far society has come in regards to gay people when it is now largely acceptable to be out, so plays like this are doubly important. Yank! The Musical is smart, sensitive, and realistic, and the music perfectly captures the era while also moving the plot forward. Stu isn’t a gay stereotype, and Mitch isn’t your typical closeted man either. As in real life, the truth is so much more complicated than that.

I’m consistently surprised by the quality of productions by the Evolution Theatre Company of Columbus, Ohio, and Yank! The Musical is my favorite production of theirs yet in the two years I’ve been attending their shows at the Columbus Performing Arts Center. Director Jimmy Bohr has taken a rather small performing space in the Van Fleet Theater, where the audience is so very close and seated on bleachers in the front and on the sides, and used it as an advantage in telling this story. The show moves and changes locales easily with minimal props or set pieces needed, and the actors often appear from behind the audience and walk between the bleachers to the front.

I’ve been to enough local shows in the past few years to recognize some of the actors, and it always tickles me to see them tackle such different roles seemingly effortlessly. I was glad to see Doug Joseph ham it up again (albeit in several smaller roles here) after hilarious turns in The Divine Sister (Short North Stage) and Psycho Beach Party (Immersive Theater), and it took me a while to recognize Nick Hardin as being the moody and rambunctious Chicklet from Psycho Beach Party I wouldn’t have thought the same person did such utterly different roles had the program not tipped me off; as well as the expression of disgust Nick gives at one point, reminding me of Chicklet’s constant expression. Special attention should be paid to Jesika Siler Lehner playing all six female roles, seamlessly transitioning between each and making them feel like completely different people, many with a different posture and gait, all with different costumes and hair. She goes from sexy torch singer to butch lesbian to wholesome mom with ease, believable as always. I had not seen Brent Fabian in anything before, but man can he tap! His Artie is knowing and sly while also being sympathetic. I look forward to seeing him again. William Mackle and Nick Hardin have genuine chemistry, though on the surface they don’t look like two people that would necessarily be drawn to each other, but that’s kind’ve the point.

Somehow they found actors with “period” faces and bodies, all looking at home in the setting of the story. Take a picture of any scene in the play in black and white and it would pass for a photo from seventy years ago, no question. There is a brief nude scene at the beginning showing seven of the guys from behind and to the side, all looking so different and comfortable, and it’s a credit to this production that such a titillating moment (for me anyway) is far from the best reason to see this show – it’s a highlight, to be sure, in a show of many.

I only wish there were more chances to see this terrific production again. I saw the preview performance on Wednesday as well as the Sunday matinee, all performed like the cast had been doing the show for months and enjoying it.

**** out of ****

Yank! The Musical continues through to June 6th, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org/#2828