The Fantasticks (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)


It’s funny how some plays can become such a part of popular culture that they can feel like you’ve seen them before even if you haven’t. The Fantasticks, the long-running 1960 Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical about two neighboring fathers pretending to feud in the hope that their children will rebel and fall in love, is one of those evergreens, a musical that is akin to a rite of passage as each new generation discovers and embraces its charms. The Fantasticks isn’t a great work, but its memorable score, including such standards as “Try to Remember,” “Much More,” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain,” has done much to solidify its reputation.

Photo: Jason Allen – Emma Coniglio (Luisa) and Robert Carlton Stimmel (Matt)

Now Short North Stage presents their version of The Fantasticks, only this time director Jonathan Flom has changed its setting and locale to Oklahoma circa April 1935 during The Great Depression, more specially after a great dust storm that has left much death and destruction in its wake. Not a word or song has been changed to accommodate this interpretation, and yet what emerges in this production injects new life and relevance in the all-too-familiar story of boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back. Mr. Flom’s production, with a sprawling set by Jonathan Sabo complete with mounds of dirt and partially buried farm paraphernalia, is presented in the round with limited seating around the perimeter of a raised wooden platform (the room’s support beam is cleverly dressed to appear like a tower); the overall effect is one of inclusion, like the audience is a part of the action.

Photo: Jason Allen – Brian Hupp (El Gallo) and Emma Coniglio (Luisa)

The cast is uniformly excellent, exuding a kind of familial affection for one another that permeates past their roles. Brian Hupp makes an oddly dangerous and elusive El Gallo, a fresh take on this character all dressed in black; Robert Carlton Stimmel plays Matt with energy to spare, and Emma Coniglio has a way of playing a bit spoiled as Luisa that isn’t cloying; Doug Joseph and Ryan Stem, as the fathers of Matt and Louisa respectively, should be listened to carefully for their humorous ad libbing as they bicker with each other in the way that only great friends can do; Mr. Joseph and Mr. Stem both have a way of embodying the spirit of both mother and father that makes their investment in the future of their children all the more significant.

Photo: Jason Allen – (left to right) Robert Carlton Stimmel (Matt), Kate Lingnofski (Mortimer), and Alex Lanier (Henry)

Though her stage time is brief, Alex Lanier makes a dizzyingly bombastic Henry, the old actor who helps to stage an attempted abduction of Louisa to help Matt appear to be a hero; Kate Lingnofski as Mortimer, Henry’s sidekick, has a staunch posture and walk that is highly individual and comedic; her goggles, cap, and scarves conjure images of a Chaplinesque Amelia Earhart. Megan Valle plays The Mute, and she is also responsible for the choreography that feels so organic that it can be difficult to tell when it starts and ends; Ms. Valle acts silently with an expression that looks as if she’s on the cusp of saying something quite profound, the story of Matt and Luisa’s courtship playing out in front of her being the one respite from the world around her.

Photo: Jason Allen

Short North Stage’s The Fantasticks has a wistful, dreamlike quality to it, almost like recalling a memory through a haze of sheer muslin. All of the familiar songs and characters are there, but this telling has more of an urgency and relevance to it; the love and joy of the young lovers is more poignant with The Great Depression as a backdrop. This reimagining doesn’t feel forced or heavy-handed at all, and the simplicity of the story has never felt more welcome a luxury. Aside from the intimacy of experiencing this production in the round, there is an added benefit; many times I caught myself glancing at the smiling faces of other audience members on the opposite side of the performing space. I’m sure I sported an incongruous smile as well since the sweetness and hopefulness of this production is infectious. “Aren’t you glad we came out tonight?” I heard a lady ask her friends as we all exited the theatre after the play. Everyone agreed that seeing this production of The Fantasticks was time well-spent.

**** out of ****

The Fantasticks continues through to August 14th in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/471

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Lost Lake (Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” I’m not sure where I first heard that, and that quote has been attributed to many different people, but it encapsulates what I feel is the theme of David Auburn’s Lost Lake, currently being presented in a terrific production by Wild Women Writing and Short North Stage at The Garden Theatre in the Short North district of Columbus.

 

Photo: Geoff McTurner – Chiquita Mullins Lee (Veronica) and James Hughes (Hogan)
 

Lost Lake was first produced by Manhattan Theatre Club a year ago for a limited run, and this its area premiere. Sensitively directed by Katherine Burkman, the play is about two people who, on the outside, seem to be about as different as can be – Veronica, a black, widowed mother of two, a city woman making ends meet as a nurse practitioner; Hogan, a white middle-aged man, a virtual recluse (who considers himself a handyman) living off of his disability payments in a cabin on a lake. They meet via an online ad that Hogan posts offering up his cabin for rent for the summer, and Veronica agrees to a one-week stay with her children. What the two don’t realize until after they butt heads over a variety of problems and situations is how they are much more alike than they are different, a lesson I guess we could all learn when negotiating or facing adversity. This all probably sounds terribly serious and droll, but it’s actually quite a funny “dramedy” – that is,  if it belongs to any specific genre.

 

Photo: Geoff McTurner – Chiquita Mullins Lee (Veronica) and James Hughes (Hogan)
 
James Hughes is an enigmatic Hogan, his logic often circular and his motives understood only by himself. Mr. Hughes plays him as a kind of overgrown man-boy, blindly appealing and a little goofy at the same time. He has sudden moments of rage in which I caught myself looking away as it all felt too real, like it was rude to keep watching and not try to console him. Mr. Hughes has a physical presence as Hogan that leads me to believe he could get away with just about anything, either with charm or artfully changing the subject, and he is an exciting performer to watch.

 

Photo: Geoff McTurner – James Hughes (Hogan) and Chiquita Mullins Lee (Veronica)
 
Chiquita Mullins Lee is Veronica, playing her with so many more shadings than the stereotypical Angry Black Woman we see so much of. Does Ms. Lee get angry? Sure, but she leaves the finger waving and head bobbing by the wayside, exposing someone far more vulnerable than may be expected considering her firm voice and stance. Ms. Lee’s Veronica has a maternal understanding that I would imagine comes from having and nurturing children; she sees the need for attention in Hogan, but it doesn’t keep her from taking him to task for not following through on his promises. This Veronica is not “just black” – she’s so much more, a full rainbow of emotions, demonstrating that “just black” exists only to those who choose not to look deeper. Even though this isn’t a play about race, it does come up briefly in a moment that is more insightful and telling than any loud sermon on the subject.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set by Edward Carignan
 
The Green Room at The Garden Theatre is the perfect setting for such an intimate two-person character study. Edward Carignan’s set for Hogan’s cabin says so much about him before he even appears on stage, with junk food and wrappers scattered about well-worn furniture and animal furs. So much care has been put into the set and props that they do exactly as they are meant to do: support and enhance the story.

Ms. Burkman only missteps once in her direction, but it’s a big flaw in an otherwise splendid production. There is a speech by Hogan that closes the first act in which he recounts his estrangement from his eighteen-year-old daughter; rather than let his words and performance speak for themselves, some sappy instrumental is played at a fairly loud level through the sound system. I’m not against using underscoring to supplement a moment in a play, but it is mostly a tool used in films to manipulate the audience’s feelings; here the music effectively neuters the emotion of the scene and comes off as heavy-handed. Having just a few minutes out of a two-hour play be misguided is a track record of which most directors would be envious.

 

Photo: Geoff McTurner – Chiquita Mullins Lee (Veronica) and James Hughes (Hogan)
 

Lost Lake is the kind of theatre that I love; it’s original and doesn’t contain the clichés of other love stories. Make no mistake, this is a story about love, though one that remains delightfully platonic. Not every relationship between a man and a woman needs to be consummated in a traditional way to be valid and meaningful; this is a play about such a relationship, one with two souls who are struggling and find strength in each other. Highly recommended!

***/ out of ****

Lost Lake continues through to November 22nd in The Green Room at The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/485

Brighton Beach Memoirs (Gallery Players – Columbus, OH)

Growing up is so awful that it’s a good thing we have to go through it only once. The process is only seen as poignant in retrospect, as the pain and embarrassment is easier to overlook in the rearview mirror. Gallery Players is now presenting Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical tale of youth, Brighton Beach Memoirs, as the opening show of their 67th season, and adolescence has really been depicted so candidly – or as endearingly funny.

Brighton Beach Memoirs premiered on Broadway in 1983 and was a hit, running over three years, and was then adapted into a rather stale and miscast film in 1986. The play takes place in Brooklyn in the fall of 1937 during The Great Depression and is about the Jerome household, a Jewish family encompassing Kate and Jack Jerome; their two sons, Eugene and Stanley; Kate’s widowed sister, Blanche; and Blanche’s two daughters, Nora and Laurie. Most of the action revolves around Eugene Morris Jerome, a fifteen-year-old who is dealing with puberty and the ever-changing struggles of those around him, covering situations as diverse as unemployment, death, love, and decades-old grudges that finally come to the fore.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Neil Kalef (Eugene)
 
This play can only work with a Eugene that is of the right age and able to have frank discussions about sex and the difficult changes boys go through at that age; this production has Neil Kalef in the role, who is just the right age, has the slightly sour attitude commiserate with being ignored by his family, and is free from embarrassment saying lines that would make most teens blush and look away. Mr. Kalef is utterly believable as Eugene, and his asides to the audience are as honest as they are funny.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Susan Gellman (Blanche), Felise Chernoff (Kate), and Jenna Rodier (Laurie)
 
There isn’t a bad performance in the play, but special credit should also go to Susan Gellman as Blanche, Jennifer Geiger as Nora, and Rick A. Holt as Jack. Ms. Gellman plays rather meek and withdrawn extremely well, and her transition to being a stronger parent and more assertive in taking control of her and her daughters’ lives is revelatory; she’s heartbreaking while reading a letter from a potential suitor, and the scene she shares with Ms. Geiger in which she finally takes charge as a mother is electrifying. Ms. Geiger as her daughter Nora is present and reacts naturally to everything around her; she’s believably excited at the prospect of a career on Broadway and firmly stubborn to get her way.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Rick A. Holt (Jack)
 
Rick A. Holt is extremely strong as Jack, the patriarch of the family, always the one sought out for advice and working several jobs to make ends meet. Mr. Holt has a brassy swiftness about him that makes Jack both intimidating to his family as well as the kind of guy you know they want to please. When he tells his son Stanley (Phil Cunningham, who is just right as the ne’er-do-well oldest son, and whose scenes with Mr. Kalef as his younger brother Eugene work because of their chemistry) that there is nothing that Stanley could do that he as his father couldn’t forgive him for, it’s enough to make you wish that every father was as honest and direct as Mr. Holt is as Jack. Felise Chernoff as his wife Kate is no slouch either, perfect as the nagging mother whose demeanor contrasts with the love she obviously feels for her family. Ms. Chernoff had more than her share of stumbles during the opening night performance, but I’m sure that had more to do with nerves than any lack of talent or preparation.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Neil Kalef (Eugene), Jenna Rodier (Laurie), Felise Chernoff (Kate), Jennifer Geiger (Nora), and Susan Gellman (Blanche)
 
Set designer Jon Baggs has created a set that qualifies it as another character in the play, complete with a living and dining room and stairs leading to a second level where the brothers and their cousins share separate rooms. It looks like people really live there, and such care has been taken to make it appear functional and appropriately period. Director Mark Mann keeps things moving and making sense, not allowing any scene to bake too long; he really gets the point of the play and understands how to make the actors work together as a family.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Phil Cunningham (Stanley), Susan Gellman (Blanche), Rick A. Holt (Jack), Felise Chernoff (Kate), Jenna Rodier (Laurie), and Jennifer Geiger (Nora)
 
You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this production, and I enjoyed learning a bit about the culture. Most everyone will recognize characteristics of people in the play as being similar to some people in their own family, and there are definitely scenes that any male will understand and probably smile about to themselves. Some of the dialogue and situations may keep Brighton Beach Memoirs from being suitable to anyone under the age of thirteen, but boy would having seen this play at that age have helped me realize that I wasn’t the only one dealing with such issues.

***/ out of ****

Brighton Beach Memoirs continues through to November 1st in the Roth-Resler Theater at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus located at 1125 College Avenue, and more information can be found at http://columbusjcc.org/cultural-arts/gallery-players/

The House of Blue Leaves (State of the Arts Productions – Columbus, OH)

Comedy is tough enough, but when you make it dark and cynical it’s even more challenging. The House of Blue Leaves by John Guare is one of those dark and cynical comedies, first presented in 1966 and having had two runs on Broadway in 1986 and 2011. It is full of characters that you would not want to spend time with as they are pretty obnoxious and unlikeable, and you’re sure to leave afterwards glad that your life is better than theirs. It’s a demanding piece for State of the Arts Productions to tackle and is only running this weekend at the Columbus Dance Theatre downtown.

The action takes place in the Queens apartment of Artie and Bananas Shaunessy on October 4th, 1965, the date that Pope Paul VI is visiting New York. Artie works at the zoo but is an aspiring songwriter; Bananas is heavily medicated and suffering from depression; Ronnie is their GI son who has gone AWOL and has plans to blow up the Pope; and Bunny Flingus is the loudmouth neighbor with which Artie is having an open affair. Into their lives enter friends from their past as well as a group of rambunctious nuns as the improbabilities of the day play out. The house of the title refers to the asylum to which Artie threatens to send Bananas.

It’s oddly prescient that The House of Blue Leaves arrives in Columbus the same week that the Pope is visiting the U.S., and the coincidence isn’t lost on Gwen Edwards, whose son Quentin was the Artistic Director of State of the Arts Productions (SoArtsPro) and secured the rights to the play before his untimely passing more than a year ago. Playbill even reported on the fact that SoArtsPro is the only theatre company in the country performing this work during the Pope’s visit, and that article can be found here: http://www.playbill.com/news/article/a-pope-a-play-and-the-unexpected-legacy-behind-an-upcoming-house-of-blue-leaves-361689

 

Photo: Gwen Edwards – Karen Benedict (Bananas), Edwyn Williams (Artie), and Jim Coe (Billy)
 
It’s refreshing to see theatre that feels a little dangerous, as if anything could happen at any moment. Many of the performers have limited stage experience, but in an odd way it kind of works for this material as everyone performs at pretty much the same level. The cast works together to tell this story the best way they can, and the result is an admirable effort. Karen Benedict seems so frail and helpless as Bananas Shaunessy that she absconds with the audience’s affection, making one of the final plot twists feel particularly caustic in a work that was already pushing the boundaries of acceptable comedy. Not having seen any other production, I don’t know if the “shocked into silence” reaction the audience had at the denouement is what was intended. It makes an impact, make no mistake.

Director Sehri Wickliffe’s direction has its share of moments that come off as awkward and ill-timed (a scene involving some scuffling between Nick Evans and John Montgomery is badly choreographed), but in a strange way it comes off as more genuine because of it; the odd pauses and pacing only add to a general uneasiness that helps the comedy rather than inhibits it (most of the time at least).

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III
 
The set is a collaborative effort between many people, and there’s something charming about the myriad of pieces laid out to represent the cold, downtrodden Queens apartment. The stage at Columbus Dance Theatre allows for a lot of depth and it is used to maximum effect, an art often lost with some of the larger theatre companies. It’s difficult to nail down the period from the set alone, but it definitely belongs to a time many decades ago.

The House of Blue Leaves is a daring work for a community theatre as it deals with death, mental illness, infidelity, religion, and murder, and yet it is funny as well. I’m glad that I saw what SoArtsPro did with the material, and, rough as it is, I can honestly say that it held my interest throughout. Not all of the comedic moments landed, but enough did that I would definitely consider this glass half full.

**/ out of ****

The House of Blue Leaves continues through to September 27th at Columbus Dance Theatre located at 592 East Main Street, and more information can be found at http://www.soartspro.com