Skylight (Columbus Civic Theater – Columbus, OH)

Imagine an experiment where the script is the control and the production the variable; do that and you’ll get a sense of the expectations when staging a work that has been preserved in performance and is out there for study. Often what comes before is used as a kind of yardstick to measure future productions. That’s not to say the original cast recording of a musical or filmed production of a play is definitive or even the best, but it does cut its own path, against which what comes later is measured in standard deviations. Has there ever been a production of Gypsy that wasn’t informed by Ethel Merman, or of A Streetcar Named Desire in which Marlon Brando was not used as a point of comparison? I ask this question because I just saw what Columbus Civic Theater is doing with David Hare’s Skylight, a play that just won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play in 2015 and was chosen by patrons as the “audience choice” play of their season, and it led me to view a video of the 2014 London production that made for an interesting comparison – more on that later.

Skylight premiered in London in 1995 and then on Broadway a year later. It is about Kyra Hollis, a youngish teacher visited by two men from her past, Tom and Edward Sergeant, a father and son. Kyra worked for the family years ago, having left abruptly when it was discovered that she was having an affair with Tom, the father. Tom’s wife has now died, and Edward visits Kyra out of worry for how his dad has been dealing with it. Tom arrives later the same day to hash things out with Kyra, perhaps in an attempt to rekindle what they once had. The entire play takes place in Kyra’s apartment in a less than glamorous section of London, and over the course of the night Tom and Kyra debate the merits of their past as well as their current lives, separated so drastically by differences of social class.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design by Richard Albert
 
I went into this production not knowing the story and not having seen the recording of the recent London run. The first thing I noticed was the terrific set designed by Richard Albert representing Kyra’s run down apartment. The space looks lived in and worn, bookshelves and cabinets looking lovably less than perfect, with a raised area for a small fridge, sink, and stovetop, all functional. I’ve seen many plays at Columbus Civic with a variety of sets – some awful, some very good – and this is the best; it makes terrific use of the space and its part in telling the story.

 

Photo: Columbus Civic Theater – Edwyn Williams (Tom) and Priyanka Shetty (Kyra)
 
Edwyn Williams is Tom, the successful and rich restauranteur, and his performance is all bluster and consonants, forcefully spraying his words like a pushy salesman. Mr. Williams plays Tom as bossy and charmless, and even a bit whiny. He has what Oprah calls an “ugly cry,” as in an emotional moment near the end his entire countenance puckers, revealing his struggle to produce tears. I sensed not a drop of chemistry between his Tom and Kyra, played rather demurely by Priyanka Shetty. Ms. Shetty has wonderful, crisp diction, and a strong speech in the second act in which her passion runs true, but I can’t grasp what she could have ever seen in Tom, and because of that I can’t follow why Kyra makes the decision to revisit her past with Tom at the end of the first act. As someone who has “revisited” the past with exes after the breakup, it is always bittersweet, reminding me both of why I was attracted to them in the first place while also reinforcing why we were no longer together; I don’t sense any of this with Kyra, who smiles frequently and comes off as submissive without much reason.

 

Photo: Columbus Civic Theater – Matthew Sierra (Edward) and Priyanka Shetty (Kyra)
 
Matthew Sierra plays Tom’s concerned son Edward, whose appearances bookend the play. Mr. Sierra’s hairstyle and clothing look right out of 1995 (as they should – the play is set in that year), and he has a kind of nervousness that is difficult to interpret. His wonky British accent doesn’t help much, as it changes sometimes mid-sentence; it adds to an off-kilter malaise that clouds this production and its characters. I will say that his reappearance at the end was most welcome, as his chaste affection for Kyra is more clear and he seems far more relaxed.

At the end of the day, Columbus Civic Theater’s Skylight is not an embarrassment to anyone, but I don’t feel that it shows any of the artists involved (save for Richard Albert and that great set) in the best light either. It’s a bland, mediocre production that flounders, neither entirely fish nor fowl. The actors appear to be trying so hard to tell this story on stage without the proper guidance. A different interpretation would be fine, but I felt like this production lacks any interpretation at all, any distinctive personality or viewpoint. It is performed in a pattern of line *pause* line *pause* that is unnatural and stilted, more like a staged reading.

 

Photo: Columbus Civic Theater – Priyanka Shetty (Kyra) and Edwyn Williams (Tom)
 
The audience seemed to like Skylight the night that I attended with my friend, but we left the show bewildered and feeling like we were missing something. The production left me puzzled, and the story didn’t make much sense to me. I thought, “It must be the play.” Later I saw the National Theatre Live film of a performance of the 2014 revival of Skylight (the same production and cast that traveled across the ocean this year to win the Tony Award); that’s when I realized that the problem wasn’t with the play – it was this production. I viewed the video of the London production, and suddenly the play made sense! The script was the same, but the performances so completely different in a way that supported and enhanced the material. I didn’t know so much of the play was funny! Bill Nighy is quick and witty as Tom, and it’s easy to see what Carey Mulligan as Kyra would see in him. Lines that land with a thud in Columbus Civic’s production were greeted with laughter in London, and moments where characters experience shifts in mood were now clear and easy to follow.

Is it fair to compare this video to the production at Columbus Civic Theater? I don’t see why not, as both have the same script from which to work. I didn’t go in with preconceived notions by having seen the London production first; I entered blank, wanting to be entertained, and only afterward sought out the other production.

** out of ****

Skylight continues through to November 22nd in the Columbus Civic Theater located at 3837 Indianola Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuscivic.org

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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