The Turn of the Screw (Little Theatre Off Broadway – Grove City, OH)

Imagine a ghost story with no mood lighting or creepy sound effects. Now add some awkward scene changes where, in place of transitional music or applause, there is just the squeaking of scenery on wheels being moved about the stage. Don’t forget to have moments where “ghosts” appear brightly lighted and moving about like zombies. Once you have all of that together, you have the core elements that make up Little Theatre Off Broadway’s The Turn of the Screw, a production so plodding and creatively bankrupt that the couple in front of me and the group of three ladies to my right all fled at intermission, probably to salvage what was left of their Friday night.

  
There is plenty of atmosphere in the original novella by Henry James, and the 1961 film version titled The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr is a classic; this adaptation by Jack Neary seems to be okay, save for an incredibly silly coda at the end. The Turn of the Screw is about a governess sent to look after two orphaned siblings, Flora and Miles. Once in their company, she sees and hears what seems to be apparitions of the previous governess, Miss Jessel, and man servant, Peter Quint, both now deceased under mysterious circumstances. The new governess fears that the children are consorting with these ghosts and that their lives are at risk. The housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, isn’t sure what to think; are the children in danger, or is their new governess off her rocker?

Somehow this classic thriller has been gutted, performed as if it is a training exercise about how to walk and talk as well as enter and exit rooms. It’s about as thrilling as watching someone folding napkins. I don’t see what director Brian A. Palmer must’ve been thinking when he planned this out as all of the elements of a good ghost story are there in the script but without any of the stage accoutrements – no drippy candles, darkness, eerie sounds or music. I don’t blame the actors, none of which I feel would be fair to name here; the governess, housekeeper, and Flora have their moments (the actress playing the governess sneezed during the second act; it was the most exciting, realistic moment in the play), but the rest of the cast (especially the man playing the children’s uncle at the beginning of the piece) are merely reciting lines with no feeling or apparent understanding of what they’re saying.

  
The two actors playing the ghosts appear in makeup that makes them look more like extras on “The Addams Family” set than creepy other-worldly beings. Their costumes are draped with some brown fabric that resembles hosiery, as if these spirits are themselves haunted by a bad case of static cling with pantyhose sticking to their clothes. I heard some quickly stifled laughter from the audience when these ghosts appeared, sometimes walking through the audience to get to the stage. And again, the set is rather brightly colored and everything fully illuminated save for a few moments where the lights are dimmed slightly. Where are the murky shadows? The sound of the wind or chirping of crickets? A soft bit of foreboding score to bridge the scenes? None of that is here. Another thing that bothered me was the discussion of Peter Quint’s hair being red; when he appears as a ghost it looks pretty dark to me. That’s small potatoes, true, but it’s still an example of the lack of the requisite attention to detail one would expect to find.

This production of The Turn of the Screw is a glittering example of how important a director’s vision and guidance is to the success or failure of a production. Some of the cast isn’t without talent, but they appear to be floating free without a firm grasp on how to approach the material or sustain – or generate – any kind of mood. The material is ripe with opportunity for creativity, but what is being presented here is embarrassingly stale and static. As much as I’m a fan of live theatre, go buy the movie The Innocents instead.

* out of ****

The Turn of the Screw continues through to February 7th in the Little Theatre Off Broadway located at 3981 Broadway in downtown Grove City (around 20 minutes from Columbus), and more information can be found at http://ltob.org/

  

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Mr. Scrooge (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)

I wonder just how many adaptations there are of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol for the stage as well as on film. I know there are several different musicalizations of the story, created by talents as diverse as Alan Menken (the 1994 stage version, which was made into a 2004 TV movie starring Kelsey Grammar) and Leslie Bricusse (as Scrooge!, the 1970 film starring Albert Finney, which was subsequently adapted for the stage). And there are films of the story starring George C. Scott, Alastair Sim, Jim Carrey, and even Scrooge McDuck! Perhaps playing the greedy and cantankerous Ebenezer is a rite of passage for many performers, as one has to age into the role to be suitable to play it.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Dayton Duvall (Jacob Marley) and William Goldsmith (Ebenezer)
 
Columbus Children’s Theatre now presents their version of this classic story as Mr. Scrooge, in an adaptation written by their artistic director William Goldsmith (who plays Ebenezer) and with songs by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman. With a running time of around an hour and a cast full of lively children, this version of the familiar story of the stingy Ebenezer Scrooge and how his attitude towards people and life changes after visits from several ghosts on Christmas Eve is a strong alternative to some of the heavier variations of this tale to be found elsewhere this season.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand
 
The action takes place in front of a set representing the front of a stone building with doors, windows, and passageways. At times this is the front of Scrooge’s home, at other times the interior, and sometimes it is just another home in the background where action takes place out on the street, all delineated with some excellent lighting effects by Derryck Menard. The large cast mingles in character with the audience as they enter and take their seats, noted as the “Nicholas Nickleby motif” in the program; this helps not only adults get into the spirit of the piece but also eases new, young theatregoers gently into the experience. Though a musical, the songs are usually quite brief and the dancing limited to appropriate moments only. The scenes involving the ghosts are handled very lightly and are a bit eerie without being disturbing or too intense; this is a family show, after all. My favorite scene is the number “Ebenezer Scrooge,” where the grumpy businessman is encircled by chanting children that he is attempting to shoo away. The children in this show are many and know their parts well; they are never cloying or overly cute at all, a blessing to those of us with a low tolerance for that kind of saccharine.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – William Goldsmith (Ebenezer)
 
William Goldsmith is fine and reserved as Ebenezer Scrooge, firm in his resolve as the play begins but susceptible to melting as the piece goes on. It’s a difficult balancing act to allow for that transition to occur and feel unplanned, but Mr. Goldsmith handles it quite well. He doesn’t come off as a stereotype like so many other Scrooges that I’ve seen; he plays the part earnestly without exaggeration. Mr. Goldsmith’s Ebenezer reminds me of that persnickety far right conservative relative who posts rhetoric on Facebook that makes you roll your eyes, but you can’t unfriend or block him for fear of the repercussions it might cause. He is surrounded by a solid cast, including the humorously intense Dayton Duvall as the ghost of Jacob Marley.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Jennifer Feather-Youngblood (Ghost of Christmas Present) and William Goldsmith (Ebenezer)
 
Jennifer Feather-Youngblood is a major standout, turning in a riotous performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present, joyfully romping around in her Santa-like robe, wreath atop her head, with a jug of spirits in tow. Ms. Feather-Youngblood injects some good old vitamin B-12 into the proceedings when she appears and, as capable as the rest of the performers are, she’s a difficult act to follow and is missed when her character departs.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – Abby Zeszotek (Mrs. Dilber)
 
There is one character and sequence in this adaptation that I don’t quite understand, and that is of Mrs. Dilber played by Abby Zeszotek. Mrs. Dilber is Ebenezer’s rather shiesty housekeeper who is missing a front tooth and steals some of his silverware. Ms. Zeszotek is quite funny and gruff with a cockney accent in the part (the audience gave an guttural “yech!” when she dished out gruel), but her character and scene go nowhere; Ebenezer doesn’t catch her stealing or confront her about it, and at the end of the play he is generous and kind to her. The impression given is that it is okay to steal as long as you aren’t caught and if the person that you’re pilfering from is stingy anyway.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand
 

Mr. Scrooge is overall a sweet, family-friendly show that tells its story succinctly and with charm. The environment at Columbus Children’s Theatre is one that is quite pro family and children, which is sometimes rather difficult to find in the theatre scene around Columbus. I’ve seen adaptations of A Christmas Carol that run more than twice as long as this one and aren’t half as good. You don’t need to bring kids along to enjoy this one.

*** out of ****

Mr. Scrooge continues through to December 20th in Columbus Children’s Theatre located at 512 Park Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/mr-scrooge.html

The Tenshu (Shadowbox Live – Columbus, OH)

I’m sure it can sometimes be difficult to know when a work is done and ready to present to an audience, perhaps even more so if it sets its own precedent as a mix of elements heretofore unexplored. Sometimes a work has to be mounted and shown so that the audience can help guide its further refinement; that’s how I feel about Shadowbox Live’s The Tenshu, an ultimately unsatisfying and overlong excursion with flashes of wonder and innovation sprinkled throughout.

 

Photo: Shadowbox Live
 

The Tenshu was written by Izumi Kyoka (as Tenshu Monogatari, originally produced in 1951), and it has been translated to English by Hiromi Sakamoto and further adapted by Jimmy Mak; it is the story of a spirit named Tomihime and a samurai named Zusho, how they meet and fall in love, and how their different worlds conspire to keep them apart. Executive producer Stev Guyer said in a speech before the performance that this was an attempt to bring an eastern work to a western audience, to adapt its story and setting to make it more palatable. He went on to describe the international collaboration between Shadowbox Live and a group of artists from Japan to make this hybrid, something he says is a conglomeration of kabuki, rock music, and performance art. Mr. Guyer set the stage for quite an ambitious work, and The Tenshu is certainly unlike anything I’ve seen before; it’s dripping with effort and self importance. This was my first experience attending a performance at Shadowbox Live, and I enjoyed myself overall (the food and drinks helped) even though the production itself left a lot to be desired.

 

Photo: Shadowbox Live
 
The highlights of the show are a series of ballets choreographed by Katy Psenicka (my favorite being one where the dancers are representing birds), some truly odd but delightfully weird business with a severed head, the puppets (designed and constructed by Beth Kattelman, Lukas Tomasacci, Nikos Fyodor Rutowski, and Nikki Fagan – the best being a banshee-like creature), and Stacie Boord’s singing voice (so pure and sweet that she could sing the phone book and make it palatable). The costumes by Linda Mullen and make up by David Mack are striking and boldly colored as well, and the effort involved in their overall design is quite apparent.

 

Photo: Shadowbox Live
 
The production is at its worst during most of the first act, which takes an excessive amount of time to set up characters that only feature minimally in the overall plot. The music by Light is fine and consistent (meaning it all sounds alike), but the material has been over musicalized with lyrics that don’t convey emotion or plot well at all. The opening scene and song involving the little girls of the castle “fishing for flowers” is nauseatingly saccharine and even unintentionally funny as the girls all look like the children of the damned with He-Man haircuts. The dialogue does little to help engage western audiences as so many concepts such as honor and love and death are merely told rather than expressed; characters don’t seem to have any deep emotions or feelings based on what they say or sing, and so it is difficult to care much what happens to them. The extensive plot summary and cast list in the program is daunting, so many parts assigned names and descriptions that prove to be unnecessary.

  

The Tenshu ultimately tries to be too many things all at once; it’s a love story, a sword and samurai adventure, a story of ghosts and the afterlife, an example of kabuki theatre, a rock opera, a ballet, a two-act musical with food and drinks, and a kid-friendly puppet show. It reminds me a bit of the hibachi restaurant around the corner that offers General Tso’s chicken alongside tater tots, pizza, and Oreos. There is potential in the material, but this is a piece that needs to be more clearly defined; it has the taste of something that has had too many cooks in the kitchen. With some judicial editing this could be quite a good hour-long diversion, but in its current incarnation it comes off as an indulgent work in progress.

** out of ****

**/ out of **** (with the food, drinks, and ambiance factored in)

The Tenshu continues through to October 25th at Shadowbox Live located at 503 South Front Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shadowboxlive.org/light/the-tenshu