The Countess of Monte Cristo (Actors’ Theatre of Columbus – Columbus, OH)


“Evil deeds cost the doers in the end,” says the bitter and jealous Fernanda Mondego just before she finalizes plans to basically destroy the life of Amelie Dantes. Little does Fernanda know how prophetic her words would be, as the wronged Amelie Dantes will one day return with power and vengeance on her mind as The Countess of Monte Cristo, the Actors’ Theatre of Columbus production currently being performed in Schiller Park. Based on the Alexander Dumas classic The Count of Monte Cristo, this adaptation by artistic director Philip J. Hickman and co-director Jennifer Feather Youngblood reimagines the story with a woman as the lead, shifting the locus of power within the story from male to female, presenting a different portrait of what female revenge can look like to those of us familiar with it only from Stephen King’s Carrie.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Amelie Dantes has her world turned upside down when she is imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit through the efforts of Danglars, an envious captain; the aforementioned Fernanda Mondego, a bartender with her eyes set on nabbing Merced Herrera, Amelie’s fiancée; and Villefort, a Magistrate with family secrets to hide. Each has something to gain by getting Amelie out of the picture, but they don’t count on her meeting and being tutored by Abbess Faria in prison, escaping her life sentence after fourteen years, or claiming a hidden fortune; this enables her to return with the wealth and influence necessary to exact veiled revenge on each of them.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

I was completely unfamiliar with the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo before seeing this production, which was both a blessing and a curse. The story was new and fresh to me as a result, but it was also quite difficult to follow at points. The summary I’ve presented here doesn’t go into the pirates, kidnapping, the involvement of the daughters of the Countess’s enemies, the cargo ship business, and several incriminating letters that fall into the wrong hands. The intricacies of the story may not be completely clear (I thought of the business with the letters as simply a MacGuffin, a trigger for the plot), but the overall theme of female empowerment and growth is very much in evidence. It is clear that Amelie’s enemies don’t recognize her upon her return, and it is indeed interesting to see how the Countess infiltrates their lives to bring about their ruin.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

It must be a special kind of challenge to perform outdoors with unpredictable weather and technical aberrations (one performance I attended was plagued with intermittent static) and still find a way to tell the story. This talented cast manages to perform grandly to reach an audience spread out over the park on lawn chairs and blankets without appearing to be yelling or overacting, no small feat considering this material or venue. Standouts in the cast are McLane Nagy as Amelie Dantes, the Countess of Monte Cristo; Kasey Leah Meininger as the conniving Fernanda Mondego; James Harper as Merced Herrera, Amelie’s handsome but doomed former fiancée; Derek Faraji as Ali, Amelie’s faithful companion; and Catherine Cryan as both the nurturing Abbess Faria and the caustic Madame Villefort (wife of one of Amelie’s enemies).

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Ms. Nagy is sweet and unassuming as Amelie, plaintively stating, “I am a woman. I wouldn’t presume to concern myself with matters of state,” during her interrogation; her metamorphoses into the formidable Countess is complete when she wails, “I die, and all forgiveness with me!” Ms. Nagy brings an athletic agility necessary for us to believe in her journey, and yet her heart isn’t frozen; “I would never wish to instill vengeance in your heart,” she says to a daughter of one of her enemies, her delivery making clear the burden that kind of anger can have on a person.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Ms. Meininger’s Fernanda is boldly conniving, forcing Amelie out of the picture to claim Merced for herself. The way that she embraces Merced from behind as she coos to manipulate him into framing his fiancée demonstrates that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants, making her ultimate comeuppance all the more enjoyable to witness. Ms. Meininger has a bigger than life performance style uniquely suited to playing such a heartless villain the audience loves to hate.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Mr. Harper’s Merced is powerless to resist Fernanda, but his internal agony at having played a part in Amelie’s imprisonment shows in his posture and movement when he returns to the story. Mr. Harper can play conquered without appearing weak or simple, turning his anguish inward at himself; as such, he comes off as the only one of Amelie’s enemies with any kind of conscience. His breakdown when the Countess reveals herself to be Amelie is devastatingly intense, his actions those of a tortured soul.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Mr. Faraji as Ali submits to the Countess’s wishes and yet is not a subservient person; he chooses to do her bidding instead of coming off as obligated. It’s clear from Mr. Faraji’s gaze this his character’s respect for his mistress blossoms into love as he assists in her quest. Ali emerges as the kind of ally we should all be so lucky to have, his interactions with the Countess revealing a genuine affection for her and her plight; he was also wronged in his past when he was sold by Merced, so helping her enact revenge supports his motive as well.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Ms. Cryan makes the most out of playing Abbess Faria, the knowledgable tutor who becomes a surrogate mother to Amelie in prison. She is able to convey a maternal warmth that is welcoming while still being a force to reckon with; she teaches Amelie how to fence and quizzes her on Latin because these are the only gifts she has to give while they are both imprisoned. Ms. Cryan and Ms. Nagy are able to share moments together on stage that feel intimate and quite personal even across an audience spread about on the grass. Ms. Cryan’s touching performance as Abbess Faria is nearly matched when she reappears as Madame Villefort, a woman so morally bankrupt that the idea of poisoning her family in the pursuit of wealth and power seems like a good idea. Her Madame Villefort sinks to depths that are startling in their disregard for human life, and the audience reacts with glee when her husband Gerard Villefort (played menacingly by her real-life husband, Ken Erney) turns on her in the end.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

It’s nice to see smaller character parts imbued with the kind of life that Elizabeth Harelick, Michael Carozza, and Cat McAlpine bring to them, demonstrating that there are no small parts, just small actors. Ms. Harelick is giddy with madness as de Bouville, the mistress of a prison; Mr. Carozza brings wide-eyed comedy to the fore as Peppino, a thickly-accented member of the Countess’s gang; and Ms. McAlpine uses her substantial height and imposing presence as both Marie and Pastrini, and then switches things up again as Louise, an unexpected romantic interest for Eugenie Danglars (Maggie Turek). 

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Directors Adam Simon and Jennifer Feather Youngblood have their work cut out for them with a plot of this complexity and size. The show is a bit rocky at first, opening with a pantomimed scene in a bar with music in the background, all of it going on far too long before we get to some substantial dialogue. Too many scenes end awkwardly, with a lull before the next scene begins. When this break is to denote a passage of time it’s understandable, but too often it just slows down the action. The three daughters of Amelie’s enemies (Mary Paige Rieffel as Alberta Herrera, Myia Eren as Valentine Villefort, and Maggie Turek as Eugenie Danglars) are also presented in a manner conducive to generating confusion, each with brown hair styled up and similar costume coloring. This isn’t so much a problem up close, but much of the audience is spread far out from the stage where the similarities between their appearance is amplified. The personalities of the characters are all quite different, but more care should be taken to help them stand apart as it just adds confusion to an already densely plotted story.
Photo: Jerri Shafer

I find it odd that as Amelie gains power and wealth that she becomes more masculine in appearance. She begins as a pretty young bride on her wedding day, is reduced to rags while in prison, reappears as the Countess in an Arabian-inspired hooded cloak covering what looks like lounging pajamas, and at last has her hair pinned back and is dressing in a suit like a man. This conceit reminds me of a moment in the film Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels first appears to audition for a strong female role in a soap opera and is rebuffed as being “too soft and genteel” by the director. “You want some gross caricature of a woman to prove some idiotic point that power makes women masculine or masculine women are ugly,” Mr. Hoffman says as Ms. Michaels, wagging a finger with, “Well shame on the woman who lets you do that or any woman that lets you do that!” It’s this stereotype that I feel is being perpetuated in the visual transformation of Amelie’s character in this piece. Why couldn’t she have grown more glamorous and beautifully stylish as each bit of retribution is delivered, showing how power and strength can also still be incredibly feminine and alluring? Images of dangerous but strong women from old ’40s noir films come to mind when I think of the ways Amelie as the Countess is able to manipulate events in her favor once she returns to her old stomping ground, except she doesn’t rely on sex to do it (another stereotype). The costumes that Ms. Nagy wears as the Countess are often quite ornate and attractive; I just don’t agree with the way femininity is drained from her appearance as her strength increases.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Despite some storytelling and design shortcomings, The Countess of Monte Cristo is a lively production that only improves as it continues to play out. Some familiarity with the plot of the original story might help those who might otherwise stumble to connect all of the plot threads (I saw it twice and still didn’t catch everything); still, there is enough action, drama, and raw emotion on display to keep a crowd of hundreds focused on the stage. This is the kind of show that is worth seeing for its cast, a veritable “who’s who” of some of the best actors in Columbus. These performers work together to create an experience that is more than the sum of its parts, and Actors’ Theatre of Columbus is to be commended on tackling such a complicated tale with this fresh reworking that emerges as a real crowd pleaser.

*** out of ****

The Countess of Monte Cristo continues through to July 17th in Schiller Park at 1069 Jaeger Street, and more information can be found at http://theactorstheatre.org/2016-season/the-countess-of-monte-cristo/

Photo: Jerri Shafer
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2015 Theatre Year in Review – My Picks for the Best in and Around Columbus

I’ve been asked by a few people to compile my picks for the best central Ohio theatre in and around Columbus in 2015, and so that’s just what I’ve done. I didn’t start writing about and trying to see as much local theatre as possible until June, so there are some reportedly very good productions that I unfortunately didn’t get to see. This list is based on what I saw for the second half of 2015 with one exception – Short North Stage’s Psycho Beach Party from January 2015. I didn’t write a review for it, but the fun I had at that production is still vivid in my mind year later.

For a thorough rundown of my thoughts on each show, I have linked my reviews to open by clicking on the title of each play.


BEST MUSICAL

Yank! The Musical (Evolution Theatre Company)

Honorable Mentions: Into the Woods (Dare to Defy), Thoroughly Modern Millie (Imagine), and Krampus, A Yuletide Tale (Short North Stage)


BEST PLAY (COMEDY)

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? (Red Herring)

Honorable Mention: Psycho Beach Party (Short North Stage) & Skillet Tag (MadLab)


BEST PLAY (DRAMA)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Standing Room Only)

Honorable Mention: An Enemy of the People (The Ohio State University Department of Theatre)


BEST ACTOR

Dave Morgan, The Outgoing Tide (Curtain Players)

Honorable Mention: Tim Browning, The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? (Red Herring)


BEST ACTRESS

Lori Cannon, Sordid Lives (Evolution)

Honorable Mention: Jesika Siler Lehner, Yank! The Musical (Evolution)


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

James Harper, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Standing Room Only)

Honorable Mentions: Mark Mineart and Andrew Protopapas, Peter and the Starcatcher (CATCO)


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Susan Gellman, Brighton Beach Memoirs (Gallery Players)

Honorable Mentions: Melissa Bair, Skillet Tag (MadLab) & Vicky Welsh Bragg, Sordid Lives (Evolution)

Devotion (A & B Theatricals – Columbus, OH)

 
Exactly how much can you negotiate in a relationship to get your way? When do you end one relationship and start another? How much contact is healthy with an ex? These are just some of the issues dealt with in Bill Cook’s Devotion, a comedy about three people who should probably remain single indefinitely as they don’t seem to comprehend the kind of devotion necessary to sustain a relationship.

In Devotion, Tricia (Beth Josephsen) is a budding artist with a problem: her ex, Alex (Danny Turek), is living in her loft apartment with her and her current boyfriend, James (James Harper). The time is the early ’90s and the area is SoHo in downtown Manhattan, and it’s all about where you are and who you know that can propel your career forward, a belief keenly held by Tricia, Alex (an actor), and James (a videographer). Even after he is forced out, Alex finds a way to keep returning to Tricia and James, creating tension and mistrust while he makes his goal of reuniting with Tricia very apparent.

 

Photo: Bill Cook – Beth Josephsen (Tricia) and Danny Turek (Alex)
 
The emerging star of this production is Danny Turek, perfectly cast as the actor Alex, as he has (to quote “I’m the Greatest Star” from Funny Girl), “Thirty-six expressions, sweet as pie to tough as leather, and that’s six expressions more than all them Barrymores put together.” Mr. Turek has a delightfully rubbery face, reminiscent of a young Jim Carrey. He is quick on his feet and has terrific chemistry with his nemesis, James Harper, another fine, handsome performer. Mr. Harper has the blander role, but he comes to life with his trademark intensity (I saw him in Standing Room Only’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde last month and was frightened) in scenes where he as his character is doing improvised monologues on camera. Beth Josephsen’s Tricia is tough to take in large doses, as the eye-rolling and sighing gets to be a bit much. I saw Ms. Josephsen in Actors’ Theatre of Columbus’s All the Great Books Abridged over the summer where she was delightfully peppy and energetic, a stark contrast to the role she plays here. Tricia is the kind of girl men should stay clear of as, at the end of the day, her devotion is strictly to herself and career.

What I like most about Bill Cook’s writing is the dialogue. Every character has their own voice and motivation, and the plot stands up to analysis and interpretation. For instance, the title Devotion refers not to any of the three characters’ feelings for each other; this is a love story about an apartment! That explains how Tricia is able to get away with being such a harpy with two attractive men fighting over her – it’s a love story about real estate! The writing doesn’t come out and state that explicitly, and it’s quite possible that my take on it isn’t what Mr. Cook intended, but what a joy it is to find writing meaty enough to chew on and discuss.

 

Photo: Bill Cook – Beth Josephsen (Tricia), Danny Turek (Alex), and James Harper (James)
 

Devotion runs around ninety minutes with an intermission, a break that only serves to separate an inferior first act in which a lot of groundwork is laid from a quick and witty second half. Director Pamela Hill doesn’t always seem to know the best way to start and end a scene effectively, and the performers often come off as rather awkward without enough business around their lines at the beginning of scenes. The blackouts are also quite long while people rather slowly move set pieces and props around. This kind of comedy needs a certain pace to work effectively, and it’s very obvious when it is off.

 

Photo: Bill Cook – (left to right) James Harper (James), Beth Josephsen (Tricia), and Danny Turek (Alex)
 
Though it was a bit rough going early on and Beth Josephsen’s shrill characterization of Tricia can be tough to take, Devotion winds up as an enjoyable enough treat. It doesn’t pretend to be more than it is, and there are genuine laughs that arise organically out of the situation (mostly in the second act). I found myself surprised when it ended as the plot had just taken an unexpected left turn, leaving me curious to see what was going to happen next. And then I realized that a variation on that story had already been written nearly fifty years ago by Neil Simon: The Odd Couple.

**/ out of ****

Devotion continues through to November 14th in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North Third Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://ab-theatrical.com/

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Standing Room Only [SRO] – Columbus, OH)

It’s a tricky thing to take as established a classic as Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, deconstruct it, and rebuild it into something both familiar and new; this is what Jeffrey Hatcher has done with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, his 2008 adaptation that shifts the focus onto Mr. Edward Hyde as one who is perhaps not entirely evil and Dr. Henry Jekyll who isn’t perhaps all good either. The idea of Jekyll and Hyde with split personalities is a firm part of popular culture, spoofed in Bugs Bunny cartoons and sitcoms to even being the basis for a Broadway musical; Hatcher knows there is no surprise left there, but there certainly is in this version by way of reframing the plot to see it from a different angle. It is this creative reworking of the classic that opens Standing Room Only’s 31st season in an eerily effective production, arriving just in time for Halloween.

Photo: Regina Vitale – (left to right) Jordan Estose, Ken Erney, Joe Dallacqua, James Harper, and Catherine Cryan

Everyone in this small cast of six deserves recognition. Joe Dallacqua plays Dr. Henry Jekyll with suave confidence, cutting a frame not unlike a young Richard Gere; Erica Beimesche plays Elizabeth with fresh-faced naïveté, the typical youth attracted to the bad boy in the form of Mr. Hyde; James Harper is intense and frightening as one of many faces of Edward Hyde, but he’s also effective as the nefarious Dr. Carew; Jordan Estose enjoys playing the fop as Lanyon, but he also gets in on the action as a violent Hyde as well; Catherine Cryan plays the dutiful servant Poole and her other roles with efficiency as well as an unlikely (but fierce) face of Hyde, one scene involving a transformation being particularly physical and impressive; last but not least is Ken Erney as Utterson and a few other roles, serving to help propel the story forward with dignity and stately grace.

Photo: Dale Bush – James Harper (Man #3)

Director Patrick McGregor II stages the action all around the audience; this is an environmental production, so the audience is seated on small bleachers all around the main performance space, one of the reasons for the limited seating. When artistic director Dee Shepherd warned everyone to stay in their seats and within a designated area during her introductory speech before the performance, she wasn’t kidding; the actors, props, and set pieces are sometimes just inches away from audience members. Some may find that intrusive, but those people are probably in the minority and wouldn’t have come to such a production anyway. My friend and I were thrilled to feel like we were right there in the middle of the action, and the people across and to the sides of us seemed to agree, their gasps loudly audible as actors would suddenly appear behind them or a violent murder would be enacted within arm’s length. Hyde’s slithery voice can often be heard from several directions at once, not by the use of some fancy sound engineering but because the character is played by many people; there are times when they speak the same lines, a terribly creepy effect when a voice suddenly pops out from behind you from an actor you didn’t know was there.

Photo: Dale Bush – (left to right) Jordan Estose (Lanyon/Man #2) and Joe Dallacqua (Dr. Henry Jekyll/Man #4)


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the rare reimagining of a classic that complements the original rather than seeking to replace or upstage it. The basic concept of separating good from evil and the struggle in the body of one man is still there, but the characterizations and situations all around are modified to tell a different version of this story. Standing Room Only’s production is the kind of show that can help engage an audience with preconceived notions about the static nature of some theatre while also offering something fresh to even the most jaded theatregoer. The decision to have such limited seating may not be the most sound financial decision but it pays off in spades for the privileged few audience members that will catch this production before it’s gone.

***/ out of ****

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde continues through to October 18th in the Shedd Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org/dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde.html