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

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Hansel and Gretel (CATCO is Kids! – Columbus, OH)

 
It must be tough to know when your child is of the proper age to be taken to a movie theatre or a live performance and be trusted not to act out. No one wants to deal with a restless preschooler, especially in public. Fortunately, here in Columbus, we have Columbus Children’s Theatre and CATCO is Kids!, two companies that present short (usually less than an hour) productions intended for the younger set in an environment far less formal (not to mention much less expensive) than taking a chance on a stress-free excursion to The Lion King or Wicked. Something short, familiar, and less formal is exactly what CATCO is Kids! is presenting with Hansel and Gretel at the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center. Seating is on bleachers, the performance runs for around forty minutes, and the production is tame enough that the toddlers in attendance shouldn’t be too frightened.

 

Photo: Joe Bishara – (left to right) Colby Tarrh and Madison Rose Wilson
 

Hansel and Gretel is presented in an adaptation of The Grimm Brothers original by Steven C. Anderson, CATCO’s Artistic Director, sticking closely to the outline of the source except for a post-modern spin; the actors come out to present the story, referring to many other fairy tales before settling on the proper details for this one. For those not in the know, Hansel and Gretel is the story of two children living an impoverished life with their woodcutter father and his harridan of a second wife. In an extreme example of free-range parenting, the children are lead into the woods to survive on their own or perish, only to happen upon the gingerbread house of a cannibalistic witch. Hansel and Gretel must use their brains to outwit the witch and return home.

 

Photo: Joe Bishara – (left to right) Madison Rose Wilson and Colby Tarrh
 
Director Joe Bishara leads two energetic young actors (Colby Tarrh and Madison Rose Wilson) to perform all of the parts, manipulate the puppets, and handle the scenic changes, and they appear more than up to the challenge. Mr. Tarrh is especially engaging as Hansel, Hansel’s father, and one of the narrators. Ms. Wilson comes off as shrill whether she is portraying the stepmother, the witch, or Gretel, and her narrator is one that is characterized as a know-it-all and brash; the part is written so she could have performed it as confused and simple, which would’ve helped her come off as more likable and comedic. Still, Ms. Wilson and Mr. Tarrh make a good, determined team, and they appear perfectly comfortable interacting with the audience.

One glaring directing snafu is one in which the actors turn away from the audience when they are voicing their puppets. It only happens when the witch or either of the parents are also in the scene conversing with Hansel and Gretel, but having the actors spin around is not only unnecessary but even looks a bit ridiculous; when they are both doing it, reciting lines as multiple characters and twirling around together, it’s like they are funneling down a bathtub drain. Children can be trusted to suspend disbelief enough to understand that when Ms. Wilson is playing the stepmother that she is also controlling and voicing Gretel as a puppet; after all, surely their parents have read them bedtime stories without the need to turn away as they did various voices.

 

Photo: Joe Bishara – (left to right) Colby Tarrh and Madison Rose Wilson
 
The set by John Baggs is serviceable, a wooden unit painted to resemble trees, designed with layered backdrops for the witch’s home and her oven. The only problem is how flimsy the backdrops look being split down the middle and held in place by bands on either side; the section representing the oven doesn’t look much like an oven either. The main standing set looks quite sturdy, as if it was designed to withstand weather and use. Curtis “Nitz” Brown’s lighting is quite effective, creating the illusion of dappled sunlight through the trees, though interestingly enough the demise of the witch doesn’t involve the use of any bold lighting or sound effects; the conclusion of the play is oddly devoid of excitement, so much so that the audience remained silent at the performance I attended until Mr. Bishara let them know, “That’s it!” at the end. 

 

Photo: Joe Bishara – Madison Rose Wilson
 

Hansel and Gretel is just about par for the course as far as children’s theatre goes, which is unfortunate. As with many a children’s television series and film, adults in attendance will probably find themselves checking their watches from time to time, something that shouldn’t happen for a show that lasts only forty minutes. Hansel and Gretel is benign enough to be suitable for very young children as one of their first theatre experiences, but it certainly could’ve been a bit more engaging for the rest of us with a tad more effort and creativity.

** out of ****

Hansel and Gretel continues through to March 20th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/catco-is-kids/2015-2016/hansel-and-gretel

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design by Jon Baggs and Lighting by Curtis “Nitz” Brown

[title of show] (CATCO – Columbus, OH)

[title of show] chronicles the writing of an original musical – itself. Starting with an idea from book writer Hunter Bell and composer/lyricist Jeff Bowen to write a musical about creating the actual musical they are writing (it’s very meta) to submit for the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, Hunter and Jeff bring in their friends Heidi and Susan to be a part of the creative process. The play covers their discussions about their everyday lives in, out, and around the New York theatre scene while also examining the creative process and the struggle of creating art. After playing the 2004 New York Musical Theatre Festival, [title of show] enjoyed two runs off Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in 2006 (where I saw Avenue Q begin its life in 2003) before jogging uptown to Broadway in the fall of 2008.

I knew of but completely missed out on seeing the play in New York, but perhaps that was for the best; I doubt it could’ve been as engagingly performed or staged as CATCO’s production. Though [title of show] seems designed for a small performance space, it can’t be easy to keep things moving and visually interesting in the cabaret-like Studio Three at the Riffe Center, but director Joe Bishara does just that. Choreographer Liz Wheeler finds inventive ways to use the small space to her advantage, making the dancing and movement seem to be a natural extension of the moment, and lighting designer Curtis “Nitz” Brown’s lighting cues are spot-on and brilliant at separating the stage to evoke different locations while also using many different colors to reflect the mood. I wasn’t expecting as much real production when I entered this space (it’s my first time being in it), and I am impressed. I sat to the right of the stage, and I often found myself looking to the mirror along the wall behind the audience to see a different vantage point of the performers directly in front of me; it was like having two points of view from one seat, both valid and thrilling.

What I like about [title of show] is what it has to say about the creative process. The show reminds me of Sondheim’s song “Putting It Together” from Sunday in the Park With George, examining the struggle to be true to oneself while also taking financial aspects into consideration while creating art. Songs like “Die, Vampire, Die!” and “Change It, Don’t Change It” can speak not only to people in the theatre but to anyone in any field be it architecture or the culinary arts; we all have self doubt to fight against and that nagging insecurity that can derail our mission if we let it. I also enjoyed the deep catalog references to flop musicals like Henry, Sweet Henry and Hot September, and I encourage anyone interested in musicals that have gone awry to pick up a copy of Ken Mandlebaum’s Not Since Carrie: 40 Years of Broadway Musical Flops, a book that I’m positive the writers of [title of show] have on their shelves.

Jonathan Collura, who plays composer and lyricist Jeff Bowen, makes his CATCO debut here, but I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform around Columbus previously in tick, tick…BOOM! (Evolution) and Young Frankenstein (Imagine), and we often seem to attend the same performances of other shows. It’s interesting that Jonathan was in tick, tick…BOOM! as that show and [title of show] are cousins in that they both deal with the art of creating music for the theatre (covering the territory in very different ways); he played a composer in both plays, so is Amadeus in Jonathan’s future? I’m convinced he can pretty much do anything given the opportunity and the right team of co-stars. Every time I’ve seen him perform he disappears into his part and is completely believable, be it as an anguished aspiring songwriter turning thirty or as a mad (but musical) scientist. He has a character actor’s recognizable face combined with the stage presence and command of a lead. Jonathan could play a table or a couch and elicit applause, and I look forward to seeing where he pops up next.

Bradley Johnson as book writer Hunter Bell is sweet without being cloying, and he is adept at gathering up many of the laughs from the audience. When he is called a “procrastibator” (a word that I hope works its way into popular usage), he makes this “What – me?” expression that spreads into a knowing smile. The moment could be sleazy or distasteful with the wrong timing and approach, but Bradley doesn’t let that happen.

Annie Huckaba as Susan balances her role’s brattiness with being likable, and she can always be depended on to find the right tone in a pointed line to get the audience to laugh. Her initial mistrust of Heidi is explored humorously and honestly in the duet “What Kind of Girl Is She?,” a song to which I’m sure many women in the audience could relate, and her commanding lead in what becomes the ensemble number “Die, Vampire, Die!” brings the right energy at exactly the right time.

Elisabeth Zimmerman as Heidi is pretty without being obnoxious, and humble about her Broadway work without being too self deprecating. Though underwritten, Elisabeth finds a sweet spot to prance within and her affectionate nature feels real. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Quinton Jones as Larry, a role with few lines but demanding as he supplies all of the musical accompaniment for the show. Though the volume of his keyboard is set about three to six decibels too high in a few places and obscures a few lyrics, Quinton’s playing is professional without being sterile, his timing perfectly matching the cast. Or is it their singing that matches up with his playing? Well, whichever it is, it’s all done seamlessly.

It’s interesting to note the use of “tranny” and show titles that are topical to the time period of the play (2004-2008), and I’m glad no attempt has been made to update them. Though we now know “tranny” is not politically correct, and I doubt many people remember the short-lived Broadway musical Brooklyn (I saw it – and forgot it), for [title of show] to work it needs to remain as it is, representative of a specific time and place, even if some of the language may make us wince now or the references be too obscure for all but the hardened show queen to nod at in recognition. Whoops, is “show queen” wrong to say too? Well, I think I am one, so I’m giving myself a pass.

CATCO’s [title of show] is only limited by the source material, which at its best is insightful and witty, and at its worst is overlong and repetitive. I’m not sure if its expansion from a ninety-minute one act-er to a two act-er with intermission occurred when it finally moved to Broadway for its brief run in 2008, but I think it was an unfortunate misstep. While my friend and I felt the first act ran along nicely, the second act started to meander and not know when or how to end. I get how the show was constantly being updated as it went along to incorporate the Broadway transfer, but some tightening throughout would’ve helped quite a bit. Still, it’s an admirable piece with some memorable songs and an original message about the creative process. If at the end of the day it is a **/ star show with a ***/ star cast and production, that means that it’s still more than worth the visit and your time.

*** out of ****

[title of show] continues through to July 12th in Columbus, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2014-2015/title-of-show

My friend Jocelyn Nevel and I at the play.