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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Die, Mommie, Die! (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

“It should all be bigger than life,” Bette Davis once said about acting and Hollywood; the “bigger than life” description certainly applies to Short North Stage’s production of Charles Busch’s Die, Mommie, Die!, a rollicking homage to the thrillers of the sixties starring female stars of yesteryear. Like most of Busch’s works, this one also features a strong leading woman played by a man in drag; as he did in The Divine Sister in 2014 and Psycho Beach Party in 2015 (both at Short North Stage), Doug Joseph dons drag once again to hilarious effect as Angela Arden, the devilish woman at the heart of this show.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Doug Joseph (Angela)
 

Die, Mommie, Die! premiered in Los Angeles in 1999, was adapted into a film in 2003, and then opened off-Broadway for a limited run in 2007, all starring Charles Busch as Angela Arden. You see, Angela is a former musical star who is down on her luck; ever since her sister Barbara’s suicide fifteen years earlier, her career has floundered, her marriage to film producer Sol Sussman has filled with acrimony, her daughter Edith has grown to hate her, and her illicit affairs have become a matter of public record. Seeking the help of her latest conquest, well endowed TV actor Tony Parker, Angela is determined to make a comeback, and she isn’t above murdering anyone who stands in her way.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Ralph E. Scott (Sol) and Doug Joseph (Angela)
 
Doug Joseph’s starring turn as Angela Arden has more heart than one might expect, and he brings a likability to the part that works to his advantage; the audience (myself included) forgives Mr. Joseph for most anything, including murder, adultery, and an outlandish wardrobe (his costume changes are greeted with applause). When Mr. Joseph isn’t on the stage, his character is still the center of attention, and the audience is held in suspense awaiting his return. His facial straps (used by the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Lana Turner in the days before Botox and plastic surgery) are slightly visible below his ears, disappearing under his wig, a funny touch to those of us in the know to discover.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Nick Lingnofski (Tony) and Doug Joseph (Angela)
 
Mr. Joseph is surrounded by some very talented scene-stealers, including Ralph E. Scott as husband Sol Sussman; Josie Merkle as Bootsie, the maid; and Nick Lingnofski as boyfriend Tony Parker. Mr. Scott has a grimace and bird-like squeal (representing his character’s chronic constipation) that never fails to elicit laughter. Ms. Merkle is spry and pushy as the maid secretly in love with the man of the house, and who has more than Lysol in her bag of tricks. Mr. Lingnofski is perhaps the biggest threat as he prances around and sneers, performing with a kind of direct intensity that is perfect in keeping with the mood while also being oddly sexy. The cast is rounded out by the capable Erin Mellon as daughter Ethel, who is queasingly solicitous with her father Sol, jumping into his arms and humping him as he arrives in the doorway, and who has probably the best line in the play while canoodling with Mr. Lingnofski: “I will pet your dingle, but I intend to remain intact!” Johnny Robison is also on hand as Lance, Angela’s gay, idiot son.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Johnny Robison (Lance) and Erin Mellon (Ethel)
 
Director Edward Carignan certainly seems to understand the inherent comedy of this material and is adept at allowing it to breathe; a lesser director would’ve pushed things too far into forceful farce, limiting its audience to only the gay cognescenti. What’s great about this production is that it can be enjoyed by anyone open for some raunchy fun, no prior knowledge of Joan Crawford or Bette Davis required. Mr. Carignan is also responsible for Angela’s form-fitting dresses (my favorite is a red number that looks like a ladybug) and one notably shiny muumuu with a matching headscarf.

 

Set Design: Bill Pierson
 
Bill Pierson’s set replicates a living room circa 1967 in Hollywood as if it has remained shrinkwrapped and forgotten – until now. From the vintage spiked clock to the gray brick and stone-patterned walls and the turntable cabinet unit, everything looks a little pre-“The Brady Bunch,” which is exactly correct. There is even a small reel-to-reel deck used to record Angela’s big confession about her past, though Erin Mellon proudly holds up an empty reel as being the recording in question. It’s a small but notable flaw when so much of the set and props are just right.

Rob Kuhn’s lighting is striking, most notably during Angela’s LSD trip when rotating bold hues often separate the actors from the background, and his technical direction involving the many sound effects and music cues are perfectly timed. Along with the rather elaborate set and limited space in The Green Room, Die, Mommie, Die! feels like a special event, the stadium seating so close to the action that there is no bad seat. There is a support beam in the middle of the viewing area, but even it didn’t prove to be a problem as it was easy to see past from where we were seated.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Doug Joseph (Angela) and Erin Mellon (Edith)
 

Die, Mommie, Die! is just the kind of irreverent, hilarious play that is the perfect counterpoint to anyone who thinks seeing plays is boring or corny; this is two hours of in-your-face fun, sometimes so “wrong” that I found myself laughing and looking away in embarrassment. One doesn’t have to be familiar with films like Dead Ringer (1964) or The Big Cube (1969), both of which are obvious inspirations, for Die, Mommie, Die! to be wildly entertaining, as this production stands firm and proud in flashy red pumps.

***/ out of ****

Die, Mommie, Die! continues through to February 21st 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/468