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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Jackie & Me (Columbus Children’s Theatre – Columbus, OH)

Joey is a ten-year-old with a very special gift: he can travel through time by holding a baseball card and concentrating. Joey’s adventures through time meeting various baseball players are detailed in a series of “Baseball Card Adventures” children’s novels by Dan Gutman, with titles such as Honus & Me (1997), Babe & Me (2000), and Shoeless Joe & Me (2002). Jackie & Me (1999), the second novel in the series, covers Joey traveling back to 1947 in order to meet Jackie Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues. Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, winning Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers in a time when most of the country was still quite segregated. Columbus Children’s Theatre is now presenting Jackie & Me as a play, perfectly timed to be a part of Black History Month.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Eric Qualls (Jackie Robinson) and Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
So much of the success of the show rests on the shoulders of Colin Grubbs as Joey, the time traveler who begins as a Polish white boy dealing with anger issues and awakens as a black boy in 1947! That little plot twist of changing skin colors reminded me of the musical Finian’s Rainbow (1947), but what better way to illustrate how black people (referred to as “colored” or “negroes” in the play) were treated than to have a red-headed white boy be treated as a black boy by the cast? Mr. Grubbs is in every scene, and all of the action revolves around him; he controls so much of the pacing by how and when he chooses to respond, and his excellent timing is quite startling. A key scene requires Mr. Grubbs to say the “N word,” and he doesn’t take the task lightly; the moment feels genuine because of the way he handles it.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Ken Erney (Flip) and Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
Mr. Grubbs is surrounded by some terrific stage veterans, many playing several roles; these are the kind of people who are so good that they make their younger, less experienced co-stars rise to the occasion. Ken Erney is Flip, the kind sports memorabilia store owner who supplies the rare Jackie Robinson card needed for time travel; Brent Alan Burington plays Branch Rickey, the sharp Dodgers owner who gives Jackie Robinson his chance in the major league; Mitchell Spiro plays a spirited coach and manager, a bundle of nerves and energy akin to Mickey Rooney; Catherine Cryan is Mrs. Herskowitz, the sweet shopkeeper who hands out promotional baseball cards, but she also plays a woman on the street who spits at poor Joey when he forgets to tow the “whites only” line; Jenna Lee Shively is caring but stern as Joey’s mom; and Eric Qualls plays a calm and controlled Jackie Robinson.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Chris Curran, Louis Weiss, and Jack Carson
 
Standouts in the young ensemble include Jacob Cohen as Ant, a fellow batboy from the past who taunts Joey; and Louis Weiss, playing a student and a kid in Brooklyn. Mr. Cohen has to say and do some despicable things to Joey without being so awful that he throws the show off balance; he performs intelligently while also embracing his inner bully. Mr. Weiss doesn’t have a great deal of lines to say, but his expressions throughout the play are quite funny and say more than enough; at any point he can be counted on to be responding with an array of funny facial expressions to what is going on around him.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Mitchell Spiro (Coach), Jack Carson, Collin Grubb (Joey), Devin Lapp, and Jacob Cohen
 
Ray Zupp’s set, complete with ramps and a raised platform behind a baseball diamond on the stage floor, is an excellent setting for the action; it’s one of those sets that is best appreciated from the middle on back in the audience so the full breadth of it can be taken in. Director William Goldsmith is successful in keeping the energy of the cast up between the scenes involving the baseball games, only faltering with the storytelling in a few notable places; a scene between Joey and Ant in the locker room where Joey scares Ant with his revelation about time travel plays out awkwardly, and the first act closing where Joey reads a letter signed by much of the team requesting to be traded rather than play on the field “with a negro” is treated as a throwaway moment without the proper reverence and buildup.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – (left to right) Brent Alan Burington (Eddie Stanky) and Eric Qualls (Jackie Robinson)
 
With any adaptation there will be changes made for one reason or another; while overall the stage adaptation of Jackie & Me by Steven Dietz (he is credited with the stage script along with the writer of the novel, Dan Gutman) is solid, there were a few changes that didn’t make sense to me. For example, in the play Flip lets Joey borrow his rare Jackie Robinson card for $20; in the novel he lends it to him for free, which makes a heck of a lot more sense. Who would someone charge a little boy to “rent” a baseball card? The aforementioned scene involving several Dodgers signing a petition against Jackie Robinson only to have one of them balk and tear it up has been weakened, and the use of racial slurs has been greatly tamed (most of which is understandable – the “N word” doesn’t need to be shouted all the time to get the point across). Ant calls Joey the “N word” in the novel, but in the play Joey reads a letter that contains the word. It’s an odd shift to have Joey, now a black boy when he appears in 1947, to be the one character that says that word; it changes the impact to have the message soft pedaled in that way. There is a lot more to the novel that wouldn’t have fit into this ninety-minute, two-act play, and I recommend reading it; I just think a few of the changes were unnecessary in the transition from page to stage.

 

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – Collin Grubbs (Joey)
 
Still, Jackie & Me is that rare children’s show that doesn’t talk down to its young target audience. A serious message about prejudice and fear is mixed in delicately with all of the fun and humor, and yet it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed or too simple. The suggested age of seven and up seems right, though kids aren’t required to enjoy this production. No prior knowledge of baseball is needed either as this is more a human story than anything else.

*** out of ****

Jackie & Me continues through to February 28th in The Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuschildrenstheatre.org/jackie–me.html

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