Until He Wasn’t (MadLab – Columbus, OH)

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What’s it about?

Until He Wasn’t concerns four strangers connected by one man: Colin Bayley. Colin is attentive, sexy, sensitive – the perfect guy to each of his former lovers commiserating about their time with him; that is, until he wasn’t. As the evening progresses, each member of the group divulges just how deep their connection to each other goes – all because of one man.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya), Tenille (Jenn Feather Youngblood), Will Macke (Gavin), and Kasey Meininger (Natalie)

Is it worth seeing?

When I first entered the MadLab Theatre to see how the seating had been completely rearranged to present this show in the round, I knew Until He Wasn’t was going to be special. I didn’t plan on how involving the piece would ultimately be, as the writing by Patrick McLaughlin can be interpreted as either dramatic or cynically comical all depending on the way the audience chooses to interpret it; there were many moments were certain groups would laugh at a particular moment whereas other parts of the audience were solemnly quiet. The set pieces are minimal and never in danger of blocking any of the action, and director Audrey Rush takes care to spread the action out so there doesn’t appear to be a bad vantage point.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya), Rob Philpott (Colin), and Kasey Meininger (Natalie)

This is one hell of a cast working through some rough material, and it’s quickly apparent that this is not their first time at the rodeo. Laura Spires could be whiny as Raya, the wife who was married to Colin for years, but she isn’t; Ms. Spires isn’t keen on hearing of his infidelities, and so she comes off as naturally defensive of what she believes were those special years before the trouble started. Kasey Meininger makes Natalie, Colin’s lover while still married to Raya, quite aggressive, exhibiting a natural inclination towards physicality that fits the role and the actor playing it; a semi-dream sequence in the second act requires Ms. Meininger to fling herself around in a way that would send most of us to the chiropractor, but she manages it all in stride.

Jenn Feather Youngblood as Tenille at first glance might seem like the stereotypical “sexless, quirky best friend of the lead who never gets the guy,” but she is so much more than that. At times able to connect with a beat that jolts the audience with laughter and at other times uncomfortably vulnerable, Ms. Youngblood is able to turn the perceived stereotype on its head, showing more than anything that we all seek love and acceptance and don’t necessarily question it when it comes in an unbelievably attractive package. Will Macke’s Gavin definitely stands out in the otherwise female group, his swagger and sexual innuendos definitely meant to shock and disarm; still, Mr. Macke has a way of letting the audience in to look past his brusque facade, most shockingly during an intense sequence in the second act.

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Laura Spires (Raya) and Rob Philpott (Colin)

It takes a special actor to be able to generate chemistry with four very different people in the same play, and Rob Philpott is just such a special talent. As Colin, Mr. Philpott is disarmingly suave and appealing, but he performs at a much higher level than one might expect from what seems like a typical pretty-boy role. His Colin says the right things at the right time, and the heat he generates with each of his on-stage lovers (no matter the gender) is electric and dangerous. Without a special person for each of the four main characters to pine for, Until He Wasn’t wouldn’t work; with Mr. Philpott as Colin, it works so well that I bet it could make members of the audience wonder if they might also be taken in under his spell if they encountered him in the same circumstances as did Raya, Natalie, Tenille, and Gavin.

Until He Wasn’t is one of those two-act plays where the first act ends with a big revelation, one that I didn’t see coming. This big moment lays the groundwork for the second act, as thrilling and tense as anything I’ve seen in years. At the end of this two and a half hour journey, I was exhausted yet exhilarated by the ride. Highly recommended!

My rating: *** 3/4 out of ****

Where can I see it?

Until He Wasn’t continues through to October 22nd in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North 3rd Street, and more information can be found at http://madlab.net/until-he-wasnt.html

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Play On! (Standing Room Only [SRO]- Columbus, OH)

In lieu of a full review, I offer up this promotional video I produced for Standing Room Only’s [SRO] Play On!

Play On! continues through to July 2nd in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North Third Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org/play-on.html

The Shadow Box (Adrenaline Theatre Group – Columbus, OH)

An ex of mine once detailed his mother’s slow death from cancer, noting how her final month was spent indoors with family around trying to keep her as comfortable as possible. “I’m sure it was awful for her,” he said, “but for us it was a kind of blessing. We had time to say all of the things that needed to be said before she was gone. People who die unexpectedly in an accident don’t have that privilege.” It’s that privilege that is the core of Adrenaline Theatre Group’s production of Michael Cristofer’s The Shadow Box, a play first produced forty years ago about three families dealing with loved ones suffering from terminal illnesses.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio
 

The Shadow Box takes on the grounds of a hospital where three patients are residing in cabins awaiting their imminent deaths. There is Joe, a big, tough-looking guy, with a wife and son; Brian, an older gay man being cared for by his much younger boyfriend; and Felicity, an angry woman hiding within thick sunglasses and a turban, cared for by one of her daughters. One by one these patients consent to interviews by an unseen psychologist (Travis Horseman, who sounds like he is reading and has no bedside manner). During these sessions, I had the same feeling I had when seeing A Chorus Line; it was as if Joe, Brian, and Felicity were dancers auditioning not for a part in a Broadway show but for death itself. It’s an odd conceit in this production directed by Chad Hewitt, but not a bad one. The set design by Brendan Michna includes large empty frames, a rather heavy-handed reference to the title of the play. Shadow boxes are used to store and display mementos or photos to remind one of a particular time or event; the relevance here is that these three patients have limited time remaining in which to create any memories, their cabins being their final homes before they pass on – the cabins themselves serving as metaphors for shadow boxes (that’s how I interpreted it anyway).

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Jennifer Feather Youngblood (Beverly), Audrey Rush (Maggie), Jim Azelvandre (Brian), John Conner (Mark), and Julie Azelvandre (Felicity)
 
It’s the performances of three women that make this production worth seeing: Jennifer Feather Youngblood as Beverly, Audrey Rush as Maggie, and Julie Azelvandre as Felicity. Ms. Youngblood plays tipsy and giggly extremely well, and she brings much needed energy into her scenes with ex-husband Brian (Jim Azelvandre, who is trying way too hard) and Brian’s lover and caretaker, Mark (John Connor, as darkly handsome as he is stoic). Ms. Youngblood doesn’t just say lines – she feels and recites them rather adroitly, seeming to be in on a private joke for which everyone else is oblivious.

Ms. Rush is a doting and smart-mouthed, Jersey-sounding housewife, quick to change the subject when it turns to her husband Joe (Scott Douglas Wilson, epitomizing the look of every forty-year-old’s dad in the 1970s) and his illness. Ms. Rush has a speed and immediacy that builds tension, coming to a head in a moment of violence that is shocking because it is so out-of-character but real for the moment. In fact, each of the three interwoven stories have a similar explosion of emotion that is sharp and focused, so intense that I looked away and closed my eyes each time because they seemed so raw and naked.
 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) John Conner (Mark), Cat McAlpine (Agnes), and Jennifer Feather Youngblood (Beverly)
 
Ms. Azelvandre is the wheelchair-bound Felicity, hanging on to life for a daughter who will never visit while ignoring Agnes (Cat McAlpine, also quite good as her exhausted caretaker), the daughter who stayed behind. I did a double take when I saw Ms. Azelvandre’s photo in the program as she is unrecognizable in her role, disappearing into a web of bitter contrariness and sickness, looking somewhat like a defeated Anne Bancroft. Her performance is the closest to what we all fear having to experience with our parents, one of a slow winding down into a kind of dreamworld in which we don’t play a part.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Evan Farrenkopf (Stephen), Jim Azelvandre (Brian), and Scott Douglas Wilson (Joe)
 

The Shadow Box is the kind of play that is sure to affect people in different ways; it’s a work that allows for interpretation while also being accessible purely on what is on the surface. This production has some really terrific performances, and it’s far funnier than one might surmise based on the subject matter. What’s notable is that the best parts and performances on display here are for and by women, something unfortunately rare in theatre and worthy of celebrating.

*** out of ****

The Shadow Box continues through to March 5th in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North Third Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://adrenalinetheatre.squarespace.com/

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)

Quiet Peninsula (MadLab – Columbus, OH)

Imagine if, instead of being about a young boy who could see dead people, the surprise ending of The Sixth Sense was the entire point of that film. Rather than being an additional “ah ha!” moment that supplemented the plot, such a change would mean that the other hour and a half of the film would’ve just been filler that would only be clear at the very end. That’s basically what is to be had with Brandon Ferraro’s Quiet Peninsula, a play with three separate stories that share links that are only fully apparent at the conclusion, currently being presented by MadLab through to December 19th.

 

Photo: Kyle Jepson – (left to right) Chad Hewitt (David) and Michael Moore (Walter)
 
The three stories that comprise Quiet Peninsula all take place at the same time on one night in Detroit; the first is about two cops who await the fate of a citizen one of them accidentally shot; the second has a man pleading with his vegetative father to add him back to his will; the third features a basketball player being held from participating in his school’s game because of a serious allegation. At first glance there doesn’t appear to be any connection between each of the stories; when the pieces start to come together, it still doesn’t add up to all that much anyway. Director Audrey Rush stages each scene with minimal set pieces and props on a stage with circular designs everywhere. Symbolic overkill? Nah, it doesn’t feel like it, but then again the play doesn’t feel like all that much of anything. At least it is never boring and keeps a steady pace towards the denouement, if it could be called that.

 

Photo: Kyle Jepson – (left to right) Sheree Evans (Lauraine) and Kathryn Miller (Jess)
 
Two performers stand out as being particularly effective: Sheree Evans as Lauraine from the first story, and Taylor Martin Moss as Bryan from the last. Ms. Evans has a way of managing silence that makes her despair all the more real, saying so much with just a look; she switches with frightening ease from joking about being a lesbian to being distraught over accidentally shooting an unarmed teenage boy. Mr. Moss exudes energy and strength as a basketball player just aching to get back into the game; his strong presence nearly levels everyone with whom he shares the stage. There is a moment near the end of his story when he makes a candid remark so flippantly that I held my breath in anticipation of what was to come next; what did follow came off as rather silly and poorly executed, but not because of Mr. Moss. I hope to see more of both Ms. Evans and Mr. Moss in the future as they have the rare ability of making the most of whatever material they are given and helping it to appear better than it is.

 

Photo: Kyle Jepson – (left to right) Nikki Smith (Kathy), John Kuhn (Derek), and Taylor Martin Moss (Bryan)
 
I usually enjoy the rather “off the beaten path” plays I see at MadLab, with Quiet Peninsula so far being the exception. None of the three stories in the piece are developed enough to forge any investment in the characters or their situations, though a few of the performers did stand out, making the seventy-five-minute running time more palatable than it would’ve been otherwise. There were several people around me in the audience that responded very enthusiastically at the conclusion of the play and during the talkback afterwards, but I wasn’t one of them.

** out of ****

Quiet Peninsula continues through to December 19th in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North Third Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://madlab.net/quiet-peninsula.html

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/

Skillet Tag (MadLab – Columbus, OH)

We all have “work friends” and “real friends,” and I’m sure we’ve all had social gatherings with our work peers rife with awkwardness as everyone adjusts to seeing people outside of the work environment. It can be odd, like seeing your high school English teacher at Target, realizing people have a life outside and apart from how you know them. Most of these meldings of different worlds go off without a hitch, but what if they result in violence and murder? Now that is a party, and that is what happens in MadLab’s production of Pete Bakely’s Skillet Tag, a dark comedy with slight echoes of Killing Zoe and Heathers with some Keystone Cops thrown in for good measure.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Kathryn Miller, Colleen Dunne, Casey May, and Jason Sudy
 

Skillet Tag is about Jeff (Jason Sudy, in a goofy but unabashedly confident performance), an obnoxious boss at a greeting card company who gathers a group of people from work into his home for a game of tag involving skillets. There is Katie (Kathryn Miller), the new company lawyer; Neal (Chad Hewitt), the handsome and cocky office jerk; Greg (Casey May), the introverted IT guy; Jennifer (Melissa Bair), the office lush who can’t be fired; and Becky (Colleen Dunne), Jeff’s frazzled assistant. What appears to be a contrived team building exercise is actually an excuse for Jeff to fire someone, and it isn’t long before tensions erupt. Police are called (Lance Atkinson and Chelsea Jordan), but even they are dragged into the action as the body count rises and allegiances are made and broken.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Casey May and Chad Hewitt
 
Director Michelle Batt keeps the pace up and the tone light even when dealing with violence and murder; the brutality is cartoonish complete with sound effects and fake blood, and the audience has full permission to laugh at the antics of this rather unlikable group of people. Brendan Michna’s fine set is of Jeff’s living room complete with bar, leather furniture, and a fish on the wall; it’s sturdy enough for all the running around and faux fancy enough to fill us in on Jeff’s character (though Mr. Sudy needs no help at establishing his character in his Spandex wrestling suit and padded headgear).

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Colleen Dunne and Melissa Bair
 
The cast is uniformly good, but though there are notable standout performances by Melissa Bair and Colleen Dunne. Ms. Bair takes the part of the lush and doesn’t overplay it; she’s natural in a way that shows restraint and proves to make every scene she is in funnier than it would be otherwise. Ms. Dunne is a bit too quick to respond as the play begins, but she finds her stride when her character goes off the deep end, fearlessly pouncing, stripping, and bludgeoning when the moment calls for it, returning to a “Did I do that?” kind of expression throughout that is delightfully twisted.

 

Photo: Michelle DiCeglio – (left to right) Jason Sudy and Casey May
 

Skillet Tag is irreverent and delightfully naughty; this isn’t the play for your conservative grandparents used to the umpteenth production of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show – this is for the disillusioned twenty to forty-somethings working office jobs on the verge of going postal. This is theatre for people who don’t like traditional theatre, and it’s daring in a way that other companies would avoid for fear of offending someone. And at around seventy-five minutes, Skillet Tag is just the right length for the wacky story it has to tell.

*** out of ****

Skillet Tag continues through to October 31st in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North Third Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://madlab.net/skillet-tag.html