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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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

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

“The sooner you understand it ain’t what you say, or what Mr. Irvin say… It’s what Ma say that counts,” says Cutler, who plays guitar and trombone and is the unofficial leader of the band. The Ma he is referring to is Ma Rainey, and the argument is over which version of a song she will sing in August Wilson’s seminal Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, currently being presented by Short North Stage as part of a year-long festival of Mr. Wilson’s works.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Of course, the play isn’t really about music – it’s about power, and in a time and place like Chicago in 1927, being black and female would normally place one near the bottom rung in the pecking order of the day. Ma Rainey is no ordinary woman though, and she knows that she has something that Irvin, her white manager, and Sturdyvant, her white record producer, want desperately, but she’s going to make them work for it. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is about the rehearsal and recording session for the song of that same name; her trumpet player, Levee, has written a new arrangement for the song, but Ma Rainey is not a woman who is about to do anything she doesn’t want to do, and that includes doing a favor for the pushy Levee. The rest of her band is ready to follow her lead, but Levee feels that siding with Irvin and Sturdyvant against Ma will put him in their good graces, enabling him to embark on a career of his own. 

Photo: Jerri Shafer

“They don’t care nothing about me,” Ma confides to Cutler. “All they want is my voice. As soon as they get my voice down on them recording machines, then it’s just like if I’d be some whore and they roll over and put their pants on.” Ma knows that she holds all the cards but that her power is transient; when all is said and done, she’ll be dismissed until she is needed again. This is why Ma Rainey has demands she makes sure are met; it’s not just for her, but for all of the people who don’t have a voice to command the same kind of respect for themselves. In the same position, wouldn’t we all play up the opportunity to throw our weight around before the clock strikes twelve and the coach turns back into a pumpkin again?

Photo: Jerri Shafer

“As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say… As long as he looks to white folks for approval… Then he ain’t never gonna find out who he is and what he’s about. He’s just gonna be about what the white folks want him to be about,” Toledo, Ma’s piano player, wisely tries to explain to the hot-headed and ambitious Levee, though it’s a lesson Levee must learn the hard way. This is a time when segregation is still strictly enforced, and even up north, where the social situation is far more open, black people are still regarded with skepticism and a side eye. It’s enough to make anyone restless and frustrated, something with which
people who have been subjugated be it for their color or sexuality or some other reason can surely relate; remove “colored” and “white” from Toledo’s advice and it still rings true. This might be a “black play,” but its story about the disenfranchised and repressed is universal. The characters live in a time when racism is pervasive in a way that could make many complacent – but not Ma Rainey or Levee, one fighting quality which they both share.

So much of the play is spent with Ma’s band as they discuss and argue about life, all the while waiting for Ma to make her appearance and then be ready to record. The band members discuss women, money, philosophy, and even their ancestors in Africa; their conversation flows so naturally (a credit to Mr. Wilson’s genius) that it isn’t immediately apparent the relevance it will all have in the play. It’s during all of this that the audience gets to know and care for the characters as real people; we all become invested in how the session is going to play out because we get to know these people and how they think. This makes the startling finale all the more heartbreaking, a perfect demonstration of the misguided aggression that can result from broken promises and shattered dreams.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

As directed by Mark Clayton Southers, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a tight drama with enough genuine laughs and tense moments to feel thrillingly real. Mr. Southers doesn’t allow any of August Wilson’s spry dialogue to be tossed about or sped past; everyone in the cast gives the appearance of being united to tell this story without sounding too precious or studied. It’s a landmark work, but this fine cast thankfully doesn’t tiptoe around the material; many of the characters aren’t exactly endearing or likeable, but that’s completely beside the point.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

Standouts in the cast are Wilma Hatton as the persnickety but in demand Ma Rainey; Chuck Timbers as Cutler, the voice of reason in the band; Will Williams as Toledo, the pianist who knows a little bit about most everything; Taylor Martin Moss as Sylvester, Ma’s stuttering nephew; and Ryan Kopycinski as the policeman who just can’t quite believe Ma Rainey could own a car or is as important as she claims.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

The real treasure though is to be found in Bryant Bentley’s performance as Levee, the bullish trumpet player who is as uneducated as he is blindly ambitious. Mr. Bentley takes a character who often rubs people the wrong way and makes him unexpectedly sympathetic; we understand why he is the way he is, and we want him to find some measure of success because we can see that he wants it so badly he can taste it. Levee’s disillusionment is felt by the audience all because of Mr. Bentley’s commitment and instinctual quickness; his performance rises to be the equal of this material, a daunting feat indeed.

Photo: Jerri Shafer

One could quibble about the prerecorded music and the fake playing of the instruments being handled in a way that is less than optimal, but Short North Stage’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is so alive and otherwise involving that it is futile to deny its charms and power. This is the second work of August Wilson I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this year. Mr. Wilson is hailed as one of America’s foremost black playwrights, though I think the qualifier is unnecessary; August Wilson is one of America’s foremost playwrights, period, and his Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is not to be missed.

**** out of ****

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues through to June 19th 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/536

Little Shop of Horrors (Tantrum Theater – Dublin, OH)


Inspiration can sometimes come from the most innocuous material. I’m sure schlock film director Roger Corman never dreamed his 1960 grade-Z, low-budget, black and white wonder The Little Shop of Horrors would be transformed into a successful off-Broadway musical, be turned back into a film, and still be performed over thirty years later all across the country. Tantrum Theater, a new theatre company with ties to Ohio University in Athens as well as the City of Dublin, is now presenting Little Shop of Horrors as their premiere production in the Abbey Theater within the Dublin Community Recreation Center (I had to use the GPS on my phone to find it). This was my first experience at the facility; it looks state-of-the-art and proves to be a perfect fit for this irreverent dark comedy of a musical about love, fame, and a singing carnivorous plant. 

Photo: Daniel Rader – Jhardon Dishon Milton (Seymour)

Little Shop of Horrors premiered off-Broadway in 1982 and launched the careers of lyric and book writer Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, the team who went on to write the scores to Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. The show ran for over five years, was adapted into a hit 1986 film, and finally premiered on Broadway in 2003. The action centers around Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists, a struggling shop in a slummy area where Seymour Krelborn, a rather nerdy guy, works alongside blonde bombshell Audrey. All of their fortunes change when Seymour discovers a “strange and unusual” plant that brings fame and fortune to him and the shop. The catch? The plant needs warm, fresh blood to thrive, and Seymour is faced with the ethical dilemma of finding the plant (whom he names Audrey II) dinner in the form of less than savory people that the plant reasons “deserve to die” anyway. The score is peppered with catchy songs like “Suddenly Seymour,” “Downtown,” and “Somewhere That’s Green,” and the story is written in a tongue-in-cheek style. Director Daniel C. Dennis guides this production while maintaining a light touch, possessing an obvious affection for the characters and the time period that shows in the joyful pep in many of the performances and the impressive use of color in the design concept.

Photo: Daniel Rader – (left to right) Sara Reinecke (Audrey), Colin Cardille (customer), Brandon Whitehead (Mushnik), and Jhardon Dishon Milton (Seymour)

Standouts in the cast are Jhardon Dishon Milton as Seymour, still playing the geek card but with a lot of heart; Sara Reinecke as Audrey, playing her as more than just a squeaky-voiced ditz; Brandon Whitehead as Mushnik, just right as the sneaky boss; Byron Glenn Willis sounds like he is having fun as the voice of Audrey II (though he sometimes has trouble finding his place in the music); Basil Harris is a riot as the evil dentist Orin, but he also plays a variety of other small roles (at times reminding me of Robin Williams with his timing and delivery); Kelsey Rodriguez sparkles in her solos as Ronnette, one of the three girls that comment on the action throughout the play; Jon Hoche brings personality to Audrey II as the lead puppeteer; and Colin Cardille has a memorable moment in a small part as a customer at the shop, his wide grin and impossibly genial manner fitting perfectly with the tone of the piece.

Photo: Daniel Rader – (left to right) Brandon Whitehead (Mushnik), Kelsey Rodriguez (Ronnette), Kristin Yates (Crystal), Sana Selemon (Chiffon), and Jhardon Dishon Milton (Seymour)

The most striking element of this production is the incredible set designed by C. David Russell, complete with a turntable to transition from being on the outside to the inside of Mushnik’s shop. There are signs and billboards overhead to denote the period, which is also aided by the limited black and white palette that extends to the costumes; bits of color begin to appear little by little as Audrey II grows, and the effect is most attractive and reminiscent of the use of color in the 1998 film Pleasantville. The band is conveniently housed on stage to the left within what appears to be a brownstone with open doors and windows.

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design: C. David Russell

With so much to recommend this piece, there are some notable deficiencies. There is a distinct lack of energy in some of the supporting players as they don’t always seem to be actively present and working to sell their parts. The tempo of the music is also much slower than I’m used to hearing with this score, though it seems to pick up the pace a bit after the intermission. Much of the choreography comes off as an afterthought and robotic as well. None of these problems keep the show from being diverting overall, but those familiar with the show will take note.

It’s funny how a familiar work of art (I’ve seen and listened to this show many times) can take on a different meaning depending on the context in which it is experienced. Just listen to the lyrics of “Don’t Feed the Plants” at the end of the show, with references to “unsuspecting jerks from Maine to California” being “sweet talked” into feeding the plants blood as they continue to grow. It isn’t hard for me to relate that to some of the rhetoric being spouted by politicians currently running for President, no matter which side of the aisle you may sit. The song now sounds to me like we shouldn’t give attention to anything that will ultimately be destructive, a lesson learned too late by the characters in the show (let’s hope we as a country are more fortunate come election time). Ah, but I digress…

Photo: Daniel Rader – (left to right) Kristin Yates (Crystal), Sana Selemon (Chiffon), Kelsey Rodriguez (Ronnette), and Jhardon Dishon Milton (Seymour)

Little Shop of Horrors is an auspicious debut production for Tantrum Theater. If the production values for this show are any indication, they are a serious new contender in the area. While I may take issue with a few of the performances and the pace of the music, this is a very enjoyable production overall. The set is top notch, the voices are all strong, and the humor all comes across. The group of people I attended with all left impressed and looking forward to Tantrum’s next production.

*** out of ****

Little Shop of Horrors continues through to June 25th in the Abbey Theater located within the Dublin Community Recreation Center at 5600 Post Road in Dublin (it’s a huge building with a large flag in front), and more information can be found at http://tantrumtheater.org/play/little-shop-of-horrors/

A View from the Bridge (Gallery Players – Columbus, OH)

 

Leave it to Arthur Miller to tackle the kind of deep topics that would’ve been impossible to discuss openly in the repressive 1950s. First performed with another one-act play in 1955 on Broadway that closed after only a few months, Miller’s A View from the Bridge was revised and expanded to two acts, eventually finding success in productions staged in England as well as in the form of several Broadway revivals; now this important piece about immigration and the perils of too much love is being presented by Gallery Players with a talented cast in a production that is largely successful.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – (left to right) Sonda Staley (Beatrice), Eliya Smith (Catherine), Mike Writtenberry (Rodolpho), Brian A. Palmer (Marco), and Richard Napoli (Eddie)
 

A View from the Bridge takes place in the 1950s within the Brooklyn apartment of the Carbones, an Italian family made up of Eddie, a longshoreman; his wife, Beatrice; and their orphaned niece, Catherine, a teenager. Eddie has specific ideas about the kind of life he wants for his niece, his affection for her causing alienation between him and his wife. The situation only grows more complicated when cousins of his wife, the brothers Marco and Rodolpho, arrive to stay with them as illegal immigrants. As Rodolpho and Catherine’s friendship grows, Eddie’s concern for his niece’s well-being only grows, generating a series of outbursts that affect not only the lives of those in his household but the whole community.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – (left to right) Brian A. Palmer (Marco) and Richard Napoli (Eddie)
 
Standouts in the cast are Richard Napoli as the hard-working but troubled Eddie; Mike Writtenberry as Rodolpho, the immigrant from Italy; Brian A. Palmer as Marco, Rodolpho’s imposing brother; Eliya Smith as Catherine, the innocent teen; and, last but not least, Sonda Staley as Beatrice, Eddie’s ignored wife. Mr. Napoli, sounding a bit like Stallone in Rocky, is excellent at making his point known using the script as written with its veiled allusions to homosexuality; this type of writing demands someone with the proper swagger and demeanor to pull it off with a modern audience used to far more explicit and direct works, and Mr. Napoli fits that bill. Mr. Writtenberry holds firm to his accent and expressive mannerisms as Rodolpho, perfectly demonstrating the kind of behavior that riles Eddie; their “boxing match” (choreographed by Ryan Metzger) is intense and squirm-inducing. Mr. Palmer doesn’t have a lot to say as Marco, but that’s because there is no need; his imposing stature and use of silence and a stare says more than enough. Ms. Smith as first seems too naive to be a girl on the cusp of adulthood, but that is precisely the point; her youthful energy grows into a woman’s resolve through this performance, even though her slip is still showing along her hemline throughout. Ms. Staley has a matter-of-factness as Beatrice that makes her performance all the more touching in the scene with Ms. Smith where she gently lets her know that it is time for her to grow up; when she asks her husband, “When am I gonna be your wife again?” one can feel her loneliness. Ms. Staley can only be faulted for her lackluster sweeping skills, an ability that surely would be second nature to a housewife of this era.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – Richard Napoli (Eddie) and Sonda Staley (Beatrice)
 
Director Nancy Williams guides this production with a firm understanding of the material and at a pace that ensures no moment out stays its welcome. Ms. Williams missteps with her choice of underscoring music for two pivotal scenes in the second act; the music during the raid sounds like a scene out of The Maltese Falcon, and the violent attack at the end sounds like the rumble in West Side Story. The rest of the music in this production is well-placed and appropriate, so why have these two scenes play out with such obvious cues that dissolve the tension in their respective scenes? It’s almost as if the director doesn’t trust her talented cast to carry these moments on their own. Another unfortunate decision is casting Nick Baldasare as Alfieri, the lawyer and narrator of the story. Mr. Baldasare cuts a handsome frame, but his vocal modulation and speed make quite a bit of what he says unintelligible even though he is quite loud.

 

Photo: Jared Saltman – Eliya Smith (Catherine) and Richard Napoli (Eddie)
 

A View from the Bridge is absorbing theatre, and even with some notable flaws this production is worthwhile. There is a kind of palpable charm that comes through in the material and time period that is inviting and even a bit dangerous. This is the kind of play that can speak to empty nesters as well as anyone who has ties to family that can prove to be harmful if not properly nurtured and checked.

*** out of ****

A View from the Bridge continues through to May 22nd in the Roth-Resler Theater at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus located at 1125 College Avenue, and more information can be found at http://columbusjcc.org/cultural-arts/gallery-players/

Big River (Standing Room Only [SRO] – Columbus, OH)

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. By order of the author.” – Mark Twain

That quote is inside the program for Standing Room Only’s foot-tapping production of Big River, a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What’s funny is the story does have a moral, plot, and a motive, but I guess Mr. Twain would prefer his audience just enjoy what happens rather than try to make sense of it; and enjoyable it is, especially in this Tony award-winning musical adaptation with songs by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Susan Loar (Widow Douglas), Caleb Baker (Huck Finn), Brandon Buchanan (Jim), and Kris Wilson (Miss Watson)

The time is 1844, and the place is the Deep South. It is before the Civil War, and slavery is still legal. Huck Finn fills us in on how he and Tom Sawyer now have money in the bank, and how he is just aching to get out on his own while living with the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. Huck’s alcoholic and abusive father smells money and takes back custody of Huck. It isn’t long before Huck takes matters into his own hands, starting off on a series of adventures with Jim, a runaway slave, and encountering a team of con men (a “King” and a “Duke”) that get them into nothing but trouble. Through it all, Huck grows as a person and works to find a way back home while keeping Jim from being enslaved again.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Brandon Buchanan (Jim) and Caleb Baker (Huck Finn)

Caleb Baker is a curious choice as Huck Finn; he appears to be easily twice the age of the character he is playing, and he underplays his part to a large extent. In some ways, this works just fine because there are many supporting actors who more than make their mark in the berth his performance leaves open. This relaxed approach to Huck also makes Mr. Baker’s strong renditions of “Worlds Apart” and “River in the Rain” (both duets with the sublime Brandon Buchanan) feel all the more significant when his voice and manner rise to the occasion of the moment.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Caleb Baker (Huck Finn) and Thor Collard (Pap Finn)

Standouts in the supporting cast are the aforementioned Brandon Buchanan as Jim, the slave, bringing dignity and sweetness to a tricky part; Thor Collard playing a variety of slimy characters from Pap Finn to Silas with delicious aggression; Ryan Kopycinski as Ben Rogers and a part of the ensemble, comfortably as backwoods-ish as possible; Nyla Nyamweya as the daughter of a slave named Alice, performing an electrifying solo of “How Blest We Are”; and John Feather as the con man King and Judge Thatcher.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Wilma Hatton (Alice), Nyla Nyamweya (Alice’s daughter), and Akia Williams

Dee Shepherd directs this show efficiently, maintaining a steady sprint that could easily be held back by large sets and too many props. Ms. Shepherd allows her actors to spread out and tell the story largely on their own with some well-placed sound effects, some interesting lighting choices (a raft that figures largely in the play has its perimeter defined by the lighting), and a truly excellent small band lead by music director Chipper Snow. The bluegrass-themed score by Roger Miller is adeptly performed with Jordan Shear on the violin, Ted Reich on the harmonica, Robert W. Loar on percussion and bass, and Josh Dillingham on guitar; each of these talented men earn a shout out. The Van Fleet Theatre can be tricky sound wise, but this is one production where the singing can be heard perfectly (save for two performers who shall go unnamed) even with the band playing off to the right.

Photo: Jerri Shafer


Big River is more enjoyable in this small production by Standing Room Only than I remember from seeing the 2003 Broadway revival. It’s still an episodic show with perhaps one vignette too many, but this Big River is also surprisingly rousing in its crowd scenes, and I found myself humming songs that had not caught my attention from seeing the show previously. Even though Mr. Twain said there was no moral in this story, I beg to differ; seeing Huck Finn’s growth from seeing Jim as just a slave to a fully rounded person with the ability to feel and care “just like a white person” is still unfortunately relevant. We’ve come a long way socially, but these stories that illustrate the way it was less than two hundred years ago in this country are still very important to tell, especially as long as a malaise of inequality still hangs over this great country of ours. Go see Standing Room Only’s Big River for the music and the fun, but leave with the message.

*** 1/4 out of ****

Big River continues through to May 7th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org/big-river1.html

Photo: Jerri Shafer

The Oldest Profession (Eclipse Theatre Company – Worthington, OH)

Photo: Greg Smith – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Edna), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Linda Browning (Mae), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Linda Goodwin (Ursula)

Where does one begin when starting a new theatre company? Should one start with a modern classic by Tennessee Williams, something by Shaw or Ibsen, perhaps a well-known musical? Or how about opening with something off the beaten path, something interesting and fresh that the area has likely never seen before. Eclipse Theatre Company’s premiere production is of Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession, a quirky and entertaining show with plenty of laughter and heart, definitely a standard deviation from anything else currently being performed in or around Columbus.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), Linda Browning (Mae), and Kathy Sturm (Edna)
 

The Oldest Profession is about a group of aging prostitutes struggling to remain relevant in New York, a city that is beginning to change at the dawn of the 1980s. These five women have been in “the life” for over fifty years, harkening back to the days of Prohibition in the late 1920s, which would put most of them in their seventies (or older). These women may look like quaint, blinged-out grandmas (whatever you do, don’t call them that!) with their overstuffed hair and painted faces, but they are rather refined ladies for hire with an ever dwindling clientele. These aren’t your typical streetwalkers turning tricks in alleys for drugs; these are women who want to bring joy to their gentlemen callers while supporting themselves. The changing economics of the time are reflected in how they live their lives and run their business, demonstrating how living in a city teetering on the brink of bankruptcy effects everyone. The program has a quaint glossary of terms printed on the back along with a short essay putting the story into historical context. I’m not sure anyone could misinterpret the meaning behind “dip his wick,” though some of the French euphemisms were helpful to know. Still, I don’t think “poontang” means hooker; I’m pretty sure it means any piece of female action one can get.

 

Photo: Greg Smith – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Edna) and Linda Browning (Mae)
 
Standouts in the cast are Kathy Sturm as Edna, the big earner of the group with heels to match; Linda Goodwin as Ursula, the Republican hooker, as cold as one would expect; and Terry Sullivan as Lillian, the theatre cat, always up for a good time out among the footlights. Linda Browning as Mae, the madam, has some strong moments, particularly one in which she defends her turf against some new trade. Tobi Gerber as Vera, the somewhat dim and gullible member of the group, has one of the best lines in the piece: “I’m gonna scratch her snatch!” The actresses interact well with each other, and if there are a few pregnant pauses here and there or a few false starts with their line delivery, it all somehow works. These are elderly women the performers are playing after all, though I was surprised at how youthful they each appeared sans wig and heavy makeup after the performance.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Kathy Sturm (Edna)
 
A nice element of the rather unconventional performance space Eclipse Theatre Company has secured is how intimate it all feels. The area is draped into a square, and there are only fifty seats located directly in front and to the left and right of the action. There isn’t a bad seat to be had, and the acoustics are perfect for allowing each word to be heard with little to no apparent amplification. Greg Smith’s set consists of a bench in front of a black iron gate bridged by stone pillars and streetlights with a mostly full trash bin off to the side and a concrete floor complete with some gum residue; what more is needed to illustrate the perimeter of a park? Mr. Smith also directs this piece, inserting an intermission about forty-five minutes into the play where it was designed to be performed in one continuous 105-minute stretch. The break occurs at a decent enough spot save for making the second act a quarter hour longer than the first, but it isn’t a problem. These ladies are worth the time.

 

Photo: Mel Buehl – (left to right) Linda Goodwin (Ursula), Terry Sullivan (Lillian), Tobi Gerber (Vera), and Linda Browning (Mae)
 

The Oldest Profession is laugh-out-loud funny as these feisty old women argue, debate, and talk business about things women a third of their age would probably be too embarrassed to discuss. It’s also terribly poignant as these women one by one pass on, the real heartbreak is discovering which will be the one who’s left behind. This is an R-rated show to be sure, but it isn’t as expletive-laden as one might expect. These are ladies, after all, the last vestiges of a bygone era that ended during the ’80s when Ronald Reagan was president and New York City began its transformation into the tourist-friendly (though arguably character-less) landmark it is today.

*** out of ****

The Oldest Profession continues through May 1st at 670 Lakeview Plaza Blvd, Suite F, Worthington (less than 30 minutes from downtown Columbus), and more information can be found at http://eclipsetheatrecompany.org/