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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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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Photo: Joe Bishara – Madison Rose Wilson
 

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

** out of ****

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

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