Going to St. Ives (Eclipse Theatre Company – Worthington, OH)

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What’s it about?

Dr. Cora Gage is about to perform sight-saving surgery on May N’Kame, the mother of an African dictator known for genocide and torture. As the two women from very different worlds meet before the surgery, an unlikely friendship develops. Cora hopes she can convince May to speak to her son about releasing four British doctors his empire is keeping captive; little does she know that May has a request of her own, one with fatal consequences that will change both of their lives forever.

Photo: Chuck Pennington – (left to right) Nakia Deon (May) and Kathy Taylor (Cora)

Is it worth seeing?

It isn’t often that I contemplate my own beliefs and question how I would respond in a similar situation as a character while a play is still in progress. I may think about and discuss it later, but during Going to St. Ives I found myself evaluating and then reevaluating what is right or wrong when the life and death of many are taken into consideration, the role and responsibility of a mother in their child’s life and actions, and how guilt can manifest itself in various ways irrespective of logic to influence one’s actions. This is one of those deeply moving works (kudos playwright to Lee Blessing) that is entertaining on many levels, and is presented in a production by director Greg Smith and his Eclipse Theatre Company that surpasses the quality of most of the professional theatre I’ve seen this year.

Kathy Taylor as Dr. Cora Gage and Nakia Deon as May N’Kame both come across as genuine and fully invested in their roles; Ms. Taylor’s British accent brings to mind that of Deborah Kerr (quite proper and controlled), while Ms. Deon has a fiery, halting quality as May that helps her sound as if English is a second language to her. Both actors play off of each other extraordinarily well, their timing so natural and affecting that their struggles with issues of morality, love, and loss are relatable even if their specific situations may not be. There are real tears on display here, not the kind done for show but the misty, glimmering sort born of raw emotion and deep pain.

Photo: Chuck Pennington – (left to right) Kathy Taylor (Cora) and Nakia Deon (May)

Going to St. Ives is the kind of modern masterwork that inspires thought and debate from its audience, but it is free of any definite judgement on its flawed but very real characters. The words are only part of the magic of this production; Ms. Deon and Ms. Taylor emerge as true assests to the performing community, both capable of capturing their audience’s attention and inspiring them to feel and think. Take a chance on this one – you won’t regret it. Note that Eclipse’s evening performances begin at 7:30pm instead of the usual 8pm; you won’t want to miss a second of this one.

My rating: **** out of ****

Going to St. Ives continues through to September 25th at 670 Lakeview Plaza Blvd, Suite F, in Worthington, Ohio (less than 30 minutes from downtown Columbus), and more information can be found at http://eclipsetheatrecompany.org/

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Precious Heart (Eclipse Theatre Company – Worthington, OH)

What exactly is “dessert theatre?” It’s like dinner theatre but just with dessert, which is the perfect supplement to spending a couple of hours with Fleeta Mae Bryte, a sixtyish Texas spinster with a vivid imagination and a cartload of stories to tell about herself, her family, and her hometown, Precious Heart, Texas. Precious Heart is a “dessert theatre” event, the second production by the Eclipse Theatre Company occupying a cozy performance space off the beaten path in Worthington, Ohio.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Precious Heart by Ted Karber, Jr., began life in the early 1990s as a submission to a theatre festival in Dayton, going on to enjoy many full productions throughout Ohio and Texas, at long last premiering just outside Columbus. The show is all about Fleeta Mae and her memories of her high school rivalries (you’ll hear a lot about a coy bitch named Emmaline), the lives of those around her in the little town, and her encounters with nymphomaniac armadillos, clandestine waltzing with her dress form, and a strange little creature that may or may not have been an alien. Anything is possible in Fleeta Mae’s world as she has retained a child-like wonder many people loose as they pass into adulthood. There is a certain kind of Grey Gardens-type charm to Fleeta Mae’s hoarding; a reference to the popular paperback Scruples by Judith Krantz being found in her basket of goodies particularly tickled me, as it would any other fan of trashy, soap opera fiction from the “Dynasty” era.

Photo: Craig Roberts – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Greg Smith recreates his performance as Fleeta Mae having performed the role in many productions over the years. Mr. Smith has the part down like a bad habit, but he doesn’t play it as a man in drag; this is not a campy performance that pokes fun at anyone, but rather a man completely embodying a woman’s role as a woman. The show has a few moments with a bit of audience interaction, but this is not an audience participation show at all. Mr. Smith as Fleeta Mae might point you out, make eye contact, or even take a Polaroid with you, but your main job is to sit back, enjoy some sweets, and let the laughter flow.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Mr. Smith makes sure Fleeta Mae’s feelings are known through a pile of expressions that show what she’s really thinking even if she’s trying her darnedest to be polite. Mr. Smith has a way of flicking his Gene Simmons-like tongue out to express Fleeta Mae’s dislike for her nemesis Emmaline that never gets old, and he is great at bringing out props like Fleeta Mae’s scrapbook to share with the audience. Fleeta Mae uses terms like “TV television” and “icebox” taking no mind of how redundant or outdated they may be, and Mr. Smith’s affection for the character is very clear in how he makes her in charge of all of the jokes rather than letting the jokes be on her.

Vintage photo of Fleeta Mae (far left)

The show only feels a bit heavy handed at the very end when the background music rises in volume and Fleeta Mae begins a new adventure with a gentleman caller (who may – or may not – actually be there). Something about the blissfully optimistic scene feels saccharine to me, but I can imagine many would find it an uplifting end to a show full of laughter and old fashioned kitchen table talk.

Photo: Kathy Sturm – Greg Smith (Fleeta Mae)

Precious Heart is unlike anything I’ve seen in or around Columbus, and that’s a shame. Where else can one get a wide selection of delicious desserts and enjoy a hilarious one-woman show in an intimate setting with plush, comfortable table seating? Fleeta Mae is one of those eccentric characters who is difficult to forget, and Precious Heart is just that: precious with heart.


Take note that the evening performances begin at 7:30pm instead of the usual 8pm, but I recommend arriving closer to 7pm to secure one of the limited seats (there are only five tables with eight chairs each) and getting first dibs at the dessert buffet (I recommend the cream puffs, lemonade, and the streusel-covered apple pie). 

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

Precious Heart continues through to June 19th 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/

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/

   

   
  
 

Bat Boy: The Musical (Emerald City Players – Worthington, OH)

Where are all the plays inspired by outlandish stories in tabloids? I just know of one, and that’s Bat Boy: The Musical, which was inspired by a 1992 cover story in the “Weekly World News” about a boy who appeared to be part bat living in West Virginia (having lived in West Virginia before, this isn’t so shocking a claim). The cover of the tabloid became quite popular as an example of the ridiculousness of that and other tabloids, and no doubt you may have seen it before even if you haven’t read the article.

  

Taking inspiration from that photo and article, Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming wrote the book to Bat Boy: The Musical, with music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe. The play was first performed in 1997, eventually premiering off-Broadway in 2001 and garnering a cast recording before closing after nearly nine months. I remember it being popular off-Broadway at the same time as Urinetown: The Musical and there being debate on which might move to Broadway (only Urinetown: The Musical did). I first saw the play in a 2002 D.C. production that was partially environmental and quite serious in tone, so what a joy it was to see Emerald City Players present Bat Boy: The Musical in the tongue-in-cheek way as it was intended.

Bat Boy: The Musical takes place in Hope Falls, West Virginia, where cattle are dying at an alarming rate and a mysterious wild boy resembling a bat has been discovered. Could he be the cause of the cattle deaths? He is taken to the home of Dr. Parker, the local vet, with the thought that he will be disposed of; instead he is adopted by the family, learns English, and gets his GED! Still, the community doesn’t trust him, and it is only a manner of time before his true background is revealed.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Nick Beecroft
 
Nick Beecroft plays “Bat Boy” Edgar (Ms. Parker names him that) with wild abandon, completely unafraid of looking foolish. Sure, his bald cap is makeshift and shoddy, but that’s in keeping with the tone of this piece; if it was done too well it wouldn’t have fit in at all. It’s theatre of the absurd, so when Beecroft goes from moaning to communicate to speaking English with a British accent in a matter of days, the line of demarcation from where his forehead ends and the bald cap begins is the least of one’s concerns. He first appears nearly nude with confidence and is a total team player, jumping around and slobbering with his fake chompers.
 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Denae Sullivan and Nick Beecroft

Denae Sullivan as Meredith Parker is another standout as the matriarch of the Parker family. Her singing voice is pure and clear, which is good because she has the most challenging notes to hit in the score. There was a moment in last night’s performance where she slipped on some stage blood and fell so gracefully that I wasn’t sure it wasn’t planned. She held her note and stayed in character during it all, though she appeared in the second act with some bandages around her ankle. She persevered in the spirit of “the show must go on” and disguised her limp while in character extremely well. Only at the curtain call did it appear that she was in some distress, but her performance didn’t suffer at all – in fact, it seemed to get better, as if she now had something more to fight against along with her husband and the townsfolk in the play! Is she getting stunt pay? I hope she recovers quickly and they make sure to clean up the blood to help prevent mishaps in the future.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Nick Beecroft and Alexa Rybinski
 
Alexa Rybinski is Shelley Parker, playing her with sarcasm and sass to spare. She has similar coloring as Sullivan playing her mom, and their scenes together are some of the best in the play as they really know how to balance and play off of that tenuous mother-daughter dynamic.

Jim Bownas as Sheriff Reynolds is interesting as he comes off as the least experienced in the cast without a real “stage voice,” but boy does he fit the part! He has a swagger and a speech pattern that reminds of the good old boys in West Virginia, and the way he speaks rather than sings his lyrics (a la Rex Harrison) works as well. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jill Jess, Meghan Russell, Jim Bownas, Jonathan March, Sophia Osman, and Alex Lanier
 
Jonathan March plays a variety of roles, most notably as Rick, Shelly’s gruff and flanneled boyfriend. Personally, I got the biggest kick out of seeing him in a dress and wig as Lorraine, the town busybody. Like Beecroft, March isn’t afraid at all to “go for it” and contort his strong features into many different characters for comedic effect.

Alex Lanier also plays several roles, and what a joy to finally get to hear her voice! I saw her in SRO’s The Fantasticks as the mute (!), so to hear her stirring voice and witness her spot on comedic delivery is a revelation.

Director Jody Hepp has done a marvelous job keeping the tone of the piece in check. Many of the songs veer into melodrama, but Hepp always finds some way to remind the audience, “This is a comedy.” Sudden moments of cartoon violence are surprising as well as hilarious, and they are mostly very well handled with practical effects. Performed in a makeshift performance space at the MOSSL (Mid-Ohio Select Soccer League) offices, the overall spirit is one of “let’s put on a show” reminiscent of the old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland films where they would put on performances in a barn. That’s not meant to imply that it is shoddy at all; the sound is clear, the lighting good, and the small band doesn’t miss a beat.

There is a lovely intimacy in this space as well, with less than fifty comfortable seats spaced evenly in front of the stage. Entertainment and art can come about in sometimes the oddest of locations, but I’m an advocate for it no matter where it can be staged! Some of my best theatregoing experiences have been in funky little off-Broadway spaces in downtown Manhattan, so I’m all for the different and unique if at the end of the day I have a good time. If you liked Little Shop of Horrors, then you should give Bat Boy: The Musical a try.

*** out of ****

Bat Boy: The Musical continues through to August 14th in the Mid-Ohio Select Soccer League offices at 670 Lakeview Plaza Suite D in Worthington, OH (around 25 minutes north of Columbus), and more information can be found at http://emeraldcityplayers.com/