Looped (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)


What’s it about?

It’s 1965, and stage and screen star Tallulah Bankhead has seen better days. Suffering the ill-effects of a lifetime of boozing and doping, she is called in to re-record (or “loop”) one line for what would be her final film, Die! Die! My Darling! Based on a true event, Ms. Bankhead makes sure to put the sound engineer and film editor through the ringer before they get what they want out of her, playing up to their expectations of what a quarrelsome and demanding woman she can be. Looped enjoyed a brief run on Broadway in the spring of 2010, garnering Valerie Harper a Tony Award nomination as the beleaguered Tallulah Bankhead.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Vicky Welsh Bragg (Tallulah Bankhead) and Jon Osbeck (Danny Miller)

Is it worth seeing?

Looped is the kind of play where the concept is much better than its execution. Who wouldn’t enjoy seeing a comedic piece about a loud-mouthed lush, a star of both stage and screen, showing off her bad behavior? There are plenty of zingers to be had in Matthew Lombardo’s script, but at nearly two hours with an intermission (placed at a particularly contrived moment within the play), there doesn’t seem to be enough there to justify that much of an investment. However, Looped is that rare play that improves greatly in its second half, even if it gets rather maudlin and embarrassingly overwrought dealing with a discussion of homosexuality in the era. Mixing comedy with drama is tricky, but luckily the moments where the balance is completely off are brief and don’t sink the show. This is far from a great work, but, with the right crowd and performers, it’s more good than bad.

Vicky Welsh Bragg makes a fine Tallulah Bankhead, sounding a great deal like the actress, speaking in a low register that must be a challenge. Ms. Bragg is engaging if less biting that one might expect playing a drug-addicted alcoholic, but she is consistently interesting to watch and embodies the proper spirit to make her part work. Jon Osbeck as Danny Miller, the put-upon film editor struggling to corral Ms. Bankhead, performs as beyond irritated from the get-go, not allowing much room to grow all that much more frustrated with Ms. Bankhead’s shenanigans without yelling expletives that I doubt any studio employee would use towards a star, even a drunken one. Part of the problem is in the writing, but Mr. Osbeck is to blame for his entirely false crying scene near the end of the second act. It often feels like Mr. Osbeck thinks that he is part of a duet when it is quite clear that Ms. Bragg and her character is the star here.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Jon Osbeck (Danny Miller) and Vicky Welsh Bragg (Tallulah Bankhead)

Technically, the show is quite impressive, with a detailed black, white, and gray set by Jeffrey Gress complete with a boom mike that looks right out of that era. Nitz Brown’s lighting is detailed down to the ever-so-slight reflection of the film being projected (which we don’t see) for Ms. Bankhead to use as a reference for her vocal performance. Rebecca Baygents Turk’s costumes, from Ms. Bankhead’s improbable red gown (looking much like Bette Davis’s frock in All About Eve) to Danny Miller’s high-waisted slacks and slick shoes impressively represent a 1965 as one might imagine it from seeing sitcoms of the era; too perfect to be real, but too defined and attractive to ignore.

Ultimately, Looped misses its target, but not by as much as it could’ve had Evolution’s production not had such a proficient design team and game cast. At its best moments, when Ms. Bragg’s lines elicit honest laughter and Mr. Osbeck‘s exasperated look relaxes a bit in intensity, the production is quite enjoyable, though it takes someone with an appreciation of the era, film making, and that special kind of smoky female brashness to hang on through the more awkwardly written moments (like the ending that feels right out of Casablanca). Note to other playwrights: exercise caution when including excerpts from vastly superior works (in this case, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire) into your script.

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

Looped continues through to September 24th 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

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

Mothers and Sons (CATCO – Columbus, OH)

I remember Oprah quoting a guest on one of her shows dealing with forgiveness. “Forgiveness,” she said, “is letting go of the hope that the past could have been any different.” It was this quote that came to my mind after experiencing CATCO’s production of Terrance McNally’s Mothers and Sons, a touching portrait of a woman stuck in the anger phase of grief and a man who forged ahead after sifting through the ashes.

After premiering regionally in 2013, Mothers and Sons enjoyed a brief spring run in 2014 on Broadway starring Tyne Daly. McNally wrote the piece as a follow up to his 1990 television play Andre’s Mother, which was about a woman attending her son’s memorial service after he succumbed to AIDS. Katharine Gerard is Andre’s mother, and she is unable to commiserate with her son’s boyfriend Cal over the loss. Flash forward twenty years and Katharine is back in Manhattan after her husband’s death, visiting Cal unexpectedly to return Andre’s diary to him. She finds Cal living a happy family life with his husband and son. Throughout her visit she and Cal rehash the past, conjecture on what might have been, and work to find some peace with the way things are.


Photo: Ben Sostrom – Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
Jacqueline Bates embodies Katharine Gerard as rather brittle, asking questions for which she doesn’t really want to know the answers. Ms. Bates plays her as guarded but trying to venture outside of her comfort zone, grappling with the loss of her identity as a mother and a wife. Her Katharine isn’t one generous with smiles, but she isn’t a heartless harpy either; she believes things are either black and white, right or wrong, but that’s her generation. She’s firm in her conviction that someone else is to blame for her son Andre being gay and then dying, neglecting to see the part she played in turning cold to him and being absent in his final days. Ms. Bates approaches the part without judgement, and so her evolution throughout the piece feels natural and rings true; she doesn’t mean to come off the way she does – she just doesn’t know of any other way.


Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) Joe Dallacqua (Will), David Vargo (Cal), and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
David Vargo is Cal Porter, attempting to placate his deceased partner’s mother while also staying true to the life he has now as a married man with a child. Mr. Vargo is noticeably uncomfortable with Ms. Bates’ bouts of silence, and his trying to fill the void is quite endearing and accurate to life. The part requires Mr. Vargo to walk a fine line between appreciating his past with Andre without undermining the present, something he balances beautifully. He is able to drudge up genuine pain and heartache when talking about the AIDS crises he lived through in the 1980s, and he is able to swing back at anything callous Ms. Bates throws at him. It’s unfortunate that some of the most touching moments between Cal and Katharine have underscoring piped in over the sound system, making those sequences feel more like excerpts from a Lifetime movie; Mr. Vargo and Ms. Bates are talented enough not to need any instrumental accompaniment to get the point of their emotions across.


Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) Joe Dallacqua (Will) and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
Joe Dallacqua plays Will Ogden, Cal’s writer husband, and a very sweet Lucas Cloran is their son, Bud (alternating in the role with Elliot Hattemer). I’ve enjoyed Mr. Dallacqua in several other productions, but unfortunately as Will he has adopted an affectation that I find off putting. Granted, the part is written with some bite, but must it be played with such a feminine demeanor? Gay doesn’t always mean fey; it was hard to imagine Cal being attracted to – let alone marry – someone with such an attitude. Mr. Dallacqua has next to no chemistry with Mr. Vargo, and it’s really a shame; had Will been played as being a doting father and a loving husband who just happened to be gay, it may have made all the difference.


Set Design: Michael Brewer
The set for Cal and Will’s apartment looks ready to move into thanks to Michael Brewer’s design, though it looks a little too put together to be the home of a six-year-old (a carefully placed View-master on a table doesn’t quite cut it), and there appear to be no mirrors or television set anywhere. Perhaps these Manhattanites are too classy for a television in their living room, but wouldn’t they want a mirror to primp in front of before going out? Still, Darin Keesing’s lighting is effective in shifting from early evening to sunset, creating just the right shadows at the correct angle to match the picture window that serves as the forth wall through which the audience sees the action.


Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) David Vargo (Cal), Lucas Cloran (Bud), Joe Dallacqua (Will) and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
Terrance McNally’s dialogue sounds natural even if some of his plot points strain credulity; are we really expected to believe that neither Cal or Katharine read Andre’s diary as it passed between them over the course of twenty years? Wouldn’t they have been just a bit curious and peeked? When Will flippantly opens it to read a passage, Cal and Katharine don’t offer any resistance to finally being privy to some of Andre’s secrets, even though that is what supposedly kept them from exploring it previously. The denouement, one in which Katharine realizes she must forge ahead with an identity made up of more than just being Andre’s mother or Mr. Gerard’s wife, is quite touching; that is until it dips quickly into icky sticky territory at the very end when Bud tells a sappy story at which even the most naive preschooler would scoff.


Photo: Ben Sostrom – (left to right) Joe Dallacqua (Will), David Vargo (Cal), Lucas Cloran (Bud), and Jacqueline Bates (Katharine)
Still, Mothers and Sons works because of its two leads and their chemistry, and the fact that even second-rate McNally is better than first-rate most anyone else. CATCO’s production is very professional, and it is ultimately a pleasing ninety-minute glimpse into the lives of two very different people and how they took separate paths dealing with the death of one they both held quite dear. 

*** out of ****

Mothers and Sons continues through to February 28th in Studio One at the Riffe Center on 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2015-2016/mothers-and-sons

Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)


“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,” wrote Thomas Wolfe; that’s the thought that filled my mind while seeing the Curtain Players production of Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a play about a reunion of James Dean fans flocking back to their Texas hometown twenty years after the actor’s death. Of course, some of the women never left, some left and came back, and still others are returning for the first time; and then there is one who can never come back as they are no longer the same person.


Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona), Kasey Meininger (Sissy), and Erin Dilly (Joanne)

Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was first performed in Columbus forty years ago, eventually making its way to Broadway and then to film in 1982. Set in a 5 & Dime store in McCarthy, Texas, the play shifts time periods from 1975 to 1955 to tell the story of a group of friends from high school reuniting to catch up on their lives and commemorate the life of their teen heart throb, James Dean. There is Mona (Kathylynn St. Pierre), who stayed behind and raised her son Jimmy Dean, whom she says was the result of a one-night stand with James Dean while he was on location in nearby Marfa filming Giant; Sissy (Kasey Meininger), the buxom wild girl who left town but returned five years earlier after a divorce; Stella May (Adriana Pust), the pushy, loud and proud Texan; Edna Louise (Sara Priest), eternally naive and pregnant; and then there is Joe (Patrick Petrilla), who has returned as Joanne (Erin Daily), shocking the group with his transition but also prepared to reveal the truths so many of them have hidden. 


Photo: Brooke Justiniano – Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona)
Standouts in the cast are Kathylynn St. Pierre as a willowy Mona, both fragile and stubborn at the same time, trying so desperately to hold up a useless facade; Erin Daily is often inscrutable as Joanne, making her revelations about the women all the more surprising and powerful; Kasey Meininger plays Sissy quite a bit like Cher did in the film while still bringing a vitality all her own; Adriana Pust is a strong and domineering Stella May; and Patrick Petrilla is a sensitive and forelorn Joe, a tricky part as it requires him to come off as closeted while also genuinely infatuated with the young Mona.


Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Erin Daily (Joanne) and Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona)
Director Mark Blessing expertly navigates telling parallel stories and switching time periods using the same location and most of the same actors (the exceptions being Carly Young playing Mona and Caitlin Brosnahan playing Sissy as teenagers). This switch proved to be confusing in Robert Altman’s film version, but the subtle shifts in lighting as well as costume Mr. Blessing employs here do the trick perfectly. The director and his wife, Deborah, are also responsible for the meticulous set decor of the Five & Dime, with the set designed with a real eye for the time period and requirements of the story by Drew Washburn. There is even a vintage menu with movable letters and prices for the food items for sale at the counter; it truly looks like a shop open for business!


Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Caitlin Brosnahan (Sissy as a teen), Carly Young (Mona as a teen), and Patrick Petrilla (Joe)
Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was certainly ahead of its time by bringing up the subject of being transgendered forty years ago, though I wouldn’t call this a gay show by any means. In fact, the story comes off like Joe transitioned because he found it more acceptable to become a woman rather than being gay, not because he was fulfilling a dream of being his “authentic self” like is the accepted narrative of today; this stereotype that gay people actually want to be the opposite sex has surely been debunked by now. Still, I get the impression that Joe reappeared as Joanne in the play as a device to show how people can make a complete 180, and how our memory of people may be frozen in time and bear no relation to the reality of the moment. Joanne holds a mirror up to Mona, Sissy, and Juanita (Kate Charlesworth-Miller, the proprietor of the 5 & Dime shop) to reveal truths about their past that they would prefer remain hidden, all the while coming from someone who is familiar to them as Joe while still being a stranger as Joanne. The discussion of being transgendered or transitioning is fairly superficial in this piece, but the fact that it was a plot point at all was certainly revolutionary for the time even if in retrospect it represents a rather archaic view of the topic.


Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Erin Daily (Joanne), Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona), Kasey Meininger (Sissy), and Adriana Pust (Stella May)
Curtain Players’ Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is nostalgic in the best way, a play about memories, the past, and the challenges of friendship. Sometimes it takes a very dear friend to tell you the truth about yourself in a way that you can understand and accept, and this message of the play is quite clear in this handsome production. This is one of those plays that works all on its own but can also instigate a lively discussion afterwards.

*** out of ****

Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean continues through to February 21st in the Curtain Players Theatre located at 5691 Harlem Road in Galena (a little over half an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.curtainplayers.org/season/2015-2016/4_five_and_dime.php

Die, Mommie, Die! (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

“It should all be bigger than life,” Bette Davis once said about acting and Hollywood; the “bigger than life” description certainly applies to Short North Stage’s production of Charles Busch’s Die, Mommie, Die!, a rollicking homage to the thrillers of the sixties starring female stars of yesteryear. Like most of Busch’s works, this one also features a strong leading woman played by a man in drag; as he did in The Divine Sister in 2014 and Psycho Beach Party in 2015 (both at Short North Stage), Doug Joseph dons drag once again to hilarious effect as Angela Arden, the devilish woman at the heart of this show.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – Doug Joseph (Angela)

Die, Mommie, Die! premiered in Los Angeles in 1999, was adapted into a film in 2003, and then opened off-Broadway for a limited run in 2007, all starring Charles Busch as Angela Arden. You see, Angela is a former musical star who is down on her luck; ever since her sister Barbara’s suicide fifteen years earlier, her career has floundered, her marriage to film producer Sol Sussman has filled with acrimony, her daughter Edith has grown to hate her, and her illicit affairs have become a matter of public record. Seeking the help of her latest conquest, well endowed TV actor Tony Parker, Angela is determined to make a comeback, and she isn’t above murdering anyone who stands in her way.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Ralph E. Scott (Sol) and Doug Joseph (Angela)
Doug Joseph’s starring turn as Angela Arden has more heart than one might expect, and he brings a likability to the part that works to his advantage; the audience (myself included) forgives Mr. Joseph for most anything, including murder, adultery, and an outlandish wardrobe (his costume changes are greeted with applause). When Mr. Joseph isn’t on the stage, his character is still the center of attention, and the audience is held in suspense awaiting his return. His facial straps (used by the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Lana Turner in the days before Botox and plastic surgery) are slightly visible below his ears, disappearing under his wig, a funny touch to those of us in the know to discover.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Nick Lingnofski (Tony) and Doug Joseph (Angela)
Mr. Joseph is surrounded by some very talented scene-stealers, including Ralph E. Scott as husband Sol Sussman; Josie Merkle as Bootsie, the maid; and Nick Lingnofski as boyfriend Tony Parker. Mr. Scott has a grimace and bird-like squeal (representing his character’s chronic constipation) that never fails to elicit laughter. Ms. Merkle is spry and pushy as the maid secretly in love with the man of the house, and who has more than Lysol in her bag of tricks. Mr. Lingnofski is perhaps the biggest threat as he prances around and sneers, performing with a kind of direct intensity that is perfect in keeping with the mood while also being oddly sexy. The cast is rounded out by the capable Erin Mellon as daughter Ethel, who is queasingly solicitous with her father Sol, jumping into his arms and humping him as he arrives in the doorway, and who has probably the best line in the play while canoodling with Mr. Lingnofski: “I will pet your dingle, but I intend to remain intact!” Johnny Robison is also on hand as Lance, Angela’s gay, idiot son.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Johnny Robison (Lance) and Erin Mellon (Ethel)
Director Edward Carignan certainly seems to understand the inherent comedy of this material and is adept at allowing it to breathe; a lesser director would’ve pushed things too far into forceful farce, limiting its audience to only the gay cognescenti. What’s great about this production is that it can be enjoyed by anyone open for some raunchy fun, no prior knowledge of Joan Crawford or Bette Davis required. Mr. Carignan is also responsible for Angela’s form-fitting dresses (my favorite is a red number that looks like a ladybug) and one notably shiny muumuu with a matching headscarf.


Set Design: Bill Pierson
Bill Pierson’s set replicates a living room circa 1967 in Hollywood as if it has remained shrinkwrapped and forgotten – until now. From the vintage spiked clock to the gray brick and stone-patterned walls and the turntable cabinet unit, everything looks a little pre-“The Brady Bunch,” which is exactly correct. There is even a small reel-to-reel deck used to record Angela’s big confession about her past, though Erin Mellon proudly holds up an empty reel as being the recording in question. It’s a small but notable flaw when so much of the set and props are just right.

Rob Kuhn’s lighting is striking, most notably during Angela’s LSD trip when rotating bold hues often separate the actors from the background, and his technical direction involving the many sound effects and music cues are perfectly timed. Along with the rather elaborate set and limited space in The Green Room, Die, Mommie, Die! feels like a special event, the stadium seating so close to the action that there is no bad seat. There is a support beam in the middle of the viewing area, but even it didn’t prove to be a problem as it was easy to see past from where we were seated.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Doug Joseph (Angela) and Erin Mellon (Edith)

Die, Mommie, Die! is just the kind of irreverent, hilarious play that is the perfect counterpoint to anyone who thinks seeing plays is boring or corny; this is two hours of in-your-face fun, sometimes so “wrong” that I found myself laughing and looking away in embarrassment. One doesn’t have to be familiar with films like Dead Ringer (1964) or The Big Cube (1969), both of which are obvious inspirations, for Die, Mommie, Die! to be wildly entertaining, as this production stands firm and proud in flashy red pumps.

***/ out of ****

Die, Mommie, Die! continues through to February 21st 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/468

Zanna, Don’t! (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

I don’t recommend making a drinking game out of every time the word “love” is said in Zanna, Don’t! as you’d probably need to be hospitalized shortly after the first song had been sung; that would be a shame, as then you’d miss out on seeing one of the sweetest gay-themed musical comedies in existence. As the closing show of Evolution Theatre Company’s 2015 season, Zanna, Don’t! is awash in energy, bold colors, and catchy music, just the right kind of joyful diversion to brighten up a dreary fall.


Photo: Jerri Shafer
I first saw Zanna, Don’t! during its 2003 summer run off-Broadway, and several of its songs (by Tim Acito and Alexander Dinelaris) have been on my mix CDs and playlists ever since. Though the title is a play on the campy 1980 film musical Xanadu, the similarity ends there. Zanna, Don’t! is set in a high school in Heartsville, U.S.A., where everyone is gay and “those heteros” are often ridiculed and feared. This is a campus where everyone is love-obsessed, but not sex-obsessed, which keeps the material cutely innocent and tame. The students band together to put on a play about straights being in the military (remember, this was first performed in 2002) and how they should have the right to love each other, marry, and be accepted; their world is rocked when two of their own are found to be straight and in love.


Photo: Jerri Shafer
Director Brent Ries keeps Zanna, Don’t! moving quickly, zipping along in such a way that its two hour running time feels like one. The set by Shane Cinal is deceptively simple with bold graphics and a stage that extends out when needed. Costume designer Jason Guthrie is to be congratulated for pairing so many solid separates together while also creating some wild fashions for Zanna, including a camouflage muumuu and some glitterific shoes and t-shirts. Danielle Mann’s choreography makes excellent use of the Van Fleet Theatre’s space, with the mechanical bull riding dance a particular highlight. Aside from the song “Fast” (which is almost entirely unintelligible due to its pace and the volume of the band), the sound is strong with a good balance between the music and voices, so important to a musical.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Brian C. Gray (Arvin/Bronco), Ricky Locci (Mike), Tahrea Maynard (Roberta), Alex Lanier (Karla/Necca/Loretta), and Jordan Shafer (Kate)
The cast includes some of the best young talent in the area, and any casual Columbus theatre fan has surely seen many of its members before in other shows (I know I have). Ricky Locci is terrific as Mike, the boy who is heartbroken when he finds out his boyfriend, Steve (the small but mighty Sean Felder) is in love with Kate (the comically and musically gifted Jordan Shafer). Mr. Locci has the best songs in the score (“I Could Write Books” and “I Think We Got Love”) and performs them beautifully, playing the kind of jilted character to which we can all relate.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Sean Felder (Steve), Tahrea Maynard (Roberta), and Ricky Locci (Mike)
Tahrea Maynard plays flannel-clad Roberta, Kate’s rejected girlfriend, with humor to spare and putting a capital B in butch. T. Johnpaul Adams also makes an impression as Tank, perhaps the second most vigorous part in the show as he seemed to appear and disappear all over the place.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – William Macke (Zanna)
The centerpiece of the show is William Macke as Zanna, the sprightly matchmaker whose flame burns loud and proud. Though miscast in a part more appropriate for a pocket-sized gay (Zanna is like Peter Pan in that respect), no one can accuse Mr. Macke of not giving the part his all – and then some! Though his turbocharged effeminate gestures and voice can become a bit grating and come off as more of a caricature than a character, Mr. Macke flies free of any restrictions in a bold, committed performance; still, he is at his best in the more restrained, quiet moments when he isn’t trying quite so hard. 


Photo: Jerri Shafer

Zanna, Don’t! has a spirit that is in the right place, even if some of its songs rhyme “love” with “love” a bit too much for me. It’s impossible not to find oneself smiling and laughing during this show, and every member of the cast is delivering their A game, appearing to be having as good a time as the audience. With all the glitter and colors and dancing, it’s like concentrated gayness – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

*** out of ****

Zanna, Don’t! continues through to November 21st 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

Sordid Lives (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

Texas has its own brand of southern charm different from the rest, and Del Shores is just the playwright to bring it to life. He has made a career of writing about the exploits of some rather unsavory characters, though whether or not they are unsavory depends on how you look at them. They could just as well be heroes.

Sordid Lives, Shores’s fourth play, tells the story of how a small town and family reacts to the accidental death of one of their own, an elderly woman who tripped over her married lover’s wooden legs on the way to the toilet and bashed her head in. Yes, you read that correctly, and yes, it’s a comedy full of some of the strangest characters you’re likely to see this side of “Hee Haw.” Death and infidelity are tricky to make funny, but the enduring popularity of this 1996 play and it’s 2000 film incarnation show that Mr. Shores has found a way to make it work for a great many people.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Danielle Mari (LaVonda), Betsy Poling (Sissy), and Lori Cannon (Latrelle)
It’s a real joy to see a comedy with such a large cast, and the characters are so delightfully varied that it would be difficult to confuse one for the other. There are three performers that stand out in the ensemble and make this production worth seeing if for no other reason than to see them at work. Lori Cannon leads the charge as Latrelle Williamson, the uptight eldest daughter of the deceased, playing her part with all seriousness, as do David Vargo as Wardell “Bubba” Owens and Vicky Welsh Bragg as the drunken barfly Juanita Bartlett. They each play this material with such sincerity and emotion that the comedy hits and lands perfectly. Ms. Cannon, Mr. Vargo, and Ms. Bragg never make a false move, even if some of their scene partners aren’t playing their parts with the same kind of gravity. When Ms. Cannon shrieks, “I don’t want to know the truth,” it’s because you know she already does and can’t face it; it’s funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Mr. Vargo shows real remorse when he reflects on how he treated Brother Boy in the past, making his rescue of him from the hospital that much more meaningful. And Ms. Bragg brings the house down when – in the middle of a scene involving guns and violence – she asks in all seriousness, “Do you think I’m pretty?” These three know exactly what they are doing.


Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) David Vargo (Bubba), Ralph Edward Scott (G. W.), and Jeb Bigelow (Odell)
Also worthy of honorable mention is Kathy Sturm as Noleta Nethercott, who impressed me when she accidentally splashed some mashed potatoes on her wrist during an early scene while she was helping herself to a snack. Without missing a beat, she piggishly lapped it up with her tongue and went on. And maybe it wasn’t an accident or an ad lib after all; it was done so naturally that I could believe it was planned, though executed by someone fully in the moment with a real firm grasp on her character.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Kathy Sturm (Noleta) and Betsy Poling (Sissy)

I must say that one character that slightly disappoints is Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram played by Mark Phillips Schwamberger. Mr. Schwamberger certainly knows his lines and appears to be having a ball in drag, but his interpretation of the character stays firmly on the surface, perhaps owing to the director, Beth Kattelman. While some of his cast members chose to go with the seriousness of their parts to great effect, this Brother Boy doesn’t appear to have any real emotion, not even when he sees his mother in a casket. His final words to her are underplayed in a way that the audience at the performance I attended wasn’t sure that the play had even ended as the moment felt half baked, like it was leading up to something more. A moment of reflection, a half smile that is quickly stifled – something was warranted in that final moment that just wasn’t there. It’s not like it ruins the play or anything, but I did see it as a missed opportunity.


Photo: Jerri Shafer
Still, the audience was primed and ready for every comedic moment to play out, no doubt having seen the popular film adaptation, and there was an energy in the crowd that was palpable. I enjoyed this production far more than the film, and it’s a worthy successor to the other fine shows that Evolution Theatre Company has put on so far this season. 

*** out of ****

Sordid Lives continues through to September 26th 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

Reefer Madness: The Musical (Cyclodrama – Columbus, OH)

Reefer Madness begin as a 1936 film financed by a church group entitled Tell Your Children about the dangers of marijuana use; it was later retitled and re-edited into the exploitation film we know today, screened throughout the ’40s and ’50s. Reefer Madness is considered to be one of the worst movies ever made, one that is “so bad, it’s good,” and it’s exaggerated scenes of behavior allegedly fueled by “weed” are unintentionally humorous.

Reefer Madness: The Musical, written by Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy, began its life in 1998 in Los Angeles, eventually having the misfortune of opening off-Broadway a few weeks after September 11, 2001; it ran for only about a month. There was still plenty of life in the material yet, as future productions and a 2005 film adaptation bare witness. Written and performed with tongue placed firmly in cheek, Reefer Madness: The Musical is perhaps a bit overlong (it doesn’t need the intermission), but its spirit is in the right place in the same vein as another musical based on a cult film, Little Shop of Horrors.

Alan Saunders is Jimmy, the lead of the show that goes from squeaky-clean to drug fiend with his first puff. Mr. Saunders has the kind of baby face that works for the part, all wide-eyed innocence and sweetness. He even looks “period” and dapper with his cap and preppy sweater, though his haircut is more suited to the ’50s than the ’30s. Still, his energy fuels the show to a large degree, and his likability factor is very high. Mr. Saunders is also created with the lighting design which is bold and saturated, well-suited to the material.

Julia Belle Ott is Jimmy’s girlfriend, Mary. Ms. Ott meets Mr. Saunders beat-for-beat in every department, and they have great chemistry. Even when a few of the ensemble members appeared to be just going through the paces (the Sunday matinee I attended had a lot of empty seats), Ms. Ott was sprightly and “on,” singing and bouncing along as if a full house was cheering her on.

Holly Ciampa as Mae owns “The Stuff,” one of the most memorable songs in the show. Ms. Ciampa knows that the song is outrageously exaggerated and funny, but she plays it with all seriousness, which only makes it funnier. Her blazing hair and flouncy muumuu are as much a part of her role as her world-weary expressions, and I only wish there was more of her in the show.

Alicia Brown is delightfully demented as young mother Sally, a woman of questionable maternal instinct. Ms. Brown has a scene where she giggles diabolically when asked about the location of her baby that is hilarious. Drea Blau also makes an impression in her silent role as the placard girl, looking a bit like Mae West as she prances across the stage holding up signs warning against the dangers of marijuana. Ms. Blau has a marvelous poker face that she uses to great effect. 

Aside from some ensemble members who didn’t come off as consistently committed to their parts, Jim Bouyack as the lecturer was the only rather weak link in the cast. He sang perfectly fine and appeared engaged, but whenever he spoke he would stutter and flub, seemingly from trying too hard to be menacing in his delivery. The production also had moments where the transition from one scene to the next was slow and a bit sloppy.

The only major drawback to the production was the sound. I know Axis is a nightclub, but the volume level that works for a crowded Saturday night of dancers is not pleasant for a Sunday afternoon matinee of theatre. To compensate for the high volume of the band the audio levels for the performers have been raised as well, resulting in a loud, unintelligible cacophony of sound. There were many songs in which I could only tell what the performers were singing by lip reading. I hope the sound design is modified depending on the audience as I heard comments from other patrons that they had issues with it as well.

The unequivocal highlight of the show is the orgy scene, worth the price of admission alone. The scene has the entire cast stripping down to their skivvies and engaging in simulated sexual activity, complete with a half-goat man as a kind of emcee. Though the scene is quite hilarious it also is rather beautiful, the cast full of people of all shapes and sizes grinding and fondling each other in Technicolor lights.

I enjoyed Reefer Madness: The Musical, probably more than I would’ve because I had a friend with me. Most of my theatregoing is done solo (no, really, it’s okay), but this is a show that screams out to be experienced by friends. Days later and my friend and I are still quoting lines and talking about the orgy scene. I look forward to Cyclodrama’s The Rocky Horror Show this fall.

**/ out of ****

Reefer Madness: The Musical continues through to August 8th in Axis Nightclub at 775 North High Street, and more information can be found at http://www.cyclodrama.com

The Temperamentals (Evolution Theatre Company – Columbus, OH)

It’s important to stand up and be counted; that’s what I took away from The Temperamentals by Jon Marans. That’s the first step – stand up, be counted, and let people know who you are, something people seem to have little trouble doing nowadays with the Internet and so many ways to connect and network. It’s easy to forget how difficult this was in the homogeneous 1950s, where anything that didn’t conform was assumed to be subversive “commie” propaganda and was vilified. Some movements, such as that of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organizations (founded in 1950) that is the subject of this play, did have Communist roots, mainly because aspects of the ideology were appealing even if they didn’t work in execution. Something different was needed, and it all started with five men who were determined to organize in order to represent the silent “sexual minority.”

From now on when I hear cries from the right wing about the nefarious “gay agenda” I’ll think of this play and the difficulty that the founding members of the Mattachine Society had to get any kind of agenda on the table. “Temperamentals” was the term gay men in the know used for each other, and the only “agenda” they seemed to have at the time was to sneak around for elicit sex and remain closeted. Thank God there were people like Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich, two of the five founding members, who thought otherwise.

Brent Alan Burington plays Harry Hay with gusto and verve. A talented actor with a firm voice that carries, Brent comes off as honest and sincere in a tricky part as he is the engine that keeps the play moving while playing a character that is not always particularly likable. Adam Greenbaum Latek plays his lover, Rudi Gernreich, with a rather thick Viennese accent that varies in intensity (when he says the name Lana Turner, his accent suddenly disappears when her last name is stated) and comes off as a bit too mannered; nevertheless, Adam’s presence grew on me, and his moments of intimacy with Brent feel natural and rather sweet. There is a moment early on when their hands lightly graze each other that is as affectionate and subtle as anything I’ve seen on the stage in some time.

David Allen Vargo as Chuck Rowland is another standout with a commanding stage presence and strong voice. He’s a great foil for Mark Phillips Schwamberger as Bob Hull, Chuck’s former lover and current housemate, and their banter back and forth is humorous and all too genuine as anyone who knows any long term couple – gay or straight – will tell you. Donnie Lockwood plays Dale Jennings (and other small parts, as do David and Mark), and one of his special talents appears to be the ability to sweat on cue. There is a scene where he is on trial and has very little to say but the tension of the moment is conveyed by his perspiration and some very subtle expressions. Donnie is a terrific part of this strong ensemble; he has nice hair too, which has nothing to do with his performance but deserves an honorable mention.

Douglas Whaley’s direction is firm and swift, perhaps even a bit too fast as blackouts at the end of scenes sometimes occur a beat or two too quickly and are jarring. I especially liked how Douglas used the extreme left and right sides of the performance space in his staging for a few key moments. Lighting designer Curtis A. Brown and scenic designer Shane Cinal work well together to evoke different locales with few set pieces and lights, one of my favorites being that of a furtive street corner bathed in a bit of blue light with a single light pole descended from the ceiling. 

While the play begins to falter a bit at the end (Marans doesn’t appear to know how to end it, resulting in an awkward summary of events told by the cast apparently still in character), the attention that is brought to the little known gay rights pioneers presented here is quite timely, especially in light of the SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage a few weeks ago. There is even a section of the play where the merits of gay marriage are discussed, but in terms of gay people marrying straight people and how it is dismissed as not being a good idea. To imagine we’ve come this far in sixty-five years is truly remarkable, and how wonderful that this play exists to shed some light on this obscure piece of gay history from the not-so-distant past.

In a way the play reminded me of the situation between Aldonza and Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha; Aldonza only saw herself as a worthless kitchen slut until someone else convinced her that there was more to see. And isn’t that what the Mattachine Society started to do for gay men? Only when some of them stood up did the rest begin to look at themselves and think maybe there’s more than just sneaking into public restrooms and back alleys. I guess if society and people tell you enough that you’re rotten you’ll begin to believe and expect it yourself, but also the reverse is true. It all had to start somewhere.

*** out of ****

The Temperamentals continues through to July 18th in Columbus, OH, and more information can be found at http://evolutiontheatre.org/


Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story (Short North Stage – Columbus, OH)

Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story by Stephen Dolginoff (book, music, and lyrics) is a seventy-five minute, one act musical about Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, friends who murdered a boy in 1924 just for the hell of it. This case was the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), and the trial of the two murderers was dramatized in Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1959), and it is those two films that formed all that I knew of the true crime before seeing this Short North Stage production. Needless to say, I had a lot to learn.

Nathan Leopold (Luke Stewart) and Richard Loeb (Evin Hoffman) are former classmates who meet up in Chicago, Loeb to cause trouble and Leopold to trail along hoping for some attention. Both men consider themselves superior beings coming from money and a life of privilege, and it is Loeb who likes to set fire to buildings to see what all he can get away with. Leopold trails along begrudgingly, hoping for moments of intimacy with Loeb.

Luke Stewart’s Leopold can barely contain his attraction for Loeb, but Evin Hoffman’s Loeb doesn’t even seem to like Leopold at all. Some of this is in the writing, the kind of antagonistic relationship between the two men as they manipulate each other, but as an audience member I felt no chemistry between the two leads at all. And, since they are the only actors in the play, it makes for a seat-squirming experience. I didn’t believe Leopold would be dumb enough to allow himself to lust after someone who openly appeared to despise him, and Loeb showed little charm that would’ve helped us understand Leopold’s attraction for him. Chemistry and genuine partnership could’ve sold this, as it is based on fact, but it feels like Evin Hoffman is miscast. Not that he isn’t talented or pretty to look at (he’s both), but I noted how withholding he was during the intimate moments he had with Luke Stewart. In moments when it would’ve made sense for Evin to allow himself to fully embrace Luke, giving Luke’s character that bit of incentive to go along with him, he comes off as stiff, like he is thinking about something else. On the other hand, Luke appears to be working overtime to keep everything moving and together, but he can’t make a connection where there isn’t one. The sexy advertising and warnings of strong themes and nudity are more a marketing gimmick than a promise, as Luke’s full-frontal nude scene is extremely brief (but notable, sure) and the affection displayed between the two men is limited.

The set is impressively decorated with enlarged photos and headlines from the period (my friend went up onto the stage after the performance to inspect it – it really was interesting to look at), but it also telegraphs way too much action before it unfolds. There is an attempt to bring some modern technology into the staging with an opening involving a webcam and text written on cue cards, but why? They certainly dress modern, and that’s okay, and the reel-to-reel tape player is acceptable as it is used to play excerpts of Leopold’s 1958 parole board hearing, but the rest of it? It didn’t work for me, though the writing is sound and the lyrics particularly good with interesting rhymes. The audience laughed at the song “Life Plus 99 Years” because of the absurdity of the moment, but I’m not so sure they would’ve laughed had the show been directed differently.

I left more frustrated than anything as the show itself is a good one but this production, no doubt with a lot of effort and talent behind it, is misguided. No one should be embarrassed by it, and it was performed well though in the wrong direction. It did serve to reinvigorate my interest in the actual crime, even if the production was decidedly ho-hum.

** out of ****

Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story continues through to June 21st, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/455