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


What’s it about?

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

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

Is it worth seeing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where can I see it?

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

Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical (Weathervane Playhouse – Newark, OH)

“The only thing constant is change,” Dr. Henry Jekyll says to the board of governors early on in Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical; although he was referring to medical science in the show, he could just as easily be referring to the play itself. This is a work that has been workshopped, recorded, revised, augmented, and re-recorded so much since its world premiere in 1990 and subsequent original Broadway production in 1997 that one can never be quite sure what revisions will be a part of any licensed production. Such is the fate typical of composer Frank Wildhorn’s musicals, as The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Civil War are two other problematic shows with which he continues to tinker. Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical (the most current licensed version anyway) opens the Weathervane Playhouse season in a production that offers quite a fresh take on the material and features the best two lead musical performances I’ve seen locally this year.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson classic novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical features music by the aforementioned Mr. Wildhorn with book and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse; the original 1997 Broadway production ran for just under four years, itself a product of two previous developmental recordings, and yielded several subsequent tours as well as a flop 2013 Broadway revival. No matter the incarnation, the show is about how Dr. Henry Jekyll’s search for a way to separate the good in all mankind from the bad in an effort to obliterate the latter. His experiments bring about Mr. Hyde, an alternate personality comprised of only the worst qualities of himself. As the two forces struggle for control over the same body, Emma, Jekyll’s fiancée, and Lucy, Hyde’s whore, are caught in the crosshairs of the struggle for dominance. The show seems like Mr. Wildhorn’s answer to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera; indeed, many musical motifs are recycled for different songs throughout, and it doesn’t take a musicologist to hear the influence of Lloyd Webber’s show on this one.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

Director Adam Karsten has radically reimagined this Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical to present it on a mostly bare stage with a platform that opens to reveal a pool of water used quite effectively in several scenes. Translucent plastic tarps surround and cover the stage, revealing the vestiges of hanging portraits and chairs. The expert lighting design by Jennifer Sansfacon utilizes bold strokes of red and purple to establish settings, casting specific shadow designs onto the stage. Ms. Sansfacon also makes sure the pool of water glows an eerie indigo, and she seems the perfect partner for Mr. Karsten to create this new vision for the show.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Connor Allston (Jekyll/Hyde) and Myha’La Herrold (Lucy)

The problems begin almost immediately in the opening scene when Dr. Jekyll visits his father in a mental institution. In that scene it makes some sense that patients of reduced ability would perhaps be crawling and sliding around on the stage; it comes off as terribly overwrought, uncomfortable, and even laughable when the writhing around continues throughout the play and extends into the audience with planted actors. Still, Mr. Karsten should be congratulated for trying something different with the material; the use of water and light is really quite terrific, and why not add some blood and stripping cast members into the mix? I suppose the disrobing is to amp up the sex appeal, even though the sight of the youthful cast slowly disrobing, dipping their hands into buckets of stage blood, and slathering themselves with the goo – while a striking image – made me think, “What a mess… Good thing everything is covered in plastic.”

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)

There are some really quite good songs scattered about, such as “Someone Like You,” “A New Life,” and the popular anthem, “This is the Moment.” Music director Kevin Wines presents the music effectively reducing the bombastic nature of the score to sounding understated and supportive of the talented cast’s singing. Every time I see this musical I find more and more of the book has been trimmed away, leaving a mostly sung-through show behind; it’s great to hear the near constant music be as well-managed as it is here.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Myha’La Herrold (Lucy) and Connor Allston (Jekyll/Hyde)

The reason to see this show is for the performances by Connor Allston as Dr. Henry Jekyll, Myha’La Herrold as Lucy, Natalie Szczerba as Emma, and Layne Roate as Jekyll’s lawyer and friend, John. Mr. Allston is dedicated and determined as Dr. Jekyll, and his transformations between personalities are almost entirely represented by a slight shift in tone and a change in his intention; no laughably drastic facial changes, growling voice, or stooped limp here. Mr. Allston is able to convey the change internally in a way that resonates naturally, seemingly with little effort, and his voice is quite strong and moving; his goal to help mankind feels genuine, even if his experiments are destroying his and the lives of those around him in the process. Mr. Allston has the kind of masculine stage presence and vocal prowess that, even at his incredibly young age, should make anyone dream of seeing his interpretations of classic roles in Man of La Mancha, Guys and Dolls, South Pacific… You fill in the blank.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Myha’La Herrold (Lucy)

Ms. Herrold is every bit Mr. Allston’s match as the prostitute Lucy. At first she might seem miscast physically being that she is black and bald, but nothing could be further from the truth. Ms. Herrold challenges what might be considered traditional beauty by being by far the most interesting and striking woman on stage, and this is a show full of attractive actors. She has a mournful lament to her singing as Lucy in “Someone Like You” that is as heartbreaking as her moment of hope is thrilling in “A New Life.” Her voice is sometimes too powerful for the technical director to manage as some of her stronger notes cause light, brief distortion over the speakers; nevertheless, Ms. Herrold is touching and a memorable talent to watch. The way she handles her final confrontation with Mr. Hyde is intense and requires great technical skill to pull off as the pressure of the moment is mostly on her.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Connor Allston (Jekyll/Hyde) and Myha’La Herrold (Lucy)

Ms. Szczerba has quite a bit less to work with in terms of characterization as Emma, but she does wonders with what is there. She’s appealing in a way that would make her a natural fit for Dr. Jekyll, and her singing voice is particularly striking during “In His Eyes,” her unlikely duet with Ms. Herrold’s Lucy; their voices are so different in style that they don’t compete with each other as I’ve heard other performers do with this same song, resulting in a beautiful mix of their voices that allows both to be heard. Mr. Roate has even less to work with as John, but he can be counted on to deliver his lines with weight and seriousness, effortlessly slipping into a warm singing voice. There is one brief moment where Mr. Roate invades Mr. Allston’s space in a way that comes off as so intimate that I thought the two might kiss; they don’t, but that silent moment has an incredible amount of subtext because of Mr. Roate’s actions.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Connor Allston (Jekyll/Hyde) and Natalie Szczerba (Emma)

Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical isn’t a great show, no matter which revised production or cast recording is being evaluated. This production takes risks with the material that fail as often as they succeed, and yet the sheer force and will of its four talented leads elevate this to being a show worth seeing; seriously, they are that good. This definitely isn’t the same Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical that I saw on its original Broadway tour, or the video of the closing Broadway cast (starring David Hasselhoff), or even the 2013 short-lived Broadway revival (thank goodness); this production is a different animal, but one that is consistently interesting to experience even when it misses the target.

*** out of ****

Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical continues through to June 11th in the Weathervane Playhouse at 100 Price Road in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/jekyll-hyde/

Spring Awakening (Brooks Atkinson Theatre – NYC)

Everything old, at some point, is new again. Take for example Spring Awakening, which premiered on Broadway in 2006 and made a big splash; it’s a musical adaptation of a 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind about repressed teenagers coming to terms with their sexuality (among other things), with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik. Even though the original play was set more than a hundred years ago in Germany, the journey about the loss of innocence that occurs when growing into young adulthood is universal and still very much relevant; sex, abortion, homosexuality, suicide, depression – these issues have not gone away and never will. The score is full of punkish-sounding songs like “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally F***ed,” while also containing soulful, moody pieces like “The World of Your Body,” “Touch Me,” and “I Believe.” It’s rock inspiration can be traced to Rent as it has a similar type of sound while also standing out as being wholly original.


Photo: Joan Marcus

Spring Awakening ran for over two years on Broadway, won eight Tony Awards, toured, and then became a popular title licensed to non-professional groups. And now, less than seven years since it closed, it is back on Broadway produced by Deaf West Theatre and directed by Michael Arden incorporating American Sign Language (ASL) as well as deaf actors to tell this story in an entirely new way in a format accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing.


Photo: Joan Marcus
I was skeptical when I heard that Spring Awakening was coming to Broadway as I didn’t feel that the initial production had been gone long enough for us to miss it; I have seen two local productions in my area alone over the past year, so the material was very familiar to me. However, I vividly remember the Deaf West revival of Big River from 2003, so I conceded that perhaps there was a different approach that could be taken with the material. Several friends told me that they preferred this production over the original; while I wouldn’t go that far, I still enjoyed this revival and found many aspects of it worth recommending.


Photo: Joan Marcus
Standouts in the cast are Austin P. McKenzie playing Melchior, the bright student who has all the answers about sex, the details that the adults want to keep hidden; Sandra Mae Frank is Wendla, the naive girl who succumbs to Melchior’s charms; and Daniel N Durant is Moritz, Melchior’s friend who is suffering as a student and plagued by wet dreams. Mr. McKenzie is cute and appears too cool for school and stylish wearing the same uniform that looks drab on everyone else; his presence is magnetic, and it’s easy to see why is a leader. Ms. Frank and Mr. Durant are deaf and perform their roles using sign language with vocal and guitar accompaniment provided by actors trailing behind them in the shadows. At my performance, Lizzy Cuesta (listed as a swing in the Playbill) spoke and sang for Ms. Frank, and Alex Boniello did the same for Mr. Durant; both Ms. Cuesta and Mr. Boniello are talented performers on their own, and yet here they are proficient in underplaying their presence to remain half of a performance, supporting their deaf co-stars beautifully.


Photo: Joan Marcus
Ms. Frank and Mr. Durant have a few moments where they speak for themselves that are incredibly effective, their voices full of emotion and raw. An early scene where Mr. Durant is called on to speak and is then ridiculed in class by his professor is especially biting and effective showing the callousness of his teacher. Ms. Frank’s cries at her mother and during her intimate scene with Mr. McKenzie are similarly heartbreaking, bringing the drama of Spring Awakening to another level; their teenage angst and isolation seems like small potatoes when compared with what it must be like to be deaf.


Photo: Joan Marcus
While I’m glad that this production has sign language and occasional projected subtitles for the deaf, I had issues where I was seated in the front left of the mezzanine with visibility. There are some sequences that are only acted with sign language, and titles are presented for the dialogue; however, the projected words were often partially obscured by elements of the set, and it took me out of the play whenever the mode of communication shifted. I know that isn’t going to be a popular opinion, as I’m pleased that the deaf have a Broadway show accessible to them, but it is sometimes to the detriment of the hearing audience. For scenes with the headmaster, who doesn’t sign, the titles for his dialogue were often ahead of his delivery, a timing mishap that I hope was only at the performance I attended. I don’t recall having such issues with Deaf West’s Big River. If the entire show was open captioned with words visible from every seat (and timed properly) then the shift to sign language only wouldn’t be so jarring.


Photo: Joan Marcus
One aspect of this production that I found superior to the original is how Hänschen’s (Andy Mientus) seduction of Ernst (Joshua Castille) is handled; in the original production it was played comically for laughs, but here it is sincere. It’s interesting to note that there were some audible guffaws from the audience when the two young men kiss when I saw the original production on tour in Columbus back in 2009; the same sequence, this time played quite earnestly, elicited no such response. Is it that times have changed so much in the past six years that two men kissing onstage is more palatable, or the shift to a straightforward telling of the gay storyline, or the difference in audiences between New York and Columbus that is the reason for the different response? I think it’s a combination of all three factors, but color me pleased with the change.


Photo: Joan Marcus
I’m glad to have seen this revival of Spring Awakening, but it doesn’t surpass or even meet the merits of the original for me. It’s still good and entertaining, but some of the accessibility alterations inhibited my enjoyment of the show from where I was seated. Perhaps my experience would’ve been better had I been seated elsewhere; our tickets were not marked as being “partial view” but that is essentially what I would call them. A show enhanced for accessibility should consider the vantage point for all of the seats to ensure that pertinent and important elements are not missed. Again, I still enjoyed the show, but with that notable reservation.

*** out of ****

Spring Awakening continues through to January 24th in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre at 256 W. 47th St. (at 8th Ave.) in Manhattan, and more information can be found at http://www.springawakeningthemusical.com/

The Life: Playin’ Palin, My Love of Sports, and Living to the Fullest On My Own Terms (2015) by Lisa Ann

I first became a fan of Lisa Ann after listening to her appearance on “The Morning After…” podcast (Episode #33 with Damien Fahey – 02/01/11 – it’s on iTunes), a program that featured conversations with comedians and porn stars. Many times the porn starlets came off as quite ditzy and vapid, and then there was Lisa Ann; she was articulate, funny, engaging – the perfect girl to hang out with who just happened to also do porn. The episode ran longer than usual as it seemed everyone was having such a good time (she gave a terrific rundown of the kits she would assemble to use once on shoots and then dispose of that showed her true professionalism and intelligence); that was when I made a point of listening to her podcasts and following her on Twitter (@TheRealLisaAnn). While I can’t claim that her filmography interests me, I liked hearing what she had to say with her sly sense of humor and unique perspective on life and her career. I leapt at the chance to meet her during a featured dancing engagement at Vanities in September 2014 in Columbus, Ohio, and she couldn’t have been sweeter or more approachable. It was one of the few times I’d ever been to a “gentlemen’s club,” and I made sure to stock up on singles and fives (and a few twenties); somehow I left with no cash (I guess the “make it rain!” rant got the best of me), but boy did I have a great time!


Photo: Lisa Ann’s bodyguard – Chuck Pennington (me!) and Lisa Ann
Autographed to me – in person!
Lisa Ann retired from the porn industry in December 2014 in a handwritten letter that she posted on social media. “It felt so personal to me,” she shyly admits. “The idea of sharing my handwriting with the world was a new level of intimacy.” For someone who had shared every intimate part of her body for the world to see for over twenty years, sharing her handwriting was what made her nervous? But I get it – it was a transitional time going from a faux intimacy (porn) to sharing something from truly behind the wall of armor she had built to protect herself. Now she has put more pen to paper (so to speak) and written The Life: Playin’ Palin, My Love of Sports, and Living to the Fullest On My Own Terms, chronologically covering her first forty-three years, going from being a child from a broken home to a rebellious teen, stripper, porn star, married woman, business owner, talent agent, and now Fantasy Football radio host? If it were a movie you’d never believe it, but Lisa Ann lays it all out there with good humor peppered with raunchy (yet not trashy) stories of her unusual life and career in a most entertaining tome.

I admit that I wanted to read Lisa Ann’s book for all of the outrageous stories I was sure it would contain, and on this count she doesn’t disappoint. From vengeful strippers peeing on the costumes of rivals to playing den mother in a house of unruly porn starlets (they track mud into the house when they are barefoot and drunk, FYI) to negotiating sex acts for a performer with her parents presiding as her managers, Lisa Ann has seen it all even if she hasn’t done it all. She doesn’t claim to be immune to drugs, but she is very clear at pointing out that she was not and never was a prostitute, outlining the difference very clearly between an adult performer and a paid escort. She confirms that many girls did both, but that was not the path she chose. She never calls herself an actress, which is fair; but she leaves little doubt that she was a true performance artist, enjoying the attention and response from the crowd just like any other performer. She refers to herself and other porn performers as “talent,” which again is accurate; it takes talent to be able to perform in such scenes and not get burned out or appear stale on camera. Lisa Ann doesn’t glamorize the work so much as lay the truth out there, sharing the “very empty, very lonely void all porn stars feel and can’t deny.” At the same time she admits to enjoying performing sex acts on camera, only a few times feeling ashamed or regretful over the content of a shoot.

She shares several cautionary tales in which she trusted the wrong people and, at various times, was drugged, attacked, and robbed, but she learned from each experience. “Trust NO ONE, especially the girls,” she was advised by a kind bouncer who looked after her after some dancers laced her joint with Angel Dust and she blacked out. “Work, go home, and mind your own business. Save your money and make a plan to get out. The money is addicting and it will change your life – whether it’s for the better or the worse is on you.” It’s one of many close calls she describes, each aiding in their way of developing her character and resilience. She never plays the victim card or wallows in any depression for long; there’s too much out there for her to do to allow self pity to come a-knockin’.

“I started to really look at my body as a business,” Lisa Ann states, explaining how while still a teenager she made time to exercise, eat well, and maintain a beauty routine, sometimes investing thousands of dollars a month! It isn’t cheap or easy to be the living embodiment of fantasy, but, as she concedes, “This is a business investment.” While she doesn’t mention any cosmetic surgery that she had done specifically for her career, she does relate that one of the first things she wanted to do after retiring was to get her breasts reduced. “I was starting to feel self-conscious about them,” she confesses as she assimilated into working for Sirius on the radio. Lisa Ann went from her body being her business in movies and dancing in clubs to using her voice and mind on the radio, where what she looked like didn’t matter at all! Her brain was what made her some enemies in porn (she had no problem whistle-blowing on safety regulations being ignored or negotiating for more money or control), and now it was exactly what another industry would value in her.

“Money was the key to my independence,” she writes, explaining how much money she could make as a stripper when she started out as merely a high school grad. Her drive to be financially independent and successful propelled her not to rest on her laurels but to keep trying harder within her industry to succeed. “I was constantly fighting for my rights in a business that wanted the girls to believe they had none,” she says about being in adult entertainment, but doesn’t that statement apply to so many other industries as well? This is where Lisa Ann’s story is one that anyone – male or female – can possibly relate: haven’t we all been in jobs where we feel undervalued, underutilized, and replaceable? “Porn went from loving and celebrating women to treating them as disposable things,” she states, reflecting on the change in the industry from the ’90s to today. To me, I see a similar change in other industries as well, one where seniority and relationships no longer matter – everything and everyone is a number. When faced with this, Lisa Ann went forth to cut a new path, venturing into producing and directing her own films and even managing other models for a time. There is a lesson there for all of us, no matter our career.

Her ascent to mega stardom playing the porn parody version of former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin in 2008’s Who’s Nailin’ Paylin? was a perfect example of opportunity meeting up with preparation; Lisa Ann had returned to porn a few years prior as one of the most in demand MILFs around (Google it if you don’t know the acronym), and in retrospect it seems like it was all leading up to this one chance that could be a real game changer – and boy was it! Though she was grateful for the opportunity at playing Palin, she’s firm that her personal beliefs are the polar opposite. “I would never in a million years support Sarah Palin’s politics,” Lisa Ann confirms, adding, “Palin’s message had no place in the world I lived in – a world of free sex, sexual preference, and a shared desire for marriage equality.” Still, demand for feature dancing gigs as Palin in tailored suits skyrocketed, and Lisa Ann picked up the gauntlet and ran with it.

Her popularity brought about mainstream recognition as well as opportunities for more revenue streams, something that made many others in the industry quite jealous. “Porn is like high school with drugs and money – and all the wrong people have both,” she candidly states. “Porn is the perfect home for those with addictions and a variety of social issues. It is competitive and spiteful, filled with gossip, haters, and unhappy people. Over the course of my career, I learned that the more people didn’t like me, the better I felt.”

For a book so comprehensive, it’s interesting that Lisa Ann doesn’t tell her “coming out” story, the one where she tells her mom and dad about her career in the adult industry. “My parents will never forgive me for doing porn,” she clearly states, and other sections describe her estrangement from her dad and her on-again, off-again relationship with her mom; clearly they weren’t thrilled with her career of choice, but I was curious to read how she broke the news to them, how they reacted, and how it changed her relationships with them (which were strained anyway). I also wonder if her relationship with her older brother ever improved; there is a cute picture of the two of them from her late teens where it shows that she wasn’t the only looker in the family. Sibling relationships fascinate me; I have no relationship with my brothers at all, but I know of other people who are thick as thieves with their brothers and sisters. This is one area in which Lisa Ann is holding some cards close, which is understandable considering that her family didn’t sign up for any of this.

You don’t need to be into porn to get something out of Lisa Ann’s story, though it would help not to be squeamish about some of the more explicit details she is incredibly open about divulging (her sex preparation regimen, opinions on lubricant, “money shot” feelings, etc.). The behind-the-scenes info on what it is like to perform such private things in front of a camera is all there to read (and it’s incredibly entertaining and humorous), but there is a deeper story around it about a small town girl from Pennsylvania determined to get out and do big things. They may not be the kinds of things most of us would ever consider doing, but Lisa Ann emerges as someone who is her own best invention, delightfully unrepentant for her porn past while heading into a new career. I don’t know that she wrote the book to be so empowering, but that’s just what it is.

**** out of ****


Somewhere I Can Scream (Drake Oration Company – Columbus, OH)

I started writing about theatre because I wanted to celebrate what was good and discuss how I felt about the productions that I was seeing. I also wanted to help promote local theatre here in Columbus, as I know it is easy to miss out on lots of worthwhile productions because many local theatre companies don’t have the budgets or the manpower to advertise effectively. I say all of this because I really do love theatre and want to promote talent and provide encouragement to artists of all skill levels. At least, I thought I did – that was until I saw Amy Drake’s Somewhere I Can Scream; that title has more verve and bite than anything in the show.

The play is based on the true story of Dr. James Howard Snook, a professor of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University and former Olympian, and his affair with (and murder of) student Theora Hix. The Hix-Snook case was all the rage in 1929, with details of the affair and murder becoming the stuff of urban legend. The case was noteworthy for the time in the explicit sexual details divulged during the hearing, much of which wasn’t even able to be printed or hinted at in newspapers of the day. The title Somewhere I Can Scream comes from an alleged quote by Hix concerning where she and Snook should rendezvous, commenting that she preferred to meet “somewhere I can scream.” True to its source, this production comes with the following disclaimer: Due to the explicit sexual nature of the story no one under 18 will be admitted. That disclaimer is what probably enticed my friend Kona into attending with me. What’s funny is that the production (what I saw of it – more on that later) was as steamy as reading the back of the Famous Amos cookie box.

The play opened with a reporter talking about the murder and going to visit Snook in jail. He spouted off a bunch of facts that were almost verbatim from the Wikipedia article that I read about the case in preparation for seeing the play. The actor playing the reporter was handsome but terrible, his speech sounding like he was reading a teleprompter operated by unruly children. It wasn’t long before I realized that he was the best actor in the show. I’m refraining from naming the names of the actors in this review as I think the blame should fall directly on the writer/director’s shoulders for this debacle; I’m sure the extent of her direction to her cast was, “Just show up!”

The reporter asked Snook, “Is it true? Did you really do it?” “Yes,” Snook replied, as if conceding that he ate the last donut. “Did I ever tell you about the time I invented the Snook Hook? It is a device used to spay and neuter animals. It revolutionized the industry!” Talk about a non sequitur… Random facts were inserted into the dialogue throughout the show with wild abandon and without care for how they landed.

The story was told in a series of flashbacks, a convention that may have worked had they been fleshed out or well written. Characters spoke in a completely unnatural, artificial way, like androids. Many of the actors appeared under-rehearsed as well, speaking in a halting pattern of start/stop/start/fumble/start way that was unnerving, like they were suffering from some neurological disorder. The scene where Snook and Hix meet was unintentionally funny as their lack of chemistry and stilted speech pattern was the epitome of what people think of when they imagine community theatre, which is unfair as most community theatre I see is quite good. The actors weren’t given lines to perform that had any character to them, and so their line readings were devoid of any emotion. It’s almost as if the entire cast had been lobotomized shortly before the performance.

The performers frequently had lines that stated their feelings rather then evoked them. “I’m excited” or “I’m upset” or “I’m scared” just doesn’t cut it. Why not have characters speak to each other with lines that express their emotions rather than spell them out? The ineptitude of the writing continued with the grammatical errors on the Powerpoint projection that spelled out the location of each scene. Even the program was poorly photocopied and laid out, with bios missing words from being cut off along the margin. Did I mention that I paid $50 for my friend and I to see this exercise in futility? “I’m hot for you. You really please me,” said Hix. “Oh, what a quagmire!” Snook replied. It was all written and performed as if English was their second language when I know damn well it wasn’t. “I have arrived here at medical school as an only child…” Who says things like that? Again, I’m paraphrasing, but the dialogue was filled with such awkward exposition.

Entire scenes played out with introductions like, “Transcript of interview between Mrs. Snook and her lawyer.” If these were actual transcripts then I don’t know what to say except that they should’ve been rewritten. I just don’t buy that people talked to each other in such arcane ways, even in 1929. Bad dialogue performed badly can be giggle inducing, and any scenes involving the lawyer were guaranteed to bring those out in me and my friend. He was perhaps the most ill-prepared of the group, often appearing like he was reading his lines off of his steno pad and that they were written in handwriting that he was having trouble deciphering.

The discovery of Hix’s body had a cop standing over her, saying lines like, “The body was found by two sixteen-year-old boys this morning. Based on the decomposition of the body, we figure she was murdered last night. A girl was just reported missing by her roommates. Maybe we should see if somehow that disappearance and this body are related.” Gee, you think? At one point it looked like the cop nudged her body with his foot, but at no time did it seem like he inspected the body at all. In fact, Hix was lying face down with her arms and legs splayed about is if she had not been moved.

My friend and I often found ourselves looking away from the action in embarrassment. There is an interrogation scene with Snook in which a cop is abusing and harassing him into confessing that is intensely erratic as if the actors are each reading lines from completely unrelated plays. It was around that time that I took note of the lighting, thinking it was something I could at least compliment the show for; almost as quickly as I thought that did the lights go out and then come back on in the middle of dialogue where such a cue was clearly not placed.

I can say that I thought the costumes looked old fashioned even if not quite period. The set is very sparsely decorated, but that works just fine too. I didn’t have a problem with the car being represented by some photocopies pasted together on some cardboard either. So much of theatre is in the suspension of disbelief, in filling in the voids where there is nothing and being a part of the experience. I’ve seen many outstanding productions in the Van Fleet Theatre at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, some with even less set decoration and appropriate costuming; I’ve never seen anything so badly performed or written about subject matter that could seemingly write itself.

When the intermission card appeared on the screen, a patron behind us sighed, “Thank God.” My friend and I looked at each other, glad that we weren’t the only ones that found the evening interminable. Then the man said, “I need to stretch my legs. It’s good, right?” he asked, turning to his wife. She agreed that it was good. My friend and I then left, content believing that at least the rest of our Friday night could be salvaged and that there was nothing that could possibly come in the second act that could redeem the show. Nothing short of starting from scratch and rewriting everything could salvage this work, and that’s sad for me to report. It baffles me how such a lurid and exciting true life crime could be distilled down to something so middling and flat. After seeing this, I don’t think I would even trust the author to write down a recipe with any accuracy.

I didn’t see the second half of the play, so I don’t feel I should assign any star rating to the show. With a heavy heart I have summarized my feelings about what I did see in the above essay. 

I apologize to anyone who read my prior post about the play, but know that I’ve learned an important lesson: Never promote or recommend ANYTHING sight unseen. I won’t let it happen again, I assure you. I feel like one of those people who warned others not to vaccinate their kids due to the fear of autism and then found out that the medical research was all made up. 

After seeing Amy Drake’s Somewhere I Can Scream, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I heard that her next production would be a staged reading entitled The Back of a Package of Seeds. I’m sure it would be more exciting and interesting than what I saw last night.

Somewhere I Can Scream continues through to July 26th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://drakeorationcompany.com/

Local Murder Serves Up Inspiration

It was in the summer of 1926 when it all began. Dr. James Howard Snook, 46, a professor of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University, offered student Theora Hix, 21, a ride back to her dorm. Within weeks they were lovers, and over the next three years they would have trysts all over Columbus, until the fateful day that it all ended in murder. The Hix-Snook case was all the rage in 1929, with details of the affair and murder becoming the stuff of urban legend. And now Columbus playwright Amy Drake has dramatized the story in her play Somewhere I Can Scream, which begins a limited run this weekend in Columbus.

Somewhere I Can Scream was inspired by various references I had heard about the case while growing up in Columbus,” Amy says. “The play grew out of a curiosity to find out if the stories I had heard about the Hix-Snook case really were true. I discovered that the testimony was even more bizarre than the urban legend.”

Amy’s journey to bring this story to the stage began three years ago. She developed it further upon acceptance into the Kenyon College Summer Institute on Playwriting, working closely with mentor Clifford Lee Johnson III, an instructor representing the Manhattan Theater Club. Since then, she has refined the work and presented sections at readings as far west as last weekend in La Jolla, California.

“The script was gleaned from testimony, newspaper, and magazine articles about the case,” Amy says, adding that “although the play is based on real-life events, it is a work of fiction. I had to create dialogue to round out scenes and flesh out characters.”

Photo: Cynthia DeGrand – Kent Halloran as Dr. Snook & Roxy Knepp as Theora Hix
The case was noteworthy for the time in the explicit sexual details divulged during the hearing, much of which wasn’t even able to be printed or hinted at in newspapers of the day. The title Somewhere I Can Scream comes from an alleged quote by Hix concerning where she and Snook should rendezvous, commenting that she preferred to meet “someplace where I can scream.” True to its source, this production comes with the following disclaimer: Due to the explicit sexual nature of the story no one under 18 will be admitted.

“We are obscuring the sexually graphic scenes with set pieces and letting the audience imagine what is happening based on dialogue,” Amy states, but the implication stands that this is an excellent reason to book a babysitter and leave the kiddies at home.

Somewhere I Can Scream will be performed from July 23rd-July 26th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://drakeorationcompany.com/

******** 7/25/15 update: I saw the play last night. I must now apologize to anyone who read this piece and went to see the play on my recommendation. Here is my review: http://lifefullofcheese.com/2015/07/25/somewhere-i-can-scream-drake-oration-company-columbus-oh/

Reasons to Be Pretty (Shots in the Dark – Columbus, OH)

Unhappy people sure do talk a lot and still not really get across what they mean; that’s what I took away from Shots in the Dark Independent Theatre Company’s production of Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty. Oh, and young straight couples can be loud, obnoxious, and superficial – who knew, right? First performed in 2008 and then given a limited run on Broadway in 2009, Reasons to Be Pretty examines the lives of four twentysomething friends and how their lives are effected when an offhand comment is taken the wrong way. Everyone has experienced the feeling of being misunderstood and having stuck one’s foot in one’s mouth, but this group of two couples (Greg and Steph – Kent and Carly) have a lot to learn about saying what they mean and meaning what they say.

Chris Ceradsky is Greg, the well-meaning boyfriend who inadvertently gives a backhanded compliment to his girlfriend in response to his friend praising the gorgeous face of a new co-worker. He says he is okay with the “regular” face of his girlfriend, though he maddeningly doesn’t elaborate on the things he does like about her (like he should have – such a dolt!). Chris is a curious performer, all limbs and gangliness, a cross between Ray Bolger and Alan Alda. His hands are always moving and expressing, though he sometimes comes off as fidgety and lacking for some bit of business to do with his hands. Chris needs to slow down just a bit in his delivery and listen more to his cast members. So much of acting is listening and reacting, and too often it felt like Chris was swinging the bat before the ball reached him. It doesn’t help that he is playing such a weak character for much of the play, but his arc of growth ends up being quite satisfying in the end with a well delivered monologue. He’s the backbone of the play and in every scene; it can’t be easy, but Chris succeeds more than he fails.

Kristin Basore is Steph, Greg’s “regular” faced girlfriend. She starts the play off cussing a mean streak, and she has no problem appearing to be a harpy. She is meant to start off as mousy, dressed in jeans and an unflattering top, and then go through a transformation decked out in heels and a smart skirt, but a pretty girl is a pretty girl. Steph has personality and wit, no doubt cultivated as a result of not relying on being the prettiest girl in the room; still, like anyone, she doesn’t want her perceived shortcomings spoken about so casually, especially by her boyfriend. I believed Kristin in the part, though I can also see the part being modulated more to not always be a ten on the bitch meter. It’s too easy to write her off as a bitch, as Kent does, because it doesn’t require any introspection; Steph is probably like most women – insecure about being insecure.

Jacob Sabinsky plays Kent, the superficial jerk that talks all about body parts but nothing of anything deeper. The character is fairly despicable, and yet Jacob is handsome and appealing – a smart casting choice as he has a way of making what Kent says palatable to a degree. Jacob came off as the most relaxed and confident performer in the play, and he was frighteningly engaged during a fight scene in the second act that was so intense that I looked away. When I looked back, Jacob was yelling at the imaginary crowd (the scene takes place at a baseball field) and making eye contact with me and other people in the audience. Talk about an uncomfortable moment, but it was exactly right and took talent to pull off.

Caroline Rose Thoma plays Carly, the pregnant pretty girl wife of Kent. Her character never has anything smart to say, as if pointing out how her beauty perhaps kept her from developing other parts of her personality. Caroline seems miscast but applies herself well, her character’s insecurity feeling genuine even if her devastation is not. Caroline looks like she is still in high school, smart skirt and pumps notwithstanding, and she doesn’t seem to have experienced a real heartbreak yet, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. Her apparent inexperience in acting worked for her in a way; her sometimes stilted line readings gave her an otherworldly presence, perhaps unintended but still interesting.

Reasons to Be Pretty is staged in the round in the wonderfully small Green Room at The Garden Theatre. Director Patrick McGregor II shoots for a minimalist approach and it scores, with the barest essentials needed to convey locations on display when needed. The funniest set piece is that of the bed that opens the show, which is nothing more than a frame with a comforter on it – no pillow, no mattress. Talk about uncomfortable, but I’m sure that’s the point; the hard bed is a perfect visual metaphor for the state of Greg and Steph’s relationship. The limited lighting works well, and I liked the confessional-type area where each of the four main characters have The Real World-like confessional monologues. I didn’t like the music that would play between scenes as it was too on the nose, commenting on the action or mood in a very paint-by-numbers way or just randomly trying to evoke the ’80s-early ’90s. I’m sure some quirky instrumental would’ve worked better and reminded people that it was a comedy, easy to forget when some of the funniest lines fly by at breakneck speed.

Neil LaBute writes dialogue that is often deceptively insightful while also being littered with expletives. In an effort to write more like how people talk, his work can sometimes sound a bit rough and unpolished. Still, Reasons to Be Pretty is a show that nearly demands a discussion afterwards, and it’s the perfect show for couples to attend with other couples. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship will recognize aspects of an ex or themselves in the characters, not exactly a good thing but telling nonetheless. I know I had a long, thoughtful discussion of the characters and situations after attending last night with my friend Jocelyn, and we were both glad we went. It isn’t a perfect production, but it’s thought provoking and entertaining – an admirable effort by a team of young performers still learning and growing.

** / out of ****

Reasons to Be Pretty continues through to July 12th in Columbus, OH, and more information can be found at http://www.shotsinthedarkitc.org/

Jocelyn Nevel and I at Reasons to Be Pretty.

Hand to God (Booth Theatre – NYC)

I was ready for an irreverent, foul-mouthed comedy that would make me laugh out loud, and that’s exactly what I got seeing Hand to God at the Booth Theatre. The play, written by Robert Askins, played MCC in 2014 and the Ensemble Studio Theatre from 2011-2012, and the advertising makes it seem like a cousin to Avenue Q. If having puppets and bad language is enough to link the two, then I guess that is correct, but Hand to God more than stands on its own.

The story takes place in a church in rural Texas where Margery (played dangerously and deliciously by Geneva Carr) is leading a church puppetry group that includes her son, Jason (Steven Boyer), a misfit named Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), and a rather brainy girl named Jessica (Sarah Stiles). Margery’s husband died six months prior, and she has thrown herself into making this small puppet group a success. Timothy is attending the group to basically harass everyone else, especially Jason, poking fun at his puppet, Tyrone. One of the play’s best lines occurs very early when Jessica accuses Timothy of being gay when he is certainly anything but. He retorts, “Let’s see if you can taste the gay when I nut in your mouth!” Half of the audience roared, and I’m sure half wasn’t sure what he meant. I was a roarer.

With the taunting by Timothy, the pressure by his mother to participate in the puppet group, and the pain from his father’s death, Jason develops an alternate personality embodied by his puppet, Tyrone. Tyrone is blunt where Jason is shy and backward; Tyrone curses and calls people out on their crap while Jason remains quiet and reserved. Needless to say, when Tyrone fully emerges he wrecks quite a bit of havoc. So skilled is Steven Boyer at playing both Jason and Tyrone that I accepted them as separate entities, as does his mother Margery and Pastor Greg (Marc Kudish, looking bow-legged in his khakis – not sure if it is the khakis, the way he is carrying himself, or if he actually IS bow-legged, but I’ve never noticed it when I’ve seen him before), both of whom think the puppet is possessed by Satan. Jessica, the object of Jason’s affection, knows what is really going on and hatches a plan of her own to (hilariously) deal with the situation.

If director Moritz von Stuelpnagel fails the material at all it is near the end when there is some shocking violence that is so well handled and intense that it makes it difficult to laugh anymore. Or perhaps the playwright made things too deadly serious at the end, shifting the tone unnecessarily. Even if the play does fizzle out at the very end, the rest of it is so terribly enjoyable and wild and the small cast so game and talented that I recommend it to anyone not offended by simulated sock puppet fellatio. It’s real, people, and it’s beautiful.

*** out of ****