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Incline’s “Irma Vep” Shows the Dark Side of the Farce

Review by Laurel Humes of The Mystery of Irma Vep: Incline Theatre

The Mystery of Irma Vep, now onstage at Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, is a slapstick comic mix of werewolves, vampires and mummies, set in an English manor ruled by the ghostly portrait of the former lady of the house.

Oh, and two male actors play seven characters. The crew of dressers is larger than the cast!

But the real mystery is why Incline Theater chose to produce this play. All best efforts by the actors and technical crew cannot, in the end, overcome the weak script.

Incline has done top-notch productions of basically silly shows in the past. I’m remembering Rocky Horror Show last year and Monty Python’s Spamalot in March. Those shows mixed plenty of slapstick and over-the-top acting with an ingredient missing from Irma Vep – wit.

The 1984 play by the late Charles Ludlam is described as a satire of Victorian melodrama. I guess I missed that English lit course.

The Irma Vep of the title is the deceased first wife of Lord Edgar (Tyler Gau). He is now married to Lady Enid (Ryan J. Poole), who jealously wants to remove all traces of Irma from the home, including her candlelit portrait.

The two other major characters are the sometimes creepy manor staff, Nicodemus (Poole) and Jane (Gau).

There is a vampire attack. Edgar, a historian of Egypt, travels there hoping to find answers among the mummies. He is unknowingly swindled, in one of the show’s most humorous scenes.

Edgar returns with a sarcophagus, whose mummy joins the vampire and werewolf, plus human characters, as the mystery is eventually and slightly gruesomely solved.

For a gimmick, I guess, the playwright decided all the characters, human and otherwise, should be played by two actors. For the most part, Gau and Poole (and their dressers) do it well and stay in whichever character they are playing. The changes are quick, and off-stage voices used to good effect.

The cast was rewarded with laughs from an appreciative audience on a recent evening. Still, when this was the biggest laugh line – “Marry an Egyptologist and find out he’s hung up on his mummy” – I did long for Monty Python.

The Mystery of Irma Vep continues through Aug. 5 at Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, 801 Matson Place, in the Incline District of East Price Hill. For tickets, call 513-241-6550 or go to www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com.

Incline’s “Irma Vep” Provides Plenty of Summer Camp

Review by Doug Iden of The Mystery of Irma Vep: Incline Theatre

Consider Halloween in July. What could be better on a warm summer evening than visits from werewolves, vampires, ghosts, mummies and other assorted crazies?  This is not P. T. Barnum but rather the comedy farce The Mystery of Irma Vep which is now showing at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater.

This hilarious, bizarre and outrageous show parodies Victorian melodrama, horror stories and the Alfred Hitchcock movie Rebecca among others.  Two actors, Ryan Poole and Tyler Gau, portray multiple characters (both men and women) in a major acting tour-de-force.  Just keeping the accents straight ranging from Scottish to English to Egyptian and from male to female is a major accomplishment.  The play is propelled by quick cuts, lighting flashes, exaggerated expressions, rapid costume changes, sight gags and lots of door slamming.

There is a plot which parallels that of Rebecca but this is not a play where you worry much about the story.  The show is funny-bone driven and not plot or character driven.  Just sit back and allow the insanity to inundate you.  If you “go with the flow”, you’ll enjoy the play, but if you are trying to figure out what’s happening, you may get a little lost.  The humor derives from a combination of genre spoofing, physical slapstick and significant verbal innuendo with many deliciously outrageous puns.  There are also comedic allusions to other genres of movies, theater and music.

The story, such as it is, is about Egyptologist Lord Edgar who has remarried after the tragic death of his first wife Irma Vep (which is an anagram). He is entranced by the second wife Lady Enid but is still mesmerized by Irma.  Most of the action takes place in Lord Edgar’s manor home which is overseen by the maid (Jane) who is still distraught by Irma’s death and dutifully maintains a small shrine beneath Irma’s portrait in the living room.  A stableman, Nicodemus, is simultaneously trying to seduce Jane while fighting his own demons (wolves?).  Lady Enid is attacked by a monster (vampire?) which leads Lord Edgar to Egypt to find a missing tomb and seek answers from an ancient mummy.  Then the fun begins.

One of the zaniest aspects is the quick costume changing. Three dressers, Keri Baggs, Steven Ducker and Richard Zenk, are listed in the playbill helping the actors change costumes, designed by Caren Brady.  The costumes are fairly elaborate representing Victorian dress and the actors are frequently flipping between men’s and women’s costumes.  Sometimes the plot is advanced by one actor on stage and, at other times, you hear the action strictly by the voices of the characters off stage.  The foreign accents actually help distinguish between the characters when you cannot see them and both actors are true to the accents.

Director Bob Brunner keeps the action moving well assisted by a busy Stage Manager Holly Davis.

Lighting becomes a bit of a character as well with red (blood?) lights accenting the exaggerated horror plus frequent highlights of Irma Vep’s portrait which also bleeds at one point. The audio completes the illusion with a combination of eerie music, lightning flashes, a strange tapping sound and the frequent howling of wolves.

As usual, Brett Bowling’s set design plays a major role in the production. There is a static set this time with most of the action in the manor house but with a brief interlude into Egypt.  The main set is almost cartoonish in keeping with the play and somewhat reminiscent of the Addams Family comics.  There are two doors which receive a lot of action, one going into other parts of the house and one set of sliding doors leading to the outside.  An Egyptian sarcophagus (with a rather unusual cartouche) plays a significant role in the action.

So, if you haven’t taken your campy trip this summer and would like to ramp with Vep, spend some time in the “ghoul, ghoul of the evening” so the The Mystery of Irma Vep continues at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater through August 5.  Their next production is Jesus Christ Superstar running from August 15 through September 9.

Prepare to be Charmed by Incline’s “Once On This Island”

Review by Laurel Humes of Once On This Island: Incline Theatre

Enchanting is the one-word description of Once On This Island, now onstage at Warsaw Federal Incline Theater.

The musical is a fairy tale, where gods rule, and it’s a story of star-crossed lovers.

It’s also a story of class differences: two groups of people, poor and rich, share this Caribbean island. And never meet. Until … well, that’s the fairy tale.

The beautiful peasant Ti Moune (Shonda Moore) rescues the rich Daniel (Jared Roper) after he crashes his car in a storm. She nurses the unconscious young man, falls in love with him and imagines he loves her, too.

When his family takes him back to his side of the island, Ti Moune follows, against all advice. There she is shunned, then loved by Daniel, then – I hope you’ll see the show to learn the outcome.

Once On This Island is a collaboration of Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics), who also created the imaginative shows Ragtime and Seussical. The uniqueness of Island is the lively Caribbean style music and a script that is mostly sung, with limited spoken dialogue.

For Incline Theater, director and choreographer Jay Goodlett has created an enthralling and charming show. The 11-member cast is terrific.

In this story, four gods rule the lives and are worshipped by the peasants. It is no accident that our lovers meet. After hearing Ti Moune’s “Waiting for Life” plea for broader horizons, the gods bet on whether love or death is stronger.

DeAndre Smith is the commanding water god Agwe, who creates the storm that causes Daniel’s car crash. His finest onstage moment is “Rain.”

Tia Seay is earth mother Asaka. She leads a wonderfully sung and danced “Mama Will Provide.”

Brittany Hayes as love goddess Erzulie and Chandler Hoffer as death demon Papa Ge are on opposite sides of the bet. Both have strong voices and dance skills.

Other standouts are El More and Tim Judah as Ti Moune’s loving, protective parents.

Scenic designer Brett Bowling places us in the Caribbean with colorful hanging fabrics, palm trees, and a multi-purpose shack. Costumer Caren Brady’s bright costumes add much to the overall effect.

Once On This Island, first produced on Broadway 1990, just won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Thanks to Incline Theater, we don’t have to travel to New York to see a stellar production of this charming show.

Once On This Island continues through July 1 at Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, 801 Matson Place, in the Incline District of East Price Hill. For tickets, call 513-241-6550 or go to www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com.

 

 

Incline’s “Once On This Island” Celebrates the Power of Storytelling and Myth

Review by Doug Iden of Once On This Island: Incline Theatre

Care to take a trip to a Caribbean island complete with colorful natives, calypso music and enthusiastic storytellers?  If so, you can forget your plane ticket and merely sashay down to the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater for their latest production, Once On This Island. Based upon a 1985 novel by Rosa Guy, the play tells the redemptive story of a young, native woman whose love for a mixed-race man eventually helps to unite people of differing economic and social classes on a fictitious island in the French Antilles.

Part fantasy, part reality, the play opens with a tremendous storm which causes intensive flooding and the destruction of several villages. A young girl (Little Ti played by Kiree Harris) is stranded in a tree but is rescued and adopted by Mama Euralie (El More) and her husband Tonton Julian (Tim Judah).  They can not afford to raise the young girl but she is so adorable that they make the sacrifice.

The storytellers (the entire chorus) try to soothe the girl and tell her the story of the island in the song “Prologue/We Dance”.  The song relates the division between the black natives and the lighter-skinned French immigrants who live in mansions and plantations on the other side of the island.

Years later, the young woman (now called Ti Moune played by Shonda Moore) calls upon the gods to let her know their bidding.  The gods, including Asaka, Mother Earth (Tia Seay), Agwe, God of Water (R. Deandre Smith), Erzulie, God of Love (Brittany Hayes) and Papa Ge, Demon of Earth (Chandler Hoffert) belittle her in the song “Waiting for Life”.  Ti Moune is intrigued by the fast-moving cars driven by the elitist “grands hommes” but is horrified by an accident in which one of the drivers Daniel Beauxhomme (Jared Roper) is severely injured.  Despite fears from her village, Ti Moune nurses Daniel back to health using native medicines.  During her ministrations, Ti Moune falls for Daniel, who we later discover is already engaged to a woman of his own class, Andrea (Loren Richardson).

Ti Moune travels to the other side of the island with the help of the gods to find her love, and is confronted with the realities of the tension and prejudices between the two sides. Her enduring love leads to a tragic sacrifice but ultimately helps to reconcile the biases shown by both classes on the island.

This is an enchanting presentation of a seldom shown play.  It was, however, revived on Broadway in 2017.  The show is virtually an opera.  There is some dialogue, mostly spoken by the storytellers, but there are 23 songs in the production and, no, you won’t know any of them.  The music, a combination of calypso and other Caribbean motifs, is written by CCM grad Stephen Flaherty with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.  The duo later collaborated on Seussical and Ragtime.  All of the performers in the all-black cast have excellent voices led by Music Director Damon Stevens.  There is a lot of dancing and movement on stage as the ensemble flows between storytellers, villagers, gods and specific characters in the play.  The timing in this constantly moving show is crucial and well directed and choreographed by Jay Goodlett.

The set designed by Brett Bowling is intriguing with a distinctly shabby island appearance.  An enormous tree dominates one side of the stage with a variety of fabrics dangling from the ceiling while a dilapidated shack appears on the opposite side.  Various props including a car, a gate, risers and staves help propel the story.  There are several video projections showing the storm and Denny Reed has used lighting to good effect.

As villagers, the costumes designed by Caron Brady are colorful but simple and traditional but the gods are bedecked representing their various realms.  The God of Water looks like Neptune and the Demon has a skeleton mask reminding us of death.  Both Ti Moune and Little Ti Moune wear distinctive red dresses throughout which contrasts well with the other costumes.

This show is a fable depicting a culture we seldom see.  It takes a while to get into the show and follow the plot and it does require your close attention.  But, if you stay with it, the play is engaging and, ultimately, very satisfying. The redemptive quality in the end turns the tragedy into joy.

So, grab your Mai Tai and snorkels and wend your way to an island you probably have not visited before.  The next production at the Incline is the comedy, The Mystery of Irma Vep, running from July 11 through August 5

Lots of Low Brow Laughs in “Complete Works of Shakespeare” at Human Race

Review by Liz Eichler of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) Revised”: Human Race

If you want a guaranteed evening of laughs, see Human Race Theatre’s “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) Revised,” originally produced by the Reduced Shakespeare Company. You don’t have to know a lot about Shakespeare to enjoy your evening as it has all the comedic elements to guarantee giggles: silly sight gags, puns and word play, and jolly juxtapositions.

Almost as big of a star as Shakespeare, local legend Bruce Cromer is the elder statesman of the ensemble and alleged Shakespeare expert—he is, after all professor of theatre at Wright State University, and developed “the Cromer Method,” part of the good-natured fun of the banters and asides to the audience.

The two other performers, one a former pupil, can match or may even exceed Cromer in the antics required for this ridiculous farce. Jordan LaRoya manages most of the female characters with skill and connects well with the audience in all characters. Shaun Patrick Tubbs also presents directly to the audience and conjures up some great guffaws.

Without giving up too much, the team presents at least a portion of all of Shakespeare’s plays (and is prepared to do the Sonnets as well).  One is presented in four different ways!  Another is “Hamilton-ized!” The histories are all combined into one football game!  Director Aaron Vega ensures the actors cover the stage, the material, and local references well.

The set is full of the other stars of the show—the props.  Heather Powell, Prop Master, and Noelle Wedig-Johnston, Costume Designer, ensure that the audience has strong visuals, which range from a Godzilla costume to rubber chicken swords.  Cromer’s costume sets the tone with exaggerated Elizabethan ruff, colorful pumpkin breeches, ample codpiece, and shimmery pink lycra tights. There’s layers and layers of imaginative clothing choices and props all stored on an inviting set by Eric Barker, lit by John Rensel.  The lobby is covered with table games to get you in the mood for fun. (I recommend they engage the audience even more with a contest to identify which props were seen in previous shows—I recognized a few oversized items!)

So get ready for some audience involvement, with a play heavily sponsored by our friends at Heidelberg Distributing Company and Buckeye Vodka, as well as Marion’s, Emerson, and more. “Complete Works” runs through June 17.  Get your tickets at ticketcenterstage.com or call 937-228-3630.

 

CSC’s “Noises Off” Leaves Them Laughing

Review by Doug Iden of “Noises Off”: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

This is one of the funniest plays I have seen in a long time.  The problem is that you miss three jokes while laughing at the first one.  You may need to watch it several times to absorb all the humor. The play is Noises Off which opened at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company Theater.

This is a classic British farce with a few twists throw in.  It has the usual door slamming, misunderstandings, conflicting agendas and confused characters but part of the uniqueness is a play-within-a play format having actors first rehearsing a play, then performing the play while slipping back and forth between themselves and the characters they are portraying.  Trying to keep track of the actors and their characters becomes increasingly challenging as the evening progresses.

The play opens with a technical rehearsal of a fictitious show called Nothing On. We are first introduced to Cincinnati theater veteran Dale Hodges, a housekeeper in a wealthy English country home named Dotty Otley but portraying Mrs. Clackett (whose name is constantly mispronounced).  Mrs. Clackett is housekeeping for the tax-evading couple Philip Brent (played by Frederick Fellowes played by Justin McCombs) and Flavia Brent (Belinda Blair as really played by Kelly Mengelkoch).  The Brents are living out of the country but secretly return to Britain.  Meanwhile, a real estate agent (Roger Tramplemain, played by Garry LeJeune actually played by Jeremy Dubin) is trying to rent the house to Vicki (Brooke Ashton played by newcomer Brooke Steele).  (At least, she wouldn’t be confused about her first name.)  Joneal Joplin fleshes out the imaginary cast as a burglar who cannot remember when to make his entrance.

The technical rehearsal is continually interrupted by frustrated Director Lloyd Dallas (Brian Isaac Phillips) who is trying to finalize the show with an ill-prepared company who can’t remember their lines or the actions.  There is a hilarious ongoing routine where Dale Hodges’s character cannot remember the order in which she is supposed to answer the phone, get the newspaper and serve a plate of sardines.  (The sardines become an ongoing joke.  This is a British play, after all.)  Hodges plays a somewhat dim-witted, stodgy character but her actress persona is very sharp with money in the show while lusting for a younger man (Dubin).  We also meet the Stage Manager (Geoffrey Warren Barnes II) and his uptight assistant Poppy (Sara Clark) who are trying desperately to make the show work.  We see the entire first act of the Nothing On show through the rehearsal.  The remainder of the show builds on the play being presented because the second act depicts the opening night of the actual performance.

In the first act of the show, we see the ornate and sumptuous country home with characters coming in and out from backstage through various doors.  But, in the second act, the set literally swivels so we now see backstage which is dingy, unpainted and utilitarian.  The set, designed by Joe Tilford, almost becomes a character in the play.  First, we see the fantasy world of the illusory theater and then we see the harsh, drab reality of the real theater.  There is a third act (which is handled as a scene change) when the set revolves again with the culmination of the show.

Farce is reliant on exquisite timing as characters appear and disappear on the stage through doors.  The choreography of movement is critical and the cast’s timing is impeccable.  Much of this is due to (actual) Director Ed Stern.  The dialogue is also spoken with machine gun rapidity and often overlapping but the audience still has to hear the lines and the cast does this well.

Each of the characters has an alter ego so the actors have to play two different roles and, as usual, the Shakes cast is up to the challenge.  Each of the actors play their roles superbly with extra credit to Dale Hodges, Joneal Joplin, Jeremy Dubin and Kelly Mengelkoch.

The action on stage, especially in the second act, is non-stop and resembles a combination of a Nascar race and a demolition derby.  There are a billion sight gags and many continuing routines.  An example is the journey which a whiskey bottle takes.  Joplin’s character is an imbiber who continually tries to steal a bottle of whiskey which passes from character to character like a drunken relay race.  Another example is a three-ring circus routine where all of the characters are on stage doing various sight gags.  You, literally, cannot absorb it all.

This is the final play in Shakespeare’s initial season in their new digs and it has been an excellent journey.  My personal favorites have included Dracula, Othello, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and this one.   So, do yourself a favor and partake of Noises Off even though you may be in danger of splitting a rib from laughing too hard.

“Noises Off” at CSC: Doors and Sardines Will Never Get So Many Laughs

Review By Liz Eichler of “Noises Off”: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Justin McCombs in “Noises Off”

Audiences jumped to their feet in enthusiastic applause for “Noises Off,” playing now through June 9 at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.  They laughed, guffawed, chuckled, chortled, loud and long and clear–and you will too–with the hysterical premise and great performances of the CSC ensemble in this now classic farce or movement, mayhem, and missing sardines.

“Noises Off,” by Michael Frayn, is the story of a theatrical troupe trying to put on a show, but the backstage antics and characters, love triangles, and mishaps are more engaging than the story onstage.

One of the funniest is Brooke Steele as Brooke/Vicki, the blonde bombshell and exercise queen, who is the opposite of a method actress.  Brian Isaac Philips as the Director/Lloyd is appropriately “Godlike” and commanding, and quite good. Dale Hodges as Dotty/Mrs. Clackett captures the put-upon help as well as the confused cast member. Joneal Joplin as Selsdon/Burglar is both a seasoned performer and corner drunk. Jeremy Dubin as Garry/Roger is a pelvis-thrusting lothario to a jealous beau. Justin McCombs is a deliciously sweet bit of undercooked dough in Frederick/Philip. Kelly Mengelkoch is both a ray of sunshine and the glue that holds things together in Belinda/Flavia.  Sara Clarke and Geoffrey Warren Barnes II are the overworked and underappreciated Stage Manager and Assistant Stage Manager. The entire ensemble works so well together in this fast paced comedy.

The story is told in 3 parts—the first is Act 1, the second and third are in Act 2.  The first is the dress rehearsal—which the actors believe is just the tech—hours before opening. The second is the backstage version of events after the play has visited a number of cities, and the third is when the play “is on its last legs.” Third time’s a charm, with the audience shouting out the lines with the actors. Director Ed Stern orchestrated the intricate Swiss watch movement and motivation in this joyful piece. The timing is impeccable.

The audience loved this play, and it was one of the most varied audiences I’ve seen at CSC, especially regarding age. The teenagers, to the parents to the grandparent age responded viscerally on the preview I attended.

The set, by Joe Tilford, is a proscenium theatre, set with the interior of a mansion featuring a series of very study doors the actors are constantly opening and closing, going in and out, just missing each other–until they don’t. The staircase cut the view of those in House Left, so try to sit as centrally as possible, so you don’t miss a single gag. Props by Lacey Ballard (especially the sardines) and the multiple costume pieces (Reba Senske) are well done and integral to the plot.

This is a guaranteed laugh fest for all ages. You’ll feel like you’ve had a workout after watching the onstage activity and the backstage mayhem–and laughing so hard. Tickets are going fast for “Noises Off.” Contact cincinnatishakes.com for yours!

 

 

Without Water, Compass, or Food: Getting Lost in “A Great Wilderness” by Falcon Theatre

Review by Alan Jozwiak of A Great Wilderness: Falcon Theatre

A Gay conversion camp.

This is the least likely place to set a play, but it’s the setting for Falcon Theatre’s latest production, Samuel D. Hunter’s A Great Wilderness.  Known for such plays as The Whale and A Bright New Boise, Hunter’s plays explore the spiritual heart of the state of Idaho.

While the play is set in a gay conversion camp in Idaho, the audience is spared watching any conversions taking place.  Instead, A Great Wilderness explores what happens when Daniel (Caleb Farley) gets lost in the woods after coming to a gay conversion camp in the depths of the Idaho wilderness.

Retiring camp counselor Walt (Allen R. Middleton) takes on Daniel’s case to the consternation of his ex-wife Abby (Arlene Borock-Balczo) and his fellow counselor Tim (Kelly Hale). As Walt deals with self-recrimination at losing Daniel and his failing memory, he also has to deal with Eunice (Holly Sauerbrunn), Daniel’s worried mother, and a helpful Park Ranger Janet (Cat Cook).

Director Clint Ibele skillfully elicits sympathy for Walt while not passing judgement on his life’s work.  This was an impressive accomplishment because of the disreputable nature of gay conversion camps (they are condemned by every major medical and psychological organization in the United States).  The tone of this play could have easily become strident or partisan without Ibele’s care to give the audience the opportunity to see things from Walt’s point of view.  In so doing, we are asked not to agree with Walt, but merely understand where he comes from.

Allen R. Middleton’s portrayal of Walt was a study of understated acting excellence.  Middleton garners sympathy through his unassuming air and all-to-human struggle of dealing with memory loss and possibly dementia.  Middleton shines in his role when he plays off the gay teenager Daniel, as well as defending his choices to his ex-wife.  This was the best role I’ve seen Middleton perform and it was a standout performance.

Without going into detail in each of the characters, two other actors had nicely crafted supporting roles within this play were Holly Sauerbrunn and Cat Cook.  Holly Sauerbrunn’s Eunice captured the deep despair of a women who realizes that her son is gay and is powerless to accept that fact that her son might be loss—both in the wilderness forever, as well as lost from her because of his sexual identity.  Falcon newcomer Cat Cook plays a well-crafted Ranger Janet.  Cook was about the carry the weight of her responsibilities while also be caring and compassionate for Walt and his troubles.

While this play was not as strong as other Hunter plays I’ve seen (the play ends very abruptly without resolving a few of the conflicts that are raised within the play), the caliber of acting by Middleton and the solid direction by Ibele makes this a play that should not be missed.

A Great Wilderness runs May 4 to 19 (Thursday through Saturdays) at 8 pm in the Monmouth Street Theatre, 636 Monmouth St, Newport, KY 41071.  For more information on tickets, visit the Falcon Theatre’s website http://falcontheater.net/current-season/great-wilderness/.