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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/.

 

Falcon’s “A Great Wilderness” is Topical and Provocative

Review by Laurel Humes: A Great Wilderness: Falcon Theatre

Falcon Theatre closes its season with a drama about a hot-button topic – conversion therapy, or trying to change a person’s sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.

Whoa. But before you stop reading, know that A Great Wilderness has no for/against opponents shouting at each other, no preachers quoting or misquoting the Bible. This is a quiet play, not without tension, but more about individual motivations.

Walt (Allen R. Middleton) has devoted his life to counseling teenage boys out of their homosexuality at his Idaho wilderness camp. His reason is soon revealed, and it is deeply personal.

Plans have been made for Walt to retire to an assisted living facility, mostly by his domineering ex-wife, Abby (Arlene Borock-Balczo), who fears he is slipping into dementia. Unknown to her, Walt takes on one more client, Daniel (Caleb Farley).

Even if you are opposed to Walt’s mission, it is difficult to dislike him. Middleton’s portrayal is of a gentle man. He’s big, but rumpled and stooped; even the seat of his corduroy pants droops.

But Farley’s Daniel is scared. What is going to happen? Will there be shock therapy? His parents haven’t told him anything.

The first scene is just Walt trying to soothe Daniel, asking easy questions and really listening to the answers. But then – boom – Daniel goes out for a walk, disappears, other characters appear, and you start to question: What is this play really about?

Stick around for Act 2, much stronger and more compelling.

There is fine acting in A Great Wilderness. Middleton seems not to play Walt, but to embody the character, who is still suffering from personal tragedy 30 years ago and now – at this end of a career he made for himself – doubting his purpose. Farley, as Daniel, especially shines in a second-act near-monologue (sorry, that may be a spoiler).

Borock-Balczo portrays Abby as brisk and controlling, but still capable of sharing tears with Walt over the tragedy they shared. Holly Sauerbrunn is very good as Daniel’s mother, conflicted between her love for her son and her husband, who has given up on him.

A Great Wilderness, ably directed by Clint Ibele, is sure to provoke post-show discussion. And that is a hallmark of good theater.

A Great Wilderness continues Thursday-Saturday through May 19 at Falcon Theatre, 636 Monmouth St., Newport. Tickets are available at 513-479-6783 or at http://falcontheater.net.

Incline’s “Bye Bye Birdie” Soars

Review by Laurel Humes of Bye Bye Birdie: Incline Theatre

Bye Bye Birdie is just plain fun, the perfect opener for the easy-going summer season at Warsaw Federal Incline Theater.

The musical now is nearly 60 years old, inspired by Elvis Presley, his fanatical teenage fans, and the period when the famous singer was drafted and served in the Army. Still, the show and especially the songs seem fresh and relevant.

There is much to enjoy in Incline Theater’s production, starting with the darling “Telephone Hour” number. Staged on a Hollywood Squares-type set (another historical reference!), teenage boys and girls are all on their phones, abuzz with the news that Kim (Mikayla Renfrow) and Hugo (Joel Parece) are pinned.

The high-energy number is a preview of what we’ll see throughout the show – the teen ensemble is comprised of talented young singers and dancers, drawn from area colleges. Kudos right away to choreographer Jeni Bayer Schwiers and costumer Caren Brady (poodle skirts!).

Meanwhile, there is an adult love story between Albert (Jeremiah Plessinger) and his long-suffering secretary and fiancé Rose (Renee Stoltzfus). Albert is songwriter and manager for heartthrob Conrad Birdie (David Emery). Revenues will plummet during Birdie’s Army stint.

But here’s the gimmick that brings everyone together. Send Birdie to Sweet Apple, Ohio, for “One Last Kiss” to local fan club president Kim, and a whole lot of media coverage (remember the Ed Sullivan Show?).

There are some fine performances. Plessinger is a smooth singer, and the “Put On a Happy Face” number also shows off his dancing and acting talents. Stoltzfus’ Rose is fiery and funny; her comedic acting gift, along with great singing and dancing, are on best display in her “Spanish Rose” solo.

Mikayla Renfrow, a musical theatre student at UC’s College Conservatory of Music, certainly has a great career ahead of her. She has natural stage presence, paired with a wonderful voice.

There is a comic tour de force by Angela Alexander Nalley as Albert’s overbearing mother, doing all she can to break up his romance with Rose. Dylan McGill is funny as Kim’s father, doing his best impression of Paul Lynde, the comic actor who played the role on Broadway and in the movie. “Kids” is a standout number, with McGill and Samantha Stapleton as his wife.

Bye Bye Birdie, directed by Tim Perrino, is a lively, entertaining evening of theater.

The show continues through May 27 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 “Bye Bye Birdie” Brings Happy Faces All Around

Review by Doug Iden of Bye Bye Birdie: Incline Theatre

Elvis is in the building – sort of.  The 1960’s spoof on Elvis Presley’s military service, Bye, Bye Birdie, opened at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater amid energetic music and gyrating bodies, straight out of that era.

When the play was originally shown, the producers did not expect a long shelf life but, here we are, almost 70 years later, and the effervescence of the musical continues.  The show is pure fun, pure entertainment while poking a few satirical jabs at the cult of celebrity.  The show has become a bit of a cult classic but, in my judgement, it’s the exuberant dancing, uplifting songs and over-the-top enthusiasm of the cast that carries the performance.  That’s why we still watch it today.

The story line is pretty simple.  Conrad Birdie, a parody of an out-of-control rock and roll phenom, has been drafted, much to the consternation of this manager, Albert Peterson (played enthusiastically and somewhat naively by Jeremiah Plessinger who is becoming a Covedale/Include regular.  Peterson’s agency is having financial difficulties and the impending loss of his star could be catastrophic.  However, his long-suffering secretary/girlfriend Rose Alverez, portrayed by Renee Stoltzfus, wants Albert to quit the agency, marry her and become “An English Teacher” which she intones in a wistful but frustrated tone.

To accomplish her goal and guarantee financial stability, Rose conjures up the scheme to have a televised special with Birdie and a devoted teenage girl singing a new song written by Albert called “One Last Love”.  She arbitrarily picks a name from the Conrad Birdie fan club file, Kim MacAfee (Mikayla Renfrow) from rural Ohio.  The plan is for Birdie to visit Sweet Apple, stay with Kim’s family and then appear remotely on the Ed Sullivan Show singing the new song.  Kim is momentarily mesmerized by Birdie, much to the chagrin of her recently pinned steady Hugo Peabody (Joel Parece).

Another interesting side story is the constant guilt trip foisted on Albert by his mother, Mae (Angela Alexander Nalley).  Mae’s scathing wit (in a politically incorrect manner) is aimed at Rose as Albert’s mother tries to sabotage the relationship with her son. Never fear – it all works out in the end.

Birdie is definitely a throwback to old fashioned musicals with a lot (did I say a lot) of music and dancing.  There is a dance routine in virtually every scene, choreographed by Jeni Bayer Schwiers from solo performances to stage-filling numbers.  Increasingly, Incline is casting college students and alumni which enables young dancers to show off their talents in big production numbers such as “Honestly Sincere” and “A Lot of Living to Do”.  Renee Stoltzfus as Rose excels in several dance numbers including “An English Teacher”, “What Did I Ever See in Him” and the hilarious “Spanish Rose” when she tries to seduce some Shriners while cavorting under a table.

Another highlight is Dylan McGill as Kim’s father Harry MacAfee.  McGill mirrors, and at times seems to mimic, Paul Lynde who originated the role on Broadway and reprised the character in the movie.  He is normally angry and frustrated when he sings the ironic song “Kids” with his family but then assumes an angelic pose as the family sings “Hymn for a Sunday Evening” about the Ed Sullivan show.  Plessinger portrays a pleasant but often befuddled and overwhelmed Albert but delivers some good songs including “Baby, Talk to Me”, “Rosie” (a duet with Rose) and the classic “Put on a Happy Face”.  I was most impressed, however, with Mikayla Renfrow (a sophomore to be at CCM) who has an engaging personality and an excellent voice.  She has a real future in musical theater.  David Emery was appropriately arrogant and disdainful as Birdie.

Brett Bowling’s sets add significantly to the show with very brightly colored boxes which serve as the interior of the MacAfee house, the stairs of the town hall and other locations.  Caren Brady’s costumes blend with Bowling’s sets with very bright colors for most of the cast but contrasts with Alberts somewhat drab hues.  Director Tim Perrino keeps the show moving briskly and Steve Goers directs the band.

The show is unapologetically escapist theater but, if that’s what you like, Birdie delivers.  This was the first rock and roll Broadway show with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams but Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis don’t need to worry about the competition.

So, don’t say Bye Bye, say Hello Hello to this delightful show running at the Incline theater through May 27.  Their next production is Once On This Island opening June 6.