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One, One, Zero: A Review of Know Theatre’s “Ada and the Engine”

Review by Alan Jozwiak of Ada and the Engine: Know Theatre

01000001 01100100 01100001.

These are not random numbers, but binary code for the name “Ada,” the titular protagonist who appears in Know Theatre’s latest production Ada and the Engine.

Penned by Lauren Gunderson, who wrote the powerful and moving Silent Sky that Know Theatre produced in 2016, Ada and the Machine tells the story of Ada Lovelace (née Byron), who has to overcome the checkered past of her father, the scandalous poet Lord Byron.

Along way to respectability, she marries Lord Lovelace (Cary Davenport) and becomes close friend with Charles Babbage (Brian Griffin), who theorizes about a computational machine that ends up being the forerunner of the modern computer.

As much of a play of ideas as it is a bio play on the life of Ada Lovelace, Ada and the Machine is blessed with an outstanding cast. Tess Talbot is perfectly cast as Ada. Talbot is equal parts blazing intelligence and burning passion as the role of Ada, being more interesting in talking mathematics with Babbage than gaining social standing and reputation through her husband. This is one of Talbot’s best works yet for Know Theatre and is a real tour de force performance.

Brian Griffin delivers an equally powerful performance as Charles Babbage, perfectly capturing the essence of the character—a man overwhelming obsessed with his work who shows equal parts of ego and gentleness towards Ada. This was the best role I have ever seen Griffin deliver and it was delightful to see both him and Talbot on stage together. Both actors have great chemistry and work well off each other.

Rounding out the cast was Cary Davenport as Lord Lovelace and Annie Fitzpatrick as Ada’s mother Anne Isabelle Byron. Davenport plays the comic foil in this piece, allowing the audience to play along with his character’s ignorance. Similarly, Fitzpatrick does a nice job playing the widow of Lord Byron. She beautifully plays the prim and proper mother trying to steer her daughter to social respectability.

Playing on the machine motif within the play, director and scenic designer Andrew J, Hungerford the set has gears/machine parts stenciled on the floor, as well as having metal bar doors which swing to allow actors to enter and exit the stage. Metal panels also cover the back stage and end up being used to great effect at the end of the production.

Second, Hungerford added an interactive cell phone element by using Mosho, a app which played the song the actors were singing at the end of the show. I could not get the app to run on my cell phone, but this app shows promise for getting audience members more engaged in the show.

Ada and the Engine was a fascinating and riveting play full of witty banter, complex characters, and unfulfilled promises (Spoiler: Ada does not get a chance to see the engine created).

Go see this show (or in binary numbers) 01000111 01101111 00100000 01110011 01100101 01100101 00100000 01110100 01101000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01110011 01101000 01101111 01110111. For fans of Silent Sky, as well as those loving a strong theatrical production that makes you think, this is a must-see performance.

Ada and the Engine runs April 13 to May 12, 2018. For more information, please visit Know Theatre’s website https://knowtheatre.com/season-20/ada/.

CSC’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is “Must-See Tennessee”

Review by Liz Eichler of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Cincy Shakespeare‘s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is must-see Tennessee Williams. The production, directed by Michael Evan Haney, delivers visually, with actors exploring the complicated characters with passion and gusto, and is a powerful use of CSC’s new space.

The playwright, of course, needs some credit.  Williams crafted this family drama that uncovers the convolutions of a Southern American family in the 1950’s. The play is about Maggie, trying to salvage her marriage to Brick, the son of Big Daddy, a plantation owner who is celebrating his 65th birthday. Thinking he just survived a cancer scare, Big Daddy is planning for a successor, hoping it to be Brick (who is currently drinking away the memories of his deceased best friend), ignoring his oldest son, lawyer Gooper and his wife Sister Woman and their 5, soon to be 6 children. He’s also ignoring his devoted wife, Big Mama, and the preacher, doctor, and house servants who have also gathered for the occasion. In the world of the 50’s and the family, Maggie knows a child is the only way to legitimize her and Brick’s place in the family, so she desperately tries to understand why he drinks and why he is pushing her away.  

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has such a deep bench that even smaller roles are played fully and with such skill, for example, Nick Rose, who just floored audiences with his Iago in “Othello,” shows the richness of his craft as the Doctor. But it’s Jim Hopkins as Big Daddy who governs the show.  It’s a role I’ve hoped to see him portray for years—and he’s big, blustery, and drives his agenda. Maggie Lou Rader as Maggie exudes sensuality. Grant Niezgodski as Brick athletically covers the stage, on one foot and a crutch. Directed for modern sensibilities, Brick explores a wide range of emotion, and Maggie’s demonstrates strength as well as nervous desperation as a cat trying to stay on a hot tin roof. It is a great ensemble of performers. Amy Warner provides a loving yet quirky Big Momma, Justin McCombs is the dutiful Gooper, Kelly Mengelkoch is the delightfully pregnant and interfering Mae, Paul Riopelle is the Reverend with his hand out, and Ernaisja Curry, Candice Handy, Luke Randazzo, Charlotte and Henry Weghorst round out this amazing production.

The play is told in “real time,” with the action portrayed lasting the span of an evening, all taking place in Brick and Maggie’s bedroom, a beautiful, historic pressure cooker.  The shouts of the party outside, the noneck monsters” running into the bedroom in the middle of heated conversations, and the thunderstorm are all visible because of the gorgeous louvered doors that open to the wisteriacovered veranda. Shannon Moore (Set Designer), Abbi Howson (Costume Designer) and Justen N. Locke (Lighting Designer) have really nailed it this time, showing off the new theatre to the hilt. Special kudos to authentic costume details, from garter belts to Big Momma’s corsage and wig.

The play is told in 3 acts, with Maggie dominating the stage and unfolding the story in the first act. Each piece of this story is deep and layered, exploring how this (and every?) family lies to each other, can be greedy, and filled with members who do not understand each other—or themselves.  See “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof” and continue the conversation—what do you think happens next?

“Cat on A Hot Tin Roof” plays through April 28. For tickets go to cincyshakes.org.  

“Ada and the Engine” Delightfully Shares the “Herstory” of Computers

Review by Liz Eichler of “Ada and the Engine”: Know Theatre

If you haven’t heard the story of Ada Byron Lovelace, I wouldn’t be surprised.  She was a woman, born in an age in which her job was simply to marry well and bear children, not bringing attention to herself.  In fact, her whole life was about disconnecting with gossip that started before she was born, about her famous but absent father, the poet Lord Byron. Her mother turned her to book learning, logic and math,and she moved in social circles connecting with the brightest minds of the day. “Ada and the Engine” is the story of Ada and her relationship with Charles Babbage, credited as the founder of the computer. Know Theatre’s production beautifully brings to life not only Ada’s drive, but how society limited her, and how some scientists limit themselves.

Tess Talbot brings a wonderful energy to the role of Ada.  She is passionate about math and music as well as escaping her mother’s firm grasp. She shares the joy in discovering the enormous difference between zero and one, the theme of the play as well as the underpinnings of computer language. She is caught between zero and one, as an unmarried woman she is nothing, but gains respectability and title when she marries and has children, dropping her connection with Babbage. But children and her social role, however, drain her physically, and pulls her back toward zero. Back and forth between zero and one, within that space is the whole universe, she discovers.

Brian Griffin is a marvelous Charles Babbage, brilliant but difficult, prone to theory, but not very practical nor understanding of the politics of the age. He and Ada make a wonderful team, and although she is exuberant and prone to impulse, she appears practical. Annie Fitzpatrick plays Ada’s mother and tutor, both proper and firm Victorian women. Cary Davenport is the aristocratic Lord Lovelace.  The ensemble slips in and out of the scenes seamlessly as the action moves forward, using the large revolving doors, adding a mechanical energy. Andrew J. Hungerford directs and is also responsible for the set and lights. He again tops himself in scenery design, with his amazingly simple metallic machinery, echoing both a library and an engine. Douglas Borntrager adds sound and projections, including an interesting app you’ll hear about during the production. (Know Theatre again earns its reputation as a place to play and experiment!)

This is a joyful, well-told piece of herstory.  The play by Lauren Gunderson is strong, engaging and generally stays close to the published accounts of Ada’s life, until it takes off into another realm where Gunderson must rely on her imagination and storytelling to power her agenda. The production flies, as you just want to know more about Ada, and her relationship with Babbage. The musical elements in the second act are lovely, but the lighting felt limited, when perhaps it was a moment to turn it up to 11.

This is a piece of must-see storytelling—putting faces and names on the invention of the computer—equally enjoyable as a date-night for adults or as a lesson in STEAM education for teens and tweens.  “Ada and the Engine” continues through May 12.  For tickets contact knowtheatre.com.

Etcetera, etcetera and so forth: A Review of Broadway in Cincinnati’s “The King and I”

(Continued)

Broadway in Cincinnati Stages “The King and I” with Pomp and Spectacle

Review by Ted Rice of The King and I: Broadway in Cincinnati

When the curtain opened last night at the Aronoff Theater, theater-goers were transported into Siam in 1862 via a large wooden ship that sailed downstage towards the awestruck audience. Combined with a radiant sunset that painted the sky and the opening Eastern influenced overture, one could almost smell the spices of a Bangkok bizarre located just off stage.

Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I arrived in Cincinnati for sixteen performances that will run through April 22nd. Following four Tony Awards in 2015 including Best Musical Revival, the Lincoln Center Theater’s production has been highly anticipated and did not disappoint the packed opening night house.

​The story follows schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens (Elena Shaddow), who is brought to Bangkok to educate the multitudinous children of the King of Siam (Jose Llana). Anna and her son have been promised a lovely home separate from the palace, but upon arrival they have been told that they will be required to reside in the palace. Soon after a slave named Tuptim (Q Lim) also arrives at the palace as a gift for the King. She is secretly in love with Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), a scholar who is studying the design of the temple.

The children and wives of the King are enthralled by their new tutor, but the King finds himself at odds with Anna over her lessons about life outside of Siam and her strong-willed nature that is antithetical to the other women in his life. This is a common struggle throughout the musical as the King finds difficulty in welcoming western culture and hanging on to the culture and society that has given him absolute control and riches.

In Act Two a play-within-a-play written by Tuptim and based upon Uncle Tom’s Cabin gives the audience a chance to see the two cultures colliding on stage in the form of a narrated ballet. The strong symbolism of Stowe’s classic anti-slavery novel being performed for the King is a powerful respite from the struggles of palace-life, but its true meaning isn’t lost on anyone. The balancing act of western and eastern cultures is fully on display as the classic, restrained beauty of Catherine Zuber’s costume design and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography take center stage.

First performed on Broadway in 1951, The King and I bears very little resemblance to today’s fast paced musicals such as Dear Evan Hanson and Hamilton. The transitions are slow, the songs favor ballads that showcase the singers’ gorgeous voices, and there are definitely scenes that could be trimmed to streamline the production, but the show is a revival. It not only takes the audience to 19th century Siam, but it transports the audience to the mid-20th century Golden Age of musical theater.  As most current musical theater offerings tend to be Jukebox musicals and shows based on popular movies, it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to witness this classic production that is unwavering in its tradition.  A powerful story, brilliant performances by Broadway veterans, and classic Rogers and Hammerstein songs should pack the Aronoff every performance of its Cincinnati run.

“The King and I” Has Us Whistling A Happy Tune at the Aronoff Center

Review by Spenser Smith of The King and I: Broadway in Cincinnati

Talking with several friends during intermission of the near-capacity opening night of The King and I at the Aranoff, one could better understand how many dull productions have come before this 2015 Bartlett Sher revival. No synonyms can be used to describe the gorgeously captivating production currently on tour through August.

The story follows Anna Leonowens (Elena Shaddow) who has been contracted to tutor the many children of the King of Siam (Jose Llana). All 77 of them. Well, only those that “are worthy.” Minus the setting and 70 children we’ve got The Sound of Music. Anyway, the King is resistant to some of Anna’s teachings. He doesn’t understand how an all-knowing King wouldn’t already know the world is round or where to find his kingdom on a map etc, etc. Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla), the head wife, informs Anna that the King is not happy with the outside world’s view that he is a “barbarian” and the imminent arrival of a British envoy would be their chance to set the record straight. Hilarity ensues during “Western People Funny” when the wives attempt to master English customs overnight. The ballet performance of “The Small House of Uncle Tom” impresses the British envoy (and us) and Sir Edward is happy to report that the King is in no way barbaric. Shaddows’ portrayal of Anna is equal parts feisty and sincere. Her elegant soprano is effortless and despite less-than-stellar amplification you hear every word. Llana is a very funny King, but the more serious moments seem forced.

“Gorgeous” is the only way to describe designs by Michael Yeargan (sets) and Catherine Zuber (costumes). There was an audible gasp after the entrance of the navy blue curtains at the top of the second act. Curtains. It is quite obvious no expense was spared, although the set seemed very minimal for a three hour multi-location show featuring a cast of thirty seven. This gives due credit to the wonderful performances, gorgeous design elements and classic score by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Musical staging and choreography by Christopher Gattelli are on fine display during the second act ballet, which is truly breathtaking. I was told that moment in the show is often thrown away, but in this production it truly shines.

This is your reminder to arrive early and use the restroom before the show begins. Act One is every bit of ninety minutes, but you’ll be anxious for “Something Wonderful” in the second half.

The King and I continues at the Aronoff Center through April 22.

For tickets, visit the box office located at 650 Walnut Street , call 513-621-2787 [ARTS] or you can order online at cincinnatiarts.org.

Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” Shines at Human Race Theatre

Review by Liz Eichler of Brighton Beach Memoirs: Human Race Theatre

Neil Simon’s autobiographical trilogy, an homage to his childhood, army and early career, begins with Brighton Beach Memoirs. Dayton area audiences are lucky to see a warm and funny production, with some stellar performances, playing now through April 22.

Set in 1937, audiences meet the pubescent baseball fan Eugene Jerome (Eric Deiboldt) and his family as they manage their daily lives in a hardscrabble Brooklyn neighborhood, full of first generation Americans and recent immigrants, wary of the shadow of the oncoming WWII and worried about how they will scrape together money for the monthly bills. It is a play about Eugene as his comes to the end of his childhood, understanding the complicated relationships in a family, and writing it down in his diary, “The Unbelievable, Fantastic and Completely private Thoughts of I, Eugene Morris Jerome.” Deiboldt’s performance anchors the show with his physical and vocal performance as well as channeling Eugene’s positive energy.

His household is rather complicated, and straining at the seams, as his Aunt Blanche (Sonia Perez) and and her two daughters, voluptuous Nora and sickly Laurie, (Katie Sinicki and Julie Murphy) have squeezed into the small home with Eugene, his older brother Stanley (Richard Buchanan), and Mother Kate (Lisa Ann Goldsmith) and Father Jack (Rory Sheridan). The emotional exchange between the sisters Kate and Blanche is very powerful. We need more moms like Kate! The whole ensemble delivered solid performances.

Another solid performance is the set, designed by Dan Gray, a cutaway of the Jeromes’ worn but incredibly clean two-story house. With excellent lighting by John Rensel, we can focus on the small exchanges in the home as well as the activity when they are all gathered.

Director Marya Spring Cordes ensures the first act is brisk and full of laughs as we greet the household, yet the second act has a lot of heart, and maybe even a tear. Each character is well-defined and multi-dimensional.  Goldsmith’s Kate can be hard and dry, but warm and caring; Perez’s Blanche is weary and brittle, but discovers her strength; Sheridan’s Jack is brusque and weary, but listens and understands. Much more than a sit-com, you will leave the show with a warm smile.  For tickets, contact 937-228-3630 or go to www.humanracetheatre.org.

 

Cincinnati Shakespeare Tackles a Modern Masterpiece with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

Review by Doug Iden of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Maggie Lou Rader as Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

“Maggie the Cat” is sharpening her claws as Tennessee Williams’s classic American drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opens at the Cincinnati Shakespeare theater.  The Pulitzer Prize winning play tells the story of the moral decay, the dissolution and greed of an affluent Southern Mississippi family in the mid-1950’s when the family realizes that the patriarch is dying of cancer and has not prepared a will to disseminate the vast estate.  There are many intricate and interrelated themes which unfurl like a flag as the play progresses.  Even though this is not a Shakespeare play, there are many Shakespearean themes including social mores, sexual desires, intergenerational communications (or lack thereof), the prospect of imminent death, and an often-repeated word mendacity, defined by the characters as “lies and liars”.

The play opens in the bedroom of Brick Pollitt (Grant Niezgodski) and his wife, Maggie (Maggie Lou Rader) who are preparing for the 65th birthday of Brick’s father, Big Daddy, portrayed bombastically by Jim Hopkins.  Immediately, we see that all is not well between Brick and Maggie.  Brick has broken his leg trying to recapture his storied youth as a star football player by trying to leap hurdles while drunk.  They are childless and Maggie is trying to seduce her husband who clearly is not interested in her and takes refuge in a bottle.  Niezgodski is initially taciturn as Maggie rails about her treatment at the hands of Brick’s brother Gooper (Justin McCombs) and his wife Mae (Kelly Mengelkoch) and the feeling that the couple are colluding to steal the estate when Big Daddy dies.  However, as the act progresses, Brick becomes increasingly agitated when Maggie mentions his relationship with an old football teammate, Skipper, who committed suicide years before.  Brick’s friendship with Skipper becomes an ongoing question throughout the play until it finally explodes in a father-to-son discussion with Big Daddy.  How deep and how sexual was Brick’s involvement with Skipper?  The whole family assumes that it was immoral but Brick angrily rejects the notion.  Big Daddy accuses Brick of being disgusted with himself which is a contributing factor in his increasing alcoholism.  Brick, literally and figuratively, uses a crutch throughout the play as his impotency in life and in bed manifests itself.

In the third act (yes there are three acts with two intermissions), we see the web of deceit tightening on the entire family.  Gooper has called a family meeting (sans Big Daddy) to announce that the cancer diagnosis showed malignancy.  The family, including doctor, had lied to Big Daddy.  Gooper has developed a succession plan and is trying to convince Big Mamma (Amy Warner) to agree.

The acting in this show is superb with outstanding direction by Michael Evan Haney.  Niezgodski as Brick functions mostly as a somewhat bemused observer but becomes highly agitated when confronted with his relationship with Skipper and through the emotionally charged confrontation with Big Daddy.  The actor gets a lot of exercise lugging a plaster cast around the stage.  Rader (Maggie) moves seamlessly between seductress, sycophant with Big Daddy and outraged victim of Gooper and Mae’s sarcastic condescension.  Jim Hopkin is titanic and volcanic in his interpretation of Big Daddy.  Hopkins is a big man, replete with a bushy white beard, who intimidates and belittles everyone in the household except Brick. Brick is the only person whom Big Daddy likes and we see the softer side of the character in the man-to-man discussion with Brick.   Warner, as Big Momma, transitions from a cowered wife to a position of strength as she begins to assume the mantle of matriarch in the wake of her husband’s impending death.  Justin McCombs (whom we are used to seeing in comedic roles) is almost unrecognizable as Gooper who smarmily tries to steal the estate while still trying to gain the respect of his father.  Mengelkoch (Mae) is deliciously devious as she tries to drive a wedge between Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy.  Other characters serve small but significant dramatic roles.

The single set, which is Brick and Maggie’s bedroom, is an interesting mix of elegant affluence with some old-fashioned upholstery and a somewhat garish (for Big Daddy) chandelier which Big Mamma bought during a European spending spree.  Scenic Designer Shannon Moore states in an article in the playbill that the big question was: why does all the action take place in the bedroom?  Her answer was that this explained the lack of privacy in the family with no secrets because of constant eavesdropping.  The lighting adds to the scene with rear-screen projection which shows the passage of time.

This is a complex, multi-layered play which you would expect from an American masterpiece.  Overall, it is dark but there is considerable comedy sprinkled throughout as Williams spotlights the hypocrisy of the family and the social mores of an increasingly decadent South.  Also, please note, that there are many sexual references, some crude language and some nasty but unforgettable characters.

Overall, this has been an extraordinary season and this production is worthy of acclaim.  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Theater through April 28.  The next production is the classic farce Noises Off.