Issue 68 - February 2012 Shadowbox gives the date of this review as March 20th, 2012
Shadowbox Live Stage 2
The Brewery District
by Rick Brown
After nine years of reviewing Shadowbox Live, I have seen firsthand the big difference between this troupe and others that I have both attended as well as critiqued. Most theater groups put on one performance. There is an opening night followed by a run of a month or more, sometimes on the road. One show performed over and over to a new audience each night.
Not so with Shadowbox Live. And this is what makes the troupe so endearingly different. Not only do they have three or four shows running at one time, members write sketches, cook, wait tables, clean up, sing and dance … the whole nine yards and more.
While this is a terrific dynamic it does present challenges unique to Shadowbox Live. Opening night can be an enigma for any group of entertainers. But this troupe is always asking their audiences what they think … because they really want to know. Really. Their presentations offer a synergistic evolution. With Shadowbox it’s always about the process.
So after seeing the premier of Torch Songs a few weeks ago I honestly must admit … this writer was nonplussed. Not that the original show was bad … far from it. But it was long, heavy, serious, and a little plodding … in a word: dreary. And when you are trying your hardest to get people to come to downtown Columbus, Ohio on a Wednesday night, the last thing you want to do is depress the hell out of them.
After talking with several of the players I was made aware of a reformatting of Torch Songs and invited to see it. I was glad to oblige. After all, I see most of Shadowbox Live’s performances at least twice, first as a critic … then as a supporter … and I have always enjoyed seeing how they have improved the presentation.
For the 2nd opening night (so to speak) the performance was not merely pared down, but rather compacted … concise. Several poems/monologues have been dropped, a couple of which I thoroughly enjoyed the first time. But the flow is so much better now. Rearranging and incorporating songs strategically into a Blanche monologue from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, set in a bar, is a brilliant move. This allows Betsy Shortt (Blanche) to give a measured, dramatically intense performance. With the subtle tension of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” (amazingly nuanced by Amy Lay), Stephanie Shull’s wonderful “Chinese Cafe” (Joni Mitchell), Julie Klein’s beautiful “Bright Lights and Promises” (Janis Ian) and the reminiscence of Stev Guyer’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” (Paul Simon) the scene is riveting, starkly serious without being overwrought. The presentation elevates both the music and the skill of Ms. Shortt’s performance.
Because of this “Murder by Midnight” (a comedic short one act by Jeff Goode) ends Act 2 more as a humorous palate cleanser rather than a stark 180 turnaround. JT Walker III is delightfully bumbling as the hotel detective and Edelyn Parker is frantically funny as a woman whose husband has just been shot. Brandon Anderson (The Bellhop) provides a deadpan dynamic to the sketch. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Ms. Parker wears a bath towel well.
The first half of Torch Songs is tweaked slightly as well. Kara Wilkinson opens with a lovely rendition of the Beatles “Something” and JT Walker III charms his way through Michael Buble’s “The Way You Look Tonight”. Director Stev Guyer appears to have softened the characters a touch in Lewis J. Carlino’s “Snow Angel”. Mary Randle’s Connie (an aging prostitute) and David Whitehouse’s John (the uh … John) are less angry and more fragile, giving them approachability. Connie’s “Queen of the Jelly Bellies” and John’s demand for “affection” implicates the intimacy we all desire. The play is still gut wrenching, but both actors display their despair more openly … more humanely. This helps make “Snow Angel” universal in its portrayal of our mutual brokenness, our unifying human condition.
And punctuating “Snow Angel” is Noelle Grandison’s gentle and healing “Come Away With Me” (Norah Jones) ending Act I. Likewise, moving the magic of Brandon Anderson and Jennifer Hahn’s duet “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Prince) puts a communal closure on Torch Songs for the audience.
Musically I have to mention the upright bass playing of Lo Smith, a great visual and a nice touch for Torch Songs as well as the tasteful breaks on a few numbers by saxophonist Ron “Sax” Johnson. His sax provides a fragile urgency to the songs that is delicious to the ear.
Shadowbox Live is doing so many diverse performances at once. I am amazed by their versatility. And I think it may take some time before the old 2Co’s Cabaret crowd realizes that the shows are really back on Wednesday nights. 2Co’s and Shadowbox Cabaret were in two separate locations after all. Soon people might want to hear some poetry … some more monologues. I believe artistic prose and Beat culture will have an audience once Stage 2 Productions is around a little longer … once interested people are more aware.
Torch Songs is a wonderfully poignant and moving production. It reminds us that we all anguish together in the present, or the tomorrow … that we are all together in this world. And despite any adversity, we can reach out to each other.
Torch Songs runs
Wednesdays at 7:30 in the World Building downtown at Shadowbox Live. For more
information please go to: http://www.shadowboxlive.org/