Como Theatre: “Bent”

When Columbia Entertainment Company first discussed doing the play Bent by Martin Sherman I was a bit apprehensive. I wrote it off, thinking that a 1979 drama about gays in the holocaust was walking a thin line that I  wasn’t sure CEC could walk. Many of our audiences members haven’t enjoy the darker shows that we’ve done of late, such as Doubt or even Rabbit Hole.  While I thought both of these shows were well written, directed, acted and produced, our audiences often reacted that the show wasn’t something they were expecting. I worried a similar reaction to Bent could hurt CEC’s ability to produce such dark shows, especially with competition from other smaller theatre groups in town.

Jeff Neil, Joshua Johnson, Eric Seeley, Adam McCall and Nathan O'neil in Bent at CEC. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Hedrick

I realized something was different about this show after auditions. While director Meg Phillips only called for 7 roles for men, she was actually able to cast 12 men.  This showed me there was a large interest in the show and a strong passion for each of the actors to take a role that had little speaking lines. Many of the ensemble actors have been leads in past CEC and Columbia shows.  But, reading their biographies, you could tell that Bent was a show that they wanted to be a part of, regardless of their involvement.

My worries returned during the opening scene when  Max, portrayed by Adam McCall, entered the stage wearing not much more than a bathrobe and boxers. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen Adam on stage in such little of an outfit, but it was also accompanied by Max’s lover Rudy, portrayed by Joshua Johnson,  wearing a similar outfit. “Oh, no, ” thought, “it’s going to be an awkward show.” But, that’s when things changed.  Adam and Joshua felt so comfortable with each other that it comforted me. Their teasing and flirting was fun. I was even able to laugh, something I wasn’t expecting to happen in this show,  at several of the jokes Rudy threw at Max. I thoroughly enjoyed the first act, even with the darker and serious tone it switched to once Max and Rudy were caught by the Nazis.

While the first act was highlighted by two already close friends dealing with a difficult situation, the second act soared to greater heights with two people getting to know each other while trying to overcome insurmountable odds. There was great chemistry between Max and Horst (Nathan O’Neil), where it was easy to see the hours and days of practice that each actor put in to the characters.

Adam McCall, JD Nicols and Nathan O'Neil in Bent at CEC. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Hedrick

I don’t want to go on giving too much detail about this show, but do know that each and every portrayal meant something to each actor. They were there because they wanted this story to be told in Columbia. Even though Bent has been around for over 30 years we believe that this is the first time it has been produced in Columbia.  That to me is a testament to the theatre community in this town. My early worries appear to be unfounded. I’m glad that Columbia can support theatre like this.

Bent, at Columbia Entertainment Company (1800 Nelwood),  runs for only one more weekend, Thursday through Saturday (3/15-3/17) at 7:30pm and a final Sunday (3/18)  matinee at 2:00pm.  I strongly encourage you to come check it out.

CoMo Theatre: Behind The Scenes

I’ve been a lover of the stage since I was young. When I graduated from college I was glad to see that there was a vibrant community theatre scene here in Columbia, Missouri. I think that this scene was a driving force in helping me to decide to stay in this community and not venture off to the larger cities.  It is no wonder with so many opportunities for people of all ages to get involved in a production. I never realized how much hard work really goes into a show. While I did participate in shows as a kid, it was more expected, since every child has extra-curricular activities.   So, what makes being involved with theatre in Columbia so great?

Melting Pot: Theatre brings together people of different ages, different demographics, different classes, different sexual orientations, and different opinions.  This wasn’t always the case if you did theatre as a child. Often, you would be in shows with people your own age, or who went to your school. But theatre in Columbia brings together people from all across Mid-Missouri. I’ve had the opportunity to meet people I wouldn’t otherwise have met. This includes those who are CEOs of a major company, to high school or college students, to those between jobs or even those well employed. I’ve met devout Christians, devout pagans, transsexuals, conservatives, and liberals. Yet all these groups that otherwise wouldn’t interact come together with a collective goal, that doesn’t involve beating another team. I think this is where Columbia is special. We can be a large enough town to attract a large diversity of people and yet still small enough that we stay in our own social groups. Participating in theatre breaks these bounds and helps create a more cohesive community.

Camaraderie: It takes a long time to get a show ready to go on stage. For example, Columbia Entertainment Company’s next production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, held auditions on April 3rd. Their final performance will be on June 26th. That’s an entire quarter of a year of the same group of people working on one production. These actors have gotten together regularly every day for the past two months from 7pm to around 10pm working on their lines and music. They then have spent their weekends since late May building a set. It has involved headaches of having to replace an actor who dropped out, to having to deal with the regular drama that goes on behind any event. In the end, they’ll have a production they’ll be proud of. But, by June 27th it will be a memory. It is no wonder that some shows, such as the Maplewood Barn’s 2008 production of Plan 9 from Outer Space, still hold reunions years after the show has wrapped.

Not Food Centered: It seems that too often if you want to hang out with a group of friends, it involves food of some sort. Being in a production is different. There are times when building a set gives a feel of an old fashioned barn raising. You’re constantly talking with your fellow actor or crew and working out different problems.  In fact, when I’m in a show, I typically lose 10 pounds during the production. Now, while I would probably do better if this were an athletic event like softball, I’m just not an athlete. Plus, let’s face it, sometimes athletic events are just an excuse to go out drinking later, if not during.

It’s fun: There is nothing like coming together with people you hardly know to join forces and put together an event that will cause people to applaud.  We all like attention. Being in a production gives you that attention. Even if you’re a “small part” there will be someone in the audience who is watching you.

Volunteers: I think this is a fun thing about Columbia’s community theatre scene. Everyone involved is a volunteer. They don’t have to be there. They’re not being forced to be there. They are volunteering for an effort within the arts because, frankly, they like the arts. Sure, some positions, like a show director, get a small stipend, which for the number of hours a director puts into a show is mainly covers gas money. But, for the most part, everyone is there because they want to be. They put in a lot of hours and it shows.

In the future, I plan to write more for The Como Collective. Highlighting not only the shows (make sure to catch the female version of The Odd Couple coming up at Maplewood Barn) and actors, but also some of the planning that is involved in running a community theatre. From the high cost of royalties and marketing to the process of selecting a season to dealing with the regular drama behind the scenes.

The Stage: CEC Opens Sordid Lives

This past weekend Columbia Missouri’s  Columbia Entertainment Company opened the Del Shores-written play Sordid Lives, a tale of intertwined familial angst over relationships that didn’t turn out quite the way the  characters had hoped. This tongue-in-cheek dramedy which takes place in small-town Texas  and a therapist’s office in New York City in 1998 centers around the death of the family matriarch. The show delivers some over the top laughs while trying to send a deeper message of tolerance.

I haven’t been to a CEC production in years, and as I walked in I began to feel very nostalgic. Unfortunately for opening night the place was barely half-full, which was a shame. The actors really gave it their all, and even though for me this particular type of play was not my normal cup of tea (I normally gravitate towards more lighthearted and uplifting comedic fare) I was impressed with a few key actors and some one-liners that really zinged.

Without giving too much away – the show runs the next two weekends; go see it – the play is divided into four acts and tells the stories of friends and family caught up in narrow-mindedness and ignorant “this is how it’s always been” simplicity while trying desperately to keep their skeletons safely hidden away in the closet.

Even though opening night left the timing and flow of the show a little off, a few stand-outs in the cast deserve mention. Lena Ajans Mitchell as Sissy Hickey is wonderful in the role of the harried woman shoved in the middle of a family crisis, trying to keep her sanity and kick her smoking habit at the worst possible time. Dana Naylor as Noleta Nethercott is great as the prim, proper southern woman who will do anything to keep up appearances. Eric M. Seely as Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram practically carries an otherwise weaker third act with his outlandish yet sympathetic performance. But my favorite by far was the understated yet hilarious Dianna Long as Juanita Bartlett. Her one liners were well-delivered and brought out quite a few loud laughs from the audience.

The material of Sordid is pretty heavy at times, so it’s definitely for mature audiences only. Next up for CEC, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, coming up next month.

Columbia Entertainment Company is located at 1800 Nelwood Drive Columbia, MO 65202-2315. Sordid Lives plays May5th through 8th and the 12th through 15th . Tickets are $10 for adults, $9 for students, and $8 for seniors and children.  Check out the CEC website for more details.