From Columbus Monthly
Come to the cabaret
The inventive folk at Shadowbox Theatre put a little of everything into their cabaret evenings of theater, skits and music, and audience response borders on cultish.
Steve Guyer stands center stage wearing a gigantic sombrero, an ill-fitting serape thrown over his shoulder and an outlandish false handlebar mustache. In his cabaret role as one of the Llama Brothers, he holds a frighteningly massive pair of vise grips just above the crotch of his “brother,” a supine Chris Lynch. He announces, in an intentionally silly Latino accent, that he is about to perform a “llama-dectomy” on his ever-victimized brother. The audience roars with laughter.
Guyer is president, creative force and guiding light of Shadowbox, the thriving and irreverent theater company with an almost cultlike following. Tonight, a slight sweat breaking out under his sombrero, he holds the vise grips firmly and looks around at his Friday evening audience with a big, goofy grin, from one end of his fake mustache to the other. The crowd in the small theater loves it and laughs even harder.
Guyer, as host and head lunatic in this theatrical asylum, is enjoying himself, and so are his paying guests. They understand his unspoken message to them: Isn’t this, he asks, a hell of a lot of fun?
Guyer and his staff never miss a trick in making the audience feel a part of the antics, as he explains in an interview a couple weeks later. Shadowbox staffers even wait tables, before the show and during intermission.
“We have a literal contact with the audience,” he says, bemoaning what he views as a loss of “connection” between performers and audience in most arts experiences today. “It’s something when [audience members at Shadowbox] see their waiter on stage 15 minutes later. ‘Hey, isn’t that ...?’”
And he’s right. Just about everyone in the company who’s in the theater that night performs some part during a typical evening’s mix of proceedings on stage in the original, staff-written skits, singing or during some of the straight drama. Chris Lynch, the abused half of the Llama Brothers, doubles as marketing director. Public relations director Stacie Boord and personnel manager Stephanie Shull mingle and wait tables before the show, then pop up with the live rock ’n’ roll band once the cabaret portion of the evening’s entertainment begins. Boord, with a voice like a cross between Janis Joplin and Broadway star Patti Lupone, tears into the opening theme song (“We’re glad to see you at the cabaret/We hope you have a real good time/We’ve got three-cheese bread at the cabaret/We’ve got beer but don’t serve wine ...”), and the audience joins in without prompting, shouting “hoo-hoo” between lines. After a monologue (delivered by one of the band members), Boord and Shull appear at the microphone house-left of the stage for an impeccably performed duet.
Artistic director Rebecca Gentile, dressed in a frizzy blond wig, halter top and sarong, delivers soft drinks and beer to a table during intermission. In a second-act skit, she turns up on stage in a slinky nightgown and puffed-out black wig. Still, as Boord comments after the show, “She’s hard to miss. How many other 6-foot-tall women do you see here tonight?”
And then there’s what the Shadowbox performers do to the audience members. Guaranteed, during one of the longer skits some poor souls are going to be dragged on stage to take an active part in the shenanigans.
One evening’s antics grow out of a skit featuring Guyer as Russian movie director Boris Stroganoff and Shadowbox general manager Julie Klein as casting director Rachel Ranceed (accent on the last syllable). Guyer appears with beret and cane, his usual pigtail undone and his long gray-streaked hair flying wildly as he maniacally fake-limps about the stage as if his hair were on fire. Klein is wearing a preposterous gold lame dress stuffed with pillows, and her face is caked with makeup almost as thick as the actors’ fake accents.
A man in the audience wearing a polo shirt and shorts is commanded by Guyer/Stroganoff to come up on stage to take the place of “my missing star, Shrivel Andropov.”
The audience member, who clearly has been to the cabaret before and can just imagine what could happen if he joins these crazy people, demurs. But the rest of the theater audience roars with approval, and Guyer and Klein drag him on stage ... with help from servers and not a few of the other people at his table.
Once he’s on stage, Boord dashes out, as a makeup artist, sits him down and props herself on his lap. She slaps lipstick about his face, snatches away his eyeglasses and pulls up his shirt, as Guyer and Klein continue their rapid-fire dialogue (which sounds for all the world as if they’re making up most of it as they go along). Then he’s pushed into the thick of things and Klein/Rachel proceeds to clamber all over him. The man tries to read his lines off a cue card held by another Shadowbox cast member, but he’s having little luck getting all his words out.
As a finale, Guyer/Boris and Klein/ Rachel drink “a toast” from waiting glasses of water — but instead of drinking, they each inexplicably throw the water into their own faces. Then the audience member is handed a glass. He looks at the paper cup, then at Guyer and Klein. And he throws the water into Klein’s face.
The audience goes wild. In revenge, Klein dumps a cup of water on his head.
“People like to feel special,” Guyer explains later. “Yeah, we might abuse them, but they know it’s fun.”
Shadowbox offers a mixed program, changing monthly, of straight drama, music and the wildly popular cabaret skits ... or, as Guyer calls them in the British tradition, “sketches.”
“One of the things that’s so weird is the returning people,” he comments, shaking his head in amazement. “We’re asking them to come every month.”
The audience, he says, has “developed a connection to this space,” referring to their warehouselike building at 232 E. Spring St., which they moved into last autumn after relocating from the Buggyworks Building behind the old Penitentiary. It houses their sparsely decorated theater, their offices, rehearsal rooms and an area where they lift weights, as a company, twice a week. The theater itself can fit about 100 people, a cozy 10 to a table.
“People ask me, ‘How’s our space working out?’” Boord adds. Klein says their regulars’ connection with “the space” really is part of their connection with the company itself; they follow Shadowbox’s progress in the local media.
“‘We got a nice review,’ they’ll tell us,” Klein says, emphasizing the “we.”
“They don’t want to let us down,” Boord explains, citing a recent telephone call Klein received in which a regular announced he was bringing 20 people with him to next Saturday evening’s performance because he wanted to help boost ticket sales. Fifty graduating seniors from Pickerington High School, as part of their graduation party, came to a weekend performance in June, Guyer adds in appreciative astonishment.
These year-round regulars must like what they see. The only air-conditioning in warm weather comes from the “arctic collars” (Get it? “A/C”?) handed out free at intermission-washcloths that have been soaked and frozen. A staffer has to hammer them apart from each other so audience members can wear them about their necks. (They are almost refreshing enough to make up for how silly you feel wearing them.)
“One guy wrote on his reply card [found at all the tables on performance nights], ‘I love you’re A/C,” Guyer recalls with a laugh. “‘Love you’re A/C.’ And he’s 72 years old.”
Some of the regulars are, well, something more than just regular. Some of them have formed what, if they were more organized, could be called a cult. Carole Miller, for example.
An internal computer consultant for a local bank who was introduced to Shadowbox by a friend, Miller has attended “every show once, sometimes twice, over the past two years. I started going when they were still at Buggyworks. Then, they only had a half a dozen tables.”
As a frequent patron of CATCO and Otterbein theater performances, she says one of the things she finds entertaining about the three-and-a-half-year old Shadowbox company is the variety of a given night’s performance: “The majority of the time there’s always something I like, unlike CATCO or Otterbein where they each just do one play, which might be a bust. At Shadowbox, the music I always enjoy, the skits about 60 percent of the time. They also do contemporary plays. For $12, I enjoyed something about it.”
She also likes that clubbiness Shadowbox offers, the “connectedness” Guyer, Klein and Boord were talking about. A regular feature is Guyer’s opening monologue, his favorite part of the performance, he confesses.
It’s part informational — about the status of tonight’s arctic collars, say, or the latest fund-raising raffle — and part stand-up comedy. During this segment, he may read a recent scathing review or make fun of donated props. (Pointing to a bed cover donated by Marriott Hotels, he implores the audience with questionable sincerity, “Don’t you wish you had this in your room?”) But he always welcomes a number of the regulars by name.
“Now they say, ‘We’re glad to see Carole Miller here tonight,’” Miller says, who for her birthday last February was pulled on stage to be offered cake and candle by the Llama Brothers during one of their skits. “I see a lot of the same people every time. Now I’m a regular.”
“I like to support them, they try so hard,” adds another member of this cult, Keith Orr, an environmental specialist with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “I also like it because of the danger.”
He is referring not so much to the improvisational or irreverent nature of the skit performances as to the possibility of his being yanked up on stage.
“That’s why I sit so far back. I’ve seen it all too often,” he says, nodding his head in mock worldweariness.
Other regulars point to the casual atmosphere. “It’s a really cool place, I don’t feel like I’m about to see a play,” one young patron comments, admitting he doesn’t attend much theater other than Shadowbox. Then he adds with a gleam in his eye, “And the actresses here are really pretty.”
Whatever the reasons for coming month after month — or week after week — these llama-ites have catapulted Shadowbox into the black, permitting it to pay wages for seven full-time staff persons and to sell out every performance last February and March.
Shadowbox also has attracted attention outside Columbus — “Perseverance is rewarded so many times,” Guyer says — receiving favorable written notices in such national publications as Backstage, Playboy, American Theatre and Opera News.
Opera News? That would be for Guyer’s first love, his so-called “electric operas,” “Dawn: The Legend of Merlin Continues” and “Lone Season: Running With the Wolves.” His latest large-scale work, “Evolution” — which he calls performance rock — debuts next month as the season opener for Cleveland Public Theater, then travels to Chicago, followed by three nights at OSU’s Thurber Theatre (Sept. 21 through 23), winding up at Cincinnati’s Ensemble Theatre in November. Evolution will take 20 of the company’s 35 members on the road.
Guyer calls “Evolution” “an extreme departure” from his other two works. It is “a concept piece,” a company press release notes by way of description, “examining 13 separate facets of human instinct and desire. As each cycle unfolds, our actors explore a common human event [that] touches on instinctive behaviors in surprising ways. As this ‘action’ concludes, the actors give way to singers, drummer and dancers who develop the ancient themes and allow us to see our heritage in new ways.”
In fact, it was to produce these types of works that Guyer started ShadoArt Productions. The Shadowbox cabaret nights with their wacky skits, now so popular, initially were designed solely as training exercises for the company’s performers. One day, Guyer figured maybe they should “let people come and see us, maybe charge five bucks.” He still seems amazed by the cabaret’s success.
Variety has called to say it will write about Shadowbox’s summer-long 4M Project, the premieres of unpublished works by four nationally known playwrights whose surnames begin with the letter M — James McLure, Grace McKeaney, Stephen Metcalfe and Peter Maloney. Maloney’s one-acter, “The Salamander,” concludes 4M, starting Aug. 10. The plays have been woven into Shadowbox’s bag of tricks, forming Act I of an evening’s performance. Act II is comprised of skits, singing, monologues and shorter works.
Guyer says Shadowbox has done McLure’s work before, to positive receptions. So he views staging the playwright’s “Ghost World” this past May “as a special event for our regulars. Our audience loved it.”
Guyer knows his audience appreciated the play not only because they told him so, but also because he reads their reply cards. (Typical survey questions: “Do you want volunteer information?” and “So, was it good for you?’’)
Audience members also receive programs, filled with local advertising as well as an interesting note about ShadoArt’s (read, Guyer’s) philosophy on grant money.
“We’re not interested in taking taxpayers’ money,” says Guyer, elaborating on the “grant-free zone” notice in the programs. “We don’t like to take people’s money who don’t like what we do. On the other hand, we don’t want to take their money and have them telling us what to do.”
He pushes his thick ponytail off one shoulder and holds a hand out. as if pleading his case in court: “Audiences encourage art. The [Shadowbox] cabaret is an excellent example.” Cutbacks in government funding “will weed out art that, excuse me, is pure masturbation,” Guyer contends.
“Either you provide a service,” he says with conviction, “or you don’t.”
When told dancer Twyla Tharp has expressed very similar opinions on arts funding, Guyer holds up his head and smiles broadly.
“Yeah,” counters Boord, “but you don’t dance like her.”
Michael Chevy Castranova is a contributing writer for Columbus Monthly.