STAGE: movers & makers of the moment

By David Lyman

Sean Mellott

Sean Mellott with O’Malley

SEAN MELLOTT

Plays Owen Meany in season-opening production of “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” Sept. 8-Oct. 1, Playhouse in the Park’s Marx Theatre.

Some actors grow up doing shows for the neighbors on the front porch. That would have been too small-time for Sean Mellott.

“My dad’s side of the family is a stage family,” says Mellott, 32, who has the title role in the Playhouse’s opening show, “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” “My grandparents would write little Christmas pageants for us to do, then my mother and sister and I would join them and perform it for the whole family.”

No backyard shows for him.

“We were more of an indoor troupe,” he says.

He understands the formidable challenge of “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” After all, John Irving, whose book inspired the play, refers to Meany throughout the novel as a Christ-like figure.

“I don’t think of that as a burden, exactly,” says Mellott. “What’s a bigger challenge is that I’m playing a character who knows exactly what is going to happen to him, including the day he will die. That’s not the sort of thing that typically lends itself to drama.”

But somehow, Mellott gets away with it. He has an easy and personable stage presence, so audiences instinctively like him. There’s none of the cookie-cutter good looks you see in so many actors’ headshots. Rather, he’s slight and has a head of dirty blonde hair that rarely looks perfectly combed.

“One way I describe my type – to my friends, at least – is a young person dealing with things beyond his years. I know – that’s not your typical clean-cut leading man. When I first moved to New York and was looking at character breakdowns, I would look for teenage roles or some specific adjective like ‘quirky’ or ‘dark’ or ‘nerdy.’ Anything slightly ‘off.’ That’s me.”


Mikayla Stanley

Mikayla Stanley

MIKAYLA STANLEY

A founder of Hit the Lights! Theater Co., performing the world premiere of “The Other Rhine: A Lovecraftian Horror,” Oct. 22-31, Know Theatre.

Mikayla Stanley left for New York the moment she graduated from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in 2011. After all, she had things to do. And one of those things was to form the Hit the Lights! Theatre Co. with some like-minded spirits from CCM.

Ever since, they’ve been creating shows and music and . . . well, whatever they feel like making. Tradition? Rules? Those are for other people.

They brought a beguiling show called “dungeon” to the 2015 Cincinnati Fringe Festival. They returned to New York with the Audience Pick award and a suggestion from Know Theatre’s Andrew Hungerford that the writing of H.P. Lovecraft might interest them.

It did, and the resulting work opens at the Know on Oct. 22.

“We hope the show will be terrifying,” says Stanley, sounding so enthusiastic about the prospect that it verges on creepy. She must sense it, too, because she adds “you know – audience-appropriate terrifying.”

But when the show is described as “immersive,” does that mean audience members have to participate?

“Yeah,” she says, ”you get to be a part of our show. You walk into a space, put on a mask and we take you on a tour of . . .” she stops herself. We’re not supposed to know where this unfolds yet. It’s an old building is all she’ll ’fess up to.

“In the middle of the tour, each person will be led off on their own to have an individual experience,” she explains. “So it’s a theatrical experience. And scary.”

There she goes with that scary stuff again. Is this going to be like some intellectual haunted house?

“No, no,” Stanley insists. “It’ll be scary. But not jump-out-and-say-boo scary. I know. It’s a fine line to walk. But don’t worry. We don’t cross that line. But we’ll stay very close to it.”


Ray "Rayvn" Payne

Ray “Rayvn” Payne

RAY ‘RAYVN’ PAYNE

“Dragologist” for regional premiere production of “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” Sept. 6-25, Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati.

When you want actors to have a particular accent, you hire a dialect coach, a professional who can navigate the path between a mid-Smokies accent and one from central England. The accents are similar. But get them wrong and every person in the theater will know the difference.

When director D. Lynn Meyers was preparing to start rehearsals for “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” she knew she’d need someone to coach her actors on the finer points of looking like credible drag queens. And not just “someone.” She needed an expert. A ”dragologist.”

That person would be Ray Payne, better known to drag aficionados as “Rayvn.”

“I’ve pretty much been into dressing fabulous my entire life,” says Payne, 42. “I ran away to New York and danced at the Palladium in 1996.”

When he returned, he started performing in Cincinnati clubs. These days, he’s in full drag two or three evenings a week. But mostly, it’s only social. For work, he’s a server or host at a variety of Vine Street restaurants. Back in the day, he was the “Mary” who greeted you at the front door of the now-closed Hamburger Mary’s.

“I even had a gig where I delivered singing telegrams, which was very embarrassing for these men,” says Payne. “I’m not shy.”

This is different. He’s not the one onstage. And he has precious little time to turn actors Bruce Cromer, Darnell Benjamin and Michael Carr into believable drag queens.

How do you go about doing that?

“First, you have to figure out why each character is cross-dressing,” says Payne, whose tone suddenly switches from fun and outlandish to very serious. “Is it something about gender identity? Or is it about culture and politics?”

Each actor, he says, must understand why his character has opted for such an unconventional approach to life.

“And then there’s the hair and the makeup,” he laughs. “And the high heels. And padding. And the corset. Oh, they are going to have so much fun.”


MUST-SEE STAGE

By David Lyman

James Gilmer and Maizyalet Velázquez

“Director’s Choice,” with Cincinnati Ballet dancers James Gilmer and Maizyalet Velázquez (Photo by Aaron Conway)

♦CINCINNATI BALLET

“Director’s Cut” – The opening program of Victoria Morgan’s 20th season as artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet is a glorious hodgepodge. Morgan herself has a world premiere on the program, as does guest choreographer Ma Cong. There’s also a new piece by company member James Cunningham. And the restaging of a piece by New York City Ballet wunderkind Justin Peck. The evening rounds out with selections from “Raymonda” and guest performances by a pair of dancers from San Francisco Ballet, where Morgan was once a principal. Sounds like the makings of a wonderful anniversary party.

Sept. 16-17. cballet.org

♦CLIFTON PERFORMANCE THEATRE

“The Road Through Damascus.” – The action in Robert Macke’s script takes place in the really, really tiny town of Damascus, North Carolina, where life is defined by its slightly absurd, perhaps even quirky, twists. With a cast like this – Miranda McGee, Carter Bratton, Emily Fry, Matthew Krieg, Andy Simpson and Kyle Taylor – “Damascus” sounds like it could just be one of the fall’s most intriguing dramas.

Sept. 15-Oct. 1. cliftonperformancetheatre.com

♦ENSEMBLE THEATRE CINCINNATI

“Brownsville Song (B-side for Tray)” – Inspired by the 2012 shooting death of Tray Franklin, a black college student in New York City, the play premiered at the Humana Festival in 2014. This is not the same old story, promises a character at the beginning of the play. Playwright Kimber Lee explores the young victim’s story, and those of friends and family around him, in an uncompromising yet compassionate way.

Regional premiere, Oct. 11-30. ensemblecincinnati.org

♦CINCINNATI FRINGE FESTIVAL

“The Other Rhine: A Lovecraftian Horror” – We don’t know that much about this show yet, except that it’s a world premiere and alternately described as immersive, scary, site-specific and mysterious. But it’s being created by Hit the Lights! Theatre Co., the folks behind the fabulously imaginative “dungeon,” the Audience Pick of the 2015 Cincinnati Fringe Festival.

Oct. 22-31. cincyfringe.com

♦PLAYHOUSE IN THE PARK

“Disgraced” – Religion may not be regarded as good dinner conversation, but it makes for formidable and explosive drama in this 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning work. A hotshot Muslim-American attorney finds himself trying to navigate the complicated and prejudice-fueled identity politics of post-9/11 America.

Sept. 24-Oct. 23. cincyplay.com

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