Saturday, April 28, 2001

Ovation unveils Tolkein fantasy

Ambitious play long-awaited dream

        Blake Bowden has been on a quest, and after three years, his destination is finally within sight.

        Ovation Theatre will take a huge leap of faith in September, from its regular home in the Aronoff's small Fifth Third Bank Theater to the center's significantly larger Jarson-Kaplan to stage Mr. Bowden's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring. It will open Ovation's 2001-02 season Sept. 20-29.

        The season also will include Alan Ayckbourn's Woman in Mind, March 8-16; an evening of theatrically themed one-acts, May 10-18; and Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, July 12-20.

        Mr. Bowden, who lists child psychologist as his day job, knows the power of myth. “Some people argue that we use fantasy to escape reality. I believe fantasy is our way of dealing with reality, making it all more graspable.

        “The power of myth says each of us is uniquely a hero, myth tells us how we fit in the world. If I can see a four-foot hobbit triumph, that helps me be more able to cope with the day-to-day issues in my life. With what's been happening lately, there's a lot to cope with.”

        When Fellowship reaches the Jarson-Kaplan stage, its story will be told with puppets, music, stage combat, lighting and sound effects.

        Small wonder that when Mr. Bowden began approaching theaters with the idea of a Tolkien stage adaptation about three years ago, people kept telling him “it can't be done.”

        About that time he was cast in a production of the then-fledgling Ovation. “I was chatting with Deborah (Ludwig, managing director) in passing, she said she might like to read it, one thing led to another.”

        Mr. Bowden has been one of Ovation's working board members for more than a year, “a relationship that evolved almost inseparably from (planning) Fellowship.

        His quest has included not just writing the adaptation but digging through mounds of research, getting rights from Tolkien Enterprises and going after funding. “I've spent as much time writing grant applications and flat-footing to vendors and supporters as writing,” Mr. Bowden says.

        Proceeds from the production will benefit the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati.

        It hasn't hurt that American Hobbit Association president Renee Alper lives in Cincinnati or that Fellowship will be the first entry in a Tolkien film trilogy set to unreel for the holidays. Ovation plans to debut a Web site May 1 at

        Auditions are scheduled for 7 to 10 p.m. May 14-16 at the Fifth Third Bank Theatre. Contact Mr. Bowden at (513) 253-7920 or to schedule an audition time.

        He and director Mary Lenning are looking for multicultural and “gender-bending” casting. Many hobbits, elves, dwarves and wizards are needed. Small stipends will be paid to all artists.

        The Fellowship fund-raiser is 5:30-9:30 p.m. May 31 at the York Street International Cafe in Newport. Merriment will include a wine tasting, entertainment and a silent auction. For information, call Ovation at 369-1544.

        Rising from the ashes: It's been an eventful month offstage in Middletown.

        Actor's Rep, which debuted last fall, is no more. In its ashes is the incorporating Rising Phoenix Theatre Company, which will be in residence at the former theater's rehabbed home at 2 N. Main St.

        Founding artistic director Michael Coyan has resigned, and Dayton-based company member Paul Andolsek has stepped into the job. He and actress/founding company member Christine Brunner are moving forward with a new board.

        “We both have business and theater degrees, which is why we seemed the obvious choices,” says Mrs. Brunner, who played a starring role behind the scenes in moving things forward.

        Because there isn't quite a legal Rising Phoenix yet, the final show of the season opens Thursday and continues through May 13 with no producing company name attached. It's Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound, a hilarious spoof of stage mysteries that counts a critic among its corpses.

        The box office number 727-9361 remains the same (at least for now).

        Children's shows by Theatre IV ArtReach will continue as scheduled. So will a theater summer day camp for the local YMCA directed by Mrs. Brunner.

        “One of my dreams in this steel manufacturing town,” she says on a clear upbeat note, “is that children will do a show and their mom and dad will come see it and that might be their first experience seeing a play.”

        While there is still huddling to be done, a new “WWII canteen” show is penciled in for the holidays. The Phoenix gang is very aware that Middfest International will be highlighting Greece this year. No, not Greek tragedy but a musical with togas will probably be onstage (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.)

        Also in the planning stages is a new family musical Robin Goes to the Hood, which will get a summer workshop and probably a January production. Robin is a school-age girl who not only gets lost in the 'hood but meets urban night-time crime-fighter The Hood.

        Composer is Jay Brunner (yes, Christine's husband), the choir director for the Middletown school district.

        Live from New York: Here's the word on a couple of Cincinnati-related New York openings. Past Rosenthal New Play Prize winner The Dead-Eye Boy opened off-Broadway last week.

        Cincinnati didn't quite see Love, Janis, a Joplin revue that had been scheduled at Ensemble. (Its author Randy Myler preferred opening just off the Great White Way to playing on Vine.)

        Here's what New York critics had to say:

        The New York Times wrote that Dead Eye Boy author Angus MacLachlan “brings an unsettling new chemistry to the formula” of “the sort of kitchen sink drug drama that dates back to the 1950s” and calls it “compulsively watchable as a nonjudgmental slice of life” as it portrays patterns of behavior “that usually seem more a matter of biophysics ... than character.”

        The Times called Love, Janis “surprisingly satisfying” despite noting “there's certainly a question of how much the real Joplin is revealed.” The New York Daily News concurred, calling it “a rousing, if thin, biographical play.”

        "Proof' of excellence: Another New York show with a tie to Cincinnati: Proof. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama earlier this month, took the Lucille Lortel Award as outstanding play off-Broadway and is the front-runner for this year's Tony Award (nominations will be announced May 7.)

        Playwright David Auburn's grandfather Norman Auburn (UC class of '27) was at the University of Cincinnati until he was tapped to become president of the University of Akron in the '50s. You also can find his name on the cornerstone of the Main Library (Eighth Street side).

        David Gallo, whose set designs are regularly seen at Playhouse in the Park, was honored for his design for August Wilson's Jitney.

       Jackie Demaline is the Enquirer's theater critic and roving arts reporter. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati OH 45202; fax, 768-8330; e-mail,


Summer movie scene
Conlon brings life to long-forgotten opera
- DEMALINE: Ovation unveils Tolkein fantasy
Reality check
A giving spirit
Concert review
CSO branches out in summer program
Fighting cancer with cuisine
KENDRICK: Alive and well
May Findlay Market's honeymoon never be over
Prize possessions
Teach kids skills to avoid stupid stunts
Theater review
Wineries welcome diners and sippers
Get to it