Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bash: Latterday Plays, None Too Fragile Theater

(Andrew Narten)

You could call it “The Book of Mormon: The Dark Side.” Because unlike the popular Broadway musical, this collection of three one-acts by Neil LaBute is a brutal and caustic journey into the black hole of our souls. And the title indicates it’s targeted on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

LaBute was actually drummed out of the Mormon church after this play garnered is first performance in 1999, since it features a collection of deeply troubled Mormons.  The playwright seems to have survived his “disfellowship” just fine, but the same may not be said of audience members who encounter this trio of initially deceivingly bland offerings.

The pieces are each based on a different Greek tragedy, but director Sean Derry has chosen not to include the titles of each—probably so that there won’t be a tip-off as to the content to come. The banality of evil is alive and well in each of the presentations which are comprised of four monologues (in one play, the two monologues are performed side-by-side with the actors often taking turns).

In the first, a haggard-looking businessman, who is a Mormon, has invited someone he met in a hotel bar up to his room, to unburden himself about an awful event in his family. As the Man, the splendid Andrew Narten is a spectacular collection of twitches and half-finished sentences as he discusses the loss of his five-month-old child some years before.

Then he veers off into a discussion of his work history, and the problem he had with a female colleague who he perceived as a threat to his job. When these two stories collide, you may wish Derry could come out and offer another shot of Jameson’s to everyone (as he usually does before most performances). It is a shattering piece of work, and Narten’s understated performance is a small, perfect gem.

In the second piece, which is the least successful of the three, Sue (Katie Wells) and John (Brian Kenneth Armour) are Mormon college kids from Boston, off to a bash with friends in New York City. Once again, LaBute sets a rather inoffensive stage as the two deliver their own monologues—he reminiscing about his confrontation with another guy at college and she chatting about her activities that evening in the big city.

It’s only when John relates what happened in a restroom in Central Park as he and a couple of his other frat buddies decide to impose a scriptural lesson on a gay man whom they spot. In this case, playing against the horror of the activity works against the play, as Armour doesn’t quite find the sweet spot between ghastly bland and inoffensive bland. As a result, he seems too much of a mirror image of the naïve girl Wells plays, negating the juxtaposition (as well as the unconscious bonding) between the two that should chill to the bone.

This is exactly the sweet spot Alanna Romansky finds, with unerring accuracy, in the final play. Being interrogated by unseen cops, she tells her story of being sexually tormented by a teacher when she was 14. That’s bad enough, until you learn about what that awful event led to some years later. Quick, where’s that Jameson’s!

Romansky captures the same vibe that Narten does earlier, but in a different manner. And both actors employ LaBute’s surgically terrifying language to maximum effect. While one could quibble with some of the staging elements, such as a lack of differentiation among the three settings, there is no denying the force that Bash exerts on the psyche.

Good thing there’s a pub attached to this theater.

Bash: Latterday Plays
Through November 21 at None Too Fragile Theater,
1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco),

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Force Continuum, Karamu House

(Ryan Christopher Mayer as Flip and Prophet Seay as Dece.)

The relationship between an African-American community and the police is certainly a fraught one these days. So this 15-year old play about a family of black police officers certainly has a target-rich environment in which to address its themes.

Unfortunately, playwright Kia Corthron throws out a jumble of scenes involving lots of characters played by actors taking on multiple roles, and it all comes crashing down. Even some electrifying moments provided by director Michael Oatman can’t rescue this convoluted script from its own destruction.

Dece is a black police officer in New York City, one of a long line of cops in his family. Conflicted about his role as a cop and also a black man, Dece goes to his grandfather for advice. Dece’s parents, who were also cops, are now dead, but are represented in flashbacks made more confusing by all the crossover casting.

Dece also converses with his white partner Flip while in their patrol car, and elsewhere, but these dialogues never seem to connect to an overarching theme that has any dramatic heft. Indeed, every scene seems to have a lot of baggage to carry, making sure that all the bases are touched. These include how black citizens feel when they’re stopped on the street unnecessarily, and then how the black and white cops feel when they’re off duty. Eventually, the glut of information, emotional and otherwise, folds in on itself leaving the audience reaching for something significant.

As Dece, the excellent actor Prophet Seay seems a bit adrift in this sea of well-meaning topicality, unsure of where his character is and where he’s going. The performer named EulaBill, on the other hand, seems quite certain about his role as the grandfather, but his repeatedly shouted/whispered line readings become too mannered to be effective. Several of the white cops are played by Ryan Christopher Mayer, who has a nice casual affect, but he employs a curious New York accent that often sounds like it came by way of Narnia. The rest of the cast, each of whom plays at least three characters each, includes Shba Cochrane, India Nicole Burton, Chace Coulter, James Boyd, Josh McElroy and Jamil Burch.

Usually, having actors play multiple roles is not a problem. But here, playwright Corthron doesn’t provide the characters enough space and distinctiveness to allow the audience to keep everyone clearly identified. Director Oatman adds some nice touches, such as the beating of a young black man by invisible cops, plus an encounter with two arguing wastrels on the street that captures the antic vibe of The Jerry Springer Show.

But those moments of clarity are few and far between in the sprawling, clumsily written Force Continuum.

Force Continuum
Through November 22 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys, Theater Ninjas

(Rachel Lee Kolis as Brandy)

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not necessary for everything to work in a theatrical production in order for that production to be thoroughly captivating and challenging. Case in point is this Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys by Caroline V. McGraw, a play that takes bold chances, jumping in and out of surreal moments.

Not all of these jumps land on their feet, since one is never sure whether the play is speaking literally or symbolically. But thanks to the muscular direction of Jeremy Paul and a talented cast, you’re able to hang on to McGraw’s central conceit and find some treasures in there.

Brandy is a woman who makes her living as a clown for kids’ parties. But once she’s out of her baggy pants and makeup, Brandy is a human clown-car that spills forth with lots of dark secrets and sleazy behavior. She will apparently sleep with any bipedal mammal with a Y chromosome, including high school student Jack (Bryon Tobin) and multiple dads of the kiddies for whom she performs. She prowls these men like a sexual scavenger, grabbing for any shred of warmth that can hide the emptiness behind the forced gaiety of her painted-on smile.

Sure, the clown thing is a cliché that has been trampled to death in many ways, but here the usual baggage doesn’t really get in the way. Plus, there are other characters that add welcome touches of both realism and magical thinking. Nina (a wonderfully detached yet perceptive Lauren Joy Fraley) is kind of a Brandy groupie, always with her small child (a stuffed doll) in her arms. And Reverb (an amusing Ryan Lucas) is another clown, a down-to-earth version, who finally seems to find a way to relate to Brandy.

Then there’s The Un, a metaphorical (?) monster under Brandy’s bed, the one who continually claws at her, leaving a dark red stain on her neck and chest. Fed by Brandy’s insecurities , The Un seems unstoppable until confronted by Jack’s high school gal pal Tash (Valerie C. Kilmer), who eventually pierces the monster’s hold with her bold innocence.

An almost naked Val Kozlenko plays The Un with genuine menace, and then somehow changes while under the bed into normal clothes to play Jason, one of the fathers who beds Brandy. In the latter role, Kozlenko is even scarier as he corners Brandy and insists that she “perform” for him, in a scene that crackles with his dominance and her desperation.

In the daunting role of Brandy, Rachel Lee Kolis demonstrates a raw physicality that gives her performance a mesmerizing quality. Although Kolis’ clowning skills are marginal (some awkward juggling, etc.), she uses her body postures and attitudes to define the various “shows” that her character is driven to stage. This is a woman who, staring into the abyss of her own emptiness, is seeking to equalize the pressure in her head by tapping into the shallow insubstantial fog of masks and quickie sex acts.

Played in the round on a set surrounded by white fabric panels, and augmented by Benjamin Gantose’s lighting and original music by Eric M.C. Gonzalez, the piece flows briskly.

Director Paul seems entirely comfortable in this mash-up of themes and genres, all suffused with McGraw’s sharp, take-no-prisoners dialog. And while some elements don’t completely work—it all still does. Quite marvelously.

Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys

Through November 14, produced by Theater Ninjas at the Near West Lofts, 6706 Detroit Ave.,

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bat Boy, The Musical, Blank Canvas Theatre

(Pat Miller as Bat Boy.)

In order to do a great production of this hilarious musical about a half-boy/half-bat, named Edgar by his adoptive parents, you need an actor playing him who is willing to throw himself bodily and every other way into the role. Indeed, this is a human-animal hybrid that even director and puppet creator Julie Taymor might find daunting (there were no human bats in the The Lion King on Broadway).

But not to worry. Blank Canvas has the estimable Pat Miller as Edgar, and from the first moment when you first spy him hanging upside down high above the stage, you are never in doubt about this creature’s bat-like qualities. Thrashing in his cage after he’s caught by some local yahoos, Miller ‘s thin frame, bald head and bug-eyed visage are creepy indeed. And this makes his transition to a rather erudite young man later on all the more effective and amusing.

Inspired by an actual story in the Weekly World News about such a boy-bat supposedly being found in a cave, the show (book by Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming, music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe) trots out a number of serious themes including intolerance, forgiveness, and love of our fellow mammals no matter how goddamn ugly they are. It's all wrapped up in the guise of a Halloween howler and, under the direction of Patrick Ciamacco, this production gets virtually everything right.

Not only does Miller look like a bat, the rabid townspeople (played by Kristy Cruz, Stephen Berg, Jacob Damsky, Colleen McCaugh, Michael Crowley and Venchise Glenn) look like your nightmare version of hick town cretins—they are the scrapings from the clogged filter of our gene pool.

Despite the small town’s urge to kill the bat boy, Meredith Parker, wife of the local vet, finds Edgar to be rather adorable. She dresses him up and then teaches him English from NPR tapes that give Edgar a cultured British accent. As Meredith, Amiee Collier provides the best singing voice in the cast and is quite funny as she tries to avoid her husband Thomas (Brian Altman).

The Parker’s daughter Shelley (Stephanie Harden) also grows close to Edgar and their relationship is culminated in the showstopper when Edgar and Shelley cohabit as the Greek god Pan (Berg) sings and a gallery of woodland creatures (puppets) sing “Children, Children.” This Pan is a half goat with a whole hard-on that bounces merrily as they croon: “Choose your mate and let’s see what we create!”

Finally, the reason for Meredith’s emotional distance from her hubby is explained in a witty animation sequence designed by Noah Hrbek, which answers a lot of expository questions.

While the talented five-piece orchestra often drowns out the song lyrics, sung with varying degrees of competence, enough is heard to keep the campy fun in high gear—right up to the Shakespearian ending with dead bodies littering the stage. Director Ciamacco has perfect pitch for surreal stories such as this, and once again his sprightly, inventive sense of humor shines forth.

Bat Boy, The Musical
Through October 31 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th Street, 440-941-0458.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

First Love, None Too Fragile Theater

(From left: Anne McEvoy, Rachel Roberts and Robert Hawkes.)

If you ever want to see a textbook example of how three actors can overcome an unfortunate script, go see First Love by Charles Mee, now at the None Too Fragile Theater in Akron.

This play, about two oldsters who meet cute on a park bench and then go through a high speed time-lapse relationship, has a lot to say about love and loss and the scattershot nature of romantic attraction. Too much to say, actually, since Mee has a lot on his mind and he doesn’t really care how fast it spills out and which of his characters carry his thematic water.

But against all odds, the play actually gives the appearance of working, thanks to the superb three-person cast of Robert Hawkes, Anne McEvoy and Rachel Roberts, and their director Sean Derry. They invest this script with such pulsing humanity you can’t look away, even as your mind races to make sense of a not particularly sensible plot.

Aging Edith meets the equally tottering Harold in the park, and after a brief set-to they settle into a cozy conversation spiced with lefty political references and fueled by a bottle of wine from Edith’s rolling shopping cart. Initially, it appears that both are homeless, since they are wearing torn and dirty clothing. But soon, they wind up at Edith’s apartment furnished with an upright piano and some rather elegant-looking duds.

Setting aside Edith’s earlier curious impersonation of a homeless woman, playwright Mee has his two age-challenged folk drift closer with loving gestures and then jarringly attack each other. At one moment, these two are singing romantic tunes and then they’re arguing about this and that—from where the magazines are placed to how Harold’s children might be accepted by Edith. 

Then they explore a wide range of sexual options, as Harold admits he likes rubbing buttocks with another person and she confesses an erotic fondness for feet and dominance. Then they strip almost naked (to the steamy notes of Peggy Lee's "Fever") and get it on under the covers adding another, um, wrinkle to the somewhat less-than-appetizing imagery of senior on-stage sex.

This all arises out of skimpy character back stories that are force-fed by Mee, with Harold tidily lamenting, “I neglected my family and friends…”, etc. Edith similarly sums up her worries about the future and her own self worth. Mee piles banalities (they spontaneously take an air-headed women's magazine quiz on romance) on top of hostile generalities (Harold: "This is why men burn down houses!") and gruesome non-sequiturs (Edith: "This is why women flush baby boys down the toilet!"). It's all in service of establishing an artificially contentious relationship that they can then artificially overcome.

Somehow, though, Hawkes and McEvoy take that stale tripe and turn it into Lobster Newburg. McEvoy invests each moment with Edith’s immediate need; you can feel her waft and wane with each comment from Harold. And Hawkes makes his character’s turn-on-a-dime mood shifts seem believable, occasionally scary and sometimes quite poignant. Coming in and out of the play is a magnetic Rachel Roberts, playing a snippy waitress, plus a lounge pianist who magically appears in Edith’s apartment along with other fantastical characters dancing in Harold’s head.

Director Derry effectively fashions all this into a 90-minute experience that unfortunately ends on a too-pat, feel-good conclusion. The whole thing may leave you confused about the characters, but you'll be dazzled by the acting talent in NTF's intimate space.

And Cuyahoga County theatergoers remember:
If you like plays that intoxicate,
Vote yes, yes, YES on Issue 8!

First Love
Through October 24 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco),

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Cleveland Public Theatre

It would seem that claiming conscientious objector status—in Iran!—would be one of the scariest things to do. So maybe that’s why Nassim Soleimanpour decided to come up with a theatrical concept that is even more terrifying, not to mention quite humorous.

As a CO in Iran, playwright Soleimanpour is not allowed to travel. So he has sent the rest of the world White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, his play that mandates it be done by a different actor at each performance, without any rehearsal. The first time the actor sees the script is when the envelope is opened on stage, in front of the audience.

With the possible exception of walking naked into a dining room full of all your relatives for Thanksgiving dinner, this unprepared-actor thing is one of the scariest nightmare scenarios. But for the audience, it’s quite a rush.

On the night I saw Rabbit, Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman was the performer. And he did a smooth job with his cold reading, garnering applause from the audience several times. Of course, you won’t see him do it, and that’s part of the fun and the mystery.

Since this production is an unconventional theatrical event with tons of audience participation, I decided to continue that vibe. So after the show and then the talk-back (which happens after every performance), I asked several people from the audience, at random, to share their thoughts about the show. Here are their unedited reactions:

David R.:
As an avid theatergoer, I'm always looking for something new and different. White Rabbit, Red Rabbit at CPT sounded like it just might just fit the bill. I went not knowing what to expect--and I got just that. A play that brings together the playwright, via his avatar the actor speaking across time and space, and the audience for a thoughtful and fun experience that works on multiple levels. Since the actor sees the script at the start of the play for the first time, I won't spoil the fun. Do stay for the short discussion following the play that helps the audience share some of the questions and answers that arise from the performance.

Marcia L.:
“Rabbit” is riveting. The playwright uses his talent to release himself from his circumstances.  He immerses us in the ambiguous place between free choice and control by others. Control by ideas, other people, government, even the playwright himself. Yet he keeps us laughing while we are wondering: what does direct us? 

Tim C.:
Cleveland Public Theatre has put on brave productions of original theatre. "White Rabbit Red Rabbit" is no different, but at the same time is, because I was taken to a lot of unexpected places that made the play and my experience seeing it performed feel like I was listening to a voice fighting from heavy suppression to be heard. The playwright himself is from Iran, and the play was written in 2010. I felt that I was getting an accurate glimpse into what it is like to be a theatre artist in Iran today. In the Western world, theatre is a comfort we don't take for granted enough, but when I saw this production, I saw in the rawest way how brave theatre truly is, and how brave Cleveland Public Theatre is to have it performed. Joe Cimperman wasn't bad either- and I hope that when he is not doing public service, he will be on the stage sometime soon. No matter who performs it, it is a production to see. 

Dan O.:
White Rabbit, Red Rabbit was one of the most creative and original productions I've seen in a long time!  Soleimanpour and Cimperman definitely broke through the 4th wall on Friday night.  I remember thinking that performing a play unrehearsed was suicide; little did I know my thoughts would come true!  I plan on seeing this again.  Kudos to CPT for yet another creative foray into public theater.

It’s me again. Since the playwright has neatly negated the need for a critic such as myself, since you’ll never see the show I saw, my opinion stands for little. Still, I found the show to be surprisingly amusing (Soleimanpour has a sly wit), and quite revealing on several thematic levels. For one, it demonstrates how a single voice, even one ripped out of an envelope, can control the actions of people thousands of miles away. Is one person speaking through another a form of freedom, or a type of censorship?

The play raises many intriguing questions, leaving the answers to you.

And remember:
If you like plays that palpitate,
Vote yes, yes, YES on Issue 8!

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit
Through October 25 at the Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Bonnie & Clyde, Cassidy Theatre

(Madeline Krucek as Bonnie and Tony Heffner as Clyde.)

It kind of makes sense to have a musical starring Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, since those Depression-era felons grew up wanting to be in the spotlight. At least that’s how this show (book by Ivan Menchell, lyrics by Don Black, music by Frank Wildhorn) tells it.

The production at the Cassidy Theatre has some positive elements, including a massive and effectively depressing set built of reclaimed wood, hammered together haphazardly to reflect the times. But the songs too often veer towards the sloppily sentimental, especially near the end (of the musical and of Bonnie and Clyde’s corporeal existence).

This pair of bank robbers and killers (of nine cops and assorted other civilians) flaunted all the rules, including those against open illicit sex, and thus became popular heroes. Some of their victims even asked for their autographs, as happens in one of these scenes. But it’s safe to assume Miss Parker and Mr. Barrow weren’t nearly as introspective as the songs in this show would have you believe.

The musical roughly follows the same track as the famous movie starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, but without all the squirting blood. B&C are immediately attracted to each other, and soon they hit the road committing non-violent robberies until one day Clyde plugs a policeman. Bonnie freaks out but, drawn to Clyde’s animal and sexual magnetism, she stays with him through many more murders until the bitter end.

Unfortunately, any sexual magnetism in this production is less animalistic and more of the refrigerator magnet variety. As Clyde, the very young-looking Tony Heffner rages quite effectively in moments of anger, but he almost disappears at other times. In a similar way, his singing fluctuates from spot on to wildly off-key.

As Bonnie, Madeline Krucek fares much better with the singing, giving songs such as "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" a poignant touch. But she looks far too angelic and suburban-comfortable. Bonnie is a poor girl scrabbling desperately to find a foothold in life, but most of the time Krucek appears like she’s undergoing nothing more stressful than a bad day of mall shopping. Neither Heffner nor Krucek consistently display the raw defiance that leaps off the real photos of Bonnie and Clyde when they are projected on a section of the back wall.

Still, director Kristin Netzband paces the show well in the first act and mounts some arresting scenes. One example is the gospel song “God’s Arms Are Always Open,” in which the ensemble reaches out its hands to God and then finds themselves holding their hands up at the point of Clyde’s gun.

Some of the supporting performers do what they can to keep things moving. David Turner and Rachel Balko add nice counterpoint as Clyde’s brother Buck and his religious wife Rachel. And Joel Fenstermaker as the Preacher sings sweetly at times, while Kim Escut as Bonnie's mom, Georgia Muttillo as Clyde's mom, Megan Polk as Young Bonnie and Christian Thomas as Young Clyde provide some fresh energy.

But the momentum gained early on dissipates quickly the closer we get to the end, making the second act a long slog to what we all know is coming. If the actual Bonnie and Clyde had lived through a similar boring stretch, they might have called it quits and gone into insurance sales.

And theater-lovers remember:
On November3 check the slate,
And vote yes, yes, YES on Issue 8!

Bonnie & Clyde
Through October 25 at the Cassidy Theatre, 6200 Pearl Road, Parma Heights, 440-842-4600.