Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Lanford Wilson: Take Five, Cesear’s Forum

(Brian Zoldesy and Adina Bloom)

The latest offering by Cleveland’s most invisible theater company, Cesear’s Forum, Lanford Wilson: Take Five, is an untrammeled delight. Hidden away in the basement under the glorious, newly renovated lobby of the Ohio Theatre, Greg Cesear and his loyal troupe of thespians keep churning out unusual and unexpected work. And this time, they’ve hit the jackpot.

This is a collection of five one-act plays that Wilson, a very well-known playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote from the 1960s through the 1980s, and they are each interesting in different ways. None of them are exactly perfect, since they were authored when he was still an emerging playwright. But taken individually or together they are fresher and more stimulating than many other shows you might see this year, under or above ground.

In the opener, “Wandering,” a 16-year-old young man is being hectored by his parents and others during the Vietnam War. They think being in the army is just what he needs, but he’s not too sure. When he resists, indicating he’d rather not kill people, others say, “It’s not killing, it’s just nudging out of the way.” Thanks to Cesear’s finely detailed direction, the piece clicks along to a satisfying conclusion.

In “Sextet (Yes),” all six actors in the cast gather for a fine ensemble performance as they offer revelations about their intertwined relationships and respond by saying “Yes.” Tricia Bestic and Beau Reinker are particularly effective in this smoothly meshed effort.

“A Betrothal” is essentially an extended skit with a delicious punch line, but the performances by Adina Bloom and Brian Zoldessy lift it above the mundane. They are two flower show exhibitors, very concerned about the judging and their own botanical charges, her “Little Soldier” and his “Little Tanya.” Bloom is amusing as she shares her worries and Zoldessy quivers with comically repressed rage. Although too long by several minutes, it is a lovely piece of writing and acting.

After the intermission, Mary Alice Beck takes the lead role in “Brontosaurus,” in which she plays a wealthy antiques dealer who is dealing with her sullen nephew who is staying with her. Again, this piece is overwritten by Wilson, but Beck is compelling in her portrayal of this woman who is locked inside a claustrophobic world of her own making.

In the final play, “ A Poster of the Cosmos,” Sean Booker plays a man whose lover has just died from AIDS. He evidently created a scene at the hospital, and so he is being interrogated by the police. Starting off defensive and hostile, he soon begins to recall a flood of details that show the commitment the two men had for each other. Booker is focused and on point throughout, never lapsing into easy sentimentality, so the final takeaway is quite shattering.

If you want to taste some new theatrical material, executed with professionalism and creativity, head on down to Cesear’s Forum soon.

Lanford Wilson: Take Five

Through October 29 at Kennedy’s Down Under, Playhoouse Square, 1501 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Body Awareness, Beck Center

There’s nothing wrong with a small play that has modest goals. God knows it beats some of the gargantuan productions that aim high and fall miserably short. Still, sometimes a play can be a bit too small and coy for its own good.

Such is the case with Body Awareness, now at the Beck Center. Set in a small town in Vermont this play by Annie Baker focuses on a middle-aged lesbian couple, Phyllis and Joyce, and Joyce’s son and would-be-etymologist Jared who has some form of Asperger’s Syndrome. Phyllis, a strong-willed feminist, is in the midst of leading a week-long “Body Awareness Week” at the local college where she teaches.

As the play works its way through the week (and the play's non-too-subtle premise), we see how Jared torments his mother and Phyllis with his Asperger’s-triggered attitudinal issues. He’s blunt and aggressive, not aware of how his words impact others, but Joyce quietly perseveres as she tries to make their home a pleasant and loving space. 

During the week, one of the guest lecturers Frank arrives, to stay in the same house for a couple days. Phyllis is instantly bent out of shape because she learns that he takes nude photographs of females, of various ages. Her sudden distaste for his artistic endeavors feels forced and odd. In any case, the various issues of “body awareness” are neatly arrayed—Jared trapped in his not-quite-functional body, Joyce and Phyllis trying to work out their same-sex relationship, and (sleazy?) Frank hanging around and inserting himself in their discussions.

Playwright Baker is a deft writer and there are a number of chuckles to be found in the play, but it all feels a bit too contrived. And director David Vegh doesn’t use his talented cast in the best ways possible. As Joyce, Anne McEvoy seems to float a bit too high above the events swirling around her, while Julia Kolibab comes off as a bit fuzzy and indistinct as Phyllis. Phyllis’ mini-lectures at college, which punctuate each of the days of the week, should be funnier than they are. Plus, there is little sexual (or any other) chemistry between these two characters. Since McEvoy and Kolibab are exceptionally talented actors, it appears that Vegh was unable to help them find their characters’ sweet spot in this fragile work.

The same is true with Rick Montgomery Jr. as Frank, who appears out of the blue and never rings true as either a photographer or a mystical purveyor of wisdom (a non-Jew, he insists on leading a Friday evening Sabbath service earlier in the week).

Richie Gagen is strong and funny as Jared, perhaps because his character exists outside the conventional grid of family relationships. Jared is always saying unexpected things, and Gagen makes them amusing while retaining the inherent humanity of the young man.

Since too many of the scenes are meandering and slow, the 90-minute one-act feels longer than it’s actual run time. This is a show that needs to be performed with crisp timing, not with the casual and indulgent pacing that director Vegh has employed. And that’s too bad, because the Beck cast is clearly capable of much more.

Body Awareness
Through November 6 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

PREVIEW: 44 Plays for 44 Presidents, Cleveland Public Theatre

How does it feel for a woman to be President of the United States? According to Tanera Hutz, it feels amazing. “I’m a history buff and being able to perform as President is very empowering.”

Even though there may be an actual female occupying the Oval Office in a couple months, there are seven women here in Cleveland who will be trying their hand at the highest office in the land starting this week. It will be happening when 44 Plays for 44 Presidents opens at Cleveland Public Theatre on October 14.

This play, created by the renowned Chicago theater group the New-Futurists, cruises through the entire Presidential history of this country, from the original George W. (Washington, that is) through Barack Obama. It’s a daunting task for Hutz and the other six women who will portray all the characters. And since the running time of the show indicates that the average time spent on each President will be about three minutes, this will be a necessarily cursory review of those gentlemen.

“Empowering” is also a word that comes to Molly Andrews-Hinders’ mind, who is another performer in the show. “What struck me in the show is how many programs FDR began during the New Deal, programs that are still powerfully affecting people’s lives today.”

Written by a team of five Neo-Futurists, 44 Plays  intends to be a non-stop volley of songs, factoids, dancing, and wisecracks. In short, it will be a much more reserved and dignified experience than the current Presidential campaign, which has slid into the muck of Donald Trump’s despicable carnal excesses.

Of course, this play at CPT won’t exactly be a sober seminar on American government since there are plenty of absurdities to reveal and POTUSes to tweak. (Chester A. Arthur, we’re looking at you.) There is also a mix of tragedy in the show, as monumental moments such as slavery and war take their moments in the spotlight.

Carrie Williams, a performer who plays George W. Bush among many others, says, “Any one of these guys could have a whole play written about them, and it’s kind of sad that their contributions are reduced to a couple minutes each.” Still, by moving chronologically through all the Presidents, one will get a sense for the sweep of history and how our country has arrived where it is in 2016.

And if we can laugh along the way, so much the better!

44 Plays for 44 Presidents
Opens Friday, October 14 and runs through October 29, Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Margin of Error, Ensemble Theatre

It’s weird how sometimes a concept we all agree upon can be upended, suddenly rendering that concept almost meaningless. This is especially troubling for a playwright who labors on a script for months, or years, and then opens the show in a world where all the assumptions of the play have been rendered null and void.

Take Margin of Error, now enjoying its regional premiere at Ensemble Theatre. The talented local playwright Eric Coble constructed this 90-minute show based on a lot of political common knowledge at the time. But it is opening here at a time when the current presidential race has been thrown for a loop by a candidate, Donald Trump, who has defied every single truism about what a person had to do to run for that high office.

As a result, the play feels substantially dated through absolutely no fault of its own. Who could have predicted that a presidential candidate could run for office while insulting large swaths of the population in the most vulgar terms, lie constantly, brag about wanting to use nuclear weapons, support unregulated gun sales, and even refer to the size of his penis as a reason for voting for him?

That said, Coble has written a tight and fiercely funny play about the way politics used to work, back when you had to be careful of every utterance should a single minor lip-slip lead to bad headlines the next day. Harold Carver, a bloodthirsty Republican operative known for his viciousness, is trapped in a fog bank at Cleveland Hopkins Airport, along with his aide Daphne. And he’s working a collection of color-coded cell phones, each one dedicated to a different GOP candidate (and one secret Democrat) across the country.

Deliciously played by Michael Mauldin, Carver has a way with words, using the term “Boots on neck!” to indicate to his minions the ruthlessness with which they should do their jobs. He’s out to engineer a “great Republican domination” of the political landscape, from the lowest offices to the highest, finding a way to elect often idiotic candidates as long as they have an (R) after their names.

Based on some phone calls with his wife, Carver has problems at home which he’s juggling with his pep talks to wavering pols while managing his relationship with Daphne. In turn, she tries to prove her worth by strategizing along with him as he erupts with a volley of mini-lessons including the ultimate acronym warning: DFIU (Don’t Fuck It Up!).

Mauldin is a compressed whirlwind of repressed anger and resentment as the nicely-named Carver shreds his enemies in the airport’s waiting area (although a player like him would probably have a membership in all the airline lounges). Mauldin brilliantly performs Coble’s in-the-know words, showing how talking points get developed and how cardboard candidates can be made to look three-dimensional—even if stories have to be conjured up out of thin air. You can’t take your eyes off Mauldin, and he rewards you with a memorable character.

As Daphne, Mary-Francis Renee Miller holds her own and serves as a strong foil to Hurricane Carver, even though she has less to work with. Her desire to please her boss is clear, as she sees through his bluster to vulnerabilities that lie beneath.

Sure, Coble’s ending is a bit predictable, but he keeps the energy of Carver’s manic personality front and center. And it ain’t his fault that anyone who follows politics and is watching the show will be throwing asterisks all over the place—noting how things have changed in politics thanks to the bilious, misogynistic, racist blowhard who now leads the Republican Party.

Margin of Error
Through October 23 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Twelfth Night, Great Lakes Theater

If you’ve ever felt hemmed in by the expectations of others, you can find at least one—or maybe five or six—characters to relate to in this lyrical Shakespeare play.

The twins, Viola and Sebastian, start off by being shipwrecked, with neither aware the other has survived. To avoid getting hit on, Viola dresses as a young man named Cesario then gets a gig with Orsino (Juan Rivera Lebron), the Duke of Illyria, who’s hot for Countess Olivia. But that’s only the biggest switcheroo, since many other characters are trying to express themselves anew, seeking fresh identities and different pathways.

That’s the fun of this work which plays, often outrageously, with the pangs of love and the confusion that always attends that emotion. The production, under the direction of Drew Barr, finds many delights in Will’s words, but it tends to overstep in the humor department, with some of the jocular scenes cranked up to cringe-worthy levels.

As Viola/Cesario, Cassandra Bissell is effective in both genders as she fends off the romantic sighs of Olivia (Christine Weber), the woman Cesario has been assigned to woo for Orsino, the Duke of Illyria. Because Viola is in love with her boss Orsino. Confused yet? Good, you’re in exactly the right place. There’s nothing Shakespeare liked more than entangling his characters in a snarl of mistaken identities and then finding a way to smooth out the mess by the end of the piece.

Of course, complications arise when the hard-drinking and aptly named Sir Toby Belch (Aled Davies) prowls around Olvia’s compound with his partner in lewdness and frivolity, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Tom Ford). Davies and Ford leave so stone unturned and no fart un-wafted as they wring laughs out of the audience. And they can be funny, even though the strain of trying to be continually hilarious can be exhausting at times.

Belch and Aguecheek get sideways with Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio (a righteously stiff Lynn Robert Berg), and they are soon plotting with Olivia’s clever gentlewoman Maria to make a fool of Malvolio, who himself has designs on Olivia. This leads to the famous scene where Malvolio wears yellow, cross-gartered stockings, having been tricked into thinking Olivia loves these items when in fact she detests them. In this production, costume designer Kim Krumm Sorenson, has added a black corset to the costume, making Berg look like a refugee from an low rate BD/SM porno. But hey, it gets plenty of guffaws.

The Sebastian part of the story gets short shrift in this staging, mainly because Jonathan Christopher MacMillan seems less than involved in fashioning a distinct character. So the extra-added mistaken identities fall a bit flat, when Olivia mistakes Sebastian for Cesario, and so forth. 12th N is also known for its songs, most of which are delivered by Feste, the jester in Olivia’s court, and M.A. Taylor handles the tunes with ease, although his humorous asides during the play could use a bit more spark.

The production design by Russell Metheny, however, is handsome, with the estates of Orsino and Olivia superimposed on each other, and sharing their look of elegance that’s just slightly past its sell-by date.

So if you can get past some of the less than artful attempts at humor, this Twelfth Night has much to recommend it.

Twelfth Night
Through October 30 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

My Fair Lady, Great Lakes Theater

(Tom Ford as Henry Higgins and Jillian Kates as Eliza Doolittle)

One of the pleasures of seeing a classic Lerner and Loewe musical such as My Fair Lady is in seeing how it can be restaged, or even reimagined, some 60 years after it opened on Broadway. In this Great Lakes Theater production, directed by Victoria Bussert, very few liberties are taken with the material. And that’s a good thing, since the material is so damn good all by itself.

Of course, back in the day other Broadway teams took a run at musicalizing George Bernard Shaw’s story of Pygmalion—including Rogers and Hammerstein. Richard and Oscar worked on it for more than a year before giving up, What threw them was the lack of a strong romantic through line, since the stern taskmaster, phonetician Henry Higgins, and the poor flower girl Eliza Doolittle never seem to really hit it off.

In this production, Eliza is played by Jillian Kates, and she handles her chores with professional aplomb, even though the “r” sound is barely noticeable in her tender rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.” Still, she is a properly rough and tumble gal as the early Eliza, joking and dancing with the other denizens of the gutter. And she shows some real spirit in “Just You Wait,” her rant against the dominating presence of ‘enry ‘iggins. When Eliza is transformed as a proper lady, Kates shows off her powerful singing voice in the amusingly repetitive “I Could Have Danced All Night.” But once this Eliza gets her rap together, her character becomes a bit too flat, the spirit refined out of her.

As Higgins, Tom Ford brings a tense, rapid-fire, no-nonsense approach to a role that was made famous by Cyril Richard’s talk-singing profundity and slow burn. Ford’s take is quite amusing throughout, especially in “I’m An Ordinary Man,” but it sacrifices something in the connection that is supposed to grow between Higgins and Eliza. Since Ford’s machine-gun nastiness seems reflexive rather than inspired by the specific presence of the Cockney lass, it makes his eventual softening towards her less personal, and thus less meaningful, than it might otherwise be.

There are particular delights in the smaller roles. M.A. Taylor has never been better than he is as Eliza’s scoundrel father Alfred P. Doolittle. His takes on “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” augmented by energetic dance numbers choreographed by Gregory Daniels, are little gems. And Colton Ryan as Freddy loads plenty of yearning into “On the Street Where You Live,” making his reprise laugh-out-loud funny. And Laura Perrotta manages to cadge some laughs from the rather drab role of Mrs. Higgins, Henry’s mom.

The scenic design by Jeff Herrmann is to drool for, with simple rotating panels indicating the locations and a virtually monochromatic color scheme of whites and off-whites giving the production a lush feel. The orchestra under the direction of Joel Mercier is spot on.

My Fair Lady is a treasure and this production does it full justice.

My Fair Lady
Through October 29 at the Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

All The Way, Cleveland Play House

(Steve Vinovich as President Lyndon Baines Johnson.)

Lyndon Baines Johnson was one of the more fascinating characters to ever populate the halls of Washington D.C., since he combined the raw, crotch-grabbing energy of a good ol’ boy from rural Texas with the liberal leanings of a man who deeply cared about the disadvantaged. Try finding a mixture like that in today’s polarized political landscape.

And in All The Way by Robert Schenkkan, the colliding aspects of LBJ’s personality are displayed in clear and sometimes devastating detail. Set in the mid-1960s after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and just a year before the next presidential election, the play offers an almost blow-by-blow description of how Johnson horse-traded and bullied congressional leaders to pass his Civil Rights Act.

It all plays out on Robert Mark Morgan’s breathtakingly simple set, composed of grandstand-like levels encircled by a curving wall where photos are displayed. With a large circular shape hovering above, the scenic design provides the feel of the halls of government without ever getting too specific. And these halls are populated with all the people who made that time so wrenching, triumphant and memorable.

As LBJ, Steve Vinovich bears a striking resemblance to the “accidental president” as he browbeats and strokes Hubert Humphrey (a nicely quivering Donald Carrier), a liberal senator from the north whom Johnson clearly enjoys tweaking at every opportunity.  An expert at manipulation, LBJ does this with most people oiling inflated egos here and sticking a shiv in there—whatever the situation calls for. In this way, he maneuvers around his old pal Senator Richard Russell (a sly Stephen Bradbury), rabble-rousing Governor George Wallace (Greg Jackson) and Dr. Martin Luther King (stately Jason Bowen).

Vinovich’s Johnson displays this bifurcated approach even with his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, whom he often dismisses rudely even as he seems to clearly care for her. As Lady Bird, Laura Starnik captures the look and feel of this woman who put up with a lot from the man she loved.

The first act of All The Way (those words are taken from the chant that accompanied Johnson during his own campaign for the presidency), is quite compelling as Johnson cajoles multiple D.C. players as he finds a way to sell the Civil Rights Act to both southern racists and black militants. In the second act, when LBJ is running for the presidency against Barry Goldwater, the issues are not as stark and the momentum of the play gets tangled up in some arcane negotiating around seating African-American delegates at the Democratic Convention.

There are also some characterizations that seem to fall a bit short. As the intense Stokely Carmichael, Biko Eisen-Martin doesn’t exhibit the live-wire energy of this man who headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And Lou Sumrall doesn’t leave much of an impression as Secretary Robert McNamara. But some of this has to do with a play that attempts to touch a few too many bases, leaving several characters dangling with not enough lines to establish their personalities.

Still, this is a play about one man. And the wildly contrasting aspects of LBJ’s persona are brought out powerfully, thanks to Vinovich’s performance and the crisp direction by Giovanna Sardelli. For those who wonder how our government ever got anything done, this show offers a revealing look at how power can be used to achieve something good. It’s a thought worth contemplating in these days when compromise is seen as treason by many in Congress.

All The Way

Through October 9 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.