Sunday, May 21, 2017

Medea At Six, Playground Theater in collaboration with Ensemble Theatre

How do ratings and entertainment value influence the news? It’s a juicy topic that playwright and director Scott Miller engages in his Medea At Six, a retelling of the Greek Medea tale through the eyes of a local TV news crew.

In this telling, hot-shot TV reporter Janet is tracking down a story about a woman, Medea Colchis, who broke into a bank meeting and threatened the CEO with a knife. Now she and her cameraman are outside the woman’s house, where the familiar Medea tale is trotted out once again, complete with Jason, this time in modern dress.

The conflict, such as it is, is built around whether Janet will intercede to stop the awful events in progress, or keep filming to boost ratings and goose her career, sending her to a bigger market and a fatter salary.

And at another time, this play might have more resonance. But let’s face it, we’re living right now amidst the carnage that has resulted from a similar media disaster: television networks that sold their souls for ratings during the past Presidential campaign, handing their networks over totally to the appearances of a pouty, foul-mouthed man-child who—thanks to often slack-jawed and adoring coverage on CNN, Fox News and elsewhere—has become the leader of the “Free (for now) World.”

As they say, timing is everything. And while the Medea yarn is certainly ghastly, it’s questionable if it stacks up in horror to the United States losing its democracy thanks to the craven hidden agenda of much of the media.

That said, the cast under Miller’s direction emotes with all the angst and passion you might expect in any rendering of this bloody myth. As Medea, Nina Domingue paints a well-nuanced portrait of a woman scorned and damaged beyond all imagination. As Janet, Alison Garrigan is all business as she struggles to resolve her inner conflict, and Ananias Jason Dixon moans effectively when he learns about what his former lover Medea has done after being rejected by him.

At its present length of one hour, the play doesn’t develop sufficiently to allow the media aspect to land solidly. And by taking itself so seriously, the whole news industry angle seems to dissipate. Perhaps a more absurd take on the whole proceedings, with a TV weatherman doing segues from the carnage and a TV sports guy comparing the disaster to the latest Patriots’ victory would make the point with more punch and less pathos.

Medea At Six
Through May 21, produced in collaboration with Ensemble Theatre and Playground Theater, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Forever Plaid, Great Lakes Theater

There is a day in the future that we can all anticipate with glee. That is the day when no one will be making Ed Sullivan jokes anymore, because no one will fucking remember The Ed Sullivan Show, nor any of the acts that trotted across its TV stage. And that goes double for pretty much all the lame  1950s nostalgia that is dragged out to coax faint chuckles from the pre-dead.

Speaking as a member of that ancient group, I have about had it up to here with shows such as Forever Plaid, now at Great Lakes Theater, since they pander to those of us 70 years and older with syrupy tunes and lame humor. And the Ed Sullivan schtick is part of this tepid song ‘n’ dance exercise, as the actors perform a frenzied, capsule version of that long-ago variety show. When was it decided we oldsters like that crap? I’ll take reruns of Veep any day to guys pretending to be The Four Freshmen harmonizing to “Lady of Spain.”

But hey, each to their own. If you love those close-harmony boy singing groups crooning “Shangri-la” and reliving the Eisenhower era, fire up your Rascal and head on down to East 14th Street. Because even though the show, which is “written” by Stuart Ross, is flimsy and yawn-inducing it won’t matter – because you forget everything at this point anyhow. It's one of the tiny blessings of old age.

The performers are four young lads who all studied at Baldwin Wallace University, which is evidence of their intelligence and talent. And the group of them—Mack Shirilla, Andrew Kotzen, Mickey Patrick Ryan and James Penca—bring boyish verve and endless energy to the mercifully brief proceedings.

The cast is supported by a team of BW teachers and alumni including director Victoria Bussert, choreographer Gregory Daniels, music director Matthew Webb and scenic designer Jeff Herrmann. They all do their jobs professionally but, really, does anyone care? It’s Forever Plaid, for God’s sake.

It’s understandable that GLT mixes in some easier-to-swallow fare along with their Shakespeare plays, to keep the subscribers happy and the seats filled. But do we really have to help keep this kind of tripe alive? I mean, we’re old, but we ain’t dead yet.

Forever Plaid
Through May 21 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000, greatlakestheater.org




These Mortal Hosts, New Ground Festival at the Cleveland Play House

Are there beings or spirits or entities that live inside us?  It would seem so, especially in the morning hours when we are beset with borborygmus, the wonderfully onomatopoetic term for stomach rumblings. (Who the hell is in my intestines anyhow, making all that racket?)

Most of the time, however, we are untroubled by such disturbing thoughts. Not so the three people in These Mortal Hosts, a world premiere play by Cleveland playwright Eric Coble now being presented as part of the often stimulating New Ground Festival at the Cleveland Play House. In this 100-minute one-act, we meet three average people from tiny Dove Creek, Colorado who have apparently had their bodies annexed by some force that they can’t control. And we’re not talking about a craving for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups here because, as we soon learn, these unseen occupiers are pretty serious.

It is a fascinating premise for a play by the preternaturally prolific Eric Coble. He’s written more than 200 scripts of various kinds over the past 25 years--which computes to eight per year or one every six-and-a-half weeks. That means Coble is writing a script more often than most of us attempt much less challenging activities, such as rearranging our sock drawer. More power to him for that.

For the first half of Hosts, directed by Laley Lippard, the idea of having an uncontrollable force inside our body is compelling. In quick succession we meet middle-aged bank manager Phyllis, high school student Meaghan and a veteran butcher named Earl. They are strangers to each other, and they pretty much exist in their own silos as they address the audience and share their current fixations.

For all his cutting and slicing of animal carcasses, Earl is slightly amazed that he’s never seen any of his own blood, even from a loose tooth as a kid. But one day, he feels a pressure in his chest. Meaghan is mightily attracted to schoolmate Troy at a party and evinces the usual teenage girl angst, until she starts hearing a voice in her head. And Phyllis, single and childless, obsesses over her two black cats, Inkwell and Mr. Mistoffelees, until she finds something going on in her body to obsess about.

At first, these people and their problems seem not all that significant. And Coble treats them as such, using his proven ability to craft quips and amusing punch lines with deft precision. In particular, tightly-wrapped Phyllis generates a number of laughs as she talks about her life at home and at work, reveling in how she positions her desk just right in the bank so she can see everything.

Trouble is, she can’t see what’s happening inside her own body. And when she stops having her period and finds she’s pregnant—without having had sex for more than six years—the whole play flips upside-down. Let’s face it, no matter what else happens in a play, when a virgin birth is occurring that means we’re talking religion until the final curtain.

Aside from abandoning a promising premise, there are other challenges this script faces. By having the characters address the audience instead of each other (for the most part), we get no real sense of what they have at stake as they experience their physical, mental and spiritual changes. Sure, Earl talks lovingly about his wife Helen, but we never hear from her, while Phyllis and Meaghan are off on their own.

Coble attempts to address this by having Earl visit one-time customer Phyllis in the bank, bringing her offerings of liver and muffins. This relationship, aside from any religious connotations, comes across as forced and manipulative. And as Meaghan gradually makes peace with the voice in her head, she sees herself as The Messenger who must Proclaim to the world and Shield those who do not possess her vision. It’s not at all clear if this is supposed to be inspiring or downright scary. If it’s up to the audience, I vote for scary.

The climax of the play attempts to be shocking and disturbing, but since so much of the play has been taken up with jokey asides, the impact at that point is muted. Call it a death by a hundred quips.

Although the play has issues, the cast delivers Coble’s words with passion and power. As Earl, Fabio Polanco has a rough-hewn honesty and simple goodness, which helps anchor a play that desperately needs it. Megan Medley conjures a number of laughs as Meaghan, especially when she uses her newfound power to intimidate some boys at school. And Amy Fritsche deftly portrays Phyllis as a coiled bundle of nerves until pregnancy releases her in more ways than one.

The mission of the New Ground Festival is to help new plays get launched, and that is indeed an honorable and laudatory goal. So major props to CPH for this effort! One hopes that the Festival thrives for years to come and continues to feature emerging theatrical voices—not so much those playwrights who already (and justifiably) enjoy consistent exposure of their fine work at multiple venues locally and across the country.

These Mortal Hosts
Through May 20 at Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com.



Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Hand to God, Dobama Theatre

(Luke Wehner as Jason/Tyrone)

The definition of a passion play is a dramatic performance representing the Passion of Jesus Christ, involving his suffering and death. It is a staple of many celebrations of Lent in several Christian denominations.

The thing is, that word “passion” can take you in more than one direction. And in this play by Robert Askins, there is plenty of passion set in a church building, but most of it is of the four-letter-word, violent and sexually-drenched variety. 

Taking a cue from the outrageous puppets in Avenue Q, this dark comedy centers on a Sunday school classroom of a church in a small Texas town. This is where recently widowed Margery is trying to teach her charges Jason, Jessica and Timothy about the Lord, using puppets as a vehicle to reach them. Jason is her son, and it turns out she reaches him all too well, since timid Jason has apparently bonded with his puppet Tyrone in a dangerous way.

Indeed, it seems balls-to-the-wall Tyrone has taken over Jason’s fragile personality and is using him to lambaste everyone in sight, including Pastor Greg. As Tyrone says in his opening speech, speaking from a puppet stage in the classroom: “The same motherfucker who invented the group kill and team virtue—that ballsy piece of pig shit—topped all his previous work and invented the devil.”

And Tyrone is here to make sure the devil gets his due. As performed by Luke Wehner, Jason/Tyrone is a fascinating and at times abhorrent creation, giving voice to the unspeakable thoughts Jason has swirling around in his head—as most of us do, of course. Tyrone is all id and, since he's not actually President of the United States, he's hilarious. 

Meanwhile, Timothy (Austin Gonser) is a walking adolescent hard-on with maximum sexual potency and very little focus, Jessica (Molly Israel) is trying to deal with Jason’s infatuation and Margery begins to let down her pretense of civility and starts to respond to Timothy’s insistent entreaties. During all this, Pastor Greg (David Burgher) is trying to make time with Margery.

In other words, it’s a pretty conventional church setting with all the hypocrisy, concealed emotions and screwed-up family relationships fully revealed. And that is what Askins is about, as he thrusts Tyrone into this supposedly calm and rational world.

Sure-handed director Matthew Wright keeps the pacing tight, even when the script tends to get bogged down in a bit too much repetition. And the ensemble performances are quite adept. But it is Wehner’s star turn as the man with the devil stuck on the end of his arm that steals the show and is worth the price of admission.

Hand to God
Through May 21 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org



Freaky Friday, Cleveland Play House

There’s no denying that the gimmick at the heart of this show, a musical version of the 1976 Disney movie, is a sure-fire winner. I mean, a mom and self-employed event planner named Katherine and her teenage daughter Ellie magically exchange bodies and set the stage for lots of generational laughs (Mom has to go to high school and deal with those rotten kids! Snarky teenager has to convince a wedding magazine to do a cover story on her mom’s business!).

For this effort, the cross-generational jokes have been updated to the 21st century by book writer Bridget Carpenter. In addition, they’ve hired Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey to, respectively, do the music and lyrics. Seems like a no-brainer, since these guys put together the stunning musical Next to Normal. You even have renowned scenic designer Beowulf Boritt creating a wonderfully flexible yet simple set, utilizing continually morphing columns that roll about in various configurations against a suburban landscape.

So, how can you miss? Well, let’s put it this way: IT WOULD BE EXHAUSTING TO READ THIS REVIEW IF EVERY SENTENCE WAS SCREAMING AT YOU AT THE TOP OF IT’S LUNGS AND NEVER GIVING YOU A CHANCE TO BREATHE!

Similarly, it is tiring to watch a musical that attempts to turn every song into an anthem. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with Broadway anthems, those show-stopping numbers (think “I Am What I Am” or “Lullaby of Broadway”) that people leave the theater talking about. Wow, they say, that was powerful!

The trick is, that power is generated because the anthems are high points in a show, not the entire musical fabric. But in this production, virtually every song is composed and sung like an anthem, at full volume and with maximum emotional investment. This is all in the service of a plot that, while clever, depends on a rather flimsy one-joke premise.

As a result, the potentially tender, lightly amusing and affecting fantasy is crushed under the brutal treads of the Kitt/Yorkey pop-rock sonic muggings and music director Andrew Graham’s unrelenting intensity. In a different context, a couple of the song-anthems would be quite satisfying, since the premise-setting “Just One Day” and the secret-revealing “Busted” are quite entertaining. But in this production, they’re just another blast in the face.

In addition to the over-torqued songs, Yorkey is given to writing lyrics that are jammed with information—no “moon-June” simplicity for him. This worked brilliantly in the aforementioned Next to Normal, since it dealt with serious mental illness issues. Lots to delve into there. But in this show, his wordy delectation of the not-so-deep, storybook central theme quickly becomes overkill. In “No More Fear,” Katherine in the body of Ellie laments her past parental decisions in excruciating detail:  “How long have I kept an even keel?/How hard have I worked to keep our life so calm and neat?/How do I clean up this mess I made?” Maybe Yorkey could clean up this situation by not trying so hard.

Happily, there are some survivors. When the actors are not screaming their lungs hoarse in songs that require much less vocal commitment, they do a nice job under the direction of Christopher Ashley. As Katherine, Heidi Blickenstaff channels the insolent postures and snotty attitudes of her daughter with precision, and she’s quite amusing. In the less showy role of Ellie, Emma Hunton spends most of her time bringing adult good sense and reasonable behavior to her daughter’s sloppily clad body.  And they are well supported by David Jennings as Katherine’s fiancĂ© Mike, Chris Ramirez as Ellie’s high school dream-hunk Adam, and Jake Heston Miller as Katherine’s young son Fletcher.

But as effective as some of the dialog scenes are, musicals rise and fall on the music. And in this production, the music attacks the audience like a Marine drill sergeant, intent on taking no prisoners. As clever as it is, the songs in this Freaky Friday could lead to Migraine Monday.

Freaky Friday kicks off this year’s New Ground Festival at the Cleveland Play House. The Festival also includes a world premiere play by local playwright Eric Coble, These Mortal Hosts, May 11-20; The Nolan Williams Project, a new musical concert presentation, May 20; and The Chinese Lady, a reading of a new play by Lloyd Suh, May 20.

Freaky Friday
Through May 20 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com




Friday, April 7, 2017

Labio de Liebre (The Lip of the Hare), Teatro Publico de Cleveland

(Photo: Steve Wagner)

As Ebenezer Scrooge once learned, a guy can get some nasty nightmares resulting from a bad bit of meat or, you know, a rotting morality.

In Labio de Liebre, produced by Teatro Publico de Cleveland (TPC) under the auspices of Cleveland Public Theatre, an ex-military man experiences some darkly humorous interactions with ghosts who just won’t leave. This intriguing play is delivered in the original Spanish as written by playwright Fabio Rubiano Orjuela, with supertitles in English projected on a screen.

As seen at this preview performance, the troupe of local TPC actors under the direction of Dante Fernando Larzabal attack the material with energy and enthusiasm. And although nuance and subtlety are not the production’s long suits, this 90-minute piece eventually makes a powerful statement about tragedies that have befallen many people.

The genesis of the play has its roots in various military operations that have occurred in Colombia over time. And the central character here, a man named Salvo, was a member of the military that often killed indiscriminately. The play is set years later in his comfortable house, where a man with a cleft lip shows up and begins talking obliquely about his physical deformity and other things.

Soon, his brother wanders in, along with his sister and their mother, arriving through various means including out of the fridge. Not only that, a chicken (Lilly Corona-Moreno), a rabbit (Magdalena Godinez Rios) and a cow (Luis Ramirez-Alonzo) also make appearances, sometimes peering through the windows and sometimes traipsing inside the house.

Clearly Salvo’s existence, whether he’s asleep or awake, has been permeated by these people and creatures. And as the reason for their appearance becomes clear, the often-amusing play takes on a decidedly darker patina. Larzabal’s inventive production utilizes singing, dancing and a reporter and ex-beauty queen Roxi (a feisty Alisha Caraballo) to advance the story.

Since some of the dialog is rapid-fire, it’s at times difficult to keep up by reading the supertitles, since they do not indicate the name of the speaker. Of course, maybe I wouldn’t have had this problem if I had made a better decision in high school and taken Spanish classes instead of French. Sacrebleu!

As Salvo, Kivin Bauzo evinces strong stage presence, and he is matched by Christina Patterson who plays the mother of the visiting family. The two brothers are played by Alexander Corona and Ernesto Luna Carmargo with impish whimsy. Indeed, it is their comical aura that sets up the powerful contrast with the serious history the play reveals. In the role of Mala, a young girl with mother problems, Nathalie Bermudez is properly flirty and scatterbrained.

In other words, they’re a family. And once you discover what’s happened to them, the ghosts of the past will be in your head too.

Labio de Liebre
Through April 15, produced by Teatro Publico de Cleveland at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727, cptonline.org


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Harm’s Way, convergence-continuum

(Robert Branch as Crowsfoot)

How many times has a mother been frustrated with trying to get her small son to eat a sandwich? And how many times has a son been upset by being forced to eat something he didn’t want? Billions of times, or trillions? But usually, the encounter doesn’t conclude with mom shooting her tyke dead and then complaining about getting no respect.

In Harm’s Way, now at convergence-continuum theater, we are plunged into the distorted world of playwright Mac Wellman, a world where common aspects of our lives—violence, con games, dead Presidents—appear as if reflected in a fun house mirror. And then you realize, maybe this view isn’t so distorted after all.

The central character Santouche (a name that is a compressed version of the French phrase meaning “no touch”), winds up touching plenty of people, with bullets from his ever-present gun. After killing the aforementioned mom (who gave him no respect) he goes on a killing spree through several disconnected scenes until he ultimately offs the person closest to him, his evocatively named girlfriend Isle of Mercy. Again, no respect.

Some in the cast are more adept at dealing with this challenging material than others. Robert Branch creates distinctive characters as the young son and Crowsfoot, a carny con artist with two distinct sides to his personality. And Gideon Lorete, although lacking precise diction at times, channels the wacky energy that Wellman plays require. Hillary Wheelock as Isle and Carrie Williams as By Way of Being Hidden (yes, that’s her name) also convey a haunted, hunted aura.

In the central role of Santouche, Brian Westerley certainly has the look and physique to inhabit this fearsome role. But he never truly dominates the stage as he should, and his line readings tend to just be flat when they should ripple with tension, or dread. Or something. Without a more risk-taking performance, Santouche oddly fades into the background. And the contrast—when he suddenly speaks with Victorian rectitude to President McKinley (who is trying to get President Grover Cleveland to bury him alive)—doesn’t have the snap it should.

Director Clyde Simon clearly adores Wellman’s plays, having staged many of them, and he has a well-tuned sense of the absurdity at work. And the three-person band/chorus adds some pungent musical touches, including notes from a musical saw. But this one-hour play would be even more effective if he pushed some of the performers out of their comfort zones. Nobody, including the actors, should be comfortable in a Mac Wellman play.

Harm’s Way
Through April 15, produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org