Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Aesop’s Pirate Adventure, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

Pirates are on the prowl in this latest offering from the always engaging folks at Talespinner.

Written by Michael Sepesy, this frequently amusing journey hooks us up with Bluebeard (Carrie Williams), Redbeard (Katelyn Cornelius) and Peach Fuzz (Christopher Walker) as they search for treasure in the Greek isles.

Along the way they meet a spirit, Aesop, who always has another tale handy that throws the pirates into new characters and provides a helpful lesson. Eventually, the pirates learn it all and are back on their ship, a wiser bunch.

Sepesy’s sense of humor infuses much of the proceedings, his pirate version of the alphabet song—every letter is “Arrr!”—being a prime example. This keeps the kiddies as well as their adult handlers amused. But there are a few too many meta digressions that lengthen the production and tend to convolute the story line.

The five-person cast handles their chores well, involving the audience and animating their characters with verve under the spirited direction of Cathleen O’Malley.

Kate Miller and Benjamin Gregg stand out as the Gray Sisters, a strange, muumuu attired duo that lures the bearded ones onto a magical island. This in-joke is evidently based on the real-life Beale sisters from the film doc and then the stage musical Grey Gardens, who lived on the magical isle named Long. It’s a subtle reference that will fly high above kids’ heads but be enough to keep Big Edie and Little Edie fans squirming with glee.

However, the best character may be Gregg’s falsetto “muskrat/cow” that looks and sounds like Mickey (or Minnie?) Mouse, right down to the puffy white-gloved hands. Sepesy should get to work immediately on writing a fable around this creature, trademarks be damned.

Thanks to colorful costumes and go-for-broke acting, this is another in Talespinner’s ever-growing line of wonderful shows for little tykes.

Aesop’s Pirate Adventure
Through April 27, produced by Talespinner Children’s Theatre at The Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, 216-264-9680.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

As You Like It, Great Lakes Theatre

(David Anthony Smith as Jaques and Torsten Johnson as Orlando)

If you are seeking a balm from this past horrendous Winter we’ve all barely survived, listen up. If your soul aches from hearing storm warnings and shoveling wet snow and cowering from the next polar vortex, pay attention. If you are worn out and in need of comfort and a laugh or 20…Great Lakes Theater has just the prescription.

Their production of As You Like It, directed with wit and snap by Edward Morgan, is a simply glorious romp that lands in C-town at the perfect moment. You needn’t wait until May 2nd for the world’s largest outdoor chandelier to light up, down the street—this play will dazzle PlayhouseSquare for the next two weeks. And you’re a bigger fool than Touchstone if you don’t samples its many delights.

This version features a brilliant updating by Morgan, setting the play in New England during the Scott Joplin era. This brings in a couple tunes of the time (“I Don’t Care”) as well as a barber shop quartet at the top of Act Two.

Betsy Mugavero as a feisty Rosalind begins as a Gibson Girl and then evolves into a Suffragette. Trying to avoid the heavy hand of Duke Frederick, the threatened Rosalind and her gal pal Celia (Christine Weber) dash off to the Arden Forest where Roz, disguised as the courtly dude Ganymede, sort of/kind of seduces her heartthrob Orlando (Torsten Johnson).

They are accompanied into the safe embrace of the forest by Touchstone, a clown whose verbal and physical hijinks are maximized at every opportunity by the relentless Dustin Tucker. Fortunately, he is quite funny most of the time, otherwise he would become a serious irritant. And his lustful pursuit of the goat-herd Audrey is both desperate and hilarious.

The preternaturally morose Jaques is played by David Anthony Smith, which means this downer of a character is actually one of the funnier folks on stage. Once again, Smith works his magic, turning Jaques’ classic line: “I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs” into a signature laugh line. And he adds so much contour to the “Seven Ages” speech that it seems almost fresh to the ear.

Then there is Silvius (Joan Rivera Lebron) who is pursuing the much-disinterested and plain-looking Phoebe, given a wonderful turn by Jodi Dominick. When Rosalind advises her to “sell when you can, you’re not for all markets,” the comment is made funnier thanks to Dominick’s dour mien.

Indeed, there are no weak parts in this production, and the neatly efficient set designed by Russell Metheny—starting with Industrial Age rusted metal and changing to a dark and welcoming glade of trees—allows the flow of the show to sweep the audience along.

So put away your chemical hand warmers, pry yourself out of the La-Z-Boy imprinted with your body shape, and welcome Spring with As You Like It. You’ll love it.

As You Like It
Through April 19, produced by Great Lakes Theater at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th Street, PlayhouseSquare.

Gidion’s Knot, None Too Fragile Theater

(From left, Jen Klika and Alanna Romansky)

Did you ever think that the rows of desks in an empty classroom sort of look like the precisely arranged headstones in a graveyard? Neither did I, until I saw Gidion’s Knot now at None Too Fragile Theater.

No, this isn’t a play about a school shooting, but there certainly is some psychological carnage left in the wake of this flawed but fascinating piece by Johnna Adams. And NTF’s two-person cast, Alanna Romansky and Jen Klika, negotiate many twists and turns with powerful emotional clarity.

Set in a vacant fifth grade classroom, teacher Heather is surprised by a visit from the mother of one of her students. Corryn has arrived for a previously scheduled parent-teacher conference, but Heather had erased the appointment for a reason we learn a bit later.

Turns out Corryn’s son Gidion was suspended and mom wants to find out why. This leads both parent and teacher through a maze of suppositions and accusations. Was Gidion being bullied by a classmate? Was he aware that a girl sitting next to him had a crush on him?

These very normal 11-year-old moments of angst are played off against much deeper and more disturbing issues, especially when Heather is forced to read a gruesome story Gidion wrote that led to his suspension.

Corryn’s unexpected reaction to that story, and the discussion it ignites, send the two women into reflections on art, education and morality that are truly intriguing. Sure, Adams’ script veers off into a little too much didacticism. And a faint subplot about Heather’s ill cat, thrown in as a counterpoint to the other events, is just ridiculous.

But in the main, this is a play about real ideas. Under the direction of Sean Derry, the actors ride the many pauses where real conversation hides its true nature.

As Heather, Romansky tries to keep her physical and emotional distance from the seething Corryn and still manages to register her own responsibility and humanity in this difficult confrontation. And Klika lands several telling moments as Corryn—especially when, she excoriates Heather for her reaction to the story: “He couldn’t fit into a box cut to your dimensions!”

In less than 80 minutes, Gidion’s Knot provides a snarl of feelings generated by the animal protectiveness of parents and the subversive yet unavoidable influence institutions have on our lives. In short, it leaves you plenty to talk about for the rest of the evening.

Gidion’s Knot
Through April 19 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron (Enter through Bricco Pub), 330-671-4563.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety, Karamu House

(Reginald McAlpine as Chad Diety and Davis Aquila as "The Mace.")

This is a play that desperately wants to be a satire on American values, reflected through the faux posturing (and faux everything) of pro wrestling.

Written by Kristoffer Diaz, it has all the elements of a potentially incisive look into the myths we all share about race, among other things. It is particularly on-target with the way wrestling creates heroes like the title character, and villains like the “The Fundamentalist.”

These “grudge matches” are of course simplistic, sort of the way Fox News covers politics, so the overall metaphor at work has promise.

But the script is saddled with long monologs spoken by Macedonio Guerra a wrestler who is promoted with the nickname “The Mace.”

He grew up loving wrestling and now claims he is the bomb in the ring. Except the manager of his wrestling outfit, Everett K. Olson, always wants him to train the other wrestlers and make them look good. He is seething with resentment over this, but his long speeches eventually become tiresome and repetitive.

Performing satire requires a production that is fine-tuned and consistent, otherwise it can easily turn into mush. The Karamu cast under the direction of Terrence Spivey gives its all to this effort, and there are certainly some well-ripped bods on display.

But this show body-slams itself in too many ways to eventually be very effective. Davis Aquila as “The Mace” is earnest, but he never completely conquers the droning speeches he has to impart. He, as well as others, occasionally speak too rapidly and with less than precise diction, which doesn’t help.

Reginald McAlpine struts and bellows as Diety, but we never learn much about him except that he likes to speak of himself in the third person. “The Fundamentalist” was born in India but due to his brown skin is rebranded as a Middle-Eastern Moslem extremist to fire up the crowds. He is played by Prophet Seay, a talented actor who here seems cut adrift by the need to speak in various accents, few of which ring true.

Mark Seven, as the wrestling manager Olson, speaks slowly and clearly enough. But his melodramatic gestures and facial expressions are reminiscent of silent film star Lillian Gish. Over-the-top acting is fine in a satire, as long as everyone is along for the ride. Here, it seems everyone is doing his own play, and it never comes together.

On the plus side, there are a couple brief wrestling scenes that feel pretty genuine, in a fake way of course. And kudos to scenic designer Richard H. Morris, Jr. for creating a dramatic set including a true-to-life, full-size wrestling ring.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety
Through April 6 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077

Monday, March 10, 2014

Made in America, Dobama Theatre

First, a confession: I love plays and movies about salespeople. It’s a small and arcane thematic niche, to be sure, but I’m all over any show that deals with people selling things to other people—whether it be siding salesmen in the flick Tin Men, William H. Macy’s car salesman in Fargo, or the den of nefarious realtors in Glengarry Glen Ross.

So maybe that’s why I really like Made in America by local playwright Joel Hammer, now at Dobama Theatre. This two-hander focuses relentlessly on a million dollar piping deal being negotiated for a huge government project.

The customer Barry meets with the sales person from one of the competing companies at a bar in a hotel. The twist is that the salesperson is an African-American woman named Esther, and she suggested the get-together at that location. Seeing that as an invitation of sorts, Barry quickly starts putting the moves on Esther, much to her apparent chagrin.

The banter continues in a semi-flirtatious way, but it’s clear that Barry holds all the cards. Esther is trying to nail down the contract after many months of effort. But Barry turns out to be a sleazebag who is after more than a lower price.

After this extended Act One scene in a bar, where drinks flow as fast as innuendoes, the play, um, climaxes in Esther’s hotel room where many secrets are revealed. Some involve the sourcing of products from overseas (thus, the title), which may be revealing to some.

Hammer’s overall conceit is clever and his dialogue mostly rings true on the surface. And director Scott Miller maintains the tension that is critical to the piece, bringing fine performances out of his actors: Hammer, who plays Barry and Colleen Longshaw as Esther.

But there is one glitch and one downright problem. During the entire hour-long first act, we never know what the negotiation is about. This is unfortunate since these details can add heft and verisimilitude to the dialogue. Plus, it’s interesting to learn the ins and outs of a different area of the world.

Hammer, the former artistic director of Dobama, plays the progressively drunk and drunker Barry well, avoiding the usual traps actors fall into when playing boozers. But that only means that Barry gets tiresome, as most drunks do after spending a few minutes with them. Longshaw nicely conveys Esther’s conflict as she tries to play along while nudging her potential customer towards a decision.

But more importantly, playwright Hammer eventually gets a bit too cute with the surprise twists and turns in the play’s second act. Each character in turn comes up with surprising revelations that initially seem to rock the other person. Then, emerging from their supposedly stunned reaction, the other person proceeds to explain why he or she saw that “revelation” coming and why he or she still has the upper hand. 

This back and forth calls into question the veracity of what we’re seeing, undercutting the drama. Of course, this may be Hammer’s message, that it’s all a game and there are no real winners. But the takeaway is less effective if neither person really has anything at stake.

Still, there is much to admire and enjoy in Made in America. And, you know, it’s about a salesperson! So cool.

Made in America
Through April 6 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, PlayhouseSquare

If you love “American Idol” and bare male chests, then this current packaging of the reliable theatrical warhorse Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat will no doubt amaze and delight you.

After all, it stars two Idol alums, the newlywed couple Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young, the latter of whom parades around in the buff from his waist up, Putin-style, when he’s not wearing the aforementioned robe.

It’s all in service of this glitzy and slickly produced production that tells the biblical story of Joseph, his 11 brothers and Joe’s tale of banishment and redemption. That is, if you can follow the story amid all the spinning visual effects, non-stop dance routines and Young’s palpitating pecs.

In short, the father gives his favorite son Joe this snazzy coat and his bro’s are pissed. So after trying to kill Joe, they sell him into slavery in Egypt. While there and languishing in prison, Joseph learns he has skills at interpreting dreams and pretty soon he’s buds with the Pharaoh (a fair-to-middling Elvis impression by Ryan Williams).

Things turn bad back at the homestead and the brothers wind up appealing for help to the high-ranking Joseph, whom they don’t recognize. But Joseph plays a trick on them and sees they’ve changed their stripes. So Joseph shows mercy to his brothers by pardoning them and Ace shows mercy to the women in the audience by donning his coat again and covering up his rippling six-pack.

Those are the bare bones of the story but, if you’ve never seen the show before (is such a thing possible?), you’d better study the synopsis. Because once this cacophonous light show starts rolling, plotlines are left in the dust.

On second thought, the story matters little in this kind of show, where TV-familiar celebs are visiting the hinterlands and bestowing their talents.  This iteration of the 40-year-old musical Joseph is just a vehicle for star turns, a theatrical version of TV’s The Love Boat, where B and C (and sometimes D) list actors could find a bit more glory.

DeGarmo and Young aren’t nearly that washed up. But having recently come from a “Samson & Delilah” musical gig, they may want to resist getting packaged this way too many times in the future.

This is the first stop on the Joseph tour, and the company seems to be in full stride. And although neither DeGarmo nor Young have brilliant Broadway-style voices (hers a bit thin and reedy, his a tad flat), they perform the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice score with energy.

But once the curtain call hits, interwoven with a megamix of songs you just heard, you may be hoping not to encounter another Joseph for an eon or so.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Through March 16 at PlayhouseSquare, 1516 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmas Is Comin' Uptown, Karamu House

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is sort of like a theatrical Mr. Potato Head, with adaptors sticking new elements onto it to fit into various cultural motifs. And why not? Chuck is long dead and the story of redemption for Scrooge (picture Dick Cheney, but with a heart) is always a crowd pleaser. 

In this take now at Karamu, with music by Garry Sherman, lyrics by Peter Udell and book by Philip Rose and Udell, the scene is urban and Scrooge is an African-American slumlord who is due for a comeuppance. That all works fine and there are some clever moments in the script, such as when a transformed Scrooge wants to buy food for the Cratchit family and the only places open are a Chinese restaurant and a Jewish deli. 

The songs, however, are mostly forgettable, a fact that is not enhanced by some sketchy performances. At this performance, stand-in Miguel Osborne played Scrooge and he threw himself into the proceedings, although his vocals went flat fairly often. Jacqueline Lockett tears it up a bit as Sister Hopkins, and Glenn Burchette as Christmas Future generates some laughs as the Little Richard-inspired character flouncing through his Act 2 numbers. 

Director Richard H. Morris Jr. manages the large cast well, but allows a plethora of slow patches to slacken the pace of the show.
Christmas Is Comin' Uptown, at Karamu House through Dec. 29, 2355 East 89th St., 216-795-7077, karamuhouse.org.