Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Top Dog/Underdog, None Too Fragile Theater

(From left, Robert Grant III as Lincoln and Brian Kenneth Armour as Booth)

It’s such an obvious crowd-pleaser, it’s hard to believe the National Rifle Association hasn’t yet sponsored it: a shooting gallery where people can recreate the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

In Top Dog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, now at the None Too Fragile Theater, that bizarre bit of interactive amusement is at the core of this two-brother drama. The African-American bros, named Lincoln and Booth by their father as a joke, are frozen in a world composed of lies and dreams.

And this production, directed by Sean Derry, generates laughs even as you see the two men sinking under the weight of their own misperceptions.

Lincoln spends his days working at playing Honest Abe, in a stovepipe hat and whiteface, while customers plug him with their fake guns. Lincoln (the man, not the President) used to be a master of the three-card monte street hustle, but now his brother Booth wants that gig. Trouble is, Booth is a better common thief than he is a card trickster, and he wants Lincoln to show him the three-card monte ropes.

Confined in Booth’s small, no-efficiency apartment (sans bathroom or running water) the confrontationally-named siblings chafe against each other in frequently comical ways. But there is always a current of anger and resentment beneath their actions, the familial source of which is brought out in Act Two.

Although Parks' script (a Pulitzer Prize winner) is long and repetitive, the two excellent actors on stage often make it sing believably. Brian Kenneth Armour moves slow and easy, but each of his movements is laden with intent. So the audience quickly learns to fear what might happen when he gets too agitated.

As Lincoln, Robert Grant III is an endearing fellow, wearing his scraggly fake beard and honestly trying to improve his performance so he can keep his “job with benefits.” But when he shows his brother some real card shuffling skills, Booth realizes his dream of mastering that con game, like his dream of reuniting with his girlfriend Grace, is totally illusory.

Together, Grant and Armour spin a web of iron that leaves neither any escape. And even though there are long stretches when the pace could be picked up a bit, the performers keep you riveted until the inevitable but shocking conclusion.

Sure, this play could be done in a shorter time than this production’s almost three-hour run time with one intermission. But then, you’d spend less time in the company of these two magnificently flawed and doomed characters. And that would be a shame.

Top Dog/Underdog
Through November 29 at None Too Fragile Theater,
1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), nonetoofragile.com, 330-671-4563.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Tingle Tangle, Theater Ninjas

“What I love is the taste of transience on the tongue, every year might be the last.” In that quote, German film and theater actor and director Max Reinhardt was speaking about the fragile Weimar Republic.

And if you’ve ever wondered what Weimar-like transience felt like, it is on full display in Tingle Tangle, now being produced by Theater Ninjas. The Weimar Republic existed in Germany like a fragile flower between the two 20th Century world wars. And for a brief moment, the arts that flourished in that time were rather astounding in their candor and confrontation.

In this production, conceived by Ray Caspio and directed by Jeremy Paul, the audience is swept back to that time when Germans partied hearty and gleefully trampled established  cultural boundaries. The cabarets that popped up after WWI often featured nudity and acts loaded with sexual innuendo.

The material in this variety show of songs and vignettes is all-American, however, touching on various personal remembrances of the cast members dealing with gender identity and sex. It is unabashed, unapologetic and often uproariously hilarious.

Caspio, gay and married, talks about his personal journey and current conflicts, since he lives in Ohio, a state that doesn’t recognize his loving relationship. A talented and riveting performer, Caspio uses his lean body to great effect whether delivering his monologues or just moving and dancing in place on the small stage. And his second act schtick as the aged and bigoted Uncle Toots, a character Caspio initially created on You Tube, is a flat-out hoot.

He is supported by five other actors and live accompaniment provided by Eric M. C. Gonzalez. One standout in the company is Amy Schwabauer, who does a spot-on rendition of a high school coach teaching a sex education class, employing a witty mixture of flaming ignorance and an earnest desire to communicate. Schwabauer is also excellent in her personal reminiscence about her, um, adventurous sex life.

The other performers include Katie Beck, Valerie C. Kilmer, Dan Rand, and Ryan Lucas, who each have their moments as Tingle Tangle weaves its own spell of frank honesty and simmering rage at the absurdities of society today.

Sure, there are some bits that don’t exactly work, and the singing of some of the period songs is more often off-key than on. But this all fits the raw and gritty vibe that the show is shooting for. By not taking itself seriously, the show lowers barriers and compels the audience to take some of the issues raised very seriously.

It is all staged in the basement of the Guide to Kulchur bookstore, owned by the esteemed poet RA Washington, and it is the perfect space. Tucked into a corner and surrounded by books, it feels as if you’ve been let into a secret club that requires a password to enter.

The small venue means only about 40 people can experience this remarkable show at any one time. So don’t tarry. If you’re in the mood for a fascinating trip that will have you laughing out loud multiple times, get a zesty taste of gender and sexual transience in Tingle Tangle.

Tingle Tangle

Through November 16, produced by Theater Ninjas at the Guide to Kulchur bookstore, 1386 W. 65th St., www.theaterninjas.com.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How We Got On, Cleveland Play House

Plays about young people finding their artistic identities can be fascinating for older folks, since we enjoy seeing that the kids of today are just as screwed up and confused as we were.

And that is what How We Got On by Idris Goodwin attempts to do, as it follows three 15-year-old black and Hispanic teens through their attraction to hip-hop music, which was emerging in the late 1980s.

But the production at the Cleveland Play House, as directed by Jaime Castaneda, is about as non-hip as you can get, and just forget about the hop.

If rap music is anything, it is a continual flow of words tumbling over each other in a giddy frenzy of rhymes and startling images. Unfortunately, How We Got On never “gets it on,” as the performance is shot through with countless long pauses and contemplative silences, as if this was Death of a Salesman or something.

The script by Goodwin is serviceable enough, touching on the innocence of the young people, their fleeting rivalries and friendships, and at times capturing the repetitive wordplay that rap employs.  And God knows there’s enough of the “Just chill…ain’t no thang…that’s dope…” stuff to last you for a while. But the characters are drawn perilously thin, meaning that the momentum of the production itself must take up the slack.

Unfortunately, it feels like director Castaneda was thinking too much about the typical gray-haired CPH audience, slowing everything down to a crawl so the cane-and-walker-crowd could keep up. Also, the play attempts to explain some of the technology behind the rap sound, using visual aids in the manner of an Army training film. It's doubtful anyone in the audience is interested in the particular equipment Grandmaster Flash used, or the difference between a turntable crossfade and a drum loop.

The talented cast that plays the teens— Eric Lockley, Kim Fischer and Cyndi Johnson—is never allowed to cut loose. They are overseen on stage by the Selector, a DJ/narrator who often steps in to play other roles including the kids’ parents. The one-named actor Portia tries to spark some energy into the proceedings but she often seems bored herself as she observes the glacial staging.

Oddly, the most compelling moment in the play is when the gorgeous, evocative poem by Robert Hayden, "Those Winter Sundays" is read. In just a few quiet words, Hayden lifts one's spirit in a simple and profound way. 

How We Got On
Through November 16 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

[title of show], Beck Center

(From left: Pat Miller, Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly, Amiee Collier and Will Sanborn)

When I was a creative director at advertising agencies, a rookie copywriter would occasionally propose a radio spot for a car dealer with this pitch: “See, it’s two ad agency guys sitting around talking about what would make a good radio spot for our car dealer. And as they talk and crack jokes, they cover all the copy points. When they’re done talking, the spot is over.”

Those well-meaning copywriters were sent back to their cubicles with their Dixon Ticonderogas tucked between their legs, because that is a too-easy, too-facile way to write an engaging spot. The same, it turns out, is true for the theatrical version of that gambit, which is [title of show], now at Beck Center.

This musical is centered on the creators Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) sitting around and talking about how to write a musical. They are joined by their gal pals Susan and Heidi, and soon they are riffing on all sorts of theatrical and cultural minutiae circa 2006, when the play was first produced.

No doubt, there were howls of laughter eight years ago as the script and songs poked fun at "stars"  such as Shields and Yarnell to Heidi Klum. But these pop references have not aged well. If fact, they are so squishy and soft there’s not a hard edge of contemporary wit in the entire piece. This is why the on-going satirical wonder Forbidden Broadway keeps remaking itself, rewritten more than a dozen times since 1982, so the jibes stay fresh.

The only jokes that work here, even a little bit, are the meta references. As when they mail their script off to a new play festival and one asks, “If the play is in the envelope, should we still be talking?”

Of course, being a meta show the writers flagellate themselves before critics have the chance, worrying that their material is “self-indulgent and self-referential.” And they’re right, especially now.

The cast of Will Sanborn, Pat Miller, Amiee Collier and Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly try their best under the direction of Scott Spence, with the on-stage accompaniment of Larry Goodpaster at the keyboard. All four sing well, and the women fare better than the men in terms of shaping their characters. Plus, the penultimate song, ”Nine People’s Favorite Thing,” is still a winner.

But you couldn’t revive this show with the world’s most powerful defibrillator. Though [title of show] won an Obie Award in 2006, it now needs to be taken behind the barn and shot—so Bowen, Bell and the rest of us can move on with our lives.

[title of show]
Through November 16 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Great Lakes Theatre

(Aled Davies as Falstaff, surrounded by admirers.)

A couple seasons ago, director Tracy Young lit up the GLT stage with a boffo reinterpretation of The Taming of the Shrew. And it was lauded by this reviewer for its outrageous and mostly successful, “balls out, imaginative” production.

Well, sometimes when you go balls out, you run the risk of getting something snagged in a zipper, as happens in the current modernized staging of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Sure, there are plenty of outrageous and off-the-wall moments in this exercise, often tumbling one atop the other.

But the supposed humor is consistently lacking in wit (a “cut the cheese” joke, followed helpfully by a fart reference, for the slow of mind) while the puns (“Hot venison for dinner?” “Oh, dear!”) feel carefully manufactured. You don’t have to be a Shakespearean purist to want something more than that, in a piece that dares to rewrite (or write alongside) the Bard.

This Wives is larded throughout with attempts at humor circa the late 1940s (although the set by Rick Martin evokes the clean, stark lines of a later time). The denizens of a small Wisconsin town are dealing with the personage of Mr. Falstaff, a Hollywood-style raconteur who is in town trying to reignite his career. He decides to put the moves on two local married women, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, using his ineffable charm and ample girth to win them over and gain access to their bank accounts.

Mr. Ford (a hyperventilating Lynn Robert Berg) goes nuclear with his jealousy when he learns about Falstaff’s plans, and they both share unfortunate encounters with a rolling dumpster.

There are still some of Old Will’s lines in the play, and they ring true and charming. But finding them amidst all the hee-haw of this bloated extravaganza becomes a rather odious task, like picking whole kernels of sweet corn out of a cow pie.

For silly stuff to work on stage, it has to have sharp and genuine wit, which is on display in plays such as Spamalot, Urinetown, and Avenue Q. Otherwise, it’s just a collection of old jokes lashed together loosely with mugging and forced gaiety. It's the "try to do something funny here" school of acting.

Besdies a lack of wit, genuine or otherwise, this version of Wives is bereft of any sense of control, which is necessary for humor to work effectively (and which was present in the much more successful Shrew). Young throws everything at the theatrical fan, including slapstick (yes, there’s a pie in the face), and funny dances and walks (but not funny like Monty Python).

There are also bad French accents (often unintelligible mash-ups of Pepe Le Pew and Inspector Clouseau—but not as cute as the former or as hilarious as the latter). Tom Ford as Dr. Caius and Tracee Patterson as Madame Quickly are saddled with the task of hauling those accents around, and unfortunately the works shows.

As for the Wives, Jodi Dominick as Mrs. Page and Laura Walsh Berg as Mrs. Ford over-emote as the concept dictates, leaving the sly humor Shakespeare intended floundering in the wake of hissing catfights and such.

Of course, the rotund Falstaff is at the center of this melee. But Aled Davies, a most accomplished actor, seems like an unsuspecting fellow who stumbled into the wrong party. He always seems a bit too natty and uptight for the carousing and impulsive drunkard. For instance, his scene climbing out of the dumpster garbage should be a howl, but instead it just feels a little pathetic. Instead of cackling at the foolish plight of this adorably pompous ass, you want to help clean him up, straighten his tie and hand him his briefcase.

All that said (and still leaving a lot unsaid, as we won’t go into detail about the Magic Trick! Canned Laughter! Food Fight!), Young and GLT should be thanked for trying to breathe new life into Shakespeare. Taking risks is what good theater is all about. Because, done right, an audacious adaptation of Shakespeare can work just fine. This time, however, their Merry Wives is a witless spit-take.

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Through November 2 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theater, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.

Anna Christie, Ensemble Theatre

(Greg White as Chris and Katie Nabors as Anna)

Even though labels can often be misleading, sometimes they are dead-on accurate. And so it is with two labels connected to Anna Christie, now at Ensemble Theatre.

The first label is the Pulitzer Prize label, which this play by Eugene O’Neill was awarded in 1922. Although perhaps a bit melodramatic by contemporary standards, Anna Christie is a work of amazing force. Sure, it’s waterlogged with a flood of “dat ol’ davil sea” references and the happy ending feels pre-Disney-ish. But this play earns that award with distinct characters who never fail to intrigue.

And the second accurate label is Ensemble Theatre, since the acting assemblage under the direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz is tight and admirable, meshing together to craft an engrossing story.

Old Swedish salt Chris Christopherson sent his daughter Anna away to live with relatives in Minnesota, to get her away from the sea that has ruled his life. And now, grown-up Anna, who had been working as a prostitute inland, comes back to meet her dad and wash herself clean in the same seawater that bedevils papa.

But when a shipwreck survivor, Mat Burke, comes on board, the personal dynamics shift and there are plenty of rough seas ahead.

The company of actors is strong from top to bottom. As Anna, Katie Nabors counters her physical beauty with enough behavioral rough edges to convincingly portray this whore with a heart of, if not gold, than a nicely polished brass.

Greg White, in a wonderful example of non-traditional casting, is a reflective and often amusing Chris, conveying the look of a crusty seaman while trying to overlook his daughter’s seedy past. White exudes a personal warmth that floods the stage, much as the ever-present fog. And while Michael Johnson as Mat defaults a bit too often to a smirking sort of arrogance, his spot-on Irish accent and focus helps his character play effectively in all his scenes.

In a small role in the first act, Mary Alice Beck trots out a splendid turn as Marthy, Chris’ blowsy dockside squeeze, a veteran boozer herself. Stephen Vasse-Hansell does a neat job as Larry the bartender while Allen Branstein and Kyle Huff fill out other roles nicely.

Sure, we might wish that director Hinz had tried to infuse a bit more nuance into the smiley-face ending. But this is a production that gleams brightly throughout, so we won’t sweat the ending that much.

Anna Christie
Through October 19 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Loki & Lucy, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

(Bryan Ritchey as Loki and Melissa T. Crum as Lucy)

It’s always best if a children’s theater piece is also amusing to the adults who are accompanying the little ones. After all, they deserve something for bringing the tykes to the show, paying for their tickets, and keeping track of their shoes, etc.

And this play, a Norse myth adapted for the stage by Michael Geither, has plenty for kids and adults to enjoy. Geither’s script is quite charming, and the performance by the five cast members, under Alison Garrigan’s energetic direction, is often hilarious.

Lucy is a young girl who is fascinated by a man whom she knows is in the tree outside her home. And when she goes to sleep, the tree comes to life as the impish Loki ushers her through a dream world populated by a lot of people with too many consonants in their names.

One of these is Thorbjorn Horabrudr, and Nate Miller is wonderful in the part, using his infinitely expressive face to register all sorts of Norwegian emotions. It’s hard to take your eyes off him, he’s so consistently amusing.

Then there’s muscle-bound but not-too-bright Thor, who wields his thunder hammer with relish in the person of Nicholas Chokan. And Brittany Gaul plays Lucy’s mom and the fiendish, fox-like Fenrir with gusto.

Bryan Ritchey as the tree-man Loki is remarkably agile, entirely personable, and quite a kidder: “Pull my finger!” And Melissa T. Crum captures the girlish enthusiasm of Lucy when she finds herself in that magical world.

Garrigan utilizes dance, inventive movement, puppets, masks, and a huge blue lobster to keep things interesting for the kiddies.

However, there’s a lot of unnecessary exposition jammed into the script, with a number of names and other details that get lost in the telling. This is possibly an attempt to be true to the source material, but the actors still make this hour-long journey a fun and often laugh-out-loud ride.

Loki & Lucy
Through October 12 at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, The Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, 216-264-9680.