Wednesday, October 18, 2017

In the Closet, convergence-continuum

(From left: Mike Frye, David Lenahan, Jason Romer, and Clyde Simon.)

The company of dedicated theater folks called convergence-continuum has long had a commitment to presenting gay-themed shows, or at least plays with significant LGBTQ roles. And good for them since, over the years, plays with such themes and characters have been stuck in the shadows.

That said, the title of the play by Siegmund Fuchs, In the Closet, might be better titled “On the Nose.” True to its title, the play takes place in a very spacious gay man’s closet where clothes are neatly displayed (well hung?) all around the walls of the small theater space.

Inside that space, we meet three gay guys dubbed “Old Man,” “Middle-Aged Man,” and “Young Man” (just so we don’t get confused). Those three gentlemen share small talk about, you know, being gay, until a young fellow named John catapults himself into the closet with them.

At this point, if you’re hearing the high-pitched squeal of a metaphor being stretched to its breaking point, you wouldn’t be mistaken. Playwright Fuchs is determined to make points about how hard it is to be gay, and dammit he’s not going to let the niceties of playwriting get in the way.

Over the course of two hours, those four characters act out various scenes from their pasts. And in an Act One closer that is about surprising as being told some interior designers are gay, we are informed of a fact that most in the audience have already figured out: That all the men in this closet are the same person, at different stages of his life. Setting aside the issue that there are two young men representing the same person at that age, this device enables John to see what will become of his life.

Yes, it’s a faux Frank Capra-esque gay version of It’s a Wonderful Life with lots of cock talk and regrets that end up tangled in a maudlin conclusion. Fuchs actually has a budding talent for humorous lines, and some of them land effectively. However, others are so predictable you can deliver the punch lines before the actors do.

The playwright’s inclination to lecture the audience on one hand and then devolve into weepy histrionics on the other eventually becomes exhausting. Fuchs seems to sense that he’s being a bit too didactic at times, and has the Old Man throw in dismissive asides to take the edge off the “lessons.” But that too is an overdone device.

A central conflict involving the memory of a gang rape of the Young Man years ago, with him strapped to a swing (!), feels a bit florid, extraneous and hard to decipher: Exactly which guys raped him? And why? In some ways, the narration of this attack feels like a propaganda scene that might have been written by the Westboro Baptist Church in a Reefer Madness-style film, “Homos Gone Mad!!”

Director Cory Molnar tries to sort all this out, and he uses a table and some chairs in multiple and inventive ways to stage the flashbacks. As for the actors—Clyde Simon, Jason Romer, Mike Frye and David Lenahan—they do their best to evoke the various stages of John’s life. But even though they sometimes parrot the same catch phrases, it’s hard to find a tangible thread that connects them all.

There lies the problem of animating a metaphor. It’s why, when someone on stage says, “It’s raining men,” a volley of actors don’t fall from the flies and land in a heap. Sadly, that’s where the egregiously extended metaphor of In the Closet also lands.

In the Closet
Through November 4, produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Waiting for Godot, Beck Center

(From left: Allan Byrne as Lucky, William Hoffman as Estragon, Brian Pedaci as Pozzo, and Michael Mauldin as Vladimir)

If life is absurd and time has no meaning, then you have no excuse not to see Waiting for Godot at the Beck Center. Because during this brief interlude in your pointless life, the fine actors in this production will, for a fleeting couple of hours, show you what kickass acting is all about. Indeed, they are so damn good you may actually, for a fleeting moment, think life has a purpose. Silly you!

Yes Samuel Beckett’s monumental and iconic work, in which Vladimir and Estragon wait in vain for the arrival of a person they have never met but who they are sure will save them, is the ultimate example of Theater of the Absurd. It is not done very often since it requires a director who can suss out multiple beats within aimless chatter, and actors who can enliven the script.

Fortunately, this show has all of that, and then some. Director Eric Schmeidl leads his cast through Beckett’s chutes and ladders with confidence, freeing his actors to find distinct attacks on their roles.

As Vladimir (or Didi), the chattier of the two main characters, Michael Mauldin is frequently upbeat, sure that Godot will appear and encouraging his pal Estragon to buck up. Shaping his silences with as much care as his sentences, Mauldin is a marvel of precision in his detailed pursuit of this character.

He is nicely matched by William Hoffman as Estragon (or Gogo). Using his broad and expressive face to register exhaustion along with momentary bliss at times, Hoffman anchors the scenes between the two characters as they deal with their evidently dead-end existence on this little patch of hilly ground punctuated by one bare, then leafy, tree.

During their two act-two-day stint, they are visited by the slave owner Pozzo and his captive Lucky. Brian Pedaci is riveting as Pozzo, in the first act using his fulsome presence and rich voice to draw a distinction between himself and his hapless slave whom Pozzo pulls around on the end of a rope. As Lucky, Allan Byrne is a crumpled mess of a human being, staring off into the middle distance until he is summoned to “think.” At that time, he launches into a florid, rambling, meaningless discourse that feels uncomfortably similar to recent word-salad speeches by President Trump.

And every day, a little boy (Jake Spencer) visits to inform Didi and Gogo that, once again, Godot will not be coming on that day. But he is sure to be there tomorrow. Like the bar with the “Free Beer Tomorrow!” sign, the men know that this promise will turn yellow with age. Still, if there is no hope, what is the point?

The point is: If you relish fine acting, this is a master class in the art form.

Waiting for Godot
Through November 5 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org




A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Great Lakes Theater

It seems almost cruel to encounter the joys of Shakespeare’s fantastical comedy set in mid-summer as we contemplate the approaching winter (nuclear or otherwise). But thanks to this thoroughly delightful production at Great Lakes Theater directed by Joseph Hanreddy, there is no downside to the experience.

This three-ring circus has it all: Romance, mystical spells leading to misdirected amour, and oafish attempts by workmen at mounting a play within the play. And the GLT company has never been better in weaving together this modern-dress version, even in the face of a scenic design that is both static and busy, and not all that entrancing.

As most know, the kerfuffles of the heart involving the young folks Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius are distorted by the intervention of Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies. and a band of “rude mechanicals” (that’s Will-speak for blue collar folks). As a result, much gaiety ensues as the magic eye drops the fairies possess lead various characters to fall madly in love with people they wouldn’t normally pursue, including one wearing a donkey head.

Summarizing the twists and turns in a Shakespeare play is always a fool’s errand—Wait, who did you say is in love with whom again? Suffice to say that the mixups in this production are most pleasurable thanks to a number of stellar performances in the outstanding ensemble.

Keri Rene Fuller as tall Helena and Michelle Pauker as not-so-tall Hermia create sparks with Jon Loya as Demetrius and Cory Mach as Lysander. In the featured role of Bottom, the weaver and rabid wannabe actor, David Anthony Smith is consistently amusing. And Tom Ford crafts a lovely, comical take on Peter Quince without coloring outside the lines.

Also excellent are M.A. Taylor as an edgy Puck, Jodi Dominick as a frequently pissed-off Robin Starveling, and Nick Steen and Jillian Kates who are double cast as both the Duke and Queen of Athens and the leaders of the Fairies.

The only odd element of the whole show is the scenic design by Scott Bradley that, among other problems, is a conceptual mismatch with the modern dress of the characters. In an attempt to combine the two worlds of the play—the formal court of Athens and the woods where the fairies romp—the set is filled with stuff, including a tall leaning bookcase, that manages to convey neither. And since the set never changes, except for a couple of lighted globes that drop down a couple feet, the actors are left to create all the magic themselves.

Fortunately for the audience, these actors are quite up to the task. That makes this Midsummer Night’s Dream, to quote the ass’s head in the White House, our own little calm before the storm.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Through November 5 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14 St., 216-241-6000, greatlakestheater.org


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Well, Ensemble Theatre

(From left: Laura Starnik as Ann Kron and Lara Mielcarek as Lisa Kron)

Sometimes, when you use the word “interesting’ to describe a show, it can be because you’re hiding how you really feel. More than once, I have left a particularly disheartening production and been asked what I thought. “Interesting,” I’d mumble, avoiding the string of expletives I could have easily deployed.

However, in the case of Well by Lisa Kron, now at Ensemble Theatre, it seems that interesting is the very best word to describe this superbly performed, intriguingly constructed piece of theater. And although the show seems to be gasping for air by the end of its 95-minute sprint through a collection of meta-theatrical feints and surprises, it’s a ride you should definitely experience.

It all begins very casually as Lara Mielcarek, who plays the playwright Lisa Kron, welcomes the audience and introduces us to her play and to Laura Starnik, who plays Lisa’s mother Ann. In doing so, Lisa makes clear that this play, which is being rehearsed as we sit there, is not about her and her mother. Definitely not. It’s about a “theatrical exploration of health and wellness and the integration of Lansing, Michigan.” Yeah, right.

With mom plopped in a La-Z-Boy for most of the show, Lisa and Ann interact with four other performers who play various characters from the Kron history. These include the Kron’s black next-door neighbors, a black girl who bullied Lisa in grade school, and folks Lisa met when she was an in-patient at an allergy treatment facility. The actors often morph into and out of character as they respond to Lisa’s directions, ending one scene and picking up on another with interludes of side conversations with mom.

Lisa Kron is a renowned playwright (Fun Home) and actor, and she knows how to put interesting words in the mouths of people who wander about on stage. And for the first 70 minutes of this play, it all works so wonderfully, under the deft touch of director Celeste Cosentino, that the whole enterprise feels almost giddy with invention and surprise.

This is aided in no small part by the engaging and amusing performance of Mielcarek, whose friendly demeanor as Lisa at the start is quickly peeled away to reveal a woman who is haunted and depressed by her mother’s history of various illnesses. These are physical issues that Lisa shared until she moved away to New York City and became healthy, but her mother never seemed to recover her health. 

And Starnik, either slumped in her chair or padding softly and slowly around the set, quietly establishes Ann as a force of nature in a robe and scuffs, winning over the audience with her deadpan asides. Ann was a mover in her Lansing neighborhood, advocating for integration, and this mission comes across clearly. She is also a mess of free-floating symptoms that keep her chair-bound.

These two are ably supported by the other actors who take on multiple roles. Maya Jones is fierce and hilarious as Lisa’s playground tormentor Lori Jones, and Brian Kenneth Armour gives precise interpretations as both Big Oscar and Little Oscar, the drunk father and his son who live next to the Kron’s. In the allergy ward, April Needham demonstrates the agony of severe allergic reactions as Joy and Craig Joseph is the officious head nurse. And they all neatly register the confusion of being both actors and characters in Lisa Kron’s meta-exercise that attempts to answer a question that is unanswerable: Why do some people stay sick while other get well?

Even though the wind goes out of these billowing theatrical sails in the last 20 minutes, with a long story about Lisa’s Halloween misadventures ending with a shrug and a bit too much repetition of previous conflicts, the play is mostly an exhilarating excursion. And, you  know, it’s really interesting.

Well
Through October 22 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Beck Center

This play takes place in a psychiatric hospital, a fact that some young people may find confusing. In the 55 years since this play first appeared, the United States began closing down such hospitals, preferring to see potential mental patients enter the field of politics. How’s that working out for us?

Ken Kesey’s novel was a screech against a repressive society that tried to grind down anyone who was a non-conformist. But the subtext deals with how we have all been tranquilized and at times euthanized into submission, as we are maneuvered over and over again into waging war against other countries and at times against ourselves. I will leave it to you to make the obvious connections to our world today.

As for the play itself, written by Dale Wasserman, it feels a bit dated. Electrochock therapy—which is administered to the rebellious Randall P. McMurphy—was seen back then as the most gothic torture imaginable (and it is rendered that way in Aaron Benson’s impressive scenic design). But since then, there have been more positive analyses of that particular therapeutic approach.

The male ward of this “loony bin” is filled with a bundle of characters that are all distinctive in their mental difficulties, and they are performed with admirable precision by the cast under the direction of William Roudebush. Those who are particularly effective are George Roth as the closeted and erudite Dale Harding, Jeremy Gladen as twitchy and mommy-dominated Billy Bibbit, and Tony Zanoni as impulsive Martini. Benjamin Gregorio also turns in a haunting performance as the virtually silent and lobotomized Ruckly.

In the challenging, showpiece role of McMurphy, Bryant Carroll has all the feints and twitches of this larger-than-life character down pat. But those details never truly coalesce into a character that insistently worms his way into his fellow patients’ hearts, and ours.

As a sane man who thought he was putting one over on the system by pretending to be mentally challenged, thereby avoiding hard time on a chain gang, McMurphy should be someone with whom we can all relate. But too often, Carroll relies on a manic laugh and a swaggering strut instead of establishing strong threads of connection between McMurphy and the others.

As his main tormentor Nurse Ratched, Katie DeBoer masterfully commands her charges with a virtually unchanging icy smile/stare that could drop a charging rhino to its knees. But in a similar way to Carroll’s McMurphy, this interpretation of the “big nurse” never goes beyond that splendidly played single note, and never shows a woman with more dimensions. By making her a bit more human, it would actually increase the horror of the situation.

In all, this Cuckoo’s Nest captures many of the aspects of Kesey’s book and Wasserman’s adaptation. But it doesn’t soar quite high enough to momentarily liberate us all from the cages in which we find ourselves.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Through October 8 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org



Last of the Boys, none too fragile theater

(From left: Robert Branch and Paul Floriano)

There’s a huge attraction to living in the past. That’s the place where you know what to expect, where all the events have been played out and you can visit at your leisure. Sure, there may be painful memories and even some ghosts wafting around, but at least it’s a fixed entity. That beats the hell out of the present, when you don’t know what new horror (insert Trump-cough here) is waiting around the corner.

In Last of the Boys by Steven Dietz, two older men have taken up virtually permanent residency in their past, back when they were grunt buddies in the Vietnam War. And once they are joined by Jeeter’s new girlfriend Sayler and her mother Lorraine, each of whom have their own profound problems, it’s clear the stage is set for some explosive confrontations and revelations.

Dietz is a talented playwright, and he knows how to coax chuckles from his audience. Plus, one could hardly ask for a more skillful cast than the one offered by director Sean Derry. However, the script gets a bit tangled up in its own premise, especially regarding a ghost who visits Ben repeatedly. The actors often rise above this flawed material, but even they at times seem detoured by a play that never allows them to find solid character footing.

Ben is the occupant of a mobile home set on a toxic Superfund site that is surrounded by piled sandbags, stacks of black barrels containing God knows what, and some rusted lawn furniture. He’s being visited by Jeeter, a pal from back in the day who follows the Stones on tour and often lapses into hippie-dippy riffs about spirit quests. Jeeter has just returned from the funeral for Ben’s father, which Ben did not attend, and Jeeter brought along the flag that was draped on the coffin of Ben's father, who was an aide to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during 'Nam.

As they share bottles of beer from an outdoor fridge, Ben begins interacting with a soldier (Nate Homolka) in full combat uniform who helps Ben put on a suit and tie so he can channel the words of Ben’s idol, the generally (and justifiably) despised McNamara. Still, Ben sees the architect of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the former Ford executive, as the “man with a plan.” And as the play progresses, Ben’s interactions with the ghost get progressively weirder and even physical as their connection ends in a grotesque sort of baptism.

Meanwhile, Jeeter’s 35-year-old gal pal Salyer (an understandably detached Rachel Lee Kolis) always “wears a lot of clothes” to hide some of her own demons. Turns out, she has daddy issues of her own involving Vietnam. And her mother Lorraine, who has come to rescue her from the clutches of Jeeter, is supposedly a dead-end boozer.

Clearly, playwright Dietz has set himself a daunting task in weaving together these unusual characters and free-floating metaphors including a pervasive fog which is referenced but never seen, and the final result is only partially successful. What works well, at times, are the dialog scenes between Ben and Jeeter. Robert Branch is an actor with an admirably wide range, and he’s up to the task of portraying this cynical, world-weary man who is beset by phantoms of all kinds. And he is met, acting-wise, on equal footing by Paul Floriano, whose Jeeter gets the best lines and is often a bundle of nervous excitement. That is, when he hasn’t lapsed into a fugue state inspired by, you guessed it, some troubling memories.

Unfortunately, the script doesn’t provide enough backstory about Jeeter to allow the audience to fully understand who this guy is. As a result, the central relationship between Jeeter and Ben is a mystery papered over by their cryptic conversations which, when they don’t work, feel manufactured and not organic. This is particularly true at the start of the show, a situation that is not aided by the actors overlapping each other as they deliver their rapid-fire lines. This is a performance technique that must be carefully employed, otherwise it feels as if the characters aren’t listening and just talking. And in this play, listening is key for both the characters and the audience.

Also, the subplot involving Lorraine and her daughter never comes to fruition, since it is woefully underwritten. As Lorraine, Anne McEvoy displays her precise comic timing throughout (an example: When Jeeter tells her “I know what you’re thinking.” Lorraine responds with “So why are you still here?”). Trouble is, it’s hard to buy the elegant and self-possessed McEvoy as a hard-drinking woman who will guzzle whiskey at a moment’s notice.

For those of us who lived through the Vietnam War as adults, there are ghosts aplenty.  And as the current documentary series on PBS shows, the interest in that doomed and lethal excursion never seems to wane. The feelings of loss and guilt, along with the excesses of governmental hubris, are real. This play touches some of those points, but undercuts its theme with too many conflicting elements.

Last of the Boys
Through September 30 at none too fragile theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547, nonetoofragile.com


Life x 3, Cesear’s Forum

(From left: Brian Bowers, Tricia Bestic, Dana Hart, Julia Kolibab)

How many times have each of us wondered what would have happened at that diner party if things had gone differently? And how many times have playwrights and screenwriters attempted to capture that conundrum of human existence? The answer to both questions is: Countless.

In Life x 3 by Yasmina Reza (translated by Christopher Hampton), Sonia and Henry are hosting an older couple, Hubert and Inez, for dinner. Unfortunately, the guests have arrived a day early and there’s hardly any food in the house. And they can’t go out to dinner since the hosts’ six-year old son Arnaud is crying for attention in the next room.

Taking this premise, Reza then plays the evening’s conversation through three different times with three different outcomes. And during these versions we learn of many interpersonal conflicts: Research scientist Henry is desperate for approval from his superior Hubert, Hubert is hot for and has a history with Sonia, Inez is always doing a slow boil when her husband puts her down, and little Arnaud (an unseen Mary Alice Beck) keeps whining for snacks and cuddles.

It is an admittedly intriguing concept, and a talented cast under the direction of Greg Cesear does its best to make this triple layer cake turn out well. They accomplish that task splendidly in the first iteration of the “dinner” party, when the dynamics of the situation are fresh and surprising and Reza’s sharp wit is in evidence. But as the second and third replays continue, the air slowly seeps out of this balloon until, by the end, the premise feels rather deflated.

It’s a challenging task to take an audience through three versions of the same conversation with subtle changes that slightly tweak reactions. As a result, you spend more time trying to suss out what’s different this time than you do becoming engrossed in the character dynamics.

Still, Cesear is an accomplished and inventive director and he teases interesting performances out of his cast. Tricia Bestic is sharp and no-nonsense as Sonia, taking charge of her home as well as her (sometimes) vacillating husband played with bursts of self-flagellation by Brian Bowers. Dana Hart is solid as the pompous Hubert, and his nasty zingers directed at his wife are played off with humorous diffidence by Julia Kolibab as Inez.

There are aspirations to the metaphysical in Reza’s script, but the repeated renditions don’t provide the necessary snap of realization that is required to bring the audience along. Instead, by the end, it feels as if we’ve been stumbling through several rough drafts of a piece that isn’t quite finished.

Life x 3
Through Oct. 28 at Cesear’s Forum, Playhouse Square, Kennedy’s Down Under, 1501 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org