Thursday, November 10, 2016

Rasheeda Speaking, Karamu House

Right off the bat, there’s a lot to like about any play set in a workplace. These are environments all of us are familiar with, and we know how some of the power games are played. So in Rasheeda Speaking, when a doctor asks his loyal secretary to help him find evidence so he can fire another secretary he doesn’t like, we all nod our heads knowingly. Yes, we are familiar with dick-heads like that.

But when the doctor and the favored secretary are white and the targeted secretary is black, the stakes suddenly become more significant. In this play, the author Joel Drake Johnson attempts to bring up a raft of touchy racial subjects as they apply to employment, and many of them resonate quite well. But he loads so much on this almost-two hour one act that it eventually loses its momentum and crawls to a conclusion.

The white employee, Ileen, has been working for the doc (an effectively passive-aggressive John Busser) for eight years, and she’s just been promoted to office manager. But the boss in the white coat doesn’t care for Jaclyn, an African-American woman who had recently been promoted from elsewhere in the medical facility to this position. As if to prove her unfitness for the job, the doctor has his stethoscope in a twist because Jaclyn took off five days because of “toxins in the air” that she and her private doctor claim are damaging her health.

From that premise, we watch as Jaclyn and Ileen dance around each other like scorpions packing file folders, trying to one-up each other. Mary Alice Beck as Ileen nicely balances her characters sweetness with a definite focus on doing her boss’s bidding. Meanwhile, Treva Offutt as Jaclyn shows both sides of this black woman, making it difficult to fully root for anyone in this office standoff.

Many issues are brought up, including the difficult home lives of some black families and the offensive things white people say to each other about blacks when they think no one is listening. But every time the play tries to open itself up and depart from the office tug-of-war, it loses energy and starts to sabotage its own compelling premise.

Indeed, the playwright trods the same ground one (or two or three) too many times, with a variety of cutbacks and mind games, some of which are baffling. And then, unaccountably, he lurches past the perfect ending, when Jaclyn delivers a drop-the-mic moment referencing the name in the title.

But director Sarah May coaxes interesting performances out of her cast, which includes an adorable Rhoda Rosen as an elderly patient who is fought over by Ileen and Jaclyn like a chew toy. And Ben Needham’s carefully detailed set lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings.

There’s a sharp, funny and often startling script laying inside Rasheeda Speaking, but its voice is dimmed by the playwright’s tendency to overstate things that have already been said.

Rasheeda Speaking
Through November 20 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7070.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sex With Strangers, Cleveland Play House

News flash: People of different ages react differently to the digital age we live in, with older people clinging to their analog past while younger folks snap up the latest apps like mice encountering fresh crumbs of cheese. And, this just in: Young people and oldsters often have differing views on sex and personal relationships.

These are a couple of the central themes in Sex With Strangers by Laura Eason, now at the Cleveland Play House. And if you responded with “No, duh!” to either or both of those facts stated above, then this play may be less than stimulating for you. In a script that flogs those two thoughts until they can barely move, Eason states and restates the obvious while the CPH two-person cast works their buns off to ignite passion around the edges.

Once-published novelist Olivia is hanging out at a b-and-b in snowy rural Michigan when the successful Internet-based author Ethan shows up knocking at her door to find a warm place out of the blizzard. The almost-40 Olivia is busy proofing her new manuscript while Ethan, a bundle of energy and about ten years her junior, paces the floor and rattles off his resume.

It seems he’s well known for his latest opus, a book that carries the same title as this play, which chronicles his exploit of bedding a different woman every week for one year. Meanwhile Olivia has been licking her wounds from some unfortunate reviews of her first book, and she can’t abide the snarky troll comments that pop up on websites discussing her writing.

However, Ethan glories in the pans his work receives, and he’s turned that sex-drenched book into a dandy little cottage industry online. Unfortunately, the storm and the remote location of this cabin have eliminated Internet service, leaving Ethan frustrated and unable to text or tweet for minutes on end(“People will think I have died!”).

The playwright works hard to leverage the age difference of these two people into something dramatic. Eason has some clever and cute lines sprinkled throughout (when Ethan claims his book was on the New York Times best seller list for five years, Olivia registers some doubt, to which Ethan smirks: “Don’t you wish you could look it up?”).And there is some genuine sexual tension in the first act, as the two dance around each other and eventually start making out.

Monette Magrath as Olivia and Sean Hudock as Ethan find their moments of attraction in between their playful chatter about technology and such. And their brief sessions of kissy-face and grab-ass are convincingly portrayed. But Magrath doesn’t really convey the bearing and attitude of an “older woman,” so her eventual sexual release is less than liberating. For his part, Hudock has all the nervous-energy mannerisms of a guy on the make, but not quite enough of the inner through-line of this supposedly live-wire character.

There’s finally a bit more conflict in the second act, which takes place in Olivia’s Chicago apartment, as we see how each of these people is trying to use the other for their own purposes. Still, there seems to be little at stake in these proceedings other than better press clippings and bigger paychecks. And the ending lands with a surprisingly dull thud.

The actors aren’t particularly helped by Chelsea M. Warren’s admittedly handsome scenic design, which features a vast space for both the cabin and the apartment. Indeed, you could install a handball court in the open space provided by Warren, which leaves the actors to wander around and try to connect with each other.

There’s a desire here to explore how two people from two different generations pursue their ideas of success and their own identities. But because of a few production wrinkles, the finished product is a bit like a promising, but not exactly stupendous, first date.

Sex With Strangers
Through November 13 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, Outcalt Theatre, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Silence! The Musical, Blank Canvas Theatre

(Kelly strand as Clarice and Brian Altman as Hannibal.)

If you’re a fan of the Jodi Foster/Anthony Hopkins flick The Silence of the Lambs, you will no doubt have a blast with this no-holds-barred parody, Silence! The Musical, now at Blank Canvas Theatre. Of course, you really don’t need any history with that movie to enjoy this often clever and frequently rude tribute to the story about two serial killers and one plucky FBI agent who is assigned to deal with them.

But first, let’s cut to the chase. There’s a remarkably offensive word in an early song in this show that, I would wager, has never been sung in any other musical. Ever. And that’s probably a good thing. Not only is it sung once, it is reprised a couple minutes later and then repeated in the second act.

The word refers to the private area of the female anatomy, a word that even Donald Trump has so far declined to use in public, starts with “c” and the full title of the song is “If I Could Smell Her C_ _ _.” This is not an entirely gratuitous reference, since there is a similar wish alluded to by the evil Hannibal Lecter in the movie.

The manner in which this play’s creators (music and lyrics by Jon Kaplan and Al Kaplan, book by Hunter Bell) use that word illustrate what is right with this show, and also where it goes off the tracks. The gleeful offensiveness of that word picks up on the vibe The Book of Mormon and it’s off-color ditties. That’s fair game. But it is repeated so often it begins to dull the senses, as do some other tropes used by the writers and BCT director Jonathan Kronenberger.

Still, this show is paced perfectly by Kronenberger, allowing the jokes to fly by fast and furiously, as they should. And the talented performers give it their all. As Clarice Starling, the young FBI agent, Kelly Strand is appropriately solid and straightforward while mimicking and exaggerating Jodi Foster’s lateral lisp and southern accent. However, whatever humor content that resides in that slight speech defect is beaten within an inch of its life by repetition. Clarice’s first song is titled “Thish Ish It” and the lisp even appears in words on the two screens hovering over the stage.

As the sociopathic Hannibal Lecter, Brian Altman employs a smooth and unctuous delivery to capture some of Anthony Hopkins’ skin-crawlingly creepy vibe. And even though it goes on far too long, his rendition of the “C” song is both stupefying and raunchily amusing. Joe Virgo is also a standout as Buffalo Bill, the gender-confused serial killer they’re hunting for who captures plus-size women, keeps them in a pit, makes them soften their skin with lotion, and then kills and skins them so he can crawl inside their epidermis. Fans of the movie know all this, so the play focuses on other things, such as Buffalo Bill’s song “Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket.”

In smaller roles, Dawn Sniadak-Yamokoski sings up a storm as Senator Martin, whose daughter Catherine has been abducted by Buffalo Bill. And Tonya Broach and Trey Gilpin add amusing cameos among the multiple roles they play. It is all supported by a chorus of white-wigged lambs who sing and dance and keep the plot moving forward.

While often offensive, juvenile and excessive, Silence! qualifies for its exclamation point through the kind of sharp, disciplined performance standards that BCT has often featured, under the artistic direction of Patrick Ciamacco.

Silence! The Musical
Through November 5 at Blank Canvas Theatre, at the West 78th Street Studios, 440-941-0458.

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.