Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Mountaintop, Cleveland Play House


It is common practice for critics not to spoil surprises that occur in plays or movies, so that audiences can experience them fresh. Usually we skate around that big shocker that’s sweating and heaving in the middle of a show, referencing it in hushed tones and oblique asides.

Well, after a couple days of reflection, I say to hell with that. I want to reveal the surprise in The Mountaintop because I find it particularly disturbing. So if you want to preserve the mystery, you can bail out now.

If you’re still reading, here’s the deal. This is a play that takes place the night before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is going to be assassinated. Set in his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, King is spending a late night hour or so talking with Camae, a maid who brought him coffee and the next day’s newspaper.

Playwright Katori Hall has happened upon a conceit that is quite compelling, since we know the character named King has only a few more hours to live. So we hang on his every word. But this King has just come back from his speech that evening in which he virtually predicted his own imminent death (“I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you.”) But he is feeling frisky back at the hotel.

We see King flirt, chain smoke and sip whiskey with Camae as the feisty maid talks candidly with the civil rights icon, dropping f-bombs here and there and then apologizing. All this gives us a view of a King who is flawed and human. And up to that point, about halfway through the one-act show, it’s mildly interesting.

But then the tables are turned when the big surprise is revealed: Camae isn’t a maid, she’s actually an angel of death, come down to usher King into heaven. She’s the flip side of Clarence, the Angel 2nd Class in It’s a Wonderful Life, offering an untimely demise instead of a second chance at happiness.

So that means that, in this telling, the assassin James Earl Ray wasn’t just a contemptible, retrograde racist and criminal, he was an agent of the Lord, doing God’s work here on Earth. And to double down on that idea, Camae informs us that God is actually a black woman. Camae even rings Her up on the motel phone so that King can plead for his life, which he does for a couple minutes. But She eventually hangs up on him.

After the initial giddy rush of adrenaline you feel in the presence of such a surprise, even a clumsy one such as this, other less pleasant thoughts start to creep in. If Camae was there to prepare King for death, why did she pretend to be a maid for so long? Just for kicks? Seems a bit perverse, conning a man whom you know is doomed. Maybe things are boring up there in heaven.

Ms. Hall is an African-American playwright who, in this piece, actually creates a scenario that white supremacists would love: Hey, don’t blame us, God made us do it. Of course, Hall isn’t seeing it from that perspective. She wants us to view Dr. King’s murder as something more than a carefully planned homicide, wrapping it up in cheesy martyrdom and then glossing it at the end with a flash-cut montage of events that happened after King’s death (including the O.J. Simpson trial!), drawing facile and mostly nonsensical connections to King’s heritage.

Setting that issue aside, which isn’t easy, the performers do a fine job. Ro Boddie is nicely understated as King, not trying to capture the original’s stentorian speaking style. And Angel (yes, that’s her name) Moore is sharp and amusing as Camae. Director Carl Cofield does what he can with a script that leaps from the mundane to science fiction in one fell swoop.

The production is beset with a couple big theatrical effects that appear to be called for in the script, including a pillow fight between the two characters that looses a torrent of feathers from above. Unfortunately, even with all the technical frou-frou at the end, The Mountaintop is shallow and manipulative, overreaching to make us consider Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a saint. He was simply a remarkably gifted man who fought fearlessly and eloquently for human rights. And that should be enough.

The Mountaintop
Through February 14 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Proof, Clague Playhouse

(Rachel Lee Kolis as Catherine and Robert Hawkes as Robert.)

Are genius and madness closely, even inevitably, related? Many of us who aren’t geniuses would like to think so, feeling self-satisfied in our less than stellar quasi-sanity.

This is a central question brought to the fore in Proof by David Auburn, a play about Robert, a mathematics professor and avowed genius who may have transferred both his talent and his eventual dementia to his daughter Catherine. However, this play is about math as much as The Producers is a play about the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Advanced theoretical math, and the elegant proofs that attend to it, are just the foundations of a family drama that often works on much simpler equations.

To wit: Robert’s recent death has suddenly flung his caretaker, the edgy and reclusive Catherine, into newly found freedom. But her sister Claire, who’s come in from New York City for the funeral, isn’t sure Catherine is stable enough to go it alone. And Hal, a former math student of Robert’s, is hanging around, sorting through Robert’s notebooks in search of a breakthrough math proof, and perhaps a bit of fame for himself.

As Auburn’s slickly written piece slides back and forth in time, we see Robert, Catherine and Hal at various stages of their relationship while Claire remains firmly fixed in the present. And thanks to the smooth and dexterous direction by Anne McEvoy, this production misses nary a step on the way to a well-earned and poignant conclusion.

Rachel Lee Kolis simmers and flares with quiet grace as Catherine, a young woman who has lived so long in the shadow of her brilliant father that she can’t quite see herself, or her path forward. As her ruthlessly efficient sister Claire, Renee Schilling overcomes the stiffness of an early scene with Catherine and registers powerfully in Act Two as she tries to control an uncontrollable situation.

As the inquisitive grad student Hal, Nicholas Chokan is charming and just hidden enough to raise suspicions about his true motives. And Robert Hawkes puts a warm, curmudgeonly twist on Robert, a twist that eventually turns sour. That happens during a flashback to a moment when the elderly math master thought his powers were suddenly returning to him. The truth, stated in a whispered reading of his “proof,” has its own tragic finality.

Whenever intellect and feelings collide on a stage, you can bet that emotions will win virtually every time. And so it is here, which is a bit predictable. But the Clague Playhouse production, performed on a wonderfully detailed back porch set designed by Ron Newell, makes this old-fashioned storytelling ring gratifyingly true and fresh.


Through February 7 at the Clague Playhouse, 1371 Clague Road, Westlake, 440-331-0403

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Frankenstein’s Wake, Cleveland Public Theatre

Say the name Frankenstein to anyone, and they smile and wait for the joke. That’s because this monster has become a cartoon in our culture, appropriate for Broadway musical parodies and Halloween costumes, but not much more.

However, if you peer more carefully into the story by novelist Mary Shelley of the mad scientist Victor Frankenstein and the creature he created in a lab, it’s a whole different kettle of neck bolts. Indeed, the story of Frankenstein is breathtakingly and immediately relevant to our world today.

In Frankenstein’s Wake, a new restaging now at Cleveland Public Theatre, Holsinger and Bobgan use many of Shelley’s own words, along with those of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Isaac Newton, to convey the torment of a hugely empathetic “daemon” who only seeks acceptance. But due to its unusual appearance, it is rejected and demonized to the point where it seeks violent retribution.  Surprisingly, this story is even more relevant now than when co-creators and co-designers Holly Holsinger and Raymond Bobgan trotted out an earlier version in 1997.

Frankenstein’s creation, animated from lifeless matter, was never a low-IQ, natural born killer. He instead was intelligent, aware, and had noble qualities that were perverted by the insensitivity--or stupidity, or fear--of society. (That goes double for his own creator, since Victor was appalled by what he succeeded in bringing to life.) You can go ahead and apply that as an analogy for any of the conflicts going on in the world today, including the ones inside your head.

In this elegantly constructed 65-minute piece, Holsinger and Bobgan invite you to immerse yourself in the poetic words of Shelley and her contemporaries. Even though there is precious little action, and even if it's hard at times to keep up with the density of the language, the themes at work can ignite fireworks in your mind.

As the only performer, Holsinger uses her supple voice and gloriously specific, intention-driven movement to captivate the audience. Occupying a stage with two long tables, a couple chairs and a small collection of props, Holsinger takes on various personae. These include Captain Robert Walton who encountered a nearly frozen and emaciated Victor while Walton was on his way to discover new territory at the North Pole, as well as Victor and the creature itself.

Eventually utilizing white sheets that drape tables and chairs as funeral shrouds, the dead bodies of people close to Victor begin to add up, And as we follow the daemon through his introduction to the brutal condition of being human, we begin to understand the price we pay when we seek to expand our knowledge, as Walton and Victor did. Increasing knowledge is generally a good thing, of course, but there is a price to be paid. We figured out how to split the atom and how to create fearsome armaments. But those breakthroughs have an awful, even possibly a cataclysmic cost.

And that is one of the intriguing questions this piece asks: Who or what are the monsters among us? Is it the horrors we have created, or is it us? We are all bobbing along in Frankenstein’s Wake, helplessly buffeted by the fearsome creatures of our own making. Yeah, it’s enough to give you shivers, but not in the way you might expect.

Frankenstein’s Wake
Through January 30 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Friday, January 8, 2016


If you’re interested in traveling back to a wonderful (and awful) time—in jazz and in America—then you should pencil in Saturday, January 30 and Sunday, January 31. That’s when you can take a ride back to the days of the Cotton Club, the famous New York City nightclub, in Curtain Up at the Cotton Club at the Hanna Theatre at Playhouse Square.

The Cotton Club era was wonderful because many of the all-time jazz greats performed at there in Harlem during the 1920s and 30s: Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and many more. However, it was awful because while the performers were predominantly African-American, only whites were allowed in as patrons. In fact, the black performers themselves weren’t allowed to mix with the clientele, often composed of cream of New York society at the time.

Of course, everyone will be welcome to come and enjoy the music of the Cotton Club at the Hanna, performed by the full 16-piece Cleveland Jazz Orchestra. That group has collaborated with The Musical Theater Project to produce this two-day concert hosted by their respective artistic directors: TMTP’s Bill Rudman and CJO’s Paul Ferguson. 

Featured singers will include Treva Offut and local jazz favorites Evelyn Wright and John Morton. Supplementing the CJO will be the Joe Hunter Trio. And of course, Bill Rudman will share many historical tidbits along with photos from the time in this multi-media production.

We were all “born too late” to experience the Cotton Club in its heyday. But thankfully we have The Musical Theater Project and the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra to transport us back to that time.

Curtain Up at the Cotton Club

Saturday, January 30 at 8 PM and Sunday, January 31 at 2 PM, at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 East 14th St. 216-241-6000.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Prince Ivan & the Firebird, Talespinner Children’s Theatre

Oftentimes, the elements in a play at Talespinner Children’s Theatre are similar to the features that Bill Hader’s breathless Stefon character on Saturday Night Live used to share about New York’s hottest clubs. For instance, if Stefon were reporting on this latest TCT production, he might say: “Prince Ivan & the Firebird has everything: Russian dancers, golden apples, two Tsars, a vegetarian wolf, a giant witch, a handsome prince and three of his loser brothers, a bird with fire for wings, riddles, and a magic harp." 

And if you think all that will be sufficient to keep your kids enthralled, you’d be so right. Sure, it takes a while to get rolling, but once Tsar Illyich asks his princes to solve the mystery of some missing golden apples, the story is off and running.

Playwright and director Alison Garrigan plays fast and loose with the Russian Folk tale from which this play is adapted, and that’s just fine. After a couple of the princes fail to capture the apple thief (one is lazy and the other is too vain to be bothered) a third scheming prince decides to use gullible Prince Ivan to find the culprit. So Ivan joins up with a talking, veggie-loving wolf to track down the thief, a firebird, in the home of Baba Yaga, a fearsome witch.

As always, there is plenty of eye-candy for the kids with a colorful set bedecked with long drapes of fabric and some drop-dead perfect masks and puppets (most designed by Garrigan). In particular, the puppet for Baba Yaga is larger than life, requiring three actors to manipulate it—but it’s still amazingly expressive.

Playing the wolf, T. Paul Lowry is a stitch and he also plays the other three princes while Charles Hargrave is limber and earnest as Prince Ivan. Andrea Belser plays Princess Helena in a subplot that isn’t as well developed as the firebird yarn. Other multiple roles are well handled by Joseph Milan, Elaine Feagler, Khaki Hermann, and Carrie Williams.

There is a little less audience interaction in this production than in other TCT shows, but Garrigan’s script is witty and clear enough to keep the little ones on board for the 70-minute ride. If you haven’t treated the kiddies you know to a Talespinner show, this is a great one to start with.

Prince Ivan & the Firebird
Through December 20 at Talespinner Children’s Theatre, The Reinberger Auditorium, 5209 Detroit Avenue, 216-264-9680.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Feefer Rising, Cleveland Public Theatre

For most of us, childhood was a convoluted but mostly predictable period of time. And just when we thought we had this “human being” thing finally mastered, somewhere in the 8 to 14 years-of-age zone, we were blindsided by the most extraordinary thing that ever happened to our bodies.

Sexuality is, of course, an intensely personal experience, and that is how it’s presented in the fascinating one-woman play Feefer Rising, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. Created and designed by director Raymond Bobgan and performer Faye Hargate, this 80-minute journey through one girl’s sexual awakening is a messy, honest, startling, and sometimes lyrical experience. The production is augmented by evocative electronic music composed by Matthew Ryals, and bandshell of paper constructed inside CPT’s Parish Hall.

Hargate plays Kit, a girl dealing with the powerful and unfamiliar feelings that puberty delivers out of the blue. She is beset by secrets questions, interactions with peers and a host of behavioral options she never considered possible. Employing movement, dance, singing, cooing, and some very frank dialogue, Hargate fashions a landscape of blossoming female sexuality that you can feel bone-deep.

Kit nicknames herself Feefer, perhaps after a pair of scissors she finds in her family’s attic (the connection is never made entirely clear), and she confides with those scissors as she explores what it means to now be growing into womanhood. She experiences sex with school stud AJ, rails at her mother, and struggles with all the cultural baggage that our society piles onto adolescent girls. There are fleeting moments of humor and even one old joke: "How do you know when your pet elephant is having her period? When you mattress is missing."

Necessarily, this play doesn't provide a neat and linear progression, so the play jumps and slides from one event to another—and sometimes to no event at all. This can be disorienting at times, and the challenging acoustics in this space tend to garble some of the spoken lines, especially when they’re delivered at a fast pace.

But like sexuality itself, this play can be sensed as well as heard, if you let down your barriers. Indeed, the understanding of what Feefer is going through comes at us through multiple channels. And this evocative collaboration between Bobgan and Hargate makes us feel as vulnerable, terrified and stimulated as when that mysterious awakening first happened to each of us. Certain in the knowledge that, however wonderful or awful those new emotions were, there was no going back.

Feefer Rising
Through December 19 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Kris Kringle, The Musical; Olmsted Performing Arts

Does the world need a new Christmas stage musical? Hell, why not? The ones we have are getting a little shopworn about now. But does the world need a musical entertainment that, even with all its wonderful and heartfelt intentions, is the theatrical equivalent of The Island of Misfit Toys. Well, probably not.

The authors of Kris Kringle, The Musical, now having its world premiere at Olmsted Performing Arts, are mostly to blame. Maria Ciampi (book) and Tim Janis (music and lyrics) are no doubt splendid people with hearts of gold. And we wish them all the best, good health, and joy this holiday season. But the fact is their new show, which is opening here in Cleveland and has aspirations of landing on Broadway, is about as enjoyable as a large ball of melted tinsel—sparkly and colorful to the eye but dense, lumpy, and rather sad inside.

However, this is the Christmas season! So let’s begin with the good news, or what there is of it. The basic idea of this apparently high-budget family show has potential. A young toy inventor, named Kris Kringle, gets crosswise with an evil toy company boss until he bonds with his grandfather, Santa, and everything turns out great. If only Ciampi's tale were that simple.

Turns out, Kringle is fired by the profit-hungry toy magnate R. G. Reedy (as we are informed, it can be pronounced “Are Greedy.” Ho, ho…huh?) and then Kris gets a job at Santa’s workshop and he's happy because that’s where they give toys away, and he makes a wonderful toy that “can teach troubled hearts to be free,” but then he faces the Kringle Curse that makes people freeze and it can destroy Christmas and—wait! I haven’t told you yet about Ms. Emma Horn, who was the head elf at the workshop but now she’s working for Reedy, while the current head elf, Elmer, schemes to mess up Kringle’s plans. Hold on! There are also the magic boots that Ms. Horn wears, as does Elmer, who has a few doppelgangers who sing a song with him, and apparently Reedy’s shoes also have magic powers. Stop! Did I tell you that Reedy is related to Santa, whose wife really runs the North Pole, or that Kringle meets Evelyn Noel who teaches Santa’s apprentices how to be elves or that…Halt!

If this partial rundown of the plot sounds confusing, condensed as it is, it’s no more explicable in the slightly more than two hour show. Indeed, the narrator (helpfully named Christmas Spirit) comes on stage now and then to offer further exposition. In sum, Kringle is a mash-up of too many complicated plot elements with a too on-the-nose presentation of its themes. Janis’ songs are loaded with specific and literal statements about “bright and sunny days,” and “be all I can be,” and “don’t ever stop believing.” Even little kids in the audience can handle a little more subtlety than that. Then the show concludes with a song about forgiveness which is titled “Forgiveness” and has characters repeatedly singing “I forgive you!” at each other. Okay, got it.

One flaw this show doesn’t have is a weak cast, since many of the area’s finest actors and singers are on stage. But even proven performers such as Natalie Green, Greg Violand, Michael Mauldin, Kristin Netzband and Brian Marshall can’t save this sentimental folderol from itself. In the title role former BW student from Cleveland, Mack Shirilla, is an endearing and sympathetic Kris Kringle. But sadly, their best efforts go for naught when the halting, pedestrian melodies are linked, often awkwardly and in a forced manner, to the repetitive lyrics. And then it's all hitched to a story as complicated as an early draft of Ulysses.

There are a couple cute lines, such as when Elmer is eavesdropping on others talking about him and he whispers to an elf, “Do you hear what I hear!?” But those rare slivers of wit only serve to highlight how the rest of the show pounds you over the head with a two-by-four with its message.

Clearly, many dollars and much energy have been expended on this enterprise. And the accomplished director Pierre Jacques-Brault and noted musical director Charles Eversole do what they can to keep the huge cast of 40-plus adults and kids rolling. But this Christmas-kluge-on-wheels probably shouldn't be going anywhere, least of all Broadway, as it is currently constituted. 

Kris Kringle, The Musical
Through December 13 at Olmsted Performing Arts, 6941 Columbia Road, Olmsted Falls,