Saturday, May 23, 2015

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, Cleveland Public Theatre

(Kalim Hill as Dontrell)

Family legacy is a biggie for some clans, especially when their history has been as tortured as it has been for African-Americans. The result of this can be seen in most cities and towns in America, where some young black men clearly have a hard time connecting to the more inspiring stories of their forebears.

That is not the problem for the title character in Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, an interesting and evocative play by Nathan Davis. Dontrell Jones III is a high-achieving young man on the brink of going to Johns Hopkins University on a full ride. But he has become entranced by the dream-story of his ancestor who jumped to his death off a slave ship. And he wants to pursue that dream, so he can experience and understand it as viscerally as possible.

This production by CPT offers stunning images thanks to Todd Krispinsky’s scenic design, featuring weathered planks and a Transformer-like set change, and luxurious, pulsing lighting design by Benjamin Gantose. And the seven-person cast, under the direction of Megan Sandberg-Zakian, is consistently superior, crafting distinct characters from Davis’ words.

As Dontrell prepares for his sojourn into the briny deep, he asks his cousin Shea (a pitch-perfect Laprise Johnson) to find him some scuba gear. Then he decides to teach himself how to swim by throwing himself into the deep end of a nearby pool. Fortunately, he’s rescued by a white lifeguard, Erika, who has family issues of her own. We learn about these in a scene that feels a bit forced, a “trust game” that she and Dontrell play before they get busy under the stars.

Back at home, the Jones family and one longtime buddy (Robby, played by an amusing Johnathan L. Jackson) are at various stages of confusion regarding Dontrell’s plans. His sister Danielle (Shayla Gordon) is snarky but loving, while his mom Sophia is stupefied and worried. The dad, Dontrell Jr., is mostly occupied watching TV, but he participates enough in the family discussions to give Dontrell plenty to think about.

As the parents, Sheffia Randall Dooley and Joseph Primes hit all the right notes, with Dooley getting all up in her son’s face about his crazy notions and Primes bellowing like a wounded lion from his den. His speech defending his wife for her protective nature towards their son gets a maximum “5-goose bump” rating.

As Erika, Rachel Lee Kolis does well with a part that feels underwritten and a bit rushed in its overly-efficient reveals of her past. Kalim Hill is exceptionally affecting as Dontrell, capturing the innocent desire of this young man to connect with his past. But due to some inconsistent enunciation and hurried passages, a few of his lines disappear into the ether.

For all the trappings of a new age theater—minimal set pieces, interesting aural design with actors providing many sound effects, fluid movement and even dance—this is for the most part a traditional “kitchen sink” play. The domestic situation is one any of us can relate to, especially when Dooley and Primes go at each other in a heated argument.

Towards the end, when Erika helps make Dontrell’s dream come true and the stage transforms, it’s a magical moment. Too bad that glow is dulled somewhat by some repetitive actions and aimless dialogue before the glorious, uplifting conclusion.

Indeed there are still some wrinkles to be worked out in this show, which is a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere—the play is being produced in roughly the same time frame in multiple cities by different local theater companies. It’s an exciting way to foster the growth of emerging playwrights, and Dontrell is a play well worth your time.

Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea
Through June 6 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.




Friday, May 22, 2015

The Turing Machine, Theater Ninjas

Alan Turing has been enjoying quite a run in the past couple years, what with the movie The Imitation Game copping an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Benedict Cumberbatch setting hearts a-flutter as the introverted and closeted Turing.

Sure, Turing probably saved more Allied lives than any other single human being during World War II, by using his primitive yet powerful computational machine to crack the Nazi’s Enigma code. But his other enduring legacy is as the father of the modern computer.

This is the part that fascinates Jeremy Paul and Ray Caspio, the authors of The Turing Machine, now having a short run produced by Theater Ninjas. With Paul directing and Caspio the only performer, the show is tight and often captivating.

However, the premise of the play presents a difficulty. The playwrights want to focus more on the Turing machine (his computer) rather than the man. Granted, this is an interesting intellectual exercise: Does such an intelligent machine think? Does it have a spirit, a soul? Or is it just matter. And (as the play itself wonders) does that even matter? Is it only humans who can be the subject of their own thoughts, or will machines be able to do that? Intriguing stuff.

The trouble arises from the fact that the audience is made up of carbon-based life forms that naturally gravitate to other human beings. We want to know their stories. Perhaps when computers can arrange their own transportation and go out for an evening and see a play, they will be more interested in the machine.

Some of the fiercely intelligent 90-minute script whips by at a blindingly rapid broadband pace, leaving those in the audience who are still at dial-up listening speed lost in the connectivity dust. The non-linear script touches on aspects of Turing’s life, and even deigns to give some direct exposition about his life—from his birth in 1912 to his fairytale-inspired suicide by poisoned apple in 1954.

The production is quite handsome, with engaging projections flashed on 13 mini-screens and across the whole set, designed by T. Paul Lowry. And the electronic sound design by Eric M. Gonzalez punctuates many moments effectively.

Unfortunately the play’s biggest asset, Ray Caspio, is a bit camouflaged in Paul’s direction. He is often hidden in shadows, peering through a gas mask, or speaking while not looking at the audience. Sure, we get that we’re supposed to be more interested in the computer, but it’s hard to relate to a disembodied voice and some projected flashes of computer innards. Caspio is a riveting, often almost magical performer, and it’s a shame he has to take a back seat in a show where he is the only person on stage.

The play makes the point that Enigma was broken due to human behavior: The Nazis insisted on beginning their daily messaging with obligatory “Heil Hitlers,” and that allowed the code breakers at Bletchley Park to get a starting point for their efforts. In a similar way, the humans in the audience pose a challenge for this play. That is, we have a fatal flaw, we want to know about people, not machines.

One hopes the fertile and innovative minds at Theater Ninjas will find a way, as they continue their search, to exploit that particular human quirk and use it to explore the compelling ideas at work in this play.

The Turing Machine
Through this Sunday, May 24, produced by Theater Ninjas at the 78th Street Studios, 1300 W. 78th St., theaterninjas.com.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

PREVIEW: "Dirty Pop: The Millennium Mixtape"

("Dirty Pop," in semi-grimy rehearsal)

Did you ever wonder what local musical theater performers sing in the shower, when they’re not crooning ditties from West Side Story or Urinetown? Well, that question will begin to be answered on Sunday, May 24 when the Cleveland Stage Alliance produces “Dirty Pop: The Millennium Mixtape” at the Bop Stop.

Co-produced by Eric Thomas Fancher and Joanna May Hunkins, this is the first of what will be an on-going series of vocal concerts celebrating various aspects of the pop culture. As Fancher says, “We want to produce these concerts quarterly, using local Equity and non-Equity performers. These events will be similar to the very popular concerts in New York City that feature stage talent, one called ‘Broadway Sings’ and another that takes place at 54 Below.”

This inaugural concert will take us all back to the days when we weren’t sure if our computers would crash as the year 2000 rolled over. The songs will pay tribute to that era, with new arrangements of songs by Christina Aguilera, The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and more.

Some songs on the menu include “Bootylicious,” “Lady Marmalade,” and “I Want It That Way.” According to Hunkins, “The songs will be performed by 17 talented singers in new arrangements by musical director Jordan Copper. And since some of the arrangements will be quite different, we’ve borrowed the phrase ‘Dirty Pop’ from the NSYNC lyric and used it as the title for this show.”

Since the Bop Stop is now owned by the Music Settlement, all bar proceeds will help fund music scholarships.  So, drink up! Subsequent concerts will be staged at different venues and explore music in many genres such as disco, jazz, Disney, maybe even The Muppets.

The Cleveland Stage Alliance is an organization dedicated to providing theatergoers with up-to-date information regarding any and all locally produced theatre in the Northeast Ohio region (clevelandstagealliance.com). The Music Settlement offers music therapy, early childhood instruction and music instruction to people of all ages and levels of experience in the area (themusicsettlement.org).

“Dirty Pop: The Millennium Mixtape”
Sunday, May 24, 8-10:30 PM
The Bop Stop
2920 Detroit Avenue
Tickets: $15
Advance ticket purchase strongly recommended:
http://themusicsettlement.org/calendar/2015/05/24/cleveland-stage-alliance-dirty-pop-bop-stop




Monday, May 11, 2015

The Glass Menagerie, TrueNorth Cultural Arts

(From left: Isabel Billinghurst as Laura and Anne McEvoy as Amanda)

Gas is pretty cheap these days (relatively speaking), which is why you should invest some of that bargain-priced petrol in a trip to Sheffield Village to catch the last weekend of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.

It is an elegantly-tuned production of this iconic script, a memory play that hides brass knuckles inside Williams’ poetic lines. As directed by Fred Sternfeld, this Menagerie is not overdone or undercooked. The characters pulse with honest, well-earned humanity and it is an untrammeled pleasure to watch these four actors negotiate the tiny, claustrophobic world of the Wingfields.

As matriarch Amanda, Anne McEvoy is delicate and understated, not as flamboyant as Amanda is sometimes portrayed. But McEvoy’s Amanda is equipped with the uncompromising will and crushing intent of a Prussian army battalion in full military gear. As she quietly berates and corrects her grown children Tom and Laura, the audience twists and contorts in involuntary response to this charming, southern force of nature. McEvoy has never been better.

Keeping pace with her is Corey Knick as the poet Tom, a lost soul trapped under the hazy glass bowl that is the recollection of his mother’s suffocating presence. Knick and Sternfeld veer away from having Tom be Tennessee-light and make him a gentle, tormented soul who narrates the play in a soft, Missouri accent that lulls you into his memories.

Much of the angst swirls around Tom’s older sister Laura (a fragile and sweetly tragic Isabel Billinghurst), who is hampered by a limp and an inability to deal with the outside world. So mom is focused on finding her a beau, and at this time (during the Depression) that begins with having a “gentleman caller.” So the second act is built around the dinner visit of Jim O’Connor, Tom’s friend from work who used to know Laura in high school. As Jim, Jeremy Jenkins has the look of an ex-jock gone to seed, since the real world has stomped on his dreams of success.

Indeed, this is a play about people who can’t deal with reality, and this production manages to find that truth without resorting to unreal characterizations. Like the empty frame that holds what is supposedly the smiling portrait of the deceased Mr. Wingfield, this Menagerie isn’t bold or obvious. It works its magic in the shadows, in the glint from characters who are as vulnerable as Laura’s precious glass figurines.

Don’t miss it.

The Glass Menagerie

Through May 17 at TrueNorth Cultural Arts, 4530 Colorado Ave., Sheffield Village, 440-949-5200.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Ensemble Theatre

(In back: Michael Regnier as the Tiger. In front from left: Leilani Barrett as Tom and Daniel McElhaney as Kev.)

So, exactly how does one whack off with a prosthetic hand? This is certainly not one of the more profound questions raised by this complex and compelling play by Cleveland Heights High grad Rajiv Joseph. But it does represent the absurd situations that abound, amidst all the blood and tragedy, in this theatrical expedition into humanity’s dark heart.

Justly nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2010, Tiger is populated almost equally by the living and the dead, as they all puzzle over the Iraq War and deep existential quandaries. And the Ensemble cast under the direction of Celeste Cosentino, while not exceptional in all cases, delivers the script in a powerful and compelling manner.

Much of the story is narrated, oddly enough, by that eponymous tiger. He is shot dead soon after the show begins by an American soldier named Kev, after the hungry kitty bites off the hand of Tom (an excellent Leilani Barrett) another grunt who is guarding the zoo with Kev. This causes that masturbatory conundrum for Tom later on, while freeing the ghost tiger to prowl the streets and speculate on war, God, death, and why lions get all the good publicity.

Meanwhile, other ghosts abound. Kev, who is trigger happy and gung-ho for war, soon has a mental breakdown, tries to cut off his own hand to rid himself of the tiger phantom following him, and dies from a loss of blood. The Kev ghost is then up and about, as is the ghost of Uday Hussein, one of Saddam’s sadistic sons. He carries daddy’s head in a bag and is busy tormenting Musa, a former gardener on the Hussein estate where he created topiary sculptures of animals.

In a play packed with lush and inventive metaphors, that garden is particularly resonant, made even more so by the exquisite set design and projections by Ian Hinz. This is a dark, lovely and forbidding visual experience, which does full justice to Joseph’s intricate and risk-taking script.

As the Tiger, amply-bearded Michael Regnier is a cross between two familiar felines from another show where cats vocalize their thoughts: Grizabella and Old Deuteronomy from Cats. He’s kind of a mess physically (death will do that to you) but he has a wry sense of humor and is deep of thought, exploring the foolishness of violence and mortality. He is seeking atonement even as he casually admits to devouring passersby when he’s hungry. Regnier keeps a firm hold on this fanciful entity and lends enormous heft to the show, even if some of his latter speeches slide off into didactic territory.

The other most compelling character is Musa, portrayed with remarkable finesse by Tom Kondilas. Musa is working as an interpreter for the Americans while also trying not to become victimized by them, the Iraqis, Uday’s ghost, or anyone else. It’s a daring balancing act and Kondilas has never been better as he brings a sense of humanity to the chaos at hand.

As Kev, Daniel McElhaney exudes “crazy soldier guy” through every pore, but he relies a bit too much on volume and noise-making while eschewing some of the quieter, and scarier, aspects of soldiering gone wrong. And Assad Khaishgi has some nice moments as the maniacal Uday, even though his delivery tends to fall into repetitive rhythms. Justine Zapin fashions two female characters—an Iraqi prostitute and Hadia, Musa’s doomed sister—and does so with clarity.

In a play where the production design is so fine, it seems mean spirited to quibble about a couple props. But the American soldiers are lusting after a couple gold items that were pillaged from the Hussein mansion, a gold pistol (which Kev uses to shoot the Tiger) and a gold toilet seat. It’s a shame those two functional yet enormously expensive objects don’t glow brightly golden on stage, for they represent the illusory goals so many Americans had for that insane war.

We will never make sense of the mess that the Iraq War was, nor will we probably understand what the world faces now in that part of the world. But playwright Joseph has created a play that makes us ponder the decisions our government and other people (not to mention tigers) make in this volatile world.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Through May 17 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.












Superior Donuts, Dobama Theatre

(From left: Joel Hammer as Arthur and Robert Hunter as Franco.)

There’s a simple reason why most of us Americans are overweight. We love sugar, fat and salt, and when we get enough of those staples mixed into our meals, we turn out fat…and happy.

The same rule holds true for theatrical entertainments, as is shown in Superior Donuts by TracyLetts, now at Dobama Theatre. Letts, who crafted the provocative and borderline repellant August: Osage County has in this instance whipped up a froth of theatrical meringue that audiences will happily wolf down.

It’s got everything: A crotchety, depressed old white guy in Chicago, Arthur Przybyszewski, who becomes pals with a funny, outgoing young African-American dude, Franco Wicks, who is a budding novelist. Plus, there’s an ensemble of quirky characters. How quirky? How about a black cop who is a Star Trek groupie, a homeless woman who is stockpiling pearls of wisdom in her battered shopping bag, and an Irish bookie who comes across like a heart-warming Father Flanagan until an off-stage incident.

Before the dissection continues, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: This production directed by Nathan Motta is stellar in all ways. One could hardly wish for a better cast, or better pacing, and the production design is spot-on in every aspect. One just wishes all this fine effort were in service of a more challenging script.

Indeed, SupDo is straining so hard to please someone (the audience? the citizens of Chicago, which is Letts’ hometown? both?) that you can see the veins on the playwright’s neck bulging. Franco (a monumentally likable Robert Hunter) is a young man who is so hot-wired for success he overwhelms the dour owner of the play’s titular shop. Sure, it’s a scuzzy hole-in-the-wall in a poor neighborhood of Chi-town, but Franco is brimming with innovative ideas. And even though Arthur seems a dead man walking (as he helpfully explains, “The core of the Polish character is hopelessness”), Arthur hires Franco to work in the shop.

Their inevitable buddy-movie bonding is accented by appearances of neighborhood eccentrics. Max, the Russian owner of a store next door, is always trying to encourage Arthur to sell his store so Max can increase his holdings on the street. Alan Byrne, who took over the role late in rehearsals, is a breezy riot as Max and earns many of the show’s biggest laughs.

Also excellent in smaller roles are John Busser as the bookie Luther Flynn, Mary Jane Nottage as the homeless woman Lady Boyle, and LaShawn Little as James Bailey, the cop who dresses up in Starship Enterprise drag. It’s not their fault that Luther is written a bit too sweet, Lady is written way too wise and James doesn’t have enough words to register credibly as police officer or a Trekkie.

As for Arthur, Joel Hammer is convincing as a sour old guy living out his nasty little life amidst the icing and sprinkles that make up his day. But Hammer is saddled with several soliloquies—spotlighted asides to the audience meant to flesh out Arthur’s biography and give him depth. Unfortunately, these interludes completely fracture the momentum of the play. It seems a lazy way to build a character (let’s just stop the play and read a Wikipedia entry!), and even an actor with Hammer’s skills can’t make it work.

Yes, some darkness is finally introduced into this happy collection of folks, and thank God for that. Also, a variety of political and sociological issues are brought up, including the Vietnam War, draft dodgers, immigrants, the homeless, racial prejudice. But these touches are too glancing and oblique to be taken seriously.

That said, you will enjoy Superior Donuts because Letts knows how to craft some very funny lines, and the Dobama production is just as eager to please as the script. But it could have been so much better if only Letts had brought more of Osage County to this particular corner of Cook County.

Superior Donuts
Through May 24 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396.




Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Tempest, Great Lakes Theater

(J. Todd Adams as Caliban)

To begin with, allow me to quote from the elegant program notes of Drew Barr, the director of The Tempest, now at Great Lakes Theater: “The Tempest explores a paradox of human consciousness: awareness of one’s self in the world can prevent one from feeling connected to the world.”

How true. That statement, among many others in the program, goes a long way to explain the magic that resides in this script. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Mr. Barr, awareness of one’s self in the play can prevent the audience from feeling connected to the play.

In other words, it seems that the design and creative team were so caught up in shaping a new concept that they give short shrift to Shakespeare’s story. It is a lovely one involving a shipwreck, brotherly betrayal, young romance, sly comedy and the essence of justice—all overlaid with mysterious sounds and unexpected doings.

Prospero, the man who can make magic, has been banished to an island, along with his daughter, by his bro Antonio (Jonathan Dyrud), who took over as Duke of Milan. Feeling hissy, Prospero conjures up a storm so that Antonio and his sea-bound entourage, including King Alonso (Dougfred Miller) and his son Ferdinand, are swept ashore. Then Prospero’s assistant Ariel, “an airy Spirit,” reports that all the people are safe.

Of course, Ferdinand (Patrick Riley) and Miranda fall in love, as was Prospero’s plan. But there is skullduggery afoot, and Prospero and Ariel use their supernatural wiles to make it all come out dandy.

You will be forgiven if you’re not aware the characters are on an island (in the mind, or otherwise), since the muscular set design by Russell Metheny is long on metal and short on palm fronds. (BTW, are we nearing the end of the scenic design infatuation with industrial scaffolding and huge metal structures? Can a sister get a painted flat up in here?)

That said, Metheney’s structure serves to make the actors on stage dance and distort in the reflections coming off the transparent plastic panels, creating an aura of shifting shapes that enhances the story. Augmented by Rick Martin’s detailed lighting design, the air on stage is alive with sparks and flashes.

D.A. Smith does his best as Prospero, using his considerable chops to give the proceedings some drive and heft. But it doesn’t help that Katie Willmorth as Miranda delivers her lines at an unvarying high volume instead of projecting them with some degree of nuance.

The play makes a screeching U-turn about an hour into the first act when another event, the Stefano & Trinculo Show, takes the stage. Looking and feeling like they dropped in from another another entertainment entirely, the butler and cook from the wrecked ship run into Caliban, Prospero’s hybrid human-fish-tortoise slave, and begin raiding the stores of wine.

At this point, the audience is hungry for some comedy relief and they laugh long and loud at the buffoonery of the three inebriates. Unfortunately, the play is turned on its head and becomes a vaudeville show with a strange and sometimes inexplicable story attached to it like a barnacle.

One has to admire Tom Ford as Stephano. For not only does he act his drunken character broadly (he vomits on the head of Trinculo), he actually is spelunking to find the absolutely lowest common denominator of oafishness. While it often grates, Ford’s effort is noted and we look forward, with some trepidation, to his reports from the depths.

As Trinculo, mugging Dustin Tucker seems like an ambitious apprentice to Tom Ford—playing a pratfalling Eve Harrington to Ford’s slapstick Margo Channing—and Tucker shows every evidence of being a splendid student.

Of course, when attempting to capture a magical sense of mysticism on a strange island, sometimes things can go awry. And so they do when three sparkly 10-foot-tall tubular silver shapes walk on during a betrothal masque to honor Ferdinand and Miranda. These ambulatory phalluses, combined with a couple of the guys in large white plastic wedding dresses, make the latter part of Act Two look like a bizarrely-themed gay marriage gone tragically wrong.

If you’re looking for interesting moments, there are these: As Caliban, J. Todd Adams paints his face like Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight, while contorting his body in ways that seem to defy anatomical logic. And Ryan David O’Byrne skulks somewhat menacingly as Ariel, often bedecked in what looks like a shredded shower curtain for a skirt. You’d think, with all those fantastical skills at his command, he could conjure up a nice chiffon number.

Give credit to GLT for trying something new in this interpretation of The Tempest. But when the story gets camouflaged in a torrent of design flourishes and jarring tonal switchbacks, the audience has to work even harder to find Will’s real magic.

The Tempest
Through April 26 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., , 216-241-6000.