Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Urinetown, Blank Canvas Theatre

Is it juvenile? Yes. Is it Silly? Of course. And is it universal? Well, there’s nothing more all-encompassing, never mind your ethnicity or politics, than the need to pee. And while it may seem farfetched that the government would like to stop some people from peeing where they wish (transgender people may chuckle ruefully here), this show is a hoot.

Urinetown has been making a splash for some years, and now Blank Canvas Theatre is giving it a go on its tiny stage—and succeeds for the most part. Under the direction of Patrick Ciamacco, who also quadruples as set/lighting/sound designer, the 19-person cast conveys the problem of peeing-for-a-price with gusto.

It helps that there are strong performers taking on the major roles.  The dystopian songfest is narrated with smug arrogance by Rob Albrecht as Officer Lockstock (always accompanied by Officer Barrel, played by Jason Salamon). As the man in charge of enforcing the town’s draconian law, instituted for supposed ecological reasons due to a crushing drought, the large and in charge Albrecht gives the show a strong core.  He reels off efficient and meta narration as he sort of explains the need to ban private toilets to Little Sally (a wide-eyed Dayshawnda Ash):: “You’re too young to understand it now, Little Sally, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.”

He is matched nicely by John J. Polk as Caldwell B. Cladwell, president of Urine Good Company and the guy who owns all the public toilets. And Polk is gifted with one of the most enjoyable songs in recent musicals, “Don’t Be the Bunny,” which carries a warning for those who get bulldozed by the powerful entities of big business and a government that punishes people who are poor and weak (“You’re born to power/You’re in the money…don’t be the bunny!”).

These pee police don’t go unchallenged since Bobby Strong (a forthright and upstanding Daryl Kelley) takes on the role as the leader of the forces rebelling against the law.  And his romance with Hope Cladwell (an achingly na├»ve Stephanie Harden), the daughter of the pee magnate, registers effectively.

In the role of Penelope Pennywise, the harridan who runs an amenity in the poor part of the city, Bernadette Hisey sings well but never becomes the hateful presence she must be to give the show its gut punch. Pennywise is on the front line of the pee ban, so she needs to be a real badass. If Cladwell is the Gordon Gekko of pee, she must be the Terminator.

The ensemble offers great support—Trey Gilpin and Kristy Cruz in particular—and the small band under Matthew Dolan’s baton delivers solid accompaniment. And the music soars particularly in the up tempo “Run, Freedom, Run,” which features a harmonizing choir of singers.

The premise of this show makes no sense, of course, since people could always find a way to pee on the sly. Plus, the idea of a government stopping people from peeing makes about as much sense as giving tax breaks to the rich while raising taxes on the poor. Like that could happen.

Through December 16 at Blank Canvas Theatre, West 78 Street Studios, 1300 W. 78 St., 440-941-0458, blankcanvastheatre.com.

Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars, Dobama Theatre

Every parent is always is always in search of appropriate and fun entertainment for their kids. So it’s good news that Dobama is presenting the family-friendly show Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars. It’s a fun show for children, since it features lots of running around, some wonderfully-staged action sequences, and just enough Message to give it some feel-good heft.

Local playwright Eric Coble has based his script on the eponymous graphic novels by Tony Lee and Dan Boultwood, about a gaggle of kids who worship Mr. Holmes and take it upon themselves to protect Victorian London against evil-doers in his absence.

And damned if scenic designer Ben Needham hasn’t brought that “comic book” look to the stage, using dramatic silhouettes and other graphic tricks to mimic the cartoonish elements of the source material. For example, a scene where a good guy and a bad guy are fighting on the roof of a speeding train is exhilarating, thanks to splendid projection design by the wizard of those things, T. Paul Lowry.

This is all great stuff for any rug rats in attendance. However, by jamming together a couple different story lines the plot is hard to follow, requiring the detective brilliance of, say, Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, even though his name leads the title, Holmes is mostly missing from these proceedings. You see, he and his arch enemy, the dastardly Moriarty, plunge over a waterfall at the very start, supposedly to their joint demise.

This leaves the show in the hands of a rotating cast of six kids, who display varying degrees of potential. On this night, among the most accomplished were Colin Frothingham as Wiggins, the Holmes-like leader of the Irregulars and Elise Pakiela as Pockets, the crew’s expert pickpocket.

The others Irregulars (Patrick Hensel as Chen, David Gretchko as Tiny, Adler Chefitz as Ash and Miranda Leeann as Eliza) have nice isolated moments. But overall the young actors, try as they might, aren't able to keep the pace of the dialog clipping along as rapidly as that train. The result is a lot of pregnant pauses that slowly seep the energy out of the show.

The five adults in the cast do what they can to keep the production humming. Among them, Christopher M. Bohan turns in a steady job as both Dr. Watson and Sherlock, and Ray Caspio is a snarly study in nastiness as two different villains, Morris Wiggins and Moriarty himself. It’s just a shame these two fine actors don’t have more juicy scenes together.  As the clueless Inspector Lestrade, Ananias J. Dixon nearly devours the impressive scenery on Dobama’s vast stage, drooling and chomping into each of his lines to cadge some laughs. Hey, you can’t blame him.

In short, this Sherlock is a sure lock for kids and their parents.  For everyone else, deductive reasoning might suggest a different entertainment choice.

Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars
Through December 30 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org.

The Lyons, Chagrin Valley Little Theatre

If you like your comedies dark, they don’t come much blacker than Nicky Silver’s The Lyons. And this production in the River Street Playhouse, part of the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre complex, gives this nasty script a nice ride.

The set-up couldn’t be starker: Old Ben Lyons is in a hospital bed dying of cancer and his wife, Rita, is sitting bedside planning a renovation of their home.  If that sounds cruel, it is—that’s who these people are. There are plenty of zingers darting back and forth, and most of the humor lands with a wince.

Once their two grown kids Lisa and Curtis arrive, things don’t improve much, since Lisa  (Catherine Remick) is a barely recovering alcoholic and Curtis (Sean McCormick)  is a closeted gay man with daddy, mommy and sister issues.

This production, under the direction of Yvonne E. Pilarczyk, starts off well as a bitter John Q. Bruce as Ben and a sharp-tongued Mary Jane Nottage as Rita spar with each other, each trying to draw blood from the rock their longtime spouse has become. But as the first half of the show progresses, the pace bogs down since the three ambulatory characters in this hospital room aren't blocked to reflect their respective attitudes, giving the first act a static feel. It should feel like a 3D chess match where the players are armed with knives and bedpans.

The proceedings pick up steam in the second act, when we’re thrown into an entirely new setting where Curtis flirts with real estate salesman Brian (Justin Steck). After that encounter ends on an unexpected note, we’re back in the hospital,where things have changed. And eventually, some rays of hope shine forth.

Overall, the performances are on point, even in the smallest role of the nurse, played with appropriately exhausted good will by Lisa Lee Lazarczyk. As she says at one point, “The way I see it, there are no answers. Some people are happy, and some people are just lonely, mean and sad. And that’s the world.” Indeed.

The Lyons
Through December 9 at the River Street Playhouse, Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, 40 River Street, Chagrin Falls, 440-247-8955.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Steady Rain, none too fragile theater

(Tony Zanoni as Denny and Chris Richards as Joey)

Sometimes good actors can help mediocre material survive. But when half the cast is missing in action, that fact reduces the chances of something good developing on stage.

In the formulaic A Steady Rain by Keith Huff, two cops are serving a conversation back and forth over a cop-drama net that has been wilted by too much familiarity. Doing a good cop/bad cop routine on the audience, Denny is the hard ass with questionable morality while Joey, his life-long pal from school days, is a recovering alcoholic who has a crush on Denny’s wife.

As the two guys plod dutifully through their respective stories, it becomes apparent that even the lurid details of their histories won’t save this play from itself. And since most of it happens in the past, there is no immediacy and no spark.

As Joey, Chris Richards is believable and does what he can to craft a functioning character. Trouble is, he’s playing off Tony Zanoni as Denny, and Zanoni fails to match Richards’ performance. By latching for dear life onto a Joe Pesci-like accent, minus the menace, Zanoni’s serial monologues lack the shape and depth that Richards exhibits.

In another play with more characters, this would not be a big problem. But this two-hander requires two performers who are equally weighted and continually complementary, like two acrobats.

Indeed, as the play ground on to its sad conclusion, it was hard not to wish that the director Robert Ellis, a fine actor with the heft that is missing here, had cast himself in the role of Denny. That might have been magical. Instead, A Steady Rain is just as waterlogged as it sounds.

A Steady Rain
Through November 11 at none too fragile theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547, nonetoofragile.com

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Caucasian Chalk Circle, Shahrazad Theatre Company

All plays have some sort of message they want to convey, but some messages are more obvious than others. This is a fact some people choose to reject: As movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn once said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” (For those under age 30, Western Union used to be a telegram delivery company. What’s a telegram? Go to your room.)

Of course, if you’re playwright Bertolt Brecht, you wear your message emblazoned on a sign hung around your characters’ necks. This he does in the prologue of Caucasian Chalk Circle, now being performed by a new troupe named the Shahrazad Theatre Company. Focused on creating immersive theater that dissolves the fourth wall between performers and audience, STC hopes to produce more works in the future with the fostering assistance of the well-established Ensemble Theatre.

The post-prologue plot outline is quite simple. A peasant girl in the Soviet Union named Grusha rescues the Governor’s abandoned baby boy, falls in love with a soldier, named Simon, and eventually has to battle for the right to keep the child when the Governor’s wife returns to claim him. But true to Brecht, there are countless other characters added to this mix as he trots out his pointed political satire and flair for the absurd. The bottom-line message of the prologue and the play clearly represent Brecht’s socio-political stance: That all things should belong to those who would do well by them. (Try to get that one through Congress.) And that there’s a difference between justice and the law for poor and rich alike, with actual justice arrived at only by chance.

This production is an uneven but determinedly earnest attempt at corralling the Brechtian style and messaging. And that is more than faint praise, since this is no easy script to harness and get moving in the same direction. The multiple characters in the piece, played by 11 actors who all take on multiple roles, range from naturalistic portrayals to highly stylized, often grotesque and masked cartoon figures.

It’s a conglomeration that sometimes works very well under the direction of Kyle Huff, and at other times gets bogged down in an effort to make every character, even small ones, throb with comical or dramatic intent. This is particularly the case in the first act of the play before intermission. Kayla Davis as Grusha is a solid but not particularly compelling presence as she hikes through the mountains with the infant, although her dalliance with Simon (a sweet August Scarpelli) does have its own charm.

The second act is crisper and funnier, as the focus shifts to the drunken lout Azdak (Robert Hawkes, who also earlier plays the Governor), who is now sitting as a judge. Hawkes uses his fine comic timing to cadge many laughs from his performance, although he is at times almost too much in control for this unhinged character. Other engaging performances are turned in by James Rankin as the singer/narrator and as Shauwa, Azdak’s assistant; Valerie Young in several roles showing off well-defined and amusing characters; Katelyn Rotuno as the harridan Governor’s wife; and Steve Vas-Hansell and Allen Branstein as a pair of “iron shirt” soldiers in the mode of Abbott and Costello.

Although there are no more shows currently planned for STC, it is hoped that they can find a way to continue their theatrical efforts. Like, for instance, with Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Talk about timely!

Caucasian Chalk Circle
Through November 12, produced by the Shahrazad Theatre Company fostered by Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, ensembletheatrecle.org

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Family Claxon, Cleveland Public Theatre

When it comes to encouraging and nurturing new work in theater, no other organization comes close to matching the track record of Cleveland Public Theater. Over the years, they have used multiple formats to help playwrights develop their plays from raw beginnings to the finished product.

And now, they are presenting the first work from their Catapult New Play Development program, which is intended to move works from early or mid-development phase to being production ready. This script, by the much-produced local playwright Eric Coble, is titled The Family Claxon. And it is a fast-paced, high energy mess from start to finish.

In his program notes, the estimable executive creative director of CPT, Raymond Bobgan, suggests that this play is an example of “cutting edge theater” and is “edgy and cool.” Although I have enormous respect for Bobgan and his remarkable achievements as a leader of theater in Cleveland and beyond, I beg to differ.

This play is about as entertaining as the loud, blaring car horn referenced in the title, and like an old-time claxon it is just as hard to listen to for 90 uninterrupted minutes. Coble’s work attempts to be fierce and over-the-top but then trots out well-worn jokes and lots of oh-aren’t-they-wacky! characters. In addition, there is non-stop running, and tripping as performers take pratfalls on scenic designer Ryan T. Patterson’s two-story set. In other words, we’ve seen all this before.

And it is all strung together with a noticeable lack of wit. The plot revolves around Andrew Claxon, a middle-age dad who is trying to throw a party for his way-past-elderly granddad on the old guy’s 150th birthday. Meanwhile, the house and the surrounding neighborhood are collapsing all around them. Granddad (Kayla Gray) sits slumped in a wheelchair for the entire show, aside from a few spasms and medical emergencies, while Andrew (Abraham McNeil Adams) dashes about the house, most of the time without his pants on, mugging continuously. Are you laughing yet?

The Claxon clan also includes mom Evette (Colleen Longshaw) who works for a big corporation as a C.I.M (Chief Inspiration Officer). Coble sets his sights on mocking corporate America, but his popgun references don’t even make a dent. Nor do his attempts at being current by having Claxon daughter Catie (Hillary Wheelock) and neighbor guy Zhang Sallerendos (JP Peralta) appear as “revolutionaries” who are fighting the system.

One reason that none of this lands effectively is that the accomplished director Craig J. George drives his cast to shout their lines while spouting them at maximum speed. As a result, any chance of being amused by some of Coble’s more nuanced comedic phrasings is bulldozed, and the cartoonish dystopian world he attempts to convey just seems boring and irritating. 

Of course, the instinct to get through all of this as fast as possible is understandable given the tired ideas that are dragged out. For example, there are foreign people with funny names who talk weird, and they wander through the Claxon house in tried-and-true sitcom style. These people are played with varying degrees of understandable desperation by Victoria Zajac, Ananias J. Dixon, Maryann Elder and Olivia Scicolone.

Plus, there are many poop and pee jokes since the neighborhood is evidently sinking and toilets are exploding. Indeed, Andrew’s slacks are soaked with the stuff for a while, before he doffs them, while other actors wave their hands in front of their noses and make frowny faces, to remind us that poop smells bad. Hilarious. Noel Coward (and Joe Orton), eat your heart out.

There is also a lot of gunplay, with Andrew brandishing his “fully loaded” gun in various people’s faces and SWAT teams firing machine guns outside. Nothing funnier these days than guns, right?

Actually, there are a couple amusing micro-moments--when they reboot granddad like a frozen Dell computer, and when the coot finally liquefies as he takes his last breath. But they are overwhelmed by way too many banal gags and overacting.

Okay, what we have here is a dead horse, so I will lay down my cudgel. Suffice to say that CPT deserves our thanks for encouraging and staging new work. And that The Family Claxon should be taken out behind the barn and quietly interred. Cause of death: Terminal creative exhaustion.

The Family Claxon
Through October 28 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org

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