Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Hand to God, Dobama Theatre

(Luke Wehner as Jason/Tyrone)

The definition of a passion play is a dramatic performance representing the Passion of Jesus Christ, involving his suffering and death. It is a staple of many celebrations of Lent in several Christian denominations.

The thing is, that word “passion” can take you in more than one direction. And in this play by Robert Askins, there is plenty of passion set in a church building, but most of it is of the four-letter-word, violent and sexually-drenched variety. 

Taking a cue from the outrageous puppets in Avenue Q, this dark comedy centers on a Sunday school classroom of a church in a small Texas town. This is where recently widowed Margery is trying to teach her charges Jason, Jessica and Timothy about the Lord, using puppets as a vehicle to reach them. Jason is her son, and it turns out she reaches him all too well, since timid Jason has apparently bonded with his puppet Tyrone in a dangerous way.

Indeed, it seems balls-to-the-wall Tyrone has taken over Jason’s fragile personality and is using him to lambaste everyone in sight, including Pastor Greg. As Tyrone says in his opening speech, speaking from a puppet stage in the classroom: “The same motherfucker who invented the group kill and team virtue—that ballsy piece of pig shit—topped all his previous work and invented the devil.”

And Tyrone is here to make sure the devil gets his due. As performed by Luke Wehner, Jason/Tyrone is a fascinating and at times abhorrent creation, giving voice to the unspeakable thoughts Jason has swirling around in his head—as most of us do, of course. Tyrone is all id and, since he's not actually President of the United States, he's hilarious. 

Meanwhile, Timothy (Austin Gonser) is a walking adolescent hard-on with maximum sexual potency and very little focus, Jessica (Molly Israel) is trying to deal with Jason’s infatuation and Margery begins to let down her pretense of civility and starts to respond to Timothy’s insistent entreaties. During all this, Pastor Greg (David Burgher) is trying to make time with Margery.

In other words, it’s a pretty conventional church setting with all the hypocrisy, concealed emotions and screwed-up family relationships fully revealed. And that is what Askins is about, as he thrusts Tyrone into this supposedly calm and rational world.

Sure-handed director Matthew Wright keeps the pacing tight, even when the script tends to get bogged down in a bit too much repetition. And the ensemble performances are quite adept. But it is Wehner’s star turn as the man with the devil stuck on the end of his arm that steals the show and is worth the price of admission.

Hand to God
Through May 21 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org



Freaky Friday, Cleveland Play House

There’s no denying that the gimmick at the heart of this show, a musical version of the 1976 Disney movie, is a sure-fire winner. I mean, a mom and self-employed event planner named Katherine and her teenage daughter Ellie magically exchange bodies and set the stage for lots of generational laughs (Mom has to go to high school and deal with those rotten kids! Snarky teenager has to convince a wedding magazine to do a cover story on her mom’s business!).

For this effort, the cross-generational jokes have been updated to the 21st century by book writer Bridget Carpenter. In addition, they’ve hired Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey to, respectively, do the music and lyrics. Seems like a no-brainer, since these guys put together the stunning musical Next to Normal. You even have renowned scenic designer Beowulf Boritt creating a wonderfully flexible yet simple set, utilizing continually morphing columns that roll about in various configurations against a suburban landscape.

So, how can you miss? Well, let’s put it this way: IT WOULD BE EXHAUSTING TO READ THIS REVIEW IF EVERY SENTENCE WAS SCREAMING AT YOU AT THE TOP OF IT’S LUNGS AND NEVER GIVING YOU A CHANCE TO BREATHE!

Similarly, it is tiring to watch a musical that attempts to turn every song into an anthem. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with Broadway anthems, those show-stopping numbers (think “I Am What I Am” or “Lullaby of Broadway”) that people leave the theater talking about. Wow, they say, that was powerful!

The trick is, that power is generated because the anthems are high points in a show, not the entire musical fabric. But in this production, virtually every song is composed and sung like an anthem, at full volume and with maximum emotional investment. This is all in the service of a plot that, while clever, depends on a rather flimsy one-joke premise.

As a result, the potentially tender, lightly amusing and affecting fantasy is crushed under the brutal treads of the Kitt/Yorkey pop-rock sonic muggings and music director Andrew Graham’s unrelenting intensity. In a different context, a couple of the song-anthems would be quite satisfying, since the premise-setting “Just One Day” and the secret-revealing “Busted” are quite entertaining. But in this production, they’re just another blast in the face.

In addition to the over-torqued songs, Yorkey is given to writing lyrics that are jammed with information—no “moon-June” simplicity for him. This worked brilliantly in the aforementioned Next to Normal, since it dealt with serious mental illness issues. Lots to delve into there. But in this show, his wordy delectation of the not-so-deep, storybook central theme quickly becomes overkill. In “No More Fear,” Katherine in the body of Ellie laments her past parental decisions in excruciating detail:  “How long have I kept an even keel?/How hard have I worked to keep our life so calm and neat?/How do I clean up this mess I made?” Maybe Yorkey could clean up this situation by not trying so hard.

Happily, there are some survivors. When the actors are not screaming their lungs hoarse in songs that require much less vocal commitment, they do a nice job under the direction of Christopher Ashley. As Katherine, Heidi Blickenstaff channels the insolent postures and snotty attitudes of her daughter with precision, and she’s quite amusing. In the less showy role of Ellie, Emma Hunton spends most of her time bringing adult good sense and reasonable behavior to her daughter’s sloppily clad body.  And they are well supported by David Jennings as Katherine’s fiancĂ© Mike, Chris Ramirez as Ellie’s high school dream-hunk Adam, and Jake Heston Miller as Katherine’s young son Fletcher.

But as effective as some of the dialog scenes are, musicals rise and fall on the music. And in this production, the music attacks the audience like a Marine drill sergeant, intent on taking no prisoners. As clever as it is, the songs in this Freaky Friday could lead to Migraine Monday.

Freaky Friday kicks off this year’s New Ground Festival at the Cleveland Play House. The Festival also includes a world premiere play by local playwright Eric Coble, These Mortal Hosts, May 11-20; The Nolan Williams Project, a new musical concert presentation, May 20; and The Chinese Lady, a reading of a new play by Lloyd Suh, May 20.

Freaky Friday
Through May 20 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com




Friday, April 7, 2017

Labio de Liebre (The Lip of the Hare), Teatro Publico de Cleveland

(Photo: Steve Wagner)

As Ebenezer Scrooge once learned, a guy can get some nasty nightmares resulting from a bad bit of meat or, you know, a rotting morality.

In Labio de Liebre, produced by Teatro Publico de Cleveland (TPC) under the auspices of Cleveland Public Theatre, an ex-military man experiences some darkly humorous interactions with ghosts who just won’t leave. This intriguing play is delivered in the original Spanish as written by playwright Fabio Rubiano Orjuela, with supertitles in English projected on a screen.

As seen at this preview performance, the troupe of local TPC actors under the direction of Dante Fernando Larzabal attack the material with energy and enthusiasm. And although nuance and subtlety are not the production’s long suits, this 90-minute piece eventually makes a powerful statement about tragedies that have befallen many people.

The genesis of the play has its roots in various military operations that have occurred in Colombia over time. And the central character here, a man named Salvo, was a member of the military that often killed indiscriminately. The play is set years later in his comfortable house, where a man with a cleft lip shows up and begins talking obliquely about his physical deformity and other things.

Soon, his brother wanders in, along with his sister and their mother, arriving through various means including out of the fridge. Not only that, a chicken (Lilly Corona-Moreno), a rabbit (Magdalena Godinez Rios) and a cow (Luis Ramirez-Alonzo) also make appearances, sometimes peering through the windows and sometimes traipsing inside the house.

Clearly Salvo’s existence, whether he’s asleep or awake, has been permeated by these people and creatures. And as the reason for their appearance becomes clear, the often-amusing play takes on a decidedly darker patina. Larzabal’s inventive production utilizes singing, dancing and a reporter and ex-beauty queen Roxi (a feisty Alisha Caraballo) to advance the story.

Since some of the dialog is rapid-fire, it’s at times difficult to keep up by reading the supertitles, since they do not indicate the name of the speaker. Of course, maybe I wouldn’t have had this problem if I had made a better decision in high school and taken Spanish classes instead of French. Sacrebleu!

As Salvo, Kivin Bauzo evinces strong stage presence, and he is matched by Christina Patterson who plays the mother of the visiting family. The two brothers are played by Alexander Corona and Ernesto Luna Carmargo with impish whimsy. Indeed, it is their comical aura that sets up the powerful contrast with the serious history the play reveals. In the role of Mala, a young girl with mother problems, Nathalie Bermudez is properly flirty and scatterbrained.

In other words, they’re a family. And once you discover what’s happened to them, the ghosts of the past will be in your head too.

Labio de Liebre
Through April 15, produced by Teatro Publico de Cleveland at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727, cptonline.org


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Harm’s Way, convergence-continuum

(Robert Branch as Crowsfoot)

How many times has a mother been frustrated with trying to get her small son to eat a sandwich? And how many times has a son been upset by being forced to eat something he didn’t want? Billions of times, or trillions? But usually, the encounter doesn’t conclude with mom shooting her tyke dead and then complaining about getting no respect.

In Harm’s Way, now at convergence-continuum theater, we are plunged into the distorted world of playwright Mac Wellman, a world where common aspects of our lives—violence, con games, dead Presidents—appear as if reflected in a fun house mirror. And then you realize, maybe this view isn’t so distorted after all.

The central character Santouche (a name that is a compressed version of the French phrase meaning “no touch”), winds up touching plenty of people, with bullets from his ever-present gun. After killing the aforementioned mom (who gave him no respect) he goes on a killing spree through several disconnected scenes until he ultimately offs the person closest to him, his evocatively named girlfriend Isle of Mercy. Again, no respect.

Some in the cast are more adept at dealing with this challenging material than others. Robert Branch creates distinctive characters as the young son and Crowsfoot, a carny con artist with two distinct sides to his personality. And Gideon Lorete, although lacking precise diction at times, channels the wacky energy that Wellman plays require. Hillary Wheelock as Isle and Carrie Williams as By Way of Being Hidden (yes, that’s her name) also convey a haunted, hunted aura.

In the central role of Santouche, Brian Westerley certainly has the look and physique to inhabit this fearsome role. But he never truly dominates the stage as he should, and his line readings tend to just be flat when they should ripple with tension, or dread. Or something. Without a more risk-taking performance, Santouche oddly fades into the background. And the contrast—when he suddenly speaks with Victorian rectitude to President McKinley (who is trying to get President Grover Cleveland to bury him alive)—doesn’t have the snap it should.

Director Clyde Simon clearly adores Wellman’s plays, having staged many of them, and he has a well-tuned sense of the absurdity at work. And the three-person band/chorus adds some pungent musical touches, including notes from a musical saw. But this one-hour play would be even more effective if he pushed some of the performers out of their comfort zones. Nobody, including the actors, should be comfortable in a Mac Wellman play.

Harm’s Way
Through April 15, produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org



A Skull in Connemara, None Too Fragile Theater

If you glance at the bottom of this page, you’ll see that the show I’m reviewing here has actually closed. You can’t see it anymore. Ever. So let this be a lesson to you.

The lesson: Theater happens, and then it’s gone. Poof. But the great thing about theater is that, when done right, it’s so powerful it stays with you long after many other art forms have exited your brain. Such is the case with A Skull in Connemara by Martin McDonagh, which closed last Saturday at None Too Fragile Theater in Akron.

Had you possessed the foresight to buy a ticket, you would have seen an almost pitch-perfect production of this dark comedy that takes place mostly in an Irish graveyard. The setting is Leenane, a village in County Galway in Ireland, and this play the second part of McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy, which also includes The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West. (Chances are you also missed those two excellent productions at NTF, which were mounted in 2015 and 2016.)

As with the other McDonagh plays, the characters are three parts whiskey, two parts simmering grudge, four parts blarney and, critically, one part violence. And at the moment we visit them in this piece they are discussing the demise, several years before, of Mick Dowd’s wife Oona. Did she expire when riding with him while he was driving drunk, or did he deliver a dastardly blow in a drunken rage? The rumors abound.

The importance of this question has arisen because of Mick’s job. As the gravedigger for the town church, he is called upon to evict the bones of current cemetery residents, so that the small plot of land can accept newly deceased citizens. Every seven years he has to do this chore, and this time it will involve digging up his wife’s remains.

Mick is first visited by old pal Maryjohnny Rafferty, a Bingo addict who totes her fluorescent pens and is always ready for a slug of whiskey. Linda Ryan embodied this woman fully, from her painful ritual of easing herself into a chair to her volatile temper, which seems endemic to the folks in little Leenane.

Soon, they are joined by her grandson Mairton Hanlon, who has been sent over to help Mick with his digging duties. As played by Nate Homolka, Mairton was a splendidly coarse lout, and when he joined Mick in smashing the skulls and other bony parts of the bodies they’ve disinterred, with bits of stuff flying into the audience, it was like a Gallagher performance gone seriously macabre.

Mairton’s brother Thomas Hanlon also stops by, a doltish local policeman with dreams of CSI-style grandeur. Doug Kusak invested this character with just enough charm to make you also yearn for the respect he so clearly can’t earn by himself.

And as Mick, David Peacock once again crafted a persona that was perfect down to the smallest gestures and ticks (he recently, and brilliantly, played Doc in The Night Alive at Dobama Theatre).

Yes, you would have seen all those remarkable performances, had you bought a ticket. And you would have seen how skilled director Sean Derry is in all aspects of theater creation. As NTF’s co-artistic director with Alanna Romansky, he also designs sets, lights, and costumes. Plus, before every show, he pours a shot of Jameson for audience members who’d like a blast.

So make note: the next production at NTF is Salvage by local playwright George Brant, running from May 5-20. Remember, NTF is a small theater with an avid following. Tickets go fast, so plan ahead.

I hope we won’t have to have this discussion again.

A Skull in Connnemara

Through April 1 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547, nonetoofragile.com

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Playhouse Square

Used to be, many of us couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live on the autism spectrum, experiencing sensory overload and unable to correctly process random stimuli. Ha! That was before we were subjected to the ravings of the Trump administration. Now, we live in fear of the next new notifications on our iPhones, wondering whether the toddler-in-chief has started a war with North Korea or rudely flamed a former ally.

But I digress. In the remarkable production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by London’s National Theatre, Simon Stephens has adapted British playwright Mark Haddon’s eponymous novel into a thrilling excursion. By staging the play inside a black box equipped with dazzling lighting and visual effects, and accented by imaginative choreography and movement, the play is often surprising. Still, there are some soft spots and occasionally the show labors to maintain momentum.

The story is viewed largely through the mind of Christopher, a teenage math whiz whose brain is incapable of perceiving the emotions of others, and of expressing his own. When a neighbor’s dog is found stabbed to death by a garden pitchfork, Christopher is considered a possible suspect, so he takes it upon himself to search for the killer.

While he delves into deductive and inductive reasoning as he takes on the role of his hero Sherlock Holmes, we see how Christopher’s single father Ed and his mentor at school Siobhan react, helping him when they can to find his way through a confusing world.

The 12-person cast is frequently sitting on stage at the base of three large walls that are laid out in a grid pattern on a black background. These walls become the 13th character, as they pulse, flicker and then ultimately explode with life. As fashioned by video designer Finn Ross, scenic designer Bunny Christie and lighting designer Paule Constable, the walls give Christopher a place to inhabit that can be either disturbing or comforting, especially comforting when those spaces throb with equations and math challenges.

At one moment, a thin line of LED lights traces the outlines of houses to depict the neighborhood. And at other times, the walls erupt in showers of numbers and images that flood your cerebral cortex. This may not be how it feels to be autistic, since it is impossible to create the stupefying confusion that condition must impose, but this inventive staging certainly gives you that twinge when your senses are overwhelmed.

As Christopher dives deeper into the dog-murder mystery, he learns things that send him off on a journey where he reconnects with another member of his family and gains the strength to return home. Meanwhile, he has been preparing for a stringent math exam that will determine if he can attend a university, and he is also cataloging his murder investigation for a school assignment.

In this performance (and at many others during the run here), Christopher is played by Adam Langdon. Although he looks a good deal more physically mature than the average 15-year-old lad, Langdon brilliantly conveys the boy’s inability to process figurative language and slang, and by responding only to the literal meanings of words he becomes the object of amusement, or worse. He also can’t stand being touched by other people. This frustrates his blue-collar dad (played with rough affection by Gene Gillette), who told his son that his mother died, a fact that Christopher discovers.

The multiple difficulties Christopher has to deal with motivate his teacher Siobhan to work with Christopher, encouraging him to tell his story. As Siobhan, Maria Elena Ramirez is warm and caring, but some of her words are lost at times due to a slightly rushed delivery.

In Act Two, the sensory inputs increase as Adrian Sutton’s music and Ian Dickinson’s sound design merge with the visuals to bring the story to a conclusion. At times, the ensemble of actors carries Christopher around the stage as he is buffeted by his mental demons and swept away on cascading numerical waves.

The tension flags at times as the play progresses, and it seems there are a few too many explications of the same problems Christopher exhibits. You know, we get it. Still, the production under the astonishing direction of Marianne Elliott wonderfully evokes a boy trapped by his mind and saved by his highly-focused talent. With mathematics, Christopher works with solid, unchanging factors and, happily, there actually are answers in the back of the book. (Indeed, there is even an answer in the back of the play, as Christopher runs through a high-speed solution to a math problem posed earlier.)

Christopher’s remarkable abilities give him the strength he needs to advance, and it gives the audience a portal into a the different ways that some people grapple with reality.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Through April 9 at Playhouse Square, Connor Palace, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.








Tuesday, March 14, 2017

How I Learned to Drive, Cleveland Play House

Child sexual abuse is a terrifically difficult subject to deal with on stage, for all the obvious reasons and a couple not so obvious. But ever since Paula Vogel wrote How I Learned to Drive in 1997, she set the standard for a subtle, slowly evolving portrait of a relationship that was at once horrific and nurturing. And it’s the nurturing part that makes the horror even more awful (if a person who appears to love me does this, where do I turn?).

The events in this memory play jump around in time, from when a girl nicknamed Li’l Bit was 11 until she’s 18. As was the custom in her family, she was named after her genitalia, which is how Uncle Peck got his moniker. He’s the second husband of Li’l Bit’s aunt, and during most of the play we see him dote on his niece and hover around her in uncomfortable but essentially non-felonious ways.

Along the way, as Peck teaches Li’l bit how to drive and establish her independence on the road, he manipulates and controls her in other ways. And we see how Li’l Bit’s physical attributes play a part in how males react to her, as she is teased at school for her large “jiggly” breasts. As every similarly endowed woman knows, those parts of the anatomy often draw all the attention and awkwardly tilt relationships with boys and men from the get go. And her mother makes it clear that her daughter is to blame for anything untoward that happens.

It isn’t until near the end of the play that we see 11-year-old Li’l Bit sitting on Peck’s lap behind the wheel as he first teaches her to steer the car. And that memory is so strained, so traumatic, that another actor has to speak her lines.

As the play continues, bad advice piles on top of bad acts. In “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking,” mom advises that when Li’l Bit is drinking in public and feels tipsy, she should go to the a bathroom and dunk her head in water, because a wet woman is less conspicuous than a drunk one. Vogel uses these dramaturgical asides to pump the brakes or accelerate the stress, as required. And she negotiates the turns with the skill of racecar driver Mario Andretti at his peak.

Director Laura Kepley maintains a subtle, finely tuned tension throughout the piece, without overdoing any moments. And the cast handles their roles with similar restraint. As Li’l Bit, Madeleine Lambert conveys the angst of this girl and young woman in many muted ways. Michael Bruasco achieves a similar understated effect, although it might help to see a couple more glints of the predator in his portrayal. And three other actors—Karis Danish, Nick LaMedica and Remy Zaken—play a bevy of characters including Li’l Bit’s crotch-obsessed family.

There are many kinds of sexual abuse of minors. But when the abuse is doled out by a person whom you have grown close to and loved, the pain is beyond imagining. And this play comes as close as you can to that conflicted state without lapsing into easy regret and facile recrimination.

How I Learned to Drive
Through March 26 at Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.