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


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Waiting for Godot, Beck Center

(From left: Allan Byrne as Lucky, William Hoffman as Estragon, Brian Pedaci as Pozzo, and Michael Mauldin as Vladimir)

If life is absurd and time has no meaning, then you have no excuse not to see Waiting for Godot at the Beck Center. Because during this brief interlude in your pointless life, the fine actors in this production will, for a fleeting couple of hours, show you what kickass acting is all about. Indeed, they are so damn good you may actually, for a fleeting moment, think life has a purpose. Silly you!

Yes Samuel Beckett’s monumental and iconic work, in which Vladimir and Estragon wait in vain for the arrival of a person they have never met but who they are sure will save them, is the ultimate example of Theater of the Absurd. It is not done very often since it requires a director who can suss out multiple beats within aimless chatter, and actors who can enliven the script.

Fortunately, this show has all of that, and then some. Director Eric Schmeidl leads his cast through Beckett’s chutes and ladders with confidence, freeing his actors to find distinct attacks on their roles.

As Vladimir (or Didi), the chattier of the two main characters, Michael Mauldin is frequently upbeat, sure that Godot will appear and encouraging his pal Estragon to buck up. Shaping his silences with as much care as his sentences, Mauldin is a marvel of precision in his detailed pursuit of this character.

He is nicely matched by William Hoffman as Estragon (or Gogo). Using his broad and expressive face to register exhaustion along with momentary bliss at times, Hoffman anchors the scenes between the two characters as they deal with their evidently dead-end existence on this little patch of hilly ground punctuated by one bare, then leafy, tree.

During their two act-two-day stint, they are visited by the slave owner Pozzo and his captive Lucky. Brian Pedaci is riveting as Pozzo, in the first act using his fulsome presence and rich voice to draw a distinction between himself and his hapless slave whom Pozzo pulls around on the end of a rope. As Lucky, Allan Byrne is a crumpled mess of a human being, staring off into the middle distance until he is summoned to “think.” At that time, he launches into a florid, rambling, meaningless discourse that feels uncomfortably similar to recent word-salad speeches by President Trump.

And every day, a little boy (Jake Spencer) visits to inform Didi and Gogo that, once again, Godot will not be coming on that day. But he is sure to be there tomorrow. Like the bar with the “Free Beer Tomorrow!” sign, the men know that this promise will turn yellow with age. Still, if there is no hope, what is the point?

The point is: If you relish fine acting, this is a master class in the art form.

Waiting for Godot
Through November 5 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org




A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Great Lakes Theater

It seems almost cruel to encounter the joys of Shakespeare’s fantastical comedy set in mid-summer as we contemplate the approaching winter (nuclear or otherwise). But thanks to this thoroughly delightful production at Great Lakes Theater directed by Joseph Hanreddy, there is no downside to the experience.

This three-ring circus has it all: Romance, mystical spells leading to misdirected amour, and oafish attempts by workmen at mounting a play within the play. And the GLT company has never been better in weaving together this modern-dress version, even in the face of a scenic design that is both static and busy, and not all that entrancing.

As most know, the kerfuffles of the heart involving the young folks Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius are distorted by the intervention of Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies. and a band of “rude mechanicals” (that’s Will-speak for blue collar folks). As a result, much gaiety ensues as the magic eye drops the fairies possess lead various characters to fall madly in love with people they wouldn’t normally pursue, including one wearing a donkey head.

Summarizing the twists and turns in a Shakespeare play is always a fool’s errand—Wait, who did you say is in love with whom again? Suffice to say that the mixups in this production are most pleasurable thanks to a number of stellar performances in the outstanding ensemble.

Keri Rene Fuller as tall Helena and Michelle Pauker as not-so-tall Hermia create sparks with Jon Loya as Demetrius and Cory Mach as Lysander. In the featured role of Bottom, the weaver and rabid wannabe actor, David Anthony Smith is consistently amusing. And Tom Ford crafts a lovely, comical take on Peter Quince without coloring outside the lines.

Also excellent are M.A. Taylor as an edgy Puck, Jodi Dominick as a frequently pissed-off Robin Starveling, and Nick Steen and Jillian Kates who are double cast as both the Duke and Queen of Athens and the leaders of the Fairies.

The only odd element of the whole show is the scenic design by Scott Bradley that, among other problems, is a conceptual mismatch with the modern dress of the characters. In an attempt to combine the two worlds of the play—the formal court of Athens and the woods where the fairies romp—the set is filled with stuff, including a tall leaning bookcase, that manages to convey neither. And since the set never changes, except for a couple of lighted globes that drop down a couple feet, the actors are left to create all the magic themselves.

Fortunately for the audience, these actors are quite up to the task. That makes this Midsummer Night’s Dream, to quote the ass’s head in the White House, our own little calm before the storm.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Through November 5 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14 St., 216-241-6000, greatlakestheater.org


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Well, Ensemble Theatre

(From left: Laura Starnik as Ann Kron and Lara Mielcarek as Lisa Kron)

Sometimes, when you use the word “interesting’ to describe a show, it can be because you’re hiding how you really feel. More than once, I have left a particularly disheartening production and been asked what I thought. “Interesting,” I’d mumble, avoiding the string of expletives I could have easily deployed.

However, in the case of Well by Lisa Kron, now at Ensemble Theatre, it seems that interesting is the very best word to describe this superbly performed, intriguingly constructed piece of theater. And although the show seems to be gasping for air by the end of its 95-minute sprint through a collection of meta-theatrical feints and surprises, it’s a ride you should definitely experience.

It all begins very casually as Lara Mielcarek, who plays the playwright Lisa Kron, welcomes the audience and introduces us to her play and to Laura Starnik, who plays Lisa’s mother Ann. In doing so, Lisa makes clear that this play, which is being rehearsed as we sit there, is not about her and her mother. Definitely not. It’s about a “theatrical exploration of health and wellness and the integration of Lansing, Michigan.” Yeah, right.

With mom plopped in a La-Z-Boy for most of the show, Lisa and Ann interact with four other performers who play various characters from the Kron history. These include the Kron’s black next-door neighbors, a black girl who bullied Lisa in grade school, and folks Lisa met when she was an in-patient at an allergy treatment facility. The actors often morph into and out of character as they respond to Lisa’s directions, ending one scene and picking up on another with interludes of side conversations with mom.

Lisa Kron is a renowned playwright (Fun Home) and actor, and she knows how to put interesting words in the mouths of people who wander about on stage. And for the first 70 minutes of this play, it all works so wonderfully, under the deft touch of director Celeste Cosentino, that the whole enterprise feels almost giddy with invention and surprise.

This is aided in no small part by the engaging and amusing performance of Mielcarek, whose friendly demeanor as Lisa at the start is quickly peeled away to reveal a woman who is haunted and depressed by her mother’s history of various illnesses. These are physical issues that Lisa shared until she moved away to New York City and became healthy, but her mother never seemed to recover her health. 

And Starnik, either slumped in her chair or padding softly and slowly around the set, quietly establishes Ann as a force of nature in a robe and scuffs, winning over the audience with her deadpan asides. Ann was a mover in her Lansing neighborhood, advocating for integration, and this mission comes across clearly. She is also a mess of free-floating symptoms that keep her chair-bound.

These two are ably supported by the other actors who take on multiple roles. Maya Jones is fierce and hilarious as Lisa’s playground tormentor Lori Jones, and Brian Kenneth Armour gives precise interpretations as both Big Oscar and Little Oscar, the drunk father and his son who live next to the Kron’s. In the allergy ward, April Needham demonstrates the agony of severe allergic reactions as Joy and Craig Joseph is the officious head nurse. And they all neatly register the confusion of being both actors and characters in Lisa Kron’s meta-exercise that attempts to answer a question that is unanswerable: Why do some people stay sick while other get well?

Even though the wind goes out of these billowing theatrical sails in the last 20 minutes, with a long story about Lisa’s Halloween misadventures ending with a shrug and a bit too much repetition of previous conflicts, the play is mostly an exhilarating excursion. And, you  know, it’s really interesting.

Well
Through October 22 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org