Sunday, December 28, 2008

2008 "Best of Cleveland Theater" Awards

(This handsome, virtual "Best of Cleveland Theater"Award Trophy will look fetching on the winners' virtual mantels.)


Hey, it's time to stop whining about your 401(k) already.

Let’s look on the bright side—at least you didn’t have the misfortune to run into Bernie Madoff at a golf outing.

And to make you feel even better…here are Rave and Pan’s "BEST OF CLEVELAND THEATER" AWARDS, for the calendar year 2008.

It was another splendid annum, filled with memorable performances and productions. We can only hope that these theaters will continue to produce such fine work in 2009, as we slide into a daunting economic future that will test everyone’s mettle, perseverance, and bladder control.

So cue the orchestra, and let’s open the envelopes!

BEST DRAMA
The Blacks: A Clown Show, Karamu Performing Arts Center

This theatrical tour de force, directed with riveting energy and hip-hop choreography by Terrence Spivey, turned Jean Genet’s absurd look at race into an unforgettable evening. Featuring spot-on performances by a talented ensemble, this tone poem was lyrically cruel and tantalizing from start to finish.

BEST COMEDY
I Hate Hamlet, Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet Hall

Director Nancy Cates took this witty Paul Rudnick script and turned it into a bright and witty summer treat. From John Barrymore’s ghost, ably played by Daren Kelly, to precisely crafted smaller roles (notably Lara Mielcarek’s daffy Felicia), this production kept the laughs flowing in Stan Hywet’s lovely lagoon setting.

BEST MUSICAL
Caroline, or Change, co-produced by Dobama Theatre and Karamu

Bristling with fierce intelligence, this “race relations” musical by Tony Kushner makes a liar out of anyone who says musicals are air-headed. And thanks to a nearly flawless cast (see Best Actress—Musical) and superb direction (see Director of the Year), this was theater of the kind you dream about: exciting, unpredictable, amusing, and absolutely engrossing.

ACTRESS OF THE YEAR
Laurel Johnson

In the excellent black comedy Freakshow at convergence-continuum, Johnson played the limbless Amalia, a woman who parlayed her shocking physical deformity into a universal truth. And she almost topped herself in Boom at Cleveland Public Theatre, turning a hot-to-trot Jo into a person filled with outrage and a relentless urge to live.

Also, a deep bow to Anne McEvoy who turned in splendid performances in Colder Than Here produced by Dobama as well as in Two Plays by Gao Xingjian and Goldstar, Ohio at Cleveland Public Theatre

ACTOR OF THE YEAR
Robert Hawkes

As Alec in Colder Than Here, by Dobama, Hawkes was the picture of wry frustration as he faced the impending death of his wife. And in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at Ensemble, Hawkes’ was a put-upon non-entity who ultimately lashed back with quiet and terrifying ferocity.

DIRECTOR OF THE YEAR (tie)
Sarah May and Terri Kent

Following a terrific staging of The History Boys at Beck Center, where she managed to corral a lot of boyish energy, Sarah May hit a grand slam with Caroline, or Change (Dobama/Karamu). Her ability to find the precise dramatic fulcrum of each character, and then stage each production with vitality and imagination, is simply awe-inspiring.

If you want a classic American musical done right, give it to Terri Kent and her team at Porthouse Theatre. Anything Goes was a light diversion made giddily intoxicating by Kent’s direction (and MaryAnn Black’s choreography). And then Kent’s staging of The Music Man featured sweet precision in the group numbers (a great “Rock Island” opener) and sizzling individual performances.

BEST ACTOR—DRAMA
Jason Dixon, The Blacks: A Clown Show, Karamu Performing Arts Center

Prowling the stage like a decadent cougar, Dixon was the leader of an acting troupe that created a symphony of voices from the black culture. And Dixon never relented, whether he was talking to other characters on stage or making an audience member cringe. You literally couldn’t pry your eyes from this stellar performance.

BEST ACTRESS—DRAMA
Ursula Cataan, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Ensemble Theatre

Cataan was worth double the price of admission as fragile and naïve Honey, trembling like a leaf in the psychological windstorm generated by George and Martha. By never lapsing into a stereotype, Cataan made this easy-to-dismiss role as funny (not to mention as poignant), as playwright Edward Albee could ever want.

Other fantastic performances were turned in by Dorothy Silver as Violet in “Waiting for the Telegram” in Talking Heads 2 at Beck Center, and by Andrea Belser as Juliette in I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda, produced by Dobama.

BEST ACTOR—COMEDY
Doug Snyder, Boom, Cleveland Public Theatre

As Jules, a nerdy scientist with foreknowledge about the end of the world, Snyder never hit a wrong note. Comedy doesn’t get much blacker than it is in this show, but Snyder seemed perfectly natural as he tried to manipulate a woman he lured to his survival bunker. By turns creepy and oddly sweet, Snyder’s Jules was a revelation.

BEST ACTRESS—COMEDY
Rachel Spence, My Favorite Year, Beck Center

Sure, it’s technically a musical comedy, but Spence was terrific as Alice the 1950s era TV comedy writer. Combining a comically apt voice with a deadpan visage, Spence nailed her punch lines and stopped the show with her song, “Professional Showbizness Comedy.”

BEST ACTOR—MUSICAL
Michael Mauldin, Peter Pan, Beck Center

In the dream role of Captain Hook, Mauldin never missed a chance to chew the scenery, and it was hilarious. This sissy-pirate was a hoot as he luxuriated in his pronunciation of every syllable as he haplessly chased Peter, often creating laughs with just a glance or a single sound.

BEST ACTRESS—MUSICAL
Sheffia Randall Dooley, Caroline, or Change, Dobama and Karamu

Even though her character could curdle milk at 20 paces, Dooley’s Caroline showed the vulnerable underside of this African-American woman who worked for a southern Jewish family. And when she sang the blues, you felt it down to your shoes.

BEST DIRECTOR—DRAMA
Lou Bellamy, A Raisin in the Sun, Cleveland Play House

This show demands a great ensemble performance, and that’s just what Bellamy provided. By paying precise attention to the small beats that create a powerful production, Bellamy brought the audience into the hopeful world of the Younger family, and to a bigoted time in our country that never imagined Barack Obama.

BEST DIRECTOR—COMEDY
Beth Wood, Boom, Cleveland Public Theatre

Keeping the pace brisk but never hurried, Wood gave this black Armageddon comedy a rush of laughter that ended in some sober reflections on life. This rather intricate mind game of a play could have come across as pretentious, but it never did thanks to Wood’s light touch and firm control.

BEST DIRECTOR—MUSICAL
Pierre-Jacques Brault, Blood Brothers, Mercury Summer Stock

This stylish production put its focus where it belonged, thanks to Brault, and as a result it was charming and witty throughout. The story about twins who were separated at birth was larded with melodrama but it played like a dream with Brault’s crisp and purposeful direction.

BEST SET DESIGN
The Crucible, Narelle Sissons, Great Lakes Theater Festival

Sometimes, simpler is better. And sets don’t come much simpler or starker than Sisson’s bare plywood sheets that composed much of the playing area for this show. Almost painful in its rawness, the wood and exposed fluorescent lights were an ideal frame for this classic story of mass hysteria. Visually, it was a production that left splinters in your soul.

BEST POLITICAL PLAY
The God of Hell, Bang and Clatter Theatre

Rippling with muscularity and an undimmed rage, this Sam Shepard play didn’t give an inch as it expressed the fury many felt regarding the Bush administration. Director Christopher Johnston ratcheted up the tension, blending Shepard’s black humor with a bleak perspective of the “new” fascism.

BEST ORIGINAL SCRIPT BY A LOCAL PLAYWRIGHT
Tom Hayes, Lord of the Burgeoning Lumber, convergence-continuum

Yeah, it’s another gay cowboy story. But in Hayes’ telling the cowboys manage to address some eternal questions about identity while making those meditations ridiculously amusing. Hayes’ oblique writing style kept the audience guessing, and laughing, all the way along.

BEST EDGY PRODUCTION
Two Plays by Gao Xingjian, Cleveland Public Theatre

“Between Life & Death” was a monologue, “The Other Shore” was a dance, of sorts. And each was confounding and compelling in its own way. This was a dazzlingly theatrical evening directed, respectively and brilliantly, by Holly Holsinger and Raymond Bobgan.

BEST OPEN-AIR PRODUCTION
Harold and Maude, Cain Park

This cult film about a May-September affair makes a damn good stage musical, at least when it’s brought to life by director Victoria Bussert. Although lacking the subtext of the Vietnam War, this smoothly professional production was sweet and often hilarious.

BEST ACTOR IN A SMALL ROLE
George Roth, The Fantasticks, Ensemble Theatre

Turns out, there really are small roles. But when you bleed them for as much fun as Roth did as
The Old Actor, you kinda wish all roles were this tiny. His dusty and wrinkled thespian made even the simple act of stepping off a stool a moment of comic joy.

BEST ACTRESS IN A SMALL ROLE
Lucy Bredeson-Smith, Freakshow, convergence-continuum

Year in and year out, Bredeson-Smith fashions some of the most memorable characters in local theater. But her performance as Judith, caretaker of the limbless Amalia, was something special. Working around a snaggle-tooth oral appliance, she delivered a soul-wrenching monologue detailing her abuse at the hands of her freakshow proprietor. We still have goosebumps.

BEST TOURING SHOW
Jersey Boys, PlayhouseSquare

The visceral reaction generated by this rousing musical was something to behold. Telling the story of the 1960s hit-making machine called the Four Seasons, this production ripped the roof off the State Theatre and had boomers dancing (okay, shifting from foot to foot) in the aisles.

BEST PLAY PRODUCED BY A MUSEUM
The Gamblers, produced by the Cleveland Museum of Art

This one-hour romp of a 19th century play by Nikolai Gogol felt as contemporary as Mamet, due to an excellent adaptation and direction by Massoud Saidpour. The stylized performances fit the material perfectly and the result was a humorous meditation on money-grubbing human beings. And thus, we come back full circle to Bernard Madoff.

CONGRATULATIONS TO ALL! AND HERE’S TO AN EQUALLY GREAT 2009!

Friday, December 12, 2008

In a Dark, Dark House, Bang and Clatter/Akron

(The brothers in this play didn't grow up quite like Wally and The Beav.)

It’s not all that hard to say shocking things. All you do is take an agreed upon truth and say the opposite. This happens every time someone writes an article that says global climate change is a fantasy, that our oil supplies will never dry up, and that Sarah Palin is a brainiac.

On stage, the current master of this kind of shock doctrine is playwright Neil LaBute. His play—In A Dark, Dark House, now at Bang and Clatter in Akron—features his usual formula involving tormented people and some fast reversals and twists before the final curtain. And the subject matter of child abuse, child sexual molestation and the attendant question of adolescent innocence, couldn’t be more incendiary.

While there are elements of this play and production that work exceedingly well, the character contortions that populate the third and final scene are so convoluted that it throws the entire play into a baffling ball of confusion.

Terry, a tense and aggressive security guard, is visiting his affluent 35-year-old younger brother Drew at a psychiatric hospital where ex-lawyer Drew is receiving treatment for drunk driving after an accident. Drew wants Terry to talk to the doctors about Drew’s past, particularly the unseemly activities imposed upon him as a child by a charming man named Todd, so Drew can get back to his stately home and family.

It’s clear Terry doesn’t want to be there, saddled once again with another of Drew’s addiction problems, and Terry keeps challenging Drew to be honest with him. As Terry, Sean Derry once again delivers a compelling version of his favorite and oft-seen stage persona: a long-haired, beard-stubbled, grubbily-dressed redneck with a short fuse. But this character begs for a different approach, a person more tightly controlled, even down to his personal appearance.

Still his scenes with Stephen Skiles as Drew crackle with fraternal authenticity as they wrestle verbally and physically with their relationship and the sordid history that haunts them both. Skiles is loose and affable, as many upscale lushes are, and his affected use of juvenile language such as “Dude” and “whatever,” while enraging his brother, seems completely natural.

After a tense if repetitive first scene between the brothers, we follow Terry to a putt-putt course where he engages in conversation with the 16-year-old manager Jennifer. Her identity and the reason for Terry’s presence there aren’t revealed until the last scene. Perhaps due to the fact that the role of Jennifer was being played at this performance by substitute Erika Rylow, this pivotal scene lacked the necessary tension and sexual subtext the play requires.

In that concluding scene, an emotional roller coaster, Terry and Drew confront each other again, this time on the grounds of Drew’s luxurious home during a party. This is when LaBute reveals his shocker involving Terry and a few other fast spin moves that leave the audience in the dust.

This production, co directed by Sean McConaha and Skiles, has a very stripped down feel, since there is virtually no set save for a (broken) bench and the barest suggestion of a miniature golf course. This aspect gets a pass, since B&C has only recently occupied their new space behind Crave restaurant (actually, it’s directly behind the parking lot next door).

In a Dark, Dark House Through Dec. 20 at the
Bang and Clatter Theatre,
behind the parking lot
next to Crave restaurant at
57 E. Market Street,
Akron, 330-606-5317

boom, Cleveland Public Theatre

To see my review of boom, please go here.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Peter Pan, Beck Center

(Michael Mauldin as Captain Hook and John Paul Soto as Peter Pan)

For the past few seasons, Beck Center has celebrated the holidays with a superlative production of the Broadway musical Beauty and the Beast. And while it featured spot on acting performances and stylish choreography, one of the keys to its success was outstanding singing.

This year the Beast has shuffled off the Beck holiday stage, it’s place being taken by a flying boy and a trio of English children named Darling who follow him to the stars. The good news is that this version of Peter Pan is very well acted and sublimely designed and staged. But the lack of superior singing voices, like the ticking croc that stalks Captain Hook, spells the show’s ultimate doom.

This oft-seen musical, with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh and music by Mark Charlap, rolls out the fanciful James Barrie story about Peter Pan, a boy who won’t grow up. This concept may not seem like much of a stretch and not all that charming, especially to the legions of women who have to deal every day with adult males who act like overgrown boys. However, Peter at least has the good sense to play all his eternally boyish games with his little buddies in Neverland, a testosterone fantasyland filled with snarling pirates, marauding Injuns, and lots of running, jumping and fighting.

These are the parts that come across with freshness and verve under the direction of Fred Sternfeld. Managing a large and very young cast, he succeeds in making the scenes with the lost boys and the pirates snap with excitement and spontaneous energy.

This is helped along in no small way by the casting of John Paul Soto as Peter. In a role that is often taken by a woman, who then has to try to butch up, Soto is naturally all-male and he brings a startlingly direct and unabashedly macho perspective to Peter. In other words, this Peter never seems to be boy who’s a bit light in his leafy loafers.

Unfortunately, Soto’s singing just doesn’t match his acting chops, and he has most of the important songs throughout the play. Even though he gets by, barely, in two early songs (“I’ve Got to Crow” and “Neverland”), the demanding evening grinds down Soto’s vocal chords until, by the final reprise of “Neverland,” he’s croaking out any note at all to finish his assignment. For those who recall Mary Martin, or any number of other performers who have played this part, the musical aspect of this Peter Pan will be tough sledding.

But apart from that, this production fairly sizzles with professionalism, in the air and on the ground. The inventive choreography by Martin Cespedes is even better than his usually stellar work, turning often ho-hum dance interludes, such as the first appearance of the Indians, into must-watch sequences. And director Sternfeld knows how to nail the beats so they the story never loses focus and even the smallest kids in the audience can follow the plot and remain engrossed for the three-hour running time (including two intermissions).

The star of the show, however, is Michael Mauldin as both uptight Mr. Darling and snarky Captain Hook. Chewing the scenery with such maniacal delight that he may require extensive dental work after the run, Mauldin luxuriates in every syllable of Hook’s lines and spoken "songs." Putting his own fey twist on the Johnny Depp sissy-pirate trope, and sampling ever so subtly from Cyril Richard’s original performance back in the 1950s, Mauldin often creates laughs with just a glance or a single sound.

Mauldin is ably supported by Brendan Sandham as his first lieutenant Smee. Thin as a bent wire coat hanger, Sandham has perfect timing as he grovels and flinches under the gaze of his captain. Indeed, all the pirates as well as all the lost boys acquit themselves well and with unrelenting vigor. And as Tiger Lilly, the agile leader of the Indians, Alexis Generette Floyd is athletic and adorable.

Even though the show tends to unravel a bit in the third act, during a shipboard fight that is beset by a plethora of awkward moments, this Peter Pan hangs together well in terms of pacing. But musicals are about music, and that’s the part of this review that’s, um, a Pan.

Peter Pan
Through January 4 at the Beck Center,
17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood,
216-521-2540

Friday, December 5, 2008

Your Jolly Christmas Show Sampler

(Rockettes as rag dolls in Santa's workshop)

Are you looking for a way to start brimming with joyous holiday spirits? Start by filling your wassail cup to overflowing (3 parts Rum, two parts eggnog—oh hell, forget the eggnog). And then program the song “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings” by the Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan (the coolest carol ever) on an endless loop. Presto, you’re almost an elf already!

Hey, even if the glow this year is dimmed a bit by the fact that our jobs and savings are circling the drain (ho, ho, freaking ho), it’s time to celebrate the season and haul yourself out to the holiday theatrical productions around town.

For the third time in recent years, PlayhouseSquare is presenting the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes of legendary high-kicking fame. The evening is a loose collection of singing and dancing vignettes emceed by none other than Santa, and it’s a cornball extravaganza that will dazzle the little ones and even amuse crotchety oldsters.

Although this version of the Rockettes has only 22 women, as opposed to the traditional line of 36, these leggy gals operate with a degree of precision that is astounding to behold. This blog has, in the past, made sport of audiences who clap like Pavlov’s pooches every time two or more people do a series of high kicks on stage. But in this show, the volleys of applause are well earned.

Whether they are tapping their tails off in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” or kicking up a storm as a matched set of rag dolls, the Rockettes perform with such synchronicity it looks computer generated. And when they execute the slow motion backwards collapse that concludes the amazing “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” a bit that has been performed every year since the troupe’s founding in 1933, you recognize the true definition of a show stopper.

The Rockettes are joined by more than a dozen other singers and dancers, as well as four little people who play elves, dancing baby teddy bears and dancing snowmen. If all this sounds a bit twee for your tastes, the rockin’ Rockettes always manage to bring the show back into focus.

There are several less than sterling elements, including a Santa (Scott Willis) who is a bit too young and too thin (even with padding) to convey the true essence of Old St. Nick. And the Christmas-ornament backdrops now and then look a bit tacky, like discount Christmas card artwork.

Another tradition of this show is the final scene depicting a “Living Nativity,” complete with camels, sheep and a massive crèche. While this rather somber scene is costumed to the hilt, it seems overly didactic (yeah, we get it, the real meaning of Christmas), complete with scrolling copy on a screen that is also delivered by voice-over. The earnestness is admirable, but it doesn’t exactly send the audience out humming a tune.

Of course, there are other Christmas shows in production, just like every year. But unlike every other year, this reviewer is not filing specific reviews of those shows this season. Fact is, I’ve run out of things to say, after reviewing them over and over.

But if you’re unfamiliar, or you need a memory jog, here’s a capsule look:

A Christmas Story at the Cleveland Play House
This stage version of the sweet and wittily nostalgic movie (Ralphie and his “You’ll shoot your eye out!” air rifle) is a sure-fire treat. And Charles Kartali as Dad has steadily improved his ability to swear without ever saying a definable cuss word, as he grapples with his beastly coal-fired furnace.

A Christmas Carol at the Great Lakes Theater Festival
It’s a stellar production that embodies all the humor, fright and ultimate moral lesson of the Dicken’s novel. While the production is different than the classic Alastair Sim movie, accomplished actor Aled Davies will no doubt bring a new approach to Scrooge, a role handled in previous years by Dudley Swetland.

Black Nativity at Karamu House
As directed and choreographed by Terence Greene, this show is a rich, boisterous and often profound retelling of the birth of Christ. The gospel music and the dance sequences alone are worth the price of admission.

The Santaland Diaries at Cleveland Public Theater
Yes, Crumpet the Elf is back, this time in the guise of Sean Booker. But all the David Sedaris witticisms are still in place as we experience what it feels like to be Santa’s helper in Macy’s Christmas fairyland. (And let’s not mince words, fairies are involved here.)

Enjoy…and have a great HOLIDAY! (Eat it, Bill O’Reilly.)

Radio City Christmas Spectacular, through Dec. 28 at the State Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

A Christmas Story, through Dec. 21 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

A Christmas Carol, through Dec. 23 at the Ohio Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, produced by the Great Lakes Theater Festival, 216-241-6000

Black Nativity, through Dec. 28 at Karamu House, 2355 east 89th Street, 216-795 7077

The Santaland Diaries, through Dec. 20 at the Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Lucky Spot, Ensemble Theatre

(Peter Ferry as Reed Hooker and Valerie Young as Sue Jack)

It would seem to be fortuitous timing to stage a play about people struggling through the early 1930’s Depression during this, our brand spanking new Recession/Deflation/Depression for the 21st Century. But Beth Henley’s play The Lucky Spot, now at the Ensemble Theatre, is so larded with determinedly quirky folks and, at the end, so much forced joviality and redemption that it might better be titled The Wet Spot (as in something you contort yourself to avoid).

We find ourselves in a southern dance hall on Christmas Eve in 1934, a place run by Reed Hooker since he won it and a 15-year-old prostitute named Cassidy in a poker game. He’s out to turn the joint into a taxi dance hall for the rural yokels in the area, with the assistance of his flunky, handyman and pseudo philosopher Turnip.

But there trouble a-brewin’, since Reed’s old lady is about to be let loose from prison for the holidays. Sue Jack is apparently a terror, a gal known far and wide for a temper so explosive, all the dance hall girls have booked out of town for fear of running into her. And Reed has another big problem, since a guy named Whitt has shown up and wants to seize the property for unpaid debts.

Reed thinks he can make a ton of money with The Lucky Spot hall, not only from selling the dance tickets but also from pushing drinks and renting neckties to the rubes who come in one cravat short of the dress code. But he has to deal with Cassidy, a girl who now is pregnant with his child, who has six toes (why? well, why not?) and who thinks she is destined to be the next Mrs. Hooker once Sue Jack is shooed away.

Playwright Henley wants to show us how those dreams come apart, lay in tatters, and then are magically reasembled in a second-act Christmas Day denouement that will have everyone singing carols on the way out. Trouble is, few of the characters stay true to themselves, making their changes of heart feel cheap and unearned.

All that said, director Licia Colombi and her cast do manage to find some gold specs in this avalanche of emotional silt. As Reed, Peter Ferry casts a strong presence on stage and seems believable as a shallow rumrunner and gambler. And Valerie Young has a nice edge as Sue Jack, although the scene where she shoots up the dance hall is too pathetic for words (muffled, pre-recorded rifle shots and no damage to the environs save for a decorative tree branch that gets knocked ten degrees off center and a picture frame on the wall that goes askew).

As Cassidy and Turnip, Aly Geisler and Ryan Shrewsbury have sweetness at their core, but they never feel completely in the moment while tending to overdo their reactions when others are speaking. Greg Del Torto fares better as nasty Whitt, tossing off many of his lines with a smirk and a smile instead of a snarl.

But the most engaging performance is turned in by Mary Jane Nottage as washed up dance hall girl Lacy Rollins. Beset by co-workers who don’t like her (they didn’t mention they were leaving town), a fiancé who left her at the altar and a predilection for falling down (thin ankle bones), Lacy is a train wreck. But from her first entrance to her final twirl, Nottage brings out the tender desperation of this woman who thrills when a man actually talks to her “in real conversation.”

Sad to say, these performances are all in service of a script that doesn’t believe in the characters it has created. One example: Sue Jack shows up, swilling rotgut and pining after Reed. But the next day she’s on the wagon and doesn’t want Reed anymore—until she does again. And none of these psychic pirouettes are justifiably explained.

It would all be better if the play concluded at the end of the penultimate scene, with a reflective moment that actually works. But the final stanza is a hot mess—featuring Christmas miracles and reversals of character that no director or company of actors should be called upon to rescue.

The Lucky Spot
Through December 7, produced by the
Ensemble Theatre at the Cleveland
Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue,
216-321-2930

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Lord of the Burgeoning Lumber, convergence-continuum

(Tom Kondilas as Spooky and Geoffrey Hoffman as Timothy)

Although it’s about three years behind the gay cowboy curve, thanks to the flick Brokeback Mountain, there are things going on in Lord of the Burgeoning Lumber at convergence-continuum that ol’ Jack and Ennis probably never dreamed of doing.

And just as the title of this play is an elaborate restating of a more simply phrased thought (say, Master of the Hard-on), so this world premiere play by local playwright Tom Hayes is a well-embroidered and often funny meditation on a profoundly basic question: Who am I? And just as importantly: Who the fuck are you?

We find two cowpokes camped out in a forest dominated by one giant oak, but Spooky and Timothy are no ordinary saddle jockeys. For starters, Spooky really doesn’t like his nickname, but he won’t tell Timothy what else to call him. And Timothy likes to commune with the constellations and then adjourn to the tent, emerging a couple minutes later in a variety of guises ranging from a platinum-haired vamp to Little Red Riding Hood with a basketful of hot muffins.

These changes are often instigated by Spooky, who often addresses Tim by saying, “Sister, go put on a dress.” So far so good, gay cowboy-wise. But once the local Ranger stumbles onto the kinky campsite, the proceedings get a bit more complicated as everyone’s real identity flickers in and out of focus like faces around a campfire.

The first two-thirds of Hayes’ 75-minute play is captivating, thanks to his deftly oblique writing style and excellent performances. But in the final third, Hayes unwisely abandons his successful pattern of weird in-the-moment occurrences, especially the appearance of Timothy as a Butterfly Queen (in the person of Megan DePetro) and as Teutonic Helga (Sarah Kunchik). Instead, he sends the Ranger off on a reminiscence about his time in World War II, while the promising play twiddles its thumbs waiting for the real action to restart.

As Timothy, Geoffrey Hoffman is an untrammeled delight as he morphs from one lass to the next, and then conjures up a diffident boy scout to complete his character portfolio. Even though his faux Irish accent as Little Red is (intentionally?) atrocious, and he tends to declaim too reflexively when given strong mini-speeches to deliver, Hoffman captures a telling essence in each of Timothy’s personas. And regardless who they are, each is resolutely attracted to Spooky.

For his part, Spooky, played superbly by Tom Kondilas, is a smoldering hunk who just wants to be left alone with his shape-shifting buddy. And Tyson Douglas Rand is a perfect foil as the Ranger, an ex-soldier who doesn’t get the gay thing and reacts badly when he is bound to the tree wearing a wig and lipstick.

Once again, director Clyde Simon has staged a thoroughly intriguing production using video clips (amusingly so, for Timothy’s costume changes in the tent) and a soundtrack of live and recorded music. But what is most present in this show, as is often the case at convergence-continuum, is a muscular and vivid experience that reaches out to the audience on both intellectual and visceral levels.

Lord of the Burgeoning Lumber
Through December 20, produced by
Convergence-continuum at The Liminis,
2438 Scranton Road, Cleveland,
216-687-0074

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Talking Heads 2, Beck Center

(Dorothy Silver as Violet)

If you like classical music, you’ll love at least half of Talking Heads 2 at the Beck Center. Because playwright Alan Bennett crafts words like Mozart crafted notes, combing the seemingly banal with surprising flourishes and deeply emotional passages, resulting in small one-act treasures.

The two monologues that comprise this production involve two people who have washed up onto a lonely place in their own isolated worlds. And although the two pieces are very different, in both subject matter and quality of presentation, they merge to form an interesting evening of theater.

By far, the most compelling of the two monologues is “Waiting for the Telegram,” another (ho-hum) tour de force by Dorothy Silver, who plays nursing home nonagenarian Violet. As Salieri said of Mozart in the movie Amadeus, playwright Bennett’s beginning is "simple, almost comic,” as Violet describes how an elderly gentleman exposed his penis to her and other women in the home. She is far from shocked about his revealed “whatchamacallit” and declines a reparative counseling session, while the other ladies are just completely oblivious.

But as she goes on to talk about her past, often forgetting words and trying to follow the advice of her caretakers to “just describe it if you can’t think of its name,” Violet orchestrates a story of sharp regret and loss. As she rhapsodizes about the muscular arms of her male nurse Francis, she segues into thinking about a long-ago love and a moment in time she wishes she could recapture and do over.

Silver plays Bennett’s prose like the unsurpassed pro she is, squeezing every laugh and titter out of Violet’s frank and often cynical personality while fully exploring her physical and emotional vulnerabilities. Never leaving her wheelchair, she and her husband, director Reuben Silver, compose an ode to faded wishes and diminished capacity that is detailed and comprehensive—all in about 50 minutes.

In the other monologue that begins the evening, the excellent actor Robert Hawkes only scratches the surface of “Playing Sandwiches.” In this piece, playwright Bennett carefully layers a portrait of a middle-aged man named Wilfred who labors as a maintenance worker in a public park. Amidst the predictable accounts of the yucky messes he is forced to clean up, and the sweet visions of kiddies and their mums playing nearby, we come to learn that Wilfred has a demon that haunts him.

This fact emerges slowly, with hints dropped along the way in a tantalizing fashion until the depth of his depravity comes into focus. But Hawkes, who is not aided in his task by director Curt Arnold, rushes a multitude of beats and sweeps them into the dustbin, keeping his character anchored in a bland, semi-distracted middle ground. Since we aren’t allowed to see either Wilfred’s engaging and warm side, nor his darker aspect, the rich and multicolored role that Bennett has written—disturbing though it is—comes out threadbare and (of all things) uninteresting.

The overall production seems a bit odd, since the brief opening one-act is followed by an intermission well before an hour has passed. But that interval would be needed if “Playing Sandwiches” were played out to the hilt. In any case, it’s worth it all to see Dorothy Silver, once again at her finest in a role that Alan Bennett was completely unaware that he had written just for her.

Talking Heads 2
Through December 7 at the
Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue,
Lakewood, 216-521-2540

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Raisin in the Sun, Cleveland Play House

(David Alan Anderson as Walter Lee Younger and Franchelle Stewart Dorn as his mom, Lena)


Yeah, yeah, you’ve seen it before. Seems like A Raisin in the Sun has been around forever, and it usually pops up in February when non-African-American theaters do their bit to recognize Black History Month. Well, guess what? Thanks to Barack Obama, November may be the new Black History Month, and this production at the Cleveland Play House is a stellar contribution to a month we will all remember for years to come.

A tried and true “kitchen sink” drama by Lorraine Hansberry, Raisin continues to age well since the 1950s-era personal dynamics at work are so genuine, and so timeless. The Younger family is on the cusp of a new life, thanks to a ten-grand check that is coming from the life insurance policy of the recently deceased family patriarch.

But each member of the clan has different designs on the cash: Widow Lena and her daughter-in-law Ruth want to move to a new house, while Lena’s son and Ruth’s husband Walter Lee has his eye on opening a liquor store and getting rid of his chauffeur’s uniform forever. And Walter’s sister Beneatha wants to invest some of the loot in her medical education (when she’s not entertaining one of her two beaus, Nigerian Joseph Asagai and rich-kid-on-the-make George Murchison).

Guest director Lou Bellamy does a brilliant job of forging a full and resonant ensemble performance from his talented cast, paying precise attention to the many small moments and beats that make every character spring to life. That focus on detail, combined with the believably real tenement-flat set design by Vicki Smith, helps the audience enter into the Youngers’ world with ease—and with unflagging fascination.

In a strong team of players, David Alan Anderson stands out. His Walter is a load of contradictions—a loving husband who often feels distant from his wife, a hard worker who despises his occupation, and a dreamer who has no way to make his dreams come true. Weaving a disarmingly comic undercurrent through his scenes, Anderson makes Walter compellingly, and often achingly, present at all times.

Also excellent is Franchelle Stewart Dorn, who imbues elderly Lena with an unquenchable spirit and a strong moral sense. When she decides to use the insurance money to buy a house in a white neighborhood, it sends Walter into a major funk. But she throws Walter a lifeline, which leads a questionable decision by Walter and a crisis for the whole family.

Erika LaVonn as Ruth provides a strong and steady center for the play as well as the family, and her euphoric reaction to hearing about her new house is not overdone and, yet, nearly transcendent. Although she starts slowly and a bit unsteadily, with too many forced reactions, Bakesta King manages to find many good moments as Beneatha, especially when she is glorying in the prospect of moving to Africa with Joseph.

Of course, the play teeters on the fulcrum of one scene when a white representative from the new neighborhood, Karl Lindner, visits the Youngers and tries to dissuade them from moving in. Patrick O’Brien is perfect as this soft-spoken bigot representing the suburban Caucasian attitude of the time, explaining that “You’ll be happier with your own people.”

Playwright Hansberry is masterful at touching all the hot buttons for an African-American family in transition. And this Play House production, solid and exquisitely professional from start to finish, does her renowned script magnificent justice.

A Raisin in the Sun
Through November 30 at the
Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Legally Blonde, PlayhouseSquare

(Becky Gulsvig as Elle Woods, and Frankie as her puppy pal Bruiser)

So if you had to choose, whom would you think would make a better role model for teenage girls: Elle Woods, the kinda ditzy lead character in the frothy, pink-saturated musical Legally Blonde, or recent Republican candidate for Vice President, Sarah Palin? If you were from Mars you’d suppose that, of course, the VP nominee would be a much more thoughtful and capable heroine for young females. Well, guess again.

In this sugary confection that has landed on the PlayhouseSquare Palace Theatre stage, Ms. Woods is a joyously superficial collection of Valley Girl mannerisms and traditional girlish dreams (to wit, marrying her college dream-hunk boyfriend). But once she follows him to Harvard Law School after he drops her, she is called upon to actually use her brain, speak in diagrammable declarative sentences, and succeed on her own merits. These are standards of achievement that Ms. Palin never even approached in her two months of notoriety.

This musical—with music by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and a book by Heather Hach—is a spin-off of the 2001 Reese Witherspoon movie of the same name. And it faithfully traces the journey of Elle from fizzy Delta Nu sorority girl in California to becoming another lawyer-in-training in Boston. Fighting to win back her ex-boyfriend Warner, she uses her feminine wiles (and an intimate knowledge of perms) to win a high-profile courtroom trial and put all the doubters to shame.

All this requires a suspension of disbelief that's plenty hard to swallow. But the engaging, if forgettable, score and some witty lines help it all glide down smoothly. Thanks to a spirited Greek Chorus of sorority gals that shows up to cheer Elle on, and a Boston beautician named Paulette (an excellent Natalie Joy Johnson, who creates the only remotely believable character), this production is as sweet and bright as a wad of Double Bubble gum. And just as filling.

In the lead role of Elle, Becky Gulsvig is a blonde force field of energy, nailing her songs and dances with professional aplomb. But this is a starring role begging for a dash of personality, some endearing quirks or eccentricities, and on that score Gulsvig doesn’t deliver, always coloring her character inside the lines instead of taking comedic chances. The same is true of D.B. Bonds, who plays the ordinary law school schlub Emmett who gradually falls for Elle.

Secondary roles are handled well, although some of the material feels secondhand. As Elle’s snarky law prof, Ken Land is saddled with the song “Blood in the Water,” a poor man’s version of the hilariously nasty “Don’t Be the Bunny” from Urinetown. And a parody of Riverdance in the second act, starring Paulette and her UPS delivery-stud Kyle (a sexually unambiguous Ven Daniel) is over before it really generates any real laughs.

The stage set seems Recession-era downscale, with a hazy sky backdrop that is multi-tasked to represent both coasts. But if you don’t pay too close attention and accept it all for the cotton candy it is, this Blonde can make you forget the status of your 401k for a day. All right, for a couple hours.

Legally Blonde
Through November 23 at the
Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare,
1518 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland,
216-241-6000

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Waitin’ 2 End Hell, Karamu House

(Saidah Mitchell and Joseph Primes as battling Diane and Dante)

Thank goodness God invented sex. Because if He hadn’t, someone else would have had to—just to get everyone’s minds off their damnably irritating personal relationships. It’s no secret that men and women, when living under the same roof, often get along together as well as ice cream and gravy. And that fact is made brutally clear in Waitin’ 2 End Hell, now at Karamu House.

This play, written unapologetically and often vibrantly in the African-American vernacular by William a. Parker, is a sometimes awkward blend of comedy and drama. And while the production often slips its gears due to glacial pacing, some of the actors still manage to register powerfully on stage.

All the action takes place in the casually elegant digs of married folks Diane and Dante, ad executive and parole officer respectively. Their kids are away as the couple enjoys part of their vacation with four friends who are sharing cake, champagne and their views on the relative roles of men and women in relationships.

The sparks start to fly as Dante claims that the man should be the CEO of the home, while Diane simmers. Soon Alvin and Larry side with Dante, joined by Alvin’s supportive wife Angela (Quianna Snyder). But sexy Shay is having none of it, spouting bile about her former husbands and claiming she’ll never put up with cohabitation again.

There is nothing particularly new or insightful about these collisions, which continue as Diane and Dante drift apart with every passing scene. Even when we learn the backstories of the other characters, it seems very familiar territory replete with messy breakups, pain-in-the-ass parents and serial affairs. But playwright Parker knows his subject matter and is able to come up with enough startling revelations, amusing (and often raunchy) observations, and plot twists to keep the audience either gasping or howling.

What doesn’t help is the slow tempo of many of the speeches, Even discounting the appearance at this performance of an understudy in the role of Larry, which slowed the play to a crawl at times, director Terrence Spivey allows his players to drift through many speeches as if they were floating aimlessly in a backyard pool instead of swirling towards the lip of a torrential waterfall.

Still, Joseph Primes as Dante scores repeatedly as a proud black man whose temper flares as quickly as his softer emotions bubble up to the surface. And Saidah Mitchell is quite believable as Diane, whose pride may even surpass her husband’s. Even thought their whipsaw reactions tend to get a bit forced, especially after Diane hooks up with Mark (Kenneth Parker) from her office and Dante loses, and then regains, his equilibrium with astonishing rapidity. But through it all, Primes and Mitchell furnish a strong foundation for the production.

Also good is Gregory White as Dante’s long time friend Alvin, trying his best to talk his buddy through the rocky shoals of his marriage. And Renata Napier is a bundle of rampant desire as Shay, a woman who freely admits her attraction to Dante in front of Diane and anyone else within earshot.

The lovely set design by John Konopka belies the psychological carnage that is taking place inside this home. And a much tighter ensemble performance could turn this material into a raging fire instead of a flickering, sporadic flame.

Waitin’ 2 End Hell
Through November 23 at
Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street,
Cleveland, 216-795-7077

Goldstar, Ohio; Cleveland Public Theatre

(Anne McEvoy and Bob Goddard speak with interviewer Chuck Tisdale)


While VP candidate Sarah Palin tries to identify supposed liberal, anti-American communities within our borders (talkin’ ‘bout you, Cleveland Heights), other Americans continue to serve their country in Iraq. And whether you think that war is the most colossal, arrogant, mind-numbingly misbegotten blunder in our history or not, you have to acknowledge the people who are laying their lives on that line.

In the new play Goldstar, Ohio, written by Cleveland native Michael Tisdale and now playing at Cleveland Public Theatre, the personal tragedy instigated by the Iraq War is told from the point of view of four central Ohio families who lost their sons in the first week of August, 2005. Shockingly, 14 Reservists with the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines (headquartered in Brook Park) were killed when their amphibious assault vehicle was blown up by a roadside bomb.

The event sent shock waves through this state. And this play is by turns a somber and often funny tribute to those soldiers and their families. But there is a difference between a stirring tribute and a successful theatrical performance. And on the last score, this production is a mixed bag.

Taken verbatim from interviews Tisdale conducted with the families, Goldstar has all the credibility one could desire. The parents and siblings of soldiers Daniel “Nathan” Deyarmin, Jr., Bradley Harper, Justin Hoffman and Nate Rock share their feelings about the deceased, reflecting on the Reservists’ varied personalities.

These stories are told in bits and pieces during the first part of act one, as the families respond to questions from the playwright (who is played by his brother Chuck Tisdale). Director Andy Paris keeps his actors, most of whom play multiple roles, moving almost constantly which creates some confusion (is that Nate or Nathan we’re talking about?).

But it doesn’t really matter, since these unique yet predictably ordinary lives terminate in a chillingly effective moment, when the four caster-equipped front door units that have been rolled around as props suddenly start ringing. People are pushing doorbells, they’re in uniform, and it’s not good news.

By choosing to construct the play as a series of non-fiction personal recollections, like The Laramie Project, Tisdale relies on the family members to convey the horror of war. But since they weren’t even tangentially involved in the awful event, they can only register the pain of premature loss that is the same whether a loved one died in battle, or from illness or accident. Aside from one mother’s momentary rage at President Bush there is little anger, just helpless sadness.

And when the interviewer brings up his elderly father’s death after a long illness, which occurred during the same week, it seems irrelevant to the play’s theme involving the shattering impact of war.

These weaknesses overtake the play in an overlong act two. With a pile of doors on the floor symbolizing the tumult in these families, the lack of any dramatic arc becomes painfully obvious. And the performances begin to grate, since director Paris evidently instructed his eight-member cast to deliver their lines in a choppy approximation of spontaneous “real folk” speech. Still, Bob Goddard, Justin Tatum, Anne McEvoy, Jill Levin and Sarah Marcus manage to create several very affecting moments.

In all, Goldstar, Ohio is an honorific work well deserved by those soldiers and their families. But the real horrors that this specific war imposes on those involved remain frustratingly off stage.

Goldstar, Ohio
Through November 8 at the
Cleveland Public Theatre,
6415 Detroit Avenue,
216-631-2727

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A Chorus Line, PlayhouseSquare

(Nikki Snelson as Cassie and Michael Gruber as fashion victim Zach)


For any group of performers, there are few more surefire ways to guarantee receiving audience applause than breaking into a high-kick dance line. Audiences always clap and scream, like Pavlov’s mutts, whenever three or more humans lift their legs at roughly the same time in a linear formation. Indeed, if in the middle of Death of a Salesman, Willy, Linda, Biff and Happy suddenly linked arms and executed a kick line, the audience would probably ignore the rather curious plot turn and applaud wildly.

The reason for this odd reaction is probably buried somewhere in the warp and weft of our lizard brain, but its power has been used to great effect for the past three decades in A Chorus Line. This play, a musical excursion into the psyches and hamstrings of a group of twenty-some dancers auditioning for eight places in a chorus line, has always benefited from the raw emotions of the individuals involved. But in this production at PlayhouseSquare’s Palace Theatre, the emotions feel soft-boiled, yielding a mushy interpretation of what should be a galvanizing, goose-bumpy show.

Created by Michael Bennett, who choreographed and directed the original production, the book and songs were based on interviews with real dancers who endured the punishing ritual of dance auditions. As the tension develops between captivating personal stories off stage and the need for mindless synchronicity on stage, the show can often soar beyond some of the pop-predictable music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban.

However in this touring presentation, directed by Bob Avian, there is little immediacy in the acting or the dancing. Even though the director Zach (a fairly robotic Michael Gruber who is costumed in a tragic football field hash-mark sweater) pokes and prods the dancers to reveal truths about themselves, these actors respond with the detached air of people discussing the life situation of a close friend rather than themselves.

This difficulty is encapsulated in Paul, who tells a gut-wrenching story about growing up gay and then being observed dancing in a drag show by his parents. Kevin Santos never digs believably into his character, ticking off Paul’s sad history like someone checking off items on a shopping list, and then dissolving into plastic tears at the conclusion.

And in the signature role of Cassie, the former lover of Zach and a woman who had achieved individual stardom before falling on hard times, Nikki Snelson is mostly forgettable. Telegraphing her emotions instead of experiencing them, she never captures the complicated motivations of this dancer who sees her career coming full circle. And her supposedly show-stopping solo dance, “The Music and the Mirror,” feels only like a promising recital performance.

The comical song “Sing!” is burdened by a Kristine (Jessica Latshaw) and Al (Colt Prattes) who try a bit too hard to exude the vibe of lovers and who don’t quite master the fast-paced snap required by their duet. Even the sure-fire tits & ass song, “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” seems surprisingly boring in the hands of this Val (Natalie Elise Hall).

There are a few glimmering bright spots. Clyde Alves is an energetic Mike in “I Can Do That.” And as coldly sardonic Shiela, Emily Fletcher breaks off some brittle comebacks, even though the more vulnerable subtext of the character is largely missing.

In a show that pays tribute to the hardworking people who submerge their personalities and individual dreams to operate in perfect unison, there is precious little personality in this Chorus Line. And that ain’t much of a kick for the audience.

A Chorus Line
Through October 26 at the
Palace Theatre, PlayhoouseSquare,
1518 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland,
216-241-6000

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Into the Woods, Great Lakes Theater Festival

The wolf (Derrick Cobey) makes his move on Little Red Riding Hood (Erin Childs)


“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
-- Albert Einstein

It wouldn’t seem to make sense, on the face of it, that reading and knowing stories of pure fantasy, populated with one-dimensional characters, could lead to increased brain power. But these tales have resonated over centuries, indicating that something is going on that we really don’t fully understand or appreciate.

This is the world that is expanded and explored in the endlessly fascinating musical Into the Woods, now being given an often magical production by the Great Lakes Theater Festival. In this play, Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book) mash up different fairy tales—Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk—adding a couple new characters to boot.

But their real mission is to turn fairy tales inside out, challenging the audience to see those well-worn stories from a fresh perspective. For instance, the giant’s wife comes down to Earth, mourning her dead hubby who crashed after Jack chopped down the beanstalk, but she’s understandably pissed and looking for revenge. And the handsome prince skips out on his, um, fairy tale marriage with Cinderella and has a fling with a baker’s wife (as he helpfully explains, “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”)

There’s also a witch who is transformed into a beauty (but she loses her magical powers in the process) and a Little Red (Erin Childs) who is as bloodthirsty for wolf carcasses as Sarah Palin, but not nearly as dim. Replete with the requisite number of devourings, spells, tragic accidents and magic beans, the intersecting stories are tied together by a narrator (a smoothly avuncular Marc Moritz) and a volley of songs that benefit from the witty Sondheim touch. When the wolf is chatting up Lil’ Red, he croons deliciously to himself, “There’s no way to describe how you feel/When you’re talking to your meal.”

The intimate new GLTF digs help make Into the Woods a special experience, as the audience is cozied up to the thrust stage like kids listening to an enthralling storyteller. The set designed by Jeff Herrmann is appropriately make-believe, with gnarly trees that rotate to reveal secondary playing areas. And the cast under the finely-tuned direction of Victoria Bussert largely succeeds in finding fresh ways to make these characters burst vividly to life.

As the wicked witch, Jessica L. Cope has a powerful voice that is put to superb use in the “Witch’s Lament” in which she reflects on her (stolen) daughter Rapunzel’s wayward ways: “Children can only grow/From something you love/To something you lose.” Tom Ford is an endearing presence as the baker, who is on a scavenger hunt in the woods so that the childless spell he and his wife are under can be lifted.

Derek Cobey is excellent both as Cinderella’s vain Prince and as the wolf—in the latter role his hairstyle and demeanor recall a young Rod Stewart on the prowl. And he has a delectable, preening duet with Phil Carroll, as Rapunzel’s Prince, when they sing of their “Agony” in connecting with the objects of their affection. Plus, Emily Krieger sings like a lark as Cinderella and manages some dandy pratfalls.

Although she works hard, Maryann Nagel never quite discovers a comedic hook as Jack’s mother, her rants about his stupidity (“You sold a cow for some beans?!”) never coalescing into a clear portrait. And as the baker’s wife, Jodi Dominick seems a bit under-whelmed when she is swept off her feet by Cindy’s Prince.

Sure, this script is a bit overwritten, and there are too many instances of overt didacticism “(Now I’ve learned something I’ve never known before!”). But it’s all worth it for the many moments when the music and the inspired idea of Into the Woods merge, reviving the awe and wonder we first felt when we heard these weird and wonderful stories. And adding a whole new set of moral issues to ponder.

Into the Woods
Through November 8 at the
Great Lakes Theater Festival,
Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th Street,
Cleveland, 216-241-6000

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Noises Off, The Cleveland Play House


(The cactus attack. From left: Christopher Kelly, Timothy Gregory and Linda Kimbrough)

At first glance, it would seem that a pants-dropping sex farce, such as Noises Off by Michael Frayn, would be a lark to stage. The actors just have to run around dropping trou and doing silly things and people will laugh, right? Well, yes, but they may not laugh as loudly and helplessly as they might.

In fact, farce is one of the most demanding theatrical forms to master, requiring actors who have the stamina and agility of athletes. This is necessary so they can execute the many and varied pratfalls, near misses and door-slamming chases that are required. And while the Cleveland Play House cast exerts all the effort one could expect, a lack of sharp characterization and pinpoint timing turns what should be a non-stop laugh-fest into just a mildly amusing diversion.

In this play-within-a-play, an English touring theatrical company is rehearsing a doleful sex romp called Nothing On, with a troupe of actors beset by serious memorization problems, convoluted romantic entanglements, alcoholism and the occasional nosebleed.

Since there is double the exposition to accomplish, the first act is a real challenge for the players and director David H. Bell. And they only partly succeed. One difficulty is that the play being rehearsed, dreadful though it is, must be allowed to proceed so that the audience can recall that plot line in the second and third acts. Thus, it is up to the actors to carry the comedy with their individual (and mostly dual) characterizations before the real fireworks are ignited.

After the rather desultory first act, things pick up when the set is turned around and we see the same section of Nothing On during a “real” performance, from a backstage perspective. The timing of much of the slapstick--involving misdirected flowers, booze and a fire axe-- feels a bit too measured and choreographed (to be great, slapstick has to feel exuberantly and even riskily spontaneous). But the cast performs on James Leonard Joy’s impressively massive set with unstinting energy.

And the third act, which presents the final touring performance of Nothing On from the audience point of view, sees the fictitious actors collapse into a stew of their own personal peccadillos.

The most important character in Frayn’s very funny script is Dotty Otley, an aging actress who plays the housekeeper Mrs. Clackett. This was the Carol Burnett role in the Americanized movie version and it demands a refined level of talent since Otley, although forgetful and a bit of a lush, is also supposed to be somewhat enticing sexually (she is having affairs with two of the younger actors, Garry and Frederick).

That’s a tricky package and Linda Kimbrough only masters part of it. As Mrs. Clackett, she gets her share of laughs padding around the large set in search of plates of sardines, a snack that is continually being misplaced. But she lacks the regal mien of Dotty, a fading actress who still has enough game to play grab-ass with younger studs. As a result, Garry’s jealous passion in act two simply doesn’t track.

As the almost equally memory-challenged Garry, Christopher Kelly has am adorably dense manner that encourages others to finish his sentences for him. And Donald Carrier plays nervous and nosebleed-y Frederick with a style vaguely reminiscent of Charles Nelson Reilly (that’s a good thing).

Even though Summer Naomi Smart as Brooke has a figure (clad in only her underwear) that would slow Carnegie traffic to a crawl, she doesn’t have enough fun with her ditzy character. The same is true with Timothy Gregory, who plays director Lloyd with a vague sense of exasperation rather than a more intense, and more comical, approach. In addition, his romantic attraction to Brooke seems rote rather than randy. Frank Kopyc gives soused actor Selsdon a dash of inebriated nobility, even when he reliably misses his cues to come on as the burglar.

It all amounts to an evening of frequent chuckles, but not the rib-snapping, screaming guffaws that this play can generate when performed to farcical perfection.

Noises Off
Through October 26 at the
Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Ensemble Theatre

(From left: Robert Hawkes, Ursula Cataan, Sebastian Hawkes Orr, Carla Petroski)

“Whoa, the games people play now,
Every night and every day now,
Never meanin’ what they say now,
Never sayin’ what they mean.”

That catchy tune written by Joe South was popular in the 1960s, and it would serve as an excellent theme song for the Edward Albee play from that time, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

After the play was made into a stunning movie starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as the venal and combative George and Martha, it became a challenge for any theater company to approach the material. Who can match the inspired, boozy perfection of that casting, including the hapless young couple who wander into the party from hell?

Well, Ensemble Theatre, for one. Even though one actor begins in an extremely rocky and overblown way, she gets it under control and joins a simply wonderful presentation of a play that never seems to age a day.

Associate history prof George, a middle-aged intellectual non-entity, is locked in a marriage of desperation to Martha, a woman with a big mouth, a braying style, and a taste for blood when it comes to interpersonal relations. And since her pop is the head of the university, she is more than a little ambitious for her husband, who apparently couldn’t care less.

After a faculty get-together, George and Martha invite a young couple, Nick and Honey, over to their house for a drink. And once that door closes behind the four, the sparks start to fly for an engrossing three hours. Playing vicious, non-Parker Brothers games such as “Humiliate the Host,” “Hump the Hostess,” “Get the Guests,” and the biggest one of all (let's call it “Where Is Sonny?”), the four are engaged in a psychological dance to the death.

The Ensemble cast under the agile and nuanced direction of Licia Colombi, is, eventually, simply superb. But it doesn’t start too well, with Carla Petroski as Martha substituting broad acting for acting like a broad. As the party gets rolling, Petroski’s beat changes are wooden and obvious, and her initial scene with Robert Hawkes as George don’t convey the right amount of tension.

In addition, Petroski gets too drunk too soon, even given the fact the characters were swilling booze earlier. These are professional lushes; they don’t start slurring their words until they start tipping the second fifth. And then, magically, she seems to sober up later in the act.

Happily, the first act is largely saved once Nick and Honey arrive. Ursula Cataan is worth double the price of admission in the role of Honey. As the fragile, giggly, totally naïve Honey, Cataan is spot on from the moment she steps on stage, without ever condescending to her character and making her a stereotype.

And once the second act starts, everyone seems to be on the same page and the rollercoaster ride is officially in progress. So strap yourself in. Hawkes convincingly etches a portrait of George, the softly wrinkled and abused man who still harbors the strength to lash back at his tormentors. And lash he does, with a quiet ferocity that is terrifying in its methodical ruthlessness.

Sebastian Hawkes Orr (Nick) lays low until Nick and George get into their own slow motion duel. This sequence is highlighted by Orr’s spectacular, tipsy discussion of his wife’s minister father and Honey’s hysterical pregnancy. As he slaloms through the curves and moguls of Albee’s entrancing language, he builds a portrait of a man trapped in a marriage he can’t escape, just like George.

Once Petroski starts to follow the Zen Rule of Acting (To own a line, you must throw it away), her Martha galvanizes as a figure of profound complexity. Loving George and yet compelled to lacerate him, she locks onto Hawkes with her eyes and the pair of combatants keep stinging like two scorpions trapped in a velvet bag, until exhaustion finally ends the match.

It’s a damn shame this show closes after just its second week on Sunday, October 5 (opening week was cancelled due to a cast member injury). But if you can get there, for chrissakes get there.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
Produced by Ensemble Theatre at the
Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue,
216-321-2930

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Macbeth, Great Lakes Theater Festival

(Laura Perrotta as Lady Macbeth and Dougfred Miller as mad Mac himself)

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to open a new, completely redesigned theater with a play suspected of bringing bad luck to the people involved. This old wives’ tale started in 1606, during the play’s premiere, when the boy playing Lady Macbeth died off stage. And over the years, there have been documented cases of tragic event befalling other productions of the “M” play.

As a result, superstitious theater folk refer to Macbeth as “the Scottish Play,” to avoid saying the dread name of a script that intently explores the attraction of evil. However, in the absence of any supernatural curses, this maiden effort by the Great Lakes Theater Festival in their new Hanna Theatre is destined to be a triumph, as it is quite a stunning visual and aural experience. And although there are some wrinkles, both the new space and this interpretation of Macbeth come off as winners.

For years, Hanna has been the dowdy stepsister among the elegant theaters situated at Playhouse Square (or “PlayhouseSquare” as the entity now prefers to be known, for cunningly clever marketing reasons that are beyond our pay grade to explain). The renovation has made Hanna young again, or at least youngish, with a thrust stage equipped with a hydraulic lift and new seating options being the boldest changes. (For instance, you can now park your Shakespeare-hating hubby at a bar stool where he can gaze dolefully at the stage while soaking his pout in a double Beefeater.)

Wisely, the powers that be have kept and refurbished the original architectural elements and have installed comfortable, traditional theater seating with no one parked farther than 12 rows from the stage. This makes for a much more intimate experience, with improved acoustics, over the Ohio Theatre (which will still be home to the annual GLTF production of A Christmas Carol).

As for Macbeth, director Charles Fee and his production team have pulled out all the stops to make this Shakespearean drama a signature event, and they succeed in many ways. The set, designed by Gage Williams, is arrestingly dominated by a backdrop unit consisting of slashing black lines intersecting at all angles—a morbid web spun by an angry spider.

And the spider in this case is none other than the title character, a courageous warrior who turns ever more ambitious and homicidal as he grasps for and then attempts to hold onto power. It is a rich role and Dougfred Miller has some resonant moments, particularly when he’s plotting with his wife, played with sly passion by Laura Perrotta, and during the bloody happenings in the second act. But for much of the first act, Miller merely rides the riptide current of his speeches instead of shaping, and thereby owning, them.

Other actors in the company also fall too easily into the oratorical Shakespeare trap, delivering their lines as if they were isolated thought bubbles instead of words intended to manipulate their immediate reality. Part of this may be an involuntary reaction to one of the most startling, and often most startlingly effective, staging decisions: the addition of live drummers.

On each side of the stage there are two guys pounding on large drums, interspersed with their banging on suspended sheets of metal that serve as the world’s largest cymbals. Inspired by Japanese drumming styles, the propulsive percussion evokes a feeling of war and conflict. It’s a visceral and often captivating effect.

But there is too much of this good thing, and at times it sounds like a drum-version of a laugh track on a cheesy sitcom—rim shots thrown in to heighten the dramatic effect. Also, there are times when the actors seem constrained in their timing, afraid they will be drowned out by the next volley of drum riffs.

But no matter how much you like extravagant drumming exhibitions (and who doesn’t?), there’s more to this “Stomp” Macbeth than that. The Japanese theme also spills over into Star Moxley’s costumes, flowing kimonos and flared shoulder pad armor that add grace and exuberant precision to the visual impact of the production. And the inventive lighting design by Rick Martin nicely delivers specific moods, such as within the “Is that a dagger I see before me?” scene, when spots turn the central red circular platform alive with shifting shafts of light like gleaming knife blades.

Turning in solid performances are Lynn Robert Berg as Banquo and David Anthony Smith as Macduff, whose speech of grief after his entire family is slain by mean Mac is an affecting moment in a blood-drenched evening.

But perhaps the most dazzling part of this production is the trio of alert, white-faced witches, outfitted with raven-black fabric “wings” that extend out a yard beyond their hands. Manipulating their flaps with sticks held in their hands, the three actors (Sara M. Bruner, Laura Welsh Berg and Cathy Price) create thrilling images whether they fold up like trees, hobble like some large insects, or sweep across the stage in almost-flight.

Director Fee is to be saluted for creating a magical telling of this play that lingers somewhere between reality and illusion. It is a fitting inaugural production for this old dowager of a theater that has suddenly woken up, frisky and ready to play.

Macbeth
Through November 7 (in rep
with In the Woods), Hanna
Theatre, 2067 E. 14th Street,
Cleveland, 216-241-6000

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Bang and Clatter/Cleveland

(The felines have it rough in Inishmore, although on balance they wind up looking better than our all-time favorite kitty, above.)

It’s a damn shame the term “black comedy” has been taken, signifying stories that draw humor out of often grisly or horrific scenes (ie. the wood chipper scene in Fargo). The term just doesn’t seem to do justice to some works.

For sure, there ought to be another description for the even blacker level of comedy found in the theatrical works of playwright Martin McDonagh, a man whose penchant for blood and guts is only topped by his mordant wit and drop-dead (you should pardon the term) hilarious dialogue that turns banalities into punch lines.

Like his play The Pillowman, which was given an extraordinary production by Dobama some time ago, McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore goes clomping into places most plays would tiptoe around. In this staging at the Bang and Clatter Theatre in Cleveland, the subject is a gaggle of Irish misfits who have been raised on the code of blood and violence, and exhibit virtually no compunctions about torturing or snuffing each other for the most modest of sins.

Central to the action here is Padraic, a member of a wacko IRA splinter faction, the INLA, whose membership may be just one. Padraic, it is said, was too demented to be a member of the mother group, so he has given himself the rank mentioned in the play’s title as he goes about his psychotic business.

But trouble is brewing back home, where Padraig’s father Donny has been taking care of Wee Thomas, Padraig’s beloved black cat. Or ex-cat, since Davey, a young dude with extravagantly luxuriant red hair, carries in the feline corpse (a prop that looks a good bit better than our favorite cat) and claims he found it bashed on the road. Donny firmly believes Davey crushed the pussy’s skull intentionally, but their immediate concern is to make sure Pardraig doesn’t blame them for the pet’s death.

So they nab an orange cat from Mairead, a boyish-looking local girl who amuses herself by shooting the eyes out of cows from long distance with her pellet rifle. The two lunkheads try to color the new cat with boot black to look like the dearly departed tabby, with predictably unfortunate results. Meanwhile, a threesome of IRA-related hotheads is plotting to take out Padraig, with Mairead lurking in the shadows, hearing the plot and eager to find a way to ingratiate herself with Padraig.

This 90-minute one act exerts comical tension from the first scene, under the tight direction of Sean McConaha. Unless you are too squeamish at the sight of blood and the occasional dismemberment-by-handsaw, you will find yourself laughing in spite of yourself. And the final confrontation, although not as drenched in as much plasma as one might expect, is a stumbling ballet of pointless revenge and free-floating idiocy.

But humor is the primary driving force in this script. Take the scene where Padraig (a sterling, sulky Sean Derry) has strung up a young fellow named James who’s been selling drugs to school kids. Having already removed two of the trussed chap’s toenails, he is about to perform a nipple-ectomy on him when Padraig gets a phone call from his dad. In a trice, Padraig is almost in tears as he learns that Wee Thomas “is feeling poorly,” part of Donny’s plan to let his son down easy. The ensuing interplay is priceless as the torture victim (Michael Danner) tries to console his torturer (“It’s probably just ringworm.”) between James’ own screams of pain.

As Davey, Ryan McMullen tosses “fick” and “feck” (the equivalent in this nasty little corner of Ireland for “fuck”) around with practiced ease. And D. Michael Franks exudes a stolid and fatalistic presence that makes Donny more amusing than he has any right to be. The three thugs are played by Daniel Taylor, Stuart Hoffman and Rick Heldenfels with brash confidence fed by a paucity of IQ points.

Bethany Taylor does a sufficient job of fashioning Mairead as an intriguing mystery, but she isn’t strong enough in her scenes to make her role in the surprising denouement entirely believable. Also, her pinned up hair doesn’t cut it, preventing her from capturing the look of an androgynous outsider who might harbor more stealthy motivations.

Aside from being at times side-splittingly (again, pardon) funny, Inishmore is actually a brilliant commentary on the violence that pervades societies around the world. Any culture that can kill easily and with little moral disgust is the true obscenity, and this play points the finger of responsibility while cackling into the echoing darkness.

The Lieutenant of Inishmore Through October 19 at the Bang and Clatter Theatre, 224 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, 330-606-5317

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Importance of Being Earnest, Lakeland Theatre

(Teresa McDonough as Gwendolyn and Timothy Allen as Jack)

No matter how many times you see it, it’s hard not to be entranced by the language Oscar Wilde employs in The Importance of Being Earnest. His combination of slicing satire and silliness, using a meat cleaver one time and a scalpel the next, always leads to laughs.

Of course, the number and strength of those chuckles are also dependent on the performers who assay these oh, so familiar roles. And while there are some soft spots in this production, the Lakeland Theatre company acquits itself competently—with a couple standout performances.

Built on the most ridiculous premise, and involving people so superficial they make Paris Hilton look like a cross between Hannah Arendt and Noam Chomsky, Importance is fluff of the first order.

Set in the fading years of Victorian England, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing are each enamored of young women (Cecily and Gwendolyn respectively) who both have a serious jones for the name Earnest. Accordingly, each young man pretends to wear that moniker and then proposes marriage, until Gwen’s battleaxe mom Lady Bracknell and Jack’s rather unusual personal history catch up with them all.

In the role of Lady Bracknell, which is often cast cross-gendered, Mitchell Fields wields his powerful voice like a velvet truncheon to intimidate the young men and keep Gwen in her place. Even when his red wig inadvertently slipped off twice, Fields never broke character and agilely ad-libbed his way out of it, making Jack promise to never reveal what he had just seen.

The four young lovers are played with serviceable British accents by Justin Brenis (Algernon), Timothy Allen (Jack), Teresa McDonough (Gwendolyn) and Caitlin Sandham (Cecily). And they succeed in conveying the shallowness of these folks who luxuriate in their cosseted world of afternoon teas, cakes and sly backstabbing.

But these four actors, to varying degrees, end up being hostages to accent and attitude. Having captured the lilt and cadence of their character’s speech, each performer tends to glide past small moments and telling beats that could make Wilde’s humor even more delightful—and their characters more involving.

In this regard, Douglas Collier as Rev. Chasuble and Mary Ann Elder as Miss Prism actually do catch the magic, turning their short scene of repressed eroticism into a hilarious encapsulation of Victorian priggishness.

Overall, director Martin Friedman keeps the pacing lively so that the three acts go down as smoothly as petite, crust-less cucumber sandwiches. And the elegant-looking production, designed by Keith Nagy, is refined down to small details such as delicate period parasols and handbags.

But above all, the language of Wilde is always a treasure. How can you not love lines such as Lady Bracknell’s when she responds positively to Jack’s admitted lack of intellect: “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.” Perhaps the Republican Party can use that as a rationale for Sarah Palin’s refusal to do more interviews.

The Importance of Being Earnest
Through October 5 at Lakeland Community College,
Rts. 90 and 306, Kirtland, 440-525-7034