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 fiancĂ© 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,

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,

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,

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,