Sunday, August 31, 2008

Defender of the Faith, Bang & Clatter/Akron

Please see my review of this show in the current issue of Cleveland Scene.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Theater Professionals Comment on Christine Howey’s Reviews

(Christine's spiritual guide, Anton Ego, Ratattouille)

Christine Howey is a theatre reviewer of remarkable acuity and knowledge of theatre. Over the years, her reviews have proven, time and again, to be exactly what we must expect of a reviewer: sensitive to the endeavor, clear, concise knowledge of the play and a true love of the art of acting and directing. I have been reviewed many times by Christine Howey, and even when she has laid me open with a knife, she has always been correct and never demeaning - showing a remarkable balance of skill and insight. Robert Frost said that doing theatre without a reviewer is like playing tennis without a net. I believe Christine knows this and always reviews with an intense love of the game, and as such, furthers the art of theater by raising all of our expectations. As a director and actor, I look forward to Christine's reviews. She brings a fresh vision, a bright and witty commentary, and a grounded understanding of what makes great theatre. Cleveland would poorer without her work as a writer/reviewer. For myself, as she begins this new web review endeavor, Rave and Pan, I will support her with the same kind of professional enthusiasm I bring to my own dreams of theatre as an art. Good Luck Christine - and thank you for your compassion and judicious eye.

Tom Fulton
Director, Actor, Acting Teacher, and
Executive Artistic Director of the
Fairmount Center for the Arts

I would be just as honored to be given a negative review by Christine Howey as to be given a glowing review by her. She is the only critic who I've agreed with on every review I've read, and enjoyed reading because of her skill. Such is my respect for her talent as a writer and for her opinion as a critic.

Alanna Romansky

Christine Howey gets theatre. She gets that it’s a unique form of arts/entertainment different from movies, documentaries, concerts, etc. She also gets that there’s no one way that theatre is “supposed to be” - that there are seemingly countless ways to do theatre. And she gets them all: from tried-and-true classics and musicals at one end of the spectrum, all the way to alternative, avant-garde experiences at the other. (I am, of course, particularly gratified about the latter.) Whatever the type of production, Ms. Howey brings a wealth of knowledge and appreciation of the particular subject at hand. She responds to shows on the merits of what they are and what they’re trying to do. And she tells it like it is when it comes to how well they did it, and gives insights into what kind of experience it was – all with a wicked sense of humor that’s a joy to read. I trust Christine Howey. She gets theatre.

Clyde Simon
Artistic Director

One of the most unique things about Christine's contributions as a NE Ohio theatre critic is what local theatre professionals (actors, directors, designers) say about her reviews. So often heard is "Well... if there's one reviewer's content and criticism I seem to agree with the most, it's Chris Howey's." I think it's a testament to her clarity and fair-mindedness that seems to set her apart from the rest. We all should be truly glad that this voice will not be lost as a tremendous advocate of live theatre in our community.

Scott Spence
Artistic Director
The Beck Center

I always enjoy reading Christine Howey's reviews. Like most really good critics, she comments on whether the production elucidated the theme and intent of the play and if the company succeeded in telling the story in compelling way. She also really enjoys theatre, which is the number one prerequisite to be a successful critic.

Fred Sternfeld,
Theatre Director
Member, SSDC

For as many years as I can remember Christine Howey has been a driving force in the Cleveland theatre scene. As a reviewer she has always been a true professional—always there for us to review on opening night. I even remember recently during one of our horrific winter storms she was able to make it to the theatre. Her reviews have always been on target. Even if they are not "glowing," she always tells it like it is. I am hoping her blog will become popular, and as important to the theater community as she has been to us. Give ‘em hell Christine and don't let anyone silence you! Let them Hear You!

Pat Mazzarino
Ensemble Theatre

Christine writes in a clear and passionate voice. You can tell that she loves theatre and she is passionate about sharing her love with others. She has a keen eye and she shares her knowledge of theatre in an active way that engages readers and gets them thinking. Her writing style is fun and engaging without talking down, and she has a good sense of humor. Though I don’t always agree with her, I find her reviews to be even-handed and, most importantly, dedicated to promoting the best of what theatre has to offer.

Raymond Bobgan
Artistic Director
Cleveland Public Theatre

Christine Howey's informed writing on contemporary theatre in reviews,
offer keen insight, humor, critical intelligence and entertainment. Ms.
Howey's understanding of the artistic process and trends both locally
and nationally bring a kind of chimera to her writing style. Between
her 'rave and pan' is witty reasoning.

Greg Cesear
Artistic Director
Cesear’s Forum

Christine Howey has been a regular theater critic of performances each summer, of Shakespeare and theater (musical and otherwise), at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, produced in partnership with the Ohio Shakespeare Festival. Don’t miss Ms. Howey’s well-written reviews which are insightful and clever, giving the reader a substantive and fair analysis of a production, with great information about what to expect out of a particular performance.

Donna Spiegler
Communications Manager
Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens

Christine Howey is a talented writer/reviewer who gives her audience an honest, and sometimes raw, dish on what’s happening in the Cleveland theatre scene. Her “slightly” cynical style of writing allows readers to enjoy her reviews for their freshness, not to mention the frequent hearty laughs that they instigate. I read her reviews for the entertainment value!

Eftihia Tsengas
Director of PR/ Marketing
Kent State University of Theatre & Dance

Monday, August 11, 2008

I Hate Hamlet, Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet

(Lara Mielcarek as Felicia and Dede Klein as Lillian in I Hate Hamlet)

Rarely has a play title more accurately identified a commonly held feeling than I Hate Hamlet, especially if we can assume that Hamlet, in this construction, is used as a surrogate for all of Shakespeare’s work. All of us were tortured by the bard during high school field trips, and most still bear a lurking resentment for how one droning play or another ruined an otherwise promising day away from the classroom.

Of course, we all might have felt differently if we’d seen Shakespeare performed in a lively and accessible manner by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival. And we would certainly have had a dandy time at the purely comical I Hate Hamlet. Written by the bitchily incisive Paul Rudnick, this romp has more gag lines than any ten sitcoms, along with some clever theater in-jokes that almost everyone will understand and appreciate.

The paper-thin plot involves TV star Andrew Rally, who has agreed to play the lead role in Hamlet in an outdoor LA production. But he’s having anxiety attacks thinking about the daunting challenge ahead, along with the tension of having just moved into a house formerly occupied by the great Hamlet interpreter and unreconstructed lush, John Barrymore.

As he’s shown the digs by his real estate agent, Felicia, the subject of his impending play comes up and Felicia volunteers to summon the ghost of Barrymore through a séance. Eventually, the two are joined in the séance by Andrew’s girlfriend, the virginal Deirdre, and his agent Lillian, a chain-smoking woman of fierce Germanic mien.

Of course, the psychic hugger-mugger works and Barrymore appears, helpfully clad in his Hamlet costume. From there, it’s a learning process for Andrew as Barrymore instructs him on the fine points of acting the tragic Dane, down to taking advantage of displaying one’s junk in tights for maximum effect. Even Andrew’s director pal Gary shows up to offer his not-so-cogent advice.

Director Nancy Cates leads her fine cast through these amusing paces, keeping the pace bright and taut throughout. Daren Kelly shoulders the role of Barrymore with a confident swagger and a thirst for anything alcoholic and/or in skirts. Resisting the probably overwhelming urge to overact, Kelly is particularly hilarious when he instructs Andrew on how to use the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene to finally get into Deirdre’s pants.

As Andrew, Stephen Skiles seems every inch an average Joe, not an ego-driven TV celeb, and this tends to take a bit of the edge off the tension between his character and Barrymore. But you do find yourself rooting for this Andrew to somehow survive his encounter with “real” theater. Tess Burgler is sweet as Deirdre, and has some priceless reactions as she is wooed by the suddenly impassioned Andrew.

But some of the comic standouts in this show are actually in the minor roles. Dede Klein is a hoot as Lillian, hacking her smoker’s cough while growling a guttural German accent (“Don’t be so schmug!”). Scott Shriner seems as if he walked off HBO’s Entourage set as Gary, smarmily dispensing his shallow observations (he shrugs off all of Shakespeare’s work by saying, “It’s like algebra on stage.” And Lara Mielcarek is practically worth the ticket price herself as Felicia, assembling a daffy Long Island composite—picture Michelle Pfeiffer in Married to the Mob with a touch of the adorably dense Judy Holiday.

Even though there are no resonant themes to take home with you, there is plenty to love about this staging of I Hate Hamlet.

I Hate Hamlet
August 7 – 17
Produced by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at
Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens
714 N. Portage Path, Akron

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Mamma Mia!, PlayhouseSquare

(Mamma Mia! cast in mid-fantasy)

As was recently noted on The Daily Show, NASCAR has its own branded line of romance novels. (And indeed, what could be more symbolic of most relationships than continually going around in circles while facing the ever-present danger of a nasty pile-up?)

Clearly, when it comes to romantic fantasies there should be no limitations imposed by reality. So why not a musical built around the possibility of love being reignited for a middle-aged woman with three of her paramours from decades earlier? That’s the central conceit of Mamma Mia!, the stage musical now at PlayhouseSquare that recently morphed into a movie starring Meryl Streep.

This is a jukebox, bubble gum musical for people (mostly female) who gave up Double Bubble long ago to avoid denture catastrophes. Populated with songs from the Swedish electro-disco group ABBA, written by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the show is fiercely pleasant and may even touch your emotions, fight as you may against the cloying sweetness of it all.

Set on a soothing and idyllic Greek island awash in hues of azure and gold, taverna-owner and single mom Donna is preparing for her daughter Sophie’s wedding to a boy named, inevitably, Sky. But fatherless Sophie has thrown a wrench into the works by reading mom’s old diary, discovering three men who evidently bedded mom around the time of Sophie’s conception, and inviting them all to the wedding. Soph is sure she will recognize who is her real father once she sees him.

The book by Catherine Johnson conveniently ignores the obvious logistical difficulties of finding current addresses for these aging farts (hey, it’s a romance for chrissakes!), and the guys all show up at mom’s digs. This inspires Donna to launch into a rendition of the terminally catchy title song, as she musically wonders “Mamma Mia! can I resist you?” Well, it would be pretty easy in the real world, since Harry is pretty hefty and a teeny bit fey, Sam is balding and Bill is a still-adolescent Aussie. But apparently they look different to her.

Each of these guys fit into Donna’s dream world, and she is egged on by her two old friends, Rosie and Tanya, who comprised her back-up group when they were Donna and the Dynamos. (Oh, I didn’t mention mom was an ex-rocker? Well, get with it, this is a romantic fantasy!).

Even though the plot is as unsubstantial as baked phyllo dough, the ABBA songs are infectiously upbeat as performed by a talented touring cast. Susie McMonagle is ideal as Donna, a down-to-earth woman who just happens to know how to belt out a song. And her rueful rendition of “The Winner Takes It All” is surprisingly affecting.

Also excellent in their admittedly small-bore roles are Rose Sezniak as optimistic Sophie and Kittra Wynn Coomer as no-nonsense Rosie. Coomer’s funny and rousing duet of “Take a Chance on Me” with Martin Kildare, who plays Bill, is as close to a show-stopper as this production offers. As Sam, John Hemphill sings well but doesn’t generate as many studly vibes as he might, given his central position in this sexy charade.

Although it lacks the driving, visceral power of another recent jukebox musical that played the Square, The Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia! ultimately earns its exclamation point by delivering the songs with energy and an irrepressible joie de vivre. That makes for a fun, if not exactly all-time-memorable, evening.

Mamma Mia!
August 5 – 10
State Theatre at PlayhouseSquare
1518 Euclid Avenue

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The God of Hell, Bang and Clatter/Cleveland

If you’ve ever wanted to scream, and not stop screaming, at this beautiful country’s drift (some might call it a march) towards fascism, then you need to see The God of Hell now at Bang and Clatter’s Cleveland venue. This is a heartfelt screed, wrapped in a polemic and stuffed into a snarl. And it should be music to the ears of those who feel abused by the Bush administration and their agenda of preemptive war, torture, lying, and other assorted affronts to the constitution.

Written by Sam Shepard, this play isn’t exactly polished. But it doesn’t want to be. And the B&C folks give it an essentially flawless performance that ripples with the muscularity of outrage and helplessness that so many have felt in the past seven agonizing years.

The entire 80-minute one-act takes place at a small family farm in Wisconsin, where Frank tends to his new heifers and Emma fusses over a profusion of indoor plants in the front room. They seem as normal as two cheese-heads ever could, until we learn that Frank’s “old friend” Haynes is staying in the basement, and won’t even come out when the morning bacon is served.

The reason for that is eventually revealed after the doorbell rings and a pushy traveling salesman named Welch arrives, peddling American flag cookies and other patriotic claptrap. But his sales pitch soon evolves into a series of questions, and he seems particularly interested in the basement and who might be down there.

From that point on, the startling transformation of all four characters is enacted in scenes that snap and sizzle with the kind of energy you just don’t see very often. Once Welch reveals his true intent as a government operative, and forces the others to “get in step” by leading his guinea pig Haynes around by an electric cable attached to his cock, a cold chill should run down your spine. And if it doesn’t, you’d better check for a pulse and read this.

The splendid cast includes Joseph Milan as unsuspecting Frank, spooling off farmer references so easily you’d think he just meandered onto the set from a nearby barn. And Jen Klika is superb as Emma, her dead eyes and deadpan delivery registering nothing—and yet everything—as she putters about.

John Busser is a righteous and appropriate mess as Haynes, who shakes every time a place called Rocky Butte is mentioned and who is beset with a cataclysmic case of static electricity every time he touches someone. But the most fascinating performance is handed in by Daniel McElhaney, who smears the smarm when Welch is in salesman mode, chuckling eerily at the tag end of his sentences, and then morphing into a Donald Rumsfeld/Dick Cheney wet dream as a righteous torturer without remorse.

Director Christopher Johnston gets the lion’s share of credit for ratcheting up the tension in this piece and blending Shepard’s black humor with his bleakly dystopian view of the current government.

The point of all this is given an icy sheen when Welch confronts Emma and asks, “You didn’t think you were going to get a free ride on the back of democracy forever, did you?” And that is the essential value of the new fascism: Democracy as a weapon, meant to be wielded by the super-wealthy and the powerful to keep everyone else under their collective heel.

The God of Hell
August 1 – August 23
The Bang and the Clatter Theatre Company
224 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland

Harold & Maude, Cain Park

(Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon from film version of Harold & Maude)

Chat with anyone in their fifties (or older) about their favorite films and you have a good chance of stumbling on Harold and Maude. That quirky 1971 flick, tracking the brief and unlikely love affair between a relentlessly perky about-to-be-octogenarian Maude and a death obsessed nineteen-year-old Harold, became a cult fave among those who still had sunflower petals stuck in their hair from the sixties.

Now it’s been made into “an intimate musical” of the same name, and its structural flaws are numerous—from the repetitious drumbeat of songs urging us to live life to the fullest, by gosh, to a passing reference, almost offensive in its glibness, to Maude’s detention in a Nazi prison camp. Still, this production in Cain Park’s Alma Theater directed by Victoria Bussert manages to skate around all these pitfalls and deliver an evening that is at times both acerbically funny and quietly touching.

Harold is from a well-to-do family in New York City, but is tormented by his mother, the terminally self-involved Mrs. Chasen. So he is driven to stage fake suicides, such as hanging himself in the living room, events that roll off mumsie’s back with ease as she labors to find her son a girl to marry.

So Harold spends his idle time visiting funeral parlors, to feed his morbid fascination with death, where he meets up with Maude who attends funerals for an entirely different reason. She knows she is close to dying, but she is intent on living each moment. Soon these two mismatched eccentrics hook up, and Maude tries to teach Harold how to connect with life by taking chances, playing music, and dancing.

Replacing the Cat Stevens’ soundtrack from the film is a score by Joseph Thalken and lyrics (plus book) by Tom Jones, he of The Fantasticks fame. While none of the songs in H&M are as distinguished or memorable as in Jones' former hit, they are performed perfectly within character and feel quite seamless and apt.

Since this musical version dispenses with some of the movie’s subtext, such as the Vietnam War, Harold’s hovering blue funk seems a bit shallow and pretentious. But Corey Mach nicely underplays his character’s agony and doesn’t make Harold as irritating as he easily could have been in this underwritten rendition.

As Maude, Maryann Nagel has the slightly hunched-over posture of some senior citizens, but is a spirited little spark plug of verve and confidence, stealing a car for a joyride and leading Harold on a whirlwind tour of self-discovery. Downright adorable here, Nagel trills her uplifting songs with just enough rueful undertones so that one doesn’t suffer saccharine reflux from ditties such as “The Road Less Traveled” and “The Chance to Sing.”

Jacqueline Cummins captures the surface, cartoonish aspects of Mrs. Chasen, but as one of the three continuing characters she would do well to find more shadings within this role. If she did, Mrs. Chasen would actually become more threatening to Harold, more richly comical, and help justify her offspring’s morbid take on life.

However, two actors are summoned to be full-on cartoons in a series of small parts, and Patrick Janson and Devon Yates fill the bill hilariously. After competing with each other in the singing of the duet “Woe” in a church setting, Janson becomes Harold’s uncle Victor, a military man who's a cross between Gen. Buck Turgidson and the title character in Dr. Strangelove. He has been summoned by Mrs. Chasen to help make a man of her son in the song “Rata-ta-tat.” And Yates is a riot as two of Harold’s blind dates, one of whom out-weirds Harold by performing an ode to a dagger in the Macbeth-inspired “Lay On!” and then topping it off with an Aztec mini-opera.

This production, darn near ideal for a summer night outside, is enhanced by Russ Borski’s smoothly integrated set design and excellent accompaniment from the small orchestra under the direction of Jodie Ricci. It ain’t the movie, but this H&M, right down to its poignant conclusion, has an undeniable charm all its own.

Harold & Maude: An Intimate Musical
July 31- August 17
Cain Park, Alma Theatre
Corner of Superior and Lee Roads, Cleveland Heights