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.

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

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Caroline, or Change; Karamu Performing Arts Center

(Sheffia Randall Dooley as Caroline)

One reason children are continually intriguing, other than the fact that they’re reliably and rather adorably fun-sized, is that they can see through adult artifice in roughly five attoseconds. This in part explains why kids are often drawn to large people who don’t behave in programmatic grown-up ways (see: Pee-Wee Herman or the wino you pass on the street).

Or, for a much better example, take eight-year-old Noah Gellman who, in Caroline, or Change, attaches himself to the ever-frowning family maid who labors primarily in the basement of their comfortable Louisiana home, doing the laundry. Their relationship, based on her refusal to condescend to him as a child, is the motive force behind this engrossing show, given a stellar staging in a co-production by Dobama and Karamu theatres.

Blessed with an essentially flawless cast, rich accompaniment led by musical director Ed Ridley, and the smart, sharp, empathetic guidance of director Sarah May, this is simply a theatrical event not to be missed.

With book and lyrics by Pulitzer prize winner Tony Kushner, who wrote Angels in America, Parts I and II among other seminal works, Caroline bristles with intelligence and a defiant attitude. Even though there are many issues brought up in this piece, set in 1963, that could easily lend themselves to maudlin Broadway sentimentality—race relations!, economic inequality! the assassination of JFK!—the mostly sung-through script never goes for the easy sniffle or tear.

Instead, the characters often keep themselves at a distance from each other, and from the audience, inviting us to fill in the emotional gaps. Meanwhile, Kushner’s telling words are put through a musical Mixmaster, scored by Jeanine Tesori, that blends soulful blues, the infectious driving beat of Motown, along with classical and spiritual touches.

As if that isn’t enough theatricality for one evening, there is also a layer of magical realism as we hear the saucy washing machine (Ayeshah Douglas), the clothes dryer (a basso Darryl Lewis) and the radio (a Supremes-like trio of Katrice Monee Headd, Stacey Arielle Wallace and Taresa Willingham) speak to Caroline and comment on her situation. And, there’s even an omniscient singing moon (Rebecca Morris) overseeing the proceedings.

In terms of storyline, it’s a deceptively simple tale of a Southern Jewish family and the cultural divide that existed in the 1960s (and still does, to some degree, today). Noah has recently lost his mother to cancer and has not bonded at all with his stepmother Rose or his insular musician father Stuart. So Noah spends time in the basement laundry room, drawn to Caroline’s scowling strength. But he keeps leaving change in his pants pockets when he throws them in the hamper, which Caroline collects in a bleach cup so she can return it to him.

When Rose suggests that Caroline keep the change, to teach Noah a lesson, Caroline feels her honor compromised. As a result, the center cannot hold and relationships change (pun intended by the authors) in unforeseen ways. This extends to Noah’s grandparents as well as Caroline’s three children: older daughter Emmie and the boys Jackie and Joe.

As Caroline, Sheffia Randall Dooley turns in a tour de force portrayal by never releasing her grip on this often unlikable character, Presenting a weary, doleful visage that could curdle milk at 20 paces, Dooley manages to expose the vulnerable, beating heart underneath this standoffish woman. And she simply brings down the house when called upon to sing the blues.

And the rest of the 17-person cast is, amazingly, just as good whether singing or speaking. Young Christian Flaherty as Noah has a loose naturalness on stage that many actors spend years trying to acquire, and he is believable at every moment. Playing his step-mom Rose, Katherine DeBoer is perfect as this well-intentioned but slightly uptight woman, trying to connect to both Noah and Caroline and only being seen as the enemy. And Ron Cuirle, Hester Lewellen, Robert McCoy and Michael Rogan fill out the family splendidly as, respectively, Noah’s father, grandmother, grandfather, and Rose’s fire-breathing political activist father.

Caroline’s family is enhanced by the performances of three entirely captivating kids. Alexis Generette Floyd’s Emmie is a lot more than cute, showing her mother’s strength even as she indicates a more positive approach to the world. And Justin Peck and Aric Generette Floyd, as her two younger brothers, help her deliver a show-stopping song and dance routine.

This is likely not a play sure to suit everyone’s tastes. For instance, when Caroline jettisons her friendship with old pal Dotty (an excellent Colleen Longshaw), some may be longing for a different kind of change in this snarky woman.

But this is exciting, unpredictable and engrossing theater. And a round of emphatic huzzahs to Dobama artistic director Joyce Casey and Karamu artistic director Terrence Spivey for bringing it off.

Caroline, or Change
Through October 12 at
Karamu Performing Arts Center,
2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Glass Menagerie, The Cleveland Play House

(From left, Alison Lani as Laura and Linda Purl as Amanda)

One of the major tasks in life is trying to separate appearance from reality, whether we’re analyzing Sarah Palin’s claim that she’s ready for the presidency (yeah, right) or the ever-changing nuances of our own or others’ identities.

That task is multiplied for the director and actors in The Glass Menagerie, since playwright Tennessee Williams crafted a box of mirrors that, in the words of the narrator Tom, is “truth in the disguise of a pleasant illusion.” While many productions of this beloved script tend towards the ethereal, director Michael Bloom has opted for a more direct and socially engaged approach in this Cleveland Play House effort. And the results are quite satisfying but fall short of being truly memorable.

The play takes place in a fusty 1930’s living and dining room, imagined by scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan, with the playing area compressed by towering walls on either side. It seems like the room is the bait inside a giant leg-hold trap, and trapped these characters most certainly are. Matriarch Amanda Wingfield is living with her two grown children, frustrated poet Tom who pays the bills with his warehouse job, and dreamy Laura who is handicapped both by terminal shyness and a bum leg.

Tom wants to bolt from this claustrophobic existence, just like his daddy who split long ago, but he keeps hanging on by spending most evenings at the movies. At least that’s what he tells mom. Meanwhile, Amanda is fully captivated by her memories of being a much sought-after Southern belle, hoping against all odds for the appearance of some “gentlemen callers” for her daughter. And in the second act, Tom offers co-worker Jim O’Connor as a dinner guest, an outgoing fellow who crystallizes the pain for the Winfield threesome (which, not so incidentally, was modeled on the author’s family).

In the role of Amanda, Linda Purl (yes, she once rode with The Fonz) strings together a series of wonderful moments, from deftly delivering clever asides to luxuriating in memories of her former life. And when she lashes out at Tom or Laura for their perceived weaknesses, she reveals a cutting edge that slashes deep. This combination of love and manipulation helps explain why her kids remain caught in a nether world of unreality—Tom with his poetry and films, and Laura with her treasured collection of tiny glass animals.

But as good as she is in individual moments, Purl never fully assembles all the disparate pieces of Amanda’s character. As a result, we obtain a clear picture but not compelling, visceral sense of this woman. Beset by a plethora of character failings, Amanda always stands ready to do whatever she can for her children, even if it’s wrong. And it is that ultimate, wayward nobility that feels a bit pale and distant in Purl’s performance.

As Laura, Alison Lani seems less fragile and more mentally disturbed than we might expect, cowering and limping for cover when a head tilt or a body turn might have sufficed. But Lani helps create a magical scene in the second act when Laura and Jim are left alone. Laura sips from her own memory pool, back when she had a crush on Jim in high school, while trying to relate to the real Jim in the present—and the tension this creates is exquisite.

Daniel Damon Joyce has the difficult task of trying to resolve Tom’s diffident nature, his poetic passion and his dreams of escape. As Tom (the character), Joyce conveys the proper combination of peevishness and restlessness. Unfortunately, in his role as Tom (the narrator), Joyce plays it excessively neutral and ends up with some shallow line readings that echo thinly and do not do justice to Williams’ stellar language.

Sorin Brouwers is energetic and winning as Jim, without falling for the temptation to make this “Prince Charming” too much of a superficial glad-hander.

The Glass Menagerie is a fragile and beautiful play, full of light and shadows. And this Play House production manages to refract many brilliant points of light, even though the aura it creates fades a bit too quickly.

The Glass Menagerie
Through October 5 at
The Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue,

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Urinetown the Musical, Beck Center

(Betsy Kahl as Little Sally and Matthew Wright as Officer Lockstock)

No matter how pro-capitalist you are, we surely can agree that there should be no fee to pee or to drop a deuce. But as the forces of privatization try to own everything from our highways and municipal water systems to the schools and your social security account, who can say that outsourcing the management of your excremental functions is too farfetched?

As a public service, then, the Beck Center has decided to revive their 2005 production of Urinetown the Musical. This show is a warning of such a future catastrophe, wrapped in comical trappings so funny you may, ah, wet your pants.

Utilizing virtually the same cast from three years ago, this version of Urinetown displays all of the strengths and a couple of the minor weaknesses of the original production. But nothing detracts from the raging wit provided by Mark Hollman (music and lyrics) and Greg Kotis (book and lyrics). Pitting the corporate giant Urine Good Company against the rabble in the streets, the authors sketch a drought-parched cityscape where people are compelled to piss only in official UGC “public amenities.” For a price.

Enforcing this extraordinary urinary policy is a corrupt and compliant police force represented by Officer Lockstock and his flunky, Officer Barrel. Happily crumpling the fourth wall, Lockstock addresses the audience, informs us that this is a musical (complete with jazz hands), and laments the exposition that must occur before the story gets rolling.

But once it does, the cast under the direction of Scott Spence delivers one great song after another. In the opener “Urinetown,” the rules for the evening are clearly stated: “You’re at Urinetown/Your ticket should say Urinetown/No refunds, this is Urinetown!/We’ll keep that dough.”

Once again, the actors comprising the pee-denied denizens of this sad metropolis are the funniest element in the show. Sandra Emerick as Little Becky Two-Shoes and Betsy Kahl as Little Sally nail their lines, as when Little Sally points out that the title of the play might not be the best idea ever.

The other fellow sufferers are played by Ryan Bergeron, Eric A. Neumore, Zac Hudak, Kimberly Bush, and Dan Bush, and they do a spectacular job of singing and executing Martin Cespedes crisp and clever choreography.

In the major roles, Matthew Wright is bigger (if that’s possible) and better than ever as pompous Lockstock, and Lenne Jacobs-Snively hasn’t lost her rubber-gloved grip as the pitiless doyenne of the local urinal. Her anthem to the glory of the pay-or-else-toilet offers a bladder-full of insight into the conditions there: “Twenty years we’ve had the drought/And our reservoirs have all dried up/I take my baths now in a coffee cup/I boil what’s left of it for tea/And it’s a privilege to pee.”

The head of UGC, Caldwell B. Cladwell, is again rendered by Greg Violand with more suavity than menace. But his performance of “Don’t Be the Bunny” is still a treat for it’s brazen hostility to the powerless in society: “You’re stepping up/ To where it’s sunny/Step on the poor!/Don’t be the bunny!”

The part of the show that doesn’t quite work is the romance between Bobby Strong, rebel leader of the peons (finally, that word makes sense!), and Hope Cladwell, daughter of UGC’s CEO. Colin James Cook and Maggie Stahl-Floriano do their best to keep this relationship interesting, but it never really sparks. And the overly long second act drags out Hope’s kidnapping, losing some of the comic momentum established earlier.

But this show has plenty of momentum to spare, plus a memorable showstopper, “Run, Freedom, Run.” So it would be a good idea not to miss this encore presentation—and that’s with a capital Pee.

Urinetown the Musical
Through October 12 at the
Beck Center for the Arts,
17801 Detroit Avenue,
Lakewood, 216-521-2540

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Wizard of Oz, Carousel Dinner Theatre

(From left: Ben Franklin as Scarecrow, Kelsey Crouch-Pinter as Dorothy, Chad Coudriet as Tin Man, and Brian Michael Hoffman as Lion)

After eight torturous years of the Bush administration’s venal predations (“Oh, Toto, I don’t think we’re in America anymore!”), there is perhaps no better time for a theatrical re-staging of the classic movie The Wizard of Oz.

How apt that Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road buddies are individually seeking for the same things voters across the country are looking for in a new president: a brain, a heart, and something more than the bully-boy “courage” of the current Oval Office occupant. And the Carousel Dinner Theatre is obliging with a production that is visually dazzling and quite captivating from start to finish.

Director Marc Robin and scenic designer Robert A. Kovach have wisely decided to use the vast expanse of the Carousel stage and aisles to mount a production that has an impressive look and feel. But the small, poignant moments have not been trampled in the process and, by the end, you may want to be sure you saved a napkin to dab your eyes when Dot parts company with her companions.

Based on the iconic 1939 movie of L. Frank Baum's book, this staging varies only slightly from the flick that we all watched, enthralled, when we were youngsters (or, perhaps even last week). But by borrowing staging techniques from The Lion King and leaning on some sweetly derivative performances, the Carousel version manages to hit all nostalgic and emotional buttons.

In the keystone role of Dorothy, Kelsey Crouch-Pinter is a bit tall for the role but sings pleasantly, and her evocative acting establishes a strong center for the other players. On a stage that is framed by a proscenium-mounted timeline that illuminates as the play progresses, Dorothy encounters a mob of munchkins played by kids and a Glinda (Mallorie Fletcher) who seems to be channeling Billie Burke’s every vocal mannerism.

Indeed, most of the actors perform their roles as an homage to the film, with Brian Michael Hoffman turning in a respectable Bert Lahr take on the cowardly lion and Chad Coudriet finding even more humorous aspects to the Tin Man than Jack Haley did. And as the Scarecrow, Ben Franklin is marvelously loose-limbed like Ray bolger, in addition to being a tender and touching soul. Although Lisa McMillan as the Wicked Witch doesn’t have Margaret Hamilton’s fearsome cackle--indeed, the casting of Hamilton was a fortunate fluke--McMillan brings her own nastiness to the fore.

Some unexpected laughs erupt thanks to the apple trees that Dorothy and her pals encounter along the way. This orchard is made up of bitchy, drag queen trees (played by Chip Abbott, Joey Abramowicz and Paul Aguirre) wearing bark, carrying apple-bedecked umbrellas, and spewing hilariously snarky comments. Note: If Carousel ever announces a play called The Apple Trees from Oz, buy a ticket immediately. These guys deserve their own show.

Of course, all the great Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg songs are here, and "Over the Rainbow," "We're Off to See the Wizard," and "Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead" are just as memorable as always.

There is eye candy galore in Dale Dibernardo’s sumptuous costumes, precisely detailed and bursting with color. Especially notable are her jitterbug outfits for the dance number of the same name (a sequence that was cut from the film before release). The kids you bring (um, you are bringing your kids, aren’t you?) will love it when the jazzy bugs appear in the aisles, right by their table.

One of the few effects that doesn’t quite work is the largest: a giant puppet that plays the Wizard’s guard at the castle. Although the arms and legs work well, thanks to the actor operating the contraption underneath, the guard’s face is immobile. And since this is the person who empathetically responds to Dorothy’s tears, he's the guard who cries and decides to bring her to the Wizard, this piece of the story feels shortchanged.

But other than that, this Carousel production gets it all right and winds up reigniting the fun and spirit of this timeless fantasy. Let’s just hope the voters will do as well in November, so we can all “go home again.”

The Wizard of Oz
Through November 1 at the Carousel
Dinner Theatre, 1275 East Waterloo Road,
Akron, 800-362-4100

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Defender of the Faith, Bang & Clatter/Akron


Tattletale, snitch, squealer, stoolie, rat. Other than whistleblower, there aren’t many positive words for somebody who passes along incriminating information about others. And nowhere was the hatred of informants more visceral and violent than in Ireland during the “Troubles.”

The paranoia and fear of that time is central to the action in Defender of the Faith, a determinedly downbeat play by Stuart Carolan now at the Bang and Clatter Theatre Company’s Akron venue. Structured like a verbal boxing match, the bulk of the show pops with the energy of piston-sharp jabs thrown and parried. And even though the last scene takes a roundhouse swing and misses, the overall pummeling might leave a mark on your heart.

Set in 1986 in a tiny dairy farm near the border of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a family committed to the cause of the Irish Republican Army is tangled up in its own problems. Patriarch Joe has a volatile temper that is most often directed at his twenty-something son Thomas and ten-year-old Danny (Adam Hass-Hill). The only reason another brother, Seamie, avoids abuse is that he is dead, apparently from an accidental drowning witnessed from afar by Joe.

Using every possible declension of the words fuck and cunt, plus a couple others not even invented yet, each of the family members attacks the others relentlessly. It’s like Ozzie and Harriet if everyone was cranked up on PCP, horse steroids and crystal meth (with mom absent, since she’s been locked away in “a house for nutters”). Another target of Joe’s scorn is his dim-witted hired man Barney, an agreeable fellow who quickly defers to Joe at every opportunity.

But this barely functional family dynamic changes when JJ, an IRA cleaner, arrives to ferret out a stool pigeon in the household. Then, as the real cause of Seamies’s death is called into question and a snitch is identified, the tension ratchets up.

The B&C production benefits from several compelling performances. Justin Tatum speaks with a believable brogue as Thomas and brings a piercing clarity to a young man trapped helplessly in familial and nationalistic torments. And he is almost matched in intensity by D. Michael Franks as his pop, portraying a man whose only coping mechanisms are emotional abuse and sometimes physical assault.

But the most intriguing performance is turned in by Jim Viront as the semi-addled Barney. Viront is masterful at conveying this schlub’s damaged mental state, showing his comprehension click in and then flicker away in almost the same moment. He has an absorbing scene with Thomas when they’re cleaning the parts of a milking machine and Barney relates, with helpless foreboding, the IRA’s brutal treatment of informers.

In the role of JJ, Rollin McNamara Michael is a near miss. Sounding more like a resident of Dublin, Ohio than Dublin, Ireland, he finds the spooky, calm center of his character but seems to float a bit too far above the proceedings. This disengagement makes his more aggressive, take-charge gestures later in the play feel slightly out of place and therefore less terrifying than they should be.

Director Stephen Skiles clearly knows what this play is about—the dripping infection of hate that eventually bloats a person, a family, or a country with toxins—and he makes the audience feel that oozing ache.

Defender of the Faith
Through August 30
Bang and Clatter Theatre/Akron
Sandefur Theatre in Guzzetta Hall
157 University Avenue, Akron