Thursday, April 30, 2009

Heaven’s My Destination, Cleveland Play House

(MIchael Halling as George Brush)

We always tend to cheer for an innocent, out alone in the big, bad world, trying to fend for himself while imbuing others with his uncomplicated moral vision. But those cheers can die off quickly when our hero turns out to have less of Gandhi’s inspired selflessness and more of the self-righteous priggishness of Frank Burns from MASH.

This is the challenge posed by Heaven’s My Destination, a world premiere being presented now at the Cleveland Play House as part of their annual FusionFest celebration. This Lee Blessing adaptation of the Thornton Wilder novel of the same name was commissioned by the Play House, and it’s a mixed bag of amusing moments along with redundancy and some tedium.

To Blessing and director Michael Bloom’s credit, Destination conjures up a charming tone that keeps one smiling through the bulk of the play. But those smiles rarely burst into knowing hilarity or elide into rueful insight, since the main character of George Brush is written in stone, aside from a book-ended crisis of faith.

Set in 1931, George is a successful traveling school text salesman who has strict Christian thoughts on what is right and wrong, and he doesn’t hesitate in sharing his rules with strangers at the slightest provocation. Like a fundamentalist missionary hacking his way through a jungle of heathens, he attempts to “correct” every person he meets.

Depending on your perspective, you might consider such a person a devout and unshakable purveyor of goodness or a searing pain in the rectum. In either case, to work theatrically the character of George must be sufficiently accessible, and that is where this production finds itself at a bit of a loss.

Perhaps it’s because of our awareness of the damage religious zealots with firmly closed minds can do—from Osama bin Laden to James Dobson—that the premise of a free-range moralist is less than cuddly. Brush’s views range from the unassailable (against Jim Crow laws) to the quaint (he won’t accept interest on his bank account) to the ignorant (vehemently against the theory of evolution). And add to that he’s essentially a humorless prude.

This is a vexing fellow to build a play around, but Blessing manages to make Brush a feckless innocent who seems always on the brink of making a breakthrough of some sort. Trouble is, he never does, and there are so many brief scenes with so many different characters—a common problem when trying to condense a novel into a play—that one eventually tires from the oft-repetitive 2½-hour effort.

In the lead, Michael Halling does yeoman work since he’s in virtually every scene and has to contend with a role that has little if any conventional human dimension. It’s hard to play a symbol, especially a simplistic one, and Halling emerges relatively unscathed from the process. A cast of seven other actors portray the galaxy of people who meet George on his travels, some of whom beat him, berate him, or otherwise do anything they can to get out of his way.

A small romance with a woman named Roberta flares up momentarily, but like all of Brush’s other interactions it doesn’t conclude too happily (he condemns her for her smoking, among other things). And finally, confronting profound doubts about his faith, George experiences an epiphany in time for the final curtain.

The Play House production does a nice job of creating a period tone, sort of like O Brother, Where Art Thou complete with some musical interludes (Halling has a kick-ass tenor voice). But the play itself would benefit from a more targeted focus on fewer characters, so that we could get closer to the kind of monomaniacal innocence, and perhaps the vulnerability, that George Brush represents.

Heaven’s My Destination
Through May 17 at the Cleveland Play House,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, Karamu

(Rebecca Morris as Billie)

All of us can recognize a good voice when we hear it, even when it comes out of an unexpected package such as Susan Boyle. But when a singer has a flawed voice with enormous emotional power, it’s more of a mixed bag.

Billie Holiday had a reedy voice with limited range, but her best songs register incredibly high on the emotional Richter scale. “Lady Day,” as she was dubbed by lifelong friend and legendary saxophonist Lester Young, had a singing style that was the equivalent of a person carefully picking through the wreckage of a hurricane to find small, undamaged treasures. Breathy and partially broken, Holiday’s vocals unerringly found the heart of some of the American songbook’s greatest tunes.

In Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, now at Karamu, playwright Lanie Robertson gives us a glimpse of Holiday in performance, four months before her death. While the lead actor delivers a less-than-perfect vocal impression, there is so much truth in her performance that evening still works remarkably well.

Accompanied only by Jimmy Powers (Ed Ridley) on piano and an unnamed bass player (Glenn Holmes), Billie sings her songs and drifts off into stories about her past. Swigging a cocktail, she is still battling the storms that have beset her life. From being raped as a child to battling heroin addiction, brutish lovers and a stint in prison for drug possession, life was no Holiday for the girl born Eleanora Fagan.

To the playwright’s credit, he doesn’t make Billie a saint. She pouts and mumbles, complains about racism (with monumental justification, by the way), and goes on mini-rants that are only interrupted when Jimmy plays a few chords to bring her back into present time.

One emotional high (or low) point is hit when Billie sings “Strange Fruit,” the haunting song about the lynching of black men. Another, more comical peak is reached when Billie describes a band tour in the south where a restaurant only permitted her to eat in the kitchen with the help, but the snarky white female maitre d’ wouldn’t allow her bathroom privileges. Her fluid response to that bitch makes Billie #1 in my book.

Bearing a strong physical resemblance to Ms. Holliday, Rebecca Morris, doesn’t fully capture the Lady’s delicately gone-to-seed vocal quality. Fut she plumbs many of the emotional depths that make Billie Holiday relevant today and far into the future. (Try this for a sublime taste of the real thing, taped two years before Billie’s death.)

Morris’ storytelling also becomes a bit patterned and predictable in terms of pacing, which some minor shaping could fix. But she and director Caroline Jackson Smith wisely never rush things. This is Billie’s moment, and she’s earned the right to take as damn much time as she wants to tell her story.

Ridley and Holmes provide solid instrumentals on John Konopka’s cabaret-style set. But the spotlight is on Morris, and she delivers great renditions of “God Bless the Child” and “Crazy He Calls Me,” on the way to providing a peek into the life of one of the jazz world’s beacons.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill
Through May 24 at Karamu House,
2355 E. 89th Street, 216-795-7077

Monday, April 20, 2009

Wrecks, Bang and Clatter/Akron

(The issues in Wrecks revolves around one of these. One that's occupied, that is.)

An unassailable truth of writing is that it’s easy to pen a play with a bad surprise ending. Easy, that is, if you don’t care about little matters such as consistency or credibility.

The surprise ending in Wrecks by Neil LaBute, now at the Bang and Clatter Theatre in Akron, is certainly a shocker. But some may be more put off by the long, slow build-up than by the specific creepiness of the secret that’s eventually revealed.

Edward Carr, a 60-year-pld man dying of lung cancer, is at a funeral home grieving the death of his wife, who was 15 years his senior. For some 75 minutes Ed relates his life with Mary Josephine, or Jo-Jo as he called her. Describing her as perfect, “a pearl dropped down to Earth from Christ,” Ed waxes philosophic, breaks down in tears and chain smokes as he brings us into his intimate 30-year marriage.

There are a few funny moments, as when Ed describes the business he and Jo-Jo ran, a classic automobile rental chain called, inevitably, Carr’s. But most of the memories shared in this one-man show are fairly mundane, and eventually quite repetitive (we get it, Ed loved Jo-Jo, really).

Directed at a leisurely pace by Sean McConaha, this repetition of adoration begins to grate. That slowness, and Viront’s inability to be bland on stage, eventually work against this material.

Ideally, Edward should be an everyman, a charming guy who’s everybody’s best friend. (There must be a reason, other than the easy pun cited above, why LaBute made Ed a car salesman.) But Viront’s Edward is most definitely an unusual character, seeming to seethe with undefined inner demons, so the ordinary reminiscences put in his mouth seem oddly out of place.

Those demons are perhaps understandable in retrospect, after all is known, but the surprise ending (hint: there’s wordplay involved in the title) isn’t as much of a shock as it might have been, if we had been lured into perceiving Ed as being a totally normal dude.

Even so, Viront has total control of the stage, sucks down a half-dozen Camels with dispatch (for all you fans of second-hand smoke), and crafts a character that seems true—if less than a perfect fit for this play.

Through May 9 at the Bang and Clatter Theatre,
51 East Market Street, Akron,

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Heddatron, Theater Ninjas

(From left, Allen Branstein, Scott Skiba and Faye Hargate)

There are some people who like to run their brains through a car wash now and then, to blow off the accumulating grime of the expected and the oh, so predictable. For those folks, and you know who you are, you should beat an immediate path to the Pilgrim Church in Tremont, where your cerebellum will receive a brisk, 70-minute scrub and fluff-dry.

There is more wonderful theatrical invention going on in Heddatron, now being produced by the Theater Ninjas, than you may find in five or six more conventional shows. Written by Elizabeth Meriwether, this amazingly fresh take on Hedda Gabler involves robots, the personages of Ibsen and Strindberg, and a monkey. And even while all the elements don’t function flawlessly, the overall effect is funny, weird and irresistibly delightful.

It takes place simultaneously in two time periods. In a sort of super-advanced present (complete with robots that can improve their intelligence exponentially, by themselves), we have Jane Gordon, a suicidal wife and mother. And in 1890 we observe Henrik Ibsen who is mired in a ghastly marriage to shrewish wife Suzannah as he writes Hedda Gabler, the story of a woman who commits suicide.

With parallels neatly established, the robots find their way to Jane’s house, where she lives with her precocious sixth-grade daughter Nugget, husband Rick and Rick’s volatile brother Cubby. The robots see Jane reading Hedda Gabler, and decide to abduct her to an Ecuadoran rainforest (!) where she will be forced to perform the play with an all-robot cast. Sure, this all sounds like a young playwright trying too hard to be outrageous, but don’t jump to that conclusion.

Plus, you would think that any play that attempts to take on multiple and not particularly complementary themes would implode. But somehow, Heddatron’s subject matter involving spontaneous technological progress, Freudian neurosis and the optimum characteristics of a well-made play all fold together in a bizarrely amusing way.

Along with the playwright, much of the credit for this goes to director Jeremy Paul, who is fast becoming one of the more intriguing theatrical talents in the area. In this show, he brings out a range of talented performances while paying close attention to myriad production details that almost boggle the mind.

Helpfully, the performances range from good to superb. As the quasi-narrator, Una Hanley is perfectly deadpan as Nugget, reading from her index cards as she presents a school paper on Hedda Gabler. And her presentations are often the cue to cut to Ibsen at home, where Suzannah (played with ear-piercing brio by Kelly Elliott) calls him a freak and mocks his writing process. As Ibsen, Allen Branstein is a rather lovable but tightly regimented schlub.

Ibsen’s life is further complicated when his wife hires a French maid (a lusty if sometimes hard-to-understand Faye Hargate) and a visit from the hated August Strindberg. Scott Skiba makes the most of this small part. Looking like a distant and less violent cousin of Leonard Smalls from Raising Arizona, Skiba plays Strindberg as a sex-driven maniac who chews on panties and the scenery with equal relish. He also has a monkey, played with simian exactitude by Emily Pucell.

Back in the present, Peter Nalepa and a somewhat over-torqued Doug Kusak portray Rick and Cubby, who are trying to track down the abducted Jane while being videotaped by a film student for some ill-defined project.

When the play flips into total Hedda Gabler mode, with Jane and the robots playing their parts, things go marvelously well and somewhat off the rails, all at the same time. On the positive side, the robots, played by Michael Andrews-Hinders and Sarah Kunchik, are as cute and well-teamed as R2D2 and C3PO. And they are supported by two remote-controlled, four-wheeled “characters” who play Judge Brack and Berte, along with a giant bouncing hassock as Aunt Rina.

But this penultimate scene loses some juice since the actors have to shout over sound effects and robotic slapstick. As a result, Amy Bistok Bunce’s Jane never has the chance to register fully in the scene that should tie all the other craziness together.

But that should not stop anyone who wants a dazzlingly fresh theater experience to shy away. This Heddatron is quite a lark from start to finish.

Through May 3, produced by the Theater Ninjas,
at the Pilgrim Church,
2592 W. 14th Street,

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Marriage Play, Cesear’s Forum

(Julia Kolibab and Dana Hart)

Often a masterpiece, such as Picasso’s "Guernica," is preceded by many preliminary drawings and studies that the artist uses to puzzle out small details of the major work to come. But what are we to make of a pre-drawing that was ostensibly created 25 years after the masterpiece was unveiled?

Such seems to be the case with Marriage Play by Edward Albee, now being produced by Cesear’s Forum. Originally produced a quarter century after the 1962 premiere of his monumental Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ,this 75-minute dip into Albee’s familiar acid pool of marital tension has the appearance of a tentative first effort at writing what he already wrote. But taken on its own terms, Marriage Play is Woolf writ small. Nay, even microscopic.

Albee is an acknowledged genius at being able to write married characters that swerve almost instantaneously from jocular intimacy to brutal belittlement. But in this play, the conjugal familiarity seems unearned, and the psychic damage feels oddly trivial.

If one isn’t initially put off by the nursery rhyme cuteness of the married couple’s names, Jack and Gillian, the arch and brittle dialogue to follow certainly does the trick. From the moment when Jack enters and tells his wife “I’m leaving you” and she responds with blasé disinterest, the audience is cast aside in deference to Albee’s semantic gamesmanship. If she can't take him seriously, why should we?

The husband and wife of more than 30 years continue their verbal thrust and parry. She mocks him by reading from a diary/report card of their sexual encounters, he responds by critiquing her writing as too much like Hemingway or several other authors, and she fires back by querying him about obscure literary references. But we never learn where their shared erudition comes from, or why they wield it as they do.

Moreover, the play’s dramatic arc is held hostage to an existential parlor game—Jack repeats his entrance line several more times, as if trapped in a Pirandellian loop—that never results in an epiphany of any kind.

Sure, there are a few moments when the two actors and director Greg Cesear find their footing with this flawed material, As in the sequence when Gillian talks about their honeymoon and how other guests at their resort treated them as cute, randy little creatures—sort of demented bunnies. But there are more sharp lines in just about any 1½ minute sampling of Woolf (or The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, or Three Tall Women) than there are in the entirety of Marriage Play.

That said, Julia Kolibab and Dana Hart give it their all and fence gamely with Albee’s self-indulgent exercise. And they stage a pretty convincing mini-brawl that resulted, on opening night, in a scratched leg for Kolibab and a torn pants pocket for Hart.

But despite their best efforts, Albee has erected a thick wall between Jack and Gillian, and another tall one between them and the audience, that virtually no acting company can dismantle.

Marriage Play
Through May 23, produced by
Cesear’s Forum at Kennedy’s Down Under,
PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue,

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Mineola Twins, convergence-continuum

(Lucy Bredeson-Smith in a come-hither pose as teenage Myrna.)

There’s probably a good reason that our DNA ladder, the core of our identity, takes the form of a spiral instead of, say, a railroad track. Human identity continually folds into itself in many ways (ie, we keep seeing ourselves coming around the next corner), and that is no doubt even truer for identical twins.

However, the DNA-sharing females in The Mineola Twins, now being produced by convergence-continuum, are not the type of gals you’ll find wearing matching “Former Womb-Mates” t-shirts at the next Twinsburg convention. Myra and Myrna are so close biologically they can hear each other’s thoughts, but they occupy the extreme opposite ends of the social, sexual and political continuums.

In this intensely theatrical creation, playwright Paula Vogel tracks the twins from their early days sharing a bedroom (marked with a dividing line) through their teen years and into advanced middle age. Flat-chested Myra’s path leads from high school slut to ‘60s radical mom to lesbian activist, while the pneumatically-endowed Myrna progresses from virginal prick tease to married mom who had shock treatments (that voice in her head) to female Rush Limbaugh-like talk radio host.

That’s a lot of territory to cover, but Vogel and director Clyde Simon surf those decades of upheaval and change with ease, even taking time for several dream sequences in which the sisters indulge in their secret fantasies of sororicide. In some regards, Twins is sort of the theatrical version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, minus the rat for dinner episode. And some of it is flat-out hilarious.

Naïve, poodle-skirted waitress Myrna is clearly screwed down a couple turns too tight, and that tension implodes years later, sending her off to the loony bin. From then on, she suffers from fugue states accompanied by Frankenstein-ish short-circuiting sound effects. Small wonder, then, that in her later years Myrna writes a tome titled “Profiles in Chastity” and goes postal against gay rights and abortion clinics.

Meanwhile, Myra is bedding the football team and, a few years down the road, trying to avoid the FBI while bonding with Myrna’s 14-year-old son Kenny, who doesn’t understand his wing-nut mom. Of course, Vogel further complicates the situation when Myra’s teen son rebels against her lefty ways and finds a conservative compatriot in aunt Myrna.

Sound confusing? It isn’t, and the talented convergence-continuum cast handles all this with smooth assurance. Most of the on-stage credit for the constant thread of laughter goes to Lucy Bredeson-Smith, who brings a bit of that Baby Jane/Davis-Crawford comical creepiness to her portrayals of both twins. Diving in and out of her boob harness backstage, Bredeson-Smith finds more variations on crazy than are listed in DSM-IV.

She is ably supported by Geoffrey Hoffman as Myrna’s blue-balled boyfriend Jim, Bret T. Holden as both sons, and Pandora Robertson as Myra’s partner Sarah, complete with a dyke wig to die for.

There are some glitches in the production. The script has its soft spots, including too many predictable period references. And the timing goes slack in the second act when Myra and Myrna have to appear on stage in quick succession. During that time, Sarah is left literally holding the bag (it’s actually a ticking package) on stage while Bredeson-Smith gets her chest repeatedly reconfigured.

But The Mineola Twins is right in con-con’s wheelhouse, and they once again deliver an evening of chuckles along with some random takes on what makes us who we are.

The Mineola Twins
Through May 2, produced by
convergence-continuum at The Liminis,
2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Seagull, Great Lakes Theater Festival

(Laura Perrotta as Arkadina and Andrew May as Trigorin)

Apparently Anton Chekov never heard the proverb “Be careful what you wish for, because you may get it.” The characters in his plays, in particular The Seagull now at the Great Lakes Theater Festival, never get what they wish for.

But if the audience wishes for a solid ensemble production, they do get it, thanks to Drew Barr’s adaptation and direction. And although many of the performers don’t deliver all the nuances inherent in their characters, their shortfall is remarkably consistent across the board, thereby providing a quite seamless, if less than definitive, rendering of this classic.

Of course, we know that the denizens of this play are tormented by dreams unfulfilled. But more than that, they never even seem to stumble by accident into a favorable situation. Virtually every person in this coterie of family and friends is in love with someone who desires another.

And as the symbols accumulate (the shredded flowers, the dead bird, the omnipresent lake that draws them only to leave them terminally dissatisfied), we are immersed in their tragicomic lives, sometimes tittering at their follies and sometimes simply crestfallen.

These are the oppositional delights of Chekov, and the GLTF players do well bringing them to the fore. Laura Perrotta is often entrancing as Arkadina—the sister of Sorin (a cuddly and befuddled Dudley Swetland), who owns the country estate where the play is set, and mommy dearest to her playwright son Treplev.

Playful with her peers and coolly dismissive of her son, Perrotta fashions a rampaging narcissist. But when she attempts to show how she could play a youngster on stage, we don’t see the persistent shadow of her older self, or feel her desperation when she throws herself at the young novelist Trigorin.

Andrew May is a comely depressive as Trigorin, ruing his literary status when compared to the greats and handling a monologue about the torments of writing with understated elegance. But Trig’s negative self-regard should evolve from self-deprecation to arrogance (which it doesn't) giving him a weapon he could wield with passive-aggressive gusto.

As Treplev, Kevin Crouch is quite believable as a young man burning with both an urge to write avant-garde theater and a love for Nina (Gisela Chipe) who is smitten by Trigorin. Treplev’s second act collapse, which matches Nina’s declining fortunes as an actress, doesn’t seem terribly different than his attitude early on, somewhat undermining the climax to come.

One of the most successful doomed couples is comprised of the poor teacher Medvedenko and Masha, the daughter of the estate’s manager. Ian Gould is a pitiable schlub and a likely counterpart to Sara M. Bruner’s excellent brooding Masha, a woman who snorts snuff and gulps vodka while trying to numb herself to mushy Medvedenko and her miserable life.

Russell Metheny’s simple, non-ostentatious set and Fitz Patton’s original music and sound effects, some of which creep up on you and then disappear in a flash, add to the texture of the production.

Indeed, though none of these performances is perfect, they are all perfectly attuned to each other. So while one may wish for more at given moments, there is much to be said for such a finely-tuned ensemble production of one of Chekhov's best.

The Seagull
Through May 2, produced by the
Great Lakes Theater Festival
at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St.,

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Comedy of Errors, Great Lakes Theater Festival

(The colorful sets, costumes and dancing are the strongest parts of The Comedy of Errors.)

Although Shakespeare never wrote “gild the lily” (his actual line from King John is “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily”), the idea is still unassailable: Superfluous ornamentation, especially of a like kind, is a non-starter.

And that’s what we have in the Great Lakes Theater Festival’s production of The Comedy of Errors, William Shakespeare’s broad send-up of switched identities, unfaithful wives, and plenty of butt kicks. Director Charles Fee has cranked the wacky dial up to 11 and set this loosey-goosey romantic comedy amidst the libidinous festivals and carnal dalliances of Rio de Janeiro. The result is an initial (and lasting) overload of surface energy that drowns Will’s already superficial and slapstick storyline.

Dancing and prancing on Russell Metheny’s handsome set, which uses the renovated Hanna Theatre’s three-sectioned elevating stage in inventive ways, the sublimely costumed cast (a nod to costume designer Charlotte Yetman) is in constant motion. And if all we had to care about was Martin Cespedes’ clever choreography, we’d be fine. But then the actors start talking and the problems mount.

Fee uses two actors to play the dual twin roles— Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, and their servants Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse—borrowing the approach used in the film version of The Boys from Syracuse. And this might work if those two actors were perfectly paired.

Unfortunately, Andrew May (the Antipholi) and Ian Gould (the Dromios) are wrong from the get-go, since they are almost identical physically. One reason Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Jay and Silent Bob work so well together is that they play off each other’s very different physiques. In this production, May and Gould struggle to be funny in ways that are both individual and different than their acting partner.

May has some nice moments, drawing a clear distinction between his twins and delivering some spot-on Jack Benny takes as his one twin is romanced by the other’s wife. But Gould’s Dromios are adrift, beset by clumsy attempts at physical humor, predictable line readings and an inability to craft one, let alone two, comically vulnerable personas. (Jeffrey C. Hawkins—or, for those who remember the Cleveland Play House years ago, Bob Moak—where are you when we need you?).

As Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, Lynn Allison starts at too high a fever pitch of bitchiness and then has nowhere to go with her character, turning her performance into a monotone of caterwauling. And even though David Anthony Smith as Angelo the goldsmith manages to put more passion into the repeated word “chain” than Aretha ever did, it’s too little too late.

Of course, audiences will laugh at this production because there are still plenty of gag lines. But as the casting conceit collapses into a clusterfuck at the end, with stand-ins trying to impersonate a couple of the twins while hiding their faces and weaving in and out of the crowd, it becomes clear that there are more errors in view at the Hanna than comedy.

The Comedy of Errors
Through May 3, produced by the
Great Lakes Theater Festival
at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St.,