Saturday, May 30, 2009

Quake, convergence-continuum

(Stuart Hoffman as one of many disappointing men and Erin Scerbak as Lucy)

Considering all the publicity that’s being generated around digital 3D movies, such as Disney-Pixar’s Up, it may be helpful to note that there is substantial entertainment available in the world of 1D, as in one-dimensional characters.

Of course, paper-thin people can be a fatal flaw in serious drama. But when the playwright manages her stick figures adroitly, as Melanie Marnich does in Quake (now at convergence-continuum), the results can be amusing and at times even edifying.

Lucy is a na├»ve 20-something who is desperately seeking “the big love” (not to be confused with this theater company’s next offering, titled Big Love, which is not to be mistaken for the HBO series of the same name). So she starts traveling around the country, walking up to strange men and hitting on them with a mixture of innocence and foolishly high expectations that is both endearing and slightly obnoxious.

As for the objects of her ardor, they are testosterone fall guys who appear promising at first but soon curdle. One is an outdoorsman who “lets himself go” before Lucy’s eyes, losing his hair and adding a paunch. Another is a pleasant student who is seeing another woman on the side. Even though these dudes are dolts, we are never clued in to what kind of a catch Lucy herself might be. Hey, this is her story, get over it.

As the disappointments accumulate, Lucy starts dreaming about a female serial killer in the news who seems to be everything Lucy wants in herself: brilliant, fierce, and always on the move. That Woman, as the killer is known, spouts geological and astrophysical jibber-jabber as she cuts her own swath through the American male populous.

This all feels like a good-spirited feminist rant, written by a woman who has plenty of poetry coursing through her veins. At one point, feeling lonely, Lucy says “I turned myself into paper, folded myself into a boat, and sailed away.”

In addition to some sparkling language, playwright Marnich simplifies her task by reducing Lucy and the men in her life to nothing more than theatrical Tweets. Whether it’s the jock (single-minded and dumb), the new age guru (artificial and dumb) or the shrink (just dumb), everyone is unrealistically uncomplicated. And that helps the play hammer home its overall message about the frustrating search for connection on our life journeys.

Under the inventive direction of Arthur Grothe, the play is staged with crisp efficiency, although convergence-continuum probably should reevaluate its obsession with including video segments in virtually all their productions. The video bits here are remarkably extraneous and ultimately distracting.

Most of the talented cast handles their simplistic characters with flair. Erin Scerbak is wide-eyed as Lucy, although a number of her line readings come across as unintentionally flat rather than as intentionally banal. Christian Prentice scores in multiple roles, particularly as the crazed jock-cyclist and in an all-too-brief bit as a flight attendant. Stuart Hoffman and Robert Hawkes also deliver sharp cameos in their various guises, with Hoffman’s oft-wounded gas station clerk and Hawkes’ dotty psychiatrist being particularly engaging.

But the play, for all its charm, goes a bit off the track near the end of its 80-minute playing time. When Lucy encounters a physically abusive auto repairman, played by Tom Kondilas, this serious subject is treated with the same cavalier detachment as all the others. And it doesn’t feel like a good fit.

Perhaps the most magnetic performance is turned in by Laurel Johnson as That Woman, strutting with sleek and polished confidence through Lucy’s dream sequences as the role model from hell. In her last scene, That Woman transforms herself in a most unexpected way. Unfortunately, Johnson and director Grothe overplay this moment when a quieter, more subdued approach would have been far more incisive.

Still, there is a glittering collection of interesting scenes here, all infused with witty wordplay. And it offers an excellent summation of the search for true love: “Perfect love is possible. It just depends on how many flaws you can put up with.”

Through June 27, produced by
convergence-continuum at The Liminis,
2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074

Monday, May 18, 2009

Dream Home, Dobama Theatre

(Cathy Albers as Joan)

Back in the 1950s, kids would watch educational films showing how Communism was on the march, as red flowed further and further into neighboring countries. You could use the same graphics, superimpose it on Cleveland, and use it to describe the effects of abandoned homes and foreclosures caused by the current real estate crisis.

Of course, any subject so freighted with emotion makes a fine subject for the stage. And Dobama Theatre is answering the call with Dream/Home, a work they commissioned from playwright Sarah Morton as Part II of their Cleveland Plays series. Structured as a series of monologues, all delivered by local people who are connected to one individual foreclosure event, the piece is surprisingly subtle and deeply felt on an emotional level.

It all starts less than auspiciously as the putative narrator, a banker named Arthur, addresses the audience and once again drags out the tired, beat-to-death “Moses Cleaveland/the “a” was dropped/divided city/yadda yadda” song and dance. Note to any playwrights who, in the future, write about our fair burg and are tempted to rehash Moses: We get it, move on.

Arthur (played with affecting sensitivity by George Roth) appears a few more times, but all the other character appearances are one-shot deals. A nicely greasy Fabio Polanco kicks it off by portraying a mortgage broker who is eager to push through the adjustable rate home loan for Margaret, a schoolteacher.

From there, we meet the next-door neighbor who is tending the yard for the absent homeowner (rendered with perfect specificity by Anne McEvoy) and a realtor who is trying to unload the property (Tom White in a crisply amusing turn).

Whether it’s Margaret’s daughter (Alexis Floyd), who’s trying desperately to hold onto her job as a barista at the local coffee shop, or another neighbor (Rodney Freeman) who must deal with the increase in crime sparked by empty houses on his street, the effects keep multiplying.

Morton skillfully crafts these set pieces, including enough ancillary information about each character so that they don’t seem like linked rants. At one point, Arthur recalls his childhood in the Depression and remembers he was “afraid of wasting even a breath.”

One of the best monologues is delivered by Cathy Albers, who plays Joan, the wife of a retiring bank executive. Looking like a great pick for the cast of The Real Housewives of Gates Mills, Albers is bitchy, touchy, and a bit desperate as she feels her world shifting under her.

Directed with sensitivity by Sonya Robbins, Dream/Home is solid but less than perfect. While various sides of the problem are referenced—the greed of both sleazy lenders and buyers looking for a get-rich-quick windfall—it might help if there was a stronger point of view. This catastrophe is too large, and too destructive, to be simply used as a platform for personal musings, even ones as precise and well-sculpted as these.

The set design by Todd Krispinsky is quite effective, a composition of doors artfully positioned in a heap, even though it mirrors (or is an homage to) a nearly identical set done by Trad A. Burns for Gold Star at Cleveland Public Theatre last year.

By the time we meet Margaret, played with deft resignation and a touch of hope by Lisa Langford, we have a clear picture of the ways in which many lives have been affected. But, once again, accountability is denied. Not because it isn’t called for, but because the misdeeds were so widespread it’s almost impossible to effectively assign blame.

But we should try. Especially in the theater, we should try.

Through June 7, produced by
Dobama Theatre at the Brooks Theatre,
Cleveland Play House, 216-932-3396

Thursday, May 7, 2009

One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, Cleveland Play House

(An uncharacteristically serious-looking Charles Ross, with a lightsaber prop he doesn't use during his performance.)

Hi Bryn,

Boy, do I wish you were with me last night at the Cleveland Play House! As the leading 7-year-old expert on all things Star Wars, at least within our family, you would have been a great help in digging out the small details of this delightful show.

I remember seeing the original flick when it came out, five years after your mom was born, in 1977. And I was blown away by all of it, particularly the idea that if space ships were used daily, they would start to look as battered and dusty as the car in my driveway. (Up to that time, all spaceships looked sparkling and pristine.)

A couple years later I saw the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, and I thought it was good but I never even saw Return of the Jedi, probably because of some mixed reviews. (Yes, I read reviews because I know how wise and insightful critics are.)

This all proves that I am not the best audience for One-Man, since a real Star Wars fan like you will pick up far more of the film references that rush by in this fast-paced hour-long production.

Standing on a bare stage in a black jumpsuit with no props, Charles Ross performs all the elements of the three movies that make up the trilogy starting with the original epic, Episode IV: A New Hope (see, I didn’t even know that film had a subtitle that was added later, to help keep all the sequels and prequels straight).

And when I say Ross does everything, I’m not kidding. He acts out the scrolling type at the start of each film, the music, the droids, the space battles, the hand-to-hand combat, and most of the characters. His Jabba the Hutt is hilarious, whether you saw the film or not, as is his depiction of the Imperial Walkers.

It’s all done tongue-in-cheek (ask your father), but he never gets nasty and makes fun of the movies or those that love them, such as you my dear. While covering the key plot points, Ross notes some problems in continuity. For instance, there’s one character who pronounces the Princess’s name “Lee-ah,” not “Lay-ah”. If you had been there, you could have reminded me who that was.

One-Man is enjoyable for darn near everyone, just because of Ross’s energetic presence and his finely tuned sense of goofiness. And he talks directly to the audience at times, as himself, giving the whole show a relaxed and friendly feel.

I really think you would have had a blast last night, Bryn, as did several kids I saw in the audience. Maybe we can see it the next time Ross brings his traveling Star Wars show to New Jersey.

Anyhow, live long and prosper. (Oops, sorry, that’s Star Trek.)

I love you,

Grandma Chris

One-Man Star Wars Trilogy
Produced as part of FusionFest
at the Cleveland Play House, through May 10,
8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, PlayhouseSquare

If you have aspirations of being a Broadway—or pretty much any other kind—of singer, your advanced class is now in session at the Palace Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin will teach you more in a couple hours than a year’s worth of conventional instruction. (Of course, if you only aspire to see a great show, the Palace should also be your destination.)

The vast majority of these lessons are positive, especially as they relate to the emotional delivery of songs that tell a story. But there are also a couple instances of excessive, stagey mannerisms that any budding singer might be counseled to avoid.

The show stars two performers who have amassed hefty Broadway portfolios. A winner of enough awards to fill a small cruise ship, LuPone recently finished a smash revival of Gypsy, playing the mother of all stage mothers, Mama Rose. Patinkin won a Tony Award for his performance as Che in Evita, with LuPone in the title role.

As directed by Patinkin on a bare stage with only some scattered work lights, the concert presents a stream of consciousness flow of songs, mostly from Broadway’s composing elite such as Stephen Sondheim, Rogers and Hammerstein, Jerome Kern and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Happily, Patti and Mandy pause a couple times for snatches of scenes from the classic shows South Pacific and Carousel.

Many of the songs are paired thematically so they represent a musical dialogue. In one of these, LuPone comically declares her objection to further commitment in “(I’m Not) Getting Married Today” and Patinkin responds tenderly with “Loving You.”

Among the many glories of this production, the foremost has to be the ability of the two performers to instantly find the emotional heart of each song and then express it in unique, individual ways. Oddly, the high point of the show happens almost immediately, when they play the South Pacific scene along with singing “A Cockeyed Optimist,” “Twin Soliloquies” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” In the span of a mere ten minutes, one feels the full impact of the relationship between Emile de Becque and Nellie Forbush.

There are countless other high points, such as the mash-up of “April in Paris” and “April in Fairbanks,” the latter highlighted by a witty rolling chair ballet choreographed by Ann Reinking. And LuPone delivers a couple audience favorites, such as a stirring rendition of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” to end Act One and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

While LuPone is consistently enchanting, whether in dramatic or comic mode, Patinkin hits a couple screechingly off-kilter trouble spots. One of these is in his over-the-top performance of “The God-Why-Don’t-You Love-Me Blues” from Follies. Mugging insufferably, he turns this wry and rueful tune into a frenzied bit that is more endured than enjoyed. In addition, Patinkin’s falsetto croon, which he often employs, is an acquired taste. There are time when it works piercingly well and others when it just seems like he’s showing off.

But there are so many transcendent moments in Evening that the rough patches hardly matter. If you sing, or if you just listen, this is a show you shouldn’t miss.

An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin
Through May 17 at the Palace Theatre,
PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue,