Thursday, December 16, 2010

Black Nativity, Karamu

For my review of Black Nativity at Karamu, follow the link below to The Plain Dealer.

http://www.cleveland.com/arts/index.ssf/2010/12/black_nativity_gets_a_makover.html

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cirque Dreams Holidaze, PlayhouseSquare

There’s a good chance that Cirque Dreams Holidaze, now at PlayhouseSquare, will delight most younger kids, since they don’t get a chance to see circus acts every day of the year. And the costumes are certainly dazzling. But if you’re older and have a few circuses under your belt, most of this show will feel achingly familiar and sometimes even a tad boring.

To be clear, this Cirque isn’t part of the Cirque de Soleil franchise that has earned much praise over the years. This is a touring show produced by Cirque Productions, created and directed by Neil Goldberg, and it doesn’t have quite the pizzazz of the other, more famous troupe.

Most of the acts, which include a lot of handstands and jumping and prancing, are performed with skill. They just don’t dazzle. Indeed, some of the routines recall some old bits on The Ed Sullivan Show (yes, there’s a spinning-plates-on-poles routine; yes, there’s a guy building a tower of chairs, and yes, there’s a roller skating couple doing their thing on a small round platform). That’s some pretty ancient material to be dredging up.

Other acts just never go anywhere. The tightrope walker has only one trick: bouncing from his butt to his feet (over and over again) and doing maybe one or two flips. Some other folks jump a big multi-colored rope. But, hey, they’re just jumping rope.

This is supposedly tied together by three performers who do all the solo singing. Unfortunately, one of them (Jared Troilo) has about a two-note range while the other two (Kelly Pekar and Emily Matheson) have at least a couple okay moments. As for the music, the few familiar Christmas tunes are droned repetitively while the lesser known ditties are a bit strange melodically and only occasionally interesting lyrically.

As is true with most circuses, the aerial acts are the stars and so they are here, with the aerialists creating some lovely movement as they spin on straps, a rope and flowing fabric. And a clever act featuring two matched contortionists (Bing Long and Jun Long) has some spark.

It all happens on a static set filled with large inflatable toys that never really changes. So if you know some little ones who haven’t seen many circuses, this is can be a treat. For others, this show is pretty much Cirquelling the drain.

Cirque Dreams Holidaze

Through January 19 at the Palace Theatre,

PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 218-795-7000

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Beck Center

(Connor O'Brien as Joseph)

First, a small confession: I have Dreamcoat fatigue. This is a debilitating condition that builds slowly over time, with repeated exposures to this Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical. And, I assure you, the exposures are repeated—ad infinitum—by practically anyone with a stray Klieg light and some unused pancake makeup.

So I approached this latest iteration by at the Beck Center with all the enthusiasm and glee of a snail approaching an escargot factory. But, surprise, surprise! This production is infused with energy and spirit. And thanks go a couple great voices in the leads, this Dreamcoat is a kick, for kids and adults, from start to finish.

As directed by Scott Spence, this sung-through show pulses with youthful passion, as the biblical story of Joseph and his coat of many colors is laid out. It is all aided immeasurably by Trad A Burns’ spare set and richly complicated light show. Indeed, the stage is awash in so many colors, Burns’ Amazing Technicolor Lightshow makes you feel as if you’re face-planting into a huge bowl of neon gumballs (but in a good way).

The show is anchored in dazzling fashion by the supple voice of Tricia Tanguy, who plays the narrator. Her efforts are matched by Connor O’Brien as Joseph, who gives each of his songs a distinctive spin, especially “Close Every Door.” Josh Rhett Noble, Beck’s go-to guy for arrogant, testosterone-riddled dudes, has fun with Pharaoh/Elvis, and Zac Hudak as one of Joe’s brothers, Levi, adds some most-appreciated smiles in “One More Angel in Heaven.”

Spence keeps the large cast, which apparently numbers in the thousands, on track and involved. No one in the cast is mailing it in as they execute Martin Cespedes eye-catching choreography, and that generates its own particular zing.

In short, this Dreamcoat will fit you just fine. No alterations required.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Through January 2 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue,

216-521-2540

Aporkalypse, convergence-continuum

(From left: Geoffrey Hoffman as Karol, Michael Regnier as Pappaw, Scott Gorbach as JP, Marcia Mandell as Mammaw, and Tom Kondilas as one of the Pork Corp. executives)

On the competitive cooking show Top Chef, one of the more frequent criticisms of the dishes is that the cooks in question did not edit their recipes sufficiently. This usually results in a concoction that has way too many colliding flavors and textures.

Such is the case with the vaguely food-themed Aporkalypse!, a world premiere now at convergence-continuum. In it, local playwright Christopher Johnston starts with an appealing if not exactly mouth-watering premise: the awful offenses to both animals, people and the environment caused by industrial pig farming operations. But then he loads so many other ingredients onto the plate that the whole serving collapses into a muddled, tasteless mess.

Following the “let’s shoot fish in the barrel” approach to comedy, we are plopped down in the squalid southern farm house of a backwoods clan whose ratty acerage is lusted after by the local Pork Corp. But aside from the inhabitants being easy-to-mock rural yokels (the elderly parents are helpfully named Pappaw and Mammaw), there are other issues afoot. One grown son, Karol, is an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD, while his brother JP, a chaplain in the Marines, has just come home with mental problems of his own.

These are serious issues. But the playwright just uses them for sport, so that the two young men can cavort crazily, waving guns and touching off explosives at random. Okay, that would be fair enough, as long as the script turns this dark comedy into something other than theatrical exercises.

But Johnston just keeps layering on the absurdities. A couple accordion-playing (haw, haw) neighbors show up, only so they can get blowed up. And there’s a long and nonsensical scene between Karol and his suspiciously touchy-feely social worker (who later doubles as Astarte (the goddess of sexuality and war, get it?) in one of Karol’s PTSD-fueled fantasies.

Amidst all the scuzziness, as addled old Pappaw takes his dumps in the living room wastebasket, any thought of satire or relevant commentary on the supposed theme goes out the set’s plastic-sheeted window. Plus, Johnston’s incessant usage of “fuck” and “shit” displays more of a leering, adolescent fixation rather than the symphonic application of vulgarities by, say, David Mamet.

Virtually none of the blame goes to the actors, since they all do what they can with this tattered material. But director/set designer Clyde Simon appears as tone deaf as the playwright. This bottom-rung, stench-ridden hovel incongruously features a security system with multiple cameras scanning the barren property, visible on two monitors stacked by the door, along with a weirdly pristine settee placed in the middle of the room. Simon also enables some of his actors’ bad habits (Geoffrey Hoffman as Karol once again indulges his passion for spastic jumping, running into things and falling down).

One wishes Johnston would have focused more on the Pork Corp., as embodied by three identical executives, played by Tom Kondilas, who visit the farm with purchase papers in hand. Therein lies a play, and a rich vein of dark humor, if only all the other ingredients could stay on the shelf.

Aporkalypse!

Through December 19 at convergence-continuum,

2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant: Feast of Miracles, Cleveland Public Theatre

(Another subtle moment at the Restaurant)

Okay. let’s try explaining Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant: Feast of Miracles, now at Cleveland Public Theatre, this way: It’s just like having dinner at mom’s, if your mom was a really good cook but intensely weird, and had a bunch of strung-out friends dressed (and undressed) in all manner of thrift store garb who serve you a five-course meal while dancing, playing instruments, singing, and acting out bizarre little micro-dramas along with a couple dazzling spectacles.

No, that doesn’t work. Let’s try this: There’s a male bee with an English accent who’s called Mrs. Robinson, a bear that dances, a young woman named Goodi Two-Shoes who gets pregnant by a god, a doctor with no pants, a semi-threatening dude named MyStroh who often carries an ever-attentive duck, Silver3 (the 3 is silent) who is the sparkly hostess and who plays the violin and also gets pregnant, a guy named Hunter who will pour you wine before the show even though he prefers beer, General Manager Sue James who keeps all of this chaos semi-organized, and Personal Jesus who is the cook and plays a recorder.

Missed again. How about: The script (such as it is) touches on holiday traditions such as It’s A Wonderful Life and incorporates some music and dance from The Nutcracker. It also features a guy pouring heavy cream and Wild Turkey into his mouth while abusing himself with an electric mixer, orgasms played backwards, belly dancing with kitchen utensils, one girl rogering another girl roundly, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer being shot to death and then coming back to life before being de-antlered.

Crap, that doesn’t work. Try: The audience is seated at tables for ten, each table with three bottles of wine (part of the admission price, extra bottles can be purchased), the actors mill around and do mini-improvs at each table when they’re not serving or doing scenes, and they hold a ”Bus That Table” contest where one patron from each table competes to see how fast they can clear the dishes and silverware. Then they compete in a quiz show.

Forget that, let’s talk about the food. The curried butternut squash soup is delish, and there’s enough for seconds and maybe thirds. Artisanal bread is ripped off in hunks. An herbed apple and fennel salad is tasty, as are the brown-buttered radishes and sage-roasted sweet potatoes that accompany the smoked ham entree (which is OK, not great). And the drunken chocolate bundt cake is moist and luscious.

The bottom line: Whatever it is, it lasts for about three hours, it happens all around you and comes at you from every angle, you are amply provided with food and drink, and thoroughly entertained with more surprises than you can possibly imagine (Did I mention that they serve Pez candies during the salad course? Or that you get a fistful of salad dropped onto your plate from a performer’s hand wearing a surgical glove?). This show, which has landed here from another place (and perhaps another planet) is not dinner theater. What it is is anyone’s guess. But it’s wonderful. Energizing. Hilarious. Filling. Maybe brilliant.

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant is already partially sold out, so if you want to experience it you’d better hustle. Here’s a guarantee: You have never experienced anything like it. Unless, of course, your mom is a top chef and certifiably insane.

Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant: Feast of Miracles

through December 19 at Cleveland Public Theatre,

6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727

Personals Uncut: The New York Edition, Kennedy’s Theatre

(One of the 18 who are looking for love.)

We all know that cyber-personals, those online dating profiles, usually provide tiny nuggets of truth wrapped in fantasies and outright lies. That's why they all sound the same. This is understandable from the perspective of one who wants to hook up--hey, anything is fair in love and war--but it poses a problem for a play that attempts to wring chuckles and poignancy out of those ads, as does Personals Uncut: The New York Edition, now at Kennedy’s Theatre.

Written, directed and produced by Jennifer Griffin, a local woman who once lived and worked in Gotham, the show features a fairly diverse cast of 18. And that pretty much sums up the positive aspects of the evening.

These certainly appear to be good-hearted folks, and I am not particularly interested in clubbing baby seals to death. But let’s face it: obvious, repetitive and unfunny is no way to go through life, and it's an especially unfortunate approach for a supposedly comedic play.

With the exception of a couple tepid dialogue skits, each of the mostly disconnected and static blackout segments features a lovelorn person droning descriptions of themselves and their desires to the audience. Griffin’s writing, which occasionally has a glimmer of an amusing thought or a new perspective, is continually defeated by her determined parade of dating stereotypes.

Here comes the slob, the ditzy new-age gal, the dork in grandma’s basement, the gold-digger, the pot-head, the chilly intellectual bitch. And on and on. To make it even more clunky, this avalanche of familiarity is divided into two gender-specific acts, like Seventh Grade boys and girls on opposite sides of the gym at the annual dance. On the rare occasion when something unpredictable happens within a sketch, the turn isn’t supported believably in the script.

Also, there is little of the New York vibe, outside of the subtitle and some thrown-in location references. Shockingly, it seems that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and people of other more exotic dating interests don’t even exist in this bizzaro New York. Yes, one woman has a gal-crush on Rachel Ray (?), and one guy is interested in getting simultaneously and platonically naked with a female (gasp!). But everything else is standard-issue hets in heat.

Although a small handful of the performers exhibit some nascent acting chops, most of the people on stage have many scene studies ahead of them before they should attempt to again approach professional footlights.

Personals is apparently scheduled to have a longer run next year in the PlayhouseSquare complex. One can only hope that, by then, Ms. Griffin decides to divest herself of a couple of her production roles, chop away all the cookie-cutter characters, find more real actors, and focus on just a few hopeful daters with whom the audience could laugh and empathize.

Personals Uncut: The New York Edition

Through December 11, produced by Jennifer Griffin

at Kennedy’s Theatre, PlayhouseSquare,

!615 Eucild Avenue, 216-241-6000

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

From Breast Cancer to Broadway, Karamu House

(Brenda Adrine in "From Misery to a Ministry" by Lenice Bozeman one of 11 short plays in this production)

There are two kinds of people who should definitely see this show: people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and feel alone in the world and, even more importantly, women who avoid having mammograms for whatever reason. For the latter, this production could save your bacon.

As far as everyone else is concerned, From Breast Cancer to Broadway, now at Karamu House, is less a theatrical experience than an educational seminar wrapped in quick-mix emotion. Written by eleven African-American women who are breast cancer survivors, the micro-plays eschew believable character development for fast snapshots of people who could only become fully three-dimensional given more time on stage and more skillful playwriting chops.

This is not to minimize in any way what the authors have accomplished: they aren’t professional playwrights, nor do they choose to be. They are simply conveying their heartfelt thoughts on how breast cancer can affect those afflicted, as well as their friends and family. Many of the vignettes touch on the power of religion to help people find a path out of the darkness. And that is to be respected in full.

The plays are written by Kim Sadler, Lenice Bozeman, Loretta Embry, Cheryl Williams, Rose Dukes, DeVonna White, Sabrina Heath, Bernadette Scruggs, Cordi Stokes, Linda Wood-Wims, and Denise Richmond-Kelley. Script supervisor Bridgette Wimberly has brought the pieces together, after they were written as part of playwriting therapy at The Gathering Place, a breast cancer support group. And clearly, each of the playwrights has something important to communicate.

However, theater is not Western Union (or texting). And being hammered with messages for a couple hours, even necessary and valuable messages, can eventually lose its appeal.

Director Terrence Spivey helps some of his performers achieve nice moments. Stephanie Stovall appears as the same character in three different sketches, and she is a treat. Alternately fierce and funny, she makes her scenes click. Joyce M. Meadows is lovely as an Alzheimer’s patient, and Saidah Mitchell is also effective in the final playlet. But most of the actors are stuck in one-dimensional roles that are structured to teach, which is not the usual task of characters in a play.

So if you’re in the target groups mentioned above, by all means see this collection of deeply felt short works. Hey, it just might save your life, or the life of someone you love.

From Breast Cancer to Broadway

Through November 21 at the Karamu House,

2355 East 89th St., 216-795-7077

Thursday, October 28, 2010

An Orchard, Cleveland Play House/Case Western Reserve University

(Kelli Ruttle as Ranyevskaya and Eva Gil as Varya)

If people were like trees, we’d never forget a single thing. That is a beauty of nature: no matter the storms it endures, it continually replicates itself in every detail, even as it grows. Meanwhile, humans are destined to get older and bigger but misremember important occurrences from the past, be tortured by others, and just flat out forget still more. From that standpoint, compared to nature we’re not even qualified to be a respectable weed.

In The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov marries those thoughts in, what for him, was a comical play verging on farce. It’s the story of an aristocratic but now penniless Russian family whose vast estate, with its fabulous orchard of cherry trees, will be auctioned off to pay their debts. While being stabbed with piercing moments of clarity about their pasts, and the hurts that reside there, they must deal with the present—and with glorious natural surroundings that seem to mock their meager attempts at coping.

In a modest bow to the many interpretations of this play, this Cleveland Play House production in association with Case Western Reserve University is simply called An Orchard. As it turns out, that is apt since the shortened title is mirrored by the fact that the number of characters has been substantially pruned, while also trimming some of the emotional wallop that this story can generate.

Director Mark Alan Gordon, who compiled the adaptation along with the graduate ensemble of 2012, helps his cast find much of the humor in Chekhov’s words. But the young actors miss a number of the nuances that should lift this tale above the ordinary.

When Lubov Andreyenva Ranyevskaya, nicknamed Lovey, returns to her family’s estate, along with her brother Gaev and her grown daughter Anya, the atmosphere is bittersweet. Gathering in the child’s nursery, a memory-inducing setting if there ever was one, Lovey is confronted with the ugly current reality by Lopakhin, a merchant who formerly worked as a servant on the grounds of the estate. He urges Lovey to divide the estate into small parcels, to sell as plots for vacation homes.

But Lovey is a woman caught between forces she doesn’t understand. Spending freely and irresponsibly has been her way of life, and now that change has arrived she can’t bend with the wind. As a result she, her family and friends, and even servants are ripe for destruction.

In the complex role of Ranyevskaya, Kelli Ruttle hits a variety of separate notes with great style, and her rendition of "When the World Was Young" at the start of Act Two is affecting. But there isn’t enough subtext to convey this woman’s full and often contrary persona. Flamboyant and haunted, generous and controlling, Lovey is really a piece of work, which is only glimpsed here in part.

As Lopakhin, Dan Hendrock has energy to burn as this driven and aspiring man. And his delivery feels a bit stilted and considered, as it would for a man who feels somewhat out of his element. But in his climactic scene, when he announces his purchase of the estate, there is joy and amazement but not enough anger borne of his rage at his humble history in that place.

Andrew Gorell, in the role of Gaev, enjoyably trumpets his wordy flourishes, but he doesn’t quite capture the childish arrogance of a man who has never fully grown up. Michael Herbert essays the “eternal student” Trofimov with a rumpled sort of idealism, and the adopted daughter/estate manager Varya is played by Eva Gil with repressed anger. But she could do more with the moment when she throws her house keys down in disgust, before she is about to be thrown out the door. Yan Tual triggers some chuckles as Firs, the nearly deaf manservant, but his shuffling old man schtick, although a nice homage to Tim Conway, gets a little tired.

At first glance, the set design by Jill Davis is stunning, with audience seating arranged in a circle, in a tall space draped with heavy curtains and lighted with chandeliers. There are also several birch tree trunks that extend from floor to ceiling, bringing the essence of nature into these living quarters.

Upon reflection, however, the set is less appealing since it does not suggest a nursery in any significant way. And the trees, while amazing to look at, seem firm and stalwart—just the opposite of cherry blossoms that are fragile and easily destroyed, which is part of the playwright’s central metaphor.

An Orchard is just that, one more take on The Cherry Orchard that is delightful in places, but that feels a bit too condensed to be thoroughly satisfying.

An Orchard

Through November 6 at the Cleveland Play House,

produced in association with Case Western Reserve

University, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Kill Will, Cleveland Public Theatre

(Josh Brown and Kelly Elliott)

Chances are, if you brought a Shakespeare devotee together with a young person hooked on movies such as Slaughtered Vomit Dolls and Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, the conversation might not go swimmingly. But oddly enough, they each occupy common ground in their entertainment passions when it comes to one thing: violence.

It's no news that there is ample gore in the works of The Bard, and those skewerings, beheadings and poisonings are the sum total of what appears in Kill Will, directed by Alison Garrigan, now at the Cleveland Public Theatre.

Show creators and sole performers Josh Brown and Kelly Elliott gather some of the more gruesome moments from Shakespeare’s plays, spin them with a froth of contemporary cultural references, and then act them out using their talents as fight choreographers. The hour-long result, depending how you look at it, is either a very amusing gym class or a less than absorbing but mildly entertaining theatrical event.

With a video screen announcing the plays from which bloody scenes are lifted, Brown and Elliott toss each other onto the (padded) floor, bounce their faces off walls and columns, and generally create mayhem. As they abuse each other, they work in modern allusions to movies such as Star Wars and self-defense equipment (Desdemona brandishes pepper spray).

Some of the bits are inspired, such as a video game sequence with Macbeth done as Mortal Kombat as we watch the game characters on the screen do each other in, complete with spurting blood. And Titus Andronicus is awash in sparkly red plasma.

Other scenes are yawners, including a battle with poles, “armed” with pillows on each end, which turns out to be about as fearsome as it sounds. And an attempt to do Richard III with stuffed animals is promising until it becomes clear there is no further wit at work other than the concept itself.

Actually, the script for Kill Will has a number of clever, inside references to Shakespeare and his works. But it could use more of those, which could hlep this piece rise, more often than it does, above a silly sort of calisthenics.

As you might imagine, the show also includes audience participation. But clench not thy teeth: it actually works. Indeed, on this night a couple things the audience members improvised to portray Shakespearean suicides were funnier than what the performers thought up.

The actors themselves (who are married to each other) are an odd fit. Brown has an agreeable affect, with a sly smile never far away, that makes him easy to like. But Elliott relies too much on yelling for projection, and on a grimace for facial expression. It’s not clear if she’s supposed to be the “bad guy” or she just comes across that way. In any case, the combination feels slightly off-center. There is also a subtle marital subtext to all of this, but it doesn't work and just gets in the way.

Anyhow, if you’re in the mood for a non-demanding evening, with tons of non-violent violence, then Kill Will should do the trick.

Kill Will

Through October 30 at Cleveland Public Theatre,

6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Don’t Call Me Fat, Cleveland Public Theatre

(From left: Lissy Gulick, Kevin S. Charnas, and Lew Wallace)

First, let’s get one thing straight. I am not capable in any way of attempting to write a satire of Turkish culture, in their language, and have it ring true to people in Ankara. Hell, I couldn’t even get one sentence written. So I stand in awed respect for anyone who can try to accomplish a similar daunting task.

That said, the issue around Don’t Call Me Fat, a play by visiting Turkish playwright Ozen Yula now receiving its world premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre, is whether this send-up of America’s gluttonous ways works. And sadly, it doesn’t. Sure, it’s excessively long, but the problem isn’t that the play is wordy. It’s that the words consistently fail to amuse, entertain, or enlighten.

Oh, there are some momentary shocks, to be sure. Since the morbidly obese John Doe (really? John Doe?) spends all his first act time in a hospital bed, his crazy relative Jane Doe (Lissy Gulick) blisters him with a litany of f-bombs and fat-boy insults. And those can generate some nervous laughter, simply from their frontal outrageousness.

But obesity is a subject that’s been chewed over in the U.S. damn near constantly for many decades, and it’s hard to find a new way to satirize it. Playwright and director Yula attempts this in part by giving John (Kevin S. Charnas) an invisible friend—a young woman, Joanne (Faye Hargate), dressed as a Playboy bunny on a swing above him. Joanne is prone to drift off into little stories that delight corpulent John but which are less than enthralling for the audience. There are also predictable parodies of the "helping" professions such as psychologists and physicians.

Many of the jumbled references in the play seem as dated as the Playboy bunny riff. In the second act, John has been magically transformed into a lean stud, and a craven TV producer (Lew Wallace) is trying to make buff John the hot new folk hero in America. Problem is, the play tries to do this by lampooning a clunky TV show style that went out with This Is Your Life more than 50 years ago, bringing on guests from John’s past including his drunken and deluded mother. Clumsy and nearly unintelligible video clips, which are half-obscured by the set, don't help. Neither does the shaggy dog ending.

There are multiple elements in this show that might, conceivably, work together given some rigorous editing and rewriting. But the playwright is heading back to Turkey soon, so that seems unlikely.

Word has it that Yula’s visit has been edifying for those who have interacted with him. Let’s hope that is true, because the seven on-stage cast members give their all for his play. But the flabby Don’t Call Me Fat is suffering from advanced theatrical arteriosclerosis, and the prognosis isn’t promising.

Don’t Call Me Fat

Through October 30 at the Cleveland

Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue,

216-631-2727

Monday, September 27, 2010

An Ideal Husband, Lakeland Civic Theatre

( Katherine DeBoer as Mabel and Diane Mull as Lady Chiltern)

If you prefer your Oscar Wilde with a whiff of social relevance, then An Ideal Husband might be your cup of tea. It deals with an instance of political intrigue that ignites a blackmail plot, which is a lot of heavy lifting for a playwright whose wealthy characters usually just indulge in trivial and insanely witty banter while munching cucumber sandwiches.

And if this is your kind of play, you have two chances to see it. The Great Lakes Theater Festival opens their version on Saturday, October 2, and the Lakeland Civic Theatre’s production is up and running now. While the Lakeland effort struggles to find its pace in the rather lengthy first act, things perk up after intermission and a Wildean good time is had by (almost) all.

Sir Robert Chiltern, an apparent paragon of virtue, is waylaid at a party by Mrs. Cheveley, a snarky woman who knows a secret in Chiltern’s past. It seems Chiltern sold a state secret for the money that continues to finance his luxurious lifestyle. For her own financial reasons, she forces Chiltern to reverse his negative report on the Suez Canal, lest she release the proof of his previous indiscretion.

Meanwhile, Chiltern’s best pal, Viscount Goring, goes meandering about as an air-headed dandy, the scourge of his father, the Earl of Caversham (Michael Rogan). Goring has most of the best lines, structured in the familiar tempo Wilde uses. As he observes: “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.”

As Chiltern and Cheveley battle it out, Chiltern’s wife (a steely yet loving Diane Mull) stands by her man, until facts, intercede, and Goring tries to woo Chiltern’s lovely sister Mabel.

The Lakeland cast battles to a draw with the first half of the play, as the actors try to find their footing. In the central role of Sir Robert, Jeffery Grover provides a solid presence. But his fencing with Mrs. Cheveley doesn’t spark as it should, because Jennifer Davies, as Cheveley, delivers many of her lines with an unchanging tempo and a single facial expression trapped somewhere between a sneer and a wince. Playing a nasty person should be a lark, but here it seems a chore.

On the other hand, Katherine DeBoer as Mabel is a delight, capturing the frivolous essence of Wilde’s words. In the smaller role of Lady Markby, Maria Thomas Lister also has a fine time with her few speeches, tossing them off with just the right upper-crust attitude.

In the juicy part of Goring, who is really a thinly disguised Wilde, Doug Kusak labors (under a wig as thick as a beaver pelt) to find his character, failing to take enough chances with shape and texture in delivering the clever wordplay. But Kusak comes out of his shell after intermission, cranking up the energy and turning Goring into an impish cad with a heart of gold.

Even though the play, at more than 2 ½ hours, is a good deal longer than it should be, director Martin Friedman keeps everyone on point so that the laughs Wilde is due eventually come through.

An Ideal Husband

Through October 10 at Lakeland Civic Theatre,

Lakeland Community College, 7700 Clocktower Drive,

Kirtland, 440-525-7526

Monday, September 20, 2010

Closure, Karamu House

(Shambrion Treadwell)

A single line from this production sums up the trauma of losing one’s home to the ravenous forces of our financial meltdown: “Foreclosure papers shredded, left on the lawn.” You can feel the frustration and anger that throbs in those few words.

That is just one of many telling thoughts in Closure by Mary Weems, now at Karamu House. This collection of poems—performed alongside and weaved into snatches of music, dance, singing and yodeling (!)—is an intriguing production. Most of the short poems are written in the voices of a variety of inanimate objects, the things that people leave behind when forced to abandon their homes.

This is a challenging format to sustain, since there are no characters to follow and no way to build tension. But under the direction of Terrence Spivey, aided by fluid choreography by Dianne McIntyre and evocative photographs by R.A. Washington, the 80-minute performance (with an essentially unnecessary intermission) manages to sustain interest for much of the time.

Plenty of objects have thoughts they want to share, including a drawer, a hairbrush, a light bulb, a hallway, and many more. Since the poems are fairly brief, these snapshot observations go down easily. On the flip side, the bite-sized bits (there are 27 of them) begin to get repetitive and you start to long for some interaction with the real people who were affected.

The six-person ensemble includes Rodney Freeman, Cameron Dashiell, Amanda Lanier, Saidah Mitchell, Shambrion Treadwell and Kyle Carthens. Each has featured moments and they all perform seamlessly as a group, lending the evening a sense of unity the material itself doesn’t supply.

Ultimately, the clever premise devours itself, since objects can’t grow, change or rage against these sad situations. And that drains a lot of passion from the proceedings. Still, the production is often enthralling, lovely to look at, and even quite amusing. And that ain’t half bad.

Closure

Through October 10 at Karamu House,

2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7077

Friday, September 17, 2010

Altar Boyz, True North at French Creek

(The Boyz from left: Colin Bigley, Matthew Ryan Thompson, Josh Rhett Noble, Eric Fancher, and Alex Arroyo)

Even though the whole “make a word plural with a z” thing is totally played, the up-beat musical Altar Boyz, now being produced by True North at French Creek, can still generate a lot of grinz. This tuneful romp about five diverse young dudes in a Christian rock band oozes with charm, mixing sincere God talk with enough wry asides and winks so that even agnostics and atheists in the audience can find a foothold.

The music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker dominate, since the whole show is presented as a concert in progress. The differentiating gimmick is that there’s a computerized, glowing cross that shows how many audience souls have been saved from the clutches of Satan. If you feel a cringe coming on, relax. It’s all executed with boyish verve and none of the fundamentalist fervor that can get downright scary.

Four of the five chaps are named Matthew, Mark, Luke and Juan (you’ll never guess, he’s Hispanic!). And they are joined by Abraham, a wandering Jew who stumbles upon the group and is taken in because he knows how to write lyrics. These personalities, as written by book author Kevin Del Aguila, are one-dimensional, and it’s up to the performers to shake that shallowness and make these guys come alive. In this task, the True North cast is only partly successful.

The group is led by the (supposedly) pure-of-spirit Matthew, played by Josh Rhett Noble who is reprising a role he played at Beck Center a couple years ago. Noble sings well in a gentle, lyrical way—his “Something About You” solo is a tender highlight—and he establishes a firm center for the other players. Matthew Ryan Thompson makes the most of Mark, a juicy role since he’s the token gay boy who’s smitten with a non-comprehending Matthew. Thompson is always on point with his characterization, and he gives his star turn, double-meaning song “Epiphany” a rockin’ good feeling.

As Juan, Alex Arroyo starts off a bit heavy handed, making too much of the guttural “j” sounds as he teeters on caricature. But he gradually loosens up and turns an emotional event in the second act into a surprisingly affecting moment.

Eric Fancher plays Luke, the “bad boy,” but he never takes enough risks and one never senses the real rough side of this potentially interesting character. Luke should be generating constant friction with the other “do-gooders,” but that tension never develops. And Colin Bigley is largely transparent as Abraham, failing to find a through line for his character. Since he is a linchpin in the play’s climax, where the boys face a tough decision, this concluding moment fails to resonate.

Although the individual performances vary in quality, the boys are sharp when doing their group numbers. The voices blend pleasingly and they execute director/choreographer Sarah Clare’s often inventive dance moves with energy and precision. They are supported in fine fashion by music director Jordan Cooper’s tight four-member band.

Performed in a spacious theater/gallery in a handsome nature center facility, this show wears it’s belief openly and proudly. And it’s often quite a blast, even if you are a heathen.

Altar Boyz

Produced by True North Cultural Arts

at the French Creek Nature Center,

4530 Colorado Ave., Sheffield Village,

440-949-5200

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Say You Love Satan, convergence-continuum

(Lukas Roberts as Jack and Scott Gorbach as Andrew)

If falling for a “bad boy” is compellingly attractive to many women and gay men, then being swept away by the son of Satan himself would have to qualify as the ultimate hard-on. Especially if that hellacious offspring was hot, smart, and able to chill a bottle of beer with a wave of his hand.

This is the situation that forms the core of Say You Love Satan by Roberto Aguirre-Sacassa, now at convergence-continuum. And while the play revolves around a contemporary incarnation of beelzebub, it never comes to grip in any significant way with a number of heavy issues raised on the periphery. Instead, the focus here is on laughs, and the con-con crew delivers plenty of those thanks to fine performances and deft timing.

Andrew is a kind of nebbishy gay guy who is between relationships (with nice Jarrod and egomaniacal Chad), and re-reading The Brothers Karamozov in a laundromat. In steps Jack, who proceeds to strip to the waist and starts doing pushups while waiting for his clothes to cycle. Andrew is instantly smitten by Jack’s other-worldly gorgeousness, and soon they are spending the evenings together.

This new relationship shunts wonderful Jarrod (he volunteers at an orphanage where he holds babies that have been neglected) off to the side. But Andrew is a bit bothered by Jack’s “666” tattoo in his hairline, and his difficulty in walking when the sun’s about to rise.

As Andrew and Jack grow closer, things heat up in unforeseen ways and Andrew’s gal pal Bernadette is called upon to help save her buddy from the fires of the damned. And further assistance comes winging in from a most unexpected source.

The playwright sprinkles plenty of punch lines throughout the script (Jack: “Are you Russian?” Andrew: “No, I’m just sullen.”), and even when the gags are predictable, they manage to click. This is due in large part to Scott Gorbach, who invests Andrew with just enough earnest naivete to make his character endearing and relatable. For instance, Andrew insists on keeping his eyes open during a kiss, which becomes hilarious during his frequent lip-locks with Jack.

As Jack, Lukas Roberts has a sizzling bod and a matching manner that will steam your glasses (and if you don't wear specs, he'll fog up your corneas). He’s a passionate, sexy handful, and when his amorous smoldering turns into flames of anger, you can feel the raging heat. Ultimately, when Jack’s real identity is revealed, Roberts has the acting chops to make it feel real.

Zac Hudak, double cast as the preening Chad and surprise visitor Raphael, is spot-on in both roles, while Stuart Hoffman is wistfully charming as angelic Jarrod. Lauren B. Smith garners a number of laughs as the put upon Bernadette, although her high decibel rants become a bit wearying.

The script works hard to develop a thematic connection between the patricide-centered plot of the Dostoyevsky novel that Andrew lugs around and Jack’s supposed conflict with his dad, but this juxtaposition never quite jells. This makes Andrew’s frequent mini-lectures on The Brothers Karamozov a bit of a bore.

And ironically, for a play that makes fun of Disney musicals (Jack admits there’s a special place in Hell for people in those productions), Aguirre-Sacassa tacks on a pat, smiley-face ending that doesn’t really feel true to the characters he’s created. Indeed, it’s a conclusion the Disney studios might have dreamt up.

Director Clyde Simon once again reshapes his small playing area to maximum effect, and keeps the pace brisk and amusing. However, con-con's obsession with using video in all their plays is once again a loser, as the video segments are either unnecessary (people dancing in a bar while live actors dance in a bar) or tedious (watching Jack and Andrew exit a car and walk across a street, watching laundry tumble).

Still, there are giggles aplenty in this piece. And that makes it easy for anyone to love this particular six-packed, stone cold sexy Satan.

Say You Love Satan

Through September 25, produced by convergence-

continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road,

216-687-0074

Friday, July 30, 2010

Song of the Seekers, Cleveland Public Theatre’s Student Theatre Enrichment Program (STEP)

STEP right up, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, and stop by a Cleveland city park for a galvanizing performance of Song of the Seekers by 27 talented teenagers. Working with director Chris Seibert and other Cleveland Public Theatre teaching artists, these students have adapted an ancient Indian text and made it compelling and contemporary.

This is free family theater, presented by the students in CPT’s STEP Program, and their hard work has culminated in an entertaining hour-long show. Employing a variety of musical formats from beat boxing to “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” the show follows a group of poets and a troupe of entertainers as they merge, flare up against each other, and eventually explore what it means to be an artist as well as an individual of worth.

This large cast has a lot on its plate, but it handles the often stylized movement with the energy and precision this kind of presentation requires. Plus, the actors enunciate clearly so that very few words are lost, even when nearby trains or trucks rumble past (one of the challenges of open-air productions).

Among the Poets, David Lewis Jr. as Ares and Michael McNairy as Leachim handle most of the heavy lifting as the story unspools, and soon we are introduced to Christopher Dooms as the arrogant and charismatic King Palaka (or “King P,” as he prefers). The King’s singers and dancers, dubbed KPEC for King Palaka’s Entertainment Company, have a new star, the beautiful Vasa, played with a nice mix of strength and vulnerability by Janette Patterson.

Trouble is, there are two guys with their eyes on Vasa: the poet Charudat (an engaging Dionte Sawyer) and the King’s bro Roofis (Marcus Howard in an amusingly boastful performance). Charudat is shadowed by his best friend Maitreya, rendered with comical goofiness (and irrepressible hunger) by Malcolm Keenon.

Amongst the songs and dances, other performers make themselves known. Isaiah Cancel is loose and limber as the gambler Lewie, who can predict the future with his dice, and Shalese Thornton exhibits excellent concentration, never breaking character as she sings and cavorts as a “court jester.”

Biana Carr is effective as Vasa’s best friend Sookie, and Bianca Carr registers the right amount of authority as Vasa’s mother Yaya. Kalim Hill skulks with the best of them as the thief Bartimus and Chatiana Moore is a powerful presence as Shanda, Charudat’s sister.

The rest of the exciting company includes Jocelyn Newkirt, Brianna Larkins, Jawan Rustin, Sean Eafford, Darryle Barnes, Olivia Winsteard, Nate Woodland, Dawon Taylor, Matthew McNeal, Tyisha George, Jasmine Harris, Christian McGinnis, Essence Flores and Syeed Selmon.

These performances are free and easily accessible, so stop by, bring a blanket or lawn chair, and see what an outstanding group of young people have been doing with their summer. You’ll be delighted!

Song of the Seekers

Produced by the CPT STEP Program.

Through August 8, free, at local parks.

Visit here for the schedule and locations.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling so Sad, CSU Summer Stages

(Eric Perusek as Jonathan and Everett Quinton as Madame Rosepettle)

First of all, no, the title isn’t a metaphor. It’s actually one of the strange things that happen, quite literally, in Arthur Kopit’s psycho-absurdist farce. First performed about 50 years ago, this play is a parody of Freudian psychology and all its extenuating effects on sex, family and relationships. And this production at CSU Summer Stages, although overcooked in parts, triggers much of this work’s dark comedy that still retains its punch.

The domineering and despicable Madame Rosepettle is traveling through the Caribbean with her neurotic, stuttering and barely functional grown son Jonathan in tow. She constantly refers to him using one of her dead husband’s several names while dad himself is never far away—stuffed and hanging in the closet when he isn’t tucked into his traveling coffin.

By keeping sonny under lock and key, and then allowing him some restricted face time with the mysterious and sensuous Rosalie, mommy attempts to protect Jonathan from the evil world—inside her head. Seeking companionship of her own, she wines and dines Commodore Roseabove, an older gentleman who is first smitten and then repulsed as Madame reveals herself.

As Rosepettle, Everett Quinton handles his cross-gender task with teeth-clenching intensity. This approach feels a bit over-torqued in the first act, as mom and boy set up housekeeping with her vicious menagerie: a piranha and two Venus flytraps, each played by actors. Similarly, Eric Perusek as Jonathan is working his Aspergers-like mannerisms so hard early on that we can’t glimpse the character underneath.

However, both performers ease up a little in the second act and the gears of the farce start to engage. Rosepettle’s scene with Roseabove, works exceptionally well, thanks to Quinton’s hypnotically malevolent monolog about Madame’s first hubby, and George Roth, who gives the Commodore a sweet innocence that wilts under Rosepettle’s onslaught.

Perusek feels much more genuinely vulnerable in the second act as he reaches a climax (not the kind you might expect) with Rosalie. As Rosalie, Jillian Bumpas plays it all a bit too straight, not allowing us to see any of this woman’s shadows until her last scene.

Director Scott Spence keeps the pace brisk (helpful, since the play is overwritten in parts) and uses a clever playlist of florid tunes (Bolero, all during the intermission) to highlight the weird unreality of these goings-on. If you’re in the mood for some good old 1960’s style absurdist fun, this might just be your ticket.

Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling so Sad

July 30 and August 6, CSU Summer Stages,

CSU Factory Theatre, Chester Ave. and E. 23 St.,

216-687-2109

Monday, July 19, 2010

Hunter Gatherers, convergence-continuum

(From left: Lauren B. Smith, Geoffrey Hoffman, and Tom Kondilas)

There’s a paper-thin veneer that separates us civilized folks from the more base and primitive selves that lurk just below the surface. Don’t believe it? Just have the power grid go down for a couple weeks and see how you and your neighbors start behaving.

In Hunter Gatherers by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, now being staged by convergence-continuum, the playwright throws two couples together at their annual wedding anniversary dinner. And it quickly turns into a raucously funny, highly sexualized farce that's played with loopily unhinged brio by the con-con cast.

Richard & Pam and Tom & Wendy shared a double wedding some years ago and now, in their mid-30s, they pursue apparently conventional urban lifestyles. Except that, from the first moment of the play at Richard and Pam's home, we realize the civilizing veneer has been lifted. Richard has brought home a live lamb, which remains unseen in a tall box, and proceeds to slit the animal’s throat so he can turn it into an entree.

From that point on, all bets are off as we are presented these characters’ true natures without any of the usual filtering. Wendy arrives by herself, since her physician husband is searching for a parking space, and we know within moments that their marriage is kaput, sexually and in every other way. Indeed, Wendy is hot for Richard and quickly tries to maneuver herself into his clutches.

Once Tom arrives, Richard wrestles him to the ground, symbolically pissing on him to claim his turf. And so it goes, abetted by the playwright’s clever and incisive dialog, until there is more than just psychological carnage, and a surprising survivor stumbles away to live another day in the jungle we call life.

The performances are both broad and subtle, and are divided evenly among the cast. On the broad side, Geoffrey Hoffman makes Richard a hyper-masculine stud-on-steroids, ready to fuck, kill or cook anything in sight. A putative artist, he soon decides his real art centers on crotch-related activities. Laurel Johnson’s Wendy is his female equivalent, swinging from manic highs to desperate lows, and only seeking to pork Richard at the first opportunity.

Those two hunters are married, as luck would have it, to a couple gatherers. As Tom, Tom Kondilas is sensible and restrained until a bedroom scene with Pam unleashes his submissive side, with unfortunate consequences. And Lauren B. Smith simmers effectively as Pam until all hell breaks loose in the second act.

Directed by Clyde Simon, Hunter Gatherers challenges our view of civilized behavior while making us laugh at our own artificial social constructs. And you leave the theater musing on how little it might take for any of us to be reduced to our more primitive instincts.

Hunter Gatherers

Through August 14, produced by convergence-continuum

at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074