Monday, March 15, 2010

Speech & Debate, Dobama Theatre

(Shelby Bartelstein, Nicholas Varricchio and Nick Pankuch)

Time was, more than 25 years ago, the outcasts in high school were neither seen nor heard. But since the Revenge of the Nerds franchise and the Freaks and Geeks TV show, not to mention numerous other spin offs, the dorks and dweebs have been getting their full measure of attention.

And they’re back at it again in Speech & Debate by Stephen Karam, now at Dobama Theatre. Given a boost by incorporating some of the current cyber-technology that obsesses adolescents these days, this play has an energetic and youthful vibe. But even with all its edgy sexuality, the piece ultimately seems too overwritten to do the characters justice.

In an attempt to update the familiar tale of picked-upon goobers in the hellish environs of high school, playwright Karam puts gay sex on the front burner. Of the three kids in the show, 18-year-old Howie is out and proud, cruising chat rooms for hookups. Meanwhile, studious Solomon is pursuing two different gay-themed stories as a reporter for the school newspaper: one involving the town’s Republican mayor who’s evidently hitting on young boys and one about a teacher in the school who has similar tastes.

The third teen, a punkish girl named Diwata, is pissed that the drama teacher Mr. Healy won’t cast her in a lead, and wails her frustration on her “monoblog,” accompanied by three repeating chords from her Casio keyboard.

There is plenty going on here, including nerd-on-nerd blackmail and their active fantasy lives—involving a gay take on Cain and Abel, a gay Abe Lincoln, and a Salem witch based on Idina Menzel who starred in Broadway’s Wicked. And God knows the kids each talk about their feelings, to themselves and each other, sometimes for far too long. But the plot contrivances—including the fact that they form an unlikely three-member speech and debate team that culminates in a ferociously wacky performance—begin to overwhelm the characters.

Also, by isolating this trio of “losers” in their own warm incubator (other students are hardly ever present), the script allows the teens to only deal with conflicts of their own making. But those missing confrontations with the “straight” kids are the ones that often cut to the heart of the agony for most young misfits.

This ambitious, often clever but flawed material is redeemed to a degree by the three talented young performers, under the direction of Scott Plate. Shelby Bartelstein is consistently amusing as Diwata, strong-arming the other two when she isn’t crooning her misery into her on-line journal. And she has the most poignant line, when she observes, “I lost my virginity with my sweatshirt on.”

As Howie, Nick Pankuch affects few gay mannerisms and seems quietly confident in his sexual identity—perhaps eerily so given his still tender age. And Nicholas Varricchio does a creditable job as Solomon, a character that has less pizzazz than the others.

The only truly odd note is struck by the lone adult in the cast, as the accomplished actor Elizabeth Ann Townsend over-torques both her roles, as a teacher and a newspaper/NPR reporter. She is so over the top, one wishes there were a school security guard with a Taser handy to bring her down about four notches.

After a stumbling conclusion, involving one or two scenes too many, Speech & Debate finally seems like a collection of really neat ideas that still needs to be honed into a tight evening of theater. But kudos to Dobama for giving it a spirited showing.

Speech & Debate

Through April 4 at Dobama Theatre,

2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Hts.,


Thursday, March 11, 2010

‘Til Death Do Us Part: Late Nite Catechism 3, PlayhouseSquare

(Mary Zentmyer in high and righteous dudgeon.)

Q. When is a play not a play?

A. When it is an extended schtick plumped up with formulaic ad-libs and a smattering of scripted material that is either dated or just boring.

That’s why the laboriously titled play (see above) now at PlayhouseSquare's 14th Street Theatre is not really a play. This is the third iteration of these Catholic drolleries, assembled somewhat haphazardly by Maripat Donavan, each featuring a nun with a habit for schoolmarm-ish put downs.

Structured as a catechism class, the Sister touches on the seven sacraments, with a particular emphasis this time around on marriage and the reward that awaits (good Catholics) after they tip over. The scripted part of the show also throws in some oddball references to space exploration and some alien nonsense.

To cut to the chase, the only way these shows work is if the single performer playing the Sister can brook no nonsense, playfully, as she gently jabs and prods the audience members who are her “students.”

Even when you know that most of her ad-libs are ones she has recycled from many previous performances, Mary Zentmyer manages to keep the two-hour class bubbling with fun. Raising an eyebrow at one young woman who has been engaged for two years, Sister observes, “You’re burning up your pretty time, dear.”

Constantly correcting her charges for not responding in complete sentences, not addressing her as Sister, and for chewing gum (the culprit had to put the wad on her nose), Zentmyer is in complete control.

It all wraps up with a Newlywed Game-style contest between two couples that have to match each other’s answers. And as predictable as that sounds, hilarity really does ensue.

So if you’re in the mood for a completely undemanding evening of smiles and laughs—and maybe a little humiliation if you’re picked to participate—this show is, as always, heaven sent.

‘Til Death Do Us Part: Late Nite Catechism 3

Through March 28 at the 14th Street Theatre,

PlayhouseSquare, 2037 E. 14 Street,


Monday, March 8, 2010

Beautiful Ohio, Ensemble Theatre

(All in all, this map might be more interesting than the play of the same name.)

At times, one tires of plays about family dysfunction, since it seems playwrights contort themselves trying to come up with weird individuals engaged in strange family dynamics. As exhausting as that can sometimes be, it seems that the reverse is many times worse.

Take Beautiful Ohio, now at the Ensemble Theatre. In it, an older couple, John and Martha, finds love letters the wife’s mother had exchanged with her father back around 1912. As those two (played by Jeanne Task and Peter Toomey) read the letters--the lovers were separated by some 200 miles--we see the missives come to “life” in flashbacks of Clara and Fred, when they were young and smitten.

At times, the lovebirds (played by Christina Dennis and Jack Matuszewski) speak with each other, in person or on the phone, but usually they’re just reading from their letters. For the first hour of this 75-minute production, all four of these people are really nice, and they treat each other really nicely, and they seem to have really nice times together. And that’s, you know, nice. Really.

But the play has about as much dramatic tension as a Baby Einstein video. This would almost be acceptable if the letters themselves pulsed with poignancy and poetic insight. Instead, what we get are long strings of bland endearments interspersed with a load of logistics: if Fred will be visiting from Cleveland, what date he’ll arrive, where he’ll get a reservation to stay overnight.

Adapted by director John Kolibab from the original, which was written by Mary Bill about her parents, the script for Beautiful Ohio is not only mundane, it is repetitive. Then, in the waning minutes, Clara is caught in the 1913 Ohio River Flood that killed several hundred people. Of course, we know Clara survived because her grown daughter is sitting in the attic, reading her letters. So, no need to adjust your Pacemaker.

The acting here ranges from competent to unfortunate, but we needn’t get into specifics. Rare is the actor of any expertise who could turn these vapid characters into anything resembling real people.

The motives for producing this play are no doubt noble, since Ms. Bill was active in Cleveland theater (and with Ensemble) during her life. But the play in question is closer to a vanity piece, more appropriate for viewing by the Bill family and close friends, rather than as a presentation for the general public.

On the positive side, with this production Ensemble Theatre has weathered their first season after the deaths of their founders, Lucia and Licia Colombi. That had to be difficult, so hat’s off to Artisitc Director Bernard Canepari and Managing Director Martin Cosentino for keeping the good ship Ensemble sailing forward.

For next season, all we wish for Ensemble are great scripts, talented actors and directors, and the resources to return to the best quality traditions of this much-needed theatrical venue.

Beautiful Ohio

Through March 21, produced by the

Ensemble Theatre, at the Cleveland Play House,

8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-321-2930

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Xanadu, PlayhouseSquare

It’s not really necessary to have a musical that makes fun of the 1980s. That decade did the job all by itself, with the release of the nuclear cheeseball movie Can't Stop the Music (featuring Bruce Jenner! In hot pants!) and the terminally sappy The Blue Lagoon. But if you're going to mount a stage musical tribute to a lousy movie, it should offer a chance for some guilt-free fun.

All the elements are there to generate that kind of thigh-slapping glee in Xanadu, a take-off of the campy train wreck of a movie starring Olivia Newton-John. But for some reason, all the coy, meta put-downs and jokey references never quite coalesce in this touring production, now at the Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare.

Clio the Muse decides to float downfrom Mount Olympus to Venice, California with some of her sister Muses to help Sonny, who’s struggling with his chalk rendering of, well, themselves. Disguised as a roller skating ditz with leg warmers and Farrah hair, Clio takes on the identity of Kira, an Australian gal out for fun and frolic.

When an inspired but dense Sonny decides to open a roller disco in an abandoned club conveniently called Xanadu, the owner of the property, clarinetist-turned-wealthy-magnate Danny Maguire, is brought into the mix. Meanwhile, a couple of Clio’s sisters, namely the trash-talking Melpomene and clumsy Calliope instigate a plot to make Clio fall in love with Sonny and draw the lightning bolt ire of daddy Zeus.

Threaded through with ELO tunes and other pop songs of the time (“Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic"), the show should be a non-stop festival of cultural effluvia. But the performers never quite find the right tempo, or take enough chances with their characters, to make the material click as it should.

As Clio/Kira, Anika Larsen has the blonde good looks the part requires. But her singing seems a tad weak, and in trying to mimic Newton-John’s breathy delivery she just goes almost inaudible.

Larsen also shares a hesitancy to take risks—risks that are vital for anyone in a comedic role—with Max Von Essen who plays Sonny. This dude should be gloriously, hilariously dimwitted, but Von Essen downplays Sonny’s mental shortfall and thus misses numerous opportunities to generate laughs.

As scheming Melpomene, Natasha Yvette Williams adds a much needed zip to the proceedings. And as her sidekick Calliope, Annie Golden works her geeky schtick as hard as she can, triggering a few giggles now and then. But Larry Marshall as Danny, and later as Zeus, never creates a strong enough character to which we can connect.

There is plenty of eye candy here, including bubblegum-colored costumes, a hailstorm of disco balls, a flying Pegasus, and some amusing mythological creatures that deserve more than a cameo—including a studly Centaur and serpentine Medusa. But the trick of having a few patrons seated on stage only serves to confine the actors’ skating room while adding precious little to the proceedings.

In all, this production of Xanadu is harmless, faintly amusing, and eminently forgettable. But the good news is it brings us a bit closer to the arrival at PlayhouseSquare of August: Osage County next month. With any luck, that show will truly be Xanadu for those who love theater.


Through March 14 at the

Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare,

1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000