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

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