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.,


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

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Elephant Man, CSU Summer Stages

(From left: Eric Perusek as Merrick, Geoff Knox as Treves, and Ursula Cataan as Mrs. Kendall)

In a perfect world, our external appearance would be shaped by the goodness we have inside. That would make it a lot easier to spot the real monsters in our midst. But then, who’s to decide what “goodness” is; Tea Partiers and devotees of Daily Kos might disagree mightily.

In a similar way, there are many layers at work in The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance, now at CSU Summer Stages. This is the story of John (real name Joseph) Merrick, a man burdened with morbid physical deformities but possessing a gentle and intelligent mind. And this CSU production under the direction of Everett Quinton gets virtually everything right, fashioning a drama that raises questions both simple and profound.

We first meet Merrick in the 1880s as a sideshow freak, and that’s where Dr. Frederick Treves finds him and takes the confused, misshapen man into his care at the London Hospital. Few can access Merrick’s beautiful side since his handicap prevents him from speaking clearly, and few would even have the nerve to come close enough to hear him.

Stage directions indicate that Merrick is to be played without elaborate makeup, as was done in the movie version, so the task of conveying Merrick’s extreme physical distress is left to the actor. Eric Perusek does an admirable job of contorting his body and face, allowing Merrick’s enormous and weighty head (it was ballooned out by bony growths and fleshy sacs) to loll to one side, then struggling to bring it upright again. Although these contortions aren’t entirely consistent throughout the play, Perusek does a splendid job of crafting a flawed yet empathetic character.

He is well supported by Geoff Knox, who plays Treves with a polished air of self-entitlement, a young physician on the make who has stumbled on a grotesque medical treasure. But his adherence to Victorian rules and behaviors are assailed, and Knox deftly reveals the conflicts besetting Treves.

In order to help humanize Merrick, Treves introduces Merrick to the beauteous actress Mrs. Kendall (a pitch-perfect and riveting Ursula Cataan). After perusing photos of the naked Merrick provided by the doc, she first notices that Merrick’s junk is in fine shape. And later, she shares a glimpse of some of her secondary sexual characteristics, much to Merrick’s delight and Treves’ outrage. Also excellent are Tom Woodward as the sideshow manager Ross, Derek Davidson as the Bishop, and George Roth as Carr Gomm, the head of the hospital.

Although there are a couple small glitches—the supposed moronic trio of pinheads seem more like three gals in a ladies golf league costumed for an outing—the tone of the production is strong and consistent. This is aided by the moody, between-scenes cello music performed by Maake Harding.

As Merrick insinuates himself into society, being gifted and visited by the upper crust, we see hypocrites and celebrity suck-ups for what they are. And it makes us wonder about how we perceive beauty and the real value of other human beings. That’s a lot for any play to deliver, and this CSU Summer Stages production does it with well-modulated passion.

The Elephant Man

Through August 15 at CSU Summer Stages,

CSU Factory Theatre, corner of Chester and E. 23 St.,


Friday, July 16, 2010

Li’l Abner, Mercury Summer Stock

(left to right: Jennifer Myor as Moonbeam McSwine, Christopher Aldrich as Earthquake McGoon, Annie Hickey as Daisy Mae, Jason Leupold as Abner, and Tim Allen as Available Jones)

Ignorant rubes in hick towns seem to be endlessly amusing to us city folk, and that’s what drove Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip to unprecedented success: 43 years in syndication. About 20 years after it began, the strip was turned into a Broadway musical that opened in 1956, and ran for almost 700 performances.

Now, Mercury Summer Stock is presenting Li’l Abner in all its cartoonish glory, and the production is a sublime example of how to turn over-the-top characters into a fast and funny theatrical romp. Even though the singing voices in the leads vary in quality from good to somewhat challenged, Pierre Brault’s energetic and witty direction and choreography keep the play as intoxicating as a jug of Kickapoo Joy Juice.

The shit-kickers who reside in Dogpatch, Kentucky are all a few DNA strands short of functional, but they are possessed of an inherent honesty and goodness (at least, in Al Capp’s world). In the book by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, these yokels are being evacuated by the US Guv’ment since their burg has been confiscated, identified as the least necessary place in the country and a likely target for atom bomb tests.

As the residents deal with that threat (or is it a compliment?), local hunk Abner is being pursued by the luscious Daisy Mae, a process overseen by Abner’s dotingly dense parents Mammy and Pappy Yokum. Meanwhile, Mammy’s secret elixir, which turns an ordinary man into an Adonis, is fought over by a government scientist (Ryan Bergeron in a fright wig) and the evil corporate titan General Bullmoose (a blustering James Mango).

Not since Dickens has any writer come up with more telling names for his characters, and this musical has them in spades—from Senator Jack S. Phogbound (run the first name and middle initial together when you say it) to Earthquake McGoon (a doltish Daisy Mae suitor), and from Evil Eye Fleagle to Appasionata von Climax (no descriptions necessary).

Although Abner’s supposed to be as dumb as a wet log, Jason Leupold plays him as a slightly distracted frat boy. But he sings well and has the physique to carry off the part. As Daisy Mae, Annie Hickey is plenty attractive and handles her musical chores with style. Though there could be more confused sexual chemistry between the two, you still root for their eventual bonding.

Much of the production’s entertainment value comes from Mammy and Pappy, who are played with exuberant foolishness by Kelvette Beacham and Brian Marshall. Beacham is far from the short and scrawny Mammy of the strip, but she swings her weight like a sledgehammer as she whips her family into line. And Marshall, constantly bent at the waist, motors around the stage like the Energizer bunny on crack.

In the central role of Marryin’ Sam, the preacher who deals in $2 weddings, Dan DiCello nails a number of laugh lines. And he leads the company in a rousing anthem to the incompetence of town founder, “Jubilation T. Cornpone.” But he struggles with some songs, particularly his duet with Daisy Mae, “I’m Past My Prime.”

A number of smaller roles sparkle, such as understudy Ryan Thompson as Eagle Eye Fleagle—pitter-pattering across the stage in a stoop-shouldered posture, he actually seems animated. Sarah Saddler is voluptuous as Appasionata, and Tim Allen masters a variety of comic strip stances as Available Jones. Indeed, the large cast is either quite good or exceptional from top to bottom.

Director Brault never lets the timing flag, which is critical in such a wildly exaggerated piece. And the production is augmented by Margaret Ruble’s costumes, a glorious mélange of hick chic.

If you’re longing for a funny evening that won’t tax your brain, take a slug of Li’l Abner and wait for the giggles to start.

Li’l Abner

Through July 24, produced by Mercury Summer Stock

at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue,


Monday, July 12, 2010

Curtains, CSU Summer Stages

There have been so many musicals that spoof musicals in recent years (Spamalot being the premiere example) that one occasionally longs for a musical that’s just a musical. Still, Curtains, now at CSU Summer Stages, has a promising premise. But this leaden production, weighted down by an egregious orchestra, never takes flight as it should.

On the cusp of the 1960s, a professional theater company is running the cowboy musical through its pre-Broadway Boston run. But during the curtain call, the no-talent star dies suddenly. Soon, detective Cioffi shows up to interrogate the cast, since it has been determined the woman’s demise was no accident. And he quarantines the cast in the theater until the case can be solved. Of course, he has a secondary agenda since he loves musicals and wants to get involved with the show.

With everyone looking at everyone else, suspicions run rampant as Carmen, the producer, tries to persuade lyricist Georgia to take over the lead, since Georgia was formerly a performer. This puts composer Aaron in a snit, since he was busy trying to hook up again with Georgia, his former honey.

There are all the usual theater people: the egotistic director Belling, the perky but overlooked understudy Niki, the romantic lead Bobby, and Carmen’s surly husband and co-producer Sid (a mugging Mark Seven).

With music and lyrics by the revered team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, there is certainly enough raw material to construct a sprightly evening. But director Michael Mauldin, a man possessing exquisite theatrical talents, here misses the boat.

The pace is agonizingly slow, with actors continually clomping up to punch lines with dread intent, leaning on each gag, and then waiting for laughs that often don’t come. Sure, the book by Rupert Holmes features a string of really hoary jokes, but they could work if handled more deftly. Over-the-top acting is fine when it’s done with a brisk and light touch, but it dies when squeezed in the iron grip of trying too hard

In the starring role, Tom Woodward has a nice, deferential style as Cioffi, but we never really feel his bone-deep passion for musicals. And his singing voice has a narrow bandwidth. Ursula Cataan does what she can as Georgia, gamely working her way through the pleasant ballad “Thinking of Him.” As Carmen, Jean Kauffman has the perfect look and the ideal sneer/pout of a producer, but she strangles most of her laugh lines to death.

George Roth survives as Belling by doing a vocal mash-up of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook from Peter Pan, and Derek Davidson’s Aaron is mild but believable. Nick Pancuk and Jessica Dyer also acquit themselves well as, respectively, Bobby and Niki.

If there’s one rule for musicals, it is that the orchestra—like umpires in baseball—should never make their presence known. But the well-attired musicians under the direction of John Krol are all too omnipresent. Laboring to land on the right notes, they butcher more than one tune. And Krol pounds a fuzzy-sounding piano that has the audio clarity of a Playskool keyboard that was left out in the rain. And then run over by a truck. Sympathies go out to all the singers.

At a running time approaching three hours, with intermission, Curtains is a long and only fitfully enjoyable journey to a tongue-in-cheek murder mystery solution.


Through August 8 at Cleveland State University

Summer Stages, CSU Factory Theatre, corner of

Chester and E. 23rd St., 216-687-2113