Thursday, December 16, 2010

Black Nativity, Karamu

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

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,


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.


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