Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Two Gentlemen of Verona, Great Lakes Theater Festival

While love and friendship are two very desirable conditions, when they conflict with each other the participants can get seriously bent out of shape. That’s what happens to the four principals in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, now at the Great Lakes Theater Festival.

This early play by Shakespeare is a fairly slight affair, as young Will was still trying out the dramatic techniques he would use later in his career with such skill. Therefore, either the staging or the performances have to fill some gaps to make this play soar. And even though this GLTF production has some pleasant moments, it never really catches fire.

The two gents in question, Valentine and Proteus, fall in love with Silvia, with Proteus leaving his former gal Julia in the lurch. But Julia decides to disguise herself as a page and is assigned by Proteus to woo Silvia on his behalf. Of course, there are more complications intertwined until the happy and strangely abrupt conclusion.

Lacking much of the dense beauty found in other Shakespeare plays, this piece begs for imaginative staging or actors who can bring something extra to their roles.

Initially, it seems that director Charles Fee is on the right track with a clean and modernistic set designed by Russell Metheny. Plus, Fee utilizes two singers and a small combo to introduce scenes with snatches of indie music, such as the haunting tunes of Nick Drake, the moody “bleak” rocker circa 1970.

As it turns out, however, that faint window dressing can’t make up for a staging that feels flat and perfunctory. Fee approaches the material as if it requires deep respect, not as a loose and spirited comic romp. Although Fee has been chided in the past for taking too many liberties, here he errs in the opposite direction.

The situation isn’t helped by individual performances that range from bland to capable. Neil Brookshire is a handsome cipher as Valentine and Paul Hurley neatly skates around many opportunities to turn Proteus into something more than a pain-in-the-butt grind.

As Silvia, Nica Ericson exudes a dark and threatening sexuality but never builds that into anything interesting. Only Lee Stark as Julia, among the four leads, ever generates any sparks, especially in her cross-dressed moments when she interacts with Silvia..

Reliably, David Anthony Smith comes riding to the rescue as Proteus’ servant Launce. His scenes with his faithful mutt Crab are funny and endearing, perhaps even more so in this arid landscape. And Sara M. Bruner, Jodi Dominick and Robert Williams add some fun as the second act outlaws.

Overall, however, these Two Gentlemen are much too mannerly to make this play crackle with anything approaching comedy delight.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Through April 23, produced by the Great Lakes Theater Festival at PlayhouseSquare, the Hanna Theatre, 2067 East 14th Street, 216-241-6000

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Excavation, Theater Ninjas

It seems that if you were buried under many feet of volcanic ash, it would be a mystifying and horrific event. And that’s one reason why The Excavation, now being produced by Theater Ninjas, is such an absorbing, if almost indescribable, experience.

By exploring the burial and subsequent excavation of Pompeii, this original work of theater is actually an ambulatory encounter. The audience breaks into smaller groups and then reassembles, as various guides and Pompeian “experts” expound on the tragedy that befell that Italian city back when years had just two numbers.

It starts off with three different lectures that take place simultaneously and are repeated twice. In one, the female presenter is analyzing the erotic art of Pompeii while riffing on her personal relationship that just went south. Another lecturer offers nonsensical descriptions of non-artifacts from Pompeii, including a plastic water bottle.

But you don’t have time to see all three, a process of fragmentation that only accelerates until the final gathering around a floor map of the doomed city. This means that everyone encounters this play in a different way, visiting rooms and observing “scenes” that another audience member doesn’t.

Serious musings (about the meaning of life, the sudden permanence of death) mix helter-skelter with low comedy of all sorts (human statues with enlarged genitalia, a raucous puppet show, and a lab manned by two horny scientists).

Some of the broad humor is forced and a tad juvenile, and you may find yourself trapped in one room while you hear people laughing in another, wishing you were over there. But these moments don’t last long and there is always something else coming your way, literally around the next bend.

During the 90-minute piece, you cover quite a bit of territory on the second floor of this factory/loft building, sometimes pausing to sit or stand, depending on the material being presented. I could tell you all the things I witnessed, but then you might not ever see them.

Directed and devised by Ninja honcho Jeremy Paul, The Excavation is something you need to immerse yourself in, even if you won’t be quite sure what it was after it’s over. And in that way, I suppose, we can say it’s kind of like life itself.

The Excavation

Through April 23, produced by Theater Ninjas at the 78th Street Studios, 1300 W. 78th St., Cleveland, 216-245-3514

Thursday, April 7, 2011

An Evening with Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking, PlayhouseSquare

One-person shows built around impressions of famous people (such as Mark Twain, Harry Truman, the list goes on) are always popular entertainments. After all, we like to get a little peek into the real lives of celebrities who have a body of work we respect and cherish—and no, Charlie Sheen, we’re not talking about you.

These elements would seem to be aligned perfectly for a solo riff on Lucille Ball, the much-adored movie and TV comedy queen of comedy from the 1930s to the 80s. Unfortunately, the script for An Evening with Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking, now at PlayhouseSquare, is a hot mess. As co-written by the performer Suzanne LaRusch and Lucy’s daughter (and the play’s director) Lucie Arnaz, this monologue brings a whole new meaning to the term tepid.

It’s as if Reader’s Digest and the AARP got together to write a show, and then had it buffed to rose-tinted shine by Ned Flanders.

It starts out with a labored introduction that tries to establish that the performer will not be recreating Lucy’s famous bits—the chocolate candy assembly line, the Vitametavegamin schtick, etc. Then, once “Lucy” takes the stage, she actually does do versions of those skits.

Awkwardly arranged as a fake Q&A with the audience (all the questions are pre-recorded by actors, no questions are taken from live patrons), the show lumbers from one anecdote to another, assisted occasionally by still photos and home movies. While certain Lucy devotees may appreciate LaRusch’s physical similarity to the older Lucy, and her ability to replicate a couple of the star’s mannerisms, the gap between the two performers is enormous.

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than when a short clip of the real Lucy doing the Vitametavegamin pitch is shown. Lucille Ball was a comic genius, which is shown as she gets hammered, first sipping a spoonful and then tipping the bottle and draining the inebriating concoction.

For some reason, the script performed by LaRusch focuses on the actual bad taste of the elixir, with “Lucy” making the extraordinary comment that she was glad it tasted awful so she didn’t have to act(!). Even if the real Lucy did say that at some time, it totally misses the point, as does the attempt to teach the audience how to correctly pronounce the V-word. The fun, as the real Lucy knew, was in woozily mispronouncing that jumble of letters.

At another moment, “Lucy” talks about the importance to an actor of learning pantomime, then does a long and fairly boring mime of sewing up a rip in a pair of slacks (the real Lucy could have made this hilarious). At another juncture, LaRusch even stuffs her mouth with chocolate candies, echoing that famous episode, but manages to do it in a perfunctory and remarkably unfunny way since there’s no context.

Topics not touched on are Lucy’s stormy relationship with husband Desi Arnaz (all we hear is that he was “the love of her life”), her brush with the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 50s, and any bumps or failures in her long career.

It’s understandable that Lucie Arnaz would want to paint her mom and dad in the most glowing colors, but that doesn’t make for a very interesting production. Especially when the sole performer is far less talented than the woman she is portraying. If you love Lucy, look up the real thing on You Tube.

An Evening with Lucille Ball: Thank You for Asking

Through April 17 at the 14th Street Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 216-241-6000

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Les Miserables, PlayhouseSquare

(Andrew Varela as Javert)

Once again, the epic musical Les Miserables has landed at PlayhouseSquare, this time in a much-ballyhooed new production directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell. This 25th Anniversary tour of the Cameron Mackintosh blockbuster should be cause for rejoicing, but not so fast.

First of all, the story doesn’t change. Frenchman Jean Valjean, freed from the slammer for heisting a loaf of bread, decides to become a thief but is snatched from that life by the kindness of a bishop who gives him cover. Changing his name, Valjean becomes a wealthy business owner and mayor of a town.

After saving the prostitute Fantine from the streets, and watching her die in his care, he wrests the woman’s daughter Cosette from the clutches of two scummy innkeepers and raises her as his own. As time passes, Cosette falls in love with Marius, a leader in the June Rebellion, while Inspector Javert hunts down Valjean with an obsessive fervor.

Instead of the well-known rotating turntable, a mainstay of past productions, the new staging features projections of some of original author Victor Hugo’s paintings on a screen at the rear of the stage. This I know from the production’s souvenir program, since I didn’t see it in person.

From my perspective in a seat at the extreme left end of the second row, roughly 20% of the stage was blocked by a hefty light tower, one of two stationed at the corners of the proscenium. As a result, I saw nothing that happened far stage right and could only glimpse a sliver of the screen where the projections were shown.

Sadly, then, I cannot report on some of the more telling moments in Les Miz. I don’t know whether the young boy Gavroche dies on stage or off; I certainly didn’t see it happen. I didn’t see Valjean carry Marius through the sewers of Paris. And while I saw Inspector Javert jump from the bridge in his suicide scene, he then quickly disappeared behind the light tower. (I assume he died, like all the times before.)

Although denied the visual sweep of the show, I can say that many other scenes were fully visible, and all of it was easily heard. And that turns out to be a mixed blessing.

While the cast nails all the money notes—the quiet finishes of some songs and the boisterous full-chorus anthems—many songs are performed with less resonance and precision than one might expect.

As Fantine, Betsy Morgan struggles with the lovely “I Dreamed a Dream,” becoming a bit shrill at times. And Jenny Latimer, playing the grown-up Cosette, goes thin with some of her songs before nailing pitch perfect endings.

But beyond singing glitches, the company displays a bigger problem. I wouldn’t say the cast mailed it in, but it would be fair to say they copied us on a previous e-mail that they sent to someone else, hoping we wouldn’t notice.

When actors perform by relying on memory and technique, instead of creating their characters fresh every night, you get what was on the stage at the Palace opening night: Lots of big gestures and bravado without a real core inside. And that broad approach does no favors to a show that is already florid and melodramatic.

As Jean Valjean, Ron Sharpe (who has replaced the originally cast African-American actor Lawrence Clayton) has a fine set of pipes, but he never seems to engage fully with his character’s plight. Andrew Varela, as Valjean's tormentor Javert, hits all the marks vocally and burns with an intensity that would register more fully in a better ensemble performance. Together, they do not create the antipathy, the anti-chemistry, which must fuel the play’s trajectory.

In her solo "On My Own," Chasten Harmon as love-starved Eponine actually sniffles when she sings "I love him," helpfully cueing us to the fact that she's, um, sad. The comic duo of M. Thenardier (John Rapson) and his wife (Shawna M. Hamic) push their nasty innkeeper roles to the brink, coming across as more cartoonish than vile and threatening. And that, oddly enough, makes them less engaging in the context of the show.

One hopes that the touring assistant director will get the actors back on the ball, so that ensuing performances have the immediacy and depth this magnificent show deserves. And if you end up in one of the far outside seats near the stage, remember to buy the souvenir program. In those pages, it certainly appears to be a very handsome production.

Les Miserables

Through April 17 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1519 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Chagrin Valley Little Theatre

(Rob Albrecht as Lawrence and Trey Gilpin as Freddy)

The plus side of being a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist is that life often presents you with happy surprises. And one of those nuggets of joy reside in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels now at CVLT, where two actors in the leads make this con artist musical come to hilarious life.

The performances of Rob Albrecht and Trey Gilpin as the competitive con men Lawrence and Freddy, on the make in the south of France, bring out all the fun of this show. With clever lyrics (and often forgettable music) by David Yazbek and a fairly predictable book by Jeffrey Lane, Scoundrels is a piece yearning for just the right people in the two major roles.

Director Martin Friedman hits the comedy target almost perfectly with his duo. Albrecht plays the dapper grifter Lawrence with smooth condescension and a handy grab bag of Euro accents. Plus, he uses his rich baritone voice to excellent effect in his songs, particularly the second act “Love Sneaks In.”

But the featured role is Freddy, the common, two-bit hustler who first is tutored by Lawrence and then competes with him to see who can fleece the supposed American heiress Christine Colgate. Gilpin slides into this character with enormous physical ease, then proceeds to craft a few laugh-out-loud set pieces, including a stint as Lawrence’s offensive “brother” Ruprecht.

Although relying a bit too often on the gag of pulling or emitting various unpleasantries from different bodily orifices, the rumpled Gilpin can throw away a laugh line with the best of them. And that results in a performance that consistently delights from start to finish.

Playing the mark Christine, Heather Hersh has a gawky and gangly innocence that works well for her character, although she wrestles with her songs—losing three out of four falls in the process.

Sharon Lloyd as the rich Muriel Eubanks and Eric Oswald as the malleable local gendarme Andre have fun with their tryst in the second act, especially in their ditty “Like Zis-Like Zat.” And Libby Merriman kicks up some laughter in her musical tribute to Oklahoma: “Not a tree or a Jew/To block the lovely view.”

While the production feels a bit arthritic in the larger scenes where the ensemble is called upon to perform, this Scoundrels soars on the wings of its two leads. And that makes for an often giddy ride.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Through April 16 at Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, 40 River St., Chagrin Falls, 440-247-8955