Sunday, September 23, 2012

Proof, Lakeland Civic Theatre

(Mitchell Fields as Robert and Elizabeth Conway as Catherine)

Just as it’s impossible for us to realize we’re on a planet that is spinning at 1000 miles per hour, while we’re standing still, it’s often difficult for a mentally imbalanced person to recognize their condition.

That is only one of the myriad concepts that arise in Proof by David Auburn, a fascinating play being given a superb production at the Lakeland Civic Theatre. Revolving around a father and daughter, both of whom are gifted but troubled mathematicians, the play peels back layers of both science and humanity—but in a continually entertaining and deeply affecting way.

Auburn’s skill as a playwright is shown from the first scene, which ends with a surprising revelation. And that information fuels the rest of the play, a story that involves heady discussions of mathematical proofs and proof of authorship—not to mention professional ethics and familial trust.

The father, Robert, was a renowned professor of math at the University of Chicago, but his latter days are dogged by a mental decline. His daughter Catherine is also a math whiz but fears she may also share her father’s mental difficulties since she is often depressed and confrontational.

When an astounding mathematical proof is found, Catherine claims authorship but her sister Claire doubts it and Hal, one of Robert’s students, also has his doubts. The interweaving of these four characters is masterfully handled by playwright Auburn, and delivered with professional assurance under the sensitive direction of Martin Friedman.

As Hal, Aaron Elersich is completely natural and affecting as the nerdy Hal, nurturing his growing interest in Catherine while clinging to his inbred skepticism as a scientist. Although a bit too brittle at first, Laurel Hoffman eases effectively into the difficult role of Claire, a balanced woman with a successful life who feels so apart from her sibling and her dad.

Mitchell Fields is brilliant as Robert, displaying both warmth and the core resolve that drive him in his careet. His later scene when he realizes how far his mental capabilities have deteriorated is quietly, profoundly devastating.

And major kudos must go to Elizabeth Conway, who brews up a rich portrayal as Catherine. Walking many fine lines while never overstepping or going for the easy choice, Conway is utterly convincing as this troubled woman endowed with a genius mind. Plus, she’s funny at times, giving the play a much-needed breath of relief now and then.

Proof won a Pulitzer and a Tony for good reason. And this production displays all the reasons why it’s an experience not to be missed.

Through October 7 at the Lakeland Civic Theatre,
Lakeland Community College, Rt. 306 and I-90, Kirtland, 440-525-7134

Monday, September 17, 2012

Xanadu, Beck Center

 When it comes to light and frothy musicals, the froth doesn’t get much airier than it is in Xanadu, the jukebox musical now at Beck Center.

Featuring the 1980’s era pop stylings of Olivia Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra, with many parody references to the film of the same name that bombed (and then became a cult fave), the play is a self-aware festival of harmless schlock and a bushel of meta jokes at its own expense.

For the uninitiated, the muse Clio, renamed Kira, has come down from Mt. Olympus—disguised as an Australian girl wearing roller skates and leg warmers—to help Venice Beach chalk artist Sonny realize his life’s ambition: opening a roller disco.

So they approach a hot shot real estate agent, Danny, who is also a failed clarinetist. See, he was inspired years before by Clio (in another guise), but he chose the path of making money and shunned the arts. Losing Clio’s heart in the process.

Two of Clio’s six muse sisters, Melpomene and Calliope, try to sabotage her efforts by making her fall in love with Sonny and thereby forcing her to lose her standing as a goddess.

Of course, silliness ensues, all in the service of familiar soft-rock songs such as “Strange Magic,” “Evil Woman,” and the title ditty.

Goofy as it is, that doesn’t make it easy to play. The tendency with this kind of fluff is to overdo the shtick until the play is stuck is a death spiral of actors straining to hard to nail every song and kill with each gag.

This production directed by Scott Spence exhibits some of those unfortunate traits, with several familiar tunes screeched instead of sung, and a few punch lines punched so hard they go cross-eyed.

But the nine-person cast develops a workable vibe thanks in part to Martin Cespedes’ tongue-in-cheek choreography, much of which would fit nicely into a Partridge Family TV reunion special.

In the central role of Kira, Kathleen Rooney has the requisite blonde good looks and a strong voice, although her obvious attempts at singing with an Aussie accent sometimes go awry. As Sonny, Sam Wolf has the blank expression of a clueless ‘80s dude and happily underplays some of his lines.

The comical combo of Melpomene and Calliope is portrayed by Amiee Collier and Leslie Andrews with varying degrees of success. When they relax into their characters, they’re very funny. But when they’re forcing the jokes, it feels like you’re being jabbed in the ribs once too often.

Greg Violand lends his smooth singing as Danny, although it’s too bad there’s no clarinetist in the band to give voice to his character’s licorice stick.

The other four sisters dance and sing backup. Kathleen Ferrini and Maggie Stahl handle their duties with style but most of the laughs go to the cross-dressed Ben Donahoo and Matthew Ryan Thompson (who also turns in a smooth tap number as young Danny).

This Xanadu, while not exactly a pleasure dome throughout, is often diverting and certainly looks handsome on Trad A Burns’ set featuring Greek columns with disco lights inside.

Through October 14 at the Beck Center, 11801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540