Sunday, January 22, 2012

At-TEN-tion Span, Cleveland Public Theatre

(Darius Stubbs and Faye Hargate in "Alibi," conceived and directed by Chris Seibert, one of the twelve ten-minute plays in At-TEN-tion Span.

When towering Abraham Lincoln was asked how long a man’s legs should be, he responded “Long enough to reach the ground.” Good one, Abe.

Fortunately, no one ever asked the first stretch Lincoln how long a play should be, because he’d probably have had another smartass answer.

But if you were to ask the folks at Cleveland Public Theatre that question now, they might suggest ten minutes as the ideal length.

That’s because their most recent version of At-TEN-tion Span is now on the boards. This collection of a dozen ten-minute plays, or movements, or poetry is a grab bag of styles and tones that defies easy categorization.

Clearly, there is plenty of both inspiration and pretension in these conceived pieces, but it’s safe to say you’ve never seen anything like this before. And there are enough high points to recommend a look-see.

There are some notable works among the ten-minute theatrical tidbits. In one, “To Fasten Your Seatbelts,” conceived and directed by Renee Schilling, a new flight attendant is being tested by airline staffers, with hilarious results. And Jeremy Paul stands out in an understated comedy gem as a smolderingly sexy gay male flight attendant.

While that piece is quite traditional and linear in form, there are others that occupy the other end of the spectrum, such as “Crash Project,” conceived and directed by Pandora Robertson, and a couple different (very different) offerings by Chris Seibert.

Then there are four works conceived and directed by CPT artistic director Raymond Bobgan. Among them are two dance/movement interludes, closing the first act and opening the second act, that are enthrallingly hypnotic with hardly any words ever being said.

Note that the audience is required to move around a bit inside CPT’s main theater space, sometimes with chair in hand, so that new audience and stage configurations can be created. This also contributes to the visually varied experience that Span provides.

Other conceiver/directors include the aforementioned Paul, Simone Barros, Douglas H. Snyder and Darius Stubbs.

Of course, there are dull spots and a couple pieces that seem interminable even at ten minutes. But you’ll walk out from At-TEN-tion Span with your senses tweaked and your perspectives altered. And that ain’t bad at all.

At-TEN-tion Span

Through February 4 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Ten Chimneys, Cleveland Play House

(Jordan Baker as Lynn Fontanne and Donald Carrier as Alfred Lunt.)

Actors love playing actors, since it is world of artifice they know all too well. Trouble is, there aren’t many plays outside of Coward of Chekhov that provide both the opportunity to have fun with the thespian mindset while still offering deeper insights.

Happily, that is exactly the package that is delivered, in spades, in Ten Chimneys by Jeffrey Hatcher, now at the Cleveland Play House. Channeling both of the aforementioned playwrights, Hatcher strafes the stage with witty patter while constructing some complex and multifaceted characters.

The result, thanks to a splendid cast and pitch-perfect direction by CPH artistic director Michael Bloom, is a production that is deeply satisfying in many levels. Spanning the years immediately before and after World War II, this show feels spot on.

The actors being portrayed are Alfred Lunt and his wife Lynn Fontanne, the king and queen of mid-20th century theater. They are in residence at their summer digs in Wisconsin, called Ten Chimneys, and have invited the famed Sydney Greenstreet and a teenaged Uta Hagen to visit them.

The purpose of the get-together is to get a head start on their upcoming production of The Seagull, but this is no placid rehearsal process. Echoing the complications of that Chekhov play, a triangle develops among Lunt, Fontanne and Hagen. Meanwhile further ripples are created by Alfred’s sharp-tongued mother Hattie, his half-sister and part-time de facto servant Louise, and his half-brother Carl (Jeremy Kendall).

As Lunt and Fontanne, Donald Carrier and Jordan Baker are a joy to behold. Carrier balances Lunt’s mommy fixation deftly with his casually scathing bon mots. And Baker is both regal and devastatingly withering. When Lunt follows after his mother at one point, she murmurs, “Has anyone seen my copy of Oedipus?”

Carrier and Baker are particularly fine when batting lines from The Seagull back and forth, often at high speed, as they try to find their characters and their beats. This is done even as they try to do the same thing in their real life.

As good as they are, Mariette Hartley almost steals the show as Hattie, displaying nanosecond timing and imbuing this stereotypical overbearing mother-in-law from hell with a fresh sense of maternal martyrdom. Also excellent is Gail Rastorfer as frumpy, put-upon Louise.

Michael McCarty carries the heft of Greenstreet well and evolves into something unexpected and quite touching when a side story about his wife is revealed. Playing Hagen, Kelli Ruttle does nicely in conveying the young woman’s insecurity in the presence of these iconic actors. But she doesn’t quite manage to show why Lunt would be attracted to her, which undercuts the budding love triangle.

Even with a dead spot in the second act, when Fontanne and Hagen find themselves in a meandering conversational cul-de-sac, the pacing director Bloom establishes is beautifully suited to the script, the characters and the time. And the costuming by David Kay Mickelsen is detailed down to the last nit, including Louise’s sadly wrinkled stockings.

An additional pleasure is the venue itself, since this is the first play in CPH’s new Second Stage theater. This flexible space is arranged in arena seating for this production, with the audience walking down the steeply raked seats to find their place. Once seated, every audience member has a clean, close and unobstructed perch.

From every perspective, Ten Chimneys is a must-see, and one more positive sign that the Cleveland Play House is on a serious roll in their new and glorious home at PlayhouseSquare.

Ten Chimneys

Through February 5, at the Cleveland Play House, PlayhouseSquare,1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hair, PlayhouseSquare

(Steel Burkhardt at the center of the tribe.)

Steven Wright has a joke about coming home one night and discovering that everything he owned had been replaced with exact replicas.

That’s the kind of feeling last night’s opening of Hair at PlayhouseSquare exuded: everything seemed in place but something seemed amiss. That something was the go-for-broke, spontaneous urgency an irreverent show like this needs to fire up an audience and leave them wilted but happy at the end.

Sure, all the dance moves and the excursions into the audience were there, along with the gloriously messy tribal interactions of these hippies from another place and time. But many of the moves were rounded off, the edges of the songs often dulled, and more than a few dramatic beats muffled in the bustle of large cast dynamics.

The happy news is that, since all the elements are in place from director Diane Paulus and choreographer Karole Armitage, the show can snap back to its senses with the next performance. But someone will have to convince the cast that they need to shake off the touring show, road warrior funk and get back to creating, rather than trying to re-create, indelible moments on stage.

When that happens, this production will have a lot to offer. Steel Burkhardt, a Baldwin Wallace College grad, is refreshingly up front physically as Berger—accosting and bumping against tribe and audience members alike in his leather loincloth.

As Claude, understudy Marshal Kennedy Carolan (who will play the role throughout the Cleveland engagement) has pleasing moments. But his voice is a bit too weak to make some of his songs take flight, such as the Act One closer “Where Do I Go?”

In the key role of Sheila, Sara King sings powerfully but seemed to be pushing to hard from the outset, perhaps in an attempt to goose the flagging energy level of the overall production. As Hud, Mike Evariste handles his duties well although burdened with a voluminous Afro wig that looked like it had been sitting folded in a suitcase too long.

The tribe members (which include Kent State University graduate John Moauro) are nicely decked out by costume designer Michael McDonald. And they contribute plenty of volume but don’t find as many moments as they could to shine individually, even for a nanosecond or two.

Things picked up in the second act, especially during Claude’s hallucinogenic dream sequence when Abe Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth make an appearance.

But Hair is a show that needs to go balls-to-the-wall from start to finish, otherwise it’s a betrayal of the full commitment of those rebels they’re portraying. Here’s hoping the remaining performances at the Palace demonstrate that all-or-nothing approach.


Through January 29 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Song For Coretta, Ensemble Theatre

(Top, from left: Angela Gillespie Winborn and Camille Trammell. Bottom, from left: Alecia Henderson, Sonia Bishop and Neda Spears)

Plays are like children. Some explode with realized potential and become fascinating and irresistible, while others only show glimmers of what might have been.

Unfortunately, A Song For Coretta by Pearl Cleage, now at Ensemble Theatre, fits into the latter category, although the largely talented cast is not to blame.

Cleage has constructed a 75-minute piece with five interesting women and some clever twists and then given these promising characters nowhere to go. No doubt sensing that gap, Cleage then tacks on an ending that is so over-the-top that it literally swamps everything that has come before.

Things don’t start off all that well, either. In order to get her characters talking, Cleage drags out the clunky device of a young wannabe radio reporter named Zora (Alecia Henderson) interviewing people lined up to pay their respects to Coretta Scott King, widow of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. They are huddled outside Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, waiting to be allowed inside.

Thus, each of the four women who show up are put on tape: Helen (Angela Gillespie Winborn), an older woman who met Coretta decades before; Mona Lisa, a street artist up from New Orleans; Keisha, a surly high school sophomore (twice held back) who is saddled with a pretend baby for a class project; and Gwendolyn, a soldier just back from Iraq.

Despite the forced situation, Cleage and director Margaret Ford Taylor manage to create a couple believable characters and some captivating interchanges. This is helped immensely by Neda Spears, who brings a downplayed realism to Mona Lisa and Camille Trammell’s pouting presence as Keisha.

However, just when we’re getting to know these women and beginning to see how their relationship to Coretta’s life and memory might influence their lives, the whole enterprise goes off the rails.

Suddenly, Mona Lisa and the newly arrived Gwendolyn (Sonia Bishop) are captured in pin spots, relating atrocities they were involved in during Hurricane Katrina and in Iraq. These stories are so out of place, and staged with such oppressive obviousness, that one might laugh if the content were not so horrific.

Then, the lights come up and the cast exits singing an optimistic spiritual. That leaves the audience to piece together the strands of these wildly varied lives and intriguing experiences that the playwright never bothered to knit together. Consider it a theatrical DIY project.

A Song For Coretta

Through January 29 at the Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Hts.,