Sunday, May 27, 2012

Akarui, Cleveland Public Theatre

(Richard Brandon Hall as Mateu and Molly Andrews-Hinders as DC)

Often, the most interesting things in life happen at the junctures, the pivot points. The places where tectonic plates of identity and culture crumble and fracture are often the sites of new growth and exciting possibilities. Or, at the very least, it’s a place where you can spend a hell of an interesting hour or two.

In the world premiere of Akarui, now at the Cleveland Public Theatre, playwright Jen Silverman pitches her dramatic tent on several different steaming fissures: transgender issues; murder, guilt and death; and medical experimentation. The result is astounding in all respects, even with a couple performances that fail to capture the twisted grandiosity of Silverman’s vision.

It starts off with Dr. Baba Yaga (gender indeterminate) who is trying to nurture an avocado seed placed in the dead body of Joshua (an innocent James Alexander Rankin). This young man, we learn in time, was murdered on a beach, his body subsequently retrieved by the doc as a medium for growing new blooms. Trouble is, Joshua is alive, apparently, and dealing with his transformation from life to death with gathering irritation.

Meanwhile DC is a transitioning female-to-male T in the process of picking her way through the gender underbrush. He’s chatting up gay men on the Internet while revealing little about himself, until he connects with a young man half-a-world away.

Web pal Mateu is attracted to DC, especially after they Skype each other. But Mateu’s time is divided since he’s shacking up with a troubled dude named Stack who has recently killed a man on a beach.

Mateu eventually convinces DC to come his way and experience the transformative power of DJ Akarui, a hypnotic presence who spins music and identities with equal agility.

Thus, all the stories begin to converge, and we’ve seen that before. What’s new is everything else about the production.
This includes Silverman’s sometimes oblique yet disciplined words, the vibrant staging by director Raymond Bobgan, and the pounding, highly percussive Afro-Brazilian Candomble music that keeps the pace percolating.

Arrayed on set designer Todd Krispinsky’s impressive three-tier metal scaffolding, the actors climb, swing and jump into and out of scenes, often with sheets of plastic serving as temporary walls and ceilings. It’s a feast of visual and auditory surprises with a story that actually makes sense despite its fractured audacity.

As Dr. Yaga, Beth Wood is monstrously effective, somehow dodging all the “crazy scientist” stereotypes to create a uniquely deranged and strangely vulnerable wacko. At one point, she conducts a “maximally invasive cardiac replacement surgery” on Joshua, substituting a cactus plant for his heart.

Also excellent is Chris Seibert in the role of DJ Akarui. Although not in the spotlight frequently, she performs with her signature intensity and makes every one of the DJ’s appearances memorable.

But the most amazing portrayal is turned in by Molly Andrews-Hinders as the confused and tormented DC. Channeling the Hilary Swank vibe from Boys Don’t Cry, then adding her own levels of depth, Andrews-Hinders is riveting and poignant. Especially powerful are the moments when DC reflects on the difficulties transition, when she’s stuck in-between the two genders and knows she’s not coming across believably.

As a plain-spoken Stack, Lew Wallace is a properly haunted fellow, although there are layers to this man that go unexplored. Similarly, Richard Brandon Hall has some nice turns as Mateu. But he doesn’t display the vocal prowess and physical presence necessary to evoke the magnetic character the playwright has fashioned.

A chorus of eight dancer/singers (plus one lithe man playing a manta ray) adds immeasurably to the texture of the production.

Director Bobgan, inventive and bold without pushing the envelope too far, is clearly vibrating on the same wave length as the playwright. Therefore, this production soars when it could easily crumple under the weight of all its elements.

In Akarui, the idea of change and transformation is detailed with almost pointillist exactitude. But no matter how much change one seeks, it’s a finite process. As DC notes ruefully: “There’s nowhere to go when you keep bringing yourself with you.”

Through June 9 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727

Monday, May 21, 2012

Sondheim on Sondheim, Great Lakes Theater

He gazes down from above like Big Brother, many times bigger than life-size, but there’s no one in the audience running towards the screen about to sling a sledgehammer. No, this is Stephen Sondheim up there, and we are all in his thrall.

In Sondheim on Sondheim, now at Great Lakes Theater, eight singers make up the live performers on stage. But they are dwarfed, literally and figuratively, by Sondheim’s appearances in videotape segments.

This roughly chronological journey through la vie Sondheim is an often enthralling biography for lovers of Broadway music. Since there is no composer and lyricist (or any combination of two people handling those tasks) that can truly compete with Mr. S., he’s granted the throne.

And he rules over us with a quirky, sardonic sense of humor. When addressing how he starts writing a song, he alludes to the booze he pours himself to help get the juices flowing. He even details his writing implements (yellow legal pad and an extra-soft pencil so he can spend a lot of time sharpening—and not writing).

Indeed, his explanations of how certain songs and shows evolved is intriguing, interspersed by the performers singing to illustrate the narration. This is how we learn the way “Comedy Tonight” became the blockbuster opening song in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

These are all stories Broadway buffs will appreciate, while others may be left a bit out in the cold. By jumping from show to show and song to song, it’s impossible to get a fix on the characters that inhabit Sondheim’s creations. And, as he says, his songs are all about character specificity.

The strong cast is led by Pamela Myers, who was in the original cast of Company and sings her signature song “Another Hundred People” at the start of Act Two. She nails that one and excels in two songs from the little-known and wonderfully weird Passion. But she is also given the final solo of “Send in the Clowns,” which feels a bit pale in comparison to a couple classic versions. (Some of the clumsier covers—a C&W banjo version?!--are lampooned nicely in Act One).

Other standouts include Emily Walton, who rides the hyper-paced “Getting Married Today” with razor-sharp enunciation, and Brian Sutherland who burnishes “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George into a splendid reflection on the creative process.

While Sondheim reveals a lot about the way he works, he doesn’t divulge much about his life. The one exception is shown in a clip from an interview with TV’s Diane Sawyer that is stupefying in its cruelty to the young Sondheim. But, as this show points out, he’s definitely getting the last laugh.

Sondheim on Sondheim
Through July 8, produced by Great Lakes Theater and PlayhouseSquare at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Come Fly Away, PlayhouseSquare

Let’s start with a confession: I love the music of Frank Sinatra. His music is perfect when you feel on top of the world (“Fly Me to the Moon”). But there’s no other pop singer who has ever explored sadness with the depth and subtlety that Sinatra did, especially in songs such as “One for My Baby.”

And in Come Fly Away, now at PlayhouseSquare, you essentially have a Frank Sinatra concert, with his recorded voice matched up with an intense live band on stage. The mixture is so remarkably seamless you find yourself looking for the Man himself, only to remember that he adjourned to the great bandstand in the sky almost 15 years ago.

Of course, the wonderful new element that’s added to that music in this show is the genius of Twyla Tharp—who conceived, choreographed and directs. And the result is a captivating production from start to finish.

On a nightclub-style stage appropriately dominated by the band, with a bar on one side and a couple tables on the other, the dancers have plenty of room to strut their awesome stuff. Each of the more than 25 songs is danced and acted out, with some actually portraying mini-storylines of sexual attraction, disappointment and jealousy.

This is an 80-minute ride that enables the hoofers to show off their modern and interpretive dance chops in a way most of us have never seen. Lithe, muscular and evocative, the dances respect the music while contributing their own layer of meaning to Sinatra classics such as “My Way” and “Luck Be a Lady.”

In short, Come Fly Away spins a succulent blend of music and movement that will transport any Sinatra fan. And when the backdrop of stars align at the conclusion, you are reminded once more that these tunes must have been heaven sent.

Come Fly Away
Through May 20 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare,
1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Hellcab, Blank Canvas Theatre

( From left: Kenneth Bryant, Sonya Barnes and Patrick Ciamacco)

If you just want to laugh for a while and not think very much, then you should flag down Hellcab at Blank Canvas Theatre before it’s put up on blocks on May 20.

Written by Will Kern, the highly episodic show is a fast and furious ride through the numb-nuts, horndogs and wasteoids that wind up occupying one cabbie’s backseat on his Christmas Eve shift.

Apparently the streets of Chicago are filled with wackos as the unnamed taxi driver’s fares range from coke freaks to angry couples and from fantasizing professionals to the inevitable pregnant woman whose water breaks. There even one weirdly normal gent who is actually jolly and generous.

Although there are some cute lines, most of the fun comes from the cast that, under the spirited direction of Marc Moritz, manages to make these 2-3 minute mini-sketches into chuckle-worthy moments.

Plopped into a yellow cab (minus roof, doors and windows), six of the cast members take on various characters. Particularly adept at this are Sonya Barnes and Kenneth Bryant, each of whom fashions indelible characters with lightning speed and supreme confidence. They are a joy to watch.

Also handling the rapid-fire role changes with skill is Doug Kusak (his glowering, almost mute, plaid-shirted dude makes Travis Bickle look like Pee Wee Herman).

Carla Petroski and Katie Nabors trade off portraying a variety of reality-challenged women. Nabors is particularly amusing as a stoner girl who can’t stop giggling. Petroski also has her moments, although her drunk schtick is too uncontrolled to be truly funny. Joe Dunn also contributes well while not having as much opportunity to shine as the others.

It’s all held together by Patrick Ciamacco, who plays the cabbie with a short temper and a soft heart. And although deftly handled by Ciamacco, it’s this character that reveals the weakness of the script.   

Playwright Kern wants to have it both ways throughout. The cabbie tells us he thinks he’s in hell inside his cab, but he treats all his fares with mellow equanimity. Meanwhile, the fares themselves are a bit off-center but not really hellacious (ie. no robbery, runners, or projectile vomiting, three of the many banes of the taxi driver existence).

And when Kern tacks on a serious event at the end, as counterpoint to the fun that’s come before, it feels like an obvious ploy to garner some heft for the play.  

He should have been happy settling for a 70-minute romp that makes the audience glad they have their own car in which to drive home.

Through May 20 at the Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, 1305 West 80th St., Suite 211, 440-941-0158.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Not the Flying Stupendas, Cleveland Public Theatre

(Liz Conway and Joe Milan)

It is said that all of us learn through failure. From the moment we’re born, we constantly strive to overcome our inabilities as we struggle to do what we want to do.

From that perspective, there should be a ton of learning going on during the world premiere of the devised play Not The Flying Stupendas by Jill Levin (and others), now at Cleveland Public Theatre. This is a production loaded with first-timers or novices—playwright, director, two of the five actors—and it turns out to basically be an hour-long pratfall. But not in a particularly entertaining way.

To CPT’s credit, these are the kind of risks they take, en route to producing some of the most riveting theater in town. Their myriad venues and programs for nurturing theatrical talent give playwrights, directors and performers the space to flop, in necessary, so they can do it better in the future.

In this instance, director Renee Schilling is a CPT Directing Fellow, part of a new program to foster fresh directing talent in the area. And that is an untrammeled benefit.

This time however, true to the title, Stupendas does not take flight. Playwright Levin, Schilling and the cast have come up with a clever conceit. The leader of the famed aerial act The Flying Stupendas breaks his leg (offstage, unfortunately). So the snarky ringmaster browbeats her backstage minions to trot out and perform for the audience long enough so she doesn’t have to issue refunds.

There follows a series of micro-acts performed by non-performers, and that turns out to be as interesting as it sounds (which ranges from not very to not at all). The multiple faults of the production, without assigning blame by name, include over-acting, high-volume acting, slow pacing, maudlin sentimentality, sloppy execution, inappropriate eye contact with the audience, and lack of character or plot development.

Experienced actors Joe Milan, Liz Conway and the playwright (who takes the role of the ringmaster), along with young actors Frank Levin and Ivy Pedaci, have small moments--sometimes lasting only nanoseconds--when they are either vaguely amusing or fleetingly touching. But it is all ultimately for naught.

This, of course, creates a rich and vibrant environment for learning. And it is hoped that all participants will nurture themselves accordingly.

Not The Flying Stupendas
Through May 5 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6515 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727