Monday, October 15, 2012

Next Fall, Blank Canvas Theatre

(Curt Arnold as Adam and Timothy J. Allen as Luke)

In the abstract, building a show around a hospital deathwatch might seem way too Grey’s Anatomy for the stage. And indeed, Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts, now at the Blank Canvas Theatre, does fall prey to some of that TV drama weepiness.

But on the way to a questionable ending, this is one of the most genuinely warm and funny scripts in recent memory. And the talented cast, under the compassionate and assured direction of Patrick Ciamacco, misses very few beats in telling this story of love and loss.

Luke, in his early twenties, is in a New York City hospital , having been grievously injured in a car accident. His divorced parents, burly Butch and chatty Arlene, have flown in from Florida, joining Luke’s friends Holly and Brandon in the waiting room. Then 40-year-old Adam arrives, Luke’s partner of four years.

In flashbacks, we see the progression of Adam and Luke’s relationship, from meeting cute in a Heimlich hug at a catered event to their eventual sharing of an apartment. We see them joke about some of their differences, age among them, but there is one divide that seems to grate on both.

While Luke is a devout Christian, saying grace before eating anything and fully believing in the afterlife, Adam is a confirmed agnostic. Try as he might, Luke can’t bring his lover over to the other side of belief.

This conflict is exacerbated in the hospital where Luke’s parents, clueless about their son’s homosexual lifestyle (or are they?), try to deal with Adam’s emotional state.

Using a play structure that intersperses scenes from the tense present day hospital situation and the past, playwright Nauffts carves out distinct characters that are fully realized by the Blank Canvas players.

Lindsay Pier and Jason Elliott Brown, as Holly and Brandon, handle their supporting roles skillfully, finding interesting facets that could easily have been left unplumbed.

As the parents, Jeffery Glover is gruff and entirely believable, casually tossing off bigoted comments while also showing his loving, vulnerable side. As brassy Arlene, Anne McEvoy resists turning her character into a cartoon, thereby succeeding in shaping a woman who feels out of her element but trying to adapt.

The pair of lovers could hardly be better. Timothy J. Allen as Luke shows his devotion to his lover and to his religion in many small ways. These add up to a powerful conflict. And Curt Arnold finds the sweet spot as Adam, modulating his unease with religiosity while trying to advance their relationship.

It is only at the end when one may feel a bit manipulated by the script, as we witness deathbed emotions and an apparent conversion. But before then, it is quite a ride—funny, tender and populated by wildly different people honestly trying to figure out how to live among and with each other.

Next Fall
Through October 21 at the Blank Canvas Theatre, 1305 W. 78th St., #211,

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Kid Simple: A Radio Play in the Flesh, convergence-continuum

( Layla Schwartz as Moll, reclining, and Tom Kondilas as the Mercenary)

It’s been said that radio dramas are the “theater of the mind,” since it is all auditory. And that definition rings true when the plays, such as Orson Welles’ famous Martian invasion broadcast, actually create another world one can enter.

On the other hand, there are radio stories, complete with sound effects, that don’t quite deliver the goods. Call it the “theater of the never mind.” And that is the case with Kid Simple by Jordan Harrison, now at convergence-continuum.

Centered on a most intriguing concept, the play veers off into uncharted territory. And that could be a good thing. But due to one less than inspired performance and fuzzy direction by Geoffrey Hoffman, the whole enterprise basically (sfx: bowling ball dropped into a box of wet mud).

Yes, sound effects are the one constant element in this “radio play,” with two Foley artists (Lisa L. Wiley and sade wolfkitten) operating a variety of noisemakers to provide an aural medium for the action in front of them. And while some of their sounds are quite inventive (a squeaky balloon for erotic impulses), many are more mundane and, what’s worse, ill-timed.

These sfx are in the service of a story that gets short shrift. Moll is a young student saddled with the usual half-ass parents who has invented “The Third Ear” for her science fair project. It can hear sounds that are un-hearable, such as grass growing and hearts breaking. Cool.

But instead of following that interesting thought where it might lead, the playwright goes all Boris and Natasha with the idea, having a mercenary spy intrude on Moll’s space and then two shadowy figures stealing the invention. As a result, Moll goes off to rescue her Third Ear, accompanied by Oliver, a teenage virgin.

This is played in counterpoint with another radio drama called “The Death of the Music Teacher” featuring another hostile figure, a foreign baddie named Wachel (a properly sinister Robert Hawkes).

Sure it’s all weird and fun. And it might work given a more adventurous production. But this con-con effort plays it safe where it shouldn't.

In the key role of Moll, Layla Schwartz never takes chances to deliver on the eccentric intelligence of a young prodigy. Drifting through her scenes, using her constant smile as a replacement for more appropriate facial expressions, Schwartz doesn’t challenge assumptions or engage her character in any interesting way.

Much better is Clint Elston as Oliver, reeking with flop sweat. And Tom Kondilas is a treat as the mercenary in his many disguises, including impersonating Moll herself.

True to the form, there is a narrator played by Laura Starnick, and she handles her duties with panache, including some meta references to herself.

But director Hoffman doesn’t knit all the sound effects seamlessly into the action. This is particularly evident towards the end, when the sounds are meant to replace words in the dialog. That demands precise timing that is just absent, as if a week of rehearsals went missing.

Kid Simple is a promising play in search of a tight, precise and imaginative production. And while there are some interesting performances, a vacuum at the center makes it all go (sfx: water gurgling down a drain).

Kid Simple: A Radio Play in the Flesh
Through October 27 at The Liminis, produced by convergence-continuum, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074

The Color Purple, Karamu House

There are so many good things in this ambitious production of The Color Purple at Karamu House that it almost seems churlish to point out a couple major problems. Trouble is, those problems affect the overall impact of the piece, and that’s most unfortunate.

This musical interpretation of the famous and heart-rending Alice Walker novel is expansive, covering four decades and the lives of black women who find challenges at every turn in their homes, in the community and in the South.

Many people are familiar with Celie, the much put-upon “ugly” woman who gradually emerges as a strong and defiant person capable of fending for herself. Then there’s her sister Nettie who goes off to Africa, Celie’s friend and blues singer Shug Avery, and Mister—Celie’s violent and mean husband who eventually turns over a new leaf.

There’s a lot of story here, and the good parts of this production, directed by Terrence Spivey, are really extraordinary.

Colleen Longshaw as Celie is tremendously affecting as she continually picks herself up and continues her journey. And she sings with deep passion even when the right notes tend to evade her.

She is matched in intensity by Michael May as Mister, throwing his weight around in terrifying ways. And May makes the transition of Mister, from brute to softie, almost believable.

Mikhaela LaShawn is perfect as boozy Shug, at first a stone cold bitch and then showing her more tender side. And standing out in a small role is Christine Johnson as Sophia, belting her songs and providing an imposing presence on stage.

Plus, the singing and dancing under the direction of musical director Ed Ridley and choreographer Angelique Lipford, is spirited and immensely moving.

Unfortunately, the play moves at glacial speed, with scenes dragging out way too long and scene changes taking so long one is tempted to curl up for a short nap. Perhaps this is improving as the play is performed, but the lethargic pace is almost torturous.

There are also moments when the singers are over-amplified, lending a screech to the songs that doesn’t help matters.

Still, this is a fantastic story with very capable performers throughout. If and when they goose it up a few notches, it will be a thorough delight.

The Color Purple
Through October 28 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th Street, 216-795-7070 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

On An Average Day, None Too Fragile

(Some brother combinations do great things, like the Wright Brothers above. Then there are the brothers in this play,)

Thank goodness there’s an endless supply of dysfunctional people in the world, and even more in our imaginations. So we’re assured of never running short of the kind of brothers who are featured in On An Average Day by John Kolvenbach, now at the None Too Fragile theater in Akron.

Even though there are plenty of edgy plays about unsteady people living in squalid conditions, this script is a more well written example of the genre, with dialog that often crackles with mordant wit.

Squatting in his rundown family house, in a kitchen piled with old newspapers, Bob is a hot mess. But his brother Jack has arrived to help. Or has he?

As the two argue over beers grabbed from an odiferous fridge while listening to a bathroom shower that turns on at random moments, we learn a bit about their family’s history.

It’s not until the second act that more details come into focus, with a clever and unique turn that almost makes the script work splendidly.

The production benefits from two fine performances by co-directors Sean Derry and Mark Mayo. It’s nice to have Derry (co-founder of the defunct Bang and Clatter Theatre) back on an area stage, even though he’s playing his umpty-umpth slouching, mumbling derelict. Using his well-honed naturalistic delivery to splendid effect, Derry fully embodies the mentally tormented Bob.

And Mayo’s Jack, a supposedly more grounded adult than his squirrely bro, provides solid counterpoint to Derry’s rants. In the second act, Mayo hits cruising speed with a diatribe about their father that is totally gripping.

But this is far from a perfect script or an ideal production. Playwright Kolvenbach omits many details about the brothers’ lives, including virtually no mention of their mother or how they existed in their teens.

And while actors Derry and Mayo are often brilliant, overlapping their lines in a manner that feels true and honest, they also occasionally disconnect from the audience and the material.

While the overlapping dialogue is done to perfection, it eliminates the need for the characters to hear and bounce off each other. This lessens the tension and becomes tedious at times. Also, there are many moments when speeches are delivered into the middle distance, instead of at each other. Perhaps a director who wasn’t acting in the scene at the time could have corrected some of this.

Even with the glitches, there is snap in much of Kolvenbach’s material, and a second act turn that perfectly justifies the title. And that makes this first work by the newly reborn None Too Fragile theater a flawed but feisty winner.

On An Average Day
Through October 20 at the None Too Fragile Theater, 1841 Merriman Road (in the back room of Pub Bricco), Akron, 330-671-4563.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Anything Goes, PlayhouseSquare

At the beginning of every new theater season, we are reminded of how lucky we are to have Broadway touring companies docking at our splendid PlayhouseSquare venues.

For indeed, there are particular pleasures that can only be attained by watching sumptuously costumed professionals do their thing on a stage replete with three-level sets and monstrous banks of lighting. On the other hand, there are some glitches that these touring shows often trip on, from time to time.

A ton of the good and a faint smattering of the not-so-good are on display in Anything Goes at the Palace Theatre.

This production, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company and winner of Tonys in 2011 for Best Revival and Best Choreography, is a visual delight. From the first scene in a cozy Manhattan bar to the deck of the luxurious ship crossing the Atlantic, you’re bathed in a bygone world of cosseted consumption. (Bygone that is, except for the 1%,.)

But the star of the show is, as always, the timeless tunes featuring music and lyrics by Cole Porter, the master of the dry musical quip. Those songs—“It’s De-lovely,” “Friendship,” and “I Get a Kick Out of You” among them—are sufficient for any show to be a success.

As for plot, suffice to say it’s a grab bag of casual happenstances, mistaken identities and romantic dust-ups. These swirl around Reno Sweeney, an evangelist turned nightclub singer and Billy Crocker, a young Wall Street hotshot who’s smitten by Hope Harcourt who happens to be engaged to wealthy Brit and twit, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh.

The strong cast sings Porter’s numbers with the right amount of 1930s panache. And the whole company hoofs a couple rousing ditties—the Act One closer “Anything Goes” and the Act Two opener “Blow, Gabriel Blow”—with astounding precision and verve.

And the script, penned by a gaggle of fine humorists over the years and through several revisions, offers a rich mother lode of cringe-worthy japes and time-tested zingers.  

In the central role of Reno, Rachel York exudes supreme confidence and dances well enough to keep director Kathleen Marshall’s ambitious and rousing choreography on track. Erich Bergen is a tall, handsome and affecting Billy, pursuing his love while impersonating a celebrity criminal.

Edward Staudenmayer has plenty of fun with the Lord Evelyn character, botching American slang (“I say, anyone have hot pants for a game of shuffleboard?”) at every turn. And speaking of hot pants, Joyce Chittick as Erma is a one-woman sailor relief program as she cuts a sensuous swath through the ship’s crew.

The small glitches show up when sturdy pros wind up mailing in some of their scenes. This is particularly true with Fred Applegate in the featured role of Moonface Martin, “Public Enemy No. 13.” In his “Friendship” duet with Reno, and at other times, you can see him consciously hitting his marks instead of being fully absorbed in the part.

Applegate is experienced enough to nail his laugh lines with exacting timing, but his casual approach at other moments bespeaks the downside of “touring company” mentality. Since this is the first stop on the show’s 25+ city tour, maybe he’s saving himself.

Anyhow, this is another chance to see and hear those great Porter songs, and another opportunity to see ensemble tap dancing that virtually lifts you out of your seat. And should be worth a ticket in anyone’s budget.

Anything Goes
Through October 14 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Kardiac Kid, Cleveland Public Theatre

Wherever that couch is, there is still a dent in the cushion left by my leaden butt after Red Right 88 ended our dreams of a Browns’ Superbowl appearance in 1981. I don’t think I moved for hours, maybe days, stupefied. Food had to be brought to me, as if I was bedridden. And comatose.

I say this for those who weren’t around at the time, so they know exactly how devastating that loss was. Playing the endless loop of the wayward end zone pass that landed in defender Mike Davis’ hands instead of Ozzie Newsome’s. With less than a minute left! With the ball on the opponent’s 13 yard line, in easy range for a winning field goal!

This is important, because the one-man production The Kardiac Kid, by playwright and performer Eric Schmiedl and now at Cleveland Public Theatre, treads on sensitive and depressingly sacred ground. If he doesn’t get the vibe right about this event, then the whole play lands like a leaden Mike Phipp’s incompletion.

Happily, Schmiedl approaches the tragedy with the proper amount of gravitas, inching up on it as he takes us through the entire 1980 Browns’ season. Diagramming plays and showing photos on an overhead projector (a nice ‘80s touch), he captures the essence of the Browns team under coach Sam Rutigliano and quarterback Brian Sipe.

But the playwright and director Bill Hoffman do much more than that, by following four different storylines of fans who were affected by the eventual cataclysm. Teenage girl Abigail, the Catholic priest Father Carey, tool & die man Eddie (along with his magic Browns knit cap) and busboy-turned-assistant-chef Henry are each living their lives while intertwined with the fate of their city’s beloved team.

As a writer, Schmiedl has a pointillist’s eye for telling details, taking the time to observe how Abigail treasures her new school clothes, how the priest relates to his sly old hound Stanley, and relishing the aroma of west side Eddie’s chicken paprikash.

And as a performer, Schmiedl is enormously warm and folksy without being cloying. Speaking primarily as a narrator, he leads us through the tale of woe with a gangly, softly modulated honesty that always rings true. At times, he feels like the Cleveland version of Will Rogers, calm and affable, except in those moments when his temper flares over The Pick or our hated rivals in Pittspuke, er, burgh.

Interestingly, Schmiedl doesn’t simmer in the rancid juices of that play, he just steps up to it and then stops. This may be frustrating for those who don’t have a profound, visceral memory of what happened that day more than 30 years ago.

And the playwright makes a couple stutter steps in the wrong direction, especially when he drags in maudlin scenes involving Henry’s love life and a kitchen mishap. Plus, he can’t resist a thematic summing up at the end that undercuts the subtlety he has employed throughout.

Still, The Kardiac Kid is a poignant love letter to the Browns, to the city and to those who suffer to this day in our orange and brown knit caps. With a pom pom on top.

The Kardiac Kid
Through October 20 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Winter’s Tale, Great Lakes Theater

If you don’t know what’s coming in The Winter’s Tale, now at Great Lakes Theater, you may feel you wandered back after intermission and were transported into a different play.

After a chilly first act filled with jealous rages and tyrannically callous rulings, culminating in deaths, the second act opens on a storybook land of happy people, singing and dancing, and general merriment. Say what?

Welcome to the fractured world of this Shakespearean “problem” play, where magical thinking and mystical happenings rule the day. And while there are definite pleasures to be had in this production, director Jesse Berger hangs first-time observers of this confusing play out to dry.

In Sicilia, King Leontes, proud father of young son Mamillius, is all bro-mantic with longtime friend and guest, King Polixenes of Bohemia. But soon fevered Leontes thinks he detects some hanky-panky between his pregnant wife Hermione and his old buddy.

So the innocent Polixenes (a strong Lynn Robert Berg) books and Leontes confines his queen and son to a dungeon where she gives birth to a girl, whom Leontes orders be banished and left to expire in nature (thinking it is Pol’s  kid). Later, Leontes learns that Hermione and his beloved son have both died under his repressive rule, hectored along the way by Paulina, Hermione’s close friend.

After all that sturm and drang, the second act opens 16 years later in Bohemia, a happy land where the baby Perdita, rescued by a Shepherd and his son, has grown into a lovely young miss in love with Prince Florizel, the son of Polixenes.

The lovebirds eventually make their way back to Sicilia, where a happy reunion occurs, a statue of Hermione is unveiled, and magic happens.

The first act ripples with anger, mostly due to David Anthony Smith as Leontes. Trouble is, his outrage is so sudden and florid, it seems comical at times, recalling many of Smith's funny performances at exactly the wrong time. Lise Bruneau does what she can with the inhumanely noble and passive Hermione, willingly going off to her hubby’s slammer even though she is blameless.

Some of the sharpest riffs are delivered by an excellent Laurie Birmingham as Paulina, who is the only one in the court with sufficient balls to tell Leontes he’s a jerk.

When the baby is left on a shore to fend for herself, the servant who put her there, Antigonus, is chased and eaten by a bear (calling up the famous stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a Bear.”).

Once in the hippy haven of Bohemia, Perdita and Lorizel show off their fondness with great warmth, in the persons of Kimbre Lancaster and Miles Gaston Villanueva. But the comic relief supposedly afforded by the Shepherd and his son is undercut by predictable schtick cranked out by, respectively, M.A. Taylor and Juan Rivera Lebron.

But that’s nothing compared to the over-the-top antics of Tom Ford as the rogue Autolycus. Assaulting the stage like Rip Taylor on speed, Ford stretches his admittedly adept comic skills until they snap and unravel. After all, directorial indulgence of an actor’s whims should observe some limits.

There are many fascinating themes in this piece involving the salving effects of time, the conflict between art and nature, and the destructive power of jealousy.

But many of these intriguing ideas are buried under the difficult structure of the play itself. There should be some way to help the uninitiated through this welter of confusion, but it isn’t provided by director Berger.

That said, it must be noted that the scenic design by David M. Barber is entirely enthralling. The costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti, however, often look like the scene after a particularly nasty explosion in a costume shop.

And the bear, while large and astounding, seems more suited to another play. As do several of the performances themselves.

The Winter’s Tale
Through November 4 at Great Lakes Theater, 2067 E. 14th Street, 216-241-6000