Thursday, February 28, 2013

Identity Theft, Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program

In Identity Theft, a devised work now at the Cleveland Play House, seven grad student performers seek to explore the mysteries of identity in a work written and assembled by Anders Cato. The multi-tasking Cato translated the texts of August Strindberg, which are used in the piece, and also directs the 90-minute production.

The finished work provides often-stunning eye candy thanks to some dazzling lighting effects by Michael Boll and the fluid scenic design by Jill Davis. The non-linear and often fragmented scenes do a good job of mirroring the crazy-quilt nature of identity—how we are all many different people depending on the people we’re near and what the situation is.

And the performers—Therese Anderberg, Bernard Bygott, Drew Derek, TJ Gainley, Christa Hinckley, Sarah Kinsey and Stephen Spencer—are an energetic and committed lot. As a result, many of the individual scenes or moments work well in a vacuum.

But this show, like so many devised plays (which are put together with the input of the cast and designers), has one major flaw: no one on stage has anything at stake, nothing they’re risking.

By using Strindberg as their starting point, Cato and company have found a compelling and richly contradictory focus, as that playwright swung from pole to pole in his private passions and relationships.

But Strindberg had to deal with the consequences of his fractured identity. And so do characters in a more traditional play. But Identity Theft gives everyone a free pass as they try on different identities and personas, holding and dancing with pieces-parts of store mannequins as they move and sing and, at time, settle down for a bit and actually talk.

But that talk never leads anywhere because there is another, completely different identity gambit rushing up to take its place. The true nature of identity, and of discovering who you really are, is not just a child’s game of trying on different faces.

In reality, even small identity changes can create monumental ripple effects for the person and for their friends and loved ones. This is a complex reality more suited to being conveyed through storytelling, not a collage of impressions—however interesting on the surface they might be.

To sum up, Identity Theft a bold and often riveting theatrical experience. But it brings the audience no closer to understanding the volatile chemistry of identity because it chooses to ignore the human toll that such changes often demand.

Identity Theft
Through March 9, produced by the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program, at PlayhouseSquare, The Helen (Lab Theatre), 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Double Heart, Great Lakes Theatre Touring Production

(Annie Hickey as Virginia and David Hansen as the clown)

If you’re looking for a thoroughly entertaining theater experience and want to spend, say, zero dollars, here’s your answer. Go see Double Heart at one of the remaining neighborhood venues where this delightful touring production is playing.

This “Surround Program” is intended as area-wide outreach, providing a prequel to the Great Lakes production of Much Ado About Nothing, opening at the Hanna Theatre on March 29. And while it may not have the subtlety of Shakespeare, this original one-hour play written by local playwright and actor David Hansen is a complete joy—featuring the MAAN kids Beatrice and Benedick along with assorted other characters.

Hansen has written the whole play in verse that nicely echoes Will’s stanzas, but there are modern colloquialisms and current references thrown in here and there to help include everyone in the audience. And there are enough references both sexual and scatological to keep everyone attentive.

Directed at a brisk pace and with imagination by Lisa Ortenzi, the play clips right along as Emily Pucell and James Rankin fence slyly with each other and show how the two above-mentioned lovebirds came to know each other, and love each other, and then fall out of love. You know, the whole Shakespearian thing.

They are ably supported by Annie Hickey who plays Beatrice’s pal Virginia and Hansen, who switches wigs, hats and other garments to portray everything from royalty to clowns.

Happily, you don’t have to know a thing about Much Ado to get a major buzz from Double Heart. The language is funny and at times quite elegant and wise about issues of the heart. In short, you won’t find a better free show anytime soon. Indeed, this may be even better than some of the ones you pay for.

Double Heart
Through March 6 at various locations. See the schedule at:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Blithe Spirit, Great Lakes Theater

(Shanara Gabrielle as Elvira)

This delightful bit of British fluff, penned by Noel Coward, requires a light touch and spot-on timing to keep the laughter bubbling for more than 2½ hours.

But this wan production Blithe Spirit at Great lakes Theatre generates more faint smiles than laugh-out-loud moments. With a couple notable exceptions, the actors and director Charles Fee seem more intent on nailing a precise Coward-ian cadence to the speech than in developing real characters we can relate to and laugh with.

The plot is, of course, a sure-fire winner, which is why this play is done so often. The shallow and narcissistic novelist Charles is married to the tightly wired Ruth, after he first wife Elvira passed away seven years earlier. And now, Charles wants to learn more about the occult for his new tome, and he invites a medium, Madame Arcati, to hold a séance at his house.

Unfortunately for Charles, Elvira winds up being summoned from the depths and starts occupying space in the drawing room where only Charles can see and hear her. Of course, Elvira has skullduggery in mind and, in order to fetch her beloved Charles to the other side, she sabotages his car. But someone else drives the car, and hilarity ensues.

Or so it should be. God knows, a couple of the actors do what they can to enliven the proceedings. As Madame Arcati, Laurie Birmingham fashions a proud and enthusiastic eccentric, thoroughly delighted at her ability to conjure ghosts and bristling when anyone challenges her talents.

And Shanara Gabrielle has some fluid, sensuous fun with Elvira, tweaking Charles unmercifully and showing that the afterlife might be a fairly good place to be. As long as one doesn’t sit around the house all day.

As for Charles, the one character who is almost always on stage, Eric Damon Smith doesn’t build a character the audience can enjoy. Instead of finding the humor in Charles’ persona, Smith opts for playing his role line by line, smiling and grimacing when appropriate but without any depth, and often rattling his lines with machine-gun rapidity but little character-driven sense.

Smith’s weak performance digs a hole large enough for Maggie Kettering, who plays his wife Ruth, to fall into. While establishing Ruth’s stern and snappish attitude, Kettering also feels more like an amalgam of ticks and mannerisms rather than a living, breathing person.

In the running (pun intended) gag that is the role of maid Edith, who dashes full tilt everywhere she goes, Jodi Dominick and director Fee push the sight gags until they moan for mercy.  And somehow, Dominck’s deadpan expressions don’t register as funny, just slightly tragic.

Instead of a light and airy confection, this Blithe Spirit feels more like a leaden fruitcake, filled with bits of sweetness that have gone chewy and stale.

Blithe Spirit
Through March 10 produced by Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sons of the Prophet, Dobama Theatre

(From left: Christopher Sanders as Charles, Chris Richards as Joseph, and Bernie Canepari as Uncle Bill.)

Here’s a play dedicated to anyone who’s gone on a laughing jag at a funeral, or who jokes with the doctors as they’re preparing her for open heart surgery. Indeed, it’s for all of us who deal with pain, loss or tragedy through laughter, as well as all the other more expected emotions.

The play is Sons of the Prophet by Stephen Karam, now at Dobama Theatre. And while it’s often hilariously funny, it is also touching as we watch 29-year-old Joseph, his younger brother Charles and his Uncle Bill grapple with various serious (along with some petty) problems.

Trouble is, the play is something of a dog’s breakfast in terms of structure, with scenes loosely strung together and many storylines never explored or resolved even slightly. In short, it’s a happy mess, made even happier by some excellent and well-modulated performances.

The above-mentioned trio is part of the Lebanese-American Douaihy family, residing in Pennsylvania under a cloud of doom and gloom. Joseph has an encroaching undiagnosed illness, Charles has a fake ear, their father has just died after crashing his car into a stuffed deer, and elderly Uncle Bill, hobbling on a walker, is challenged in myriad ways.

Add to all that the fact that Joseph, who is gay like Charles, is being hectored by his blacklisted book-packaging boss Gloria to write a memoir. The reason: Joseph’s family is a marketing coup since they are distant relations to the philosopher-poet Kahlil Gibran.

Karam spins laugh lines like a pro (“Our family has a history of dying tragically. We’re like the Kennedys without the sex appeal.”). And he has a sure touch for natural dialogue, the kind that often spills over itself as people try to make their separate points.

Karam does well by characters, too. Gloria is a relentlessly focused entrepreneur with ADD—she can’t remember anything about her employee Joseph for more than a nanosecond—and she has many of the best lines. Anne McEvoy downplays her nicely, allowing the woman’s eccentric nature to bloom naturally.

Chris Richards is equally adept at undercutting Joseph’s travails, allowing the playwright’s humor to sneak up on the audience, as it should. He is nicely matched with Christopher Sanders as Charles, who develops a crush on Vin (Johnathon Jackson), the high school football hero who put the deer in the road as a prank.

Bernard Canepari blusters amusingly as Uncle Bill, although this fine actor could perhaps have been given more levels to explore as the man who wants to lead the family but is no longer is able.

Some of the most exquisite moments of comedy are delivered by two women, Laura Starnik and Jeanne Task, who play multiple roles with delightful and inventive precision.

The only character who doesn’t ring true is Timothy (Aaron Mucciolo), a gay man who Joseph meets in a bus station. But their attraction to each other is never well defined, leaving this relationship hanging in the wind.

Overall, this assemblage of humorous snippets fails to leave the impact it might, since the shape of the play feels almost randomly fashioned. This is especially true at the end, when a scene lands from out of the blue, leading nowhere in particular. We don’t need pat and tidy endings, but a little more structure wouldn’t hurt.

Director Scott Miller guides his cast through this landscape of pain and giggles with skill. But he and scenic designer Laura Carlson seems hamstrung by Dobama’s stage—a space so big and awkward that the actors are often either smushed together in upstage corners or arrayed with yawning stretches of stage between them.

Sons of the Prophet
Through March 17 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, 216-932-3396

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Earth Plays (Part Two of the Elements Cycle), Cleveland Public Theatre

(Beth Wood, as a member of the Earth Plays ensemble who is perhaps contemplating a falling sky.)

Back in 1972, Dobama Theatre mounted a musical revue called Mother Earth, which earnestly sought to alert people, through songs and skits, to the damage being done to our home planet. Indeed, the composer and lyricist of the revue, Ron Thronson, planted an ominous thought in the program notes. He said, “The future of man on the face of this Earth will be determined by our actions in the next five or ten years.”

Well, the decade Thronson referenced blew past us 30 years ago and, considering everything, he may have been right. We may indeed be screwed. Still, even back then his show was criticized for being simplistic and stale. One wag left his opinion on the wall of a stall in the Dobama men’s room, noting succinctly that “There is no gravity, Mother Earth sucks.”

The fact is, it’s hard telling people “inconvenient truths,” even when you’re trying to accomplish it with humor, drama and grace. Most people reject being lectured to in a theater, as they should.

Which brings us to a new version of the old anti-pollution message in Earth Plays (Part Two of the Elements Cycle) at Cleveland Public Theatre.  This assemblage of short pieces, conceived and directed by nine people and then further developed by nineteen cast members, addresses different aspects of our clusterfucked environment.

This is part two of CPT’s Elements Cycle, which began last month with the stunning Water Ways and will continue in the future.  While not as consistently enthralling as Water Ways, Earth Plays offers a number of memorable moments and only goes theatrically awry when it insists on delivering its worthwhile messages wrapped around a rock and repeatedly thumped on the audience’s head.

The parts that work are small gems: Chris Seibert mulling her relationship with her earth mothers in one small room (in a scene she created and directed), and Val Kozlenko as a sperm donor/biologist who explains theories and talks to tennis balls in another isolated space (conceived and directed by Jeremy Paul).

The rest of the action in this 2½ hour adventure happens in the spacious Gordon Square Theatre, where the large cast can stretch out and develop some interesting dynamics ranging from the literal to the surreal. These include a ballet of blue plastic bags that look like protozoa sliding and twitching under a microscope. 

When the movements are big and the mosquito-netted ensemble is fully engaged, moving and at times softly chanting, Earth Plays is often transfixing. Unfortunately, several of the scenes featuring dialogue are hampered by poor projection by some actors and challenging acoustics.

An attempt to alter this space by having the audience move around and reseat itself in different configurations during Act One is a valiant effort. And this cast-aided choreography, as they usher the unsuspecting patrons hither and yon, is impressive. But it often just amounts to a group exercise that doesn’t substantially enhance the proceedings.

Audience activity aside, what works best in this production is the physicality of the performers who dance and move with purpose and elegance. But some of the parodies are lame and dated, such as a trio combining Smokey the Bear, the crying Indian from the old PSA on TV, and easy-target do-gooder Bono.

If you’re a pessimist about the environment at this day and time, you’re not alone and your darkest views are represented in CPT’s work. Many heads will be nodding in agreement as the company, under the smoothly-calibrated overall direction of Raymond Bobgan, pokes holes in our complacency about the environment.

Trouble is, that complacency has long since been eroded. And one wonders how activist, issue-oriented theater needs to fashion itself for the 21st century. It ain’t 1972 anymore and it may be too late for many things—including earnest skits, soft chants and interesting dances.  

Earth Plays (Part Two of the Elements Cycle)
Through March 9 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Blue Man Group, PlayhouseSquare

 Deadpan. They stare at you, expressionless, like three cats contemplating a lint ball, and you stare back. While laughing.

Dead silent. They never speak a word.

But there are words. Some, written on three huge tablets, encourage you to multi-task and read all at once. Such as a “Twit That Lit!” app that condenses major works (War and Peace is shrunken to “War, war, war, war, snow, war war…”).

And there is noise, Hoo, boy, is there noise. Pounding from the frequent hyper-amplified drumming of the trio of Blue Men plus their back-up musicians.

Yes, it’s the performance art guys, the anonymous Blue Man Group, now at PlayhouseSquare. Fun for all ages, and that’s no joke. Created written and directed by Matt Goldman, Phil Stanton and Chris Wink, it’s a wacked out party wrapped in a rock concert and studded occasionally with oozing, streaming, splattering stuff (the first three rows are given plastic ponchos to wear).

The favorite schticks are there: One Man throwing paintballs and clay balls into the other Men’s mouths, which result in two fairly instant “works of art.” Crawling through the audience to find participants to assist in their mute journey of exploration.

Do they get close to the audience? Well, they go all the way down one fellow’s esophagus…is that far enough for you?

And there are lights. Dazzling digital light shows, rock-show swiveling spots, and glows emanating from large inflated globes that bounce all over the audience in a shower of streamers and confetti.

It’s witty, it’s unpredictable (especially if you haven’t seen it). And if you have seen it, that’s exactly why you want to see it again.

You want to see it for the 2D/3D dance. For the unending list of synonyms for the human butt (air balloons, wiggle clowns, Ali vs. Frazier… For the Twinkie banquet.

And yes, they’re still staring at you. And you’re still laughing. Plus, you know, cheering.

Blue Man Group
Through February 17 at PlayhouseSquare, Palace Theatre, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Sunday, February 10, 2013

You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!, PlayhouseSquare

 When you bill a show as “A new comedy about love and marriage,” it all comes down to the definition of what “new” is.

If “new” means that these words have never been performed in this exact order before, as written by Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn, then the statement is accurate beyond all doubt.

But if “new” means a fresh and invigorating take on the vicissitudes of dating and married life, then You Say Tomato… is about as old as the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” from which the title is borrowed. That ditty was penned in 1937 by the brothers Gershwin, who knew a thing or two about real wit.

Gurwitch and Kahn, married in real life, are comedians who appear primarily on TV—and that’s fine. But in this script, even with all the au courant japes about Facebook, texting and emailing, the core of this show feels about as fresh as an episode of The Bickersons  and way less surprising than the first two years of Modern Family.

Flicking back and forth in time from their tenth anniversary dinner, the two characters tell the meet-cute-and-get-married story of the authors, here played by Kevin Bartini and Gabrielle Mirabella.

All the predictable milestones are hit: the early break-up, the reconciliation, the wedding, the pregnancy, the kid, and so forth. And there are some genuine laughs, especially since it starts out with Annabelle being the one who’s scared of commitment and Jeff as the romantic one.

But soon, Jeff’s romantic mindset morphs into simple-minded sitcom horniness and Annabelle’s edgy cynicism softens and then eventually disappears under the onslaught of their cute baby.

The performers do what they can with this material, which triggers many more slight smiles than huge guffaws—the baby keeps them up at night! After all, we’ve seen a lot of this stuff, from Lucy and Desi all the way up to Claire and Phil.

So if you’re in the mood for some gentle teasing of the bonds of love and matrimony, this is your ticket. But don’t expect too much of the in-your-face candor or outrageous energy promised in the title.

You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up!
Through February 17 at PlayhouseSquare, 14th Street Theatre, 1501 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Les Miserables, PlayhouseSquare

Now that Les Miz is available in different forms than on stage, including the old DVD concert version and the spectacular new movie, it may seem redundant to plop down money for a live performance.

But the 25th Anniversary production of the Cameron MacIntosh production, now at the Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare reminds one of the power living, breathing actors can bring. Not to mention impressive backdrop scenery inspired by the paintings of the author, Victor Hugo, who started this whole shebang.

And for those who love the film but were left with a bad taste in their mouth from Russell Crowe’s stupendously hollow performance as Inspector Javert, here is your palate cleanser.

In this version, the music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer are voiced with assurance and intensity by the company.

Although he appears to be a bit small for the role of the muscular Jean Valjean, Peter Lockyer grows into those huge shoes and, by the second act, in “Bring Him Home,” he brings down the house.

The same is true for Andrew Varela as Inspector Javert. His powerful rendition of “Stars” will hopefully forever expunge the memory of Crowe’s whisper-singing and his papier-mache-head-on-a-stick acting. Genevieve LeClerc is an adequate if not riveting Fantine, and Devin Ilaw sings robustly as Marius.

There are a couple soft spots. Joseph Spieldenner never quite exudes the slobbering, craven downside of the Innkeeper, while Natalie Beck as his wife almost goes too far in the other direction.

And in this version, the staging of little Gavroche’s death is much less gripping since it happens out of sight.

But as you watch the actors, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, interact with the moody backdrops, and listen to those familiar songs soar, the small quibbles are reduced to blips.

The movie is fantastic (minus the one exception mentioned above), but there will always be a place for Lex Miz the stage musical, since it connects on a visceral level that nothing else can match.

Les Miserables
Through February 10 at the Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1615  Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000