Sunday, July 28, 2013

On The Line, None Too Fragile Theater

(Dynamite Trio: From left--Mark Mayo as Jimmy, Andrew Narten as Mikey, and Robert Branch as Dev)

If you’d like to experience ensemble acting that’s tighter than Beyonce’s bustier, in service of a show that explores blue-collar friendships under stress, then you absolutely have to see On The Line, now at None Too Fragile Theater.

This script by Joe Roland is a tight-cornering roller coaster ride, as a trio of production line workers, who’ve been pals since the First Grade, try to maneuver themselves in the adult world of callous company bosses, desperate unions, and a strike that ignites a major meltdown.

Set in the mid-1990s, the white and black hats are predictable, with the unseen managers pulling the strings of their hard-working, hard-drinking employees. But thankfully, Roland makes his workers—Dev, Jimmy and Mikey—a conflicted and often outrageously comical bunch, as they each react to offers of management positions from the company in different ways.

But most notably, the performances under the whip-smart direction of Sean Derry are true, real and dazzling. Mark Mayo, Andrew Narten and Robert Branch mesh like a finely tuned Porsche engine, continually finding new gears as the demands of the script increase.

As the strike looms, Mikey decides to accept a job with management and is branded a traitor by Dev, who stands foursquare with the union. Jimmy meanwhile takes a job as the union’s agent. Thus, the battle lines are drawn and these bosom buddies start sniping at each other over shots, beers, and darts in their off hours.

Among many stellar moments, there are definite high points.  When Mayo’s Jimmy and Branch’s Dev watch a football game on TV, weaving their game commentary into Jimmy’s attempts at calming Dev’s rabid union views, the result is a verbal ballet that is hilarious and pungent.

And when Branch smoothly delivers a monologue about his view of management-labor relations and compares it to a cruise ship in mid-catastrophe, the metaphor seems incredibly apt. At the conclusion, as he imagines himself drowning in five feet of water because he no longer has the strength to stand up, the effect is sublime and powerful.

In the second act, Narten is in a suit and tie pushing the company line (“What’s good for the company is good for you.”). But his real feelings are oozing through the cracks in his polished façade.

Director Derry paces this work with vigor and precision. The only small wrinkle is relying a bit too much on the dart playing, which doesn’t allow the actors to bounce off each other as often as they might.

Early in the play, the guys refer to themselves as a miracle alloy, stronger by far than any of the individuals by themselves. And the same can be said for these three actors. It’s a performance so free and yet so well controlled, it’s a privilege to share the same space with them.

On The Line
Through August 24 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1841 Merriman Road (enter through Pub Bricco), Akron, 330-671-4563.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Boston Marriage, Mamai Theatre

From left: Cathleen O'Malley as Claire, Khaki Hermann as Catherine, and Shana Beth McGee as Anna)

As a writer, David Mamet is enamored of the con game, and he often plays just such a game with his audiences. So it is in Boston Marriage, his play set in the Victorian era and featuring three female characters.

Right there, you know the con is afoot since Mamet is known for his testosterone-drenched plays and movies that feature a whirling sharknado of macho profanities. But here, most of the language is stilted and arch—sometimes arched over to the breaking point—as two women on the fringe of the upper class and a maid prowl the minefield of their drawing room (lushly rendered by scenic designer Ron Newell).

This play fascinates as much as it confounds, offering many deliciously dense passages that are both amusing and invigorating. But these Mametian verbal joustings go on so long, with very little actually happening (unlike, say, in Glengarry Glen Ross) that one eventually tires from this genteel exercise in conversational sparring.

The title of this show comes from a wink-wink, nudge-nudge term for lesbian relationships back in the day, and the privileged women in this play clearly have something of a history. Anna, in whose house the action is set, is well set up thanks to a male “protector” for whom she provides sex and is rewarded with a handsome income.

Claire is her, ahem, close friend who it turns out has fallen in love with a pretty young girl who is constantly being chaperoned by her mum. So Claire want to use Anna’s house for her seduction of the cute little thing, an idea that fills Anna with jealousy and lots of free-floating rage.

A good deal of her venom is focused on the maid Catherine (a consistently on-point Khaki Hermann), whom the ladies always refer to by other names (Bridie, Mary, etc.). And Anna continually berates the poor, emotionally fragile girl for her Irish background, although Catherine repeatedly says she is Scottish.

That amounts to plenty of fuel for some dangerous games(wo)manship, but since the dewy object of Claire’s affections never appears, we are left with these three who poke and prod each other, in glorious and occasionally anachronistic (“Tell it to the Marines!”) language, for two hours.

Assessing the acting in a Mamet play is often a con game all its own, since the playwright favors non-inflected acting and often writes his material to induce such performances.

As Anna, Shana Beth McGee turns the knife with mean-girl precision when she assaults Catherine. But her relationship with Claire is not so straightforward, with hints piling up in profusion. Laboring under a large, unnatural and ungainly wig, McGee spends too much time staring into the middle distance and not enough lasering in on her buddy Claire.

Cathleen O’Malley’s Claire seems appropriately smitten by the unseen girl. However O’Malley tends to strike attitudinal poses (now distressed, now bemused) that never knit themselves into a believable character.

Of course, believability is not often the goal in a Mamet play. But the words and performances still have to add up to something more than a jumble of clever sentences and elegant postures for a play to be thoroughly involving, and that’s where this production stumbles a bit.

Still, director Christine McBurney makes the most out of many of Mamet's lines, some of which you’d like to take home and put in a velvet-lined box. To wit, when Claire erupts emotionally at Anna at one point and then says, “I’m sorry I was moved to speak with enthusiasm.”

Even though the blocking tends to be hyperactive at times, this is a show that invites you into the interpersonal con games people play. And no one does a con quite like David Mamet.

Boston Marriage
Through August 4 produced by Mamai Theatre in residence at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Hts., 216-570-3403

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Light Up the Sky, Oberlin Summer Theatre

It is delicious when a play immerses you in a small corner of an little-known world, and that is exactly where Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky places you, in this outstanding production at the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival.

This collection of cool and clever performances is a theatrical version of a frosty vodka and tonic—plenty tart with just enough sweetness to make a summer day glow.

It’s all an inside story about a play that is having its pre-Broadway tryout in Boston, and the ego-driven maniacs who are involved in the process. Even though some of the jokes in this 1948  play are dated, there’s enough comical venom and backstabbing to keep the laughter rolling.

New playwright Peter Sloan (an earnest Aaron Profumo) is cowed by all the activity surrounding the out-of-town opening of his play. But no such problems affect the others, who are neck-deep in theater stereotypes.

The star of the play-within-a-play is Irene Livingston, and Christa Hinckley gives her a mercurial diva-turn that is a pure delight. She bumps heads with her mother, the razor-tongued Stella Livingston played with a permanent lip-curl by Karen Nelson-Moser.

But the two funniest portrayals are tuened in by Matthew Wright as the hyper-emotional director Carleton Gitzgerald (“I could just cry!” is his running joke/catch phrase. And Marc Moritz is as amusing as he’s ever been as the hard-ass producer Sidney Black.

They are all thrown into a tizzy when Black’s young wife Frances and Stella return from the performance, depressed beyond belief. The show is a bomb and, worse than that, it was referred to as an “allegory” by a nearby audience member—thus establishing another running joke that never really gets old.

Played on a sumptuous looking set designed by director Paul Moser, the long show (almost three hours with two intermissions) seems to fly by.

Indeed, the only wrinkles are an unfocused performance by Tip Scarry as Tyler Rayburn, Irene’s husband, and a parrot that talks from the opposite side of the stage from its cage (a ventriloquist parrot!).

Even the happy ending doesn’t cloy too much, thanks to a wide-eyed appearance of Dave Cotton as the mid-west rube and potential investor William Gallagher.

This is free theater of the highest order (although reservations are still recommended). And this show is running in rep with The Diary of Anne Frank and Twelfth Night. So, start the car and point it towards Oberlin.

Light Up the Sky
Through August 3 at the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival, Hall Auditorium, 67 North Main, Oberlin, 440-775-8169.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ragtime, Mercury Summer Stock

Sure, it seems that any theater calling itself “summer stock” should be happening in a cozy barn with hay stacked in the corner, over by the pitchforks and spitoon.

Defying that cliché, Mercury Summer Stock takes place in a capacious air-conditioned auditorium on the Notre Dame College campus. But other than the location, this theater has all the youthful zest and spirit one associates with summer stock. And the current production of Ragtime is a good example.

This story of the racial and gender turns American society was making at the turn of the last century features some truly lovely tunes by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics). And the book by Terrence McNally, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, has plenty of exposed edges. The three groups that collide--privileged white folk from the suburbs, urban blacks and recent immigrants--tell a contentious story that is still spilling out on our 24-hour news channels today.

There are enough fine voices in the MSS cast, under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, to give voice to these largely sung-through thoughts. Particularly outstanding are Nicholas Bernard as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a proud man destroyed by violence and bigotry, and Nicole Sumlin in an evocative performance as his wife Sarah.

The strong ensemble also features Dana Aber as Mother, singing a evocative rendition of “Back to Before” and Sara Masterson as the beautiful but dippy showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (“The Girl on the Swing”).

Other roles are mixed blessings as Jonathan Bova does a nice job acting his “American dream” role of the immigrant Tateh, but his songs too often flatline. And oddly, the excellent actor Brian Marshall never quite commands the stage as Houdini, the master illusionist who dominated the popular imagination of this time period.

Creative staging and choreography by Brault, utilizing a raft of wooden chairs to stand in for everything from a Model T Ford to you name it, helps makes this production a memorable event.

Small quibbles aside, this is a dandy story with music that will transport you back to that era some recall as innocent, but which was as rife with pain and difficulty as our own time today.

Through July 20, produced by Mercury Summer Stock at Regina Hall, Notre Dame College, Green Road between Mayfield and Cedar, South Euclid.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

12 Angry Men, Blank Canvas Theatre

It’s hard to know when a theater company actually develops its own personality, its distinctive position in the local theater firmament.

Blank Canvas Theatre, now in its second year of operation, is still a work in progress in terms of the kinds of shows it produces—ranging from the ridiculous (Texas Chainsaw Musical) to the sublime (last year’s exemplary Next Fall).

But what can be said now is that BCT always presents a well-thought-out production featuring performances that are fine-tuned to the tone and intent of the script at hand.

The latest example of that skillful work is 12 Angry Men, the American classic by Reginald Rose. Opening virtually on the day that the controversial verdict came down on the Trayvon Martin murder case, acquitting defendant George Zimmerman, this 55-year-old play could not be more current.

The dozen jurors (and one guard) on stage craft an ensemble performance that feels genuine in all respects. Even if there is ultimately less edge and vitriol than one might want, director Patrick Ciamacco blends these actors well and the result is as gripping as ever.

Scott Esposito plays a well-modulated Juror Eight (none have actual names), the man who is the lone holdout for “Not Guilty” as all other 11 jurors think the young accused man from the slums is plainly guilty of murdering his father.

As the discussions in the jurors’ room proceed, each of the men develops his own personality and back story, informing their opinions on the evidence. And this is the genius of Rose’s script, showing how our supposedly fact-based judicial process can be easily hijacked by the individuals who are summoned to pronounce judgment.

The hotheads pushing to fry the accused are played by Mitch Manthey and Robert Hawkes. Manthey uses his imposing physical size as Juror Three to intimidate others, along with his scathing sarcasm, but Manthey also reveals this juror’s weaknesses regarding his own son.

Hawkes as Juror 10 is a half-lidded lizard brain in a sweat-stained sport coat, opining that these kids from the slums are all liars. His second act monologue is eviscerating, and could only be improved by employing the tone of his voice and volume as more of a weapon.

Strong performances are also contributed by Tim Tavcar as the elderly gentleman who switches his vote early on, Curt Arnold as the put-upon jury foreman, and John J. Polk as the shallow ad guy who waffles in the breeze.

It all comes down to reasonable doubt, the squishy standard that is unreasonable for so many reasons. But hey, it’s the only judicial system we’ve got. And this play shows how the decisions it renders can turn on small quirks of personality, happenstance and fate.

12 Angry Men
Through July 27 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 79th Street Studios, 1300 W. 78 St., 440-941-0458

The Lion King, PlayhouseSquare

(Tshidi Manye as Rafiki)

There’s a reason The Lion King is one of the top five longest running Broadway shows. It’s a bulletproof stage franchise that can withstand infinite cast changes and never lose its core ability to awe and inspire.

While this version now at PlayhouseSquare has a couple wrinkles that past touring shows have avoided, the takeaway for repeat visitors or virgins is still basically the same: The Lion King rules.

From the opening “Circle of Life” parade of creatures, featuring the jaw-dropping human-animal hybrid puppetry imagined by director Julie Taymor (and Michael Curry), your imagination is fully engaged.

Of course, the story follows a predictable arc as the lion pup Simba grows into adulthood after his father Mufasa is lured to his death by his evil little brother Scar. Simba and Scar are destined to snarl at each other until their final showdown, resolved in true Disney fashion.

Sure, L. Steven Taylor as Mufasa and Patrick R. Brown as Scar are no James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons (the original voice actors for those parts in the animated film), but they deliver all the heft required. And Brown snarls his craven lion’s sarcasm with poisonous bile.

The younger actors don’t quite pluck the heartstrings as they have in the past. But the comedy duo of Timon the meerkat (Nick Cordileone) and Pumbaa the gastric disaster/warthog sweep up all the laughs as they tiptoe around their new lion pals.

The music by Elton John and Tim Rice is, as always, powerful and uplifting, with Tshidi Manye as the storyteller Rafiki adding some signature squeaks and trills to her captivating performance.

The only characters that are a bit disappointing are the three hyenas, who deliver a lot of laugh lines. Amid all their laughing and cackling, the lines often are muffled and indistinguishable.

However that articulation slack is taken up by Andrew Gorell. He plays the hornbill Zazu, the King’s chief advisor, with wry good humor and perfect enunciation.

In the dense jungle of Broadway musicals, The Lion King has earned it’s lofty status as one of the most popular shows ever. And every visit here just reinforces that honored position.

The Lion King
Through August 4 at PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Comedy of Errors, Ohio Shakespeare Festival

(Matched sets of twins: from left, Benjamin Fortin, Bernard Bygott, Ryan C. Zarecki and Geoff Knox)

No playwright has ever been as fond of mistaken identities as Shakespeare, with all his damsels dressed in drag to fool all and sundry. And in this play he takes that passion to the ultimate, as two twin brothers and their twin servants bounce around in the service of one of Will’s most adored comical romps.

As always, the OSF troupe handles their business with precision and teeth-rattling enunciation, making all of the language marvelously accessible.

Even though the players are encouraged by director Terry Burgler to chew every visible piece of scenery, along with some of the flora and fauna that surround them in this gorgeous outdoor setting, the broad characterizations mostly add to the raucous fun. 

Standouts in the talented cast include Bernard Bygott and Benjamin Fortin as master and servant, times two. Bygott has the surly sort of good looks that wear well in his guises of both Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse (also played at times by Ryan C. Zarecki). But his extreme mugging later on, as he’s wrenched back and forth by multiple misidentifications, almost upsets the over-acting applecart.

Fortin’s dual Dromios (and an occasional appearance by his Dromio of Syracuse double Geoff Knox) find all the laughs inherent in this wacky plot, shuddering in fear since it seems anyone within arm’s length is ready to take a swipe at this pair of cowering yet conniving servants.

Lara Knox as Adriana seethes with such fury it’s amazing the nearby trees don’t burst into flames, and Tess Burgler has some fun as her sis Luciana.

Alfred Anderson, as he has for the past eight seasons, lends his gorgeous stentorian tones to the proceedings—this time as the Duke of Ephesus—while Henry C. Bishop adds some extracurricular laughs as the conjurer Pinch.

Mark Stoffer as the goldsmith Angelo seems a bit stunned by the histrionics going on around him and doesn’t furnish the added layer of chuckles that this character can often provide.

Summer is short, but that’s no reason not to hie yourself to Akron for this always entertaining Shakepearian treat, served alfresco and with inordinate relish by the talented OSF team.

The Comedy of Errors
Through July 21, produced by the Ohio Shakespeare Festival at Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens, 714 N. Portage Path, Akron, 330-673-8761.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Working, Porthouse Theatre

With all the princesses, ogres and assorted criminals who get their own musicals, it’s nice to see the average working person get his and her own time to folic in onstage melodies.

This is one of the several pleasures provided by the musical Working, now at the Porthouse Theatre. It is adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso from the best-selling book by Studs Terkel, in which he transcribed the thoughts, peeves and dreams of white and blue collar Joes and Janes.

The work categories addressed in the show range from a high-end hedge fund manager to a bunch of housewives. But most of the jobs, illuminated in tunes by multiple songwriters, deal with the vast middle-class who work in factories, drive trucks, lay bricks, and teach school.

Sure, it may seem odd to have all these songs of hard-won occupational experience performed by a young cast made up of college students and recent college grads who have yet to experience the delights of fulltime work for years on end. But hey, those princesses, ogres and criminals were never played and sung by their duplicates either.

And even though they’re young, these performers carve out some memorable moments in a show directed and choreographed with wit and just enough movement by Jim Weaver.

Michael Glavan nails the arrogant hedge fund sleaze in an early monologue, and later does just as well with a selfless elder care worker in the song “A Very Good Day” by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

As a flight attendant, Shamara Costa finds the latent hostility under that smiling “buh-bye” persona, and also scores as a millworker, in a simple and powerful song by James Taylor highlighting the repetitious work that pays the bills.

One of the best voices is deployed by Tee Boyich, who puts it to good use in “Just a Housewife” by Craig Carnelia. And Jake Wood, Sam Rohloff and Mark Warren Goins bring humanity to Schwartz’s tender “Fathers and Sons.”

When called upon to play old folks, the kids don’t have nearly enough wrinkles or gravitas. But Jessica Benson does well otherwise as the elderly teacher in “Nobody Tells Me How.” And Tim Welsh employs his spot-on timing to make retiree Joe Zutty’s speech a highlight of the evening.

If you’ve worked for a living, inside the house or out, Working is a show that rings many bells. And this production is delivers the goods, for the most part, with energy and consistency.

Through July 20 at the Porthouse Theatre on the campus of Blossom Music Center, 1145 W. Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls, 330-672-3884