Friday, October 25, 2013

Black Cat Lost, Theater Ninjas


(From left: Ray Caspio, Lauren Joy Fraley and Sarah Moore)

We’ve all experienced that weird feeling when our car zips over a small rise in the road and our stomach floats and then starts to fall. It’s kinda fun, if it lasts for a second or two.

But when we experience the death of someone close, that feeling of gut-fall and disconnectedness lasts for hours, days, months. Years. And that’s not much fun at all.

In the interesting and always challenging play Black Cat Lost by Erin Courtney, now being produced by the Theater Ninjas, that feeling is expressed in a multitude of overlapping and intersecting moments.

Structured around Zen death poems (written by audience members as they enter, or provided by the cast), the extremely non-linear play both obsesses and frolics around all the ways we try to engage, and mostly avoid, such monumental loss.

What’s a Zen death poem? Well, it’s usually short, three lines, but not a haiku. Such as: “Forever…/I pass as all things do/Dew on the grass.” It tries to engage the mind just before death which, you know, could be any time for any one of us.

Sure, you can make fun of this stuff. If you just read the last five words of the above poem, it’s a Third Grade thigh slapper: “…do/Dew on the grass.”

But there are telling thoughts in Courtney’s piece. In one vignette, a woman relates how she visited her young son’s elementary school class and observed him, through a window. struggling with his nap-time blanket. She notes, “Is this how death feels? To see the complexities and not be able to act?”

You may find moments that resonate with you; there are plenty of them.

This play is paired with The Refrain, a brief work devised by Jeremy Paul, the director of both plays. It also deals with loss in a similar overlapping, sensory manner.

The performers—Tania Benites, Ray Caspio, Lauren Joy Fraley and Sarah Moore—deliver crisp, sometimes amusing and often intriguing turns that include some singing and dancing (or at least movement).

The take-away from this hour-long production is a window into how we all experience life and loss. Remembering little, understanding less, but still willing to fight the good fight.

Note: This production is being staged at three different venues, so if you plan to go be sure you have the right place and the right day. For details, go to theaterninjas.com

Black Cat Lost
Through Nov. 9 produced by Theater Ninjas at various locations. Details at: www.theaterninjas.com

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Bald Soprano, Ohio City Theatre Project

(From left: Courtney Nicole Auman, Stuart Hoffman, Christine McBurney, Robert Hawkes)


A sensible person might ask why a critic would review a play after its performance schedule has been completed. Such is the case with The Bald Soprano, which closed its brief two-week run last night.  After all, what’s the point of a review when no one can respond to a favorable notice by buying tickets?

The answer, of course, is that local theaters, especially new ones such as OCTP, need more than ticket sales. They need financial support. And since we appear to be between government shutdowns for the time being, this would be a fine time to consider a donation to OCTP.

The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco is a marvelous example of the theater of the absurd, as two couples, a maid and a fire chief (!) trade non sequiturs (no, make that anti-sequiturs) as they inch their way through another deplorably banal day.

The often hilarious production, directed by Sarah Greywitt, was performed with exquisite timing, down to the smallest tongue-clicks and head turns. Robert Hawkes and Christine McBurney were especially delicious as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a married pair who alternately vex and delight each other for no apparent reason. And for every reason in the world.

They are visited by dinner guests the Martins, played with wide-eyed innocence and a complete lack of short (or long) term memory by Stuart Hoffman and Courtney Nicole Auman. Cassie Neumann as Mary the maid and Benjamin Gregg as the Fire Chief, also contributed sharp miniature characterizations.

As performed, it was a nonsensical parody of the way we converse, set against a rather grisly landscape of pointless human existence. In other words, it was rather sublime.

This is a theater group that clearly deserve support. With luck, they might even decide to explore more of the absurdist genre. In any case, put them on your play-dar (radar for theater buffs), maybe send a check, and keep an eye out for their next production.

Ohio City Theatre Project
Connect with OCTP at www.ohiocitytheatreproject.com

Friday, October 18, 2013

All This Intimacy, Ensemble Theatre

(From left: Katie Simon Atkinson, Laura Rauh, Jeremy Jenkins, Natalie Green, Ryan Edlinger, Kay Rommel)

If you Google the word “smirk,” you will find definitions revolving around the idea of offensive smugness. And that’s a pretty good capsule description of All This Intimacy by Rajiv Joseph. It’s now at Ensemble Theatre as part of their Second Season of shows in their smaller studio theater.

Joseph, the gifted playwright from Cleveland Heights who penned the marvelous Huck & Holden and the much-acclaimed Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (and whose Animals Out Of Paper is still playing Ensemble's main stage), here pounds out a symphony of wrong notes.

While director Aaron Elersich crafts a few scenes that work quite well, and the ending is thankfully downbeat, the two hours getting to that point are a hard slog.

Ty is a young-ish poetry phenom who had a collection of his verse hit the best-seller list. It was about a man who had a super power enabling him to turn anything into a complicated maze.

So now Ty is a poetry professor on the make and, as we learn in the first scene, has impregnated three women: his next-door neighbor, married adoptive mom Maureen; his poetry student Becca; and his girlfriend Jen. He's created a labyrinth with no way out, just like his poetry protagonist, get it?

This is all meant to set up a climactic second act where, just like a contrived episode of I Love Lucy, all the women are nonsensically invited by Ty to a dinner where he will announce his fatherhood to all assembled. Hoo-boy, Ty, you got some ‘splainin’ to do! Of course, this is all splained by the playwright in excruciating detail early on, so there are no surprises.

Having quickly dispensed with any sort of mystery or sense of discovery, Joseph then proceeds to force-feed the audience simplistic truths about making bad choices and self-centeredness. Ty’s supposedly introspective moments (“Where did I go wrong?”) are overwhelmed by a testosterone-fueled smirk that runs through the whole script.

This isn’t helped by Ryan Edlinger, who plays Ty with an almost continual toothy smile that is his default facial expression for every emotion. This makes it almost impossible to get a true reading on Ty’s inner emotional journey (if there is one) and eventually just becomes grating and tiresome. But he does provide one breakthrough: Who knew you could smirk while grinning?

The talented actor Jeremy Jenkins doesn’t fare much better as Ty’s best pal Seth, starting off in mid-hysteria and then mugging for most of the show. Thankfully, as his sharp-tongued fiancee Franny, Katie Simon Atkinson puts together a wickedly funny character.

And the other three women mostly hold up their end of this bad bargain. Kay Rommel exudes Freshman spunk as Becca, Laura Rauh is a believable Maureen, and Natalie Green survives as Jen in an underwritten part that should be more interesting than it is.

But lets face it, Joseph isn’t as interested in the women as he is in celebrating the spooge-fest that smug Ty is orchestrating. And even though his comeuppance eventually comes up, it’s a long and obvious trip getting there.

All This Intimacy
Through October 27 ay Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Texas Chainsaw Musical, Blank Canvas Theatre


If you like blood and body counts in your play-going experience, but aren’t that into Shakespeare, then consider a trip to a gory patch of Texas back country in Texas Chainsaw Musical. Blank Canvas Theatre is revisiting this gore-fest, which was their fledgling company’s first show a year or so ago.

And thanks to director Patrick Ciamacco and his rowdy band of Blank Canvas players, every homicide is a splatter-drenched comical treat. It all centers on Eddy (otherwise known as “Leatherface”), a tuneful sociopath who gleefully kills any living thing within reach.

Based on the movie of almost the same name, the book by Christopher T. Minori features a fairly lame subplot about a “pantywaist” named Steven, and the music and lyrics by Cory Bytof are nothing very special.

But the gore and laughs spill out practically non-stop as Eddy and his eventual partner in crime Lucretia (Kate Leigh Michalski) off everyone from Eddy’s mom to a pregnant census taker to the UPS guy.

The blood-soaked cast includes Neely Gevaart as innocent Kristy, an object of Eddy’s blood lust, and Leslie Andrews as a nun who rocks the joint in “The Gospel According to Steven.” Kim Escut also stands out as a couple different mothers with serious family issues.

In the role of Eddy, Perren Hedderson is a quivering, twitching mass of psychopathologies—lighting his pet cat on fire before he moves on to his bipedal prey—and he’s hilarious.

Weirdly, in a production with so many gory special effects (anyone in the first two rows gets sprayed with blood, guaranteed), the quiet moments are some of the funniest. And the supporting cast, many of whom play multiple roles, wade into the carnage with cheerful abandon.

Best advice: Grab some of those fun-size candy bars from your plastic Halloween pumpkin bowl and have a blast with this irreverent, song-infused bloodbath.

Texas Chainsaw Musical
Through November 2 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th Street, 440-941-0458


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Insomnia: The Waking of Herselves, Cleveland Public Theatre


Some say dreams can be interpreted and provide information about yourself, reveal your hidden desires and maybe even ferret out some unknown strengths.

Of course, others claim dreams are nothing more than random memories and imaginary flights stitched together haphazardly by a mischievous brain that is off duty and has some time to kill.

Whatever you believe, Insomnia: The Waking of Herselves at Cleveland Public Theatre is a dream sequence that will keep you awake and riveted. This is an encore world premiere production, since the show was first mounted at CPT in 2011.

Written by Holly Holsinger, Chris Seibert and director Raymond Bobgan, this version of the show feels more amusing and at times even more poignant than the original.

The three performers are the same, as Anne McEvoy plays Evelyn, a middle-age woman beset by voices in her head that keep her awake at night. (Or is she asleep and they are her dreams?)

So she visits her attic to discover Ev (Holsinger), a younger version of herself, and Zelda (Seibert), a playful scamp who seems like a core identity of the other two. In various combinations, the three “herselves” interact, play games, sing songs and explore this woman’s identity.

Weaving music (some original and some standards) into the piece, this creative team fashions a play that is never linear but always accessible. McEvoy’s Evelyn is firmly rooted in her frustration at not being able to sleep, and her dry and wry delivery generates many laughs.

As Ev, Holsinger is always compelling as she dares to broach the boundary of the attic and eventually “go downstairs.” And Seibert is the imaginary friend we all would love to have, eager to engage in any game we want and playing her roles, such as a guy from a 1930s-era movie, with √©lan.

Director Bobgan keeps the action streamlined and cohesive so that this very internal play never lapses into navel-gazing (or frontal lobe-gazing). The result is a production that is tight, witty and often quite powerful—encouraging all of us to make friends with the moon voices and fanciful spirits that speak to us in the dead of night.

(To see my review of the original staging of this play, go to: http://www.clevescene.com/cleveland/no-doze/Content?oid=2467367)

Insomnia: The Waking of Herselves
Through Octomber 26 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Kardiac Kid, PlayhouseSquare

(Eric Schmiedl, diagramming loss and hope for Browns fans.)


And so, the torture of Cleveland Browns’ fans goes on. Just when we think we have a quick-thinking quarterback with a fast release, Brian Hoyer tears a ligament and is out for the season. So it’s back to the drawing board.

That drawing board has been getting some serious abuse over the 49 years since the Browns last won a league championship. And one of those years is captured in a very human way in The Kardiac Kid, written and performed by Eric Schmiedl.

He and director Bill Hoffman are longtime Clevelanders and Browns fans, and their passion for our beloved football elves oozes from every pore of this encore Cleveland Public Theatre production (its world premiere happened a year ago). Now located at Kennedy's Down Under at PlayhouseSquare, the play is running concurrently with a couple weekends of the Browns season

Once again, Schmiedl spins stories about several fans as the star-crossed 1980 season of the team dubbed the Kardiac Kids wends its way to the tragedy of Red Right 88. That play ended the Browns’ hopes for a championship and crushed the spirits of many who have never fully recovered. Even to this day.

Playwright Schmiedl does a fine job of sketching portraits of these fans, which include a priest, a love-smitten busboy, a superstitious tool & die man, and a teenage girl who comes out of her shell thanks to the team she adopts.

These everyday characters are the heart of this play (it's not about Sam Rutigliano and company, aside from a couple brief play diagrams) and Schmiedl clearly has a deep fondness for all such Browns backers. His larger intent is to reveal the soul of this much–put-upon city and its hardy, ever-hopeful denizens. Studded with detailed local references from that year (the Pewter Mug salad! Ponderosa Steak House!) the memories of that time resonate as these individuals ride the roller-coaster season as their own lives proceed in various directions.

The performance by Schmiedl feels as comfortable as a screen pass to Jim Brown: you just relax, knowing it will turn out fine. As an actor, Schmiedl has an affable nature and this bathes his character studies in a warm glow. While one might wish for a bit more variety in the delivery, Schmiedl enfolds the audience in his own brand of stage magnetism.

However, there is a visual disconnect that eventually begins to work against the play itself. The small stage at Kennedy’s is emblazoned with sheets of paper bearing the numbers of the 1980 team, and the numbers are repeated to create a wallpaper effect.

Yes, the numbers are important, especially in a sport where fans can never really see their helmeted and face-masked heroes. But it is a strangely sterile black-and-white environment for this quiet yet passionate presentation about people who bleed brown and orange.

One yearns, especially in this second viewing of the show, for shelves and tables loaded with Browns memorabilia—the knit hats, the Sipe jerseys, the bobble-heads and garden gnomes and Pez dispensers—that fans have clung to through the death-march of the past five decades.

Would it look messy and cluttered? Yep. And that is what defines the life of a Browns fan now, and for oh…so…many days in the past.

Still, a battered sort of hope springs up again every Fall on the lakefront (Weeden will process information in the pocket faster! He will, he will! Won't he?). And Schmiedl and Hoffman’s play captures a lot of that hope, from a fan's perspective, in arresting and unexpected ways.

The Kardiac Kid
Through October 12 at Kennedy’s Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000









Thursday, October 3, 2013

Sleeping Beauty, PlayhouseSquare


Usually in the theater, words are king. But it is possible to tell an involving story without any spoken words, if you know how to manipulate movement in divinely expressive ways.

And that’s what director and choreographer Matthew Bourne does in his stunning New Adventures production of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, now at PlayhouseSquare. This two-act ballet tells the story of princess Aurora and her century-long catnap. But in this telling, there are gothic shadows and vampires afoot, making it feel very contemporary.

Aurora seems blessed by a happy life, but she has been cursed by the evil sorceress Carabosse. So on her 16th birthday in the early 1900s, Aurora pricks her finger and is sent into a 100-year sleep. It appears that her boyfriend, the gamekeeper Leo, will be left behind, decades-wise.

But he gets an immortality-bestowing vampire hickey from Count Lilac, setting up a confrontation between Leo and Carabosse’s brooding son Caradoc that takes place in contemporary times.

This is a luxurious production, with every scenic detail precisely executed. And although the music is recorded, that fact never detracts from the magnificent dancing on display. 

Bourne also uses a number of interesting and witty devices to enhance the proceedings. In the Prologue when Aurora is a baby, the doll is animated by black-clad puppeteers who turn the child into an amazingly adroit rugrat. The baby not only bites the shins of the adults, she even climbs the drapes at one point.

Also, several dance scenes feature slow moving conveyor belts  that carry the dancers, adding a different aspect of movement to a presentation already bursting with muscular and graceful activity.

On this night, Hannah Vassallo gave Aurora a vital and spirited interpretation, and Adam Maskell danced the dual roles of Carabosse and Caradoc with a dark and threatening aspect.

This story of good and evil, and of love, is clear in its broad strokes but many details and nuances may be missed by those not well-versed in either the story or ballet itself. And the happy ending, while pleasant, never reaches the kind of soaring, emotional climax that one might expect.

Still, that hardly matters when you are presented with a production of such skill and precision. Every movement of the dancers, from the grandest leap to the smallest twitch, is done with an exactitude that is marvelous to watch. And the eye-pleasing scenic design—which ranges from an ornate bed chamber to a misty birch tree forest to a pulsing nightclub bathed in red—keep one engaged throughout.

Sleeping Beauty
Through October 13 at PlayhouseSquare, Palace Theater, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

From My Hometown, Karamu House



Dreams of musical stardom always abound, which is why the singing competitions on TV always grab huge ratings. The same was true back in 1980 when From My Hometown, now at Karamu, is set.

As conceived by composer and performer Lee Summers, and co-written by himself, Ty Stephens and Herbert Rawlings, Jr., three young hopefuls arrive in NYC to audition at the Apollo Theatre. Each is from a different city (Philadelphia, Detroit and Memphis) with its own rhythm and blues heritage.

The three guys start as rivals but then join forces to become Unity, a three-man group that, after the usual bio-pic tribulations, conquers the music business.

This show is all about the music, featuring more than 30 songs. That is both a good and a bad thing, since the performers have to nail a lot of familiar songs like “Me and Mrs. Jones” and “(Sittin’) On the Dock of the Bay”, which they only succeed at part of the time.

As Memphis, Miguel D. Osborne is the most accomplished performer, exuding charisma, and showing some stellar pipes, especially in the low range.

Tyrone M. Gordon as Phillly and Joel S. Furr as Detroit each have fine moments, but their voices are not up to all the demands of the songs. Gordon has a sweet falsetto but it’s nearly inaudible (even with a mic). And Furr tends to get lost in the melodies of his solo songs.

In addition, the choreography (uncredited) is fairly repetitive—lots of spins and struts—and the set design (uncredited) is literally a collection of brick walls for almost the entire show. This show cries out for more visual stimulation.

Director Nathan A. Lilly finds some humorous turns in the paper-thin storyline in between the tunes. But the back stories of these characters are not all that interesting and a bit forced, as they discover they’re all related as cousins.

With top-flight voices and razor sharp choreography, this could be a memorable musical treat. As it is, this production of Hometown is an R&B dream that never quite comes true.

From My Hometown
Through October 13 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.