Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Top Dog/Underdog, None Too Fragile Theater

(From left, Robert Grant III as Lincoln and Brian Kenneth Armour as Booth)

It’s such an obvious crowd-pleaser, it’s hard to believe the National Rifle Association hasn’t yet sponsored it: a shooting gallery where people can recreate the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

In Top Dog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, now at the None Too Fragile Theater, that bizarre bit of interactive amusement is at the core of this two-brother drama. The African-American bros, named Lincoln and Booth by their father as a joke, are frozen in a world composed of lies and dreams.

And this production, directed by Sean Derry, generates laughs even as you see the two men sinking under the weight of their own misperceptions.

Lincoln spends his days working at playing Honest Abe, in a stovepipe hat and whiteface, while customers plug him with their fake guns. Lincoln (the man, not the President) used to be a master of the three-card monte street hustle, but now his brother Booth wants that gig. Trouble is, Booth is a better common thief than he is a card trickster, and he wants Lincoln to show him the three-card monte ropes.

Confined in Booth’s small, no-efficiency apartment (sans bathroom or running water) the confrontationally-named siblings chafe against each other in frequently comical ways. But there is always a current of anger and resentment beneath their actions, the familial source of which is brought out in Act Two.

Although Parks' script (a Pulitzer Prize winner) is long and repetitive, the two excellent actors on stage often make it sing believably. Brian Kenneth Armour moves slow and easy, but each of his movements is laden with intent. So the audience quickly learns to fear what might happen when he gets too agitated.

As Lincoln, Robert Grant III is an endearing fellow, wearing his scraggly fake beard and honestly trying to improve his performance so he can keep his “job with benefits.” But when he shows his brother some real card shuffling skills, Booth realizes his dream of mastering that con game, like his dream of reuniting with his girlfriend Grace, is totally illusory.

Together, Grant and Armour spin a web of iron that leaves neither any escape. And even though there are long stretches when the pace could be picked up a bit, the performers keep you riveted until the inevitable but shocking conclusion.

Sure, this play could be done in a shorter time than this production’s almost three-hour run time with one intermission. But then, you’d spend less time in the company of these two magnificently flawed and doomed characters. And that would be a shame.

Top Dog/Underdog
Through November 29 at None Too Fragile Theater,
1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), nonetoofragile.com, 330-671-4563.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Tingle Tangle, Theater Ninjas

“What I love is the taste of transience on the tongue, every year might be the last.” In that quote, German film and theater actor and director Max Reinhardt was speaking about the fragile Weimar Republic.

And if you’ve ever wondered what Weimar-like transience felt like, it is on full display in Tingle Tangle, now being produced by Theater Ninjas. The Weimar Republic existed in Germany like a fragile flower between the two 20th Century world wars. And for a brief moment, the arts that flourished in that time were rather astounding in their candor and confrontation.

In this production, conceived by Ray Caspio and directed by Jeremy Paul, the audience is swept back to that time when Germans partied hearty and gleefully trampled established  cultural boundaries. The cabarets that popped up after WWI often featured nudity and acts loaded with sexual innuendo.

The material in this variety show of songs and vignettes is all-American, however, touching on various personal remembrances of the cast members dealing with gender identity and sex. It is unabashed, unapologetic and often uproariously hilarious.

Caspio, gay and married, talks about his personal journey and current conflicts, since he lives in Ohio, a state that doesn’t recognize his loving relationship. A talented and riveting performer, Caspio uses his lean body to great effect whether delivering his monologues or just moving and dancing in place on the small stage. And his second act schtick as the aged and bigoted Uncle Toots, a character Caspio initially created on You Tube, is a flat-out hoot.

He is supported by five other actors and live accompaniment provided by Eric M. C. Gonzalez. One standout in the company is Amy Schwabauer, who does a spot-on rendition of a high school coach teaching a sex education class, employing a witty mixture of flaming ignorance and an earnest desire to communicate. Schwabauer is also excellent in her personal reminiscence about her, um, adventurous sex life.

The other performers include Katie Beck, Valerie C. Kilmer, Dan Rand, and Ryan Lucas, who each have their moments as Tingle Tangle weaves its own spell of frank honesty and simmering rage at the absurdities of society today.

Sure, there are some bits that don’t exactly work, and the singing of some of the period songs is more often off-key than on. But this all fits the raw and gritty vibe that the show is shooting for. By not taking itself seriously, the show lowers barriers and compels the audience to take some of the issues raised very seriously.

It is all staged in the basement of the Guide to Kulchur bookstore, owned by the esteemed poet RA Washington, and it is the perfect space. Tucked into a corner and surrounded by books, it feels as if you’ve been let into a secret club that requires a password to enter.

The small venue means only about 40 people can experience this remarkable show at any one time. So don’t tarry. If you’re in the mood for a fascinating trip that will have you laughing out loud multiple times, get a zesty taste of gender and sexual transience in Tingle Tangle.

Tingle Tangle

Through November 16, produced by Theater Ninjas at the Guide to Kulchur bookstore, 1386 W. 65th St., www.theaterninjas.com.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How We Got On, Cleveland Play House

Plays about young people finding their artistic identities can be fascinating for older folks, since we enjoy seeing that the kids of today are just as screwed up and confused as we were.

And that is what How We Got On by Idris Goodwin attempts to do, as it follows three 15-year-old black and Hispanic teens through their attraction to hip-hop music, which was emerging in the late 1980s.

But the production at the Cleveland Play House, as directed by Jaime Castaneda, is about as non-hip as you can get, and just forget about the hop.

If rap music is anything, it is a continual flow of words tumbling over each other in a giddy frenzy of rhymes and startling images. Unfortunately, How We Got On never “gets it on,” as the performance is shot through with countless long pauses and contemplative silences, as if this was Death of a Salesman or something.

The script by Goodwin is serviceable enough, touching on the innocence of the young people, their fleeting rivalries and friendships, and at times capturing the repetitive wordplay that rap employs.  And God knows there’s enough of the “Just chill…ain’t no thang…that’s dope…” stuff to last you for a while. But the characters are drawn perilously thin, meaning that the momentum of the production itself must take up the slack.

Unfortunately, it feels like director Castaneda was thinking too much about the typical gray-haired CPH audience, slowing everything down to a crawl so the cane-and-walker-crowd could keep up. Also, the play attempts to explain some of the technology behind the rap sound, using visual aids in the manner of an Army training film. It's doubtful anyone in the audience is interested in the particular equipment Grandmaster Flash used, or the difference between a turntable crossfade and a drum loop.

The talented cast that plays the teens— Eric Lockley, Kim Fischer and Cyndi Johnson—is never allowed to cut loose. They are overseen on stage by the Selector, a DJ/narrator who often steps in to play other roles including the kids’ parents. The one-named actor Portia tries to spark some energy into the proceedings but she often seems bored herself as she observes the glacial staging.

Oddly, the most compelling moment in the play is when the gorgeous, evocative poem by Robert Hayden, "Those Winter Sundays" is read. In just a few quiet words, Hayden lifts one's spirit in a simple and profound way. 

How We Got On
Through November 16 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.