Monday, May 26, 2014

Ancestra, Cleveland Public Theatre

Back when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, we all thought the issue of abortion rights had been settled for all time. After all, it made perfect sense, to many of us, that women should have control over the medical decisions that affected their own bodies.

Well, little did we know that those rights would be steadily eroded in the ensuing decades, with national and state legislatures proposing literally thousands of laws in the past few years restricting the right of women to determine the course of their own pregnancies and the ability to have access to the medical care they need.

The battle for women’s rights, on all fronts, is compelling subject matter for documentaries, speeches, and any number of Rachel Maddow shows. It also can be fertile ground for theater, but only when the politics are woven into a story and not a screed.

This is the juncture where the world premiere of Ancestra, now at Cleveland Public Theatre, becomes a bit problematic. On the plus side, the production directed by Holly Holisinger (who is also one of the four co-authors) is well performed by the ten-person all female cast, most of whom handle multiple roles. The show is further enhanced by Aaron Benson’s handsome scenic design, original music, and a lobby installation that seems like a 19th century version of Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” (minus the vulva-inspired dishes). This all serves to neatly integrate a story that flashes back and forth in time from the mid-1800s to the present day.

There is a strong local connection to this play written by current Clevelanders Holsinger, Chris Seibert (who plays the central role of Cora), Renee Schilling and Sally Groth (who plays multiple roles). Nearby Oberlin College is front and center, since it was the first college to allow women to study with men, in 1837. One alumna, the magnetic Lucy Stone, becomes a mover and shaker in the early women’s rights movement, along with Antoinette Brown (Lauren Joy Fraley).

The history of women’s struggle for autonomy is represented by several women, Stone and Brown included, who participate in the National Women’s Rights Convention held in Cleveland eight years before the Civil War. This annual series of meetings was aimed at raising the visibility of women’s concerns, a groundbreaking concept at the time.

There are a lot of personalities and history to cover there, but that’s just half the task this production sets for itself. In present time, muckraking journalist Cora is dong her edgy blog thing until she is wooed and hired by Irene (Tanera Hutz), a media company executive who wants a “fearless trailblazer” on staff. “We welcome your voice,” says Irene.

Having a voice is key for these playwrights, since women have always been muffled, muted or ignored when they tried to express themselves. And the play certainly touches a lot of bases as it finds contemporary parallels to the repressive world of the 19th century. To wit: an old-school teacher advises her female college students to hurry up and “win yourself a husband.” Of course, that’s the exact same advice being peddled now by the “Princeton Mom” Susan Patton, all over the media. 

Yes, women have always been perceived to have a shelf life, like cantaloupe. And since ripe cantaloupes can’t make decisions for themselves, male-dominated legislative bodies assume they have the right to make decisions for childbearing citizens about their medical needs.

Unfortunately, the story of Cora and her disappointing journey through the wilds of corporate media feels remarkably na├»ve, since Cora seems unable to handle her editor’s fairly reasonable demand for a balanced article on birth control clinics. And then, Cora plummets into a psychological death spiral when she reads some nasty comments about herself on the Internet. Wait—an experienced journalist actually reads the anonymous, threatening, crazy-clown comments on the Internet and takes them to heart? Really?

As for the women who fought for rights more than 150 years ago, they appear mostly as ghostly apparitions murmuring about this and that. In the brief moments when we actually encounter one of these women such as Stone (played with sparkplug intensity by Katy Lynn Patterson, who also is a stitch as a cop). And then, we actually become involved. The same pleasant rush happens in present time when Cora’s traditional-values sister Marian (well played by Faye Hargate) and their mom Jan (the ever-in-the-moment Anne McEvoy) react to Cora’s abortion politics and then her firing.

There’s plenty of righteous anger in Ancestra, and that’s a damn fine thing.  However, the play often sounds like compendium of Wikipedia entries, spewing a litany of anti-woman issues only occasionally tethering them to personal stories and felt consequences. You can feel the authors straining to impart just one more telling factoid, one more truth, one more lesson. And that becomes wearying after two hours.

I’m sure the playwrights cut a substantial amount of material in crafting this piece. But when there is more than one playwright in the mix, the editing can never be as brutal as it needs to be, otherwise feelings might be hurt. This is why so many devised plays written by multiple people tend to be overstuffed grab bags of thoughts. And that’s why they’re usually short on the real character development and plot trajectory that fuels truly transformative theater.

Through June 7 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Left in Ink, Cleveland Public Theatre

It is impossible to truly know the torment of those who choose to take their own lives. We’re not talking here about romantic self-destruction (Romeo and Juliet) but the kind driven by severe mental illness, depression, or other dark forces.

So it is a bold choice for director Caitlin Lewins and company to assemble Left in Ink, a devised semi-documentary attempt to capture the tragedy that suicide imparts on the survivors left behind.

Based on interviews and online posts, the play presents brief flashes of various lives that have been touched, and forever changed, by the suicide of a loved one. And the five-person on-stage cast (Megan Brautigan, Jeanne Madison, Brett Radke, Amy Schwabauer and Jerry Tucker) works valiantly to bring these people to life.

Unfortunately, the script as fashioned by Lewins and the ensemble is a mish-mash of banal declarations of grief and mealy-mouthed platitudes. This happens not because the declarations are untrue, but because the play makes the cardinal sin of not enabling the audience to really experience who the suicide victims really were, or who the survivors are.

Instead of creating flesh and blood characters in the moment, we are force-fed memory tidbits and fragmented character descriptions, such as, “He once said, ‘I will never be happy again in my life!’.” If that sentence was uttered by a character we had grown to know, it would be devastating. But having it thrust at us without context is the height of careless theatrical manipulation.

This goes on for 80 minutes, in a blizzard of misery, crying and regret, with a virtually constant and flat emotional through line from start to finish. Of course, none of these mistakes are done intentionally. The entire company is achingly earnest about this subject—they have just gone about it in an unfortunate manner.

Sometimes the devised, ensemble approach to crafting a play can result in magic (such as CPT’s "Elements Cycle" of plays). But often, it just results in a collection of fatuous bromides lashed haphazardly together with overweening sincerity.

The idea of memorializing the dead through tattooing (see the title) is mostly brought up in the last five minutes and feels like a smudgy afterthought.

Yes, there are a couple moments of much-needed levity, during a “grief montage” and the baking a “guilt cake.” But as foreshadowed in an opening musical bit, this show takes itself too seriously. And by doing that, it unknowingly trivializes the human spirit it seeks to honor.

Without encountering real people to whom we can relate in more than one dimension, we’re left with a flashing, strobe light collection of well-meaning, deeply felt bullet points.

Left in Ink

Through May 31 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit, 216-631-2727.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Bathroom Humor, Blank Canvas Theatre

(David Turner and Ashley Conlon, praying to the porcelain god for a new script.)

Let’s face it, there’s something pretty funny about bathrooms, and what goes on in there. It’s the only socially approved place where our bodies can fully relax, and then expel a variety of waste products we don't need.

Speaking of waste products we don't need, let’s talk about Bathroom Humor, now at the Blank Canvas Theatre. First, a bit of context. I am a huge admirer of BCT and its gifted director and founder Patrick Ciamacco. In the last couple years, they have produced some productions equal in quality to any in the area. Second, I do not shrink from sexual or scatological subject matter, as long as it is accompanied by a modicum of wit or purpose.

And that is where this play, penned by Billy van Zandt and Jane Milmore hits the skid marks. Working on the pee-pee, poo-poo level of a four-year-old who finds any bodily functions hilarious just because they exist, this play is an exercise in bathroom tedium. Kind of like grunting over a particularly obstinate bowel movement and then having it get stuck.

The set up is that a company is having an employee party at a suburban home, and all the white-collar workers we meet are noxious in one way or another. Large and in-charge boss man Arthur (Luke Scattergood) is married to Laura (Ashley Conlon) who is hot to trot with the slim dude Sandy (David Turner). Overweight Peg (Jenna Messina) is mocked by her supposed gal pals Laura and Babette (Tamicka Scruggs), while Babette schemes to get it on with Arthur, and Peg’s diminutive dad (Len Lieber) tries haplessly to use the john.

See, there’s a bathroom in this casa, and all the above characters keep showing up in there to do their business, have sex and ransack the host’s medicine cabinet. This latter onslaught is led by Stu (Jeffrey Glover), a druggy mess who swallows, snorts and licks any substance he can find in hopes of copping a new high.

It’s a door slamming farce with just one door, so a shower curtain and a window are used for various other entrances and exits. Are there laughs? Absolutely. We are human beings and that four-year-old still lives within us, giggling at fart jokes and gasping when a person drops their underwear and sits on a toilet (a key part of the set) in front of us. Then, there are all the fat girl jokes, the gay jokes, and so on.

Sadly, the ability to trigger laughter from these supposedly delicate subjects does not a play make. Even when the playwrights shoehorn a hired, morose Elvis impersonator (Steven Schuerger) into the festivities, and he hooks up with lonely Peg, this reach for some heart amongst the silliness just feels cheap and manipulative.

Indeed, the play would be more interesting if it truly had the courage of its convictions and really went totally full frontal with the bathroom jokes. But that would require a level of writing skill of which these playwrights can only dream.

Ciamacco is one of the most gifted theater honchos in the area, and up to now his choices for plays have been unconventional and interesting. Hey, everyone’s entitled to crap out now and then. And this one, despite the laughs it generates, is an aimless turd floating in the otherwise glittering BCT pool.

Bathroom Humor
Through May 24 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th Street, 440-941-0458.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Grounded, Cleveland Play House, New Ground Theater Festival

Drones appear to be the new omnipresent weapon in our world. So it probably won’t be long before the NRA demands that everyone be able to fly as many weaponized drones around their neighborhood as they want. I mean, if we don’t  the terrorists win, right?

The weird, detached nature of drone warfare is front and center in this play, written with compacted intensity by George Brant. In it, a former unnamed fly-girl played by the hypnotic Hannah Cabell, starts off as a cocky female fighter jet jockey, dropping bombs and flying away from the carnage,

But when she gets married after meeting Eric who is attracted to her macho vibe, and she then gets pregnant, she is pulled out of her cockpit and sat down in front of a computer screen outside of Las Vegas. There, she uses a joystick to maneuver warrior drones in another desert half a world away, lighting up various victims (“military age males”) who the experts in her headset tell her are the enemy.

Her new job, a mixture of 95% boredom and 5% excitement starts talking its toll when the drone cameras start showing her the human cost of her button pushing. And eventually, she starts feeling emotions that weren’t there before, endangering her career, if not her sanity. When she goes shopping at the mall, she feels like a potential victim as she notices the “eye in the sky” security cameras watching her and her daughter.

The 70-minute performance by Cabell is remarkable as she stands virtually without moving for over an hour, speaking in a military-approved tough guy monotone. Yet as directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, she still manages to convey a range of emotions as she pumps out Brant’s short, karate chop bursts of dialogue studded with powerful imagery: As she explains about Eric’s love for her, “He tells me he can feel the sky in me.”

This powerful production already had a run in New York City, and further versions are in the works in other cities. Affecting as it is, one wishes that Brant had employed his skill with words to muse more directly on the questionable morality of this incredible new technology that allows antiseptic, long-distance annihilation of other human beings.

For that, we may have to wait for the next HBO series, perhaps titled “Game of Drones.” For now, Grounded is a heady, distilled bit of psychological torment wrapped in up-to-the-minute military might. And it definitely must be seen.

Through May 17, produced by Page 73 Productions at the Cleveland Play House, part of the New Ground Theatre Festival, 216-241-6000.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Code: Preludes, Theater Ninjas

Many of us have a love-hate relationship with math. In my case, it was a hate-hate affair until I read the immersive novel Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson some 15 years ago. That book, bristling with mathematical and internet complexity, somehow fascinated the brain inside my skull that had formerly detested anything even vaguely connected to math.

This devised play, like Stephenson’s yarn, is designed as an enveloping experience, centered around a software company that is finalizing work on a breakthrough, self-learning program called Karnak (named after the ancient religious site or Johnny Carson’s bumbling soothsayer? You decide).

One of the leading code-heads Jac (an often compelling Valerie C. Kilmer) is trying to perfect the software before it goes public, but the company president sets a firm deadline, throwing all the programmers into a tizzy (often represented by the actors running around in circles or leaping through the air).

However, the fairly simple plotline is embellished with a torrent of tech-speak, often rattled off at high speed. This may give less-than-savvy audience members the feeling that they’ve stumbled into a college class for which they are woefully unprepared.

In addition to Kilmer, the company of actors, which varies widely in ability, includes Ray Caspio, Christina Dennis, Christopher Hisey, Val Kozlenko, Aimee Liu, Ryan Lucas, Michael Prosen and Sean Seibert. Caspio stands out in his monologue later in the show; it seems he could read a description of the Heartbleed bug backwards and still be riveting. 

Fortunately there are several breaks during the 90-minute piece when the audience is invited to roam around the large, dimly-lit basement space in the 78th St. Studios building and observe content-related stations that have been set up. Some are quite interesting, such as the Alan Turing gallery where the words of that revolutionary math guru and World War II code breaker are displayed. That gallery sits adjacent to a recreation of Turing’s Bletchley Park office, nicely detailed with puzzles and accompanied by period radio tunes.

Other displays are just mystifying: a barricaded room with junk inside, a man rambling on about binary code while playing with a waist-high sandbox, a space draped in plastic called Cloud 9 (“Where you can be whoever you want to be”)

Indeed, much of the Code experience is like that. Impenetrable declarations (“Science is a differential equation”) interspersed with sophomoric feel-good maxims (“Humanity should not be defined by its limits”)

In a piece that takes itself too seriously (unlike the Ninjas’ previous and more successful devised experience The Excavation, and unlike the hilarious programmer-centered show Silicon Valley now on HBO) there are few humorous moments. One, when the too-busy-to-eat Jac is surrounded by dreams of food, swarming to the tune of a Journey ditty, is quite amusing. And the ending of the entire piece has a wonderful wry twist.

This is an expansive and boldly imaginative production, and for that it earns serious kudos. However, much of this excursion into the mathematical unknown, as directed by the pathologically-inventive Jeremy Paul, is sensory overload. That feeling is accentuated by four monitors that interact with the actors and omnipresent electronic music and audio effects. Put it all together and you have a sporadically interesting but frequently frustrating theatrical kludge.

Of course, that may be exactly what the TN creators want since they aver, in mission statements that adorn the walls, that this production is just the embryonic beginning of a much longer exploration into the subject. Indeed, the title reflects that objective.

If so, one hopes that further iterations of this experience will be more accessible to the average attendee and less smugly superior. And perhaps it could be built—at least in part—around characters with some human depth, instead of the blips and bleeps of their dense and private vernacular. In other words,  break the code. Mr. Turing would approve.

Code: Preludes
Through May 18, produced by Theater Ninjas at the 78th St. Studios, 1300 W. 78th St.,

Monday, May 5, 2014

Swimming in the Shallows, convergence-continuum

(Foreground: Monica Zach as Donna, left, and Linda Sekanic as Carla Carla; Background: Zac Hudak as Nick, left and Amy Bistok Bunce as Barb)

Oh no! Senator Rick Santorum’s twisted fever dream of the ultimate effects of gay sex have come true! But it’s worse! Santorum only imagined same sex coupling leading to “man-on-dog” relationships. But in Swimming in the Shallows, now at convergence-continuum, it is man-on-shark sex that is at issue.

And as it turns out, that cross-species dynamic is the most interesting part of a production that disappoints at almost every level. It’s not that playwright Adam Bock can’t write, it’s that he relies on too many gimmicks and familiar comedy crutches to give his largely gay-themed play much punch. And this production fails to generate enough of its own energy to compensate for the script’s shortcomings.

Five friends are swirling in the midst of various interpersonal problems. Barb and Bob are a middle-aged couple dealing with Barb’s midlife crisis: She feels the need to divest herself of possessions, like a Buddhist who only retains six worldly items. Hubby Bob, meanwhile, likes buying new stuff and keeping what he’s got, so Barb wants to split.

Their lesbian friends Carla Carla and Donna are thinking about a commitment ceremony, but Donna’s chain smoking is an obstacle for her honey. Even though the script is only 15 years old, the idea of building a conflict around smoking feels decades old and not particularly compelling.

The fifth wheel on this clown car is Nick, a gay man who impulsively has sex on the first date with most of the guys he meets, then sinks into depression when they don’t love him back. This is a stereotype construct that feels tired and shopworn, and even though Bock’s occasionally witty banter helps a bit, it’s a long slog.

The only bright spot is when amorous Nick falls for a Mako shark at the aquarium where Donna works. And the scenes where shark and man interact, both pulsing with deep desires, are both amusing and startling.

Trouble is, nothing else comes close to those moments, in a production where the actors are called upon to breathe life and a touch of manic weirdness into the farcical proceedings. Instead, Linda Sekanic and Monica Zach, as the lovebirds Carla Carla and Donna, never develop unique or interesting characters. They read their lines but never take any chances, coming across as fairly bland young women who complain a lot.

Amy Bistok Bunce has been very good in other roles at con-con, but she feels a bit restricted in this one, and the fine actor Robert Branch as her husband Bob seems similarly constrained.

In the role of Nick, the often-superb Zac Hudak is almost completely disconnected here. Relying on a lot of rapid-fire facial calisthenics, his Nick seems more distracted than driven. Ryan Edlinger, with a fin mounted on his back, “swims” smoothly but not very sexily as the Shark.

Aside from not finding a way to help her cast develop more arresting characters, director Lisa L. Wiley has staged the play (along with set designers Clyde Simon and Cory Molner) on perhaps the least interesting set ever seen at con-con. For a company that’s usually masterful at finding ways to reimagine their tiny playing space, this production’s long, flat set (the world as aquarium?) is a surprising bore.

Filled with a torrent of random, not terribly funny small talk and wink-wink title slides meant to prop up the comedy (“How to Cook a Rabbit,” “How to Quit Smoking”), Shallows feels out of its depth from start to finish.

Swimming in the Shallows
Through May 24, produced by convergence continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Beyond the Horizon, Ensemble Theatre

(James Rankin as Robert and Emily Pucell as Ruth in a fleeting moment of happiness)

One of the most accurate yet useless aphorisms ever uttered is: “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.” As we all know from experience, that rubric is often true, but what’s the takeaway? To stop wishing?

Three characters in Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon see their wishes come true, only to fall into regret and sadness. This play, O’Neill’s first Pulitzer Prize winner, shows its age with frequently clunky dialogue. But there is heat and passion at work here, and the Ensemble Theatre cast under the skillful direction of Celeste Cosentino mostly succeeds in bringing it to life.

Two grown brothers, Robert and Andy, are kicking around the family’s Massachusetts farm under the watchful eyes of dad James and mom Kate. The capable Andy is a man seemingly born to farm life while Robert is a poet and dreamer, reading verses and dreaming of traveling to far off places.

But when longtime family friend and neighbor Ruth Atkins reveals her love for Robert, he scotches his imminent plans to set sail and decides he’ll settle down on the farm and raise a family. This sends Robert, who is also in love with Ruth, reeling onto the ship that Robert was going to board, claiming he always wanted to see the world.

Of course, these new-found wishes soon turn to ashes in the mordant hands of a playwright who has never seen a hope he couldn’t quickly and thoroughly dash to pieces.

Most of the actors negotiate this three-act mudslide into misery with adeptness. Valerie Young registers mother Kate’s concern and helplessness and Robert Hawkes, in the too-brief role of dad James, sparks fire when he confronts Andy about abandoning the farm.

Emily Pucell as Ruth deconstructs her character nicely from a young gal plump with promise to a gray shadow of her former self. Discovering that Robert isn’t up to the task of running a farm, she anticipates Andy’s arrival from the seas like Harry Hope and the boys wait for savior Hickey in The Iceman Cometh.

Smaller roles are handled well, particularly quirky Stephen Vasse-Hansell as Captain Scott, the skipper of the ship that Andy joins. And Mary Alice Beck deftly etches the wizened soul of Ruth’s snarky, wheelchair-bound mother.

The two brothers, of course, are the heart of the play. On one hand, James Rankin creates a fascinating Robert—you can sense the man’s inherent weakness from his first moments on stage. And Rankin adds more layers to this portrait of a man who is mugged by his own perceived happiness.

But Keith E. Stevens never quite gets a firm hold on Andy. Too often relying on a chuckling delivery that raises one big question (What exactly is so funny?), he rushes many beats and doesn’t craft a solid presence for Rankin’s Robert to push against.

Still, this is a play you’re not likely to see again anytime soon. Plus, it features some truly handsome projections designed by Ian Hinz and enough of O’Neill’s signature moments of cosmic tragedy to satisfy even the most morose among us.

Beyond the Horizon
Through May 18 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.