Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Tempest, Great Lakes Theater

(J. Todd Adams as Caliban)

To begin with, allow me to quote from the elegant program notes of Drew Barr, the director of The Tempest, now at Great Lakes Theater: “The Tempest explores a paradox of human consciousness: awareness of one’s self in the world can prevent one from feeling connected to the world.”

How true. That statement, among many others in the program, goes a long way to explain the magic that resides in this script. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Mr. Barr, awareness of one’s self in the play can prevent the audience from feeling connected to the play.

In other words, it seems that the design and creative team were so caught up in shaping a new concept that they give short shrift to Shakespeare’s story. It is a lovely one involving a shipwreck, brotherly betrayal, young romance, sly comedy and the essence of justice—all overlaid with mysterious sounds and unexpected doings.

Prospero, the man who can make magic, has been banished to an island, along with his daughter, by his bro Antonio (Jonathan Dyrud), who took over as Duke of Milan. Feeling hissy, Prospero conjures up a storm so that Antonio and his sea-bound entourage, including King Alonso (Dougfred Miller) and his son Ferdinand, are swept ashore. Then Prospero’s assistant Ariel, “an airy Spirit,” reports that all the people are safe.

Of course, Ferdinand (Patrick Riley) and Miranda fall in love, as was Prospero’s plan. But there is skullduggery afoot, and Prospero and Ariel use their supernatural wiles to make it all come out dandy.

You will be forgiven if you’re not aware the characters are on an island (in the mind, or otherwise), since the muscular set design by Russell Metheny is long on metal and short on palm fronds. (BTW, are we nearing the end of the scenic design infatuation with industrial scaffolding and huge metal structures? Can a sister get a painted flat up in here?)

That said, Metheney’s structure serves to make the actors on stage dance and distort in the reflections coming off the transparent plastic panels, creating an aura of shifting shapes that enhances the story. Augmented by Rick Martin’s detailed lighting design, the air on stage is alive with sparks and flashes.

D.A. Smith does his best as Prospero, using his considerable chops to give the proceedings some drive and heft. But it doesn’t help that Katie Willmorth as Miranda delivers her lines at an unvarying high volume instead of projecting them with some degree of nuance.

The play makes a screeching U-turn about an hour into the first act when another event, the Stefano & Trinculo Show, takes the stage. Looking and feeling like they dropped in from another another entertainment entirely, the butler and cook from the wrecked ship run into Caliban, Prospero’s hybrid human-fish-tortoise slave, and begin raiding the stores of wine.

At this point, the audience is hungry for some comedy relief and they laugh long and loud at the buffoonery of the three inebriates. Unfortunately, the play is turned on its head and becomes a vaudeville show with a strange and sometimes inexplicable story attached to it like a barnacle.

One has to admire Tom Ford as Stephano. For not only does he act his drunken character broadly (he vomits on the head of Trinculo), he actually is spelunking to find the absolutely lowest common denominator of oafishness. While it often grates, Ford’s effort is noted and we look forward, with some trepidation, to his reports from the depths.

As Trinculo, mugging Dustin Tucker seems like an ambitious apprentice to Tom Ford—playing a pratfalling Eve Harrington to Ford’s slapstick Margo Channing—and Tucker shows every evidence of being a splendid student.

Of course, when attempting to capture a magical sense of mysticism on a strange island, sometimes things can go awry. And so they do when three sparkly 10-foot-tall tubular silver shapes walk on during a betrothal masque to honor Ferdinand and Miranda. These ambulatory phalluses, combined with a couple of the guys in large white plastic wedding dresses, make the latter part of Act Two look like a bizarrely-themed gay marriage gone tragically wrong.

If you’re looking for interesting moments, there are these: As Caliban, J. Todd Adams paints his face like Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight, while contorting his body in ways that seem to defy anatomical logic. And Ryan David O’Byrne skulks somewhat menacingly as Ariel, often bedecked in what looks like a shredded shower curtain for a skirt. You’d think, with all those fantastical skills at his command, he could conjure up a nice chiffon number.

Give credit to GLT for trying something new in this interpretation of The Tempest. But when the story gets camouflaged in a torrent of design flourishes and jarring tonal switchbacks, the audience has to work even harder to find Will’s real magic.

The Tempest
Through April 26 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., , 216-241-6000.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Cleveland Play House

The idea of taking the despair of the Russian novelist Chekhov (represented by the first three character names in the title), and pushing it through a very American spin on comedy (represented by the last name in the title) is a dandy one. And playwright Christopher Durang is to be saluted (as he has been, with a Best Play Tony) for his clever conception.

But while there are laughs in V&S&M&S, it often feels like a play that thinks it’s funnier than it actually is. The characters each live inside their respective stereotypes until some rather unbelievable breakthroughs towards the end of this almost 2½ hour excursion. And it features one spotlight role that, not to put too fine a point on it, seems racially insensitive.

It all starts with promise, as sour Sonia and passive Vanya stare out at a lake from the patio of their well-appointed home (crafted by scenic designer Bill Clarke) in the cushy enclave of Bucks County, PA. They are siblings, each collapsed into his or her own futility, as they have spent their lives taking care of their aging theater-loving parents, the ones who gave all their kids Chekhov-insipred names. Dad and mom are gone now, but Vanya and Sonia are still stuck—without jobs and being supported in their comfy yet dreary lifestyle by sister Masha, a B-list movie star and gold-plated bitch.

Once Masha arrives, towing behind her a young male co-star named Spike (a ripped but rather bland Gregory Isaac Stone)  who is clearly her boy-candy, things get a bit complicated—but not complicated enough. Sure, Spike starts to get a rise out of the semi-closeted Vanya, and Masha makes noises about selling the house out from under Sonia and Vanya. But these potentially  promising diversions and/or threats never gain any heft.

Instead, Durang is focused on launching one-liners from the safe confines of the bunkers into which each of these characters have barricaded themselves. And yes, Durang certainly has a way with punch lines and comical scenarios—including a costume party they all attend (!), at which Masha plays Snow White, enlisting Vanya and others to be her dwarves. But it all seems a bit too easy in the absence of any real consequences, be they romantic, residential or otherwise.

As Sonia, Toni DiBuono is believably frumpy, landing many of Durang’s zingers with style. And when she refuses to be one of Masha’s dwarves and costumes herself as Maggie Smith “on the way to the Oscars,” it’s a nice bit of one-upmanship.

John Scherer is not quite as focused as Vanya, so it’s hard to determine whether his passivity is depression, disinterest or something else. Unfortunately, he is at the center of the play’s most ineffective moment—when the plot stops and everyone decides to read a play written by Vanya. This surreal play, with visiting teen hottie Nina Maren Bush) playing a molecule, ends with another interruption. It's a seemingly endless rant as Vanya goes off on the evils of modern technology and expresses his fond memories of Ed Sullivan and the splendid culture of the 1950s. Huh? 

In the role of Masha, Margaret Reed pushes the idea of a stuck-up Hollywood star a bit too hard, her artificiality feels like artifice, and she never really creates a character we can love to hate. At the end, her reach for an emotional denouement feels more ordained by the clock than the characters.

And speaking of revisiting ‘50s culture, there’s an African-American character: She’s a maid called Cassandra who constantly predicts doom, talks sassy, and uses a voodoo doll to inflict punishment on Masha. As Cassandra, Danielle Lee Greaves at least is not made to feast on a watermelon, but let’s not give them any ideas.

In sum, this play with so many conjunctions in its title never fully engages with its characters, or with its ideas. There are interesting, and intelligently humorous, things to be said about sibling rivalry and our society's current lack of a shared culture, but they aren't said here. As directed by Bruce Jordan, Vanya (and etc.) leaves us with lots of slickly manufactured, TV sitcom laughs, but little of the tragic-comic relevance that Chekhov mastered.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Through April 26 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

Deliciously Wicked, North Coast Men’s Chorus

No matter how many Broadway musicals you’ve attended, there’s one thing you’ve probably never experienced: Hearing about 80 men sing some of your favorite stage tunes, imbuing those songs with the stunning power and rich nuance that can only come from a well-practiced chorus.

Well, you can correct that deficiency in your life this weekend by attending Deliciously Wicked, A Broadway Revue, the latest offering by the North Coast Men’s Chorus. This group describes itself as “Northeast Ohio’s largest gay chorus,” but within that circle they are remarkably diverse in terms of age and other demographic markers.

Of course, what they share most of all is a passion for singing. And when that passion is applied to tunes from Wicked, Kinky Boots, Les Miz and many others, the effect on a lover of Broadway can be truly transformative, as it was in the rehearsal I attended.

As you might expect of a chorus, the multiple tiers of dudes often simply stand and deliver, such as in the powerful anthem “Into the Fire” from The Scarlet Pimpernel. There’s something about the power of this many voices—more than in most church choirs outside of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir—that creates a visceral stirring in your gut.

But these guys also have a sense of humor, which is shown in some of the clever choreography crafted by Lora Workman. In the opening number, “Magic To Do” from Pippin, a squad of guys peel off from the chorus to support the rich-toned soloist Brandon Bowman with some smooth moves. Several other men make solo appearances, and the NCMC specialty ensemble, a sextet called The Coastliners, croon a couple featured ditties including the irrepressible “Hello” from The Book of Mormon.

There are also some surprises, with some of the guys showing up in heels for one number and wielding magically appearing canes in another.

Under the baton of artistic director Richard Cole and accompanied by Robert Day on the keyboard, with some percussive help in the shadows, Deliciously Wicked is a rare treat. So if you love Broadway musicals and choral singing, you best haul your pert buns to Notre Dame College in South Euclid tonight or tomorrow afternoon. (It’s a big auditorium, they’ll fit you in.)

Not only is the music wonderful. It’s a way to share space with people who have found meaning and a sense of belonging in a group that is dedicated to sharing its talents with the community. And that alone is worth the price of admission.

Deliciously Wicked, A Broadway Revue
Tonight and tomorrow, April 11 at 8 PM and April 12 at 3 PM, produced by the North Coast Men's Chorus at the Regina Auditorium at Notre Dame College, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid. Tickets available at the door. For more information, visit