Sunday, November 15, 2015

Bash: Latterday Plays, None Too Fragile Theater

(Andrew Narten)

You could call it “The Book of Mormon: The Dark Side.” Because unlike the popular Broadway musical, this collection of three one-acts by Neil LaBute is a brutal and caustic journey into the black hole of our souls. And the title indicates it’s targeted on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

LaBute was actually drummed out of the Mormon church after this play garnered is first performance in 1999, since it features a collection of deeply troubled Mormons.  The playwright seems to have survived his “disfellowship” just fine, but the same may not be said of audience members who encounter this trio of initially deceivingly bland offerings.

The pieces are each based on a different Greek tragedy, but director Sean Derry has chosen not to include the titles of each—probably so that there won’t be a tip-off as to the content to come. The banality of evil is alive and well in each of the presentations which are comprised of four monologues (in one play, the two monologues are performed side-by-side with the actors often taking turns).

In the first, a haggard-looking businessman, who is a Mormon, has invited someone he met in a hotel bar up to his room, to unburden himself about an awful event in his family. As the Man, the splendid Andrew Narten is a spectacular collection of twitches and half-finished sentences as he discusses the loss of his five-month-old child some years before.

Then he veers off into a discussion of his work history, and the problem he had with a female colleague who he perceived as a threat to his job. When these two stories collide, you may wish Derry could come out and offer another shot of Jameson’s to everyone (as he usually does before most performances). It is a shattering piece of work, and Narten’s understated performance is a small, perfect gem.

In the second piece, which is the least successful of the three, Sue (Katie Wells) and John (Brian Kenneth Armour) are Mormon college kids from Boston, off to a bash with friends in New York City. Once again, LaBute sets a rather inoffensive stage as the two deliver their own monologues—he reminiscing about his confrontation with another guy at college and she chatting about her activities that evening in the big city.

It’s only when John relates what happened in a restroom in Central Park as he and a couple of his other frat buddies decide to impose a scriptural lesson on a gay man whom they spot. In this case, playing against the horror of the activity works against the play, as Armour doesn’t quite find the sweet spot between ghastly bland and inoffensive bland. As a result, he seems too much of a mirror image of the naïve girl Wells plays, negating the juxtaposition (as well as the unconscious bonding) between the two that should chill to the bone.

This is exactly the sweet spot Alanna Romansky finds, with unerring accuracy, in the final play. Being interrogated by unseen cops, she tells her story of being sexually tormented by a teacher when she was 14. That’s bad enough, until you learn about what that awful event led to some years later. Quick, where’s that Jameson’s!

Romansky captures the same vibe that Narten does earlier, but in a different manner. And both actors employ LaBute’s surgically terrifying language to maximum effect. While one could quibble with some of the staging elements, such as a lack of differentiation among the three settings, there is no denying the force that Bash exerts on the psyche.

Good thing there’s a pub attached to this theater.

Bash: Latterday Plays
Through November 21 at None Too Fragile Theater,
1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco),

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Force Continuum, Karamu House

(Ryan Christopher Mayer as Flip and Prophet Seay as Dece.)

The relationship between an African-American community and the police is certainly a fraught one these days. So this 15-year old play about a family of black police officers certainly has a target-rich environment in which to address its themes.

Unfortunately, playwright Kia Corthron throws out a jumble of scenes involving lots of characters played by actors taking on multiple roles, and it all comes crashing down. Even some electrifying moments provided by director Michael Oatman can’t rescue this convoluted script from its own destruction.

Dece is a black police officer in New York City, one of a long line of cops in his family. Conflicted about his role as a cop and also a black man, Dece goes to his grandfather for advice. Dece’s parents, who were also cops, are now dead, but are represented in flashbacks made more confusing by all the crossover casting.

Dece also converses with his white partner Flip while in their patrol car, and elsewhere, but these dialogues never seem to connect to an overarching theme that has any dramatic heft. Indeed, every scene seems to have a lot of baggage to carry, making sure that all the bases are touched. These include how black citizens feel when they’re stopped on the street unnecessarily, and then how the black and white cops feel when they’re off duty. Eventually, the glut of information, emotional and otherwise, folds in on itself leaving the audience reaching for something significant.

As Dece, the excellent actor Prophet Seay seems a bit adrift in this sea of well-meaning topicality, unsure of where his character is and where he’s going. The performer named EulaBill, on the other hand, seems quite certain about his role as the grandfather, but his repeatedly shouted/whispered line readings become too mannered to be effective. Several of the white cops are played by Ryan Christopher Mayer, who has a nice casual affect, but he employs a curious New York accent that often sounds like it came by way of Narnia. The rest of the cast, each of whom plays at least three characters each, includes Shba Cochrane, India Nicole Burton, Chace Coulter, James Boyd, Josh McElroy and Jamil Burch.

Usually, having actors play multiple roles is not a problem. But here, playwright Corthron doesn’t provide the characters enough space and distinctiveness to allow the audience to keep everyone clearly identified. Director Oatman adds some nice touches, such as the beating of a young black man by invisible cops, plus an encounter with two arguing wastrels on the street that captures the antic vibe of The Jerry Springer Show.

But those moments of clarity are few and far between in the sprawling, clumsily written Force Continuum.

Force Continuum
Through November 22 at Karamu House, 2355 E. 89th St., 216-795-7077.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys, Theater Ninjas

(Rachel Lee Kolis as Brandy)

Contrary to popular opinion, it is not necessary for everything to work in a theatrical production in order for that production to be thoroughly captivating and challenging. Case in point is this Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys by Caroline V. McGraw, a play that takes bold chances, jumping in and out of surreal moments.

Not all of these jumps land on their feet, since one is never sure whether the play is speaking literally or symbolically. But thanks to the muscular direction of Jeremy Paul and a talented cast, you’re able to hang on to McGraw’s central conceit and find some treasures in there.

Brandy is a woman who makes her living as a clown for kids’ parties. But once she’s out of her baggy pants and makeup, Brandy is a human clown-car that spills forth with lots of dark secrets and sleazy behavior. She will apparently sleep with any bipedal mammal with a Y chromosome, including high school student Jack (Bryon Tobin) and multiple dads of the kiddies for whom she performs. She prowls these men like a sexual scavenger, grabbing for any shred of warmth that can hide the emptiness behind the forced gaiety of her painted-on smile.

Sure, the clown thing is a cliché that has been trampled to death in many ways, but here the usual baggage doesn’t really get in the way. Plus, there are other characters that add welcome touches of both realism and magical thinking. Nina (a wonderfully detached yet perceptive Lauren Joy Fraley) is kind of a Brandy groupie, always with her small child (a stuffed doll) in her arms. And Reverb (an amusing Ryan Lucas) is another clown, a down-to-earth version, who finally seems to find a way to relate to Brandy.

Then there’s The Un, a metaphorical (?) monster under Brandy’s bed, the one who continually claws at her, leaving a dark red stain on her neck and chest. Fed by Brandy’s insecurities , The Un seems unstoppable until confronted by Jack’s high school gal pal Tash (Valerie C. Kilmer), who eventually pierces the monster’s hold with her bold innocence.

An almost naked Val Kozlenko plays The Un with genuine menace, and then somehow changes while under the bed into normal clothes to play Jason, one of the fathers who beds Brandy. In the latter role, Kozlenko is even scarier as he corners Brandy and insists that she “perform” for him, in a scene that crackles with his dominance and her desperation.

In the daunting role of Brandy, Rachel Lee Kolis demonstrates a raw physicality that gives her performance a mesmerizing quality. Although Kolis’ clowning skills are marginal (some awkward juggling, etc.), she uses her body postures and attitudes to define the various “shows” that her character is driven to stage. This is a woman who, staring into the abyss of her own emptiness, is seeking to equalize the pressure in her head by tapping into the shallow insubstantial fog of masks and quickie sex acts.

Played in the round on a set surrounded by white fabric panels, and augmented by Benjamin Gantose’s lighting and original music by Eric M.C. Gonzalez, the piece flows briskly.

Director Paul seems entirely comfortable in this mash-up of themes and genres, all suffused with McGraw’s sharp, take-no-prisoners dialog. And while some elements don’t completely work—it all still does. Quite marvelously.

Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys

Through November 14, produced by Theater Ninjas at the Near West Lofts, 6706 Detroit Ave.,