Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Next To Normal, Lorain County Metro Parks and TrueNorth Cultural Arts

(Kristin Netzband as Diana)

Sometimes, this job takes you by surprise.  Sometimes, you’re enjoying a pleasant, sunny Sunday afternoon and you walk into a theater to see a matinee rendition of a show you’ve seen done splendidly three other times. So expectations are not very high. And then, you’re blown sideways by a great performance.

So it is with Next To Normal, now being presented by the Lorain County Metro Parks and TrueNorth Cultural Arts. While this production may not equal the others I’ve seen (at Playhouse Square, Beck Center and Lakeland Civic Theatre) in terms of vocal quality and range, I’ve never been impacted so powerfully and emotionally by this play about a woman with severe manic depression.

Director Fred Sternfeld has never been better as he scouts out all the tiny beats and pain points in this riveting, virtually sung-through story, without ever toppling over into maudlin sentimentality. The powerful score by Tom Kitt and the perceptive book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey fit together seamlessly in this version, as we see a suburban family trying to grapple with mom’s often debilitating condition.

And the cast is well-nigh perfect. Kristin Netzband embodies all the determination and confusion of a woman whose mind is betraying her, and Rick McGuigan as her husband Dan is a bundle of contradictions as he tries to cope. Their two kids are played with well-modulated finesse and intensity by Kat Hargrave as 17-year-old Natalie and Tony Heffner as Gabe. Indeed, Heffner ripples with clenched frustration even when he’s in shadows on stage, giving his unique role added heft.

As Natalie’s main squeeze Henry, Robert Kowalewski is a slightly off-center and believable match for Hargrave’s Natalie. And even with a couple line blips, Justin Williams is solid as the two docs who treat Diana.

The production is enhanced by a set created by one of the area’s A-plus design teams. Ron Newell’s simple yet evocative scenic design, employing three distorted frames, strung tight with strands, functions as an apt visual metaphor for Diana’s struggles. And T. Paul Lowry’s projections within and around those frames offer just enough counterpoint without becoming distracting. That combination, especially when an actor is standing behind those frames, is wonderfully ethereal and a bit spooky. Indeed, all the designers as well as the five-piece orchestra under Anthony Trifiletti’s baton help make this production gleam.

So if you’re one of those people who never want to drive to the west side, or the east side, to see a show, get over yourselves. There’s a special show out in Sheffield Village, and it’s worth the trip!

Next To Normal
Through May 22 at TrueNorth at French Creek, 4530 Colorado Ave., Rt. 611, Sheffield Village. 440-949-5200, or

2016: A Political Race ODDyssey, Cleveland Cabaret Project

(Bryan Fetty as Audrey)

It’s either the best of times or the worst of times for anyone who wants to mount a musical politicalsatire. With Donald Trump on one side and Hillary Clinton on the other, you have two people who have been worked over satirically ever since Spy magazine it the streets in 1986. Of course, this all may change if Bernie manages to beat Hill, but the chances of that at this moment are slim.

That said, the Cleveland Cabaret Project has decided to celebrate the arrival of the Republican Convention here in town with a Capitol Steps-type show at Nighttown. And while it’s an on-going process of creation, with some glitches showing, this show often clicks enough to get the laughs rolling.

The bulk of the song parodies, sung to existing tunes, have been created by Rob Gibb and Bryan Fetty, who also are in the cast. But it all begins perfectly with a piece written by Lora Workman, founder and artistic director of CCP:  A Chorus Line medley which has the eight performers singing, “Oh God, I need this job!” That is ideal, particularly since the Republican candidate field was like a chorus line audition from Hell.

A lot of this show is focused on that nominating process, which feels a bit dated now. But they’ll be writing new songs and trying to keep up with the ever-evolving circus act that presidential elections have become. But there are some bits that work perfectly, such as the Sound of Music-inspired “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Scalia?” And the song comparing Gov. Kasich to Don Quixote.

But others tend to fall flat. I’m not sure anyone needs to hear a Martin O’Malley-themed song, even if it is performed in drag. And roasting Hillary for her flip-flops is tone-deaf at a time when Trump contradicts himself several times a day, sometimes in the same sentence. But that clunker is saved with Hillary’s concluding rendition of “Maybe this time (I’ll win)!”

The cast features Fetty, who performs in an American flag mini-dress as Audrey, and Gibb in a not particularly successful impersonation of The Donald. Another off-center impression is turned in by Carla Petroski as Sarah Palin, although she almost makes up for it through manic energy. One wishes Sheila Heyman had more to do, since her deep and raspy voice adds some fresh appeal. Tina D. Stump is a stitch as Ben Carson and rings the rafters in a gospel number, Marc Moritz and Sean Cahill exude that go-for-broke cabaret vibe, and music director Tom Bonezzi keeps it all moving.

As they say, it’s hard to do comedy and it’s really hard to do political satire, especially when everyone in the audience can probably predict what’s coming next. So hats off to the CCP troupe, and let’s hope those daggers get even sharper as the Convention nears.

2016: A Politcal Race ODDyssey

Produced by the Cleveland Cabaret Project at Nighttown, 12387 Cedar Road, Cleveland Heights. May 23, June 13, June 27, July 11. Call 216-795-0550.

Broken Codes, Theater Ninjas

Theater Ninjas calls itself the “food truck of Cleveland theater” since it is always moving from place to place, putting up their shows in different and often interesting venues. And many of their productions, while offbeat, have also been fresh and thought provoking.

But in Broken Codes, now playing in a space at the Rising Star Roastery on the west side, the food truck has skidded into a guardrail, spilling it’s contents on the road. And they’re asking the audience to pick it all up and make sense of it, which some will no doubt be willing to do. Others, of course, will just carefully drive around the incident and be on their way.

This show is the third in a series that the TN group has been working on for a while. It started with Code: Preludes and continued later with The Turing Machine. Central to these plays is the story of Alan Turing, the math genius at Britain’s Bletchley Park who led the team that broke the Nazi’s Enigma code.

In my review of that first play, I offered the wish that “future iterations of this experience will be more accessible to the average attendee and less smugly superior.” Alas, TN artistic director Jeremy Paul has decided to go in the latter direction with the current Broken Codes. And it doesn’t work for me, which is odd. I would seem to be the ideal audience for such a show, since I have read extensively about Alan Turing over the years and have enjoyed works of fiction related to the subject, such as Neal Stephenson’s dense but explicable novel Cryptonomicon.

The major problem with this production involves the premise that Paul states in his curtain speech. To paraphrase, he explains that modern technology (smart phones, computers, computer games, social media, etc.) is so confusing we can’t understand it by looking at it or dealing with it directly. Well, playwrights have been staring directly at imponderable issues for eons—including love, death, and the reason for living—without throwing up their hands and claiming it’s all too mysterious. Grappling directly with those mysteries is why we are attracted to theater and the stories that reside there.

Hewing to his premise, Paul and his hard-working minions create a collection of small vignettes, or performances, or art installations that touch on technology in occasionally understandable but mostly oblique ways. Then we, as individuals in the audience, are asked to look at it all and, as they say on their website, “decide how they all fit together.” Well, thanks for the help.

Try to pull all this together: A woman interacting with a computer with the aid of drawings from elementary school kids, a violin performance accompanied by electronic and computer music, a woman exercising her facial muscles and scrawling notes about selfies on transparent sheets projected on a screen, a couple scenes involving young female code breakers at Bletchley Park, a group of people reading from scripts about a “Beta uprising,” and so forth. And just to make it a bit more quizzical, these offerings are sometimes split up and mixed amongst the others.

Hey, it’s art! And what you get from it is…what you get from it. But what I don’t get is why theater artists don’t appreciate that making their material accessible, even in unconventional and non-linear ways, is not inherently offensive. I would actually like to understand what these people think about modern technology and its impact on society.

I don’t intend to be dismissive about the efforts of so many young, industrious and talented people. But my reaction may result, in part, from Theater Ninja’s dismissive approach to their audience. When you abdicate your responsibility to take your patrons on a decipherable journey—no matter how challenging—your food truck isn’t happily and inventively roaming the city. It’s up on blocks in the front yard.

Broken Codes
Through May 21, produced by Theater Ninjas at Rising Star Roastery, 3617 Walton Ave.,

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Wrestling Jerusalem, Cleveland Public Theatre

Playwright and performer Aaron Davidman is touring his one-person play Wrestling Jerusalem, which is now in residence at Cleveland Public Theatre. And while it is more of a “tour de feelings” rather than a tour de force, it still has some clear and effective moments.

It is Davidman’s goal to show both sides of the endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as equitably as possible. So he takes on 17 different characters as he describes his visits to the Middle East with quick cameos of various individuals: from religious leaders to the man on the street and from a military man to a physician. These all add up to a clear portrait of the deeply frustrating situation facing the two societies that simply can’t find a way out of their morass.

If that is the sum total of what Davidman wants to achieve, he does it splendidly. Of course, some in the audience may yearn for a bit more involvement and connection with this perplexing saga that we have all seen played out in the media for decades. And for those people, this play falls short of the mark.

Because by taking a panoramic look at this topic, Davidman rarely gets down into the personal lives and feelings of the characters he introduces. Just when we begin to get interested in one person, he or she disappears and we’re on to the next. In addition, many of his characters aren’t differentiated enough in posture and inflection, so that it’s hard to tell them apart. They are not so much actual persons as human representations of various aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum.

The exceptions to this are telling, since it is in those moments when the play really comes alive. In one, a doctor explains how babies are introduced from birth to the danger and fear of their new world, as their mothers’ eyes are pulled away from their own as they peer at the violence outside their doors. In another, Davidman depicts a stoner who actually has a persona we can grasp.

If we felt the narrator had more at stake in his journey of discovery, we might begin to relate on a deeper level. But Davidman remains an honest broker to the end, which is admirable in one way but distancing in another.

The staging by director Michael John Garces is simple and effective, augmented nicely by a painted, crumpled canvas backdrop that is lighted to evoke different moods and locations.

Most of the segments, however, deal with issues we’ve all heard about, and little new or surprising is uncovered. But if you’ve somehow missed all this turmoil, Wrestling Jerusalem is a dandy way to bring yourself up to date. If you’re well acquainted with the situation, however, this may seem a bit more like arm wrestling.

Wrestling Jerusalem
Through May 22 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, None Too Fragile Theater

(Derdriu Ring as Maureen, and Anne McEvoy as Mag.)

When it comes to black comedies, this piece by Martin McDonagh may not appear to be the blackest of them all. But it possesses that dark Irish sensibility that can cast a pall even as you chuckle at characters thrashing about in their quietly untenable lives.

Mag Folan is the elderly woman who sits and rocks in her small cottage, attended to grudgingly by her daughter Maureen. Yes, the have some serious mother-daughter issues, and the sparks are flying from the outset in this supremely well-acted production directed by Sean Derry.

In this version, instead of Maureen starting out trying to put a happy face on her situation, Derdriu Ring as Maureen comes out of the gate in full-on bitch mode, clearly pissed off at having to cook up mom’s porridge or tea or whatever. And Anne McEvoy also plays against expectations by not being a harridan but almost bashfully asking for her food and drink. This is a nice touch, since the actions that Mag then engages in to sabotage Marueen’s life become even more startling and hostile.

Ring and McEvoy execute a lovely, vicious pas de deux as they dance around each other like scorpions, stingers armed and ready. Equally adept is Tom Woodward as Pato, a man from Maureen’s past with big dreams, whom Maureen locks onto in hopes of dragging herself out of the house that has become a prison. And as Pato’s dim-witted brother Ray, Nate Miller injects just the right amount of outsider perspective and some much needed humor.

It’s a nearly perfect little, bruised world these four talented actors create, brimming with disappointment, small-minded carping, startling cruelty and shattered dreams. And it’s staged in None Too Fragile’s intimate space, where you can feel every jab and jolt. What else could you ask for in a grim, amusing and compelling piece such as this?

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
Through May 7 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco),