Monday, January 25, 2016

Proof, Clague Playhouse

(Rachel Lee Kolis as Catherine and Robert Hawkes as Robert.)

Are genius and madness closely, even inevitably, related? Many of us who aren’t geniuses would like to think so, feeling self-satisfied in our less than stellar quasi-sanity.

This is a central question brought to the fore in Proof by David Auburn, a play about Robert, a mathematics professor and avowed genius who may have transferred both his talent and his eventual dementia to his daughter Catherine. However, this play is about math as much as The Producers is a play about the rise and fall of the Third Reich. Advanced theoretical math, and the elegant proofs that attend to it, are just the foundations of a family drama that often works on much simpler equations.

To wit: Robert’s recent death has suddenly flung his caretaker, the edgy and reclusive Catherine, into newly found freedom. But her sister Claire, who’s come in from New York City for the funeral, isn’t sure Catherine is stable enough to go it alone. And Hal, a former math student of Robert’s, is hanging around, sorting through Robert’s notebooks in search of a breakthrough math proof, and perhaps a bit of fame for himself.

As Auburn’s slickly written piece slides back and forth in time, we see Robert, Catherine and Hal at various stages of their relationship while Claire remains firmly fixed in the present. And thanks to the smooth and dexterous direction by Anne McEvoy, this production misses nary a step on the way to a well-earned and poignant conclusion.

Rachel Lee Kolis simmers and flares with quiet grace as Catherine, a young woman who has lived so long in the shadow of her brilliant father that she can’t quite see herself, or her path forward. As her ruthlessly efficient sister Claire, Renee Schilling overcomes the stiffness of an early scene with Catherine and registers powerfully in Act Two as she tries to control an uncontrollable situation.

As the inquisitive grad student Hal, Nicholas Chokan is charming and just hidden enough to raise suspicions about his true motives. And Robert Hawkes puts a warm, curmudgeonly twist on Robert, a twist that eventually turns sour. That happens during a flashback to a moment when the elderly math master thought his powers were suddenly returning to him. The truth, stated in a whispered reading of his “proof,” has its own tragic finality.

Whenever intellect and feelings collide on a stage, you can bet that emotions will win virtually every time. And so it is here, which is a bit predictable. But the Clague Playhouse production, performed on a wonderfully detailed back porch set designed by Ron Newell, makes this old-fashioned storytelling ring gratifyingly true and fresh.


Through February 7 at the Clague Playhouse, 1371 Clague Road, Westlake, 440-331-0403

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Frankenstein’s Wake, Cleveland Public Theatre

Say the name Frankenstein to anyone, and they smile and wait for the joke. That’s because this monster has become a cartoon in our culture, appropriate for Broadway musical parodies and Halloween costumes, but not much more.

However, if you peer more carefully into the story by novelist Mary Shelley of the mad scientist Victor Frankenstein and the creature he created in a lab, it’s a whole different kettle of neck bolts. Indeed, the story of Frankenstein is breathtakingly and immediately relevant to our world today.

In Frankenstein’s Wake, a new restaging now at Cleveland Public Theatre, Holsinger and Bobgan use many of Shelley’s own words, along with those of her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Isaac Newton, to convey the torment of a hugely empathetic “daemon” who only seeks acceptance. But due to its unusual appearance, it is rejected and demonized to the point where it seeks violent retribution.  Surprisingly, this story is even more relevant now than when co-creators and co-designers Holly Holsinger and Raymond Bobgan trotted out an earlier version in 1997.

Frankenstein’s creation, animated from lifeless matter, was never a low-IQ, natural born killer. He instead was intelligent, aware, and had noble qualities that were perverted by the insensitivity--or stupidity, or fear--of society. (That goes double for his own creator, since Victor was appalled by what he succeeded in bringing to life.) You can go ahead and apply that as an analogy for any of the conflicts going on in the world today, including the ones inside your head.

In this elegantly constructed 65-minute piece, Holsinger and Bobgan invite you to immerse yourself in the poetic words of Shelley and her contemporaries. Even though there is precious little action, and even if it's hard at times to keep up with the density of the language, the themes at work can ignite fireworks in your mind.

As the only performer, Holsinger uses her supple voice and gloriously specific, intention-driven movement to captivate the audience. Occupying a stage with two long tables, a couple chairs and a small collection of props, Holsinger takes on various personae. These include Captain Robert Walton who encountered a nearly frozen and emaciated Victor while Walton was on his way to discover new territory at the North Pole, as well as Victor and the creature itself.

Eventually utilizing white sheets that drape tables and chairs as funeral shrouds, the dead bodies of people close to Victor begin to add up, And as we follow the daemon through his introduction to the brutal condition of being human, we begin to understand the price we pay when we seek to expand our knowledge, as Walton and Victor did. Increasing knowledge is generally a good thing, of course, but there is a price to be paid. We figured out how to split the atom and how to create fearsome armaments. But those breakthroughs have an awful, even possibly a cataclysmic cost.

And that is one of the intriguing questions this piece asks: Who or what are the monsters among us? Is it the horrors we have created, or is it us? We are all bobbing along in Frankenstein’s Wake, helplessly buffeted by the fearsome creatures of our own making. Yeah, it’s enough to give you shivers, but not in the way you might expect.

Frankenstein’s Wake
Through January 30 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

Friday, January 8, 2016


If you’re interested in traveling back to a wonderful (and awful) time—in jazz and in America—then you should pencil in Saturday, January 30 and Sunday, January 31. That’s when you can take a ride back to the days of the Cotton Club, the famous New York City nightclub, in Curtain Up at the Cotton Club at the Hanna Theatre at Playhouse Square.

The Cotton Club era was wonderful because many of the all-time jazz greats performed at there in Harlem during the 1920s and 30s: Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and many more. However, it was awful because while the performers were predominantly African-American, only whites were allowed in as patrons. In fact, the black performers themselves weren’t allowed to mix with the clientele, often composed of cream of New York society at the time.

Of course, everyone will be welcome to come and enjoy the music of the Cotton Club at the Hanna, performed by the full 16-piece Cleveland Jazz Orchestra. That group has collaborated with The Musical Theater Project to produce this two-day concert hosted by their respective artistic directors: TMTP’s Bill Rudman and CJO’s Paul Ferguson. 

Featured singers will include Treva Offut and local jazz favorites Evelyn Wright and John Morton. Supplementing the CJO will be the Joe Hunter Trio. And of course, Bill Rudman will share many historical tidbits along with photos from the time in this multi-media production.

We were all “born too late” to experience the Cotton Club in its heyday. But thankfully we have The Musical Theater Project and the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra to transport us back to that time.

Curtain Up at the Cotton Club

Saturday, January 30 at 8 PM and Sunday, January 31 at 2 PM, at the Hanna Theatre, 2067 East 14th St. 216-241-6000.