Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How To Be A Respectable Junkie, Dobama Theatre

We’re Number One, We’re Number One!! Yes, the state of Ohio is at the top in the nation…when it comes to deaths from opioid overdoses (Ohio Department of Health, 2014). Abuse of opioids, those drugs derived from opium, has become a way of life for many here in Buckeye land. So it’s appropriate that a play addressing that particularly horrific and confounding problem should have its world premiere here.

Although it’s sometimes wise to steer clear of plays that have an obvious healthcare or public service message, local playwright Gregory Vovos has crafted a powerful piece of theater in How To Be A Respectable Junkie. This one-person, 90-minute piece is a journey through the woes of a white-collar fellow who’s become hooked and can’t (or won’t) give it up.

Brian is a 30-something dude who lives in his mother’s basement because he wants to spend every dime of his salary on the drugs he lives for. But he’s coming to the end of his rope, so he’s decided to share his hard-won knowledge, expressed in the title, on a video recorder he’s recently stolen.

As he talks and rants to the camera, he exchanges “dialog” with his dog Hope, given to him by his mother on the off chance a pet might alter his doomed trajectory. We never see the yapping dog, which is kept in a crate covered with blankets, but we see plenty of Brian as he decomposes before our eyes.

Playwright Vovos clearly knows his way around this territory, and the details he uses to explain how druggies shoot up, avoid detection, and deal with relatives is brutally precise. The amazingly talented actor Christopher M. Bohan brings Brian to painful life, as Brian confesses his weaknesses and rages at “earthlings” for not understanding how difficult it is to fight this addiction.

The play is nearly perfect right up until the last ten minutes, when Vovos surrenders to that bugaboo of many playwrights: over-explaining. As a result, the show limps to a conclusion as the eventually healthy Brian delivers a mini-seminar on how he has a new purpose in life, all to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

The ending, well-meaning though it is, is way too pat. But most of Junkie is right on the mark, showing us earthlings how it feels to be stuck on the business end of those deadly needles.

How To Be A Respectable Junkie
Through July 2 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org

Monday, June 19, 2017

Rock of Ages, Cain Park

Sometimes, a show comes along that will just not be denied. No matter how much you want to dislike it for a cavalcade of minor offenses—from desperately unfunny gags to a plotline that predictably creaks and groans—the damn show eventually wins you over.

Based on the 2012 film, the jukebox musical Rock of Ages is, let’s face it, a mess on several fronts.  As created by book author Chris D’Arienzo and Ethan Popp, who arranged and orchestrated the mid- to late- ‘80s rock tunes made popular by established artists (ie. Bon Jove, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, etc.), the play is a rock concert with a storyline stapled clumsily to it.

But the performers under the dazzling direction of Joanna May Hunkins are so balls-to-the-wall energetic, you eventually set aside your carping and go with the flow—from the blinding stage lights to the equally blinding hairdos.

It’s all based on a love story between wannabe rocker Drew and Sherrie, a gal from Kansas who just landed on Sunset Strip looking for stardom. Their love match is contrasted with the dastardly Hertz Klinemann (Kevin Kelly, deploying a hilarious, borderline impenetrable German accent) and his swishy (but not gay!) son Franz (a campy David Turner). The Germans want to turn The Strip into a strip mall for profit, gutting the Bourbon Room where all the rockers hang out.

It’s the krauts vs. the kidz and if you can’t guess who wins you need to have your brain bleached and teased until it resembles the big hair that traipses across the Alma Theatre stage.

Even though the plot is threadbare and the jokes are lame (some names of bands playing the club are called Concrete Balls and Steel Jizz. Um, really? The book author couldn’t even nail the “funny band name” gag?), the show works because it never lets up in its desire to be liked. It tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to make fun of itself at times. But the things that really work are the songs, performed by a talented band under the direction of Jordan Cooper and a talented cast of singers and dancers.

Shane Lonergan and Lauren Ashley Berry kick out the jams as Drew and Sherrie respectively, sharing one thankfully tender moment in a park with wine coolers. It is all narrated by Lonny, a relentlessly entertaining Douglas F. Bailey II, who pulls the storyline along like dragging a dead elephant seal across wet sand.

For a while, Sherrie is attracted to the visiting rock icon Stacee Jaxx, played with arrogant hauteur by Connor Bogart O’Brien—when the lead singer isn’t barfing his guts out from his latest excesses with various substances. And Neely Gevaart as Regina (It’s pronounced to rhyme with vagina…stop, you’re killing me) and Trinidad Snider as the sultry strip club madam Justice each add kickass singing and clever character portrayals to the mix. The cleverest twist in the show is when Lonny and club owner Dennis (Phillip Michael Carroll) discover each other in “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”

To tell the truth, when it comes to rock/jukebox musicals “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.” But if you want a show to “Rock You Like a Hurricane” and give it to you “Any Way You Want It,” just “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Rock of Ages at Cain Park is a big, juicy slice of “Cherry Pie.”

Rock of Ages

Through June 25 at Cain Park, 14591 Superior Road, Cleveland Heights, 800-745-3000, cainpark.com

The Taming of the Shrew, Cleveland Shakespeare Festival

Ever since the original Shakespeare companies used boys and young men to play women’s roles, the layering and twisting of gender has been a substantial part of old Will’s entertainments. But it’s doubtful even The Man himself ever considered having the key men’s roles in The Taming of the Shrew played by women—since the dominant and submissive roles among men and women were so set in stone in the 17th Century. And (ahem) still are, in many ways.

But women do play men in the lively production of Shrew, now touring around Cleveland and northeast Ohio under the banner of the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival. This hardy troupe, now celebrating their 20th season of presenting free Shakespeare al fresco, has taken this classic play and turned it on its head. As director Lisa Ortenzi notes in the program, “I wanted to see how Shrew would play out if mostly women took on the male roles.”

How does it work? Well, it depends how you look at it. Since women also play the main female characters, the gender switch is only half complete. From one perspective, it’s fascinating to watch capable female actors spout the words of the sexist Petruchio (a boisterous and entirely dominating Kelly Elliot), comical Tranio (Grace Mitri, continually swiveling and posturing), elderly Gremio (Samantha Cocco, adopting an old man’s manner and gait), and blue-balled Hortensio (a coiled and eager Hannah Storch).

But from another perspective, the gender flip can seem a bit of a gimmick, like having women play Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple. Ever since Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in a prose version of that play in 1899, we’ve been intrigued by the idea of women playing men. (God knows we’ve had enough of the reverse). But those examples—Glenn Close playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan along with countless other gals playing Peter himself, Laura Welsh Berg playing the title role in Hamlet in this year’s Great Lakes Theater production—don’t readily come to mind. The reason for that should be the subject for another treatise.

In any case, this CSF production is often witty and quite enjoyable. That is the case, even though actors in a few of the roles need to be zapped with a taser to chill out a bit and consider the value of throwing a line away now and then.

All CSF plays are free, all you have to do is bring a blanket or a low-slung chair and plug into the fun. Their second and final production of the summer, Macbeth, begins July 21. Presumably with a male in the lead role…although you never know.

The Taming of the Shrew

Through July 2 at various outdoor venues, consult the schedule at cleveshakes.com

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Carousel, Mercury Theater Company

If you’re looking for reasons to see Carousel again, the iconic musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II that opened on Broadway more than 70 years ago, you won’t have to search far.

The show features signature R&H touches, such as the surprising “Carousel Waltz” that opens the show, without a word being sung or spoken, and moving quickly into the wonderful conversation-turned-song, performed by characters Julie Jordan and Carrie Pipperidge, in the form of “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” and “Mister Snow.”

Carrie is the love interest of Enoch Snow, a fisherman who is absolutely head-over-heels in love until he spots Carrie getting up close and personal with Jigger Craigin (a sleazy yet amusing Brian Lego). Brian Marshall struts and prances entertainingly as Snow and, playing Julie’s gal pal Carrie, CorLesia Smith sings well but never quite finds the playful core of this character, who should be more amusing than she is here.

This was only the second show for the duo of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and its musical power ranges from the merely interesting (“A Real Nice Clambake”) to incredibly powerful (“You’ll Never Walk Alone”). In short, it’s a feast for the ears. In this production by the Mercury Theatre Company, the beauty of the music comes through, with the singers accompanied by two pianos. All the performers have some strong singing chops, and most of the songs are well represented.

As shy and docile Julie, an excellent Jennifer Myor is the punching bag for impulsive and mean Billy Bigelow. Indeed, their abusive relationship is at the center of the show. And the fact that the authors tend to forgive Billy for his beastly behavior (he supposedly pushes Julie around out of love, and because he’s unhappy with his life. Boo-hoo.) doesn’t exactly resonate well in this day and age.

But aside from that stuff, Myor and Ryan Everett Wood as Billy handle the complex song-dialog “If I Loved You” with style. Their strong voices play well off each other. And at the end of the first act, Wood sings the introspective and daring “Soliloquy” (it’s eight minutes long) with deep understanding.

There isn’t much eye candy in this production, since NicholasThornburg’s set design is almost monochromatic at times—no colorful horses for the carousel or multicolored banners waving. Indeed, the design almost invites the audience to close their eyes and listen to the voices. But you’d better not, otherwise you’d miss some spectacular dance numbers choreographed by Melissa Bertolone.

By featuring a plot that touches on abuse, suicide and flawed people, it shows how the musical form was growing up back in the 1940s. It’s the earthiness embedded in lyricism that makes Carousel stand out, still today. And it’s why it’s worth a look. And a listen.

Through June 24 at Mercury Theater Company, Notre Dame College, Regina Hall, 1857 S. Green Rd., South Euclid, 216-771-5862, mercurytheatercompany.org

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Red Ash Mosaic, Cleveland Public Theatre

We humans have a strange relationship with death, and that’s as it should be. After all, we’re the only animals (as far as we know) who are aware of our own mortality. That does tend to focus the mind.

The minds at Cleveland Public Theatre have been focused on this topic fairly frequently over the years, presenting “devised theater” (collaborative works by a group of people, usually including the performers). In the latest version, Red Ash Mosaic, director/performer Raymond Bobgan and his team attempt to explore the mysteries of death, following the manner of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, in unexpected and innovative forms. 

It is difficult to hold such presentations up against the usual measuring stick of most plays, since plot is minimal and character development virtually nonexistent. Instead, it must be judged based on how well it achieves what it seeks, which is to confront the audience with, as Bobgan states in his program notes, “issues of identity, the divine, and what it means to live.”

Oh, is that all? Yes, the goals for this material are grandiose, but if you believe that theater should set its sights high, this can be intoxicating stuff. Of course, as with most intoxicants, not all the results are splendid and sometimes you wind up barfing on your shoes. But that’s to be expected.

In this piece, a few cast members, along with the stage manager who makes occasional appearances, gather on a black tiled square ringed with floor lights. They appear to be in a video game arcade or store—two guys are playing a blow-‘em-up game, a woman is searching for a gift, and the clerk is helping them out.

But when a thunderstorm hits, some others duck inside for cover, including a Muslim woman wearing a black hijab and long black dress. She is also carrying a backpack, which she eventually leaves in the store, leading the others to question whether it’s a bomb or just an innocent bag left carelessly behind.

That backpack becomes a centerpiece for the ensuing scenes, as the eight performers begin to riff on how they might be facing eternity in the next few seconds, or maybe not. In any case, death is “right over your shoulder” and they launch into various types of reflections, sometimes speaking and sometimes singing or chanting, to convey their thoughts on The Big Sleep. Some of these thoughts are rather banal (“The river is deep and wide and it flows so fast.”), while others are more intriguing, referring to “an explosion in the mind’s eye.”

What remains intriguing throughout is how director Bobgan choreographs his players as thoughts bubble up under their skin. The performers often writhe and move individually, then break into group movement, sometimes responding to the dreaded backpack like iron filings being moved around by a powerful magnet. In the past, Bobgan has used these mass movements frequently, but in this show they are even more precise and controlled.

There are also moments of surpassing beauty. One occurs when a performer sprinkles the stage with snow from a basket perched on the end of a long pole and another is imagined dead, with dark ashes covering his body.

There is also a lovely interlude in the second act when a woman flies around the stage in a harness, a la Peter Pan or a human tetherball. It is charming, but it goes on for far too long, which is noticeable since another performer is speaking words the whole time. But it’s hard to concentrate on those complex phrases when there’s a woman flying around above your head. Indeed, after a while it seems like the person talking during the extended aerial act was one of Charlie Brown’s teachers intoning “Waa, waa, waa.”

The performers are fully committed to this material, and they do their jobs well. In addition to Bobgan, they are Faye Hargate, Adam Seeholzer, Dionne Atchison, Sarah Moore, Holly Holsinger, and Darius Stubbs. The frequently-observed stage manager is Colleen McGaughey.

While some thoughts eventually land with power, they are often overwhelmed with jejune poetry involving bridges, mirrors, and windows. And then there are the questions (“Do stories have souls?”) that are sometimes more puzzling than interesting.

Still, Bobgan and his troupe are exploring huge ideas with fierce theatrical imagination and a rippling physicality, which is a lot more than you can say about most plays.

Red Ash Mosaic
Through June 17 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727, cptonline.org

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Medea At Six, Playground Theater in collaboration with Ensemble Theatre

How do ratings and entertainment value influence the news? It’s a juicy topic that playwright and director Scott Miller engages in his Medea At Six, a retelling of the Greek Medea tale through the eyes of a local TV news crew.

In this telling, hot-shot TV reporter Janet is tracking down a story about a woman, Medea Colchis, who broke into a bank meeting and threatened the CEO with a knife. Now she and her cameraman are outside the woman’s house, where the familiar Medea tale is trotted out once again, complete with Jason, this time in modern dress.

The conflict, such as it is, is built around whether Janet will intercede to stop the awful events in progress, or keep filming to boost ratings and goose her career, sending her to a bigger market and a fatter salary.

And at another time, this play might have more resonance. But let’s face it, we’re living right now amidst the carnage that has resulted from a similar media disaster: television networks that sold their souls for ratings during the past Presidential campaign, handing their networks over totally to the appearances of a pouty, foul-mouthed man-child who—thanks to often slack-jawed and adoring coverage on CNN, Fox News and elsewhere—has become the leader of the “Free (for now) World.”

As they say, timing is everything. And while the Medea yarn is certainly ghastly, it’s questionable if it stacks up in horror to the United States losing its democracy thanks to the craven hidden agenda of much of the media.

That said, the cast under Miller’s direction emotes with all the angst and passion you might expect in any rendering of this bloody myth. As Medea, Nina Domingue paints a well-nuanced portrait of a woman scorned and damaged beyond all imagination. As Janet, Alison Garrigan is all business as she struggles to resolve her inner conflict, and Ananias Jason Dixon moans effectively when he learns about what his former lover Medea has done after being rejected by him.

At its present length of one hour, the play doesn’t develop sufficiently to allow the media aspect to land solidly. And by taking itself so seriously, the whole news industry angle seems to dissipate. Perhaps a more absurd take on the whole proceedings, with a TV weatherman doing segues from the carnage and a TV sports guy comparing the disaster to the latest Patriots’ victory would make the point with more punch and less pathos.

Medea At Six
Through May 21, produced in collaboration with Ensemble Theatre and Playground Theater, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Forever Plaid, Great Lakes Theater

There is a day in the future that we can all anticipate with glee. That is the day when no one will be making Ed Sullivan jokes anymore, because no one will fucking remember The Ed Sullivan Show, nor any of the acts that trotted across its TV stage. And that goes double for pretty much all the lame  1950s nostalgia that is dragged out to coax faint chuckles from the pre-dead.

Speaking as a member of that ancient group, I have about had it up to here with shows such as Forever Plaid, now at Great Lakes Theater, since they pander to those of us 70 years and older with syrupy tunes and lame humor. And the Ed Sullivan schtick is part of this tepid song ‘n’ dance exercise, as the actors perform a frenzied, capsule version of that long-ago variety show. When was it decided we oldsters like that crap? I’ll take reruns of Veep any day to guys pretending to be The Four Freshmen harmonizing to “Lady of Spain.”

But hey, each to their own. If you love those close-harmony boy singing groups crooning “Shangri-la” and reliving the Eisenhower era, fire up your Rascal and head on down to East 14th Street. Because even though the show, which is “written” by Stuart Ross, is flimsy and yawn-inducing it won’t matter – because you forget everything at this point anyhow. It's one of the tiny blessings of old age.

The performers are four young lads who all studied at Baldwin Wallace University, which is evidence of their intelligence and talent. And the group of them—Mack Shirilla, Andrew Kotzen, Mickey Patrick Ryan and James Penca—bring boyish verve and endless energy to the mercifully brief proceedings.

The cast is supported by a team of BW teachers and alumni including director Victoria Bussert, choreographer Gregory Daniels, music director Matthew Webb and scenic designer Jeff Herrmann. They all do their jobs professionally but, really, does anyone care? It’s Forever Plaid, for God’s sake.

It’s understandable that GLT mixes in some easier-to-swallow fare along with their Shakespeare plays, to keep the subscribers happy and the seats filled. But do we really have to help keep this kind of tripe alive? I mean, we’re old, but we ain’t dead yet.

Forever Plaid
Through May 21 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000, greatlakestheater.org

These Mortal Hosts, New Ground Festival at the Cleveland Play House

Are there beings or spirits or entities that live inside us?  It would seem so, especially in the morning hours when we are beset with borborygmus, the wonderfully onomatopoetic term for stomach rumblings. (Who the hell is in my intestines anyhow, making all that racket?)

Most of the time, however, we are untroubled by such disturbing thoughts. Not so the three people in These Mortal Hosts, a world premiere play by Cleveland playwright Eric Coble now being presented as part of the often stimulating New Ground Festival at the Cleveland Play House. In this 100-minute one-act, we meet three average people from tiny Dove Creek, Colorado who have apparently had their bodies annexed by some force that they can’t control. And we’re not talking about a craving for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups here because, as we soon learn, these unseen occupiers are pretty serious.

It is a fascinating premise for a play by the preternaturally prolific Eric Coble. He’s written more than 200 scripts of various kinds over the past 25 years--which computes to eight per year or one every six-and-a-half weeks. That means Coble is writing a script more often than most of us attempt much less challenging activities, such as rearranging our sock drawer. More power to him for that.

For the first half of Hosts, directed by Laley Lippard, the idea of having an uncontrollable force inside our body is compelling. In quick succession we meet middle-aged bank manager Phyllis, high school student Meaghan and a veteran butcher named Earl. They are strangers to each other, and they pretty much exist in their own silos as they address the audience and share their current fixations.

For all his cutting and slicing of animal carcasses, Earl is slightly amazed that he’s never seen any of his own blood, even from a loose tooth as a kid. But one day, he feels a pressure in his chest. Meaghan is mightily attracted to schoolmate Troy at a party and evinces the usual teenage girl angst, until she starts hearing a voice in her head. And Phyllis, single and childless, obsesses over her two black cats, Inkwell and Mr. Mistoffelees, until she finds something going on in her body to obsess about.

At first, these people and their problems seem not all that significant. And Coble treats them as such, using his proven ability to craft quips and amusing punch lines with deft precision. In particular, tightly-wrapped Phyllis generates a number of laughs as she talks about her life at home and at work, reveling in how she positions her desk just right in the bank so she can see everything.

Trouble is, she can’t see what’s happening inside her own body. And when she stops having her period and finds she’s pregnant—without having had sex for more than six years—the whole play flips upside-down. Let’s face it, no matter what else happens in a play, when a virgin birth is occurring that means we’re talking religion until the final curtain.

Aside from abandoning a promising premise, there are other challenges this script faces. By having the characters address the audience instead of each other (for the most part), we get no real sense of what they have at stake as they experience their physical, mental and spiritual changes. Sure, Earl talks lovingly about his wife Helen, but we never hear from her, while Phyllis and Meaghan are off on their own.

Coble attempts to address this by having Earl visit one-time customer Phyllis in the bank, bringing her offerings of liver and muffins. This relationship, aside from any religious connotations, comes across as forced and manipulative. And as Meaghan gradually makes peace with the voice in her head, she sees herself as The Messenger who must Proclaim to the world and Shield those who do not possess her vision. It’s not at all clear if this is supposed to be inspiring or downright scary. If it’s up to the audience, I vote for scary.

The climax of the play attempts to be shocking and disturbing, but since so much of the play has been taken up with jokey asides, the impact at that point is muted. Call it a death by a hundred quips.

Although the play has issues, the cast delivers Coble’s words with passion and power. As Earl, Fabio Polanco has a rough-hewn honesty and simple goodness, which helps anchor a play that desperately needs it. Megan Medley conjures a number of laughs as Meaghan, especially when she uses her newfound power to intimidate some boys at school. And Amy Fritsche deftly portrays Phyllis as a coiled bundle of nerves until pregnancy releases her in more ways than one.

The mission of the New Ground Festival is to help new plays get launched, and that is indeed an honorable and laudatory goal. So major props to CPH for this effort! One hopes that the Festival thrives for years to come and continues to feature emerging theatrical voices—not so much those playwrights who already (and justifiably) enjoy consistent exposure of their fine work at multiple venues locally and across the country.

These Mortal Hosts
Through May 20 at Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Hand to God, Dobama Theatre

(Luke Wehner as Jason/Tyrone)

The definition of a passion play is a dramatic performance representing the Passion of Jesus Christ, involving his suffering and death. It is a staple of many celebrations of Lent in several Christian denominations.

The thing is, that word “passion” can take you in more than one direction. And in this play by Robert Askins, there is plenty of passion set in a church building, but most of it is of the four-letter-word, violent and sexually-drenched variety. 

Taking a cue from the outrageous puppets in Avenue Q, this dark comedy centers on a Sunday school classroom of a church in a small Texas town. This is where recently widowed Margery is trying to teach her charges Jason, Jessica and Timothy about the Lord, using puppets as a vehicle to reach them. Jason is her son, and it turns out she reaches him all too well, since timid Jason has apparently bonded with his puppet Tyrone in a dangerous way.

Indeed, it seems balls-to-the-wall Tyrone has taken over Jason’s fragile personality and is using him to lambaste everyone in sight, including Pastor Greg. As Tyrone says in his opening speech, speaking from a puppet stage in the classroom: “The same motherfucker who invented the group kill and team virtue—that ballsy piece of pig shit—topped all his previous work and invented the devil.”

And Tyrone is here to make sure the devil gets his due. As performed by Luke Wehner, Jason/Tyrone is a fascinating and at times abhorrent creation, giving voice to the unspeakable thoughts Jason has swirling around in his head—as most of us do, of course. Tyrone is all id and, since he's not actually President of the United States, he's hilarious. 

Meanwhile, Timothy (Austin Gonser) is a walking adolescent hard-on with maximum sexual potency and very little focus, Jessica (Molly Israel) is trying to deal with Jason’s infatuation and Margery begins to let down her pretense of civility and starts to respond to Timothy’s insistent entreaties. During all this, Pastor Greg (David Burgher) is trying to make time with Margery.

In other words, it’s a pretty conventional church setting with all the hypocrisy, concealed emotions and screwed-up family relationships fully revealed. And that is what Askins is about, as he thrusts Tyrone into this supposedly calm and rational world.

Sure-handed director Matthew Wright keeps the pacing tight, even when the script tends to get bogged down in a bit too much repetition. And the ensemble performances are quite adept. But it is Wehner’s star turn as the man with the devil stuck on the end of his arm that steals the show and is worth the price of admission.

Hand to God
Through May 21 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org

Freaky Friday, Cleveland Play House

There’s no denying that the gimmick at the heart of this show, a musical version of the 1976 Disney movie, is a sure-fire winner. I mean, a mom and self-employed event planner named Katherine and her teenage daughter Ellie magically exchange bodies and set the stage for lots of generational laughs (Mom has to go to high school and deal with those rotten kids! Snarky teenager has to convince a wedding magazine to do a cover story on her mom’s business!).

For this effort, the cross-generational jokes have been updated to the 21st century by book writer Bridget Carpenter. In addition, they’ve hired Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey to, respectively, do the music and lyrics. Seems like a no-brainer, since these guys put together the stunning musical Next to Normal. You even have renowned scenic designer Beowulf Boritt creating a wonderfully flexible yet simple set, utilizing continually morphing columns that roll about in various configurations against a suburban landscape.


Similarly, it is tiring to watch a musical that attempts to turn every song into an anthem. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with Broadway anthems, those show-stopping numbers (think “I Am What I Am” or “Lullaby of Broadway”) that people leave the theater talking about. Wow, they say, that was powerful!

The trick is, that power is generated because the anthems are high points in a show, not the entire musical fabric. But in this production, virtually every song is composed and sung like an anthem, at full volume and with maximum emotional investment. This is all in the service of a plot that, while clever, depends on a rather flimsy one-joke premise.

As a result, the potentially tender, lightly amusing and affecting fantasy is crushed under the brutal treads of the Kitt/Yorkey pop-rock sonic muggings and music director Andrew Graham’s unrelenting intensity. In a different context, a couple of the song-anthems would be quite satisfying, since the premise-setting “Just One Day” and the secret-revealing “Busted” are quite entertaining. But in this production, they’re just another blast in the face.

In addition to the over-torqued songs, Yorkey is given to writing lyrics that are jammed with information—no “moon-June” simplicity for him. This worked brilliantly in the aforementioned Next to Normal, since it dealt with serious mental illness issues. Lots to delve into there. But in this show, his wordy delectation of the not-so-deep, storybook central theme quickly becomes overkill. In “No More Fear,” Katherine in the body of Ellie laments her past parental decisions in excruciating detail:  “How long have I kept an even keel?/How hard have I worked to keep our life so calm and neat?/How do I clean up this mess I made?” Maybe Yorkey could clean up this situation by not trying so hard.

Happily, there are some survivors. When the actors are not screaming their lungs hoarse in songs that require much less vocal commitment, they do a nice job under the direction of Christopher Ashley. As Katherine, Heidi Blickenstaff channels the insolent postures and snotty attitudes of her daughter with precision, and she’s quite amusing. In the less showy role of Ellie, Emma Hunton spends most of her time bringing adult good sense and reasonable behavior to her daughter’s sloppily clad body.  And they are well supported by David Jennings as Katherine’s fiancĂ© Mike, Chris Ramirez as Ellie’s high school dream-hunk Adam, and Jake Heston Miller as Katherine’s young son Fletcher.

But as effective as some of the dialog scenes are, musicals rise and fall on the music. And in this production, the music attacks the audience like a Marine drill sergeant, intent on taking no prisoners. As clever as it is, the songs in this Freaky Friday could lead to Migraine Monday.

Freaky Friday kicks off this year’s New Ground Festival at the Cleveland Play House. The Festival also includes a world premiere play by local playwright Eric Coble, These Mortal Hosts, May 11-20; The Nolan Williams Project, a new musical concert presentation, May 20; and The Chinese Lady, a reading of a new play by Lloyd Suh, May 20.

Freaky Friday
Through May 20 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com

Friday, April 7, 2017

Labio de Liebre (The Lip of the Hare), Teatro Publico de Cleveland

(Photo: Steve Wagner)

As Ebenezer Scrooge once learned, a guy can get some nasty nightmares resulting from a bad bit of meat or, you know, a rotting morality.

In Labio de Liebre, produced by Teatro Publico de Cleveland (TPC) under the auspices of Cleveland Public Theatre, an ex-military man experiences some darkly humorous interactions with ghosts who just won’t leave. This intriguing play is delivered in the original Spanish as written by playwright Fabio Rubiano Orjuela, with supertitles in English projected on a screen.

As seen at this preview performance, the troupe of local TPC actors under the direction of Dante Fernando Larzabal attack the material with energy and enthusiasm. And although nuance and subtlety are not the production’s long suits, this 90-minute piece eventually makes a powerful statement about tragedies that have befallen many people.

The genesis of the play has its roots in various military operations that have occurred in Colombia over time. And the central character here, a man named Salvo, was a member of the military that often killed indiscriminately. The play is set years later in his comfortable house, where a man with a cleft lip shows up and begins talking obliquely about his physical deformity and other things.

Soon, his brother wanders in, along with his sister and their mother, arriving through various means including out of the fridge. Not only that, a chicken (Lilly Corona-Moreno), a rabbit (Magdalena Godinez Rios) and a cow (Luis Ramirez-Alonzo) also make appearances, sometimes peering through the windows and sometimes traipsing inside the house.

Clearly Salvo’s existence, whether he’s asleep or awake, has been permeated by these people and creatures. And as the reason for their appearance becomes clear, the often-amusing play takes on a decidedly darker patina. Larzabal’s inventive production utilizes singing, dancing and a reporter and ex-beauty queen Roxi (a feisty Alisha Caraballo) to advance the story.

Since some of the dialog is rapid-fire, it’s at times difficult to keep up by reading the supertitles, since they do not indicate the name of the speaker. Of course, maybe I wouldn’t have had this problem if I had made a better decision in high school and taken Spanish classes instead of French. Sacrebleu!

As Salvo, Kivin Bauzo evinces strong stage presence, and he is matched by Christina Patterson who plays the mother of the visiting family. The two brothers are played by Alexander Corona and Ernesto Luna Carmargo with impish whimsy. Indeed, it is their comical aura that sets up the powerful contrast with the serious history the play reveals. In the role of Mala, a young girl with mother problems, Nathalie Bermudez is properly flirty and scatterbrained.

In other words, they’re a family. And once you discover what’s happened to them, the ghosts of the past will be in your head too.

Labio de Liebre
Through April 15, produced by Teatro Publico de Cleveland at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727, cptonline.org

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Harm’s Way, convergence-continuum

(Robert Branch as Crowsfoot)

How many times has a mother been frustrated with trying to get her small son to eat a sandwich? And how many times has a son been upset by being forced to eat something he didn’t want? Billions of times, or trillions? But usually, the encounter doesn’t conclude with mom shooting her tyke dead and then complaining about getting no respect.

In Harm’s Way, now at convergence-continuum theater, we are plunged into the distorted world of playwright Mac Wellman, a world where common aspects of our lives—violence, con games, dead Presidents—appear as if reflected in a fun house mirror. And then you realize, maybe this view isn’t so distorted after all.

The central character Santouche (a name that is a compressed version of the French phrase meaning “no touch”), winds up touching plenty of people, with bullets from his ever-present gun. After killing the aforementioned mom (who gave him no respect) he goes on a killing spree through several disconnected scenes until he ultimately offs the person closest to him, his evocatively named girlfriend Isle of Mercy. Again, no respect.

Some in the cast are more adept at dealing with this challenging material than others. Robert Branch creates distinctive characters as the young son and Crowsfoot, a carny con artist with two distinct sides to his personality. And Gideon Lorete, although lacking precise diction at times, channels the wacky energy that Wellman plays require. Hillary Wheelock as Isle and Carrie Williams as By Way of Being Hidden (yes, that’s her name) also convey a haunted, hunted aura.

In the central role of Santouche, Brian Westerley certainly has the look and physique to inhabit this fearsome role. But he never truly dominates the stage as he should, and his line readings tend to just be flat when they should ripple with tension, or dread. Or something. Without a more risk-taking performance, Santouche oddly fades into the background. And the contrast—when he suddenly speaks with Victorian rectitude to President McKinley (who is trying to get President Grover Cleveland to bury him alive)—doesn’t have the snap it should.

Director Clyde Simon clearly adores Wellman’s plays, having staged many of them, and he has a well-tuned sense of the absurdity at work. And the three-person band/chorus adds some pungent musical touches, including notes from a musical saw. But this one-hour play would be even more effective if he pushed some of the performers out of their comfort zones. Nobody, including the actors, should be comfortable in a Mac Wellman play.

Harm’s Way
Through April 15, produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Road, 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org

A Skull in Connemara, None Too Fragile Theater

If you glance at the bottom of this page, you’ll see that the show I’m reviewing here has actually closed. You can’t see it anymore. Ever. So let this be a lesson to you.

The lesson: Theater happens, and then it’s gone. Poof. But the great thing about theater is that, when done right, it’s so powerful it stays with you long after many other art forms have exited your brain. Such is the case with A Skull in Connemara by Martin McDonagh, which closed last Saturday at None Too Fragile Theater in Akron.

Had you possessed the foresight to buy a ticket, you would have seen an almost pitch-perfect production of this dark comedy that takes place mostly in an Irish graveyard. The setting is Leenane, a village in County Galway in Ireland, and this play the second part of McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy, which also includes The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West. (Chances are you also missed those two excellent productions at NTF, which were mounted in 2015 and 2016.)

As with the other McDonagh plays, the characters are three parts whiskey, two parts simmering grudge, four parts blarney and, critically, one part violence. And at the moment we visit them in this piece they are discussing the demise, several years before, of Mick Dowd’s wife Oona. Did she expire when riding with him while he was driving drunk, or did he deliver a dastardly blow in a drunken rage? The rumors abound.

The importance of this question has arisen because of Mick’s job. As the gravedigger for the town church, he is called upon to evict the bones of current cemetery residents, so that the small plot of land can accept newly deceased citizens. Every seven years he has to do this chore, and this time it will involve digging up his wife’s remains.

Mick is first visited by old pal Maryjohnny Rafferty, a Bingo addict who totes her fluorescent pens and is always ready for a slug of whiskey. Linda Ryan embodied this woman fully, from her painful ritual of easing herself into a chair to her volatile temper, which seems endemic to the folks in little Leenane.

Soon, they are joined by her grandson Mairton Hanlon, who has been sent over to help Mick with his digging duties. As played by Nate Homolka, Mairton was a splendidly coarse lout, and when he joined Mick in smashing the skulls and other bony parts of the bodies they’ve disinterred, with bits of stuff flying into the audience, it was like a Gallagher performance gone seriously macabre.

Mairton’s brother Thomas Hanlon also stops by, a doltish local policeman with dreams of CSI-style grandeur. Doug Kusak invested this character with just enough charm to make you also yearn for the respect he so clearly can’t earn by himself.

And as Mick, David Peacock once again crafted a persona that was perfect down to the smallest gestures and ticks (he recently, and brilliantly, played Doc in The Night Alive at Dobama Theatre).

Yes, you would have seen all those remarkable performances, had you bought a ticket. And you would have seen how skilled director Sean Derry is in all aspects of theater creation. As NTF’s co-artistic director with Alanna Romansky, he also designs sets, lights, and costumes. Plus, before every show, he pours a shot of Jameson for audience members who’d like a blast.

So make note: the next production at NTF is Salvage by local playwright George Brant, running from May 5-20. Remember, NTF is a small theater with an avid following. Tickets go fast, so plan ahead.

I hope we won’t have to have this discussion again.

A Skull in Connnemara

Through April 1 at None Too Fragile Theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547, nonetoofragile.com

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Playhouse Square

Used to be, many of us couldn’t imagine what it would be like to live on the autism spectrum, experiencing sensory overload and unable to correctly process random stimuli. Ha! That was before we were subjected to the ravings of the Trump administration. Now, we live in fear of the next new notifications on our iPhones, wondering whether the toddler-in-chief has started a war with North Korea or rudely flamed a former ally.

But I digress. In the remarkable production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by London’s National Theatre, Simon Stephens has adapted British playwright Mark Haddon’s eponymous novel into a thrilling excursion. By staging the play inside a black box equipped with dazzling lighting and visual effects, and accented by imaginative choreography and movement, the play is often surprising. Still, there are some soft spots and occasionally the show labors to maintain momentum.

The story is viewed largely through the mind of Christopher, a teenage math whiz whose brain is incapable of perceiving the emotions of others, and of expressing his own. When a neighbor’s dog is found stabbed to death by a garden pitchfork, Christopher is considered a possible suspect, so he takes it upon himself to search for the killer.

While he delves into deductive and inductive reasoning as he takes on the role of his hero Sherlock Holmes, we see how Christopher’s single father Ed and his mentor at school Siobhan react, helping him when they can to find his way through a confusing world.

The 12-person cast is frequently sitting on stage at the base of three large walls that are laid out in a grid pattern on a black background. These walls become the 13th character, as they pulse, flicker and then ultimately explode with life. As fashioned by video designer Finn Ross, scenic designer Bunny Christie and lighting designer Paule Constable, the walls give Christopher a place to inhabit that can be either disturbing or comforting, especially comforting when those spaces throb with equations and math challenges.

At one moment, a thin line of LED lights traces the outlines of houses to depict the neighborhood. And at other times, the walls erupt in showers of numbers and images that flood your cerebral cortex. This may not be how it feels to be autistic, since it is impossible to create the stupefying confusion that condition must impose, but this inventive staging certainly gives you that twinge when your senses are overwhelmed.

As Christopher dives deeper into the dog-murder mystery, he learns things that send him off on a journey where he reconnects with another member of his family and gains the strength to return home. Meanwhile, he has been preparing for a stringent math exam that will determine if he can attend a university, and he is also cataloging his murder investigation for a school assignment.

In this performance (and at many others during the run here), Christopher is played by Adam Langdon. Although he looks a good deal more physically mature than the average 15-year-old lad, Langdon brilliantly conveys the boy’s inability to process figurative language and slang, and by responding only to the literal meanings of words he becomes the object of amusement, or worse. He also can’t stand being touched by other people. This frustrates his blue-collar dad (played with rough affection by Gene Gillette), who told his son that his mother died, a fact that Christopher discovers.

The multiple difficulties Christopher has to deal with motivate his teacher Siobhan to work with Christopher, encouraging him to tell his story. As Siobhan, Maria Elena Ramirez is warm and caring, but some of her words are lost at times due to a slightly rushed delivery.

In Act Two, the sensory inputs increase as Adrian Sutton’s music and Ian Dickinson’s sound design merge with the visuals to bring the story to a conclusion. At times, the ensemble of actors carries Christopher around the stage as he is buffeted by his mental demons and swept away on cascading numerical waves.

The tension flags at times as the play progresses, and it seems there are a few too many explications of the same problems Christopher exhibits. You know, we get it. Still, the production under the astonishing direction of Marianne Elliott wonderfully evokes a boy trapped by his mind and saved by his highly-focused talent. With mathematics, Christopher works with solid, unchanging factors and, happily, there actually are answers in the back of the book. (Indeed, there is even an answer in the back of the play, as Christopher runs through a high-speed solution to a math problem posed earlier.)

Christopher’s remarkable abilities give him the strength he needs to advance, and it gives the audience a portal into a the different ways that some people grapple with reality.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Through April 9 at Playhouse Square, Connor Palace, 1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

How I Learned to Drive, Cleveland Play House

Child sexual abuse is a terrifically difficult subject to deal with on stage, for all the obvious reasons and a couple not so obvious. But ever since Paula Vogel wrote How I Learned to Drive in 1997, she set the standard for a subtle, slowly evolving portrait of a relationship that was at once horrific and nurturing. And it’s the nurturing part that makes the horror even more awful (if a person who appears to love me does this, where do I turn?).

The events in this memory play jump around in time, from when a girl nicknamed Li’l Bit was 11 until she’s 18. As was the custom in her family, she was named after her genitalia, which is how Uncle Peck got his moniker. He’s the second husband of Li’l Bit’s aunt, and during most of the play we see him dote on his niece and hover around her in uncomfortable but essentially non-felonious ways.

Along the way, as Peck teaches Li’l bit how to drive and establish her independence on the road, he manipulates and controls her in other ways. And we see how Li’l Bit’s physical attributes play a part in how males react to her, as she is teased at school for her large “jiggly” breasts. As every similarly endowed woman knows, those parts of the anatomy often draw all the attention and awkwardly tilt relationships with boys and men from the get go. And her mother makes it clear that her daughter is to blame for anything untoward that happens.

It isn’t until near the end of the play that we see 11-year-old Li’l Bit sitting on Peck’s lap behind the wheel as he first teaches her to steer the car. And that memory is so strained, so traumatic, that another actor has to speak her lines.

As the play continues, bad advice piles on top of bad acts. In “A Mother’s Guide to Social Drinking,” mom advises that when Li’l Bit is drinking in public and feels tipsy, she should go to the a bathroom and dunk her head in water, because a wet woman is less conspicuous than a drunk one. Vogel uses these dramaturgical asides to pump the brakes or accelerate the stress, as required. And she negotiates the turns with the skill of racecar driver Mario Andretti at his peak.

Director Laura Kepley maintains a subtle, finely tuned tension throughout the piece, without overdoing any moments. And the cast handles their roles with similar restraint. As Li’l Bit, Madeleine Lambert conveys the angst of this girl and young woman in many muted ways. Michael Bruasco achieves a similar understated effect, although it might help to see a couple more glints of the predator in his portrayal. And three other actors—Karis Danish, Nick LaMedica and Remy Zaken—play a bevy of characters including Li’l Bit’s crotch-obsessed family.

There are many kinds of sexual abuse of minors. But when the abuse is doled out by a person whom you have grown close to and loved, the pain is beyond imagining. And this play comes as close as you can to that conflicted state without lapsing into easy regret and facile recrimination.

How I Learned to Drive
Through March 26 at Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.