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.

So, how can you miss? Well, let’s put it this way: IT WOULD BE EXHAUSTING TO READ THIS REVIEW IF EVERY SENTENCE WAS SCREAMING AT YOU AT THE TOP OF IT’S LUNGS AND NEVER GIVING YOU A CHANCE TO BREATHE!

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.


Friday, March 10, 2017

A Great Wilderness, Beck Center

(From left: Christian John Thomas as Daniel and Tim Tavcar as Walt.)

If you want to write a play about gay conversion therapy, focusing on one young man named Daniel who is sent to a cabin in the woods for counseling, it’s a bold choice to have that young man disappear for most of the play. In a metaphorical sense it’s an interesting decision because the whole concept of gay conversion therapy blithely ignores the individuality of each person subjected to that misguided and often heinous “treatment.” So what could better express that than having the person in question absent?

The trouble is, the absence of Daniel for the bulk of the proceedings waters down the dramatic impact of A Great Wilderness by Samuel D. Hunter, leaving us with a large pot of weak tea. In this Beck Center production, the cast under the direction of Scott Spence does its best to enliven the story. But as you watch you keep asking yourself: “Sure, I get it, but where’s the kid?”

The kid, as it turns out, has gone for a walk in the woods soon after his arrival at the cabin and his first meeting with the elderly lead counselor Walt, who is both a gentleman and a gentle man. Walt tries to put Daniel at ease, telling the high school student that he won’t electroshock him or force him to be who he isn’t. Walt just wants Daniel “to be the person you want to be.” Unless, of course, that person happens to be gay.

Once Daniel (played with sensitivity by Christian John Thomas) takes a hike, the play is left in the hands of Walt and his ex-wife Abby (Lenne Snively) and her husband Tim (Brian Byers), who will be taking over the cabin once Walt adjourns to an assisted living facility. When Daniel fails to appear after many hours and appears lost, or worse, his mother Eunice (a haunted Heidi Harris) appears to spill some parental bile. For a bit of humor, a park ranger named Janet (Kelly Strand) shows up to deliver no-nonsense advice to those in the cabin.

Hunter writes very naturalistic dialog and has a good wit, but these adult characters are playing tennis without an opponent. They all essentially agree with each other regarding the benefits of curing gay men and, as they keep lobbing or slamming their arguments over the net, there is no one on the other side to return serve.

Sure, they have their own internal conflicts. For instance, Walt ponders whether he actually ever “saved” any young gay man from the terrors of gaydom. And he contemplates his own life, as a man who felt gay urges but who denied himself that option. In this role, Tim Tavcar exudes enveloping kindness towards Daniel even as he flashes anger at Abby and others, but the script defeats him at every turn. It isn’t until the end when Daniel finally returns that the play perks up, but then it’s over.

One could quibble about director Spence’s deliberate pacing throughout, but that would avoid the central problem of A Great Wilderness: It’s a drama with the drama expunged, leaving ancillary conversations in its place.

A Great Wilderness

Through April 9 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Amadeus, National Theatre Live at Cedar-Lee Theatre

If you’ve ever felt a bit sorry for those people in an orchestra who are forced to sit still and play their instruments, you’ll be happy to know they’ve been set free in this remarkable production of Amadeus by Peter Shaffer. This is a film of a live stage production at the Royal National Theatre in London, presented by the Cedar-Lee Theatre.

As envisioned by director Michael Longhurst, the 20 orchestra members from the Southbank Sinfonia are pretty much constantly in motion, responding to lines spoken by the actors, serving as crowds of people, and otherwise walking and playing. They must have had a ball.

But it’s not just a gimmick, as this moveable feast of musicians amplifies the energy and accessibility of Mozart’s music as Shaffer’s tale develops. Although the title employs the famous composer’s middle name, this play is really a deep plunge into the psyche of Antonio Salieri, the self-confessed mediocre composer who is a favorite of the court of Emperor Joseph II.

But once the young, brash and profane Mozart appears, Salieri’s life is changed forever, and not in a good way. While envying Mozart’s gift with music, Salieri plots to destroy the composer who has the talent that the older man can only dream of having. This drama is all super-fictionalized by Shaffer, but it provides a wonderful platform to explore the roots of genius and the tragedy of a dream denied.

This film of a live stage show isn’t everything you get from an actual experience in the theater, but the production is quite breathtaking nonetheless. The scenes change with smooth precision, deftly altering the visual landscape as the actors and musicians move amongst each other without missing a beat. And the cameras treat you to closeups.

As Salieri, Lucian Msamati is powerful as a wounded and tormented man, imploring God to explain why he is forced to watch Mozart create one masterpiece after another. Even though Salieri is the one who is showered with monetary and material riches, his jealousy burns with fervor.

Adam Gillen makes Mozart a thoroughly repellent fellow, which is as it should be. He is actually more irritating than Tom Hulce was in the movie version, and that helps clarify the conflict between the two music makers. They are surrounded by exceptional actors and, as mentioned, the orchestra members who are physically merged into virtually every moment of the production.

This production of Amadeus is part of the ongoing series at the Cedar-Lee Theatre, called National Theatre Live, presenting films of live stage performances from the Royal National Theatre in London. There is only one more showing of this play, this coming Sunday at 11 AM, so make a note.

Amadeus
Sunday, February 26, 11 AM at the Cedar-Lee Theatre, 2163 Lee Road, Cleveland Hts. Tickets are $20, 440-528-0355.



Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Wait Until Dark, Great Lakes Theater

(Jonathan Dryud as Sam and Jodi Dominick as Susy)

Boo!

Did I scare you? Evidently not, since you’re still reading this paragraph and not shivering and weeping in a corner. Actually, it’s kind of hard to really scare people, which is what the old chestnut Wait Until Dark aspires to do.

But in this misbegotten production at Great Lakes Theater, there are virtually no thrills and a remarkable absence of chills. Written by Frederick Knott in the 1960s, the play has not aged well for a number of reasons. And there are so many gaping holes in the plot, it looks as if it had been mounted on a shooting range for semi-automatic rifle practice.

As you probably know, it’s all about some bad guys who learn that a doll loaded with heroin has been acquired unknowingly by Sam Hendrix. And it’s now in his apartment, which is also occupied by his blind wife Susy, so a big meanie called Roat and his two henchmen decide to find drug-stuffed dolly. When they can’t, instead of acting like gangsters and trashing the joint, or torturing Susy, they come up with an elaborate con that has so many moving parts it looks like a Rube Goldberg drawing that Rube himself rejected for being way too complicated.

To wit, the henchmen (played by a fitfully amusing David Anthony Smith and a flat-lining Nick Steen) pose as, respectively, a cop and a friend of Sam. And they set up signals for each other involving opening and closing blinds in Susy’s basement apartment, while Susy establishes her own secret signals (two rings on a phone, pounding on the pipes) to communicate with a young girl (an uncomfortably strident Elise Pakiela) in an upstairs apartment, who plays a pivotal role because—

Oh never mind. It goes on. Of course, these are flaws that have always been in the script, and have been overcome, particularly in the movie version starring fragile Audrey Hepburn as Susy.

In this telling Jodi Dominick takes on that role and her immense strength as an actress actually works against the effectiveness of the play. As Dominick interacts with her mostly absent husband Sam (Jonathan Dryud) and the gangsters, she displays plenty of pluck and determination. Dominick’s Susy is so capable, with a ready wit, that it’s difficult to believe that she would be reduced to tears and whimpering later on.

In the role of Roat, Arthur Hanket is initially rather sly and slimy, which works well. But as the climactic scene progresses, he takes his characterization so over-the-top it becomes more laughable than terrifying. Director Joseph Hanreddy doesn’t help much, since this scene is played in shadows and the audience can’t quite follow what’s happening. As a result, the supposedly shocking final coup de grace is about as compelling as opening a refrigerator door in pitch-blackness and confronting…an old jar of mayo.

Scenic designer Scott Bradley has created a very serviceable space for this play to occupy, but lighting director Rick Martin never solved the problem of how to stage a long scene in the dark. And that’s a problem when the play has the D-word in its title. Perhaps a better name for this production would be: Wait Until The Next Show.

It’s Hamlet, by the way. No plot holes there.

Wait Until Dark
Through March 12 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Repairing a Nation, Karamu House

Oddly enough, one of the worst race riots (300 people killed, 35 blocks of businesses and homes destroyed) in our country’s history has become something of a footnote, with many people unaware of what happened. So it is entirely fitting the playwright Nikkole Salter makes the Tulsa race riots of 1921 a central element of her play Repairing a Nation, now at Karamu House. The riots happened in Greenwood, which was the wealthiest African-American community in the nation at the time, and a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Aside from its overly earnest title, the play attempts to recapture history by weaving a story about reparations for the riots into a domestic drama involving a black family and the sketchy history of their prosperous janitorial service company. Under the direction of Margaret Ford-Taylor, the cast works hard for almost three hours to loom Salter’s threads of memory into a powerful whole. And while it doesn’t entirely succeed, the play is often compelling and instructive.

Set in 2001, eight decades after the massacre, Anna and Chuck are celebrating Christmas with some family and friends. One of these guests is Lois (spelled Louis in the program), a woman whose own son calls her “loud, rude and uncouth.” And indeed she is, wasting no time in trying to enlist her wealthy cousin Chuck to take part in a class-action lawsuit to secure reparations for the Tulsa riots. Trouble is, Chuck and Lois can’t stand each other and Lois really detests Anna, Chuck’s elegant wife who is always trying to smooth things over.

Lois’ son Seth is also in the house, as is his former girlfriend Debbie, who is a docent at the local Greenwood Cultural Center where they are raising money for a memorial. It’s clearly a volatile mix, and Salter crafts many moments when these people feint and fight each other effectively. It all leads up to the revelation of a family secret that threatens to pull the family even further apart.

As Chuck, Butch Terry bristles with real venom every times he gazes at Lois, while at other moments he is warm and protective of his wife Anna. And Rebecca Morris is supremely comfortable as Anna, a woman who tries her best to calm the roiling waters that surround her. Johnathon L. Jackson and Jameka Terri contribute effectively at times as Seth and Debbie, but one never really gets the sense they were once engaged.

In the linchpin role of Lois, Joyce Linzy misses nary a second in conveying her characters nasty disposition. At times this is quite funny, but her mugging gets a bit too broad at times, tipping the play a bit out of balance.

Since the Tulsa riots are so important to the play, yet still so unknown, it’s too bad that the scenes in the Greenwood Cultural Center are relegated to the aisle in front of the stage, and that T. Paul Lowry’s projected images of that horrific time in 1921 are thrown onto the brick side walls of the theater, substantially reducing their visibility and impact.

Speaking of those walls, this is the last production in this hallowed space since a major renovation will begin when this show closes. So here’s a salute to the talented people who have made Karamu such a valued fixture by working on or around that building. We can’t wait to see what’s in store for Karamu 2.0!

Repairing a Nation Through February 26 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7070.




Bring It On, The Musical, Beck Center

If you’ve heard all the hoopla about Hamilton and would like to sample some of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical magic, there’s a heaping helping of it in Bring It On, now at the Beck Center in Lakewood. Combining often fast-paced lyrics with driving, percussive music, this show about high school cheerleaders, based on the film of the same name, transcends its rather mundane subject matter and often soars.

In this piece, Miranda was the co-composer (with Tom Kitt) and the co-lyricst (with Amanda Green), but his signature style is suffused throughout. Even though the storyline (libretto by Jeff Whitty) is pretty pedestrian—two high school cheerleading teams facing off for the big trophy…yippee—the music and the performances by lots of young performers make it an event not to be missed.

This 30-person cast moves with remarkable precision as they sing, executing the imaginative choreography designed by dance master Martin Cespedes. And along the way, a couple featured performers manage to elbow aside the clichés and actually make an emotional impact.

One of these is Kailey Boyle who plays Campbell, a white girl from the privileged Truman High School who has everything going for her, including a pleasantly doofus boyfriend Steven (a constantly dazzled Jonathan Young). But once she is transferred to Jackson High School in a dumpier part of town, thanks to the Machiavellian machinations of sophomore cheerleader Eva (a sneakily snarky Abby DeWitte), her cheerleading dreams appear to be over. Eva is, cleverly, a pint-sized Eve Harrington with pom-poms, echoing the ambitious title character in All About Eve.

Anyhow, you can probably sketch out the plot from there, as mean girl Skylar (Victoria Pippo) and outcast girl Bridget (Shelby Griswold) play their parts in making high school that place you’re so glad you escaped. Griswold is particularly effective in capturing the endearing humor of a nerdy, awkward girl with a heart of gold.

Other standouts in the cast include Shayla Brielle, who gives Danielle a strong presence as a leader of the dance “crew” at Jackson H.S. And Cameron (Matthew Harris) and Twig (David Holbert) make the hip-hop song “It’s All Happening” sparkle.

Director Will Brandstetter keeps the pace properly pumped, and conductor Peter Van Reesma’s orchestra provides a full, rich sound for the actors—many of whom are from the Baldwin Wallace University musical theater program.

Your interest in cheerleading competitions may be minimal, or nonexistent, but this effusive production will have you standing and applauding at the final curtain.

Bring It On, The Musical
Through February 26 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540.




Friday, February 10, 2017

The Bridges of Madison County, Lakeland Civic Theatre

(Trinidad Snider as Francesca and Shane Patrick O'Neil as Robert)

Who doesn’t love a good love story? Apparently no one, considering the track record of success enjoyed by this property. Originally written as a novel by Robert James Waller, it stayed on the New York Times’ bestseller list for more than three years. Then it went on to more success as a movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Then it became a Broadway musical.

And that is the version, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown with a book by Marsha Norman, which is now on stage at the Lakeland Civic Theatre at Lakeland Community College. Francesca Johnson is an Italian war bride who came back with the American soldier named Bud, to live with him and raise a family in Iowa. But on one fateful day in the 1960s, Bud and the kids hike off to the state fair to try to win a blue ribbon. That’s when a sexy visitor named Robert stops by the house to ask Francesca for directions. He's photographing covered bridges in the area for the National Geographic magazine, but once he spies Francesca he screeches to an f-stop and focuses on her.

There ensue multiple songs that graph the relationship between Francesca and Robert. So let’s make one thing perfectly clear: One could not ask for a more beautiful musical rendering of this show, since the two leads, Trinidad Snider as Francesca and Shane Patrick O’Neil as Robert, deliver Brown’s evocative songs with power, tenderness and deep feeling. Indeed, the entire cast under the well-crafted musical direction of Jordan Cooper has a chance to display their estimable vocal talents in a number of genre-varied tunes.

Had this been a concert, this review could end here quite happily. Unfortunately, it’s theater and it must be said that, on the acting side of the equation—particularly with regard to the love story—this production falls short of the mark. Snider and O’Neil never seem to be swooning head-over-heels for each other, as their early physical stiffness lingers throughout the proceedings.

Since director Martin Friedman is a consummate professional, and quite adept at staging many different types of American musicals, one must rack up this failing to the mystery of stage chemistry that sometimes never comes to a boil…or even a simmer. The scenic design by Trad A Burns is an impressively faithful, if oversized, recreation of the ribs of a covered bridge, but it tends to dwarf and confine the performers, further reducing their impact.

Fortunately, those in supporting roles all sing splendidly and otherwise do what they can to enliven the show. Scott Esposito strides about purposefully as Bud, and Amiee Collier and Brian Altman craft an affecting portrait of neighbors who are a bit nosy but good-hearted. Collier, equipped with binoculars and a fierce curiosity, lends the show some much-needed levity. Frank Ivancic and Anna Barrett bicker nicely as the Johnson kids, and Amanda Tidwell fills in deftly in multiple roles.

However, this is a love story and one yearns to feel that hot, visceral, untidy emotion come spilling out over the footlights. Instead, this production of Bridges is brilliantly crooned but way too bloodless in the clinches (ie. after their first night together, we see Robert and Francesca in bed and the sheets aren’t even messed up!). That won’t win a “Gettin’ Busy” blue ribbon at any state fair.

The Bridges of Madison County
Through February 19 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland, 440-525-7134.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Radio Golf, Ensemble Theatre

(Left to right: Rodney Freeman, Theodore M. Snead and Darryl Tatum.)

“I just want to be in the room.” That dream of inclusion, which motivates Roosevelt Hicks, is at the heart of Radio Golf by August Wilson. And in this production at Ensemble Theatre, many of the right notes are struck.

Hicks is the business partner of Hammond Wilks and they are on the verge of sealing a deal to gentrify a section of the Hill District in Pittsburgh, an African-American community that Wilson has explored in many of his plays spanning the 20th century. Wilks has his eyes on running for mayor in the 1998 election, and his high-achieving wife Mame is on board for that ride.

But during the span of the play, two other characters wander into the realty office and throw a monkey wrench into the works. One is Sterling, a neighborhood handyman who, despite his sketchy employment history, seems to have a firm grasp on the relationship between business and ethics. And the other is Elder Joseph Barlow, or “Old Joe” as he’s known in the hood, whose family used to own (or still does?) a house smack-dab in the center of the proposed new development.

As always, Wilson’s words are often mesmerizing as he spins out the history of these characters in dialogue that draws sharp characters. This is particularly true in the case of Hicks, who has recently partnered with a rich white mover and shaker, giving Hicks access, in his mind, to the levers of power. He’s finally “in the room” with the decision makers. Or so he thinks.

As Hicks, Leilani Barrett makes the most of this young black man on the make, practicing his golf swing in the office as he dreams of riches and influence. The stage comes alive whenever he is present. And the same can be said for Rodney Freeman, since the persona of Old Joe drops right into Freeman’s exceptional acting wheelhouse. Squinting slyly and using his cane to punctuate his lines, Freeman’s Old Joe maneuvers Wilks into viewing the takeover of the Barlow property from a different angle.

In the challenging role of Sterling, Darryl Tatum is not quite as adept at navigating the twists and turns of Darryl’s quicksilver anger, which often then dissolves into an appealing optimism. But he has some telling moments, particularly in his interactions with Wilks.

The only performance that feels a bit off-kilter is Kristi Little’s take on Mame, since this PR pro doesn’t exhibit the polish and edge that one would need in order to succeed in that field.

Director Terrence Spivey once again shows he knows how to bring resonant performances out of a talented cast. And that leads to a staging of Radio Golf that, while not perfect, is thoroughly involving from start to finish.

Radio Golf
Through February 26 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.


Monday, January 23, 2017

This Is NOT About My Dead Dog, Playwrights Local

If you’re going to write a one-woman play that is largely about drinking and vomiting, it helps if you’re an engaging and at times electric actor. Thankfully, that’s what writer-performer Amy Schwabauer has going for her in this apparently autobiographical journey through bottles of wine, whiskey and cans of beer to supposed self-understanding.

Along the way, in a fairly randomly arranged series of vignettes, most of them wryly amusing, she touches on aspects of her life and traumas of various sizes (her granddad’s suicide, her inability to land a boyfriend, the pain of losing her dog Scout). Utilizing a tall stepladder, a desk and a couple other pieces of furniture and some props, Schwabauer manages to keep her personal skein of miseries, disappointments and small joys quite interesting. Up to a point.

But somewhere about the one-hour mark of this 80-minute one act, when we’ve had several vomiting events (most expelled from mouth, one swallowed), that particular dramatic device begins to feel more pathological than theatrical. And while the playwright’s courage with self revelation is bracing, the puking becomes overkill after a while.

That’s too bad, since actor Schwabauer definitely commands the stage and can tell an anecdote with flair and, yes, subtlety—whenever playwright Schwabauer permits her the opportunity. Early on, her recollections of her star turn as a six-year-old at her teenage brother’s party is a hoot. And her continuing reflections about a lonesome whale and the wintering habits of koi fish show potential as interesting metaphors.

But just when you’re about to get drawn in to the story of this young woman and her battle against multiple insecurities, here comes another drinking jag and another puke. Those showy moments tend overshadow the pieces that actually work better, giving the entire work a veneer of repetitiveness.

And then, Schwabauer falls into the trap that snags many young writers when she decides to wrap it all up with a neat moral at the end—“Just like yourself more!”—instead of leaving the lessons for the audience to discover.

Still, Schwabauer is very talented and she will no doubt find better vehicles in the future that don’t “throw up” so many obstacles.

This Is NOT About My Dead Dog

Through January 28, produced by Playwrights Local at Creative Space at Waterloo Arts, 397 East 156 St., playwrightslocal.org.