Sunday, December 17, 2017

Holiday Jazz Revue, Karamu House

Evidently, the “War on Christmas” is now in full effect, since this show opts for “Holiday” in its title, the word some Fox News wackos love to hate. While the alt-right fumes at this choice, the rest of us who prefer acknowledging the existence of multiple religions can sit back and enjoy some festive song frolics.

The idea of a Holiday Jazz Revue is great, and this two-hour show at Karamu House delivers well, especially when the emphasis in on jazz interpretations of favorite Christmas songs, some of which have been made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and others. Working with just a three-person band, the show fairly glows when jazzy interpretations of faves, such as “Jingle Bells,” fill the air.

However, the voices in this eight-person company  (Sean Dubois Day, Eric Floyd, Joshua McElroy, Molly McFadden, Mary-Francis Renee Miller, Rebecca Morris, Miguel Osborne, Clarissa Walker) tend to work better when singing as a group, since there are some vocal flaws with most of the soloists.

Conceived by Tony F. Sias, Nicole Sumlin (who doubles as music director) and Nathan A. Lilly (who doubles as musical stager), the highlights include a nice basso profundo take on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by Osborne, a lovely “Lo, How a Rose ‘Ere Blooming” by Miller, and McFaddden’s “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” The gentlemen also do a respectable job with an acapella turn on the 17th Century Catalan carol “Fum, Fum, Fum.” And as mentioned, the choral pieces are just fine.

But if Karamu decides to do this Revue in the future, they might want to consider drafting some stronger solo voices and rethinking a couple of the staging decisions. In particular, turning “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” into a glancing sexual harassment situation tarnishes the naughty-but-nice attitude of that song. And if you’re going to do a reading of “The Night Before Christmas,” it might be advisable do more with it than a bland, traditional reading from a book. (Think of the John Malkovich classic on SNL. Or, you know, think of something).

In any case, the performers are warm and welcoming, and it’s the holidays! So chug another spiked eggnog and have a blast!

Holiday Jazz Revuew
Through Dec. 23 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89 St., 216-795-7070, karamuhouse.org.





Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Urinetown, Blank Canvas Theatre


Is it juvenile? Yes. Is it Silly? Of course. And is it universal? Well, there’s nothing more all-encompassing, never mind your ethnicity or politics, than the need to pee. And while it may seem farfetched that the government would like to stop some people from peeing where they wish (transgender people may chuckle ruefully here), this show is a hoot.

Urinetown has been making a splash for some years, and now Blank Canvas Theatre is giving it a go on its tiny stage—and succeeds for the most part. Under the direction of Patrick Ciamacco, who also quadruples as set/lighting/sound designer, the 19-person cast conveys the problem of peeing-for-a-price with gusto.

It helps that there are strong performers taking on the major roles.  The dystopian songfest is narrated with smug arrogance by Rob Albrecht as Officer Lockstock (always accompanied by Officer Barrel, played by Jason Salamon). As the man in charge of enforcing the town’s draconian law, instituted for supposed ecological reasons due to a crushing drought, the large and in charge Albrecht gives the show a strong core.  He reels off efficient and meta narration as he sort of explains the need to ban private toilets to Little Sally (a wide-eyed Dayshawnda Ash):: “You’re too young to understand it now, Little Sally, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.”

He is matched nicely by John J. Polk as Caldwell B. Cladwell, president of Urine Good Company and the guy who owns all the public toilets. And Polk is gifted with one of the most enjoyable songs in recent musicals, “Don’t Be the Bunny,” which carries a warning for those who get bulldozed by the powerful entities of big business and a government that punishes people who are poor and weak (“You’re born to power/You’re in the money…don’t be the bunny!”).

These pee police don’t go unchallenged since Bobby Strong (a forthright and upstanding Daryl Kelley) takes on the role as the leader of the forces rebelling against the law.  And his romance with Hope Cladwell (an achingly na├»ve Stephanie Harden), the daughter of the pee magnate, registers effectively.

In the role of Penelope Pennywise, the harridan who runs an amenity in the poor part of the city, Bernadette Hisey sings well but never becomes the hateful presence she must be to give the show its gut punch. Pennywise is on the front line of the pee ban, so she needs to be a real badass. If Cladwell is the Gordon Gekko of pee, she must be the Terminator.

The ensemble offers great support—Trey Gilpin and Kristy Cruz in particular—and the small band under Matthew Dolan’s baton delivers solid accompaniment. And the music soars particularly in the up tempo “Run, Freedom, Run,” which features a harmonizing choir of singers.

The premise of this show makes no sense, of course, since people could always find a way to pee on the sly. Plus, the idea of a government stopping people from peeing makes about as much sense as giving tax breaks to the rich while raising taxes on the poor. Like that could happen.

Urinetown
Through December 16 at Blank Canvas Theatre, West 78 Street Studios, 1300 W. 78 St., 440-941-0458, blankcanvastheatre.com.




Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars, Dobama Theatre


Every parent is always is always in search of appropriate and fun entertainment for their kids. So it’s good news that Dobama is presenting the family-friendly show Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars. It’s a fun show for children, since it features lots of running around, some wonderfully-staged action sequences, and just enough Message to give it some feel-good heft.

Local playwright Eric Coble has based his script on the eponymous graphic novels by Tony Lee and Dan Boultwood, about a gaggle of kids who worship Mr. Holmes and take it upon themselves to protect Victorian London against evil-doers in his absence.

And damned if scenic designer Ben Needham hasn’t brought that “comic book” look to the stage, using dramatic silhouettes and other graphic tricks to mimic the cartoonish elements of the source material. For example, a scene where a good guy and a bad guy are fighting on the roof of a speeding train is exhilarating, thanks to splendid projection design by the wizard of those things, T. Paul Lowry.

This is all great stuff for any rug rats in attendance. However, by jamming together a couple different story lines the plot is hard to follow, requiring the detective brilliance of, say, Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, even though his name leads the title, Holmes is mostly missing from these proceedings. You see, he and his arch enemy, the dastardly Moriarty, plunge over a waterfall at the very start, supposedly to their joint demise.

This leaves the show in the hands of a rotating cast of six kids, who display varying degrees of potential. On this night, among the most accomplished were Colin Frothingham as Wiggins, the Holmes-like leader of the Irregulars and Elise Pakiela as Pockets, the crew’s expert pickpocket.

The others Irregulars (Patrick Hensel as Chen, David Gretchko as Tiny, Adler Chefitz as Ash and Miranda Leeann as Eliza) have nice isolated moments. But overall the young actors, try as they might, aren't able to keep the pace of the dialog clipping along as rapidly as that train. The result is a lot of pregnant pauses that slowly seep the energy out of the show.

The five adults in the cast do what they can to keep the production humming. Among them, Christopher M. Bohan turns in a steady job as both Dr. Watson and Sherlock, and Ray Caspio is a snarly study in nastiness as two different villains, Morris Wiggins and Moriarty himself. It’s just a shame these two fine actors don’t have more juicy scenes together.  As the clueless Inspector Lestrade, Ananias J. Dixon nearly devours the impressive scenery on Dobama’s vast stage, drooling and chomping into each of his lines to cadge some laughs. Hey, you can’t blame him.

In short, this Sherlock is a sure lock for kids and their parents.  For everyone else, deductive reasoning might suggest a different entertainment choice.

Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars
Through December 30 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org.



The Lyons, Chagrin Valley Little Theatre

If you like your comedies dark, they don’t come much blacker than Nicky Silver’s The Lyons. And this production in the River Street Playhouse, part of the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre complex, gives this nasty script a nice ride.

The set-up couldn’t be starker: Old Ben Lyons is in a hospital bed dying of cancer and his wife, Rita, is sitting bedside planning a renovation of their home.  If that sounds cruel, it is—that’s who these people are. There are plenty of zingers darting back and forth, and most of the humor lands with a wince.

Once their two grown kids Lisa and Curtis arrive, things don’t improve much, since Lisa  (Catherine Remick) is a barely recovering alcoholic and Curtis (Sean McCormick)  is a closeted gay man with daddy, mommy and sister issues.

This production, under the direction of Yvonne E. Pilarczyk, starts off well as a bitter John Q. Bruce as Ben and a sharp-tongued Mary Jane Nottage as Rita spar with each other, each trying to draw blood from the rock their longtime spouse has become. But as the first half of the show progresses, the pace bogs down since the three ambulatory characters in this hospital room aren't blocked to reflect their respective attitudes, giving the first act a static feel. It should feel like a 3D chess match where the players are armed with knives and bedpans.

The proceedings pick up steam in the second act, when we’re thrown into an entirely new setting where Curtis flirts with real estate salesman Brian (Justin Steck). After that encounter ends on an unexpected note, we’re back in the hospital,where things have changed. And eventually, some rays of hope shine forth.

Overall, the performances are on point, even in the smallest role of the nurse, played with appropriately exhausted good will by Lisa Lee Lazarczyk. As she says at one point, “The way I see it, there are no answers. Some people are happy, and some people are just lonely, mean and sad. And that’s the world.” Indeed.

The Lyons
Through December 9 at the River Street Playhouse, Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, 40 River Street, Chagrin Falls, 440-247-8955.



Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Steady Rain, none too fragile theater

(Tony Zanoni as Denny and Chris Richards as Joey)

Sometimes good actors can help mediocre material survive. But when half the cast is missing in action, that fact reduces the chances of something good developing on stage.

In the formulaic A Steady Rain by Keith Huff, two cops are serving a conversation back and forth over a cop-drama net that has been wilted by too much familiarity. Doing a good cop/bad cop routine on the audience, Denny is the hard ass with questionable morality while Joey, his life-long pal from school days, is a recovering alcoholic who has a crush on Denny’s wife.

As the two guys plod dutifully through their respective stories, it becomes apparent that even the lurid details of their histories won’t save this play from itself. And since most of it happens in the past, there is no immediacy and no spark.

As Joey, Chris Richards is believable and does what he can to craft a functioning character. Trouble is, he’s playing off Tony Zanoni as Denny, and Zanoni fails to match Richards’ performance. By latching for dear life onto a Joe Pesci-like accent, minus the menace, Zanoni’s serial monologues lack the shape and depth that Richards exhibits.

In another play with more characters, this would not be a big problem. But this two-hander requires two performers who are equally weighted and continually complementary, like two acrobats.

Indeed, as the play ground on to its sad conclusion, it was hard not to wish that the director Robert Ellis, a fine actor with the heft that is missing here, had cast himself in the role of Denny. That might have been magical. Instead, A Steady Rain is just as waterlogged as it sounds.

A Steady Rain
Through November 11 at none too fragile theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547, nonetoofragile.com


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Caucasian Chalk Circle, Shahrazad Theatre Company

All plays have some sort of message they want to convey, but some messages are more obvious than others. This is a fact some people choose to reject: As movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn once said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” (For those under age 30, Western Union used to be a telegram delivery company. What’s a telegram? Go to your room.)

Of course, if you’re playwright Bertolt Brecht, you wear your message emblazoned on a sign hung around your characters’ necks. This he does in the prologue of Caucasian Chalk Circle, now being performed by a new troupe named the Shahrazad Theatre Company. Focused on creating immersive theater that dissolves the fourth wall between performers and audience, STC hopes to produce more works in the future with the fostering assistance of the well-established Ensemble Theatre.

The post-prologue plot outline is quite simple. A peasant girl in the Soviet Union named Grusha rescues the Governor’s abandoned baby boy, falls in love with a soldier, named Simon, and eventually has to battle for the right to keep the child when the Governor’s wife returns to claim him. But true to Brecht, there are countless other characters added to this mix as he trots out his pointed political satire and flair for the absurd. The bottom-line message of the prologue and the play clearly represent Brecht’s socio-political stance: That all things should belong to those who would do well by them. (Try to get that one through Congress.) And that there’s a difference between justice and the law for poor and rich alike, with actual justice arrived at only by chance.

This production is an uneven but determinedly earnest attempt at corralling the Brechtian style and messaging. And that is more than faint praise, since this is no easy script to harness and get moving in the same direction. The multiple characters in the piece, played by 11 actors who all take on multiple roles, range from naturalistic portrayals to highly stylized, often grotesque and masked cartoon figures.

It’s a conglomeration that sometimes works very well under the direction of Kyle Huff, and at other times gets bogged down in an effort to make every character, even small ones, throb with comical or dramatic intent. This is particularly the case in the first act of the play before intermission. Kayla Davis as Grusha is a solid but not particularly compelling presence as she hikes through the mountains with the infant, although her dalliance with Simon (a sweet August Scarpelli) does have its own charm.

The second act is crisper and funnier, as the focus shifts to the drunken lout Azdak (Robert Hawkes, who also earlier plays the Governor), who is now sitting as a judge. Hawkes uses his fine comic timing to cadge many laughs from his performance, although he is at times almost too much in control for this unhinged character. Other engaging performances are turned in by James Rankin as the singer/narrator and as Shauwa, Azdak’s assistant; Valerie Young in several roles showing off well-defined and amusing characters; Katelyn Rotuno as the harridan Governor’s wife; and Steve Vas-Hansell and Allen Branstein as a pair of “iron shirt” soldiers in the mode of Abbott and Costello.

Although there are no more shows currently planned for STC, it is hoped that they can find a way to continue their theatrical efforts. Like, for instance, with Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Talk about timely!

Caucasian Chalk Circle
Through November 12, produced by the Shahrazad Theatre Company fostered by Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, ensembletheatrecle.org





Friday, October 20, 2017

The Family Claxon, Cleveland Public Theatre

When it comes to encouraging and nurturing new work in theater, no other organization comes close to matching the track record of Cleveland Public Theater. Over the years, they have used multiple formats to help playwrights develop their plays from raw beginnings to the finished product.

And now, they are presenting the first work from their Catapult New Play Development program, which is intended to move works from early or mid-development phase to being production ready. This script, by the much-produced local playwright Eric Coble, is titled The Family Claxon. And it is a fast-paced, high energy mess from start to finish.

In his program notes, the estimable executive creative director of CPT, Raymond Bobgan, suggests that this play is an example of “cutting edge theater” and is “edgy and cool.” Although I have enormous respect for Bobgan and his remarkable achievements as a leader of theater in Cleveland and beyond, I beg to differ.

This play is about as entertaining as the loud, blaring car horn referenced in the title, and like an old-time claxon it is just as hard to listen to for 90 uninterrupted minutes. Coble’s work attempts to be fierce and over-the-top but then trots out well-worn jokes and lots of oh-aren’t-they-wacky! characters. In addition, there is non-stop running, and tripping as performers take pratfalls on scenic designer Ryan T. Patterson’s two-story set. In other words, we’ve seen all this before.

And it is all strung together with a noticeable lack of wit. The plot revolves around Andrew Claxon, a middle-age dad who is trying to throw a party for his way-past-elderly granddad on the old guy’s 150th birthday. Meanwhile, the house and the surrounding neighborhood are collapsing all around them. Granddad (Kayla Gray) sits slumped in a wheelchair for the entire show, aside from a few spasms and medical emergencies, while Andrew (Abraham McNeil Adams) dashes about the house, most of the time without his pants on, mugging continuously. Are you laughing yet?

The Claxon clan also includes mom Evette (Colleen Longshaw) who works for a big corporation as a C.I.M (Chief Inspiration Officer). Coble sets his sights on mocking corporate America, but his popgun references don’t even make a dent. Nor do his attempts at being current by having Claxon daughter Catie (Hillary Wheelock) and neighbor guy Zhang Sallerendos (JP Peralta) appear as “revolutionaries” who are fighting the system.

One reason that none of this lands effectively is that the accomplished director Craig J. George drives his cast to shout their lines while spouting them at maximum speed. As a result, any chance of being amused by some of Coble’s more nuanced comedic phrasings is bulldozed, and the cartoonish dystopian world he attempts to convey just seems boring and irritating. 

Of course, the instinct to get through all of this as fast as possible is understandable given the tired ideas that are dragged out. For example, there are foreign people with funny names who talk weird, and they wander through the Claxon house in tried-and-true sitcom style. These people are played with varying degrees of understandable desperation by Victoria Zajac, Ananias J. Dixon, Maryann Elder and Olivia Scicolone.

Plus, there are many poop and pee jokes since the neighborhood is evidently sinking and toilets are exploding. Indeed, Andrew’s slacks are soaked with the stuff for a while, before he doffs them, while other actors wave their hands in front of their noses and make frowny faces, to remind us that poop smells bad. Hilarious. Noel Coward (and Joe Orton), eat your heart out.

There is also a lot of gunplay, with Andrew brandishing his “fully loaded” gun in various people’s faces and SWAT teams firing machine guns outside. Nothing funnier these days than guns, right?

Actually, there are a couple amusing micro-moments--when they reboot granddad like a frozen Dell computer, and when the coot finally liquefies as he takes his last breath. But they are overwhelmed by way too many banal gags and overacting.

Okay, what we have here is a dead horse, so I will lay down my cudgel. Suffice to say that CPT deserves our thanks for encouraging and staging new work. And that The Family Claxon should be taken out behind the barn and quietly interred. Cause of death: Terminal creative exhaustion.

The Family Claxon
Through October 28 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org



Wednesday, October 18, 2017

In the Closet, convergence-continuum

(From left: Mike Frye, David Lenahan, Jason Romer, and Clyde Simon.)

The company of dedicated theater folks called convergence-continuum has long had a commitment to presenting gay-themed shows, or at least plays with significant LGBTQ roles. And good for them since, over the years, plays with such themes and characters have been stuck in the shadows.

That said, the title of the play by Siegmund Fuchs, In the Closet, might be better titled “On the Nose.” True to its title, the play takes place in a very spacious gay man’s closet where clothes are neatly displayed (well hung?) all around the walls of the small theater space.

Inside that space, we meet three gay guys dubbed “Old Man,” “Middle-Aged Man,” and “Young Man” (just so we don’t get confused). Those three gentlemen share small talk about, you know, being gay, until a young fellow named John catapults himself into the closet with them.

At this point, if you’re hearing the high-pitched squeal of a metaphor being stretched to its breaking point, you wouldn’t be mistaken. Playwright Fuchs is determined to make points about how hard it is to be gay, and dammit he’s not going to let the niceties of playwriting get in the way.

Over the course of two hours, those four characters act out various scenes from their pasts. And in an Act One closer that is about surprising as being told some interior designers are gay, we are informed of a fact that most in the audience have already figured out: That all the men in this closet are the same person, at different stages of his life. Setting aside the issue that there are two young men representing the same person at that age, this device enables John to see what will become of his life.

Yes, it’s a faux Frank Capra-esque gay version of It’s a Wonderful Life with lots of cock talk and regrets that end up tangled in a maudlin conclusion. Fuchs actually has a budding talent for humorous lines, and some of them land effectively. However, others are so predictable you can deliver the punch lines before the actors do.

The playwright’s inclination to lecture the audience on one hand and then devolve into weepy histrionics on the other eventually becomes exhausting. Fuchs seems to sense that he’s being a bit too didactic at times, and has the Old Man throw in dismissive asides to take the edge off the “lessons.” But that too is an overdone device.

A central conflict involving the memory of a gang rape of the Young Man years ago, with him strapped to a swing (!), feels a bit florid, extraneous and hard to decipher: Exactly which guys raped him? And why? In some ways, the narration of this attack feels like a propaganda scene that might have been written by the Westboro Baptist Church in a Reefer Madness-style film, “Homos Gone Mad!!”

Director Cory Molnar tries to sort all this out, and he uses a table and some chairs in multiple and inventive ways to stage the flashbacks. As for the actors—Clyde Simon, Jason Romer, Mike Frye and David Lenahan—they do their best to evoke the various stages of John’s life. But even though they sometimes parrot the same catch phrases, it’s hard to find a tangible thread that connects them all.

There lies the problem of animating a metaphor. It’s why, when someone on stage says, “It’s raining men,” a volley of actors don’t fall from the flies and land in a heap. Sadly, that’s where the egregiously extended metaphor of In the Closet also lands.

In the Closet
Through November 4, produced by convergence-continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Waiting for Godot, Beck Center

(From left: Allan Byrne as Lucky, William Hoffman as Estragon, Brian Pedaci as Pozzo, and Michael Mauldin as Vladimir)

If life is absurd and time has no meaning, then you have no excuse not to see Waiting for Godot at the Beck Center. Because during this brief interlude in your pointless life, the fine actors in this production will, for a fleeting couple of hours, show you what kickass acting is all about. Indeed, they are so damn good you may actually, for a fleeting moment, think life has a purpose. Silly you!

Yes Samuel Beckett’s monumental and iconic work, in which Vladimir and Estragon wait in vain for the arrival of a person they have never met but who they are sure will save them, is the ultimate example of Theater of the Absurd. It is not done very often since it requires a director who can suss out multiple beats within aimless chatter, and actors who can enliven the script.

Fortunately, this show has all of that, and then some. Director Eric Schmeidl leads his cast through Beckett’s chutes and ladders with confidence, freeing his actors to find distinct attacks on their roles.

As Vladimir (or Didi), the chattier of the two main characters, Michael Mauldin is frequently upbeat, sure that Godot will appear and encouraging his pal Estragon to buck up. Shaping his silences with as much care as his sentences, Mauldin is a marvel of precision in his detailed pursuit of this character.

He is nicely matched by William Hoffman as Estragon (or Gogo). Using his broad and expressive face to register exhaustion along with momentary bliss at times, Hoffman anchors the scenes between the two characters as they deal with their evidently dead-end existence on this little patch of hilly ground punctuated by one bare, then leafy, tree.

During their two act-two-day stint, they are visited by the slave owner Pozzo and his captive Lucky. Brian Pedaci is riveting as Pozzo, in the first act using his fulsome presence and rich voice to draw a distinction between himself and his hapless slave whom Pozzo pulls around on the end of a rope. As Lucky, Allan Byrne is a crumpled mess of a human being, staring off into the middle distance until he is summoned to “think.” At that time, he launches into a florid, rambling, meaningless discourse that feels uncomfortably similar to recent word-salad speeches by President Trump.

And every day, a little boy (Jake Spencer) visits to inform Didi and Gogo that, once again, Godot will not be coming on that day. But he is sure to be there tomorrow. Like the bar with the “Free Beer Tomorrow!” sign, the men know that this promise will turn yellow with age. Still, if there is no hope, what is the point?

The point is: If you relish fine acting, this is a master class in the art form.

Waiting for Godot
Through November 5 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org




A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Great Lakes Theater

It seems almost cruel to encounter the joys of Shakespeare’s fantastical comedy set in mid-summer as we contemplate the approaching winter (nuclear or otherwise). But thanks to this thoroughly delightful production at Great Lakes Theater directed by Joseph Hanreddy, there is no downside to the experience.

This three-ring circus has it all: Romance, mystical spells leading to misdirected amour, and oafish attempts by workmen at mounting a play within the play. And the GLT company has never been better in weaving together this modern-dress version, even in the face of a scenic design that is both static and busy, and not all that entrancing.

As most know, the kerfuffles of the heart involving the young folks Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius are distorted by the intervention of Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies. and a band of “rude mechanicals” (that’s Will-speak for blue collar folks). As a result, much gaiety ensues as the magic eye drops the fairies possess lead various characters to fall madly in love with people they wouldn’t normally pursue, including one wearing a donkey head.

Summarizing the twists and turns in a Shakespeare play is always a fool’s errand—Wait, who did you say is in love with whom again? Suffice to say that the mixups in this production are most pleasurable thanks to a number of stellar performances in the outstanding ensemble.

Keri Rene Fuller as tall Helena and Michelle Pauker as not-so-tall Hermia create sparks with Jon Loya as Demetrius and Cory Mach as Lysander. In the featured role of Bottom, the weaver and rabid wannabe actor, David Anthony Smith is consistently amusing. And Tom Ford crafts a lovely, comical take on Peter Quince without coloring outside the lines.

Also excellent are M.A. Taylor as an edgy Puck, Jodi Dominick as a frequently pissed-off Robin Starveling, and Nick Steen and Jillian Kates who are double cast as both the Duke and Queen of Athens and the leaders of the Fairies.

The only odd element of the whole show is the scenic design by Scott Bradley that, among other problems, is a conceptual mismatch with the modern dress of the characters. In an attempt to combine the two worlds of the play—the formal court of Athens and the woods where the fairies romp—the set is filled with stuff, including a tall leaning bookcase, that manages to convey neither. And since the set never changes, except for a couple of lighted globes that drop down a couple feet, the actors are left to create all the magic themselves.

Fortunately for the audience, these actors are quite up to the task. That makes this Midsummer Night’s Dream, to quote the ass’s head in the White House, our own little calm before the storm.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Through November 5 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14 St., 216-241-6000, greatlakestheater.org


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Well, Ensemble Theatre

(From left: Laura Starnik as Ann Kron and Lara Mielcarek as Lisa Kron)

Sometimes, when you use the word “interesting’ to describe a show, it can be because you’re hiding how you really feel. More than once, I have left a particularly disheartening production and been asked what I thought. “Interesting,” I’d mumble, avoiding the string of expletives I could have easily deployed.

However, in the case of Well by Lisa Kron, now at Ensemble Theatre, it seems that interesting is the very best word to describe this superbly performed, intriguingly constructed piece of theater. And although the show seems to be gasping for air by the end of its 95-minute sprint through a collection of meta-theatrical feints and surprises, it’s a ride you should definitely experience.

It all begins very casually as Lara Mielcarek, who plays the playwright Lisa Kron, welcomes the audience and introduces us to her play and to Laura Starnik, who plays Lisa’s mother Ann. In doing so, Lisa makes clear that this play, which is being rehearsed as we sit there, is not about her and her mother. Definitely not. It’s about a “theatrical exploration of health and wellness and the integration of Lansing, Michigan.” Yeah, right.

With mom plopped in a La-Z-Boy for most of the show, Lisa and Ann interact with four other performers who play various characters from the Kron history. These include the Kron’s black next-door neighbors, a black girl who bullied Lisa in grade school, and folks Lisa met when she was an in-patient at an allergy treatment facility. The actors often morph into and out of character as they respond to Lisa’s directions, ending one scene and picking up on another with interludes of side conversations with mom.

Lisa Kron is a renowned playwright (Fun Home) and actor, and she knows how to put interesting words in the mouths of people who wander about on stage. And for the first 70 minutes of this play, it all works so wonderfully, under the deft touch of director Celeste Cosentino, that the whole enterprise feels almost giddy with invention and surprise.

This is aided in no small part by the engaging and amusing performance of Mielcarek, whose friendly demeanor as Lisa at the start is quickly peeled away to reveal a woman who is haunted and depressed by her mother’s history of various illnesses. These are physical issues that Lisa shared until she moved away to New York City and became healthy, but her mother never seemed to recover her health. 

And Starnik, either slumped in her chair or padding softly and slowly around the set, quietly establishes Ann as a force of nature in a robe and scuffs, winning over the audience with her deadpan asides. Ann was a mover in her Lansing neighborhood, advocating for integration, and this mission comes across clearly. She is also a mess of free-floating symptoms that keep her chair-bound.

These two are ably supported by the other actors who take on multiple roles. Maya Jones is fierce and hilarious as Lisa’s playground tormentor Lori Jones, and Brian Kenneth Armour gives precise interpretations as both Big Oscar and Little Oscar, the drunk father and his son who live next to the Kron’s. In the allergy ward, April Needham demonstrates the agony of severe allergic reactions as Joy and Craig Joseph is the officious head nurse. And they all neatly register the confusion of being both actors and characters in Lisa Kron’s meta-exercise that attempts to answer a question that is unanswerable: Why do some people stay sick while other get well?

Even though the wind goes out of these billowing theatrical sails in the last 20 minutes, with a long story about Lisa’s Halloween misadventures ending with a shrug and a bit too much repetition of previous conflicts, the play is mostly an exhilarating excursion. And, you  know, it’s really interesting.

Well
Through October 22 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org


Tuesday, September 26, 2017

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Beck Center

This play takes place in a psychiatric hospital, a fact that some young people may find confusing. In the 55 years since this play first appeared, the United States began closing down such hospitals, preferring to see potential mental patients enter the field of politics. How’s that working out for us?

Ken Kesey’s novel was a screech against a repressive society that tried to grind down anyone who was a non-conformist. But the subtext deals with how we have all been tranquilized and at times euthanized into submission, as we are maneuvered over and over again into waging war against other countries and at times against ourselves. I will leave it to you to make the obvious connections to our world today.

As for the play itself, written by Dale Wasserman, it feels a bit dated. Electrochock therapy—which is administered to the rebellious Randall P. McMurphy—was seen back then as the most gothic torture imaginable (and it is rendered that way in Aaron Benson’s impressive scenic design). But since then, there have been more positive analyses of that particular therapeutic approach.

The male ward of this “loony bin” is filled with a bundle of characters that are all distinctive in their mental difficulties, and they are performed with admirable precision by the cast under the direction of William Roudebush. Those who are particularly effective are George Roth as the closeted and erudite Dale Harding, Jeremy Gladen as twitchy and mommy-dominated Billy Bibbit, and Tony Zanoni as impulsive Martini. Benjamin Gregorio also turns in a haunting performance as the virtually silent and lobotomized Ruckly.

In the challenging, showpiece role of McMurphy, Bryant Carroll has all the feints and twitches of this larger-than-life character down pat. But those details never truly coalesce into a character that insistently worms his way into his fellow patients’ hearts, and ours.

As a sane man who thought he was putting one over on the system by pretending to be mentally challenged, thereby avoiding hard time on a chain gang, McMurphy should be someone with whom we can all relate. But too often, Carroll relies on a manic laugh and a swaggering strut instead of establishing strong threads of connection between McMurphy and the others.

As his main tormentor Nurse Ratched, Katie DeBoer masterfully commands her charges with a virtually unchanging icy smile/stare that could drop a charging rhino to its knees. But in a similar way to Carroll’s McMurphy, this interpretation of the “big nurse” never goes beyond that splendidly played single note, and never shows a woman with more dimensions. By making her a bit more human, it would actually increase the horror of the situation.

In all, this Cuckoo’s Nest captures many of the aspects of Kesey’s book and Wasserman’s adaptation. But it doesn’t soar quite high enough to momentarily liberate us all from the cages in which we find ourselves.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Through October 8 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org



Last of the Boys, none too fragile theater

(From left: Robert Branch and Paul Floriano)

There’s a huge attraction to living in the past. That’s the place where you know what to expect, where all the events have been played out and you can visit at your leisure. Sure, there may be painful memories and even some ghosts wafting around, but at least it’s a fixed entity. That beats the hell out of the present, when you don’t know what new horror (insert Trump-cough here) is waiting around the corner.

In Last of the Boys by Steven Dietz, two older men have taken up virtually permanent residency in their past, back when they were grunt buddies in the Vietnam War. And once they are joined by Jeeter’s new girlfriend Sayler and her mother Lorraine, each of whom have their own profound problems, it’s clear the stage is set for some explosive confrontations and revelations.

Dietz is a talented playwright, and he knows how to coax chuckles from his audience. Plus, one could hardly ask for a more skillful cast than the one offered by director Sean Derry. However, the script gets a bit tangled up in its own premise, especially regarding a ghost who visits Ben repeatedly. The actors often rise above this flawed material, but even they at times seem detoured by a play that never allows them to find solid character footing.

Ben is the occupant of a mobile home set on a toxic Superfund site that is surrounded by piled sandbags, stacks of black barrels containing God knows what, and some rusted lawn furniture. He’s being visited by Jeeter, a pal from back in the day who follows the Stones on tour and often lapses into hippie-dippy riffs about spirit quests. Jeeter has just returned from the funeral for Ben’s father, which Ben did not attend, and Jeeter brought along the flag that was draped on the coffin of Ben's father, who was an aide to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara during 'Nam.

As they share bottles of beer from an outdoor fridge, Ben begins interacting with a soldier (Nate Homolka) in full combat uniform who helps Ben put on a suit and tie so he can channel the words of Ben’s idol, the generally (and justifiably) despised McNamara. Still, Ben sees the architect of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the former Ford executive, as the “man with a plan.” And as the play progresses, Ben’s interactions with the ghost get progressively weirder and even physical as their connection ends in a grotesque sort of baptism.

Meanwhile, Jeeter’s 35-year-old gal pal Salyer (an understandably detached Rachel Lee Kolis) always “wears a lot of clothes” to hide some of her own demons. Turns out, she has daddy issues of her own involving Vietnam. And her mother Lorraine, who has come to rescue her from the clutches of Jeeter, is supposedly a dead-end boozer.

Clearly, playwright Dietz has set himself a daunting task in weaving together these unusual characters and free-floating metaphors including a pervasive fog which is referenced but never seen, and the final result is only partially successful. What works well, at times, are the dialog scenes between Ben and Jeeter. Robert Branch is an actor with an admirably wide range, and he’s up to the task of portraying this cynical, world-weary man who is beset by phantoms of all kinds. And he is met, acting-wise, on equal footing by Paul Floriano, whose Jeeter gets the best lines and is often a bundle of nervous excitement. That is, when he hasn’t lapsed into a fugue state inspired by, you guessed it, some troubling memories.

Unfortunately, the script doesn’t provide enough backstory about Jeeter to allow the audience to fully understand who this guy is. As a result, the central relationship between Jeeter and Ben is a mystery papered over by their cryptic conversations which, when they don’t work, feel manufactured and not organic. This is particularly true at the start of the show, a situation that is not aided by the actors overlapping each other as they deliver their rapid-fire lines. This is a performance technique that must be carefully employed, otherwise it feels as if the characters aren’t listening and just talking. And in this play, listening is key for both the characters and the audience.

Also, the subplot involving Lorraine and her daughter never comes to fruition, since it is woefully underwritten. As Lorraine, Anne McEvoy displays her precise comic timing throughout (an example: When Jeeter tells her “I know what you’re thinking.” Lorraine responds with “So why are you still here?”). Trouble is, it’s hard to buy the elegant and self-possessed McEvoy as a hard-drinking woman who will guzzle whiskey at a moment’s notice.

For those of us who lived through the Vietnam War as adults, there are ghosts aplenty.  And as the current documentary series on PBS shows, the interest in that doomed and lethal excursion never seems to wane. The feelings of loss and guilt, along with the excesses of governmental hubris, are real. This play touches some of those points, but undercuts its theme with too many conflicting elements.

Last of the Boys
Through September 30 at none too fragile theater, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron (enter through Pub Bricco), 330-962-5547, nonetoofragile.com


Life x 3, Cesear’s Forum

(From left: Brian Bowers, Tricia Bestic, Dana Hart, Julia Kolibab)

How many times have each of us wondered what would have happened at that diner party if things had gone differently? And how many times have playwrights and screenwriters attempted to capture that conundrum of human existence? The answer to both questions is: Countless.

In Life x 3 by Yasmina Reza (translated by Christopher Hampton), Sonia and Henry are hosting an older couple, Hubert and Inez, for dinner. Unfortunately, the guests have arrived a day early and there’s hardly any food in the house. And they can’t go out to dinner since the hosts’ six-year old son Arnaud is crying for attention in the next room.

Taking this premise, Reza then plays the evening’s conversation through three different times with three different outcomes. And during these versions we learn of many interpersonal conflicts: Research scientist Henry is desperate for approval from his superior Hubert, Hubert is hot for and has a history with Sonia, Inez is always doing a slow boil when her husband puts her down, and little Arnaud (an unseen Mary Alice Beck) keeps whining for snacks and cuddles.

It is an admittedly intriguing concept, and a talented cast under the direction of Greg Cesear does its best to make this triple layer cake turn out well. They accomplish that task splendidly in the first iteration of the “dinner” party, when the dynamics of the situation are fresh and surprising and Reza’s sharp wit is in evidence. But as the second and third replays continue, the air slowly seeps out of this balloon until, by the end, the premise feels rather deflated.

It’s a challenging task to take an audience through three versions of the same conversation with subtle changes that slightly tweak reactions. As a result, you spend more time trying to suss out what’s different this time than you do becoming engrossed in the character dynamics.

Still, Cesear is an accomplished and inventive director and he teases interesting performances out of his cast. Tricia Bestic is sharp and no-nonsense as Sonia, taking charge of her home as well as her (sometimes) vacillating husband played with bursts of self-flagellation by Brian Bowers. Dana Hart is solid as the pompous Hubert, and his nasty zingers directed at his wife are played off with humorous diffidence by Julia Kolibab as Inez.

There are aspirations to the metaphysical in Reza’s script, but the repeated renditions don’t provide the necessary snap of realization that is required to bring the audience along. Instead, by the end, it feels as if we’ve been stumbling through several rough drafts of a piece that isn’t quite finished.

Life x 3
Through Oct. 28 at Cesear’s Forum, Playhouse Square, Kennedy’s Down Under, 1501 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Simply Simone, Karamu House



Nina Simone was an awesome talent and an even more compelling personality. She became “The High Priestess of Soul” almost against her will, since she grew up as a piano prodigy and really only wanted to become the world’s first black classical concert pianist. And along the way, back in the 1960s, she became a fierce voice for the radical black militant movement in America.

In short, there’s a big story to tell about Nina Simone. Unfortunately, this slap-dash play created by David Grapes and Robert Neblett captures almost none of the Simone magic. Due to a series of wrong-headed decisions, the play covers 2½ hours and more than 30 songs while managing to miss the compelling essence at the core of Nina Simone’s art.

Before the dissection continues, we must pause and give a pass to the four hard-working performers who try to lift this lumbering show into the air. Sheffia Randall Dooley, Corlesia Smith and Mariama Whyte are all gifted, professional singers and actors, and they generate fleeting moments of bliss. And Afia Mensa does her best while battling some pitch problems in several of her songs. In addition, music director Ed Ridley, Jr. and his four-piece band provide solid support.

The first questionable decision is to have those four women play aspects of Ms. Simone, along with assorted other characters during the narrated sections of the play. These arid readings of Simone’s biography turn the show into a Wikipedia musical, with factoids replacing actual theatrical scenes between and among characters.

Right from the start, the play skids off center as four songs are presented in standard smiley-face variety show style with not a hint of the deep and fascinating Simone personality. From there on, songs from the Simone songbook are presented with varying degrees of power. On the positive side, Smith handles her songs well, especially a spine-tingling version of “I Put a Spell on You.” And Dooley delivers some tingles herself in the second act with “Trouble in Mind” and “My Father.”

While the script dutifully records Simone’s conflicts with her dad, her husband/manager Andy, her sister and herself, the show never slows down enough to allow these torments to land with any impact.

This problem is not aided by an overly simplistic scenic design by Inda Blatch-Geib that employs photo collages on three-sided rolling columns, intended to capture the era in which Simone and the people in her life. Instead, newsreel footage and photos of Simone herself—who was a stunning presence at all ages—would help immensely. In a similar way, the lighting design by Prophet Seay is bland and perfunctory, without using lighting contrasts to carve out sections of the stage to increase the emotional force of certain moments.

Director Caroline Jackson Smith is certainly hamstrung by this oddly passionless material. But her staging often feels like a by-the-book 1970s TV show, with the singers tramping up and down a small, four-level platform and lining up across the stage and belting. That wasn’t Nina Simone.

Where is the Nina Simone who could turn a pop tune into an entirely new and different creature due to her bold phrasing and daring silences? Where is the Nina Simone who employed classical music idioms in her music, often going on long riffs that turned blues and jazz into something gloriously new. And where is the Nina Simone who was driven by and eventually punished for her deeply held political beliefs?

Some of it is given cursory lip service, but most of what made Nina Simone so different and wonderful is simply missing from Simply Simone.

Simply Simone
Through October 8 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89 St., 216-795-7070, karamuhouse.org.