Sunday, May 21, 2017

Medea At Six, Playground Theater in collaboration with Ensemble Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Forever Plaid, Great Lakes Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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