Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How To Be A Respectable Junkie, Dobama Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Rock of Ages, Cain Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rock of Ages

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

The Taming of the Shrew, Cleveland Shakespeare Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Taming of the Shrew

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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Carousel, Mercury Theater Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Red Ash Mosaic, Cleveland Public Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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