Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Around the World in 80 Days, Shahrazad Theatre Company at Ensemble Theatre.

Shrinking an 80-day journey into a little more than 60 minutes of stage time is quite a challenge. But in this world premiere version of the Jules Verne classic, adapted for the stage by the Shahrazad Theatre Company  and produced in association with Ensemble Theatre, lots of ground is covered thanks to the robust direction and choreography by August Scarpelli.

It’s a highly stylized and frequently engaging production, with actors racing about, pratfalling, and generally behaving like kids amped up on too much Pepsi and gummy bears. Two performers (Kayla Davis and Becca Mosely) narrate the story of Londoner Phileas Fogg and the bet he makes with his rich buddies that sends him and his valet Passepartout around the world in attempt to beat the 80-day time limit and win a substantial pile coin. That would be £20,000 to be exact, more than two million in today’s currency.

So off they go. It’s all acted out in period-ish costumes and socks on a padded stage emblazoned with a map of the world so the audience can track the duo’s progress. Of course, they’re not alone since their every step is being followed by Scotland Yard’s Detective Fix (a hilarious Valerie Young, drawing out her vowels like skeins of ribbons). He is a most diligent and determined lawman who is eager to hand Fogg a arrest warrant—the result of mistaken identity—for robbing a bank.

Presented at warp speed, the show is entertaining thanks to some imaginative use of silhouette art behind a screen, and a few performances. As Passepartout, Kyle Huff is a dervish as he bounces back and forth between Fogg’s fuming demands and Fix’s fixations. And Huff does a happy dance now and then that is both weird and enormously satisfying. As Fogg, Hannah Storch is a properly starchy presence, arrogantly issuing orders to his valet and other minions they meet along the way.

Most of this production, including the cross-gender casting, works quite well, although a subplot involving a young Indian woman named Aouda (Andrew Keller) never makes much sense. But that’s okay, since this short show, which has a ten-minute intermission, is all about energy and momentum.

The only downside to that speed is that words are frequently lost due to a lack of enunciation. Other than Young and Storch, who display a fierce attention to proper diction, many phrases and sentences are lost in the rush.

Still, it’s a diverting way to revisit this old story, thanks to Scarpelli’s energetic direction and the inventive performances crafted by Young and Huff.

Around the World in 80 Days
Through December 16 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Rapture, Blister, Burn, Convergence-Continuum Theater

What does happiness look like for a middle-aged woman these days? If she has a husband and kids, she has the hearth and home thing nailed, but what about those aspirations she once had for a career and sexual freedom? And if she is single and has the latter, how does she feel when she’s in her forties left alone with her glowing resume and no partner or children who love her?

In short, it comes down to the eternal question: What do women want? And the answer, such as it is, is both funny and insightful in the play Rapture, Blister, Burnby Gina Gionfriddo now at Convergence-Continuum Theater. This is a densely-packed, super-heady piece of theater that never loses its grip on the audience thanks to the skillful direction of Geoffrey Hoffman.

This is a fresh turn for Con-Con, which often deals with plays that focus on gay folks—their challenges, joys and tribulations. But in this piece, four hetero women characters dominate the stage along with a man who is, by his own admission, a slacker. 

Catherine (a sometimes fiery, sometimes conflicted Laurel Hoffman) is a feminist author and media personality who is visiting her pal from grad school Gwen. The thing is, Gwen married Don (Aaron Ellersich doing a mellow turn), Catherine’s boyfriend in college, and Gwen and Don now have two kids and a happy(?) life. Adding to the complications is the fact that Catherine has taken a position as a media studies prof at the school. This leads to Catherine and Don getting closer again. 

Turns out, Catherine really longs for the connected family life that Gwen has, while Gwen (a nicely emotive Rocky Encalada) is envious of Catherine’s jet-setting lifestyle of freedom and academic achievement. These tensions are intriguingly aggravatged and exposed by Avery, a student at the college who babysits for Gwen and Don, and who registers for Catherine’s class along with Gwen—where they continue their feminist discussions.

Sure, it’s all pretty contrived, but playwright Gionfriddo manipulates the wordy conversations among these women with style. SAhe even manages to wedge Catherine’s mom Alice (Anne McEvoy) into the proceedings, contributing a voice from an older generation. This is particularly startling when Alice and then Catherine wind up defending some of the positions of the right-wing scold Phyllis Schlafly, who posited that women should lead in the relationship and women must follow. Yikes! Go ahead and see if that doesn’t start some heated arguments on the ride home.

If there is a wrinkle in this production, it is that the detailed words and thoughts of Avery, Gwen and Catherine are at times delivered with too much speed and slickness. This turns the intellectually appealing screeds into little memorization sideshows that run the risk of minimizing the impact of the script. More variation in the pacing of those moments could also help some of the quips (and there are many) land better.

That said, this is a well-performed, thoughtful play that covers a whole lot of ground as it diagnoses, with large dollops of wit, the state of women and their relationships. It’s like Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles from a couple decades ago, but with an intellectual, feminist-oriented dissection of torture-porn and slasher movies thrown in. Now there‘s an unexpected holiday treat for you!

Rapture, Blister, Burn
Through December 15 produced by Convergence-Continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org.

Ella Enchanted, Dobama Theatre

When it comes to spells that a naughty fairy can impose on a person, a curse of obedience ranks pretty high on the pain spectrum. That’s what the title character is facing in Ella Enchantedby Karen Zacarias, now at Dobama Theatre. This adaptation of the eponymous book by Gail Carson Levine explains the Cinderella story by making it all about a spell cast by the fairy Lucinda, who clearly suffers from a form of attention deficit disorder.

This is what is currently called a “family” show, but in actuality it’s really a kids’ show, since there’s little in the script to keep adults engaged. I mean, the Cinderella folk tale is part of our DNA, and we don’t exactly need a two-hour show, with intermission, to lay out the storyline again.

Sensing this, director Nathan Motta has loaded this production with all kinds of staging twists (a new pathway around the audience, huge hallucinatory puppets), and powerful eye candy (gorgeous lighting by Marcus Dana, enthralling projections by T. Paul Lowry) to keep everyone on board. All this in the service of a story that swings wildly (a wedding of giants! an attack by ogres!) and doesn’t even get around to the fancy ball and the glass slipper until somewhere in hour two.

Even with all the production razzle-dazzle, Ellais saddled with some grindingly slow storytelling, with much of the dialog delivered at a snail’s pace so the kiddies don’t lose their place. And unlike many shows and films for kids that have subtle jokes placed in the script for the benefit of the adults in the audience who brought the little ones, there is little of that until the second act when an amusing Phantom of the Operagag is finally trotted out.

The cast is strong in all the right places. As Ella, Natalie Green oozes innocence but also reveals a feisty streak as she tries to subvert her own obedience-imposed nature. Although the music by Deborah Wicks La Puma is mostly of the background variety, Green manages to infuse her songs with a sense of import.

She is backed up well by Tina D. Stump who plays loopy Lucinda and a couple others, and Amy Fritsche who is double-cast as both Ella mother (who dies early, a la Bambie) and Ella’s mean stepmother Dame Olga. As for the evil stepsisters, they are given a Saturday Night Live turn echoing the way SNL embodies the grownup Trump sons. Kelly Elizabeth Smith is Donald, Jr. (er, Hattie) who never misses a chance to do something nasty, while Neely Gevaart as Olive is the sweet but clueless Eric, being led around by the nose. 

Joshua McElroy makes for a very down-to-earth (and indeed, charming) Prince, but Eugene Sumlin seems to struggle a bit to find a hook for Sir Peter, Ella’s father. His connection to his daughter and infatuation with Olga never feel fully realized, even for a fairy tale.

Part of the weakness of the show is revealed in a curtain call mini-concert, when the actors throw off their character shackles and perform some rip-roaring contemporary tunes. This up-tempo and energized performance, while certainly enjoyable, has no organic connection to what went before and serves to point out how slow and strange some the previous two-plus hours had been.

This is an extremely slick and professional production on the surface, and the acting is certainly more than satisfactory. But a story that could have been told neatly and simply in an hour or so has been padded out, and the stuffing begins to leak out by the end.

Ella Enchanted
Through December 30 at Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-932-3396, dobama.org.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

2 1-Act Plays, Playwrights Local

(From left: Anne McEvoy, Ray Caspio, Robert Hawkes in The Silence of Dr and Mrs Caligari)

The two one-acts Above and Beyond and The Silence of Dr and Mrs Caligari, as presented by Playwrights Local at Waterloo Arts, each have intriguing aspects. But those are somewhat defeated by the decisions of the director, on one hand, and the playwright on the other.

In Above and Beyond, playwright Faye Sholiton takes us back to a day in 1973 when the world was teetering on the brink of an Armageddon-like conflict. Russia and the US were facing off over a serious conflict in the Middle East, and in a missile silo 60 feet under ground in Utah sit two American soldiers tasked with launching nuclear-tipped missiles.

Marc (James Alexander Rankin) and his superior officer Darren (Nicholas Chokan) are passing the time rather idly until horns blare, red lights flash, and they are alerted to a new and more dangerous DEFCON alert status. They are now at DEFCON 3, a level that had not been reached since the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Immersed in this tension, the two men still converse about other things: the guy who used to work with them who lost it mentally, Darren’s history as a fighter pilot in Viet Nam, and how Marc is hot to have sex with his honey. 

This 40-minute piece strikes thematic notes that are similar to a recent play by another local playwright—Grounded by George Brant. Each play focuses on soldiers who have their fingers on the buttons of destruction, and what it does to them as human beings. 

In this piece, the well-known local playwright Sholiton seeks to capture the hanging-by-a-thread nature of our existence in the nuclear bomb world. And she does develop some sweaty moments. But the talented director Craig Joseph doesn’t draw out all the potential of this script, compelling his actors to chat at an overly brisk pace. Indeed, if you’re stuck in an underground bunker with another person for eight hours or more, chances are you’re going to pace your conversations a bit more languidly.

Above and Beyond might play believably with more silences, less over-heated acting (by Chokan in particular), and an absence of odd blocking choices. To wit, at one point Joseph has both men sitting on the floor, for no apparent reason. 

It all ends with a silence (finally) that might have landed with more impact had the preceding dialogue been directed with more focus on the ghastly absurdity of the situation they (and all of us) live in.

In The Silence of Dr and Mrs Caligari there are more quiet moments than in A&B, but they don’t necessarily work to the play’s benefit. As playwright (and performer) Robert Hawkes notes in the program, this one-hour play is not meant to be connected, plot-wise, to the iconic, silent German expressionist horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Sure it has a cabinet, and a young man named Cesare dressed in black who emerges from that box in a zombie-like state, just like the “somnambulist” in the film. But that is where the similarities to the film end. Instead, Dr. C (Hawkes) and his wife (Anne McEvoy) are just sharing a quiet evening at home—she playing solitaire while complaining about how he treats her, and he sharing his thoughts on various random philosophical points. 

As they carp at each other and fail to connect, it seems a bit like the old radio show “The Bickersons” if it had been co-written by Albert Camus. Still, Hawkes and McEvoy make it all quite interesting as a mesmerizing Ray Caspio, the moody and mystical Cesare silently enters the room accompanied by snatches of classical music. The good doctor is trying to make sense of this while his wife, blessedly, couldn’t care less.

Unfortunately, it all becomes much less interesting once Cesare begins to speak, nattering on about being “free from time” and such. Not only that, in an apparent attempt to escape the brooding mood of the film, all three even play a couple rounds of musical chairs. 

Despite the deft direction of Susan Soltis, this is a high-concept one-act that is too clever by three-quarters. Because, like it or not, when you link your play to a renowned film and also recreate a couple of the main characters, you’ve hooked yourself to that wagon. And this turns out to be a wagon with one or two thematic wheels missing.

As a result, the goals as expressed by the playwright in the program are never fully realized on stage. And even the witty conversational wordplay that writer Hawkes is so good at can’t save the day, or the play. 

2 1-Act Plays
Through November 18 at Playwrights Local, Creative Space at Waterloo Arts, 397 E. 156 St., playwrightslocal.org., 216-302-8856.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

East of Eden, Ensemble Theatre

Say the words “East of Eden” to most people of a certain age and they will respond with two other words: James Dean. The film version of the John Steinbeck novel is one of the three movies that the iconic actor made before his low and sleek Porsche 550 Spyder plowed into a tank-like Ford sedan making a left turn in front of Dean on a California highway in 1955.

But there’s a lot more to this work than Dean’s mesmerizing performance, and that is explored in this stage adaptation by Frank Galati. Watching this three-act play slowly unfold, one is reminded that the film only covered the final chapters of the novel. In all those other pages, Dean’s character Cal, his brother Aron, and their parents Adam and mother Cathy (later “Kate”) had their personas skillfully developed through flashbacks and other techniques.

It all works splendidly as a book, but on the Ensemble stage the story often feels forced and rushed. It begins quite promisingly when Sam Hamilton and Adam Trask, two California farmers at the turn of the 20thcentury, are chatting about the best way to locate water on their properties. As Sam, Dana Hart exudes a homey wisdom mixed with some kind of ethereal power, and it’s a damn shame his character never reappears after the opening scene.

On the other hand Adam, who is portrayed with great empathy by Scott Miller, is the linchpin of this story. His relationships with his twin sons, Cathy, and his Chinese houseboy Lee (Joey Cayabyab) cover a lot of ground as we see the boys grow from boyhood into two very different sorts of men. Aron (August Scarpelli) is sweet and caring, especially towards his girlfriend Abra (effectively played by Leah Smith), but Cal is hard-edged, taking after his amoral mother who left Adam with the infants and created a new life for herself as the blackmailing madam of a whorehouse in the big city.

This sprawling yarn begs for strong characterizations, but some of the key roles do not land with the proper authority. As Cathy, who renames herself Kate in her new life, Jill Levin just seems irritated most of the time, not verging on mythically evil. And Kyle Huff as Cal is weirdly without affect for most of the play. Indeed, in the climactic scene where Cal confronts his mother in her lair, the words seem weak and the conflict perfunctory.

Perhaps this has something to do with the set and lighting design by Ian Wolfgang Hinz, who also directs. All the scenes are played on stark sets with plank floors, which is appropriate except for Kate’s room, which should reek of sensuality and decadence. Instead, it looks like the manager’s office in a low-cost funeral home, with Kate dressed in all black. 

Also, one wonders where the projections are, which Hinz has used to excellent effect in other productions. But there are no grand vistas of the lush Salinas Valley, just some mood lights thrown onto backing flats here and there. 

Ensemble is to be applauded for taking on a show this complicated, which is a big lift for a small theater. It’s the kind of thing they often do well. But this time around, the well’s run a bit dry. 

East of Eden
Through November 11 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org.

Everything Is Okay (and other helpful lies), Cleveland Public Theatre

Can female masturbation save us? Based on the “Masturbation Song” which occurs in the second act of this musical, you might think so. It is an inventive and effusively upbeat tribute to womanly self-love in which three women and their hand-fans take on a variety of anatomical shapes. That is entirely in keeping with a show written and composed by two women, Melissa Crum and Caitlin Lewins, who also perform as part of the six-member cast.

Good for them, for defying the male-dominated world of American musicals. We should all celebrate their gumption and fortitude by voting on November 6, and using our voices to support women and their dreams.

Unfortunately, as good as the “Masturbation Song” and dance is, there is way too much mental masturbation in the remainder of this show, which runs 110 minutes with the help of an unnecessary 15-minute intermission. In trying to express the rage of millennials at the state of the world and their lives, EIOonly succeeds in taking navel-gazing to new heights on the faltering wings of a couple dozen songs that are randomly arranged in a rather plot-less landscape.

It all begins with the death of the father of Keno (Lewins), who we learn quickly was a major jackass. And before Act One is concluded there is another death, this time of one of this posse’s young friends. One death, used as a deus ex machinato lend gravity to the proceedings of a play, is a bit much but forgivable. Two deaths is wretched excess—especially when they stage a “FUN-eral” for the dead guy, borrowing without shame that ironic premise from the musical Fun Home.

In addition to Crum and Lewins, the performers also include Madelyn Hayes, Joshua McElroy, Matt O’Shea and a virtually silent bartender played by Jerry Tucker. They give it their all, and that is not as condescending as it sounds because the book and the music for this show are, to put it kindly, a work in progress.

All the activity occurs in a bar, nicely outfitted by scenic designer Aaron Benson and lushly lighted by Benjamin Gantose. It is there that five young folks booze it up while alternately wallowing in their fate and then being spontaneously defiant in songs titled “Bathroom Love,” “Shitty Sad Luau Song,” and “Slut Song.” These tunes try hard and sometimes border on effective. But more often the songs feel truncated and are bedeviled by absent melodies and lyrics that don’t offer even the modicum of wit displayed in the show’s title.

Also, character development is slight to non-existent since there is little effort devoted to making the tunes fit into a narrative. Instead, the various performers just start singing, at a stand-up mic or elsewhere, when they’re not cussing a blue streak and tossing down shots of alcohol in plastic glasses. (Here’s a tip: If you’re young and in a bar and they’re serving you drinks in plastic shot glasses, they’re making fun of you. Go to another bar. What’s next, tequila shooters in sippy cups?)

Director Matthew Wright is an inspired actor and director, but in this production he allows far too many lines, both spoken and sung, to be lost due to volume or enunciation problems. And if he helped Crum and Lewins edit their catalog of songs, it doesn’t show. 

Still, there is that “Masturbation Song.” While it’s not exactly worth the price of admission, it comes (ha) close.

As for all the dirty language, is it true that millennials are attracted to profanity? Okay, then try this: HEY YOU ASSHOLE YOUNG PEOPLE, PLEASE FUCKING VOTE THIS TIME! Then you can drink all you want from real shot glasses and maybe your children won’t die in a school shooting or drown in an ever-encroaching toxic sea of plastic waste. Maybe.

Everything Is Okay (and other helpful lies)
Through November 10 at the Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org.

Friday, October 26, 2018

This Much (or An Act of Violence Towards the Institution of Marriage), Convergence-Continuum Theater

Before the review begins…
Allow me to note that I experienced something last night that I haven’t in more than 20 years of being a theater critic. Those of us in the audience at Convergence-Continuum were victimized by two young, um, ladies among the small audience who were sucking down purse-size bottles of wine and braying their inane comments about the play at a volume that competed with the actors. Since the playing space at Con-Con is very intimate, this caused several audience members to glare at them and ask them to be quiet, which the women responded to with scorn and insults. They even interrupted director Clyde Simon’s customary post-show comments.

As I say, this has never happened before in the more than 2000 shows I’ve attended in the past two decades. Why now? Well, one might guess it has something to do with the modeling behavior of our President, which is based almost entirely on being loud, offensive, uncivil and opposed to the norms of polite discourse (or, in his words, “non-PC”). If you tend to agree and would like to register your disgust with such behavior, please VOTE on November 6 and send a message to those politicians who support the President’s bullying verbal assaults, and those who would emulate him.

Ahem. That said, This Muchby John Fitzpatrick is an interesting one-act that aspires to confront the concept of marriage, fidelity and deception through the interactions of three young gay men. And the fact that it doesn’t quite work is not attributable to the actors, who acquit themselves well. 

Anthony and Gar are living together and are reasonably happy, it appears. But right from the start, there’s a rift since Gar meets up with Albert, first in a store and later in a park. You can pretty much write the rest of the play from here, as Anthony and Gar’s marriage is damaged when Anthony plays some messages on Gar’s phone and hears Albert requesting another get-together with Gar.

As for the relationship between Anthony and Gar, it is drawn in the starkest of terms. Sweet Anthony dutifully and obsessively cleans their apartment while trying to compel Gar to behave. But loose cannon Gar is off exploring his sexual options. 

All three actors wear soft ballet slippers and move expressively to music at certain times. But these lyrical moments are not connected in any meaningful way to everything else that is going on. It is a rather pleasant staging quirk in search of a reason to exist.

Fitzpatrick actually has some interesting thoughts about relationships, between lovers and among gay men and their parents, but these are often lost in the welter of dated gay memes. Sadly, playwright Fitzpatrick chooses to deal in gay clichés for much of the play—the easy and dangerous sex (the Gar and Albert spontaneously display their genitals to each other in the park), the casual lying, and the desperate possessiveness. A little switcheroo near the end doesn’t ring at all true ir insightful.

The cast under Simon handles this material as well as could be expected. As Anthony, Daryl Kelley is a rock of rationality and he doesn’t make a single misstep. Wesley Allen is appropriately randy as Gar and hits his peak when he dons a wedding dress after the ceremony and later at his father’s funeral. As Albert, Maximillian Winer is a bit of a non-entity, which is entirely the fault of the script.

The play doesn’t live up to the promise that is expressed in the subtitle, and that’s too bad. But what is worse is when two people in the audience think it‘s okay to talk at high volume through a performance in a space that holds 30 or 40 seats. The barbarians are at the gates, again. Please vote!

This Much (or An Act of Violence Towards the Institution of Marriage)
Through November 3, produced by Convergence-Continuum at The Liminis, 2438 Scranton Rd., 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Sweat, Cleveland Play House

Anger and fear are powerful forces, and those hounds of hate have been released with ferociously effective results in our recent elections. In 2016, it gave us the morally squalid presidency of Donald J. Trump. And it threatens to do so again in a few days if everyone (meaning EVERYONE) doesn’t vote.

The seeds of that anger are explored in Sweatby Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize winning play now at the Cleveland Play House. Set in both 2000 and 2008, we see how blue-collar workers in Reading, Pennsylvania are trying to manage their frustrations about job loss, insecurity and diminished hope. 

The play begins in 2008 when two young men, Jason and Chris, are being interrogated by their parole officer (Robert Barry Fleming) in the wake of a crime they committed which is not mentioned. Then we flash back to the year 2000, when NAFTA was the hotly debated topic since many feared it would send jobs out of the country.

These discussions are held in and around a bar run by Stan, a middle-aged guy who suffered a leg injury on the job at the local steel tubing factory and now walks with a pronounced limp. His customers and hangers-on include a trio of three female workers at the plant—Cynthia, Tracey and Jessie. Cynthia is black and Tracey and Jessie are white, and like good union members they bond together after their shift, helping each other navigate their jobs, family lives and excessive drinking habits.

Tracey’s son Jason also works at the plant, and he shows up occasionally at the bar with his black pal Chris, who is Cynthia’s son. To complicate matters further, Cynthia’s estranged husband Brucie (Jimmie Woody) is hanging around trying to reconnect with her. Also, the bar’s janitor and go-fer Oscar (Xavier Cano) is longing to work at the plant and responds to a factory flyer seeking Hispanic workers to apply for non-union (ie. lower paying) jobs.

Then things get dicey when Cynthia is promoted to management and the plant forces a lockout on the workers. Old tensions boil up and fault lines appear, ending in an Act Two physical confrontation that has tragic consequences.

There are a lot of characters to wrangle in this play, and Nottage is only sporadically successful at making them all seem believable. Indeed, the long explanatory speeches that most of them give to fill in their back stories sound more like factoid sociological profiles that human speech as the playwright ticks off the requisite character boxes: The Loyal Worker Who Was Damaged, The Locked Out Worker with a Grudge, The Dead-End Worker Who Just Wants a Paycheck, The Drunk Worker Who Passes Out on a Daily Basis, etc.

Under the direction of Laura Kepley, the CPH actors invest the material with as much humanity as possible. Nancy Lemenager makes Tracey a fierce foe of whomever she targets, while Nehassaiu deGannes slaloms deftly through Cynthia’s two job descriptions and her familial issues. As the third leg of this trio, Chris Seibert portrays constantly drunk Jessie with deft control to avoid having her become a cliché.

The guy-pal duo of Jason (Jack Berenholtz) and Chris (Brooks Brantly) doesn’t work quite as well due to the fact that their characters, particularly in the 2000 scenes, are underwritten. As Stan, Robert Ellis is a strong and steadying influence on his patrons.

The working class in this country has gotten the short and nasty end of the economic stick for a long time, and this play deserves credit for trying to adjust that balance. Unfortunately, it’s hard to ignore how the righteous and justifiable anger of blue-collar workers has been twisted by many of our current politicians into racial hate, intolerance of others and unquestioning belief in big lies repeated ad nauseam. Maybe we can see that in another play down the road, if we’re not all in jail by then for being…different. 

So, you know: Vote!

Through November 4 at the Cleveland Play House, Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Pride and Prejudice, Great Lakes Theatre

(Andrew May and Carole Healey as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet)

Jane Austen has always been a favorite read, even for people who are into horror (check out “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” a takeoff on the romantic original with ultraviolent zombie mayhem).

On the other hand, you may not need any ornamentation of the original to enjoy Austen’s take on five sisters who are out to land rich guys. If so, you should be suffused with delight at Pride and Prejudice, now at Great Lakes Theater. It is a theatrical adaptation by Joseph Hanreddy and J.R. Sullivan and directed by Hanreddy, who has directed five other shows at GLT.

Even though it comes in at nearly three hours, this is an elegantly streamlined version of P&P, with the narration from the novel absorbed into dialogue for the stage. Indeed, the scenery and the scene changes are minimal which throws all the focus on the actors. And that is particularly good news here.

Portraying the parents of the grown and almost-grown daughters of the Bennet family are Andrew May and Carole Healey. May does more with a shrug than most actors achieve with a soliloquy, and his wincing asides to his daughters and others are honed with precision. Equally amusing is Healey, who is candid about her desire to “dispose of” her daughters in marriages to wealthy gents, regardless of their other qualities.

And, as you know, pair off they do. The lovely Jane (an elegant Jillian Kates) eventually hooks up with Mr. Bingley (Daniel Millhouse, who seems as eager and curious as a slightly nervous meerkat), while sardonic Elizabeth (Laura Welsh Berg) is pursued, after a fashion, but the stiffly unapproachable Mr. Darcy (Nick Steen).

Rounding out the quintet of sisters are Courtney Hausman as too-smart-for-the-room Mary, Kailey Boyle as flighty Lydia, and Amy Keum as young and impulsive Kitty.

The groveling Mr. Collins, he of the desperately insincere exclamations, is also after Liz after he learns Jane is off the market, but Liz is having none of it. As Collins, Eric Damon Smith has creepy good fun with this cloying character.

The large cast handles the material with exceptional panache, with only a small wrinkle or two. In two smaller roles, the usually spot-on Katherine DeBoer engages in more mugging than is required. (But oddly, Melissa Graves goes over-the-top as the housekeeper at Pemberley, Mrs. Reynolds and it seems entirely fitting and quite amusing). And Alex Syiek is wasted in the microscopic role of Fitzwilliam.

In any case, this Pride and Prejudice is a welcome relief from the barrage of coarse language (“horse-face!”) that currently permeates our culture. In the supremely capable hands of Hanreddy, this Austen caper is refined, witty, and altogether transporting.

Pride and Prejudice
Through November 4 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14 St., 216-241-6000, greatlakestheater.org.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Ya Mama!, Cleveland Public Theatre

Okay, just so there’s no confusion about the currently running theatrical Mammas (with exclamation points!): Mamma Mia! is the musical now at the Great Lakes Theater while Ya Mama! is the one-person show that just opened at Cleveland Public Theatre. They’re both about mammas, however you spell them, but that’s about where the similarities end.

Well, there actually is one shared aspect since both of these shows have been seen in Cleveland before. The ABBA jukebox musical has been popping up on various tours for a good long time while Ya Mama!, written and performed by Nina Domingue, had a previous CPT production in 2012.

The return of Domingue is always a welcome sight since she ignites the stage with her spot-on characterizations and stage movement that is gloriously expressive. Once again, she is telling her own story of growing up in the fires of her own personal hell: her mother committed suicide by drinking drain cleaner when Nina was just four years old. Eventually, her father married a woman named Betty who turned out to be psychologically and physically abusive to the growing Nina.

Using quicksilver persona shifts, Domingue seamlessly fashions scenes involving three or more characters, and it’s a tribute to her talent that we never get those characters confused. These are the moments that work best and resonate most effectively. When Betty snaps at Nina, ordering her to rewash the laundry if there’s speck of lint on anything, your heart sinks along with the young girl’s.

As Nina grows into adulthood she begins having her own kids, hacking her way through the jungle of motherhood issues (What do you do when a child is sick?) without having the guiding light that she was denied from her own mothering wasteland. Her challenges from the five-day labor she experienced with her first child are both agonizing and hilarious.

In this stage iteration, Domingue is joined by Bill Ransom, sitting high above and behind the performer, contributing deft touches of percussion—a rattle of wood blocks here and a sprightly bongo riff there. His efforts add a lovely texture to the proceedings that amplify the emotions at key times.

Under the sensitive direction of Nathan Henry. Domingue tells about her life in 75 minutes of riveting storytelling. She does her remarkable work in a scenic design by Inda Blatch-Geib that is sometimes startlingly powerful (getting trapped in a large bookcase with collapsed shelves) and at other times just startling for no particular reason (a door with a broken shard of another door sticking out from it).

As was the case six years ago, Domingue’s writing can tend towards the didactic when she wants to clearly make a point about her life. This is completely understandable on an emotional level, but theatrically it pulls the audience out of the moment, particularly at the end when the character Nina takes an emotional victory lap.

One wishes Domingue the playwright would fully trust her word artistry by just telling the story, avoid summarizing, and allowing the audience to draw its own conclusions. But if you long to see an actor in full control of her impressive capabilities, ya gotta see Ya Mama!

Ya Mama!
Through October 27 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org.

Cannibal, the Musical, Blank Canvas Theatre

It’s an old joke. You say, “What is the essence of comedy?” And just as the person starts to respond, probably with “I don’t know,” you interrupt and say “Timing!” It’s funny because it’s true.

And if you asked me what’s wrong with Cannibal, the Musical, now at Blank Canvas Theatre, I’d quickly reply, timing! Because there is little to none of it in this piece featuring book, music and lyrics by (a much younger)Trey Parker. Yes, he’s the co-creator of South Park and The Book of Mormon, but Cannibal was his first show, and it shows.

It features all of Parker’s trademark gifts for politically incorrect japes and gross-outs. Indeed, there are splatter-zone seats ringing the stage where patrons are positioned to be doused with various theatrical replicas of bodily fluids expelled from various character orifices.

What the show doesn’t have are well-crafted comic characters (even gross ones) or a small twinge of wit. And the timing! Long pauses surround most lines as the actors appear to grope for what to say next. This is hard to understand, since director Patrick Ciamacco has proven himself to be excellent at his craft. Evidently he spent too much time making sure the fart nozzles and eyeball squirters were working perfectly.

The story? It’s based on the true account of Alferd (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) Packer who was officially charged with cannibalism for dining on some members of his expeditionary party when they were snowed in somewhere on the way to Colorado during the winter of 1874.

That’s a lot to chew on, but in this 90-minute show the fun cannibalism stuff doesn’t happen until about the 75-minute mark. That leaves a lot of time to fill and this cast isn’t up to the challenge—unless you laugh loudly and reflexively whenever anyone says a dirty word or does something disgusting. In that case it would be easier to just attend any seven-year-old boy’s birthday party.

I have nothing against gross and offensive humor, as long as it is performed with skill and a soupcon of intelligence. None of that is present in this show, except for a clever rendition of “Let’s Build a Snowman” performed wonderfully by David Turner and a reasonably joyous ensemble singing of “Hang the Bastard” after Packer is arrested for his dietary choices.

As Packer, Noah Hrbek sings adequately but is oddly and inappropriately inoffensive. And Meg Martinez as Polly, a local reporter who tries to get the story, also sings well but does not have the acting chops to handle some supposedly amusing moments.

Trey Parker is a gift to the world for his later works cited above which are clever, subversive, and hilariously brilliant. As for Cannibal, it’s only for the hard-core fans of juvenilia (insert wet fart sound here). Timing!

Cannibal, the Musical
Through October 28 at Blank Canvas Theatre, West 78 Street Studios, 1300 W. 78 St., 440-941-0458, blankcanvastheatre.com.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Fences, Karamu House

(Darryl Tatum as Troy and Colleen Longshaw as Rose)

If good fences make good neighbors (and successful at burglars), bad fences are a disaster. Especially those fences we erect to separate us from people we care about.

Those structures, with their literal and figurative heft, are in play in August Wilson’s Fences, now at Karamu House. This oft-produced play, which recently garnered awards with Denzel Washington as the lead on Broadway and in the film version, is sublimely well-crafted.

And in this staging at Karamu, most of the relationship drama comes through, even though there are some wrinkles along the way.  The action swirls around Troy Maxson, a volatile homeowner in a run-down section black community in Pittsburgh. Covering the years from 1957 to 1965, Wilson explores what makes Maxson tick with his friend Bono, his wife Rose and his sons Cory and Lyons. Troy’s brother, Gabriel, who suffered brain damage in an accident, is also a key part of the mix.

Troy was a great baseball player back in the day (that would be the 1930s), but discrimination kept him out of the big leagues. He has harbored resentment ever since, understandably so, and that affects his daily life. He’s even in the process of building a fence around his scrabbly yard to keep out things—maybe other people but certainly the Devil, with whom he has frequent and aggressive chats.

As Troy, Darryl Tatum does what he does very well, which is registering anger. He comes down hard on his son Cory since the young man dreams of a football scholarship. But dad is against it, trying to protect him from the prejudice he faced. While Tatum is often effective in this contentious aspect of Troy’s character, the smooth storyteller and good friend facets of Troy’s personality get short shrift. That sadly makes Troy more of a shallow character than he should be.

But that shortcoming is compensated for by the performance of Colleen Longshaw’s Rose, a warm and loving woman who is righteously enraged when she learns of Troy’s infidelity. In that moment, her pain makes Troy’s anger fade into nothingness. Also excellent are Dar’jon M. Bentley as frustrated but respectful Cory and Peter Lawson Jones as Troy’s ever faithful pal Bono. Although he has little to work with, Dyrell Barnett is fine as Lyons, a young man who would rather hang out in jazz clubs.

In some ways, the most powerful character in the play is Gabriel, since he is clearly a symbol of otherworldly innocence and redemption. Carrying a trumpet around at all times (like Gabriel the angel), sweet Gabe is just a slightly comical interlude until the end, when he is called upon to open the pearly gates. Prophet Seay is simply superb as Gabe, using his body instead of a note from the battered trumpet to help his brother gain access heaven.

This is not a perfect rendition of Wilson’s fine play, but it has moments that will stick with you for a long time.

Through October 21 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89 St., 216-795-7070, karamuhouse.org.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Plath and Orion, Cesear’s Forum

(Julia Kolibab as Jane and Mary Alice Beck as M.A.)

At a time when women are demanding that their voices be heard, this pairing of two one-acts gives voice to four females who definitely have something to say.

And although the material is often fast moving and sometimes densely intellectual, the experience is heightened since it displays the extraordinary talents of four of our area’s finest actors: Rachel Lee Kolis, Aimee Collier, Mary Alice Beck and Julia Kolibab.

In the first play, The Great Nebula in Prion by the acclaimed playwright Lanford Wilson, two thirty-something women are knocking back brandies after meeting by accident at Bergdorf’s in New York City. Set in the early 1970s, the women represent two versions of successful womanhood. Louise (Kolis) is a successful dress designer who lives in a classy apartment overlooking Central Park, where the action takes place.

Her old friend Carrie (Collier) is a former political activist who is now married and living a cosseted life in a Boston suburb. Their accidental meeting leads to some stiff interchanges and a few snippy comments that the women share with the audience as asides. But in this play, the asides are often heard by the other woman on stage, and that seems perfectly fine with them.

This clever wrinkle to the proceedings succeeds in showing how each woman is willing to give the other some space. But  once the brandy really starts flowing it’s clear that they’re having as much trouble communicating with each other as they’re having in their ”successful” lives.

Louise compares herself to Coco Chanel with acidic brevity: “I drape, Chanel cuts.” Still, it is noted that Chanel has made the same dress for years. For Carrie, her dreams of changing the world have been buried in shopping trips to New York City and, evidently, a talent for bibulousness.

In this play Wilson, who became the master of writing full plays, struggles a bit with the one-act form. The short form is demanding, showing flaws in structure and pace that can be absorbed more easily in a longer play. And Nebula teeters on the brink, never quite committing fully to a more nuanced exploration of these two women.

Speaking of women with challenges, Jane (Kolibab) and M.A. (Beck)are two literary academics in the throes of over-analysis in Plath, Sexton & the Art of Confession, created by the director of these two plays, Greg Cesear. In this piece, the women are sharing some time after attending a seminar, sorting out their critical feelings about two renowned women poets, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

Those poets, both of whom suffered from severe depression, had a friendship until Plath killed herself in 1963. Sexton followed that path, committing suicide about a decade later. But while they were alive, both write powerful poetry about their most personal thoughts and inner demons.

In this play, the two female academics discuss the personal cost of artistic creation and the difference between the authentic self and the literary self. This is exceptionally thorny territory and it is a tribute to the actors that they can make this wave of heady dialogue even mildly interesting. These actors also address the audience directly, but with a bit less attitude than the first two.

It is clear that Plath and Sexton learned from each other and that led to, what: Their death, or their salvation? And what are M.A. and Jane learning from each other? That is in the eye of the beholder.

What is not up for debate is that Cesear’s Forum always produces plays that engage audiences in unique and compelling ways, even when they’re less than successful in all aspects. In short, they take risks, which are the lifeblood of art in general and theater in particular.

So we are all better for this little theater, under the lobby of the Ohio Theatre, that continues to investigate theatrical material no one else would think of touching.

Plath and Orion
Through October 27, produced by Cesear’s Forum, Playhouse Square, Kennedy’s Down Under, 1501 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Alabama Story, Ensemble Theatre

Perhaps our country will be saved by bunnies.

A few months ago, John Oliver on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” brought out an adorable children’s book that promoted good things such as love and acceptance. It was titled “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo,” and was a send-up of another bunny book, “A Day in the Life of the Vice President,” written by Mike Pence’s daughter Charlotte.

In that first book the real-life pet of the Pence family, Marlon Bundo, is the star as he follows daddy Pence around the White House. In the second book, Marlon is re-imagined as a gay bunny that falls for the dashing bunny-stud Wesley. This jab at VP Pence’s anti-LGBTQ stances has been very successful, outselling the original Bundo book by miles.

But these weren’t the first bunnies to be involved in political dust-ups. Back in 1958, illustrator Garth Williams wrote “The Rabbits’ Wedding,” a charming little kids’ tome about a love affair and marriage of a black male bunny and a white female bunny. Within a year, it became a huge point of controversy with Alabama State Senator Edward Eddins claiming the book was promoting interracial relations.

And that brings us to the current play at Ensemble Theatre, Alabama Story, in which playwright Kenneth Jones relates the real-life controversy through the eyes of chief librarian for the State, Emily Reed. In this telling, Reed locks horns with a Senator Higgins, while a secondary story involving a young white woman, Lily, and her black pal Josh from years ago plays out simultaneously.

In all, this is an admirable and well-intentioned effort. But the script by Jones, while sweet and compassionate, is often far too instructive and didactic. It also gets tangled up in unnecessary factoids about Reed’s life and career, unable to shake off the urge to share all the jots and tittles of his Wikipedia research.

This problem is not helped by the production, under the direction of Tyler Whidden, that can’t decide what acting style is appropriate. As Reed, Anne McEvoy gives a solid and sensible portrayal of a woman fighting for literary freedom. And she is nicely matched by Cody Kilpatrick Steele who plays her faithful assistant Thomas Franklin.

Things go downhill from there. The side story of Lily and Josh is meant to provide a human face to the issues of integration and intermarriage. But Adrienne Jones and Eugene Sumlin never crack the code on this section of the play, floundering in a haze of interpersonal discomfort that doesn’t feel intentional.

But there are other characters that fare even worse under Whidden’s supervision. As the Senator, here renamed Higgins, the fine actor Joseph Milan portrays the southern lawmaker as a cross between Gov. George Wallace and Foghorn Leghorn. It is a burlesque interpretation that doesn’t match the other performances in style.

The most egregious overacting is turned in by Craig Joseph, who plays the author/illustrator Williams in addition to other characters. For some reason, director Whidden allows Joseph to turn what should be a sly, rueful speech by Williams into a fulsome, spittle-spewing rant. And some of his other small characters—an overly crippled State representative, in particular—are too showy to merge easily with the others.

So it would be a good idea to vote for library tax levies and to read “The Rabbits’ Wedding” to your little ones (it’s still in print), as well as the endearing “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo.” But you may find “A Day in the Life of the Vice President” and this Ensemble Theatre production a tad less satisfying.

Alabama Story
Through September 30 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930, ensembletheatrecle.org.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Don Quijote, New World Performance Lab

There are many ways to tell a story, ways that extend far beyond the usual scripted dialogue and blocking that you find in most theaters.

For the past 25 years, the folks at the New World Performance Lab have been exploring those off-the-beaten-path ways of storytelling. And now, in their production of Don Quijote, many of those pathways are on full and delightful display.

This is a bilingual adaptation based on a version by Patricia Suarez, but the stories are easy to follow for anyone willing to plug into their childlike spirit and experience a visceral performance that is both engrossing and amusing. The story of Don Quixote (our English spelling) is familiar to most of us, thanks to The Man of La Mancha and many other renditions. Those stories have inspired many of us to tilt at our own personal windmills from time to time, even though failure was almost assured.

The things that draw us to this story of the “knight of the woeful countenance,” the man with a pure heart and an indomitable spirit, are energetically portrayed on NWPL’s arena stage, occupied by six talented performers and one guitarist (Adam Keeler). As the director James Slowiak states in his program notes, it is a story of theater and lunacy, of clowns and caballeros, of life and death.

The different stages of DQ’s story unfold at a brisk pace, with the actors only a couple feet away from the audience. And all the emotions are worn on everyone’s sleeves—the boundless joy when Don connects with people, the sadness when they remove Don’s books in order to make him “sane,” and the victory he achieves even in death.

The cast is led by Jairo Cuesta in the title role, and he has a magnetic presence on stage, making even the smallest poses and gestures feel suffused with meaning. As he proceeds on his adventures, he is accompanied by the other performers who employ dance, song, mime, masks, and fart jokes. Plus, there’s a rolling platform with shelves that carries colorful costumes (designed by Inda Blatch-Geib and Dred Geib) and props that are employed at a moment’s notice.

Members of the ensemble include Jamie Hale as Don’s faithful sidekick Sancho Panze, and Justin Hale as several riveting characters including Death. Debora Totti is concise and specific in all her character iterations, including a most demonstrative monkey.  Also on the animal front, Chris Buck fashions a quite believable horse, without any exotic WarHorse-style accoutrements, while Rosilyn Jentner contributes a number of other compelling characters.

In short, this 90-minute production, which is an encore presentation by the NWPL, demonstrates flashes of multiple theatrical traditions, living up to the Lab part of their name. But this is a Lab that you’ll be happy to spend some time in, accompanied by original Spanish songs arranged for guitar by James Marron.

So if you’re a Clevelander who doesn’t stray far from the home turf when considering a night out, give your GPS a new challenge and take a seat in the Lab. It may help you make your own kind of discovery.

Don Quijote
Through September 29, produced by the New World Performance Lab at the Balch Street Theater, 220 South Balch Street, Akron, 44302, nwplab.com, 330-867-3299.