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,

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,

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,, 330-867-3299.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Little Night Music, Lakeland Civic Theatre

“Musicals continue to be the only art form, popular or otherwise, that is publicly criticized by illiterates.” That comment by composer Stephen Sondheim certainly hits close to home, however I’m forced to agree with him. Most theater critics, myself included, don’t have the musical training to be qualified to render fully informed judgment on these works.

And yet, here we are. Fortunately for me, ever since I began reviewing shows about 20 years ago, Martin Friedman has been directing musicals at Lakeland Civic Theatre. And that has made my job both more enjoyable and easier, since his unabashed love for the “art form” and his scrupulous attention to detail in rendering Sondheim’s glorious ouvre, often carries the day.

This is happily the case with Lakeland’s current production of A Little Nigh Music, the elegant and droll musical with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, this show is the rare example of a Sondheim show with a happy ending.

From the vocal overture sung by a five-person chorus to that rom-com conclusion, this production directed by Friedman (his 50th at this theater!) is a nearly constant delight. Without going into details over which I have no firm grasp, suffice to say that Sondheim’s waltz-inspired music is an auditory feast. And thanks to Jonathan Cooper’s sensitive musical direction, the dozen musicians in the orchestra perform most admirably.

For a show about love and flirtation at the turn of the 20th century in Sweden, Night Music feels remarkably contemporary and witty. As the characters jockey for position emotionally, and frequently amusingly, the music envelops their efforts in a cloud of effortless pleasure.

Friedman has assembled a most talented cast for this second staging of ALNM during his tenure. As Fredrik, the middle-age man who is married to the jejune 18-year-old virgin Anne, Rob Albrecht is a bundle of confusion as he tries to plan an amorous foray with the youngster by reading something to her (“De Maupassant’s candor/Would cause her dismay/The Brontes are grander/ But not very gay/Her taste is much blander/I’m sorry to say/But is Hans Christian Andersen/Ever risqué?”)

Anne is, as promised, a gaggle of squeals and giggles, and Sarah Clare is both charming and irritating, as she should be. Meanwhile, Fredrik’s intense son Henrik (an excellent Eric Fancher) is longing for Anne and waiting agonizingly for his life to begin.

Much of the drama swirls around Desiree Armfeldt, a renowned actress and Fredrik’s former lover. Trinidad Snider has a deft touch with this woman whose sardonic take on life eventually results in the hit song, “Send in the Clowns.” Snider makes that familiar tune ache with longing, eschewing the drier and more world weary tone that most singers employ.

Adding immensely to the enjoyment are Ian Atwood as the pompous Count Carl-Magnus, Neely Gevaart as his ever-snarky wife Charlotte, and Mim Goloboff in the role of Desiree’s mother Madame Armfeldt, the matriarch of her family who is also possessed of a sharp tongue.

A Little Night Music is a richly satisfying production, and a fitting marker of Friedman’s ever-building legacy at Lakeland. May the music play on, for us illiterates and others, for a long time.

A Little Night Music
Through September 30 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, 7700 Clocktower Dr., Kirtland, 440-525-7134,

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Jane Eyre, Cleveland Musical Theatre

When is a work of art just the right size? That is a question that comes to mind when watching the remarkable production of Jane Eyre, the musical with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and book, with additional lyrics, by John Caird.

This production is billed as a “world premiere revised version” since it has taken the sizable show that opened on Broadway in 2000 and cut the cast and orchestra rather significantly. What we have now are ten performers, seven of whom portray multiple characters. The cast is a mix of Broadway and local Cleveland actors, and they acquit themselves splendidly in this tale of the young woman from the eponymous Charlotte Bronte novel.

The goal of the producers is to craft a show that is a manageable size, a chamber version that could more easily be attempted by small to medium-sized theater companies. That goal would appear to have been attained, since the play is a fast-moving affair thanks to the lean and inventive direction by Miles Sternfeld.

Still, the original novel presents challenges aplenty since it covers many years but not a lot of visible action. Poor Jane makes her way from one miserable situation to another while she burns, internally, for freedom from the stultifying confines of being female in 19th century England. Since most of Bronte’s most glorious work happens inside Jane’s head, it doesn’t afford opportunities for brash and bold staging.

Sternfeld and the creators amp up the wattage by having the ensemble of actors share the narration which came originally from Jane herself. And thanks to the near-constant stylized movement fashioned by choreographer Martin Cespedes, there is a sense of things happening all the time when in reality it’s pretty static.

The play is blessed with two immensely strong performers in the leads. In the title role, Andrea Goss cranks a powerful voice from her small frame, and while she isn’t as homely as Jane Eyre was said to be, one feels her vulnerability as she tries to forge a life for herself against all odds. As the wealthy Edward Rochester, Matt Bogart invests each of his songs with rich nuance that sometimes isn’t present in the words and notes.

About the music: While the show isn’t sung-through, it is often in recitative mode, and this can become a bit repetitive at times as it follows the dips and swells of a composition that, while beautiful, eventually becomes overly familiar. This situation improves in Act Two when some more distinctive songs—a humorous turn in “The Gypsy” and the equally diverting “Slip of a Girl”—drop in to break the pace.

The supporting cast does yeoman work with multiple roles as Alison England, Laura Perrotta and Gregory Violand change characters with swift assuredness. The outstandingly talented group also includes Fabio Polanco, Cody Gerszewski, Lauryn Hobbs, Emma McLelland, and Genny Lis Padilla.

What works particularly well in this production is the highly coordinated ensemble movement that often end in a variety of tableaux with well-honed body lines or gestures that convey the mood of the moment. It is fascinating to watch.

What works less well is the music when it settles into its comfortable groove and doesn’t seek out surprising new avenues to pursue. This is particularly noticeable in the three duets featuring Jane and Rochester that, while sung skillfully and with passion, never rise musically to the distinctive level one might desire. When you find yourself paying more attention to the vocal craftsmanship rather than the soaring emotion, there’s a problem.

The missing element, it seems, is some way to dramatize Jane’s inner conflict and burning desire for personal liberty while staying true to the period. Once that is in place, the mundane geography of Jane’s journey can become a battlefield (#MeTooJane), and the play will truly take flight.

“Jane Eyre” is a romance tucked inside a not-so-quiet feminist screed, down to the well-known crazy woman in the attic. Back then, the words had to be softer and the attacks more oblique back when Bronte wrote them. But this production shows a clear path to making Jane Eyre, the new revised musical version, an outstanding theatrical experience for years to come.

Jane Eyre

Through September 9, produced by the Cleveland Musical Theatre in association with Cuyahoga Community College East, Simon Rose Mandel Theatre, 4250 Richmond Road, Highland Hills, 216-584-6808,