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.