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.