Monday, May 25, 2015

A preview: EXACT CHANGE @ PlayhouseSquare/Helen--original play by local critic, writer and actor, explores his/her transgender journey

Before transitioning in 1990, Christine Howey was Richard Howey, a celebrated stage actor in Cleveland, known for playing such heavy-hitting male roles as Lucifer, Goebbels, “Terrible Jim Fitch,” Richard Nixon, and God. 

Exact Change explores Howey’s gender transition from many angles in a one-woman tour-de-force spiked with political rants, historical reflections and an incisive wit that packs a punch. Described as “rewarding and life-changing theatre” (Fran Heller, Cleveland Jewish News), 

Exact Change combines spoken word poetry, monologue and dialogue in a deeply personal show that is as amusing as it is poignant. Exact Change is written and performed by Howey, with direction by Scott Plate.



The content is best described by its creator and subject:
“I feel a strong need to communicate the challenging issues and deep satisfaction that comes from finding one’s true gender. I know the idea of a gender change is a very foreign one for most people…so I wanted to make the feelings and aspirations of a transgender person accessible and as understandable as possible.“
– Christine Howey




The show has received endorsing reviews in its development including:

"One of the most compelling and fascinating one-person shows I've ever seen!  The writing and performance are enthralling, the ending is startling!  This is a must see!"


--Roy Berko, broadwayworld.com, artsamerica.com, coolcleveland.com, www.royberko.info

 “The writing is funny, fierce, bawdy, and smart. Howey commands the stage, hurling lightning strikes of emotion and insight.”

 – Dee Perry, Senior Host/Producer, 90.3 WCPN/Ideastream/NE Ohio Public Radio

 About the Playwright:


A native of Northeast Ohio, Howey is a graduate of Brecksville High School and Kent State University. She taught English in the Cleveland Public School system, followed by a 35 year career in advertising. In 1999, she began work on a solo show dealing with her transgender journey, which was performed in New York and Cleveland.


Exact Change takes the stage for two weeks only, Thursday, June 11 – Saturday, June 13 and Thursday June 25 – Saturday, June 27, 2015, in Playhouse Square’s intimate Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre. 

Performance times are Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 5:00pm and 8:30pm. General admission tickets are $29.50 and available at playhousesquare.org, 216-241-6000 or the Playhouse Square Ticket Office. Discounts are available for groups of 10+ by calling 216-640-8600.


For additional information, visit www.ExactChangeThePlay.com

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Disappointing DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA @ Cleveland Public Theatre


About fifteen years ago, an African American student on a Semester at Sea around the world educational cruise jumped overboard.  The ship was sailing toward the Suez Canal, with Africa on the port side.  The ship turned in the Gulf of Suez, and miraculously found the college student.  The young man, after arriving back, stated that he had jumped overboard because he “wanted to touch the water, that touched the land from which his forefathers were taken into slavery.  He wanted to be reunited with his history.” 

Whether Ethan Davis, the author of DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA, which is now in production at Cleveland Public Theatre, was exposed to the true tale of the Semester at Sea student is unknown, but there is an eerie parallel.  Dontrell Jones III, an 18-year old honor student dreams of an ancestor (his great-grandfather) who dove off a slave ship, and dedicates his life to “kiss” the sea and meet the man.  The student who dove off the ship, seemed to have an analogous purpose. 

There are similarities and differences.  The student who jumped from the ship was a championship swimmer and kept himself afloat until help arrived. Dontrell, who began his quest by unrealistically diving into a pool, could not swim, and was saved by a lifeguard.  

The student had given no prior evidence of any desire for a historical connection. Dontrell, on the other hand, spends the entire play leaving messages for “future generations” in a mini cassette recorder.

Dontrell, an honor student with a scholarship to the prestigious Johns Hopkins University, puts aside his future in an attempt to find the truth of his dream.  With the help of Erika, the lifeguard, who supplies a boat, Dontrell sails off in pursuit of his goal.  The student was expelled from Semester at Sea and sent home minus academic credits. 

Questions arise: what will a person do to satisfy his dreams, what are the consequences of pursuing a goal, and is either Dontrell or the student’s desires realistic or reasonable?

The CPT production was disappointing.  It failed to develop, in a compelling manner, the winner of the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association’s new play award.  The oft-poetic language often was lost due to poor projection and articulation. The blocking on the thrust stage, which found the audience on three sides of the action, was not well conceived, with much sound being lost due to poor planning of stage movements. 

So much time is spent changing scenes, dragging props on and off the stage, that the momentum of the play is disrupted.  And, much of the acting is on a surface level.

Young Kalim Hill gives a reasonable interpretation of Dontrell III, but lacks the depth of acting experience and training to dig into the young man and create a full character.  On the other hand, Sheffia Randall Dooley fleshes out the role of Dantell’s mother, into a realistic woman.  The rest of the cast stays close to the surface in their character development.

Todd Krispinski’s set, which transforms itself into a living room, aquarium swimming pool and boat, is creatively and impressively conceived.

DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA is Cleveland Public Theatre’s 2nd production in their affiliation with NNPN (National New Play Network), an organization of theatres dedicated to new theatre.  “Rolling World Premieres,” a project of NNPN, supports the idea that a play often needs more than one reading or production to fully flesh out storylines and dialogue. Over the course of a year, four to six different theatres across the US will produce the same play, with the author in attendance to work with each production.  Besides CPT DONTRELL is or will be staged at Skylight Theatre (LS), Phoenix Theatre (Indianapolis), Theatre Alliance (D.C.), and Oregon Contemporary Theatre (Eugene)

Capsule judgement: After writing this review I read the reactions of critics from other cities where DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA has been presented.  It appears that Cleveland got short-changed by director Megan Sanderg-Zakian.  Other reviews recount much laughter, vivid visualizations and the line interpretation that was “poetically transfixing.”  These  weren’t present in the local production. I wish I had seen that quality at CPT.  Unfortunately, I didn’t.

DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA, runs from May 21 through June 6 at 7:00 p.m. in the James Levin Theatre at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets ($12-28) call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.

(Side note:  I was a faculty member and a psychological support staff on the Semester on Sea voyage noted.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

2015 Summer Cleveland Theater Calendar

Some theatres such as Cleveland Play House, Dobama, Great Lakes Theatre and Ensemble are dark for the summer season, but there are lots of other great venues operating.  Here’s a list of some of the offerings of the summer season (May through August).  SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL THEATRES!

ACTOR’S SUMMIT

330-374-7568 or go to www.actorssummit.org
Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sundays @ 2 PM

 ALWAYS PATSY CLINE (May 28-June 21, 2015)—A musical tribute to Patsy Cline’s spirit and a celebration of her music—“Crazy,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Walkin’ After Midnight” and 17 more.

BECK CENTER

216-521-2540 or http://www.beckcenter.org
8 p.m. evenings, 3 p.m. matinees

AMERICAN IDIOT (July 10-August 16 2015)—Two-time Tony winner tells the story of three lifelong friends, forced to choose between their dreams and the safety of suburbia.

BLANK CANVAS




440-941-0458 or www.blankcanvastheatre.com

TRIASSIC PARK THE MUSICAL (June 12-27)—Religion, identity, sex and raptors!  Chaos is unleashed upon the not-so-prehistoric world when one dinosaur in a clan of females turns out to be male!

OUR TOWN (August 14-29)—Thornton Wilder’s beloved,  Pulitzer Prize-winning classic depicts life, love and death in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire while exploring life’s meaning and purpose.

CAIN PARK
14591 Superior Road at Lee, Cleveland Heights
216-371-3000 (Box office opens May 23--Cleveland Heights residents/May 30-- general public)
Information: http://www.cainpark.com/

GODSPELL (June 11-28)—Alma Theatre—Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak’s “hippie” musical with such pop songs as “Day by Day,” “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” and “Learn Your Lessons,” contains a series of parables based on the Gospel of Matthew.

CLEVELAND PUBLIC THEATRE


216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org

DONTRELL, WHO KISSED THE SEA (May 21-June 6, 2015)
It’s a month before his first day of college and Dontrell Jones III wakes up from a dream that will change his life.

JOHANNA:  FACING FORWARD (May 28-June 13)—7:30 Gordon Square Theatre--Based on the true story of Johanna Orozco, a Cleveland teen who survived a gunshot wound to the face by her boyfriend in 2007 and whose story sparked a nation-wide movement against teen domestic violence.

CLEVELAND SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
Free outdoor performances
For sites and times go to: http://www.cleveshakes.com/

THE LIFE OF TIMON OF ATHENS (June 5-28, 2015)—Set in 1970, against a backdrop of unpopular war and student unrest, TIMON is a hilarious history of his hypocrisy.

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (July 17-August 2, 2015)-- Filled with contrasts and controversy, containing comic elements mixed with trenchant comment on the nature of intolerance, justice and forgiveness.

convergence continuum

convergence-continiuum.org or 216-687-0074
Thursday-Saturday @ 8

THE RECKLESS RUTHLESS BRUTAL CHARGE OF IT, OR THE TRAIN PLAY (June 26-July 18, 2015)—A “comi-threnody musical” about a 12-year old heroine who is on a comic-poetic collision course with time, history and a supernatural climax.

TEAR IT OFF (August 14-September 5, 2015)—A world premiere of Cleveland playwright Mike Geither’s play about two sisters who pass their time by writing a romance novel.

OBERLIN SUMMER THEATRE FESTIVAL

Free family classics in rotating rep
check blog  for dates of individual productions:     http://www.oberlinsummertheaterfestival.com/current-season/

TREASURE ISLAND (July 3-August 8, 2015)—Ken Ludwig’s play about 14-year old Jim Hawkins who finds a treasure map and embarks on an unforgettable voyage of treachery and mayhem.

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (July 10-August 8, 2015)—Shakespeare’s bawdy comedy which asks, “all ends well. Or does it?”

CRUMBS FROM THE TABLE OF JOY (July 17-August 7, 2015)—17-year-old Ernestine questions conflicting ideas and tolerance needed to live in a changing world when her African American family moves from Florida to Brooklyn.

OHIO SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL

Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens
714 N. Portage Path, Akron, Ohio 44303
For tickets go tohttp://www.ohioshakespearefestival.com/ or call 1-888-71-tickets

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (July 2-19, 2015)—Considered Shakespeare’s finest comedy, it examines honor, shame, and politics.

KING HENRY (July 30-August 16, 2015)—A Shakespeare history play based on the life of Henry VIII of England.

OLMSTED PERFORMING ARTS

6941 Columbia Road  Olmsted Falls
For tickets call 440-235-6722 or go to http://www.olmstedperformingarts.com/
Performances at 7:30 Friday and Saturday, and 2:30 on Sunday)

GUYS AND DOLLS (August 7-9, 14-16, 2015)—A musical that takes us from the heart of Times Square to the cafes of Havana, Cuba, and even into the sewers of New York City, but eventually everyone ends up right where they belong.

PLAYHOUSESQUARE


For tickets:  216-241-6000 or go to http://www.playhousesquare.org
See the website for specific dates, times and details of each show

JOSHUA SETH’S BEYOND BELIEF (June 6, 2015)--Hanna Theatre—Combines thought reading, magic, hypnotism and some good old fashioned showmanship to create an atmosphere of mystery and laughter.

EXACT CHANGE (June 11-27, 2015)—The Helen--Christine Howey’s personal story is a tour-de-force spiced with political rants, historical reflections, and personal stories about her transitioning from being Dick Howey.

DOG POUNDED (July 17-August 8, 2015)—Kennedy’s Theatre—Tim Tyler’s comedic production returns for its second season to tell the tale of the tortured history of Cleveland Browns’ fans through words and music.

RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN’S CINDERELLA (July 21-August 2, 2015)—Connor Palace--Part of the Key Bank Series, this Tony Award winning musical, is a contemporary take on the classic tale.

THE BOOK OF MORMAN (August 25-30, 2015)—State Theatre--The nine-time Tony winner returns for another visit!   If you hurry, you might be able to get tickets this time!

PORTHOUSE

Kent State University’s professional theatre
Located on the grounds of Blossom Center
For tickets:  330-672-3884 or http://www.kent.edu/porthouse/tickets
(Tickets go on sale May 26th)

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (June 11-27, 2015)—Porthouse’s Artistic Director Terri Kent stars  in Stephen Sondheim’s musical about a tangled web of romantic affairs.  Libretto includes “Send in the Clowns.”

VIOLET (July 9-25, 2015)—Tells the musical tale of self-discovery by a young lady with a disfigured face who is seeking out an Evangelical minister.

HAIRSPRAY (July 30-August 16, 2015)—With her bouffant hair and social activist attitudes, plus-sized teen Tracy Turnblad advocates for racial integration in her hometown of Baltimore in this family friendly treat. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A VIEW OF BROADWAY FROM THE NORTH COAST




New York is about 500 miles from Cleveland.  Several times a year I wander forth to see the bright lights of Broadway and venture into some theatres.  This spring, during a period of a rash of show openings, I had the chance to see some excellent offerings.

Of course, seeing local talent on stages on the Big White Way adds to the excitement.  As has been the case recently, Baldwin Wallace University Music Theatre majors trod the stages.  Most prominent in the new shows is Jill Paice, who proudly states her BW affiliation in the Playbill of the smash hit AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.  Chris McCarrell, another BWU grad recently took over the role of Marius in LES MISÉRABLE and recent grad, Kyle Jean Baptiste has been cast as Jean Valjean’s understudy.

Here are capsule judgments of three new shows.  To read the whole review of each, go to http://www.royberkinfo.blogspot.com/, scroll down the right hand column to “Broadway Theatre,” and click on the link.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS: A New Musical, is a gorgeous symphony of dance, song, sets and graphics.  From its opening expository dance sequence, to the enveloping concluding ballet, it seamlessly unfolds as a visually compelling production that is breathtaking to watch.

Capsule judgement:  AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, A New Musical, is a visual, dance-driven Broadway story-telling creation that is gorgeous, enchanting, seamless and sophisticated.   It is a tribute not only to the music of George and Ira Gershwin, but to the genius of director Christopher Wheeldon, and the performance abilities of a stellar cast.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS:  A New Musical, is being performed in an open run, at The Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, New York

HAND TO GOD

Tyrone is evil.  Tyrone, he of big, vacant eyes is both disturbing and funny.  Tyrone is vile, violent and demonic.  Tyrone is raunchy.   Tyrone is foul-mouthed.

Tyrone is a sock puppet who is the anti-hero of Robert Askins’ HAND TO GOD, a Broadway play that causes convulsive laughter while terrifying.

Capsule judgement:  HAND TO GOD is a compelling tale of two lost people, caught up in their own lack of ability to cope with the death of a major person in their lives, who are losing their fight to chart a course of healthy reality and turn to escapism to get through the angst.  The production is well conceived and performed and makes for a fascinating theatrical experience in which laughter acts as an escape from pain.

HAND TO GOD  is being performed in an open-ended run at the Booth Theatre, 22 West 45thStreet, New York.

SOMETHING ROTTEN

From its opening, the creative “Welcome to the Renaissance,” to the “Finale,” Broadway newbie book writers, Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, and music and lyric conceivers, Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, create laugh out-loud farcical material.

It’s classical theatre gone awry, complete with show-stoppers, encore after encore (whether the audience wants them or not), ridiculous sight gags, double entendres, sexual allusions, and male costumes with huge cod pieces.

Capsule judgment:  SOMETHING ROTTEN is a rare theatrical event…a wonderful musical farce.  Anyone who wants to go to the theatre and have a great time, unburdened by a complicated plot, listen to fun lyrics, and experience two acts of non-stop laughter…this “very new musical” should be their play of choice!  

SOMETHING ROTTEN is in an open run at the St. James Theatre, 26 West 44th Street, New York

Farcical SOMETHING ROTTEN! A VERY NEW MUSICAL delights!

Did you know that Shakespeare was an arrogant fop?  That he stole the ideas, as well as much of the text from his plays from others?  Are you aware that some of those who worked with Will actually hated him?  What about the fact that even he spouted about  how hard it was to be the Bard.  Did you know that because of him, the format for musicals was developed?  Are you aware that he was the rock star of his day?  Well, those are only some of the “facts” that are espoused in SOMETHING ROTTEN, a very new musical.

From its opening, the creative “Welcome to the Renaissance,” to the “Finale,” Broadway newbie book writers, Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell, and music and lyric conceivers, Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick, create laugh out-loud farcical material. 

SOMETHING ROTTEN is in the mold of SPAMALOT, THE PRODUCERS and THE BOOK OF MORMON.  It is filled with silliness and farcical actions. 

There are numerous references to the Bard’s plays and Broadway musicals. Someone not familiar with either of these topics might not get all the subtext.  But even they will find enough to laugh about.

How can a show with a score which contains such titles as “The Black Death,”  “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top,” “Welcome to the Renaissance,” “It’s Eggs,” and ‘To Thine Own Self” be anything but delightful?

The story centers on Nick and Nigel Bottom, an actor and his playwright brother, who live in the theatrical shadow of the Bard of Avon.  They desire to take some of the attention away from Shakespeare.  How to do it?  They pay a Soothsayer to look into the future.  His findings?  Shakespeare’s greatest hit is going to be a play named, “Omelet” and the next big trend in theatre is going to be musicals, where the actors sing many of their lines.  (And you thought the American musical was a modern invention!)  So, obviously the duo starts to one-up Will by writing a musical play about eggs.

Their efforts result in a kick line of dancing omelets, a silly story line, and ridiculous farcical actions.  The musical number “It’s Eggs!” ranks with THE PRODUCERS’ “Springtime for Hitler” as one of the funniest dance numbers in a Broadway musical.

It’s classical theatre gone awry, complete with show-stoppers, encore after encore (whether the audience wants them or not), ridiculous sight gags, double entendres, sexual allusions, and male costumes with huge codpieces.

We observe Shakespeare as "a hack with a knack for stealing anything he can,” who actually swipes not only the title, but plot devices and lines which turn out to be “his” HAMLET. (Oh, HAMLET, not OMELET!  As the soothsayer says, “Well, I was close!”)

Farce is hard to perform well because of the need for broad realism where the audience laughs with the performers, not at them.  Under director Casey Nickolaw’s deft hand, the cast makes the difficult look easy. 

Brian d’Arcy James (Nick Bottom) and Christian Borle (Shakespeare), noted for their starring roles on NBC’s Broadway musical take-off, SMASH, have wonderful comic timing.  James, with his strong jaw tightly set, rails against Shakespeare. Borle, with his saucer-eyes shinning, schemes back.  “God, I Hate Shakespeare” is countered by “Will Power” and “Hard to Be the Bard.”  Both have strong singing voices and know how to play farce.

John Cariani as Nigel Bottom is charming.  His “I Love the Way,” sung with the beautiful Kate Reinders (Portia) is young love incarnate.

Heidi Blickenstaff is delightful as Nick’s wife, one of the world’s first feminists, the Betty Freidan of the Elizabethan era.  Her “Right Hand Man,” sung with Brian d’Arcy James, and then as a solo, were well done.

Gerry Vichi as Shylock and Brad Oscar as Nostradamus almost steal the show.  Both are masters of the double take and are Borscht Belt pros at playing “shtick.”

Capsule judgment:  SOMETHING ROTTEN is a rare theatrical event…a wonderful musical farce.  Anyone who wants to go to the theatre and have a great time, unburdened by a complicated plot, listen to fun lyrics, and experience two acts of non-stop laughter…this “very new musical” should be their play of choice!  

SOMETHING ROTTEN is in an open run at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street, New York.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Tyrone, the Satan of Broadway, stars in HAND TO GOD

Tyrone is evil.  Tyrone, he of big, vacant eyes is both disturbing and funny.  Tyrone is vile, violent and demonic.  Tyrone is raunchy.   Tyrone is foul-mouthed. 

Tyrone is a sock puppet who is the anti-hero of Robert Askins’ HAND TO GOD, a Broadway play that causes convulsive laughter while terrifying.

HAND TO GOD centers on Jason, who lives with his mother in Cypress, Texas, in the heart of the Bible belt.  His father has recently died and both he and his mother are searching for a reason to exist.  

His mother, Marjery, at the encouragement of young and handsome Pastor Greg, who is romantically interested in her,  has organized the Christian Puppet Ministry in order to creatively teach faith and morality to the “good” children of the town. 

The emotionally fragile Jason is victimized by Timothy, the class bully.  The over-sexed charismatic teen-aged Timothy lusts for Margery, who, in a moment of need, gives in to his machinations.  Meanwhile, Jason has a secret fondness for Jessica, a caring classmate.

Jason creates Tyrone, a hand puppet, as part of the ministry, and his whole life changes.  Tyrone, like many alter-egos, is everything Jason is not.  He is dangerous, commanding, and irreverent.   He is Satan’s hand who challenges Jason to fulfill his darkest desires by becoming the young man’s destructive dominant personality. As mental health professionals will attest, once created, getting rid of the likes of Tyrone is difficult.

HAND TO GOD has gone through three reincarnations in New York.  In 2012 it opened at a 99-seat theatre to strong reviews.  It moved to a 249-seat off-Broadway theatre and evolved into a major hit.  It is now being played in the intimate 783-seat on-Broadway Booth Theatre, a venue reserved for “finely-crafted dramas.”  HAND TO GOD well fits that criteria.

Actor Steven Boyer, who portrays both Jason and Tyrone, has an intimate relationship with the sock puppet.  He built the googly eyed “monster” with the small mop of red hair when the show had its first reading at Pace University and it has been his intimate companion since.

Boyer is compelling.  Jason and Tyrone become so blended that when Boyer is creating the voice of Tyrone, he makes little effort to be a ventriloquist. It matters little as the sock puppet becomes so real that when Tyrone speaks, all eyes are on him, not Jason.  Tyrone becomes a real being.

When Boyer tries to rid himself of Tyrone in a battle to the end, it parallels a victim of Dissociative Identity Disorder who must fight to destroy the psychological issues of trauma that brought about the need for the protective or deviant split-off.  It is excruciating to watch Jason’s struggle to be free of his Satanic “other self.”

The rest of the cast well supports Boyer.  Geneva Carr is believable as Margery, Jason’s depressed mother.  Michael Oberholtzer is appropriately aggressive as Timothy, the bully with teenage hopping hormones.  Sarah Stiles as Jessica, who attempts to aid Jason by being supportive of him, is character-right, as is Marc Kudisch as Pastor Greg.

Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who was recognized by the Drama League for his production of HAND OF GOD, is making his Broadway directing debut with this staging.  He has a long history of productions at both Ensemble Theatre and other venues.  His skill is clear in this production as he keeps the action moving along at an appropriate pace, building up to the painful conclusion.  

Capsule judgement:  HAND TO GOD is a compelling tale of two lost people, caught up in their own lack of ability to cope with the death of a major person in their lives, who are losing their fight to chart a course of healthy reality and turn to escapism to get through the angst.  The production is well conceived and performed and makes for a fascinating theatrical experience in which laughter acts as an escape from the pain.

HAND TO GOD  is being performed in an open-ended run at the Booth Theatre, 22 West 45thStreet, New York.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS builds a stairway to paradise on Broadway

The 1951 film AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, is considered by many to be one of the  most successful movie musicals ever made.  It starred Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron and Oscar Levant.  The winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it was designated in 1993 for presentation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.”

In 2014, a stage version, written by Craig Lucas, directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, opened in Paris for a two-month run.

In April of 2015 a somewhat reconceived version opened on Broadway for what should be a long, long run!

In many ways, AMERICAN IN PARIS is a traditional old fashioned Broadway musical.  Boy meets girl, boy falls in love, girl falls in love, problems cause them to be separated, they come together, and, of course, they will live happily ever after.  But few, if any, traditional musicals, to date, have resulted in such an elegant mélange of the music, dance and concept as this show.

The somewhat contrived story basically follows the plot of the film, centering on an American soldier (Jerry Mulligan), who, following World War II, decides to ply his artistic skills in Paris.  He falls in love with a girl (Lise Dassin) who he encounters on the street.  With the assistance of a fellow ex-pat, a talented musician (Adam Hochberg),  he reconnects with Lise.  He finds out she is already engaged to a Parisian aristocrat (Henri Baurel), but that doesn’t thwart Jerry’s quest for her.  Lisa, who has a secret to hide, and her trio of suitors, under-go a series of dance and song experiences that eventually wend their way to a happy ending.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS: A New Musical, is a gorgeous symphony of dance, song, sets and graphics.  From its opening expository dance sequence, to the enveloping concluding ballet, it seamlessly unfolds as a visually compelling production that is breathtaking to watch.

Director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, a noted luminary of the ballet world, has so well conceived the production that even the grand boulevards of Paris, a  combination of projections by 59 Productions, Natasha Katz’s lighting designs, and Bob Crowley’s attractively painted backdrops, virtually dance. Added to this, Rob Fisher has adapted and arranged the original music and the film’s score with incomparable finesse.

Wheeldon has created a dance-driven style of story telling that grabs, holds and induces emotional wonder.  He creatively uses modern and classical dance moves to create fine story telling.  He molds together the use of techniques such as “jazz hands” with ballet point grace to create a new style of stage movement.

The cast are all triple threat performers.  Many are well known ballet dancers who can sing and act with amazing skill.

New York Ballet principal, Robert Fairchild, who is Broadway leading-man handsome, commands the stage in every way.  He doesn’t perform that role of Jerry, he is Jerry.  He has charisma and believability.  He has a physical and emotional connection with Leanne Cope (Lise) that translates into their being believable lovers.  His vocalizations of “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck” and “Liza” are dazzling.  His “Fidgety Feet” make sitting calmly in a seat without tapping your toes impossible.

Broadway newcomer, Leanne Cope, with her Leslie Caron adorableness, creates a charming Lise.  Trained at the Royal Ballet School, she is not only a brilliant dancer but her singing voice is wonderful.  Her “The Man I Love” is note-on. 

Brandon Uranowitz has a wonderful sense of comic timing and acting skills that make Adam into an accessible and often sympathetic soul.  He has a fine singing voice.

Jill Paice effectively creates Milo as a sophisticated, yet emotionally fragile wealthy woman who tries to buy what she wants.  Her versions of “Shall We Dance” and duets such as “Who Cares?,” and “But Not For Me” are well sung.

Max von Essen is believable as Henri, Lise’s fiancée, who knows that she is Jewish and was hidden by his family during the war while he secretly was in the resistance.  He has a fine singing voice.

Capsule judgement:  AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, A New Musical, is a visual, dance-driven Broadway story-telling creation that is gorgeous, enchanting, seamless and sophisticated.   It is a tribute not only to the music of George and Ira Gershwin, but to the genius of director Christopher Wheeldon, and the performance abilities of a stellar cast.

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS:  A New Musical, is being performed in an open run, at The Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, New York.  Tickets are for sale at various sites including Ticketmaster.com or 877-250-2929.  For information about the show go to:  AnAmericaninParisBroadway.com



Sunday, May 10, 2015

WOLVES, a supposed modern fairy tale, a bewildering experience at convergence-continuum

Steve Yockey’s WOLVES:  AN URBAN FABLE, now on stage at convergence-continuum, centers on three people, Ben and Jack, ex-lovers who still live in the same apartment, and Wolf, a trick that Jack picks up one night at a bar.

Ben, who comes from a small town is xenophobic, agoraphobic and jealous.  He is afraid of strangers and everything that is foreign.  He fears leaving the confines of the small apartment he shares with Jack, his former lover.  Though the relationship is over, as far as Jack is concerned, Ben still tries to cling on.  He attempts to limit Jack’s contacts with the outer world so that Jack will not find someone else and leave Ben.

The haphazardly developed script leaves much to the audience’s imagination.

Questions arise.   Why did Ben leave his small town and move to the big (unnamed) city?  How did this psychologically fragile man/child acquire a handsome lover like Jack?  What does Ben do to make money for rent and pay for other necessities since he refuses to leave the apartment?

Why is Jack, who probably moved in with Ben because he was desperate for a place to stay, still living in the apartment with the smothering Ben?  What, if anything, does he do to earn his keep?  How did the duo meet since Ben doesn’t leave the apartment?  There is a single line, thrown in much like an afterthought, that they used to go out and have fun, but that idea is never developed.

What we do know is that Jack goes out one evening with a desire to meet someone.  The someone turns out to be Wolf, not his real name but so named by Jack because Ben refers to the world outside as a dangerous place, filled with wolves. 

Wolf makes it clear, when Jack brings him back to the apartment, that what he wants is sex.  After a series of “getting to know you” short conversations, Wolf and Jack start to make out.  Their actions quickly turn  aggressive, both stripping off their shirts, Jack apparently asking for and getting rough sex.  Ben enters, picks up an axe, and destroys Wolf.  (Why an ax is in the apartment is not explained.  I guess we are to assume that it is there to protect the residents from potential invaders.)  Wolf is chopped up, off stage, and the play ends with some inane conversation between the blood soaked Jack and Ben.

At the start of the play, the narrator tells us that we shouldn’t look for a moral in this so-called modern day deconstruction of the Red Riding Hood fairy tale.  She’s not exactly accurate.  There are topics from which morals can be drawn, for those interested in searching for them.  There is the issue of sex and fear in modern culture.  There is the subject of mental illness.  There is the clash between love and need.   And, there is the issue of the morality of lustful murder.

Yockey is noted for being a poetic playwright who pushes the boundaries.  In spite of some award nominations (“Out” magazine’s top-10-stage plays of 2012, and being a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for best LGBT Drama of 2014/15),  WOLF is not a well-written script.   What the award committees saw as quality in the script is a mystery.

Much of the required exposition is left out.  The tie to Red Riding Hood is shallow.  Jack does wear a red hoodie when he goes out to the bar where he picks up the appropriately named Wolf. The characters are quite one-dimensional.  The script just stops.  It doesn’t end in a conclusion of finality.  I guess we can conclude that monsters lurk not only in the streets, but also within.

The con-con production is uneven.  Director Cory Molner does keep the action moving.  There is a clever use of lighting.

Handsome Beau Reinker has the boyish charm that is character-correct for Jack.  He should be praised for making the most out of lines that often have no written motivation for action.  The rest of the cast are not as successful in developing their roles.  In their behalf, they are often given lines that simply don’t translate well into the meaningful spoken word.

Capsule Judgement:  WOLVES:  AN URBAN FABLE is not a well-written script, nor does it have a compelling story line.  Though some may find the experience of value, others will find the experience bewildering.

WOLVES runs through May 30, 2015, at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Road.  Leave yourself time for maneuvering, as much of Tremont is dug up due to the construction of the new bridge over the Cuyahoga.  For information and reservations call 216-687-0074.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Behind the scenes story of the Cleveland Play House's Tony Award

 
At the end of each year, the Cleveland Critics Circle meets to select the winners of that year’s performance awards as well as to deal with matters of importance to area theatres.  At the session which brought to a close the 2014 season, I mentioned that Fran Heller, who was a member of CCC at the time,  had proposed several years ago that the group nominate the Cleveland Play House for The Regional Tony Award.  It had been agreed that the timing was probably not right as CPH was adjusting to its new home in the PlayhouseSquare area and a new Artistic Director was coming on board.
 


Now, however, the time was appropriate for the nomination as the move to the three new theatres in the Allen Theatre at PHSq had been successfully made and the new artistic director had had time to make her presence felt.  The idea was universally accepted. 
 


Andrea Simakis, of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com, volunteered to write the nomination letter.  Bob Abelman of the Cleveland Jewish News and The News Herald, and myself, of coolcleveland.com, artsamerica.com, broadwayworld.com, who are all members of the American Theatre Critics Association, agreed to second the nomination with our adapted versions of Andrea’s presentation.   
 


The nomination letters basically read:   
 


Cleveland Play House is the country’s first regional theater. Founded in 1915, CPH has entertained 12 million people in its more than 1,300 productions. Longevity aside, CPH’s commitment to fostering new talent makes it extraordinary. Alan Alda, Joel Gray and Paul Newman started their careers at Ohio’s flagship theater.
 


In 2011, CPH left its longtime home on Cleveland’s East Side for downtown’s Playhouse Square, the nation’s second-largest performing arts center. 

The move into the Allen Theatre complex, with its three state-of-the-art venues, allowed for more inventive staging and varied play selection. Today, the addition of CPH to Playhouse Square is the engine of an artistic renaissance that has helped  revitalize downtown Cleveland.
 


In 2012, CPH debuted The New Ground Theatre Festival, a weeklong celebration of original and avant garde works that culminates in the public reading of a play by a promising young playwright.
 
In May of this year, the comedy “Fairfield” by Eric Coble, will make its world premiere at CPH.  Coble developed the play at the CPH Playwrights’ Unit, an initiative designed to nurture new work. Coble’s “The Velocity of Autumn,” which opened on Broadway in 2014, was born at the Playwrights’ Unit.
 


The theater is also home to the Case Western Reserve University/  Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program. Alums of the three-year, tuition-free program include Tony Award nominee Elizabeth A. Davis, and “Mad Men’s” Rich Sommer.
 


For these reasons and a century of excellence CPH deserves this year’s regional Tony.”
 


Andrea’s, Bob’s and my documents were e-mailed to the ATCA committee in charge of conducting the selection. 
 


The wait began.
 


Early in 2015 the ballot of nominees for the Regional Theatre Tony Award were mailed to all members of the ATCA.  The Cleveland Play House’s name was on the list.  Ballots were marked by the membership and returned to the organization  for counting. 
 
Another waiting period began.
 


In late April the exciting word came that CPH had been selected to receive the award!
 
Laura Kepley, the theatre’s artistic director, recounted, “I was in the Cleveland airport, on my way to New York to see the opening of GROUNDED, the new play by my husband [George Brant].  I had just ordered a burrito for lunch.  My cell rang.  Kevin Moore [CPH’s Managing Director] was on the phone.  He excitedly told me of the notification of the Tony award.  I yelled, and threw my food up in the air, as I started screaming and sharing the news with total strangers.”  She doesn’t remember if she ever had lunch that day.  She continued, “I knew we had been nominated.  We were hoping for the award.  We are incredibly proud of the recognition.”
 


What does Kepley perceive to be the value of CPH receiving the recognition?   She indicated that the national spotlight is turned on Cleveland because of all the great things that are happening here.  The  Cleveland Play House now helps in the illumination. 
 
“It is a testimony to thousands of people who have done such hard work.  It is a stimulus for local pride.”  She also added, “People who have worked with us for years have reached out to share their Cleveland Play House experience.” 
 
“The recognition will help with fund raising.”  Kepley added, “It should help with attendance in affirming to those who have been coming for the CPH experience that they  have made a wise decision.  For those who used to come but don’t any longer, it may encourage them to see what we are now doing and act as an invitation to those who have never been in our theatres, to come experience Tony winning work.”
 


Kepley indicated that plans are for her, Moore and members of the Board to attend the New York ceremony.
 
She also said that the organization is in the process of planning a live-stream viewing party for The 69th annual Tony Awards hosted by CBS on Sunday, June 7th from Radio City Music Hall in New York City.   Another decision that has to be made is where to display the trophy.
 


Congratulations to The Cleveland Play House, and kudos to the Cleveland Critics Circle for its part in making the award a possibility.

FAIRFIELD delights and challenges beliefs at CPH

Cleveland Heights School Board member, Eric Coble, has an inside track on understanding the way schools work.   In his play, FAIRFIELD, he starts with the premise of an elementary school whose motto is, “Peace.  Love.  Respect for all.”  And then asks,  “What could possibly go wrong?”

Fairfield Elementary, a public school located in a liberal suburb (locally, think Solon or Beachwood) has everything going for it.  Parent participation, a diverse student body, a new African American principal with a reputation for creative leadership, and a Superintendent who encourages faculty involvement.  Add to that mix a dynamic new teacher who is full of ideas, is enthusiastic, and has a vivid imagination.

It’s February, it’s Black History month.  A time to teach respect for all.  As it turns out, Coble remind us, all the best laid plans can go astray!

Angela Wadley, the principal, in an attempt to provide an understanding of the plight of African Americans, invites an aged former member of the Black Panthers to speak at a student assembly.  He takes this opportunity to go off on a tirade, which includes advising the students to “rise up and kill the ‘honkies’.” 

New teacher, Laurie Kaminski, sends home a spelling list with words such as “chitlins,” “watermelon,” “bootie,” and “fried chicken.” She divides the class into slaves and slaveholders and has the students role play.  One of the white boys puts together a chain of paper clips and in his role as “slave holder” proceeds to whip a black student.  Her idea of having a CelebrEthnic backfires as parents are up in arms over the food, the games, and the costumes.

Oh, yes, lots can go wrong and does.

The CPH production, under the direction of Artistic Director  Laura Kepley, is nothing short of wonderful.  The comic timing is perfect, the staging creative, the character development spot on. 

Nedra McClyde makes Principal Angela Wadley into a model of the African American woman who has broken the glass ceiling by being efficient, organized and well meaning.  Her fine education is emphasized by her use of much “edu-speak.”  Phrases such as “stake holders,” “evidenced based data,” and “outside the box” sound nice, but don’t translate into meaningful actions.

Crystal Finn is hilarious as the well-meaning liberal Jewish teacher who has no understanding of the potential outcomes of her actions, and again and again puts her proverbial foot in her mouth.

Brian Sills nicely develops both his role as Scott Flemingsen, the father of the slave holder boy, and up-tight Superintendent Snyder.

Leenya Rideout (Molly Fleming) and Marinda Anderson (Vanessa Stubbs) as mothers develop clear and consistent characterizations.

Bjorn DuPaty practically steals the show with his portrayal of former Black Panther, Charles Clark.  His long monologue about race relations, which turns into a tirade, provoked not only extended laughter but concluded to thunderous applause. (One can only wonder whether it was for what he said, or his performance.)

I was fortunate enough to be sitting directly opposite the playwright during the production.  He was obviously pleased as the audience roared with laughter as the play proceeded. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Filled with edu-speak, sexual innuendos, derogatory terms, mild violence, frank conversations about race, and clever lines, the script is a laugh riot.  The production milks every possible laugh from Eric Coble’s premise and writing. Because of the Outcalt’s thrust seating, the action was up close to each audience member, added to the high level emotional impact.  FAIRFIELD is a production absolutely not to be missed and makes a wonderful curtain-raiser for the NEW. THEATRE. FESTIVAL.

FAIRFIELD runs through May 31 2015, at the Outcalt Theatre in the Allen Theatre complex at PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

BENGAL TIGER--a mental and emotional challenge at Ensemble


In BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO, Cleveland Heights native Rajiv Joseph’s, surreal dark play, ghosts roam the streets of Baghdad in 2003.   Ghosts of soldiers, citizens, zoo animals, a son of the former ruler of the country.  These ghosts are part of the vivid display of the madness of war, and what it means to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As the play opens, we are confronted by a fragmented cage with a “tiger” pacing inside.  The tiger is one of the few animals left in the once magnificent zoo.  The others have been killed by the war, or they have escaped, only to be shot as they followed their natural instincts to forage for food. 

The tiger isn’t wearing a tiger suit.  This is not a farcical play or a Disney production.   He is a man, a self-proclaimed tiger, wearing dirty clothing, speaking to the audience without any “animal” imitation or overtones.  This is a production requiring the willing suspension of reality, allowing the animal, the ghosts, the illusions, to become real.  It allows us to consider the search for sanity, the attempt at redemption, and why a man would risk his life for a golden toilet seat. 

The play, which was nominated for a 2010 Pulitzer prize, finds two marines guarding what is left of the Baghdad zoo and its animals.  Tom, helped attack one of the palaces of Saddam Hussein’s son, Uday.  He found and took a gold plated toilet seat and a golden gun.  Tom, in attempt to feed the animal, is bitten by the tiger. He is shipped home.  After rehab, with a prosthetic hand, he returns to claim his golden treasures. 

Kev, the other marine, is a bi-polar psychotic, tortured by the goings-on around him.

There is Musa, a troubled Iraqi gardener, who tended the topiary at Uday’s palace where Hussein’s son seduced and killed Musa’s young sister. 

In the desert there is an elderly leper. 

Together, these living and dead souls, lead us on a horrifying journey with humorous under-tones.  These are the remnants of the one time cradle of civilization where the theory of laws and mathematics were developed.  A place now living by laws of the jungle.

Joseph’s play is not a traditionally plot-driven script.  It is rather shapeless, not sequential, per se.  It is more a collection of experiences of each of the characters woven loosely together by the question, “Is violence an intrinsic part of our nature or is it something that we learn? 

Though oft-praised, the Broadway production opened to mixed reviews.  The Ensemble production, is saddled with the same loosely structured script, which in spite of its dark-comedy billing, doesn’t deliver on the comic part.  Maybe it needed Robin Williams, who played the Tiger on Broadway, to present the humor.

That is not to say that Michael Regnier, who played the tiger, was not effective.  He was, but he played the role straight, adding to the depressing feeling and  hopelessness of people caught up in the cycle of war and destruction.

The other members of the cast were also effective.  Daniel McElhaney (Kev), Leilani Barrett (Tom), Tom Kondilas (Musa), Juliette Regnier (Leper), Mike Faddoul (Iraqi man), Assad Khaishgi (Uday) and Justine Zapin (Hadia).  Accents were excellent and line interpretations carried Joseph’s intent.

Director Celeste Consentino has paced the play well, kept the two-act, two-hour production focused.  Ian Hinz’s projections, Angelina Herin’s costumes and Andrew Eckert’s lighting designs all work to enhance the over-all production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ensemble should be commended for attempting such a monumental work as Rajiv Joseph’s BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO.  The play is not for everyone.  It is filled with depressing thoughts, which hit probably too close to home for many Americans, who, almost non-stop from the 1960s, have been participants in conflict after conflict, and misguided war after misguided war. 

BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO runs Thursdays through Sundays through May 17 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former  Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org

To see the views of other Cleveland area theatre reviewers go to:  clevelandtheaterreviews.com

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Dobama’s SUPERIOR DONUTS, dessert for both the laugher and the thinker

Tracy Letts, the author of SUPERIOR DONUTS, now on stage at Dobama, is an accomplished playwright, actor, and screenwriter.  He was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his play AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY.  He won a Tony Award for his portrayal of George in the recent Broadway revival of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?.  He wrote screen adaptations for his plays:  BUG and KILLER JOE, as well as AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY and has been nominated for two Screen Actors Guild Awards for his portrayal of Andrew Lockhart in Showtime’s HOMELAND.

Much like his writing heroes, Tennessee Williams and William Falkner, his characters struggle with moral and spiritual problems set in a format of the well structured play.

Considered one of modern America’s great playwrights, Letts writes works which are multi-leveled.  For those seeking laughs, he presents a story filled with laughter.  These viewers can enjoy themselves and leave as fulfilled audience members.

For those who like to dig beyond the surface, they can find a vivid social conscience being exposed.  He often writes of the present and past ills of society.  SUPERIOR DONUTS exposes the underbelly of such issues as the questionable purpose of the Vietnamese war, the motivations of the draft-dodgers of the era, outward and inward prejudice against Blacks, the feeling of African Americans for the white majority, the difficulty of the immigrant experience, and the plight of the homeless.  

SUPERIOR DONUTS centers on Arthur Przybyszewski, a second generation Pole, whose father opened what is now one of the last donut shops in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.  The shop barely has any customers, which is fine with Arthur, who prefers to hide in silence, sharing little with those who come into the bakery.

A homeless woman, Lady, comes in daily for her “deserved” donuts for her ability to sense happenings and act as an oracle.  The police stop for their coffee and snack.  Max, the Russian owner of the adjacent electronics store, stops regularly to try and convince Arthur to sell his property so Max can expand. 

Arthur’s world is interrupted by the entrance of Franco, a black teen, who can hardly contain his enthusiasm and creativity as he talks the donut man into hiring him.  Hidden in Franco’s schemes is a dark secret which eventually changes both the youth’s and Arthur’s lives.

Max leads us through the tale by acting much like the chorus in a Greek play, using monologues to comment on what has just happened and foreshadow what is to come.

Comments such as “Is anyone paying attention in America?” is an invitation to the audience to be stimulated to think and reflect on what they are seeing on stage and how they are living their lives. 

The Dobama production is well formed by director Nathan Motta’s keen understanding of the levels of Letts’ writing.  The laughs are all there, but so are the sociological underpinnings.  He allows the audience to react on their own levels, but makes sure that both the enjoyers and the thinkers can satisfy their needs.

The role of Arthur seems written specifically for Joel Hammer.  Hammer is Arthur, Arthur is Joel.  The lines flow effortlessly from Hammer.  The contained feelings, the stifled emotions, the fear of being hurt once again, are all present in this well textured performance.

Robert Hunter bursts onto the stage as Franco, keeps the momentum going and makes a fine transition as the role takes a sharp emotional turn.  He and Hammer play off each other.  No “acting” here.  He reacts to the lines, the feelings, and the implications.   Hunter has a fine sense of comic timing, while also building dramatic intensity.  

Mary Jane Nottage, with matted red hair, eyes flashing, and confused facial expression, nails the role of Lady.  Her finest moment is near the end of the play.  With tears flowing, she displays the character’s awareness of what is to come of her failed life, as she wanders out of the donut shop, her few possessions in plastic bags.  (Note:  The youthful looking Nottage is the only actress still performing on the Dobama stage from the earliest era of the company.  She appeared  in the company’s third show, some fifty years ago.

On opening night, Alan Byrne took the stage to perform the role of Max with less than a week of rehearsal.  Brian Zoldessy was to play the role, but became ill and had to be replaced.  Byrne, complete with a fine Russian-American accent and some Russian dialogue, masterfully performed the role with great comic timing, walking the fine line between comedy and farce with the ease of a high wire artist.

Amy Fritsche and LaShawn Little, portraying Chicago’s finest, were both excellent in developing strong supporting characters.

Aaron Benson designed an authentic worn-out donut shop, complete with era-correct appliances and a vintage cash register.  The ever present display and replacement of donuts added to the required authenticity.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: SUPERIOR DONUTS is a well written, well directed, well acted play.  It is a play that will delight both the theatre-goer who desires theatre of entertainment, as well as the audience member wanting to probe into the underpinnings of a play with a social message.  Dobama ends its 2014-2015 season with another fine season, their first as a full-time Equity House and the area’s only full- time Small Professional Theatre. 

SUPERIOR DONUTS runs through May 24, 2015 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Brilliant IN A WORD @ Cleveland Public Theatre

What are the feelings of a husband and wife when they want to conceive a child, but can’t?  What are the ramifications for that childless family when they are given the opportunity to adopt the “perfect” child?  What is it like when that family becomes aware that their child is autistic?  How do parents cope with a child who screams when he becomes frustrated and doesn’t have the words to express his needs or habitually follows a pattern over and over, such as reading the same book again and again, or can’t socialize with others?  What emotionally happens to that family when that child disappears? 

Those are the questions that are dealt with in Lauren Lee’s thoughtfully written and emotionally wrenching IN A WORD.

Beth Wood, the director of Cleveland Public Theatre’s IN A WORD, sets the psychological tone of the play when she states in the program’s “Director’s Notes,” “A moment, a beat, a breath can change us forever.”  She is referring to the disappearance of a young autistic boy from his mother’s car.  But, in reality, Fiona and Guy’s lives have been a series of moments, beats and breaths, just like those instances in everyone else’s lives.

What do people do with life’s instances?  Without knowing it, each experience is logged in the cortex of the brain.  Each is stored, remains, and is sometimes recalled.  In the case of Fiona, we see her storage process as she places a word or a series of words in individual glass mason bottles, screws on the top of each, and places them on shelves.

The playwright uses the bottles as a visual device to show Fiona’s brain in action.  Often in life something stimulates Fiona to fetch a bottle, open it and expose the contents.  As each incident happens, she literally goes through the searching and retrieving process. 

Questions arise.  Is the boy alive or dead?  Was he murdered?  Was he kidnapped?  Did he wander off in a haze of confused thoughts?  Will he ever return?  Are Fiona and Guy’s lives better off with him gone?

Watching Fiona expose the stages of psychological trauma, a type of psychological death, is frustrating, disheartening and fascinating. 

CPT’s production, under the focused direction of Wood is compelling.  The staging is perfectly paced, keeps the action focused, and is eerily realistic.

The cast is flawless.  Liz Conway as Fiona, takes us on a journey of emotional discovery.  She literally has a nervous breakdown before our eyes.  She is not portraying Fiona, she is Fiona.  No acting here, living Fiona.  Wow!

Matt O’Shea, as the boy, understands the mind and body set of an autistic child.  He, like Conway, becomes the boy, lives the boy, is the boy.  Bravo!

Mark Rabant completes the perfect circle of performers as Guy.  His strong underplay of the husband/father role makes the outward emotional portrayals of Conway and O’Shea’s even more powerful.

Benjamin Gantose and Wood’s fragmented set frames the exact mood needed to parallel both Fiona’s and the boy’s minds.  Gantose’s light design focuses and highlights the action.

IN A WORD is Cleveland Public Theatre’s first production in their affiliation with NNPN (National New Play Network), an organization of theatres dedicated to new theatre.  Rolling World Premieres, a project of NNPN, supports the idea that a play often needs more than one reading or production to fully flesh out storylines and dialogue. Over the course of a year, four different theatres across the US will produce the same play, with the author in attendance to work with each production.

Capsule judgement: IN A WORD is one of the top area presentations of this season.  Anyone who is interested in well written, compelling scripts, directed and performed in an almost not-to-be-believed level of brilliance, has to see IN A WORD.  A standing ovation doesn’t even give the necessary praise this piece of theatrical wonderment deserves.

IN A WORD runs though May 2, 2015 at 7:00 p.m. in the James Levin Theatre at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets ($12-28) call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

BAD JEWS, bad title, bad script at Actors’ Summit

Shortly into Actors’ Summit’s production of BAD JEWS, several things become obvious.  The off-setting title was not only a turn-off for many, but was misleading.  Secondly,  author Joshua Harmon, self-admitted stumbler into the world of playwriting, may need a re-thinking about his career. 

On the surface, the play has been described as a black comedy about family, faith and legacy.  It definitely is about family.  More specifically about the role of egocentricism and attempts to control other family members through manipulation for personal gain.  As for the faith and legacy, those are questionable.

The action centers on three cousins, and the girl friend of the oldest cousin, Liam, who are forced to share an efficiency apartment in New York, to commemorate the death of their beloved grandfather, “Poppie.”  A Holocaust survivor, he went through much of his concentration camp survival, as the tale is told, hiding a gold “chai” under his tongue. 

“Chai,” is a combination of two Hebrew letters, “Chet” and “Yod,” which represent being  alive or living, and has been made into a visual symbol, usually a gold amulet worn on a chain around the neck.  It can be worn by both men and women, as a symbol of the word of God and for good luck. It  also represents the number 18, a good luck number in Hebrew tradition.

Two cousins, Daphna and Liam, both want Poppie’s “chai.”   Daphna, who purports to be the “most  Jewish” of the cousins, has studied the religion, practices and traditions of the faith, is supposedly moving to Israel after she graduates from college.  Liam has spent most of his life distancing himself from his cultural traditions, including getting an advanced degree in Japanese culture, and dating numerous non-Jewish girls.  He shows disdain for family by going skiing in Aspen rather than attending Poppie’s funeral and showing up with his Christian girl friend to sit “Shiva” (the mourning period for the dead). He wants the “chai” to use as a substitute for an engagement ring, much as Poppie did when he asked their grandmother to marry him.

The third cousin Jonah, is passive (or maybe, passive aggressive), wanting not to get involved in the family feud.   He has nothing to gain from the “chai” battle.

The action centers on a constant war of attack and nasty accusations between Daphna and Liam, as each displays their insecurities.  Two selfish people in a fight for dominance.

It is from this conflict, while fighting over an symbol of their religion, and a family heirloom, that the duo become “bad Jews.”  Jews behaving badly. 

Tradition and family are two of the most important Jewish values, and these are thrown to the wind in the war for dominance and satisfying selfish desires.

The Actors’ Summit production is burdened with a poorly conceived script. Many of the lines are written in “written,” rather than “spoken” English, making the characters caricatures rather than theatrical characters, not real people.  The plot which is cellophane, easily seen through, and not very compelling.  Even the “startling” ending, doesn’t evoke much feeling.  The laughs are there, but in comedies the humor is often used to relieve stress or define the characters.  Except in the case of Jonah, BAD JEWS laughs don’t do this.

Director Constance Thackberry keeps the action moving right along and gets what she can from the script.

Nate Miller stars as Jonah.  Miller has a mobile face, a nice touch with comedy timing and plays “defeated” with the best of them.  He not only looks like Johnny Galecki, Leonard, of television’s GREAT BANG THEORY, but displays the same whipped dog face and body gestures. 

Brittany Gaul does her best to make Daphna self-centered, manipulative and a teller of white lies.  Her oral presentation of choppiness of word flow, and awkward line interpretation, becomes annoying after a while.  It’s not clear as to why she, or the director, decided to take this presentation approach.

Kyle Huff stays right on the acting surface as Liam.  He often sounds unreal, saying words, not meanings.  Whether it’s the writing or the acting, I really didn’t care who won the battle of the “Chai.” I didn’t like either Daphna or Liam as characters or people.

Gabi Shook gives a creditable performance as the shallowly written Melody, who, as conceived, raises deep questions over why someone on his way to a doctorate would be interested in this Barbie-doll.  But maybe that’s the point.

The set, a well conceived New York efficiency with a view of the Hudson river, aids in setting the right mood.

Capsule judgement:  BAD JEWS is a poorly conceived play with a title that is a put-off for many and may well be misleading.

There are after-production discussions following some performances.  Check the theatre’s website for dates and panel members!


For tickets to BAD JEWS, which runs through May 3, 2015, call 330-374-7568 or go to www.actorssummit.org


Roy Berko's commentaries and reviews appear on coolcleveland.com, artsamerica.org, with selected reviews posted on broadwayworld.com and BWWdanceworld.com  To subscribe to his blog go to and follow the directions in the right hand column:  www.royberko.info 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

THE TEMPEST brews up a storm at GLT

William Shakespeare is considered by most experts on English language theatre as being the greatest of all writers.  His vast folio of plays, consisting of tragedies, comedies, histories and dramas have lasted for over four hundred years.  He is one of the few writers who has theatres, let alone festivals, dedicated exclusively to his works.

One of his last solo-written plays was THE TEMPEST, now on stage at Great Lakes Theater, which some consider the Bard’s farewell to the stage.  Ironically, it concerns a great magician ending his career, which may have been Shakespeare’s vision of himself giving up his magical years as a writer.  

THE TEMPEST is one of the Bard of Avon’s shortest and most simply constructed plays, which leads to the belief that he was fading out and didn’t have the desire or fortitude to develop a play as complex as MACBETH, HAMLET or his multi-leveled comedies.

A product of the early seventeenth century, the plot is probably entirely original.  He doesn’t evoke real historical characters, but may, in some ways, suggest the tempest of storms unleashed on ships sailing from Europe in search of a pathway to what we now know as Asia.  Specifically, there was a wreck off Bermuda and another account of a fleet being destroyed on a sailing from what is now known as Plymouth to a port in Virginia.  In both cases, survivors were washed up on an island.  There, they found Native Americans, who they referred to as “Cannibals.”  It is probably not by accident that Prospero, the magician of the story, referred to his man servant as “Caliban,” an anagram of the word “Cannibal.”

Generally performed on a fairly bare stage, the play lends itself to the description of those who returned from some of the voyages to “the Americas” as being barren.   This does not mean it is not filled with special effects for which Shakespeare is famous.  His plays are filled with fantasies such as humans becoming animals, fairies, and witches and wizards who perform magical tricks.  THE TEMPEST is no exception.

The story centers on Prospero, the Duke of Milan, who was stranded for twelve years on an island after Prospero’s brother, Antonio, deposed him and set him adrift with his child, Miranda.

Prospero is maniacal in his desire to restore his daughter to her rightful place in society.  Prospero has no magical powers other than the ability to persuade others.  He uses those verbal skills to persuade Ariel, a spirit, to conjure a storm (the tempest.)  Ariel, acts as requested because he is beholden to Prospero as the former King freed the spirit from captivity in a tree in which he was placed by Sycorax, a cruel witch.  The storm wrecks the ship of Prospero’s brother, Antonio, his son Ferdinand, and the complicit King Alonso of Naples, and their company of travelers.  The group is washed up on the island, and the tale unfolds. 

Prospero is successful in achieving his goals by having Miranda marry Ferdinand, reconciling with his brother, and freeing of Ariel from his spell, thus rendering a happy ending.

As in all Shakespeare plays, there is a philosophical message.  As Drew Barr writes in his directorial notes, “That which makes us human, as Shakespeare shows us time and time again, is our struggle to reconcile the enormity of our dreams with the exquisite vulnerability of our beliefs.”  He continues, “THE TEMPEST dares us to open our hearts and minds fully enough to drown with all the world in the deluge of our senses.”

The GLT production is well conceived by Barr. The play itself is not as well developed as many of Shakespeare’s works, which causes some segments to fail to be clear in their purpose in developing the plot.  For example, a long farcical section seems inserted as an attempt for humor, for the sake of humor, with no great reason or purpose for plot development.  As for the production, to accomplish the sought after laughter, an even stronger “Three Stooges” approach was needed.  If there is going to be slapstick, it needs to be done with full abandonment.

The cast is excellent.  D. A. Smith rants effectively as Prospero.  Ryan David O’Byrne develops fully the role of Ariel.  Dustin Tucker delights as Trinculo, a drunken cook.  J. Todd Adams, looking much like Alan Cummings portraying the M.C. in the latest Broadway staging of CABARET, is eerily effective as the savage Caliban.  Dougfred Miller (Alonso) and Jonathan Dyrud (Antonio), do justice to their character development.  Patrick Riley is on target as the youthful Ferdinand.

Though he gets laughs, it appears that Tom Ford (Stephano, a butler) has played the role of the fool once too often and falls back on using the same physical and vocal devices to the detriment of originality. 

Though her voice sometimes goes into too high an octave range for pleasant listening, Katie Willmorth creates a pleasant Miranda.

Scenic Designer Russell Metheny has conceived a set that is creative, but at times distracting.  The light instruments shining and the shimmering effects off the plastic panels, which dominate the grid set, became distracting and the reflections sometimes temporarily blinded members of the audience.

Kim Krumm Sorenson’s costumes are often intriguing, but the use of plastic and other stiff materials cause crackles as the performers move, and make static-like sounds, drowning out lines.

Capsule judgement:  THE TEMPEST, reported to be Shakespeare’s last solo dramatic writing, is not one of the Bard’s great plays, but there is enough fantasy and intrigue to allow for a pleasant evening of theater.  The GLT production does justice to the script.


THE TEMPEST runs through April 26, 2015 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org

CPH’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE entertains, but….

As the lights came up at the start of Cleveland Play House’s VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE, the audience is exposed to a comfortable large morning room, backed up by a piano area, and stairs to an upstairs.  On stage left is a patio, on stage right the house’s entrance.  Were in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in a home situated on a lake. 

A man (Vanya) enters carrying a cup of coffee.  He is comfortably attired. He sits in an overstuffed chair, and looks out.  Shortly, he is followed by a woman (Masha) in a worn bathrobe.  The duo spars, like a long-time married couple because the usual morning routine of her bringing him his coffee has been broken by Vanya having poured himself his java.  Masha becomes incensed, stomps into the piano room and tosses the extra cup against the wall.  It appears that we are about to observe a domestic battle. 

Soon, however, its is revealed that Vanya and Sonia are brother and sister, well, adopted sister, and have remained for their entire lives in their family home, taking care of their parents who eventually died.  The duo stayed put.  They seldom leave the house,  have no friends, and spend their time waiting for, or discussing the impending arrival of a blue heron.  Soon, a third sibling, Masha,  arrives with a surprise guest, and the uneasy tranquility is threatened.

Masha is an actress who has made her fame in a series of slasher cult films.  The guest is her boy toy, Spike, her mid-life crisis prize for yet another failed marriage and a fading career. 

A costume party, the possibility of selling the home, failed attempts to reconcile the family, the appearance of a young next door neighbor, Spike’s infidelity, a tirade by Vanya, a play reading, a strip tease, Voodoo, an attack on societal change, and a surprise ending, all highlight this comedy of missed opportunities

The conversations, the setting, the format of the story and the language are all “American Chekov.”  As with the great Russian writer, who is sometimes called the literary father of the Russian revolution, the script is filled with references to family, societal collapse, the uncalled for sticking to traditions, the ignoring of financial problems, and the need to take personal responsibility. 

Author Christopher Durang, who penned this commercial and artistic success, and won a Tony Award for Best Play and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, has taken up the mantle of writing a well-conceived modern, realistic play, and added a layer of humor that makes for an endearing evening of theatre.  The Broadway production recouped its $2.75 million dollar investment in under four months, an outstanding feat brought about by rave reviews, strong word-of-mouth, and quality performances.

The Cleveland Play House production, under the directorship of Bruce Jordan, almost reaches the show’s potential level of excellence.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t totally practice what he preaches in his “Director’s Notes,” about actors understanding why a certain word in a line has to be stressed, or why they have to get to the end of the line quickly.”  He loses laughs and comedy angst through slow pacing and having two cast members who simply don’t perform as required to achieve the best effect.

On the plus side, John Scherer is excellent as the gay, reclusive, intellectual Vanya, who has wasted his talents and any hope of a personal life, by spending most of his life taking care of his parents and sharing time only with his sister.  There is a kindness, vulnerability and complacency that flow forth from Scherer, equalizing the fine Broadway performance of David Hyde Pierce.

Toni DiBuono is wonderful as the frustrated Sonia, the adopted daughter who was taken out of foster care by two intellectual professors, who named all their children after characters in Chekov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD, and set them on paths of insecurity and self-doubt.   She parallels the performance of Kristine Nielsen, who was nominated for a Tony for her Big Apple portrayal of Sonia.  DiBuono is totally natural, creating a sensitive, self-questioning, insecure woman, with a lovely soul.

Danielle Lee Greaves as Cassandra, the cleaning woman who fancies herself a practitioner of Voodoo, complete with making dire prophesies which often come true, is properly farcical in the role.  She does not overplay, but gets many reactions as we laugh with her, not at her.

As Nina, who is a guest at the house next door, Maren Bush, is properly star-struck and adorable.  Nice reality here!

Young Gregory Isaac Stone lacks the acting chops and sensual complexity to fully develop Spike, a role which appears to be one dimensional, but takes a depth of performance abilities.  Billy Magnussen, was nominated for the Tony as Best Featured Actor for his portrayal of the role in the Broadway production.   Magnussen had the charisma to not only look like the gym-sculpted stud who had trouble keeping his clothes on, but to subtly tease Vanya, do a sensual strip tease, entice a response with a sly smile and flash of his huge eyes, but to play comedy as a serious exercise.  Stone, on the other hand, is “Spike-lite.”

Director Jordan describes Masha as someone who says “some rather vitriolic stuff, but there has to be something in the person who plays the role and in the performance that allow us to see that this is not a bitch, this is somebody who’s a little insecure.”  Oh, if only Margaret Reed had played her that way. 
To picture the woman and the right performance, think of Wendie Malick portraying Victoria Chase on television’s HOT IN CLEVELAND.  Malick makes the viewer like her and laugh by wearing a crust of arrogance while Victoria’s insecurities eat away at the surface.  Reed, starting with her first entrance, has the effect of pricking a balloon and letting out all the air of humor and believability of the other performers.  She acts, doesn’t react, she feigns rather than being real.

Bill Clarke’s set is outstanding.  Filled with family heirlooms, the realism enhances the performances.

Area alert:  Christopher Durang thanked his husband, John Augustine, in his Tony acceptance speech.  Augustine, is a Canton native and Baldwin Wallace graduate. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE is a well-crafted play filled with comedy and tenderness.  It well deserved its Tony Award.  Though the CPH production does not live up to the Broadway production, some fine performances overcome some questionable directorial decisions in actor selection and character development, and make this a positive, but not great theatrical experience.

VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE runs through April 26, 2015, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.