Sunday, October 23, 2016
Theater represents the era from which it comes! In 1859, when THE OCTOROON opened in New York, the United States was in racial chaos. The slaves of the South had been “freed,” but, in reality, they weren’t free from their years of enslavement. Yes, blacks, the only mass group of people who came to this country against their free will, were the center of much controversy.
THE OCTOROON, a play by Dion Boucicault, based on Thomas Mayne Reid’s novel, THE QUADROON, was extremely popular when it was produced. It was an antebellum melodrama, generally regarded as the second most important of such plays. The number one hit was, of course, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN.
The play was produced during the era when romanticism (characterized by an emphasis on emotions, exemplified by displaying apprehension, horror, terror and awe) and the melodramatic (overdone, unrealistic, exaggerated characters and overly dramatic situations intended to appeal to the emotions) was at the fore. (Think of the soap opera stories and acting of non-talky movies.)
The production sparked major debates about abolition of slavery as well as the role of theater in politics. The latter centered on whether theatrical productions were intended to simply entertain or to also insight thought and discussion.
Skip forward about 175 years, it is now 2014 and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, an African-American playwright and professor with credentials bannering Princeton, NYU and Julliard, adapts the Boucicault play.
The adapted play, AN OCTOROON, premiered off-Broadway, and was subsequently awarded the Obie for best new American play. The issue of the now-called “African Americans” was still the center of much controversy.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ reframing used the original characters and plot, much of the original dialogue, and inserted modern theatrical devices including the concepts of Bertolt Brecht’s “historification,” “epic” and “alienation.”
Historification is using past historical events, which run parallel to today, to create a contemporary lesson!
AN OCTOROON is set in the old South, and though it does not use modern experiences, the situations are parallel to today. Racial profiling and the beating of and punishing African Americans and Indigenous peoples still exists, with law enforcement, court systems and economic parameters acting much like slave owners.
The script uses Alienation, making sure the audience knows they are in the theatre. The author wants each observer to think of the implications of the play’s message for today. To achieve this the production lets the scenery, lighting, makeup, and acting techniques be so obvious that they don’t lull the audience into transferring their attention to the production as being real.
Jacobs-Jenkins recognizes that this topic is Epic. His message is big, important, something that has major meaning.
On October 21, 2016, when AN OCTOROON opened at Dobama Theatre, the issue of African Americans is still front and center. Yes, bigotry, violence, racial profiling, work and housing discrimination, xenophobia and prejudice runs rampant on the political, business and social landscape of the United States.
To achieve a Brechtian effect, Dobama’s staging starts with the first actor on stage talking directly to the audience. He explains that he is the playwright and he is going to use theatrical devices to tell his tale.
The acting is exaggerated, with overdone gestures. The costumes are stereotypes which exaggerate. The vocal presentations are not of traditional spoken structure. The accents are overpowering, often inconsistent. Makeup is put on before the audience and it is obvious that whites are portraying blacks and American Indians, while African Americans are portraying whites, yet some blacks are playing blacks and whites, whites.
The tale has characters, incidents and twists and turns that represent plantation life, the treatment of slaves and indigenous people, which are depictions but obviously theatrical devices to tell the story and bring the present-day audience to recognize that though we may give lip service to the concept that, “things have changed,” that much has not changed as it relates to the racial divide in America. We realize that “make American great again,” may not be such a good idea if this is what America was like.
The play takes place on the Plantation Terrebonne in Louisiana. The “Massa” of the plantation has just died, his wife is ill. George, his nephew, has come to oversee the property, including the slaves, which have been treated “fairly” (haven’t been whipped or starved), but still are slaves, working in the fields, not being paid, living in shacks, and not free to be educated.
The plantation is near financial ruin due to gambling debts and the poor economy. George falls in love with Zoe, the illegitimate daughter of the deceased plantation owner and one of the slaves. Yes, she is an Octoroon, a word with varying definitions, but which generally means a person of mixed-race, commonly a person born of white and black lineage. In some southern states it was legally defined as a person who is at least one-eighth black.
The plantation and all the slaves are to be sold, including Zoe. Of course, the mustached, black hat wearing, evil neighbor, M’Closky is going to be the purchaser.
We are told of a stolen record of money that would have saved the plantation from the auction block, a murder, a plot by the slaves to get themselves sold to a nice riverboat owner, a photo with incriminating evidence, the possibility of Zoe being bought by a wealthy young woman in love with George, and all the other sidetracks that make melodramas so theatrically untraditional.
In a melodrama there is one segment, a “sensation scene” in which the moral of the story is put forth. A truth is revealed such as who the real villain is and who the innocent victim is or how dastardly deeds were done. It is staged in a sensational, spectacular way which insights the senses.
In AN OCTOROON, the play stops about two-thirds way through, the playwright enters and explains the writing technique he is going to use to lead to the conclusion of the play. He illustrates this by staging a near lynching, a trial, the revelation of the letter that M’Closky stole, his having killed a young black boy who was bringing the mail to the plantation which contained the evidence of money that would save the plantation, and a blazing fire takes place.
The play concludes with a “resolution scene,” which, as happens in all good melodramas, evil is defeated and the moral is presented. We are left with the idea that race, represented by white, black and red faces which have been created with makeup, is simply a social construct, a theory put forth by sociologists and anthropologists, which has been expanded into a societal way of life.
AN OCTOROON, under the focused direction of Nathan Motta is excellent. This is said recognizing that some may find the goings-on too long, others will be confused as to why the ”old fashioned” story is relevant today, some will be put off by the melodramatic staging, some will find the humor off-putting due to its dependence on” offensive” and non-politically correct words.
The Dobama production showcases the best quality of theatre…taking a script and staging it in such a way that it develops the intent and purpose of the author.
The cast (Ananias J. Dixon, Abraham Adams, Arif Silverman, Natalie Green, Katrice Monee Headd, India Nicole Burton, Anjanette Hall, Maya Jones and Nathan A. Lilly) understand the concept of melodramatic acting, a necessity for developing this author’s intent and purpose. The technical aspects…lighting, costumes, makeup…all aid the concept of the play.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The hottest play of 1859 is back, but this time it is aimed at a 2016 audience with a plea for understanding and realization that things, regarding the blacks and Indigenous peoples, haven’t changed very much in the last 175 years. Seeing this production can be an important theatrical experience and challenge your belief system--“GO SEE!”
AN OCTOROON runs through November 13, 2016 at Dobama Theatre. Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Yes, in a period of two hours and twenty minutes, plus intermission, 44 plays whoosh across the Cleveland Public Theatre stage. During that time the audience is exposed to all of the United States of America’s Presidents. Well, to be honest, there are 45 plays…one, based on the audience vote, an add-on vignette of a supposition about either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump’s reign as the next President.
44 PLAYS FOR 44 PRESIDENTS is a chronological, biographical recap of the lives and presidencies of those who have held the office. Some of the playlets are a couple of lines long, others many minutes in length. In the process, some of their successes and/or errors are heralded. How do you know which giant of politics is being spotlighted? First, their picture appears on the. Second, the actor portraying the office holder wears a blue and red star-spangled coat that symbolizes the presidency.
The comedy/drama/experimental/political/historic play is the brain-child of Chicago writers Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloë Johnson and Karen Weinberg, with Bayiates dubbed the “Founding Father” since he conceived the concept. There are also musical compositions dropped into and between the segments. These are the doings of Steve Goers, Laura McKenzie and André Pleuss.
The show is a time travel beginning with George Washington in an almost Eden-like setting, John Adams being “Second Fiddle,” a roast of Thomas Jefferson with Benjamin Franklin as the emcee, to William Henry Harrison being hailed as an “Indian Slayer,” Lincoln and the “freeing of the slaves,” to the assassination of Ohio’s own William McKinley, the Hooverville 1930 depression days, FDR’s live speeches and videos of the public’s reactions to his death, to “Tricky Dickey” Nixon’s rise and fall from power, the reign of George H. W. Bush (“The Bargain: Prelude to a Great Divide”), George Bush’s wrestling the election away from Al Gore, and the “Can he?” period of Barack Obama.
Few, other than U. S. presidential history geeks, will grasp all the innuendoes. Of course, there is also the question of the validity of the material. The audience is helped by an electric sign stating, “direct quote” when the material being presented was said by the holder of the office or some other credited source. (The 2016 debates could be helped by this device!)
The show is presented in Val Kozlenko’s red, white and blue pillared stage set, with a video screen up-stage center, which reveals a picture of the President being highlighted in each segment as well as visual images of some of their times in office (e.g., the assassination of JFK), highlighted by Michael Boll’s lighting, and enhanced by Eric M. C. Gonzalez’s inserted taped recordings (e.g. radio broadcasts of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.).
The CPT production has done color blind casting. The on-stage assemblage is both black and white. However, the same cannot be said for gender. All of the performers play multi-roles. They portray Presidents, wives, members of the various cabinets, assassins, and various others. The entire cast is female, though the reason for that choice is not clear.
Co-directors Dan Kilbane and Caitlin Lewins were faced with the difficult task of holding the audience’s attention as the segments went on and on. The “singing, dancing, declaiming, laughing, eating, expounding, carousing, jumping, falling, running and many, many other ‘-ings’” is almost mind-numbing.
Things are not helped by the constant moving on and off stage of boxes, podiums, and other paraphernalia. Having a blackout after almost every scene to arrange the pieces, added much time to the production and broke the dramatic flow.
The cast must collapse in exhaustion after the show. Molly Andrews-Hinders, Chennelle Bryant-Harris, Melissa Therese Crum, Sally Groth, Tanera Hutz, Coleen McCaughey and Carrie Williams act, sing and dance with vigor. Unfortunately, though they try hard, some of their lines are lost due to the echo in the theatre, the inconsistent vocal projection by some actors, and the use of accents which are sometimes difficult to understand.
The conclusion, a rap song (a HAMILTON take-off) by Hillary Clinton (she won the audience vote regarding who would win the 2016 election the night I saw the show), could not be understood. Putting the words on the screen would have helped in figuring out what was being said.
Capsule judgement: 44 PLAYS for 44 PRESIDENTS is a timely production, coming just before the contentious 2016 presidential election. Though it is much too long, and has some staging and sound problems, history buffs should still rejoice. Others may enjoy the dancing, singing, and humor presented by the all woman cast.
44 PLAYS FOR 44 PRESIDENTS runs through October 29, 2016 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue in the Gordon Square Arts District. There is plenty of free parking within an easy walk to the theatre. For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
Len Jenkin, the author of LIKE I SAY, which he refers to as a "sober-minded comedy," is the recipient of three Obie Awards and received an Emmy nomination.
He explains that LIKE I SAY is "a Candide type of tale. A journey through darkness, through failure, disease and death to a kind of hope. A survivor’s hope."
Unfortunately, Jenkin’s explanation is easier for him to say than the abstract script is to display.
The play, which has stories overlaid onto stories, is often hard to follow and is excessively long. It is a tale, oft told by a dreamer, in which the dreams “turn nightmarish and heavenly.”
The tale basically takes place in the Hotel Splendide, a once grand hotel situated on the American coast. It is now a barely habitable wreck, walls covered in a so-called artist’s stick figures related to Día de Muertos (the day of the dead).
Assembled are Helena Skate (Lauren B. Smith), the inn keeper, and her helper, “Little Junior” (August Scapelli). In occupancy are Isaiah Sandoval (Logan Smith), a once prolific writer who is in a state of depression as a result of his wife and child having been killed in a car crash for which he was responsible. His “nurse,” Rose (Linda Sekanic) tries to keep him on his meds, while chaos spins around them.
Also present is Mr. Schwarzberg (Robert Hawkes) an alcoholic painter and tattoo artist and Leon Vole (Clyde Simon) and Tanya Vole (Marcia Mandell), down and out puppeteers, who have falsely been told that Sandoval has a suitcase filled with money.
In his delusional states Sandoval tells tales about Coconut Joe (Robert Branch) who is looking for the perfect consignment of coconuts for the biscuit factory for which he works. The search takes him to Berlin, where he is betrayed by a woman. He winds up as a prisoner in a nuclear waste plant, escapes, goes to Venice, boards a ship which sinks after being attacked by pirates and survives on a life raft. Also on the flotation device is a Pirate Queen. They are washed ashore at a resort for those who are kept young and alive by injections of lemur blood.
And…well, to be honest, who cares. This excessive babble makes little sense and who cares about these people and what happens to them.
The con-con production, under the direction of Tyson Douglas Rand does what it can with a script. The casts’ performances are erratic, but one can conjecture that it is the fault of the script.
Capsule Judgement: LIKE I SAY is an overly long, irrational script. One can only wonder why it was chosen by the theatre to perform and why a group of actors and a director would want to spend their precious time in producing it. Con-con has performed some excellent works. This isn’t one of them.
LIKE I SAY runs through November 5, 2016 at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to http://www.convergence-continuum.org
convergence-continuum’s next show is Robert Hawkes appearing in his self-written script, GIVE ME THE MAP, from November 17-19, 2016, followed by the world premiere of local writer Jonathan Wilhelm’s THE KNIFE IS MONEY, THE FORK IS LOVE.
Monday, October 10, 2016
Caffe Cino, which was founded in 1958, is noted as the site that gave birth to off-off Broadway theatre. It was the invention of retired dancer Joe Cino, who offered a place to do inexpensive creative works in New York City and not have to conform to Equity rules. Cino bankrolled the adventure. The shows were staged on a make-shift small platform.
Cleveland has similar theatres. They are venues which are the inventions of a single person who scavengers for money from foundations and donors and produces shows on a shoe-string budget. These off-off Euclid Theaters include Patrick Ciamacco’s Blank Canvas, located at West 78th street (http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com), Clyde Simon’s convergence-continuum, 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood (http://www.convergence-continuum.org), and Greg Cesear’s Cesear’s Forum, which performs in Kennedy’ Down Under, down under the Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square (http://www.cesearsforum.com).
It is ironic that Cesear’s Forum is showcasing Lanford Wilson’s TAKE 5 as Wilson’s first plays were staged at Caffe Cino. The smallish platform on which the scripts were welcomed into the world was about the same size as that found in Kennedy’s which opened in 1921 as a bar.
Wilson, a Lebanon, Missouri native, who died in 2011 at age 73, was noted as one of the significant writers of the 20 th century. He was one of the first playwrights to move from Off-Off-Broadway, to Off-Broadway, then Broadway. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980.
His first significant play was HOME FREE in 1964. Other well known scripts were: THE RIMERS OF ELDRITCH, THE GINGHAM DOG (his first Broadway show), THE HOT L BALTIMORE, FIFTH OF JULY, BALM IN GILEAD and TALLEY’S FOLLY.
It is the goal of Cesear’s Forum to “present works of social commitment and theatre experimentation.” TAKE 5, which is composed of five one-act plays, have been cobbled together into an evening of theater by the producer, Greg Cesear. The evening features six performers playing various roles, and fits well into the theater’s purpose.
Adorable Tricia Bestic serves as the absent-minded narrator, introducing each of the one acts. She bumbles the intros, messes up the titles of the plays, and interacts with the audience, creating a warm and comfortable atmosphere.
WANDERING covers 40 years of a guy’s life in 4 minutes. He confronts parental conflicts, applying for jobs, being a conscious objector, being lost, relationships, and facing the reality of life, through a barrage of attacks.
The main character (Beau Reinker) , who starts as a teenager, stays the same throughout, but the minor characters-- his parents, wife, friends, doctors, nurses, secretaries—interchange in their roles.
SEXTET (YES) is compromised of the thoughts and recollections of six characters, who wander and sit at random places as they react to each other's revelations with a quiet, "yes." Out of the pattern of their memories and the interweaving of their destinies, emerges a sense of their frailty, humanity, and the disquieting vulnerability of life itself.
A BETROTHAL is a delightful cat and mouse conversation which keeps the audience guessing about what is being discussed as two lost souls, a school librarian (Adina Bloom) and an associate gardener (Brian Zoldessy), who have come into a tent in order to get out the rain, express irritation with the way they have been treated by the judges. Judges? What does this have to do with a betrothal?
As the obtuse conversation about Little Soldier and Little Tanya takes place the duo spars, accuses, insults, attempts friendly conversation, and surprisingly come to an uneasy peace. They agree to mate there flowers, his for its beauty and hers for its strength, thus creating an iris which will even dazzle the obtuse judges.
The physical and verbally dominant Bloom and the slender, nervous, bumbling Zoldessy are delightful as they advance, lunge, attack, feint, and parry as they conduct their verbal fencing match.
BRONTOSAURUS is considered as one of Wilson’s best one-act plays, and why he is regarded as the “greatest functioning playwright of the last quarter of the century.”
A young man (Beau Reinker) arrives at a plush Park Avenue apartment. He is there to live with his aunt (Mary Alice Beck), who will provide housing and also support his NYU collegiate education.
She is a sophisticated, cynical, wealthy New York antiques dealer. He is withdrawn and secretive. She is a wise-cracking wine drinking, non-believer. He is reticent, unemotional and claims he is going to study theology because he underwent a mystical experience.
She becomes more chatty, a defense she has honed to keep the world away, thus reinforcing her awareness of the superficiality of her life and the futility of her existence. He leaves to find his place in the world, leaving behind his much photographed bedroom with the view of central park.
Reinker, who often serves as a sound designer at local theatres, would be wise to get more involved in stage endeavors. He is handsome, has solid acting abilities, displays a nice level of sensitivity, and effectively textures his performance. Beck is a fine actress, who develops a woman with a veneer of protection.
In A POSTER OF THE COSMOS a young black is sitting in a Manhattan police station interrogation room.
Tom (Sean Booker), a baker, has been accused of killing his lover, who had been in the hospital in the last stages of death caused by AIDS. Tom’s emotionally presented insights regarding the duo’s relationship, the attacks on them by an uncaring and ignorant society, and the stereotypes against him as a young black man provide great insight. His pleas are answered by the interrogator’s derogatory refrain, “You don’t look like the kinna guy’d do somethin’ like dat.”
The play deserved its inclusion in BEST SHORT PLAYS OF 1989, and Booker deserves a standing ovation for his insightful, emotional, tear-filled development of the bereaved, shocked Tom, whose lover died in his arms.
Capsule judgement: Cesear’s Forum, which has won both Cleveland Critics Circle and Times Theatre Tribute recognition for past performances, again proves, with LANFORD WILSON: TAKE 5, that it doesn’t take a big budget, massive sets and ornate costumes to present wonderful and effective theater. Kudos!!
LANFORD WILSON: TAKE FIVE runs Friday and Saturday through October 29, 2016 as well as Sunday, October 9 and 16, 2016 @ 3 in Kennedy’s Down-under. Enter through the Ohio Theatre lobby and go down the steps to the theatre. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.playhousesquare.org
Saturday, October 08, 2016
Annie Baker won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in drama for THE FLICK, a thoughtful drama concerning three employees of an art-house movie theatre.
Her first play, BODY AWARENESS, which is now being staged at Beck Center, was the initial writing in her “Vermont plays,” a series which take place in the fictional town of Shirley, VT. The other parts of the series were CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION and THE ALIENS.
BODY AWARENESS centers on Phyllis a psychology professor and her lesbian partner, Joyce, a high school social studies teacher. Phyllis has organized a campus Body Awareness Week at her college. Though programs include an eating disorder seminar, there are also such activities as a dance troupe of refugee Palestinian children and a puppet show, which are not normally part of such a seminar.
Phylis and Joyce live with Jared, Joyce’s 21-year-old son from a previous marriage. The boy considers himself autodidact (self-educated). Jared displays some symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of autism. He has obsessive compulsive disorder habits, poor social skills, is verbally explosive, and is physically awkward.
Frank, a photographer of nude women, is one of the conference speakers and is a guest in Phyllis and Joyce’s home.
Conflict, which is present in the home, is increased as Phylis, is inexplicably offended by Frank’s nude female photos. Tension increases when Joyce agrees to pose for the photographer and Jared asks the man how to attract women, resulting in the boy acting out inappropriately.
When a playwright writes a play they usually have a purpose in mind. They wish to entertain through humor, explain a point of view, tell a history lesson, or maybe highlight a concept. They have an intent and purpose. A common theatre axiom of the need to have a purpose for a play is that “the author should have a voice.”
In explaining BODY AWARENESS Baker said, "My goal for the play is to not judge anyone, to get at that point where everyone is equally right and equally wrong, so the humor comes from that... I wanted to write a play about issues that wasn’t an 'issue play.’”
To Baker’s credit, she does get the viewer to think about the awareness of the bodies and souls around them. She does present flawed people, fighting for connection.
Unfortunately for the viewer, though Baker’s play has some interesting moments, it is the very matter of not writing an “issue play” that seems to get in the way. It is difficult to ascertain specifically what Baker’s voice is, what she is trying to accomplish.
The other aspect of the Beck staging that confounds is that in previous productions BODY AWARNESS has been commented upon as being “hilarious,” and “funny, skewering everything from pretensions to blunt sex talk.” Unfortunately, on opening night, there were very few laughs and though some of the lines could have been perceived as skewering, the way they were presented usually didn’t bring about the desired effect.
Since the play has been presented in other venues with reviewer comments on success, a question must be raised as to the director David Vegh’s approach to achieving the needed humor and skewering.
Anne McEvoy gives a nicely texture performance as Joyce, the frustrated mother and parent, caught between her need to nurture the exasperating Jared and have a positive connection with the dominating, if inconsistent, Phyllis.
Richie Gagen, as Jared, has mastered many of the traditionally evident signs of Asperger’s Syndrome. His awkwardness, obsessive repetition of continually straightening his hair, and bursting out emotionally with no provocation, all help in creating a real sufferer of the illness.
Julia Kolibab is inconsistent as Phyllis. Whether it is the way the role is written or the director or her interpretation of the part, she often comes across on a surface level.
Rick Montgomery Jr. is an acceptable Frank. Unfortunately, the actor has a tendency to swallow the endings of lines, so the intent of his speeches are sometimes lost.
Aaron Benson has the unenviable task of having to design a three-area set in a very confined place. He does a very creditable job. He is assisted by Marcus Dana’s lighting design.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ninety-minute intermissionless BODY AWARENESS has some high points, but doesn’t showcase the requisite humor built into the script. Though not a great play, it appears that author Annie Baker learned from writing this, her initial script, and has gone on to expand her voice as evidenced by her receipt of a Pulitzer Prize for a later work.
BODY AWARENESS is scheduled to run through November 6, 2016 in the Studio Theater at Beck Center for the Arts. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org
Friday, October 07, 2016
As the lights come up on FUN HOME, the musical drama which is now on stage at the Connor Palace, Allison, a young adult, relates a tale of her childhood in the song, “It All Comes Back.”
She is around 10 and relates a memory of demanding that her father play airplane with her, one of the few experiences she shares with her father. Her father’s attention is on a box of silver plates and a tarnished tea pot. And, as is the pattern between this father and his children, he ignores her or, when he is focused on the children, he becomes obsessive in his demands.
This is a troubled father. This a struggling daughter.
Through the story we follow the path of Alison Bechdel of Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, as she goes from being a tween, through her experiences at Oberlin College, where her realization of her homosexuality evolves, to her becoming aware of her father’s life as a closeted homosexual, to his ultimate suicide and her full acknowledgement that, as the closing song of the musical states, “Every so often there was a rare moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.” The words are accompanied by one of Bechdel’s comics illustrating young Alison being held aloft by her father. Fade to black!
The tale is told through Jeanine Tesori’s music and Lisa Kron’s book and lyrics.
Poignant songs expose the frustration of living in fun home.
Songs such as “Welcome to Our House on Maple, Street,” (a visit to the family home/funeral home by a visitor from the local historical society), “Come to Fun Home” (Young Alison and her brothers, John and Christian, act out a commercial for the funeral home while playing in a casket), and “Raincoat of Love,” (small Alison fantasizing about what it would be like if her family was as happy as TV’s “Partridge Family”.)
In the song “Not Too Bad,” Alison expresses her anxiety about starting college, while in the delightful “Changing My Major,” Alison expresses her falling for Joan, her lesbian lover.
Alison’s mother attempts to cope with her ostrich-with-head-in-the-sand existence by escaping from reality through her piano playing as illustrated by “Helen’s Étude.”
We watch as Bruce has contact with a series of young men, is arrested, but continues to pursue these fleeting contacts. Each is a band aid to patch up his frustration with his life. Agitation finally results in his suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming bus (“Edges of the World). Alison reminisces about her past in “Flying Away.”
Alison Bechdel is a cartoonist who came to national attention via her long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” She combined her life story and her comic strip style in the graphic memoir, FUN HOME. It is the adoption of this book that went on to become the musical which was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, winning five, including Best Musical. The Broadway show, which opened in March, 2015, closed on September 10, 2016.
The original book was controversial. In October, 2006, an attempt was made to have FUN HOME removed from the Marshall, Missouri Public Library due to its “graphic” content. In 2008, an instructor at University of Utah made the book a reading in her course. This was followed by an attempt by a student group to have the book removed from the course’s syllabus. In 2013 a conservative group challenged the inclusion of the book as a reading selection for freshman at the College of Charleston. The issue became so heated that the South Carolina legislature attempted to cut the college’s funding because “this book trampled on freedom of conservatives.” The issue was only resolved when the state Senate voted to restore the funding, but redirect the funds towards the study of the United States Constitution and The Federalist Papers.” As lately as 2015, several students at Duke University objected to the book on moral and/or religious grounds.
Cleveland is the first stop on FUN HOME’s national tour. The production team has been in residence in PlayhouseSquare since mid-September, rehearsing and refining the show.
The production is of the highest quality. In New York the show was staged in the round, with the audience on the sides of the stage. The local production is done on a proscenium stage. Having seen both versions, I believe that the touring show is much clearer and the scenery helped give a visual quality to many of the scenes. Of course, the intimate show would have been better viewed in a theatre the size of the Allen or the Hanna, but that was economically impossible.
Some may find the three Alisons confusing at the start. But quickly it becomes apparent that adult Alison (Kat Shindle), Small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) and Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan) are the same person at different stages of life. What may be a little off-setting is that Baldacchino and Corrigan have the same body build and basic coloring, while Shindle looks nothing like them. The Small and Medium Alison have the same effervescence, while Shindle is much more serious. All three Alisons had fine singing voices.
Robert Petkoff is properly frustrated as the troubled Bruce. Many will feel pity for this man who is a victim of society’s attitude toward gay men, especially in the era in which Bruce was brought up. His lasting effect on the members of his family are readily apparent.
Susan Moniz presents a wife and mother who finds herself having to decide how to be a supportive spouse and good mother, while being unable to take the action she probably should have early in the marriage.
Karen Eilbacher (Joan, Alison’s lesbian lover), Robert Hager (portraying the young men Bruce pursues), Lennon Nate Hammond and Pierson Salvador (Alison’s younger brothers) are all believable in their roles.
The settings, lighting and costumes all work to enhance Sam Gold’s sensitive and focused directing. The orchestra is excellent.
The only technical difficulty was a sound system which failed to allow for consistent hearing of the cast.
Side note: Caroline Murrah, Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre program 2016 graduate, is a standby for Medium Alison and Joan.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Tony winner, FUN HOME, gets a well-conceived, emotionally primed production. The touring company should be greeted on each stop of its journey with positive kudos. This is a dramatic message musical which deserves the accolades which it has won. It’s a must see, with the caveat that audience members are aware of the subject matter.
Tickets for FUN HOME, which runs through October 22, 2016 at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org. (Key Bank series productions will run 3-weeks rather than the previous season’s two weeks.)
Tuesday, October 04, 2016
Great Lakes Theatre opened its 55 th season with the delightful, perfectly conceived MY FAIR LADY. It has followed up the repertory offering with an energizing version of William Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT.
TWELFTH NIGHT is considered one of the Bard’s finest comedies. It is filled with romantic episodes, mingled with comic elements, with a sprinkling of farce mixed in, all focusing on requited and unrequited love. As is the case with Shakespeare’s comic writing, it is filled with disguises, mistaken identities, cross-dressing, a witty fool, love at first sight, and misguided lovers and their attempts to love.
The story of this early seventeenth century tale, whose title alludes to the end of the Christmas season, finds the aristocratic born twins, Viola and Sebastian, separated in Ilyria following a shipwreck. Each thinks the other is dead.
Viola disguises herself as a boy, thinking that she can find a way to sustain herself to gain a position unavailable to her as a female. She finds a position with Duke Orsino, with whom she falls in love. But he is in love with Countess Olivia. Olivia, who is mourning the death of her brother, isn’t open to his wooing. He sends Viola to try and get Olivia to open up her heart to the Duke.
Unfortunately, Olivia falls in love with Viola who she perceives as a man. Sebastian, Viola’s brother, in the meantime, appears, and Olivia, thinking he is Viola, expresses her love. The duo, after a night of lovemaking, have a quick marriage. Then conflict, confusion and exposure of the “truth” reigns.
As is the case in almost all Shakespeare comedies, musical interludes, farcical actions by a fool and his henchmen, mixed up letters which lead to humorous interjections and wrong intentions, transpire. And, of course, as the title of another Shakespeare comedy states, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
Shakespeare’s writing is always filled with quotable quotes. In this case such memorable statements as “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them,” “If music be the food of love, play on,” “Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit,” And, “Be not afraid of greatness,” pepper the script.
It is also the pattern of the Bard that major themes run throughout his scripts. Gender identity and sexual attraction, as well as sexual ambiguity are present. There is also some clear homoerotic text. Olivia, for example, is in love with a woman, even if she thinks he is a man. Orsino, remarks on the beauty of Cesario (Viola in disguise) even before her male disguise is removed. And, not to be overlooked is Antonio, the sea captain who saved Viola’s twin brother showing strong affection toward Sebastian.
Other themes include that of love as a cause of suffering, the folly of ambition, and the impossibility of love between individuals from different classes.
TWELFTH NIGHT is filled with musical interludes and lends itself to being transformed into a musical. “Your Own Thing,” “Music Is,” and “Play On!” were based on the tale.
The Great Lakes production, under the direction of Draw Barr, is sprightly, reaching its peak during the periods of high farce. Slapstick, double takes, playing for laughs, all energize the show. Barr knows how to make the audience laugh by exaggerating lines, adding site gags, and even creating outrageous costumes. He does not try to make this a message play. Instead he takes advantage of the Bard’s lines and invitations to insert extended mayhem.
The cast is strong. Highlight performers include Lynn Robert Berg as the pompous, put-upon Malvolio. (His appearance in an ornate black bustier, garters and yellow stockings evoked prolonged laughter.) Cassandra Bissell is excellent as the cross-dressing Viola. Tom Ford is delightful as Sir Andrew Aguecheeck. Juan Rivera Lebron (Orsino), Laura Perotta (Maria), M. A. Taylor singing and clowning as Feste, Aled Davies (Sir Toby Belch) and Christine Weber (Olivia) all are excellent.
Using a timeless approach to the sets, costumes and special effects, the design team has taken a “non-literal approach” to the unspecified period of the production. The ambiguous music does little to enhance the effect of the show. The presence of the female guitarist on a balcony perched above the stage enhanced the sound of the live music, but the guitarist’s sipping water, reading a book and random movements, when she was not playing, distracted from the stage business.
Capsule judgement: TWELFTH NIGHT, one of Shakespeare’s most produced comedies, gets a creative, energized production. It should please both Shakespeare enthusiasts and novices as it is an easy to understand and comprehensible staging with lots of humor and farcical periods.
TWELFTH NIGHT runs through, October 30, 2016 at the Hanna Theatre. For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org
Sunday, October 02, 2016
The Cleveland area has been and is ripe with playwrights. Mike Geither, David Hansen, Margaret Lynch, Jonathan Wilhelm, Michael Oatman, Eric Schmiedl and Faye Sholiton are only a few of the present-day writers. Historically, Langston Hughes, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were proud area playwrights. Probably no local scribe has been more prolific than Eric Coble.
Coble has written well over fifty plays, the latest being MARGIN OF ERROR (or The Unassailable Wisdom of the Mouse and the Scorpion), is now receiving its regional premiere at Ensemble Theatre.
The script received its world premiere in April, 2016, at the Boise Contemporary Theatre. BCT commissioned the piece as part of its River Prize, a new play initiative launched this season. MARGIN OF ERROR is the playwright’s third world premiere at BCT. One of those, THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN, opened there in 2011, went on to Broadway, starring Estelle Parsons, who was nominated for a Tony for her role in the show. Cleveland theater legend, Dorothy Silver, starred in a production at Beck Center for the Arts before the show went on to the Great White Way.
Coble, who is a member of the Playwrights’ Unit of the Cleveland Play House, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, raised on the Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado, and now calls Cleveland Heights home.
Coble, who calls MARGIN OF ERROR “95 minutes of astonishing high-wire mayhem,” has written a script that should open viewer’s eyes to the backstage drama of political campaigns.
The story centers on political consultant, Harold Carver, a high-powered puppet string-puller-of-candidates running for various offices. He believes his purpose centers on, “controlling the narrative,” and, as he says, his “job is to build up and destroy — to smear with honey or dog crap.’” Though he purports to be a “helper to humanity,” he is a bottom feeder who thinks lies, blackmail, double-speak, and attacks by innuendo, are simply tools to achieve one’s goal.
Having worked on numerous political campaigns, I can attest to the fact that the Harold Carver’s of the world really do exist.
At the start of the saga, Carver (Michael Mauldin), a Caucasian, rushes into an empty gate area of the Cleveland Hopkins airport. His plane is not going to take off as the city is socked in by fog. In his company is Daphne Anderson (Mary-Francis Renee Miller) his new African-American intern.
He quickly produces four smart phones, each of a different color (red, green, yellow and blue), each with a direct connection to either a candidate or Carver’s campaign-contact with the candidate. He is managing nine campaigns at once, each requiring his constant attention. Each presents different scenarios, but all have the same purpose: elect the candidate, no matter what!
There is also a black phone, which for all intents and purposes “doesn’t exist.” It’s a personal phone, which, as we soon find out, is conveying messages from his lawyers and his wife, who is intending to divorce him, and her sister, who Carver is threatening to blackmail because of an affair she had with his wife’s ex-husband unless she talks her sister into not divorcing Carver.
Daphne is a rarity…a black Republican, who has high values and believes in the American way, in spite of personal evidence that blacks, in this country, are not treated the same as whites. Her brother, as a young black man, has been a victim of racial profiling, was sent to prison for possession of ADD medicine, which wasn’t even his. He is yet again being threatened by over zealous police.
As Carver rants, sweats, screams and plots, he keeps reminding Daphne that they must live by the motto, “don’t fuck up the campaign.” This is an obsessed man, proud of the fact that he is self taught, didn’t go to college, wasn’t brain washed by liberal professors, and who has disdain for Daphne’s Ivy League education. He spends between 150 and 200 days on the road, conducting political business.
Operating with the attitude, “People keep this country from being perfect,” he feels no qualms about ruining the life of an opposing candidate through blackmail and half-truths, believing that “a lie is only a lie until it becomes the truth.” He runs his personal life the same way.
When Daphne starts understanding the way he operates, and challenges him, he snaps, “If you want to be nice, be a social worker or a Democrat.”
The ending will surprise many. At the climax point the opening night audience broke out in prolonged applause. Coble, who was in the audience, must have been very happy with that reaction.
The script is well written. Coble uses fog metaphors, and “folksy” tales to illustrate ideas. A story that runs throughout the play concerns mice and scorpions and how one destroys the other.
Coble has wisely written the piece as a long one-act, with no intermission as the script intensifies with emotion until the audience is left breathless. Any break in the action would have tempered the over-all effect.
A few questions arise: why are there no other customers in the seating area waiting for the delayed plane? How come the television sets conveniently have news only about Carver’s candidates? Maybe we just have to accept that this is the stage and there has to be some theatrical license in the story telling.
Director Eric Schmiedl keeps the action appropriately fast and furious. He creates an atmosphere of tension that grabs and holds the audience from start to surprise finish.
Michael Mauldin creates a Harold Carver who is real, scary and authentic. It is impossible not to be amazed by Carver’s ingenious skills, as brought to life by Mauldin, while hating the political operative for those talents. The role has many hundreds of lines and is basically a 90-minute monologue, with some interruptions by the phone calls, television voice-overs and Daphne. Wow!
Mary-Francis Renee Miller nicely creates a Daphne who is properly naïve as it relates to Carver’s methods and the real world of political machinations. She textures her characterization well. Good job!
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If viewers didn’t have a disrespect for American political campaigning before, after seeing the well-written and performed MARGIN OF ERROR, they will probably be properly disgusted. If they had concern, now they will be filled with even more disdain. The play fulfills one of the major purposes of theater…to make the audience think. This is a production very well worth seeing!
MARGIN OF ERROR runs Thursdays through Sundays from September 30th through October 23, 2016 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
Friday, September 30, 2016
THE WHIPPING MAN, which is now on stage at none too fragile theatre, is a tale set at the close of the Civil War in which Caleb DeLeon, a Confederate soldier returns to his Richmond, Virginia, palatial home, now a charred wreckage, to find his family missing and two former slaves, Simon and John, still there in spite of the their now being free men. Caleb is badly wounded. The former slaves take care of him.
As the story unfolds, an examination of friendship, faith and the meaning of freedom are revealed as there is a probing of the question asked each year during the Passover Seder, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Caleb, bitter, disillusioned and haunted by secrets, has turned from his religious teachings. Simon is an elderly negro man. He is waiting for the DeLeons, who left with Simon’s wife and daughter, to return from hiding and collect the money he was promised by Mr. DeLeon. Money that will allow him to buy some property and build a small house and live as a free man. John, a rebellious young man about Caleb’s age, frustrated and bursting with dreams, wants to flee to New York.
Little known to many was that there were about 50,000 Jews in the South on the eve of the Civil War. Though only a tiny number owned plantations, those who could afford it owned house slaves, much in the manner of their non-Jewish neighbors. In THE WHIPPING MAN, the DeLeon family was one of those house-slave owners. They, as revealed in the plot exposition, brought up their slave family in the ways of Judaism, complete with holiday celebrations and Jewish dietary laws.
In an interview, Matthew Lopez, the author the play which won the Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards, a self-described “foxhole Episcopalian” from the Florida panhandle, the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Polish-Russian mother, was asked how he came to write a play about a Jewish Confederate solider and two former slaves celebrating Passover together. His responses centered on his parents interest in the Civil War, his being bullied as a gay teenager who felt discrimination, and his constant self-probing for who he was and what he’d do next.
He also was drawn to the subject after viewing the movie, GLORY, about a regiment of black troops during the Civil War, which raised the question of how someone who was a slave all his life, would act when he became suddenly free. “How do you make that psychological change?” As one of the play’s characters asks, “What do I do now?” He saw a parallel to the Jews leaving Egypt and later being freed from the concentration camps following the Holocaust.
While reading an autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Lopez fumbled on a reference to the fact that in 1865, the Passover observance began the day after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Thus, the time setting of the play, which parallels the time of the Exodus from Egypt and the freedom of the slaves in the United States. So, the basis for a well-crafted play was set.
The none too fragile production, under the adept direction of Sean Derry, is gripping. It never ceases to be a wonderment that this small theatre, tucked into what must have been a storeroom at the back of Pub Bricco in Akron, can continuously produce such quality work. In its short existence, ntf has won numerous local theatre critic’s awards, often being recognized over Playhouse Square theatres with massive budgets. ntf does for pennies what the others do for many thousands.
Derry has conceived a staging that is in your face compelling. Sitting no more than fifteen feet away from the action, the audience is swept into the tale. At intermission many remained in their seats, still feeling the effect of the words and actions.
The cast is universally excellent. David LeMoyne (Simon), Benjamin Gregorio (Caleb DeLeon) and Brian Kenneth Armour (John) each crafts a clear, muli-texture character. Their performances are exquisitely textured, creating real people, with real problems. They lead the audience clearly toward the surprising conclusion, by revealing heartbreaking secret after secret with precision.
The ending of the show was met with dead silence…a tribute the emotional tenseness of the conclusion. What a tribute to the cast and director! The silence was followed, during the curtain call, by appropriate excessive applause.
Kevin Ozan’s lighting design and Brian Kenneth Armour’s sound design help intensify the action.
Capsule judgement: When THE WHIPPING MAN ran at the Cleveland Play House several seasons ago, I said it was “required viewing by anyone who wants to experience theater at its finest.” If you missed that production, or you want revisit the script in similar spellbinding splendor, rush to none too fragile. This production is as mesmerizing as was the other local staging. Applause, applause!
For tickets to “The Whipping Man” which runs through October 8, 2016 at none too fragile theater in Akron, call 330-671-4563 or go to nonetoofragile.com
none too fragile closes out its 1916 season with Sharr White’s ANNAPURNA from November 4-19. The theatre has announced its ambitious 2017 season. Check its website for information about the plays and how to obtain season tickets.
Monday, September 26, 2016
MY FAIR LADY, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s award winning and universally praised musical, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play, PYGMALION, centers on Eliza Doolittle, an uneducated Cockney flower girl who, in an attempt to “become a proper lady,” takes lessons from professor Henry Higgins, a self-centered egotist.
MY FAIR LADY has been called “the perfect musical.” Perfect in form, musical style, and audience appeal. It follows of the blueprint of customs defined by Jack Viertel in his “The Secret Life Of The American Musical: How Broadway Shows Are Built.”
Traditional modern musicals, from the time of Rogers and Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA on, have had a developmental format. For example, those that are successful have an “I want song,” a tune that clearly tells us what is wanted by the lead character(s). This is presented early in the script and sets the course of the play. In MY FAIR LADY, Eliza sings, “All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air.” Yes, and a little chocolate. These “I want” desires set up the story line.
The scripts also include a “deal song,” a musical number which illustrates what will attempt to be accomplished and the steps to get to that desired conclusion. In MFL Higgins will teach Eliza “proper” English, she will do her best to learn, and if he succeeds Higgins will win a bet with Colonel Pickering who believes he can’t accomplish the task of turning Eliza into a “proper lady.” Without this tune and the “I want song,” there would be no plot.
Another format ingredient is that the “key to the romance,” if there is to be a romance. This element centers on the inappropriateness of the couple. In MY FAIR LADY, Higgins and Eliza are polar opposites. How can any romance bud between them? We are lead to watch and find out.
A musical’s structure also includes a “conditional song,” a tease as to whether a goal will be accomplished. In this musical, after Higgins shows a bit of niceness after Eliza finally correctly speaks the difficult passage, “the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plane,” she fantasizes the possibility of accomplishing her ultimate goal as she sings “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Normally the conditional love song is about the feelings toward a person, but here, it is aimed at the possible success for her hard work.
An “understanding song” allows the audience to comprehend a character. In MY FAIR LADY, Eliza has several of these numbers. “Just You Wait,” is a comic tirade, which displays the lady’s temperament in which she imagines her tormentor, Higgins, with his head on a platter and facing a firing squad. “Without You” is a defiant declaration of independence. In the case of Higgins’, his “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” reveals his feelings for Eliza, and our gaining the understanding that under his harsh exterior, there may be a tender underbelly. His “A Hymn to Him” illustrates his attitudes toward women.
“A triumph song” helps move the plot along. Without that song, the plot comes to a standstill. ”She Did It” is proof that Eliza has become a “proper lady.” The song also illustrates the pattern of two-act musicals to end the first segment with a conflict that has to be resolved. As Eliza dances with dances with Zoltan Karpathy we wonder if she will convince him as to her authenticity as a true lady. Unless the audience comes back for act two, they don’t know if she has achieved her goal.
In this Lerner and Loewe show, “She Did It” also is a “changing the game song,” a lyric of realization. Eliza, who now realizes that she is no longer an ignorant flower girl, challenges Higgins with a series of questions: “What am I fit for? What have you left me fit for? Where am I to go? What am I to do? What’s to become of me?” She is changed. Now, what is going to happen as a result of that realization?
“The end song” allows an important character to expose an emotional core that brings the show to its conclusion. In MY FAIR LADY, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” allows Higgins to admit that he has feelings for another human being. It is here that we realize his “love” or need for Eliza. And, now the issue of the ending can be confronted. Will she come back? If so, under what conditions? Or, will she use the skills she now has to move on?
The Great Lakes Theatre production, under the creative and focused direction of Victoria Bussert, who is celebrating her 30 th year with the company, is superb!
Bussert confronted the question of which of the various ending scenarios to use. Will Eliza, now a “lady,” go forward with her life and accomplish her life goals? Will she marry Freddie? Will she come back to Higgins and tolerate his mode of control, because she “loves” and needs him? Will she come back to Higgins on her own terms. (No spoiler alert here. You’ll have to see the production to find the answer.)
Every aspect of the show is masterful. From the cast to technical aspects to the musical sounds…there is a joining together of masters-at-work.
Jillian Kates transitions from flower girl to society lady with skill. She alters accents and physical presence with ease. She totally embraces the role of Eliza. She is matched by Tom Ford as Henry Higgins. Ford does not imitate Rex Harrison, who originally created the role. He gives a nice twist to the role, being incorrigible while still being human. There is a faint bit of tenderheartedness which sneaks out in shy smiles and even a delightful laugh or two. He sings instead of reciting the songs. There is a nice chemistry between Kates and Ford.
Aled Davies is delightful as Colonel Pickering, as is M. A. Taylor as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s conniving father. His versions of “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” were show-stopping delights.
Colton Ryan added an endearing quality to Freddy Eysford-Hill, who is traditionally played as a colorless mamma’s boy. Ryan presented a believable love-struck feel to the role. His unique interpretation of “On the Street Where You Live” was endearing.
Strong performances were also given by Jodi Dominick (Mrs. Pearce), Laura Perrotta (Mrs. Higgins), and Lynn Robert Berg (Zoltan Karpathy).
Choreographer Gregory Daniels created visually pleasing and appropriate dance numbers that were well executed. Joel Mercier’s song interpretations were nicely conceived and his orchestra performed well, supporting rather than over-powering the singers.
Jeff Herrmann’s scenic designs were nicely done. There was adequate space for crowd scenes, dancing and ease of set changes. The color tones worked perfectly with the costumes.
Costumer Charlotte M. Yetman outdid herself on this show. The costumes were era correct, the women’s millinery and gowns were compelling, especially in the Ascot scene. It was nice to see a different approach…using light mauves and grays rather than the stereotypical black and white. Paul Miller’s lighting added the right gel tones to accent the sets and the costumes.
Capsule judgement: Victoria Bussert has staged a MY FAIR LADY that is as close to perfect as any musical can be. Everything about the production screams, “This is a special evening of theatre that has to be seen!” If you only see one theatrical production this season, this is the show! Bravo!!!
MY FAIR LADY runs through October 29, 2016 at the Hanna Theatre. For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org
Saturday, September 24, 2016
Our nation is in the midst of a national election, and local theatres have responded with a series of plays that examine various foibles and stories of political intrigue. Ensemble is staging former County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones’ THE BLOODLESS JUNGLE (September 15-October 2) about a rising idealistic political star running for a pivotal Congressional seat. The Musical Theater Project is featuring THE CRADLE WILL ROCK (September 21 & September 25), a play about Unionism with political undertones. Cleveland Public Theatre is presenting 44 PLAYS FOR 44 PRESIDENTS (October 6-29), which showcases the life and times of the 44 Presidents of the United States, featuring an all-female cast. And, Cleveland Play House just opened ALL THE WAY (September 17-October 9), a Tony-Award winning drama that examines the power of one person to transform a country.
ALL THE WAY centers on the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36 th President of the United States. LBJ, was an accidental president, became commander-in-chief when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963.
Johnson, who seems like a tragic figure out of a Shakespeare play, had unbridled ambition and an appetite for power, women and food. He was consummate politician who believed that “politics is war.” He fought that war with cunningness, slander, blackmail, charm, and intimidation.
Johnson was a brilliant politician, but a flawed man. A man of great convictions, vicious temper, foul mouth. In opposition to his southern roots, the Texan was compassionate about granting and protecting the rights of the poor and underrepresented, including the “Negras.”
LBJ was responsible for passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which basically insured that Negroes would be assured the right to vote. He championed The Higher Education Act, which among things integrated colleges and universities. He fathered the “Great Society” which expanded health care, arts and culture, the environment, immigration, poverty, and civil rights. Much of this irritated Southerners and rekindled their attitudes of hated toward those who started The War of Northern Aggression (the Civil War), which deprived those from the Land of Dixie from continuing their patterns of slavery, control of the Negroes, and their “way of life.” He was basically responsible for turning the south into red states after many years of their being solid blue Democratic.
Yes, the Johnson’s re-election motto, “All the way with LBJ” resonates strongly in Robert Schenkkan’s ALL THE WAY, a compelling historidrama about Johnson’s first year office. A year whose ramifications are still present today.
As with any work which combines fact with interpretation, there is no way of knowing whether some of the speeches, characterizations and depictions are accurate.
The play was commission by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, opened on Broadway in 2014, and won the year’s Tony Award, with Bryan Cranston winning the Tony for Best Actor in a Play. A television film was presented on HBO on May 1, 2016.
ALL THE WAY is the first of two plays by Schenkkan on the Johnson’s presidencies. The other, THE GREAT SOCIETY, premiered at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014.
The Cleveland Play House’s production of the two-and-three-quarter-hour play (with intermission) develops well the author’s intention of producing a play about “morality of politics and power.” It nicely illustrates his questions, “Where do you draw the line in terms of intentions and action?” and “How much leeway does a good intention give you to violate the law?”
Set designer Robert Mark Morgan follows the original play’s setting of “a semi-circular dais surrounding the central portion of the stage.” This makes the space a coliseum for battle. A battle that has Southern values, politics, politicians, the civil rights movement, and LBJ on trial.
Dan Scully’s very effective projections changes the settings, adds historical footage and reinforces spoken ideas. Michael Lincoln’s lighting highlights and focuses attention.
Unfortunately Jane Shaw’s sound design fails. Even with microphones, due to the depth of set, the high ceiling, and weak projection, many lines were lost. A check with people seated in various parts of the theatre confirmed this observation.
Giovanna Sardelli’s direction is focused and the visual effects of the staging work well. The casting, which, in general, finds the personages, except for Steve Vinovich, who looks a lot like LBJ, not necessarily physically resembling the person’s they portray, has produced a talented company of performers.
Vonovich doesn’t portray Johnson, he is Johnson. Jason Bowen doesn’t attempt to duplicate Martin Luther King, Jr. which may cause some to lose the powerful presence of the man, but MLK,Jr’s role in societal change are made clear. LBJ’s longtime top aid, Walter Jenkins, who caused a major stir when he was charged with disorderly conduct with another man in a public restroom in D.C., and caused a major problem for the Johnson administration, is efficiently portrayed by Chris Richards.
To CPH’s credit, not only Richards, but Donald Carrier (Hubert Humphrey), Jeffrey Grover (Stanley Levison), Tracee Patterson (Muriel Humphrey), and Laura Starnik (Lady Bird Johnson), are area local professional actors in the cast. Richards and Patterson are Kent State theatre graduates.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ALL THE WAY is a well-written script that gets a strong production at Cleveland Play House. In spite of some sound projection problems, the cast develops their characters and the themes of the play so well that anyone interested in good theatre and political history should be captivated.
ALL THE WAY runs through October 9, 2016, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
One of the big fears about touring Broadway big hit musicals that come back on the road for a return visit is that they will be short on star quality talent, have second rate technical aspects, and lack the vitality of the original show.
Fear not about the present repeat of JERSEY BOYS, the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, now housed at the State Theatre. This is a top quality production.
The cast is dynamic and talented. If anything, the reformatted staging, complete with dynamic electronic graphics, is terrific, the sound system is crystal clear, and the set is functional and attractive. The direction by Des McAnuff keeps the show moving along and fresh. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is era correct and dynamic.
JERSEY BOYS is a jukebox musical, a compilation of formerly written songs shoehorned into a story line. In this case, it is a fairly accurate documentary about the formation, success and break-up of the 1960’s rock ‘n roll group The Four Seasons, who went from delinquent “Joisy” boys to become members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The show, which opened in 2005 and will end its Broadway run on January 15, 2017, has music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe, and book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.
Divided into four sections, each designated by the name of a season, each segment is narrated by a different member of the musical group. As the story chronologically unfolds, over 30 songs are presented.
Yes, every tune in their folio of hits is artfully staged including “Oh, What a Night,” “Earth Angel,” “Cry for Me,” “Sherry,” ”Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “My Eyes Adored You,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
The story, which tells for the first time the group’s history, reveals that some members of the group served prison sentences, which ran counter to the clean-cut image the quartet portrayed. Included in their altercations was a stint in a Cleveland jail for skipping out on a hotel bill.
At the start of the show, Tommy DeVito explains the start of the band, “The Variety Trio,” which was composed of his brother Nick, and friend Nick Massi. Later Frankie Castelluccio (Frank Valli) was recruited. The tale rolls from there through many group name changes, the recommendation by Joe Pesci (yes, the Joe Pesci who later became a movie star) of Bob Gaudio, who became the main composer for the Four Seasons.
The show is filled with creative musical and visual moments. Highlights were “Pretty Baby” and the finale, “Who Loves You.”
All of the cast is strong. Aaron De Jesus stars as Frankie Valli. He creates a real Valli, well duplicating the singer’s famed falsetto. Matthew Dailey, as the often sleazy Tommy DeVito, Keith Hines as the frustrated Nick Massi, and Cory Jeacoma as the prolific, clean scrubbed Bob Gaudio, all shine. Barry Anderson is a hoot as the effervescent Bob Crewe.
Opening night the State Theatre was mobbed. Besides the show, comments were overheard about the newly redone and expanded bathroom facilities. Ladies will be pleased to know that there are no long waiting lines anymore.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: JERSEY BOYS retreads and newbies will all have a wonderful time. Oh, yes, “Oh, What a Night.” You’ll be “Beggin’” to “Stay” for another curtain call! You’ll leave the State singing and dancing down the aisle.
Tickets for JERSEY BOYS, which runs through September 25, 2016 at the State Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org.
Monday, September 19, 2016
Adorable eight-year-old girls are supposed to play with dolls, be obsessed with the color pink, and gossip about their friends on a smart phone. Right? Wrong, if you are Tina Denmark. She wants to be a theatrical star. Now! Not later, NOW! (foot stomp!) What will she do to get her dream?
As the curtain rises on the musical, Ruthless! (that title alone should warn you of what you are in for), we overhear a conversation between Judy Denmark, a bland housewife, and Sylvia St. Croix, a domineering, conniving “theatrical agent,” discussing Judy’s daughter, Tina. Sylvia wants Tina to try out for Pippi in Tahiti, her elementary school’s play. A play written and directed by a has-been, never-was theatrical star, the frustrated third-grade teacher, Miss Thorn.
After a short conflict, Tina gets to tryout but is not cast due to “school politics.” Louise Lerman is given the lead, with Tina as the understudy. That is, only after Tina, ever the manipulative actress, “begs nicely and says please.”
But Louise’s star-power is not for long.
As any eight-year-old who wants her way MUST do, Tina hangs Louise from the catwalk with a jump rope. (“But, officer, I was born to play that part.”) When the crime is discovered, Tina is sent to the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingénues. (Are you getting the idea that this isn’t the social messaged, Les Miz?)
Enter Lita Encore, Judy’s adoptive mother, and, therefore, Tina’s grandmother. (Well, kind of.) She is a viciously negative theatre critic. (Are there any other kind?) She hates musicals, and was responsible for the suicide of Ruth Del Marco, a Broadway star, who did herself in following a bad review by Lita. (Sure, blame it on the critic.)
Fast forward---Lita takes in Ruth’s daughter, who turns out to be Judy. When Judy finds out she is the offspring of a Broadway leading lady, she yells out, “I’m talented! God help me, I’m talented” and immediately becomes a theatrical star, under the nom-de-plum, Ginger Del Marco. (Pretty soon you’ll need a score card to keep track of all the characters.)
Tina is released and comes home to Ginger’s fabulous penthouse apartment. (A nice set design by Aaron Benson.) Mother and daughter vie for the limelight. Sylvia reveals that she is really Ruth Del Marco (the rumor of her suicide was fabricated by Sylvia). A struggle follows. Ginger is shot dead, Tina then shoots Eve and demands the lead in her mother’s next play. They struggle and Tina is shot dead. Sylvia comes back to life (hey, this is a farce and the authors needed to wrap this up) and shots Lita. (Or, something like that happens…who can keep track and it really doesn’t matter anyway.)
Obviously, Ruthless!, which won the New York Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical, is a farce, a broad farce. For the ridiculousness to work, the whole show needs to be bizarre. The comedy needs to be overextended, overdone gestures, overdone makeup and costumes, every character bigger than life. No realism here. You have to laugh not only at the lines, but at the characters and their broadly done characterizations. This is Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, not Spring Awakening. It’s Something Rotten not New To Normal. (BTW… Something Rotten is a must see laugh riot that is part of the 2016-2017 Key Bank Broadway Series.)
The Beck production shines on many levels.
Matthew Wright is a cross-dressing wonder as Sylvia St. Croix. (He has great legs which are highlighted by his/her high-heeled shoes.) With makeup like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and over-extended gestures (circa non-talky movies), and a grating voice, he captures the right tone for farce. We appropriately laugh with and at him/her.
Calista Zajac delights as Tina. This is a tiny keg of dynamite who has potential “Broadway star” stamped on her forehead. She can sing, she can dance, she can act. She can!
The staging of the songs and dance numbers by Martin Céspedes are Borscht Belt correct (e.g., Danny Kaye, Zero Mostel, and Clevelander Mickey Katz). He obviously understands farce and how to overplay reality into ridiculousness.
Some of rest of the show is a disconnect. There are times when director William Roudebush seems to lose track of the need to overdo and things get “real.” If the cast is not having fun, if the pace isn’t frantic, if the ridiculousness isn’t totally overdone, the mocking of such shows as Gypsy, The Bad Seed and All About Eve, become those shows, and that is not the intent of the authors, Joel Paley (book and lyrics) and Marvin Laird (music).
The rest of the cast (Lindsey Mitchell (Judy Denmark/Ginger DelMarco), Kate Leigh Michalski (Miss Thorn), Brittni Shambaugh Addison (Louise/Eve) and Carla Patroski (Lita) are good. They have the talent to be great, if they had been let loose to play it bigger than life, play it for laughs.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ruthless! will delight many. It is a fun farce. This production gets it almost right. With a little more letting loose and playing for laughs, it could have been great.
Ruthless! is scheduled to run through 2016 at Beck Center for the Arts. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org
Next at Beck: Body Awareness, in its regional premiere, by Pulitzer Prize Winner Annie Baker, October 7-November 6, 2016.
Sunday, September 18, 2016
As the lights come up on The Last Five Years, a musical by Jason Robert Brown, we find Catherine Hiatt (Neely Gevaart) sitting alone. She sings “Still Hurting” in which she reveals the end of her five year marriage to Jamie.
At the conclusion of that number, Jamie Wellerstein (Jason Leupold) bursts forth with “Shiksa Goddess,” the story of how a nice Jewish boy has fallen in love with Catherine, a beautiful non-Jewish girl.
Wait, these two are telling the same story, but from different times. Yes, one of the most intriguing aspects of The Last Five Years, which is now on stage at Lakeland Civic Theatre, is that we are watching a relationship develop and disintegrate at the same time. Also, this musical is told entirely in song. Yes, there are no spoken words. In addition, the male and female in the relationship interact only once.
Cathy tells the story in backward time, while Jamie relates the tale from the beginning to the end.
Though it may sound like the tale is hard to follow, it isn’t. Once the audience catches on to the counter order, it becomes interesting to watch what happens and what happened, and why love crashes and burns in this emotionally fraught tale. We realize that infatuation, new love, real life experiences, wants and needs grow and fade, frustration sets in, cross experiences emerge, and the pair each needs to move on.
Cathy and Jamie’s stories intersect halfway through at their wedding, which is the only time when the two characters interact.
The tale, to a degree, actually follows Jason Robert Brown’s own life and failed marriage to Theresa O’Neill. Interestingly, O’Neill threatened legal action on the grounds the story of the musical represented her relationship with Brown too closely. Brown changed some of the script as a result.
In the stage story, the five-year relationship comes apart when the mid-20 year old Jamie’s first novel is published and he becomes an overnight sensation. (Brown’s first Off-Broadway show was produced when he was 25.) As Jamie’s fortunes soar, Cathy’s theatrical career never takes off.
Through fourteen songs we see the coming together and problems arising (“See I’m Smiling”); the emergence of Jamie as a writing sensation (“Moving Too Fast”); an expression of love even in frustration (“I’m a Part of That”); a promise of support as each follows their dreams (“The Schmuel Song”); a possibility of Cathy equalling Jamie’s success (“A Summer in Ohio”); a proposal and marriage (“The Next Ten Minutes”); Jamie’s almost giving in to temptation (“A Miracle Would Happen”); Cathy’s frustration (“Climbing Uphill”); marital squabbles and attempts to deal with them (“If I Didn’t Believe in You”); Jamie’s infidelity (“Nobody Needs to Know”); the lamenting of the now lost relationship (“I Could Never Rescue You”).
Brown wrote the Tony Award winning score for The Bridges of Madison County, Like Bridges, the score for The Last Five Years is outstanding. Combining a number of musical genres, including folk, Latin, rock, Klemzer, classical, pop, and jazz, the sounds vary to fit the necessary changing moods.
Fortunately for Lakeland audiences, Jason Leupold (Jamie) and Neely Gevaart (Cathy) are not only wonderful vocalists, but are talented actors. Without their abilities, the production could have been a disaster. There is little action on stage, other than costume changes and the moving of large bookcase/closets around to indicate settings. Bravo to Leupold and Gevaart!
Director Martin Friedman does a good job of keeping the ninety minute intermissionless show moving along. He is aided by Jordan Cooper’s orchestra (Rachel Gante, Olivia Clark and Tim Keo). Cooper is a solid pianist, but at times he gets too carried away with the louder passages and drowns out the singers.
The show is intimate and would have been better served by a smaller production space, something that the Lakeland Community College auditorium definitely is not.
Christina Pierce’s lighting design aids in developing the moods.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The Last Five Years is a musical which many audience members, including myself, will like due to its structure, exquisite music, and the talent of the cast. Don’t’ go expecting large production show stoppers and dance numbers as they are not part of this script or concept.
The Last Five Years runs through October 2, 2016 at the Lakeland Civic Theatre located on the campus of Lakeland Community College. For tickets call 440-5256-7526 or go to http://lakelandcc.edu/web/about/lakeland-civic-theatre
Saturday, September 17, 2016
Many people know Peter Lawson Jones as an attorney, business consultant and former Cuyahoga County Commissioner. Some even know that he is a member of SAG-AFTRA and Actor’s Equity and has appeared in films and network television as well as numerous Northeast Ohio and Off-Broadway plays. What few probably know is that he is a published playwright. His newest work, The Bloodless Jungle is now in its world premiere at Ensemble Theatre.
It is entirely logical in this season of politics and the background of the author that the play centers on the campaign of a young black idealistic man who first successfully runs for the State Senate and then is a candidate for the House of Representatives.
Having been actively involved in four successful campaigns by a candidate and then incumbent for the U.S. House of Representatives, as well as a candidate for County Commissioner, plus having worked at the White House for a year-and-a-half, I can attest to the shenanigans of campaigning and the role of the media in setting the tone of a campaign through the spreading of innuendoes, planting stories that incite the public to increase circulation of newspapers and viewership of television programs. I can attest to the fact that Lawson Jones knows his subject matter.
What appears in the play, at least the political process and the stress on the candidates and their families, is a fair representation of what goes on.
The story centers on Ethan St. John, a good-looking, poised, articulate young black man. And though it is a positive trait in a fine human being, as St. John learns, his kindness and compassion are a vulnerability in politics.
For some, the sensitivity to truth and having loyalty to friends and family can work. This was true for the late Don Pease, the congressman for the then Ohio 13th district, who I assisted in his campaigns. Seemingly, the electorate of his district agreed, as he never lost an election. He was one of the lucky ones who held to his high principles and was a winner. But it doesn’t work for many. They either become jaded, can’t deflect the strain on themselves and their family, or need to enter the political bloody jungle.
We watch as St. John, with the aid of Cyrus Templeton, his white boyhood co-football playing friend, fellow lawyer, and campaign manager, fight the media, try to counter the rumors, and spar with a long term incumbent congresswoman. St. John confronts attempts to undermine his creditability by besmirching him because he aided a long time buddy (J. J. Jones) who went to jail for supposedly raping a young lady, paid his time, and is again falsely accused of another rape.
St. John’s campaign is supervised by H. Henderson Hill, a national political operative, who authored the best selling book, “Winning Ugly,” about how to run a campaign that wins at all costs. He believes that “Politics is life in the jungle.” He advises St. John that if he doesn’t withdraw his backing of J. J. he is bound to lose the election. What will St. John do?
The campaign is made even more complicated since Templeton is having an affair with Laura Larkin, the political reporter of the largest local newspaper.
The tale itself is interesting. Unfortunately, as often happens in plays in process, and this is a play that needs work, it is too long (almost 3 hours with an intermission), needs cutting and tightening up. There are several scenes which could be shortened, some even eliminated.
Terrence Spivey’s directing is generally efficient, but some of the pacing is too languid, and several actors fail to project, making their lines impossible to hear, even in the small Ensemble Playground.
Robert Hunter presents a realistic Ethan, nicely texturing the role. Eva Rodriguez, as Ethan’s wife, is proficient, especially in a scene where she makes a major revelation. Dean Coutris is physically correct and creates a well developed WASP persona. Greg White stays pretty much on the surface. He needs to be more ruthless to help develop a clear cut-throat, overpowering political hack.
LaShawn Little is sincere as J. J. but is often impossible to hear, especially in the vital prison scene. Anthony Lanier (Malik) and Santino Montanez (Tio) add some much needed comic relief. Miranda Scholl could be more authentic in her characterization, being Laura, not acting Laura.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The Bloodless Jungle presents an interesting political concept. The surprise ending adds a nice touch of realism, saving the show from being a television soap opera. This is a script in process which needs shortening and the addition of more humor and drama. Interested in the political process and the behind the scenes machinations? If so, you might enjoy this production.
The Bloodless Jungle runs Thursdays through Saturdays @ 8 and Sundays @ 2 through October 2, 2016 at the Playground performing space in 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
The Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, Prevention Education, Outreach and Community Partnership department is hosting a FREE production of Bloodless Jungle on Sunday, September 25, 2016, at Ensemble Theatre in Cleveland Heights. The production and talkback will focus on decision making and consent for high school youth. To register youth for this free event go to:
www.clevelandrapecrisis.org/jungle Be aware that this production contains adult language and subject matter and is not appropriate for children.