Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Mesmerizing, emotion-laden “Last of the Boys” at none too fragile

It is ironic that the same weekend that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour PBS documentary series “The Vietnam War” started screening, none too fragile theater brought up the lights on its intimate stage to showcase Steven Dietz’s Vietnam memory play, “Last of the Boys.”

An award-winning playwright, Dietz is one of the nation’s new breed of writers who are noted as being “prolific and versatile” and in search of showcasing modern problems.  With his mastery of language and ability to create complex and dynamic characters and tell stories, he could qualify as the Arthur Miller or William Inge of the twenty-first century.

As for “Last of the Boys,” Dietz says, “though the play reflects on the events of the Vietnam era it is not a historic play.  This is about a world in which the same hard choices keep presenting themselves.” 

Those hard choices include asking:  What are the toxic results of horrific experiences of fighting in a war?  Should we blame others for their urging us to make certain life changes?  Can we forgive the mistaken beliefs of others that have an effect on our lives?  How long do fearsome memories haunt a person?  And, can we hide from our past?

The story centers on Ben, a Vietnam war vet who lives in a California trailer park situated on a toxic wasteland, and his war buddy, Jeeter, a hippy, modern age college professor, who is obsessed with the Rolling Stones and follows them around the world on their concert tours. 

Though the war is forty years in the past, much of the duo’s relationship and identity center on the haunting effects of their battle experiences, especially on Ben, who has nightmares and sees illusions of military men and Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense, at the time of the conflict.

Jeeter comes for his annual visit, accompanied by Salyer, his new girlfriend.  The couple goes to Ben’s father’s funeral, which Ben does not attend.  (The reason rolls out as the play develops).  Shortly after the funeral, Lorraine, Salyer’s alcoholic mother, shows up.

What ensues is an examination of identities, angst and revelations, including the 1967 incident outside of Dak To which changed Ben and Jeeter’s lives forever, and why Salyer encases her entire body in a layer of black clothing.

As has become the pattern at none too fragile, the production is compelling.  Director Sean Derry hits all the right vocal and blocking notes in developing the story and highlighting Dietz’s razor sharp language.

Skinny, balding, pinched faced, with hollow vacant eyes, Rob Branch is the requisite image of the PSTD remains of the human once known as Ben.  His tortured-being shines through.

Paul Floriano makes Jeeter a physical and emotional being stuck in the 1960s.  He seeks peace, literally and figuratively, through reliving the flower-child era in his life style and attitudes, unable to move forward.

Rachel Lee Kolis is appropriately angst filled, having been forced to live a life of lies created by her alcoholic, pathetic mother (Anne McEvoy) who, like the others, refuses to face reality.

Nate Homolka effectively develops the role of the phantom soldier, appearing as needed to help fulfill fantasy.

Capsule judgement:  War is hell and, as highlighted in “Last of the Boys,” its aftermath is often worse.  Kudos to Sean Derry and his cast for creating a compelling evening of theater.  This is must see theater for anyone interested in fine acting and a more real than life picture of the outcomes of combative and emotional wars on human beings.

 “Last of the Boys” runs through September 30, 2017 at none too fragile theater, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron.  For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to nonetoofragile.com

The next none too fragile show is Keith Huff’s “A Steady Rain” from October 27-November 11.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Cleveland Play House opens 2017-2018 with entertaining “Shakespeare in Love”

Lee Hall, the Tony Award winning musical book writer for “Billy Elliott the Musical,” once wrote, “The point of theatre is transformation:  to make an extraordinary event out of ordinary material right in front of an audience’s eyes. What matters is the power of theatre to move and to change people.  That is what “Shakespeare in Love” is about.  It is about a place which can allow a common player to be a Queen, boys to be girls, where we make the miraculous out of the mundane” and include a part for a dog.

The adaptor of the film “Shakespeare in Love” into play form, which is now on stage at Cleveland Play House, Hall might have added, “and where we can watch as a very talented man, creates poetic words and idea-inciting plots that will live forever.”

The play’s program states, “We invite you to join us in the lusty, bawdy, adventurous world in which Shakespeare lived loved, and wrote.  A world where sex and history combine for a punchline, where desires of the body go hand-in-hand with those of the soul, and where a good disguise can go a long way.”  And, it could have added, to a question posed in the script, “Yes a play can be about true love.”  And, yes, as Elizabeth I demanded in all the plays of her era, there is a dog!

Those who watched the recent television series, “Will” will be glad to add to their pseudo-history knowledge of The Bard by participating in yet another of the hot-blooded Shakespeare’s infidelities in this production.

A combination of farce, comedy, drama, tragedy and historification, “Shakespeare in Love” allows us to view a penniless youthful Shakespeare go from a 1593 playwright with writer’s block to a “phenome” churning out hit plays after he meets the fair Viola, who inspires him to write the likes of “Romeo and Juliet” and lay the foundation for many of his other masterpieces (which often include a dog.)

Because of the blending of acting styles needed to perform the various genres of the script, the complexity of the plot and the need for a perfectly trained dog (yes there is a dog), the material is difficult to perform.

Worry not.  Director Laura Kepley has the entire mélange in hand.  The farce and slapstick are well developed, comedy lines nicely cued, the tragedy focused and the entire production zips right along.

Lex Liang’s sets and costumes, Russell H. Champa’s lighting design, Jane Shaw’s sound design and compositions add the right moods to the staging.  The fights, the choreography and the music, thanks to Drew Fracher, David Shimotakahara and Nathan Motta are well conceived.

The cast understands the necessary changes needed to accent the writers’ intent and play their multi-roles with aplomb.

Charlie Thurston looks like the sketches we have seen of Shakespeare, and nicely makes Will into a love sick charming rogue as well as a talented poet and playwright.  Marina Shay inhabits the role of the both cunning and lovely Viola.

Donald Carrier delights as Henslowe, a debt-ridden theater owner, Andhy Mendez well interprets Marlow, Shakespeare’s playwriting rival, Brian Owen blusters effectively as Burbage, the owner of a rival theatre, and Evan Zes delights as the uptight Fennyman, the money lender.  And of course, there is Nigel the dog, who brings many laughs as Spot. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   A combination of farce, comedy, drama, tragedy and historification, “Shakespeare in Love” delights.  It makes for a joyful start to CPH’s 2017-2018 season.  And, yes, there is a dog!

“Shakespeare in Love” runs through October 1, 2017, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Next up at CPH is “The Diary of Anne Frank” from October 21-November 19 in the Outcalt Theatre.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Finely performed “Simply Simone” jazzes up Karamu

Mention the name Nina Simone and your mind probably conjures up jazz.  Yes, Nina, the jazz superstar and writer/performer of such powerhouse songs as “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”  But, were you aware that the terms child prodigy, civil rights activist, political exile and the Legend Queen of Black Classical music also apply?

Simone, whose given name was Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was the child of a preacher who was emotionally absent and an uptight religious mother. 

Born in the deeply segregated South, she showed early talent as a pianist and, under the tutelage of a white piano teacher, and the financial backing of both blacks and whites of Tryon, North Carolina, Eunice, who wished to be the first black major concert pianist, was accepted at Julliard School of Music. 

She was later denied entrance into the prestigious Curtiss Institute of Music in Philadelphia, in a slightly veiled act of race and gender bias.  Two days before her death, the rejection was set aside when Curtiss gave her an honorary doctorate degree.

In order to avoid the wrath of her mother, who detested the “devil’s music”, Eunice changed her name to Nina Simone.  Thus, she started to play “cocktail piano” and sing, in her contralto voice, at venues in Atlantic City, wrote her own songs, and made herself into the diva of classical, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel and pop.  Before she was done, she produced more than 40 albums.

“Simply Simone the music of Nina Simone” is a biographical review which uses song to illustrate the turbulent life and rich artistic legacy of this American musical diva.

The songs, presented by four different African American women, all performing Nina at various stages of her life, illustrate the many moods of the woman, as well as the important people in her life.

We experience Eunice’s upbringing, early piano lessons, youthful successes, marriage and relationship failures, friendships with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lorraine Hansberry, Leroy Jones and Langston Hughes, as well as her exile from the country for tax evasion, refusal to return for the funeral of her father, her relationship with her daughter, and the rises and falls of her career.

To be successful, a production of “Simply Simone” requires four supreme actresses with stellar voices and a wailing band.  Fortunately, Karamu has all the bases covered.

In its regional premiere, and the opening of the theatre’s 2017-2018 season, the outstanding cast features Sheffia Randall Dooley (the Earth Mother image of Simone), Afia Mensa (youthful image), Corlesia Smith (sophisticated Nina) and Mariama Whyte (the edgy and powerful façade).  Each woman plays the singer as a person or as a part of the legend.

Ed Ridley’s band, featuring his keyboard playing, the percussion of Elijah Gilmore, Brad McGee on guitar and bass player Kevin Byous, excel, expertly backed up without drowning out the singers. 

The scenic and costume design of Inda Blatch-Geib, lighting by Prophet Seay, sound by Rob Peck and choreography by Adenike Sharpley all enhance the production, which is under the adept direction of Caroline Jackson Smith.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  If you like the sounds and music of Nina Simone, enjoy well played, sung and performed jazz, gospel, blues, folk, R&B, and pop music, and want to know more about the Diva of Jazz, Karamu’s “Simply Simone” should be your entertainment destination.

“Simply Simone” continues through October 8, 2017 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street. In contrast to a pervious announcement, the entire theatre season will be performed on the Karamu campus.  Free parking in a guarded lot is available.  For ticket information call 216-795-7070 or go on line to www.kramuhouse.org

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Irreverent “Book of Mormon” delights in return visit at State Theatre

One of the major concerns in attending a return visit by a Broadway touring show is that the production will be a lesser version.   Those planning on attending “Book of Mormon,” now on stage at the State Theatre, should have no fears.  This reincarnation is equally good as any of the other versions that have trucked into town.  In fact, it is probably better than some of the others.

After writing five reviews about the show, what more is there for me to say about the plot?  Not much, so here’s a blend of some of the former reviews and some added comments about this production.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the long-time writers of “South Park,” are satirical comics extraordinaire.  Their writing marriage to Robert Lopez, the co-creator of the Tony Award winning “Avenue Q,” is a union made in heaven (or at least in the Broadway version of heaven). 

“The Book of Mormon” is a satirical musical filled with lots of explicit language.  It lampoons organized religion and, in its own way, follows the format, but mocks traditional musical theater. 
The script tells the story of two naïve and optimistic Mormon missionaries (Elder Price and Elder Cunningham) who are sent to a remote village in northern Uganda.  A brutal warlord is threatening the locals.  While the duo is trying to sell the locals on Mormon scripture, the people are more concerned with famine, poverty, female circumcision, war and AIDS.  Oh, what to do, what to do?

How did the duo get to Uganda or even get matched together?  Elder Price is the poster boy for the Ken doll, clean cut, and striving for perfection Mormon missionary.  Elder Cunningham is a rotund, friendless nerd, who relies on half-truths and a vivid imagination to get by.  They were cast as a duo through total serendipity, an act of heaven, and some clever comic writers, to go out and ring the doorbells of the world.

As Elder Cunningham, who admits never having read the mythical Book, makes up fantastic tales, which, in reality, aren’t far from the actual imaginative tales of Adam Smith, Brigham Young, the golden tablets, and the migration of the Mormons from upstate New York to Salt Lake City, and he wins over converts. 

After he baptizes the entire town, the church’s elders come to witness the miraculous success.  The villagers share their understanding of the Cunningham version of their new religion in a reenactment, which parallels in form to “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” in the “King and I,” with illusions to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from “The Sound of Music.”  Of course chaos results, everything turns out fine, and, after a standing ovation, the audience leaves the theatre singing, “I Believe.”

The touring show is spectacular.  It plays visually and emotionally on all the senses.  From its giddy opening number (think the “Telephone Hour” at the start of “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” to its mocking use of four letter words, to its bigger than life melodrama, to the over-the-top mythology (often paralleling the belief system to “Star Wars”), we are sucked into the idea that, as one of the words to the many delightful songs states, “tomorrow is a doper, phatter latter day.”  (I won’t even go into the concept of the song “Ma Ha Nei Bu, Eebowai!” [“F _ _ _You Heavenly Father”], you just have to experience it to experience it!)

The settings, music, costumes, lighting effects, perfect comic timing of the cast, and creative choreography all work.

With shiny perfect teeth flashing, Gabe Gibbs hits all the right notes as Elder Price.  Conner Peirson steals the show as Elder Cunningham, the “creative liar.” Maha’la Herrold is enchanting as Nabulungi.  Oge Agulue is both hysterically funny and evil incarnate, as General Butt-F _ _ king Naked, the war lord.  The rest of the cast also shines. 

Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker’s direction is spot on.  Farce, especially musical farce, is hard to accomplish due to its required spoken and sung controlled abandonment, but these guys guide their cast with laser perfection.  Nicholaw’s choreography is fun and well-executed.  Ever thought you’d see a dancing kick line of Mormons?

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you haven’t seen “The Book of Mormon,” or need a new shot of irreverent satire which skewers anyone and everyone, this is an absolute go see production. If you are a language prude, religious fanatic, or aren’t in the mood for ridiculous delight, stay away.  It’s everything a modern musical that is meant for pure entertainment, with a sip of philosophy, should be!

Tickets for “The Book of Mormon,” which runs September 17, 2017, at the State Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Janáček’s “The Cunning Little Vixen” to open The Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th season

The Cleveland Orchestra is on the verge of reaching its centennial.  In celebration of this momentous milestone, the innovative made-for-Cleveland stylized opera production of Leoš Janáček’s “The Cunning Vixen” will grace the Severance Hall stage.  

The production, complete with music provided by one of the world’s great orchestras, under the baton of music director, Franz Welser-Möst, and featuring the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, the Children’s Chorus and a dozen-plus vocalists, along with animation by the Walter Robot Studios, projections and lighting by Jason Thompson, costumes by Ann Close-Farley and masks by Cristina Waltz, will come forth for three performances. 

“The Cunning Vixen,” which was conceived around 1921, is the tale of a clever fox, who, accompanied by other wildlife as well as a few humans, has a series of adventures while traversing their life cycles. 

The libretto for the comic opera/tragedy, which was adopted by the Czech composer from a serialized novella, incorporates Moravian folk music and rhythms.  

First performed by the Cleveland Orchestra in May of 2014, it is credited with returning the composition to its opera roots.  It features hole-in-the wall carnival cutouts to place the singers’ heads on the animated bodies of the animal characters.

The opera is noted for breaking from traditional forms of that musical format, by adding ballet, mime and orchestral interludes. 

Though the piece contains the vixen’s death at the end of the piece, it is the lightest of the author’s operas.  The sound is often compared to that of the French composer Claude Debussy.

It is noteworthy that at the composer’s request, the final scene from the opera was performed at his funeral.

“The Cunning Little Vixen” will be staged on September 23, 24 and 26 at Severance Hall.  Tickets may be obtained by calling (216) 231-7300 or going on line to https://www.clevelandorchestra.com

Monday, September 04, 2017

Apollo’s Fire, Cleveland’s award winning Baroque orchestra, opens new season with “Israel in Egypt”

After selling out concerts at Tangelwood, in Madrid, Spain and BBC programs in London, Apollo’s Fire comes home to open its 2017-2018 season with “Israel in Egypt.”

“Israel in Egypt” Handel’s Oratorio vividly traces the Israelites’ escape from Egypt.  Filled with sumptuous music, the adaptation by Jeanette Sorrell, the orchestra’s musical director, will feature Apollo’s Singers as well as performances by soprano Erica Schuller, countertenor Daniel Moody, tenor Ross Hauck and baritone Jeffrey Strauss.

Fitting nicely into the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper season, the concert continues the tradition of showcasing Jewish themes by the orchestra which previously performed “Sephardic Journey,” which, in its recorded version, made Billboard’s Top 10 list. (To read a review of the “Sephardic Journey” concert and a bio of soloist Jeffrey Strauss, go to www.royberko.info, and enter Apollo’s Fire in the search box in the upper right side.)

The orchestra, which is named after the classical god of music and sun, was founded in 1992 by Sorrell with a grant from the Cleveland Foundation.  The musical director envisioned an ensemble dedicated to the baroque ideal that music should evoke the passions of the listeners through drama and rhetoric.  She has succeeded!

The group, whose recordings are often best sellers, frequently broadcast on National Public Radio and can be heard throughout North America and Europe. 

Using period instruments, the ensemble includes a pool of music specialists and singers who create a unique sound and features innovative programming.

Besides their sneak peek and regular concerts, the orchestra presents “Music Alive,” a series of free concerts at the Akron Art Museum, under the sponsorship of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Their “Israel & Egypt” sneak peek will be held on Sunday, October 1 at 3:00 pm in the Gallery.

The group will make its Carnegie Hall, New York, debut on March 22, 2018 and then travel to Boston for a Boston Early Musical Festival on March 24.

Apollo’s Fire dedication to nurturing the next generation of musical appreciators and performers is highlighted by an intimate artistic learning experience, which centers on free family concerts, a Treble Youth Choir and a Young Artist Apprentice Program.

Performances of “Israel in Egypt” are: Thursday, October 12, 7:30 pm @ St. Paul’s Episcopal, 1361 West Market Street, Akron; Friday, October 13, 8 pm @ First Baptist Church, 3630 Fairmount Boulevard, Shaker Heights; Saturday, October 14, 8pm @ The Temple-Tifereth Israel, 26000 Shaker Boulevard, Beachwood; and, Sunday, October 15, 4pm @ Avon Lake Church, UCC, 32801 Electric Boulevard, Avon Lake.

Information about Apollo’s Fire and tickets may be purchased at http://www.apollosfire.org/ or by calling 216-320-0012.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Opening night standing ovation for Dobama’s “brownsville song (b-side for tray) well-deserved

Those familiar with the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn think of such words as “ghetto,” “murder,” “rape” and “crime.”  It’s the kind of place that only makes the news when bad things happen. 

It’s an area where elderly black women find themselves on television dabbing their eyes as they are interviewed after a grandson, who they are bringing up, has been killed as a result of gang or drive-by violence.

Kimber Lee, the author of the social drama “brownsville song (b-side for tray),” which is now in its regional premiere at Dobama, based her drama on a 2012 murder in Brownsville.  It centers on twenty-year old student athlete and amateur boxer, Tray Franklin Grant, who was killed during a gang conflict in which he had no role. 

Lee says she first read about Grant on the blog of Sarah Deming, a writer and one-time boxer who'd tutored him.  "She said he didn't want to talk about his struggles," Lee recalls. "She felt it would make him seem like he was complaining. Yes, Tray had problems, one of which was losing his father—in the same way he'd die, actually.  But he felt like, 'You know what, I have a good life.' He had a quiet strength. That just stayed with me."

In an interview before the show premiered at Louisville’s Humana Festival, the first big production of one of her scripts, she indicated that time moves when you experience grief and loss.  “Yes,” she stated, “The play is about loss and grief, but it is really about the vibrant relationship between members of the family.”

The script, which flows easily from past to present and back again, is written with a lyrical tone.   Lee, in the play’s preface, gives the actors and director this advice, “The aliveness of the play lives in the rhythm and flow of the language, which includes the syncopation of the pauses and silences. Those spaces should be just as full and driving forward with the need of the characters as the words.”

She continues, “Because the story pivots around a deep loss, there may be a tendency to sink into that emotion, but this should be resisted. The scenes, even the ones after Tray’s death, must drive forward, as we all must do in life even in the midst of heartbreak.”

Ms. Lee’s argues, in almost rap song sounds, against treating the next neighborhood death as just one more statistic, but the need is to understand the tragic loss of a whole generation of young black men to death and/or the prison system. (“Approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 37% of prison inmates.”  “One in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.” “Forty percent of African-American males 15-34 who died were murdered, making it the highest cause of death for this group.”)

The story centers on Tray, a spirited biracial young man.  He is estranged from his Korean-American mother, Merrill (Cindy Chang), being raised, along with his nine-year old sister, Devine (Logan Dior Williams), by Lena (Lisa Louise Langford), his African American grandmother.  He is a “good” boy.  He is hard working, gets good grades, has been accepted to college and is a protective father-figure for his sister.

Merrell slinks along the edges of their lives, having lost them due to her on-going battle with sobriety.   After more than one dive into rehab, it appears that she is finally getting her life together.

Unfortunately, we watch in horror as a shining light of what black young men can be is destroyed in yet another senseless black on black murder. 

Dobama’s production, under the guidance of Jimmie Woody is in many ways superlative.  

The show starts with a heart breaking, mesmerizing monologue, by Langford.  Throughout she continues to develop a textured, meaningful image of a woman fighting for a world that should be, needs to be fair, but unfortunately isn’t.  She doesn’t portray Lena, she is Lena. 

Though he sometimes substitutes yelling for deep emotional feelings, which would be better served by underplaying and pauses rather than loud projection, Cleveland School of the Arts senior, Jabri Little, is excellent as Tray.  He displays a nice glow of vulnerability and instinctive intelligence that helps create a meaningful character.

Chang molds a nice touch of vulnerability with desperation in making Merrell real. 

Both young Ms. Williams and Kalim Hill, in the dual roles of Junior and BC student, are believable.

The technical aspects of the production are superlative.  Scenic designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski has taken a script which calls for multiple settings and created sliding screen and set pieces on wagons, that flow in and out to the well selected music by sound designer Cyrus O. Taylor.  The staging is accented by Marcus Dana’s lighting design.  T. Paul Lowry’s impressive projections transport us out of Cleveland into Brownsville and East Flatbush, New York.  The entire world of “brownsville song” is played out before an impressive painting on the theatre’s back wall by Contributing Artist, John “Skyline” Davison.

Ms. Lee includes in the preface of the play the words of James Baldwin (“Nothing Personal”), “The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” It is a fitting memorial to the sad tales of the Trays of the world!

Capsule judgment: Dobama, Cleveland’s fine off-Broadway professional theatre, opens its 2017-2018 season with a mesmerizing production of Kimber Lee’s “must see” script.  Generally well-directed, often superlatively acted, this is drama at its finest!  The opening night standing ovation was well-deserved.

“Brownsville song (b-side for tray)” runs through September 24, 2017 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up at Dobama:   Cleveland’s grand lady of theatre, Dorothy Silver, stars in “Marjorie Prime” from October 13-November 12, 2017.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

“Rhinoceros” challenges the audience to place a spotlight on the absurdity of life today @ con-con

Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Edward Albee are Theatre of the Absurd playwrights.  Unlike modern-movement writers like Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and William Inge, who wrote realistic plays which included solutions to problems or resolved situations, the Absurdists based their plays on Existentialism, asking, “Why do we exist?” but giving no answers.  Their writings are full of questions to ponder and probe. 

Absurdist plays show people and a world out of kilter.  They shine the spotlight on the ridiculousness of life and situations.  Their plays are often confusing, hard to understand and challenge an audience to think.

Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” which is now on stage at convergence continuum, is a classic play of the genre.

The story, which centers on Bérenger, tells the tale of a man who is criticized for his drinking, tardiness and laid back life style.  We see him slide into paranoia and obsession as first one, then a herd of rhinoceroses, take over the town.  The herd, in reality, are those people who surround Bérenger and who fall for the “myth” of the rhinoceros as they become pawns to rumors and exaggerations.

Late in his life, Ionesco, the son of an ultra-nationalist Romanian father and a Jewish Sephardic mother who converted to Calvinism to fit into French society, indicated that the script was biographical.  Ionesco, who considered himself ethnically a Jew, though he didn’t practice the religion, found himself questioning how the Romanians had become so anti-Semitic, and how the Germans allowed Hitler to come to power.

The script is peppered with references that should easily stir present day viewers.  There are lines like, “Journalists are all liars,” and “Racism is one of the great problems of our times” as well as allusions to disdain for intelligent people, references to what are now termed “alternate facts,” negative allusions to immigrants, attacks against humanism, and illustrating the “great lie theory,” which states that if a lie is told over and over people start to believe it is the truth.

All of the characters, except Bérenger, talk in clichés, which are short, cryptic, use over-exaggerated adjectives which often lack proof, much like today’s tweets by Donald Trump.

Ionesco looks at reasoning and absurdity by exposing the limitations of logic and what motivates and explains the forces of the universe.  He uses the Rhinoceros allegory to ask, “what was the mentality that allowed a nation to succumbed to Nazism?”  In modern terms, why did many people succumb to the ethnic slurs and “Make America Great Again” sloganeering of Trump?

He uses the rhinoceros as a symbol of man’s inherent savage nature, while asking how humans are so absurd that they would allow the barbarity of World War II, or, in modern terms, why more didn’t rise up more strongly as Trump does not condemn the alt-right.

Yes, “Rhinoceros” was written in 1959, but has become one of the most produced scripts today as it examines the absurdity of the US in 2017.  Kudos to con-con’s artistic director Clyde Simon for putting such a relevant play on this year’s production schedule.

Staged in a black and white set and costumed in the same hue of colors, the play’s image is vivid.

Director Jonathan Wilhelm’s blocking is often creative, and the use of overlapping lines by characters on various parts of the stage adds to the absurdity.  Many lines were neatly primed for laughter, including, “How can it happen in this country?” which got an extended guffaw from the audience.

The cast, Tom Kondilas, Mike Frye, Kayla Gray, Joseph Milan, Natalyn Baisden, Rocky Encalada, David L. Munnell, Jeanne Task and Kim Woodworth, are uneven in their character development, sometimes stumbling over lines and not picking up their cues quickly enough.  This hopefully will right itself during the play’s run.

Capsule Judgement:  The con-con production, under adept directing by Jonathan Wilhelm, is a very long sit, but can be worth the effort.  Don’t go expecting a clear plot with a nicely wrapped-up solution.  This is an absurd play which is intended to make you uncomfortable and forces you to be introspective and examine the world around you as you ask, “Why do we exist?”

“Rhinoceros” runs through September 16, 2017 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/

Next up at con-con:  Israel Horowitz’s “Spared,” a one-person show performed by Robert Hawkes, from September 28 through 30, 2017.  It is followed by Siegmund Fuchs’ “In The Closet” from October 13-November 4.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Superb “Equus” filled with passion at Blank Canvas

In the early 1970s, master wordsmith and playwright Peter Shaffer read a small news story, with little details, about a boy who had blinded six horses at a stable in Sussex, England.  The writer’s imagination went into full gear.  He created a script which included a family background for the obsessed young man, an image of a troubled but successful psychiatrist, and wove them into a compelling play which he named “Equus.”

The story centers on Alan Strong (Antonio DeJesus), a teenager, living in a small town in England and Martin Dysart (Russell B. Kunz), the psychiatrist who treats him after Heather Saloman (Amiee Collier), a compassionate magistrate, pleads with Dysart to take Alan as a patient. 

From the opening scene, in which Alan tenderly hugs Nugget, a horse, to the emotional closing, Shaffer’s two-and-a-half-hour script grabs and holds the viewer’s attention. 

With Dysart as the narrator, we meet Frank (Andrew Narten), Alan’s atheistic, hypercritical father, and Dora (Claudia Esposito), his enabling school teacher mother.  We learn how Jill Mason (Sarah Blubaugh), a young woman introduces him to stable owner Harry Dalton (Chris Bizub) who hires the boy.  We observe as Jill attempts to introduce the virgin boy to sex.  We observe Alan connect to the stable’s horses (Daryl Kelley, Jason Falkofsky, Zac Hudak, Evan Martin, Anthony Salatino and David Turner), who Alan loves, yet is the subject of his maiming.

We observe Alan change from a boy who chants advertising jingles in order to protect himself from human contact, to revealing a little of his past, to finally coming to an understanding of why he acted as he did, with the possibility of his becoming normal.  “Normal.”  Whatever that means.

Alan is not the only one with high angst.  Dysart is in a loveless, sexless marriage, is living an unfulfilled existence, and finds himself having severe nightmares about being a destructive chief priest in Homeric Greece.

The tale is told in retrospect. Dysart, as the narrator, takes the audience to various times and places as fits the tale, rather than making the story sequential.

“Equus” is a tale of passion, religion, sexuality, pain, blame, and freedom.  Alan, a boy in pain, is obsessed with horses from first coming in contact with one on a beach when he was young.  He creates Equus into a Christ-like figure.  Even his first attempt at sex takes place in his “church,” the horse stable, where he is unable to perform when the horses whinny, sending a message of his wrong doing.   Dysart, as does the audience, tries to figure out if Alan’s problems, including his need for freedom, are his own doing or those created by his parents, and whether he is freeing the horses from their confinement and pain by blinding them.

“Equus” is a difficult play to stage.  For the script to work requires two superb actors, a strong supporting cast, creative staging, a meaningful vision for the horses, subtle and appropriate English accents, and a set that enhances the action.

Fortunately, director Patrick Ciamacco has found the cast and has the originality gene to make the near impossible possible.

At an open tryout, Ciamacco found boyish looking twenty-year old Antonio DeJesus.  DeJesus lives up to the English interpretation of his last name, which is “of God,” as Alan. DeJesus gives what has to be one of the most enveloping, highly-textured performances by a male the local theater season.  Kudos!  Bravo!

Russell B. Kunz creates a believable, well-conceived, tortured Martin Dysart.  He is a great match for DeJesus.

Aimee Collier, Andrew Narten, Claudia Esposito, Chris Bizub and Sarah Blubaugh are all prime in their roles.

Noah Hrebek and Patrick Ciamacco’s horse fabrications, and Ciamacco’s set design, which takes us into a barn, complete with Alan’s pit of Hell, enhances the production.

Be aware that the production includes full frontal male and female nudity.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Equus” is not only one of Blank Canvas’s finest productions, but one of the best stagings of the script I’ve seen.  This is required attendance for anyone interested in experiences of marrying a well-written script with a superb staging.  If for no other reason, go to the theater to experience the marvel of Antonio DeJesus.

Blank Canvas’s “Equus” runs through August 26, 2017, in its near west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website. Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvastheatre.com

Next up at BC is their annual fund-raiser on September 1 and 2. “Chess,” is a concert version of the tale of a politically driven, Cold War-era chess tournament between two men—an American grandmaster and a Soviet grandmaster—and their fight over a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other.  It has music by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus of Abba, and lyrics by Tim Rice.

October 6-28:  The stage version of the cult-rock movie “The Rocky Horror Show.”

Friday, August 04, 2017

2017 Fall Cleveland Theater Calendar

Here’s a list of some of the offerings of local theatres through the fall season (September-December, 2017).


You can track my reviews on http://www.royberko.info/, or contact me to get on my direct review list.  You can see a synopsis of the local reviewers’ comments about the plays at http://www.clevelandtheaterreviews.com/

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

September 15 – October 8
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST--“Crazy” McMurphy, a charming rogue, is placed in a ward at a mental institution ruled by the terrible Nurse Ratched.  It’s a battle of wills!

October 6 – November 5
WAITING FOR GODOT—Beckett’s Existential epic “mystery wrapped in an enigma” which examines the hopeless destiny of the human race. Especially significant in this “reign of Trump.”

December 1 – December 31
Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID—A return visit of the 2016 award winning production tells the timeless fairy tale of Ariel, a mermaid princess, as she dreams of the forbidden land above.


440-941-0458 or http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com/
Thursday, Friday and Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 7 pm

October 6-28
THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW—The 1950s science fiction rock musical in which Brad and Janet run into car trouble, go to a creepy castle for some help and find Dr. Frank N. Furter.  (Contains adult language and content.)

December 1-16
URINETOWN THE MUSICAL—In a Gotham-like city, a terrible water shortage causes the government to enforce a ban on private toilets.  Watch in delight as this musical satire exposes social irresponsibility, bureaucracy, corporate mismanagement and capitalism at its worst.

216-241-6000 or go to http://www.playhousesquare.org
7:30 PM Wednesday-Saturday, 2:30 PM Saturday and Sunday

September 9-October 1
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE—The Academy Award-winning romantic comedy comes to the stage, complete with sword fights, secret trysts, and backstage drama.

October 21-November 19
THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK—Anne’s compelling words come alive and urge viewers to stand up for one another in the face of intolerance, fear, and hate.

November 24-December 23
A CHRISTMAS STORY—Yes, it’s back again…one boy, one holiday wish, The Old Man, Santa at Higbee’s Department Store and the glowing-leg-lamp.  A play for the whole family.

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

September 9
PANDEMONIUM 2017:  UNLEASH—CPT’S annual fundraiser transforms the CPT campus into a labyrinth of theatre, dance visual and performance art on every corner.

October 5-7 & 12 (previews), October 13-28 (official run)
THE FAMILY CLAXON—World Premiere of Cleveland Heights award winning writer Eric Coble’s tale of Andrew Claxon who wants to help Grandad Claxon celebrate his birthday but chaos reigns all around the town.

October 5-7
TEATRO PUBLICO NEW PLAY FESTIVAL---A workshop series of new scripts and scenes created by local Latino artists. 

October 26-28 & November 2 (previews), November 3-18 (official run)
THE ART OF LONGING--World premiere of Lisa Lanford’s play that follows the lives of six “third-shift” people who are awake when the rest of the city sleeps.

November 2-5—Y-HAVEN THEATRE PROJECT—An original theater production by the members of Y-Haven, a homeless men’s facility, centering on their life stories.

November 24-26 & 30 (previews), December 1-17 (official run)—
THE LOUSH SISTERS GET HARD FOR THE HOLIDAYS (YIPPIE-KAI-YAY MOTHER LOUSHERS)-- Holly and Jolly Loush return to CPT in this world premiere of a bawdy, boozy, over-the-top holiday cabaret in which they battle villains and attempt to avert disaster. 

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

August 25-September 16

RHINOCEROS—Ionesco’s Theatre of the Absurd play which places a spotlight on history possibly being replayed by the Trump presidency.

September 28-30

SPARED—A man and two women meet after attending a funeral, a time when so much needs to be articulated and understood. And yet, somehow, they cannot bridge the gulf of self-consciousness that separates them. 

October 13-November 4

IN THE CLOSET—Sigmund Fuch’s tale find’s four men trying to confront each of his own humorous, awkward or heart breaking reason for being himself.

November 16-18

CAMP BEACOUP CONGA—World premiere of a play by Clevelander Jonathan Wilhelm.

December 1-16

THE CHASTE GENIUS AND HIS DEATHRAY GUN—a world premiere of Chirstopher Johnston’s tale of strange freaky inventor Nikola Tesla.

 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org
check the theatre’s blog for performance times

September 1-24
BROWNSVILLE SONG (B-SIDE FOR TRAY)—The Cleveland premiere of Kimber Lee’s story of the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn where life is often tragically cut short.

October 13-November 12
MARJORIE PRIME—Stars Cleveland legend Dorothy Silver as an 85-year-old woman with a handsome new companion which explores what it means to be human in the digital age.

December 1-30
SHERLOCK HOLMES:  THE BAKER STREET IRREGULARS—It’s December on the streets of London, Sherlock Holmes is missing, and a young girl’s grandfather has been abducted.  Who will save the day?  The game’s afoot.

  216-321-2930 or http://www.ensemble-theatre.com
Fridays and Saturdays @ 8, Sundays @ 2

September 29-October 22
WELL—Lisa Kron, the Oberlin grad who wrote the book and lyrics for the award-winning FUN HOME, writes about a mother who has the extraordinary ability to heal a changing neighborhood despite her inability to heal herself.

November 17-December 10
THE HAIRY APE—Eugene O’Neill’s epic expressionist play about a brutish, unthinking laborer who searches for a sense of belonging in a world controlled by the rich.

December 1-17
THE LITTLE PRINCE—A play with music tells the tale of a world-weary and disenchanted Aviator whose sputtering plane strands him in the Sahara Desert and his meeting a mysterious “little man.”

  http://www.greatlakestheater.org or 216-241-6000
Wednesday-Saturday @ 7:30, Saturdays @ 1:30, Sundays @ 3

September 29-November 4
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (A SOARING MUSICAL EPIC)—Victoria Bussert directs the Alan Menken, Stephen Schwartz, Peter Parnell musical tale of Quasimodo, a deformed bell-ringer, who becomes an unlikely hero.

October 6-November 5
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM—Shakespeare’s comic tale of madness, mistaken identity,  mismatched lovers and mischief-making fairies.

November 25-December 23
A CHRISTMAS CAROL—Dickens’ classic tale of one man’s ultimate redemption.

INTERPLAY JEWISH THEATER   http://interplayjewishtheatre or 216-393-PLAY

Play readings at Dobama are free, but reservations are required. 

November 18
Special event—details to be announced!

KARAMU HOUSE  216-795-707) or www.karamuhouse.org
Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Check the theater’s website for exact times and dates

SIMPLY SIMONE:  THE MUSIC OF NINA SIMONE—a musical chronicling the life and career of the songstress.

THE LAKE EFFECT—Cleveland Heights native Rajiv Joseph’s tale about estranged siblings who reunite at their father’s restaurant in an evening of memories and family secrets.  (Produced in collaboration with Ensemble Theatre.)

TBA--An original world premiere of a jazz review featuring holiday classics from Cole Porter to Gershwin.

  440-525-7134 or http://lakelandcc.edu/academic/arts/theatre/index.asp
Productions are staged at Lakeland Community College

October 11 & 12 @ noon, October 13 & 14 @ 7:30 PM

A GUIDE’S GUIDE TO LAWNFIELD—Local playwright Faye Sholiton’s play about an 18-year old history geek and unabashed fan of James A. Garfield. While leading a tour of the late president's Mentor home, he encounters a visitor who is particularly adamant that he gets the story right.

   216-961-6391 or nearwestheatre.org

September 22-October 1
XANADU (Youth Production, ages 9-15)-- a musical comedy based on the 1980 cult classic film of the same name

November 17-December 10
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Intergenerational Production (Ages 7 and up)—A musical based on the Disney film of the same name which tells the story of a cold-hearted prince who has been transformed into a creature as punishment for his selfish ways. To revert into his human form, he must earn the love of a beautiful young lady.

none-too-fragile theatre   330-671-4563 or http://www.nonetoofragile.com

LAST OF THE BOYS—Steven Dietz’s serio-comedy about a Vietnam vet which examines identities and memoires of the past.

October 27-November 11
A STEADY RAIN— With a plot similar to a real-life event that involved Jeffrey Dahmer, it focuses on two Chicago policemen who inadvertently return a Vietnamese boy to a cannibalistic serial killer who claims to be the child's uncle.

OHIO SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL  www.ohioshakespearefestival.com
 (Winter and Spring Home:  Greystone Hall, Akron)
103 S. High Street, Akron 44308

September 22-October 8
THREE MUSKETEERS:  AN ADVENTURE WITH MUSIC—An OSF Family Theatre production of Alexander Dumas's classic tale of friendship, daring, romance, and intrigue...with music!  Curtain—7 PM-Thursday-Saturday and 2 PM on Sunday.

December 1-17
CAMELOT—Lerner and Loewe’s “one brief shining moment” musical tells the legend of King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table. Thursday-Saturday @ 8, Sunday @ 2.

   216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org

See the website for dates and times

September 12-17
THE BOOK OF MORMON—The award winning outrageous musical comedy which follows the misadventures of a mismatched pair of Mormon missionaries sent halfway across the world to spread the “Good Word.”

September 29-30
MARTIN LUTHER ON TRIAL—A new original play about Martin Luther on Trial.  A trial in the afterlife, and the prosecutor is the Devil.

October 17-November 5
WAITRESS—This ground-breaking show, with an all-female creative team, with music and lyrics by 5-time Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles, is an empowering musical about a woman whose dreams come true.  (The national tour will be rehearsed and start in CLE.)—Key Bank Broadway Series.

November 8-December 3
WICKED—a return visit of the Broadway sensation that looks at what happened in the Land of Oz long before Dorothy arrives.  Key Bank Broadway Series.

December 5-23
ON YOUR FEET! —Emilio and Gloria Estefan’s musical story of their breaking barriers to become crossover sensations at the very top of the pop music world.  Key Bank Broadway Series.

http://www.MusicalTheaterProject.org or 216-529-9411 for tickets and information

(productions staged in review format with narration)

October 14 @ 7 PM-Stocker Center, Lorain County Community College,
October 15-3 PM-Ohio Theatre, Playhouse Square
Broadway premiere the first truly book musical reaffirms the strength of our national character.  Featuring Bill Rudman, Nancy Maier, Ursula Cataan, Lindsey Sandham Leonard, Joe Monaghan, Shane Patrick O’Neill and Fabio Polanco.

December 15—8 PM, December 16—2 PM—Stocker Center, Lorain County Community College
December 17 and 18—7 PM—Night town Restaurant, Cleveland Heights
A CHRISTMAS CABARET—Several dozen songs about the holidays which will please the entire family.  Featuring Nancy Maier, Joe Monaghan, Bill Rudman and Sandra Simon.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

“Wilde Tales,” a fun inclusive experience at The Shaw

A yearly highlight of the Shaw Festival season are their lunch-time hour productions which are staged in the intimate Court House Theatre.

This year’s offering is “Wilde Tales,” a fun program and inclusive experience.  It’s composed of three Oscar Wilde short children’s stories adapted by Kate Henning and takes place in the magnificent garden of Oscar Wilde’s imagination.

The offerings include “The Happy Prince,” “The Nightingale and the Rose,” and “The Selfish Giant” all based on the concept that love is “a powerful, life-altering force which is not confined to the mating of a man and a woman, not, for that matter even between humans.”  The fact that Wilde was a homosexual adds to the understanding of his expansive view of love.

In “The Happy Prince,” a sparrow comes across a golden statue of a prince.  The statue weeps for the poor citizens of the town.  The sparrow desires to travel the world with his flock, but he is so taken with the honesty and passion of the prince that he stays and aids the prince by doing kind things for the town folk.  Unfortunately, as the season changes from summer to winter, the sparrow dies from the cold, leaving the prince alone, with a broken heart.

The "Nightingale and the Rose" finds a nightingale who comes across a young student who is in love.  In order to win his lady fair, the youth must find the reddest rose in the kingdom.  In order to get the needed deep blood-red color, the nightingale impales her own heart on a thorn.  She gives her life so that the student can find true love.

"The Selfish Giant," centers on a mean giant who forbids children to play in his beautiful garden.  Because of his selfishness, winter lasts forever and the garden never blooms again.  Finally, the giant recants and allows the children back into the garden, and it flowers again.  One small boy especially wins over the giant.  After the boy leaves, the giant does not see him again until his life ends.

An announcement for the play states, “Calling all children!  We want you not only to see “Wilde Tales” but to make it happen.  Sign up in advance for the pre-show one-hour workshop with the actors to help create the magic on stage.  For ages 6 to 12.”

Yes, children circle the thrust stage of the theatre and give the actors props, some get to take roles, all become the flowers in the garden.  They also get to have their pictures taken with the cast.

The children on stage, and using members of the audience to make sound effects, sing, and do various other tasks, is part of The Shaw’s new policy for creating inclusive theatre which is a device used in this year’s offerings.

The cast includes:  Marion Day, Emily Lukasik, PJ Prudat, Sanjay Talwar, Jonathan Tan and Kelly Wong playing multi-roles.

Capsule judgment:  Christine Brubaker’s direction is creative, the casts are excellent, and the over-all effect is fun, educational and stimulating.  This is a wonderful example of children’s theatre for those of all ages.

For theater information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

Tom McCamus is superb in “The Madness of George III” at The Shaw

G. Bernard Shaw, for whom the Shaw Festival is named and dedicated, wrote in “The Revolutionist’s Handbook,” “Kings are not born, they are made by artificial hallucination.”

He may well have been thinking of George III, the central figure in Alan Bennett’s “The Madness of George III,” which is now in production at the Shaw Festival.

The play is a fictionalized biographical study of the latter half of the reign of George III.  Yes, that George, the one against whom the colonists rebelled, the one who was known as “The Mad George” because of his eccentric behavior, the one who found himself in odds with his son for the leadership of the United Kingdom during a period known as the Regency Crisis of 1788-89.

George III, who came to the throne at age 22 when his grandfather died, was blessed with a booming British economy which was just entering the industrial revolution and, in spite of losing the American colonies, soon added Canada to the British empire.  In spite of this he found himself in conflict with the Whigs, who were strongly opposed to an absolute monarchy.  His stubbornness and micromanagement style of leadership soon caused his popularity to reign.  His situation was not helped by the actions of his oldest son who agitated for George’s removal from the throne so he could be named regent.

The king’s erratic behavior, which with present day knowledge would have been treated as a mental illness with possible mood stabilizing drugs, was beyond the medical field of the time.  He was treated with many primitive methods including leeches, bloodletting, blistering and purging.

Eventually his wife, brought in a Dr. Willis who used “new” procedures.  The King eventually showed signs of some recovery and asserted his control.

The play, rather than plot driven, is a character study and the success of the play rests on the talents of the actor playing the role.

At The Shaw, the role is taken by the very talented Tom McCamus.  His performance is a textured creation displaying extraordinary emotion and the ability to handle humor.  He does not portray George III, he becomes George III.   This is a master class of acting abilities complete with an obvious understanding of the motives and psyche of the man he is portraying.

Chick Reid, as Queen Charlotte, Jim Mezon as Dr. Baker, and André Sills as Pitt, are also very good.  

Kent Bennett’s direction is problematic.  In spite of McCamus and some of the performers’ excellence, the director fails to develop the same needed reality in many others. They, instead, feign their roles, with overdone gestures, fey expressions, often bridging on farce shadowed with melodrama.  They create caricatures rather than real people.

One must question why the set design included two walls of box seats in which audience members were seated.  Yes, even though the production philosophy under the direction of Tim Carrol, the Shaw’s new artistic director, is for two-way, inclusive theater, the presence of the on-stage on-lookers is questionable. 

The stage audience couldn’t be commoners, as the King would never address “the people” directly.  The cast couldn’t interact with them as this is a realistic play requiring not breaking reality with side comments. Even something that could have made sense for the stage audience didn’t work.  The two young girls placed in the second balcony to throw roses onto the cast during the curtain call failed, as the lasses started their actions after the cast had permanently left the stage.

Capsule judgment:  In spite of some questionable directorial decisions, “The Madness of George III” is a play well worth seeing.  The script provides a fascinating view of a historical figure not often exposed to the public and Tom McCamus gives a tour de force performance in the lead role.

For theater information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

The Shaw’s "Saint Joan" is a compelling, effective, inventive production

Joan d’Arc was born January 6, 1412, and was burned at the stake on October 30, 1431.  

During her short life, the oft referred to “Maid of Orleans” was the object of both adoration and damnation because of her role in the Hundred Years’ War and her connection to King Charles VII.  The uncrowned monarch sent her to the siege of Orleans.  Within nine days, leaning heavily on the advice of her “voices,” she defeated the English and had Charles crowned.

Some present day mental health practitioners would label Joan as schizophrenic.  Religious leaders and the French who adored her thoroughly believed that the voices of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who she vowed she heard and spoke with, were real. 

Her life ended at age 19 when she was captured by the English, refused to admit she was practicing heresy and was sentenced to death by pro-English Bishop Beauvais Pierre Cauchon.  Her post-humus conviction was rescinded in 1456, and she was declared a martyr.  She was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920.

Joan has been the subject of literature, paintings, sculpture, and memorialized by writers, filmmakers and composers.  Even a video game has been created with her as the main character.
George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” was written three years after her canonization and dramatizes her life based on the records of the trial which led to her death. 

Interestingly, Shaw, who was a noted religious nonbeliever, indicated that concerned people acted in good faith according to their beliefs.  He stated in the play’s long preface, “the characterization of Joan by most writers is romanticized to make her accusers come off as completely unscrupulous and villainous.” 

Not all agree with Shaw as one historian of the time argued that the play was highly inaccurate, especially in its depiction of medieval society.

Some theatre historians declare the play to be Shaw’s “only tragedy,” and Joan a tragic hero.  Shaw, himself, characterized it as “"A Chronicle Play in 6 Scenes and an Epilogue". 

The Shaw production, under the direction of new Artistic Director, Tim Carroll, is captivating.  He states he chose the play to be his first offering in his tenure because,” I have always loved “Saint Joan.”  He goes on to explain that it appears that this play liberated the poet in the writer and that “I think Shaw sees himself in her.” 

The script obviously also released something in Carroll.  His staging is creative. The motives of the interpretation are crystal clear, the use of contemporary dress and language leaves no idea hidden, the imaginative set design which places all the action front and center eliminates theatricality, the audience is sucked in and is an active witness to history.

Joan is not portrayed as a wild religious fanatic or a psychotic.  Sara Topham brilliantly underplays the young lady.  She is real, vulnerable, yet assured.  She does not rant.  She explains with conviction.  We believe that she believes.  Topham does not act Joan, she is Joan.

Masterfully, Wade Bogert-O’Brien as the Dauphin, avoids past portrayals of Charles VII-to be, as a fey sniveling idiot.  His Dauphin is a young man aware that he is unready to assume the massive responsibility being thrust upon him and doing everything to avoid being termed a failure. 

Other members of the cast are equally as competent, each a clearly etched realistic character.  There are no caricatures here, only well-conceived characters.

Kevin LaMotte’s lighting and Judith Bowden’s design aid in creating this epic production.  Claudio Vena’s original music helps set the right tone for the style of the staging.

Capsule judgement: “Saint Joan,” under the direction of Tim Carroll, is a masterful piece of theater.  The production is clear in its intent and purpose and compels the audience to be a part of history.  Bravo!

For theater information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

Delightful, thought-provoking “Androcles And the Lion,” the play to see at Shaw

George Bernard Shaw, for whom Canada’s Shaw Festival is named, was noted for his strong political, gender, governmental and education views.  His special target of biting, yet often subtle satire, was the church.  It didn’t matter the denomination. Shaw skewered all organized religion.

The preface of his “Androcles and the Lion,” which is often referred to as “The Gospels of Shaw,” is an examination of the writer’s analysis of “The Bible” which proclaims the Irishman’s belief that Jesus was a benevolent genius, was brought to popularity due to his martyrdom, but whose ideas were lost at his crucifixion as the Christian church followed the teachings of Paul and substituted ritual for Christ’s philosophy.  The preface, interestingly enough, is longer than the 1912 short play. 

Shaw tells the tale of Androcles (the delightful Patrick Galligan), a Christian tailor, who, while wandering in the forest with his nagging wife, came upon the injured lion and removed a thorn from the paw of the king of the jungle.

Androcles is captured, along with many Christians, and is brought to the Colosseum by the Romans.  Their fate is to be thrown to the lions or participate in gladiatorial combat.

Among the others in his group are Ferrovius (the studly Jeff Irving), a recent Christian convert, who is in a personal torment between his natural violent inclinations and his newly found piousness, and Lavinia (lovely Julia Course), a convert to whom a Roman captain (kindly Kyle Blair) is attracted.

The Christians are sent to the arena to be eaten by lions or killed by the gladiator.  When Androcles is sent in, he is confronted by the same lion from whose paw he had taken out the splinter.  Instead of killing Androcles, the appreciative lion befriends him.  

Androcles is not the only one who is saved. Ferrovius throws off his religious mantel and kills all the gladiators, is offered a position in the Pretorian Guard, and the rest of the Christians are released because of his bravery, and, of course, Androcles and his friendly lion dance around the arena to the delight of all.

When the Emperor enters the arena the lion attacks him.  Androcles asks him to save the Emperor.  The lion does so.  The Emperor then declares that the siege of the Christians over and Androcles and the lion depart together.

Sounds like morbid tale.  No!  In the hands of the creative direction of Tim Carroll, the Shaw’s new Artistic Director, the production is delightful. 

Carroll states in his program notes, “You are about to see a show made with love and respect for the material, but with a complete absence of reverence.” 

Using his newly declared request for a more inclusive method of directing and staging plays, which has been embraced by the staff, the Lion is played by a randomly picked member of the audience (with on-stage coaching by the cast), Stories about those in attendance are shared by cast members who spent a long period before the opening “lights up” with those in attendance, and personal stories are shared by cast members based on colored balls being thrown on stage by audience members. 

Each ball, which had been distributed to viewers by cast members, has been assigned a specific task.   A cane taken from a woman in the first row of the audience becomes a major prop, money is taken from a gentleman as a “donation to the actor’s fund.”   And, so on and so on, building on the concept of inclusion and the delight of the audience.

The flexibility of the production is well-illustrated by a note in the program stating, “Due to the nature of this production, the running time is approximately 1 hour and 55 minutes to 2 hours and 20 minutes including one intermission.”

Capsule judgement:  The Shaw’s “Androcles and the Lion” is a total delight while leaving no doubt of the writer’s negative views about organized religion and oppressive politics.  The entire production is free of pretense, is audience centered, fresh, and a must see for anyone interested in experiencing inclusive theatre at is finest.  Of the 2017 season’s shows, this is probably my favorite!

For theater information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

Creative “Me and My Girl” delights at Shaw Festival

Though America is credited with developing modern musical theater, productions that have a story-line and incorporate dance and song into the format, there is one aspect of the genre which the British do much better…the musical farce.  Yes, shows like “Me and My Girl,” in which slapstick, double-takes, physical exaggeration and the ridiculous hold sway tend to be delightful in the hands of the Brits and Canadians due to their long history of music hall theater in which broad exaggeration and farce hold supreme.

Scripts in which class is taken into consideration is also where the British shine.  In contrast to supposedly classless America, Britain is traditionally class driven.  Therefore, many British plays and musicals mock the British caste system.  Whether it’s “My Fair Lady,” “By Jeeves,” “Half a Six Pence” “Oliver,” or “Me and My Girl,” class plays a roll.

To grasp the underlying premise of “Me and My Girl,” the British class system has to be understood.  In contrast to the caste system in other European countries, the British system is somewhat more flexible.  A person may rise through the order by getting wealthy, being knighted or being revealed as a member of the exclusive group through a quirk of parentage, in contrast to the “you have to be born into this position, no exceptions.”

In “Me and My Gal,” Bill Snibson, the central character in the L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber (book and lyrics) set to Noel Gay’s music, is an uninhibited cockney from Lambeth, which is a dense industrial, commercial, residential, low-level area of London, noted for its unique language patterns, which includes using slang and making up rhymes while speaking.

The story takes place in the late 1930s and tells the tale of the unrefined cockney, Bill (Michael Therriault), who learns that he is the heir to the Earl of Hareford.  Yes, he is now a wealthy titled member of the upper class.  That is, if he gets the approval of the Earl’s solicitor, Sir John Tremayne (Ric Reid), and Bill’s uptight Aunt Maria, the Duchess of Dene (Sharry Flett).  Not only must Bill change his language and actions, but must rid himself of his long time love, Sally (Kristi Frank).

As happens in all farce, after all sorts of ridiculous complications, as in all British fairytales, all’s well that ends well as Bill and Sally are finally brought together as a proper gent and his lady.

Highlight scenes include the coming to life of the portraits of Bill’s ancestors, Sally being whisked off to a speech professor (think Henry Higgins from “Pygmalion”), the show stopping “Preparation Fugue” and the dynamic “The Lambeth Walk,” a dance craze which was highlighted in a story in the “London Times” of October, 1938 with the statement, “While dictators rant and statesman talk, all Europe dances to the Lambeth Walk.”

The Shaw production, under the creative, dynamic direction of Ashlie Corcoran is a laugh-centric, fun experience.  Corcoran, who has as the deft ability to create farcical, uninhibited scenes, is ably assisted by choreographer Parker Esse, who knows how to stage dance routines, especially creative tap numbers.

The cast is universally outstanding, “not a wreck in the peck.”

Though it is generally understood that the original script was written to star Lupino Lane, a 1930’s London theater favorite, who was a singer-comedian known for his acrobatic abilities, it would be hard to believe that anyone could be better in the role of Bill than The Shaw’s Therriault.  The mighty-mite, a diminutive version of famous Danny Kay, is a four-talent star.  He can sing, act, dance and create physical farce with the best of them.   Therriault is a dynamo, who grabs and holds the audience’s attention in every appearance.  His “Leaning on a Lamp Post” was charismatic and his prat falls superb.

Kristi Frank is character-perfect as Sally.  Therriault and Frank’s renditions of “Me and My Gal” and “Hold My Hand” were charming, as was her “Once You Lose Your Heart.”

Capsule judgment:  It’s impossible to sit in the audience and not be carried away with The Shaw’s “Me and My Girl.”  It is a charming, dynamic, fun-filled must see-production.
For theater information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

A Clevelander’s view of the Shaw Festival—2017

The Shaw is one of two major Canadian theater celebrations, the other being The Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.  Both are professional, high quality venues.


The Shaw, as Canadians refer to it, is a tribute to George Bernard Shaw, his writing contemporaries and modern plays that share Shaw’s provocative exploration of society and celebration of humanity.  

Many Clevelanders take the four-hour drive up to Niagara-on-the-Lake to participate in theatre, tour the “most beautiful little city in Canada,” shop, and eat at the many wonderful restaurants.  You can even play golf and go on a rapid ride on the Niagara River.

As I walked down the main street in a t-shirt emblazoned with, “I liked Cleveland even before it was cool,” I was greeted with many “Go Cavs,” “Go Tribe” and “great shirt.”  I was even stopped by a couple from Detroit who were going to stop in CLE on the way home and wanted a list of places
and restaurants to visit.  Gee, I should get a job at Destination Cleveland.

It’s an especially good year to go, as I found out on my recent visit.   The U.S. dollar value is high against the Canadian currency (as of early August, $1 American=$1.24 Canadian).  And, this season’s theater offerings are excellent.

New Artistic Director Tim Carroll has instituted an inclusion policy.  Patrons are met by eager volunteers at each venue. Before each show a member of the cast comes out and introduces himself/herself.  For one show, Carroll himself was our host. 

In many of the productions, members of the audience are involved in the staging through interactions with the cast beforehand or actually coming on stage to be part of the goings-on.   The lion in “Androcles and the Lion” was played by a young lady who indicated she had always wanted to be on stage, but never had the chance.  The children of audience members were involved in “Wilde Plays.” 

The involvement worked well in many shows but using it in all productions is probably not a good idea.  It was a major distraction in staging of “The Madness of George III.”

If you are planning on going to the prettiest little town in Canada, it’s a good idea to make both theater and lodging reservations early, especially with the B&Bs on weekends. 

Our home away from home is the beautiful and well-placed Wellington House (http://www.wellington.house@sympatico.ca), directly across the street from The Festival Theatre, within easy walking distance of all the theatres, where the breakfasts are great and the furnishings lovely.  For information on other B&Bs go to www.niagaraonthelake.com/showbedandbreakfasts

There are some wonderful restaurants.  My in-town favorites are The Grill on King Street (905-468-7222, 233 King Street), Ginger Restaurant (905-468-3871, 390 Mary Street) and Niagara’s Finest Thai (905-468-1224, 88 Picton St.). 

Having just returned from the Festival, I offer these capsule judgments of some of the shows: (To read the entire review of any of these go to:  http://www.royberko.info/

Me and My Girl” -- It’s impossible to sit in the audience and not be carried away with The Shaw’s “Me and My Girl.”  It is a charming, dynamic, fun-filled must see-production. (runs through October 15)

Saint Joan” --  Under the direction of Tim Carroll, Saint Joan,is a masterful piece of theater.  The production is clear in its intent and purpose and compels the audience to be a part of history.  Bravo! (runs through October 15)

Androcles and the Lion” -- The Shaw’s “Androcles and the Lion” is a total delight while leaving no doubt of the writer’s negative views about organized religion and oppressive politics.  The entire production is free of pretense, is audience centered, fresh, and a must see for anyone interested in experiencing inclusive theater at is finest.  Of the 2017 season’s shows, this is probably my favorite! (runs through October 7)

Wilde Tales” -- Christine Brubaker’s direction is creative, the casts are excellent, and the over-all effect is fun, educational and stimulating.  This is a wonderful example of children’s theater for those of all ages.  (runs through October 7)

The Madness of George III” -- In spite of some questionable directorial decisions, “The Madness of George III” is a play well worth seeing.  The script provides a fascinating view of a historical figure not often exposed to the public and Tom McCamus gives a tour de force performance in the lead role.  (Runs through October 15)

Shows I didn’t see because they were in previews or haven’t opened, but are part of the season are: “Dracula” (through October 14), “1837:  The Farmer’s Revolt” (through October 8), “An Octoroon” (through October 14), “Middletown,” (through September 10), “1979” (October 1-14).

For theater information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to http://www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.


Go to the Shaw Festival!  Find out what lovely hosts Canadians are and see some great theater! 

Don’t forget your passport as it’s the only form of identification that will be accepted for re-entry into the U.S.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Porthouse’s “Newsies” makes for a very pleasant evening of theater

“Newsies” is the Disney produced musical that was inspired by the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899 in which a group of ragtag ruffian youth, who were the breadwinners for their impoverished immigrant families, stood up to the powerful Joseph Pulitzer, the owner of New York’s major newspaper.  The show is now on stage at Porthouse Theatre, in its area premiere, on the grounds of Blossom Center.

Though the musical embellishes the facts of the real strike, it makes for an entertaining show, which gives us good guys to root for, evil ones a chance to receive jeers, and in the present shadow of political angst, it highlights how the upright can triumph over the hateful, who find self-ego more important than the needs and necessities of those on the fringes of society.

“Newsies” has catchy, toe-tapping music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Jack Feldman and a hooky book by Harvey Fierstein that gives director Terri Kent a chance to do creative staging and play for both laughs and pathos. 

In the mold of the traditional musical, the songs are melodic, the two-act format ends with the first act leaving the audience with a cliff hanger regarding whether good guy Jack or the bad guy Joseph Pulitzer will prevail, and offers an obvious and audience pleasing ending. 

The score includes ballads, marches, and tap dancing inducing sounds.   “Santa Fe” is a song of longing, the show-stopping “Seize the Day” is a choreographic explosion of determination, and the tap dancing dynamic “King of New York” stops the show.   “The Bottom Line” illustrates greed and corruption, “Brooklyn’s Here” shows the power of solidarity of purpose and how enemies can form a bond when it comes to forging change.  

“Newsies” is a hard show to cast and produce.  It requires at least a dozen male dancers, who must also sing and act with precision.   Any theater, other than on Broadway venue, will find difficulty in finding the needed male performers.  

The Porthouse production does a decent job of filling the roles. 
MaryAnn Black has done an excellent job of choreographing the dance-centric show, especially considering the limited stage size.  Flips, somersaults, line-dancing, contemporary moves and balletic moves explode on the stage.  Especially strong dancers are:  Ryan Borgo, Nick Johnson, Matthew Smetana and Jake Rosko.

Matt Gittins lacks some of the dynamism of Jeremy Jordan who was the original Jack Kelly on Broadway. However, he is believable as Jack, the leader of the Newsies, the tough guy with a tender underbelly.  He has a strong singing voice. 

Beautiful Katelyn Cassidy charms as Jacks’ love interest and defiant daughter of Joseph Pulitzer.  Gittins and Cassidy’s rendition of “Something to Believe In” is one of the show’s musical highlights.
Morgan Thomas-Mills nicely textures the role of Crutchie.   His “Letter from the Refuge” had the right vocal and longing sound.

Bryce Baxter was character right as Davey, Jack’s right hand man, the brains of the Newsies.

The small thrust stage gave Scenic Designer Nolan O’Dell a special challenge.  He needed to leave room for dancing and still be able to fulfill the requirement of numerous settings.  He basically accomplished this by using two large scaffold formats, with some additional set pieces.  After a while all the moving of stuff around became a bit much, but, in general the concept worked.

Jonathan Swoboda’s 11-piece orchestra played extremely well and kept the upscale pace dynamic without drowning out the singers, which is often a major problem in local theatres.

Capsule judgement: “Newsies,” which is based on a real tale of good versus evil, and a love connection of opposites attracting, has a multi-textured melodic score. The Porthouse production contains dynamic choreography and strong musical and vocal sounds, which adds up to a very pleasant evening of theater!

“Newsies” runs until August 13, 2017, at Porthouse Theatre (3143 O'Neil Rd., Cuyahoga Falls, OH, on the ground of Blossom Music Center).  For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to www.porthousetheatre.com.  Curtain times are 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Porthouse open 90 minutes prior to curtain time.