Thursday, November 07, 2019

“The Band’s Visit” is an emotionally seductive slice of life musical drama




It’s “1996, the  Alexandria [Egypt] Ceremonial Police Orchestra, just arrived in Israel, and are waiting in Tel Aviv's central bus station. They expect to be welcomed by a representative from a local Arab cultural organization, but no one shows up. 

The group's leader, the quiet Colonel Tewfiq Zakaria, decides the group will take the bus and instructs Haled, a younger officer to purchase the group's bus tickets. At the ticket booth, Haled asks the clerk for a ticket to the city of Petah Tikvah, but due to his Egyptian accent, she misunderstands him and sells him tickets to the isolated desert town of "Bet Hatikva," far away from the Jerusalem suburb where the concert is to be held.

Sounds like an interesting tale, but, not necessarily one that would provide a plot for a movie and a musical.  But, it actually is the basis for a well-reviewed Israeli film, and a Broadway musical which won the 2017 Obie Award, the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Musical, and won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The Band’s Visit,” which is now on stage at the Connor Palace, in Playhouse Square for a three-week run, opened in November, 2017 and ran through April 7, 2019, racking up a solid 589 performances.  While most Broadway musicals hope to break even, the producers of this “small, touching show,” announced in September, 2018 that it had recouped its initial investment of $8.75 million, and was on its way to be a major profit maker.  
The Key Bank Broadway production is one of 27 stops that the touring company will make in its trek across the U.S.
The show has been called "exquisite", noting that Itamar Moses (book) and David Yazbek (music and lyrics) have "created a small, touching show [with] character depth and strong sense of place."  It has been labeled, “a Broadway rarity seldom found these days outside of the canon of Stephen Sondheim: an honest-to-God musical for grown-ups." It was also praised for its "remarkable and boundlessly compassionate humanism.”

Most definitive is the advice giving statement, “All it asks is that you be quiet enough to hear the music in the murmurs, whispers and silences of human existence at its most mundane — and transcendent.”

Don’t go to “The Band’s Visit” expecting show stoppers, production numbers, a chorus of singers and dancers.  This is a musical drama much in the mold of “Next to Normal” and “Dear Evan Hansen” that tells a story woven together by spoken and sung words, as well as music. 

Don’t go expecting a discussion of Arab-Israeli issues and problems.  This is a play about people, not political conflicts.  It’s about real people, not politicians or heroes or villains.

The show probes ordinary problems of ordinary people living ordinary lives. Non-events. There is angst. Some real.  Some dramatically perceived.  There are no earth-shattering moments.  No solutions.  Just an opportunity to examine the human condition within the context of intimate conversations and some well-perceived and memorable music


The cast is excellent. The Egyptian band all play their own instruments.  (Don’t run for the exits at the end of the show as there is a wonderful short concert performed by the band after the curtain call.)

Chilina Kennedy inhabits the role of Dina.  Sasson Gabay displays just the right character smarts as Tewfiq, the leader of the band.  Mike Cefalo, as the Telephone Man, sings the plaintive “Answer Me” with wonderful tenderness.  Joe Joseph adds some delightful comic moments as Haled.  

Be aware that this is an intimate show which would play better in the cozy Allen or Hanna Theatres where the audience could feel they were eaves-dropping, rather than in the cavernous Connor Palace, but economics doesn’t allow for that option. 

No stars?  No, this is not a star vehicle.  Regular people playing regular people.

Cleveland connection:  The show’s producer, Orin Wolf is a 1997 University School graduate.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “The Band’s Visit” is a slice of life, character-centered show, woven together with spoken and sung words and music, that is filled with caring humanism.  

The Band’s Visit” runs through November 24, 2019, as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series at the Connor Palace.  To purchase tickets, call 216-241-6000 or go to 
www.playhousesquare.org.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Dynamic, must see “HAIR” commemorates Kent State Massacre of 1970



On May 4, 1970, over a period of 13-seconds, nearly 70 shots were fired upon Kent State University unarmed students by the Ohio State National Guard.  The students, and their supporters, were protesting against the bombing of Cambodia by the United States, part of the ill-conceived Vietnam incursion.  Forever after, to be known as “The Kent State Massacre,” the attack killed four and wounded nine others.

It is entirely appropriate, as the university prepares for the 50th anniversary of that event, they do so with the staging of “Hair:  The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” 

The James Rado, Gerome Ragni, Galt MacDermot’s hippie, counterculture, sexual revolution musical that introduced rock and roll to Broadway, shocked the nation with nudity, swearing, anti-Vietnam protest, sexuality, drug usage, and irreverence for the American flag.  It is a perfect example of theatre representing the era from which it comes and how to teach history through the arts.  

Hair” is often referred to as the ending the bookend of the era known as the Golden Age of Broadway.  The first true book musical, “Oklahoma” (1943), set the format for what is known as the American Musical, and the Age of Aquarius musical (1968) ushered in major changes to that format, showcased by a racially integrated cast, taking on a serious topic, and adding rock music to the genre’s lexicon.  

The script is time-specific, furthering the concept that theatre is representative of the era from which it comes.  “Hair” is the 1960s, a time of political activity, flower children, drugs, long-haired hippies, bohemian life style, free love, tie-dyed shirts and polyester bell bottom pants, rebellion against tradition family values and conservative beliefs, and the preaching of making love/not war.  

“Hair” tells the tale of friends, Claude, Berger and Sheila, and their “tribe” as they struggle to balance their youthful lives, with rebellion against the Vietnamese War and draft conscription.  It is also a reflection of the tidal waves of change that were ripping the country apart.

Even the theatrical staging of the original was a change from tradition with scaffolds to climb, breaking of the third wall with cast members flowing over the apron of the stage to interact with the audience, and dance and sing down the aisles.  This was definitely not “Oklahoma,” “My Fair Lady,” or “Annie Get Your Gun.”

The score is eclectic and electric.  “Aquarius” placed the “world” in a dream-like/flower power state.  “Sodomy” gave words to free love. “Hashish” introduced the topic of drugs.  “Colored Spade,” Black Boys” and “White Boys” put black oppression front and center.  “Hare Krishna” assaulted western organized religion.  “Where Do I Go” showcases the angst of growing up in the era.  “The War” shocks reality, while “Good Morning Sunshine” opens new paths. And, on and on it goes… confronting realities, challenging what was, and making a case for what might be.

The KSU production is brilliantly and intelligently directed by Terri Kent.  It wisely does not try to bring the story to the 2000s, but emphasizes it as a historical piece of reality, complete with its Kent State connection, which is creatively developed with pictures of the campus massacre emblazoned on a parachute, similar to those that were used to drop the US military-forces onto foreign soil.

Choreographer Martin Céspedes has re-imagined the original movements to make the cast into a dancing, singing, story-telling machine.  The performers respond to the staging with enthusiasm and power.  His visual creations fit the music and create the desired effects.  It’s exciting to see dancers on stage, well instructed and inspired.  Bravo!

The vocalizations are outstanding.  The choral sounds are full and engulfing.  Impressive is that the entire cast stayed in character throughout the production, creating the needed reality.  They weren’t acting, they were being.

The cast is universally excellent.  There is not a weak-link.  

 Ben Richardson-Piché (Woof) nails “Sodomy.” The strong voiced Brian Hirsch (Claude) plays “Manchester, England” for appropriate tongue-in-cheek laughs, and textures his role with wise performance choices.  “Eyes Look Your Last,” led by Sami Kennett (Sheila), was transfixing.  Lexie DiLucia (Jeanie), Hallie Walker (Crissy), and Sy Thomas (Dionne) nicely interpret “Air,” singing meanings not just words.  Hallie Walker is “child-like” endearing in her rendition of “Frank Mills,” while Aylah Mendenhall wails with delight throughout. 

Music Director Jennifer Korecki and her orchestra are note perfect, setting the right rock tone.

The technical aspects, especially the visual images and lighting, enhanced the production.



I dare you to sit impassively through the last scene without eyes welling, thinking back to the slaughter of innocents on the KSU campus, and not wanting to rage against war, especially the Vietnam debacle.  

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:   This production will make you aware of the changes that took place in this country by the reactions to the Vietnam War, including bringing about the Kent State Massacre, while illustrating that theater can not only entertain, but shine a mirror on history.  See “Hair?”  Absolutely! It is a powerful and well-conceived production!  The Terri Kent-Martin Cespedes combination, as was evidenced in “Man of La Mancha” at Porthouse this summer, sparkles again.  Bravo!

Hair” is scheduled to run at Kent State University through November 10, 2019.  For tickets and information call 330-672-ARTS or go to www.kent.ed/theatredance.com

Saturday, October 26, 2019

“Homos, or Everyone in America” fulfills the theater’s mission at convergence continuum


Convergence-continuum’s mission states that the theater intends to “produce plays and experiences that challenge the conventional notions of what theatre is.”  

Clyde Simon, the Artistic Director, continues to select plays that other area venues won’t produce.  His selections usually have controversial social themes. Much to the delight of his loyal niche audience, for the purpose of fostering LGBT voices, he often picks gay-centric scripts which you wouldn’t see if con-con didn’t stage them.  

Jordan Seavey’s “Homos, or Everyone in America,” now on the con-con stage, is such a play.

Seavey’s script had its world premiere in November, 2016, in a critically praised off-Broadway limited run.

That production starred Robin DeJusus, the two-time Tony nominee for “In the Heights” and “La Cage Aux Folles” and Michael Urie of televison’s “Ugly Betty” and “Younger” and Broadway’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” 

The production was selected by New York Magazine as one of the 10 Best Theater Events of the year, with Urie winning the OBIE Award for best performance.

The script asks such questions as: What does it mean to be in a gay committed relationship? Is there a role for monogamy in that relationship? How does one resolve conflict between a couple with different views of life?  How does one deal with a vicious hate-crime?  

Presented in a non-linear format, with flash-forwards and flash-backs, we act as eaves-droppers, in the intimate Liminis staging space, on the birth, death, and reestablishment of the connected lives of two Brooklyn gay guys. 

We are on-lookers as The Writer (Nate Homolka) and The Academic (Kieron Cindric), up-tight nebbish-boy-meets-manic-pixie-dream-girl, get together on a cyber-arranged wine bar date.  

The duo not only has difficulty selecting between white and red wine, but argue about poppers, the drawbacks of marriage equality, and monogamy/non-monogamy as a part of gay life.  In spite of that, “love blooms.”  
As their lives blend together, they negotiate professional anxiety, cohabitation, religious and spiritual differences, and the presence of Dan, a raven-haired cutie who becomes a distracting part of their co-existence.

As a review of the Big Apple production states, “the men are free-spirited and repressed in their own special ways, making their relationship feel very real. Like many over-educated New Yorkers, their banal arguments are fueled by academic buzzwords and the sex advice of Dan Savage.”

The con-con production is nicely directed by Clyde Simon.  The pace is crisp, the staging enveloping, the multi-platformed set works well, the characters are nicely etched, and the story telling is clear.

Both Nate Homolka and Kieron Condric develop consistent and well-textured personages.  Though often given overly affected and ultra-dramatic lines, the duo keeps it mainly real.   

Corey East as Dan, and Rocky Encalada as compassionate salesperson, Laila, develop their roles effectively.

If there is a problem with the script, it is Seavey’s over-use of gay stereotypes to develop the plot.  With a little less “swish” and hysteria, and a little more working toward developing a more mature look at gay relationships, the play would have more social impact and more realistically examine “everyone in America.”   

Capsule Judgment: “Homos, or Everyone in America” gets a good production at con-con.  While some of the stereotypes could have been pulled back by the author, there is enough empathy developed to hold the audience’s attention.

Homos, or Everyone in America” runs through November 9, 2019 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:  Nick Payne’s “Constellations” from December 6-21, 2019.  “In the beginning Marianne and Roland meet at a party. They go for a drink, or perhaps they don't. They fall madly in love and start dating, but eventually they break up. After a chance encounter in a supermarket they get back together, or maybe they run into each other and Marianne reveals that she's now engaged to someone else and that's that. Or perhaps Roland is engaged. Maybe they get married, or maybe their time together will be tragically short.” Hmmm…

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Compelling “Pipeline” wisely brings up more questions than it answers



Multi-award-winning Dominique Morisseau is one of America’s new and, in the view of many, the best of emerging playwrights.  

Besides writing dramas, Morisseau, the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” for 2018, authored the book for the hit 2018 Broadway jukebox musical, “Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations.” 

Her involvement in a musical comes as no surprise as Morisseau has said that music plays a huge part in her work. "It's a resource and clue to my work, and music plays a unifier among cultural barriers.”

Her writings generally portray individuals and communities grappling with economic and social changes.  This is the case with “Pipeline,” the one-act ninety-minute production now on stage at Cleveland Play House, which takes on such issues as school disciplinary policies, the treatment of young black men, the psychological effect of divorce on the children, and single motherhood.

The play was nominated for five 2018 Lucille Lortel Awards, including that for Outstanding Play.

The story centers on Nya Joseph, an inner-city public high school teacher.  Interestingly, the divorced mom sends her only son, Omari, to a private boarding school.

When Omari is involved in a controversial incident in which he physically attacks a white teacher who the boy feels has been harassing him, probably because of his race, he is threatened with expulsion.  Nya is forced to figure out the source of Omari’s anger issues, question her own parental decisions, and probe her son and her relationship with her head-strong and demanding ex-husband. 
The title and much of the publicity for the play centers on the situation of the school-to-prison pipeline confronting young black men.  The concept is based on the “no tolerance policy” which does not offer an opportunity to allow for explanation of the cause(s) for action.  Rather than helping these students, the automatic expulsion forces them out of school, to become further victims of institutional racism, and opens the door to a life of crime as their only means to get by in a world which stresses educational accomplishment. 
But, though a relevant part of the plot, the script is so much more than just the pipeline.  
It asks the viewer to examine the cause of the lack of academic abilities by black students who often have had weak foundational educational programs and are above the curve in such difficulties as dyslexia and Attention Deficit Disorder.  
It also illustrates the effects of a lack of male parental modeling due to absentee fathers.  It encourages the discussion of teacher training, burnout, and the jailhouse atmosphere of schools with armed guards patrolling the halls.
Because of the multiplicity of issues, the title of the play may well be questioned as it may mislead in the script’s purpose.
Reviews of the show have stated that the play "confirms Dominique Morisseau's reputation as a playwright of piercing eloquence."  It has been called an emotionally harrowing, ethically ambiguous drama that raises barbed questions about class, race, parental duty, and the state of American education."  And, that "Pipeline“ is “at once an homage to such authors as Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka and yet firmly the product of a unique, deeply resonant sensibility." 

The CPH production is intelligently directed by Steve H. Broadnax III.  The action flows quickly, the technical aspects, especially Katherine Freer’s projection designs, are outstanding.  

Shilla Benning has an excellent touch with the costumes, in particular the mod clothing for teen-age Kadeem Ali Harris, who wears an array of fashionable, expensive sneakers and the most up-date logo-correct jackets, jeans and shirts, as well as the up-tight perfectly tailored suits worn by his father.

The production is being performed on the Outcalt Theatre’s thrust stage.  This means that not only are actor’s backs sometimes to a large part of the audience, which makes seeing facial expressions difficult, it also creates hearing problems.  This, of course, is balanced off by the audience being close-up and emotionally involved in the intense actions.

The cast is universally outstanding.  Suzette Azariah Gunn presents a conflicted Nya, a mother who has done everything she can to make the right decisions, not only for her students, but for her son.  In spite of this, her wards are failing.  The woman’s physical and emotional stress is obvious in what is a stunning performance.



Harris creates a molten pile of frustrated humanity as Omari.  He is bright and motivated, but is frustrated by a lack of connection to his absent father who gives lip-service to their relationship, believing that paying child support and sending birthday presents, compensates for his lack of physical and emotional bonding.  


Rachel Harker, the white teacher in a predominantly black school, gives a fine performance, clearly illustrating how even the best-meaning teacher simply cannot fight the waves of indifference, negative attitudes, and bent-up anger of her students.  She makes one wonder why anyone would put up with those stressing conditions.

Bjorn DuPaty makes arrogance and self-styled pseudo-indifference real in his portrayal of Xavier, Omari’s father and Nya’s ex-husband.

Eric Robinson’s Dun is properly sincere and caring as a security guard, trusted by the faculty, but in the unenviable position of having to enforce indefensible organizational rules.

Attractive Jade Radford is believable as Omari’s girl-friend.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Pipeline” is a powerful and intelligent new play which lays a smorgasbord of issues facing black young men, African American families, and the societal responsibility of working toward confronting the long smoldering problems concerning the education of people of color and the consequences of the system as now conceived.  The CPH production is well-worth seeing.  Expect to participate in a long conversation about the play on the ride home.

“Pipeline” runs through November 23, 2019. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Monday, October 21, 2019

“The Penelopiad” relates a tale of mythology, with contemporary undertones, at Ensemble





Most Americans know Margaret Atwood as the author of “The Handmaid's Tale,” the multi-award-winning television series.  

It, like “The Penelopiad,” which is now on stage at Ensemble Theatre, explores the theme of women living in a patriarchal society and the various means by which they attempt to gain individuality and independence.  
“The Penelopiad, originally was published as part of the “Canongate Myth Series,” in-which contemporary authors rewrite ancient myths. 
In both the play and novella, Penelope reminisces on the events of “The Odyssey.”  In Greek theatre tradition, a chorus of the twelve maids interrupt Penelope's narrative to express their view on events. 
The feminist-themed play, which is vintage Atwood, uses simple and easy to understand prose, often filled with humor and naïve rhyming schemes, to build on the conflicting connection between Penelope and Helen of Troy, as well as telling of the relationships between Penelope, Odysseus, their son and his caretaker.  

The two-hour production, handily directed by Celeste Consentino, is a study of the Greek format of theatre, using traditional staging, costumes and play-format to tell a tale with contemporary implications.  

The 12-woman supporting cast is strong. Each effectively plays various roles by changes of voice, body positions, and slight costume alterations.  

Cleveland Critic Circles and Broadwayworld.com award winner, Amy Fritsche, is compelling as Penelope.  She schemes, she rants, she contrives.  She clearly creates a woman, living in a man’s world, who needs to use all her guile so as not to lose control of what she deems are her rights.

The technical aspects of the play work well.

It should be noted that the production contains strong language and themes and simulated sexual content.

Capsule judgment: “The Penelopiad” is a well-directed and performed play which exposes the audience to the lost art of Greek theater production while telling a contemporary tale of women caught in a man’s world.  It will be of interest to true theater-goers who appreciate quality theatrics.

The Penelopiad” runs through November 10, 2019 on Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Sundays @ 2.  Ensemble is 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

Ensemble’s next production is Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” from January 24-Feruary 23.  Sarah May directs.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

“Wakey, Wakey” leaves audience emotionally drained at Dobama



"Is it now? I thought I had more time." 

These first words in the play “Wakey, Wakey,” are spoken by Guy, a man who knows that he is about to die. 

Much like the epic “Waiting for Godot,” Will Eno’s emotionally moving script existentially questions why we exist, probes into why we are here, and the possible journeys that are taken to eventually get to the end.

As a long-time end-of-life volunteer counselor for the Hospice of the Western Reserve, I have observed, shared, experienced, and grieved the end of many patient’s lives.  Those last couple of hours or days takes the form of sitting quietly and sharing their space at home, in a nursing facility or at the hospice, or actively communicating with the patient and sometimes, the family.  At times I administered Reiki, guided imagery, or played music to help the exit journey.  At other times I held a hand of the person or that of a family member.  Each case was a life-changing experience.

That experience can be felt, observed, and participated in, by spending a little over an hour at Dobama for their present production of “Wakey, Wakey.” 

We observe, in silence, low level conversations, and yes, even laughter, as Guy, in a wheel chair, recounts his life, with the aid of file card notes and projected pictures. 

His hospice worker ministers to his needs, sweeps the air of psychological impurities (though as administered it looks like a dynamic voodoo ritual rather than a slow aesthetic cleansing which is part of the Reiki ritual), volunteers support, and check to assure that Guy has left his earthly home.

Director Christopher Mirto guides us wisely through the experience, nicely pacing the action and helping the actors texture their roles.

Jason Martin, as Guy, inhabits the role as if he is a master at end of life experience.  His is a meaningful, carefully crafted portrayal, which allows us to feel both identification and empathy.  

Katrice Headd has the difficult role of being present, as Lisa, but not becoming so attached to her patient that his demise devastates her.  She carries it off with gentleness and maturity…the signs of a well-trained Hospice caretaker.

Many contemporary plays incorporate electronic graphics into their productions.  Often, they simply take the place of scenery or are used to create illusions.  In “Wakey, Wakey,” the well-conceived visuals by T. Paul Lowry are a necessity for gaining a full picture of Guys travel through life.

Also impressive is the sound (Derek Graham) and lighting (Marcus Dana) that complement the staging.

Capsule judgment:  Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” is a heartfelt look at the end of life which invites the audience to be psychologically present while the emotional tale masterfully plays itself out.  Justifiably, there is no curtain call.  Who applauds a eulogy?

“Wakey, Wakey” runs through November 10, 2019 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up at Dobama is “The Old Man and The Old Moon,” an odyssey of music and theatre magic that speaks to the childish mind in all of us.  Good family entertainment.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Women-centric “Julius Caesar” at GLT is bloody-good



Sara Bruner has proven once again that she is the queen of Shakespeare staging.  As she did last season with her “The Taming of the Shrew,” her women-centric version of “Julius Caesar,” which is now on stage at Great Lakes Theater, is creative, well-formulated and long on clear message development.

Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” identified as “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” in the Bard’s First Folio, may well have been the first play staged in London’s Globe Theatre.  

Set in 44 BC, it is a historical tragedy and, like his “Coriolanus” and “Anthony and Cleopatra,” is based on true events from Roman history.

At the time of its first staging, there was general angst in England.  The reigning Queen Elizabeth was aging.  Her time in power was coming to an end and there was concern because she had no heirs and wouldn’t name a successor.  There was fear that at her death there would be a Civil war, like the one that wracked Rome.

The play centers on the moral dilemma of Brutus as he questions whether to join a conspiracy led by Cassius to murder the publicly adored, successful warrior, Julius Caesar, who, it is perceived, that if left to her choice, would become the dictator of Rome.  This would mean the end of the republic. 

Brutus struggles as he asks, “what is meant by honor, patriotism and friendship?”

Questions abound:  Will Caesar declare herself emperor?  Will Cassius convince Brutus to join the conspiracy?  What will Mark Antony, who has offered Caesar the crown of Rome three times, do if there is a coupe?   Though Caesar is cast as the protagonist, since Brutus is the driving force of the play, is she the tragic hero?  How will Shakespeare resolve the conflict between envy and ambition versus honor and patriotism?  Who are the heroes and the villains?  Or, are there no good and bad characters?  

Is there any modern-day lesson to be learned from the play?

According to the GLT program Playnotes, “Shakespeare himself foresaw the universality of this story when Cassius says, ‘How many ages hence/Shall this our lofty scene be acted over/In states unborn and accent yet unknown!’”

Brunner, in her Director’s notes, picks up Shakespeare’s past/future idea when she states, “The function of ‘Julius Caesar’ is the same for us today as it was for Shakespeare’s audiences.  It gives us perspective on our own social and political situations while offering us a little distance, and space for reflection.  In this devastating tale of Rome, and its people, we are able to see glimpses of ourselves, our leaders, our history and our potential future.  We see that violence begets violence and that sometimes, we can inadvertently destroy something we love in the pursuit of preserving it.”

Julius Caesar,” both historically, and as written, is a very male-centric play…the leading characters are men…Caesar, Cassius, Mark Anthony and Brutus are males.  But, need this be?  Not in Bruner’s mind.  She cast both Caesar and Cassius as women.  The dialogue required a changing of some “he’” and “his” to “her” and “she,” but little else.  She did this because, she wanted “to examine what happens when women gain access to power in a male-dominated world.”

From the viewpoint of this reviewer, putting aside my knowledge of history and the Shakespeare script, I found little real difference.  This is interesting, since, as a human communication professor I know the research by Debra Tannen and Julia Woods, gender communication researchers, who indicate there is a major difference between the words that men and women use and the way they exert power.  I, personally had no problem in buying into Bruner’s casting and the women using Shakespeare’s words.  Though, if I were a strong chauvinist, I might have.

Bruner’s concept of bridging past to present was represented in both the set and costume design.  The modernistic steel girders and wood-angled walls brought awareness that this was not Roman-columned times.  The modern costumes, overlaid with classic Roman fabric draping, though it often caused some of the cast to awkwardly handle the material, also opened up the visual sense of past/present.

Julius Caesar” is one of the Bard’s grisliest plays.  Bodies are often strewn over the stage.  Unlike many of Shakespeare’s works, those bodies found death not by poison or accident but by stabbing in full-view of the audience.  Blood literally flowed from the wounds in the form of ribbons of red extracted from each knife stab.  Yards and yards of crimson fabric were used to illuminate the slaughter.  The lasting illusion was a visual tribute to the horrors of strife and war.


Laura Welsh Berg gave us a driven Cassius, balancing word versus deed.  Carole Healey’s Julius Caesar was warrior right, leader strong and vindictive when need be.  Nick Steen’s Mark Antony was hero handsome in developing a meaningful textured role.  Lynn Robert Berg created a clear and strong Brutus.  Jodi Dominick was captivating as the Soothsayer.  Lyn Robert Berg (Brutus), Jillian Kates (Portia), Aled Davies (Cicero), and Alex Syiek (Casca) were all strong in developing clear characterizations.

Russell Metheny’s scenic design, Leah Piehl’s costumes, Rick Martin’s lighting and Matthew Webb’s incidental music and sound design well highlighted the staging.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The production is riveting.  It is fast paced, lines clearly stated, actions exciting, and acting well-textured.  This is Shakespeare staging and performance at its finest.  It’s a must see for anyone who enjoys good theater.  Kudos to Sara Bruner and her fine cast and technical staff!  
                                                                                                               
The show runs through November 3, 2019 in the Hanna Theatre.  Tickets can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to http://www.greatlakestheater.org/

Sunday, October 06, 2019

“Member of the Wedding” less than it should be at Beck




The play “Member of the Wedding” is based on Carson McCullers 1946 novel of the same name.  The author also penned the script for the 1950 Broadway stage production which starred Ethel Waters, Julie Harris and Brandon DeWilde.

The stage version opened to universally positive reviews, with much praise, not only for the writing, but for the staging and the performances.

A musical version, television adaptation and a 1989 Broadway revival production, followed.

The story takes place over a few days in late August.  It tells the story of 12-year-old Frankie Addams, who feels disconnected from the world.  A self-described “unjoined person.”

Frankie's mother died when she was born, and her father is a distant, uncomprehending man, escaping into his business, rather than being a caring father. 

Frankie’s world is mostly populated by the family's African American maid, Berenice, and her six-year-old cousin, John Henry.  She has no friends in her small Southern town and dreams of going away with her brother, who is in the Army, and his bride-to-be, on their honeymoon. 

The book and play are each a study of the motivations and psychological needs of the three main characters.  It is a study of people, not of plot line.

The misfit Frankie (who some think is the alter-ego of McCullers) is frustrated, lonely, and restless, with few social skills, whose fantasy of hopes of going away with her brother and sister-in-law, to escape from her desolate life, are dashed.  Both John Henry and Berenice are left adrift as the family unit breaks apart.

McCullers takes on racial and sexual identity issues, both of which were shocking topics for the time. 

Frankie wishes people could “change back and forth from boys to girls.” John Henry wants them to be "half boy and half girl." 

Berenice would like there to be "no separate colored people in the world, but all human beings would be light brown color with blue eyes and black hair."

The brilliantly written play has become a classic in the American dramatic genre.
Carson McCullers once said of her play, that it was "one of those works that the least slip can ruin. It must be beautifully done. For like a poem there is not much excuse for it otherwise." 

I wish I could write that the Beck production fulfilled McCullers desire for being beautifully done, but, unfortunately, I can’t.  

For a staging of the epic to be successful, each character must be realistically created and the staging so smooth that we perceive we are eaves-dropping in a real world.  Witnesses to overhearing real people, not dramatic characters.

Though the cast puts out full effort, only Lisa Louise Langford, as Berenice, comes close to being natural, talking meanings, not emoting words.  She creates a woman whose life as a black Southern woman, caretaker of a dysfunctional family, and having her own personal problems, is real, identifiable, relatable. 

Putting children on stage is always a danger.  Usually they have limited training and need much help from a knowing director to understand that in a realistic world, which this play clearly creates, it is necessary to grasp the underpinnings of the character and the need for being, not acting, not emoting lines.  To become the character, not portray the character.  

Some of the supporting actors also needed work on line meanings, projection, using consistent accents, and the development of real people. 

Besides the shallow development of characterizations, some of the staging was awkward.  The L-shaped audience seating area in Beck’s Studio Theater can cause sight and hearing issues.  The staging must take that into consideration, but, in this production, often didn’t.  For example, sitting John Henry, in several scenes, with his back to the largest section of the audience, made it difficult for many to hear his lines.  And staging a scene in a notch between the two audience seating areas made seeing and hearing the action difficult for many.  

Capsule Judgment:  Unfortunately, the staging and performance quality of “The Member of the Wedding” was not what it should have been. 

Member of the Wedding” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through November 3.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org   
Next up at Beck:  A reprise of “Shrek The Musical” form December 6, 2019 through January 5, 2020.