Monday, October 27, 2003

2 piano, 4 hands (Cleveland Play House)

Cleveland Play House hits right keyes in ‘2 PIANOS, 4 HANDS’

Alex Berko is 7 years old. He has had three piano recitals and has been asked to participate in a piano competitions. He has a bright future, right? Well, after watching Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt’s ‘2 PIANOS 4 HANDS,’ Alex, and anyone else who has aspirations of being a top flight pianist, might have different thoughts. And anyone who has ever taken piano lessons, or knows anyone who has, will be carried back to those glorious (?) days.

Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt are the subjects of their own play. They, in their own words, are “the best pianists in the neighborhood.” Neither of them started out that way. Much like Alex, as children they became fascinated with the piano, an instrument for which they apparently had great talent. As we follow their lives and careers in music we experience their musical journey from adolescence to adulthood. A journey that is filled with laughter, euphoria, pain and tears.

The CPH cast is composed of Mark Anders portraying Ted, and Carl Danielsen as Richard. The two are both excellent pianists and actors. Without such a talented cast, the play wouldn’t work. We need to see the two actually playing, mature through the years. Taped music just wouldn’t have done it. The playing of less accomplished performers also wouldn’t have worked. This is not a play that will be done by amateur groups. The whole task would be too daunting.

The audience is confronted by two grand pianos, nicely nestled in a room with plush royal blue walls and busts of Bach and Beethoven. Through flashbacks, we watch as the two are confronted by parents, teachers, professors and numerous others who invaded their real and musical lives. The two even musically and psychologically directly wrestle with each other at piano competitions and during their training.

The production is wonderful. It hits all the right keys. It is filled with great music, covering everything from Bach to Billy Joel, from Beethoven to jazz. The script, which centers around the music, allows us to experience the fun and pain of trying to achieve in the world of music.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you love classical music, if you appreciate fine performances, and are willing to expand your definition of what theatre should be, you’ll love ‘2 PIANOS, 4 HANDS.”

Groundworks Dancetheater--October, 2003 (Groundworks)


I was once asked by a reader of my reviews, “If you had only one entertainment event to attend, and wanted to be assured that you’d experience excellence, where would you go?” Without any hesitation I answered, “Groundworks Dancetheater.” Why? I have never attended a performance of David Shimotakahara’s dance troupe that has been wanting. David has the ability and foresight to be able to blend audience appeal, creativity, and constructive vision to insure an evening of entertainment. He has assembled a corps of dancers who buy in to his philosophy and enjoy working together and creating exciting and involving illusions for an audience. The company has been called intelligent, fresh and invigorating. It is that, and more!

Groundworks latest event was performed at St. Peter’s Church, in downtown Cleveland. It was part of the company’s Landmarks Series. These productions take place in settings not usually thought of as dance venues. Pilgrim Church in the historic Tremont district, the Icehouse in Akron, and St. Peter’s have all been enhanced with the company’s works. This format brings people to interesting locations in the community with the possibility of experiencing dance and music in new places.

The St. Peter’s program consisted of the wonderful “Major To Minor” in which a point and counterpoint of music and dancers were evident. Performed to five musical recordings of different moods and paces, Felise Bagley, Amy Miller, Mark Otloski and Shimotakahara, all classically trained ballet dancers, performed contemporary and modern dance movements with ease. They danced slowly to “I Wished on the Moon,” and let loose and had fun with “Peanut Vendor.” They used their bodies, the floor and a banana to captivate the sold-out audience.

“Lavender” was a musical interlude performed by Gaelyn Aguilar and Derek Keller. Though it was sometimes difficult to hear the words in the vast, highly arched cathedral, the emotional tone of the music was involving.

“Ephemeral,” precisely choreographed by Shimotakahara, and perfectly performed by Felise Bagley and Mark Otloski, was based on music composed and played by Gustavo Aguilar and Alan Lechusza. The audience, seating no more than twenty feet from the dancers observed powerful bodies performing slow controlled movements, with little physical contact, doing counter movements to the discordant sounds. The audience appeared awed by the performance and responded to the conclusion with long and continuous applause.

“Take 2,” in its Cleveland premiere, is a collaborative piece between the dance corps and the musicians. Developed through ongoing exploration, the piece’s open structure allows both dancers and musicians to improvise and react. The overall effect was a visual and emotional roller coaster ride which was met with appreciative audience response.

Capsule judgement: If you haven’t had the privilege of seeing Groundworks Dancetheater perform, do so!

Love of Mike (Cleveland Play House)

'LOVE OF MIKE' at CPH--performers outclass material

Want to produce a musical review? The songs are usually not the problem...they are readily available unless you are writing an all original score. You pick a theme, decide on what songs to do, and put them in an order based on the effect you are trying to achieve. Sounds easy? Nope! Musical reviews are hard devices to conceive. More miss than hit.

William Hoffman, the conceiver of ‘FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE’ now being staged in the Cleveland Play House Club, decided to do a musical celebration of a vaudeville life. He selected about 20 songs and conceived it as a tribute to Mike. He assembled a very talented cast, rehearsed the materials, and invited audiences to attend.

Audiences will hear some wonderful songs like “The Bowery,” “The Streets of New York,” and “Hard Hearted Hanna.”

Unfortunately, the evening doesn’t work very well. Much of the evening seemed forced. The script is so weak that the performers had to force-feed the notions to the audience, material which they didn’t appear to have much belief in. In addition, rehearsal time was obviously limited and the performers had to learn a lot of patter and unfamiliar songs such as “I’m Looking for Daddy Long Legs,” “Cleaning and Dyeing,” and “The German 5th.” (Yep, I’m not making these up.) Because of this there were lyric and line problems.

The cast, Greg Violand, Maryann Nagel, Kevin Joseph Kelly and Charles Eversole are all solid performers. Violand’s “That’s the Reason Noo I Wear a Kilt” is delightful. His voice soars in “I Belong to Glasgow.” Nagel and Violand are wonderful in “Yiddisha Nightingale” though at times Irish seems to creep into their Yiddish patter. The company does a rousing “Alabamy Bound” and “Are You From Dixie?” Kelly‘s “Oh What a Gal” was fun. Eversole plays the piano with pizazz.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: This is a very talented group of performers. I wish they had just stood and sung and forgotten about Hoffman’s attempt at creating a hat tree on which to hang the material. Shticks like “Cleaning and Dyeing” were close to embarrassing and the “surprise” ending was not clever. GO HEAR THE VOICES.

Forest City (Cleveland Play House)

Cast and staging outstanding in CPH's 'FOREST CITY'

When you attend a play, whether at a professional or amateur theatre, do you have any idea of the process that the playwright has gone through to get that script ready for production? Many people naively believe that a person sits down at a computer and spews forth a finished product. ‘Taint so. Scribing a play is usually an arduous task which requires writing and rewriting and rewriting. The process is often for naught as, in the end, in spite of valiant efforts, the script doesn’t work. It may not succeed because it just doesn't get the authors’ ideas across, or it doesn’t look and sound right on stage, or it is too complex to stage, or the audience doesn’t respond positively.

The Cleveland Play House is presenting the world premiere of ‘FOREST CITY,’ a play by Bridgette Wimberly. How did this script come to being? If typical, Wimberly had an idea. She, worked for a period of time to get the plot clear, the lines meaningful, the characters set and the production qualities clear. Then started her real work. A script on paper is not the same as one on stage. A reader can fill in the blanks, can imagine that which is and isn’t. On stage all of these things must be made crystal clear to hold the audience’s attention and allow each listener to gain the playwright’s intentions. What is most valuable to a playwright is to have the play staged in some way that the voice of the script can be heard. This “hearing” often takes place at a staged reading in which actors take the script and create an audio version. In some cases these readings are actually staged so the author can both see and hear the script.

Fortunately for Wimberly, for the last eight years the Cleveland Play House has produced the “Next Stage Festival of New Plays.” It provides a venue to a select group of playwrights to be allowed to see, hear and hone their scripts. And so ‘FOREST CITY’ was given the opportunity to go from childhood toward maturity. As my review of that first reading indicated, I felt that the script needed a lot of work. It was very long, very wordy, unfocused, lacked texturing. The play had requisite conflicts- infidelity, financial problems, illness, big business versus the citizenry, inner family conflict. It had an interesting idea that was based on a real series of incidents. To make it a viable script, it needed some heavy rewriting.

The tinkering has been completed. ‘FOREST CITY’ is being given a full-scale production at CPH. The redoing did wonders. The play has been tightened up, shortened, extraneous materials eliminated, and humor added. Unfortunately, Wimberly has still not decided on an ending. There are at least four conclusions that could be interpreted as, “okay, this is it.” The final, final one, is not the strongest. In fact, it changes the tone of the play and makes it almost hokey. If the play is going to be produced elsewhere, Ms. Wimberly is going to have to rethink the final several scenes by asking herself what message she really wants to leave with her audience. She also needs to ask why she introduces a child character near the end whose physical presence plays no real role in the play’s meaning.

The play is set in Cleveland in the late 1960s. Carl Stokes has become the first African American mayor of a major city, segregation is finally coming to an end, the Glenville riots have brought attention to the plight of blacks in the Forest City. We see it all through the eyes of the Taylor family: JT, his wife Sandra Mae, his mother and his half brother. JT is trying to fend for his family on a railroad day-laborer’s salary. The family lives in a home they purchased, and are fighting to keep. Though not much, it is theirs. A small black-owned and operated hospital wants to expand. To do so, they will need to tear down the family’s residence. The situation is complicated by the fact that JT’s half brother is a doctor on the hospital’s staff.

Seth Gordon, who is not only the director of this production, but the Director of New Play Development at CPH, has nurtured this script from its infancy to this staging. He has created a well-paced, creatively staged, generally well-acted show. He has keyed the laughs and has stressed empathy in the right places.

The cast is universally excellent. Margaret Ford-Taylor, as Mother Taylor milks the role for all it is worth. She has excellent comic timing and builds the emotional levels with ease. Her role of “witch doctor,” family center and peacemaker are clearly developed.

Caroline S. Clay, as Sandra Mae, shows the pain of a wounded woman with much clarity. Johnny Lee Davenport gives us a JT that is both strong and weak. He clearly shows us the hard head and the soft underbelly.

Wiley Moore, as the doctor brother, could have textured his performance more. His sometimes monotone presentation and lack of facial expression makes him appear to be less than involved in the goings-on. Count Stovall, though having line problems, gives a clear picture as an old-time doctor whose dreams have been overshadowed by the times.

Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has been forced to create a set that must reveal many settings...porch, living room, bedroom, doctor’s office, banquet hall lobby, staircase and dock. To do this he has created an impressive complex piece of work on a turntable and moving platforms. It works moderately well though the action is often slowed down by all the changes.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘FOREST CITY’ is worth seeing. As a former dramturg for the Festival, I would urge Ms. Wimberly to keep working on the script. That additional tinkering could result in a modern day “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Tartuffe (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

'TARTUFFE' delights, Andrew May is wonderful at Great Lakes Theatre Festival

Based on his spoken belief that, “The most effective way of attacking vice is to expose it to public ridicule” Moliere, considered to be France’s greatest dramatist, laid the foundation for his revered farce, ‘TARTUFFE.’ The play, which is also known as ‘THE HYPOCRITE,’ relates the story of an attempt by Tartuffe, a scheming hypocrite, to destroy the happiness of Orgon, a well-to-do Parisian householder. Orgon is so deceived by the villain’s manipulations that he makes Tartuffe the master of the house, including promising the marriage of the charletan to Marianne, Orgon’s daughter. The play illuminates how right wins out over wrong through a series of hysterically funny scenes.

Though the approach may seem time-worn by modern day standards, when Molliere crafted this work, he was assailing Parisian foibles in a new theatrical mode. The play, which now seems delightfully harmless, incited some theatre-owners to ban it from production. That withstanding, Moliere has drawn admiration few dramatists have equalled. He has developed characters like Orgon and Tartuffe which are considered to be classically crafted. His works, along with Shakespeare’s, have stood the test of time and have become classics.

Drew Barr, except for a casting error, has created a fine production. The pace, keying of laughter, and the creation of visually pleasing stage pictures is well done. The epitome for setting the farcial tone was Scott Plate’s heaven-sent entrance as the King’s soldier, complete with fanfares and billowing smoke and a long, elegant march down the staircase.

Little did Moliere know, when the play was produced for the first time at Versailles in 1664 that an Andrew May would come along in a 2003 production of ‘TARTUFFE’ at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival to make his Orgon everything that the writer intended. No one--repeat--no one can play farce better than May. He makes an art form of mumfering, fumphering, bulging out his eyes, getting caught in mid-word stutter, and displaying enormous pain in the most hysterical of ways. He does it with ease and naturalism. This is not acting a role, this is May being Orgon. If you loved May in the Cleveland Play House’s ‘I LOVE HAMLET’ several seasons ago, you will fall in love with him all over again in ‘TARTUFFE.’ May is nothing short of astoundingly outstanding. Applause, applause, standing ovation!

Laura Perrotta as the sharp-tongued maid, Dorine, is a perfect foil for May. She inserts all the right pins to set him off in anguish. This is Perrotta at her finest!

Aled Davies is delightful as Cleante, Orgon’s brother-in-law who can’t say anything other than with pompous long-windedness. Paula Duesing, as Orgon’s mother, gets caught in the rhyming trap of stressing beat and cadence rather than meaning in her early speeches, but recovers well, speaking ideas as the play progresses. Sara M. Bruner, who has made a career of playing “sweet young things,” is a very competent sweet young thing, once again, as Orgon’s daughter Mariane. Wayne Turney is delightful as the bailiff. He gets the most out of a brief appearance.

Steve Tague feigns Tartuffe. As the gentlemen sitting behind me said at intermission,” “Come on now, how could Orgon be fooled by that obvious act being put on by Tartuffe?” Right on, fellow theatre-goer. Tague’s was an all surface portrayal with little texture. Left to Tague’s sole performance, ‘TARTUFFE’ would have missed the mark as much as ‘HAMLET’ did when he failed to well-develop that lead role. But, fortunaely, an otherwise strong cast saved the day.

Gage Williams scenic design and Kim Krumm Sorenson’s costumes aid greatly in creating the right illusions.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘TARTUFFE’ is a “go see.” You get to experience Andrew May in action, while also enjoying one of the great comedic plays by one of the world’s greatest writers in a solid production.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Discordia (Cleveland Public Theatre)

'DISCORDIA' in world premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre

Creating a musical from scratch is a daunting task. Musical theatre is the most complex of the arts. It combines the format of a drama or comedy. It requires music, much like a symphony or band. There are the lyrics, the words to the songs, much like a pop or country singer needs. Choreography parallels the part of musicals that make it like ballet or modern dance. Art in the form of sets and costumes is also needed. Then, the production must be staged using actors to create characters and develop the intent and purpose of the creators and a band or orchestra must be rehearsed.

It is amazing that so many musicals get written and staged.

‘DISCORDIA,’ in its world premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre, is the brain-child of James Levin and Linda Eisenstein. According to the theatre’s public relations notes, ‘DISCORDIA’ tells the story of the innocent Percival as he searches for the Holy Grail, trying to do good in dangerous, confusing times. It is billed as an “astutely observed political satire.”

The production introduces the audience to the necessity for delivering democracy to all the world, the role of God and prayer, toxic waste and the environment, a country in disarray, the role of the drug industry in controlling prices, weapons of mass destruction, the Arabic fatah, Human Rights, big business as our savior, “protecting” countries even if they don’t want the protection (think Iraq and Afghanistan), right wing pseudo manners, and the philosophy of spending as a requirement to national success. Also touched upon is the question of whether the leader, King Arthur in this case, has limited intelligence. There is a rebuke of a political party for having control of the Presidency, the House and Senate and for not taking advantage of their chance to make a difference, (Think Clinton and universal health care.) And then we encounter a search for a Knight to lead us out of our present abyss. (Think the present race for a Democratic candidate.) The story asks who the grail serves, who benefits from the “things,” the money, the requirement to spend, spend, spend. The concept centers on the constant chanted mantra, “Arthur, God, Shopping.”

Sound like a lot to cover in two and-half hours? It is! The story line covers so much that it doesn’t take time to develop any of them in depth, often leaving the audience tired and confused.

Linda Eisenstein’s music is excellent; however, it too covers too much of the musical spectra. The musical sound of ballads, chanting, folk songs, blues, vaudeville patter and rock are all presented. Her strength is the ballads. Songs like “Mother, I Found My Calling,” “The Presence of the Grail,” and “Take Off Your Armour” are excellent. “Whom Does It Serve” is probably the best message song in the score.

Director Raymond Bobgan, who staged last year’s Times Tribute Award production of “Tibetan Book of the Dead”has added some excellent production qualities . Unfortunately, because of the expanse of the play, even Bobgan loses his course.

The cast is uneven. Alison Hernan as Morgan Le Fay, who offers the perspective on the play, has both a powerful singing voice and develops a clear character. Perren Hedderson as Percival, who is on a quest, has a very pleasant singing voice and the physical attractiveness and acting ability to play young leading man roles. (Think ‘PIPPIN’ and ‘JOSEPH AND HIS TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT.) Amiee Collier as Percival’s lady love has a very nice singing voice. Jill Levin as the announcer and our guide through the maze of ideas, speaks and sings well. The choral sounds are fine. Much of the others are just not up to the task of grasping their characterizations and singing their roles.

Michael Flohr’s music direction is on target. His musicians don’t drown out the singers and are musically competent. Trad Burns’ scenic design works well considering the number of settings that are required. Inda Blatch-Geib’s costumes leave much to be desired except for Hernan’s excellent clothing. The designs are often unflattering on the female body types in the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘DISCORDIA’ is a gallant attempt at developing a musical. Unfortunately, it just has too many problems to work in its present form. It is not unusual for authors to relook at and rework their material to make it successful. Let’s hope that that’s the case with ‘DISCORDIA.’

Boy Gets Girl (Beck Center)

'BOY GETS GIRL' captures audience at Beck

In spite of the title, don’t go to see Beck Center’s production of ‘BOY GETS GIRL’ expecting to see a TV-sitcom-like escapist piece of fluff. The play definitely is not fluff. It is a revealing, upsetting, involving investigation of how a woman’s life is quickly destroyed by a disturbed admirer. It is a suspenseful tale about the unraveling of a strong woman’s sense of security.

At the start of the play, we meet Theresa Bedell, a successful thirty-something magazine writer as she encounters Tony, with whom she has been fixed-up on a blind date. It appears that we are in for a boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl disses boy, boy pursues girl, and that’s it. But, since the boy is a psycho and can’t take “no” for an answer, we watch in horror as boy stalks girl, threatens girl, and finally causes her to give up all she has, including her name, to hopefully get rid of him. This is definitely a case of bad winning out over good.

Time Magazine called Rebecca Gilman’s ‘BOY GETS GIRL’…gripping and important—the finest, most disturbing American play in years!" The review was right on.

Beck’s production is absorbing. Director Sarah May has honed in on the intent and purpose of the play and has given her cast a clear course, though there was some audience confusion at the end of the play when they were unaware that the experience was over until the cast came out for the curtain call. Except for that, everything works...Don McBride’s set, Casey Jones’ sound design, Jeff Lockshine’s lighting, and Jenniver Sparano’s costumes, all enhance the performances.

Elizabeth Ann Townsend, known locally and nationally for her acting excellence, doesn’t play Theresa, she IS Theresa. She textures the role with physical and vocal scoring that makes us suffer with her.

How the audience didn’t boo loudly when Paul Kaiser, who plays Tony, came out for his curtain call, I’ll never know. Kaiser was so despicable that it was impossible to not believe that he was the “sicky” that he was portraying. Boo, Tony! Hurray Paul!

Robert Hawkes as Theresa’s boss, James Savage, Jr. as a young reporter, Besty Kahl as the ditzy secretary, Rose A. Leininger, as the policewoman assigned to Theresa’s case, and Donald Krosin, as a sleazy X-rated film producer, are excellent.

As you walk into the lobby of Beck Center for the Arts on the way to see ‘BOY GETS GIRL,’ you will be confronted by a series of t-shirts. These clothing items are not for sale. They are part of The Clothesline Project, a visual display of T-shirt that bear witness to violence against women--stalking, rape, incest, battery, withheld love. These are memorials and memories of clients and their families as accumulated by the Lorain County Rape Crisis Center.

READ EACH AND EVERY ONE OF THE INSCRIBED PIECES BEFORE GOING IN TO SEE ‘BOY MEETS GIRL.’ It will make an intensely important play even more vivid.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Sarah May has crafted an involving production of Rebecca Gilman’s emotional revealing play. If you have space on your calendar fill in ‘BOY MEETS GIRL’ in the spot. You won’t be disappointed.

The Domino Heart (Dobama)

Dobama's 'THE DOMINO HEART' is a must see!

Dobama Theatre’s production of Matthew Edison’s ‘THE DOMINO HEART’ is everything good theatre should be. The play is well written and carries a potent message. The acting is superb. Joyce Casey’s directing is concept perfect.

Interestingly, the script is everything that they teach a scribe never to do in playwriting classes. The script is made up completely of monologues. The actors never appear on stage at the same time and never directly interact with each other. To add to the unusual concept, there is no action, little humor, and no great dramatic scenes. It is a quiet play.

In an interview about the script, which he wrote in 10 days, Matthew Edison indicated that he sees “the monologues not as undramatic declarations but as the sort of inner dialogue we all experience when trying to work out an emotional problem.” He went on to say, "I used to be quite surprised how close you can come just using imagination and common sense." Because of the way the play unfolded in the writing process, Edison, whose original intention was to make this a traditional interactive script, fortunately never rewrote it.

The ‘DOMINO HEART’ consists of three characters connected to each other by one transplanted heart. There's a grieving and conflicted woman whose husband has been killed in a car accident, a well intentioned reverend awaiting the heart salvaged from the crash, and a souless, almost heartless ad executive who gets the vital instrument through the domino process in which, if the original transplant doesn’t work, the organ is passed along to another patient.

The play's central symbol offers plenty of opportunity to deal with emotions, love and other matters of the heart. In one particularly effective section, the reverend describes a volunteer program to help babies born with drug addictions. They're soothed by strangers who hold them close to their hearts.

A review of the play’s first performance, which took place in March of 2003 states, “You know you're watching something special when 90 coughless, fidgetless minutes go by as quickly -- to borrow an image reworked in Matthew Edison's luminous first play -- as a heartbeat.” The same can be said of Dobama’s U. S premiere production. It appears effortless. It flows, you become involved, the actors aren’t acting, they are speaking to you. You get entrapped in the experience.

Edison's words are performed by a trio of actors who couldn't be better. Carla Dunlavey, as the wife who is emotionally ripped apart by her role in the events leading up to her husband's death, presents a perfectly textured performance. We feel with her, we mourn with her, we wish things could be different. She has total control of the character.

The veteran Glenn Colerider, who is noted for his fine acting, outdoes himself as the Reverend.

Fabio Polanco as the self-destructive ad exec horrifies us with his dead-eyed, seen-it-all smugness that hides his real fear. As he writhes on the floor in emotional and physical pain we don’t know whether to rush up and help him, or hate him for receiving a heart that could have gone to someone who deserves it, would value it, would give it purpose.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Dobama’s production, under the deft guidance of Joyce Casey, is quiet but powerful. It will stay with you long after you leave the theatre. Put this play and production on your must see list!

Monday, October 13, 2003

Hamlet (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

'HAMLET' somewhat unfulfilling at GLTF

Since it was first performed in 1603, ‘THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET, THE PRINCE OF DENMARK’ has been credited as being the best English-language play ever written. Due to its complex themes and multi-layered text it has received a great deal of analysis. Some of that analysis, however, doesn’t agree with your high school English teacher’s view of the play’s greatness.

As T. S. Elliot once wrote, “So far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of his others. Of all his plays it is the longest and is possibly the one on which Shakespeare spent most pains; and, yet, he has left in it superfluous and inconsistent scenes which even hasty revisions should have noticed.”

Besides the play itself, the character of Hamlet is considered one of the most compelling ever written. The part has also been subjected to numerous interpretations and studies, his thoughts analyzed and reanalyzed. As with the play, there are arguments concerning the quality of the way the character is conceived. Most of Shakespeare’s major characters are clearly crafted, their motives clear...think Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Iago. This is not the case with Hamlet.

The Great Lakes Theatre Festival has decided to undertake ‘HAMLET’ as the opening show in their “new/old” schematic. GLTF has reestablished itself as a repertory company after abandoning the pattern 18 years ago. Repertory centers on hiring a company of actors who perform different plays in tandem with the performers playing different roles from night to night. For example, the same actors will appear in ‘TARTUFFE’ which opens October 18. Andrew May, who is the Ghost in ‘HAMLET’ is Orgon in ‘TARTUFFE.”

This concept is exciting for Clevelanders as Charles Fee, GLTF’s Producing Artisitc Director, has employed many local artists who have sporadically been employed since the Cleveland Play House abandoned its company of actors. It’s nice to see names like Scott Plate, Laura Perrota, Wayne Turney and Paula Duesing in the cast.

GLTF’s three-hour production lacks texturing and effective pacing. Director Fee has decided to make sure that the audience grasps each word. To achieve this he has slowed down the speech and actions which makes the production flat. It lacks excitement. This will be great for the school groups who attend as they will have no difficulty in grasping the words, but it doesn’t make for compelling theatre.

Though the audience hears the words, it is nearly impossible to feel much toward the characters, and this is a play that is character driven. Is Hamlet crazed, crazy, demented, deranged? Is he motivated to get revenge for his father’s murder or obsessed by his need for attention? What are his real feelings toward his mother? Toward Ophelia? Steve Tague, in the lead role, looking demonic with his goatee, mustache and shaggy black hair, lacks the fire to give us the needed clues. Even the famous “to be or not to be” speech lacks clarity....what’s the motivation for those words?

Wayne Turney is delightful as Polonius, the Councillor of State and later as the gravedigger. Sara Bruner’s Ophelia is beautifully vulnerable. Her underplayed crazed scene, caused by the murder of her father and rejection by Hamlet, is one of the play’s highlights. Scott Plate plays Horatio, Hamlet’s friend with compassion.

Aled Davies is not evil enough as Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle and killer of his father. We need to hate him, he gives us no reason to react to him in a negative way.

Fee’s use of music to highlight scenes and the creative use of scenic staging devices are excellent. Rick Martin’s lighting and Gage Williams sets enhance the mood of the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK’ at GLTF lacks the excitement, pacing and clarity needed to make this a major classic production.

7 BL*WJ*BS (convergence-continuum)

Convergence-continuum presents another Wellman play

I’ve always believed that the value of any of the arts was in the mind of the beholder. While one person might think of Jackson Pollack’s paintings as random purposeless blots of paint, others will wax eloquently about Pollack’s creativity. Phillip Glass’s atnonal music is like the scratching of fingernails on the blackboard to some and engrossing to others. The same is true of theatrical scripts and productions. Not everyone agrees on what is great theatre.

Convergence-continuum is in a run of Mac Wellman’s ‘7 BL*WJ*BS.’ The theatre’s Artistic Director Clyde Simon is an admirer of Wellman’s works. He loves the writers“unconventional material and characters.” I, on the other hand, am not a fan of Wellman’s creations.

Last spring I revealed in a review of the theatre’s production of ‘SINCERITY FOREVER’ that Wellman purports that, “It is not interesting at this point in human time to portray the real world as it seems to be in its own terms; but it is interesting to unfold, in human terms, the logic of its illogic and so get at the nut of our contemporary human experience.” I stated, “The production of ‘SINCERELY YOURS’ is outstanding. It far surpasses the quality of the wordy play.”

My reaction to ‘7 BL*WJ*BS’ is exactly the same...good production of a script that is of questionable value. I don’t think Wellman said anything that hasn’t been said before, often better. And, I also think that Simon’s directing was right on target.

Audience members were also of mixed mind. At intermission, some of the audience disappeared. During the production some laughed hysterically, many others, myself included, were more restrained. At the curtain call while some screamed and applauded, others clapped politely.

I’m not the only theatre critic who responds negatively to Wellman’s work. One states, “Mac Wellman's ‘7 BL*WJ*BS’ attempts to poke fun at right-wing prudes but its thin, repetitive script doesn't stand up for the play's entire two-act length.” Further comments include, “Unfortunately, the play doesn't rise to the promise of its initial concept.” Another intones, “The play's badly overworked main joke is stretched from the two minutes it's worth to two acts.”

That said, what’s the play about? The plot centers on what happens when a right-wing senator's office receives a package of seven indecent pictures. Gawking disapprovingly at the scandalous pictures, the senator's staff are later joined by the senator and a religious leader who continue to discuss the pictures. We are exposed to the scandals, religious influences on decision making, corruption in government, and pseudo attitudes of both conservatives and liberals in our government.

The cast is quite good, especially given what they have to work with. Especially strong are Chuck Richi as the Senator, Cliff Bailey as Reverend Tom, and Brian Breth and Lauri Hammer as two of the staff members.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you like Wellman’s writing style you will have yet another chance to experience it when convergence-continuum presents his script, ‘CLEVELAND’ in December. I’ll go because I really think Simon has a knack for directing Wellman’s work, but if the “plot” and the story development aren’t anything more than ‘SINCERELY FOREVER’ and ‘7 BL*WJ*BS,” I’ll again wind up applauding the actors and the production, but not the play.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

Les Miserables (Playhouse Square Center)

'Les Miserables' visits Cleveland, and wows the audience, once again

I have to admit it, I’m a sucker for ‘LES MISERABLES.’ It remains one of my very favorite musical theatre scripts, along with the likes of ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF,’ ‘WEST SIDE STORY,’ ‘CAROUSEL,’ ‘MY FAIR LADY,’ ‘PIPPIN,’ ‘THE KING AND I,’ ‘MAN OF LAMANCHA,’ ‘CHORUS LINE,’ AND ‘RAGTIME.’

It was, therefore, a little disappointing, that during the first act of the opening night performance of the present production, I found myself getting very antsy. All the elements were there...the full Broadway set with its awe-inspiring turntables and huge barricade and cityscapes, the marvelous costumes, a lush orchestra, fine vocal sounds, and the good singing voices of the lead characters. So, what was missing. I often found that the actors were singing words, not meanings of the words, some of the timing was off, such as in the usually raucous “Master of the House.” Fortunately, by the second act, the cast settled in, the pacing of the show picked up, and the audience got swept away. Whew!!

The musical is based on Victor Hugo’s epic and classic pre-French revolutionary war novel. It foreshadows what will soon happen in France. It asks, “What is the moral way to act?,” and how much do we have to pay for our small or large transgressions. Think of the television series and the movie, ‘THE FUGITIVE’ with music.

The story centers on Jean Valjean, who, at the start, is released on parole after 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to fee his ailing nephew. He finds that the yellow ticket-of-leave he must, by law, display condemns him to be an outcast. Only the saintly Bishop of Digne treats him kindly and Valjean, embittered by years of hardship, repays him by stealing some silver. Valjean is caught and brought back by police, and is astonished when the Bishop lies to the police to save him, also giving him two precious candlesticks. Valjean decides to start his life anew. The rest of the musical follows him through the rest of the his life.

Songs include the compelling, “Soliloquy,” the gorgeous, “I Dream a Dream,” the social commentary, “Who Am I?,” the enthralling, “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” the heart rending, “On My Own,” and the haunting, “Bring Him Home.”

Randal Keith, who was one of the many who played Jean Valjean on Broadway was outstanding. He has a big voice and clear grasp of the character. James Clow, portraying the policeman Javert who dedicated his life to finding and punishing Valjean, did not have the evil-edge needed for the role, though his singing voice was glorious. Amanda Huddelston, portraying Cosette, an orphan who Valjean adopts to be his daughter, has a fine voice but failed to get full worth out of her songs. She often overlooked the implications of the words she sang. Josh Young was appealing as Marius, Cosette’s lover and idealistic student. Ma-Anne Dionisio was voice and performance perfect as a street walker who loved Marius. Michael Kostroff got laughs as the innkeeper, but was far inferior to most who have played the roll. The children in the cast were weak in both singing and acting.

Capsule judgement: Missed “Les Miz” this time around? Don’t worry, if the past is prologue, it will tour through town again.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

Romeo and Juliet, the ballet (Ohio Ballet)

Pleasing ‘ROMEO AND JULIET’ by Ohio Ballet

Shakespeare’s ‘ROMEO AND JULIET’ is the classic love story. It contains unrequited love, passion, conflict and pathos. It has been translated into many forms. Plays, films, even a musical (‘WEST SIDE STORY’) have told and retold the story. It has also been done in various dance forms, including a ballet with lush music by Segei Prokofiev. The latter was recently performed by the Ohio Ballet at the Ohio Theatre as the company’s season opener. The performance will be repeated on October 10 and 11 at E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall in Akron (Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday at 2:00 p.m.).

Though the OBT production can never be compared to that performed by the Bolshoi or other world class companies, it is a very pleasing, enjoyable and nicely created piece.

Choreographer Bengt Jorgen, artistic director of Ballet Jorgen Canada, decided to do a traditionally costumed, but modern balletic interpretation of the piece. Thus, the story seems more accessible and easier to follow than more classical versions. Jorgen’s gymnastic, interactive, often tense, often humorous choreography allows the performers latitude to create characters, thus forcing the performers to be actors as well as dancers. Some of the corps is capable of the necessary stretch, others are not so adept.

Alicia Pitts is glorious as Juliet. She is young, childlike without being childish, and dances with style and ease. She appears to float as she moves across the stage on toe. She partners well with her Romeo. Most impressive is her acting ability. She goes from glee to being forlorn, from indifference to love, with ease. This is impressive, very impressive!

Young Eric Carvill is more than adequate as Romeo. Last year, in a review of the OBT, I indicated that Carvill had grown in his short tenure with the troop. I never dreamed that he was ready to play the lead in a full-length story-line production. In a world class company, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity. At OBT, where except for Brian Murphy, who is too old to play Romeo, there is no stellar male dancer, he was the right choice. Carvill danced well, was properly youthful, partnered superbly. His major problem was his lack of character development. He showed few mood changes. His face was generally static. Smiles appeared not to be part of his acting repertory. His was a case where an acting coach, to supplement the dancing direction, was needed.

Toby George, a newcomer to the OBT corps, danced Mercutio with style. He was especially proficient in the comic scenes. He is a welcome addition to the troop and it can only be hoped that with more experience he will control his tendency to react in stylized movements and reactions and expand his dance proficiency.

Ashley Bowman as the nurse, Amanda Cobb as Lady Capulet, and Damien Highfield as Tybalt were all excellent.

The sword fight choreography was outstanding. On the other hand, the physical confrontations were marred by Jorgen’s annoying tactic of using and reusing two handed pushing as his major conflict vehicle. It often made the performers look like pre-schoolers on the playground.

The final dual-death scene is compelling. Romeo dances with the “dead” Juliet in his arms, then the format reverses as Juliet is revived from her coma-like state and caresses her lover. It is a fine, fine visual illusion.

Glenn Davidson’s set design is beautiful. It is made functional by choreographing set changes so that the staging flows smoothly. Unfortunately, his lighting design is not as successful. There are many dark spots on stage and, at times, lights seem to go on and off at whim, causing some confusing moments. Gary Dahm’s sumptuous costumes are era-correct and add greatly to the visual illusion of the ballet.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘ROMEO AND JULIET’ was one of OBT’s better productions since the ascension of Jeffrey Graham Hughes to the role of artistic director.

Wait! (TITLEWave Theatre)

Acting in ‘WAIT!’ exceeds script

It seems ironic in this era when some local theatres are disbanding or cutting their seasons due to the financial crunch that a new performance arts company would blossom forth. Believing that Cleveland has a strong theatre tradition and had a need to enhance local offerings by prvoiding a place for new, untested plays to be produced, TITLEWave Theatre, the brain child of Gregory and Jean Marie Vovos, has emerged.

Having been the co-producer, along with Wayne Turney, of Lorain County Community College’s “New Ohio Play Festival,” I am aware of the difficulties of not only getting a new project off the ground, but of sustaining it. It can only be hoped that the Vovos’s adventure sails forth on a tidal wave of success.

They have chosen to mount Julie Jensen’s ‘WAIT’ as their first venture. Ms. Jensen has a Ph.D. in theatre and has taught playwriting at various universities including heading the graduate playwriting program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It is there that Greg Vovos met her and decided to produce and direct one of her shows.

In spite of her credentials, if ‘WAIT!’ is typical Jensen, then there is much to be desired in her style. The play rambles, leaving the audience wondering what it is all about. Yes, the central character, Wendy Burger (yep, that’s her name), has a coming of age experience, but so what? If this is intended to be a play of character studies, only Wendy seems to be a complete character. All of the others are prototypes, paper cut outs of people. Do we really care about any of them? Carrying about, identifying with, feeling empathy toward the characters is the central building block of good theatre. This is almost missing in ‘WAIT!.’

In spite of the play, the production is worth seeing for the performances and Vovos’s directing skills. He gets everything he can from the script, plus some. He is aided by a very talented cast.

Jennifer Clifford is charming, sensitive, and endearing as Wendy, a shy young woman adrift, but focused on a career in the theatre. Randy Rollison transfers between three different characters with ease.

As Wendy’s loutish, hard drinking dad, he is Archie Bunker at his verbal worst. As Lu, a flamboyant gay theatre director, he is a mincing delight. As Hazar, a nasty, almost comatose foreigner, he is compelling. This is a fine performance.

Meg Chamberlin plays two roles with complete separation. Her Floating Pinata Head is a Kathryn Hepburn-type theatre diva on her worst day and her meat cutter Modesto is properly tramp-like.

Marni Task is endearing as the cheerleader/actress O Vixen My Vixen. She does, however, lose some of her appeal in the closing scenes of the play as she has trouble making the transitions between the air-headed teenager and the resigned-to-the realities-of-life woman.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: TITLEWave Theatre has undertaken an important share with audiences new, untried plays. It is to be expected that they will experience highs and lows as they bring these untested works to the stage. If the production qualities of ‘WAIT!’ continue, audiences can look forward to high quality on-stage work in spite of potential script weaknesses.