Sunday, April 18, 2004

The Merry Wives of Windsor (Actors' Summit)


The Silvers have a Merry Time at Actors' Summit

William Shakespeare was the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance. Born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England he died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. His legacy is a stable of comedies, farces tragedies, historical plays and poetry that are produced and reproduced by theatres the world over.

One of his most farcical scripts is ‘THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. The play's comic intrigues create a jovial tone. But, as with many of his plays, ‘THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR’ carries a social message The title of the play declares the primacy of the women's roles: the play is literally the story of the two merry wives and, against the thoughts of his day, how they manipulate the men in their lives.

The plot surrounds the playful but virtuous behavior of the title characters, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, who are married to two prosperous men of Windsor. The wives set out to dupe the sexually predatory Falstaff while curing Ford of his jealousy. Meanwhile, the Pages' daughter, Anne Page, wooed by Fenton, a man of higher birth but less money. This creates Shakespeare’s other message: romantic love as a kind of social assimilator, transcending class and enabling individuals to create new and inclusive social categories around their romantic relationships.

Shakespeare is noted for his clever use of words and rhyming patterns. Interestingly, this play makes use of far more prose than any other of his plays. It is filled with proverbs and clich├ęs.

For a production of ‘MERRY WIVES’ to be successful, at lease six major characters have to be excellent…the two wives, their husbands, Falstaff and Miss Quickly. Fortunately, in the Actors’ Summit production all of these roles are adeptly acted, thus insuring a happy theatrical experience.

As Mistresses Ford and Page, Sally Groth and Rebecca Knab are delightful. They scheme and the plot and are completely believable. Tom Stephan as Master Page and Andrew Narten as Master Ford are fine. Narten is especially fine in the scenes where he becomes hyper-hysterical when he thinks his wife is having an affair with a gentleman caller.

Reuben Silver, as Falstaff, the lecherous curmudgeon, is character perfect. He delights! Dorothy Silver, the other half of Cleveland’s first acting family, is obviously having a ball playing the interfering Miss Quickly.

Unfortunately, some of the other cast members don’t do as well. In the role of the suitors for the hand of Anne Page, Jeff Nichols as the Frenchman Doctor Caius, overdoes his accent and is entirely too fey and Aaron Coleman, as Slender looks the part, but never quite develops a believable characterization.

Director Neil Thackaberry has wisely chosen to put aside English accents, and has the cast speaking clear General American English.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Shakespeare is difficult to perform, especially for Americans who often can’t identify with either his message or intricate language. The Actors’ Summit production of ‘THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR,’ while it does not have the polish of a professional production, is quite creditable and worth seeing.

Agnes of God (Beck Center)


Thought provoking ‘AGNES OF GOD’ illuminates Beck

Agnes, a 21-year old cloistered nun, gives birth in a convent. The baby is found strangled and disposed of in a wastepaper basket. Agnes remembers nothing about the conception, pregnancy, birth or the murder. The court has assigned Dr. Livingstone, a psychiatrist to investigate. A battle explodes between the protective Mother Superior and Livingstone as they each try to ''save'' the disturbed nun. This is the premise of John Pielmeier’s dramatic mystery, ‘AGNES OF GOD’ being staged at The Beck Center for The Arts.

The play invokes questions of sanity, innocence and spirituality. It asks hard questions about faith and gives no easy answers. The author has stated that he ''offers a story of salvation and hope, [and] through philosophical debate dangles in front of the audience and characters the possibility of miracles.” But, in reality, what does Pielmeir offer the audience? Dissecting the play still leads to head-scratching among actors, directors, theologians, psychologists and theatergoers years after its first production.

From where did the concept for the play emerge? The author states, “Shortly after I moved to New York City in 1977, I saw a headline that said “Nun Kills Baby.” I didn’t buy the paper, and I didn’t read that article, but it gave me the answer to a question that I had been asking for a long time. I had wanted to write a play that dealt with, or that asked questions about spirituality, about sanctity. I wanted to write a play that explored the question: “Would a person who was considered a saint in the 15th century be considered a saint today? Or would he or she be locked up in an institution?”

The play, due to its subject matter, has not been without controversy. As a whole, the Catholic Church never has made any sort of stand against it. However, when the national tour was going through Pennsylvania, the Archbishop of Scranton said, “No, I don’t want this play in the city.” Other Catholics might feel the same way. This is not a settling tale and for some, may put the church and the actions of the seminary in a bad light.

For the play to be successful there must be the melding of a director who understand the intent of the script and a superb cast. The Beck production is fortunate to have Seth Gordon as its conceiver. The production is well paced, is visually effective, and uses sound and lighting well.


The intriguing three-woman cast features Sherri Britton as Mother Miriam, equity member Elizabeth Ann Townsend as Martha Livingstone and Alicia Kahn as Agnes.

Britton is outstanding. She is not only totally believable in her portrayal, but she keys important ideas so they become readily apparent. For example, she states, “What we’ve gained in logic, we’ve lost in faith” with such conviction that the listener’s mind slams on its brakes and ponders the profound concept.

Townsend is a fine actress. Unfortunately, her first act performance was hindered by the necessity to deal with a constantly lit cigarette. The use of the cigarettes caused the timing and emphasis of some of her lines, and her natural body movements, to be compromised. In the second act, when she was sans cigarettes she was brilliant!

Kahn’s performance is moving and entrancing. She didn’t portray Agnes, she was Agnes. Her enactment of the birth and death of her baby was captivating as was her entire ethereal presence.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ‘AGNES OF GOD’ is one of this season’s local theatre scenes’ highlight productions! Applause, applause, applause!

Monday, April 12, 2004

Shaw and Stratford Festivals Preview--2004




Shaw and Shakespeare Festivals beckon you!

It’s that time of year again. The weather is turning nice, the orange barrels signaling road repairs are going up, it’s vacation time. And, if you are at all interested in theatre, the “in” place to go for a mega-sized offering of good productions is Canada for the Shaw and Stratford festivals. And, to make it even more tempting, the Canadian dollar is still a good buy against the US buck.

THE STRATFORD FESTIVAL OF CANADA

The Stratford Festival of Canada takes place in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. The ride from Cleveland is about six hours through Buffalo. Go on-line to the festival to get directions. The web address is www.stratfordfestival.ca.

Productions, which started May 4 run through October 31. Spring and summer offerings include: ‘A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM,’ ‘GUYS AND DOLLS,’ ‘MACBETH’, ‘KING HENRY VII (ALL IS TRUE),’ ‘THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO,’ ‘ANYTHING GOES,’ ‘NOISES OFF,’ ‘TIMON OF ATHENS,’ ‘CYMBELINE,’ KING JOHN,’ THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE,’ ‘THE SWANNE: QUEEN VICTORIA,’ ‘THE ELEPHANT SONG/THE HUMAN VOICE.’

Besides the performances there are post-performance discussions, costume and prop warehouse tours, backstage tours and garden tours.

What’s the lodging like? I’d opt for one of the many bed and breakfasts. Sorry, I can’t recommend a specific choice. We are trying one this summer instead of staying in a hotel. I’ll report on it when I do my reviews later this season.

Last season I made some recommendations for shopping and eating. I’ve been requested to repeat those ideas. For shopping, I strongly recommend Davis Canadian Arts (106 Ontario Street). This is a wonderful art gallery that offers Canadian traditional and contemporary sculptures, ceramics and paintings. For women’s quality clothing make sure to stop at The Touchmark Shop (137 Ontario Street). The establishment offers unique and one-of-a-kind products at excellent prices.

Hungry? For moderate cost, high quality, try The Annex Room (38 Albert Street). For a slightly higher priced meal Bentley’s, a sister to The Annex, is good. I had a very negative dining experience at Carters on Downie. My expensive halibut main course consisted of a fish stick-sized piece of fish and four asparagus spears. It’s lunch portions at upscale dinner prices. And, unlike most Canadian restaurants, the service was poor. For a relaxed and fairly inexpensive breakfast treat try Demetre’s Family Eatery (1100 Ontario Street).

I’ll be visiting the theatres in June and will be giving my suggestions for what shows to see.

Call Stratford Escapes, a division of Niagara Falls Tours for reservations. For information call 877-356-6385 or go on line to www.niagarafallstours.com. For individual tickets or a festival brochure call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to www.stratfordfestival.ca.

THE SHAW FESTIVAL

The Shaw Festival is perfromed in three lovely theatres in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, Canada, an easy four-hour trip from Cleveland. You travel through the wine countries of Ohio, New York and Canada enroute. It’s worth the ride, even if you don’t go to the theatre, to visit the lovely little city. And, if you are a gambler or want some interesting side-trips, Niagara Falls is less than half-an-hour away as is the Welland Canal. Toronto is a short drive away.

Productions run from April 2 through December 4. This season’s productions include ‘PYGMALION,’ ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST,’ ‘THREE MEN ON A HORSE,’ ‘PAL JOEY,’ ‘AH, WILDERNESS!,’ ‘RUTHERFORD AND SON,’ ‘WAITING FOR THE PARADE,’ ‘THE TINKER’S WEDDING,’ ‘MAN AND SUPERMAN,’ ‘NOTHING SACRED,’ ‘HARLEQUINADE,’ and ‘FLOYD COLLINS.’

Again, I’ve been asked to repeat my comments on the Niagara area restaurants, shopping and places to stay. The area is dotted with wineries, many of which, besides offering wine tastings and sales, have restaurants . I have, in general, been disappointed in the winery restaurants with the exception of Inn on the Twenty, located in historic Jordan Village (www.innonthetwenty.com), about forty minutes from Niagara-on-the-Lake. It ranks as one of my favorite restaurants in the world. The service is always wonderful, the facility is beautiful, the gardens behind the facility lovely, and the food is outstanding! This is a “must go-to.”

Also on the must do list is eating at The Queenston Heights Restaurant. Located in a park just over the Canadian line, the facility has a breathtaking view of the Niagara River gorge. I’ve been there a dozen times and never had a meal that was anything less than outstanding. Try and get seated at one of Christine’s tables. She’s a total delight and a wonderful server.

Fans Court Chinese Restaurant (135 Queen Street) is a good buy. It has a very pleasant outdoor patio and the food is fine. Try the fruit chicken dish for a different taste treat.

Greaves Jams and Marmalades is famous for its products since 1927. A Niagara tradition is the Maple Leaf Fudge store. Also, don’t miss out on the several stores that sell frozen yogurt which is blended before your eyes with Niagara fresh fruits.

The area has many excellent hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. We have found Abbotsford House Bed and Breakfast to be our home-away-from-home. Owner Margaret Currie is a total delight. Her breakfasts are scrumptious, she gives a new meaning to the word “clean,” and the antiques and decorations are impeccable. Return guests are the rule here. For reservations and/or information call 905-468-4646 or e mail AbbotsfordBandB.com. Splurge places include The Prince of Wales Hotel, Queen’s Landing Inn and The White Oaks conference Resort and Spa.

For theatre information, lodging suggestions or tickets call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to www.shawfest.com. Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers Sunday night specials, rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

Friendly people, good value and wonderful theatre awaits you hosted by our neighbors to the north.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Free Will (convergence-continuum)


'FREE WILL' confronts wanton lust at convergence-continuum

Clyde Simon, convergence-continuum’s Artistic Director and Brian Breth, its Executive Director remind us in the program notes for their season opening production of ‘FREE WILL & WANTON LUST’ that the theatre was founded with the idea of “going against the grain” and doing “in-your-face style theatre.”

Nicky Silver is a hot, hip, now playwright who has much to say. Much in the tradition of Edward Albee and Arthur Kopit, Silver writes of the absurdities of life. His works and the play selection preferences of convergence-continuum are a perfect match.

‘FREE WILL & WANTON LUST’ is about Claire, a wealthy, self-absorbed 40-something married woman who takes lovers half her age to allow herself to feel young, beautiful and fulfilled. Her current playmate is Tony, a studly artist who hopes Claire’s connections will help further his career. Claire’s children are Amy, a 15-year-old who is bitter, intoxicated and possibly pregnant, and 20-year-old son, Philip, who is in search for self. It’s a play which discusses loneliness and the nature of humans.

Silver, is less concerned with structure than with words. Unfortunately, a little more structure and less verbiage would have helped. The first act is hysterically funny, exposes us to the characters and sets the stage for a lesson to be taught in Act II. The second act unfortunately fails to satisfy. It features several very, very long monologues which go well beyond making their point regarding metaphors centering on spitting and the sexual nature of men.

Clyde Simon’s directing is basically competent though the pacing and character development could have been enhanced. After a while the play got very draggy and the line between believability and the bizarre was often unnecessarily crossed. Part of this is the writing, especially of the less than satisfying second act.

Lauri Hammer handled the difficult characterization of Claire quite well. The character is written to be shallow, vain and self-centered, which makes it difficult to believe she has anything important to say. This, plus some surface level acting, caused a problem for her Act II monologue in which Hammer manages to keep our attention even if she fails to gain our interest in her fate.

Lisa Bradley tries vainly to give us a creditable Amy. However, she misses the delicate balance needed to imbue her character with the depth and desperation of the swings between teenage brat and the confused moral center of the play.

Geoffrey Hoffman as the young lover, doesn’t fulfill the physical requirements needed for the body builder-stud role. His acting however developed the cockiness of the character well, but missed the shadings necessary to illustrate in Tony’s true nature.

As Philip, the son, Steve Needham was excellent in the shorter scenes. He, as did Hammer, had difficulty in commanding attention for his very long monologue. The depravity of the mother-son relationship was wonderfully captured in his emotional collapse at the play’s curtain as he was rocked in his mother’s incestuous arms.

Allyson Rosen, as the disturbed Vivian, came on stage like a Nazi storm trooper and created a character that was more laughable than believable. This overdone characterization overshadowed the fine scene when she explained the history that caused her to be so emotionally detached.

Capsule Judgement: The dark comedy, "FREE WILL AND WANTON LUST," turns heads with its title alone. It is an interesting play that needed a more riveting and textured production. If for no other reason, it’s worth seeing to appreciate what has made Nicky Silver the new “infant terrible” of modern playwrights.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Danceworks '04 (Groundworks)


Groundworks again captivates audience with Danceworks '04

David Shimotakahara, the artistic director of GroundWorks Dancetheater has a reputation for inspiring his audience’s to think. He also illustrates for them what it means to have a disciplined dance corps.

The evening, presented as part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s ‘DANCWORKS 04,’ consisted of two equal length pieces, “The Book of Water” and “At Once There Was A House.”

“The Book of Water,” as explained by Shimotakahara, the piece’s choreographer, continues his interest in connectivity. He challenges the audience to experience, as the company did, the questions: “Is life a series of isolated pools through which we pass alone in our encounters? Is memory held in separate cups, secret and contained? Or are we connected in our course?

The choreographer answers his own questions, as he leads the viewer through a seamless connection of each of the vehicle’s segments. Each unit, danced to a unique piece of music, had a feeling all its own, but with the unmistakable unity of flow and movement. Slashing hands, flying bodies danced to a heavy drum beat; bodies moving across the floor in controlled moves set to heavy organ music; slow controlled moves of arching bodies, swimming, moving like water birds to plaintive piano music. Whatever the music, whatever the movements, the parts all melded into a single unit. Even the ending, which found Shimotakahara bathed in a pool of blue light, bare-chested and breathing heavily, was a perfect fit.

Felise Bagley, Amy Miller, Mark Otloski, and Shimotakahara are all fine dancers. Bagley and Miller make the most difficult of moves look easy. They display total body control. Shimotakahara has always been a dance machine, well-oiled and in perfect sync. It has been especially interesting to watch Otloski, who was a principal dancer with the Cleveland/San Jose Ballet, mature under the tutelage of Shimotakahara into a more disciplined dancer.

“At Once There Was A House,” a Cleveland premiere choreographed by Beth Corning, and danced to the music of such composers as Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan and Lou Harrison, was a much more complex piece.

Most interesting was listening to the audience’s conversation following the performance about what meaning the piece held for each of them. Comments were made of children playing dress-up, child abuse, the experiences of growing up and looking back at childhood, and childhood delight. One thing appeared certain. The meaning of piece remained abstract, but the concept purported by psychologists is that each of us creates our reality through our stories, narratives, and questions of life.

Dressed at the start in oversized adult shoes and children’s clothing, the company interacted with the audience with childish delight. Later segments found Felise Bagley partnering with a white picket fence that folded and bent as she created illusions of life’s experiences? Another segment was danced accapello, consisted of changing partners, searching other others and freezing in place. Often the words and the movements were not in parallel to each other causing discordant thoughts. Another portion found the dancers moving across the stage in parallel lines, never intersecting, never touching. fifth One unit found Otloski illustrating high school experiences in both movement and words. In another part Shimotakahara, with a large soft sculpture door attached to his body, danced to discordant music. Yet another unit exposed a balancing act of dancer and a chair. The finale repeated the opening in costume and theme.

The piece, a departure from the usual serious mood of Danceworks numbers, was thought-provoking for the audience and physically challenging for the dancers.

For those who have not experienced the offerings of this wonderful company, Danceworks will be performing on July 2 and 3 at Cain Park Theatre in Cleveland Heights. There will be Talk back sessions following each of those performances. For information call 216-932-0222.