Saturday, April 19, 2008

This Is How It Goes

Bang & Clatter: new venue opens with well produced play

The Bang and Clatter Theatre Company, which moved into its new home in Cleveland, chose to produce a Neil LaBute play as its premiere piece. LaBute and B&G have a lot in common. They are both entities that do not fade away from the “in your face” kind of theatre.

B&G, was founded by two modern day Don Quixotes…Sean Derry and Sean McConaha, who in 2005 “dreamed the impossible dream.” They started a theatre with $4000 in Akron! Sound like a sure highway ride to road kill? In spite of the odds, the unconventional dynamic duo envisioned a venue for the production of “innovative, challenging works of exceptional quality and imagination with a particular emphasis on modern American plays never have been seen in Ohio.” And, have they succeeded! The plays have generally been impressive, gaining many critical bravos. (Including almost a dozen Times Tribute Outstanding Theatre Awards last year alone.)

The many Cuyahoga County residents, along with a few Akronites, who have trekked out to the Rubber City to attend B&G shows is impressive. Last year their production season operated on about a quarter of a million dollars. They sold over 500 season tickets and charge only $15 per ticket. And, if you can’t afford that, you pay what you can.

Their new Cleveland home is the old Cole’s Shoe Store, next to the vacant May Company Building on Euclid. MRN Ltd, the developers of the East 4th Street walking street, downtown’s new entertainment mecca, with such restaurants as Lola’s and Saigon and entertainment venues, including The House of Blues and Pickwick and Frolic, had such faith in the Seans, that they have given them the space rent-free for five years. Real estate developer Cliff Hershman, the George Gund Foundation and the City of Cleveland also are strongly backing the project.

Their opening show, ‘THIS IS HOW IT GOES,’ is a typical B&G script selection.
The Sean’s, who are fans of LaBute, produced an amazing production of ‘FAT PIG’ last season.

LaBute is noted for his realistic language, edgy topics and unsettling portrayals of human relationships. It is impossible to be an impassive viewer of his plays. He sweeps you in, often with his vivid language, his clear character developments, with his blatant use of words (the “N” word has great prominence in this script), and always with his subject matter.

‘THIS IS HOW IT GOES,’ on the surface, is a play about a love triangle between a white male and an interracial couple. The seed for the plot evolved from a damning letter LaBute received after directing the film, ‘NURSE BETTY,’ in which there is a kiss between a white woman and a black man. Yes, racial hated is alive and well in this country, in spite of all the strides that have been made to eradicate it.

The play confronts race, morality, and American ethos through the use of humor, drama, intrigue, and a clever plot twist. Using the theatrical device of alienation, in which the audience is constantly made aware they are in a theatre, LaBute includes multi-locations with all set changes being made in clear view, and a narrator who not only guides the journey but steps into the action, playing one of the lead characters. He does this because, as he states, “Theater only needs someone to stand up and say: ‘Listen to this.’”

The play is set in a small Midwestern town. Cody, who is African American, was once the star of the high school track team. He has become a successful businessman. His white wife Belinda, a former cheerleader, stays at home with the baby. When a high school acquaintance returns to town and rents the room over their garage, he upsets the delicate balance of their relationship, raising questions about who they want to be, who they are, and what made them that way.

From the audience’s standpoint, the question becomes, “Which of the tales we are watching is real, truthful, authentic?” Who is fooling who? Is it only the characters who are playing with each other, or is LaBute playing with us, the viewers?

B&B’s production, under the adept direction of Fred Sternfeld, is on track. Though a long sit at a little over two hours with no intermission, the pacing is appropriate and there is little time for the mind to wander.

The cast is excellent. Doug Kulak, who has a wonderful way of playing with words and the mobile face to amaze and amuse, is tremendous as Man, the high school acquaintance. The role was played by Ben Stiller in the New York production, and it is difficult to believe that he was any better than Kusak.

Michael May, who was outstanding in Dobama’s production of ‘TAKE ME OUT,’ again hits a homer as Cody, a man driven by early-life demons.

Leighann Niles DeLorenzo, though she sometimes seems to lose concentration, is believable as Belinda.

Rachel Zake moves the set pieces and highlights Cody’s insecurities as the Waitress.

Capsule judgment: Walking into the Cole Shoe Store, where I had my very first job as a high schooler, and seeing it transformed into an attractive and functioning theatre space, was a surreal experience. Seeing a quality production of the show by the B&G family was not surreal. Clevelanders should open their arms and pocketbooks wide to welcome Bang and Clatter to the area. Good luck Seans!!!!!