Friday, December 23, 2011

Review of Reviewer's reviews--Claire and Mort Beal


Special tribute to you, Roy, for your perceptive and "right on the button" reviews. We rely on you to get us to the best theater "on time!" My all time favorite in many years was "Trying." If not for you, we'd have missed it as would have many of our friends to whom we recommended it. Wish it would have a rerun. I'd see it again!

Claire and Mort

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Winter Theatre Offerings--2012


Cleveland, Ohio theatre--a list of early winter theatre offerings--2112


It’s Cleveland, it’s going to be cold and snowy in the coming months. It’s a perfect time to go to live theatre and escape from all the stress. Here’s a partial list of what’s on the boards:

CLEVELAND PLAYHOUSE
216-795-7000 or go to www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

January 13-February 5
Presented in CPH’s new Second Stage Theatre, Allen Theatre complex
TEN CHIMNEYS, a heart-warming backstage comedy

February 10-March 4, Allen Theatre
RADIO GOLF, the final chapter in August Wilson’s 10-play cycle chronicling African-American life in the 20th century

DOBAMA
216-932-3396 or dobama.org

February 24-March 18
MIDDLETOWN, Will Eno’s new comedy exploring the universe of a small American town

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

January 6, 7, 27, 28
14th Street Theatre
JOSHUA SETH’S BEYOND BELIEF: AN INTIMATE EVENING OF PSYCHOLOIGCAL ILLUSION, mindreading, magic and hypnosis.

January 6, 7, 13, 14, 20, 21, 27, 28
Kennedy’s down under
FLANAGAN’S WAKE, an interactive Irish wake which takes the audience to Ireland for an evening of tales, singings and mourning.

January 17-29
Palace Theatre
HAIR, revival of the peace and love era musical, featuring Aquarius, Starshine, nudity and adult subject matter.

January 28-29
INBAL PINTO & AVSHALOM POLLAK DANCE COMPANY, conceived by Israeli choreographer Inbal Pinto, includes circus-world wandering street acrobats and oddly beautiful creatures.

Beck Center
216-521-2540

February 3-March 4
SPRING AWAKENING, winner of 8 Tony Awards, is a rock musical adaptation of the controversial 19th century German play that explores with poignancy and passion the turbulent journey from adolescence to adulthood. (Produced in cooperation with BW College’s Music Theatre Program.

Actor’s Summit
330-374-7568 or go to www.actorssummit.org.

January 19-February 5
BULLY, one actor portrays the life of Teddy Roosevelt!

CLEVELAND PUBLIC THEATRE
216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org

January 5 - February 18
Big Box '12, provides local artists with the opportunity to create and produce new work. includes eleven world premiere workshop showings of theatre, dance, music and genre-defying performances.

January 19 - February 4
At-TEN-tion Span, the 10-minute play series returns, exploring different themes of politics, love and personal struggle in innovative ways.

February 23-March 10
ANTEBELLUM, a provocative play that resonates with the entwining realities of Nazi cruelty and Hollywood dreams.

KARAMU THEATRE
216-795-7070

February 3-26
The Bluest Eye, Nobel Prize-Winning Toni Morrison’s story about the tragic life of a young black girl in 1940’s Ohio. (This production contains adult language and themes.)

LAKELAND THEATRE
Lakeland Community College
440-525-7526

ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, a Steven Sondheim musical about a fight to save a fictional bankrupt town.

ENSEMBLE THEATRE
216-321-2930

January 12-29
SONG FOR CORETTA, examines five fictional African American women who find laughter and hope while waiting in the rain to pay tribute to the recently deceased Coretta King.

February 2-9
LOWER NINTH, a play of exploration of faith, survival and mutual redemption which finds two men and a corpse stranded on a roof after Katrina.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Playwriting in Cleveland



Original Plays Have a Home in Cleveland

Theatres in the Cleveland area are producing local, regional and national premieres. Included are the recent productions of Ken Ludwig’s THE GAME’S AFOOT at Cleveland Playhouse (world premiere), Conor McPherson’s THE SEAFARER at Dobama Theatre(regional premiere), and Joanna McClelland Glass’s TRYING at Caeser’s Forum(local premiere).

An additional trend is presenting works in development such as Randy Blair, Timothy Michael Drucker and Matthew roi Berger’s FAT CAMP at Playhouse Square and newly minted plays like Jeremy Paul’s MONSTER PLAY at Cleveland Public Theatre.

The two most prominent of the local writing groups are the Cleveland Play House Playwright’s Unit and Ensemble Theatre’s Stagewrights. In addition Cleveland Public Theatre creates new and original works in a less organized manner.

A look at one of these units showcases the new development and play process.

The Playwrights’ Unit is a group of experienced, accomplished playwrights from the Cleveland area who receive creative and administrative support from Cleveland Play House. The Unit meets regularly with Associate Artistic Director Laura Kepley to read their works-in-progress and provide each other feedback.

As early as 1918 local writers developed works for and within CPH. Starting in 1927, the theatre started to feature readings from what became known as the Playwrights’ Workshop.

In 1988 a Lab Company was developed to expand the number of plays created. In 1990-91 a collaboration with Ohio University MFA acting students added to the literary department. Plays were produced under the title: CPH NEXT STAGE NEW PLAY FESTIVAL.

By 1966 the membership in the group altered with new members added. Again in 2008 new members replaced some of the retiring writers.

Numerous writers from the group have had their works staged locally and by regional, national and international amateur theatres. The success of the venture can be illustrated by examining long time member Eric Coble’s success. His BRIGHT IDEAS received a CPH main stage production, was moved to off-Broadway, and won the AT&T Onstage Award. In 2010-2011 Coble saw over 60 shows receive national and international productions. Several of his new works will be staged by area theatres during the upcoming year. He has been commissioned to write a new main stage holiday show for CPH for next year’s season.

In addition, Eric Schmiedl’s FRANKENSTEIN has been commissioned for adaptation by the Denver Center Theatre. His MY HEMISPHERE AND YOUR HEMISPHERE LIVE ACROSS THE STREET was developed with an Aurand Harris Fellowship from the Children's Theatre Foundation of America 2010. Schmiedl has been commissioned by CPH to create a new show.

Deborah Magid’s THE WEDDING NIGHT was announced as the winner of the 6 Women Playwriting Festival in 2009, produced by Louisa Performing Arts Center, in Colorado Springs, and staged by the Santa Fe Playhouse Benchwarmers.

The excitement of local writers emerging to have their works presented on area, national and international stages continues. It’s just another aspect of what makes the Cleveland area a hub for the creative arts.

The Seafarer


THE SEAFARER, an Irish saga at Dobama

The Irish are noted for, among other things, being hearty drinkers, tellers of tall tales, participants in physical conflict, and believers in fantasy, redemption, fate, Catholicism, and escapes from reality.

THE SEAFARER by Conor McPherson, one of the newer Irish playwrights, is now in production at Dobama Theatre. McPherson has proven with his naturalistic style of writing, that he can follow in the paths of Shaw, Singe, Joyce and Beckett in creating a story that fits true Irish traditions.

In THE SEAFARER, McPherson writes a dark Christmas fable which reflects despair and a descent into oceanic depths of drunkenness. It concerns characters who spend their lives in alcoholic hazes, dependent upon each other to get through life. These are men who find it necessary to use booze as an anesthetic to protect themselves from reality.

It’s Christmas evening in Baldoyle, a coastal settlement north of Dublin. The setting is the run-down, unkempt home of Richard Harkin and his brother Sharky. The duo has a long history of sibling rivalry. Sharkey has recently returned home after being sacked from his chauffeuring job for being involved with his employer’s wife. The tale reaches its apex when a drunken quartet of men, and a mysterious stranger, play a game of poker with more than money at stake.

As we observe, many of the characters are rudderless and blind. In the case of Richard, his blindness is real. On Halloween he fell in a dumpster causing the physical damage. His younger brother, Sharky is blinded by living life transitioning from one drunken rage to another. Ivan, a constant presence in the house, feels his way through life, hiding constantly from reality. Ivan has lost his glasses and can’t see clearly. This lack of clarity causes a major plot turn. Nicky, who is spending time with Sharky’s ex, acts and dresses flamboyantly, is a constant bane for Sharky, and seems blind to reality.

Who is the mysterious Mr. Lockhart, a man of refined appearance, with a stiff exterior. He has a secret, that centers on an action which transpired 25 years ago while Sharkey was in prison for killing a vagrant.

Dobama’s production, under the direction of Scott Miller, is on one hand compelling, on the other, inconsistent. Miller fails to aid some of the actors in texturing their performances. Several yell throughout with little inner motivation. There is also some inconsistency in pacing and consistent accents. On the other hand, the quality of writing, the plot development and several fine performances keep the long play interesting.

Joel Hammer makes the rage-filled Sharky, totally his. The underlying and expressive rage are well developed and textured. This is an excellent portrayal.

Larry Nehring is compelling as the pathetic Ivan. He clearly portrays the husband, father and drunk, who has difficulty with the realities of life.

Bernard Canepari’s Richard is properly frustrated, but the actor fails to vary his performance. He yells and yells and yells. There is also the problem of his stumbling over the lines.

Tom Woodward makes for an acceptable Nicky, but doesn’t create a crystal clear character. Who Nicky really is doesn’t come out.

Charles Kartali feigns as Mr. Lockhart. He looks stern and unyielding, presents his lines with fidelity, but misses the needed underlying devilish quality. There are times when he sounds more east coast U.S than Irish.

David Tilk’s set design works well as does Marcus Dana’s lighting.

Capsule judgement: THE SEAFARER is an Irish play which gives a vivid picture of the frustrations of life on the Emerald Isles. Dobama’s production has some fine performances. Though it is very well worth seeing, some may find it overlong and lacking in clarity.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Santaland Diaries


THE SANTALAND DIARIES and LOUSH SISTERS at 14th Street Theatre

Author and entertainer David Sedaris has a knack of finding what’s funny and ironic about life. He’s at his best when he takes on the mundane and less dramatic incidents of existence.

Christmas is one of those times that brings out the best and the worst in people. This is very evident in THE SANTLAND DIARIES, a rendition of which is now on stage at the 14th Street Theatre in PlayhouseSquare, which is cosponsoring the production with Cleveland Public Theatre.

The playlet concerns Sedaris, experiencing life as a struggling writer in New York, who seeks out and secures a job as an elf at Macy’s flagship department store. He’s 33-years old and takes on the role of Crumpet, dressed in red and white stripped stockings, green tights, tasseled cap, and an oh so gay holiday tunic.

The show illuminates Sedaris’s dark comic observations on human life including the threats of parents when their kids aren’t thrilled about sitting on Santa’s lap, the drunk Santas, the kids who urinate in the fake snow, the fellow elf who can’t figure out why she can’t have the job on an all year basis, and what happens when the “real” Santa appears.

There are various ways of interpreting the role of Crumpet. Kevin Joseph Kelly, this season’s elf, with the help of director Elizabeth Wood, decides sarcasm is the right route.

Now, it has to be understood that KJK is at his best when he is cross-dressing. He’s made a career of putting his size 14 feet into high heels, adding some padding to a bra, and stuffing his ample body into a dress. He’s been Albin, the drag queen in LA CAGES AUX FOLLES. He’s portrayed Edna, an over-sized woman played by a man, in HAIRSPRAY. And he makes an appearance in a spangling dress in THE LOUSH SISTERS, the second act of this SANTALAND DIARIES. He’s at his best in drag. Hmm, wonder what would have happened if he and Wood had decided to take a different approach and let Kelly do his drag thing? That’s something to ponder for future presentations.

But the duo stuck to the traditional, so we have Kelly, as a sarcastic Crumpet, a Paul Lynde with too tight tighty-whities. That approach doesn’t get all the laughs that are inherent in the script. It’s not that Kelly is bad, he’s quite okay. It’s just that the play tends to work better with a more adorable or curmudgeonly approach. As the lady sharing the table with me said, “I thought this was going to be cute and funny.”

The second act is Liz Conway and Sheffia Randall Dooley as the Loush sisters. The mixed race “sisters” put out full effort, do a nice job of singing a blend of various holiday and non-Yuletide songs, get some laughs, and do some cute shticks. The highlight was Kelly’s appearance as the sisters’ sequins dressed full-figured mama and his version of Rose’s Turn from GYPSY.

The act is one of those segments of entertainment that when it ends, is quickly forgotten. That’s not a slam, just a comment on what was…okay, but no brass ring.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE SANTA CLAUS DIARIES is an evening of looking at life through the eyes of life commentator David Sedaris, which gets an acceptable presentation.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Nutcracker


ROYAL WINNIPEG BALLET’S NUTCRACKER disappoints

It might come as a shock to some to know that NUTCRACKER, whose performances have become a world wide Christmas tradition, was dismissed as “completely insipid,” “corpulent,” and “pudgy” when the ballet was first performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892. Obviously, views have changed!

There was never any question of the quality of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s music, but the story was deemed to be incoherent and hard to follow.

Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet is back in Cleveland to present its version of the fantasy story of Clara, a young Canadian girl in this version, and her love affair with a nutcracker prince.

As the fine orchestra played the overture, which highlights the themes of the great score, an outdoor hockey game, snowball fight and the arrival of guests, is portrayed.

Yes, it’s the night before Christmas and everything and everyone is stirring, including guests, mice, a giant stuffed bear, a dream of a sugar plum fairy, dancing snowflakes, angels, waltzing flowers, and a nutcracker prince.

The Canadian company puts out full effort, but they fall short on fantasy. All the elements are there, just the dance quality and creative choreography are missing. The usual squeals of delight of the children in the audience, especially, the young girls, were not present. The usual Cleveland standing ovation was not garnered. No “bravos” were shouted after the showcase Grand Pas de Deux. This was a rather slow moving, unspectacular, if adequately danced program.

The first act was especially slow moving. There was a lot of walking around and posing. Drosselmeier lost his magic touch and was nothing more than a master of ceremonies. The much anticipated Christmas tree was there, but it was not eye popping and its usually visually entrancing growth was rather unspectacular. The battle between the Nutcracker prince and his soldiers, and the Mouse King and his henchmen, was boring. Even the cannons didn’t create much of a boom. The highlight was the Dance of the Snowflakes, which was nicely performed and the presence of 50 child locals portraying various parts.

The second act picked up a little with some fine performances by the Pas deQuatre and the Arabian duo. The Sugar Plum Fairy danced adequately well, but did not mesmerize and many of the other specialty dances did not compel attention.

As I sat watching this performance, my mind scrolled back to the days of the Cleveland-San Jose Ballet and Dennis Nahat’s glorious version of the NUTCRACKER which was often performed on the same State Theatre stage. It often starred the luminous Karen Gabay and Raymond Rodriquez, her real life prince. Those were the presentations which elicited the “ohs,” “ahs,” and “bravos.”

Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet is an adequate company, but did not display the quality of dancing and creative choreography to make it a world class troupe. The women dancers often didn’t stick point, and sometimes stood at odd angles as they attempted to hold poses. The lead dancers were adequate, but not of the quality that should be expected.

Capsule judgement: Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet lacked the necessary excitement, fantasy and fine dancing to make its’ NUTCRACKER a compelling evening of dance.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat


Céspedes’ choreography makes Beck’s JOSEPH special

The format for JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, a version of which is now on stage at Beck Center, makes the show unique. In contrast to almost all musicals, the show has no script. There is music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, but no spoken format for dialogue, no hints on how to stage the piece. Therefore, each production is dependent upon the creativity of the show’s stagers.

Usually, since the show is so filled with potential great dance opportunities, the burden falls on the choreographer. And, in most cases, the dance conceivers take their cues from the sounds of the music and produce appropriate moves. Every once in a while a show is blessed with a super creative and talented choreographer and the production explodes into a cacophony of visual moving bodies in dynamic movements. This is the case with Beck’s JOSEPH.

Beck’s JOSEPH is better than almost any production I’ve seen. Why is this production special? MARTIN CÉSPEDES! Yes, Céspedes, one of the area’s best choreographers, has outdone himself in this show. He threw out all of his previous visions and created new ones. The young kids of the chorus, explode with precision and glee. The older teens and adults have a ball doing synchronized and dynamic moves. There’s calypso, rock ‘n roll, western, serpent dance, the dip, and the twist. Even the action curtain call rocks!

They are helped by bright, ever changing lighting effects created by Trad Burns, who has also envisioned a pleasing set.

Musical Director Larry Goodpaster has reinterpreted some of the music to make the sounds fresh. Allison Garrigan’s costumes work well, especially the visually beautiful coat of many colors.

The sound is problematic. Squealing mikes and levels which are set so high that the voices are over-amplified, squelching words. The lack of balance makes for uncomfortable moments. This is not a rock concert, it is a musical in which the words to the songs must be heard.

Matthew Ryan Thompson is “Joseph right!” His rock ‘n roll voice adds an up-to-date sound to songs, his phrasing patterns create meaning to the words. He’s a floppy haired bleached blonde charmer. His rendition of Close Every Door had a beautiful plaintive sound.

Josh Rhett Noble, he of swiveling hips and the Elvis smirk and snarl, is point on as the Pharaoh, stopping the show with his Song of the King.

Tricia Tanguy has a big and trained singing voice. Unfortunately, there are times when she sings words rather than meanings. She needs to go over the words and figure out what they are saying and adjust her interpretations accordingly.

The show has proved to be a holiday success for the theatre. Audiences have flocked to Lakewood every time the show is reprised. And, it has been reprised there a great number of times, since their production “way, way back many centuries ago” when Rob Gibb lit up the stage as the lead in the show.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT is a delight. Go, Go Joseph!

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant


CONNI’S AVANT GARDE RESTAURANT, back by audience demand, at CPT

It’s dinner and theatre, but not traditional dinner theatre. It’s a play, but not a play. It’s avant garde, but not avant garde. There is male nude streaking and lots of references to various body parts, but it isn’t raunchy or lewd. It’s ad-libbed, but scripted. What is it? It’s one hell of a good time! It’s CONNIE’S AVANT GARDE RESTAURANT, now being performed at Cleveland Public Theatre.

The inspiration for this evening of bizarre, delightful, and a little thought provoking theatricality, was supposedly brought about by the accidental sighting by the cast of a touring Shakespeare company with a sign over an abandoned diner in a small town where they were performing. It read, “Conni’s Restaurant.” The group, bored, and in a creative mood, started to fantasize about what it would be like if they owned and operated such an establishment. Voilá, the inspiration for the mayhem that presently fills the flexible CPT main theatre.

As you walk into the lobby, you are met by a number of “nurses” who take your coat (don’t worry, you’ll get it back), costumed performers, hors d’oeuvres and wine. You get to chose your name for the night. You can be “Not so Tiny Tim,” “The Abdominal Snowman,” “Sweet Child of Wine,” or something as mundane as “Nice.” That’s your i. d. for the rest of the evening.

During the cocktail party you are entertained by the performing troop, who sing, emote and serve. A minor incident requires a doctor, who is whisked away into the bowels of the theatre. You are tempted by performance tidbits of what is to come and exposed to who is going to present it.

You are ushered into a banquet hall decorated with chandeliers made of plastic champagne glasses and utensils. Tables of 8 are set with “fine” plastic dishes and silverware. There is an operating kitchen, where much of your “gourmet” dinner will be prepared by a “chef.” (The quote marks are very relevant!) You self-seat, meet your table mates.

Then all hell breaks loose. The “doctor” charges through the audience, sans clothing. During the next four hours there is continuous eating (of surprisingly tasty food), entertainment and mayhem. The cast continues to remind you, through a series of elaborate vignettes and songs, that the evening is devoted to “the ongoing celebration of the work of Conni Convergence, the beloved (fictional) icon of stage and screen."

As the evening proceeds, members of the audience are involved in contests, interactions with the performers, viewing of a baby being transferred from the insides of one woman to another (I kid you not!). There’s a ballet interlude by a pregnant ballerina interpreting The Black Swan. There’s the shooting of a deer, which then is transformed before your very eyes into a salad (well, not really). You are entertained by the company’s interpretation of Hans Christian Anderson’s THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL. You’ll learn the secrets of the rhythm method of acting. Then there’s the “Dance of the Kitchen Utensils” and the making of an erotic fruit salad.

I could go on, but why ruin the experience for those who are going to partake?

Capsule judgement: For the non-up tight, those willing to let lose and go with the chaotic and often hysterical flow, CONNI’S AVANT-GARDE RESTAURANT is a hoot. This is not your traditional theatre production. It is one evening of unbridled fun and mayhem.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The Game's Afoot (Or Holmes for the Holidays)




THE GAME’S AFOOT delights at CPH

How often does a theatre extend the run of a show before it even opens? Well, since pre-sales were so strong, the Cleveland Play House has added a week of stagings for their world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s THE GAME’S AFOOT (or Holmes For the Holidays).

It appears that the doomsayers, who said that the move to downtown would bring about the demise of CPH, were very wrong! So far, the opening season has been an artistic and financial success, and the company’s next show, TEN CHIMNEYS, will inaugurate a new theatre, The Second Stage. It will the first CPH show that has ever been presented in the round.

Ludwig is a well known playwright whose musical, CRAZY FOR YOU, ran over four years on Broadway and in London. In addition, he wrote the oft produced LEND ME A TENOR. He’s also the scribe of MOON OVER BUFFALO, TWENTIETH CENTURY and THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER.

Ludwig’s THE GAME’S AFOOT is billed as a comedy thriller in which we meet famed stage actor William Gillette at his Connecticut home, recovering from an attempt on his life during the curtain call of his renowned play, SHERLOCK HOLMES. Several weeks later he invites the members of the cast and a reporter/critic who is doing a story about him, to spend the holidays in the elaborate home occupied by Gillette and his mother. The castle-like structure is filled with electronic gadgets and hidden rooms. It’s a perfect place for an Agatha Christie-type mystery.
Of course there is a murder and the fun real begins.

More farce than comedy, there are enough early hints of “who did it” so that the revelation of the killer isn’t a great mystery, but the fun is so sharply developed through prat falls, exaggerated situations, and over done shticks, that the whole darn thing works well.

William Hooker Gillette was, in fact, a famous actor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who is best remembered for his enactments of Sherlock Holmes. He was a proponent of grand stage designs and added many special sound and lighting effects into his productions. His wearing of a deerstalker cap and the smoking of a large curved pipe, became the visual pattern for all who were to play Holmes in other plays, movies and on television. A life-long resident of Connecticut, he actually built a grand castle-like home in that state that is still open for tours.

CPH’s production, under the direction of Aaron Posner, is a delight.

The cast is wonderful. The well-paced timing keys the laughs. Daniel Conway’s set is so impressive that spontaneous applause broke out when it was first revealed. Thom Weaver’s lighting effects, especially the falling snow and quick blackouts, and James Swonger’s sound effects, all added to the wonderment, though one might wonder, besides trying to create a spooky effect, why there was booming thunder during a snow storm. But, that matters little. This is a farce more concerned with affect then effect.

Donald Sage Mackay is Holmes. His tall, lanky physique, pointed nose, and Holmesian attitude are all spot on. Patricia Kilgarriff is a hoot as his curmudgeon mother, who almost kills their dog in her attempt to punish Daria Chase (Erika Rolfsrud) the bad, bad lady theatre critic.

(Why is it that at present there are two shows running in the area which damn theatre critics…this production and Ensemble’s AT NICHOLAS? We are kind hearted people who even give positive reviews to plays that damn us!)

Back to the cast. Rolfsrud makes for a great villain. She even got some complimentary boos during the curtain call. It’s amazing she isn’t all black and blue from the slamming down and around that happens to her.

Sarah Day is delightful as mannish Inspector, Harriet Gorin. She’s Miss Marple (The Agatha Christie character) and Jessica Fletcher (MURDER, SHE WROTE) all rolled into one.

Rob McClure is boyish ingénue-right as Simon Bright. Though she physically fits the role of the blonde innocent, Aggie Wheeler, Mattie Hawkinson’s high pitched voice becomes grating after a while.

Lise Bruneau (Madge Geisel) and Eric Hissom (Felix Geisel) are fine as a bickering couple.

Capsule judgement: THE GAME’S AFOOT is a perfect holiday treat that will delight audiences. It’s a go-see fun evening of theatre.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cleveland's Groundworks and Inlet Dance

Cleveland’s GROUNDWORKS and INLET DANCE

When, eleven years ago, Cleveland San Jose Ballet, due to poor artistic and financial management, snuck out of town to become the San Jose Ballet, the doomsayers predicted that that was the end of dance as a Cleveland area art form. Nothing was further from the truth.

No, the area has no large ballet company, but that void was replaced by some small, vibrant modern and contemporary dance groups. Included in the list are Verb Ballets, Dancing Wheels, GroundWorks Dance Theater, Ohio Dance Theatre, Greene + Medcalf Movement Project, and Inlet Dance. The latter two just had very different, but outstanding programs, so, not to slight any of the others who will get future coverage, here is a quick view of Groundworks and Inlet.

GROUNDWORKS DANCETHEATER

Founded in 1998, GROUNDWORKS DANCETHEATER is the creative child of David Shimotakahara, who serves as the company’s Artistic Director. The excellent five person company (Felise Bagley Damien Highfield, Gary Lenington, Sarah Perrett and Kathryn Taylor), along with Artistic Associate Amy Miller and Music Director Gustavo Aguilar, have made it their goal to not only create creative and proficient programs, but make the entire Northeastern Ohio area their home.

GROUNDWORKS has no home of its own, but performs in various venues, going to the people, rather than having the people, per se, come to them. Performances have been held at Trinity Cathedral, dancing on a stage erected between the gothic spires, The Akron Ice House, performing in the vast vertical space that once served as an ice block and storage site, Cleveland Public Theatre, in a black box space, and the Cleveland Botanical Gardens.

Under the banner, Imagination you can see, the company enters its second decade, having been called “one of Cleveland’s cultural gems,” “one of the country’s leading contemporary dance companies,” “one of the year’s 25 to watch in the dance world,” and, “a company that is setting the standard for small dance ensembles in Northeastern Ohio.”

Beyond performances, the company does education outreach to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, connecting to over 1000 students each year. Outreach and Educational Coordinator Mark Otloski was recognized with the Yaneo 2010 Sunshine Award in recognition of his commitment to arts education in the community.

The company’s next public presentation will be Groundworks at Breen Center on February 3 and 4. The program will include the world premiere of a commissioned work by Ronen Koresh, and Hindsight, Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s homage to Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. Breen Center is located at 208 West 30th Street in Cleveland.

INLET DANCE THEATRE

Founded in 2001, Bill Wade’s INLET DANCE THEATRE, operates under the goal of “creating life affirming new work, often pulling our topic based choreography from the communities we serve.” They are also a company without a permanent home, reaching out to the community by performing in schools, parks and dance festivals.

The company works with such community organizations as The Nehemiah Mission, which, based on the biblical Nehemiah who rebuilt Jerusalem, has the purpose of rebuilding the lives and homes of the physically and fiscally challenged of Cleveland by bringing in over 1000 volunteers per year to complete around 100 projects in private homes and churches.

Wade’s company, which has two of the area’s best male dancers (Joshua Brown and Justin Steintz) has fine female company members, Makenzie Clevenger and Elizabeth Pollert, an apprentice, Dominic Moore-Dunson, and six trainees.

Several years ago the company did a dance exchange with the residents of Easter Island (a commonwealth of Chile), one of the most remote islands of the world. The Inlet company traveled to Chile to learn dances and customs of the Rap Anui people and several members of that culture travelled to Cleveland. The local company created a series of dances, which were performed to authentic music and costumes designed to imitate the cultural pattern of the island residents.

Wade’s philosophy embodies a longstanding belief that “dance viewing, training and performing experiences serve as tools to bring about personal growth and development.”

Inlet’s education programming includes teaching dance at The Music Settlement, an annual Summer Dance Intensive, which attracts students from as far away as Central America, and residencies throughout Ohio as part of the Ohio Arts Council’s Artist in Residence Program.

Inlet’s next performance will be at 7 pm on Friday, February 24. Entitled An Intimate Evening with Inlet Dance Theatre, it is a fundraiser to be performed in the third floor ballroom of a South Park Boulevard landmark home. Attendance is limited to 40. For information go to info@shakerartscouncil.org

Yes, dance is alive and well in the Cleveland area.



Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Internationalist


Convergence continuum’s THE INTERNATIONALIST is a linguistic challenge

There’s Spanish, German, Hebrew and Italian. Now there is Washburnspeak.

Much of The Internationalist, a play now in production at convergence continuum, is spoken in a language that is alien to the ear, yet has a strange familiar authenticity. Every once in a while a Yiddish, English or French word pops in making the listener assume that what is being said makes sense. Forget it. It’s author Anne Washburn’s linguistic invention. To make matters even more interesting, or frustrating, depending on your point of view, is that there are no super-titles.

The wisp of a plot centers on Lowell, an American on a business trip. We don’t know what the business is, where he is, or why he is there. In fact, by the time the play is over, depending on your imagination, you might not even know why you went to see this play.

Lowell is met at the airport by Sara, a beautiful assistant from the company he is visiting. After spending a night of supposed amour, the real adventure starts. The task is figuring out what’s going on. Is their internal robbery, international espionage, insider trading, terrorism? Who knows. As it turns out, who cares.

Originally conceived as a one-act, cc’s production is a newer two-act version which takes about one-and-a-half hours with a ten minute intermission. It matters not. The play misses out on a wonderful chance to take on the typical American who goes to foreign lands with little or no knowledge of the verbal and nonverbal customs of the area and expects the natives to adjust to the ego-centered American. Or, possibly to show the difficulty of communication. Washburn doesn’t accomplish either of those goals. If you want to see that well-developed, go to New York and see CHINGLISH.

The convergence cast is good. Especially considering that most of their lines are gibberish. It’s hard to take cues when the lines don’t make sense, or play off each other when the understanding is missing. Tom Kondilas (Lowell), Laurel Hoffman (Sara), Geoffrey Hoffman, Laura Starnik, Ray Caspio, and Robert Hawkes all try hard to make sense of what they’ve been given, and put up a valiant but unfortunately losing fight.

Capsule Judgement: Convergence-continuum’s Artistic Director Clyde Simon is noted for often picking off-the-wall plays. THE INTERATIONALIST is way off. So much so, that one can only ask what, except its obtusenesss, Simon saw in this script.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Trying


TRYING, a fine history lesson woven into an interesting story

What happens when a man noted as a national and world leader faces the reality of his demise? This is the premise of Joanna McClelland Glass’s TRYING, now in production at Cesear’s Forum.

TRYING is based on the real story of Francis Biddle, the Attorney General under Franklin D. Roosevelt and Chief Judge at the Nuremberg trials which examined the evils of individual Nazis following World War II. The play was based on Glass’s own experiences as Biddle’s personal secretary from 1967 through 1968.

Biddle, is a traditional prep school, Ivy league educated conservative Republican until he presides over a case of the coal unions in Pennsylvania. He moved by the experience and does a complete about face and declares, “I’ve come to right a wrong. That’s why God invented Democrats.” From there on he championed liberal causes.

We meet Biddle as a sharply cantankerous, ailing 81-year-old, who has become fussy, overbearing and impossible to live with. He is trying to everyone he deals with. He hires and fires secretaries on a regular basis. That is, he fires the ones who make it through the first day of working for him without running out in tears. In desperation, his wife finds a 25 year-old Canadian girl, whose life has been hard and has caused her to learn not to take abuse from anyone. The duo spars as they try to learn how to communicate with each other and gain mutual respect and a binding connection.

The play was originally produced in Chicago and then moved to Off-Broadway in 2005. Both in the Windy City and New York, it starred Tony Award winner Fritz Weaver and Kati Brazda.

Glass’s writing is natural and real, not theatrical or overblown. It gives the illusion allowing the audience to of peek in on a real place, with real people, with real consequences.

The production, under the direction of Greg Cesear, is nicely textured. The performances are first rate. We watch Glenn Colerider, as Judge Biddle, take his stubborn stands, but begin to wilt as the strain of aging and illness take over his mind and body. Though there are a few line flubs here and there, this is a fine performance. Tricia Bestic is completely real as Joanna. She even has the pregnant walk down pat. Colerider and Bestic play off each other with compassionate fidelity.

Capsule Judgement: TRYING is a fine script which shares historical knowledge woven into a nicely textured story. It gets a fine production at Cesear’s Forum.

St. Nicholas


Dana Hart shines in Conor McPherson’s ST. NICHOLAS at Ensemble

The Irish are noted as vivid and imaginative writers (think Bram Stoker, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Beckett, Sean O’Cassey and Brian Friel). They are also noted as being verbose in their creations, as well as being prodigious drinkers, spinners of tall tales, philosophers and womanizers.

Conor McPherson is one of the new breed of Irish writers who creates in his heritage’s tradition. In 1990, The Dublin born McPherson’s THE WEIR, won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play. His 2004 play, SHINING CITY, prompted the London Telegraph to describe him as "the finest dramatist of his generation.” THE SEAFARER, which opens this week at Dobama Theatre, opened in London and New York to rave reviews. Both SHINING CITY and THE SEAFARER were Tony nominees.

It should come as no surprise that McPherson, the author of ST. NICHOLAS, now in production at Ensemble Theatre, writes a rather long diatribe about a hard drinking writer who spins a preposterous tale of vampires, women, drinking and finding redemption. And, much in the Irish tradition of the likes of G.B. Shaw, McPherson asks, "Vampires or theater critics—which are more repellent? Tough call when they’re bloodsuckers, the lot of ’em.” (And, the man got great reviews in spite of skewering us critics.)

The play takes us on a journey with a jaded Irish theater critic who is mesmerized by a beautiful young dancer/actress from the famed Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Following the young actress to London, the critic is drawn into a world of big-city “vampires” – a world that is elegant, sophisticated, and in the end, soulless. It is a tale of self-discovery, in the typical overly dramatic Irish way, that assaults modern culture, where greed and self-gratification are paramount and where the “vultures” try to suck the life right out of us.

Dana Hart is outstanding as the lone-actor in this two-act almost two-hour show. There are hundreds of lines, a subtle Irish brogue, a necessary twinkle in the eye, the need to portray a drunk who is not slapstick or maudlin, being able to confront the audience directly and play for the seriousness and mirth of the ideas, while making us question whether the goings on are real, or Irish blarney. Hart does is all with ease. This is a tour-de-force performance!

Director Sarah May has worked with Hart to create a believable story-telling realism, while transporting us to a philosophical world of illusion.

Is this a Christmas tale as might be assumed from the play’s title? There is one Christmas tree on stage, but it is neither referred to in the dialogue or gets paid any attention. The holiday’s name gets mentioned once in the script, but again, for no particular reason. The title? As is the Irish custom of creating illusion, McPherson has given each of the viewers a wonderful gift from St. Nick, a holiday present in the form of this play!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ST NICHOLAS is an actor’s show. In this case, actor Dana Hart gives a performance that deserves to be seen and appreciated.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011



Cleveland’s Ensemble Theatre, prediction of demise, premature!

When both Lucia Colombi-Cosentino and her twin-sister Licia Colombi, the founders of Cleveland’s Ensemble Theatre died, the prediction was for the demise of the theatre as well. Well, the pall bearers were wrong. Instead of fading away, Ensemble is back, and not only stronger than ever, but looking for a larger part in the area’s theatre firmament.

The theatre’s new Artistic Director, Celeste Cosentino, is the daughter of Lucia. As she puts it, “Ensemble was my incubator.” She was often brought to the theatre, which was then located in the Civic in Cleveland Heights. Her babysitters were the theatre’s actors and technicians. She intends to keep her heritage not only alive, but thriving.

After 18 years at the Civic in Cleveland Heights, the rental cost was raised beyond what the theatre could afford. The troupe became a tenant of the Cleveland Play House. This year, with CPH moving into their new home at the Allen Theatre in downtown Cleveland, the old facility was closed, and Ensemble was homeless.

Recently, Ensemble made an arrangement with the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education to rent space in the closed Coventry Elementary School. They retrofit a thrust theatre into the former gymnasium space. The present lease goes until the end of December and plans are to sign another 2-year agreement. According to Cosentino, if a long term arrangement can be worked out, the theatre plans to go on a capital fund raising project to further develop the facilities and expand their programming.

Ensemble has a history of proving that the arts are an essential and meaningful part of life; therefore, the theatre offers an important forum for stimulating and provoking thought about the issues of contemporary life, and it is a place for communal experience. It is under that umbrella that Cosentino, and her newly constituted board, are looking forward to continuing to produce vital and important theatrical works.

Their recent production of Clifford Odets’s 1930 labor play, WAITING FOR LEFTY, is a script that is as relevant today as it was back then in light of the attacks on labor unions by some state governments and governors. As part of their WAITING FOR LEFTY production, talk back discussions were held to discuss Ohio issue 2, which proposed to eliminate the anti-union bill voted in by the state legislature. The attendance was excellent and the play received positive reviews.

What’s in the future? Cosentino hopes that Ensemble will continue their present programs, such as Stagewrights, a group of writers and interested people who meet on Wednesdays of each week to create and develop new works. In addition, there are plans to continue their children and youth workshops. There will be a New Plays Festival (the scripts will be those developed by the Stagewrights) and talks are underway to develop interactive relationships with other theatre companies. There is a desire to develop Ensemble into an all-inclusive arts facility, much like Beck Center and Lakeland Center for the Arts to not only do theatrics, but also reach out to the other arts.

The 2011-2112 productions will include: ST. NICHOLAS (Conor McPherson); A SONG FOR CORETTA (Pearl Cleage), lower ninth (Beau Willimon), THE COLOMBI NEW PLAYS FESTIVAL (DANCING WITH N.E.D. by Tyler Whidden, DESTROYING THE LIGHT by Sasha Thackaberry, GROUNDS FOR DISMISSAL by Cindy Dettelbach); and GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES (Rajiv Joseph). Joseph is the author of Ensemble’s highly praised spring production, HUCK AND HOLDEN.

Cosentino believes that theatre has, through words, the power to make change. She intends to guide Ensemble to be a vehicle to help make that change.

For information about Ensemble Theatre go to: www.ensemble-theatre.com

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Ya Mama!


NINA DOMINGUE, superb actress, proficient author!

The Cleveland area has many fine actresses. One of the area’s female theatrical gems is Nina Domingue. She has proven over and over her versatility and ability to mesmerize an audience.

In YA MAMA! Domingue not only fills the stage with a multiple number of characters, but has written an emotional biopic as well.

In the extended one-act YA MAMA!, Domingue, with the help of director Cathy Hartenstein, showcases the pain and joy of being Nina. The action is up close and personal in Cleveland Public Theatre’s Storefront Studio where no seat is more than three rows from the performer. And, for the run of the show, there was almost never an empty seat.

Domingue takes her viewers on a journey from her New Orleans birth place, through the suicide of her mother, a victim of Post Partum Syndrome, to a short period of living in Cleveland with her mother’s family, back to New Orleans when her father remarries, to the abusive treatment at the hands of her step-mother, to her return to Cleveland where she finally finds a place of acceptance, and flashbacks to what happens when Katrina hits the Big Easy. We experience the birth of her three children, and her burgeoning career as an actress and a mother. Though the play is not quite as polished as her performance, it’s quite a ride.

The set is simple. A series of stools. On each surface a symbolic item is placed. As the plot unfolds, items like the bottle of Drano that her mother drank to kill herself, an apron, and a strap, are picked up as symbols of the items of importance in the actresses life.

Domingue a master of facial, body and vocal expression. At the blink of an eye she transforms herself into a child, her four-year old son, Nina as a mommy, and a victim of abuse. She gives a masterful performance.

Capsule judgement: YA MAMA! is a short evening of revelation and self-discovery presented by one of the area’s most proficient performers. Ya Nina!

La Cage Aux Folles


Disappointing LA CAGE AUX FOLLES at Palace


When LA CAGE AUX FOLLES opened on Broadway in 1983, the gay rights movement was in its infancy. Harvey Fierstein’s book and Jerry Herman’s lyrics and music brought the subject of long term gay relationships, drag queens, societal attitudes toward same sex couples, and homosexual parenting to the fore. The show, which received nine Tony Award nominations, was, in the minds of some, very controversial and opened many topics for discussion and action.

The times, they have changed, and now the subject matter carries little, if any debate, but the themes are still significant. Most gays accept the philosophy of the song, I Am What I Am, which has become the homosexual communities’ unofficial national anthem. The song is a defiant statement of the need for self pride: It's my world, That I want to have a little pride, My world, And it's not a place I have to hide in, Life's not worth a dam, Till I can say, I am what I am.

LA CAGE focuses on a gay couple in a committed, long term relationship. It’s Saint-Tropez, France. Georges, the manager of a nightclub featuring drag entertainment, and Albin, the star attraction, must deal with their son Jean-Michel’s impending engagement. The boy, George’s biological son, the result of a drunken tryst, has been mothered by Albin. What to do when the fiancée’s father is an ultra-conservative politician, and has insisted on meeting the parents. Of course farcical situations ensue, interlaced with moving emotional moments.

The show’s melodic and memorable score includes A Little More Mascara, With Anne on My Arm, Look Over There, The Best of Times, and the title tune.

I like musicals with a message, and, since LA CAGE is filled with vital themes for life including the need for positive self-esteem, the stand against narrow minded thinking, and homophobia, it ranks as one of my favorite shows.

Therefore, the version now on stage, being presented as part of the Broadway series, was a major disappointment.

On the positive side, Christopher Sieber’s Albin is top notch. Sieber has a great voice, sings meaning just not words, plays both comedy and drama to the hilt, and creates a consistent characterization. Billy Harrigan Tighe gives a nice textured performance as Jean-Michel. Allison Blair McDowell is a charming Anne. Petite Gay Marshall adds a lot personality to the proceedings as restaurant owner Jacqueline. The orchestra is good, with special attention to trumpet player Bill Dowling.

On the other hand, in the original production the Les Cagelles, were a gorgeous line of dancers whose gender was guessed at until they removed their wigs at the end of the show. Not so in this whittled down production. The six dancers were masculine and played for laughs rather than creating illusion. This is typical of Terry Johnson’s directing. He seems more interested in farce and slapstick than in the show’s meaningful themes.

Jeigh Madjus knows no restraint as Jacob, the family’s “maid.” He goes so overboard that he becomes a caricature who blows the natural humorous lines by overdoing the fey.

Lynn Page’s choreography was uncreative and generally plodding, even in the usually spectacular birdcage number.

The biggest flaw in the production, was the wooden performance of George Hamilton as Georges. He displayed about as much charisma as his cardboard cutout in the theatre’s lobby. It’s a wonder that Sieber could develop such a fine Albin playing opposite a performance which made so little attempt to build rapport between the two.


CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: In spite of a wonderful script, great music, and a fine performance by Christopher Sieber, LA CAGES AUX FOLLES is a disappointment. The barebones production lacks the dynamic soul to make it a meaningful and fully entertaining evening of theatre.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Mountaintop


THE MOUNTAINTOP opens questions about Martin Luther King, Jr.

What was Martin Luther King, Jr. like as a person? With all the death threats that King received, what was his last night alive like? What did he believe was going to be his ultimate role in the Black rights movement?

Katori Hall, a playwright and performer from Memphis, Tennessee, who wrote the award winning play HURT VILLAGE, attempts to answer these questions in THE MOUNTAINTOP, which is now getting its Broadway showing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. It is a thought provoking, but not an epic script.

The play takes place on April 3, 1968. It is a “what/if” reimagining of the night before King’s assassination. King returns to room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis after delivering his soon to become famous I've Been to the Mountaintop speech.

He’s exhausted, alone, out of cigarettes, and a storm rages outside. He calls for room service. A young lady (Camae) appears with coffee. Since King was hinted to be a womanizer, Camae’s presence opens supposition of what might come. He flirts with her, bums several Pall Malls, drinks some of her whiskey and, affectionately uses the n-word.

As the short one-act unfolds, she becomes the instrument by which King, at least in Hall’s vision, is forced to confront his destiny and his legacy.

Hall presents a real King, a chain smoker, the possessor of smelly feet who wears a sock with a hole in the toe, and, who, in spite of his bravado, has fears. This is a King who carries the burden of the civil rights movement, is weary from being away from his family and his church for so long, and is getting a cold. She gives us a different figure than the powerful man who has become the bigger than life legend.

Director Kenny Leon does a good job of keeping the show well-paced and the characters accessible. He isn’t going for epic here, he’s going for understanding a real man, with real life problems. He also, with the author’s help, presents an unknown presence who gives us cause to pause and ponder whether Camae is real or a figment of the imagination.

Samuel L. Jackson gives us King-lite. Only at the end, when King is preaching, do we see the bigger than life person. Jackson wisely sticks to a speaking tone and pronunciation pattern that doesn’t attempt to mimic King’s preaching.

Angela Bassett is effective as a cross between a typical television smart aleck African American character and a sassy street-wise lady. Interestingly, when the Broadway opening was announced, Halle Berry was confirmed as Camae. It is interesting to conjecture how the role would have been interpreted with Berry in the role.

Capsule judgement: THE MOUTAINTOP is not an easy play to watch, especially since we know what is going to happen the next day on the balcony outside that room. That is not to say the play is depressing. It’s not. It is filled with vivid imagery, humor and some preposterous ideas. It is well worth seeing.



Freud's Last Session



FREUD’S LAST SESSION a fascinating look at belief or lack of belief

The badge on my jacket says, “I’ve had a session with Freud!” Yes, that Freud…Sigmund. Wait, he’s dead. How did I have the session?

Sigmund Freud founded the discipline of psychoanalysis. His concepts centered on sexual drives, parental influences, transference, dream interpretation and unconscious desires. Known as an atheist, he was not without religion. He was an assimilated secular Jew.

C. S. Lewis was a novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian and Christian apologist who wrote such works as The Screwtape Letters and The Chronicles of Narnia. At age 15 he declared himself an atheist. At 32 he returned to the Anglican Communion and fervently re-embraced God and Christianity.

What would have happened if these two men had met to discuss their conflicting ideas? To find out you need to see FREUD’S LAST SESSION, a two-character "what-if" play now on stage at New World Stages in New York.

It’s also where, if you happen to have been in the theatre on the day they were collecting donations for Broadway Fights Aids you could purchase the chance to try out Freud’s famous couch and get a picture with the great man himself. Well, a prop version of the sofa and his acting substitute.

The play is based on the best selling book The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr. Playwright Mark St. Germain became intrigued with Freud's meeting with an unnamed Oxford don. Was this unnamed visitor really C.S. Lewis?

The setting: Freud’s study in his London house. It’s September 3, 1939, and, as the room’s radio informs us, the war between England and the fatherland is about to break out. As the two debate, air raid sirens wail and Freud, a life long smoker, is pain-ripped due to mouth cancer which requires him to wear an uncomfortable oral prosthesis.

Freud purported that those who believed in God were suffering from obsessional neurosis.

Lewis thought that human existence depended on the belief in a supreme being. A lively, contentious yet joke-filled debate takes place, and though they approach ideas quite differently, they find themselves bonding in ways they might not have expected.

Hanging over the end of the play is whether Freud will, as he has indicated, destroy himself before the cancer can do it. We do know, in fact, that two weeks after the date of the play, Freud, assisted by his doctor, did end his own life. This adds to the intrigue of the play as Freud tells Lewis that if Lewis is right about his belief in the afterlife, he can tell Freud about it in heaven, but if Freud is right, then neither of them will ever know the truth.

The 90-minute intermissionless production, which is mainly talk with little action, is excellent.

Tyler Marchant’s direction keeps the dialogue moving right along. Martin Rayner, not only looks like Freud, but he speaks with a slight Viennese accent, and is totally believable. Mark H. Dold makes C. S. Lewis very real. The duo play well off each other.

Brian Prather’s well-appointed set, a reproduction of Freud’s Vienna office, is finely detailed and makes for a perfect setting for the action.

Capsule judgement: FREUD’S LAST SESSION is fascinating theatre for anyone who is interested in a philosophical thought laced drama with laughter and fine acting.

Monday, November 07, 2011

WarHorse




Mesmerizing WARHORSE brings new dimensions to the stage

World War I, the war to end all wars, was a bloody battle in which an estimated 10 million soldiers lost their lives. An overlooked fact is that, since the conflict was highlighted by cavalry battles, eight million horses were slaughtered. The mighty steeds were cut down as the weapons of warfare, including barbed wire, machine guns, cannons and armored tanks, became the weapons of destruction. Animals were no match for these instruments.

WARHORSE, now on stage in at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at New York’s Lincoln Center, is the story of the bond between Albert, a British farm boy, and Joey, his magnificent horse. It is based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, as adapted by Nick Stafford.

The plot travels from the English countryside to the fields of France and Germany. Joey, a colt, which was bought by Albert’s father in a drunken bidding contest, has developed into a prized horse. At the start of the war, the father, enticed by money, sells the animal to the British military. Distraught, underage Albert enlists in an attempt to search out and save his steed. Through a series of searing battles we see how horse and boy eventually are reunited.

WARHORSE won 2011 Tony Awards for best play, directing, scenic design, lighting and sound design, plus a special award for Handspring Puppet Company for creating all the realistic animals. Every one of those citations was well deserved.

The visual elements of the production are finely honed. The battle scenes are realistic. The death and carnage of humans and animals is engrossing. Projections and physical elements, barbed wire, bomb explosions, poison gas attacks and tanks fill the thrust stage. Birds fly, a goose cavorts, weather changes, people and animals die.

Nothing is more impressive than the life-sized puppet horses. They are magnificent creatures which are ridden, change in physical size as they become malnourished, whinny, display unique personalities, and become living creatures before our eyes.

Even the musical interludes, which help tell the story, are focused and encompassing.

Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr’s direction is flawless. Not a detail is missed. The staging is mind-boggling.

The cast is excellent. Seth Numrich makes Albert so real that his agony becomes ours. Alyssa Breshahan as Rose Narracott, Albert’s mother, personifies a woman caught between her love for son and the need to find a way to live with her often drunk and sullen husband. Matt Doyle is fine as Albert’s cousin, who is forced to go off to war by his controlling father. Kat Pfaffl, as Song Woman and Liam Robinson, as Song Man create numerous emotional moments with their music. In the huge cast, there is not a weak performance.

The audience appreciation was evident by the resounding curtain call. The human actors were applauded, the horses got an extended standing ovation, and even the goose got screams of approval.

Capsule judgement: Filled with amazing puppetry, stirring music, a riveting story, compelling graphics, and fine acting, WARHORSE is mesmerizing theatre. It is a once in a lifetime theatrical experience.

The Book of Mormon



A hilarious THE BOOK OF MORMON


THE BOOK OF MORMON is an irreverent look at all things holy. It is the brainchild of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the conceivers of the animated television comedy, SOUTH PARK. Add to the mix, Robert Lopez, who co-wrote and composed the Tony Award winning AVENUE Q, and the result is a script that takes on organized religion and traditional musical theatre.

Why did they do the take off on Mormonism? According to the creators, they have a lifelong fascination with the religion. And, as becomes apparent in the script, they found a lot of subject matter to make fun of within the structure of the Latter Day Saints, including the golden tablets, the door-knocking missions of the clean scrubbed males of the clan, and the fervent attempt to convert the world populace to believers.

THE BOOK OF MORMON centers on the story of two young Mormon missionaries who are complete opposites. Elder Price, is a poster boy for the religion. He’s a clean scrubbed, pious, over-achiever. Elder Cunningham is a chubby misfit who has a flaw…he makes up imaginative tales when it strikes his fancy. Instead of being assigned to Orlando, Florida, where Price prays to be, the boys are sent to a remote village in northern Uganda, where a brutal warlord is threatening the local population. The natives are worried about staying alive, famine, poverty, and AIDS, while the Mormons are interested in saving their souls and making them converts. That’s not a good match for success.

So the stage is set for some of funniest songs since MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT. The song list includes: You and Me (But Mostly Me), Hasa Diga Eebowai (the translation is unfit to print), Spooky Mormon Hell Dream, Joseph Smith American Moses, and All American Prophet. These, and others, are contained in the best selling Broadway cast album in over four decades.

After nearly seven years of development, the show opened on Broadway in March 2011 to rave and vivid reviews. It was called, "the filthiest, most offensive, and—surprise—sweetest thing you’ll see on Broadway this year,” and “quite possibly the funniest musical ever.” Amen!

To say I loved the show is an understatement. I howled at the take offs on THE LION KING, THE KING AND I, WICKED, and all the other less-than-subtly inserted slams at Broadway shows. The irreverent Mormon inclusions from the Adam Smith-God tableau opening, to Christ’s commentary, to Elder Cunningham’s imaginative relating of principles of The Book of Mormon, are priceless. The song lyrics are clever. The music is catchy and ear pleasing.

The cast is marvelous. Josh Gad (Elder Cunningham) is hilarious. He is a bouncing bundle of hyper-active glee. Angelic looking Andrew Ranells (Elder Price) properly makes pious sincerity look like a burden to bear. He has a marvelous singing voice and develops a clearly defined character. Nikki James won the Tony for her role as Nabulungi, a young Ugandan girl, and well deserved it. The rest of cast is also excellent.

Casey Niholaw’s choreography is creative, using African movement, combined with rock infusion and tap dancing, to wow the audience.

If you are going to see THE BOOK OF MORMON there are some givens: (a) if you are an uptight religious zealot, you are probably going to be driven right out of the theatre, (b) if four letter words make you nutsy, you are probably going to go totally bonkers, (c) if you have a sense of humor, you may lose control of your bladder from laughing, and (d) if you love delightful music you are going to dig the score.

Capsule judgement: THE BOOK OF MORMON is one fun ride that takes on religion, the Broadway musical, life and strife, and comes out the winner. It’s a precious laugh delight.

Ch'ing•lish


Ch’ing•lish delights while probing cultural differences


The Sapir-Whorf Principle theorizes that we are the language we use, that our beliefs, attitudes and values all center on our ability to use verbalization. Misunderstandings are created when there is a clash of languages used by communicators.

Tony winner David Henry Hwang’s Ch’ing•lish, now on stage in New York’s Longacre Theater, is a delightful and insightful proof of Sapir-Whorf.

Chinglish refers to spoken or written English that is influenced by the Chinese language. It is commonly applied to ungrammatical or nonsensical English in Chinese contexts.

"Be careful not to slip and fall” in English translates to “slip carefully” in Chinglish. “False Alarm!” becomes “The Siren Lies!,” “Don't Feed the Birds!” is stated as “The Fowl Cannot Eat,” and “quiet please“ is translated as “no noising!” Want to know how well you understand Chinglish? Go the play’s website and take a test: http://chinglishbroadway.com/chinglish-translation

In the play’s opening scene, Cleveland businessman, Daniel Cavanaugh (Gary Wilmes) is giving a presentation to fellow Ohio entrepreneurs about his experiences in obtaining a contract in a small Chinese city.

As we observe, a series of scenes portray the difficulty of overcoming the Chinese-English language barrier and customs, including the concept of guanxi (the social networks that operate in the Chinese business world). Interestingly, the production is presented in a mix of spoken English and Mandarin with the use of subtitles flashed on the scenery. This is surely a first in the history of Broadway.

The production, under the direction of Leigh Silverman, is delightful. The opening scene is nothing short of hilarious, as are all those segments in which the Chinese interpreters attempt to translate what Cavanaugh is saying. The chaos that results cannot be described, it has to be experienced to be appreciated.

Wilmes is believable and develops a textured character. Stephen Pucci, as Cavanaugh’s so-called business consultant, is excellent as he transforms from aide to fake. His breakdown scene is a laugh riot. Jennifer Lim, as Cavanaugh’s adversary turned lover and help-mate, gives a fine performance. The rest of cast is equally strong.

David Korin’s set design is intriguing. It’s fascinating watching the set pieces flow seamlessly on a turntable and wagons to form numerous settings.

Capsule judgement: Ch’iNg•lish is a fascinating and delightful study of the clash of cultures based on the languages we use.