Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Shaw Festival’s 2013 season

Roy Berko
Member, Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association

Yes, it’s snowing outside, but soon Spring and Summer will be upon us.  That means The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, will beckon.  The Shaw is one of the two major Canadian theatre festivals, the other being The Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario.  Both are high quality venues.

The Shaw Festival is a tribute to George Bernard Shaw and his writing contemporaries. 

Many Clevelanders take the four-hour drive up to The Shaw, as it is called by locals, to participate in theatre, tour the “most beautiful little city in Canada,” shop, and eat at the many wonderful restaurants.

It’s a good idea to make both theatre and lodging reservations early, especially with the B&Bs on weekends. Our home away from home is the beautiful and well-placed Wellington House (, directly across the street from The Festival Theatre. For information on other B&Bs go to

There are some wonderful restaurants including the Dining Room located at the Niagara Culinary Institute ( And my in-town favorite, The Grill on King Street (905-468-7222, 233 King St.)

This year’s theatre offerings are:

GUYS AND DOLLS--a musical fable of Broadway based on a story and characters by Damon Runyon and includes such songs as A Bushel and a Peck, Take Back Your Mink, Luck Be a Lady, and Sue Me.

LADY WINDEMERE’S FAN--Oscar Wilde’s bitingly satirical attack on Victorian morals.

ENCHANTED APRIL--Matthew Barber’s tale of two women who seek an adventure by renting a small castle on the Mediterranean in Northern Italy.

PEACE IN OUR TIME--John Murrell’s adaptation of Shaw’s play GENEVA, which is a contemporary political farce where affairs of state meet the Three Stooges.

THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA--Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s (Richard Rodgers’ grandson) musical set in Italy in the summer of 1953 and concerns an American and her daughter encountering a handsome Italian.  It includes such songs as The Beauty Is, The Joy You Feel, Hysteria, and Let’s Walk.

TRIFLES—two one-act marital mysteries by Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill.

OUR BETTERS—W. Somerset Maugham’s play, deemed by many to be the best social comedy of the century, which concerns a rich American woman in search of nobility.  The play is considered a forerunner to DOWNTON ABBEY.

MAJOR BARBARA—Shaw’s provocative and witty play about immorality and the testing of beliefs and ideals.

FAITH HEALER—Irish playwright Brian Friel writes three versions of the same story, and asks, “which one is true?”

ARCADIA—Tom Stoppard’s intellectually dazzling mystery and love story, which is set in both 1809 and the present time.

Two plays which will be presented as staged readings:

THE MOUNTAINTOP—Broadway’s smash hit of this past season regarding the night before the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.  (For a review of the play go to and search the title.  (Only September 1)

JERUSALEM—The Tony Award winning play which ran in London (2009) and on Broadway (2010), which concerns tall tales and past glories. (Only October 13)

For theatre information, a brochure or tickets, call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.

Go to the Shaw Festival! Find out what lovely hosts Canadians are, and see some great theatre!  Don’t forget your passport as it’s the only form of identification that will be accepted for re-entry into the U.S.

Monday, January 28, 2013


Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association & Cleveland Critics Circle)

Cleveland Public Theatre is sometimes referred to as an off-Playhousequare theatre for its continued probing of non-traditional script choices and presentation styles.  It’s the place that did an age-blind version of OUR TOWN, a play which paralleled southern slavery with the Holocaust and added a gay twist, presented a one-man diatribe about the Cleveland Browns, and was recognized by the Cleveland Critics Circle in its 2012 awards for “Outstanding Commitment to Multi-dimensional Theater Production and Education.”

CPT’s latest offering follows the trend of local theatre organizations combining to produce productions.  Playhouse Square has reached out to Baldwin Wallace’s Musical Theatre Program, Cleveland Play House has coupled with Case Western Reserve’s Master of Fine Arts program, PlayhouseSquare has reached out to the Great Lakes Theatre, and now there is Oberlin College and Conservatory and CPT doing collaborative works.

The first in a series of CPT/Oberlin experiences, which will probe various physical and personal topics,  centers on water.

WATER WAYS (Part One of the Elements Cycle) was developed through use of the “devised theatre” technique.  It does not follow the usual theatrical pattern of a playwright penning a script, a director formatting an understanding of the written piece, and then working with actors to bring the writer’s words and ideas to life.  Instead, devised theatre, much like the “happenings” popular in the 1960s and 70s, creates a staged piece based on a theme concept in a collaborative method which combines input from the performers, the directors and whoever’s creativity is needed.  Often, and this is paramount in the CPT/Oberlin production, the word is only one of many devices used to create the whole.

In the case of WATER WAYS, live music, recorded music, dance, vaudeville, projections, art, lighting, costumes, and museum installations add to the spoken and chanted words.

The work was created by the cast (Oberlin College and Conservatory students), the directors, and members of the Oberlin College and Conservatory Oasis Faculty, during OASIS, a semester-long program of intensive study.  Students learned to create work in a guided process calling upon their creativity, dance, music and theatrical talents.  In the process they traveled to international and local performances to observe the creation process.

Audience members experience the exposition section of the work in the main CPT theatre, then physically move to four different parts of the theatre’s complex, then back to the main theatre for the conclusion.

Those wanting a traditional story line of clear beginning, middle, and end will be disappointed.  This is a much more abstract, creative process which not only lets the performers devise, but allows the audience to wander through words, music and electronic effects, to carve out each person’s own meanings, within the boundaries of the subject matter.

Yes, this is the story of water.  In this case, the resulting desert is created, for example, when a body of water like Lake Eric dries up.  Some remember the pleasure of swimming in the water.  Others the glee of free water.  Still others yearn for the digging of a well to recreate the lake.  Some are doom-sayers, other yearn for the return of the water and are willing to work toward that goal.  Superstitions, myths, legends, and reality all blend together in an often mind-boggling way.

There are no actors or dancers or leads, per se.  There are beings who perform varying visual and vocal functions, interwoven with singers and dancers,  musicians and visual elements that create the whole.

Capsule judgement: WATER WAYS (PART ONE OF THE ELEMENTS CYCLE is a unique theatrical experience which uses a devised theatre approach to create a fascinating multi-leveled message centered on “water.”


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Actors' Summit:  Well written script gets excellent production

Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, William Inge, Arthur Miller, Stephen Dietz.  What do these playwrights have in common?  They are on the list of the top ten American writers who have the most produced plays.  Never heard of Dietz?  You are not alone. He is a regional playwright who makes a living as a college professor and writing scripts that are done in mid-America.  

Dietz is a prolific writer, having penned more than 30 original plays. He’s scribed political, comedic, and personal scripts.  Most center on the effects of personal betrayal and deception. 

In contrast to playwrights who write a script, showcase it, and then have some production company stage it, many of Dietz’s works go from computer right into acting editions that are published by Dramatists Play Service or Samuel French.  Many of his short plays appear in anthologies.  Broadway is not on the list of sites for his works.

Actors’ Summit, which is producing FICTION, a 2002 Dietz work, did a delightful production of his commissioned piece, BECKY’S NEW CAR, in 2011, which was written as a birthday present from a man to his wife.

Dietz is a wordsmith.  He writes poetic language and produces quotable feasts.  His lines include such bon mots as describing a character in FICTION as “having a mouth like a machine that goes by itself.”  Another character states, “you don’t leap a shadow, you just run through it.”  Describing a discussion between a man and his wife, he states, “The point? Why does there need to be a point. . .the Great Reductiveness in which everything we say must be shrunk down to You Make a Point and I Refute it; I Make a Statement and You Rebut It. Is that really the best we can do?.” A secret that his ill wife is keeping inspires the statement, “A secret, like a disease, is a very human thing. It hides inside you. Discovers where you are most vulnerable. And then it hurts you.”

FICTION centers on an author (Michael), his wife (Linda) , his lover (Abby), and a series of secrets.  The married duo originally met at a Paris cafĂ©, develop an argumentative repartee, and avoid “real talk” by playing verbal ping pong.  Michael and Abby met at a writer’s seminar, and have a strained relationship.

Linda, who has been diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, teaches literary fiction and book writing, and is the author of a critically acclaimed novel based on her supposed rape while in South Africa. Michael is a commercially successful novelist who is uncomfortable with his having “sold out” to the movie industry and forced to write best selling pithy novels. Both are prolific journal keepers and it is their journals which serve as the touchstone of their problems.

Linda figures she has about " twenty meals" left in her life, and asks Michael to read her heretofore strictly private journals after her death, and she asks to read his.  She explains " “It's ludicrous…not to mention vain -- I mean vain in a truly Tom Wolfe-ian sort of way -- to think that they are not real, that I am not real unless someone reads them."   From this request, through a series of audience affronts and interactions, we are led down an intriguing path which reveals much and makes for the questioning of the truth of it all.

The well paced Actors’ Summit production, which is adeptly directed by MaryJo Alexander, is compelling.  Though it is all words, with no comedy, and no explosive action, there are enough highlighted twists and turns and questions of what is true and what is fiction, to grab and hold the audience.

Sally Groth (Linda), Bob Keefe (Michael) and Cassandra Capocci (Abby)  each develop a real, living character.  The parts aren’t acted, they are lived. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  FICTION is a well crafted script which should be appreciated by people who enjoy good acting and literate dialogue.  I’d class it as a “go see” for those who can forsake lots of pseudo-drama or escapist comedy.

For tickets to FICTION, which runs through February 3, call 330-342-0800 or go to

Coming up:  ACTORS’ Summit’s next offering is the recent off-Broadway smash, FREUD’S LAST SESSION, from February 28-March 17.  It will star 2012 Cleveland Critics Circle’s Best Actor award winner Brian Zoldessy.  For a review of the off-Broadway show go to and search under the Broadway link.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Screaming women encourage the sexual goings-on at the Hanna Theatre

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

There are some weird and off-beat goings-on in downtown Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare.  At the State, cross-dressers and a transvestite are feverishly dancing and preening in PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, THE MUSICAL.  At the Hanna, witches and warlocks are cavorting in BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE.  On stage at the Hanna, in SPANK!  THE FIFTY SHADES PARODY, whips, chains, handcuffs and undulating abs have the mostly 20-something female crowd screaming for more.  Yes, female crowd…the farer sex outnumbered the males by at least 100 to 1.

British author, Ericka Leonard’s Fifty Grades of Grey erotic novel trilogy (e.g., FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, FIFTY SHADES DARKER and FIFTY SHADES FREED) has sold 65 million copies, making it the biggest selling paperback series of all time.

It is, as I was told by Cher, Rachel and Janine, the helpful trio of beauties sitting behind me, a take-off on all those soft back novels available in drug stores, that are consumed by women who sit at home consuming calories and sexual illusions.  You know, the books with the photo-shopped sculpted, gym-toned male studs on the cover.

In addition, the trio told me that some vignettes in the FIFTY SHADES books have allusions to the TWILIGHT series, the four vampire-themed novels by  American author Stephanie Meyer.

I must, in full-disclosure, admit to not having read any of the Leonard or Meyer books, so little did I know what I was getting in for when I entered the “she-den,” known most of the time as The Hanna Theatre.

SPANK! THE FIFTY SHADES OF PARODY is a musical written by seven, yes, seven authors.  There is little music, and the story line, I was told by my bevy of beauties, parallels the first book and tacks on the ending of the second book. (I have to trust them that this is true.  Would those cuties lie to me?)

The “story” concerns a woman writer who has the weekend where her husband and children are off to Disneyland, to write one or more books aimed at adult women.  The requisites?  The novels must contain lots of sex, sado masochism, sex, fantasy, sex, anatomical and slang references to about every part of a woman’s body, sex, and some more sex.

The heroine, Anastasia Steele, is created before our eyes by the writer, who tinkers and adjusts the script as we observe.  Ana encounters wealthy, studly, Hugh Hanson, a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control.  A man of perfectly formed abs and a vivid sexual imagination, which centers mostly on s and m.  He is beautiful, brilliant and intimidating, and looks great in his form fitting tiny Batman underwear, that conceal little, and skin tight jeans, which also leave little to the imagination.

The innocent Ana longs to be with him, and surrender her virginity.  (Were you expecting something else?)  Huge (I mean Hugh…hmm…was that a Freudian slip?) wants her, but on his own terms, which is included in a long contract (like the type Sheldon requires of those with whom he is in relationship on TV’s THE BIG BANG THEORY).  Along the way, the story includes snatches from THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, CHARLEY AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, and of course, TWILIGHT.  This is a tale of obsession, possession and a night of fantasy when the women viewers go home and relive the experience through dreams in their own beds.

SPANK! is a hoot for the first half hour.  It kind of bogs down after the titillation is over.  It picks up when Alice Moran (Tasha) goes out into the audience to castigate (or castrate) the guy in the front row who has the nerve to be texting while the show is going on, and then ask advice from another audience member about what is proper to insert into one’s posterior, tushie, butt.   (BTW…the woman who was being queried, answered “Nothing,” but was talked into a modification of her response.)

Suzanne Sole (E. G. Janet) has a great time being the “writer” of the novel which develops before our eyes.  After a while, however, her repeated attempts at sexuality got a bit much.  She has a nice singing voice, which, unfortunately, didn’t get a lot of use.

Alice Moran (Tasha Woode), has a wonderful wide-eyed innocence and does well with the humor.

I can assume that the woman would have liked more of handsome, sensual Gabe Bowling (Hugh Hanson) stripping, bumping, grinding, and playing Chippendale dancer.  Moving out onto the runway that surrounded the thrust part of the stage might have met with dollar bills thrust into his Batman briefs.  The women who lined up after the show to have their picture taken with the dangerous dude were loving every minute of it.  Some had to be restrained from touching the merchandise!

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  SPANK! THE FIFTY SHADES OF PARODY is definitely not a production for everyone.  Twenty-something women, with maybe a few 30s and 40s thrown in, who have read and love THE SHADES OF GREY trilogy, want to let loose, have a couple of glasses of wine and scream and yell, will have a great time.  Others, like this old white guy who hasn’t read the books, should have been at home!

SPANK! runs through January 27 at the HANNA THEATRE.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Friday, January 18, 2013

Entertaining BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE at Cleveland Play House

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Since it moved into its new digs at the Allen Theatre, Cleveland Play House has been on a roll.  Attendance has skyrocketed, they are operating three theatres with spaces that allow for creative and technically complicated staging.  The artistic staff has selected challenging and interesting shows, including LOMBARDI, IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY), RADIO GOLF, RED, THE WHIPPING MAN, ONE NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN.  Even their recent holiday show, A CAROL FOR CHRISTMAS, though not the aesthetic quality of other productions, was an attempt to bring positive attention by melding the talent of a local playwright with a local writer, and to create a new local holiday tradition. 

One can only wonder why the powers that be decided to pick John Van Druten’s lightweight comedy, BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE for its winter opener.

The program indicates that the play is a “classic.”  By what standard?  It is definitely not an American classic in the vein of LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, OUR TOWN, or DEATH OF A SALESMAN.  It doesn’t compare with such classic stage comedies as YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU, HARVEY or THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER.  In fact, if a list of classics had to include a Van Druten play, it would most likely be I AM A CAMERA, which was transformed into the compelling musical CABARET.

BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE, which opened in November of 1950 ,and closed the next June, received mediocre reviews in its Broadway run in spite of a cast that included Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer.  The script would probably have faded from view if not for the Kim Novak, Jimmy Stewart 1958 movie.

The plot concerns Gillian Holroyd, a witch who casts a spell on book publisher Shepherd Henderson, her attractive upstairs neighbor.   Numerous complications get in the way of their romance including her uninhibited fellow-witch, Auntie, who lives in the same building as the potential lover and keeps playing tricks on Shepherd.  Nicky, Gillian’s immature brother, is a warlock who likes also to play tricks, and Sidney is a writer who Henderson wants to sign to write a volume on witchcraft. There is also the issue of Pywacket, Gillian’s cat, who is actually the witch’s familiar companion, who helps carry out her mystic deeds.  And there is the problem that witches must choose between the life of a bedeviler or that of a normal person.  Living in both worlds is not acceptable.

The title of the play refers to the methods used by the Catholic Church to cast out demons and witches, which gets a fleeting reference in the script.

The CPH production, under the direction of artistic director Michael Bloom, is entertaining.  It misses out, however, on some of the potential fun by minimizing visual illusions that usual make fantasy comedies work, including explosions, turning people into other people or things, magic tricks, and vanishing acts, which are expected by audiences.  There are only a couple of minor tricks, and using a fake cat in place of a real animal, cut down on the “oh-ah” factor when animals appear on stage (e.g., Sandy in the musical ANNIE and Bruiser, the Chihuahua, in LEGALLY BLONDE).  Some of the most delightful moments center on the dancing segments while set pieces are being adjusted.

Georgia Cohen is properly sultry as Gillian, but a little more Rosalind Russell-like delightfulness might have helped.   Patricia Kilgarriff is amusing, full of nervous energy and Betty White cuteness as Miss Holroyd, “Auntie.”  Marc Moritz gives nice eccentric energy to the role of Sidney Redlich, an alcoholic  writer,  and Jeremy Webb is properly boyish as Gillian’s immature brother.  He makes it easy to imagine his glee when the character supposedly turns all the traffic lights on Park Avenue green at the same time.

Eric Martin Brown has the matinee idol good looks, but fails to create a real person as Shepherd.  His lines often lack reality and there is little romantic spark between him and Gillian.

Russell Parkman’s three-level set works well, but the oversaturation of colors and objects overwhelms the senses and distracts from the performers.  David Kay Mickelson’s costumes are era and mood correct.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE is a pleasant, but not compelling evening of theatre.  The dated script doesn’t do much to help keep the Cleveland Play House’s recent run of masterful works rolling.

BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE runs through at the Allen Theatre.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

PRISCILLA…costumes, dancing, rocking escapism @ State Theatre

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

There is an old expression in theatre evaluation:  “If you come out of a musical whistling costumes and sets, it’s not good!”  Well, generally, that’s the case, but with PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT THE MUSICAL, that idiom is not true.  

PRISCILLA isn’t intended to be a great message musical.  NEXT TO NORMAL or CHORUS LINE it isn’t.  What it is, is a show with 492 costumes, yes, close to 500 costumes, cast members singing from small platforms which drop in and out of the fly gallery, a cast of muscle bound guys (It’s Raining Men), a full sized bus which maneuvers around the stage on a turntable, and a rockin’ musical score which includes such gems as What’s Love Got to Do With It?, I Say a Little Prayer, True Colors, and I Will Survive.  Oh, incidentally, there is a slight story line which showcases the theme of acceptance and should satisfy those who want their theatrical experiences to be meaningful.

The production is so grand that it had to moved to the State Theatre because not all the costumes and sets could be accommodated at the smaller Palace Theatre facility, where it was originally scheduled to be staged.

The show, which is now touring the US, UK, Ireland, Italy and Brazil, has a book by Aussie’s Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, and uses well-known pop songs as its score.  The music was not written specifically for this show, but are a series of well known tunes covering everything from rock a billy, to pop rock, to opera. 

The musical is based on the 1994 cult hit movie, THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT, and centers on two drag queens and a transsexual who travel from Sydney to Alice Springs, in the center of the Australian desert via a bus of many colors, dubbed Priscilla.  During the journey, the three meet up with a cast of outback characters who do everything from admire to threaten them.

Side-lesson:  drag queens are men who dress as women to entertain.  They are not necessarily homosexual, may even not want to be women, but dance, sing, lip sync, and dress in exaggerated female garb as their means of artistic expression.  

The musical opened in Australia in 2006, debuted in 2009 in London, winning costume design recognitions in the British Olivier Awards and won the Tony for Best Costumes in its 2011 Broadway run.

The touring production is a cacophony of  bright visuals and sounds.  It is nearly impossible to not bounce and sway to the loud pulsing music.  Though it’s often difficult to hear the words to the songs, over the stomping sounds, the songs are so familiar and the meaning of the words are generally unnecessary to push along the story line, that it matters little.  This is a heart beating, fun, fantasy, that requires little from the audience except allowing everything to carry you along.  Don’t let thinking get in your way.  Just relish the singers, dancers, toned abs, excellent musical arrangements, and over-the-top smorgasbord of treats.  

The touring cast is excellent.  In fact, having seen the show in London, I can attest to the fact that this production, in spite of some opening night technical problems, including backstage techies having to crawl out on stage and remove errant set pieces, works better in the hinterlands than it did in the West End.
The trio of leads, two drag queens (Tick and Adam) and Bernadette, a faded  former queen of drag, who has transgendered from male to female, take to a bus when Adam’s former wife invites him to come visit his now seven-year old son and perform at her casino in Alice Springs. 

Wade McCollum, who obviously spends most of his time at the gym, dances and sings well, making for a correctly flamboyant Tick.  Bryan West, as the most macho of the trio, sings well, but is a little less talented in the dancing department.  Scott Willis creates a properly frustrated yet gallant transgendered aging Bernadette.   The rest of the cast exhausts itself by putting out full effort in multi-roles.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT THE MUSICAL is a rocking enjoyable evening of theater that is mostly glitz, costumes and sets, encompassing famous songs and a slight story line. 
Tickets for PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT THE MUSICAL, which runs through January 27 at the State Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to