Thursday, February 28, 2013

EARTH, more devised theater at Cleveland Public Theatre

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

Cleveland Public Theatre is noted for championing works by local artists.  The theatre’s newest offering, EARTH PLAYS (Part Two of the Elements Cycle)  invited directors, performers and writers to focus on the themes of the earth and sustainability, using the technique of devised theater. 

Rather than using a script written by a playwright, devised theater encourages collaborative creation, which may take the form of spoken dialogue, poetry, mime, music, dance, and electronic illusion as conceived by director, writers and performers.  The process involves selecting a theme and then extracting ideas from that central axis. 

EARTH PLAYS uses mythology, reality, and creation to examine the earth, its inhabitants, human cruelty, insensitivity, willful ignorance, greed, desire, short human shelf life, and love.  

This is not improvisatory theatre.  There is a script and the audience experience from night to night is fairly parallel.  But, it is also not the traditional theatre of Shakespeare, Wilde or Williams.  It is often abstract, doesn’t follow the well-made format of beginning (exposition), middle (story development), and conclusion (dénouement).  That lack of traditional format may be off-putting to some.

The overly long first act of EARTH PLAYS is quite uneven and often abstract.  Adding to the issue is the constant physical movement of the audience.  Numerous times during the opening segment participants are asked to change seats.  The choreography of the chair movements is creative and well executed, but the purpose is not totally clear other than to add to the whimsy of the presentation.  Though unique at the start, after a while the shuffling around  becomes tedious.

Hearing also is problematic as CPT’s performance space has a high ceiling and hard walls, causing echoes and dead spots.  Especially difficult to hear is MEANTIME ANTHROPOCENE, a segment conceived and directed by Pandora Robertson, which was staged on scaffolding at the rear of the traditional stage.  The “three stooges” dance/farce concept was very creative, but many of the lines could not be clearly be distinguished.

A journey to the center of the earth in search of a dead brother, global warming, and a five-part segment entitled THE DIGGERS, with text by Margaret Wise Brown, did little to grab and hold audience attention.

The second act, however, was much more effective.  The sad plight of Smokey the Bear, the earth poetry of Walt Whitman, a creative dance segment performed by dancers entirely encased in plastic grocery bags, and an ending which pleaded for saving the environment, were all well conceived. 

EARTH POOL, devised by Raymond Bobgan, found ten actor/dancers writhing in mud, illustrating a human’s journey from dust to dust, the circle of each human returning to the earth.

A highlight vignette was THE TRANCED, conceived, directed and performed by Chris Seibert.  The segment was a mesmerizing probe into the relationship of earth mothers.  Jeremy Paul’s equally effective SPARROW, found biologist, sperm donor, juggler Val Kozlenko probing human isolation and the curse of science.

The experience ended with Darius Stubbs, Carly Garinger, and Beth Wood pleading for the earth.  Wood’s appeal is especially effective as delivered in a beseeching and quivering voice.

Capsule judgement: Cleveland Public Theatre is noted for its experimental theatrical work.  Though not for everyone, Ray Bobgan and his well intentioned group of creators, again challenges the senses in EARTH PLAYS (Part Two of the Elements Cycle) through the devised theatre method of creation. 

EARTH PLAYS (Part Two Of The Elements Cycle) runs through March 9, 2013.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


BLITHE  SPIRIT…Nöel Coward at his delightful best

Nöel Coward is noted as being one of the most creative dramatists, writers, composers, lyricist, painters and wit of the Western World.  In fact, through his creations he is noted for virtually inventing the concept of “Englishness.” It has been noted that, “he was defined by his Englishness as much as he defined it.”

From the early to mid-twentieth century, on both sides of the “pond,” Coward was so much a high level creator of wit and humor that he was dubbed “The Master.”

Everything about Coward was classy.  Interestingly, he was not born into the upper class, but, even though the early 1900s in England was a very class-conscious society, through determination and charm, Coward earned entry into the choicest of circles.

He once said, “I am determined to travel through life first class.”  To enhance this image, he often wore lavish dressing gowns, a costume necessity for his play’s leading men.

He spoke with a distinctive clipped diction and staccato type of speech because his mother was deaf and this helped her to hear him better.  That sound is woven into many of the leading male roles in his plays, roles he often played on stage. 

BLITHE SPIRIT, a 1941 escapist comedy, is one of Coward’s most popular plays.  It centers on Charles Condomine, a socialite and novelist.  Condomine is married to Ruth, his second wife.  As the basis for a new book he is writing on clairvoyance, he invites Madame Arcati, an eccentric medium, to conduct a séance.   Chaos breaks loose when Charles’ dead wife, Elvira, is summoned.  She arrives, causes mayhem, and refuses to leave.  Hysteria and plot twists and turns, as only Coward can conceive them, become the rule of the day.

Coward, the consummate wordsmith, creates instances that are pure delight.  His plays need little in the way of directorial invention.  The words and the situations develop into humor and move the story right along.

Great Lakes Theater’s BLITHE SPIRIT is quite humorous.  Unfortunately, due to a casting glitch and some slow pacing, it is not as riotous as it could be. 

Director Charles Fee, the local king of farce, adds his own twists by adding some funny shticks such as exaggerating the line descriptions for the actions of Edith, the hyperactive maid, but also playing other scenes for guffaws, rather than allowing Coward’s ironic humor to emerge.

The lead women in the cast are strong.  Maggie Kettering is properly uptight as second wife Ruth.  The beautiful Shanara Gabrielle is right on target as the dead, young, and modern first wife, Elvira. 

Lauri Birmingham totally understands how to create Coward.  She plays Madam Arcati straight, allowing the master’s lines to incite the humor.  The only thing that distracts are some dancing around stage movements, which were added for farcical delight.

Jodi Dominick is hysterical as Edith.  Even in places where farce replaces comedy, she is  capable of being laughed with, not at.

Aled Davies and Molly McGinnis are character right as Dr. Bradman and Mrs. Bradman, house guests for the séance.

Eric Damon Smith mugs, sneers, and bares his teeth as Charles, thus nearly destroying the character written by Coward.   The overacting detracts, rather than enhances.

Russell Metheny’s  elegant set design, Kim Drumm Sorenson’s costumes and Rick Martin’s lighting all work well.

As with plays of its era, BLITHE SPIRIT is 3-acts.  With two intermissions it runs around 2 and one-half hours.

Capsule judgement: Nöel Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT is one of those magical epics that delights audiences.  Great Lakes Theater is blessed with some excellent female leads who help make the show a smile fest, though it should have been the laugh fest created by the master.

Roy Berko's blog, which contains theatre and dance reviews from 2001 through 2013, can be found at His reviews and commentary can also be found on and www.NeOHIOpal, and

Saturday, February 23, 2013

SONS OF THE PROPHET, thought provoking, funny, but flawed at Dobama

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

When it opened in New York last year, SONS OF THE PROPHET was called “the first important new play of the fall season”

As you watch Dobama’s production of Stephen Karam’s play, you may find yourself laughing, laughing at people in physical and psychological torture, and ask, “How can I be laughing at this?”

In contrast to what many think, the opposite of laughing is not crying.  The opposite of those closely related strong emotions is no emotion at all. Knowing this, Karam, a master at word usage and idea development, has crafted a character-centered piece that has pockets of humor, but never crosses the line into ridiculousness.  This is both the strength of the play and the weakness of the Dobama production.

We watch in horror as one calamity after another befalls a hapless group of good-willed, ill-fated characters.  No one is spared.  And, whether its God’s will, the fates, or an indifferent universe, these people wallow in misfortune and pain.

The plot of the play, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, centers on the Douaihys, an American Lebanese family living in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.  Brothers Joseph (29) and Charles (18), whose mother died when they were young, have been orphaned when their father dies, possibly because of a prank by Vin, a local football star.  Vin, in an initiation ritual, placed a plastic deer in the middle of a highway.  Mr. Douaihy, on the way home from work, swerved to avoid the deer and crashed his vehicle.  Taken to a hospital, he died of a heart attack.  Whether the death was the result of the accident is not medically clear, but the grief that results is vivid. 
Joseph, a former Olympic level runner, is suffering from a series of illnesses, the cause of which medical tests can’t discover.  Is it MS, some other physical disease, or psychologically motivated?
In order to get insurance coverage, Joseph goes to work for Gloria, a book-packager, who has deep psychological problems.  Knowing that the Douaihys are distant relatives of the world’s third beat selling author, Kahilil Gibran, who wrote THE PROPHET, Gloria becomes obsessed about Joseph writing a tell-all family story.
Obstinate, prejudiced, aging and ill, Uncle Bill, now the family patriarch, who is dependent on the boys for physical care, is opposed to revealing any family tales.
To add to the family dysfunction is the fact that the brothers are gay. 
Based on self-pity, pain, and loneliness, Joseph has a sexual affair with Timothy, a gay reporter sent to write a story of the accident, with traumatic results.  
Dobama’s production works on many levels, stumbles on others. 
In an interesting staging device, the play uses floor projections, inspired by the chapter headings in Gibran’s THE PROPHET, to identify the sections of the script.
Chris Richards gives an excellent textured performance as the conflicted Joseph, who acts as the eye of the hurricane.  His emotions are raw, his thoughts and feelings clearly displayed.  Christopher Sanders, a Chris Coffer (TV’s FAME) look-alike, is spot-on as the mildly flamboyant Charles who is filled with teenage and personal angst. 
Bernard Canepari is believable as the frustrated Uncle Bill.  Aaron Mucciolo stays close to the surface as Timothy.  Anne McEvoy travels the path between overacting and portraying the often hysterical Gloria with fidelity.  She never becomes a caricature, a danger with this type of role.  She is properly pitiful, while evoking the right amount of empathy.
Jonathan Jackson is not believable as Vin.  Laura Starnik and Jeanne Task, in spite of some outlandish wigs, and a confusing cross-dressing scene, effectively do as directed.
Director Scott Miller has paced the play well, and has helped most of the actors develop meaningful characters.  Unfortunately, the play stumbles in two important scenes. 
In one segment, Van and the Douaihy family are appearing before the school board which is to determine whether the boy will be removed from the football team for his prank.  Rather than playing the scene as a message developing experience, Miller opts for a farcical interpretation.  The school board members are played as gossiping fools, Van reads his prepared message in a laugh provoking manner, and the acting goes over the reality line into farce.  The play is a drama with comic overtones, and this important message developing scene should definitely not be farcical!
The play’s last scene finds Joseph in a physical therapy center, interacting with Mrs. McAndrew, a favorite elementary school teacher.  The emotional bond between the two is obvious.  Unfortunately, the scene ends in midair…not with the required dénouement.   On opening night the audience was so unaware that the play was over they sat in silence waiting for the next scene and were visibly  surprised to see that the curtain call was enfolding.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   SONS OF THE PHOPHET is a brilliant script which gets an acceptable production at Dobama.  It’s a shame because the quality of the material is superb, and the cast, with more focused guidance, was capable of living up to the positive hype a production of this script deserves.
SONS OF THE PROPHET runs through March 17, 2013  at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

PSYCHO BEACH PARTY a campy challenge for Blank Canvas

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

Who wrote THEODORA, SHE BITCH OF BYZANTIUM, TIMES SQUARE ANGEL, or VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM?  Don’t know?  You are not alone.  These, and more escapist romps with similar bizarre names, are the products of Charles Louis Busch, an American actor, playwright and female impersonator.  Many of his works, including PSYCHO BEACH PARTY, which is now in production at Blank Canvas Theatre, were written specifically as vehicles for Busch and his camp style of acting.

PSYCHO BEACH PARTY ran from July, 1987 to May, 1988 in an off-off Broadway theatre.  It developed a cult following which resulted in a 2000 comedy horror film, which, like the play, never developed a mainstream audience, but became, like THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW, a cult midnight movie flick.

To best understand the play, (if you have an IQ over 60 that should be no issue), the viewer should harken back to the days of ‘60s surfing flicks, throw in a little of the overly done melodramatic horror movies, and mix in a little psycho babble.  Yes, remember Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello and Bobby Darren?  How about BEACH PARTY, MUSCLE BEACH PARTY, or HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI?  They all centered on the happy days of being a beach bum, surrounded by beautiful girls, and having fun, fun, fun.

It also helps if names like Gidget, Jane Russell, Kim Novak, Bob Hope, and TV’s BONANZA are in your memory bank.   (If you’ve never heard of these names from the past, worry little, you’ll still get the drift).

PSYCHO BEACH PARTY, which is designed as a take-off on those films, with a little dark side, a little psychological intrigue, a little demonic intrigue, a cross dressing mom (of course, Brush had to write a role for his persona), and sand.  Oh by the way, this isn’t a musical, even though there is a cute musical shtick about the beach bum extravaganzas that director Pat Ciamacco throws in which will probably go right over the heads of most of the audience.

The plot line, (I use “plot” very loosely), centers on Chicklet (Sara Maria Hess), a teenage tomboy, who wants to be like the guys.  Unfortunately, besides being skinny and non-athletic, she has a tendency to break into multi-personalities when certain things happen to her.  (You don’t think I’m not going to reveal this deep story line intrigue do you?)  She becomes a black chick, an elderly radio talk show hostess, an accountant, a male model named Steve, and then there is Ann Bowman who is interested in world domination.  (Come on, could I make stuff like this up?)

Chicklet’s best friend, nerdy Berdine (Brittany Gaul) is into Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and, of course, “dear Jean-Paul.”  Then there is sometime friend, Marvel Ann (Elicia Bryant), whose purpose in life is to bed and wed a cute surfer dude, some one like Star Cat (Troy Bruchwaiski), a studly med school dropout who majored in psychiatry.  (This is a very important bit of information to remember, because his knowledge, acquired by two years of college psych classes, “solves” Chicklet’s problem.  That is if you accept the unproven idea that dual personality is the direct result of a traumatic experience.  But, who worries about facts when fun is the object?)  Next in the lineup is  Chicklet’s mom, (Jordan Cooper, in bad drag and a worse wig) who is a cross between Donna Reed, and Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?.  This is one psychoed-out lady!

To add to the mix is Yo-Yo (Bill Reichert) and Provoloney (Bradley Michael Arner), two “prize macho studs” who find gay love underwater, which culminates in a prolonged passionate kiss (remember, this show opened before the age of  gay enlightenment, so that scene probably brought gasps of horror from the audience.  The local guys seemed to really enjoy playing tongue hockey). There’s the non-descript Nickey (Joey Dienes), Kanaka (Douglas Bailey) the local surfing-God, and Bettina Barnes (Jordan Renee Malin), a Hollywood class C star who is on the lam from her studio bosses (it’s worth going to the show just to see Bailey in her mini-mini black bikini).

There’s lots of angst, running around, sexy innuendos, and lying around in the sand.  (Ciammacco and his crew brought 1150 pounds of sand up to the second floor theatre of the elevatorless building.  Before each show, stage manager/lighting/sound person, Erin Riffle, creates sand garden circles in the indoor beach).  And, yes, there are bare chests, bikinis and a great miniature surfing puppets gimmick (much like the flying scene in the classic parody spoof,  BULLSHOT CRUMMOND).

Of course, as has to happen in this kind of vintage hepcat slang, comic book, after school special, smut-light epic, all comes out well as our studly hero and cute nerdy heroine, go surfing off into the sunset for at least a fifteen-minute happily ever after life.

Camp acting takes a special set of skills.  This is not farce, nor comedy, nor melodrama.  For camp to work, there needs to be a high level of sincerity, with the ability to make the real look surreal while being over-the-top serious.  The young kids on stage try hard, they just don’t have the acting chops to pull off all the levels needed to make the show totally work.  It takes a Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman or Tim Conway to make this style succeed.  Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of those folks around.  (Now, to be fair, I saw a dress rehearsal, and things could get much better as they respond to the audiences.)

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  PSYCHO BEACH PARTY will make for fun viewing for those inclined to like theatre of the ridiculous and don’t want to gain anything from the thespian experience other than absurd silliness and get a lesson in the difficulty of bringing the camp style of performance to the stage.

Blank Canvas’s PSYCHO BEACH PARTY runs though March 9, 2013 in its west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website.  (My GPS was of little help).  Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  It’s an adventurous battle. For tickets and directions go to

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Cleveland Play House’s THE DEVIL’S MUSIC entertaining, but…

Bessie Smith, the subject of THE DEVIL’S MUSIC, the eighty-minute  bio-concert now in production at the Cleveland Play House, was noted as the “Empress of the Blues.” 

Smith had a magnificent voice, an in-your-face attitude, loved the dramatic, and was noted for her near perfect diction, unique phrasing, and incomparable timing. 

Though her career was a success, her personal life imitated the blues she sang.   As she once said, “There’s some that calls the blues the devil’s music.  Well, honey, I danced to the devil’s music.  So, I gotta give the devil his due.”

Born into poverty in Chattanooga, Tennessee, she was one of seven children.  Her father was a Baptist minister and a laborer, who died shortly after Bessie’s birth.  Her mother died when Bessie was eight.  Raised by an unmarried aunt, she made money on street corners by singing, accompanied by her younger brother.

At eighteen she joined a traveling minstrel show in which late hours, sexual freedom, and the abuse of alcohol was the rule.  That laid the foundation for many of the issues in her later life. 

In 1920, Mamie Smith (no relation) made the first vocal blues record.  When it sold one hundred thousand copies in a month, the record companies went on a search for singers to sell this “race music.” 

Bessie was signed in 1923 by Columbia Records.  Her first record sold 780,000 copies.  From then until 1931, when the depression, the development of the radio and talking motion pictures caused the bottom to fall out of the blues business, she recorded 160 titles.  She even starred in a two-reel film, ST LOUIS BLUES, a semi-autobiographical film. 

In spite of her financial and artistic success, her life was not easy.  The 20’s was a period of high racism, especially in the south.  Smith and her entourage were not allowed to stay in “white only” hotels and even had to enter many of the venues in which she performed through the back door.

Her marriage to Jack Gee, which ended in a bitter divorce, resulted in his filing charges against her as a poor mother, causing her to lose custody of their adopted child. 

The success of the  Benny Goodman band in 1937 brought an interest in swing, and Smith adapted her music to fit the era.  Her career was reborn, but on the morning of September 26, 1937, Smith was killed in an auto accident.  It was estimated that over 7000 people attended her funeral.

THE DEVIL’S MUSIC opened in New York on June 22, 2011 to universally positive reviews, and ran for a year. 

The local production , with stars Miche Braden, who played Smith in the Big Apple, is very entertaining. 

Braden has the all the requisites for the role.  Her big voice, larger than life personality, excellent comic and dramatic timing, and physical presence, all enhance the show.  Her musical trio, Jim Hankins, (bass), George Caldwell (piano) and Keith Loftis (saxophone) are amazing musicians. 

The beautifully conceived Victorian-influenced setting, by Michael Schweikardt, takes the audience into a “buffet flat,”  “a private establishment where blacks could gather after hours for food, drink, gambling, lodging, entertainment and amusement of all kinds.”

If there is any negative to the show, it’s the format of the script.  As a bio-concert, it is neither pure story telling nor musical performance. 

We are supposedly experiencing Smith telling us of her life experiences in real time (Monday, October 4, 1937 and nine days earlier).  However,  Braden breaks the story line by talking to the audience, while also interacting with her amazing on-stage musical trio, while inserting songs that often have no direct relationship to the tale being told.   Though all the ideas are interesting, and well performed, there is a disconnect between the musical entertainment and the biographical tale.  Though not a major problem, it is enough of a distraction to hold the production from being a mesmerizing experience.

Show highlights include a “sexual union” between Braden and Loftis’s sax, the heartbreaking courtroom segment when Bessie loses custody of her son, and the songs, St. Louis Blues, I Ain’t Got Nobody and Blame It On the Blues.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: THE DEVIL’S MUSIC is a very entertaining evening of theatre, highlighted by the performance of Miche Braden, but is somewhat burdened by the format of the script.

THE DEVIL’S MUSIC runs through March 10, 1913 at the Allen Theatre.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Monday, February 18, 2013

GROUNDWORKS features two  premiers; future dance programs

Roy Berko
(Member, Dance Critics Association)

Since its founding in 1998, Groundworks DanceTheater, David Shimotakahara’s small dance company, has been dedicated to the theme, “imagination you can see.”  The company “explores the human experience through unique and adventurous choreography.”  They perform new works, imagine older works, while performing in a variety of venues which range from an old ice house in Akron to Trinity Cathedral to the Cleveland Institute of Art to the Glendale Cemetery.

The latest adventure for the company and its collaborators was at the Breen Center for the Performing Arts.  The same program will be repeated at 7:30 on March 22  at the Akron-Summit County Public Library.  The evening consisted of two world premieres and a revival.

LUNA, choreographed by Shimotakahara in collaboration with the dancers, is a physical exploration of polarities:  lost and found, give and take.  As with any set of opposites, the extreme ends of the spectrum overlap and reappear.  The composition was danced to the flat affect sounds written by Peter Swendsen. The quick gymnastic actions were well performed, the polar opposites delineated by moves and counter moves, repelling of touch, while unfolding in parallel sequences.  The highlight segment was a compelling duet by Felise Bagley, probably the best female contemporary dancer in the area, and Gary Lenington.  Like the music, the dancing was interesting, but not compelling.

INAMORATA, also in its world premiere, was the choreographic creation of Kate Weare, who is noted for her unique dance voice.  She intends, through her visual images, to “inspire its own world.” As per its title’s meaning—“a female lover or a woman who is loved”—the number, which was danced to the recorded sounds of such compositions as Processional Hymn, Nannou, Contrabaejeando, and No One Hurts Up Here, puts females in various loving situations. An exciting addition was a recently rare dance appearance by Shimotakahara.  The piece received deserved strong audience applause.

BRUBECK, a commissioned piece, was developed in 2012. Shimotakahara has given a physical snapshot of the sounds of the American jazz icon as physical movements by combining seven of Brubeck’s’ lexicon of compositions, including, Take Five, Bluette, Pick Up Sticks and Unsquare Dance.

Each section highlighted a different side of Brubeck’s’ experimentation with  moods and time signatures.  His style has been epitomized as “motion and commotion” as “creating infectious melodies and dynamic rhythms,” and this was well reflected in the dancing.

The dancers switched gears as the moods of the music changed from plaintive, to sassy, to happy, to sensual.   The overall effect was energizing, educational and often mesmerizing.

As I commented in my review of the original production, Kristine Davies’ costume design is confusing.  The female short shirt-waist pink dresses and then the varying styles of bathing suits didn’t parallel the musical moods and did little to create the needed visual image.  The men’s costumes added little to creating the visual moods.  If the piece is to be repeated again, consideration should be given to altering the costume design.

Capsule judgement: Groundworks continues to be a bright star in the area’s contemporary dance sky.  The well disciplined company, which strives to present new and interesting performances in audience friendly venues, deserves the strong audience support it is receiving.  

Coming up:  April 13 @ 8 PM at the EJ Thomas Hall the company will perform with the Akron Symphony Orchestra.

For information go to


Saturday, February 23, 2013, 8 PM, Breen Center @ St. Ignatius High  School
Three works by Chung-Fu Chang, who is in residency with Verb.  Program includes THE LILY, created for Verb, Chang dancing PHEASANT’S WRITING, a self-choreographed solo work, and the world premiere of Richard Dickinson’s ballet about loss and longing set to Richard Strauss’s haunting Four Last Songs

Saturday, March 2, 2013, Palace Theatre
Sponsored by Dance Cleveland
Affectionately known as “America’s dancer company,” Mark Morris Dance, which is both brash and profound, is acclaimed for its ability to make classical music visible through dance.  The last time they appeared locally, I wrote, “Morris, who is meticulous in his choreography, takes a piece of music and creates a movement for each note of the composition.”   Morris Dance sold out in its last local performance, so get your tickets now!

April 11-13, 2013, Cleveland Public Theatre
Experience the second movement of Bill Wade’s exploration of the 4 elements, AIR, along with selected pieces from the company’s repertoire.
216-631-2727 501 or

Friday, February 15, 2013

BLUE MAN GROUP nothing but fun, fun and more fun at the Palace

Roy Berko

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

Ian, my thirteen year old grandson, who I often bring along to judge whether theatre productions are both appropriate and will be enjoyable for kids, just kept repeating, “That was fun,” as we returned to our car for the trip home.

He had seen the BLUE MAN GROUP when they appeared locally in 2010.  I had assumed that the present invention would be filled with new shticks and gimmicks.  He was actually pleased that most of the goings on were retreads of the old.  He was delighted that five of his favorite bits unfolded before his big blue eyes and ever smiling face. 

Yes, the Twinkies routine, where an unsuspecting audience member is brought on stage and participates in an exercise in which the center cream of the cake delicacy gets sprayed out into the first four or so rows of the audience, was there.  (Fortunately, we were in row six.)  And so was the painting created by hanging an audience member up-side-down from a crane, and bouncing him against a blank canvas after he had been covered with various shades of paint.  (Ian’s only complaint was that he wasn’t the one being body-slammed.)

And, of course, the Captain Crunch cereal eating, or rather orally spraying of cereal into the audience, was enacted.  What kid doesn’t want to participate in a food fight?

Ian is still trying to figure out how one Blue Man stuffed 29 marshmallows into his mouth and then used them to create a sculpture piece.  He is now the possessor of one of the marshmallows used in the routine and, I assume, now at home teaching his older brothers how to perform the deed.

Also included was the presence of huge balls being thrown out into the audience for eager participants to bounce them from floor to the balcony to the ceiling of the massive Palace Theatre.

Is it possible to spend 90 minutes at the theatre, not hear a single word spoken, and be totally and absolutely delighted?  When you go to see the touring production of BLUE MEN GROUP, and there is no doubt, no matter your age,  that you should go, at the end of the experience you’ll be standing on your feet, applauding and shouting for joy, and trying to hit the big balls as they sail all around you, accompanied by confetti and streams of ribbon.

BLUE MAN GROUP combines music, comedy and multimedia theatrics to produce a unique form of entertainment.  This isn’t a play.  It isn’t vaudeville.  It isn’t Cirque du Soleil.  It is unique!

To make it even more exciting, not only is the audience entertained, but they also learn.  Did you know the eyes see a color and the brain translates it into others?  Do you know what 2 ½ dimensional space is all about? Do you know “the 7 rock concert moves?”  Do you know the hysteria that texting can create in a conversation between virtual texters?

Yes, through electronic gimmicks, flying colored paint, filling their mouths with marshmallows, eating Twinkies, audience participation, drumming (yes, it does get loud and the bass moves the theatre’s floor under your feet), three on-stage performers, a band and seven Blue Men hidden in the dark on-stage, teach and delight.

Be aware that this is a 90-minute show with no intermission.  In spite of the warnings by the ushers, the pre-show speech, and visual clues on stage, as the show went on the aisles were bustling with people exiting and entering.  Several times the performers gave anguished looks at the patrons.  In one instance, a stage spotlighting was pointed at several women.  What a bad message these people gave the cast about the manners of Clevelanders.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   BLUE MAN GROUP is a total delight.  Go, go, go and have a unique theatrical experience!

Tickets for the show, which runs through February 17, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Review of the Reviewers Reviews: Kim Gamble

 Hi Dr. Berko,

My name is Kim Gamble and I just wanted to take a moment and say hi and let you know how much of an impact you made on my life when I was just a wee little girl.  My mother, Ricky Gamble was taking classes at LCCC and she was in a few of your classes.  I was a constant tag-a-long when not in school for her lack of a babysitter. 

You were directing The Godspell at the time my mother was taking a course on Creativity and you saw me sitting out in the hallway and you asked my mother if I could come down and watch the rehearsals.  She said yes and I was so glad for something else to do besides sitting in the hallway with nothing to do.  I was at almost every rehearsal, dress rehearsal and opening night.  One time rehearsal ended early and you even took me home and I had dinner with your family and mother came and got me after her class ended.

You gave me an appreciation for college/community theater and gave me respite (when you didn't even know the world I lived in).  When I was in my Poetry and Drama course in Community College I had a wonderful (and difficult) instructor and it was just when Lion King hit Broadway and they were talking about it on all of the shows like the Sunday Morning show on CBS.  I remember thinking - I want to be there some day, it looks amazing.  Well, almost 20-years later, as a gift for my birthday I got to see Lion King on Broadway and it WAS amazing.

Thank you for being the person you are and for helping that little girl begin to cultivate a love for the arts and find some peace in her world.  It means so much to me today as I look back across my life.

Best Wishes,
Kim Gamble

P.S.  I see Godspell almost every year at a community theater.

Monday, February 11, 2013

none too fragile’s A  BEHANDING IN SPOKANE…not for the language police!

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

Sean Derry, the artistic director of none too fragile theater, is known for his love of off-the-wall scripts and characters.  He fears no plots, language or the macabre.  In Martin McDonagh, the author of none too fragile’s latest brain teaser, A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE, he has met his mate.

McDonagh, who is the first dramatist since Shakespeare to have four works professionally produced on London stages in a single season, has won every major British theatre and film writing award.

McDonagh, who is considered by some to be the most important living Irish stage and film writer, is fascinated with wretched, ill fated, jaded, obsessive characters.  These malcontents are often liars with imaginations that know no limits.  They flourish in self-mythology and are usually self-destructive. 

The playwright also has no regard for the word police.  He peppers his scripts with language that can make some audience members cringe.  He makes playwright David Mamet (GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, SPEED-THE-PLOW), noted for his constant use of profanity and vivid words, appear almost to be a member of the clean mouth club.  

In BEHANDING IN SPOKANE, for example, words like hillbilly, fag, and fu***in’ are spoken freely.  I stopped counting after the first fifty motherfu**ers and twenty uses of niggers.  If you aren’t offended yet, there’s a fight in which the characters throw multiple numbers of severed hands at each other.  It’s like a macabre pillow fight of digits.  Some of the bloody fists bounce off audience members as some observers are seated within three feet of the action.

A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE is McDonagh’s first play set in America.  It opened in New York in 2010.  The king of mean, actor Christopher Walken, was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of the leading.

The none too fragile theatre is a 65-seat black box, which is cramped, the seating is close, and no one is more than 10 feet from the thrust stage.  It’s a perfect venue for McDonagh’s grizzly dark comedy.

The lights come up on a seedy hotel room where Carmichel, an unkempt, wild-eyed, hair-a-mess middle aged man is sitting on the bed.  Within seconds a noise comes from the closet, Carmichel throws open the door, whips out a gun, shoots, slams the closet door closed, and we are assured that “nothing good can come from this!”

In the next seventy-five minutes we are exposed to a can of gasoline, a candle, handcuffs, a gun, racial and sexual terms, drugs, and lots of questions over what’s going on.  Overriding all of this is the query, What was the author’s purpose in penning this bizarre script? 

We meet an interracial couple, a stoned main desk clerk, Carmichel’s mother (via several telephone calls), see near deaths, view Twinkies being consumed, and  view an unexpected and bizarre ending. 

The none too fragile’s production hits the audience on various levels.  Some laugh hysterically, others sit in shock, still others seem to turn off the entire action and go inward with no means to escape the intermissionless exercise. The reaction centers on what each person perceives to be going on and/or how much liquor they have had before and during the show.  (Each production starts with an introduction, the director handing out free shots, and waitresses taking drink orders.)

Michael Regnier is quite adequate as Carmichael.  He is not as menacing as Christopher Walken, nor as crazed as the role calls for, but he gets his point across.  It would have been fascinating to see the director, Sean Derry, play the role as this is the kind of part that he does so well.

Nick Yurick, as the desk clerk who spends part of the play shaving his knuckles and fingers, is properly spacey, but not always believable.

Brian Kenneth Armour, as the emotional Toby, an African American low level drug dispenser and wheeler dealer, is spot on.  His pretend macho, yet crying jag portrayal, is nicely honed. 

Kelly Strand as Marilyn, Toby’s air-headed girl friend, is out and out funny and convincing.

Capsule judgement: none too fragile’s A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE is definitely not for everyone.  If you have a macabre sense of humor, have a high tolerance for swearing and offensive stereotypes, you  will really get into this show.  Others may be so offended and/or confused their only wish would be for the final lights out.  Which one are you?

A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE runs through March 9 at none too fragile theater located in Bricco’s Restaurant, 1841 Merriman Road, Akron.  Use the free valet parking, as car space is limited.  For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to

Friday, February 08, 2013

YOU SAY TOMATO, I SAY SHUT UP! at 14th Street Playhouse

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

What do courtship, sex, money, lack of sex, romance, birth, wanting more sex, parenting, children, squabbling, still wanting more sex, and anniversaries all have in common?  Marriage, of course!

Sounding much like a couple counseling session, and believe me as a life coach and counselor I’ve been part of these a lot, YOU SAY TOMATO, I SAY SHUT UP!, which is now in production at the 14th Street Theatre in PlayhouseSquare, is an often humorous, sometimes touching, but never hysterical, look at the life issues of Annable Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn.   Yes, this duo has placed their “real” selves on stage.

This seemingly mismatched couple, who took over five years to date, not date, and marry, are not your typical duo.  He is the emotional, loving, tender nurturer.  She is a hard driven, commitment phobic, cut-to-the-chase person.  She thinks of him as friend material, he is in love with her and her idiosyncrasies.  He wants children, she could care less.  He has to buy himself anniversary presents from her, she writes him a check to cover the cost of “her” gift to him.  His version of having sex is raw body contact.  Hers is lying back letting him do all the work.  He wants a ROMEO AND JULIET life, she thinks it is a play in which the starry eyed lovers only were together for 24 hours and died.   He regards parenthood as a loving commitment, she regards it as a competitive sport.

Often sounding like Seinfeld-esque shticks, or segments from The Bickersons, the hit 1940s radio show starring Don Ameche and Frances Langford, we observe the couple celebrating their 13th anniversary in a restaurant.

What we get is a bit of insight into what complaining, codependency and the right bottle of wine can do for a marriage, when the partners have decided that “We’re just not that into us” but will obviously live their version of “happily ever after.”

It’s an expose that should strike fear into the heart of every single man or woman who is contemplating a trip down the aisle.  It’s the kind of experience that makes people make appointments with mental health professionals like me.

Kevin Bartini makes for a fine Jeff.  A little chunky, a little emotionally overactive, he makes the character real.  Gabrielle Mirabella is an acceptable Annabelle, but comes off a little too hard, a little too unfeeling.  Not enough so that she becomes the “wicked witch of the west,” but some breaking of the plaster mold might have helped.

For those who like the production and want to relive the lines, or won’t have time to see it, there is both a Kindle and hardcover version of the script available in book form.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: YOU SAY TOMATO, I SAY SHUT UP! is a funny, but not hilarious evening of theatre.  It makes for a pleasant escape evening of theatre.

Tickets for YOU SAY TOMATO, I SAY SHUT UP!, which runs through FEBRUARY 17 at the 14th Street Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Lakeland’s NEXT TO NORMAL:  compelling script, must see production

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

If you were an investor in Broadway shows and someone came to you proposing a rock musical about a mother with worsening bipolar disorder, that was going to be performed as an operetta (all singing, few spoken sentences), with no show stoppers, no dancing, no chorus numbers, few laughs, and an unnerving ending, written by an author who has never had a big hit, would you invest?  Well, a group did, and the result was NEXT TO NORMAL which won three 2009 Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and had a smash 733 performance-run on Broadway, and is now touring to sold out audiences.

Yes, NEXT TO NORMAL, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt, is a unique musical which addresses loss, death, suicide, drug usage, and the ethics of modern psychiatry, which is getting a mind-blowing production at Lakeland Theatre. 

The Pulitzer Board credited the show with “expanding the scope of subject matter for musicals.”
The story concerns Diana Goodman, a suburban American housewife, who has a form of bipolar disorder coupled with what might be schizophrenia.  The question comes as to whether the condition is hereditary or was induced by a trauma sixteen-years earlier.  Together with her husband, Dan, she fights to keep her mind and their family on some sort of “normal” path.  Maybe not normal, but next to normal.  After extensive therapy Diana decides to stop taking the pills, cuts off all mental health help, including the electroconvulsive therapy, that caused her short-term amnesia.  This decision leads to an unsettling conclusion.

As both a mental health professional and a theater reviewer, when I saw the original staging on Broadway, and again in its presentation as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series, I was totally caught up in the show.  It is like no musical I had ever seen.  I left the theatre knowing that I had just experienced greatness. 

The Lakeland production, under the adept direction of Martin Friedman, with the set and light innovations by Trad Burns, is mesmerizing.

Friedman and Burns remove the Broadway three-level set and substitute see-through walls constructed of steel wires, which, like the connections in Diana’s brain, represent her being trapped in a spider web of chaos, causing her to weave in and out of situations which she doesn’t understand and disrupt her direct flow of ideas and movements.  In addition, instead of traditional stage lighting, the duo has substituted nearly a hundred lamps of various descriptions to illuminate the set and simulate the on and off flow of ideas in Diana’s mind.  The concept is brilliant and takes the script to a level not realized in the original staging.

The composite cast is outstanding.  Amiee Collier wraps herself in the role of Dianna.  She is so real that the character’s pain is Collier’s pain.  She sings meanings, not words.  She makes us writhe in suffering, her suffering.  This is a performance which rivals Clevelander Alice Ripley’s amazing Tony winning Broadway presentation.

Rich McGuigan, who, like the rest of the cast, has a strong singing voice, is spot on as Dan, Diana’s husband.  We experience his frustration in trying to be an understanding support, but unable to cope with his wife’s obsession with a past trauma, her reluctance to move on, and his inability to deal with the chaos around with any action other than emotional blandness.

Hathaway Brown’s Emma Wahl, who appeared on Broadway in CHITTY, CHITTY BANG  BANG, captures the very essence of Natalie, the daughter caught between the throes of teenage life and a chaotic home environment.  Pat Miller, as Natalie’s boyfriend, Henry, creates a pot-headed, yet supportive safe place for the girl to turn.

Ben Donahoo, as Natalie’s brother Gabe, has the difficult task of creating a character of dual dimensions.  He does so with clarity and understanding.

Tim Allen, as several mental health professionals, is quite believable.

Though Jordon Cooper’s orchestra sometimes goes overboard and drowns out the musical speeches of the performers, lyrics that are so important to hear clearly, the musical sounds are well performed and carry the feelings and moods of the story.

Capsule judgement:  Does NEXT TO NORMAL sound like a downer?  The script, and the music, and this production are so well conceived, that there is no time during the production that the audience is not compelled to watch with rapt attention.  Lakeland’s production is an absolutely, positive, MUST SEE!

For tickets to the NEXT TO NORMAL which runs through February 17, and is being staged in Lakeland Community College’s theatre, call 440-525-7134 or to go