Saturday, March 30, 2013

 
SORDID LIVES, laugh filled farce at convergence continuum

Its Winters, Texas, July 24 and 25, 1998.  Yes, Texas, the place of the weird and the weirder, where fundamentalism, hidden homosexuality, rampant twangs, death while having sex and tripping over a pair of wooden legs (of a person, not a table), two gun toting women who think they are Thelma and Louise of movie fame, a bar full of men forced to strip to their underwear, an institutionalized transvestite who is the subject of a psychologist’s sexual experiments, a country western bar singer, a body being buried in the hot summer clothed in a mink stole, a minister who comes on to the grandson of the deceased during a eulogy at the funeral service, and a feud between siblings.

Sound preposterous?  It’s just another production at convergence-continuum, lovingly known as con-con by its avid cult of followers.  Con-con, who is proud to challenge its potential audiences with the artistic mission of “presenting theatre that expands the imagination and extends the conventional boundaries of language, structure, space, and performance that challenges conventional notions of what theatre is.”

And, believe me, artistic director Clyde Simon has achieved his goal of crossing that threshold with SORDID LIVES, one of the most bizarre and funniest plays you ever will see.

In brief, the story line centers on a small Texas town gossiping about the accidental death of an elderly family matriarch during a clandestine meeting in a seedy motel room with a married neighbor, and the goings on while the family copes with what can and does become an embarrassing yet illuminating funeral.

The play itself has its own unusual story.  The script, written by Del Shores, was first staged in 1996, won 14 Los Angeles Drama League awards, was made into a 2000 film which opened to mixed reviews, but became a cult film among LGBT (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender) audiences, particularly in the south.  A 2008 television series, starring Rue McClanahan and Peggy Ingram, lasted one season. 

Simon has crafted a production that is long on farce and longer on laughs.

Jonathan Wilhelm goes properly over the top as Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram, a gay transvestite who has been institutionalized by his “mamma” because he is an embarrassment to the family.  At the institution he is treated by an equally bizarre Dr. Eve Bolinger (Liz Conway) who has developed a “system” to overcome homosexuality based on guided masturbation.  The office scene between Wilhelm and Conway is one of the funniest I’ve ever seen on stage.  The two let loose every farcical device to achieve hysterical mayhem.

Lisa Wiley, the bar singer Bitsy Mae Harling, has a nice singing voice and informs us that “existence is a bitch,”resulting in sordid lives” (gee, wonder where the play’s title comes from?).  

Zac Hudak (Ty Williamson), he of doe eyes caught in the headlights and fluttering hands, who has gone from closeted town homosexual to closeted well-known soap opera star, is character right, even when flirting with the minister during his grandmother’s funeral. 

Elaine Feagler (Noletta Nethercott) is delightful as the woman whose legless husband was in the motel room with Mamma.  She is matched by Amy Bistok-Bunce as LaVonda Dupree, Mama’s slutty short-shorts-wearing daughter.

Lucy Bredeson-Smith is perfectly uptight as the righteous Latrelle Williamson, trying to mold the world into her narrow view.  Marcia Mandell as the alcoholic ditzy Juanita, is riotous.  The rest of the cast, Lauri Hammer, Tyson Douglas Rand, Wes Shofner, and Clint Elaston all, to a degree, are on target.

Capsule Judgement: The con-con production of SORDID LIVES is a hoot.  Simon has pulled out all the farcical stops.  His cast has fun, the audience has even more  fun.  If you want an evening of outlandish theatre, this is it!

SORDID LIVES runs through April 20 at 8 pm Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood.  Since the theatre only has 40 seats, if you want to see this production, call now!  For information and reservations call 216-687-0074.
 
NICK & JEREMY, more devised theatre at Cleveland Public Theatre

What happens when two friends, Nick Riley, a drummer and performer, and Jeremy Paul, a director and actor, meet over a number of months to talk “stuff?”  Of course, they create a devised theatre piece, combining interactions, vinyl, drumming and audience interplay, and name the proceedings NICK & JEREMY.  Then, they make arrangements to have it staged at Cleveland Public Theatre, the home of theatrical invention and innovation.

This is not your traditional theatrical production.  This world premiere staging is in the Storefront Studio theatre, a black box space, with a thrust stage, that used to house a bookstore. 

When you enter, you are greeted by the actors who engage you in conversations based on questions they ask you and you ask them. 

Finally, when they are in the right mood, the duo sits down at a small table, have some coffee, and proceed to talk, occasionally getting up and putting various records on an old fashioned turntable, play the drums, go to a podium, do some shtick, and return to the table for some more talk.

The subjects they discuss range from whether one should wear a hat in the theatre, to whether the red dot on the floor under the table is supposed to be Mars, to foundational psychology, the operation of the brain, the sense of self, enlightenism, the consciousness of reality, drugs, dreams, magic, demons, the disappearance of the universe with only this room and the people in it remaining, whether the “I” is really the “Me,” writing a letter to oneself as a youth at age 80, suspended disbelief, situational intentionalism, commitment, and whether, in fact, everything that the audience is hearing is really only taking place in their individual heads.  The vignettes finally come to a halt when the audience is taken on a personal guided imagery.  Well, at least that is where it should have ended.  The tacked on after-the fact ending added little.

Sound obtuse, too intellectual?  That depends on the listener.  If you hang around coffee shops and play mind games, or you participated in all nighters in college based on what was discussed, or should have been discussed, in philosophy class, or you are addicted to probing for the beyond, you’ll feel right at home.  You’ll really want to walk onto the stage, which is no more than five feet away from anyone in the theatre, and take part. 

In fact, lots of people swarmed around the actors after the performance to continue the dialogue.  Others walked out, got in their cars, and pondered the meaning of life as they drove home with their heads full of random thoughts, asking, “What in Hades did I just see and hear?”

Capsule judgement: NICK AND JEREMY is an electric kool-aid acid trip, minus the drugs, which would make Timothy Leary, the proponent of the use of psychedelic substances and believer in” tune on, tune in, drop out,” very happy.  It should be of great interest to deep or pseudo-deep thinkers.

NICK & JEREMY runs from March 29-April 13, 2013 at Cleveland Public Theatre.  For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

 

GOOD PEOPLE—funny and compelling at Cleveland Play House


What happens when you combine a well-crafted script with an interesting story, a focused director, an excellent cast, and effective visual effects?  The results is a funny and compelling production, like GOOD PEOPLE, now on stage at the Cleveland Play House.
GOOD PEOPLE was written by David Lindsay-Abaire, who received a Pulitzer Prize for the play RABBIT HOLE.   He also was awarded the Ed Leban Award as America’s most promising musical theatre lyricist.  Among his creations is SHREK THE MUSICAL, which will be getting a Cleveland production this summer at Mercury SummerTheatre.  GOOD PEOPLE received two Tony nominations for its 2011 101 performance run which featured Frances McDormand, Tate Donovan, and Estelle Parsons.
There are many stories about cell phones in the theatre, but one of the legends actually took place during the final night of the GOOD PEOPLE run.  An audience member’s cell phone rang, the phone’s owner shrieked, then answered the phone.  The VILLAGE VOICE reviewer reported, “McDormand stopped in her tracks, put her arm around co-star Renee Elise Goldsbery, and deadpanned, ‘Let’s wait.”  After the woman finished her call, McDormand made a rewind gesture and said to Goldberry, ‘OK, ask me the question again’ and they resumed the scene.”
The comedy centers on Margie Walsh, a sharp-tongued product of Irish-Catholic South Boston, a working class neighborhood where most people live from paycheck to paycheck and where a night on the town is a few rounds of bingo, which might supplement their income.  Margie, who has an intellectually limited adult daughter, loses her minimum wage job at the local dollar store because of her constant lateness.  Desperate for money, she seeks out her old flame, Mike, now a successful infertility doctor.  Mike is one of the few who escaped the projects and the humdrum Southie life.  She goes to his office, wrangles an invitation to his birthday party at his palatial house where she hopes to locate someone who has a job for her.  A series of plot twists leads to humor, pathos, awareness, and a surprise ending.
Under the well honed direction of Laura Kepley, the CPH production is excellent.  The comic and dramatic timing is on target.  The acting of the high quality.  
Kate Hodge walks the fine line between comedy and tragedy with fidelity.  She has the right Southie attitude and sound, never feigning Margaret, but being Margaret.  Denny Dillon is delightful as Margaret’s landlady and ditzy upstairs neighbor.  She has a mobile face, a bird-like voice and a great touch with exaggerated comedy.  
David Andrew Macdonald, effectively develops the role of Mike, the Southie who went to college and became a “lace curtain Irishman.”  He’s divorced himself from his background by losing his accent and creating an illusion of who he was and where he came from.  When he gets angry, the accent returns as does his rough underbelly.  
  
Elizabeth Rich as Margaret’s long time friend, is spot on.  Patrick Halley, as the nebbish dollar store manager and Zoey Martinson, as Mike’s wife, develop clear characterizations.
Mimi Lien’s scenic design, Jessica Pabst’s costumes, Michael Lincoln’s lighting, all enhance the production.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH’s GOOD PEOPLE is one of those special evenings of theatre that combines a well-written script,  excellent direction, and fine acting into an evening of humor and pathos to create a must-see production.  
GOOD PEOPLE runs through April 14, 2013 at the Allen Theatre.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Beck’s HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES asks whether the whole world is crazy

A man’s home is his castle, unless it’s a zoo” is the banner used to describe author John Guare’s THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES, which is now confounding audiences at Beck Center for the Arts.

The multi-award winning Guare, who not only authored BLUE LEAVES, but
SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, which is now being staged at Karamu Theatre, is noted for his highly theatrical scripts.  As an absurdist, he probes into individual psyches by asking the existentialist question, “What is the purpose of life?”

No play better exposes Guare’s absurdist ideas than BLUE LEAVES, in which almost every cast member displays chaotic tendencies, and his anti-war sentiments are obvious.  Inn this script Guare is out to explore the darker side of the American Dream including its obsession with celebrity.

The play is set in Artie and Banana Shaughnessy’s Queens apartment on the 1965 day when Pope Paul VI visited New York.  There’s a wife and mother (Bananas) whose world is one of psychotic episodes; a husband and zoo keeper (Artie) who perceives that his misconceived songs are works of art; Artie’s mistress (Bunny), who uses her cooking skills and so-called job history to get her attention; a son (Ronnie) who is AWOL and on a mission to gain world recognition by blowing up the Pope; some nuns who want their heavenly reward; and, a shocking ending.  Guare seems out to prove that the world and its inhabitants are crazily obsessed.

Of course, as is the pattern of black comedy, bizarre overshadows logic.  Audience confusion runs rampant in trying to figure out what outlandish action will follow whatever incident is now being carried out.

The title?  Artie describes going to visit the asylum to which Bananas is going to be admitted and seeing a tree with what appeared to be blue leaves.  Leaves, which were an illusion, like his life, as they turned out to be bluebirds which flew away when he approached. 

The play had a very healthy off-Broadway run in 1971, was revived in 1986 and had another long run.  That production starred the likes of Swoosie Kurtz, Stockard Channing, Danny Aiello and Ben Stiller.  Another Broadway revival in 2011 starred Ben Stiller, Edie Falco and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

The Beck production, under the direction of Russ Borski, does credit to Guare’s script.  Juliette Regnier is fascinating as the schizoid Bananas.  She swings from mood to mood flawlessly.  Robert Ellis is quite good as her husband Artie, who is caught between his fantasies of being a famous song writer, though he has no talent for that task, while being frustrated but well equipped to be a zoo’s animal caretaker.  Carla Petroski does a good job of being totally “New Yawk” in accent and attitude.  Nicholas Chokan brings a crazy presence as Ronnie, the obsessed son.  The rest of the cast create their roles well.

Borski’s busy realistic set works nicely to add to the chaos.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES is an absurdist black comedy that asks, “Is this the way to live?,” while exposing the craziness individuals possess that drives them to adulate and desire to be celebrities and hero worshippers.  Though the production is good, this is not a play for theatre-goers wanting realistic people in realistic situations. 
THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES is scheduled to run through  April 21 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or http://www.beckcenter.org  

Monday, March 18, 2013

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION challenges audience at  Karamu

John Guare, author of SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, which is now being staged at Karamu Theatre, is noted for his highly theatrical scripts.  His writing often tries to expand the theatre’s boundaries, which reflects his attitude that “the chaotic state of the world demands it.”

Guare’s 1990 play is based on the real life story of con artist David Hampton.  Hampton came to New York in 1981 and stumbled on an idea of how to get into the lives of famous people when he supposedly told the guard at the then famous Studio 54 that he was the son of Sidney Portier.   The ruse worked and after duplicating the idea at restaurants, he became friends with a person who gave him inside information which supposedly allowed him to weasel money and other favors from such personages as Melanie Griffith, Gary Sinise and Calvin Klein.  Even after getting caught, when the SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION film opened in 1993 Hampton attempted to get into the producers’ party, gave interviews, and started to harass Guare.  Lawsuits and counter suits followed.

The title of the play comes from the unproven theory that everyone on the planet is connected to any other person through a chain of birth or acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries, thus there is no more than six degrees of separation between you and anyone else in the world.

The play’s core centers on the Kittredges, a wealthy art dealer and his wife, who, one night when entertaining are interrupted by a visit from Paul, a charming young man who claims he has been mugged, has nowhere to go, and has turned to them because their children, who the young man attended prep school with, had told him about the kindness of the family.  He also claims to be the  son of Sidney Portier.  Not only the Kittredges, but other families are taken in by Paul.  The goings on, including Paul’s bringing a hustler into the Kittredges home, the dealings between Flan Kittredge and a South African art dealer, conflicts with their children, a suicide, and the questioning of truth versus fiction, all emerge.

Karamu’s production, under the direction of Michael Oatmen, works on some levels, falters on others.  Oatmen, who is a local playwright, has re-imagined the play, changing the lead characters from white to black and Paul, the supposed son of Sidney Portier, from black to white.  The switch makes for some interesting thought concepts as Oatmen did not change the script’s references to the races of the individuals. 

He has also added dancing, background music, and minimalized the set.  Most of these additions are unimportant and add little to the play and may distract from allowing the audience to get involved directly in the flow of the story line.

The major problem with the production is Oatman’s lack of realization that he is working with mostly untrained actors and, therefore,  needed to spend time teaching the necessary techniques for his cast to be, rather than feigning or pretending to be, real people .  This is a play, as is the requirement of realistic drama, requires that audiences believe that what they are seeing is actual. In addition, poor blocking decisions caused actors to presenting lines with other actors standing in front of them and in distracting clumps.

Dan Rand has excellent potential as an actor, but stays too close to the emotional surface as Paul.  He is believable, up to a point, but doesn’t probe deeply enough into the psychological underpinnings of the character, thus acting like rather than creating a bona fide Paul.

Both Rochelle Jones as Ouisa Kittredge and Kenneth Parker as Flan Kittredge have some nice moments, but, as with Rand, they never create authentic people, feigning reality, rather than living the parts.

Be aware that the production contains male-to-male kissing and nudity.  These actions caused some uncomfortable tittering and gasps from the opening night audience.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION is a well conceived script, based on a fascinating concept which gets an acceptable, but not mesmerizing production at Karamu. 

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION continues through  April 7 at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street, which has a fenced, guarded and lighted parking lot adjacent to the theatre, and provides free parking.  For ticket information call 216-795-7077.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A calendar of Spring, 2013 Cleveland, Ohio theater offerings
 
CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE
216-241-6000 or go to www.clevelandplayhouse.com

March 22-April 14
GOOD PEOPLE
Margie Walsh, in this funny 2011 Tony nominee, wants to escape from Southie, a Boston neighborhood where a night on the town means a few rounds of bingo and lots of beer.  She may have found her exit route when an old flame, now a big success, comes back.

April 19-May 12
RICH GIRL
A take on THE HEIRESS, this comedy about women and their relationships finds a sheltered girl falling in love with a starving artist, but her mother doesn’t approve.

DOBAMA
216-932-3396 or dobama.org

APRIL 19-MAY 19
THE LYONS
An irreverent comedy concerns an indomitable matriarch of a dysfunctional family at a major crossroads. Her husband is dying, her son is in a dubious relationship, her daughter is barely holding it together. And worst of all, Rita can’t figure out how to redesign her living room!


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

APRIL  2-4
FELA (@ The Palace)
The Bill J. Jones dance, theater, music spectacle, that explores the extravagant world of Afrobeat legend.

April 9-21
WAR HORSE (@ The Palace)
The amazingly staged World War I story of a horse, a boy and the meaning of loyalty.  A must see experience!  The puppetry and special effects are breathtaking.


June 18-July 7
THE BOOK OF MORMAN (@ The Palace)
The winner of nine Tony Awards, it is a religious satirical musical about two Mormon missionaries sent to a remote village in Uganda where a brutal warlord is threatening the population.

Beck Center
216-521-2540 or http://www.beckcenter.org

March 1-April 21
NEXT TO NORMAL
The Tony Award-winning pop rock musical that examines a suburban family dealing with the traumatic effects of mental illness.

March 22-April 21
THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES
John Guare’s Drama Critics’ and Obie Award winning play about an aspiring songwriter who wants to escape the life he despises and pursue a musical career.

May 31-July 7
THE PITMEN PAINTERS
Written by the author of BILLY ELLIOT, this is the true story of a group of miners in Northern England who, in 1934, began experimenting with painting, and become art-world sensations.

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

February 21-March 17
FREUD’S LAST SESSION
Investigates a fictional London meeting, on the day England enters WWII, between Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and C.S. Lewis, the author of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, which cleverly probes God, love, sex, and the meaning of life!

April 4-21
MOTHERHOOD OUT LOUD
In 19 monologues and short scenes by 14 authors, Motherhood Out Loud progresses in step from childbirth through babyhood and toddlerhood, on to empty-nesting and even great-grandmotherhood.

May 16-June 2
MANNING UP
A comedy probing male bonding which finds two men preparing for a manimar (seminar), while fearing that they are becoming too sensitive as they practice their tales of manliness.

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

March 21-April 6
NICK & JEREMY
Reveals secrets of the universe by way of conspiracy theories, group hypnosis, coin flips, narcotic cocktails, idealistic propaganda, cynical detachment, desperate hope, and puppets.

March 21-April 6
STRUCK
The moving tale of one woman’s journey into her own mind and its recovery after a stroke.

May 2-May 18
TENDER NAPALM
A portrait of passion, destruction and examination of how love leaves a person shipwrecked, deeply burned and unquenchable.

May 9-25
THERE IS A HAPPINESS THAT MORNING IS
After engaging in an extreme display of public affection on the lawn of a college campus, two professors must apologize or justify their behavior to students and the college administration.

May 23-June 8
RUSTED HEART BROADCAST
After a pandemic destroys most human life on the planet, one group of Clevelanders look for a way to stay alive.

ENSEMBLE THEATRE
216-321-2930 or http://www.ensemble-theatre.com

April 19-May 12
THE ICEMAN COMETH
Eugene O’Neill’s monumental morbidly funny drama about the homecoming for Hickey, a charismatic traveling salesman, put on by a group of drunks and dreamers.

GREAT LAKES THEATRE
http://www.greatlakestheater.org or 216-241-6000

March 29-April 14
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Shakespeare’s comic battle of wits and wills which centers on a scorching exchange of insults, and an attempt to save true love.

May 1-19
GUYS AND DOLLS
The American classic musical, based on the “New Yawk” stories of Damon Runyon, with a score by Frank Loesser, that concerns gamblers, the Salvation Army, showgirls, and lots of toe-tapping fun and romance. (Produced by Great Lakes Theatre as part of the Key Bank Broadway series)

none-to-fragile
www.nonetoofragile.com or 330-671-4563

April 12-May 11
WHITE PEOPLE
A controversial dark comedy which asks the question, “What does it mean to be a white American?”

convergence continuum
convergence-continuum.org or 216-687-0074

March 22-April 20
SORDID LIVES
When Peggy, a good Christian woman, hits her head on the sink and bleeds to death after tripping over her lover’s wooden leg in a motel room, chaos erupts in Winters, Texas.

March 22-April 20
THRILL ME:  THE LEOPOLD AND LOEB STORY
A two-character musical drama that recounts the chilling true story of the legendary duo who committed one of the most infamous and heinous crimes of the twentieth century.

BLANK CANVAS
440-941-0458 or www.blankcanvastheatre.com

May 3-May 18
WORKING
A new musical version of a play that explores the humanity of 26 people from all walks of life.

CAESER’S FORUM
Call 216-241-6000 or visit www.playhousesquare.org.

April 5-May 4
PERHAPS PERICLES (at Kennedy’s Down Under/PlayhouseSquare)
A play, attributed to Shakespeare, which centers on the role of family in society, individual identity and epic storytelling.

To see a composite of the reviews of members of the Cleveland Critics Circle, go to www.clevelandtheaterreviews.com

Saturday, March 09, 2013

FREUD’S LAST SESSION a fascinating look at belief or lack of beliefRoy Berko
Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle

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?  They may, in fact, have met as there is an illusion in Freud’s records that he had an appointment with someone who may have been Lewis.  If the duo met or not, we can eavesdrop in on playwright Mark St. Germain’s  concept of the interaction in FREUD’S LAST SESSION, a two-character "what-if" play now on stage at Actor’s Summit. 

The play is based on the best selling book The Question of God by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.
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 Germany 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.

The script is filled with many insightful statements and questions that can excite or incite strong feelings.  These include:  “Satan is a brilliant creation,” “Is there a moral law?”  “Is shame a good thing?” “Are our deepest desires ever satisfied?”  “The God of the Bible is a busybody.” “Is the story of Christ the greatest myth of all time?”  There is also the revelation that both Freud and Lewis had bad relationships with their fathers, which taught them “how not to be adults.”

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 script 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. 

Brian Zoldessy, last year’s Cleveland Critics Circle and Times Theatre Tributes best actor winner for his portrayal of Larry Kramer in Ensemble’s THE NORMAL HEART, is compelling as Freud.  He inhabits the role to the degree that the viewer forgets s/he is in a theatre and is actually part of the conversation and partaking in the character’s physical pain.   His slight Austrian accent allows for the correct effect, without making understanding difficult.

Keith Stevens holds his own as C. S. Lewis.  His English accent comes and goes, but he is consistent in developing Lewis’s uptight moralistic attitude.  His highlight is a scene in which he has a PTSD-type  reaction to a radio command to put on of gas masks based on his horrific military battle experiences in World War I. 

No credit is given in the program to whoever collected the numerous props on stage, but bravo to that person.  Ditto for the set design which well illustrates the script’s line of “One hundred colors around you.”  The rugs, Freud’s famous psychoanalysts couch, and decorations all set the right mood.

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

For tickets to FREUD’S LAST SESSION, which runs through March 17, call 330-374-7568 or go to www.actorssummit.org
CWRU/CPH MFA students excel in IDentity THEFT, devised theatre
Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association)

It is the purpose of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program to give the students a chance to work with America’s leading theatre artists, appear on a professional stage, and, during their last year, journey to New York to showcase their talents.  The class of 2014 is about halfway through their experience.  Again, in IDentity THEFT, SEVEN LIVES FILTERED THROUGH THE IDEAS OF AUGUST STRINDBERG, the members of this class provide quality performances. 

The group’s previous productions, THE MISANTHROPE and IN ARABIA WE’D ALL BE KINGS, were both outstanding.  Individual members have also proven themselves to be excellent as they appeared in Cleveland Play House main stage productions.

IDentity THEFT is a perfect vehicle to highlight each performer and his/her unique talents.  The play is not an authored script, but is devised theater which encourages collaborative creation, using spoken dialogue, poetry, mime, music, and dance as conceived by the director, writers and performers.  The process involves selecting a theme and then extracting ideas from that central axis. 

As the vignettes unfold, each of the seven members of the unit blend their own real and fictional experiences to relate a mini-tale in the tradition of August Strindberg.  Strindberg, the father of Swedish realistic writing, was a writer who drew on his personal experiences to create natural melodramas and naturalistic tragedies.  Like fellow Scandinavian, Henrik Ibsen, and French writer, Emile Zola, he stressed the real.  He was less interested in the format of the play, not often following the unwritten format rule of a beginning, middle and conclusion, but rather a depiction that often did not include exposition, and often just suddenly ended with no resolution or moral.  He dramatized the workings of the unconscious.

IDentity THEFT examines identities and how life often steals or hides who we are.  Sometimes a person is unaware of her/his motivations, as heredity and environment meld to make an indescribable “me.”  As with Strindberg, who often was known to levitate between reality and psychotic, each of the vignettes opened the characters to unknown push and pull forces and logical and illogical actions.

Therese Anderberg, Bernard Bygott, Drew Derek, TJ Gainley, Christa Hinckley, Sarah Kinsey and Stephen Spencer exposed the real, the unreal, the imagined and the unimaginable as they told about their selves and themselves.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: IDentity THEFT, SEVEN LIVES FILTERED THROUGH THE IDEAS OF AUGUST STRINDBERG, is fascinating theatre and gave additional proof of the quality of the CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Programs’ class of 2014.

IDentity THEFT runs through March 9, 2013 at the Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre (The Helen) on the lower level of CPH’s Allen Theatre.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Friday, March 08, 2013

SISTER ACT entertaining @ State Theatre, but . . .

There have been lots of plays, movies and musicals about nuns.  Nuns, who are traditionally known as those fearsome enforcers of strict rules, wielding punishing rulers, and giving lesser human beings the evil eye.  The purveyors of such wisdom as “don’t wear patent leather shoes because they reflect up,” “don’t go on a date to a restaurant with white tablecloths because it will remind the boy of bed sheets,” “red clothing incites passion,” and “don’t wear makeup as it entices the devil.” 

Lapsed and disobedient Catholics love it when entertainment mocks the nuns…it’s their way of “getting back at those hellions of religious pomposity,” as a believer told me just before the opening curtain of SISTER ACT, A DIVINE MUSICAL COMEDY, which is now playing at the Palace Theatre as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series.

If seeing nuns being mocked is your goal in seeing SISTER ACT, you’ll be disappointed, because the sisters in this show, except for the Mother Superior, (and even she comes around), are much more interested in being Vegas show girls than putting the fear of a future in hell in the minds of elementary kids. 

Also, if you are going expecting the hilarity of the 1992 film, SISTER ACT, which starred Whoopie Goldberg, who, incidentally, happens to be the producer of the stage version, you are probably going to be disappointed.  You’ll probably smile a lot, but, out and out guffaws are few and far between.

The musical, like the movie, concerns Deloris Van Cartier, a street smart African American singer “wanna be,” who sees Curtis, her boyfriend shoot a man.  She goes to the police, reunites with Sgt. “Sweaty Eddie” Souther, who had a crush on her when they were in high school, who places her in protective custody in a broke, soon to be closed church/convent.  Of course, as is always the case in escapist musicals, she stirs up the cloistered place, makes the quiet nuns into singing rebels, and saves the convent.  There’s even an appearance by the Pope….this is the 60s…they still had an active Pope then!

The book is by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner.  Never heard of them?  You’ll get your answer why after hearing the weak one-liners, clich├ęs, and observe the poorly fleshed-out story.

All is not lost.  The Motown, funk and soul music by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater is great.  Songs such as “It’s Good to Be a Nun,” “When I Find My Baby,” “Raise Your Voice,” and “Take Me to Heaven,” while not classics, are good Broadway fair. The cast can really sing well.  The choreography is fun.  There are some nice characterizations. And, the last two numbers (“Sister Act” and “Spread the Love Around”) are show stoppers, inspiring the usual Cleveland standing ovation.

SISTER ACT, A DIVINE MUSICAL, opened in 2006 at the Pasadena Playhouse, showcased at the London Palladium in 2009, and came to Broadway in 2011.  The Big Apple reviews were mixed, but positive enough to insure a moderately healthy run and insure a touring version.

One of the major problems with this production is that there isn’t enough “attitude.”  Ta’rea Campbell, who sings well, just doesn’t display the street smarts to make Deloris real (i.e., the thrusting jaw and hip, the finger snaps, the rough around the edges sound).  The plot isn’t helped by the fact that the four so-called hoodlums sound like college grads.  We need some in-your-face mobsters (“gangstas”) and their “don’t mess with me” girl friend, to make this ridiculousness work. Whoopie and her tough guys had it in the movie, Ta’rea and her guys don’t.

The nuns are excellent, especially Lael Van Keuren, as the novice who matures before our eyes.  Her “The Life I Never Lived,” is the show’s most plaintive song.  Florrie Bagel is adorable as the unbridled Sister Mary Patrick.  Diana Findlay adds just the right amount of sarcasm to make her Sister Mary Lazarus fun.  Hollis Resnik is superb as Mother Superior….great voice and acting chops!  E. Clayton Cornelius is fine as Sweaty Eddie.

The sets are adequate.  The orchestra is a little light on instruments, leaving a slight hollow sound in the big number songs.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  SISTER ACT is not a great musical, but it makes for a generally entertaining evening.  It’s the kind of cotton candy, that, with an  attitude-filled production, could have been total fun.

Tickets for SISTER ACT, which runs through March 17, 2013 at the Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Monday, March 04, 2013

 
Mark Morris Dance…a contrast of two acts @ Palace

An interesting audience reaction greeted the two acts of the recent Mark Morris Dance Company’s near sold-out performance at the Palace Theatre.  Overheard comments at intermission of the performance cosponsored by Dance Cleveland, PlayhouseSquare, and Cleveland State University, were statements such as, “That was great.”  “I never knew dance could be such fun.”  “Morris is really creative.”  Unfortunately, after the second act there was general silence as the large audience left the Palace theatre. 

Why were there different reactions?

The opening act consisted of two Morris choreographed pieces, CANONIC  ¾ STUDIES and FESTIVAL DANCE.

Mark Morris once said, “I like to see people working together.  What we call a giant solo in my company is about four bars long while twenty other people  are doing something.   Noted for combining modern dance, folk dance, traditional ballet and opera, he often combines simple steps into an intricate set of rhythmic movements.

CANONIC ¾ STUDIES, typical of Morris at his delightful best, showcased the dancers jumping, frolicking, falling, crawling, twirling, and prancing in perfect time to the sprightly “Piano Waltzes” arranged by Harriet Cavalli.   There was a youthful, playful innovation to the work which enthralled the audience.   The piece was danced to the well played live piano sounds of Colin Fowler.

Set to Johann Nepomuk Hummel’s “Piano Trio no. 5 in E Major, Op. 83,” FESTIVAL DANCE highlighted Morris’s love of European folk dance.   The well performed live accompaniment by Cyrus Beraukhim (violin), Andrew Janss (cello) and Colin Fowler (piano) added to the joyousness of the performance.

The three segments, WALTZ, MARCH, and POLKA each contained many traditional movements including foot slapping, line dancing, czardas prancing, galloping, and partner switching.  As with the opening number the conclusion was met with applause and whoops of joy.

Morris has been involved with opera for over 20 years, directing and choreographing productions for the likes of The Metropolitan Opera, New York City  Opera, and The Royal Opera of Covent Garden.

The long second act, which showcased Morris’s operatic ties, was met with less enthusiasm.  The long operatic ballet,  SOCRATES, was set to three movements of Erik Satie’s suite, “Socrate.” 

As tenor Zach Finkelstein proficiently sang in French, accompanied by Colin Fowler at the piano,  dancers, dressed as traditional Greek statues, enacted segments of the Greek free-will philosopher’s  life, concluding with his imposed death.

As Finkelstein sang, the words were translated into English on a smallish screen near the top of the Palace Theatre’s huge proscenium arch.  It was impossible to read the translations and watch the dancers far below, causing a definite disconnect.  To add to the disconnect, the actions on stage, though well danced,  did not enact the story line.   As one audience member said, “After a while I just gave up on reading and watched the dancers, but that didn’t help as I couldn’t figure out the story.”  Muted applause greeted the final curtain.

Capsule judgement:  Mark Morris Dance Group’s first Cleveland appearance in five years was a mixed bag.  After pleasing the audience with a delightful first act, the tone switched drastically in the second half, which though well presented, was tedious. 

Next up for Dance Cleveland, on May 2, 3 and 4 at the Allen Theatre, is LUCKY PLUSH, billed as ”One of the most accessible exercises in modern dance you’ll ever see.” 

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Well done NEXT TO NORMAL at Beck

There is a recent trend for Cleveland area professional theatres to couple with local university drama programs.  Cleveland Play House has married itself to both Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve’s MFA programs.  Cleveland Public Theatre and Oberlin College have such an agreement.  The connection between Beck Center and Baldwin Wallace’s nationally ranked musical theatre program, has resulted in not only allowing BW students to appear on a professional stage, and the expansion of the acting pool for Beck, but the production several top notch shows.

Last year Beck-BW parlayed to produce the mesmerizing SPRING AWAKENING, which received The Cleveland Critics Circle—2012 best musical production award, and garnered Victoria Bussert recognition as the best director of a musical.  This year, Bussert, again is staging a winner with NEXT TO NORMAL, which stars former and present BW students and a university faculty member. 

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. 

It won three 2009 Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 
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 been diagnosed as having 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 early in her marriage.  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.

The play brings up many questions, questions usually presented in a dramatic, rather than musical form.  Yorkey’s book is so well developed that the singing enhances the actions, rather than being an interlude from the development of the dramatic tension.  Questions include:  Is being happy the same as happiness?  Is there a way to treat mental illnesses?  Is losing one’s memory good or bad?  Can someone put mind over matter and succeed in controlling psychotic instances?  Is mental illness in the brain or in the soul?

NEXT TO NORMAL is the type of show that Bussert does best…quirky, compelling, requiring creativity and strong talent.  The script and her cast are up for the requirements.  The singing voices are marvelous, the acting is generally of high quality, the pacing is excellent, the show’s meaning shines clearly.

Highlight numbers include “He’s Not Here,” “I Am the One,” “How Could I Ever Forget,” “It’s Gonna Be Good,” and “I’m Alive.”

Chris McCarrell, a BW senior, displays a strong singing voice and totally inhabits the role of Gabe, the son.  With his boyish good looks and performance abilities he is Broadway ready!  He is a physical and talent flashback to Rex Nockingust, a BW grad who went to NY and took over the lead in THE FANTASTICS.  (Too bad the role of PIPPIN in the Broadway revival is already cast.)

Katherine DeBoer generally has a nice grasp on the role of the mentally ill Diana, making her a real person with overwhelming psychological issues.  Her singing voice is strong, her lyric interpretations excellent. 

Suspending Diana from the set during the Electro Convulsive Therapy scene, rather than placing her on an operating room table, created an interesting conundrum.  Was she supposed to be a symbol of psychiatric crucifixion, a victim of mental health S&M, or was this a necessity caused by the set design?

Scott Plate is impressive as the emotionally stifled, yet well meaning Dan, Diana’s husband.  He has a fine voice and sings meanings not just words, thus creating dialogue out of lyrics.

Caroline Murrah creates in daughter Natalie a confused, obsessive teenager, desperate for love and acceptance.  Though her voice is strident at times, her overall song interpretation is good.

Phil Carroll is spot on as both Dr. Madden, Diane’s rock star psychiatrist and Dr. Fine, a traditional mental health professional.  As with the others in the cast, his singing voice is excellent.

Ellis Dawson, who sings well, stays on the surface as Henry, Natalie’s boyfriend.  It’s hard to accept him as a real person.

Jeff Herrman has created a stage design of wooden scaffolding which, while attractive and properly symbolic (hundreds of prescription bottles decorate the set), makes for some awkward staging.  The actors are constantly ducking under the second level, which distracts from the action. 

Nancy Maier’s band is excellent, backing up rather than drowning out the very important lyrics.

David Zody’s choreography generally worked, but was overly obvious and repetitive in the convulsive therapy segment.

Though the sound system worked well, one must question why in this very small theatre, where no patron is more than five rows away from the stage, and the cast having trained voices, microphones were needed.  The electronic sound distracted from the reality of the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: NEXT TO NORMAL, a combined Beck Center and Baldwin Wallace University production, is well done.  This is the type of show that should result in sold out houses.
NEXT TO NORMAL is scheduled to run through April 21 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or http://www.beckcenter.org