Saturday, October 31, 2015

TALL SKINNY CRUEL CRUEL BOYS--Theater Ninja offers a thought-provoking scare-treat

Theater Ninjas, which bills itself as “the Food Truck of Cleveland Theater” due to its having no permanent home, but relishes its nomadic pattern of trying out “new and exciting spaces to perform,” is noted for rethinking what theater can be.  According to its Artistic Director, Jeremy Paul, the theater is “committed to making our region and our home a better place to live.”  The theater’s newest attempt to achieve its goal is a production of Cleveland native Caroline V. McGraw’s TALL SKINNY CRUEL CRUEL BOYS.

Paul and McGraw are long time friends.  They have known each other since high school.  When Paul acknowledges, “She was an incredible writer . . . and as we’ve both begun working in theater, I’ve occasionally asked her if she’s written any plays that would be good for Theater Ninjas.  With its dark humor, monsters and rhythmic, brutal language, TALL SKINNY CRUEL CRUEL BOYS is the perfect play for us.”  He goes on to state, “I’m honored to be able to produce the first professional production of Caroline’s work in her hometown.”

Yes, the script is a perfect fit for the Ninjas.  Paul and his artistic staff tend to pick plays or create stagings which stretch the limits and challenge the audience.  This is a thinking person’s theater in every sense of the word.  McGraw is their kind of writer.   TALL SKINNY CRUEL CRUEL BOYS is the odd-quasi-surrealistic play that should excite their niche audience.

Though the two-act script sometimes gets lost in its lack of a clear focus, and misses out on a clear dénouement, it does have its effect.

Brandy is a highly in-demand clown-artist who plys her craft on the children’s birthday party beat.  She’s a clown that not only entertains the kids, but their cheating fathers and teenage brothers with her sex acts.  She is a complicated woman who has demons in her life, including the monster who sleeps under her bed and rips and claws at her each night.  Is the “monster” real or a figment of Brandy’s guilt-ridden imagination?  Are the scars on her body the result of the “monster” or self-mutilation? 

Besides her own issues, Brandy has to deal with Reverb, a would-be clown collaborator.  Is he a stalker or a potential business partner?  Then there is Jack, a high school swimmer who shares Brandy’s bed on a regular basis.  Did she seduce him or is he a willing participant?  His girlfriend confronts Brandy.  Is she too, going to become a victim of the clown’s games?  Adding to the complications are the questions of what to do with the father she met at one of her clowning gigs who follows her to a gambling resort?  And what is to become of her constant liaisons with the mother from another of her birthday appearances?

Paul states, “A clown has to live in the same world you do, and this is why it can be so powerful:  clowns are honest. No lies.  No hiding.  Just simple human connection.” 

Paul requests, ”Please:  don’t be scared.”  Sorry Mr. director.  Brandy, with or without her make-up, costume and red rubber nose, is plenty scary!  And there are many Brandys out there, troubled people who ply on the weaknesses and desires of others, with or without their permission:  Priests and teachers who practice pedophilia;  a restaurant spokesperson who trades in child porn;  sexual predators on college campuses who don’t understand the need for “consent;”  drive-by shooters who don’t respect the lives of others.  “Brandy” and her duplicates do their part to make this a scary world.

The Ninja production is creatively staged and well-acted.  The intimate 50-seat theater space makes for an up-close-and-personal experience.

Though her clown act could be more creative and involving, Rachel Lee Kolis effectively develops the role of Brandy.   Bryon Tobin nicely textures the role of Jack, the high school student who has fallen under Brandy’s spell.  Valerie C. Kilmer is believable as Tash, Jack’s girlfriend.  Val Kozlenko is properly menacing as The Un, the under-the-bed “monster.”  Lauren Joy Fraley nicely fleshes out the pathetic Nina, a hanger-on from a Brandy gig.  Ryan Lucas does what he can with the vaguely written part of Reverb.

Eric M. C. Gonzalez’s original music helps underscore the plot development, and Susan Rothmann’s creation of the creature and puppets helps create the appropriate illusions.  Ben Gantose adds the right eeriness with his lighting.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Though not for everyone, TALL SKINNY CRUEL CRUEL BOYS will be a positive experience for those who like “thinking” person’s theater.  It also makes for a positive Halloween season scare-treat.  What’s hiding under your bed?

TALL SKINNY CRUEL CRUEL BOYS runs through November 14, 2015 at Near West Lofts, 6706 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland.  For tickets go to

Please vote for Issue 8--which supports Cuyahoga County's Arts & Culture sector and is NOT A TAX INCREASE.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Meticulously written, directed and performed THE CALL at Dobama

Tanya Barfield, author of THE CALL, which is now on stage at Dobama Theatre, didn’t want to write the play.  She stated in a December, 2012 interview, “Without realizing what I was doing, I pointedly and stubbornly refused. . . What I knew—what I was known for—were plays about the African-American experience through history.  I did not want to write a contemporary play, a play close to me, a play about adoption.”

She went on to say, “THE CALL is about adoption, yes.  It’s about race, midlife, Africa and marriage.  It’s also about taking a leap, as terrifying as it may be.  It’s about stepping outside your comfort zone and committing to something bigger than yourself.  It’s about recognizing the power of change and then actually doing it.  About being an active member of society—the global society—and improving upon it.  It’s about hearing the call to be something more, and then taking that call.  As uncomfortable as it may be.  I didn’t want to write this play.  But I’m certainly glad I did.”

From the comments heard following the opening night at Dobama, the assemblage certainly agreed.  Discussions ranged from the way the play ended, to the topics it contained, to the quality of the production.

What was all the fuss about?

Tanya Barfield is one of a new breed of contemporary playwrights who writes  well-crafted plays with naturalistic language.  The plays have a clear theme.  They have a structure of beginning, middle and end that exposes the audience to the topic at the start of the show, develops the conflicts and potential resolutions as the play goes along, and revisits the topic and resolves it at the end. 

The language is real.  The format reflects actual communication patterns.  Speeches overlap, language reflects modern day usage.  It’s like listening in on a family dinner, a friendship get-together.  The humor is natural, the emotional reactions real. 

The performers don’t act, they are actual living people, not created beings.  No feigning or “drama” here, the people are real, discussing real issues in real ways.

The topics in THE CALL reflect Barfield.  A bi-racial gay woman, raised in a loving home by a Caucasian mother and an African-American step dad, she always felt that “from the time I was a baby, ‘political’ was stamped on my forehead and became the fabric of my identity.” 

In THE CALL, Annie and Peter, a young White American married couple, have been trying for years to become pregnant.  Their natural and artificial attempts have led to no positive outcome, leaving Annie emotionally on edge.  They decide to adopt.  After much soul-searching, they set their sights on an African child, no more than eighteen-months old.   That way, they aid a child in need, get to form the child’s psyche, and avoid dealing with detachment disorder and the re-teaching of language and cultural attitudes.

Their friends, Rebecca and Drea, African American lesbians, based on their visit to Africa and life experiences, encourage the decision. The women even offer to help the couple by doing the child’s hair, thus avoiding the ”nappy-I-got-white parents hair” syndrome. 

Peter and Rebecca have known each other for a period of time as her now deceased brother and Peter once volunteered together in Africa.

As the couple works through the adoption bureaucracy, Annie is still recovering from depression from the years of miscarriages, fertility drugs and in-vitro-fertilization.  After the excitement of finally hearing that their adoption has been approved, complications enter when the child offered doesn’t fit their age requirements.

A series of confrontations with Rebecca and Drea, the revelation of the process of Rebecca’s brother’s death, and a young African moving in next door, who reveals vital information, add further wrinkles to the tale.

As evidenced by the buzz following the show, the conclusion should incite much conversation. 

Matthew Wright has meticulously directed the Dobama production.  Every aspect of the show is clearly articulated in design and performance.  The naturalistic writing style is adhered to, the entire play is realistic in sound and visual presentation.

The cast is perfection.  Ursula Cataan develops an Annie who is on-edge, hopeful, frustrated, and real.  She isn’t performing a role, she is Annie!

Area newcomer, Abraham Adams, is a welcome addition to the local stable of young and talented actors.  His textured development of Peter makes the character into a sensitive, intelligent man who wants to support his wife, but also has needs of his own that must be deal with.  The scene in which he tells Rebecca the “real” tale of her brother’s death is heart-wrenching.

Carly Germany, as has come to be expected from this talented actress, is character perfect as Rebecca.  Her love for Drea, her bitterness toward her brother’s death, her attempts to cover stress with humor, are all well developed.

Corlesia Smith has a wonderful way with humor.  She doesn’t force it, it just comes naturally.  Using vocal tonations, facial expressions and body language, she keys and emphasizes the right attitude to get the desired responses.  Her Drea provides the needed interjection of humor into what could be a drama-heavy script.

Nathan Lilly effectively creates in Alemu, the new African neighbor, a pivotal character whose presence makes a major impact on the play’s dénouement. 

Laura Carlson Tarantowski creates a series of sets on the small Dobama stage that helps create the proper mood for the play’s setting and actions.  Yesenia Real-Rivera’s props help flesh out the needed reality.  Zachary Hickle’s costume designs are era and character correct.  The mood of the play is set from the start by the use of African-style music as the curtain-raiser and scene bridges.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  THE CALL is one of those special theatrical performances that encourages thinking and contemplation, while adding just enough humor to avoid depression.  The topic is contemporary, the script is meticulously written, the production well staged, the acting of the highest level.  This is a must see production!

THE CALL runs through November 15, 2015 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.

Dobama’s next show is PETER AND THE STARCATCHER from December 4 through January 5, 2015.  Tickets for the show are selling quickly.  If you intend to attend, call for seats now.  To read my review of The Shaw Festivals’ production of the show, go to

Friday, October 23, 2015

What is THE HAPPY SAD at convergence continuum?

Tyson Douglas Rand, director of THE HAPPY SAD now in production at convergence-continuum, in his program notes for the show, states, “What is THE HAPPY SAD?  Well…it’s a play with music – but it’s not a musical.  It’s a funny play about romance and relationships – but it’s NOT a romantic comedy.”  He goes on to state, “It’s not a series of problems and solutions.  It is a journey of discovery.”

Rand’s explanation points out both the strengths and weaknesses of Ken Urban’s script.

The play centers on seven New York twenty-somethings in a cross-section of what they refer to as “relationships.”  That is, if relationship means bouncing from bed to bed with various people, many of whom seem in sexual confusion as to whether they are straight, gay, bisexual, or monogamous.  Or, who are in open “relationships.” Or, who are in angst-filled connections.

Annie is “going with” Stan, but she breaks up to go with David, has a fling with Alice, and comes back to Stan.  Maybe.  Stan spends a lot of time watching porn, questioning his sexuality, and has first-time male sex with Marcus who he found in a Chat Room.  Marcus and Aaron are in a “committed relationship,” but both have sex with others.  David and Annie are together, then apart, then he hooks up with someone else, has a breakdown, tries to drown himself in a fish tank, goes into rehab.  These connections go on and on…

Yes, this is a play with music:  “If You Could,” “The Greeting Card Song,” “Lost at Sea,” “Let There Be Time,” and “All My Days.”  (They can be heard and downloaded at

The question is, What purpose do the songs fulfill?  They don’t fit neatly into the flow of the play and push the plot along, or give us a clear insight into the motives of the characters.  In fact, the goings-on are interrupted by what the show’s publisher advertises as, “Magical moments when we see the inner lives of the characters.” The songs are pleasant enough, but they don’t seem to accomplish the intended goal.

There are some funny moments, some tender moments; but, more than not, these are a series of snapshot scenes of needy people.  Why should we care about them?

The play ends, much like it began, with questions about what any of the characters learned in their probes to find out “what accommodations people make to hold them together.”

The con-con director and cast have given the script a better production than it probably deserves.  The pacing is good and each actor develops a consistent characterization.  There are some highlight scenes and tender moments.

The opening segment in which Annie (Hillary Wheelock) breaks up with confused Stan (Nate Miller), who has just brought her flowers and a drawing she likes as a token of his affection, is delightful.  It gives us hope for what might be coming.

The scene in which Marcus (Ryan Edlinger) and Aaron (Jack Matuszewski) speak to each other on their cells from different rooms in their apartment creates a tender moment where their relationship seems ready to move to a new level of connectedness.

A section of chaos, when all the characters converge on one another in a NY subway stop, is nicely staged and illustrates the interlinking nature of their relationships. 

Too bad Urban didn’t write more scenes like these and clearly connect them.

Attractive Hillary Wheelock is excellent as Annie, a teacher who doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of who or what she wants from life.  Her nude sex scene with Stan is convincing.

Nate Miller, he of puppy dog eyes and gym-developed body which he shows off numerous times, is properly confused as Stan.

Ryan Edlinger nicely creates a Marcus who seems to have a rudder to steer him through life, but doesn’t appear ready to be either in a relationship with Aaron, or a relationship at all. 

Jack Matuszewski is properly insecure as Aaron.  Ellie St. Cyr nicely develops the role of Mandy, a teacher with a conflicted family history. 

Monica Zach effectively textures her portrayal as Alice, a lesbian in search of “something.”  Ryan Christopher Mayer’s character of David is weakly written, leaving the audience unclear about why he “loses it” during a stand-up comedy act.  His dive into the fish tank was properly upsetting and laugh-invoking. Mayer does the best he can with the lines he is given.

Capsule Judgement:  Con-con straddled itself with a weakly developed script that leaves the director and the actors fighting for dramatic credibility.  In spite of this, some nicely textured performances, and some creative directing renders an acceptable theatrical production.
THE HAPPY SAD runs through October 24, 2015 at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood.  For information and reservations go to or call 216-687-0074

Next up at con-con is BOB:  A LIFE IN FIVE ACTS, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s comic story of Bob, born and abandoned in a fast food restaurant restroom and how he embarks on an epic journey in search of the American Dream.  The Cleveland premiere runs November 20-December 19, 2015.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Farcical BAT BOY THE MUSICAL is a blood-sucking “hoot” at Blank Canvas

In June 23, 1992, if you believed the supermarket tabloid, “Weekly World News,” you’d have accepted that a “large-eyed, fanged human child” was found in a southern West Virginia cave. 

According to the now defunct tabloid, their story was factual.  The “half human, half bat” was examined and confirmed by scientists and US government officials. It was reported that the original scientist who found him was “Dr. Ronald Diller.”  The existence of the bat boy was “confirmed by Matthew Daemon, S.O.S. (Seeker of Subcultural Supernaturals.)”  Several times the creature was captured but managed to escape so he couldn’t be viewed by the general public.

“The original front-page photo of the bat boy, showing his grotesque screaming face, was the second-best selling issue in the tabloid’s history” and has since evolved into a pop-culture icon.

As it turns out, the story was concocted by the tabloid’s editor, but the urban legend does not cease.  According to various sources, “Bat Boy,” as he is now officially known, has evolved from a 2-foot, nineteen pound boy to a five-foot tall  “animal person.”  He ran for California governor in 2003.  In October, 2008, he endorsed John McCain for President, but in the course of the election cycle, he switched to Barack Obama.  In November, 2008, Bat Boy allegedly was seen protesting the passage of California’s Proposition 8.

In 1997, the Bat Boy became observable when he emerged as the leading character in BAT BOY, THE MUSICAL.  The music and lyrics are by Laurence O’Keefe, with  book by Brian Flemming and Keythe Farley. 

An off-Broadway production ran from mid-March until early December of 2001 and won the Lucile Lortel Award for best Off-Broadway musical.

The musical has the Bat Boy learning to speak, thanks to his adoptive family.  He yearns to be like other humans, suffers hatred and violence from the local town folk, is the victim of jealous rage, and comes to a tragic end.

The story begins when three teenage spelunkers discover Bat Boy in a cave.  One of the teens, Ruth, is bitten by the “thing.”  Eventually, Bat Boy is captured, and taken to the home of Dr. Parker, the local veterinarian, while Ruthie is admitted into the hospital. 

The doctor’s wife, Meredith, takes a liking to the creature and is determined to transfer Edgar, the name given him by Meredith and her daughter, Shelley, into a well-mannered human.  Aided by British English audio tapes, Edgar not only learns to speak with a British accent, but to control his bat urges. 

Meredith and Shelley are  unaware that Dr. Parker has been feeding Edgar blood, the only food source Bat Boy can absorb, thus keeping him in a bat-like state.

The townspeople are concerned because their cows keep dying off.  When Ruthie dies, after being given poison by Dr. Parker, who is jealous of the attention Edgar is getting from Meredith and Shelley, the town turns on Edgar as the cause of their problems.

Shelley, in the meantime, has fallen in love with Edgar, and the duo, with the guidance of Pan, the Greek god of the wild, have a sexual liaison.  When Meredith finds out about the relationship, she reveals a closely guarded secret about Edgar’s identity.

Chaos results and, much like any tragedy, even farcical ones, the play ends with the stage littered with dead bodies. 

The musical, which is a fantasy-farce, does contain some serious themes, including prejudice being shown toward those who are different, the effects of rumor-mongering, the consequence of seeking revenge, and the power of scapegoating.

Director Patrick Ciamacco has a way with staging the bizarre.  BAT BOY is his cup of tea.  Okay, cup of blood.  The goings-on are a “hoot.” 

The cast plays for reality, a requirement for making farce work.  They allow the audience to laugh at the outlandishness of the material.  The cross-dressing, a highlight device of some of Ciamacco’s shows, works to add to the ridiculousness. 

Slight, compact Pat Miller is outstanding as Bat Boy (Edgar).  Complete with fanged teeth and eerie contact lenses, he prowls, hangs from the rafters, attacks, and sucks blood with compelling ease.  He has an excellent singing voice and creates a completely believable character.

Amiee Collier uses her fine acting to develop Meridith as a compassionate but frustrated woman.  She displays a well-trained singing voice. 

Brian Altman sings admirably and makes playing evil look easy as the despicable Dr. Parker.  Stephanie Harden has a nice singing voice and does a fine transition, taking Shelley from a hater to a lover of Edgar.

The rest of the cast are quite convincing in their portrayals.

Highlight musical numbers include “A Home for You,” “Show You a Thing or Two,” “Let Me Walk Among You,” and “Inside Your Heart.”  The explosive choreography for “A Joyful Noise” made it a showstopper.

Katie Zarecki’s choreography was generally creative.  Jenniver Sporano’s costumes, Cory Molner’s lighting, Noah Hrbek’s animations, and PJ Toomey’s special effects all added considerably to the production.

Lawrence Wallace and his band (Rachel Woods, Ernie Molner, Zach Davis and Jason Stebelton) played well and generally do a nice job of underscoring, rather than overpowering the performers. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: BAT BOY, THE MUSICAL is a farcical show, which gets an entertaining production at Blank Canvas under the creative direction of Pat Ciamacco. To truly appreciate the show you have to go with the attitude that you are going to put aside reality and have a fun-filled time. It’s worth seeing the show, if for no other reason, to observe the wonderful character development by Pat Miller as the Bat Boy.
BAT BOY THE MUSICAL runs through October 31, 2015 in Blank Canvas’s near west side theatre, located at 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211.  Get directions to the theatre on the website.  Once you arrive, go around the first wing of the building to find the entrance, enter, and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  For tickets and directions go to

Blank Canvas’s next show is REEFER MADNESS (December 4-19, 2015), a raucous musical comedy based on the 1936 cult film of the same name.  As the production’s advertisement says, “It will go straight to your head!”

Please vote for Issue 8--which supports Cuyahoga County's Arts & Culture sector and is NOT A TAX INCREASE.  The continuance of your local theatre’s and other arts providers depends on this.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Cesear’s Forum’s THE INVESTIGATION is an excruciating personal experience

As the actors lined up for the curtain call of Cesear’s Forum’s THE INVESTIGATION, Peter Weiss’s play about the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials of 1963-65, I was on an emotional trip far, far way.

The summer of 1959 found me in England, the Scandinavian countries, Russia, and Poland on an international exchange program.  On July 29, based on the request I had made, our white Volkswagen bus, with its ten passengers, pulled into the city square in Lomza, Poland.  Lomza, Poland, the “shtetl” in which my mother, had been born, and she, her mother, her aunt and uncles, and my great-grandparents had left in 1908.  My grandfather fled from the army in 1904, had come to America, made enough money to bring over his child, wife and in-laws.  Left behind was his extensive Orthodox Jewish family.

By some act of serendipity, Paul, my interpreter, found a man whose father had been the caretaker for my grandfather’s family.  The man took us to the place where the family home, the yeshiva (a training school for rabbis which had been founded by my great-uncle), and the synagogue had stood before the war.  He related that a few of the family had left for the United States before the wars, another small group had left for Israel, but the majority had been “taken away.” 

Several hours later I was at Auschwitz.  The concentration camp had not yet been “sanitized” and made to look like a museum, as it did 20 years later when I returned.  It still smelled of burned bodies, the barracks had not been painted to make them look like summer camp dorms, and the hair, shoes, and suitcases of the dead had not yet been placed into their air tight storage chambers. 

I walked through a corridor emblazoned with the names of the cities, towns, and “shtetls” from which the Jews, Gypsies, Gays and political prisoners had been brought to this place of murder.  There, clearly etched, was the title, “Lomza.”  Below were lists of names of those who had been murdered at this horrible place.  All of a sudden, the words, “they had been taken away” struck horrible reality.  (Many years later, after an extensive search, I ascertained that well over 100 of my relatives were victims of the Nazi cleansing.)

As I sat in my seat at the conclusion of THE INVESTIGATION, even though the actors (Tricia Bestic, Brian Bowers, Zach Griffin, Michael Johnson, John Kolibab, Michel Regnier, Jeanne Task, Valerie Young and Lee Mackey) deserved my accolades, I could not applaud.  How do you applaud the deeds of liars, murders and inhumanity?  I was emotionally drained.

As for this review,  I could comment on the overly long script, the distracting movement of chairs, the inappropriate attempts at humor by the pre-performance cleaner of the stage and comments he made which were off-setting for the mood and intent of this script, and the meaningless and ridiculous singing act, insulting to the memory of the dead, which also preceded the actual play. But, in reality, though off-setting, none of these are totally relevant. 

I could praise Max Bruno the superb violinist who played inter-scene musical bridges, and the “chutzpa” (courage) of Greg Cesear in picking a script of a story that must be told, but is so upsetting that it may not attract large audiences. 

What is most relevant to me is that the audience, the night I saw the show, was populated by  a large contingent of high school-aged students.  If they learned of the horrors of the Holocaust, then it was worth my personal angst.  If the people in the fourteen West and East German cities where the play was premiered in October of 1965 learned of the horror they and their countrymen had participated in and swore to never do such deeds again, then the play achieved its purpose.  If Holocaust deniers and those who are not fully aware of the horrors that were perpetuated see the show, then that, too, would make the writer, the cast, and the director’s time worth while.

Capsule judgement:  My ride home after Cesear’s Forum’s THE INVESTIGATION was done in silence.  I sit here now, trying to write a review, with welled eyes.  Oh, the inhumanity of man.  
For tickets to THE INVESTIGATION, through November 14 in Kennedy’s Down Under, call 216-241-6000 or   The theatre is entered from the lobby of the Ohio Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.

Please vote for Issue 8--which supports Cuyahoga County's Arts & Culture sector and is NOT A TAX INCREASE.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Mesmerizing production of Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE at Cleveland Play House

Arthur Miller, the author of THE CRUCIBLE, which is now in production at the Cleveland Play House’s Outcalt Theatre, was one of the most important modern American playwrights.  Credited with being the developer of the contemporary definition of the American tragedy, he would have been 100 this year.  Ironically, this is CPH’s one-hundreth birthday, as well.

Miller’s plays, such as ALL MY SONS, DEATH OF A SALESMAN and VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE often appear on lists of the finest modern English language scripts, along with LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (Eugene O’Neil) and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (Tennessee Williams.)

Miller, noted as a moralist, asked in his writings, “Is this the best way to live?”

In THE CRUCIBLE, Miller writes of the Salem witch trials in 1692 and 1693, but, in reality he is alluding to the McCarthy-era witch hunt for Communists.  Like the Salem times, McCarthyism was based on gossip, innuendo, and fanaticism.

The country in the late 1940s was in a frenzy over communism.  In 1947, The House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings into “red” influence in the arts, specifically in Hollywood’s motion picture industry.  People called before the committee were often ostracized as the result of the hearings.  Among others, those blacklisted were Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, and Paul Robeson.

Arthur Miller was subpoenaed to appear before the committee in 1957.  Miller asked that he not be required to reveal names.  The panel agreed.  He revealed his political activities, but then the chair asked him to identify others who had carried out similar actions.  The minutes of the hearing state that Miller said, “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.” 

As a result of his stand, Miller was found guilty of contempt of Congress, sentenced to a $500 fine or thirty days in prison, blacklisted and disallowed a US passport.  In 1958 his conviction was overturned because Miller had been misled by the chairman of the HUAC.

The strain of his experience brought about changes in his attitudes and work.  The first play to reflect this was THE CRUCIBLE in which he uses the writing device identified as “historification,” in which the author writes about a historical event to lay the foundational comparison for the modern message of the play.  

The script illustrates Miller’s expanded concern for the physical and psychological well being of people, especially the working class. 

THE CRUCIBLE is set in the Puritan New England town of Salem, Massachusetts.  A group of teen girls are caught by Reverend Parris, a local minister, dancing in the woods.  In order to cover up for their misdeed, Abigail Williams, the group’s ringleader, hatches a cover up.  The girls swear that they were taken over by the devil.  The hysteria grows and many lies, rumors and innuendos fester, resulting in a search for  witches and those possessed by the devil, including the local midwife, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Proctor, and her husband, John Proctor, a man who Abigail has had sexual relations with and still desires. 

An “expert” on witchcraft, Reverend John Hale, is brought in.  At first he believes the girls’ stories, then he recants when the circumstantial evidence is obviously false and results in over a dozen hangings and stonings. 

Abigail, caught in her lies, steals money and runs away.  Hale attempts to plea with the survivors to admit their guilt and save themselves.  Many, including John Procter refuse. 

Proctor’s concluding speech has become a classic model for standing up for one’s principals.  He verbally admits his sins, but then refuses to sign his name to the document which will be hung on the church’s door.  Why?  “Because it is my name!  Because I cannot have another in my life!  Because I lie and sign myself to lies!  How may I live without my name?  I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”  He is taken to the gallows. 

In the end, the witch trials, as were the McCarthy hearings many years later, are proven to have been injudicious.

The play is filled with themes including that of intolerance.   Dissent in that theocratic society was unlawful.  And, as the head of the court states, “a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it.”  That sentiment is parallel to McCarthy-era belief that if someone did not cooperate with the “court” they were guilty of being a communist or a communist conspirator.

Hysteria is another theme.  Hysteria tears the community apart.  Again, much like during the “witch hunts” of the HUAC, by creating fear from the results of being castigated by the committee, the right wing caused hysteria and won control.

Other themes include the roles of reputation, empowerment, accusations,  confessions and paranoia.  The latter can clearly be seen in America in the 1950s, with the excessive zeal and disregard for the rights and reputations of individuals. 

The oft-stressed Miller question of “Is this the right way to live?” becomes paramount in understanding why he wrote the play.

The CPH production, under the direction of Laura Kepley, is mesmerizing. Choosing to the do the play in the Outcalt Theatre, with its theatre-in-the-round stage, was a stroke of genius.  Forcing the audience to be close to the action, with no place to psychologically hide, makes the uncomfortable actions of the court and the hysteria of the characters vivid.  Here is yet another reason why abandoning the theater’s old building and its three proscenium stages was a wise decision by the Play House board.

Though some may complain that because of the theatre-in-the round staging, some lines were lost.  This argument pales, in my opinion, when acknowledging the emotional impact on the viewer of the breaking of the emotional third wall and forcing close-up-and-personal participant in the production.

The cast is universally excellent.  It was nice to see a blend of local and national professionals joining together on the CPH stage. 

Some of the local performers, who clearly developed meaningful major roles include Donald Carrier as Reverend Parris, the paranoid, self-pitying, egotistical church leader who was one of the leaders of the witch-hunt, Dorothy Silver, the first lady of Cleveland theater, as Rebecca Nurse, the wise, sensible, upright woman who was willing to give her life for her reputation, Tracee Patterson, as Ann Putnam, who lost seven children in childbirth and is the main accuser of Rebecca Nurse, Fabio Polanco as Thomas Putnam, who uses the witchcraft trials to cheaply buy the land of those who have been convicted, and Chuck Richie, as Francis Nurse, the husband of Rebecca Nurse.  

Other cast standouts are Ben Mehl, who creates in Reverend John Hale, a character whose gradual transition from accuser to denier is completely believable.  John Herrera is totally convincing as the high minded deputy governor.  Rachel Leslie is correctly compassionate as Elizabeth Proctor.  Mahira Kakkar is compelling as Mary Warren, who helps reveal the trickery by Abigail and the other girls.   Esau Pritchett gives an impressive and finely textured performance as John Proctor.

Kudos to the local school students and members of the CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program who helped enhance the production.

Lex Liang’s costume designs, which mixed 1700 with 20th century styles and fabrics, helped create the reality needed for the authenticity of the past but with the spotlight on the near-present. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting added to the grotesqueness of the happenings  Scott Bradley’s multi-sets helped develop clear spaces for what was happening.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  THE CRUCIBLE is an important American classic which gets a fine production at CPH under the directorship of Laura Kepley.  There are important lessons to be gained from seeing this script.  It is doubtful that local audiences will get another opportunity to see a better staging.  This is a definite must be seen!!

THE CRUCIBLE runs through November 8, 2015 at the Outcalt Theatre in Allen Complex of PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Shakespeare’s epic tragic KING LEAR at GLT is a moving experience

In his program notes for Great Lakes Theater’s production, director Joseph Hanreddy states, “KING LEAR, with its titanic range of emotional, vast physical landscape, dark ironic humor and snarl of mysteries, contradictions, ambiguity and paradoxes, render it one of the theater’s greatest challenges to realize in performance.”  To his credit, Hanreddy creates a production which lives up to the challenge. 

He develops a staging that clearly showcases how, “every character from monarch to lunatic beggar, is set on a struggle for sanity and survival in a ravaged kingdom.”

The story centers on Lear, an aging King of Britain, who takes the bold move of abandoning the throne and plans to divide the land he owns between his  three daughters.  In an act of ego, he requests each of his children to tell him how much she loves him.  The oldest two, the conniving Goneril and Regan, both give grandiose flattery.  The youngest, Cordelia, his favorite, refuses to play the game and states she has not words to describe her love.  Lear, misunderstanding her intent, disowns Cordelia, leaving her unmarried and penniless. 

This turn of events starts Lear into a downward spiral toward despair and a mental breakdown, causes intrapersonal, inter-family and inter-country conflict.  Goneril and Regan fight for power, Lear flees to a heath during a great thunderstorm, accompanied by his Fool and Kent, a loyal nobleman.  As happens in Shakespeare tragedies, all does not end well. 

Filled with such motifs as the role of political authority, family dynamics, mental instability, betrayal, betrayers who turn against each other, reconciliation, and blindness (real and figurative), KING LEAR is a brutal play filled with human cruelty, madness and death.  It asks, “Can there be justice in the world?”  The answer is a terrifying uncertainty as the evil Goneril, Edmund and Regan die, but so does the good (Cordelia). 

The script has one of the most tragic endings in all of literature.  At the final curtain, the stage is littered with dead bodies, and no clear “winner” emerges in the life conflict.

The play is character and author driven.  Shakespeare defined Elizabethan tragedy.  Such plays as HAMLET, OTHELLO, MACBETH and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA follow his pattern.  The tragic hero must be of high status, he must have a flaw, must cause the central conflict of the play, he must become aware of his flaw, and he and/or the families, and the political structure must be destroyed.

Lear’s basic flaw is his valuing appearance above reality and flattering words over true love.  Though Lear finally understands Cordelia’s love and tries to save her, his efforts are too little and too late.  He does become a humble and caring individual, but is incapable of regaining his throne and reigning again as a powerful and respected king.  His family and country are left in chaos as a result of his actions.

An examination of the play’s major characters aid in understanding the plot.  Cordelia is a devoted, kind, honest beauty who, in contrast to her sisters Goneril and Regan, who are neither honest nor loving, refuses to manipulate her father for personal gain.  She becomes a victim to a heartless and unjust world.

Hanreddy’s directing centers on his taking a classic play and giving it present day interpreting, without changing the language.  Though the dress is updated, it’s clearly a Shakespearean era tale, but with modern sensibility.   It is amazing how the Bard, before the development of modern psychology, was capable of crafting many characters who fit into the present day classifications of modern mental illness, complete with the cultural underpinnings of those societal deviances.

The GLT production is well acted and nicely paced.  From the “impending doom music, to the serving of Kentucky Fried Chicken during the dinner following hunting, the technical aspects were visually and emotionally outstanding. 

Martha Hally’s costumes set the proper modern/traditional moods. Paul Miller’s lighting created storms and illusions that build the ever maddening mood. Sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen effectively assaulted the ears during the storm scenes.  Linda Buchanan created a set which looked imposing and solid with large panels of opaque material set inside sliding doors.  As Lear disintegrated so did the set.

Unfortunately, the Friday evening I saw the show, just as the action was racing toward its stormy climax, an announcement informed us that there was a technical issue and there would be a five-minute pause.  Several minutes into the void, two large pillars, center stage, fell dramatically, creating a mighty roar. It can only be assumed that these were to fall as the lightening and thunder roared and Lear descended into further mental angst and psychological destruction.  Of course, the pause took much of the power out of the final scene. 

The performances were excellent.  Aled Davies built the character of Lear through texturing and nuance, so that his ride from monarch to madness was like a roller coaster ride with highs and lows, and a minimum of over dramatization, which is a tendency of many actors who play the role.

Laura Perrotta and Robyn Cohen were evil incarnate as Goneril and Regan, Lear’s oldest daughters.  They are matched in their wickedness by Dustin Tucker, as the Duke of Cornwall, Regan’s husband, and Jonathan Dyrud as Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son who is a Machiavellian character willing to do anything to gain land and power.  Edmund has many of the characteristics of Shakespeare’s other clever and evil villains, such as Iago in OTHELLO.

Cassandra Bissell realistically developed Cordelia, Lear’s youngest daughter, as compassionate and well intentioned who, even in banishment, does not reject her father.  

The scene in which The Earl of Gloucester’s eyes are plucked out by Cornwall is often over-done, causing much audience repulsion.  As masterfully performed by David Anthony Smith, with the aid of some effective special makeup effects, the scene was agonizing, but not repulsive.

Tom Ford nicely develops Lear’s Fool into a figure of both humor and compassion.
Capsule judgement:   As he emerges from prison carrying Cordelia’s body, Lear  howls in despair ranting, “heaven’s vault should crack” because of his daughter’s death. It does not, and are we left with no answers.  It is this lack of unexplained horror that makes KING LEAR such a powerful, maybe even excruciating play, and a classic example of Shakespeare at his finest.  Joseph Hanreddy, his cast and crew make this a fine GLT offering.  

KING LEAR runs through November 1, 2015 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Aesthetically exquisite THE SECRET GARDEN at GLT

Every once in a while a theater-goer is privileged to participate in a staged production that aesthetically enfolds them. Under the creative direction of Victoria Bussert, Great Lakes Theater’s THE SECRET GARDEN, is such a creation.

The musical THE SECRET GARDEN is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel of the same name.  It was transformed into a play by Marsha Norman, with music by Lucy Simon.  The Broadway show, which opened in 1991 to positive reviews, ran over 700 performances.

The story takes place in 1906 and centers on Mary Lennox, who is left an orphan in India, when her parents die in a cholera outbreak.  She is sent to live with her only living relative, Archibald Craven.  A hunchbacked widower, who is in deep mourning, he lives in a secluded manor on the British heath.  The house is haunted by bitterness and ghosts of loss.  Archibald’s wife, Lily, died in childbirth.  Her son, Colin, is sickly, resented, and ignored by his father.   Mary enters into the residence with her own “ghosts,” her deceased parents and the “Indian dreamers.” 

After rejection by her uncle, and isolation and loneliness, Mary is befriended by Martha, a chambermaid and, as she wanders the grounds she makes the acquaintance of Dickon, a young gardener.  He shares with her that Lily’s once beautiful garden has been allowed to fall in disrepair. 

Against her uncle’s orders, Mary enters into her guilt-ridden cousin Colin’s room and helps him to overcome his hypochondria.  Of course, in the end, as the garden blooms, Archibald finds peace, Colin becomes well, Mary finds a place to call home, and we learn of “the power that one small girl can have when she wants things to grow.”

Simon’s musical score is glorious.  It contains beautiful songs with Indian and classical intonations.  The haunting “Come to My Garden” wanders in and out of the entire score.  Other highlight songs are Mary and Dickon’s duet, “Show Me the Key,” “Lily’s Eyes,” sung by Neville and Archibald, and the gorgeously presented “Where in the World” (Archibald) and “How Could I Ever Know” (Lily and Archibald).  

Unfortunately, at the Sunday matinee I saw, the sound level of the orchestra was set so high that most of the lyrics in the first act were drowned out.  Fortunately, the problem was corrected in the second act, and the words and music formed a wonderful collage of meaning and effect.

As attested to by the vast number of tween and pre-tween girls in the audience, the book has a vast number of readers, cherubs who not only have read the book, but know it well.  

At intermission, many of the girls were enthusiastically commenting on the similarities and differences between the book and the script.   Most comments centered on the additional emphasis on the adult characters.  One little smarty commented that in the book, Archibald’s wife was named Lilias, and that she was the sister of Mary Lennox’s father, but in the musical, Colin’s and Mary’s mothers are sisters named Rose and Lily.  Another told me that she thought Dr. Neville Craven was an evil man who intentionally made Colin sick so that Neville could inherit the estate.  Others stated that they wanted to play the role of Mary.  Ah, the imagination and dreams of the young.

Bussert’s creativity is stamped all over the production.  The story is clearly developed, the pacing holds the audience’s attention, the pathos is nicely honed, and the over-all effect is aesthetically exquisite.   She is aided by excellent choreography by Gregory Daniels.  His concept for “Come Spirit, Come Charm” is magical.  Charlotte Yetman’s costume designs, Paul Miller’s lighting, and Jeff Herrmann’s scenic design all help enhance the visual aspects.

It takes a major leap of faith to produce THE SECRET GARDEN, as the major character is a tween.  To find a local girl who can proficiently sing, act, memorize all the lines, and produce a natural and consistent  British accent is a major undertaking.  Fortunately, the talented Sheffield Middle School’s Giovanna Layne came forth.   She is nothing short of wonderful.  She is matched by the equally talented Warren Bodily, a Boise, Idaho import.  He well portrayed and sang the role of Colin.

Stephen Mitchell Brown, who was recognized by the Cleveland Critics Circle, Times Tributes, and as the Best Actor in a Musical, for his GLT performance as Jean Valjean in LES MISÉRABLES, again commands the stage as Archibald Craven.  His voice is glorious and his performance totally convincing.  This is another bravo performance.

Jillian Kates enchants as Lily.  Her vocalizations are exquisite.  BW rising junior, Colton Ryan, is excellent as Dickon.  His is one of the many fine singing voices on stage and appears to be another of  “Vicky’s kids,” who is Broadway ready.

Other strong singing and acting performances are given by Sara Masterson as Martha and Tom Ford as Dr. Neville Craven. 

Capsule judgement: Victoria Bussert, her technical crew and the cast join their skills to make the Great Lakes production of THE SECRET GARDEN a very special theatrical offering.  This is a show that deserves the standing ovation that it should get after each performance.  Bravo!

THE SECRET GARDEN runs through October 31, 2015 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets and information: 216-664-6064 or

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Poignant, compelling, MOTHERS AND SONS captivates @ Beck!

In her directorial notes for the Beck Center’s production of Terrance McNally’s MOTHERS AND SONS, Sarah May states, “I was so struck by this play when I saw it on Broadway.  Here was an unwritten chapter of the terrible AIDS Crisis!” 

As a counselor at the Chase Braxton Clinic in Baltimore and then at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in D.C. in the mid-‘80s, I can attest to the angst and strain of the era.   Telling someone during those years that they were HIV+ was giving them a near-death sentence.  There were no proven drug protocols, the  federal government was doing nothing to provide funds for a search for a cure, some hospitals wouldn’t take AIDS patients, and even funeral homes were denying their services.

May goes on to write, “What happened to all those parents who did not show up when their sons started dying?”  As she states, “Thousands of parents simply turned their backs and were in complete denial.”  Often, when I called a parent to say their son was ill, I had phones slammed in my ear.  Others said that their child was receiving God’s wrath for their immoral ways, or that they didn’t care.  

Things have somewhat changed both in dealing with the illness and for gay youth and young adults.   There are now cocktails for those with the disease and the diagnosis isn’t necessarily a death sentence.  Many parents are now accepting, if not condoning the gay “life style.”  But, many gay youth are still being “sent packing” by closed-minded parents.  They often become homeless street kids, sometimes having to turn to prostitution to get by.  Statistics show that gays are the highest demographic among teen suicides.

McNally has spent almost fifty-years spotlighting the changing world of gay life in America.  In his MOTHERS AND SONS, he not only chronicles the angst of the AIDS crisis at its peak, but depicts the “new kind of American family,” gay men married, often with children, who have the same “foibles of every other family.”

As the lights go up on MOTHERS AND SONS, a woman and man are looking out a window.  We quickly find out that the mature woman, Katharine, lost her son, Andre, to AIDS almost 20 years ago.  The man is Cal, Andre’s former lover. 

Andre, a promising actor, died in his late-twenties.

Katharine is rigid, angry, fragile, seemingly about to break.  She lacks humor and, as we come to find out, compassion.  She rejected her son’s being gay, and in the process rejected him as well.  She came to his memorial service, but was deeply offended by the light tone of the goings on, refusing to both participate and recognize or embrace Cal.  She seems uncertain as to why she has now, after all these years, come to visit Cal.

Cal, a former actor, now a financial broker, who physically cared for Andre during his dying days, has moved on.  After eight years of mourning he met Will, a younger man, via an on-line dating service.  They are now married, and the parents of Bud, their pre-school-aged son, produced through artificial insemination, using Will’s sperm and the services of a lesbian friend.   They are a glowing example of the “new” family paradigm. 

Katharine is bitter that Cal has found happiness, while she remains caught in the past, filled with regret over the death of her only son, having been trapped in a loveless marriage, now a recent widow, living in the unsophisticated state of Texas, and friendless.  Unable to confront her situation, she even refuses to go for mental health counseling, reluctant to share herself with another person.

As she observes Cal and Will father their precocious son, show outward affection for each other, and live their lives in a Park Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park, the uncomfortable reunion results in an emotional merry-go-round, charting her few gains and many losses.   Her curtain-closing conversation with young Bud is heartbreaking.

In 90-minutes McNally exposes the changing gay life-style.  He starts with the AIDS epidemic, when there was a lack of treatment, to the present when there is still no cure, but an ability to contain the disease through scientific protocols.  He continues the journey by examining the language changes as “gay marriage” replaced relationships labeled as “partners,” and “boy friends,” and finally the acceptance of the term “husband.”  He also explores the more open living together status, the showing of affection in public, and the acceptance and expectation of gays having children.  He also highlights the severe divide between generations and areas of the country in acceptance of many of these changes.

MOTHERS AND SONS ran on Broadway from March, 2014, logging 104 performances and 33 previews with a cast that included Tyne Daly, Frederick Weller and Bobby Steggert.

The Beck production is compelling!  Sarah May obviously understands the script, the societal underpinnings and the gay community.  She superlatively hones the characterizations, and paces the show so the impact of the meaningful speeches are crystal clear, while holding the audience’s attention.

Catherine Albers does not portray Katharine.  Albers embodies Katharine.  She is Katharine. Nervous hand gestures, constantly arranging and rearranging her clothing, displaying emotions with a pinched face and fake smiles, she clearly conveys frustration, defeat, and anger.  This is a masterful performance!

David Bugher is Albers equal.  Swinging from faithful ex-partner to fulfilled husband, Bugher portrays the feelings of guilt, and transition from lover to husband with a new-found love, in a clear pendulum swing. 

Scott Esposito, as he displayed in JEFFREY and THE NORMAL HEART, has a talent for digging into the emotional feelings and thoughts of gay young men.  He clearly displays the disdain for Katharine’s imposing herself into his well-functioning family, while also showing momentary flashes of compassion toward her.  His real loving relationship with young Ian McLaughlin, as son, Bud, is readily apparent.

As Bud, the very young McLaughlin masterfully presents his numerous lines with fidelity and understanding.

Richard Gould’s Park Avenue apartment set is impressive in design and function. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Under the inspired directorial guidance of Sarah May, the brilliantly written MOTHERS AND SONS is a must-see production at Beck.  The acting, technical aspects, pacing and attitude are all right on the mark!  Bravo!

For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to