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

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