Saturday, October 29, 2016
As the lights come up on the thrust stage in Cleveland Play House’s Outcalt Theatre, revealed was a large comfortable room, and a woman snuggled up on a chair by a free-standing fireplace, reading a book. Outside a large span of windows, snow could be seen cascading down. Suddenly a car is heard and headlights glared through the window. Pounding is heard at the door. Who is there? What’s going on? Sounds like the opening scene of a mystery. But, no, this is the start of Laura Eason’s SEX WITH STRANGERS, a charming and intriguing play of “lust, love and the complex nature of identity in our digital-dominated era.”
Eason, who has written over 20-full lengths plays, and serves as the Artistic Director of Lookingglass Theatre, is a Renaissance woman. Besides her successful administrative and writing life, her resume banners her abilities as an actress, musician, singer, songwriter, band member and circus performer on the trapeze. Many know her for her four seasons as a writer for Netflix’s HOUSE OF CARDS.
Her well-written comedy/drama, SEX WITH STRANGERS, centers on Olivia, who is holed up in a remote bed-and-breakfast, an informal writer’s retreat in the Michigan woods, and Ethan, an on-line Millennial guru who has come to the B&B to finish a writing task.
Olivia is an attractive forty-year old, typical Generation Xer, whose debut novel was not well received by the critics and basically tanked.
Ethan, 28, is a charming, youthful stud with the personality of a playful puppy, who is a well-known blogger and has already written two best selling books that were on the New York Times best seller’s list for a record number of weeks under the pseudo-nom “Ethan Strange,” in which he reveals a series of sexual hookups.
She is shell-shocked from her literary “disaster,” and though she has written another novel, it is hidden away from public view.
He, a self-described “asshole,” is about to be made even more famous as his graphic details of his experience having “sex with strangers” is about to be made into a film.
The internet at the B&B is out and there are zero bars available for cellular contact. She is fine with this, he is hyper. She likes being cut off from the world, she can happily lick her wounds in the privacy, while he doesn’t know how to operate without his electronic toys and connectivity. She is of one generation, he of another.
He is like a hyperactive child, filled with braggadocio, possessing lots of charm. She is a mature, third grade teacher, who has dealt with “children” like him in her classrooms. He is warmed with something she knows nothing about...he knows her former writing teacher, has read her book, and knew she would be at the B&B.
Ever the delightful con-artist, he showers her with praise for her writing, and quotes line and verse from her novel. She is thrown off guard. And, of course, they are soon locked in a torrid embrace.
The next morning, she, wearing his sweat pants and t-shirt, and he, wearing only black boxer briefs, negotiate a type of relationship while sparring over her disdain for e-books and the invasion of electronics into modern-day society. His concern is that his many followers on the net are going to think he is dead since he has not been on-line.
He has snuck downstairs during the night and read the manuscript of her novel, against her wishes. Using his unbridled charm, he offers to put her new novel into the blogosphere. She desires it to be published by a “legit” publisher in a printed form that she can hold and turn the pages and smell the paper and print.
The play unwinds with questions of whether he helps her get an agent for ulterior motives, whether good sex conquers all, whether she can forgive him for his past sexual infidelities, why he released her book without her permission, what happens when we invent our identity—online and off, and what happens when our skills, talents and self become part of the public domain.
Wisely, Eason, who writes sharp, clever, meaningful, funny dialogue, doesn’t make the script into a soap opera by rolling out a feel good, happily-ever-after ending. She leaves the audience, as many good modern day writer do, with questions to ask and attempt to answer.
The CPH production, under the adept direction of Joanie Schultz, is perfection personified. Schultz gets all instances of drama and comedy right. Nicely paced, she has blended the visual and performance elements into a joyous experience.
Beautiful Monette Magrath textures her performance as Olivia so well that there is no acting involved, just Macgrath living as Olivia. The character’s pain and conflicted pattern of making decisions, after being subjected to harsh criticism for her writing, which represents her very essence, and believing that she must listen to those outside voices, is readily apparent. Her sensitivity not to trust and be pulled in again, causes her not to trust Ethan’s motives. This is a fine and focused performance.
Sean Hudock, he of handsome face, gym-toned body and charming demeanor, was made to play Ethan. With a sly grin, a twinkle in his eye, and spoken charm, he brings Ethan to life. He is so good at making the audience “believe” that he cons us into trusting the character’s machinations. Once we think we have caught onto his games and pull away, we are brought back by his beguiling ways.
The chemistry between Magrath and Hudock is magnetic. They exude connection.
On opening night one of the doorknobs to Olivia’s apartment came off in Hudock’s hand, the other knob hit the floor. Without missing a beat, he picked up the knobs, tossed them behind a pillow on the couch and exited by walking around the stage right end of the set. Since there was no way to reattach the knobs, he continued to make exits and entrances around the set. Though some of the audience may have been confused by why the door wasn’t being used, this was a capital instance of “the show must go on.”
Chelsea Warren’s scenic design worked well. Michael Boll’s lighting design, Thomas Dixon’s sound and Whitney Locher’s costumes all enhanced the production.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: SEX WITH STANGERS is a well-written script which gets a compelling production. The acting is top-notch, the direction spot-on. The must see show will delight and tantalize the audience. It well deserved the standing ovation it got on opening night.
SEX WITH STRANGERS runs through November 13, 2016, in the Outcalt Theatre in the Cleveland Play House complex of PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.
Monday, October 24, 2016
Pat Ciamacco, the curmudgeon of glee and horror, is at it again. While it seems almost by chance, the artistic director of Blank Canvas selects the likes of OUR TOWN, TWELVE ANGRY MEN and OF MICE AND MEN. But most often Ciamacco digs up such scripts as THE WILD PARTY (a play about decadence and uninhibited sexual behavior), REEFER MADNESS (the “truth” about using marijuana), BAT BOY THE MUSICAL (the tale of a large-eyed fanged human child), TRIASSIC PARQ THE MUSICAL (a songfest 65-million years in the making), DEBBIE DOES DALLAS (a stage version of the 1978 pornographic film), and TEXAS CHAINSAW MUSICAL (the story of a handsome serial killer and his overly affectionate momma, staged complete with a “blood zone,” where members of the audience chose, if they desired, to be bathed in fake blood!)
His newest offering is SILENCE! THE MUSICAL, which opened to an appreciative sold-out audience. It is based on THE 1991 psychologically thrilling film about Hannibal Lecter, a cannibalistic serial killer and his relationship with Clarice Starlin, a young FBI trainee, who seeks the killer’s advice to apprehend Buffalo Bill, another serial killer.
No blood this time. Instead,, we have a herd of sheep, an errant ballpoint pen that sets the fiend free, full frontal “male” nudity, and adult language.
Yes, as a New York newspaper said in its review, ”This Lambs parody is as irreverent, filthy and funny as THE BOOK OF MORMAN!” If you need any more proof that this is not THE SOUND OF MUSIC or even FUN HOME, the score includes “If I Could Smell Her C*nt,” “I’d F*ck Me,” “Put the F*cking Lotion in the Basket,” and, if it weren’t enough the first time, a reprise of the C*nt song.
It may surprise many to know that in 2005 this script was selected as the Outstanding Musical at the New York International Fringe Festival, was listed in The 2011 Time Magazine Top 10 Plays and Musicals, and in 2012 it was anointed with the Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best New Musical.
The story, which is told by an flock of lambs (Tonya Broach, BJ Colangelo, Dawn Sniadak-Yomokoski, David Turner, Connor Reese and Kat Glover), who act as a Greek chorus who sings, dances, and narrates the goings on. The plot centers on Clarice Starling (Kelly Strand), a lisping student at the FBI Academy who hopes to work with the Behavioral Science Unit tracking down serial killers. Her desire comes from an attempt to emulate her deceased father’s career. She is sent to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Brian Altman), a brilliant psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer. He helps her solve the FBI’s latest case, the mass killings of “zoftig” size-14 women by James Gumb (Joe Virgo), better known as Buffalo Bill. BB believes himself to be transsexual, but is so psychotic he can’t qualify for sex assignment surgery. He kills overweight women so he can remove their skin and fashion a “woman suit” for himself.
Things get dicey when hefty Catherine Baker Martin (BJ Colangelo), the daughter of Senator Ruth Martin (Dawn Sniadak-Yamokoski) is kidnapped by Buffalo Bill. A full scale FBI search is undertaken, headed by Jack Crawford (Mitch Manhey), the agent-in-charge of the FBI at Quantico, Virginia. The bumbling and lecherous Dr. Frederick Chilton (Trey Gilpin), the director of the Chesapeake State Hospital where Lecter is confined, keeps getting in the way of the investigation. Eventually Clarice, with clues provided by Lecter, tracks down Buffalo Bill, Catherine is set free, Lecter moves to a tropical island and calls Clarice to say goodbye. (Honest, that’s the story. Could I make stuff up like that?)
The production moves right along. The vocals are adequate, with a few of the lambs and leads (mainly Dawn Sniakak-Yamokoski) hitting the right musical notes, the acting is farcically correct, and the dancing cleverly klutsy. Most importantly, the laughs roll along.
The BC band (Heidi Herczeg, David W. Coxe, Colin Dees and Jason Stebelton) has to be congratulated for keeping the volume down and not, as has been the case at this theatre, of drowning out the performers.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: SILENCE! THE MUSICAL is a typical Blank Canvas escapist musical comedy which will entertain the cult audience which the theatre has developed. Ciamacco knows his patrons and their tastes and has hit another home run with this script!
Blank Canvas’s SILENCE! THE MUSICAL runs though November 5 , 2016 in its near west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland. Get directions to the theatre on the website. Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space. For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvasthetre.com
Next up at BC is local playwright Stuart Hoffman’s KISS KISS BANG from November 10-13. That is followed by CABARET, yes, the “Wilkommen,” “Maybe This Time,” and “Right This Way Your Table’s Waiting” musical.
Sunday, October 23, 2016
Theater represents the era from which it comes! In 1859, when THE OCTOROON opened in New York, the United States was in racial chaos. The slaves of the South had been “freed,” but, in reality, they weren’t free from their years of enslavement. Yes, blacks, the only mass group of people who came to this country against their free will, were the center of much controversy.
THE OCTOROON, a play by Dion Boucicault, based on Thomas Mayne Reid’s novel, THE QUADROON, was extremely popular when it was produced. It was an antebellum melodrama, generally regarded as the second most important of such plays. The number one hit was, of course, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN.
The play was produced during the era when romanticism (characterized by an emphasis on emotions, exemplified by displaying apprehension, horror, terror and awe) and the melodramatic (overdone, unrealistic, exaggerated characters and overly dramatic situations intended to appeal to the emotions) was at the fore. (Think of the soap opera stories and acting of non-talky movies.)
The production sparked major debates about abolition of slavery as well as the role of theater in politics. The latter centered on whether theatrical productions were intended to simply entertain or to also insight thought and discussion.
Skip forward about 175 years, it is now 2014 and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, an African-American playwright and professor with credentials bannering Princeton, NYU and Julliard, adapts the Boucicault play.
The adapted play, AN OCTOROON, premiered off-Broadway, and was subsequently awarded the Obie for best new American play. The issue of the now-called “African Americans” was still the center of much controversy.
Jacobs-Jenkins’ reframing used the original characters and plot, much of the original dialogue, and inserted modern theatrical devices including the concepts of Bertolt Brecht’s “historification,” “epic” and “alienation.”
Historification is using past historical events, which run parallel to today, to create a contemporary lesson!
AN OCTOROON is set in the old South, and though it does not use modern experiences, the situations are parallel to today. Racial profiling and the beating of and punishing African Americans and Indigenous peoples still exists, with law enforcement, court systems and economic parameters acting much like slave owners.
The script uses Alienation, making sure the audience knows they are in the theatre. The author wants each observer to think of the implications of the play’s message for today. To achieve this the production lets the scenery, lighting, makeup, and acting techniques be so obvious that they don’t lull the audience into transferring their attention to the production as being real.
Jacobs-Jenkins recognizes that this topic is Epic. His message is big, important, something that has major meaning.
On October 21, 2016, when AN OCTOROON opened at Dobama Theatre, the issue of African Americans is still front and center. Yes, bigotry, violence, racial profiling, work and housing discrimination, xenophobia and prejudice runs rampant on the political, business and social landscape of the United States.
To achieve a Brechtian effect, Dobama’s staging starts with the first actor on stage talking directly to the audience. He explains that he is the playwright and he is going to use theatrical devices to tell his tale.
The acting is exaggerated, with overdone gestures. The costumes are stereotypes which exaggerate. The vocal presentations are not of traditional spoken structure. The accents are overpowering, often inconsistent. Makeup is put on before the audience and it is obvious that whites are portraying blacks and American Indians, while African Americans are portraying whites, yet some blacks are playing blacks and whites, whites.
The tale has characters, incidents and twists and turns that represent plantation life, the treatment of slaves and indigenous people, which are depictions but obviously theatrical devices to tell the story and bring the present-day audience to recognize that though we may give lip service to the concept that, “things have changed,” that much has not changed as it relates to the racial divide in America. We realize that “make American great again,” may not be such a good idea if this is what America was like.
The play takes place on the Plantation Terrebonne in Louisiana. The “Massa” of the plantation has just died, his wife is ill. George, his nephew, has come to oversee the property, including the slaves, which have been treated “fairly” (haven’t been whipped or starved), but still are slaves, working in the fields, not being paid, living in shacks, and not free to be educated.
The plantation is near financial ruin due to gambling debts and the poor economy. George falls in love with Zoe, the illegitimate daughter of the deceased plantation owner and one of the slaves. Yes, she is an Octoroon, a word with varying definitions, but which generally means a person of mixed-race, commonly a person born of white and black lineage. In some southern states it was legally defined as a person who is at least one-eighth black.
The plantation and all the slaves are to be sold, including Zoe. Of course, the mustached, black hat wearing, evil neighbor, M’Closky is going to be the purchaser.
We are told of a stolen record of money that would have saved the plantation from the auction block, a murder, a plot by the slaves to get themselves sold to a nice riverboat owner, a photo with incriminating evidence, the possibility of Zoe being bought by a wealthy young woman in love with George, and all the other sidetracks that make melodramas so theatrically untraditional.
In a melodrama there is one segment, a “sensation scene” in which the moral of the story is put forth. A truth is revealed such as who the real villain is and who the innocent victim is or how dastardly deeds were done. It is staged in a sensational, spectacular way which insights the senses.
In AN OCTOROON, the play stops about two-thirds way through, the playwright enters and explains the writing technique he is going to use to lead to the conclusion of the play. He illustrates this by staging a near lynching, a trial, the revelation of the letter that M’Closky stole, his having killed a young black boy who was bringing the mail to the plantation which contained the evidence of money that would save the plantation, and a blazing fire takes place.
The play concludes with a “resolution scene,” which, as happens in all good melodramas, evil is defeated and the moral is presented. We are left with the idea that race, represented by white, black and red faces which have been created with makeup, is simply a social construct, a theory put forth by sociologists and anthropologists, which has been expanded into a societal way of life.
AN OCTOROON, under the focused direction of Nathan Motta is excellent. This is said recognizing that some may find the goings-on too long, others will be confused as to why the ”old fashioned” story is relevant today, some will be put off by the melodramatic staging, some will find the humor off-putting due to its dependence on” offensive” and non-politically correct words.
The Dobama production showcases the best quality of theatre…taking a script and staging it in such a way that it develops the intent and purpose of the author.
The cast (Ananias J. Dixon, Abraham Adams, Arif Silverman, Natalie Green, Katrice Monee Headd, India Nicole Burton, Anjanette Hall, Maya Jones and Nathan A. Lilly) understand the concept of melodramatic acting, a necessity for developing this author’s intent and purpose. The technical aspects…lighting, costumes, makeup…all aid the concept of the play.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The hottest play of 1859 is back, but this time it is aimed at a 2016 audience with a plea for understanding and realization that things, regarding the blacks and Indigenous peoples, haven’t changed very much in the last 175 years. Seeing this production can be an important theatrical experience and challenge your belief system--“GO SEE!”
AN OCTOROON runs through November 13, 2016 at Dobama Theatre. Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Yes, in a period of two hours and twenty minutes, plus intermission, 44 plays whoosh across the Cleveland Public Theatre stage. During that time the audience is exposed to all of the United States of America’s Presidents. Well, to be honest, there are 45 plays…one, based on the audience vote, an add-on vignette of a supposition about either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump’s reign as the next President.
44 PLAYS FOR 44 PRESIDENTS is a chronological, biographical recap of the lives and presidencies of those who have held the office. Some of the playlets are a couple of lines long, others many minutes in length. In the process, some of their successes and/or errors are heralded. How do you know which giant of politics is being spotlighted? First, their picture appears on the. Second, the actor portraying the office holder wears a blue and red star-spangled coat that symbolizes the presidency.
The comedy/drama/experimental/political/historic play is the brain-child of Chicago writers Andy Bayiates, Sean Benjamin, Genevra Gallo-Bayiates, Chloë Johnson and Karen Weinberg, with Bayiates dubbed the “Founding Father” since he conceived the concept. There are also musical compositions dropped into and between the segments. These are the doings of Steve Goers, Laura McKenzie and André Pleuss.
The show is a time travel beginning with George Washington in an almost Eden-like setting, John Adams being “Second Fiddle,” a roast of Thomas Jefferson with Benjamin Franklin as the emcee, to William Henry Harrison being hailed as an “Indian Slayer,” Lincoln and the “freeing of the slaves,” to the assassination of Ohio’s own William McKinley, the Hooverville 1930 depression days, FDR’s live speeches and videos of the public’s reactions to his death, to “Tricky Dickey” Nixon’s rise and fall from power, the reign of George H. W. Bush (“The Bargain: Prelude to a Great Divide”), George Bush’s wrestling the election away from Al Gore, and the “Can he?” period of Barack Obama.
Few, other than U. S. presidential history geeks, will grasp all the innuendoes. Of course, there is also the question of the validity of the material. The audience is helped by an electric sign stating, “direct quote” when the material being presented was said by the holder of the office or some other credited source. (The 2016 debates could be helped by this device!)
The show is presented in Val Kozlenko’s red, white and blue pillared stage set, with a video screen up-stage center, which reveals a picture of the President being highlighted in each segment as well as visual images of some of their times in office (e.g., the assassination of JFK), highlighted by Michael Boll’s lighting, and enhanced by Eric M. C. Gonzalez’s inserted taped recordings (e.g. radio broadcasts of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.).
The CPT production has done color blind casting. The on-stage assemblage is both black and white. However, the same cannot be said for gender. All of the performers play multi-roles. They portray Presidents, wives, members of the various cabinets, assassins, and various others. The entire cast is female, though the reason for that choice is not clear.
Co-directors Dan Kilbane and Caitlin Lewins were faced with the difficult task of holding the audience’s attention as the segments went on and on. The “singing, dancing, declaiming, laughing, eating, expounding, carousing, jumping, falling, running and many, many other ‘-ings’” is almost mind-numbing.
Things are not helped by the constant moving on and off stage of boxes, podiums, and other paraphernalia. Having a blackout after almost every scene to arrange the pieces, added much time to the production and broke the dramatic flow.
The cast must collapse in exhaustion after the show. Molly Andrews-Hinders, Chennelle Bryant-Harris, Melissa Therese Crum, Sally Groth, Tanera Hutz, Coleen McCaughey and Carrie Williams act, sing and dance with vigor. Unfortunately, though they try hard, some of their lines are lost due to the echo in the theatre, the inconsistent vocal projection by some actors, and the use of accents which are sometimes difficult to understand.
The conclusion, a rap song (a HAMILTON take-off) by Hillary Clinton (she won the audience vote regarding who would win the 2016 election the night I saw the show), could not be understood. Putting the words on the screen would have helped in figuring out what was being said.
Capsule judgement: 44 PLAYS for 44 PRESIDENTS is a timely production, coming just before the contentious 2016 presidential election. Though it is much too long, and has some staging and sound problems, history buffs should still rejoice. Others may enjoy the dancing, singing, and humor presented by the all woman cast.
44 PLAYS FOR 44 PRESIDENTS runs through October 29, 2016 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue in the Gordon Square Arts District. There is plenty of free parking within an easy walk to the theatre. For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.
Sunday, October 16, 2016
Len Jenkin, the author of LIKE I SAY, which he refers to as a "sober-minded comedy," is the recipient of three Obie Awards and received an Emmy nomination.
He explains that LIKE I SAY is "a Candide type of tale. A journey through darkness, through failure, disease and death to a kind of hope. A survivor’s hope."
Unfortunately, Jenkin’s explanation is easier for him to say than the abstract script is to display.
The play, which has stories overlaid onto stories, is often hard to follow and is excessively long. It is a tale, oft told by a dreamer, in which the dreams “turn nightmarish and heavenly.”
The tale basically takes place in the Hotel Splendide, a once grand hotel situated on the American coast. It is now a barely habitable wreck, walls covered in a so-called artist’s stick figures related to Día de Muertos (the day of the dead).
Assembled are Helena Skate (Lauren B. Smith), the inn keeper, and her helper, “Little Junior” (August Scapelli). In occupancy are Isaiah Sandoval (Logan Smith), a once prolific writer who is in a state of depression as a result of his wife and child having been killed in a car crash for which he was responsible. His “nurse,” Rose (Linda Sekanic) tries to keep him on his meds, while chaos spins around them.
Also present is Mr. Schwarzberg (Robert Hawkes) an alcoholic painter and tattoo artist and Leon Vole (Clyde Simon) and Tanya Vole (Marcia Mandell), down and out puppeteers, who have falsely been told that Sandoval has a suitcase filled with money.
In his delusional states Sandoval tells tales about Coconut Joe (Robert Branch) who is looking for the perfect consignment of coconuts for the biscuit factory for which he works. The search takes him to Berlin, where he is betrayed by a woman. He winds up as a prisoner in a nuclear waste plant, escapes, goes to Venice, boards a ship which sinks after being attacked by pirates and survives on a life raft. Also on the flotation device is a Pirate Queen. They are washed ashore at a resort for those who are kept young and alive by injections of lemur blood.
And…well, to be honest, who cares. This excessive babble makes little sense and who cares about these people and what happens to them.
The con-con production, under the direction of Tyson Douglas Rand does what it can with a script. The casts’ performances are erratic, but one can conjecture that it is the fault of the script.
Capsule Judgement: LIKE I SAY is an overly long, irrational script. One can only wonder why it was chosen by the theatre to perform and why a group of actors and a director would want to spend their precious time in producing it. Con-con has performed some excellent works. This isn’t one of them.
LIKE I SAY runs through November 5, 2016 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 call 216-687-0074 or go to http://www.convergence-continuum.org
convergence-continuum’s next show is Robert Hawkes appearing in his self-written script, GIVE ME THE MAP, from November 17-19, 2016, followed by the world premiere of local writer Jonathan Wilhelm’s THE KNIFE IS MONEY, THE FORK IS LOVE.
Monday, October 10, 2016
Caffe Cino, which was founded in 1958, is noted as the site that gave birth to off-off Broadway theatre. It was the invention of retired dancer Joe Cino, who offered a place to do inexpensive creative works in New York City and not have to conform to Equity rules. Cino bankrolled the adventure. The shows were staged on a make-shift small platform.
Cleveland has similar theatres. They are venues which are the inventions of a single person who scavengers for money from foundations and donors and produces shows on a shoe-string budget. These off-off Euclid Theaters include Patrick Ciamacco’s Blank Canvas, located at West 78th street (http://www.blankcanvastheatre.com), Clyde Simon’s convergence-continuum, 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood (http://www.convergence-continuum.org), and Greg Cesear’s Cesear’s Forum, which performs in Kennedy’ Down Under, down under the Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square (http://www.cesearsforum.com).
It is ironic that Cesear’s Forum is showcasing Lanford Wilson’s TAKE 5 as Wilson’s first plays were staged at Caffe Cino. The smallish platform on which the scripts were welcomed into the world was about the same size as that found in Kennedy’s which opened in 1921 as a bar.
Wilson, a Lebanon, Missouri native, who died in 2011 at age 73, was noted as one of the significant writers of the 20 th century. He was one of the first playwrights to move from Off-Off-Broadway, to Off-Broadway, then Broadway. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1980.
His first significant play was HOME FREE in 1964. Other well known scripts were: THE RIMERS OF ELDRITCH, THE GINGHAM DOG (his first Broadway show), THE HOT L BALTIMORE, FIFTH OF JULY, BALM IN GILEAD and TALLEY’S FOLLY.
It is the goal of Cesear’s Forum to “present works of social commitment and theatre experimentation.” TAKE 5, which is composed of five one-act plays, have been cobbled together into an evening of theater by the producer, Greg Cesear. The evening features six performers playing various roles, and fits well into the theater’s purpose.
Adorable Tricia Bestic serves as the absent-minded narrator, introducing each of the one acts. She bumbles the intros, messes up the titles of the plays, and interacts with the audience, creating a warm and comfortable atmosphere.
WANDERING covers 40 years of a guy’s life in 4 minutes. He confronts parental conflicts, applying for jobs, being a conscious objector, being lost, relationships, and facing the reality of life, through a barrage of attacks.
The main character (Beau Reinker) , who starts as a teenager, stays the same throughout, but the minor characters-- his parents, wife, friends, doctors, nurses, secretaries—interchange in their roles.
SEXTET (YES) is compromised of the thoughts and recollections of six characters, who wander and sit at random places as they react to each other's revelations with a quiet, "yes." Out of the pattern of their memories and the interweaving of their destinies, emerges a sense of their frailty, humanity, and the disquieting vulnerability of life itself.
A BETROTHAL is a delightful cat and mouse conversation which keeps the audience guessing about what is being discussed as two lost souls, a school librarian (Adina Bloom) and an associate gardener (Brian Zoldessy), who have come into a tent in order to get out the rain, express irritation with the way they have been treated by the judges. Judges? What does this have to do with a betrothal?
As the obtuse conversation about Little Soldier and Little Tanya takes place the duo spars, accuses, insults, attempts friendly conversation, and surprisingly come to an uneasy peace. They agree to mate there flowers, his for its beauty and hers for its strength, thus creating an iris which will even dazzle the obtuse judges.
The physical and verbally dominant Bloom and the slender, nervous, bumbling Zoldessy are delightful as they advance, lunge, attack, feint, and parry as they conduct their verbal fencing match.
BRONTOSAURUS is considered as one of Wilson’s best one-act plays, and why he is regarded as the “greatest functioning playwright of the last quarter of the century.”
A young man (Beau Reinker) arrives at a plush Park Avenue apartment. He is there to live with his aunt (Mary Alice Beck), who will provide housing and also support his NYU collegiate education.
She is a sophisticated, cynical, wealthy New York antiques dealer. He is withdrawn and secretive. She is a wise-cracking wine drinking, non-believer. He is reticent, unemotional and claims he is going to study theology because he underwent a mystical experience.
She becomes more chatty, a defense she has honed to keep the world away, thus reinforcing her awareness of the superficiality of her life and the futility of her existence. He leaves to find his place in the world, leaving behind his much photographed bedroom with the view of central park.
Reinker, who often serves as a sound designer at local theatres, would be wise to get more involved in stage endeavors. He is handsome, has solid acting abilities, displays a nice level of sensitivity, and effectively textures his performance. Beck is a fine actress, who develops a woman with a veneer of protection.
In A POSTER OF THE COSMOS a young black is sitting in a Manhattan police station interrogation room.
Tom (Sean Booker), a baker, has been accused of killing his lover, who had been in the hospital in the last stages of death caused by AIDS. Tom’s emotionally presented insights regarding the duo’s relationship, the attacks on them by an uncaring and ignorant society, and the stereotypes against him as a young black man provide great insight. His pleas are answered by the interrogator’s derogatory refrain, “You don’t look like the kinna guy’d do somethin’ like dat.”
The play deserved its inclusion in BEST SHORT PLAYS OF 1989, and Booker deserves a standing ovation for his insightful, emotional, tear-filled development of the bereaved, shocked Tom, whose lover died in his arms.
Capsule judgement: Cesear’s Forum, which has won both Cleveland Critics Circle and Times Theatre Tribute recognition for past performances, again proves, with LANFORD WILSON: TAKE 5, that it doesn’t take a big budget, massive sets and ornate costumes to present wonderful and effective theater. Kudos!!
LANFORD WILSON: TAKE FIVE runs Friday and Saturday through October 29, 2016 as well as Sunday, October 9 and 16, 2016 @ 3 in Kennedy’s Down-under. Enter through the Ohio Theatre lobby and go down the steps to the theatre. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.playhousesquare.org
Saturday, October 08, 2016
Annie Baker won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in drama for THE FLICK, a thoughtful drama concerning three employees of an art-house movie theatre.
Her first play, BODY AWARENESS, which is now being staged at Beck Center, was the initial writing in her “Vermont plays,” a series which take place in the fictional town of Shirley, VT. The other parts of the series were CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION and THE ALIENS.
BODY AWARENESS centers on Phyllis a psychology professor and her lesbian partner, Joyce, a high school social studies teacher. Phyllis has organized a campus Body Awareness Week at her college. Though programs include an eating disorder seminar, there are also such activities as a dance troupe of refugee Palestinian children and a puppet show, which are not normally part of such a seminar.
Phylis and Joyce live with Jared, Joyce’s 21-year-old son from a previous marriage. The boy considers himself autodidact (self-educated). Jared displays some symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of autism. He has obsessive compulsive disorder habits, poor social skills, is verbally explosive, and is physically awkward.
Frank, a photographer of nude women, is one of the conference speakers and is a guest in Phyllis and Joyce’s home.
Conflict, which is present in the home, is increased as Phylis, is inexplicably offended by Frank’s nude female photos. Tension increases when Joyce agrees to pose for the photographer and Jared asks the man how to attract women, resulting in the boy acting out inappropriately.
When a playwright writes a play they usually have a purpose in mind. They wish to entertain through humor, explain a point of view, tell a history lesson, or maybe highlight a concept. They have an intent and purpose. A common theatre axiom of the need to have a purpose for a play is that “the author should have a voice.”
In explaining BODY AWARENESS Baker said, "My goal for the play is to not judge anyone, to get at that point where everyone is equally right and equally wrong, so the humor comes from that... I wanted to write a play about issues that wasn’t an 'issue play.’”
To Baker’s credit, she does get the viewer to think about the awareness of the bodies and souls around them. She does present flawed people, fighting for connection.
Unfortunately for the viewer, though Baker’s play has some interesting moments, it is the very matter of not writing an “issue play” that seems to get in the way. It is difficult to ascertain specifically what Baker’s voice is, what she is trying to accomplish.
The other aspect of the Beck staging that confounds is that in previous productions BODY AWARNESS has been commented upon as being “hilarious,” and “funny, skewering everything from pretensions to blunt sex talk.” Unfortunately, on opening night, there were very few laughs and though some of the lines could have been perceived as skewering, the way they were presented usually didn’t bring about the desired effect.
Since the play has been presented in other venues with reviewer comments on success, a question must be raised as to the director David Vegh’s approach to achieving the needed humor and skewering.
Anne McEvoy gives a nicely texture performance as Joyce, the frustrated mother and parent, caught between her need to nurture the exasperating Jared and have a positive connection with the dominating, if inconsistent, Phyllis.
Richie Gagen, as Jared, has mastered many of the traditionally evident signs of Asperger’s Syndrome. His awkwardness, obsessive repetition of continually straightening his hair, and bursting out emotionally with no provocation, all help in creating a real sufferer of the illness.
Julia Kolibab is inconsistent as Phyllis. Whether it is the way the role is written or the director or her interpretation of the part, she often comes across on a surface level.
Rick Montgomery Jr. is an acceptable Frank. Unfortunately, the actor has a tendency to swallow the endings of lines, so the intent of his speeches are sometimes lost.
Aaron Benson has the unenviable task of having to design a three-area set in a very confined place. He does a very creditable job. He is assisted by Marcus Dana’s lighting design.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ninety-minute intermissionless BODY AWARENESS has some high points, but doesn’t showcase the requisite humor built into the script. Though not a great play, it appears that author Annie Baker learned from writing this, her initial script, and has gone on to expand her voice as evidenced by her receipt of a Pulitzer Prize for a later work.
BODY AWARENESS is scheduled to run through November 6, 2016 in the Studio Theater at Beck Center for the Arts. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to http://www.beckcenter.org
Friday, October 07, 2016
As the lights come up on FUN HOME, the musical drama which is now on stage at the Connor Palace, Allison, a young adult, relates a tale of her childhood in the song, “It All Comes Back.”
She is around 10 and relates a memory of demanding that her father play airplane with her, one of the few experiences she shares with her father. Her father’s attention is on a box of silver plates and a tarnished tea pot. And, as is the pattern between this father and his children, he ignores her or, when he is focused on the children, he becomes obsessive in his demands.
This is a troubled father. This a struggling daughter.
Through the story we follow the path of Alison Bechdel of Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, as she goes from being a tween, through her experiences at Oberlin College, where her realization of her homosexuality evolves, to her becoming aware of her father’s life as a closeted homosexual, to his ultimate suicide and her full acknowledgement that, as the closing song of the musical states, “Every so often there was a rare moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.” The words are accompanied by one of Bechdel’s comics illustrating young Alison being held aloft by her father. Fade to black!
The tale is told through Jeanine Tesori’s music and Lisa Kron’s book and lyrics.
Poignant songs expose the frustration of living in fun home.
Songs such as “Welcome to Our House on Maple, Street,” (a visit to the family home/funeral home by a visitor from the local historical society), “Come to Fun Home” (Young Alison and her brothers, John and Christian, act out a commercial for the funeral home while playing in a casket), and “Raincoat of Love,” (small Alison fantasizing about what it would be like if her family was as happy as TV’s “Partridge Family”.)
In the song “Not Too Bad,” Alison expresses her anxiety about starting college, while in the delightful “Changing My Major,” Alison expresses her falling for Joan, her lesbian lover.
Alison’s mother attempts to cope with her ostrich-with-head-in-the-sand existence by escaping from reality through her piano playing as illustrated by “Helen’s Étude.”
We watch as Bruce has contact with a series of young men, is arrested, but continues to pursue these fleeting contacts. Each is a band aid to patch up his frustration with his life. Agitation finally results in his suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming bus (“Edges of the World). Alison reminisces about her past in “Flying Away.”
Alison Bechdel is a cartoonist who came to national attention via her long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” She combined her life story and her comic strip style in the graphic memoir, FUN HOME. It is the adoption of this book that went on to become the musical which was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, winning five, including Best Musical. The Broadway show, which opened in March, 2015, closed on September 10, 2016.
The original book was controversial. In October, 2006, an attempt was made to have FUN HOME removed from the Marshall, Missouri Public Library due to its “graphic” content. In 2008, an instructor at University of Utah made the book a reading in her course. This was followed by an attempt by a student group to have the book removed from the course’s syllabus. In 2013 a conservative group challenged the inclusion of the book as a reading selection for freshman at the College of Charleston. The issue became so heated that the South Carolina legislature attempted to cut the college’s funding because “this book trampled on freedom of conservatives.” The issue was only resolved when the state Senate voted to restore the funding, but redirect the funds towards the study of the United States Constitution and The Federalist Papers.” As lately as 2015, several students at Duke University objected to the book on moral and/or religious grounds.
Cleveland is the first stop on FUN HOME’s national tour. The production team has been in residence in PlayhouseSquare since mid-September, rehearsing and refining the show.
The production is of the highest quality. In New York the show was staged in the round, with the audience on the sides of the stage. The local production is done on a proscenium stage. Having seen both versions, I believe that the touring show is much clearer and the scenery helped give a visual quality to many of the scenes. Of course, the intimate show would have been better viewed in a theatre the size of the Allen or the Hanna, but that was economically impossible.
Some may find the three Alisons confusing at the start. But quickly it becomes apparent that adult Alison (Kat Shindle), Small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) and Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan) are the same person at different stages of life. What may be a little off-setting is that Baldacchino and Corrigan have the same body build and basic coloring, while Shindle looks nothing like them. The Small and Medium Alison have the same effervescence, while Shindle is much more serious. All three Alisons had fine singing voices.
Robert Petkoff is properly frustrated as the troubled Bruce. Many will feel pity for this man who is a victim of society’s attitude toward gay men, especially in the era in which Bruce was brought up. His lasting effect on the members of his family are readily apparent.
Susan Moniz presents a wife and mother who finds herself having to decide how to be a supportive spouse and good mother, while being unable to take the action she probably should have early in the marriage.
Karen Eilbacher (Joan, Alison’s lesbian lover), Robert Hager (portraying the young men Bruce pursues), Lennon Nate Hammond and Pierson Salvador (Alison’s younger brothers) are all believable in their roles.
The settings, lighting and costumes all work to enhance Sam Gold’s sensitive and focused directing. The orchestra is excellent.
The only technical difficulty was a sound system which failed to allow for consistent hearing of the cast.
Side note: Caroline Murrah, Baldwin Wallace Musical Theatre program 2016 graduate, is a standby for Medium Alison and Joan.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Tony winner, FUN HOME, gets a well-conceived, emotionally primed production. The touring company should be greeted on each stop of its journey with positive kudos. This is a dramatic message musical which deserves the accolades which it has won. It’s a must see, with the caveat that audience members are aware of the subject matter.
Tickets for FUN HOME, which runs through October 22, 2016 at the Connor Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to www.playhousesquare.org. (Key Bank series productions will run 3-weeks rather than the previous season’s two weeks.)
Tuesday, October 04, 2016
Great Lakes Theatre opened its 55 th season with the delightful, perfectly conceived MY FAIR LADY. It has followed up the repertory offering with an energizing version of William Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT.
TWELFTH NIGHT is considered one of the Bard’s finest comedies. It is filled with romantic episodes, mingled with comic elements, with a sprinkling of farce mixed in, all focusing on requited and unrequited love. As is the case with Shakespeare’s comic writing, it is filled with disguises, mistaken identities, cross-dressing, a witty fool, love at first sight, and misguided lovers and their attempts to love.
The story of this early seventeenth century tale, whose title alludes to the end of the Christmas season, finds the aristocratic born twins, Viola and Sebastian, separated in Ilyria following a shipwreck. Each thinks the other is dead.
Viola disguises herself as a boy, thinking that she can find a way to sustain herself to gain a position unavailable to her as a female. She finds a position with Duke Orsino, with whom she falls in love. But he is in love with Countess Olivia. Olivia, who is mourning the death of her brother, isn’t open to his wooing. He sends Viola to try and get Olivia to open up her heart to the Duke.
Unfortunately, Olivia falls in love with Viola who she perceives as a man. Sebastian, Viola’s brother, in the meantime, appears, and Olivia, thinking he is Viola, expresses her love. The duo, after a night of lovemaking, have a quick marriage. Then conflict, confusion and exposure of the “truth” reigns.
As is the case in almost all Shakespeare comedies, musical interludes, farcical actions by a fool and his henchmen, mixed up letters which lead to humorous interjections and wrong intentions, transpire. And, of course, as the title of another Shakespeare comedy states, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”
Shakespeare’s writing is always filled with quotable quotes. In this case such memorable statements as “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them,” “If music be the food of love, play on,” “Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit,” And, “Be not afraid of greatness,” pepper the script.
It is also the pattern of the Bard that major themes run throughout his scripts. Gender identity and sexual attraction, as well as sexual ambiguity are present. There is also some clear homoerotic text. Olivia, for example, is in love with a woman, even if she thinks he is a man. Orsino, remarks on the beauty of Cesario (Viola in disguise) even before her male disguise is removed. And, not to be overlooked is Antonio, the sea captain who saved Viola’s twin brother showing strong affection toward Sebastian.
Other themes include that of love as a cause of suffering, the folly of ambition, and the impossibility of love between individuals from different classes.
TWELFTH NIGHT is filled with musical interludes and lends itself to being transformed into a musical. “Your Own Thing,” “Music Is,” and “Play On!” were based on the tale.
The Great Lakes production, under the direction of Draw Barr, is sprightly, reaching its peak during the periods of high farce. Slapstick, double takes, playing for laughs, all energize the show. Barr knows how to make the audience laugh by exaggerating lines, adding site gags, and even creating outrageous costumes. He does not try to make this a message play. Instead he takes advantage of the Bard’s lines and invitations to insert extended mayhem.
The cast is strong. Highlight performers include Lynn Robert Berg as the pompous, put-upon Malvolio. (His appearance in an ornate black bustier, garters and yellow stockings evoked prolonged laughter.) Cassandra Bissell is excellent as the cross-dressing Viola. Tom Ford is delightful as Sir Andrew Aguecheeck. Juan Rivera Lebron (Orsino), Laura Perotta (Maria), M. A. Taylor singing and clowning as Feste, Aled Davies (Sir Toby Belch) and Christine Weber (Olivia) all are excellent.
Using a timeless approach to the sets, costumes and special effects, the design team has taken a “non-literal approach” to the unspecified period of the production. The ambiguous music does little to enhance the effect of the show. The presence of the female guitarist on a balcony perched above the stage enhanced the sound of the live music, but the guitarist’s sipping water, reading a book and random movements, when she was not playing, distracted from the stage business.
Capsule judgement: TWELFTH NIGHT, one of Shakespeare’s most produced comedies, gets a creative, energized production. It should please both Shakespeare enthusiasts and novices as it is an easy to understand and comprehensible staging with lots of humor and farcical periods.
TWELFTH NIGHT runs through, October 30, 2016 at the Hanna Theatre. For tickets: 216-664-6064 or www.greatlakestheater.org
Sunday, October 02, 2016
The Cleveland area has been and is ripe with playwrights. Mike Geither, David Hansen, Margaret Lynch, Jonathan Wilhelm, Michael Oatman, Eric Schmiedl and Faye Sholiton are only a few of the present-day writers. Historically, Langston Hughes, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee were proud area playwrights. Probably no local scribe has been more prolific than Eric Coble.
Coble has written well over fifty plays, the latest being MARGIN OF ERROR (or The Unassailable Wisdom of the Mouse and the Scorpion), is now receiving its regional premiere at Ensemble Theatre.
The script received its world premiere in April, 2016, at the Boise Contemporary Theatre. BCT commissioned the piece as part of its River Prize, a new play initiative launched this season. MARGIN OF ERROR is the playwright’s third world premiere at BCT. One of those, THE VELOCITY OF AUTUMN, opened there in 2011, went on to Broadway, starring Estelle Parsons, who was nominated for a Tony for her role in the show. Cleveland theater legend, Dorothy Silver, starred in a production at Beck Center for the Arts before the show went on to the Great White Way.
Coble, who is a member of the Playwrights’ Unit of the Cleveland Play House, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, raised on the Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado, and now calls Cleveland Heights home.
Coble, who calls MARGIN OF ERROR “95 minutes of astonishing high-wire mayhem,” has written a script that should open viewer’s eyes to the backstage drama of political campaigns.
The story centers on political consultant, Harold Carver, a high-powered puppet string-puller-of-candidates running for various offices. He believes his purpose centers on, “controlling the narrative,” and, as he says, his “job is to build up and destroy — to smear with honey or dog crap.’” Though he purports to be a “helper to humanity,” he is a bottom feeder who thinks lies, blackmail, double-speak, and attacks by innuendo, are simply tools to achieve one’s goal.
Having worked on numerous political campaigns, I can attest to the fact that the Harold Carver’s of the world really do exist.
At the start of the saga, Carver (Michael Mauldin), a Caucasian, rushes into an empty gate area of the Cleveland Hopkins airport. His plane is not going to take off as the city is socked in by fog. In his company is Daphne Anderson (Mary-Francis Renee Miller) his new African-American intern.
He quickly produces four smart phones, each of a different color (red, green, yellow and blue), each with a direct connection to either a candidate or Carver’s campaign-contact with the candidate. He is managing nine campaigns at once, each requiring his constant attention. Each presents different scenarios, but all have the same purpose: elect the candidate, no matter what!
There is also a black phone, which for all intents and purposes “doesn’t exist.” It’s a personal phone, which, as we soon find out, is conveying messages from his lawyers and his wife, who is intending to divorce him, and her sister, who Carver is threatening to blackmail because of an affair she had with his wife’s ex-husband unless she talks her sister into not divorcing Carver.
Daphne is a rarity…a black Republican, who has high values and believes in the American way, in spite of personal evidence that blacks, in this country, are not treated the same as whites. Her brother, as a young black man, has been a victim of racial profiling, was sent to prison for possession of ADD medicine, which wasn’t even his. He is yet again being threatened by over zealous police.
As Carver rants, sweats, screams and plots, he keeps reminding Daphne that they must live by the motto, “don’t fuck up the campaign.” This is an obsessed man, proud of the fact that he is self taught, didn’t go to college, wasn’t brain washed by liberal professors, and who has disdain for Daphne’s Ivy League education. He spends between 150 and 200 days on the road, conducting political business.
Operating with the attitude, “People keep this country from being perfect,” he feels no qualms about ruining the life of an opposing candidate through blackmail and half-truths, believing that “a lie is only a lie until it becomes the truth.” He runs his personal life the same way.
When Daphne starts understanding the way he operates, and challenges him, he snaps, “If you want to be nice, be a social worker or a Democrat.”
The ending will surprise many. At the climax point the opening night audience broke out in prolonged applause. Coble, who was in the audience, must have been very happy with that reaction.
The script is well written. Coble uses fog metaphors, and “folksy” tales to illustrate ideas. A story that runs throughout the play concerns mice and scorpions and how one destroys the other.
Coble has wisely written the piece as a long one-act, with no intermission as the script intensifies with emotion until the audience is left breathless. Any break in the action would have tempered the over-all effect.
A few questions arise: why are there no other customers in the seating area waiting for the delayed plane? How come the television sets conveniently have news only about Carver’s candidates? Maybe we just have to accept that this is the stage and there has to be some theatrical license in the story telling.
Director Eric Schmiedl keeps the action appropriately fast and furious. He creates an atmosphere of tension that grabs and holds the audience from start to surprise finish.
Michael Mauldin creates a Harold Carver who is real, scary and authentic. It is impossible not to be amazed by Carver’s ingenious skills, as brought to life by Mauldin, while hating the political operative for those talents. The role has many hundreds of lines and is basically a 90-minute monologue, with some interruptions by the phone calls, television voice-overs and Daphne. Wow!
Mary-Francis Renee Miller nicely creates a Daphne who is properly naïve as it relates to Carver’s methods and the real world of political machinations. She textures her characterization well. Good job!
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If viewers didn’t have a disrespect for American political campaigning before, after seeing the well-written and performed MARGIN OF ERROR, they will probably be properly disgusted. If they had concern, now they will be filled with even more disdain. The play fulfills one of the major purposes of theater…to make the audience think. This is a production very well worth seeing!
MARGIN OF ERROR runs Thursdays through Sundays from September 30th through October 23, 2016 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights. For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to http://www.ensemble-theatre.org
To see the views of other Cleveland area theatre reviewers go to: clevelandtheaterreviews.com