Friday, October 26, 2018

Dobama’s “John,” too much to do about nothing

Annie Baker is the author of “The Flick,” which had an award-winning production at Dobama last March (e.g., Cleveland Critics Circle and recognitions).  That script was clever, thought-provoking and generally mesmerizing.  

Baker is noted for her ability to seek out the minutiae in the way people speak, act and relate to one another and write about “the humor, absurdity and tragedy that result from the limitations of language and our fraught search for more meaningful human connections.”

The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Obie Award for Playwriting, and numerous other accolades, her works have been done by over 150 theatres.  She is one of the new breed of “it” script authors.

Anyone going to see Dobama’s production of “John,” expecting another sure fire winner like “The Flick,” is likely to be disappointed.  While last year’s show grabbed and held the attention, “John” meanders on for three long acts, two intermissions and a between acts monologue, teasing, but never bringing about the needed spark.  That is, with the exception of the monologue.

Elias and Jenny stop at a bed-and-breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, not far from the Civil War battle sites.  It quickly becomes obvious that they are in a troubled relationship.  The duo is greeted by Mertis Katherine Graven, the owner of a period home filled with antique dolls, toys, figurines and other Victorian tchotchkes. 

It’s late at night, there is a strangeness to the house and to the seemingly airheaded hostess.  Ghost stories, cookies, unaccounted for music, the tale of a husband who may or may not be alive, bickering between Elias and Jenny, a visit from Genevieve, Mertis’ blind and elderly friend who tells the tale of John her abusive ex-husband, revealing childhood traumas, incantations, mistrust, tales of infidelity, strange cell phone interjections, and impending doom ensue.

On the surface, it sounds like a compelling tale.  Unfortunately, Baker goes on and on, for almost three hours and much of the impending doom and excitement never unfold.   

That is, except for the dialogue.  Between the second and third act, Dorothy Silver, the grand dame of Cleveland theatre, saves the night with a compelling direct speech to the audience.  

Portraying the blind Genevieve, Silver slowly feels her way out from behind the front curtain, and gropes her way to the edge of the state.  She greets us, “Hello. Hello.”  She teeters almost falling.  She continues, “Don’t go yet.  I’m going to tell you a story but I’m going to do it in under five minutes.” 

And, then Silver captivates with a tale of how she “went mad in seven stages!”  She relates how dreamt of scorpions every night for a month, heard a name over and over in her head, woke to the sensation of the bugs now in her head, knowing God was doing an experiment on her, her breasts shrinking and a penis growing between her legs, the scorpions disappearing replaced by the knowledge that tiny men were colonizing her brain, being aware of “a deep connection with the soul of every person and every object that ever existed,” and finally realizing that she was in a godless world.

She concludes, “Sometimes I just lie in bed in the morning and think about nothing. Imagine that.  Sitting in the center of your own life with no thoughts at all about what other people are thinking.  They can think whatever they like.  You can all think whatever you like about me.”

The conclusion of the speech was met with tumultuous well-deserved applause.   It’s probably the best five minutes of theatre one could experience.

Silver’s is not the only outstanding performance.  Catherine Albers is obtuse, scatter-brained and on-target as Mertis.  She orchestrates the performance, opening and closing the front curtains, fussing over the minutia, all while acting as the mysterious caretaker of the B&B.

Both Luke Werner (Elias) and Kat Shy (Jenny) talk to each other, rather than projecting loud enough for the audience to hear their words, thus many of their speeches lack clarity.   

(The late Don Bianchi, the founder of Dobama, when directing, would place himself in the furthest seat from the stage during rehearsals would scream, “I can’t hear you” when an actor failed to project.  The young actors needed Don’s admonishment!)

Cameron Caley Michalak’s scenic design and IBG Designs:  Dred Geib, have created a perfect setting.  The tones, accents and set pieces are impressively era correct.  

Capsule judgement:  In spite of several outstanding performances, Dobama’s “John” is overly long and too slowly paced.  The author misses the opportunity to develop the potential of the core concepts of the tale.  It is worth the long sit, however, to experience the astounding five-minute between acts monologue by Dorothy Silver!


“John” runs through, November 11, 2018 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.