Saturday, September 14, 2019

“By the Bog of Cats,” a tale of Irish angst on stage at Ensemble





As “By the Bog of Cats” opens, “we see Hester, dragging a dead black swan across the snow and ice at the Bog of Cats. The Ghost Fancier has come to collect her but realizes that he is early as Hester is still alive. The Ghost Fancier exits and says that he will return at a later time.”  And, after an enveloping several hours, he returns.  By then, mystical and mythical elements, ghosts, curses, the role of motherhood, abandonment, betrayal and ethnic prejudice, and death have been revealed.

Ensemble Theater has chosen to start this, its 40thseason, with Mariana Carr’s play, By the Bog of Cats,” which is loosely based on Greek myth and Euripides’s tragic play, “Medea.”

Carr is generally recognized as being the greatest living Irish playwright.

In “Medea,” the female anti-hero, who has been cast aside by her husband, Jason, for a younger woman, seeks revenge.  To get back at him, she kills their two sons and his new bride, leaving Jason bereft.

Though the ending is quite different, there are “Medea” parallels in Carr’s script.  But the writing and performance elements are pure Irish, especially as it takes on the themes of displacement and disposition, elements not present in Greece of old, or that of its tales.

The play, which takes place in the Bog of Cats, a bleak, foreboding and frozen rural landscape in the Irish midlands, touches on Irish myth, but adds the well-known characteristics of Irish alcoholism, depression, greed and the outcome of living in a land of constant rain, clouds, gloom and doom.

By the Bog of Cats” is as much a character-study as it is a plot-driven script.

Hester Swaineis a forty-year-old woman who has lived on the bog her entire life. When she was seven years old, her mother, Josie, abandoned her. Hester has been waiting there for her mother ever since.  

Hester has a daughter, Josie, with Carthage Kilbride, a much younger man.  She is very resentful that Carthage has left her to marry Caroline, the daughter of wealthy landowner, Xavier Cassidy, so that he can inherit the Cassidy farm. 

During their relationship, Hester encouraged Carthage to have ambitions beyond his social class as a laborer's son, even giving Carthage the money to buy his first land.  

Josie is the same age that Hester was when her mother left her.  The girl is caring and loving.  She fore-shadow’s the horrific conclusion to the play by singing sad songs her mother has taught her.  

Carthage's mother looks down on Hester because Hester belongs to the “tinker class,” people, who, much like European gypsys, wander in search of odd jobs to make money, by using trickery and sexual favors.  Mrs. Kilbride, a self-centered, greedy person, constantly focuses on issues of social class and money and calls her granddaughter a “little bastard” because she was born out of wedlock.  

Xavier Cassidy is a wealthy landowner and father of Caroline, who “stole” Carthage from Hester.  In order to ensure his daughter’s happiness, and to rid himself of the guilt of having been responsible for driving off Hester’s mother, who he used for sexual pleasure, is determined to also rid the bog of Hester.

The cast is solid.  

Multi-Cleveland Critics Circle and Broadwayworld award winner, Derdriu Ring, gives another accolade worthy performance as Hester.  Ring, who was born in Ireland, and trained at The Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin, personally knows the ways of the Irish.  She doesn’t have to portray Irish angst; she lives it on-stage.  Her accent and realistic character development add a special quality to the production.

Though he can’t reach Ring’s levels, Daniel Telford gives a very credible performance as Carthage.

Julia Kolibab is properly repugnant as Mrs. Kilbride. She gives the kind of performance that encourages an audience to “boo” her character in the curtain call, while cheering the portrayal.

The fragmentary set and lighting, does little to really take us to the bog.  The significance of the up-stage knotted cloth streams seems unclear.

Celeste Cosentino nicely paces the work, tutoring the cast well on keeping the characters real, even in the fantasy scenes.

Capsule judgment:  Much in the tradition of Brian Friel and James Joyce, “By the Bog of Cats” is one of those Irish angst plays that shares the customs and folkways of the Emerald Isle.  The Ensemble production is nicely conceived, with a master class in performance skills by Derdriu Ring. 


By the Bog of Cats” runs through September 29, 2019 on Fridays and Saturdays @ 8 pm and Sundays @ 2.  Ensemble is 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

Sunday, September 08, 2019

“Hello!” “BOOK OF MORMON” delights once again in its return to Connor Palace


How many times can you see “Book of Mormon” and continue to be delighted?  I’m at #8 and counting! Yes, the Huntington Bank Series touring production of the irreverent look at religion, racism, Mormon up-tight piety and all things ridiculous, is back again, and, if you can believe it, better than ever.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the long-time writers of “South Park,” are satirical comics extraordinaire.  Their writing marriage to Robert Lopez, the co-creator of the Tony Award winning “Avenue Q,” is a union made in heaven (or at least in the Broadway version of heaven). 
 

“The Book of Mormon” is a satirical musical filled with lots of explicit language.  It lampoons organized religion and, in its own way, mocks traditional musical theater. 
 
The script tells the story of two na├»ve and optimistic Mormon missionaries (Elder Price and Elder Cunningham) who are sent to a remote village in northern Uganda to spread the Mormon religion.  

While the duo is trying to sell the locals on Mormon scripture, the people are more concerned with famine, poverty, female circumcision, war and AIDS, and a brutal warlord who is threatening the locals. 
 

Oh, what to do, what to do?  Do the more-pious-than-you have the answer?  

How did the duo get to Uganda? 


Elder Price (Liam Tobin) is the poster boy for the tall, hunky, Ken doll, clean cut, perfect teeth, face beautiful, striving for perfection, Mormon missionary.  His powerful singing voice makes the image of “sublime” even better.


Elder Cunningham (Jordan Matthew Brown, Cleveland area native who has a load of supportive relatives in the area) is a rotund, friendless nerd, who relies on half-truths and a vivid imagination to get by.  This is one talented kid who has a totally joyous time playing the comic role!
 
They were cast as a duo through total serendipity, an act of heaven, and some clever comic writers, to go out and ring the doorbells of the world.


As Elder Cunningham, who admits never having read the mythical Book, makes up fantastic tales, which, in reality, aren’t far from the actual imaginative tales of Adam Smith, Brigham Young, the golden tablets, and the migration of the Mormons from upstate New York to Salt Lake City, he wins over converts.  


After he baptizes the entire town, the church’s elders come to witness the miraculous success. 


The villagers share their understanding of the Cunningham version of their new religion in a reenactment, which parallels to “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from the “King and I,” with illusions to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from “The Sound of Music.”  


Of course chaos results, but, as must happen in a take-no-prisoner’s musical comedy, everything turns out fine, and, after a standing ovation, the audience leaves the theatre singing, “I Believe.”


The touring show is spectacular.  It plays visually and emotionally on all the senses.  From its giddy opening number (think the “Telephone Hour” at the start of “Bye, Bye, Birdie,” to its mocking use of four letter words, to its bigger than life melodrama, to the over-the-top mythology (often paralleling the belief system to “Star Wars”), we are sucked into the idea that, as one of the words to the many delightful songs states, “tomorrow is a doper, phatter latter day.”  (I won’t even go into the concept of the song “Ma Ha Nei Bu, Eebowai!” [“F _ _ _You Heavenly Father”], you just have to experience it to experience it!) 


The settings, music, costumes, lighting effects, perfect comic timing of the cast, and creative choreography all work.


Alyah Chanelle Scott) is enchanting as Nabulungi.  Cory Jones is both hysterically funny and evil incarnate, as General Butt-F _ _ king Naked, the war lord.  Andy Huntington Jones excels as the “closeted Mormon with the door more than slightly cracked open, Elder McKinley). The rest of the cast also shines, with special recognition to the young Mormon missionaries, who sing, dance and overplay with the right levels of glee.)


Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker’s direction is spot on.  Farce, especially musical farce, is hard to accomplish due to its required spoken and sung controlled abandonment, but these guys guide their cast with laser perfection.  Nicholaw’s choreography is fun and well-executed.  Ever thought you’d see a dancing kick line of Mormons?


CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you haven’t seen “The Book of Mormon,” or need a new shot of irreverent satire which skewers anyone and everyone, this is an absolute go see production. If you are a language prude, religious fanatic, or aren’t in the mood for ridiculous delight, too bad, as you are going to miss one hell of a good show!  It’s everything a modern musical that is meant for pure entertainment, with a sip of philosophy, should be! 


Tickets for “The Book of Mormon,” which runs through September 15, 2019, at the State Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or by going to www.playhousesquare.org.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

“Stupid Fucking Bird” takes glorious flight at Dobama




The lights dim. Joseph Lyle Dunn, who we later learn is portraying Conrad, the play’s protagonist, comes stage center and says, “The play will begin when someone says: ‘Start the fucking play.’”  As if on cue, a member of the audience yells, “Start the fucking play,” and it does!

Yes, “Stupid Fucking Bird” is that kind of theatrical experience.  It’s funny.  It’s tragic.  And, it gets a marvelous production under the creative mind of Dobama’s Artistic Director, Nathan Motta, at Cleveland’s off-Broadway theatre, which is now starting its 60th season.

Of the play, Motta says, “Stupid Fucking pushes the envelope, takes risks, asks hard questions of its audience, and yet, it is chook full of love and humanity.  These are the things that motivated Don Bianchi to start a theatre in 1959 as evident in his lasting words, ‘Take the risk.  We’re all in this together.’”

To fully understand Aaron Posner’s brilliant play, with the subtitle: SORT OF ADAPTED FROM “THE SEAGULL” BY ANTON CHEKHOV, the author’s stage notes need to be examined. The instructions on performances states, “THE ACTING:  Should be very, very good: Emotionally grounded, deeply passionate, intention-driven and relatively realistic. Also funny. Pretty much like a really good Chekhov play. Only different... Everyone is grappling for the best way to express themselves all the time, to give words to their frustrations, and hopes, and rampant emotions. Therefore, words often come tumbling out before the thoughts are entirely formed.”

Posner continues, “The characters are real people. They are also characters in a play. They should all be fully invested in the reality of their lives in the play and the stakes are high and deadly serious. At the same-time they know that they are in a play, that there is an audience out there.”

At Dobama’s opening night, during the pre-curtain speech, a member of the audience asked the director if a knowledge of “The Seagull” is necessary for an understanding of the play.  Motta indicated that it wasn’t completely necessary.  (Note:  I would add.  It isn’t necessary, but it helps to understand the genius of Posner’s creative approach to make Chekov modern and relative.)


What’s it all about?  “Kind, hopeful Dev suffers from an unrequited love for Mash, who composes cleverly despairing songs on the ukulele. Mash is desperately in love with Con, a passionate playwright who is deeply in love with Nina, his beautiful, vibrant muse, and childhood friend. Nina seems to love him back, until she becomes entranced by Trig, a literary star who happens to be dating Con’s mother Emma, a successful actress who is hopelessly commercial, in the eyes of her son. With a dead bird, a gun, and a little help from the audience, Con might be able to win Nina’s heart again… or at least feed his own tentative, morbid creativity,” but, don’t bet on it.  


Sound like a 19th century melodrama?  Yes.  It was one of Chekov’s many plays meant to show the frivolous nature of the Russian upper class.  But, in the ingenious adaptation writing of Posner, it works as a modern angst tale.

The play ends as it began with a startling device.  As stated in the script:  Conrad [Pulling out a gun] “I shoot myself.”  [He puts the gun to his head. Leaves it there a beat. Poised to pull the trigger. Tense silence. Then he suddenly aims it at a light above stage, fires, the light explodes. The cast is freaked, screams, maybe.]  “I fucking shoot myself!” [The stage is tense...] “Or not.” [Quick beat] “Or...” [No one moves. They are bracing for a shot. Beat. Conrad turns to the audience]. “Stop the fucking play!” [Blackout]

The cast:  Joseph Lyle Dunn (Conrad), Sara Young (Mash), Laura Perrotta (Emma), Michael Regnier (Dr. Eugene Sorn), JP Peralta (Dev), Sarah Durn (Nina) and Josh Innerst (Doyle Trigorin) each in their own way, are excellent, creating clear “real” people, nicely texturing their performances and grabbing and holding the audience’s attention.  Well done!

The creative set design by Laura Carlson Tarantowski, lighting by Wes Calkin, projection design by T. Paul Lowry, sound design by Richard Ingraham, costumes by Tesia Dugan Benson, props by Venessa Cook and choreography by Casey Venema all greatly enhance the show.

Capsule judgement: As a person present at the very start of Dobama, I would say that Donald Bianchi, the theater’s founder, would approve and be delighted that “his” theater is still fulfilling “his” dream by producing the wondrous likes of “Stupid Fucking Bird.”  Kudos to the director, technicians and actors for launching this glorious flight.

The must-see “Stupid Fucking Bird” runs through September 29, 2019 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up at Dobama is” Wakey, Wakey,” Will Eno’s new play which features a guy named Guy-a man who knows, like all of us on some level, that he is about to die. (October 18-Novemer 10, 2019).