Sunday, October 20, 2019

“Wakey, Wakey” leaves audience emotionally drained at Dobama



"Is it now? I thought I had more time." 

These first words in the play “Wakey, Wakey,” are spoken by Guy, a man who knows that he is about to die. 

Much like the epic “Waiting for Godot,” Will Eno’s emotionally moving script existentially questions why we exist, probes into why we are here, and the possible journeys that are taken to eventually get to the end.

As a long-time end-of-life volunteer counselor for the Hospice of the Western Reserve, I have observed, shared, experienced, and grieved the end of many patient’s lives.  Those last couple of hours or days takes the form of sitting quietly and sharing their space at home, in a nursing facility or at the hospice, or actively communicating with the patient and sometimes, the family.  At times I administered Reiki, guided imagery, or played music to help the exit journey.  At other times I held a hand of the person or that of a family member.  Each case was a life-changing experience.

That experience can be felt, observed, and participated in, by spending a little over an hour at Dobama for their present production of “Wakey, Wakey.” 

We observe, in silence, low level conversations, and yes, even laughter, as Guy, in a wheel chair, recounts his life, with the aid of file card notes and projected pictures. 

His hospice worker ministers to his needs, sweeps the air of psychological impurities (though as administered it looks like a dynamic voodoo ritual rather than a slow aesthetic cleansing which is part of the Reiki ritual), volunteers support, and check to assure that Guy has left his earthly home.

Director Christopher Mirto guides us wisely through the experience, nicely pacing the action and helping the actors texture their roles.

Jason Martin, as Guy, inhabits the role as if he is a master at end of life experience.  His is a meaningful, carefully crafted portrayal, which allows us to feel both identification and empathy.  

Katrice Headd has the difficult role of being present, as Lisa, but not becoming so attached to her patient that his demise devastates her.  She carries it off with gentleness and maturity…the signs of a well-trained Hospice caretaker.

Many contemporary plays incorporate electronic graphics into their productions.  Often, they simply take the place of scenery or are used to create illusions.  In “Wakey, Wakey,” the well-conceived visuals by T. Paul Lowry are a necessity for gaining a full picture of Guys travel through life.

Also impressive is the sound (Derek Graham) and lighting (Marcus Dana) that complement the staging.

Capsule judgment:  Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” is a heartfelt look at the end of life which invites the audience to be psychologically present while the emotional tale masterfully plays itself out.  Justifiably, there is no curtain call.  Who applauds a eulogy?

“Wakey, Wakey” runs through November 10, 2019 at Dobama, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

Next up at Dobama is “The Old Man and The Old Moon,” an odyssey of music and theatre magic that speaks to the childish mind in all of us.  Good family entertainment.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Women-centric “Julius Caesar” at GLT is bloody-good



Sara Bruner has proven once again that she is the queen of Shakespeare staging.  As she did last season with her “The Taming of the Shrew,” her women-centric version of “Julius Caesar,” which is now on stage at Great Lakes Theater, is creative, well-formulated and long on clear message development.

Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” identified as “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” in the Bard’s First Folio, may well have been the first play staged in London’s Globe Theatre.  

Set in 44 BC, it is a historical tragedy and, like his “Coriolanus” and “Anthony and Cleopatra,” is based on true events from Roman history.

At the time of its first staging, there was general angst in England.  The reigning Queen Elizabeth was aging.  Her time in power was coming to an end and there was concern because she had no heirs and wouldn’t name a successor.  There was fear that at her death there would be a Civil war, like the one that wracked Rome.

The play centers on the moral dilemma of Brutus as he questions whether to join a conspiracy led by Cassius to murder the publicly adored, successful warrior, Julius Caesar, who, it is perceived, that if left to her choice, would become the dictator of Rome.  This would mean the end of the republic. 

Brutus struggles as he asks, “what is meant by honor, patriotism and friendship?”

Questions abound:  Will Caesar declare herself emperor?  Will Cassius convince Brutus to join the conspiracy?  What will Mark Antony, who has offered Caesar the crown of Rome three times, do if there is a coupe?   Though Caesar is cast as the protagonist, since Brutus is the driving force of the play, is she the tragic hero?  How will Shakespeare resolve the conflict between envy and ambition versus honor and patriotism?  Who are the heroes and the villains?  Or, are there no good and bad characters?  

Is there any modern-day lesson to be learned from the play?

According to the GLT program Playnotes, “Shakespeare himself foresaw the universality of this story when Cassius says, ‘How many ages hence/Shall this our lofty scene be acted over/In states unborn and accent yet unknown!’”

Brunner, in her Director’s notes, picks up Shakespeare’s past/future idea when she states, “The function of ‘Julius Caesar’ is the same for us today as it was for Shakespeare’s audiences.  It gives us perspective on our own social and political situations while offering us a little distance, and space for reflection.  In this devastating tale of Rome, and its people, we are able to see glimpses of ourselves, our leaders, our history and our potential future.  We see that violence begets violence and that sometimes, we can inadvertently destroy something we love in the pursuit of preserving it.”

Julius Caesar,” both historically, and as written, is a very male-centric play…the leading characters are men…Caesar, Cassius, Mark Anthony and Brutus are males.  But, need this be?  Not in Bruner’s mind.  She cast both Caesar and Cassius as women.  The dialogue required a changing of some “he’” and “his” to “her” and “she,” but little else.  She did this because, she wanted “to examine what happens when women gain access to power in a male-dominated world.”

From the viewpoint of this reviewer, putting aside my knowledge of history and the Shakespeare script, I found little real difference.  This is interesting, since, as a human communication professor I know the research by Debra Tannen and Julia Woods, gender communication researchers, who indicate there is a major difference between the words that men and women use and the way they exert power.  I, personally had no problem in buying into Bruner’s casting and the women using Shakespeare’s words.  Though, if I were a strong chauvinist, I might have.

Bruner’s concept of bridging past to present was represented in both the set and costume design.  The modernistic steel girders and wood-angled walls brought awareness that this was not Roman-columned times.  The modern costumes, overlaid with classic Roman fabric draping, though it often caused some of the cast to awkwardly handle the material, also opened up the visual sense of past/present.

Julius Caesar” is one of the Bard’s grisliest plays.  Bodies are often strewn over the stage.  Unlike many of Shakespeare’s works, those bodies found death not by poison or accident but by stabbing in full-view of the audience.  Blood literally flowed from the wounds in the form of ribbons of red extracted from each knife stab.  Yards and yards of crimson fabric were used to illuminate the slaughter.  The lasting illusion was a visual tribute to the horrors of strife and war.


Laura Welsh Berg gave us a driven Cassius, balancing word versus deed.  Carole Healey’s Julius Caesar was warrior right, leader strong and vindictive when need be.  Nick Steen’s Mark Antony was hero handsome in developing a meaningful textured role.  Lynn Robert Berg created a clear and strong Brutus.  Jodi Dominick was captivating as the Soothsayer.  Lyn Robert Berg (Brutus), Jillian Kates (Portia), Aled Davies (Cicero), and Alex Syiek (Casca) were all strong in developing clear characterizations.

Russell Metheny’s scenic design, Leah Piehl’s costumes, Rick Martin’s lighting and Matthew Webb’s incidental music and sound design well highlighted the staging.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  The production is riveting.  It is fast paced, lines clearly stated, actions exciting, and acting well-textured.  This is Shakespeare staging and performance at its finest.  It’s a must see for anyone who enjoys good theater.  Kudos to Sara Bruner and her fine cast and technical staff!  
                                                                                                               
The show runs through November 3, 2019 in the Hanna Theatre.  Tickets can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to http://www.greatlakestheater.org/

Sunday, October 06, 2019

“Member of the Wedding” less than it should be at Beck




The play “Member of the Wedding” is based on Carson McCullers 1946 novel of the same name.  The author also penned the script for the 1950 Broadway stage production which starred Ethel Waters, Julie Harris and Brandon DeWilde.

The stage version opened to universally positive reviews, with much praise, not only for the writing, but for the staging and the performances.

A musical version, television adaptation and a 1989 Broadway revival production, followed.

The story takes place over a few days in late August.  It tells the story of 12-year-old Frankie Addams, who feels disconnected from the world.  A self-described “unjoined person.”

Frankie's mother died when she was born, and her father is a distant, uncomprehending man, escaping into his business, rather than being a caring father. 

Frankie’s world is mostly populated by the family's African American maid, Berenice, and her six-year-old cousin, John Henry.  She has no friends in her small Southern town and dreams of going away with her brother, who is in the Army, and his bride-to-be, on their honeymoon. 

The book and play are each a study of the motivations and psychological needs of the three main characters.  It is a study of people, not of plot line.

The misfit Frankie (who some think is the alter-ego of McCullers) is frustrated, lonely, and restless, with few social skills, whose fantasy of hopes of going away with her brother and sister-in-law, to escape from her desolate life, are dashed.  Both John Henry and Berenice are left adrift as the family unit breaks apart.

McCullers takes on racial and sexual identity issues, both of which were shocking topics for the time. 

Frankie wishes people could “change back and forth from boys to girls.” John Henry wants them to be "half boy and half girl." 

Berenice would like there to be "no separate colored people in the world, but all human beings would be light brown color with blue eyes and black hair."

The brilliantly written play has become a classic in the American dramatic genre.
Carson McCullers once said of her play, that it was "one of those works that the least slip can ruin. It must be beautifully done. For like a poem there is not much excuse for it otherwise." 

I wish I could write that the Beck production fulfilled McCullers desire for being beautifully done, but, unfortunately, I can’t.  

For a staging of the epic to be successful, each character must be realistically created and the staging so smooth that we perceive we are eaves-dropping in a real world.  Witnesses to overhearing real people, not dramatic characters.

Though the cast puts out full effort, only Lisa Louise Langford, as Berenice, comes close to being natural, talking meanings, not emoting words.  She creates a woman whose life as a black Southern woman, caretaker of a dysfunctional family, and having her own personal problems, is real, identifiable, relatable. 

Putting children on stage is always a danger.  Usually they have limited training and need much help from a knowing director to understand that in a realistic world, which this play clearly creates, it is necessary to grasp the underpinnings of the character and the need for being, not acting, not emoting lines.  To become the character, not portray the character.  

Some of the supporting actors also needed work on line meanings, projection, using consistent accents, and the development of real people. 

Besides the shallow development of characterizations, some of the staging was awkward.  The L-shaped audience seating area in Beck’s Studio Theater can cause sight and hearing issues.  The staging must take that into consideration, but, in this production, often didn’t.  For example, sitting John Henry, in several scenes, with his back to the largest section of the audience, made it difficult for many to hear his lines.  And staging a scene in a notch between the two audience seating areas made seeing and hearing the action difficult for many.  

Capsule Judgment:  Unfortunately, the staging and performance quality of “The Member of the Wedding” was not what it should have been. 

Member of the Wedding” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through November 3.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org   
Next up at Beck:  A reprise of “Shrek The Musical” form December 6, 2019 through January 5, 2020.