Saturday, March 23, 2002

The Waverly Gallery (Cleveland Play House)

Play House's 'THE WAVERLY GALLERY' meaningful, but misses the mark

It is sad indeed to watch those around us get old and lose their sense of dignity and purpose. The question facing many, in the era of the longer life spans, is how to deal with those who lose their memories and physical strength, becoming shadows of their former selves. This, basically, is the situation explored by Kenneth Lonergan in his memory play, 'THE WAVERLY GALLERY.'

Gladys Green, a former lawyer, activist and small art gallery owner has come to the stage of her life when her faculties are abandoning her. She runs a small art gallery in Greenwich Village and lives in a near-by building also inhabited by her grandson Daniel. We watch as her family struggles to find the balance between allowing Gladys to maintain her dignity and keeping their own lives in balance.

Lonergan’s script is lacking. The writing doesn’t clearly separate the pathos from the humor. Audience members giggled at what seemed inappropriate moments causing discomfort for those around them. What is funny about seeing a once vital person become lost in a sea of confusion? Should we laugh or cry? Lonergan often gives us no help. Shouldn’t we expect that the elderly woman’s daughter and son-in law who are both psychiatrists to be better be able to handle their loved one’s demise? Problems can overwhelm, but shouldn’t we expect these experts to have more understanding?

Peter Hackett’s direction gives us little help. The actors come out shouting and the decibel level continues throughout. There is little real empathy, just over-wrought frustration and yelling. Even Daniel, the supposedly compassionate grandson, is forced into what would appear to be uncharacteristic rage.

It’s worth seeing the production to experience the acting wonders of long-time television performer Ann Guilbert. Guilbert, who portrayed Millie on 'THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW' and Grandma Yetta in 'THE NANNY,' gives understanding to the role as we watch her fall deeper and deeper into the chasm of chaos. Andrew Katz, as her grandson, has many wonderful moments. The script and the direction fail him at times causing the character to portray seemingly uncharacteristic acts. Darrie Lawrence and Mike Hartman as the daughter and son-in-law spend too much time yelling and fretting. Is this the fault of the writing or the directing? Gregory Northrop portrays a painter whose presence is irrelevant to the story line.

Capsule judgement: 'THE WAVERLY GALLERY' is disappointing. In this age when the topic of aging is so important, a meaningful, well performed play could have been a gift. As is, it’s an opportunity to see a wonderful performance in a less than pleasing production.

Hairy Ape (Cleveland Public Theatre)

'HAIRY APE' at CPT more style than substance

After seeing 'THE HAIRY APE' at Cleveland Public Theatre no one will accuse guest director David Herskovits of not being creative. His imagination in staging is evident throughout. But, as happens with productions which stress style over substance, the production fails to fully develop the author’s intent and purpose. So much effort was placed on visual images that acting nuances, vocal projection, and idea development were lost.

'THE HAIRY APE' is Eugene O’Neill’s major expressionist play. It draws heavily on the philosophy of Freidrich Nietzsche and from the concepts of psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

'THE HAIRY APE' centers on a depiction of the suffering caused by societal attitudes. O’Neill conjures up a nightmare in which Yank, a steamship stoker, searches for a place to belong, only to end crushed in the arms of a zoo gorilla.

Herskovits, the Artistic Director of the Target Margin Theatre in New York, has conceived a vivid production. He manipulates his actors like chessmen, every move programmed. He uses all parts of the Gordon Theatre, a former movie theatre which is in the process of being refurbished. The partially destroyed balcony, the underbelly of the balcony, the open staging area, and the aisles are all fair game.

Unfortunately, lost in the staging is a lack of attention to presentational detail. Jimmie D. Woody as Yank lacks a clear idea of the meaning of his lines. His final speech, which should be wrenching, makes little sense. Many of the cast are hard to understand due to garbled pronunciation and poorly conceived accents. Performers feign characterizations rather than developing ideas. Sound is often lost under the balcony overhang and actors presenting lines with their backs turned to the audience create sound vacuums.

Capsule judgement: If you are interested in seeing a visually compelling production, and are willing to set aside the playwright’s intended meaning, CPT’S 'THE HAIRY APE' will satisfy you.

Moon for the Misbegottten (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

Moon for the Misbegotten a must see at GLTF

Eugene O’Neill is the only American ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His writing raised American dramatic theater from frothy escapism to meaningful messages. Ironically, both the Great Lakes Theatre Festival and Cleveland Public Theatre have chosen to present O’Neill plays simultaneously. The plays and productions are quite different.

O’Neill’s works spanned the genres of realism and expressionism. 'MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN,' the script Great Lakes Theatre Festival chose to produce is one of his realistic plays and considered to be his finest work.

GLTF has wisely decided to edit and shorten the autobiographical play which concerns the ill-fated love affair between the guilt-ridden and alcoholic Jamie (modeled on O’Neill’s real life brother) and Josie, a shy woman who hides her real feelings by feigning to be something she is not. The play paints life in harsh colors with an overstroke of light as represented by underlying love and respect of father toward daughter and the brilliance of sunrises.

The production, under the able direction of James Bundy, works extremely well. He shows an understanding of the script, its message and how to get the meaning across.

Vincent Dowling, the former Artistic Director of GLTF, returns to portray Phil Hogan, the drunken lout of a father. He is, as the script describes, “As spry as a yearling and nasty as a wasp.” His performance is acting at its finest. Derdriu Ring, who does not physically fit the supposedly physically unattractive large boned daughter, none-the-less overcomes that by emotionally fleshing out the role. Sean Haberle has some shallow moments as Jamie but generally is convincing.

John Ezell’s set design is wonderfully realistic and Matthew Frey’s lighting helps develop the proper moods.

Capsule judgement: GLTF’S 'MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN' is O’Neill at its finest! The production has been honed to perfectly develop the drama, pathos and humor of the script. This is a must see for any real theatre-lover!

Thursday, March 14, 2002

The Interview (Halle Theatre/JCC)

Powerful script bring audience to tears at Halle/JCC

Every once in while a script is so powerful, so well written, that even when give a mediocre production, it brings the desired effect from an audience. This is the case with THE 'INTERVIEW' at the Halle Theatre.

Local write Fay Sholiton has crafted a play that delves the emotional depths. On the surface it might be viewed as another Holocaust play, but it is more, much, much more. It examines survivor guilt, mother/daughter issues, rejection, generativity (what happens to one generation as they receive the traditions from the previous generation), what happens when one person wants to share and another doesn’t want to receive the message and vice versa, and what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes. That’s a lot of stuff to unload in an hour-and-a-half. But Sholiton manages to weave it well!

Unfortunately, the Halle production is not of the same quality as the material. Tom Fulton’s direction just doesn’t delve deeply enough. In general his characters are saying lines, not experiencing emotions. Yiddish (the Jewish language) contains many very descriptive words. One of these is “taum” which is defined as “taste.” It really means the shadings of taste that make foods or events extra special. This production lacks “taum.”

Ann Meshenberg as the interviewer comes closest to delivering a stirring performance. Her meek, bird-like personality in the first act gives way in Act II to an overwhelmed woman who has suffered the emotional loss of not being allowed to share her mother’s experiences, to understand the depths of her torment.

Marji Dodrill, as Holocaust survivor Bracha Weissman, gives a serviceable performance, but fails to lay bare the underlying depth of the woman’s hurt. Dodrill uses anger instead of agony as her acting catalyst resulting in some audience alienation rather than understanding.

Kathryn Wolfe Sebo’s words lacked the depth and nuances needed to display her frustration and bitterness fully.

Michael Roache gives a nice reading of his part as the youthful photographer.

Capsule judgement: 'THE INTERVIEW' is worth seeing. It is a powerful script that left the audience with tear-soaked wads of Kleenex.

Friday, March 08, 2002

Dobama, A Commentary (Dobama)

Letter to the Editor
Cleveland Jewish News:

Dobama Theatre is a theatrical gem and one well-attended by the Jewish community. It is therefore appropriate that the CJN highlighted the theatre's contributions in its March 8 edition. It is especially relevant since Donald Bianchi, the founding light of the theatre, has been diagnosed with acute leukemia.

As much as a I appreciated Margin Herwald's article, there are historical errors that need correction. The article indicates at Dobama's did its first production in a Cleveland Height's hotel. 'Taint so." The first two productions ('ROPE DANCERS' and 'RAPE OF THE BELT') were done at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre. The company then moved to the now destroyed Quad Hotel at E. 75th and Euclid for the next couple of seasons. This was followed by the move to its present Coventry basement home. The relocation was accomplished by volunteers ripping out of the four-lane bowling alley and constructing a theatre. It was a labor of love for those of us who believed in Bianchi and his mission. Forty years later many of the same people still support this wonderful theatre.

For those who have admired his contributions to theatre in Cleveland please drop a note to Donald Bianchi at 2348 Charney Road, University Heights, 44118. (Please no phone calls or visits).

Roy Berko

Sunday, March 03, 2002

Night Bloomers (Cleveland Play House)

Next Stage Festival at CPH previews 'NIGHT BLOOMERS'

Sarah Morton is one of Cleveland’s better playwrights. Her play SAFETY was nominated for the American Theatre Critic Association’s “New Play Award” and the Osborn Award For Up And Coming Playwrights. Her newest work-in-progress NIGHT BLOOMERS, had its first-ever public reading as part of the NEXT STAGE FESTIVAL OF NEW PLAYS--2002 at the Cleveland Play House. Originally planned as a longer play Morton, according to cast member Dorothy Silver, discarded her original concept following the 9-11 tragedy and sculpted a one-act play in its place.

NIGHT BLOOMERS centers on a grandmother, her twenty-something grandson and a young female playwright. The setting is December, 2001 in the backyard of the grandmother’s house somewhere in the Southwest. Lilia, the grandmother, has received an exotic plant as a present from her daughter whose son Nathan is visiting his grandmother. In reality, Nathan, on the run from reality. A run which always leads him to his grandmother. Neli, the playwright-wanna-be is also in a search...a search for the center of her play, and probably her life. Grandma, though wise, also escaped in her early life to Italy, met and married her husband and has been adrift since. The Night Bloomer plant’s existence centers on building up its energy so it can shoot forth an occasional beautiful bloom. In the play it acts as a metaphor for each of the characters.

Though not a completed work it is an interesting one-act play that evokes questions of the purpose of life and what each person’s role is in his/her existence. One of the major questions that the author will have to address is whether she leaves the work as a one-act play or expands it into a full work.

Capsule judgement: Though just a reading, CPH’s cast was effective. Headed by the wonderful Dorothy Silver, who can make a pause and a sideways glance yell meaning, she was ably supported by Jason Markouc and Erin Hurley.

The Weir (Ensemble)

The Weir slow moving at Ensemble

The Irish are known for many things. Outstanding among them is their ability to spin a tale. Talking and drinking are close runner-ups. Thus, it is no surprise that Conor McPherson’s play 'THE WEIR,' which was the winner of two 1998 Olivier Awards including Best New Play, takes place in a bar and concerns the telling of tales and lots of talk and drinking.

The plot line centers on the arrival of a mysterious outsider to a rural area set in traditions, where little new or exciting ever takes place. She brings with her a search for a new lease on life and breaks the tedium of the pub regulars. Drinking ensues and the barroom chat soon becomes a series of local legends and distressing tales. Supposedly, the play was inspired by the author’s visits to the small town of Leitrim to see her granddad.

When it opened in Philadelphia, on its way to becoming a Broadway hit, one reviewer said, “'THE WEIR' does what all good stories do: effectively transports the audience to another world that seems both far, far away and simultaneously right around the corner from home.”

I’m not sure what the Broadway or Philadelphia reviewer saw, but that’s the not the play being produced on the Ensemble stage. Local viewers are exposed to a very, very talky play, with little action, in which the stories, with one exception, lack the intrigue to hold attention.

Maybe the difference between here and there were the production qualities. But that can’t account totally for the obvious boredom of the audience. All of the actors on the Ensemble stage were competent, if not spell binding. The exception was Meg Kelly, playing Valerie, the mysterious outsider. She was excellent, especially while telling her tale, the reason she needed to come to this forsaken outpost to get away from the real world. That’s not to say that Bernard Canepari, John Kolibob, Steven Vasse-Hansell and Charles Karali were bad. They weren’t. Their Irish accents, thanks to Kartali’s dialect coaching were right on. They developed clear characterizations, though they generally failed to keep the pace fast enough, and the stories entrancing enough, to grab the viewers.

Special attention should be paid to Ron Newell for his wonderful set and Croby Grubb who selected appropriate Irish music to set the proper mood.

Capsule judgement: In retrospect, why this script was awarded two of the prestigious Olivier Awards continues to mystify. No matter the production qualities, there just wasn’t enough there to make this a prize winner.

Saturday, March 02, 2002

Clevelander in 'Hart's War'

Joel Sugerman, son of Ann and Marty Sugerman of University Heights, appears as the Unnamed Soldier in 'HART’S WAR' with Bruce Willis. Sugerman, who is residing in Prague where the film was shot, also appeared in the TV mini-series 'JOAN OF ARC.'

Diamonds and Blues (Ohio Ballet)

Ohio Ballet--baseball, flamenco, The Point Sisters

Several weeks ago when I met with Jeffrey Graham Hughes, the Artistic Director of the Ohio Ballet, we discussed the future and his dream for the company. He is interested in taking it in a direction quite different from the Heinz Poll years. With the dream come pitfalls. Many OB loyalists have difficulty moving on...they were comfortable with the old and want it to remain. We also discussed my observations that though I most often find the new works creative, I often feel that they are not well polished.

Creativity and polish were not an issue with at least one of the pieces from OB’s newest offerings, 'DIAMONDS AND BLUES' at Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre. The program is being repeated at E. J. Thomas Hall in Akron February 8 & 9.

Karen Gabay, the dancing darling of the now defunct Cleveland San Jose Ballet has started to establish herself as a fine choreographer. Her 'NOUVEAU FLAMENCO' is a modern version of the classic flamenco dance, flamenco on toe shoes. This piece is creative, exciting, and was perfectly executed. Dennis Dugan’s lighting added greatly to the production as did Natasha Guruleva’s black and red costumes. Jesica Salomon was radiant in Part II. Though dancing strongly, with soaring leaps, Dmitry Tubolstev continues to distract with grimacing facial expressions. The company worked as a fine- honed unit in the other segments.

In 'HOT RIFFS AND BLUE NOTES' choreographer Gregory Robinson of the Dayton Ballet presented a series of creative modern dance pieces to the music of the Pointer Sisters. Though innovatively conceived there was a lack of unity among the dancers. Many did not pick up the attitude of the music in their bodies and faces. For example, in Salt Peanuts, the fast pleasurable music engendered hip attitudes. The woman were fine. With the exception of Brian Murphy, whose face and body burst with energy, the male dancers appeared to be concentrating so hard they forgot to have fun, to let loose. (Come on guys, this is not Swan Lake.) Jesica Salomon was wonderfully sensual in Black Coffee. Lowell A. Mathwich’s costumes were attitude perfect.

In an interesting program inclusion, pianist David Fisher presented a musical interlude of three Spanish dance compositions.

The highlight of the evening was supposed to be 'PLAY BALL!' It is intended to take the game of baseball and translate it into a fun-filled ballet. The music spanned most major classical pieces including “Carmen,” “The Comedians,” and “The Barber of Seville.” The piece lacks a strong sense of comedy needed to make it outstanding. Part of the issue is that ballet dancers are hard to accept as baseball players. Also there needs to be a sense of farcical acting that isn’t often part of a dancers’ repertoire. The serious tone of most of the music also seems to get in the way. The highlight of the number was Brian Murphy and Anitra Nurnberger’s nicely performed sixth inning pas de deux. Overall, bad? No. Great? No. Memorable? No. Enjoyable? Yes.

Capsule judgement: It’s worth attending this weekend’s Ohio Ballet performance for no other reason than to see Karen Gabay’s NOUVEAU FLAMENCO. The program should work even better in a setting other than the huge bowling alley shaped Allen Theatre. I’m glad they saved the Playhouse Square theatres but the Allen is a problematic setting for almost every venue, especially for intimate ballet.