Monday, September 23, 2002

Homeland Security or Charlton Forget You Gun (Habitat For Insanity)

Improve inconsistent but fun at Habitat for Instanity

Habitat for Insanity has recently opened its second comedy revue HOMELAND SECURITY BLANKET OR CHARLTON FORGET YOUR GUN. The two-hour show combines original written sketches and songs dealing with issues such as religion, terrorism, gun control, and America's obsession with itself, along with an improvisational segment.

Comedy is hard to do. Improv is hard to do. There are very few equals to CAPITAL STEPS.
Highlights of the show include a funny and tender segment about a duo attending a Star Wars and Star Trek convention, a wondrous takeoff on the songs from HAIR, a hysterically funny segment by the Big White Rapper, and a minor league baseball broadcast which turns into a sex tryst.

Highlight performers are Ed Ackerman, Jeff Etters, Doug Rossi, Jim Faith and Gretchen Thomas. Adam Brooks does an excellent job of musically underscoring the festivities.

Capsule judgement: Even SECOND CITY has off nights. So, when attending comedy performances and improv you have to stay loose and realize that every minute is not going to be enthralling. In the case of 'HOMELAND SECURITY' go knowing that the material and performance are generally pleasant, some miss the point, and some are even side splitting.

Sunday, September 15, 2002

Homebody/Kabul (Dobama)

Dobama's 'HOMEBODY/KABUL' is a long sit

Tony Kushner is noted as being a political playwright. He has charted German social democratic impotence in A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY. In SLAVS, he probes the death of the Soviet Union. In his most acclaimed work, the two-part, nine-hour epic ANGELS IN AMERICA, he examines personal suffering and betrayal in the worlds of disease, homophobia, and reactionary politics. In all of his plays he uses lots and lots and lots of words.

At the beginning of PERESTROIKA (part two of ANGELS IN AMERICA) a character asks, "The great question before us is: will the past release us?" He continues to probe that question in his rambling new play HOMEBODY/KABUL, which is getting its midwestern debute at Dobama Theatre. Ironically, Kushner wrote the play before 9/11/2001. This makes the work, which is set in Afghanistan, rather remarkable and a little eerie. He talks about places and topics that most Americans weren’t even aware of before that fateful date.

Our journey starts with an hour-long monologue in which Homebody, a middle-aged British matron, offers glimpses of the pain of a loveless marriage as she conjures a stream-of-consciousness vision of an ancient land and culture, a place of "strangeness and beauty." A place from which history dawns and is the burial sight of Cain, the killing brother of Bibical history.

Homebody leaves home to visit Afghanistan and disappears. What happened to her is the mystery that her husband, an uncommunicative communications expert, and her daughter, a neurotic, alienated young woman, strive to discover during the next two acts. Was she killed by a mob offended by her apparent flouting of Muslim female propriety? Is she still alive? Has she taken the veil and married a Muslim doctor? As is his habit, Kushner layers this narrative with fascinating historical facts and observations. In this case, on western and Afghan culture.

Some scenes are powerful such as when a rejected Afghan wife's rage at the West's complicity in bringing the Taliban to power. Some are seemingly meaningless bits of information. In reality, the play could have ended with the conclusion of the first act and been satisfying.

In spite of some brilliant dialogue and philosophical importance, Kushner does not seem to head the adage, “The mind can absorb what the seat can endure.” The major topic at both intermissions on opening night was on the interminable length of the show.

Dobama’s production is well staged. Nan Wray is nothing short of brilliant as Homebody. Robert Hawkes, is properly emotionally challenged as the very linear husband. Scott Platte is effective in his role as an undefined diplomat. Bernadette Clemens is often too strident as the daughter. Jean Zarzour gives a special dimension to the Muslim doctor’s shunned wife.

Capsule judgement: Director Joel Hammer should have been aware that modern-day audiences, even the intellectual ones who generally attend Dobama productions, are not going to cotton to a play that clocks in at 3 hours, 45 minutes. If Kushner wouldn’t cut the script, Hammer should have. Sections could have been red penciled without destroying the message, probably enhancing the meaning.

'CATS' (Playhouse Square Center)

'CATS' claws its way back into Allen Theatre

What more can be said about the musical CATS? The records just keep piling up. CATS is the longest continuously running touring show in U.S. history. It is the longest running music ever in both London, where it is still running, and in New York, where it opened in 1981 and closed on September 10, 2000. It has been presented in 26 countries and over 300 cities and has been translated into 10 languages. But, there may be some new facts to share: the set of CATS consists of 2,500 oversized props, three writers tried to set words to the music for the show’s biggest hit song, “Memory” before Trevor Nunn (the show’s director) wrote the lyrics himself. “Memory” has been recorded by over 150 artists, from Barbra Streisand to Johnny Mathis to Liberace. Barry Manilow’s rendition was a Top 40 hit. The play generated the most jobs in Broadway history. It also generated over $3.12 billion into New York’s economy during its run. Also, did you know that for the Broadway opening, the Winter Garden Theatre was gutted and the roof replaced to accommodate the trip of Grizabela, who sings “Memory” to the Heaviside Layer to be reborn?

The show, which is based on T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and has music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, has been called “purrfection.” It is credited with being a “marvelous accomplishment.” It won seven 1983 Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best book of a Musical, Best Lighting and Best Costumes.

CATS seems to be the kind of musical that people absolutely love or hate. I don’t quite hate it, but put me in the “I’d rather see a musical with a plot that has more than one hit song” category. That’s not to say that I didn’t find the production appearing on the stage of Allen Theatre in Playhouse Square entertaining, I did. I just don’t see what all the fuss is about. I don’t think CATS compares with WEST SIDE STORY, CHORUS LINE, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, MY FAIR LADY, or CAROUSEL as a great musical. Yes, the costumes are fun. The idea of cats clawing their way around the theatre and playing with the patrons is cute. And, “Memory” is a great song, in fact, probably one of musical theatre’s greatest songs. But, does the show deserve all the accolades? I say, “nope.”

The touring production does the script it’s service. Though they lack some of the intensity of previous productions, the human felines generally are catlike in their actions. The voices are excellent. The sets and costumes are as good as touring shows get.

Capsule judgement: The show was advertised as a format for a whole new generation of theatre-goers to experience the show. By the audience at opening night, the ads keyed in on the right group. The theatre was filled with youngsters. And, yes, the did get an experience. They squealed with delight when a cat sat on the arm of their chairs, they petted the animals when they leaned toward them. One adorable little girl who was very dressed up in her best pink and white dress who was sitting next to me kept up a running commentary comparing the live version to the video she has at home. She was favorably impressed with seeing the show in person. What more can be asked for?

The Amen Corner (Cleveland Play House)

'THE AMEN CORNER' well-conceived at Play House

When it opened on Broadway, terms used to describe James Baldwin’s THE AMEN CORNER included honest, wholly rich, profoundly poignant, vivid, and rich in humanity. These qualities all flow forth in director Chuck Patterson’s well-conceived production at the Cleveland Play House.

James Baldwin was the first of nine children of a clergyman and a factory worker. Born in 1924, he was brought up in New York’s Harlem and became a store front preacher at fourteen. Disillusioned with religion, and then the race relations in America, he moved to Paris and started to write. By the mid 1950’s he was well on his way to being the voice of Black America through novels, plays and essays. He returned to the US in 1960 and became politically active in support of civil rights. His play THE AMEN CORNER was first produced in 1955 at Howard University, the country’s foremost African American institution.

THE AMEN CORNER is based on places, events and people that Baldwin knew well. In fact, it is proposed by literature experts that the character of David is Baldwin’s alter-ego.

The story concerns a store-front Harlem church in the 1950s. The church is presided over by the strong-willed Sister Margaret who sets high standards for her parishioners as well as herself in her attempt to hide from the reality of her past and uncertainty of her present. When her former husband appears, her congregation turns skeptical, her 18-year old son plummets into an identity crisis, and Margaret is forced to deal with a host of personal demons.

The play, typical of 1950 scripts, is overly-long, consisting of three acts and two intermissions. Patterson does not allow the show to slide so the time goes quickly and the audience involvement is high.

Hopefully Elizabeth Van Dyke’s voice holds out through the run of the show. Though her characterization of Sister Margaret is clear and focused her projection is excessive through much of the performance. She is especially strong near the end of the show when she starts expressing meaning through changing line nuances rather than just shouting.

LaShawn Banks (David) has an appropriate undertow of torment throughout. His final speech seems to be Baldwin’s personal statement on who he needed to become and why he had to leave the culture he knew but questioned. When David states, “Maybe I could say something, say something in music,” it is the same statement Baldwin might have asked about his going out and creating literature.

Diane Weaver was capable of developing a vivid character by underplaying the role of Margaret’s older sister. She well showed how screaming can be over-shadowed by nuance.

RaSheryl McCreary (Sister Moore) is very effective as the holier-than-though virgin and conniving trouble-maker.

Cecelia Antoinette and Glenn Turner are strong as the husband and wife team who aid in the final fall of Sister Margaret.

The choral work and gospel presentations, under the musical direction of Marcella McElroy Caffie and Danny McElroy, are sensational. The renditions had the audience clapping and reacting throughout.

Technical aspects were outstanding. Felix Cochren’s two level set was practical and effective though the height of the second level sometimes caused the sound to get lost in the fly space. Myrna Colley-Lee’s costumes were era and purpose perfect. William Grant III’s lighting design was effective, especially considering he had to work with lighting a double level set which is very difficult.

Capsule Judgement: 'THE AMEN CORNER' is a play which is appropriate to the lives of all people, not just African Americans. Though it speaks with the Black voice, it asks the universal question of how we should live our lives, what we do when the world becomes too difficulty for us to face dead on, and how we react when reality hits. This is not a play about race or racial intolerance, it is a play making statements and asking questions about how to live one’s life.