Sunday, April 13, 2003

Dirty Blonde (Cleveland Play House)

'DIRTY BLONDE' totally delights at CPH

When I'm good, I'm very good," Mae West says with a wink, "but when I'm bad, I'm better."

When you attend ‘DIRTY BLONDE,’ now on stage at The Cleveland Play House, and you should, you’ll laugh and thoroughly enjoy yourself as you peer beneath the surface and meet the woman that was Mae West, the performer who became a caricature of herself. ‘DIRTY BLONDE’ earned five Tony nominations for its successful Broadway run in the1999-2000 season.

The story line centers on following two of West's fans as they discover a bit of the Mae West swagger in their own shy and lonely lives and allow the audience to peek inside West’s life. Charlie is a film librarian who met West in his teens and was given one of her beautiful gowns. Jo is a struggling actress who meets Charlie at West’s gravesite. What follows is a sweet love story that gives us a full view of Mae West, her songs and her life.

Why was West such a hit? As one researcher says, “Instead of hiding the fact that she was all about sex, she learned to play it up. She became this sexy creature who would always be in control of the men around her. She uses her sexuality to maintain control.”

West’s career, which spanned the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s was fodder for plenty of Hollywood gossip. Speculation flew that West’s personal life was as sexy as her roles. Eventually, the actress turned from a temptress in her prime to a lampoon of herself in her old age.

Be aware that the play contains nudity, well, one boob gets flashed, and like West, herself, the lines and double-takes are full of innuendo. The bottom line, however, is that it has a fair amount of raunch contained in a tender little love story.

Claudia Shear’s play has been called clever, witty, intelligent, touching, entertaining, unpredictable. It’s that and more under the able direction of Peter Hackett and a wonderful cast.

There are only three performers and they are all brilliantly versatile. Elizabeth Meadows Rouse does a great Mae West imitation, while also portraying Jo, the frustrated actress wanna be. She looks enough like the legend to be mistaken for her, especially when she struts around in the hallmark sequinced gowns, large feather crested hats and blonde wigs.

Tom Frey is wonderful as “The Man.” He plays the piano, sings, dances, switches characters, does shticks with the audience, plays straight and gay with ease. He’s in his CPH debut and deserves to be asked back again and again.

Nick Sullivan plays Charlie, the librarian, among other roles which include being a star struck teenager. He shadows each character perfectly, making each of them unique. He is a very talented performer who brings a quirky humor to his roles.

The staging of the play is clever. We clearly know and understand what is taking place. This is difficult because the script keeps jumping in time and there are numerous characters. The scenes blend seemlessly together in a way that aids us to keep track of the action. The lighting and set designs aid in developing the entire mood.

Unlike some plays which have their slow moments, "DIRTY BLONDE" starts off with a bang and never lets up. Ms. Shear is deserving of every bit of praise that she has received.

Capsule Judgement: The play, which runs about 1 hour and 45 minute, with no intermission, is one of the few highlights of this year’s CPH season, proving that it, like West, when it’s good, it’s very, very good. Go see ‘DIRTY BLONDE,’ it’s CPH at its best.

Proof (Cleveland Play House)

'PROOF' adds up at the Cleveland Play House

You do not have to know anything about math to appreciate 'PROOF,' now on stage at The Cleveland Play House. In fact, there are no math formulas even presented. This is a poignant drama about relationships and the search for self, not numbers.

PROOF is the story of 25 year-old Catherine and her relationships with her brilliant father, estranged sister, and the father’s former student. They are all pieces of the puzzle in the search for the truth behind a mysterious mathematical proof. Questions arise. Who is responsible for the brilliant mathematical results that Hal, the student finds while searching through notebooks that Robert, the father, left behind? Is Catherine following her father on the
path of the fragile line between his brilliance and insanity? Are Hal’s affections toward Catherine real or a put-on to obtain the formula?

PROOF, which recently closed on Broadway, won the 2001 Tony Award for Best Play,
the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Broadway Play. It has been called "stunning and riveting , ""rich and compelling," "full of life, laughter and hope," and "One elegant piece of work."

Seth Gordon, who recently was given a Times Theatre Tribute Award for his direction of 'THREE IN THE BACK, TWO IN THE HEAD' at Dobama Theatre, again is right on his directorial target. The play is well-staged, has a clear purpose, and achieves its goal. Only the very ending is slightly flawed by a lack of finality in the closing speech. The audience was unaware that the play was over.

Derdriu Ring is nothing short of brilliant as Catherine. Her flaming red hair and flashing eyes
light up the stage. She flows from depression, to satire, to glee with ease. Mike Hartman as the father and Carol Dunne as Catherine’s sister Claire are also excellent. There is clarity and consistency in their performances. Only Chad Willett, as the student, falters. His is not a bad performance, it just lacks depth. He stays on the surface, his concentration sometimes slips, and he often acts rather than reacts to his lines and those of others.

Michael Ganio’s set is wonderful. The backstage porch is appropriately surrounded by hundreds of suspended student theme books. He wisely pulled the whole set forward, toward the audience, thus creating the closeness that the Baxter Theatre’s designers had promised.

Capsule judgement: The Cleveland Play House has selected a brilliant play well-worth performing and given it a wonderful interpretation. Go see PROOF!

Monday, April 07, 2003

Credeaux Canvas (Ensemble Theater)

CREDEAUX CANVAS ‘-- Ensemble's last production at the Civic

Lucia Columbi, Artistic Director at Ensemble Theatre writes a somber message to theatre patrons in the program of their present show. It states, “The mounting of this production is a memorable one. It marks the last play Ensemble theatre will present at the Civic. After 18 years as the theatre’s home, it is fitting that we exit with a play about ‘art’.”

Rumor has it that Ensemble is in final negotiations for a new home. We hope so, for the theatre is an important link in the chain of small professional theatres. It is also hoped that, in the future, the theatre reaches out to present challenging shows like their present production, Keith Bunin’s ‘THE CREDEAUX CANVAS.’

The story centers on an interesting premise. When Jamie, the emotionally fragile son of a now-deceased art dealer, finds out he is cut out of his father’s will, he hatches a scheme whereby his roommate, a struggling artist, will create a “newly discovered” painting by Credeaux, an unknown but emerging European painter. The Credeaux canvas will be sold to a very wealthy, and supposedly very gullible, art collector. If it works, they'll be set for life. But if it doesn't...

On the surface it sounds like the potential for an excellent show. Unfortunately, in spite of acceptable performances by the cast, and some fine technical contributions, the total effect is not completely positive. The problem lies with Bunin’s dialogue. His characters often speak in platitudes, not real-sounding words. They describe their own and other’s psychological motivations, rather than allowing the audience to get to know the characters through their own statements. He often sounds like a someone who has taken one too many theoretical psychology classes. The result is an over-reaching and fragmented drama. His play keeps the viewer an arm’s distance away from feeling the emotions of the characters.

Bunin devotes most of the play's first scene into setting up the flim-flam to give us a view of Winston, the painter, Jamie, the schemer, and Amelia, Jamie’s girlfriend. Early in the second act we meet Tess, the potential buyer of the fake painting who eventually asks the right questions to blow the sham.

Winston, Jamie, and Amelia are three rudderless souls, and as such are recognizable. Jamie is the poor rich kid who doubts his own abilities. His contriving to compensate for what he feels he lacks only succeeds in making him believe in himself less. Amelia , who appears to have modest talent has come to New York to make a splash. She slowly realizes she's wading aimlessly through puddles rather than getting swept into the mainstream. Winston is a compulsive loner who can only see the path he's set himself on, a path on which he stumbles and eventually falls.

Colombi’s directing is generally on target, though she may have helped the performers by working on shadowing the intentions of the writer. She is aided by Vincent Polowy’s set which fulfills its purpose. His lighting design does much to key the required perceptible elements of the play, allowing us to visualize the painting elements described.

Sherri Britton is wonderful as Tess. She captivates the audience as she describes the depth of meaning of the painting. Joel Nunley’s Winston is inconsistent. He stumbles through some of his lines but does allow us to see many of the nuances of the character in the spite of being given some very superficial lines to speak. Michael John Sestili has some fine moments as Jamie, but is generally on the surface. Only part of that is his fault. The author has often given very little motivations for developing a meaningful character. Caise Rode, like Sestili, often gets little help from the script in developing a multi-leveled character.

Be aware that there is male and female nudity in the production, thus the warning that the production is for mature adults. It is artistically done. We see both Rode and Nunley mostly in silhouette, with their bodies bathed in light that makes each appear as carved marble statues.

Capsule judgment: In spite of a fascinating concept, the production does not live up to the potential.