Sunday, February 29, 2004

Amy's View (Dobama)

High quality acting in Dobama's ‘AMY’S VIEW’

It is somewhat ironic that the weekend before the vote on whether Cuyahoga County should fund the arts that Dobama Theatre opened ‘AMY’S VIEW.’ Much of the play is about the value of theatre, cultural changes, and the role and purpose of the arts.

‘AMY’S VIEW’ follows a mother-daughter relationship over a sixteen year period from 1979 to 1995. As is the general pattern with Hare’s writing, the play is built around what he calls, a “fragrant” woman. In this case, it’s Amy, who believes that “you have to give love unconditionally and that one day it will be rewarded.”

The play’s first half mainly revolves around the conflict between the assertive Esme, Amy’s mother, and Dominic, Amy’s future husband. When we meet them in 1979, she is a well-known stage actress, he a young nobody who despises the theatre as "irrelevant" and has impregnated Amy. Come 1985, Dominic is a big media success, while Esme is on the slide playing germs in ads for disinfectants. The play then jumps to the 1990s. Dominic is achieving world fame by making “action” movies and Esme is hugely in debt due to misguided investments and has succumbed to playing a doughty nurse in a TV soap. Without revealing the “startling incident” which changes the course of the play, Hare has Esme losing pretty well everything, but somehow ending up the gainer.

The play is well-crafted, but the ending is too contrived, unsatisfying. And, as often is the case with Hare, the male characters are too clearly the “bad” guys. Whether you agree with Dominic’s point of view or not, it is obvious from his first outburst that he is going to be the heavy in this story. In a sea of positive reviews regarding Judi Denche’s magnificent performance, one London critic stated of the play, “He’s a peculiar case is David Hare. Always, even in his best work, there are patches where you feel you’re having your ear bent by someone still compelled to score points in the manner of some cocky little snit and a voice inside you wants to scream, more at the dramatist than at the character speaking, “Oh, for God’s sake grow-up!” Another stated, “somewhere during a quarrel between Amy and Esme about the meaning of “talking control” of one’s life, it must be wondered if the play was getting too unfocused, too scattered.

Dobama’s production is well-directed by Sonya Robbins. It is well-acted by most of the cast, three of whom are former Times Theatre Tribute winners for their performance abilities.

Catherine Albers as Esme gives her usual flawless performance. Though there are times when Hare doesn’t give her a clear set of motivations, she invents them and develops a clear characterization.

Derdriu Ring, who always lights up a stage, glows brightly as Amy. The character’s goodness and anguish are both evidently clear.

Todd Krispinsky is given the difficult task of being Hare’s whipping boy. He does it well, though his last act transition was not well textured. Part of this is the script’s fault as Dominic isn’t given much character variance in the lines. The lack of makeup and wardrobe adjustments also didn’t assist Krispinsky.

Robert Hawkes gives a clear and consistent interpretation to the nebbish-like Frank, Esme’s next door neighbor, suitor and financial adviser. But as was the case with the character of Dominic, Hare didn’t give Frank the same dimensions as the female characters.

Tom Weaver is appealing as a neophyte actor. Only Ursula Korneitchouk fails to develop a real being as Evelyn, Esme’s aging mother-in-law. Her lines have a flat, memorized sound.

Michael Louis Grube’s aesthetically pleasing set design works well, except during a set change in which the back wall folds in order to allow it to fade backstage. For an instance it appeared that it was going to annihilate Evelyn, who is sitting in a wheel chair in front of the wall.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘AMY’S VIEW’ gets a wonderful production at Dobama. In fact, the production qualities outshine the problematic script.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

A Nigth With Dame Edna (Playhouse Square Center)


Cleveland audiences are noted for giving standing ovations to theatrical presentations. Never, however, has the Palace Theatre been the setting for the standing “O” given for and orchestrated by Dame Edna Everage. Dame Edna Everage? The character is the creation of Australian, Barry Humphries, who calls herself, an icon and a megastar, among other things. One thing he/she is not is an impersonator. Barry Humphries IS Dame Edna, pure and simple, period! He’s been doing the character since the 70s and he has it down perfectly.

Dame Edna has been credited with being “one of the funniest characters to grace the stage.” She was the winner of the "Special 2000 Tony Award" for Best "Live Theatrical Event" and received the National Broadway Theatre Award for "Best Play" and for "Best Actor.”

During her nearly two-and-one-half hour show, she combines a few patter songs, with chatter in which she addresses the entire audience but singles out some for close scrutiny. She calls them by name, harasses them in a passive aggressive manner, which, according to Dame Edna is “delivered in a tasteful and loving way.” As she says, “I don’t pick on people. I empower them. It’s Australian tough love.”

Two late arrivers were asked their names and why they were tardy. As expected Dame Edna goes on a bit about it. Is she done with them? No! She returns to the latecomers over and over, to the delight of the audience. She addresses a “senior” in the third row, and before he knows it he ends up on stage in Dame Edna’s recreation of the Royal Family of England. She collects audience members’ shoes for a “reading” of their characters. She uses local references with ease. WEWS-TV’s Adam Shapiro, Rocky River, the West side Market vendors who buy tomatoes as Giant Eagle and spread them with manure to give the idea that they are selling organic products, Shaker Heights and Streetsboro all get their share of attention. They are skewered, as is the clothing of audience members, and their decorating skills. Two women end up dining on pasta on stage during the second act. A young couple who Dame Edna declares are having marital problems are dragged onto the stage and a long distance call is made to the woman’s Australian mother who is living in Maryland, so she can be told of their problems and invited to come live with them. No one and nothing is really safe as she talks to people in the boxes on each side of the theater and to the paupers in the balcony, does a monologue about prostrates, and the elderly who have been placed in the “home for the burdened.” Hysteria is the order of night.

In the hands of someone else it could come across as mean-spirited and crude but Dame Edna’s personality puts her audience at ease so even those who were the brunt of her jibes appeared to enjoy themselves.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you are in the right mood, and allow yourself to “let loose”“A NIGHT WITH DAME EDNA” is 2 1/2 hours of some of the funniest material on the planet. Obviously, some didn’t appreciate her double entendres and style of fun as there was a small exodus at intermission. It was their loss! From my perspective, it was one of the most enjoyable evenings of fun I’ve had in the theater.

Vincent in Brixton (Cleveland Play House)

‘VINCENT IN BRIXTON’ is a fine production at CPH

The legend of Vincent van Gogh lives on through his paintings, those swirling, thickly pigmented canvases filled with sunflowers, soulful faces and starry night skies. Rumors live on of his life, the famous cutting off of his own ear, his co-dependent relationship with his brother, his monumental fits of depression, and his penniless existence.

The painter has been depicted as a tortured genius, but in ‘VINCENT IN BRIXTON, Nicholas Wright’s award winning play now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, van Gogh takes on the image of a raw, naive, tactless and even comical character.

Van Gogh had three uncles who were art dealers. In 1873, at age 20, in order to train him for entrance into the family business, he was moved from his native Holland to work in the London office of an international art-dealing firm. It is at this point that author Wright starts his play. The script traces the transforming effects of love, sex and youthful adventure on van Gogh's still-unformed talent.

Vincent rented a room in the house of a widow named Ursula Loyer and her adult daughter Eugenie. Wright speculates that van Gogh fell in love with both women, but it was his affair with Mrs. Loyer that was a life-altering experience in a journey that ultimately ended with mental breakdown, death and immortality.

The “facts” of this story were taken from letters written by van Gogh to various family members. Wright has filled in the gaps where real information does not exist, thus creating a biodrama, not a histodrama.

The play, which won the Olivier Award for its London production, has been called "a fascinating, funny and sometimes deeply moving Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," “Wright's best play," “an enthralling play,” and “fascinating, funny and moving.”

The CPH’s production, under the expert direction of Seth Gordon, is generally on target. As he did with last year’s ‘PROOF,’ Gordon again proves himself to be the most talented of CPH directors. He is the only director so far who has found a way to use the poorly designed Baxter Stage with any positive effect. It can only be hoped that with the reorganization of the theatre Gordon is not only encouraged to remain, but is given more responsibilities.,

Beth Dixon gives a fine performance as Ursula, van Gogh’s mature lover. Simon Kendall is perfect as Vincent. His frail body and delicate face give a vivid picture of the troubled van Gogh as a youth. His acting nuances, foretell the torture that the man will experience. Virginia Donohoe and Patrick Jones are excellent as the daughter and her lover/husband. Only Emily Frazier Klingensmith is weak in her performance. Complete with overdone accent, hers is not a believable portrayal of Vincent’s sister.

Kent Dorsey’s set is excellent, but one must wonder about the modern plumbing and running water in a London house in 1873.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘VINCENT IN BRIXTON’ is excellent. It is the bringing together of a well-honed script and fine production values. This is what the Cleveland Play House should be doing on a regular basis.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Winter Repertory (Ohio Ballet)

Ohio Ballet presents full evening of well choreographed dancing

Dance is composed of four elements: choreography, movement, music and message. When the four come together it makes for an exciting evening. Ohio Ballet’s ‘WINTER REPERTORY PROGRAM’ had three of the elements consistently present...choreography, music and message. The movement, the dancing, was inconsistent.

The program opened with a light, sprightly, South American beat. “Bossa Nova,” consisting of four short pieces, was given its world premiere in this program. They were well choreographed by Leslie Cook. The very talented Amanda Cobb was wonderful as the lead dancer in all the segments. She was ably backed by Kristin Knapp, Alicia Pitts and Eva Trapp. Brian Murphy’s facial expressions, pelvic thrusts and quick feet picked up the beat and created a perfect feel. Unfortunately, the other males were often flat footed and appeared to be laboring rather than enjoying themselves.

“Wanders Night Song” was a classic ballet whose choreography was the weakest of the evening. Toby George was acceptable, if not spectacular as the soloist. He displayed nice leaps and good flow, but lacked the charisma needed to capture the audience.

“Etudes” was performed to ear jarring modern music. The choreography of Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux didn’t always fit Gyorgy Ligeti’s tonal intentions. In spite of this, the piece was superbly danced by Alicia Pitts, whose toe work was wonderful, Eva Trapp and Kristin Knapp.

Chung-Fu Chang’s “Traveling in the Frost”was danced to pianist David Fisher’s live piano accompaniment and the poetic messages of Wilhelm Muller and Peter Hartling. Chang challenged the five male dancers with interesting choreography, pushing the performers to their limits. Though some of the unit timing was off, the overall effect was generally positive. Especially effective was Dennis Dugan’s lighting in a segment in which the dancers’ shadows were projected onto the back curtain.

Bennefoux also choreographed “Chaconne” which was danced to violin soloist Amy Barlowe Bodman’s interpretation of composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The piece was very nicely performed by Amanda Cobb.

The world premiere of “Transformation!” by Ohio Ballet’s Artistic Director Jeffrey Graham Hughes was highlighted by the outstanding singing and musical sounds of the group Divine Hope. Damien Highfield, portraying Paul, stood out in the story taken from the “Bible,” Acts 6: 1 through 9:19. Eric Carvill was effective as Stephen. Though no great piece of ballet, the overall effect was positive.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ohio Ballet continues to draw small but appreciative audiences. The group needs to take steps to make people want to come through more innovative programming and improved presentation, especially by their male dancers.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Of Mice and Men (Beck Center)

Classic ‘OF MICE AND MEN’ gets fine production at Beck

John Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest writers. His works have received numerous awards, been translated into many languages and have been revised into films, plays and operas.

Steinbeck’s deep roots in the earth and understanding of the people of California’s Salinas Valley become vividly clear in each of his writings. His keen observations and powerful descriptions of the human condition suck the reader into his fictional worlds. Noted for his views on social values, he championed the forgotten and disenfranchised while affirming the strength of the human spirit.

Steinbeck was not only a writer for America, but a writer for the world, as exemplified by his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. His impressive list of works include “Grapes of Wrath,” “East of Eden,” “Cannery Row,” and “The Pearl.”

Published in 1937, Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” was made into movies in 1939 with Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lennie , in 1981 with Robert Blake (George) and Randy Quaid (Lenny) and in 1992 with Gary Sinise (George) and John Malkovich (Lennie). It was transformed into an acclaimed opera by Carlisle Floyd.

The story is based on the 1785 poem “To A Mouse,” by Scottish poet Robert Burns which states that the best laid schemes of mice and men matter little, as no matter how hard or well we plan, something stops us from achieving our goals.

The story centers on lonely and alienated George and Lennie, drifters who dream of a place to call their own. After numerous incidents in which the kind hearted, but huge, hulking and simple-minded Lennie gets into trouble, the two find themselves, once again, working for meager wages on a ranch. As usual, problems arise and tragedy ensues.

The Beck Center’s production of ‘OF MICE AND MEN’ is a well conceived if slowly paced production. Director Fred Sternfeld’s pacing brings out the meaning of the lines, but makes the evening a little long. Not boring, just long.

The acting is generally excellent. Robert McCoy, as the simple Lenny gives a fine performance. He does not play the role as a retard, just as a slow-thinking, logically challenged childlike person. This portrayal is nicely nuanced, as is Greg Del Torto’s George. Nowhere in his performance does Del Torto give us the feeling, so often found in interpretations of this role, that George is using Lenny as his whipping boy. We see and feel real concern. Almost of love of father for child.

Glenn Colerider, as the old, one-handed laborer, is compelling. The rest of the cast interprets their roles well, with the exception of Brian Honohan whose Curley, the boss’s son, is basically unbelievable.

Richard Gould’s settings are astounding. The bunkhouse, barn and outside areas are works of art. Richard Ingraham has added some fine background sounds and fine underscoring musical interludes. Jeffrey Smart’s costumes are era perfect.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Though slowly paced, ‘OF MICE AND MEN’ is an excellent production of a classic Steinbeck piece of literature. It is a fine opportunity for students and those interested in the classics to see a staged version of an important American tale.


‘UNCLE TOM’S CABIN’ in provocative production at CPT

Many plays and books have evoked controversy and incited change. Probably no volume outside of ‘The Bible” has been more credited or damned for its influence than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Abraham Lincoln indicated that the book and its author were among the most influential causes for the Civil War.

2004 marks the 152nd Anniversary of the writing of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The volume still remains a controversial work of art. The play productions of the novel also incite strong reactions. In the 1852 “Boston Herald” review of the first production of “UNCLE TOM'S CABIN,” a critic claimed: "This play [is] nightly received at one of our most popular theatres with repeated rounds of applause. It is a sad blunder [that] our stage shall become the deliberate agent in the cause of abolitionism."

Harriet Beecher Stowe was raised as a Puritan. While a child living in Cincinnati, which was just across the river from the slave trade, Stowe observed firsthand incidents which inspired her to write the now-famous anti-slavery novel. Although many Northerners considered slavery a political institution for which they had no personal responsibility, the book become a sensation and raised the conscience of numerous Northerners while repulsing many Southerners

Cleveland Public Theatre, as part of its Black history month program, has decided to produce a “different” version of the play. The vehicle, “UNCLE TOM'S CABIN (OR THE PRESERVATION OF FAVOURED RACES IN THE STRUGGLE FOR LIFE),” created by Floraine Kay and Randolph Curtis Rand, breaks from the traditional storyline. It pushes every boundary and stereotype, probing the sensationalism and notoriety of the original script.

The production also breaks from traditional staging using nine actors to play nearly 40 roles. The staging pays no attention to sex or color, having the actors switch both their gender and their race as they act the roles in stylized performances.

The staging, itself, may confuse and confound some viewers, while exciting and pleasing others. Many will find the “plot” hard to follow. There is just so much happening on the stage that the viewer can easily get overwhelmed. Director Randolph Curtis Rand needed to ask whether his staging devices would help or hinder the audience’s receipt of the message. The constant shuffling of chairs, posing and extended acting devices often got in the way of clarity. Maybe a less chaotic approach would have been appropriate.

The performances in the CPT production range from excellent to shallow. Nina Domingue and George Roth make every one of their characters vivid and clear. These are very fine performances. On the other hand, Cornelius speaks words rather than meanings and is unconvincing in many of his portrayals. Betsy Hogg is often difficult to hear and understand.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: . CPT’s ‘UNCLE TOM’S CABIN: THE PRESERVATION OF FAVORED RACES IN THE STRUGGLE FOR LIFE’ will create a great deal of conversation regarding both the script and production values. It’s an important function of the arts to present various views. CPT gets high marks for challenging its audiences (and this critic) to think and react.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Saturday Night Fever--The Musical (Playhouse Square Center)

Uninspiring 'SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER' dances way into the Palace

What do the theatre musicals ‘FAME,’ ‘SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS,’ ‘MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS,’ ‘GIGI’ and ‘BREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS’ have in common? They were all movies before they were transferred into stage shows. And, they ranged from being flops to moderate successes. The latest entrant onto that list is and ‘SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER—THE MUSICAL,’ which is now on its national tour.

Based on the 1977 film of the same name, it features the songs from the soundtrack by the Bee Gees and tells the story of a streetwise Brooklyn kid with a desire to make it big in NY. The film was the vehicle which capitulated John Travolta toward stardom. The score, which was backup music in the movie, has come front and center for the show. The songs are sung by the cast rather than being put forth by the Bee Gees. The score includes “Stayin’ Alive,” “How Deep Is Your Love?,’ and “Jive Talkin.”

From start to finish this is a dance show. The cast dances well, they are filled with youthful enthusiasm. Unfortunately, director/choreographer Arlene Phillips’ dance plan gets repetitious. She uses the same movements over and over. The hip thrusts, ceiling pointing, crotch grabs, and head rolls eventually become boring.

The cast, most of whom are in their first professional show, try hard, often too hard. It becomes very clear that Phillips selected the cast according to their dancing abilities, secondly for their singing and lastly, for their acting.
Emotional levels seem fake because shouting is substituted for strong emotions and the meaning of lines often gets lost. Phillips also has tried too hard to get sexual implication induced laughs rather than letting the lines develop on their own. This fa├žade is aided by Suzy Benzinger’s costume designs which uses skin tight polyester and then more form fitting polyester.

The production stars Mentor native Tony Gonzalez as Tony. Gonzalez has a nice singing voice, but his forte is dancing. And dance he does! Gonzalez does not possess Travolta’s natural sexuality or acting abilities. The final effect is an acceptable if unspectacular portrayal. Heidi Suhr, who portrays Annette, who is in love with Tony, has a nice singing voice, but has difficulty developing a believable character. Kristin Piro, as Tony’s contest partner, is a fine dancer, but displays shallow acting abilities. Brandon Nix has a fine singing voice, but his character development is weak. You get the point!

The show’s music has a heavy disco sound. It is well played by the orchestra, though their volume often drowns out the words of the songs.

The show’s highlight is a background drop which illustrates the Verrazano Narrow Bridge complete with moving headlights of passing cars which appears in several scenes.

The curtain call, a no holds barred dancethon, had the audience on its feet clapping and moving.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER—THE MUSICAL’ is a contrived musical that gets a barely acceptable production at the Palace Theatre. It’s pretty sad to say of a supposedly professional show that the highlight is a gimmicky piece of scenery. ‘Nuff said!

The Dinner Party (Cleveland Play House)

Script and directing miss mark in 'THE DINNER PARTY' at CPH

Neil Simon is the undisputed master of modern American theatrical comedy. His thirty-one plays have covered a dysfunctional duo living together (‘THE ODD COUPLE’), the plight of newlyweds (‘BAREFOOT IN THE PARK’) and lots of self examination plays including ‘BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS’ ‘BILOXI BLUES,’ ‘BROADWAY BOUND,’ and ‘LOST IN YONKERS.’

Simon is at his best when he adds up a bunch of funny one-liners into a delightful set of plausible circumstances. Think ‘THE STAR-SPANGLED GIRL,’ ‘PLAZA SUITE,’ and ‘LAST OF THE RED HOT LOVERS.’ He’s at his worst when he attempts to philosophize. Think ‘GOD'S FAVORITE,’ ‘JAKE'S WOMEN’ AND ‘PROPOSALS.’ (You’ve probably never heard of the plays as they were generally panned by the critics and avoided by audiences.)

Unfortunately, ‘THE DINNER PARTY,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, falls into Simon’s “message plays” list. Simon should be given credit for trying to break his traditional mode and write a play very different from anything he had done before. Simon has achieved his goal, but it doesn’t translate into success. The script is not a farce, a broad comedy, or a drama with a few laughs. What it actually is is anyone’s guess. What it emphatically is not is a total entertaining evening at the theatre.

The show opened to negative reviews in New York. It ran because of a strong presale based on Simon’s reputation plus a cast that included Henry Winkler and the late-John Ritter.

The plot of ‘THE DINNER PARTY"’is as simple as some of its lines. Gabrielle invites Andre, her ex-husband, with whom she's still in love, and two other couples who used to be married to each other, to a dinner party at a posh Parisian restaurant. Several funny things happen on the way to discovering why she planned the party and how her Machiavellian plan is meant to affect the others. The premise is broad, the effect is shallow.

Adding to the script’s problems is Peter Hackett’s laborious directing, which adds at least half-an-hour to the intermissionless play.

Hacket, who will soon be leaving his position as Artistic Director of CPH, seems to have no clue as how to balance the comedy aspects with the dramatic message. The pacing of the show is torturous. The characters generally display little real emotional passion, laugh lines aren’t keyed, the actors often seem lost. As someone sitting behind me said, “When is this thing going to end?” Unfortunately, this same message must be placed on Hackett’s well-meaning, but misdirected tenure at the CPH. It can only be hoped that his strong academic talents will fit much better into a university setting where his questionable play selections and administative decisions won’t be a factor. He is wished much good luck in what hopefully will be a better setting for his abilities.

The cast of the production at times seems as clueless as the script. Kevin Hogan, as a frustrated writer, walks through his part, often saying funny lines that become unfunny. He seems some place else, not involved in the action. Mary Gen Fjelstad, his stage wife, doesn’t delve into her character and presents flat lines with little emotional variance. David Brummel, as the aloof Andre, and Cynthia Darlow as the evening’s plotter, seem to be feigning feelings. On the other hand Steve McCue, as a nerdy artist in a rented tux and Derdriu Ring, his ex-wife, milk their roles to high levels of humor and pathos. Too bad the whole production didn’t reach McCue and Ring’s level.

The highlight of the evening is scenic designer Vicki Smith’s magnificent high-ceilinged formal French restaurant dining room.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: With a weak script, inept directing and generally shallow acting, ‘THE DINNER PARTY’ is a long sit not worth the effort.