Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? (Dobama)

Brilliantly acted ‘THE GOAT OR, WHO IS SYLVIA?" at Dobama

Edward Albee is noted as the major American playwright of the Absurdist movement. He probes society by examining the disjointed, the improbable, the outrageous. His themes often investigate dysfunctional family units (‘WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?’), the outcasts (‘BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFE’) and life as it should be but isn’t (‘THREE TALL WOMEN’). One of his more recent plays, ‘THE GOAT OR WHO IS SYLVIA?,’ which won the Tony Best Play award and best play recognition from the New York Critics Circle, the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk, is now being staged by Dobama.

The story line concerns an architect who has just received an international prize, been awarded a lucrative contract and celebrated his 50th birthday. In this period of euphoric success he also has been forced to confess to his wife and son that he's involved in a sexual relationship with a goat (yes, I said a goat), which will probably destroy his marriage, his career and his life.

The play, a black comedy, was hailed in its Broadway and London openings as having "extravagant wit!.” It was heralded as “the best Albee has turned out in his long career!." In spite of these raves, it is not easy to watch. It features many language games and grammatical arguments in the middle of catastrophes and existential disputes between characters. It contains visual and verbal actions which can easily incite strong reactions from an audience.

Though it appears to be about sodomy (in this case zoophilia), it may be Albee’s way of confronting the attitudes of some segments of society concerning homosexuality, among other societal issues. Albee, himself a homosexual, has used this theme in other plays, but never to such an extent.

This is one of Albee’s most blunt plays, especially in the unnerving conclusion. What you won't find in this script is the subtlety of earlier Albee plays. The goat metaphor, for example, carries over into even the use of Billy for the gay son’s name.

Dobama’s production, under the adept direction of Joel Hammer, is superb! It is as close to a flawless production as you are likely to see. The acting is nothing short of mesmerizing. Each character is clearly and consistently defined and developed.

Tracee Patterson as Stevie, the wife/mother, gives one of the finest performances ever seen on a local stage. She underplays with superb control, she lashes with a vengeance, she is so real that she carries the audience through every range of emotion. This is a performance which can’t be fully appreciated through explanation, it must be seen!

Scott Miller (Martin, the husband) is nearly Patterson’s equal. Though Albee’s writing sometimes gives the character little motivation and some of the lines are obtuse, Miller soars above the script and develops a clear characterization of a befuddled yet purposeful man in the midst of trauma.

Scott Espositio, who tends to be cast in light-weight rolls to reflect his youthful pretty boy looks, finally gets a chance to show that he is a real actor. His portrayal of son Billy is masterful. He is especially strong in the final scene in which his whole life collapses. His tear-filled realization speech, and its aftermath, shows acting maturity.

Charles Kartali as Ross, Martin’s best friend is excellent in the earlier scenes, but shades his performance a little too much in the last act. It may be the nature of the script, but his pontificating in the play’s denouement has a somewhat hollow ring.

Trad Burns’ set works extremely well. No credit is given to the prop person, but whoever it was, he or she deserves a special curtain call. This is one very difficult show for which to find and supply the necessary items.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Dobama’s ‘THE GOAT OR, WHO IS SYLVIA?’ is one of the finest acted productions I have seen in my many years of reviewing the Cleveland theatre scene. Though not emotionally easy to sit through, this is a production everyone interested in theatre MUST SEE!

Clifford, The Big Red Dog - Playhouse Square

Ian comments on ‘CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG’

One of the segments of theatre that receives little critical attention is children’s theatre. So, in order to help children’s theatre get a voice, I took my youngest grandson, Ian Berko to see the Play House Square sponsored production ‘CLIFFORD, THE BIG RED DOG.’ His quick summary, “I liked the dancing.” To be honest, he didn’t get caught up in the clapping, singing and invitation to dance with the characters.

Maybe at five and-a-half he was too old for what he termed, “little kid’s stuff.” I think, however, that from an adult perspective, the huge size of the Palace Theatre and the character’s being on stage many yards away, instead of up close like on TV, made for a breach of involvement.

The show does an excellent job of teaching lessons such as “let’s all work together” and “let’s work in harmony to solve problems,” which Ian recognized and commented on when I asked him what the story was about.

Ian did enjoy turning his Clifford flashlight on and off, as did all the kids who had conned their parents and grandparents into buying them star-wands and spinning electric flashers. In addition, the popcorn, sodas, candy and large pretzels being sold were all excitement inducers.

I wish the Palace would not allow the kids to bring food into the theatre. By the end of the production the floor was littered with mess and stickiness. Many of the beautiful seats had soda poured on them. This mass display of littering is not a good lesson for the kids to see or participate in. And, it was not a good way to treat a beautiful and expensive theatre.

In the future I plan to go to other venues to see their young people and children’s productions which will be reviewed by not only Ian, but Alex and Noah, his older brothers.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Linda Ryan reviews the reviewer

I always enjoy your reviews because they are honest, informative and not artsy-fartsy. I'm especially grateful to have read the review of Cabaret. I love the show and would have gone to see it and would have been very upset if I had traveled from Akron to see it only to find there was excessive smoking. That would have "done my business"! Thanks for the heads-up.

Linda Ryan

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Amadeus (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)

AMADEUS’ is overly long, but intrigues at GLTF

Whispers fill the theater. We can distinguish nothing at first from the snakelike hissing except the word “Salieri” repeated here, there and then the barely distinguishable word "Assassin!" Thus starts Peter Shaffer’s ‘AMADEUS,’ now on stage in repertoire with ‘AS YOU LIKE IT,’ at Great Lakes Theatre Festival.

‘AMADEUS’ is loosely based on the lives of the composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. The script was inspired by ‘MOZART AND SALIERI,’ a short play by Aleksandr Pushkin. It is a play of greed, lust, betrayal, intrigue and jealousy.

The title refers to an identification that Mozart often used as his pen name. The name, in German, means "God-lover" or "Loved by God." This identification is quite significant, as the title not only refers to Mozart, but Salieri's relationship with God, an important aspect of the plot.

Originating at the National Theatre of Great Britain, ‘AMADEUS’ won the Evening Standard Drama Award and, later, in the United States, the play won the coveted Tony Award. It went on to become a critically acclaimed major motion picture which won eight Oscars, including Best Picture.

The time is the 1800s, the place is Vienna, a city of musicians, where the aged Salieri narrates his plot to destroy Mozart, who he considers to be “God's preferred creature.”

The real Antonio Salieri is presently known as the man who lived in the shadow of Mozart; but in his time, he was the court Kappellmeister, and had among his students Schubert and Beethoven. And, from the standpoint of reality, he was probably far from the character in the play. There is no historical record of his plotting the death of Mozart, which is the strong underlying theme of the script.

As for Mozart, there is probably no man who has had his music played for such a long time. He was a boy genius who unfortunately was also a child-like, often childish man, who never really understood his role as an adult.

The Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s production is very good, though excessively long and doesn’t have the overall effect that it might. Neither of these is totally the Festivals’ fault. Shaffer has rewritten the play at least six times. In the latest version, which is the one GLTF chose to produce, the ending has been changed. We do not see Mozart’s supposed killer, a real or imagined phantom in a flowing black cloak, much like the traditional version of the death figure. We don’t see Mozart’s final moments before death envelops him. This weakens the final product.

In addition, on opening night the production lagged a little. One can only conjecture that this was not director Gordon Reinhart’s decision, but simply the fact that, due to financial restraints, the cast had not had preview performances to learn how to gauge the audience’s reactions and fall into a comfortable pattern. This problem should be alleviated as the show runs through its production dates.

GLTF audiences have gotten used to viewing Andrew May as the comic supreme. It is nice to see May given the opportunity to flap his dramatic wings. May comes through in grand style. He makes for a very believable and properly tortured Salieri.

Ben Nordstom (Mozart) is wonderful in the child-like sequences. His weakness is in making the transition into desperation as death nears. Part of this, again, may be the script. Because of the plot alterations Nordstrom doesn’t get the opportunity to show Mozart’s complete mental and physical collapse.

Scott Plate and Nicholas Koesters are wonderful as Salieri’s “Little Winds”--gossip mongers. They flit around the stage and into the audience whispering, making up tales, commenting on reality and illusion with great relish.

Dougfred Miller makes for an excellent Joseph II, Emperor of Austria and Kathryn Chesaro is equally as good as Constanze, Mozart’s wife.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: GLTF’s ‘AMADEUS’ is well worth seeing. Do not, however, expect the same power as the film version, as Shaffer’s new ending robs audiences of some of the depth of the emotional impact of Mozart’s final demise.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

They're Playing Our Song (Actors' Summit)

‘They’re Playing Our Song’ misses mark at Actors Summit

‘THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG,’ now on stage at Actor’s Summit, is Neil Simon’s thinly veiled story of the relationship between the show’s musical writer, Marvin Hamlish and its lyricist, Carol Bayer Sager. As he usually does, Simon exaggerates situations and creates wonderfully pointed lines. No one writes better comic relational arguments than Simon. Add this to Hamlisch’s schmaltzy music and Sager’s sentimental lyrics and you have a perfect combination for a nice escapist musical.

Hamlish and Sager had a conflicting personal relationship while producing many excellent pieces of music. In the musical version of a their lives, composer Vernon deals with his angst by speaking into a tape recorder, while lyricist Sonia handles hers by becoming an enabler/analyst to her former lover, the unseen Leon. Vernon and Sonia’s attempts to compose songs and get a grip on their personal relationship are constantly interrupted by her devotion to Leon and by each of their own overblown egos. In spite of all the problems, Vernon finds himself smitten by Sonia's odd personality and charmed by her penchant to save money by wearing discarded theatrical costumes. After break-ups and reconciliations, the pair make a guarded truce. And, as in all good fairy tales and escapist musicals, they live happily ever after. (In real life...not so!)

Every director makes decisions when planning the staging of a play. Sometimes those decisions are right on, other times they are questionable. Actors’ Summit’s Mary Jo Alexander decided, for some unexplicable reason, to change the basic premise which usually adds in making ‘THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG’ delightful. She decided to make the normal cast of 8 performers into a duet.

Usually, there are the main characters, Vernon and Sonia Walsk and their inner voices. Both Vernon and Sonia hear from these voices in the throes of creativity. Vernon hears harmonies from his three "boys," and Sonia hears a range of emotions from her three "girls." These voices, usually pop up at inappropriate times to add mirth to the goings on. Without these voices the show loses much of its texture and puts the total weight on the shoulders of the two remaining performers. Unfortunately for Actors’ Summit, neither of the cast members is capable of handling the show on their own.

Shani Ferry is very pretty and has nice stage presence, but lacks both the vocal abilities and acting depth to carry off the complex role of Sonia. She stays on the surface and never quite convinces that she is both air-headed and grounded. Her voice fails in the high notes and she often sings words rather than meanings of the lyrics. Donnie Long (Vernon) fares better as he has nice vocal abilities. But, as with Ferry, he doesn’t have the acting depth to make the character into a real person. The duo also lack chemistry between them. Their kisses are like a brother and sister politely greeting each other and their bodies never contact with any believability.

Pianist Michael Flohr does well, but there were several times when fingering errors were noticeable. MaryJo Alexander’s costume designs and executions are excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Actors Summit’s ‘THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG’ is a less than stellar production.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Urinetown (Beck Center)

Beck’s ‘Urinetown’--bad name for a musical, but great production

Every once in a while a musical opens and you wonder about the wisdom of the producers and the writers in selecting the name for the show. A prime example is Beck Center’s show, URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL.” Even the script makes fun of the moniker it was dubbed with. Don’t let the title turn you off, the show is not only fun and meaningful, but the Beck production is extra special.

The idea for the play came to author Greg Kotis when he visited Luxembourg and was confronted with having to use the city's pay-per-use toilets. He, along with his friend Mark Hollmann, developed the show.

Theatrical producers took one look at the title and subject matter and wouldn’t take on the project. Luckily, Kotis and Hollmann happened upon three of Cleveland’s own, who at that point in their careers were fledgling New York want-to-be legends. Westsiders Matt and Mark Rego and Hank Unger had already produced ‘VAGINA MONOLOGUES’ and were ripe for another hit. They optioned the script, mounted an off-Broadway production, and, against the odds, they became the Big Apple’s new “wunderkinds.” They have gone on to produce the likes of ‘WICKED.’

‘URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL’ won the 2002 Tony Awards for Best Direction, Best Book, and Best Music and Lyrics.

Don’t think of the show as a light bit of escapism. It is fun, in fact, a total delight, but it also has a serious underbelly. This is a tale of greed, corruption, love and revolution in a city where water is worth its weight in gold. Messages pervade, such as what happens when big business is given the right to control our lives. Think of the pharmaceutical and medical companies and their stranglehold over our health. What happens when citizens have their rights taken away from them? Think Patriot Act and prisoners being held in jail without being officially charged with a crime. What is it like to be lied to continually in an attempt to push a political and economic agenda? Think of the missiles of mass destruction hoax, resulting in the Iraqi war, and the amount of money being made by the oil and military-industrial complex and influential public officials. Think of the rape of the environment caused by loosening the clean air act. The fantasy of the situation described in ‘URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL’ has become near reality.

Beck’s’ production is outstanding! I enjoyed this creation even more than the New York or recent Cleveland Playhouse Square offering. Scott Spence pulls out all the stops to completely capture the necessary farce without losing the meaning and controls the tendency to go overboard with shticks.

Martin Cespedes insured himself of another Times Theatre Tribute with his amazing choreography. Larry Goodpaster gets a nod of approval for this musical direction even though some of the music under the spoken scenes was too loud and drowned out the actors. Don McBride’s scene design, which paralleled the Broadway sets, was excellent. Ali Hernan Garrigan did her usual “run to the thrift store” to find the right grubby clothing.

The cast is excellent...not a weak link in the chain. Matthew Wright is delightful as Officer Lockstock, the narrator. He builds a wonderful rapport with the audience and can do a double take with the best of them. His voice has an ironic sound that brings many a reaction from the audience. Betsy Kahl (Little Sally) is wonderful as his foil. Whether singing or whining her lines, she is delightful.

Colin Cook is physically appealing and portrays the perfect innocence of good-boy Bobby Strong. He has a well modulated voice and interacts effectively with Maggie Stahl (Hope) the daughter of the tyrant who controls the local urinals and is Bobby’s love interest. . Stahl’s’ rendition of “I See a River” is a show highlight.

Greg Violand, who normally plays the handsome mature love interest in productions, takes a turn at being a bad guy in this show. He does it well with a big dynamic vocal range and strong acting talents. His version of “Don’t Be a Bunny” is hysterical. He was so successful in playing the villain the audience booed him during the curtain call.

The choral sounds are excellent, the dancing wonderful. The orchestra was well tuned.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck Center has undertaken a difficult task in choosing to produce ‘URINETOWN.’ They not only succeed, but are flush with success! This is THE musical to see!

Googlewhack (Hanna Theatre)

‘Googlewhack! adventure’ hysterical, but I’m not allowed to say much more

How does a reviewer comment on a production when the author and performer (who happen to be the same person) stands stage center during the curtain call, and explicitly forbades viewers from telling anyone other than the people in that audience what the production was about or revealing the ending. So, what can I say about ‘DAVE GORMAN’S GOOGGLEWHACK! ADVENTURE’? Okay, try this’s about 2 words, 4,285,199,774 web pages and what happens when an obsessive-compulsive creative man goes berserk on the internet. I can also say it’s hilarious, delightful, mind bending, comical, hysterical, side-splitting, cleverly conceived and a one-of-a-kind experience.

Maybe it’s just best to let Gorman himself tell you what’s it all about. That way I won’t get into trouble. On his webpage he states, “At the age of 31 I decided to give up my stupid ways, grow a beard and write a novel. I guess this show is the story of my failure to do two of those things. (Yes, I have a beard) All sorts of unpleasantness could have been avoided if other people had told me not to do it. Instead, they took me seriously. Meetings were set up, deals were done and a novel was commissioned. To make matters worse, a publisher even gave me a chunk of money as an advance on the project. This was an exceedingly stupid thing to do. Needless to say, the novel doesn't exist and I've spent the money. What on? On a googlewhack adventure.”

He goes on to state, “It started when I received an e-mail from a stranger telling me that I was a googlewhack. I didn't know what a googlewhack was. Now I do. A googlewhack is what happens when two words are entered into Google and comes back with one and only one hit. So when the stranger told me that I was a googlewhack, he didn't mean that my name Dave Gorman was one... he meant that my website contained one.”

And with that premise, Gorman went on an adventure. Sorry, I can’t tell you what kind of adventure, or what happened, or how the whole thing turned out. The only way you’ll ever find out is to go see the production yourself.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: I loved, loved, loved the show and thanks to Mr. Gorman, I have become a slave to my computer, having spent the last 12 hours googlewhacking! Be warned--Gorman and googlewhacking are addictive.

Cabaret (Kalliope Stage)

Kalliope’s ‘Cabaret’ pulls out all the stops!

Christopher Isherwood, an American writer, lived in Germany from 1929 to 1933. He witnessed, first hand, the social and political changes that would soon explode into the rise of Hitler, the second world war, the destruction of 6 million Jews and many thousands of homosexuals. He turned his observations into the book ‘BERLIN STORIES,’ which was transformed into the play ‘I AM A CAMERA.’ This, in turn, not only became the musical ‘CABARET,’ one of the longest running shows on Broadway, and but an award-winning movie. The stage version of “CABARET’ is being produced at Kalliope Stage.

The original musical production, with book by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and music by John Kander, opened on Broadway in 1966 and starred Clevelander Joel Gray as the Emcee It used a classical writing and staging method developed by Bertolt Brecht which included historification, alienation and epic. Historification concerns placing a play in a specific era, but making the audience aware that they could apply the lessons learned to modern day. Alienation forces the audience to know they are in a theatre by suspending the lights and creating settings that don’t depict exact reality. Epic centers on making the production grand, bigger than life, bigger than that on stage thus encouraging the viewer to examine the world around himself/herself. In the original production, a large convex mirror greeted theatre-goers and reflected each of them in grotesque shapes they proceeded to their seats. The Emcee spoke to the audience and cast members went out into the audience.

The 1987 Broadway revival kept that same style. In 1998 the show took on a new sheen and became one of even more decadence. It stressed the homoerotic nature of the era and the Emcee, portrayed by Alan Cumming, became a sensual gay symbol. This extended the story beyond just the impending persecution of the Jews, but that of homosexuals as well.

On the surface the story is about Clifford Bradshaw (Isherwood’s alter-self). After finding housing, Cliff visits the sleazy Kit Kat Club and meets English singer, Sally Bowles. Though Cliff is gay, the writer and singer soon fall in love. Meanwhile, Clifford's elderly landlord, Fraulein Schneider, gets engaged to a Jewish greengrocer, Herr Schultz – not an easy decision given the increasing influence of the Nazis. Clifford discovers that he has been inadvertently helping the Nazis by delivering packages to Paris for a German friend. He decides to return to the United States but Sally, after aborting a baby, remains in Berlin. The story’s implications go well beyond the basic story.

Kalliope Stage’s production is both exciting and disturbing. It is engrossing and off-putting. At times it is brilliant and at other times amateurish.

Director Paul Gurgol pulls out all the stops. This production is not for prudes. There is female nudity, males often appear in leather thongs and assorted revealing garments. The language is in-your face. There is simulated Sadomasochism and blunt revelation of Hitler’s march to power. This is a show and production which flaunts decadence, titillation, and vulgarity.

The power of the production, especially the very final scene (a brilliant concept by Gurgol), overshadows much of the performance’s inconsistencies.

Jodi Brinkman is quite good as Sally. Her voice is strong, her acting good. Unfortunately, there is little emotional connection with Rick Hamilton (Cliff) and that diminishes her characterization. Her “Maybe This Time” is beautifully performed.

Rick Hamilton doesn’t quite convince as Cliff. His characterization stays much on the surface, his singing voice is acceptable.

Jay Strauss (Herr Schultz) and Kathleen Huber (Fr. Schneider) are both excellent in voice and character development. Huber’s “What Would You Do?” is poignant.

Kimberly Koljat (Rosie) and Katherine DeBoer (Lulu) are delightful in the song and dance number “Two Ladies.”

Joseph Haladey III almost steals the show as Hans, a clown character. He makes the final scene of the show chilling.

John Paul Boukis tries hard in the role of the Emcee. He simply does not have the sensuality to pull off the role as needed for this interpretation. Also, and this is Gurgol’s fault, not that of Boukis, the power of the Emcee being dragged off stage near the conclusion of the show is diminished since most of the audience was unaware this was done because he was gay. The wearing of a pink triangle could have increased this awareness.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Kalliope Stage’s ‘CABARET’ lets out all the stops. It is a show worth seeing for those who are amenable to have their senses assaulted and are willing to put up with some of the production’s inconsistencies.

PS...There is excessive smoking in this production. Due to the closeness of the audience to the performance area this can cause allergic reactions.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Stomp (Playhouse Square Center)

‘Stomp’ a total blast at the Allen Theatre

The ladies sitting behind me at the opening night production of ‘STOMP’ simply couldn’t contain themselves. Out went any pretense of theatre manners. They talked, they hooted, they clapped, they slapped hands with each other. They even waived going to the bathroom because they didn’t want to miss a minute of the goings-on. They, along with the entire almost sold out house, were on their feet several times screaming and cheering for more.

Yes, there’s a lot going on at the Allen Theatre in downtown Cleveland to excite an audience. What’s not going on is the traditional singing, dancing or plot of a musical.

‘STOMP’ has no dialogue. That is, unless you consider a few grunts of “urp,” “oyce,” “whew,” and “hey” to be the language that makes for a plot line.

There’s no music, per se. Not unless you consider the pounding pots, pans, stop signs, auto wheel covers, garbage cans and their lids to be music, or, if you think the sounds of a straw being pulled in and out of the cover of a soda carton, or the crinkling of newspaper or plastic bags is music to the ear. Melodies? How about the sound of folding chairs being slammed open and then closed, or putty knives being slapped against each other, or water bottles being pounded, or cigarette lighters being snapped on and off?

Then there’s the dance. There is lots of dancing, but not the usual choreography seen in a traditional musical or dance concert. There are no classical, modern or contemporary defined movements. There is a lot of tapping. Well, actually it’s pounding feet in work boots. There is jumping, swinging from wires from the stage’s ceiling, bouncing across the stage in cardboard boxes, and sitting around while the feet are excitedly moving around.

So, how can ‘STOMP’ be classified as a theatrical entity? It can’t! It fits no traditional theatre format. It, like all traditions in “busking,” an old British performance form which dates back to village fairs in the Middle Ages, was intended to grab people’s attention and have them donate money to the performers. Tfhe show’s conceivers, Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, contrived an idea of marrying movement and the sounds of everyday objects as their attention-getting gimmick.

Obviously Cressweel and McNicholas hit on a winning formula. ‘STOMP’ has been performed in over 350 cities and in 36 countries. The New York production is in its 11th year, which makes it one of the longest-running shows in Off-Broadway history. It is the most financially successful Off-Broadway show in history. It has been made into an IMAX film.

It has not only been a financial boom for the conceivers, household goods suppliers have made a windfall by supplying the production with the necessary performance items. In an average week the show goes through 30 brooms, 10 wooden poles, 40 newspapers, 20 pounds of sand, 10 garbage can lids, 4 hammer handles, 5 rolls of gaff tape, 12 boxes of matches, 1 tape measure, 7 garbage cans, 20 drum sticks, 4 boxes of tissues and 3 ball point pens. The number of trips to the hospital to treat cast members’ injuries hasn’t been calculated.

Don’t look for a message in ‘STOMP.’ There are no political connotations, no hidden thoughts, and no dialogue to misconstrue. Instead, you're bombarded by noises that you usually try to block out. The show takes the sounds of pipes and brooms and creates the extraordinary with the intent of entertaining. No more, no less!

So how do you describe STOMP? If you ask one of the creators, Luke Cresswell, he would simply say, "at the end of the day, STOMP is what it is." And, what it is is an exciting, wonderful, enfolding, audience pleasing romp!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you haven’t seen ‘STOMP’ in its last six visits to the area...go! You won’t see this on any local stage...they wouldn’t dare...they couldn’t pull it off.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Pterodactyls (convergence continuum)

‘PTERODACTYLS’--thought provoking excellence at convergence continuum

What happens when the prodigal son returns home to announce he has AIDS? In most families there would be concern, a pulling together, an attempt to work toward a change in the family system. This is definitely not what happens to the Duncan family in Nicky Silver’s ‘PTERODACTYLS,’ now on stage at convergence-continuum, Cleveland’s off-beat theatre.

The Duncans are THE poster people for the definition of “dysfunctional family.” This is a brood which thrives on alcoholism, incest, escapism, cruelty and denial. When you spend an evening with the Duncans, you should leave your logical ideas of the meaning of “healthy family” at the door.

The Duncans are quite a crew. There's Grace, the matriarch of the family who shops and drinks too much and hides from the authentic world by ignoring reality. There’s Arthur, the father who has paid too much attention to his daughter while ignoring his son, but still believes that he and the boy are close. He has a fantasy nick-name for him and an imagined story of how they used to play catch all the time. There’s Emma, the traumatized daughter who has blocked out the real world with selective amnesia. And, last but not least, there’s Todd, the son who escapes the family grasp through art, his study of anthropology and excessive sexual activity. The extended family includes Tommy, who is Emma’s clueless fiancĂ©, who is unclear about his sexuality. Grace has enlisted Tommy to be the family’s servant. He cavorts around wearing a provocative maid’s outfit.

Believe me, this group is not the Cleavers of ‘LEAVE IT TO BEAVER’ fame. And, for sure, father does not know best.

As is often the case with the plays chosen by continuum’s Artistic Director Claude Simon, this is an absurdist black comedy. Silver uses Todd's building a sculpture of a Tyrannosaurs Rex as a representation of how the family and those who are like them live in emotional chaos. He purports that the extinction of the dinosaurs and the descent of this family, and by implication humanity in general, is eminent.
The concept is down-right scary.

The convergence-continuum production is well paced and finely conceived by Clyde Simon. Though there are some acting inconsistencies, the overall effect is on target.

Lauri Hammer is chilling as Grace. She has built a fantasy world by drowning herself in booze and escape. When her son announces he has AIDS, she puts all her efforts into a “welcome home” party for him. Hammer makes the character totally believable. She is one hell of a good drunk!

Wes Shofner’s development of Arthur, the father, is somewhat shallow. He stays on the surface of the character, often not traversing into the realm of being a real person. He sometimes emotes lines without much meaning.

Jovana Batkovic has some excellent moments as the demented Emma. Unfortunately, since she doesn’t texture the characterization, the empathy we might feel for Emma is missing. We often don’t know if the character is playing a game of amnesia or that is her reality. Her last speech, a pivotal clue as to what will happen, lacks clarity of purpose.

Brian Breth sparkles as Todd. Breth possesses a James Dean-like sensuality that perfectly fits the character. Breth grabs hold of the underlying motivations of the character and makes him real. He shows complete comfort in the scene where he deep kisses Tommy and uses the young man for not only Todd’s pleasure but to exert control and create chaos. His speech explaining to his father how he contacted AIDS is mesmerizing.

JdBowman is excellent as Tommy. He has several outstanding scenes, especially those he shares with Breth. The script clearly tells us of the abandonment and abuse the boy has been through so there is no wonder that he is desperate to be part of a family, any family, even this bizarre one. But, without Bowman’s fine-line portrayal, the reason for his eventual fall would not have been as effective.

Though the play seems cramped on the tiny Liminis stage, the closeness of audience to the action adds to our involvement in the happenings, especially when we are brought into the proceedings by cast members asking the audience questions and sharing intimacies with us.

Capsule Judgement: Anyone going to convergence-continuum must realize that this is a theatre that takes seriously its tradition of doing plays that most other theatres would not consider. ‘PTERODACTYLS’ continues that tradition. In the competent hands of the director and the cast, Nicky Silver’s very post-modern play is simultaneously funny, vicious, obscene, intellectually scary and very worth seeing!

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Shaw Festival--2005 review #2


The Shaw Festival is located in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada. As I indicated in the first part of my comments about the Festival, which are available on my website:, this is an exceptional production year. I gave raves to ‘MAJOR BARBARA’ and ‘THE CONSTANT WIFE.’ Here are my comments on the other plays I viewed, restaurants to eat in, and places to stay.


It is only fitting that in a season which features Shaw’s ‘MAJOR BARBARA’ that the Festival should offer Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s ‘HAPPY END.’ Too bad the powers that be didn’t also stage ‘GUYS AND DOLLS.’ Basically all three plays center on the Salvation Army and one of its female savers of souls.

Set in Chicago at the turn of the century, ‘HAPPY END," a play with music, centers on Lillian, a Salvation Army worker. She falls in love with Bill Cracker, a hardened gang criminal. When the two struggle to maintain the ideals of their organizations, they find themselves outcasts from the societies in which they believe. Comic situations abound as the virtuous members of the Army invade the territory of the gang and begin a struggle for the criminals’ souls. It plays much like a 1920s gangster flick with the addition of songs.

In viewing the production it is important to remember that Brecht and Weill are products of the era in German theatre when historification, alienation and epic were in vogue. Historification concerns setting the play in a historic time period, but making sure the audience knows that the writers are really asking viewers to think about the implications for today. Alienation concerns staging the play so that the audience is always aware that they are in the theatre by having the actors speak directly to the audience, using fragmentary sets and letting the light fixtures hang in view of the spectators. Epic--bigger than life. The play does not duplicate real life. If you have seen a good production of ‘CABARET’ you’ll understand the concept.

Among the most familiar musical numbers in the show are "The Bilbao Song," "The Sailor's Tango" and "Surabaya Johnny." (No, this is not Rogers and Hammerstein sing along music.)

Why was this German play set in Chicago? Brecht was passionately in love with the Windy City of Al Capone and his gangsters. Weill loved jazz and old-time American hymns. Interestingly, at the time they wrote the show, neither had set foot in the U.S. They did immigrate to the country in 1941.

The show, which premiered in 1929 in Germany, closed quickly. At the final curtain on opening night, Helene Weigel, the star of the show and Brecht's wife, pulled a paper out of her pocket and started reading a full-blast, down-with-everything communist tract. The audience rioted. In a country fearful of the deepening shadow of Hitler's gangsters and the presence of communism, there was less and less room for the free-thinking Brecht or the eclecticism of Weill's musical.

It’s hard to pull off this serious and often abstract musical, but director Tadeusz Bradecki has done it.The Shaw production is excellent. The cast is exceptional. Benedict Campbell makes the role of Bill Cracker his own. The gang members are appropriately hysterically funny and perfectly stupid. Patty Jamieson is one mean lady as The Fly. Glynis Ranney is wonderful as Lieutenant Lillian Holiday. David Leyshon makes the role of the uptight Captain Hannibal Jackson his. The singing and dancing choruses are fine.

This said, the show will not please everyone. This is not a light, happy escapist musical. In fact, most viewers will probably be scratching their heads as to the authors’ intent and purpose. Guesses vary from a Faustian legend, to it foreshadowing the rise of Hitler and the fall of the fragile German democracy, to Brecht wanting to make a strong political statement regarding communism, to it is simply a story of two people from different backgrounds who find themselves caught up in a world that didn’t have room for their contrary life styles.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Dedicated theatre-goes should see ‘HAPPY END’ because their chance of seeing it offered again are very slim. For those people it will be an experience worth investing time and money. Others might look for less daunting fair.


It is rumored that Shaw scripted ‘YOU NEVER CAN TELL’ mainly out of disdain for Oscar Wilde's ‘THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST,’ which Shaw perceived to be a pretentious social mockery that said little of the real problems of society. If that’s the real case, that’s fine, for the play he created is warm and humorous and purposeful. As one critic said, “Angst should have come knocking on Shaw's door more often. This comedy of manners is a charming little piece that entertains throughout its journey to the predictable end.”

‘YOU NEVER CAN TELL’ is a social comedy that centers on what happens when a famous author and her three children encounter the husband she left 18 years earlier. Throw in a daughter's complicated courtship by a penniless dentist, and a lot of hysterical low brow humor, and you have the plot.

As happens in many of Shaw’s plays he states his views concerning love, feminism, politics and marriage. It is interesting that Morris Panych, the play’s director comments on his twenty-five years with his life partner Kent MacDonald as he states, “Nothing can stop the irrepressible force of love. When love is true there is nothing truer, and no perversions of social form, custom, manner, politics or law will undo it.” Obviously, he is taking this forum to comment on the recent approval of gay marriage in Canada. Shaw would have been proud that his ideas about the need for changes have been used in change!

In the preface to his biography ‘GEORGE BERNARD SHAW: MAN OF THE CENTURY,’ Archibald Henderson tells us that on February 24, 1903, a friend invited him to attend a performance of a play entitled, ‘YOU NEVER CAN TELL,’ by a dramatist he had never heard of. Reluctantly, he went. He wrote, "I sat through that performance, being moved to gales of laughter, feeling as if I were being subjected to some sort of mental electrification." The Shaw audience mimicked Henderson. They laughed and laughed and laughed.

Under the solid direction of Morris Panych, the outstanding Shaw cast acts out the tale with simplicity and comic grace, using underplay to great effect. Mike Shara is delightful as Valentine, Nicole Underhay was fun as Dolly, Harry Judge won the audience as Philip. David Schurmann’s Butler portrayal was right on. Goldie Semple is so perfectly very, very proper as Mrs. Clandon.

Ken MacDonald’s set design is both beautiful and practical. Nancy Bryant’s costumes are elegant and era-perfect.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘YOU NEVER CAN TELL’ is a delightful piece of farce fluff with underlying messages. It is a perfect summertime piece of theatre.


Since the Broadway premiere of her first drama, ‘THE CHILDREN'S' HOUR’ in 1934, Lillian Hellman has generally been considered US America’s leading woman playwright.

Her ‘THE AUTUMN GARDEN,’ which was first staged in 1951, is considered one of Hellman’s lesser plays as she doesn’t take her usual strong political or social active stand. This is more a low-key personal play in which she looks upon the frailties of human existence.

‘THE AUTUMN GARDEN’ is also different from Hellman’s other plays which tend to be plot driven. This script is character driven. The story is really about individual characters who are often persons from Hellman’s own life. For example, Hellman had a thirty-year liaison with Dashel Hammett. Much like two characters in the play, she and “Dash” never married. And, like Hammett , all of the men seem to be running from something. The women are much like Hellman’s own mother and other female relatives.

In the play we view an elegant summer boarding house run by a wellborn, middle aged spinster. The guests are largely frustrated people. They include a woman who runs the establishment and her long time “special” male friend, a cynical drinker who has never married; a general who is married to a fool; a confused young man half heartedly about to marry a woman he does not love.

Hellman creates characters who fail to meet that challenge of breaking their patterns and moving on. That is all except Sophie, the young European maid, who has been brought to America by her well-intentioned aunt supposedly to save her from the difficult life she was living. Unfortunately, the aunt’s plan is for Sophie to marry and live the same kind of life as the other frustrated people in the story. It is Sophie alone who makes the decision to move on, not to take the easy way out. Maybe it is Sophie who does what Hellman was incapable of doing...moving on to a happier and more fulfilling life.

The Shaw production is finely directed by Martha Henry. As with all of the productions this season, the cast is excellent as are the set and costume designs and renderings.

Sharry Flett is properly aloof and frustrated as Constance, the owner of the guest house. Jim Mezon is right on target as Edward Crossman, the drunk who Constance wants to marry. Mike Shara correctly develops Frederick, Sophie’s intended, as a believable rudderless and spineless mamma’s boy. Wendy Thatcher is properly pathetic as the General’s clueless wife. David Schurmann effectively develops the character of the General who can lead men into battle, but can’t forge his own life in a productive way.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE AUTUMN GARDEN’ is not a great script, but in the hands of the Shaw Festival’s cast it is an intriguing study in character development that is well worth seeing.


The Niagara area is dotted with wineries, many of which, besides offering wine tastings and sales, have fine dining restaurants. I find the best of these to be the Hillebrand Estates Winery. The food is marvelous, the wines excellent, the service first rate. Manager Amy Gibbs sees that patrons have an excellent dining experience.

There are some other wonderful restaurants including my favorites, The Inn on the Twenty (, located in historic Jordan Village about forty minutes from Niagara-on-the-Lake, and the Queenston Heights Restaurant ( The latter is located in a park just over the US-Canadian border. The facility has a breathtaking view of the Niagara River gorge. Try and get seated at one of Christine’s tables. She’s a total delight and a wonderful server. The management of Inn on the Twenty has opened Twelve (, a moderately priced waterfront restaurant in St. Catherines, about 20 minutes from Niagara-on-the-Lake. The food is excellent, as is the service. The ride down takes you over the Welland Canal.

The area has many excellent hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. We have found Abbotsford House Bed and Breakfast ( to be our home away-from-home. Owner Margaret Currie is a total delight. Return guests are the rule here. For reservations and/or information call 905-468-4646 or e-mail

Tired of waiting for a casino in Cleveland? For those so-inclined, Niagara Falls has the new Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort which features 3,000 slot machines, 150 gaming tables and overlooks the thunderous cascading water. There is also a large outlet store complex for the bargain shopper. And, of course, not to be overlooked are the attractions connected to the magnificent falls.

For theatre information, a brochure, lodging suggestions or tickets call 800-511-7429 or go on-line to Ask about packages that include lodging, meals and tickets. Also be aware that the festival offers Sunday night specials, day-of-the-show rush tickets and senior matinee prices.