Sunday, December 31, 2006

Time Tributes--2006

Times Theatre Tributes--2006

Greater Cleveland is blessed with a vital theatre scene. It is the purpose of the TIMES THEATRE TRIBUTES to recognize theatrical experiences that, in the mind of this reviewer, were excellent and deserve special recognition.

Only shows performed in 2006 which I reviewed were considered. Selections were limited to locally produced stagings, so none of the professional touring shows are recognized, though actors, directors and technicians who were imported by local theatres were considered. Actors are not separated by gender or leading or supporting roles.

If you would like to read any of my reviews for the year, please go to, enter the blog and click on “2006 Reviews.” Reviews from previous years may also be accessed.

Thanks to the following for making the 2006 theatre scene in the Cleveland area stimulating and memorable:

A NUMBER (Dobama)
CHARLOTTE’S WEB (CPH)—Alex and Noah Berko’s special children’s recognition
OUR TOWN (Porthouse)

Michael Bloom, WELL (CPH)
Michael Brown, RABBIT HOLE (CPH)
Vicki Bussert, BUDDY, THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (Carousel)
Licia Colombi, SORROWS AND REJOICINGS (Ensemble)
Amanda Dehnert, MY FAIR LADY (CPH)
Matthew Earnest, OUR TOWN (Porthouse)
Martin Friedman, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (Lakeland Theatre)
Craig J. George, M4M (CPT)
Mark Alan Gordon, CHARLOTTE’S WEB (CPH)
Sonya Robbins, A NUMBER (Dobama)
Eric Schmiedl, NIGHT BLOOMERS (Dobama)
Scott Spence, A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (Beck)
Fred Sternfeld, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Beck)

Denise Astorino, AND BABY MAKES 7 (convergence)
Sonia Bishop, SORROWS AND REJOICINGS (Ensemble)
Mary Ann Black, DAMES AT SEA (Porthouse)
Lucy Bredeson-Smith, A MURDER OF CROWS (covergence)
Lucy Bredeson-Smith, ICARUS (convergence)
Jodi Brinkman, THE PARTY (Kalliope Stage)
Michael Butler, CUSTODY OF THE EYES, (CPH)
Bernadette Clements, MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION (BECK)
Glenn Colerider, WHEN THE WORLD WAS GREEN (Cesear’s Forum)
Aimee Collier, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (Lakeland Theatre)
Liz Conway, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (Lakeland Theatre)
Timothy Crowe, MY FAIR LADY (CPH)
Troy Deutsch, RABBIT HOLE (CPH)
Denny Dillon, WELL, (CPH)
Keith Faris, THE FULL MONTY (Beck)
Heather Farr, DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (Beck)
Natalie Green, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Beck)
Joel Hammer, A NUMBER (Dobama)
Geoffrey Hoffman, POONA, THE ****DOG, (continuence)
Alicia Kahn, ARMS AND THE MAN (Actors’ Summit)
Geoff Knox, M4M (CPT)
Nick Koesters, NIGHT BLOOMERS (Dobama)
Nick Koesters, GREATER TUNA (Beck)
Julia Kolibab, PACK OF LIES (Cesear’s Forum)
Todd Krispinski, A NUMBER (Dobama)
Todd Krispinski, THE PILLOWMAN (Dobama)
Emily Leonard, DAMES AT SEA (Porthouse)
William Clarence Marshall, PORGY AND BESS (Beck)
Renee Mathews-Jackson, SORROWS AND REJOICINGS (Ensemble)
Michael Mauldin, M4M (CPT)
Mitch McCarrell, HAIR (Cain Park)
Pat McRoberts, BUDDY: THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (Carousel)
Melodie Moore, THE PARTY (Kalliope Stage)
Sarah Portz, SPITFIRE GRILL (Clague Playhouse)
Angela Reed, RABBIT HOLE (CPH)
Alicia Roper, WELL (CPH)
George Roth, DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (Beck)
Wes Shofner POONA, THE ****DOG, (continuence)
Dorothy Silver, MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION (Beck)
Clyde Simon, ICARUS (convergence)
Lenne Snively, A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (Beck)
Lenne Snively, THE FULL MONTY (Beck)
Richard Strimer, SINGING IN THE RAIN (Carousel)
Lelund Durond Thompson, CHARLOTTE’S WEB (CPH)
Rachel Warren, MY FAIR LADY (CPH)
John Woodson, OUR TOWN (Porthouse)
Matthew Wright, A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (Beck)

Ensemble cast:

Russ Broski, set design, NIGHT BLOOMERS, (Dobama)
Kim Brown, costume design, NITE CLUB CONFIDENTIAL (Kalliope)
Kim Brown, costume design, WILD PARTY (Kalliope)
Trad Burns, lighting design, PORGY AND BESS (Beck)
Nicole Franchiseur, costume design, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE
Richard Gould, set design, DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (Beck)
Joan Horvitz, costume design, FEFU AND HER FRIENDS (CPT)
Richard Ingraham, sound design, HAMLET (Beck)
Richard Ingraham, sound design, DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (Beck)
Richard Ingraham. sound design, NIGHT BLOOMERS (Dobama)
Aimee Kluiber, costume design, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Beck)
Todd Krispinski, scenic design, A NUMBER, (Dobama)
Jeff Lockshine, lighting design, DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (Beck)
Don McBride, scenic design, HAMLET (Beck)
Ben Needham, scenic design, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Beck)
Devon Painter, costume design, MY FAIR LADY (CPH)
Russell Parkman, scenic design, RABBIT HOLE (CPH)
Neil Patel, set design, RFK (CPH)
Maureen Patterson, lighting design, NIGHT BLOOMERS (Dobama)
Steven Shultz, projections, LET FREEDOM RING! (Ensemble)
Jenniver Sparano, costume design, MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION (Beck)
Jenniver Sparano, costume design, M4M (CPT)
Nicole Franchiseur, costumes design, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE
Don Wadsworth, dialects, MY FAIR LADY (CPH)
Donald Wasson, costume design/hats, FEFU AND HER FRIENDS (CPT)

John Franks, SPITFIRE GRILL (Clague Playhouse)
Larry Goodpaster, A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (Beck)
Larry Goodpaster, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Beck)
Larry Goodpaster, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE (Lakeland Theatre)
Larry Goodpaster, THE FULL MONTY (Beck)
Nancy Maier, LET FREEDOM RING! (Ensemble)
Michael P. Hamilton, THE WILD PARTY (Kalliope)
Steve Parson, BUDDY: BUDDY HOLLY STORE (Carousel)
Tim Robertson, vocal supervision, MY FAIR LADY (CPH)
Matthew Webb. HAIR (Cain Park)

Martin Cespedes, THE FULL MONTY (Beck)
Martin Cespedes, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Beck)
Janeice Kelley-Kitely, HAIR (Cain Park)
Michael Medcalf, WILD PARTY (Kalliope)
Sean Morrissey , DAMES AT SEA (Porthouse)
David Shimotakahara and Pandora Robertson, LET FREEDOM RING (Ensemble)

Dean Gladden. For service to the Cleveland Play House and the Cleveland
theatre community
Julie Fogel. For outstanding public relations services at the Cleveland Play House


I have been asked why I don’t select my “best of the best” for each season. So, to satisfy those requests, I present my selections:



Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Jesus Star Superstar (Playhouse Square Foundation)

Ted Neeley, Corey Glover and SUPERSTAR all rise to the occasion at the Palace

It is appropriate that at this time of the year Playhouse Square Center has brought in a touring production of ‘JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.’ And quite a production it is.

Superstar opened on Broadway in 1971. Jeff Fenholt played Jesus. In 1972 Neeley was cast in the lead role for the touring production which seemingly has run forever. He also played the role in the 1973 movie version.

Every once in while a play and a performer became synonymous. Think Carol Channing and ‘HELLO DOLLY’ and Zero Mostel and ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.’ When ‘JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’ is mentioned Neeley and Jesus have become parallel elements.

Touring productions, especially those that have been on the road for a long time, often aren’t fresh. This can’t be said for this touring show. It sizzles. It is vital. It is fresh. It is exciting. The singing, the dancing and the story interpretation are all on-key.

Much of the excitement is mustered by the excellent chorus who play the apostles and numerous other roles. However, Corey Glover, best known as a member of the rock band “Living Color,” makes the production special. He is dynamic as Judas. Glover has a full voice and becomes so involved in the role that he sucks the audience right into the action.

Neeley never seems to age or go into automatic pilot as some performers do after playing a role for a long time-span. I’ve seen him do this role several times, and, if anything, he has deepened his Jesus-like presence. No matter what your religious orientation, Neeley makes you believe, as he floats upward on the cross at the end of the play, that he is on his way to a special place, and that his presence will long be felt.

Christina Rea-Briskin makes the role of Mary Magdalene hers. She sings well, interprets songs proficiently and acts the role with conviction. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” her duet with Neeley, is compelling. “Could We Start Again, Please,”her duet with Chris Gleim (Peter) brought screaming appreciation from the audience.

Aaron Fuksa’s “King Herod’s Song,” was a sight and sound show-stopping delight.

Capsule judgment:. This, the 2006 national tour of Superstar, is supposedly Neeley’s swan song. Supposedly it is his final appearance in the role. So, if the public relations is true, you’d better get down to the Palace and see him now. It’s worth the trip

Monday, December 04, 2006

Rocky Horror Show (Cleveland Public Theatre)

‘ROCKY HORROR’ very rocky at CPT

In 1973, while on a trip to England, I saw the ‘ROCKY HORROR SHOW’ during its first week of production. It was a wild and wonderful experience. The creativity, vitality, and breaking down traditional theatre walls (literally and figuratively) are forever etched in my brain.

Many are surprised to know that the Richard O’Brien script began as a play, not as a film. O’Brien had a life-long passion for schlocky horror movies. He also had a flare for writing. While appearing in a production of ‘JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’ in London, he produced a 3-chord rock musical entitled ‘THEY CAME FROM DENTON HIGH’ in a small space above the theatre where Superstar was playing. Redubbed ‘THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW,’ the play is based on a combination of grade B Horror movies, Steve Reeve’s muscle flicks and fifties rock 'n' roll. It starred Tim Curry, who had appeared with O’Brien in a production of ‘HAIR,’ as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a kinky scientist who creates "Rocky Horror", his personal Adonis.

The play, which opened as a six-week workshop project, got fantastic reviews and packed houses. It was named Best Musical of 1973 in the London Evening Standard's annual poll of drama critics.

But, all was not success. A Broadway version of the play flopped, running only forty five performances. A film, which had been made shortly before the New York opening, also bombed except in New York and LA.

But all was not lost. A marketing director came up with the idea of running it as a midnight movie. The film was reformatted, became a cult hit complete with audience members showing up dressed like the film’s characters and making sound effects and yelling out lines and doing the film’s famous “Time Warp” dance as the movie rolled. The rest, including a 2000 Broadway revival, is cult history.

Cleveland Public Theatre has decided to take on this cult-rock musical. Based on its past history of staging edgy shows such as ‘HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY ITCH,’ ‘VARLA JEAN,’ and ‘CONFESSIONS OF PUNCH AND JUDY,’ it would seem CPT would be the logical place for the staging.

Unfortunately, their production is off the mark. Though it seems like a romp, this is not an easy script to stage. The characters must be clearly etched and done with exaggerated realism. There has to be a total over-the-top staging within a well thought-out concept.

The production has lots of gimmicks, many of which are misguided (e.g., the gross yelling out by the band and others off stage which, I assume, were intended to be clever, but did little but distract from the on-stage action.) The performances go from good to bad. The poor sound system and the size of the venue makes for difficult hearing and echos that mute the lyrics and spoken dialogue. But, mainly, the production lacks focus.

Scott Plate is one of the area’s best actors and his previous directing forays were excellent. In spite of his fine director’s comments in the program, he seemed overwhelmed with this script. He made several questionable decisions, including deciding to gender bend the casting. This technique often works. For example, CPT’s ‘M4M’ did it with great success. In this case, however, it didn’t work and seemed like a gimmick for gimmick’s sake. Sometimes the gender references in songs made for confusion when applied to the “wrong” sex such as having Rocky, the supposedly perfectly formed male specimen played by a woman. In other cases, the result was blatantly homoerotic which rather than enhancing the decadence of the already decadent piece, seemed forced.

Andrew Marikis and Liz Conway were excellent as the naive, nerdy Brad and Janet. They both sing well and could be understood, a quality not present with some of the other cast members. Alison Garigan, who seems to have been born with an edge, didn’t reek with her usual sexuality. If anything, she was too restrained.

Carlos Antonio Cruz and James Ronald Jones II as Magenta and Riff Raff, were almost unintelligible. Very few of their lines or lyrics could be understood. Amy Bistok’s Narrator lacked character. She often sounded like she was reading blandly from a phone book. Amy Pawlukiewicz didn’t have the necessary physical presence needed for the role of Rocky. On the other hand, Elizabeth Wood was Shirley Temple adorable as Columbia.

The highlight of the production was The Phantoms, Brad Wyner’s rock group. I wish that these talented guys had just played a concert of the show’s score. That would have been worth sitting through in the very cold, cavernous, near-empty theatre.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: In my long history of theatre commentary, I have never walked out of a show that I have reviewed before it was over. I left the CPT production of ‘THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW’ at intermission. ‘Nuff said.

‘THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW’ runs through December 23 at CPT’. For tickets call 216 631-2727.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Landmark Series--Trinity Cathedral (Groundworks)

Groundworks continues to impress

Now in its eighth season, Groundworks Dancetheater continues to impress. Artistic Director David Shimotakahara has built a solid company which breaks outside traditional dance descriptions. The philosophy of combining the arts by having musicians create new works, which are then choreographed to both fit the venue and the dancers’ skills, while incorporating various electronic and theatrical devices, makes for exciting performance evenings.

In the company’s latest presentation, part of their Landmark Series, which places the dancers in various venues, they chose to perform in Trinity Cathedral. The combination of the glory of the gothic cathedral and the exciting choreography of Shimotakahara, Art Bridgman, Myrna Packer and Amy Miller, melded with the original music of Ryan Lott and Gustavo Aguilar and traditional music of J. S. Bach, brought about sustained applause from the near sold-out audience. Added to the over-all effect were costumes by Ray Zander and Janet Bolick which perfectly fit the mood of the dance and the creative lighting of Dennis Dugan.

The evening’s pieces, “Before With After,” “eleveneleven,” and “Through the Lens,” were each well-crafted.

Shimotakahara’s ‘Before With After,” examines life’s encounters and the intersection of joy and sorrow which reflected Bach’s keyboard tones. A piece which used the exceptional talents of Amy Miller, Felise Bagley, Jennifer Lott, Mark Otloski and Shimotakahara, consisted of flowing jumps, powerful gymnastics and controlled arm and body movements. The result was a compelling segment of dance.

Company member Amy Miller explored the implications of interconnectedness in choreographing “eleveneleven.” Ryan Lott’s original contemporary score was filled with energy and power that lent itself to Miller’s creative take on the moods and sounds. Bagley, Jennifer Lott, Damien Highfield and Otloski worked well together to create an interactive blend of carries, lifts and writhing movements on the floor, that was enveloping.

The highlight of the evening was ‘Through the Lens,” choreographers Bridgman and Packer’s break-through concept. Almost defying description, the piece was performed in front of and behind a massive opaque curtain. The dancers dove and rolled under the material, danced behind the screen, displaying configurations in varying degrees of large and small shadows, as well as realistically appearing before the curtain. This was a “WOW!” presentation.

In past reviews of the company I have recounted that newcomer Jennifer Lott had not yet matured to the level of the rest of the dancers. Shimotakahara’s choreography requires total body control and perfection in execution. Anyone who wavers from that weakens the over-all effect. It is a pleasure to announced that Lott, in this program, displayed tremendous growth in becoming an equal to the rest of the company.

Capsule judgement: Groundworks next, not to be missed presentation, will be at the Cleveland Botanical Garden on January 26, 27 and 28. For tickets call 216-721-1600 or visit the company’s website at

Beauty and the Beast (Beck Center)

Noah and Alex agree with grandpa, ‘Beauty And The Beast’ is a beaut at Beck!

‘DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST,’ which is now on stage at Beck Center, tells a "tale as old as time." It was originally conceived in 1740 as a dark and scary fable. In 1992 Disney released a lighter version which became the first animated feature to be nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Picture. In 1994 Disney transformed the script into an award winning Broadway musical.

Last year Beck offered the show as an option to the usual holiday fare. It was a good idea. I called the production “a delightful experience,” and advised “see it!”

Fred Sternfeld has proven that he is a master at directing mass crowd musicals and scripts of high quality (e.g., ‘MAN OF LAMANCHA’ and ‘RAGTIME’). He has a knack for involving the entire cast, working with the leads to fine-tune the show, and getting audiences emotionally involved.

‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’ concerns a prince who, because he has no love in his heart, is transformed into a beast by an enchantress. To break the spell, the Beast must learn to love another and earn her love in return. If not, he will be doomed to remain a beast for all time.

Into the Beast’s life comes Belle, a beautiful young woman who lives with her eccentric father in a small town near the Beast’s castle. Belle longs for a life of adventure like those she reads of in books. Her father gets lost in the woods and wanders into the Beast’s castle, where he is imprisoned. Upon finding her father in the Beast's clutches, Belle offers herself as a captive in return for her father’s release. can guess the rest. Yes, the Beast learns kindness and love, it is reciprocated by Belle, and we all go out of the theatre singing the likes of “If I Can’t Love Her,” “Be Our Guest,” and the title song, “Beauty and the Beast.”

Natalie Green again is glorious as Belle. She is beautiful, lights up the stage with her smile, sings like an angel and dances with ease. Her version of “A Change in Me” is enchanting.

Dan Folino, one of my very favorite local actors, has a full and powerful voice and gives a vulnerable texture to the role of the Beast that adds much to the characterization. His “If I Can’t Love her” is captivating. He and Green make the perfect fairy tale prince and princess. Two tween girls seated behind me, who couldn’t control themselves (giggle, giggle, giggle) during the show, squealed with delight at the end when the beast became a “real” person and then kissed Belle. They simultaneously shrieked, “He is so cute, I bet they really are in love” (giggle, giggle, giggle).

I still don’t buy Josh Noble as Gaston. In spite of his good singing voice and pearly white teeth, he feigns bravado, it doesn’t come naturally. He also doesn’t have the muscle-tone that is referred to in the score. Obviously, my view is in the minority, as he got a screaming ovation during the opening night curtain call.

Zac Hudak (Lefou) makes for the perfect punching bag for Gaston. He needs to be careful, however, as he is telegraphing the “shticks” and has become so automatic that he is losing laughs. And, getting laughs is the reason for his being in the show.

Doug Collier as Cogsworth (the clock), and Larry Nehring, who gives a Danny Kaye quality to Lumiere, are both delightful. Tracee Patterson, who played Madame de la Grande Bouche (the dresser) last year, is charming as Mrs. Potts.

Martin Cespedes is a master of choreography. It is amazing what he can do with a group of performers who, in general, are not proficient dancers. “Be Our Guest” and “Gaston” were absolute show stoppers!

Larry Goodpaster’s orchestra is excellent, remembering the rule that the orchestra in a musical plays backup to the singers and are not giving a concert.

Ben Needham’s scenic design is excellent. It is amazing how he used every inch of space on the small stage area to allow for ease of movement.

Since the show is aimed at kids of all ages, I took my trusty “kid’s viewpoint experts”-- my grandsons--Alex and Noah Berko to see the show. Their capsule judgements: “The music was great, the singing and dancing were great. I really liked it, except for the kissing!” (What can you expect, he’s anb 11-year old boy!) And, “I really liked the funny guy (Zac Hudak), and it was really creative, especially the costumes and the sets, but the kissing...blech!” (I guess 9 year-old males aren’t into the smoochy stuff either.) The boys were alert and paid attention throughout, and were a great audience, hysterically falling for all of Sternfeld’s gimmicks. They were especially impressed by the ending. “How did they get the beast out of the makeup and make him real so fast?” Hmm...only Sternfeld knows.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST” is a delightful production. It is appropriate for kids over 8. Younger ones may be scared by the beast and the wolves. Oh, please tell the tween-aged girls that relating the whole story out loud throughout the production is not good theatre etiquette. And, as the boys said, “All the giggling, yuck!”

For tickets to ‘BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’ which runs through December 31 at the Beck Center for the Arts, call 216-521-2540.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Greater Tuna (Beck Center)

‘GREATER TUNA’ an enjoyable escape at Beck

Tuna, Texas is the third smallest city in Texas. Well, if there was such a place as Tuna, Texas, it would be the third smallest city. Tuna is the mythical setting for the trilogy of comedic plays written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard. Their first script was ‘GREATER TUNA,’ which is now on stage at Beck Center.

The plays examine the redneck, red-state mentality of people who are members of the clan, see UFOs, sell used assault weapons, set up a “limited” Spanish language program which consists of five phrases, regularly destroy rock-and-roll records, and try and remove books from the library. The books and the reasons? ‘ROOTS’ only tells one side of the slave story; ‘ROMEO AND JULIET’ encourages teen-age sex; and ‘HUCK FINN’ tells of a relationship between a delinquent white youth and a black man.

Though it was written a quarter-century ago, most of the humor is still topical.

There are 20 characters in the script. Wow, a huge cast! Actually, not so. All twenty characters are played by 2 men! How do they do it? They change their vocalizations, toss wigs on and off, become quick change artists as the costumes change constantly. Kudos to Jinniver Sparano, the costume designer and dresser, who has recently become the queen of stripping and reclothing actors. (She recently carried out the same task for the cast of ‘M4M’ at Cleveland Public Theatre.)

Who are the characters? "Hanging Judge" Buckner was found dead of a stroke while he was wearing a Dale Evans one-piece swimsuit. R.R. Snavely, aided by a bottle of Mogen-David, saw a UFO that looked like "a giant hovering chimichanga without the guacamole." Elderly Pearl Burras loves nothing better than to slip a strychnine pill into a biscuit, wrap it in a dough ball and feed it to dogs. And the loonies are commented upon by Thurston and Arles who run the local radio station.

Nicholas Koesters (Arles)portrays an array of characters including the gun-selling Didi, the over sympathetic director of the Humane Society, both a brother and his sister, and the leader of the “Smut Snatchers.” He does all of them well.

Kevin Joseph Kelly (Thurston) is delightful as the dog Yippy, an old lady, a misguided mother and the sheriff. The eulogy he delivers as Reverend Spikes at Judge Brucker’s funeral, is hilarious. Though his characterizations are not quite as keyed as Koesters’ portrayals, Kelly is excellent.

Sparano’s costumes are perfectly tacky. A higher compliment could not be given. Richard Ingraham’s sound design enforces and bridges the various segments.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Need an escape from holiday stress and the same-old, same-old holiday entertainment? Well, hook up the sleigh, or the trusty SUV, and get out to Beck Center in Lakewood for an hour-and-a-half of fun.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Santaland Diaries (Cleveland Public Theatre)

Cute, but not wonderful ‘SANTALAND DIARIES’ at CPT

Want a fun holiday job? How about working as one of Santa’s elfs in a major department store? Think of it this way: you’d be surrounded by lots of toys, be in a winter wonderland setting, listen to cute kids tell their wishes to a wise Santa, and hobnob with “the” man--the guy in the red suit.

When David Sedaris was 33-years old and desperate for a job while waiting for his big break in New York, he saw an ad for a Santa’s helper at Macy’s Department store. A perfect holiday job, he thought. Oh, how wrong he was.

Sedaris, who is a National Public Radio humorist and author of such delightful books as ‘NAKED’ and ‘ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY,’ delves into his own life for his stories. This is the case with ‘SANTALAND DIARIES,’ a story which is both humorous and sardonic. It can be viewed locally on stage at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Andrew Tarr, who portrays Sedaris in this one-person show, is quite entertaining. However, he misses that extra spark that is needed to get all the laughs out of the piece which includes comments about Santas, parents, kids and coworkers. The Santas run from the insane to the philosophical. He recounts tales of maniacal parents whose main goal in life is to get the “perfect” holiday picture and have their kids enjoy themselves even if the parent has to beat the kid into being the happy. The kids range from the pleasers to the “pee-ers.” Co-workers vary from the dwarf to the ditz who wants to be an elf “all year long.”

Director Mindy Childress Herman needed to work with Tarr on comic timing. Some of the necessary pauses, stresses and facial gyrations, which make for comedy, were not well-keyed. That is not to say Tarr isn’t entertaining. He is, but he could have been hysterical with the right guidance.

Capsule judgement: “SANTALAND DIARIES” is a creative piece which gets a pleasant production at Cleveland Public Theatre. P.S. It is not for the kids!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Spitfire Grill (Clague Playhouse)

Clague’s ‘THE SPITFIRE GRILL’ is well-done

In 1997 Lee David Zlotoff’s film version of ‘THE SPITFIRE GRILL’ received the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. When writers James Valcq and Fred Alley transformed the screenplay into a musical for the stage, the off Broadway production won the Richard Rogers Production Award. That script is now on stage at Clague Playhouse.

As the play starts, Percy is singing of “A Ring Around the Moon” from her jail cell, yearning for a view without bars on the window. When she is released she decides to start a new life in Gilead, Wisconsin, a location she selected because of a nature picture she found in an old travel book. The authors’ choice of the city’s name is not accidental. In the Old Testament a reference is made to a salve noted for healing--the balm of Gilead (Jeremiah 46:11). This allusion supports the play’s themes of healing and hope.

The town sheriff, Joe Sutter, takes Percy to the Spitfire Grill. Here, Percy meets Hannah, a seemingly hardened woman, who reluctantly takes her in and gives her a job.

Effy, the town postmistress and busybody, is immediately suspicious of Percy, as is Caleb, Hannah’s nephew. They make it known that a jailbird isn’t welcome in their midst. It is the shy Shelby, Caleb’s wife, who is the only one willing to suspend judgment. Hannah accidentally falls and injures her leg, Percy gets her medical help, Effy spreads the story that Percy pushed Hannah down a flight of stairs, Hannah puts Percy in charge of the grill. Percy’s cooking proves to be nearly lethal, Shelby helps out, Percy also takes over Hannah’s unexplained ritual of leaving a loaf of bread next to a stump behind the grill. Hannah has been trying to sell the grill for years with no luck. Percy and Shelby, come up with a scheme for an essay contest with an entry fee of $100 with the winner awarded the restaurant. And so, the pieces are all set in place for an obvious, but audience pleasing climax.

One of the keymarks of a well-crafted book musical is that each of the songs focuses on the development of the story line. “THE SPITFIRE GRILL’ fulfills that definition as throughout, there is a perfect flow of lyrics and script that carry the story along.

Why did such a wonderful little musical not get its deserved attention? Theatre audiences never really got the opportunity to experience the production because the show opened only three days before the 9/11 tragedy. The calamity closed down much of New York theatre. The show lasted only four weeks.

Clague’s production, which is peopled by amateur actors, is excellent. Director Don Irven has paced the show well, staged it with intelligence, makes sure that the lyrics are sung for meaning, and most of the characters are clearly drawn.

Heather Balogh makes Percy live. She has a nice country twanged voice. Sarah Portz, as the put-upon Shelby, is character-perfect. She has the finest singing voice in the cast. George Kukich, who has an acceptable singing voice, develops a believably shy Joe. Mary Jane Nottage is delightful as Hannah and does a nice job of presenting her songs in spite of a limited singing range. Mitch Manthey is inconsistent as Hannah’s nephew Calab. His character comes and goes and often doesn’t build into his argumentative self, just explodes. Only Paige Reich, as Effy, the town gossip, fails to be close to believable. She is much too emotionally controlled, not meddling and chattering enough.

Ron Newell’s fragmented set, Lance Switzer’s lighting and Casey Jones’ sound effects enhance the production.

Musical Director John Franks’ orchestra, which consists of an accordion, violin, guitar, mandolin, cello and keyboard, is excellent.

Capsule Judgement: Clague’s ‘THE SPITFIRE GRILL,’ which is a delightful and imaginative journey of self-discovery, is a very good amateur production. It is well worth a trip to Westlake!

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Pack of Lies (Cesear's Forum)

‘PACK OF LIES’--interesting script, ponderous production

Hugh Whitemore’s ‘PACK OF LIES,’ now in production at Cesear’s Forum, is based on the 1961 arrest of a husband-and-wife Soviet spy team in England. (The couple were convicted and sentenced to twenty years imprisonment.) The spies, Americans Peter and Helen Kroger (really Morris and Lona Cohen), appear to be a typical suburban couple, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

Set in London, the play reveals the stresses placed on the up-tight and up-right Jackson family who get thrust into the middle of an investigation by the mysterious Stewart, who talks them into allowing observers to spy on their neighbors by taking up residency in the Jackson home. The family is eventually forced to chose between loyalty to their country and allegiance to their friends.

As Whitemore explains regarding the play and his motivations (and which might be applied to the 2006 United States), " addition to the themes of loyalty and deception, I became increasingly preoccupied with the role of the ordinary citizen in our society. Is it ever possible for the average, relatively powerless man or woman to make anything more than a token stand against officialdom? Is it not potentially risky to allow the state (albeit for well argued reasons) greater moral license than the individual? Or is it, perhaps, naive to expect more than an approximate degree of truthfulness from governments and their spokesmen?"

In its various productions, the play has been called “compelling,” “an exciting flash of history,” and “a real who-done-it, which evokes attention.”

Unfortunately, none of these terms can be used to identify Cesear’s production under the guidance of director Greg Cesear. The show is slow, beyond sluggish. The excitement, the humor, the twists-and-turns are lost in the plodding pace. The matter is not helped by the uncomfortable seating in Kennedy’s Down Under, where the play is being staged.

The cast varies from excellent to misguided. Julia Kolibab as Barbara Jackson, who is forced to chose between friendship and forced honor, is excellent. As the stress builds, Kolibab, has a near nervous breakdown before our eyes. Though overly deliberate, Steven Hoffman, is quite good as the husband who puts aside his loyalty to his wife to do his perceived civic duty. Jennifer Mae Hoffman is basically on-target as their teenage daughter.

Juliette Regnier, usually one of the area’s more competent actresses, seems lost in the role of the “ditsy” spy Helen. She never settles into a character. If the real Helen couldn’t act any better than Regnier, she would have been found out in an instant. Tom Jessup (Peter Kroger) never makes us believe that the character is a real person.

Paul Floriano, who I always expect to be excellent, disappoints, as he doesn’t ring true as Stewart, the spy chaser. His levels of concentration seemed to leave him at times. In several scenes with Steven Hoffman, there appeared to be line problems.

Capsule judgment: ‘PACK OF LIES’ is an interesting play that gets less than a stellar production at Cesear’s Forum.

Christopher Fortunato reviews the reviewer

Dear Mr. Berko,

I enjoyed reading this review of Cats. I have had the fortune of being in performances you have reviewed.

I especially liked your note of cats grooming themselves etc, ie, being cats. Previous productions of CATS I have seen involved cats grooming themselves, being social to other cats while the performance was going on since cats would do that in feline life.

Good observation.

Christopher Fortunato, EMC

Friday, November 17, 2006

Cat (Playhouse Square Center)

Touring production of ‘CATS’ is cat-lite

Midnight. Not a sound from the pavement. Suddenly an explosion of music and lights reveals a larger-than-life junkyard. Probing lights dart across the darkened landscape, catching the darting image of a running feline. Tonight is the one special night each year when the tribe of Jellicle Cats reunites to celebrate who they are. The stage explodes as one by one the cats appear! Thus starts ‘CATS,’ Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” by T. S. Eliot. A touring company is now performing the show at the Palace Theatre in Playhouse Square.

With no plot and a few memorable songs (“Memory” and “The Moments of Happiness”) one must wonder why ‘CATS,’ which opened twenty-five years ago has become such a hit. In fact, it holds the record as the longest running play in the history of Broadway musical theatre.

The answer may have been given by an original cast member of the New York show during a Smithsonian Museum’s symposium ,“The Actor’s Role in the Musical,” which I attended in Washington, D.C. several years ago. A member of the audience asked why the show is such a cult hit. The response centered on the belief that the audience became so entranced by each actor “becoming” the cat he or she was portraying, that the viewers were transported into the world of cats. He went on to say that the costumes, the special effects and the makeup were also important elements.

That answer explains why this production is less than wonderful. It’s too bad that tour director and choreographer Richard Stafford and his cast didn’t attend that lecture. At no time during this staging did I forget that actors were “pretending” to be cats, not being cats, themselves. Former productions I have seen made that transition. The actors stayed in character throughout. They cleaned themselves, they stretched, they rubbed against each other, they WERE cats. Part of this lack of character depth may be that the cast members are almost all in their first touring show and few have had professional experience. Besides being cat-lite, they are experience-lite.

A friend commented at intermission, “I’ve seen this play numerous times and something is missing.” When I mentioned the cat-factor, she smiled and said, “That’s it!”

The elaborate sets work, the musical sounds are fine, the cast sings and dances well, the choreography is good (not electric, but good), but the show doesn’t have the necessary spark that would make it great.

Did the production get a standing ovation? Of course. Cleveland audiences seem to believe that they have to stand and cheer no matter whether the quality of a production deserves it or not. It’s like giving every student in class an “A.” It makes the receiver feel good, but it is disingenuous. How do you really praise excellence when it happens? But, that’s a topic for another review...

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: For the majority of the audience, ‘CATS’ will be a positive experience. For those who can discern the acceptable from the great, this production of ‘CATS’ will be less than ‘purr-fection.”

Monday, November 13, 2006

Nite Club Confidential (Kalliope Stage)

Kalliope’s ‘NITE CLUB CONFIDENTIAL’ short on substance

Since its inception three years ago, Kalliope Stage has had many exciting and well executed shows such as ‘THE SUMMER OF ‘42,’ OPAL,’ ‘CABARET’ and ‘BABY.’ Unfortunately, their latest offering, ‘NITE CLUB CONFIDENTIAL’ can’t be added to that list.

The shallowness of the show is surprising since, according to program notes, the show, as directed by Kalliope’s artistic director Paul F. Gurgol, was nominated for five Barrymore awards in Philadelphia. How? I’m not sure. The story line is weak, many of the songs in the cabaret-formatted script are bland, and the staging lacks dynamism.

At the start, the theatre goes black. Three shots are heard, sirens sound, the lights come up and a body is sprawled on the stairs. The corpse rises and he tells us that we are going to view a dramatic parody that highlights an Eisenhower administration/jazz-era time period musical, and have a glimpse of club glamour of the times.

‘NITE CLUB CONFIDENTIAL,’ with book by Dennis Deal and songs and arrangements by Deal and Albert Evans, revolves around the fading career of Kay Goodman, a Sinatra wannabe Buck Holden, and a group named The High Hopes.

The score includes “Comment Allez-Vous?,” “Love Isn’t Born, It’s Made,” “Nothing Can Replace a Man,” “The Canarsie Diner,” “He Never Leaves His Love Behind,” and “Crazy New Words.” Never heard of them,? Don’t worry, you haven’t missed much. On the other hand, “Goody Goody,” “I Thought About You,” and “That Old Black Magic” may be familiar.

The story doesn’t hold together well, the lines are often corny, the reprises are excessive and the personalities don’t ring true.

Gurgol’s directing doesn’t help much. Segments drag, the choreography is stilted, and the characterizations are often flat. With the exception of the song “Cloudburst,” the song renditions aren’t memorable. At intermission a jazz aficionada was overheard commenting on the lack of effective arrangements.

The cast is uneven. Slight, handsome Steve Parmenter fails to create a believable character as Buck, the manipulating limited in talent singer/dancer who attempts to sleep his way to the top. As with the script, Parmenter is more show that substance.

Trudi Posey tries too hard as the washed up former star. She is quite unbelievable. There is no sexual energy between her and Parmenter, a requisite for the parts. The same can be said for Parmenter and Liz O’Donnell, who portrays Trudi, supposedly Buck’s real love. O’Donnell comes out as the strongest performer and singer in the production. Charles Statham and Mark Ludden sing well but are less than convincing as the remaining members of The High Hopes.

Technically, the show is solid. Kim Brown’s costumes, especially the women’s dresses are smashing. Lance Switzer and Steven Shack’s lighting design and Krystyna Loboda’s red and black tacky set works well. Musical Director Michael Hamilton and his orchestra are quite good.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Kalliope Stage has proven it is so much better than their present staging of ‘NITE CLUB CONFIDENTIAL.’ Let’s hope the real talent of the director and the cast comes forth in their next production.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Singing in the Rain (Carousel Dinner Theatre)

The sun almost shines at SINGING IN THE RAIN at Carousel

A recent survey revealed that the five most liked movie musicals are ‘CHICAGO,’ ‘WEST SIDE STORY,’ ‘THE SOUND OF MUSIC,’ ‘THE WIZARD OF OZ,’ and ‘SINGING IN THE RAIN.’ The first three were original plays which transformed into cinematic form. The latter two were transformed from the silver screen to the stage. While Oz is an enchanting story with lots of societal implications, Rain is a piece of escapism that was brought to fame because of the wonderful performances of Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly.

The story is based at a time when Hollywood was making the transition from silent films to talkies. Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont are the king and queen of the silent screen. (Think Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Mary Pickford.) Unfortunately, after the ‘JAZZ SINGER’ became a hit, the day of the silent film was gone. Lamont, a dumb blond with a squealing voice, can’t make the transition, so an idea is hatched to have the charming and vocally proficient Kathy Seldon lip-sinc for her. As happens in feel-good musicals, all turns out well as Lamont is revealed for what she is, and Seldon winds up with stardom and Lockwood.

Macio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s musical score is filled with audience pleasers including “Fit as a Fiddle,” “You Stepped out of a Dream,” “You Were Meant for Me,” “Good Morning,” and “Would You.”

Because of a slightness of the Betty Comden and Adolph Green plot, the stage version, which closely follows the movie story line, must have three super talents to pull it off. The Carousel Dinner Theatre production does have two of the necessary three. Amanda Rose is pretty, charming and gifted. Her Kathy is delightful. Richard Strimer is wonderful as Cosmo, the Donald O’Connor character. He sings, dances and clowns well. His only clunker is the usually delightful “Make “Em Laugh’ which fails to amuse. It isn’t his fault, he gives his all, but the segment is poorly conceived by director/choreographer Marc Robbin.

The missing performance element is the character of Don Lockwood, the Gene Kelly role. This is a case of miscasting. Curt Dale Clark doesn’t physically look like nor does he effectively act the role of the handsome and charming swashbuckler. He has an adequate singing voice and his dancing leaves much to be desired. In comparison to Strimer, who lights up the stage, the chunky Clark barely lifts his feet. In the usually wonderful “Singin’ in the Rain” number he spends most of his time splashing the audience with water. None of the Gene Kelly magic here.

Besides the performances of Strimer and Rose, the Carousel show does have many other positives. Rain, yes real rain, falls on the stage several times. The patrons in the first several rows have been given slickers so they don’t get totally soaked. The wet gimmick is a sure audience pleaser.

In addition, Barbara Helms is wonderfully obnoxious as the scheming Lina Lamont and Dominic Sheahan-Stahl displays a fine voice in “You Are My Lucky Star.” The singing and dancing choruses are fine.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Carousel’s ‘SINGING IN THE RAIN’ has enough laughs and gimmicks to please most audience members. Too bad for the miscasting of the lead male role. With the right person in that part, this could have been a total winning production.

Arms and the Man (Actors' Summit)

‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ highlights Shaw’s message at Actors’ Summit

George Bernard Shaw’s ‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ is presently in production at Actors’ Summit.

A director of ‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ has a decision to make. Should the play be staged as a comedy or as a no-holds-barred farce? The former approach allows Shaw’s lines to carry the humor and create the message. The latter allows the audience to have a whale of a good time laughing at the outlandishness of the actors, the setting, overblown concept, and even the costumes.

When the Shaw Festival of Canada produced the show earlier this year, the director did it as a no-holds-barred farce. The characters were much bigger than life. The lines were so broadly presented that everything short of holding up “laugh now” signs was present.

The result was that Shaw’s messages, including women’s rights (“People don’t live up to their ideals.”), the ridiculousness of the upper classes (“Everything I think is mocked by everything I do.”), the stupidity of war (“War is a sham, like love.”), and the absurdity of existence (“Life’s a farce.”) were often not on the surface for all to grasp, but the audience had one heck of a good time.

A. Neil Thackaberry, the director of the Actor’s Summit production, decided to follow Shaw’s own words, “Life isn’t a farce,” and present the play as a comedy. In general, the languid pace and Shavian message-centered-approach worked well.

The story concerns Raina, the wealthy young daughter of a rich Bulgarian nobleman and her relationships with a pompous, weak-minded yet extremely handsome military bumbler, as well as the “Chocolate Soldier,” an intelligent, charming mercenary who is befriended when he sneaks into her bed chamber in order to avoid being killed by her countrymen. Through a series of unbelievable and silly incidents, everything turns out exactly as it should.

The production is blessed with some wonderful performances by Alicia Kahn, Dana Hart, Dorothy Silver and Reuben Silver.

Kahn creates her Raina as a spoiled, dreamer of fairy-tale love, who is also a pragmatist. She is both charming and delightful in creating a consistent characterization.

Hart, as Captain Bluntschli, is right on key as the clever mercenary, who, like his beloved chocolate creams, is crusty on the outside, but soft on the inside. He creates an appealing “chocolate soldier.”

The Silvers, as always, texture their characters as Raina’s parents, with meaningful double-takes and delightful character development.

On the other hand, Joe Bishara as the supposedly arrogant Sergius, just isn’t pompous and self-puffed up enough. He looks the role, but plays at being Sergius, rather than being the character. His inconsistency is the major weakness of the production. Sally Groth as Louka, the servant, is adequate, but doesn’t have the spark, the incendiary characteristics needed to make her more royalty than servant.

Working on a limited budget, Mary Jo Alexander’s costumes are quite representative of the era, but lack of the quality to make for total believability. The set was not of the opulence that would be expected by the “only family in Bulgaria to have a library.” The humor of the “only library” was ruined because the room was missing books. There should have been a few clearly highlighted volumes to draw the irony of Shaw’s stressing the literary storage area. (This is another of Shaw’s hits on the inept educational system and showmanship rather than actual edification of the upper classes.)

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Actors’ Summit’s ‘ARMS AND THE MAN’ makes for a pleasant evening of theatre, which has a languid pace that cuts down on the gaiety, but does increase understanding of Shaw’s concepts, making it a production worth seeing.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

RFK (Cleveland Play House)

Interesting, but not compelling view of Robert Kennedy at CPH

“War. It’s a terrible tragedy.” “Violent revenge is not American.” “We don’t know why we are at war.” “The dollars are being wasted on the war.” Sound like assertions from 2006 political advertisements? No, these are statements made by Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy’s youngest brother, who is the subject of ‘RFK,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House.

‘RFK,’ which enjoyed an extended run Off-Broadway, is a one-man show which was written by and stars Jack Holmes .

The production notes for the play, which was originally entitled, ‘THE AWFUL GRACE OF GOD: A PORTRAIT OF ROBERT F. KENNEDY,’ state, “By late summer 1964, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, still in shock and consumed with grief over the assassination of his older brother was at a crossroad in his life. The presidential election was approaching and President Lyndon Johnson finally called him to the White House to end months of speculation over whether or not he would be Johnson’s Vice Presidential running mate. The result of that meeting, and the subsequent direction of RFK’s life, are the focus of the play. Going backward and forward in time, we see Kennedy grow from husband to father to grieving brother to New York senator to outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam to Democratic Presidential candidate."

The play tries to earnestly trace RFK’s successes, his bi-polar like personality, and his conflicts with Lyndon Johnson and Edgar Hoover. Unfortunately, the action is too obvious, often too patterned to grab and hold our attention. Part of the problem may be that, from the start, anyone who knows history, knows the outcome. There is no mystery. And, though there are humorous moments, especially when the words seem like 2006 comments about President Bush and his administration, the goings-on often sound like a long campaign speech and commercial sound bites.

As Holmes transitions from Kennedy’s various offices, to the senate floor, to stops on the campaign trail, to his chaotic home, the audience is lead by David Weiner’s effective lighting, James C. Swonger’s impactful sound design and Neil Patel’s visually clarifying back wall of patchwork of geometric shapes, which change from flags to mood enhancers.

Though his accent waivers, and he too systematically and too often fixes his flopping hair, Holmes is generally effective. In fact, his acting is basically better than his writing. There is a lot of sentimental language, platitudes and slogans which attempt to represent reality. It skims the surface without always delving into causes for the speeches and reactions.

Yes, Robert F. Kennedy was shy, yet intense. He, according to the script, “Saw wrong and tried to right it…saw suffering and tried to heal it…saw war…and tried to stop it.” But, what really caused a rich kid from a politically astute family who married a strong dominant woman, to be who he was. We really don’t find that out.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: For those who are fascinated by the Kennedy legend, who like biographies, and are willing to put aside the shallowness of the writing, ‘RFK’ should be of interest. It’s not great theatre, it’s good theatre.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

And Baby Makes Seven (convergence-continuum)

Another thought-provoking and weird experience at convergence-continuum

At intermission, the woman sitting next to me at the opening night production of Paula Vogel’s ‘AND BABY MAKES SEVEN,’ at convergence-continuum theatre, said, “Well, it’s another one of those Clyde Simon thought-provoking, weird experiences.”

Yes, thought-provoking and weird are the general rule at convergence, Cleveland’s off, off, way off Broadway home of scripts that no one else in the Cleveland area drama scene will produce.

On the surface, the play seems to be straight forward. Two lesbians (Ruth and Anna) decide to have children with the help of Peter, their gay male friend. Okay, no problem there. That’s what you think. Vogel’s creativity lets lose, and in order to prepare for the impending birth, she has the women develop child alter-egos. The fantasy rug rats aren’t your run of the mill kids. Orphan is a feral wild-child raised by dogs at the New York Port Authority, who may or may not have rabies. Henri is a misplaced Parisian, borrowed from the movie ‘THE RED BALLOON.’ Cecil is a savant and Darwinian, to boot. (You are probably thinking, “What? No way.” Come on, would I make this up?) In the final week before their real baby is due, Peter suggests they need to clear their apartment of the make-believe children. The trio decide to “kill them off.” They supposedly accomplish their deed, but, of course, to make the plot thicker, when the real baby shows up, the pretend kids return. So, baby does make 7!

The script has been called, “funny, allusive and edgy." At times, the audience gets off tracked as Vogel throws in lines from ‘TEA AND SYMPATHY,’ Shakespeare and snippets from lots of pop songs that may well be beyond the reach of the youngish audiences we tend to show up for convergence productions. As we watch, there is a tendency to play amateur psychologist and figure out whether the fantasy children are really flashbacks to personal histories of the women.

The convergence production is quite good. Denise Astorino, who is quickly establishing herself as a local superstar, is excellent. Not only does she make her human character real, but her dog-like feral child and French speaking Red Balloon kid are right-on.

Jovana Batkovic is equally fine as the real Anna, and the fantasy Cecil, she of child actions but adult wisdom. Her pregnancy out-of-control hormones scene is hysterical.

Only Geoffrey Hoffman falters slightly. Hoffman is one of my favorite local actors. He has good character-centered instincts and is usually on target. Therefore, I cannot understand why either he, or director Simon, decided that he needed to be fay, sound affected and feigned an over-extended “gay” presence. His saving grace? His giving the baby a bath scene is priceless. Oh, and for those who have become accustomed to seeing Hoffman showing off his gym-toned body on the convergence stage, yes, fear not, Simon makes sure that he does scenes with his shirt off.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: So, what’s the verdict? I guess Simon’s onslaught of off kilter plays has finally gotten to me. I surrender, I found myself interested, even absorbed. As for you, the bottom line is, either you want to play Vogel's fantasy game, or you don't. If the answer is, “yes” then go, think, and be weirded-out.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Modern Orthodox (Jewish Community Center/Cuyahoga Community College)

‘MODERN ORTHODOX’ pleases some, upsets others at JCC

When ‘MODERN ORTHODOX,’ the play now being produced by the Jewish Community Center in association with Cuyahoga Community College, opened in New York, it was met with very mixed reviews. Most theatre observers forecast a short run. In actuality it stayed open for six-months. This neither made it a hit nor a flop, kind of in-between.

An on-line site surveyed people coming out of the Big Apple production. Their comments included: “It’s hysterical.” “It's an awful, unfunny, sexist, overly schticky, cliched, trite show.” “I loved it!” “I hated it!” “It’s insulting.” Listening to reactions at the opening night of the local production, opinions were about the same. Thumbs up, thumbs down, and some hands wiggled from side-to-side.

Daniel Goldfarb’s ‘MODERN ORTHODOX’ attempts to examine love, relationships and sex from a Jewish cultural stereotypic viewpoint. The use of stereotypes isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just that Goldfarb doesn’t have the writing ability to pull off the comedy while making relevant points. This doesn’t mean there isn’t humor. There are plenty of laughs. But at the end of the play the question arises as to what was the author’s intent? Comedies are intended to have a message. Neil Simon, for example, wrote for laughs, but his plays make a point. What is Goldfarb trying to tell us?

Maybe from Goldfarb’s view, religion and relationships are inextricably linked. His two major characters, Ben Jacobson and Hershel Klein, are at opposite ends of the religious spectrum. Ben is a "high holiday Jew," while Hershel is Orthodox in dress, speech, and behavior. Ben wants to buy a diamond ring from Hershel so he can propose to Hannah, his live-in girlfriend of six years. Hershel disapproves of the live-in arrangement. As they bicker, Ben's innate distaste for Orthodox Jews becomes evident, even taunting Hershel to remove his yarmulke in order to seal the deal. Hershel does so. The question must be raised as to the significance of that act. Is this a comment on the role of the Jew being more in love with money than religion? This is not the only unanswered question in Goldfarb’s script. He wanders around making fun of orthodox sexual practices, Jewish dietary concepts, wedding rituals, the guilt of those who aren’t “true” believers, attitudes toward women. And, for what purpose? For laughs? To make a point? You got me...I’m not sure. It’s always been my belief that comedy writers use humor to make a point. What’s Goldfarb’s point?

Logical questions arise. Why, when Herschel appears at his doorstep doesn’t Ben toss him out on his tuchis (Yiddish for rear-end)? Is Herschel’s presence enough to stimulate Ben and Hannah having a relationship crisis? Why is Rachel, a woman with a master’s degree who Ben finds as a potential wife for Hershel on the on-line Jewish dating service so shallow? Is she so desperate to have sex that she’ll marry anyone?

The local production, under the direction of Fred Sternfeld, generally does a nice job with what they have to work with. Brian Zoldessy is hilarious as Hershel. Zoldessy, as is his classic trademark, flits around with his feet hardly ever hitting the stage. He is appropriately a “cheleria” (nervous wreck) of the highest order. It’s worth going to the production just to see him in action.

Larry Nehring, is believable in his “nice guy” role, often looking like a puppy dog whose purpose in life is only to please. Unfortunately, the script never gives us a clue as to why he would act this way.

Lara Mielcarek makes Hannah as real as she can be with the lines she’s been given. The kissing scene with Hershel, while hysterically funny, is again one of those unexplainable Goldfarb moments.

Holly Facer, is off-key as Rachel, Hershel’s intended wife. Part of the problem is her inappropriate costume. No orthodox Jewish woman would be seen in costume designer Aimee Kluiber’s ill designed garb. Long sleeves, long skirt are requirements, not low cut revealing clothing. Facer doesn’t seem to get the underlying motives of the character to crave sexual attention because she isn’t allowed to express natural desires. She is not a sex-pot as Facer seems to make her.

Ben Needham has the difficult task of attempting to design a supposedly small New York apartment in the massive CCC theatre stage.

Richard Ingraham’s musical interludes are appropriate to the script.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Its difficult to predict any audience member’s reaction to this production. There are lots of laughs, but for what purpose? There is the potential to offend many in the audience, yet please others. “All I can say is OY VEY.”

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Pillowman (Dobama Theatre)

Dobama’s ‘THE PILLOWMAN’--another memorable theatrical experience

Dobama may not have a permanent home, but it is surely reestablishing itself as the place to find to see well-honed, thought-provoking important new plays. No theatre in the area can match the performance center which was Don Bianchi’s dream and is now Joyce Casey’s life work. Their latest works, ‘A NUMBER,’ ‘NIGHT BLOOMERS,’ and “GOAT OR, WHO IS SYLVIA’ have all been superlative. That streak continues with Martin McDonagh’s ‘THE PILLOWMAN.’

After a 2003 opening in London, the show moved to Broadway in 2005. It starred Jeff Goldblum and Billy Crudup. It won the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Play, and was nominated for a Tony as best play.

A serious drama with ironic overtones, it tells the tale of Katurian, a fiction writer living in a police state who is interrogated about the gruesome content of his short stories, and their similarities to a number of bizarre incidents occurring in his town. Before it’s over we are exposed to four lives that have all been subjected to abuse and the effect it has on their existence.

Big Apple critics called the play, "the season's most exciting and original new play" and stated that "Those who skip it will miss the best play of the season."

It is interesting that the two strongest plays on Broadway in 2005, ‘DOUBT’ and “THE PILLOWMAN’ both concerned child predators. These plays are art reflecting life. ‘DOUBT’ examines priest pedophilia and McDonagh presents a series of parables of what happens when the human brain conceives a concept and through a series of ironic twists, the parables become realities.

Those who know McDonagh as the author of ‘THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE’ will not be surprised by the script’s strong, metallic voice that has established him as one of today’s theatre wunderkinds. As with his other writing, there is a Kafka-like examination of bureaucratic violence. Even Katurian's name (his first and middle names are also Katurian) makes him a linguistic kin to Humbert Humbert of Nabokov's ‘LOLITA’ and Major Major of Heller's ‘CATCH-22,’ two other Kafkaesque writers.

Dobama’s production, under the able guidance of Sonya Robbins, holds the audience’s attention during the long show. The cast is strong, yet uneven.

Todd Krispinsky as Katurian, the writer, is outstanding. He is totally believable in both his confusion and suffering. His final speech is emotionally and visually wrenching.

Joel Hammer as the chief detective, is properly harsh and cunning. Daniel McElhaney is compelling as Katurian’s child-like older brother. John Kolibab fails to develop any texture to his role as the “bad” cop. He yells from his initial speech, giving his character no place to go when emotional changes are needed. Laura Stitt (mother), Michael Regnier (father) and Jessica Gill (child) are acceptable in their character development.

The meaning of the title? Can’t give that away. You’ll have to see the show.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: As a line in the play states, “There are no happy endings in real life.” So, too, is the case with this disturbing play. You don’t go to see ‘THE PILLOWMAN’ to be entertained, you go to be fascinated and disturbed. Keep it up Dobama!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

My Fair Lady (Cleveland Play House)

Must see ‘MY FAIR LADY’ at CPH

Cleveland area theatres are in the midst of a series of “let’s take a different approach to scripts” experiences. A male Hamlet, an all male Shakespeare presentation and now, Cleveland Play House’s totally off-beat production of ‘MY FAIR LADY,’ a very, very traditional musical.

‘MY FAIR LADY,’ with lyrics and book by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Frederick Loewe opened on Broadway is in 1956 . In contrast to popular belief, it was not a direct adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘PYGMALION,’ but was based on a screenplay adopted by Gabriel Pascal which had been based on the Shaw play, which was based on the Roman myth of Pygmalion. The stage musical was made into a popular film in 1964. A contemporary version of the Pygmalion motif was developed in the 1980s play, ‘EDUCATING RITA.’

The Broadway version, which starred Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews, ran for 2717 performances, a Broadway record at the time. It introduced the world to “Why Can’t the English,” “With a Little Bit of Luck,” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”

The play, which takes place in 1910, centers on Henry Higgins, an opinionated linguistics professor and confirmed bachelor, who makes a bet that within six months he can transform an uneducated cockney flower seller, Eliza Doolittle, into a lady who can take her place in high society. Eliza agrees to take the lessons in order to fulfill her dream of working in a flower shop. Higgins wins the bet, but doesn't bargain for the profound effect Eliza has had on his life. Melded into the story line are Shaw’s attacks on the British social structure and educational system.

The original Playbill and cast album included art by Al Hirschfeld, which depicted Eliza Doolittle as a marionette being manipulated by Henry Higgins, whose own strings are being pulled by a heavenly puppeteer who looks like George Bernard Shaw. Some Shaw experts were quite offended by Hirschfield’s depiction, because they felt that Shaw’s statement regarding the battle of women to be independent beings was misrepresented by the puppet characterization.

Going to see yet another production of ‘MY FAIR LADY’ did not excite me. I’ve seen the play over twenty times. Well...I was in for a big surprise! The CPH production breaks the traditional staging patterns used for a presentation of ‘MY FAIR LADY.’ There is no set, per se, and no orchestra in the pit. Instead, two pianos stand center stage surrounded by bleachers on which the chorus sits throughout the show. For the various roles the chorus puts on costumes which have been distributed around the stage. Instead of a realistic look, we are confronted by the alienation style of Bertolt Brecht. We know that we are in the theatre, we see all the costume and setting changes. For some this will be off-setting, but for those who are willing to trust director Amanda Dehnert’s concept, the results are glorious.

Dehnert takes the audience into the story with creative staging, wonderful shticks and gimmicks and clarity of song lyrics. Except for making the audience continually blink away the glaring electric lights of a MY FAIR LADY sign above the action, the alienation works to enhance the goings-on.

Devon Painter’s costumes are splendid. She even breaks the tradition of having the Ascot racing scene done in black and white costumes. (BTW...the reason for the traditional dominance of black clothing in that segment was because King Edward VII died on May 6, 1910, the traditional opening date of the Ascot season, the year in which the play is set.)

Don Wadsworth does a great job of working with the dialects. Kelli Wicke Davis’s choreography lacks panache, and he is hampered by the Bolton’s small stage and having a cast that is mainly actors and singers and not dancers.

Vocal Supervisor Tim Robertson has done an excellent job making sure Lerner’s lyrics, which integrate perfectly into the spoken script, are given meaning. This is usually not the case in many productions where the musical sound is often stressed over the ideas of the lyrics. Except for some blending problems with the male chorus, and some upper range issues with Rachel Warren (Eliza), the music was wonderful. It was also nice to have a Henry Higgins who can actually sing, rather than using a cadence count for the songs. Backing up the dual pianos (well played by Bill Corcoran and Tim Robertson) with random violins and a cello, enhanced the musical sound.

The cast is wonderful. Rachael Warren gives a non-Julie Andrews take to Eliza. She is more appropriately earthy, even when she becomes a “lady.” Timothy Crowe, is a more human Henry Higgins than was Rex Harrison. He embodies the role with clueless arrogance. George McDaniel makes the understanding Colonel Pickering a perfect counter to the emotionally retarded Higgins. Larry Daggett is right on target as Eliza’s father. The chorus fulfills their multi-roles with acting quality.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Amanda Dehnert’s take on ‘MY FAIR LADY’ gives new life to the show. The CPH production is one for everyone to see...both those who have experienced the script before and those who have not had the delightful pleasure of seeing Shaw’s ideas morphed into a musical through the talents of Lerner and Loewe.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

M4M (Cleveland Public Theatre)

Marvelous ‘M4M’ AT CPT

A quick look at local entertainment listings might lead someone to believe that Cleveland has become the off-beat Shakespeare center of the theatre world. A female Hamlet, a production of a Bard-light script that many think shouldn’t even be part of the Shakespeare portfolio, and an all-male version of ‘MEASURE FOR MEASURE’ which has a spotty history, at best.

The Cleveland Public Theatre production of ‘MEASURE FOR MEASURE, ‘ dubbed by the theatre, ‘M4M’ is the best of the trio.

‘MEASURE FOR MEASURE’ had only one recorded production during Shakespeare’s life time. In addition, it was not staged after that initial display for over a century because it was said to have “offensive characters and dialogue.” In fact, one Bard critic called it “a hateful work.”

From my perspective, the evaluators of those days were all wrong. ‘MEASURE FOR MEASURE’ makes strong social points, is an excellent example of a tragic-drama (it was originally called as a tragic-comedy), and is a wonderful vehicle for a talented director and company.

Fortunately, CPT has both the talented director, in the person of Craig J. George and a very, very talented ensemble of actors.

George’s vision for the play is totally creative. He envisions scene after compelling scene using only a large white tarp, a desk, a table, a hanging platform, and some black curtains. He is aided by Jenniver Sparano’s costumes which flip on and off bodies as fast as rabbits can be pulled out of a magician’s hat. As an audience, you can’t see all the clothing changes but dressers Curt Arnold and Sparano must be the best quick change artists for dressing and undressing the 6 male members of the cast who play 16 different roles. Not once is there confusion over who is who.

The cast is universally excellent. Michael Mauldin, the only equity member, mesmerizes as the Duke and Friar. He controls the stage with his commanding presence.

Geoff Knox, portraying Angelo, the acting Duke while the real Duke takes a break from his reign, as well as a Friar, a prostitute and several other roles, makes the transitions with ease. This is a very talented young man.

John Paul Soto portrays many of the female roles with wonderful dexterity. He embodies each with a unique characterization.

Rob Mayes plays the condemned Claudio, a pregnant Juliet (who is carrying Claudio’s child), and numerous other roles with a high degree of acting and singing excellence.

Ashley Davenport is properly pompous as Escalus, a court aide, as well as an executioner. He transitions well between characterizations.

Andrew Marikis is not as adept as the other members in the cast in creating meaningful characters, but he does well in breathing life into the lying Lucio.

I think CPT did a disfavor to potential audience members by stressing the production’s use of men playing all the roles. The ads and public relations releases gave the idea that this might well be an S&M, gay take of Shakespeare, a transvestite show. It’s not. Yes, there are tight black pants and bare male chests and simulated sex but it is not the major theme. Men played all the roles in Shakespeare’s day, and there is no reason that they shouldn’t do the same today, especially if they do it as well as the “M4M’ cast.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: CPT’s ‘M4M’ is one of the better of this season’s theatrical productions, well outshining the other Shakespeare shows in the area, and deserves to be seen by anyone interested in seeing a creatively directed and expertly acted production.

Gospel! Gospel! Gospel! (Karamu)


There is an emotional love-in going on at Karamu House! The audience is singing, hand-clapping, foot stomping, shouting out and paying homage. Why? They are enveloped in ‘GOSPEL! GOSPEL! GOSPEL!,’ a historical investigation of the role gospel music has played in the life of blacks from the 1920s until today.

Conceived by Otis Sallid, the Karamu production is a world premiere before it starts on a national tour. It is being produced by James Pickens, Jr., a Clevelander and Karamu alum, who portrays Dr. Richard Webber, the hospital director on TV’s “Gray’s Anatomy.”

The show starts with a prologue which sets the tone and the story line into action. That transitions into 1920 which is represented by such songs as “Precious Lord,” and “Peace in the Valley.” The 30s finds “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” and ”I Love the Lord He Heard My Cry.” Yes, these are all the gospel songs that were sung in churches and gave hope and faith to the believers. The 40s found Negroes the victims of Jim Crow laws (“Goin’ on With The Spirit”) and leaving the South for the North (“Packin’ Up”). The World War II armed forces experiences made for attitudinal changes among both whites and blacks (“Surely God is Able”) and ushered in the 1950s (“Didn’t It Rain”/”How I Got Over”/”Walk With Me”) and the civil rights movement (“Where Is Your Faith In God,” “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” and “We Shall Overcome”). Following enactment of integration laws, gospel transposed from religious into secular music and became mainstream (”A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Hallelujah, I Just Love Her So”).

The songs, hooked together with spoken transitions, make for a very revealing story.

The Karamu production is blessed with some excellent voices. Michael Burns has a nice sound and a playful presentation. His “Two Wings” is a show highlight. Eddie Sands had the audience howling as he sang the moving “Peace Be Still.” Angela Love sang a pretty version of “Perfect Praise.” Bernita Ewing wailed her way through “My Tribute,” “I Looked Down the Road” and “I Ain’t Gon’ Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.” Leathia Williams, who has a big voice, sang a compelling version of “Peace in the Valley.”

Too bad the whole show isn’t songs, because, in general the cast isn’t much on acting or dancing. In fact, the spoken transitions were often flat and missing meaning. Neal Hodges, as the narrator, was often difficult to hear and understand. Many of his lines were poorly phrased and lacked meaning. The same can be said about Don Harris’s attempts at narration, though he made up for it with a nice song version of “Praise Is What I Do.”

What are the professional commercial prospects of the show? The script, with some transition changes and the elimination of extraneous songs, has potential. As for the production qualities of this show, there are enough weaknesses in the cast in their acting and dancing to make it questionable whether an audience, other than one as tied to the performers and the venue as the Karamu throng, will be willing to pay the big bucks needed to mount such an undertaking.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Karamu’s GOSPEL! GOSPEL! GOSPEL! is an engaging experience. Members really get into participating in the goings-on, something which could be off-setting for some more traditional audience members not used to singing and speaking the praises of the Lord. All in all, though not a professional level production, the show is worth seeing in its present form.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Love's Labour's Lost (Great Lakes Theatre Festival)


‘LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST,’ which is now appearing in repertory at the Great Lakes Theatre Festival, is one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays. In fact, many scholars believe that it should not even be listed in the Bard’s portfolio.

Written in the mid-1590’s during the London plagues, when theatres were closed for fear of spreading diseases to those who assembled in large groups, it is conjectured that Shakespeare was commissioned to write ‘LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST’ for a small social gathering. One of Shakespeare’s earliest works, the script has been described as “A laughing play about wry couples, rhymed couplets, and the impossibility of securing true love in two hours.

The script is written in regular meter and rhyme and is filled with lots of puns which often go right over the heads of modern day viewers due to their lack of present day references.

The story concerns the King of Navarre, who, along with his trio of lords, has sworn that for three years they’ll forswear sleep, food, and the company of women in favor of pious study. So what are sworn men to do when a beautiful Princess and three attractive attending ladies arrive on diplomatic business? Ah, that’s the rub!

The Great Lakes Theatre Festival’s production is creative and a pleasant, though not a compelling experience. Director Drew Barr has inserted lots of schticks and gimmicks to spice up the goings-on. The issue is not Barr or the performers, it’s that the play itself is just not compelling.

Tom Ford as the King and David Anthony Smith, Lynn Robert Berg and Matt Lillo as the lords attending the King, are all fine. Andrew May is his usual hysterical self as Don Adriano De Armado, a fantastical Spaniard, who not only looks but acts like Salvador Dali. Jeffrey C. Hawkins properly overdoes the role of Costard, a clown. Laura Perrotta, is fine as the Princess of France. Julie Evan Smith, Julie McKay and Laura Welsh are charming as the ladies in attendance to the Princess.

The sets, the costumes, the lighting and the sound are all well done.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: GLTF does all it can with ‘LOVE’S LABOR’S LOST.’ Unfortunately, it’s not enough to make a mediocre script into a great production. For those who are interested in seeing a Shakespearean play that is not often performed, the GLTF production is a good choice because this is about as good as it will get.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Spamalot (Playhouse Square Center)

Funny, funny, funny SPAMALOT at State and oh, it's funny.

Anyone who can sit through ‘MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT,’ now on stage at the State Theatre, and not hysterically laugh their way through most of the show’s skit-like segments, should try out for the part of the Muppet’s Oscar the Grouch.

The show, which self-proclaims it is “a new musical lovingly ripped off from the motion picture ‘MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL’,” is outlandishly, hilariously, creatively, well-conceived and performed.

As a song in the show says, “this is a very expensive forest.” The entire production is an expensive and expansive undertaking. Nothing has been spared in bringing this touring production of the still-running Broadway show to town. The sets, the costumes, the special effects are over-the-top. If you are sitting in the first dozen rows, you’ll wind up being showered with shiny circles of plastic, one member of the audience will be dragged on stage to get a special award, horses gallop (well, the horses aren’t actually there, but it matters little), clouds ascend and descend, a Las Vegas show room appears complete with a row of high kicking scantily clad dancers, castles come and go, and even God appears (well, at one point his legs and at another point his hand).

Now, be aware that not everything is in good taste...there are lots of sexual innuendos, lots of passing gas jokes, almost every ethnic and religious group is skewered. The skit which insists you can’t do a Broadway show without lots of Jews, is nothing short of uproarious and the ballet scene between a priest and a nun is offensively delightful.

So, what’s it all about? With book by Eric Idle, and music and lyrics by John Du Prez and Eric Idle, the 2005 Tony Award for Best Musical centers on King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and their search for the mythical (or mystical) Holy Grail, which could be a vessel, a bowl or an idea. Matters not, this is not a religious play, it is an irreverent romp.

For those who have seen the film, the musical differs in many ways, so those who haven’t seen the flick need not worry. More than anything else, the musical parodies the Broadway theatre (skewing everything from ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’ to ‘FUNNY GIRL’ to ‘RENT.’

Under the direction of Mike Nichols, there is highlight after highlight. “I Am Not Dead Yet” is nothing short of side-splitting as is “Knight of the Round Table.” “Find Your Grail,” and “Come With Me” are belted by the wondrous Pia Glenn (Lady of the Lake). “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” complete with an umbrellas-twirling kick line, is pure cotton candy. (Be prepared to do a sing-along to this at the end of the show.) The three song unit, “Where Are You?,” “Here Are You” and “Lancelot” is a gender bending scream.

Only “Run Away,” a French Castle conflict between the British and the French grates a little, but with the negative relationship between the Tea-swiggers and the Frogs it may just not be something an American can appreciate.

The touring cast is terrific. Between all the cross-dressing and double casting, you’ll find it hard to keep track of who’s who, but it matters little, for there isn’t a weak cast member. Standouts are Pia Glenn who has a voice so fine and loud it can, and does, shatter a chandelier. Jeff Dumas is pure joy as the put-upon Patsy. Michael Siberry is a perfect foil as King Arthur. David Tuner shines as the less-than-brave Sir Robin. Rick Homes (Sir Lancelot) and Tom Deckman (Prince Herbert) play their gay-discovers-gay scenes with charming abandonment.

Capsule judgment: From its delightful overture through its over-the-top ending, ‘MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL’ is just plain fun. If you don’t have a sense of humor, are easily offended, or are a red state fanatic, this isn’t going to be for you, but for the rest of us, it’s a romp. Oh, you might consider wearing Depends as your ability to control your bladder may be compromised by your non-stop laughing.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Hamlet (Beck Center)

Gender bending ‘HAMLET’ at BECK

What do Asta Nielsen, Sarah Bernhardt, Charlotte Crampton, Anna Dickinson, Clare Howard, Bertha Kalisch, Alice Marriott, Wineta Montague, Alma Murray, Louise Pomeroy, Julia Seaman, Janette Steer and SarahMorton all have in common? They are all females who have played the role of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s epic play of the same name. Of these, locals probably know best the name of Sarah Morton, who is presently on stage in the gender-bending role at Beck Center for the Arts.

There is nothing unusual about actors playing opposite-sex roles in Shakespearean productions. In the Bard’s time, women were not allowed on stage, so boys or young men played female roles. But, with Hamlet there is a slightly different twist. There is some conjecture among Shakespeare experts that Hamlet actually was a female, pretending to be a male. This, again, isn’t far fetched as many of Shakespeare’s plays had females dresses and pretend to be males.

The Hamlet script, however, has some differences. Many references are made to “him” in the dialogue. Even in the birth scene at the beginning of the play there is reference to Hamlet being the heir to the throne. That role was reserved for males.

Actually, after a while of watching director David Hansen’s interpretation of the play one almost forgets that a female is playing the role except for some very feminine like reactions...the style of crying, the tenderness, the body carriage often displayed by Morton. Feminine, in this case is as described in the research of Sandra Bem, who has carefully documented masculine and feminine traits.

Hansen adds to the questioning by throwing in a passionate kiss at the end of the play, which either has some homoerotic overtones, or clearly indicates that Hamlet was a woman in love with her best friend, Horatio.

The play’s plot, in its simplest form, centers on Prince Hamlet, the son of the late King Hamlet. The young Hamlet is charged by the ghost of his father to avenge the king’s murder by his brother, which the young Hamlet finally succeeds in doing, but only after the rest of the royal house has been wiped out and he has been mortally wounded with a poisoned rapier at the end of the play.

Beck’s production is effective in some ways, lacking in others. This is an uneven, yet creative and bold production. At times it could have been hoped that Hansen had more carefully heeded Shakespeare’s words, “Suit the words to the action and the action to the purpose.” At other times, the intent was clear.

Using many theatrical techniques...projections which give the setting and titles to each segment, stylized acting mixed with realistic presentations, reinterpretation of the script that might drive traditional Shakespearean viewers to scream in protest...the long production, is often off-setting. Part of this is the inconsistent quality of the acting, part is the breaking of the flow by throwing in gimmicks, some of which seem gimmicks for the sake of gimmicks, and the choppiness of the pacing. Some of the pacing problems may sort out as the players get more comfortable.

Don McBride’s set of off-kilter flats and off-balanced levels, works well to create this interpretation of the script. Richard Ingraham’s sound, especially the music and echoing voice of the king, also add to Hansen’s interpretation. Alison Garrigan’s costumes, like the production, run from “right on” to why does the queen not look queenly and why is Polonius’s garb so different from the rest of the cast?

The dumb-show segments were creatively choreographed by Alison Garrigan and the fights, especially considering the closeness of the audience to the action, were well developed by Joshua Brown and Kelly Elliott.

Sarah Morton is generally on-key as Hamlet. At
times, Morton, seemed absorbed in the role, at other times her concentration wavered and caused some meaning discord. Often played like the words of a total madman, or a psychotic on the brink of suicide, the famous “To Be or Not to Be” speech, was underplayed, giving it a thought provoking interpretation not often heard.

Nicholas Koesters was excellent as Horatio. He created a clear character as did George Roth as Polonius.

On the other hand, Mark Cipra was unbelievable as Claudius. His interpretation was all over the place. Some of his lines were meaningful, some meaningless, others overacted, some mumbled. The same can be said for Anne McEvoy who played Gertrude, she of a weird hairdo, and lack of consistency and clarity of character. Rachel Lee Kolis’s early scenes as Ophelia were shallow, but she created a properly paethic and psychotically grief stricken orphan after Polonius, her father, was killed by Hamlet.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘HAMLET’ is an awesome undertaking. David Hansen has developed a production which can be very off-setting in its inconsistency and interpretation, yet it is a brave attempt to create a different slant on the most-oft produced of Shakespeare’s plays.