Thursday, February 23, 2006

Michael Bloom, Artisitic Director of CPH

The splotlight falls on Michael Bloom, CPH's Artisitic Director

“I love Cleveland, it’s a lovable city.” “Clevelanders take the city for granted and don’t trumpet it.” “The culture in this city is as good as any city in the country.” “Theatre is going through a difficult period due to the loss of corporate support.” “The arts in the area need to be more collaborative.” These were only a few of the comments made by Michael Bloom, the Artistic Director of the Cleveland Play House, during a recent luncheon interview.

Bloom, who is in his second year in the position, is actually just into his first year of being the “real” Artistic Director. When he assumed the position, the 2004-2005 season of shows had already been picked, so his major responsibility was to shepard the season. This year, is his! And, so far, it has been a success. After a somewhat less than critically acclaimed production of ‘ROOM SERVICE,’ CPH came into its own with a stirring production of ‘I AM MY OWN WIFE’ and a charming ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY.’ Both shows exceeded income expectations, with ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY’ breaking all box office records for the country’s longest operating professional theatre. ‘I AM MY OWN WIFE’ did so well here that the production is“on tour” to a venue in Florida.

Bloom took over an organization that was in trouble. Many subscribers had abandoned the venue due to questionable play choices, poor quality productions and a general negative feeling toward his predecessor. Bloom seems to have overcome much of that. He circulates with audiences. He has reached out to the community, for example, by giving speeches at the City Club. He has made family nights and special ticket pricing deals to attract younger audience members. The theatre lobbies were redesigned to warm up the interior and take away the austere look. He has allowed the facility to be used by Dobama and Ensemble Theatres. It is costing CPH a lot of money to house these organizations which have limited funding and can’t make major contributions to cover the facility’s expensive upkeep. This has not been helped by the fact that some funders, including the Cleveland Foundation, don’t perceive the facility to be a community arts center. MOCA (the Museum of Contemporary Art) which has also been housed in what was the old Sears building connected to CPH has recently announced that they will be relocating to University Circle, which will allow for their space to be reconfigured.

Bloom is extremely excited about the forthcoming ‘FUSIONFEST!,’ which is billed as Cleveland’s first Performing Arts Festival and will take place May 2 nd through the 21st at The Cleveland Play House complex. It will include presentations by the Cleveland Play House, The Cleveland Opera, Dobama Theatre, Groundworks, Verb Ballets and Karamu as well as participation by the Cleveland School of the Arts, Shaker Heights High School, MOCA, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. ‘FUSIONFEST!’ will highlight the best new performing arts work in the area and foster collaboration among Cleveland’s large, mid-size and small theatre companies. It will bring together theatre, dance and music under one roof over a concentrated time period and bring national attention to Cleveland performing arts. Bloom is hoping that it will have an economic impact much as similar festivals have done in Louisville which yearly has the Humana Festival of New American Plays. The estimated cost of the festival is $250,000 which will hopefully be underwritten by major corporation sponsors.

Another innovation being pushed by Bloom is the addition of professional acting classes, much in the style of those offered in New York, for local performers who want to hone their craft. The classes will be taught by Seth Gordon and Mark Allan Gordon.

Bloom is in the process of planning for next year’s season which will also add some innovations including one off-subscription family play which will center on a teenage subject.

Bloom, in contrast to his predecessor, has become popular with the local theatre community as he holds auditions which has resulted in a number of local actors finding work.

Bloom, who directed ‘PRIVATE LIVES’ at CPH in 1995, made his directorial premiere at the facility since being appointed as the organization’s eighth Artistic Director when he staged ‘A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE.’ The production met with mixed critical reviews. His next directing assignment is ‘WELL,’ Lisa Kron’s one-act absurdist comedy which opens March 3 and runs through March 26.

It will be interesting to watch as Bloom places his own fingerprint on the Cleveland Play House. If his short past history with the organization is any indication, this could turn out to be a joyous ride for Michael Bloom, for local theatre and the entire arts community.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Coming to America (Kalliope Stage)

Kalliope’s ‘Coming To America’ is enjoyable

On the way out of Kalliope Stage after the opening night performance of ‘COMING TO AMERICA’ the woman in front of me said, “That was fun.” She was right, every once in a while it is nice to go to the theatre and just laugh a little, hear some good old-time songs, watch generally talented performers, and appreciate the creativity of a director who starts with a script and makes it into a visual reality.

James Hindman and Ray Roderick’s ‘COMING TO AMERICA,’ is having its world premiere at Kalliope. The duo authored ‘PETE ‘N’ KEELY,’ which garnered an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination and two Drama Desk mentions. That script was presented in 2004 at Kalliope.

Billed as a “poperetta,” ‘COMING TO AMERICA’ takes on the format of a vaudeville show with over 60 American standards and forgotten songs. This is no ‘WEST SIDE STORY’ or ‘CHORUS LINE.’ It is not even ‘TINTYPES’ which takes the same theme , but does it better. But, the production overcomes the trite script and the results are an enjoyable evening.

Songs include the likes of the well known “They Didn’t Believe Me,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “Over There,” “The Streets of New York,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “America the Beautiful.” It also features some ditties that few know including, “All the World Is Swaying,” “An Irish Husband,” “It Takes An Irishman to Make Love,” “Antonio,” “If You Don’t Want My Peaches,” and “Samiostisa.”

The singers/dancers/comedians portray a dozen people. Each character, who comes to this country in the early 1900s, is changed by America and America changes them.

The first segment examines the coming-to-America experience--the harrowing ship ride, seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, landing at Ellis Island, and entering the US. The rest of the production centers on the becoming a “Yankee” experience.

Kimberly Koljat, portraying an Irish lass, sparkles. Her eyes glisten, her face glows. Her singing voice is excellent. She dances well and her characterizations are well developed. She won the audience with “Just You Watch My Step.”

Christopher Sena is Ambrose, an Italian. He is generally effective, but sings with a nasal quality. His version of “Everything in America is Ragtime” with Jaron Vesely was a show stopper.

Vesely portrays Yankel, a Jewish immigrant. He displays appealing stage presence in a charmingly boyish way. His versions of “Papirosen” and “Ephraham Played the Piano” were delightful. He is also an excellent dancer.

Beth Kirkpatrick has a full and vibrant voice which she displays well as the Swedish Pernilla . The audience gasped with awe as she hit her high notes. Her rendition of “Nobody Knows” was enchanting.

Jason Winfield, who sometimes sings flat, has some nice moments. His highlight number was “When I Lost You.”

Director Paul Gurgol, who is a master at inventing creative “shticks” to enhance acting scenes and dance sequences, does not disappoint. This is a staging, with much creative staging and choreography, that gives pleasure well beyond the over-used premise of the script.

Anthony Ruggiero, the pianist and musical director does an excellent job. Russ Borski’s set design creates the right mood, while his costume designs are impressive. Lance Switzer’s lighting adds the correct moods.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Forty percent of the people in the United States can trace their families through Ellis Island. Each of those descendants, and any others who appreciate a well-directed show with good singing and dancing, will enjoy Kalliope Stage’s ‘COMING TO AMERICA.’

Monday, February 13, 2006

Sorrows and Rejoicings (Ensemble)

Ensemble gets back on track with ‘Sorrows and Rejoicings’

Athol Fugard, who wrote ‘SORROWS AND REJOICINGS ’ in 2001, is a white South African. The play is now on stage at Ensemble Theatre.

Fugard, who while working as a court clerk, became aware of how Colored Africans suffered under the laws of apartheid. He decided to express his rage at the system in the form of playwriting. Thus an important voice of the “new” South Africa began to speak.

The political topics and views expressed in his plays quickly bought him into conflict with the government. In order to avoid prosecution, he produced his plays abroad. This did not satisfy the leaders of South Africa as the message of the subservience of the majority of the population started to receive international attention. As a result, they withdrew his passport.

When his plays were presented in South Africa, the mainly black audiences applauded, cried and interjected their own experiences into the productions.

With such plays as ‘BLOOD KNOT,’ ‘SIZWE BANZI IS DEAD,’ ‘ BOESMAN AND LENA,’ ‘MASTER HAROLD...AND THE BOYS,’ (a semi-autobiographical work), and ‘MY CHILDREN! MY AFRICA!,’ Fugard became an international name in theatre.

‘SORROWS AND REJOICINGS’ centers on Dawid, a man who is loved by two women, Marta (his mistress and the father of his daughter, Rebecca), and Allison, his wife.

Dawid clearly echoes the author's own sense of being "relentlessly gnawed by time." Like Fugard, he is a white writer deeply committed to black freedom, thus leading some to believe that he is, in fact, Fugard’s alter-ego.

The play takes place the day of Dawid’s funeral, shortly after he has returned to his South African home after a long period of self-exile in England. Using flashbacks, we experience the burgeoning societally unaccepted relationship between Dawid and the family’s black housekeeper, Marta; his marriage and life with white Allison; and his lack of a relationship with his abandoned daughter, Rebecca.

In a unique writing device, each of the women's remembrances of their relationship with Dawid are mostly monologues.

Fugard is noted for his obvious metaphors. For example, Rebecca stands upstage throughout the first two-thirds of the play, observing, not participating. She is separate, yet part of her mother’s and father’s lives. Allison and Rebecca frequently stand at opposite ends of the room, arms folded to underscore the “don't touch” gulf between white and black South Africans. The center of attention is a table made of a fine old native wood symbolizing, much like old and new South Africa, a long and troubled history.

The Ensemble cast is excellent. Elizabeth Townsend (Allison) develops a character which is properly British, while having a keen sense of South African history and compassion. Renee Matthews-Jackson develops a clear and compelling character as Marta. Sonia Bishop as Rebecca, the 18-year old daughter, is totally mesmerizing in her two very long soliloquies. She totally captures the stage while she rants and cries of her personal hurts, which also exemplify the hurts of her country. Robert Hawkes makes Dawid live.

Ron Newell’s set is serviceable, but the table, which is center stage in the play’s development needed to be more magnificent, to fit the constant attention which is called to it. Corby Grubb has selected African music which perfectly captures the mood of the script.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Ensemble, which generally performed to high standards last year, started this season with several weak shows. But they have found their way back with a very high quality production of Athol Fugard’s ‘SORROWS AND REJOICINGS.’ Licia Colombi’s directing is right on target. The play is well-paced and the cast all have a total grasp of their characters.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Groundworks Dancetheater (Cleveland Botanical Garden)


David Shimotakahara’s GROUNDWORKS DANCETHEATER is by far the best of the smaller dance companies in the area. Their most recent performance at the Cleveland Botanical Garden, featured choreographer Gina Gibney’s meditation work, ‘RETURN.” The dance, which is not story based, featured original contemporary musical sounds composed by Ryan Lott. The non-melodic sounds were mirrored by the entire company--Felise Bagley, Amy Miller, Mark Otloski and Shimotakahara. As always, the dancers displayed amazing body control to interpret the angst-driven choreography.

‘THE BOOK OF WATER’ featured Shimotakahara doing the type of choreography which he does best...serious toned, gymnastic centered jumps, turns, lifts, rolls, whirls, leaps, cartwheels often done in slow motion. A perfect vehicle for his powerful and well-disciplined dancers.

National Ballet of Canada (Playhouse Square Center)


One of the world’s great companies, THE NATIONAL BALLET OF CANADA, appeared a short time ago at Playhouse Square as part of the Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital Ballet Series. The program opened with an impressive production of THE FOUR SEASONS, choreographed by James Kudelka. It was danced to the music of Antonio Vivaldi. From the very first moment, the piece contained magically compelling movements. Aleksandar Antonijevic was in command of the role of A Man. His partnering, leaps, and stage presence were impressive. Stacey Shiori Minagawa (Spring), Greta Hodgkinson (Summer), Rebekah Rimsay (Autumn) and Victoria Bertram (Winter) all displayed excellent point movements. The choreography effectively created the youthful promise of spring, the passion of summer, the mellow warmth of autumn and the chill of winter, to the year’s untimely death. All in all, the performance was a perfect blend of costumes, music and dance.

The second piece, THE FIREBIRD, was disappointing. Though the costumes and sets were exquisite, Jennifer Fournier, in the key role of the Firebird, lacked the passion needed for the role. Though Stravinksy’s score was ravishing, the dancing, as a whole, was not. The applause at the end of the piece was polite, not enthusiastic.

No Pas Connin' (Cleveland Public Theatre)

Nina the Devine makes ‘No Pas Connin’ an enthralling experience at CPT

“We too poor to be depressed, we just pressed!” This humorous but poignant statement is but one of many thought-provoking ideas that fill the stage at Cleveland Public Theatre during ‘MO PAS CONNIN OR TORMENT, Nina Domingue’s one woman show.

Nina Domingue is one of the finest actresses in Cleveland. As evidenced by ‘MO PAS CONNIN OR TORMENT,’ she is also a talented playwright.

The experience (it is more than a play) is set in New Orleans. It centers on Miriam Waters, a 65-year-old former priestess of the goddess Mami Wata and her attempt to reconcile with her family. In the process we meet 8 other souls whose own stories are interwoven with Miriam’s. We also learn a lot about the Big Easy before the hurricanes destroyed much of the culture of the city.

Domingue is a native New Orleanian. She is black, Catholic and the daughter of a woman who committed suicide when Domingue was 4. The twenty-something Domingue relates that the play is based on the ghosts that populate her life. As the beginning line of the script states, “I don’t know what it is that torments me so.” That torment is contained in the title of show which translates from Creole as “I don’t know.”

It is interesting to note that in New Orleans, the word “black” does not connote the same as it does in the north. There is or were 152 classes of “colored folks” in that city. Many have experienced institutional racism in the schools, churches, and in their daily lives. For example, Jasmine, a young school child, is called “colored” by her teacher. She reacts with the statement, “Everybody is a color, ” which gets her sent from the room for being disrespectful. Her mother, a college professor, is talked down-to when she comes to discuss the matter with the “white” teacher, even though the mother has a higher education.

Domingue creates all the characters with quick fragmented costume changes and different hair arrangements. At no time is there any difficulty understanding who she is portraying as she also has a wonderful gift for adapting her vocal sounds and body.

As has become the expectation of “Nina The Divine,” a multi-Times Tribute Award winner and last year’s Cleveland Theater Collective’s “Best Actress in a Play,” this is a masterful performance. There are many highlights, but a major one is when she stands weeping on stage while portraying Christine, the character most like the actress and author, and relates the death of her mother. She intones, “In the Catholic Church, everything is the devil, and suicide is this great sin. After her death, nobody could even talk about her, and she couldn’t be buried in sacred ground. She is buried where no one knows.” (Her mother suffered from post-partum depression.)

The play is directed by Hassan Rogers, Domingue’s father-in-law, with total understanding, an eye for small details, and proper pacing of what could be a confusing experience.

Richard Morris, Jr.’s scene and lighting designs and Allison Garrigan’s costumes all add to the total positive effect.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: There are few actress in the country who could carry off this magnificent performance. If Domingue doesn’t present it, the odds of seeing it are remote. My recommendation--GO SEE ‘MO PAS CONNIN OR TORMENT.’ I GUARANTEE, YOU WILL BE AWED!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Intimate Apparel (Cleveland Play House)

‘INTIMATE APPAREL’ a good fit at CPH

Lynn Nottage is one of America’s great new playwrights. Her play ‘INTIMATE APPAREL,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, was the recipient of five major national awards, including the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Outer Circle Award as Best Play of 2004.

It’s the beginning of the 20th Century. Esther, a plain and unsophisticated black woman, creates intimate apparel for socialites and a woman of ill repute. Desperate for love and marriage, she receives a letter supposedly written by George, a young Barbados worker on the Panama Canal who has been given Esther’s name by the son of her minister. Esther can’t read or write, but one of her wealthy clients volunteers to scribe letters for her. And, so, a series of documents are traded back and forth.

Esther gets joy from the beautiful silks she buys from an Orthodox Jewish merchant, Mr. Marks. Their relationship is commercial, but each looks forward to their contacts. He saves beautiful fabric just for her. He, too, is in a distant relationship as he has been matched with a Rumanian woman he has never met.

George arrives in New York and he and Esther are married. Their joy, is short-lived. George’s drinking, philandering and cheating Esther out of her hard earned money soon cause havoc.

This is a history of the black, the female and the immigrant experience in America. It is also an exploration of the true world of one of Nottage's aunts who left the rural South to become a seamstress in New York.

The Cleveland Play House presentation, which is listed as a joint production with the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, is very effective. The Louisville-honed cast is generally excellent and director Timothy Bond, the Associate Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, does an excellent job of pacing the nearly two-and-a-half hour show, so that the audience is engrossed throughout.

Gwendolyn Mulamba is compelling as Esther. She controls the stage with her complete emersion into the character. This is an impressive performance.

Denise Cormier is excellent as the frustrated wealthy patron for whom Esther not only makes intimate apparel, but is her emotional outlet. Tiffany Adams is effective as the prostitute. She has a fine singing voice. It is a shame that she doesn’t play the piano as her faking the movements, with the sound obviously coming from off-stage, was distracting.

Joe Hickey is convincing as Mr. Marks, the Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant. His scenes with Mulamba are awkwardly charming. Each character exposes his/her “intimate apparel,” their cultural histories, in a series of well-paced and beautifully interpreted scenes.

Erik LaRay Harvey had some excellent moments as Esther’s pen pal and eventual husband. There were times, however, when his concentration seemed to slip, his accent disappear, and his performance flowed along the surface. Perri Gaffney was not always convincing as Esther’s landlady.

Paul Owen’s multi-level stage was very effective, Lorraine Venberg’s costumes era correct, and Darren McCroom’s lighting enhanced the production.

Be warned that the poor acoustics in the Bolton Theatre makes hearing some of the dialogue difficult. This creates special problems early in the show as the listeners’ ears adjust to Esther’s necessary Southern Black pronunciation.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘INTIMATE APPAREL’ is not only an appropriate presentation during Black History Month, but is also a play and a production worth seeing.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Rent (Playhouse Square Center)


Art is representative of the era from which it comes. By looking at the artistic productions of any time period, whether it be theatre, dance, painting, sculpture, film, or music, you get a glimpse of what the attitudes, beliefs, political and social movements were in vogue at the time.

In theatre, for example, the beat generation had ‘HAIR,’ an anti-war, anti-establishment musical. It represented the attitudes of a changing world and started a trend to use the musical as a vehicle to examine society. It was an anti-war, anti-establishment, break the rules snapshot. The production included nudity, long hair, and other against-the traditional-grain attitudes.

The millennium generation has ‘RENT.’ It stakes out territories that were in “vogue” about ten years ago and carry over to today. Issues include AIDS, drug addiction, homosexuality, transexualism, the plight of the homeless, and the search for purpose. Though some of the issues are presently in a different state, such as the development of the medical cocktail to treat those with AIDS, thus cutting down the number who die from the disease, the impact of ‘RENT’ can still be felt.

‘RENT’ has a star-crossed history. Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics never lived to see his show open on Broadway. Larson died of an aortic aneurysm on January 25, 1996, 19 days before his musical had its world premiere. It is ironic that when the cast was rehearsing "What You Own," the rousing second act song about dying, Larson collapsed and was whisked away in an ambulance. He later told friends that he couldn't believe that the last burst of music he would hear might be his own song about dying. It was!

‘RENT,’ an updating of the opera, ‘LA BOHEME, has been to Cleveland five times. Each visit has been met with sold-out houses. This particular production is starting a seven month tour in Cleveland and if opening night is any indication, it will also bring in the greenbacks.

The cast members are mainly professional theatre “newbies,” recent college grads with little or no Broadway experience. In contrast to shows that are greatly dependent upon in-depth character development and extremely high level acting, ‘RENT’ is more a show of singing and developing illusions.

The strongest performance contributions were made by Jed Resnick (Mark), Bryce Tyness (Roger), Tracy McDowell (Maureen) and Altamiece Carolyn Ballard (lead woman singer/bag lady). Disappointing were Arianda Fernandez (Mimi) who often sang flat and failed to develop a clear characterization in a very pivotal role, Ano Okera (Angel) who failed to consistently develop this choice part, and Warren G. Nolan who emotionally “walked through” the role of Collins. Okera and Nolan, Jr. (Collins) showed no interactive physical chemistry, even feigning their kissing scenes.

As the band conductor came onto stage opening night, a great roar was heard. It was probably from young Clevelander Jared Stein’s family and friends. Stein not only conducts with dynamism, but plays keyboard and is responsible for the musical blends of the cast. He generally did a great job, though at times the musical sounds drowned out the voices of the singers. Because of the music volume, potential attenders who are not familiar will the lyrics to the songs, should listen to the original cast c.d. or they will miss much of the story.

Capsule judgment: On opening night the mostly young audience gave the show a standing ovation They screamed with delight at such songs as “Seasons of Love,” “Without You,” “LaVie Boheme/I Should Tell You,” and “Will I?” Whether you like this musical may well be a generational thing, but, that is one of the points of the show.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Lakeland Theatre)

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF good at Lakeland

The Cleveland area seems to be in the midst of a Tennessee Williams theatre fest. Following on the heels of the Cleveland Play House’s production of ‘A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,’ Lakeland Theatre is staging another of Williams major plays, ‘CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.’

‘CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF’ is the story of a Southern family in crisis. The focus is on the turbulent relationship between Maggie "The Cat" and Brick, her heavy drinking husband, and their interaction with Brick's family over the course of a weekend at the family estate in Mississippi. They are ostensibly gathered to celebrate the birthday of the patriarch "Big Daddy." To add to the intrigue, although Big Daddy has terminal cancer, his doctor and family have conspired to keep this information from him.

The central theme of the play is “mendacity,” the web of lies the family spins in a desperate attempt to keep some semblance of well-being. As Big Daddy says, “What's that smell in this room? Didn't you notice the powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?” Additional themes center on other Williams’ key latches--decaying Southern society and the Southern woman who finds herself unable to comprehend the realities of the culture around her and that area’s view of sexuality.

The play was rewritten several times by Williams. Each time there was a different approach taken to the homosexual issue which seems central to Brick’s drinking and his relationship with Maggie. The original version of the play, and the film which was based on the Williams’ script, alludes to the presence of homosexuality. In the version of the play that Lakeland Director Martin Friedman chose to produce, the homosexuality issue is much more clearly developed, as is the sexuality. Interestingly, in an interview, Tennessee Williams indicated he was unclear about the nature of Brick and his best friend Skipper’s relationship.

The title of the play is clearly developed in the dialogue. Maggie states, “I'll win, alright. (She is referring to the contest for who gets Big Daddy’s estate.) Brick responds, “Win what? What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?” To which Maggie responds, “Just staying on it, I guess. As long as she can.”

The most compelling scene of the play centers on Big Daddy’s attempt to destroy the mendacity web. Brick refuses to drop the barrier he's constructed around himself and his dead friend. One theatre commentator states that the scene “raises the ante on Williams's drama about as high as can be found in the annals of American dramatic literature.”

One of the issues confronting any director of the play is deciding which of the possible endings to use. In the film version, in a desperate attempt to help Brick, Maggie announces to Big Daddy that she's pregnant, something Big Daddy desperately heir from his favorite son. It's a lie, of course, but Brick is touched by her loyalty to him. Maggie's outpouring of love prompts him to make good on her blatant lie, and the film closes with their passionate kiss. That is not the version Friedman chose. His is the one that Williams originally wrote, in which Brick rejects Maggie’s advances indicating that he can’t have sex with someone he hates.

The film version (1958), starred Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives and Judith Anderson. Williams, who did not participate in the award-winning cinema, so disliked the adaptation that he is reported to have gone to the world premiere and told people in line for tickets that, "This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!"

The Lakeland production does not always reach the emotional heights that it should, but this is mainly a non-professional cast and, considering that, credit should be given to attempting a very challenging play and developing a more than adequate production.

Mitchell Fields, the only equity member of the cast, is generally excellent as Big Daddy, another of Williams's don't-try-to-con-me realists (think Stanley in ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’). He smolders on his entrance and screams from there on. A little more texturing of moods might have helped better understanding the character. He develops well the highlight scene with Brick when he confronts his son’s demons.

Brick is a very difficult role to portray. The man says little, but is the fulcrum of the play. Silence is his only solace from the confusion and rage he feels. Mark Smith has the physical attractiveness and muscular body to visually fit the role, but is quite young and lacking in his ability to dig beyond the surface of the character. He substitutes body twitches for internal pain, and can’t match the emotional levels of Liz Conway’s Maggie or Fields’ Big Daddy. Even the capstone last line of the play lacks clarity. In fact, a patron sitting behind me whispered, “What did he say?” I thought, “What did he mean?”

Liz Conway does well at Maggie. She, like the proverbial cat, lands on her feet because of cunning. And, as a cat, she is unpredictable, not willing to be trained. Her acting motivations are clear and she prowls with conviction.

Mary Jane Nottage, in spite of a coming and going accent, a problem with most of the cast, swings from airhead to desperation to airhead with ease. This is one of her best ever performances.

Erin Bunting gives a shrewish interpretation to Mae, Gooper’s wife, that makes her appear mean rather than devious manner of a true “southern lady.” Steven Hoffman’s Gooper, Brick’s older brother, appears too strong at times rather than being a foil for Mae.

Michael Regnier as the Doctor and Marvin Mallory as the Reverend are generally unconvincing in their roles.

Keith Nagy’s fragmentary set and lighting effects help create the right illusions, as do Craig Tucker’s costumes.

Capsule judgment: At Lakeland, ‘CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF’ gets a good community theatre production, which features some fine performances. Be aware that the 3-act play is long at almost three hours.

Diary of Anne Frank (Beck Center)

Mesmerizing ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ at Beck

Otto Frank (George Roth) stood downstage right with a pin spot isolating him. He was within the attic in which he, his family and four others hid from the Nazis during World War II. He turned to the audience and related how, after the Germans found them, the attic’s occupants were taken to various concentration camps. All but he died, some within days of the end of the war. He glanced down, saw something, picked it up, looked at it, and quietly said, “And this is all that is left.” Frank was speaking of a diary. A small red and white plaid book that was given to Anne for her thirteenth birthday on June 12, 1942. His eyes glistened with tears as the lights faded to black.

The audience sat, stunned. After a short pause the lights came up and the cast came on stage. The audience sat immobile, many crying, others fighting back tears. One person started to applaud, others followed, but this was not the applause of pleasure, it was applause of respect. This audience had just experienced the closest thing many will ever see of a perfect theatrical production. A production that was finely honed by director Sara May and impressively interpreted by a well-informed, well-molded and talented cast.

The tragic story of Anne Frank and her family has become one of the best known chapters in the history of the Holocaust. For over two years they lived their lives in an annex above Mr. Frank’s factory. They could move around only at night after the plant closed. They spent each day in complete silence lest a noise alert the workers below. It is the story of the simple events of daily living suddenly made remarkable and precious by the constant threat of discovery.

More than fifty years later, the diary has become one of the most widely read personal journals of all time. It has been translated into 67 different languages and has sold more than 31 million copies. It has been made into an award winning play and film.

In 1955, when the play, which was loosely based on the diary opened in New York, a critic said that “nothing momentously dramatic happens. It is a story of stealth, boredom, bickering, searching for comfort in other people, dreams, fears, hunger, anger, and joy." Audiences came to not only show tribute to Anne Frank, but to see a real slice of the Holocaust. Many thought the play did not, however, really tell the whole story. The family’s Jewish roots were not highlighted, the intense stress was not illustrated, the ending was sugary...leaving the message that Anne still thought people were good.

The new version, now on stage at Beck Center, is more muted and less sentimental. Working from Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett's script, Wendy Kesselman, who did the rewrite, sticks closer to the diary then the original interpretation. She added scenes, religious ceremonies and wrote a startling new ending. The play has also been shortened and the language is more lyric, less theatrical. But most of all, Kessleman makes the message emotionally poignant.

Beck’s production is perfectly paced by May. She has worked for not only the right tone, but her cast understands the story, how to build the emotional intensity and set the right tone for each scene. She has paid attention to every detail. To show her microscopic eye for detail, the Hebrew pronunciation used for the prayers was that of the Jews of Europe before the Holocaust, not that of present day pronunciation.

George Roth, who dedicated his performance to his mother who is a Holocaust survivor, textured his performance perfectly. He didn’t portray Otto Frank, he was Otto Frank. Young Heather Farr is impressive as Anne. She grows from awkward child to young adult before our very eyes. She is totally believable. Anne McEvoy underplays the role of Edith Frank, Anne’s mother, for full effect. The scene where she expresses to Miep, the gentile who feeds and provides news of the outside world to the annex members, her stress over the close quarters and lack of privacy is masterful.

Magdalyn Donnelly (Margot), Anne’s sister is totally believable. Peter Van Daan, who develops an emotional relationship with Anne, grows from shy boy to charming young man. He does so with charm and competence. The role of Mrs. Van Daan (Peter’s mother) is normally played as a nagging shrew. The role in the hands of talented Paula Duesing becomes a woman who is egocentric but also shows signs of love and caring. Brian Bartels (Mr. Van Daan) and Mark Cipra (Mr. Duessel, the dentist) also develop clear characterizations, as does Dawn Youngs as Miep Gies.

Richard Gould’s set, Jeff Lockshine’s lighting, Richard Ingraham’s sound design and Alison Garrigan’s costumes all enhance the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ‘THE DIARY OR ANNE FRANK,’ under the meticulous direction of Sara May, is a mesmerizing experience. It is not to be missed! If you only see one play this year...this should be it!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A Number (Dobama)


Dobama is on a roll. Earlier this season they presented a brilliant version of ‘THE GOAT OR, WHO IS SYLVIA.’ They have followed this up with an equally compelling production of Caryl Churchill’s ‘A NUMBER.’ a drama about a father and his cloned sons. Yes, cloned SONS!

Caryl Churchill, the author of ‘FAR AWAY,’ ‘SERIOUS MONEY,’ and ‘CLOUD NINE’ has been called “the most daring of our dramatists.” ‘A NUMBER,’ her latest play, was described by a London reviewer as a “moving, thought-provoking, and dramatically thrilling” play.
Believe me, this time you can believe the reviewer.

The setting is modern, the concept even more modern. As ‘A NUMBER’ begins, a son confronts his father with the startling information that he has genetically identical counterparts and is merely one of “a number.” Churchill spends the next hour pondering, in spooky fashion, the wild issue of assembly-line reproduction. She uses the concept of cloning and multiple representations to open a thought-provoking inquiry into morality, nature versus nurture, and the nature of love.

There are many questions in this play, such as: Why was the young man cloned? Are he and the other “numbers,” though genetically the same, similar, different because of their upbringing? And, if one of the clones is mentally disoriented, are all of the ‘numbers’ mental misfits?

The play has been exquisitely mounted by director Sonya Robbins. She has a clear concept of the work and takes her audience on a soaring ride of emotions. Her actors display total clarity about who they are and what they have to do to mesmerize the audience. She has paced the production well and created just the right tensions.

Joel Hammer gives yet another award winning performance as the father who, at first is reluctant to discuss what he has done and his motives. Hammer perfectly walks the fine line between drama and melodrama with careful finesse.

Todd Krispinsky is known as one of the most creative scenic designers in the area. He again creates a shockingly spare and effective setting for this play, drawing all the attention to the performances by having the wooden angles of the set all point toward the center of the action. We also experience Krispinsky in an additional light...outstanding actor. Portraying 3 different people, all of whom, of course look exactly alike, he makes a clear physical, vocal and emotional character of each. Even if Esther Montgomery’s costumes hadn’t so clearly separated each of the clones, Krispinsky’s acting finesse would have made the distinctions clear. This is an amazing performance.

Do not get the idea that this is an abstract and overly dramatic play. It’s not. Churchill approaches the matter as both grave and comic.

If you are wondering, we do learn which one is the"real" son and which ones are Memorex.

Capsule Judgment Dobama’s ‘A NUMBER’ is a perfect follow-up to ‘THE GOAT OR, WHO IS SYLVIA.’ It is a MUST SEE!

Charge (TITLEWave Theatre)

‘CHARGE’--acting and directing excellent at TITLEWave THEATRE

Last fall introduced the Cleveland area to a new performance group...TITLEWave Theatre. The company’s first production was the much praised ‘WAIT.’ My review stated, “In spite of the play, the production is worth seeing for the performances and Vovos’s directing skills.” That, again, summarizes my views of the group’s newest offering, ‘CHARGE.’

Authors pen plays for various reasons. William Inge asked his audiences to look in the hidden recesses of their souls and find the dark places. Arthur Miller continues to tell of a better way to live. Tennessee Williams gave us tales of people who found themselves in societies that didn’t understand them and they, in turn, didn’t understand the society around them. Lerner and Loewe’s musicals painted a picture of the perfect time, the perfect place, and the perfect love story. Edward Albee and Albert Camus both asked viewers to probe into why they exist.

Since Eric Kaiser, the author of ‘CHARGE’ now being staged at Cleveland Public theatre, is noted as an absurdist, he would fall into the Albee and Camus group. Unfortunately, unlike Albee and Camus, Kaiser does not craft a well-conceived play. As one theatre goer said as he exited the production of ‘CHARGE’ which I attended, “What in the hell was that about!” His companion said, “Who cares.” Unfortunately, that was my sentiment.

In spite of the vehicle, ‘WAIT’ is worth seeing. Seeing that is, if you are willing to invest in the 80 minutes of intermissionless dialogue, to see a very good cast operating under the guidance of an effective director.

Jill Levin, Kato Buss, Marni Task, Joe Milan and Perren Hedderson let loose all the cannons in creating their characters. Director Gregory Vovos knows his way around a stage and gets his actors to create his vision of what the playwright has given him to work with. He is aided by an excellent sound design by Zach Humes.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The program for ‘CHARGE’ states, “Sometimes a play strikes so hard that you can’t shake off its blow. And on the rarest of occasions, a play can do this and leave you laughing. For some people in the audience laughing was the order of the day. For many others, including this reviewer, the production values were high, the insight values low.

When the World Was Green (Cesear's Forum)

Colerider Excels in Cesear’s Forum’s ‘When the World Was Green’

‘WHEN THE WORLD WAS GREEN,’ Joseph Chaikin and Sam Shepard’s play, now being staged by Cesear’s Forum, is a lyrical memory play which examines a family vendetta that has lasted for seven generations and ends with the wave of a scarf. Of course, as is often the case in Shepard’s plays, there is a simple story line which has much below the surface meaning. The format is typical Shepard--poetic and filled with sensory images. For example, we are exposed to journeys to distant lands and exotic food "piled as high as a mountain, glistening in the sun."

The play has two characters, an old man who was once a superb chef, and a young reporter, who supposedly comes to interview him in the prison where he has been locked up for many years after poisoning a man he mistook for his hated cousin. The duo has eight conversations which are interspersed with monologues in which both characters recall incidents from their childhoods, linking the people together. This is a play of regret and loss.

First seen at the Arts Festival performed during the Atlanta Olympic games, the play had its Broadway debut at The Joseph Papp Public Theater.

This is not a Shepard solo-written piece. Joe Chaikin, his coauthor, also collaborated with Shepard on "SAVAGE/LOVE" and "TONGUES," and is well-known in his own right. He has been awarded six Obie.

Chaikin has a local link. He donated his original manuscripts and other papers to the Department of Special Collections and Archives of Kent State University in 1972. He continues to add material to his collection. In acknowledgment of his contribution KSU granted him an honorary doctorate in 1990.

As one theatre historian stated, “It is difficult to imagine a less likely pair of collaborators than Chaikin and Shepard. One an erudite, experimental New York director, the other a reclusive playwright-cum-film star, yet, their sustained theatrical partnership has produced some of the boldest dramatic texts of the late twentieth century.” As is the case in Shepard and Chaikin's other projects, live music plays an important part in the staging of ‘WHEN THE WORLD WAS GREEN.’ In fact, the piano, which was ever present in previous productions, is credited with almost becoming another character.

Cesear’s Forum’s production, under the direction of Greg Cesear has both is strengths and weaknesses. Glenn Colerider portrays the old man with proper restraint. He is consistently believable, in spite of working in a cramped space and having to manipulate through a maze of cloth panels to make exits and come forward to speak his monologues to the audience. Why set designer Michael LaRochelle placed a scrim across the front the stage isn’t clear. It caused movement problems for the actors and the seam down its center caused further distraction. The side panels, which were supposed to look like wooden walls, often were not closed or hanging straight, also causing visual distraction.

Kristie J. Lange, the reporter, has a fine singing voice and her vocal interludes were excellent. Her character development, on the other hand, was not consistent. She sometimes lost her concentration, causing a lack of idea clarity.

Cesear’s directing was also inconsistent. The final waving of the scarf, a significant act at the end of the play, was basically not seen, as it took place behind the back scrim wall which was poorly lit. There were also times when the actors had to literally squeeze past each other to make their stage crosses.

Christina Leja’s sound design was excellent, but her lighting design and execution were disastrous. Lights came and went with no plan. One scene was played entirely in the dark and as the last line was said, blinding light invaded the space.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘WHEN THE WORLD WAS GREEN’ is an interesting script. Glenn Colerider’s performance was excellent. Too bad Cesear wasn’t able to get more out of the material and didn’t have a stronger production team.

Be aware that the play runs 90-minutes without intermission and the theatre has small uncomfortable chairs with little raking. This is not a good play-viewing space.