Sunday, September 28, 2008

Macbeth (Great Lakes Theater Festival)

‘MACBETH’ highlights new GLTF home at the refurbished Hanna

‘MACBETH,’ the first production in The Great Lakes Theater Festival’s new 14.7 million dollar new home, shows off all the elements of the refurbished Hanna Theatre. From the very first drum beat, director Charles Fee uses the intimate facility to its maximum effect. Electronic platforms make actors and set pieces rise and fall from the thrust stage area. Special light effects, possible with the enhanced illumination system, are ever present. The audience is brought into the action by actors passing within inches of them as the performers charge up and down the aisles.

For those concerned about what happened to the Hanna, worry not. In spite of the change in seating patterns, the balcony, a favorite viewing area for many, still exists, complete with its ornate plaster front decorations. In fact, all of the colorfully painted ornateness is still there. The wonderful auditorium ceiling, the proscenium arch and the decoration on the side boxes have all been retained. Only the paint color on the walls has been adjusted. A bland beige has been used to cover the original color.

One of the wonders of the theatre is the acoustics. No mikes are needed for the actors to be easily heard throughout the theatre. No mike squeals or uneven balance between actors’ spoken words. Hurrah! This is theatre as it should be.

Yes, the initial attention on opening night seemed to center on the trappings, the new bar area, the spacious and more comfortable seats, the wider aisles. But, the attention soon shifted to the stage, where Fee has created a wonder-filled production.

‘MACBETH,’ which is among the best-known of Shakespeare's plays, is loosely drawn on the historical account of King Macbeth of Scotland. Originally conceived in four acts, it tells of the dangers of the lust for power and the betrayal of friends.

The main action centers on Macbeth, whose wife, Lady Macbeth, hatches a plan to murder the king and secure the throne. Although Macbeth raises concerns about the regicide, Lady Macbeth eventually persuades him, by challenging his manhood, to follow her plan. Unfortunately, the prophecies of three spirits that Macbeth encounters in the woods, who state that his heirs will not inherit the throne come true. They tell him to "beware Macduff", but that "none of woman born shall harm Macbeth." These actions carry forth the plot.

The play is filled with great scenes including the one in which Lady Macbeth, racked with guilt from the crimes she and her husband have committed, sleepwalks and tries to wash imaginary bloodstains from her hands, all the while speaking of the terrible things she knows.

There are many superstitions centered on the belief that the play is somehow "cursed", and many actors will not mention the name of the play aloud, referring to it instead as “The Scottish Play.” Great Lakes was not immune from the curse. Associate Artistic Director Andrew May, who was to portray Macbeth, was injured prior to production and had to be replaced.

As for the GLTF staging, Fee has been nothing but creative. He utilized on-stage percussionists performing Japanese taiko drumming; reconceptualized the witches into spirits who transform themselves into blackbirds, trees and images; remolded the play into two acts, thus shortening it without losing any impact; used a Japanese flavor which influenced not only the startling set but the costumes and stage movements; underplayed rather than overacted Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s famous speeches; and, called on general American pronunciation which makes for ease in understanding.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Questions can be raised. Did Dougfred Miller (Macbeth) and Laura Perrotta (Lady Macbeth) give great performances? Bottom line, both are quite adequate and do not detract from the overall effect. Should the actor’s speeches be given to each other rather than directed to the audience? Probably yes. Do the drum sounds lose their effect after a while? I didn’t find that true though some members of the audience seemed to think so. Were Phil Carroll and Tim Try strong enough as Duncan’s sons? No.

Some factors are clear. The witches, Sara Bruner, Laura Welsh Berg and Cathy Prince are outstanding. Drummers Seth Asa Sengel and Matthew Webb grab and hold attention. David Anthony Smith (Macduff), Dudley Swetland (Porter), Aled Davies (Duncan, King of Scotland) and Lynn Robert Berg (Banquo) are excellent.

Kudos to Scenic Designer Gage Williams, Costume Designer Star Moxley, Lighting Designer Rick Martin and Fight Choreographer Ken Merckx, who incorporate Kabuki-like movements and gymnastics into the fighting, for creating the technical aspects which enhanced the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: GLTF’s new home is spectacular and their opening production does the venue proud! This is a ‘MACBETH’ which should be seen in a facility that should be enjoyed.

Sidenote: An excellent ‘TEACHER PREPARATION GUIDE’ has been prepared by Daniel Hahn, Kelly Schaffer Florian and Cherly Kleps to be used by instructors who are bringing their students to see the play. They can be obtained by contacting Hahn at 216-241-5490.

Main-Travelled Roads

Charming ‘MAIN-TRAVELLED ROADS’ at Actors’ Summit

‘MAIN-TRAVELLED ROADS,’ now on stage at Actors’ Summit, is a charming musical penned by Richard Rodgers Award winners Dave Hudson and Paul Libman.

It is based on the short stories of Hamlin Garland, whose tales of American rural life is said to have inspired such writers as John Steinbeck and Theodore Dreiser.

The musical is set in turn-of-the-century Wisconsin, and portrays Midwestern farm life and the struggles of young lovers as they come in contact with the area’s various cultures and traditions.
The story revolves around several young couples. One duo, Will and Aggie, split up over a misunderstanding caused by a broken wagon wheel. As a result, Will leaves town and Aggie marries someone she is not in love with because she wants to escape the emotional pain of the loss of Will. Unfortunately, she finds herself in an abusive relationship. Then there is the “creamery man” who is looking for a wife and has his eyes on a wealthy young woman, who is not interested in him. Meanwhile, Nina, a Dutch woman has eyes for the “creamery man” and they eventually wind up together.

This is a light, happy musical, so all’s well that end’s well. So, after a six-year absence, Will shows up on Aggie’s doorstep. He professes his undying love. And they run off to New England, where he is now a wealth young business tycoon. And, of course, the creamery man and Nina live happily every after.

The plot might sound a little complicated but the show is easy to follow as the well-integrated songs bridge the segments together. Whether lighthearted, serious, or silly, each musical interlude gives a slice of each character’s personality, hopes and dreams. Such songs as “Small Town Telegraph” and “Creamery Man” bring smiles and “You Can’t Come Home” makes the eyes well.

Though she has over-directed several of the scenes, distracting from the words by drawing attention to movements, the Actors’ Summit production, under the direction and choreography of Sasha Thackaberry generally works well.

The four actors slip in and out of their 11 characters easily. The vocal sounds are generally good, the musical accompaniment by Evie Morris, is excellent.

Kathleen Culler sparkles as Aggie. She has a fine singing voice and lights up the stage. She does an excellent job of creating and maintaining her characterizations.

C. J. Bonde has some delightful moments as Nina and shows good tenderness as Delia, an understanding town folk.

Keith Stevens is charming as Will and has some excellent musical moments. His role as the mop-coiffed, cross-dressing Mrs. Haldeman (Nina’s mother) brought prolonged laughter in each of his appearances.

Stephen Brockway is properly nasty as Dave (Aggie’s husband) and charming as the “creamery man.”

Special notice: Paul Libman and David Hudson, the shows authors, will be in attendance at the Saturday night, October 4 performance of ‘MAIN-TRAVELLED ROADS.’ Besides viewing the show, Actors’ Summit’s Artistic Director, A. Neil Thackaberry, will discuss with them the possibility of producing the duo’s new musical based on the works of John Steinbeck.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘MAIN-TRAVELLED ROADS’ is a charming musical which gets an excellent production at Actors’ Summit. If you want to spend a pleasant evening at the theatre, see this show

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Caroline or change

Dobama & Karamu unite for a “go see” ‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGE’

On the surface, ‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGE,’ now being co-produced by Dobama and Karamu at the Karamu Performing Arts Center facility, is a glimpse at a personal childhood experience of author Tony Kushner.

The musical centers on Caroline Thibodeaux, a divorced, middle-aged African-American, $30 a week maid, who works for a Jewish family in the suburban enclave of Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1963. Caroline is resistant to the sweep of change she sees around her. She seldom talks, and almost never smiles, even to her own children or friends. She appears to be protecting herself from an explosion of rage or tears.

The Gellmans' young son, Noah, who is feeling abandoned due to the death of his mother, the emotional withdrawal of his father, and the insertion into his life of a well-meaning but rigid stepmother, is enamored with Caroline, even though she doesn’t reciprocate. In order to teach Noah responsibility, his stepmother tells Caroline that she should keep the change Noah carelessly leaves in the pockets of his clothes which are given to Caroline to wash. Caroline is loathe to take money from the child, but her own children desperately need food and clothing. The status quo goes awry over a $20 bill, which Noah received as a Hanukah present and leaves in his pants pocket, causing a rift between Caroline and the Gellmans. But, as with all aspects of this well-crafted script, that’s only the obvious reason.

The play’s title has at least a four-pronged implication. The obvious is the change that Noah leaves in his pockets and its ramifications. What should be done with that change? Second, America in the 1960s is filled with a change in racial relations and rage over the murder of JFK and MLK. How should/does Caroline react? She also finds herself in the middle of conflict among the Gellmans as they try to make changes in their family dynamics. What possible change does this mean for Caroline? And, there are the changes she faces as her daughter takes stands that challenge the patterns of the past forcing Caroline to decide how to manage not only the changes in own her life but those of her family.

In 2003 the off-Broadway production of ‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGED’ opened. Due to its success it was moved to Broadway, where it had a disappointingly short 136 performance run, but still was nominated for 6 Tony Awards.

The script, like all of Kushner’s works, such as ‘ANGELS IN AMERICA’ and ‘HOMEBODY/KABUL,’ is thought provoking and has strong social and political messages. Jeanine Tesori's score is melodic, vibrant and ranges from neo-operatic to R & B to Klezmer. It is very unlike her ‘THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE’ score.

The Dobama/Karamu production, under the direction of Sarah May, is often compelling, and always interesting. May understands that the underbelly of the script is the angst of the leading characters and has conveyed this to her cast. This script is a very difficult undertaking and May did a masterful job of guiding the production.

Sheffia Randall Dooley is compelling as Caroline. She has a fine voice, wraps herself into the role and lives the part. She is Caroline! Her underlying rage and sadness are always present on her face, in her body, and portrayed by her voice. Bravo!

Christian Flaherty’s Noah is a bundle of internal chaos. Noah is a sad little marionette whose strings often just don’t work right. Flaherty’s plaintive singing voice and nerdy movements all are character right.

Katherine DeBoer is quite acceptable in her portrayal of Rose, Noah’s stepmother. The rest of the members of the Gellman family don’t fair as well as there is a surface level quality to their performances.

In supporting roles, talented Aric Generette Floyd lights up the stage as Jackie, one of Caroline’s children. His real-life sister Alexis sings well and makes Emmie, Caroline’s daughter, into an authentic person.

Colleen Longshaw gives a fine performance as Caroline’s friend Dotty.

The musical supporting cast are all excellent, especially Rebeca Morris as The Moon and Ayeshah Douglas as the Washing Machine.

Musical Director Ed Ridley and his band are wonderful…underscoring rather than over powering the singing and playing the ever-changing musical genres with ease.

Richard H. Morris Jr. has designed a functional set which doesn’t get in the way of the action.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘CAROLINE, OR CHANGE’ is not a show that will appeal to everyone as it is not an escapist musical with a happy ending. However, it is a must-go-to for anyone interested in the theatre and seeing a well-honed production. Thanks to Karamu and Dobama for giving Clevelanders a chance to experience CAROLINE, OR CHANGE.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Glass Menagerie


‘GLASS MANAGERIE,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, was Tennessee Williams’ first successful professional play. In spite of the fact that theatre critics are often maligned, Williams’ career as one of America’s greatest modern playwrights may never have taken place if not for two determined Chicago reviewers.

When ‘MENAGERIE’ opened in Chicago in December of 1944, due to bad weather and the lack of a well known author, the play had such low pre-sales that the producers considered closing the show after the first week. Critics Claudia Cassidy and Ashton Stevens were so enamored with the play they actually pleaded with readers to attend. Their efforts were successful and resulted in not only a successful Chicago run, but also inspired a New York production. The end result was the birth of one of America’s great plays. It also allowed Williams to have successful productions of such masterpieces as ‘A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,’ ‘THE ROSE TATTOO,’ and ’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF.’

From a local perspective, it is interesting to note that the year before “MENAGERIE’ opened in the Windy City, The Cleveland Play House presented the world premier of Williams’ ‘YOU TOUCHED ME,’ a play based on a story of D. H. Lawrence, which is little remembered.

The 1945 Broadway production of ‘MENAGERIE,’ which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, starred Laurette Taylor, who had been a star in the 1920s and 30s, but had withdrawn from the theatre scene due to sever alcoholism. Her portrayal of the mother, Amanda, received outstanding reviews and ushered in a comeback. Other notables who have played the role include Jessica Tandy, Julie Harris and Maureen Stapleton.

The story centers on Tom, who narrates a tale of his memories of his past. Much as a traditional Greek chorus, he introduces characters and comments on the action. We meet his mother, Amanda, a faded southern belle who has been abandoned by her husband, and is living in the past while trying to navigate in the present. One wonders, are her tales real or is she living the great lie, clinging to her sanity by telling stories over and over until even she isn’t sure if they are real or illusions of her imagination. He introduces us to Laura, his physically and emotionally fragile sister who has magnified a slight limp into a major ailment to use as a device to cut herself off from reality. A reality that centers on an escape into a small animal glass collection which includes a unicorn, which much like Laura is different because of its horn. And, finally we meet Jim, a former high school acquaintance who now works at a shoe factory with Tom, who is brought home in hopes that he will marry Laura. Tom, who sat next to Laura in school choir, and with whom she has been in love her entire life.

As with many of Williams’ scripts, it concerns escape, escape from reality, from the harshness of life. It contains a signature southern deluded female who finds herself in a society that doesn’t understand her and which she doesn’t understand (think Blanche in ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’). It contains much symbolism. The fire escape, which is the only means of escape from the life in the oppressive apartment; the victrola and glass animals, which Laura uses for her escape from reality; the magic show and films, Tom’s means to escape from a life he hates; and the gentleman caller, Amanda’s hope for Laura to escape her present life.

The Cleveland Play House production, under the direction of Michael Bloom, is a good representation of Williams’ work. As with any production, the director’s vision sets the play’s attitude and the character interpretations. Bloom has a clear vision of the role of the characters, and since this is a character, not a plot driven script, that sets the tone.

His Amanda, as portrayed by the talented Linda Purl, is delusional, often comic, causing the audience to laugh at her, rather than feeling empathy and pathos for her. That approach adds a lightness and a humor level to the show, not usually seen. Purl consistently carries through Bloom’s interpretation. Personally, I feel about Amanda as I do of Blanche in “STREETCAR.” They are women forced to live in circumstances which are so beyond their control and recognition that they became psychotic. They are pathetic not humorous. But, that’s my view, and I’m not the director of this production. Bloom is.

Alison Lani often stays on the surface of Laura. She has some brilliant moments, as when she realizes that the Gentleman Caller is not going to return and her life, like the broken horn of her beloved unicorn, is not going to be repaired, saved. Yet, at other times, she seems to be feigning the character…overusing her “misshapen” hands, contorting her face rather than letting internal motivations set her expressions.

Daniel Damon Joyce is right on target as Tom. He is totally believable. He balances his internal and external rage with ease. (Having played the role twice, I am aware of the difficulty of making what appears to be a straightforward role into a tour-de -force performance.)
Sorin Brouwers gives Jim, the Gentlemen Caller, a nice edge of cockiness combined with vulnerability. His is a nicely texture performance.

Michael Lincoln’s lighting gives the right glow and darkness to the goings on. This is a play with lots of psychologically dark corners and Lincoln helps create them. Michael Roth’s underscoring music is effective, though at times it gets lost in the action. Susan Tsu’s costumes were not only period correct, but helped create the proper image for each character. Robert Mark Morgan deviated from Williams’ set description, but created a workable stage.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE’ is one of America’s great modern plays. For those who have not seen it, they will get a vision of not only the work of a great playwright, but an interesting interpretation at CPH. For those who are familiar with the play, Bloom’s interpretation, especially his concept of Amanda, should be good fodder for conversation.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Urinetown, 2008

Beck’s revival of ‘URINETOWN’….is flushed with success!

‘URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL’ graced the stage at Beck Center three years ago. The results were packed houses and joyous laughter. Scott Spence, the theatre’s artistic director, decided to revive the show this season, with basically the same cast and production team.

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

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

Don’t think of the show as a light bit of escapism. It is fun, in fact, a total delight, but it also has a serious underbelly. This is a tale of greed, corruption, love and revolution in a city where water is worth its weight in gold. Messages pervade, such as what happens when big business is given the right to control our lives. Think of the pharmaceutical and medical companies and their stranglehold over our health. What happens when citizens have their rights taken? What is it like to be lied to continually in an attempt to push a political and economic agenda (Think Bush and Chaney)? Think of the missiles of mass destruction hoax, resulting in the Iraq war, and the amount of money being made by the oil and military-industrial complex and influential public officials. Think of the rape of the environment caused by loosening the clean air act and the attitude of “drill, drill, drill.” The fantasy of the situation described in ‘URINETOWN: THE MUSICAL’ has become reality.

Beck’s’ production is delightful! Scott Spence pulls out all the stops to completely capture the necessary farce without losing meaning. He controls the temptation to go overboard with shticks.

Choreographer Martin Cespedes has reconceptualized the dancing. His new approach works well. He is lucky to have Zac Hudak’s dancing feet to anchor the choreography. Larry Goodpaster gets a nod of approval for this musical direction even though some of the music under the spoken scenes was too loud and drowned out the actors. Don McBride’s scene design, parallels the Broadway sets. Alison Garrigan did her usual “run to the thrift store” to find the right grubby clothing.

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

Colin Cook, who has a strong singing voice, bulked up since the last production and has lost some of his boyish charm. He interacts effectively with Maggie Stahl (Hope), his love interest, who is the daughter of the tyrant who controls the local urinals. Stahl’s’ rendition of “I See a River” is a show highlight. “Privilege to Pee,” “What is Urinetown,” “Snuff That Girl,” and “Run, Freedom, Run” are all choreographic gems.

Greg Violand, who normally plays the mature love interest in productions, takes a turn at being a bad guy in this show. He does it well with a big dynamic vocal range and strong acting talents. His version of “Don’t Be a Bunny” is hilarious.

The choral sounds are excellent, especially in several a capella segments.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck Centers ‘URINETOWN’ is as strong this time as it was the last go around. If you haven’t seen it before, do so now. If you have seen it, go again> It’s as much or more fun the second time. Beck not only succeeds, but should be justly proud of being flushed with success!