Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Comedy of Errors

‘THE COMEDY OF ERRORS’ played for laughs at GLTF

‘THE COMEDY OF ERRORS,’ now on stage in repertory at the Great Lakes Theatre Festival, is the only one of his plays to contain the word “comedy” in its title. And, that, in and of itself, makes it a perfect vehicle for GLTF to produce. First, Charles Fee, the Artistic Director of the company loves comedic farce and does it extremely well. Adding to that the company contains Andrew May, who has never encountered a funny face, a tortured moan, or an over the top scene, he hasn’t devoured.

The play, as far as is known, is one of William Shakespeare's earliest scripts. It is a show that invites slapstick, while playing on mistaken identity. It develops through puns and wordplay, which were aimed at the intelligence level of the groundlings, who stood around the base of the thrust stage during Elizabethan times and did everything,. including throwing spoiled fruit and oral barbs at the actors.

It was first printed in the First Folio in 1623, and the earliest known performance is recorded to have been at Gray's Inn, one of London's law schools, on December 28th, 1594.

Don’t go expecting a serious message or a moral. This isn’t that kind of Shakespearean script.

This play’s obvious plot concerns the separation, then reunion of Egeon and Emelia (husband and wife), their twin sons, and their twin servants. The family is separated at sea during a storm, 33 years before the play starts. When one of the grown twins arrives in Ephesus, which turns out to be the home of his twin, a series of mishaps leads to wrongful beatings, arrests, accusations of infidelity, theft, and chaotic madness.

The production is out-and-out fun, with Fee and May having a great time in staging and acting out the insanity.

May plays both of the twins Antipholus. The concept works well until the end, when both twins must appear on stage at the same time, and then the notion falls apart. The actor playing the other Antipholus is not nearly May’s physical double and the switch is very obvious. The same holds true of the attempt to have both Domio (the servants) played by Ian Gould. The duo tracking is obvious.

The other problem with Gould’s double role is that he doesn’t do either of the twins well. His attempt to use a lisp doesn’t help. That, along with poor articulation and errant vocal projection, makes many of Domio’s lines difficult to understand.

Lynn Allison, as Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, yells through the role, paying little attention to line meaning. On the other hand, Gisela Chipe is charming as her sister.

Fee, in his attempt to add humor onto humor, has David Anthony Smith, who plays a goldsmith, elongate all the numerous times he says, “chain.” It works the first four or five times, but after a while the whole shtick becomes annoying.

Besides May’s performance, the highlight of the show is Martin Céspedes’s inventive choreography. His use of latin movements, meticulous attention to movement detail, and creative set changes, are captivating. Without his inventiveness the overall cohesiveness of the show would have been lost.

Again, the new GLTF facility, with its electronic stage elevators and intimate seating, enhances the production as does Russell Metheny’s set design and Charlotte Yetman’s costumes.

‘CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: GLTF’s ‘THE COMEDY OF ERRORS’ is a delightful interpretation of the Shakespeare farce. It’s fun, fun, fun thanks to Charles Fee, Andrew May and Martin Céspedes.

Optimus for President

Fourth Wall’s ‘OPTIMUS PRIME FOR PRESIDENT’ a winner!

On the surface, ‘OPTIMUS PRIME FOR PRESIDENT,’ by Clevelander Margi Herwald Zitelli, appears to be an absurd comedy, maybe even a farce, about a group of people who are meeting in their favorite bar after a Cleveland Indians baseball game. They are co-joined season ticket holders who are “friends.” The quotes are important. They are friends who talk a lot, tease and taunt each other, but avoid sharing their real selves with each other. They can’t approach truth, they talk about fantasy. Fantasy, such as whether Optimus Prime would make the best President.

Optimus Prime, a cartoon character, is the commander of the Autobots, a faction of heroic Transformers from the planet Cybertron who wage their battles against the evil forces of the Decepticons for control of their home world, and by extension, peace in the universe. He is a heroic, brave and compassionate character who puts all his talent to use to improve the world around him. Sounds like a perfect candidate!

But why are these people talking about Optimus, baseball, Great Lakes beer, and smurfs, when there are real issues they face? One has a terminal illness, a fact she has failed to share with her “friends.” Another, a doctor, spends long hours at the hospital rather than going home to his wife. Another is about to marry a woman who he doesn’t love, but is marrying seemingly because he can’t think of what else to do with his life. And, so it goes. They share none of the realities with the people they have supposedly bonded to. They escape from authenticity by covering up with meaningless debates, sarcastic interactions, feigning macho fights, and living out the Peter Principle of not wanting to grow up and face the realities of life.

We find out about each of these individuals through the clever writing device of having each transition from the present day and fade into the spot light of elementary school where they read an essay about what they want to be when they grow up. Their future wish fantasies turn out to be not only revealing, but generally are no more realistic than their present day lives.

Herwald Zitelli has a knack for developing complete characters. We know what is motivating each, allowing the actors to give faithful portrayals. This is a very difficult task, but she does it well. She also has a good ear for realistic language.

The Fourth Wall cast (Joshua Brown, Aubrey-Krisen Fisher, Shawn Galligan, Stuart Hoffman, Sarah Kunchik and Nathan Miller), is excellent. There is not a weak link in the acting chain. They are well directed by Jenna Messina, who received the “2007 Best Actress” award in the Times Theatre Tributes listings. She is as good a director as an actress. The show is well paced, the laugh lines clearly keyed, and the emotional scenes kept in realistic control.

Considering that Fourth Wall performs in a space literally made of walls of black plastic sheets, and lights with only 5 spots, and works on a budget that would qualify them for food stamps, the production is amazing.

A suggestion: it would be nice if the program included such information as the setting, the time, the number of acts and would identify the technical people. Eliminating some of the excessive details in the extended personal bios, would also add to a more professional air to the goings-on.

Capsule judgement: Margi Herwald Zitelli’s fine script, ’OPTIMUS PRIME FOR PRESIDENT,’ gets an excellent production at Fourth Wall under the keen direction of Jenna Messina and a performance by a fine cast.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Aperture

‘THE APERTURE’ doesn’t live up to its hype at CPT

Area theatres seem to be on a “let’s do plays by the same author” kick. Cleveland Public Theatre is now staging ‘THE APERTURE’ by Sean Christopher Lewis. Bang and Clatter recently staged Lewis’s ‘MILITANT LANGUAGE.’ A short time ago Nijnas staged ‘CRAVE’ by Sara Kane, who also was the author of Bang and Clatter’s ‘BLASTED.’ Both Lewis and Kane are from the list of contemporary writers. Both tend to use fragmented ideas and propose abstract messages. Though their topics are current, their missions aren’t always clear.

Sean Christopher Lewis’s ‘THE APERTURE’ was the winner of the inaugural Quest for Peace Playwriting Award. Lewis also has received the Rosa Parks Award for Social Justice in Playwriting from the Kennedy Center. Sounds impressive, right?

The script details the story of a boy who was a child soldier in his native Uganda. When he gets to the U.S., he is befriended by a female photographer who has him pose for pictures in the backwoods of Baltimore, Maryland, which imitate his warring past. When she begins to sell and advertise these photos as documentations from the real conflict, a clash regarding ethics and exploitation develops.

The script has had several staged readings, including a recent presentation at The Cleveland Public Library, which the playwright attended.

It would be nice to say that the CPT production lived up to its hype. Unfortunately, it didn’t. In spite of its intent to delve into the horrors of war and the effect on the child warrior, and the good intentions of the photographer to produce “art,” the acting out of each of the feelings and thoughts, just doesn’t work. As with ‘MILITANT LANGUAGE’ the writers lack of clarity of purpose led to audience frustration.

As a crisis counselor I am very aware of the fragmentation that takes place when an individual has a horrific experience. If the playwright had centered on that subject, and that subject alone, the play would have been focused. But also imposing the question of, “Can art provide a path away from our inherent violence without inflicting some amount of cruelty on its subject?,” just confused the focus.

Director Craig George has proven that he is an exceptional director. His 2006 production of ‘M4M’ at CPT, received the Times Theatre Tributes Best Production of the Year Award. But even George couldn’t save this show. A combination of abstract ideas which were poorly woven together, some technical decisions, and some questionable acting, sealed the production’s doom.

Young and handsome Isaiah Isaac, put in full-effort to create Okello John, the Ugandan boy solider. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the acting depth to consistently produce the needed pronunciation, while keeping the character intact. He was often hard to understand and many of the lines lacked meaning.

Heather Anderson Boll tried vainly to make Alex, the photographer, into a real and textured person. The words she was given to speak, and the fragmented and abstract nature of the idea development, got in her way.

The audience was greeted while entering the theatre by high pitched screeching music. The purpose for this cacophony of sound was unclear. Was it intended to give the idea that we were about to experience an atonal play? Only the unidentified sound director might be able to answer that question.

C. Wesley Crump’s’ photographs, as displayed in Tom Kondilas’s projections, generally worked well.

Capsule judgement: If you like your theatre abstract, than Sean Christopher Lewis may be your type of playwright. As for me, I like plays with a clear message, or at least a message that I can glean from a good discussion. ‘THE APERTURE’ didn’t fulfill those needs! The CPT production doesn’t help much either.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


'AUTOBAHN' an interesting trip at CWRU MFA

Neil LaBute, the author of ‘AUTOBAHN,’ which is now being staged by Case Western Reserve’s MFA Acting Program, is a wordsmith. He once said, "I can sit and watch two people talk forever as long as the talk is good," Talking good, in this case, is talking about what words mean and how people do and do not understand them.

LaBute, a minimalist, tends to use few physical settings in order to concentrate all of the attention on the actors and what they are saying. ‘AUTOBAHN’ is a perfect case in point. The author places the short play cycle, in which the seven segments are unrelated, in the front seat of a car, while each of the scenes centers on the pondering of a word or a few words and their usage.

The format allows us a voyeuristic peek into the intimate lives of those who are under LaBute’s boring drill. He probes deeply, as is his style, to try and discover relationships and life.

"Funny," shows a mother bringing her troubled daughter back from yet another rehab facility. The mother does not speak throughout the scene, but her facial expressions nonverbally give a vivid picture of frustration and defeat. The key word in this piece is “relapse."

“Long Division," is a humorous and pathetic look at a male friend trying to console his buddy after a break-up.

"Merge" finds us eavesdropping on a woman supposedly telling her husband of a “true” but bizarre incident that happened to her while she was out-of-town at a convention and woke up “feeling sore down there.” Did the incident really happened as related?

“All Apologies” delves into relationships by using the humor of “inappropriate” words to show emotions and how the lack of an expansive vocabulary can thwart effective communication.

With all the media attention given to improper relationships between teachers and students, “Road Trip” hits many raw nerves and is the most upsetting of the selections. It is an intense look into the manipulative mind of a psycho driver's education teacher, who entices one of his young female students to go to his family’s cabin in a secluded site.

"Bench Seat," exposes us to a fragile woman who has been “dumped” by her previous boyfriend and finds herself at the same lover’s lane where the rejection took place. Her present relationship seems heading in the same direction, and her paranoia is evident as the duo wavers between making out and serious and potentially dangerous talk.

The final scene is "Autobahn," which shows a couple driving home from returning their foster child to the adoption agency because of the boy's bad behavior. The boy has accused the foster father of sexual abuse. The woman babbles on trying to justify their actions. Her husband speaks not a sound. The key word in this playlet is “Autobahn,” the German road where each person is in his/her own bubble, setting the rules of road, and allowing themselves to be sheltered from life in their own way. As the mother says, people in cars are "too quick to stop, too fast to care."

The production, under the adept directing of Alan Rosenberg, is good theatre. Though some of the pieces are a little too long, especially ‘Bench Seat” and “Autobahn,” the over-all experience is positive.

Highlight performances are put in by Tom White and Leigh Williams. White is the man in “All Apologies” who manically babbles on trying to find a way to apologize with a limited arsenal in his vocabulary. Williams, as the foster mother in ‘AUTOBAHN’ who refuses to face reality, is appropriately paethic. After using excessive words to prove their points, they both go on to prove that silence is a powerful stage tool. Williams as the silent mother in “Funny” and White as the emotionally destroyed foster father in “Autobahn,” display tortured blank faces that are palates of meaning.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘AUTOBAHN’ is an engrossing evening of theatre, given a fine production by the CWRU MFA Acting Program cast. (Side though: Can’t the institution come up with a more user-friendly name for the program?)

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Receptionist & H.R

Two appealing theatre experiences for the price of one at Dobama

When Dobama Theatre decided to produce Adam Bock’s short script ‘THE RECEPTIONIST,’ they agreed that a “matching” piece might be of interest and complete the evening. They commissioned local playwright Eric Coble to create the material. The result? ‘H.R.’

The match works wonderfully. Both showings have humor. One has a 2010 twist, the other harks back to the paranoid days of Bush and Chaney’s searching for the “bad” guys.

‘THE RECEPTIONIST,’ which is set in a unknown office. On the wall is a large seal that kind of looks like the CIA, or it could be the FBI, or Homeland Security. Hmmm! Chit chat between the receptionist and a female employee centers on dating and family issues. Mr. Raymond, the boss hasn’t shown up yet. What’s he the boss of? Hmmm! When he arrives he looks flustered and rattles on about broken fingers and wire in eyes. Hmmm! Someone from the Central Office shows up and takes Mr. Raymond away. Why? Hmmm!

I’m not going to tell you any more other than that except that when the lights went out at the end of ‘THE RECEPTIONIST,’ in a too real sense I thought I might never feel safe again. I also appreciated that the present President’s name is Obama and not Bush.

My feelings weren’t echoed by at least one attendee who, at the conclusion, loudly stated, “What’s with the end? Did the playwright just run out of words? Nope, he just wanted you to think about what went on in our all too recent past, when there were ever present years of seeking out the hidden enemy by the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld.

The well directed production, under the watchful eye of Joel Hammer, was appropriately under-paced. It lolled the audience into humorous complacency until the bombshell went off. And, even that bombshell was wisely underplayed! All of the actors, Jennifer Kika, Michael Regnier, Tom Woodward and Lissy Gulick, who are the same cast who appeared in ‘H.R.’ developed their roles well in both ends of the twin bill.

‘H.R.’ is as modern as today. In this age of downsizing and firings, the fear of the unknown invades any office when H.R. (Human Resources) says its coming to talk to the staff.

Writing in the style of true farce, Coble penned a hysterically funny script, full of overblown characters, each one with a secret to hide, which are revealed through slips of the tongue and acting double-takes. This is one fun piece of theatre.

Director Joe Verciglio has nicely paced the goings-on so that all the overblown farce comes out clearly. The character developments are on target and each actor has a nice image of who s/he is.

Michael Roech’s office set, which is used for both plays, was so realistic that before the opening night performance, a member of the audience wandered into the thrust stage area and took a drink from the water cooler, while another took some candy out of a bowl on a secretary’s desk. Talk about realism.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE RECEPTIONIST’ plus ‘H.R.’ deserved the positive reaction given to them by the opening night sold out audience. This is a good evening of theatre which contains both laughter and intrigue.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Farnsworth Invention

‘FARNSWORTH INVENTION’ is fascinating “history” lesson at Beck

If you believe ‘THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION,’ now being staged at Beck, some historical “facts,” aren’t facts at all. The Wright Brothers didn’t invent the first airplane, Thomas Edison didn’t create the first light bulb, and though he had the first U.S. patent for a television receiver, Vladrmi Zworkin didn’t develop the first working television in this country. According to the script, the latter credit, was based on the machinations of RCA’s David Sarnoff, who wanted to control the potentially prosperous video industry. The recognition should have gone to a Utah farm boy genius named Philo Farnsworth.

In reality, the play is not historically accurate. It shows Farnsworth being defeated legally by Sarnoff, and then spending his life in obscurity and in an alcoholic stupor. In fact, Farnsworth won the lawsuit, received a $1 million payment from RCA for the purchase of his TV patents, and went on to have an illustrious career in technological research. In respect to the man, there is a statue of Farnsworth in the U.S. Capitol Building.

The play, written by Emmy Award winner Aaron Sorkin (TV’s ‘THE WEST WING’), opened on Broadway in December of 2007 and ran for four months in spite of very mixed reviews.

Irrespective of the lack of validity, the play makes for good theatre. There is intrigue, evil versus good, and a “hero” you can cheer for and feel bad for in his defeat.

Director Scott Spence has staged the play well. He keeps the action focused and the tension high. Unfortunately, on opening night some of the cast was having trouble remembering their lines and the pacing was slightly off, but this should improve as the very talented cast, which includes three Actor’s Equity performers, start feeling their stage legs and get it right.

Sebastian Hawkes Orr, as the older Philo Farnsworth, has the right Utah hayseed demeanor and gate. He is believable, though at times he spoke so softly that he was hard to hear. Jesse Markowitz was right on character as the young Farnsworth, garnering many laughs as he outsmarted his junior high science teacher.

The usual dependable Paul Floriano flubbed lines, but should recover as the production continues. His David Sarnoff had the right “bad guy” undertone.

Dana Hart effectively changed his voice and presence to effectively interpret several characters, and Jeffrey Grover did a nice job of characterizing Vladmir Zworykin. The rest of the huge cast were quite believable.

Trad Burns’ scenic and lighting designs helped create the right illusions and Richard Ingraham’s ever present sounds were a good idea, but sometimes got in the way of clearly allowing the oft-under projecting cast’s words to carry into the audience without listening clutter.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE FARNSWORTH INVENTION’ is an interesting piece of theatre that is well worth seeing. Hopefully as the cast settles in some of the opening night issues of line stumbles and the need for appropriate vocal projection will be resolved.

Monday, March 09, 2009


Dear Roy,

I just wanted to thank you so much for the workshop you gave to our Play House College students. They really enjoyed it. It was wonderful for them to learn about how to critique a performance and to hear them talk so intelligently about the plays they have seen. Thank you for providing this invaluable opportunity for them.

Cathy Hartenstein
Education Director
The Cleveland Play House

Militant Language

‘MILITANT LANGUAGE’—a script which asks more questions than it answers

‘MILITANT LANGUAGE: A PLAY IN THE SAND,’ is in a unique production cycle. The script is simultaneously being world premiered at Cleveland’s Bang and Clatter, Theatre of Cincinnati, Available Light [Theatre] of Columbus, Halcyon Theatre in Chicago and Next Stage in Seattle.

Set in modern day Iraq, the story unfolds from an opening scene in which a pair of American soldiers return from a routine surveillance detail filled with angst. What happened? As that unanswered question becomes an underlying issue, a Captain fights to control his troops as they find themselves involved in a secret homosexual affair, the sexual abuse of a female soldier, a search for a missing Iraqi boy, and a baby found in the desert, ala Moses.

The script is filled with visions and illusions of violence begetting violence, lies resulting in more lies, and questions of whether truth can be born from honesty. It wraps up with the question, “Does war make no more sense than sand raining from the heavens?”

The setting is an unspecified building site. What’s going on? What’s really going on? A question that the script doesn’t really answer. Sean Christopher Lewis, the play’s author says that ‘MILITANT LANGUAGE’ is "a play about responsibility in a world that doesn't make sense anymore." And, one can only wonder if the unidentified site is a metaphor for the damage of war, when things aren’t built but rather are destroyed. And, whether the U.S. foray into Iraq was a flight of Bush ego, which has resulted in the destruction of not only that country but the economy and self-pride of the US.

We see Pfc. Marcus Goop conflicted about a violent act in which he was a participant. Pfc. Emma Beed is placed in degrading female roles, including being raped. Sensitive and gay Pfc. Andrew Wallace mostly wants to sing Country songs, but he soon gets swept up in the turbulence. Pfc. Damian Jacks is obsessed with being a macho man-boy soldier. And Capt. Davis Crain is faced with spinning chaos seemingly beyond his control.

Sounds like an interesting concept and set of characters. If the play was more focused on a clarity of purpose, and the characters fully fleshed out, it would have been a better evening of theatre. But, even with the script’s weaknesses, director Daniel Taylor should have been able to mold the production into a more cohesive unit. The combination of some misguided directing, including slow pacing, awkward blocking and unfocused characterizaions, made the 90-minutes seem like twice that long. Taylor needed to help some of his actors develop clear personas by working with them to understand each individual as a real person.

Michael May is excellent as Marcus Goop. He is consistent in his textured performance. Scott Thomas is properly tender and naïve as Wallace.

Raina Semivan (Beed) has some good moments and Jocelyn Roueiheb is acceptable, as Huda, an Iraqi in search of the lost boy. However, both were on the surface and could have developed deeper characterizations.

Rick Bowling yells his lines, many of which lacked idea clarity due to his shouting words rather than stressing the meanings of his words. And Joshua Davis seems to have no clue of the underpinnings of the role of Damian. He’s like a verbal Ken doll, dressed in red, white and blue boxers, which are definitely not Army issue.

Capsule judgment: Bang and Clatter’s MILITANT LANGUAGE misses the mark on two counts…the script is of questionable construction and the production qualities are often weak. It’s going to be interesting to read the reviews of other productions to see what, if anything, B&G audiences may have missed out on.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Crime and Punishment

‘CRIME AND PUNISHMENT,’ deep, dark and impressive at CPH

It’s a pretty mind-blowing task to perceive that Fydor Dostoevsky’s ‘CRIME AND PUNISHMENT,’ a long and complex 1864 novel, could be made into a 90-minute play, yet alone, be successful. Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, undertook the task, and their successful proof is now on stage at the Cleveland Play House.

The novel, which was originally published in 12 monthly installments in a Russian literary journal, focuses on the mental anguish of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, an impoverished St. Petersburg law school dropout, who kills an unscrupulous pawnbroker seemingly for her money, thereby solving his financial problems. In the process of his angst he meets Sonia, a prostitute full of Christian virtue, driven into the profession by the habits of her father. (Remember this is a typical nineteenth century Russian novel which carries the tradition of overblown melodramatic stories, lots of complex characters, and flowing prose.)

For those who read the epic, don’t go into the CPH experience expecting fidelity to the novel. One of the major differences is the dropping of the Epilogue in which Raskolnivok, after he confesses, is sent to Siberia. Sonya follows, and the tale ends with a moralistic message of hope and redemption.

Unfortunately, cutting some background, may leave the audience unaware of the moralistic motivation for the murders (there is an additional person killed besides the pawnbroker), other than Raskolnivok’s need for money. That’s not his motive, as he gives away, not only this money, but all money he gets to others. Raskolnikov believes that the murder is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose, since he has rid the world of an evil parasite. Another issue may be the question of why our protagonist gives himself up when there is no evidence leading to him as the slayer.

Despite its seemingly obvious title, the script does not so much deal with the crime and its formal punishment, as with the protagonist’s internal struggle which shows that his penalty results more from his conscience than from the law.

Note that Dostoevsky’s writing preceded the time of Freud, so much of the author’s astute underlying psychological concepts were way ahead of the thinking of the time.

The CPH production, under the adept directing of Anders Cato, is compelling. The staging is aided by Lee Savage’s dark and cramped setting with the Christ figure hanging above the action, as well as Jeff Davis’s lighting. Olivera Gajic’s costuming incites a question. Why is Raskolnikov dressed in white garments rather than sac-cloth clothing, the sign of both having no money and being a self-conceived martyr?

Paul Anthony Stewart is a fascinating Raskolnikov. He is intense, almost maniacal at times, while reclusive and internally torn at others. This is a very effective textured performance.

Patrick Husted, not only plays Porfiry, the detective, but all of the other male parts. Though he is quite good as the detective, a portrayal more in the format of TV’s Columbo might have been more appropriate. As portrayed by Husted, we are never sure whether he is setting up Raskolnikov or really doesn’t know he is the murderer. Using the Columbo approach would have allowed the audience to be aware of the subtle trickery he was performing.

The characterization of Sonia, due to a lack of exposition in the script, and the cutting of the Prologue, does not give Lethia Nall much latitude in developing the role. There is not enough emotional texturing for us to get a clear picture of Sonia’s role in aiding Raskolnikov make a major life decision nor her later effect on him.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH’s ‘CRIME AND PUNISHMENT’ is a dark and compelling production. Even for those who don’t like their theatre heavy and talky, viewing this production is well worth the effort. Put this offering on your “must see” list.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Spring Awakening

Explosive, compelling ‘SPRING AWAKENING’ rocks The Palace

‘SPRING AWAKENING,’ which is now appearing on the Palace Theatre stage as part of the Broadway series, isn’t a traditional musical. It isn’t filled with the usual romanticism so often found on Broadway. Instead, it explores the tortured inner lives of adolescents in 19th century Germany. And, in spite of the setting, it’s as modern as today! The problems are the same, the issues are the same, the angst is the same.

The eight-time Tony winner, visually and emotionally probes into the coming of age, the shattering transformation that takes place as children become physical adults and have to face a world of mixed messages.

It explores messages such as sex is not something to be discussed, adults rule the world and make decisions which can be destructive, God’s spokespersons interpret what is right and wrong, often with horrible results, and parents sometimes share misinformation with teens, if they share any information at all. Life is full of potholes, many of which are not of the teen’s doing.

The musical is based on an 1891 play by Frank Wedekind that was so controversial that it was not produced for almost 15 years after its publication. It may never have seen the light of day if not for the early 20th century writings of psychologist Sigmund Freud, especially his ‘INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS.’

The alt-rock (folk-infused rock score) by Duncan Sheik is forceful, exciting and revealing. Steven Sater’s lyrics paint vivid pictures. The combination fits a play which has masturbation, sex acts, abortion, rape and suicide visible on stage. These images and actions are absolutely necessary to make the ideas clear.

There will be some in the audience who are put off by the musical’s vividness. Some will not come when they hear of the sights. Too bad. These are probably the people the script and lyrics are speaking to and about.

Michael Mayer’s creative directing makes the entire production shimmer with emotion. The characters speak directly to the audience to express their motivations and desires. Using the concept of alienation, the staging, which is done on a setless stage, with light fixtures in full view, is right in the face of the viewer…no hiding behind sets and façade here. To add to the intimacy, some of the audience were seated in bleachers on stage, adding voyeur effect.

The touring cast is excellent. Especially exciting is Blake Bashoff, portraying the conflicted Moritz, a part he performed on Broadway. His “The Bitch of Living” stopped the show. Perry Sherman, who played Melchior, the intellectual challenger of traditional belief systems, performed the role on opening night. His “Totally Fucked” was the dynamic highpoint of the production. The duo’s rendition of “Those You Know,” which was sung with Christy Altomare, was tender and beautifully performed. The rest of the cast was equally impressive.

Watching Clevelander Jared Stein, who conducted the on-stage band, was an experience in and of itself. He is an integral and exciting part of the staging and the band rocked!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘SPRING AWAKENING’ celebrates the journey from youth to adulthood with a power, a poignancy and a passion you will not soon forget. The touring production will hold your attention, challenge your values, and keep you entranced! This is a MUST see!

Monday, March 02, 2009

Grey Gardens

Quirky ‘GREY GARDENS’ makes for interesting viewing at Beck

Don’t go to ‘GREY GARDENS’ at Beck Center thinking that you are going to see a traditional musical. The script, the music and the concept are anything but usual. There is a lot of Sondheim in the Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, Michael Korie musical. This is not music you’ll go out of the show whistling. There is not a “break into dance” production number in this show. The off-the-cuff story and complex compositions will envelope some and put off others.

‘GREY GARDENS’ centers on the eccentric aunt (Edith Bouvier Beale) and cousin (“Little” Edie Beale) of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. It explores the plight of these women, two of the brightest names in the pre-Camelot social register, who transition into East Hampton notorious recluses.

The first act of the musical, which is based on the 1975 documentary of the same title, is set in 1941 when the estate was in its prime and the likes of Joe Kennedy, Jr., the older brother of JFK, was a suitor for the hand of “Little” Edie Beale. The second act, set in 1973 displays the residence reduced to squalor and the participants hopelessly delusional.

These are two dysfunctional women who are bound to each other by need and misguided values. They can’t be in a healthy relationship with each other, but they can’t live without each other.

The original off-Broadway production opened to mixed reviews. Revisions were made and the show opened on Broadway on November 2, 2006 and ran 307 performances after receiving enthusiastic press. It won three Tony Awards. A 2007 documentary, ‘GREY GARDENS: FROM EAST HAMPTON TO BROADWAY,’ has developed a cult following, as has the show.

The Beck production, under the adept direction of Victoria Bussert, is audience involving. She is blessed with an excellent cast and a fine technical staff.

The staging takes a little getting used to. In the first act, “Little” Edie is 24 and Edie is 47; in the second act “Little Edie” is 56 and Edie is 79. The same actress who plays Edie in the first act, plays “Little Edie” in the second act. As soon as that imagery gets clear, the story and intrigue takes over.

Maryann Nagel, as has come to be expected of this fine actress, is compelling in both her roles. Her final scene, in which she seemingly is going to break the unhealthy bond and flee Grey Gardens, is emotionally wrenching. She textures both roles with the right amount of personality and her alteration of accents is remarkable.

Lenne Snively, as the self-imposed bed-bound Edith, is so excellent, that she almost compels someone in the audience to come and drag her out of bed and make her face reality.

Jillian Kates Bumpas, as “Little Edie” in Act I, is quite good, but sometime appears to be staying on the surface, rather than digging beneath the surface of the character. She has a nice singing voice

Patrick Janson developed well the role of George Strong, the put-upon homosexual liaison of Edith. His singing, and piano and saxophone playing were excellent.

Kennedy family look-alike Jonathan Walker White, whose accent was inconsistent, was overly stiff as Joseph Kennedy, Jr., but was fine as Jerry, a young vagrant who hung around Grey Gardens in the lean times.

Annie Kostel, who portrayed a young Jacqueline Bouvier, looks very much like Jackie O as a tween. Both she and Natalie Welch (Lee Bouvier) maintained their characters throughout.

George Roth was properly angry and frustrated as “Major” Bouvier.

Russ Borski’s set and costume designs were excellent and Jodie Ricci’s musical direction was on lyrically target. Unfortunately, at times the music got so loud that it drowned out the singers. In this show, where the lyrics are not familiar and are absolutely integral to understanding the characters and the story line, this was a major distraction. The minimal amount of dancing was well choreographed by Martin Céspedes.

Side note: During an after-production discussion lead by Maryann Nagle, an inquiry by a group of my students who attended the Sunday matinee production, centered on how truthful the narrative was. Nagel indicated that according to the research she and the director did, though the story line is compressed, the events were accurate.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘GRAY GARDENS,’ both because it has a glimmer of the Jackie O mystique, and the interesting nature of the story, makes for a fine evening of theatre. The Beck production is further enhanced by the focused directing and fine performances.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Cleveland Heights

JCC’s ‘CLEVELAND HEIGHTS’ off the mark!

At intermission, and following the opening night performance of the Jewish Community Center’s ‘CLEVELAND HEIGHTS,’ the major topic of conversation was the lack of “Yiddisha” [Jewish] Cleveland in the shallow and obvious script. Except for half-a-dozen references, which had almost nothing to do with the plot, the play could have been set in Pittsburg, Indianapolis or any other city that has a couple of Jewish families and has gone through economic changes.

In a brave move to insure that the Cleveland Jewish story be told and archived, JCC commissioned playwright and actor Keith Reddin to write the script. Supposedly, Reddin did a year of research before writing play. In spite of his moderate success as a playwright, Reddin, who is a Chicago fixture, doesn’t appear to be the person to have undertaken the job.

The script didn’t highlight the transition of the Jewish population and their institutions from inner city to the eastern suburbs, and the problems and joys this caused. It didn’t highlight the terminology that went with these moves and conflicts, phrases like “Heights Mockies” and “Kinsman Cowboys.” Yes, there were a few reference to The Temple and Rabbi Silver and Camp Wise, but they were throw-ins, not integral to the plot. The story included many deaths, with that of the father being integral to the story. What’s a Cleveland Jew’s death without referencing the ceremony at Berkowitz’s? Where was the shiva food from Sherwins, Ungers and Corky and Lenny’s, depending on the era? The transition of Jewish students from Glenville to Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights High Schools was part of the era that Reddin chose to write about, but there was none of this in his script. No, these names shouldn’t have been just dropped in, but in developing the story, twists and turns that centered on those places and events should have been a paramount plot guideline. (Think Les Roberts’ writing about Slovenians and their role in the Cleveland landscape.)

The play takes place in a Cleveland Heights home. The 1940s was when much of the Jewish population shifted from East 105th, and from Kinsman, to the heights areas. Why couldn’t the author have the family moving into their new home and discussing where they came from and why they moved? Why during the discussion of failing businesses in the 1970s didn’t he give references the demise of the Cleveland clothing manufacturing by referencing be the likes of Richman Brothers and Kaufman Kock (Joseph & Feiss). As is, the real” tam” [taste] of what made Jewish life in this unique city was missing.

Reddin uses trite stock characters to develop the obvious plot. The hard working Jewish business man who puts business ahead of family, the understanding wife, the sibling rivalry which caused the two brothers to go through less-than desired lives, intermarriage in which the non-Jewish wife becomes the “good” Jew, the nebbish family friend, the “ferbissinah’ [embittered] aunt, the rebellious daughter. Oy, couldn’t he have invented some new personas for these characters? Couldn’t he have created some tensions and unusual twists into the story line?

Director Brian Zoldessy, in spite of being saddled with this weak and unfulfilling script, managed to wring a few laughs and mild pathos thanks to some excellent acting. Charles Kartali, as the wanna be lawyer-son, Maryann Elder, double cast as the “shiksa” [non-Jewish] wife and the embittered aunt, Elizabeth Townsend as the rebel marijuana smoking daughter, Scott Miller s the put-upon brother, and Sharmon Sollitto as the hand-wringing mother were very good. The acting highlight was Zoldessy, himself. No one does hand-wringing hyper hysterical nerds like Zoldessy.

Ben Needham’s massive set made the cast appear to be guppies swimming in a large aquarium. It’s not his fault. The Cuyahoga Community College’s massive stage just doesn’t lend itself to intimate plays. Maybe the little theatre would have been a better place to stage the play.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: JCC did not get its money’s worth from their investment in commissioning Keith Reddin, an outsider with little intimate history of the Cleveland Jewish community, to write the definitive story about Jewish Cleveland. What they got was a trite, non-memorable script that probably, and wisely, will never see the light of day again. Too bad, yes, too bad, for the idea for such a story was right, especially in light of this probably being the last season for theatre at the J.