Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ouroboros: The Priest's Tale

‘OUROBOROS’ makes for challenging viewing at convergence continuum

'OUROBOROS,’ the name of the duo of plays now being staged at convergence continuum, is based on a snake, a Greek mythological creature. A being that, according to legend, is eternally devouring it's own tail, replenishing while destroying.

Tom Jacobson’s play also replenishes while it destroys as it examines the intersecting quest of two American couples as they travel Italy. The odd thing about what’s going on is that both couples are traveling the same route, but in opposite directions. How then do we continue to observe them as there paths continually intersect?

The play is actually two plays. One, ‘THE NUN’S TALE,’ the other ‘THE PRIEST’S TALE.’ One is a comedy, the other a tragedy. Each is being staged separately, but in tandem.

The quartet consists of a Lutheran minister and his mentally fragile wife who is in Italy to examine Limoges enamels, and a would-be Episcopalian nun traveling with her gay friend, who is trying to recover from the death of his lover. In the aftermath of a sexual encounter between the minister and the nun, a series of “miracles” occur.

The author sees himself as a combination of the two main male characters— he's gay and Lutheran. And the two women in the play are based on his friend who is an Episcopalian nun.

According to Jacobson, his characters are searching for love, faith and meaning. He therefore structured "THE NUN'S TALE" so the nun and her gay friend find their lives transformed, while in "THE PRIEST'S TALE," it's the minister and his wife who are gradually transformed.

The congruence-continuum production, under the theatre’s artistic director Clyde Simon, is on track. He allows the viewer to understand the backward-forward concept, while holding our attention, even if we may not understand all of the nuances of the script.

The cast, Joe Schultz (Philip) is believable as the minister, Amy Bistok-Bunce (Catherine), though some of her lines lack meaning, is acceptable as Phillip’s wife. Sarah Kunchik (Margaret) is basically on-target as the nun. Geoffrey Hoffman goes a little overboard as the fey Tor, but has a nice touch with humor. Interestingly, Christian Prentice, who plays a series of roles, gives the best overall performance.

Simon’s Italy set is nicely done, especially considering the small size of The Limitus (the venue’s name).

For the ‘uptight,” be aware that in ‘THE PRIEST’S TALE,’ there are simulated sex scene’s including both female-male and male-male sex.

Capsule Judgement: ‘OURBOROS’ is a mixture of déjà vu meets “The Twilight Zone.” Both the structure and the topic challenge the imagination. It’s worth a visit to convergence-continuum if you are interested a convoluted yet challenging experience.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Browns Rules

Browns not only fumble at stadium, but at CPT

As evidenced in the world premiere of ‘BROWNS RULES’ by local playwright Eric Schmiedl, our local football team doesn’t come out much better on stage than on the field. The script, like the team’s play book, is weak in many parts, and though the cast tries hard, the final product doesn’t score enough to be a winner. Director Bill Hoffman’s lack of clarity of purpose simply doesn’t give the actors the needed guidance, seemingly paralleling the actions of the Browns’ coach Eric Mangini (Boo!).

Staged on a creative brown and orange locker room set designed by Curtis Young, the script attempts to deal with the history of the modern Browns, starting with the 1945 team headed by Paul Brown. How did the team get its name? In a contest, the moniker Browns was selected, but the coach, Paul Brown objected, so the name Panthers was chosen. That identification was dropped because a local businessman already owned that name of an earlier failed local football team. So, Browns was the moniker and the Brownie Elf the logo. It remained so until Art Modell (Boo!) did away with the Brownie in the mid-1960s, believing it to be too childish. Its use has been revived under the current ownership. (Hurrah!)

The team became a success and dominated the All-America Football Conference. There were ups and downs, mostly ups with championships, and the eras of Jim Brown, Brian Sipe, The Kardiac Kids and Bernie Kosar. Then the worst of the worst happened. Team owner Art Modell (Boo!) announced on November 6, 1995, that he had signed a deal to relocate the Browns to Baltimore (Boo!). However, in February 1996, the National Football League caved in to media and litigation pressures by announcing that the team would merely be 'deactivated' for three years, and that a new stadium would be built for a new "reactivated" Cleveland Browns (Hurrah!). Unfortunately, the present team is a mere shadow of the “old” Browns.

The show’s title comes from a skit in which audience members are asked to submit the “rules” that must be followed to be a Browns’ fan. The entries are then read by the lighting/sound person amidst cheers and moans from the audience and the cast.

Schmiedl does a nice job of creating songs that highlight the highs and lows of the history of, and being a fan of, the brown and orange. If he had stuck to only that, he would have been fine. Unfortunately, he added an embarrassing interview with a senile old man, a lame section on Browns’ backers clubs around the world and a pathetic segment on superstitions. There was also some improv which often didn’t work. It’s not clear how much of that was actually in the script or was “actors gone wild.”

The show is too long. Maybe a ninety-minute, no intermission version might have worked. In fact, Schmiedl could probably get bookings at the many, many Browns backers clubs around the world if he went that route.

Clever songs included “Automatic Otto,” “With You,” and “All Night, All Day.” Others like, “Let’s Eat” and “That’s the Way It Is,” were weak. The music varied from rock, to polka, ballad and nationality music, echoing the ethnicity of the city.

The cast, which included Schmiedl, Nathan Lilly and Nick Koesters, put out full effort; however, Hoffman, seemed unable to clearly keep them on track and under control, especially Koesters. Koesters, one of my favorite local actors, was just too over the top in this production. He displayed no restraint. Energy is good, blatant overacting and “eating the scenery” is not.

Schmiedl has a nice charm, Lily has a wonderfully mobile face and an engaging singing voice. But, there seemed to be no clear motivation for some of their actions.

The band, Joe Milan, Eric Percherkiewicz and Bill Hoffman are good, but often get carried away and drown out the singers, who, because of the poor acoustics in the theatre are hard enough to hear, as is.

The audience on the night I saw the show was very vocal. They actually created a football game like atmosphere, making the material look better than it is. Was that caused by the beer sold before the show and during intermission, or just unbridled enthusiasm?

Capsule judgement: How can you not love a football team with an Elf for a logo? Well, the present Browns and ‘BROWNS RULES’ give reasons to not show much affection.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Doug Elkins and Friends delight in ‘THE SOUND OF MUSIC’ take-off

As evidenced by ‘FRÄULEIN MARIA,’ his take-off of the musical ‘THE SOUND OF MUSIC,’ which was recently presented by DanceCleveland at the Hanna Theatre, Doug Elkins may well be the crown prince of comic dance choreography.

‘THE SOUND OF MUSIC’ is a stage musical based losely on the von Trapp family who escaped Europe at the onset of World War II after being harasssed by the Nazis. The musical is inspirational, farily serious and contains Rogers and Hammerstein’s usual social message of the better way to live.

Now, picture the goings-on as envisioned by Elkins.

The evening is introduced by Richard Rogers. Well, its a spotlight on the center of the stage which represents the song wirter and is supplemented by a tape recording of the great man, who probably rolls over in his grave every time Elkins and Friends does a take off on his beloved musical score.

Since the story takes place in the hills of Austria, we need hills. These are created by dancers encased in and waving green and tan strips of fabric. A snow capped mountain is formed by Elkins (who not only choreographed the performance but dances in it as well) leaping off the stage, snatching a white shawl off the shoulders of a woman in the front row, running back onto the stage and tossing it on top of one of the hills. This is done while hip hop, classical ballet, contemporary and modern dance, martial arts moves and improvised maneuvers are exploding on stage to the entire score from the musical.

Then there is Maria the singing nun turned nanny, turned dressmaker, turned mommy, who is simultaneously performed by three different dancers, one an African American male.

You think attending a dance concert is a passive experience? Not in Elkins’ creative hands. You will--yes, you will--take part by singing “Do-Re-Mi,” in three-part harmony, lead by Elkins, himself.

Elkins is not your usual run of the mill choreographer. He started his performance life as a B-boy. A break dancer who toured the world with groups like the New York Dance Express and Magnificent Force. And, with that background, as you watch the madcap antics on stage, you will surely note that his work is inventive, eccentric and compelling.”

Even Elkins choice of dancers is not traditional. While most dance companies go for thin woman and muscle toned males, Elkins favors sturdy, often fleshy men and women, with lots of power. There's nothing exotic, about this company, but, they are talented. And, as can be expected, their backgrounds don’t fit the usual company description. One of the males just started dance training in January. He’s a gymnast and martial arts expert.

The company is reinforced by local professionals who were chosen via a tryout. They are Kelly Michael Brunk from Groundworks, Ellen Ressler Hoffman of Repertory Project and Footpath Dance, Amy Miller, Groundworks, Rebecca Nicklos, MegLousie Dance and Morrison Dance and Marie Zvosec, Ohio Dance Theatre. They perform in a fantastic hip-hop segment set to “Climb Every Mountain.”

Even the curtain call was fun.

Capsule judgement: . ‘FRÄULEIN MARIA’ was an evening of dance not to be missed! Too bad Elkins only performed twice because word of mouth would have filled additional stagings. Let’s hope that Pam Young, Executive Director of DanceCleveland, brings Elkins back in the very near future.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Wonderful ‘WICKED’ wows ‘em again at State

How good is the production of ‘WICKED’ which is now appearing at the State Theatre? My 14-year old grandson, known as the Kid Reviewer because I take him along to give the teen/tween view of shows, gave it a 9.5 out of 10 on his “rate the play scale.” Why only a 9.5? He said he’s reserving the 10 for the most unbelievable show he’s ever seen. But, he indicated “’WICKED’ was GREAT!” Why? “It had everything. Great story, outstanding production qualities…sets, costumes, lights, special effects. The music and the performances were awesome.” His advice: “Go see this show! It’s appropriate for kids and their parents.”

‘WICKED,’ an alternative view of the ‘WIZARD OF OZ,’ tells the “true” story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, and her relationship with Glinda, the Good Witch. It has all the elements of the original story, but packages them in a different way. We find out about how the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin man came to be. How Dorothy got the red (in this version silver) slippers. And, most importantly, what really happened to Elphaba. (Ah, yes, in a quirky ending, there is a happily-ever after story.)

The music and lyrics, by one of my favorite theatre composers, Stephen Schwartz, includes such beautiful and delightful songs as “Popular,” “I’m Not That Girl,” “Defying Gravity,” “As Long as You’re Mine,” and Alex’s favorite, “For Good.”

The production qualities of this touring show, are outstanding and impressive. There is a dragon hanging over the proscenium arch that has a wingspan the same as a Cessna 172 airplane. They use 200 pounds of dry ice every show for smoke effects and enough power in a single production to supply twelve houses with electricity. There are 175,000 pounds of scenery. This is not a stripped-down touring show, it’s a full-blown Broadway extravaganza.

With the exception of Richard Kline, who seems to be sleep-walking through the role of the Wizard, the cast reaches Broadway levels. Donna Vivino glows gloriously green as Elphaba. She hits the vocal high notes with ease and creates a clear characterization. Chandra Lee Schwartz is properly air-headed as the “popular” Glinda. Richard Blake is excellent as the self-centered Fiyero, who falls in love with Elphaba. BTW…did you know that Adam Lambert, the “American Idol” runner-up (can you believe he didn’t win?) was the understudy for Fiyero in the Los Angeles production of ‘WICKED?’

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: As Alex said, with glee and enthusiasm, “Go see this show!” Grandpa totally agrees!!!!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mamma Mia

‘MAMMA MIA’ entertains once again at Palace

The two middle-aged women sitting in front of me at the Palace Theatre’s production of ‘MAMMA MIA,’ could not sit still. As the music rolled off the stage, they were swaying in their first row seats, mouthing the words to the Abba songs, doing hand gestures, and bellowing their pleasure at the conclusion of each song. They did everything that takes place at a rock concert other than flick their cigarette lighter. They, like the rest of the audience, were into the performance!

When a show makes its fourth tour into an area, as is the case with ‘MAMMA MIA,’ there is fear that the production will be tired and the worse for wear. Fear not. As the ladies in front of me showed, this showing is fresh and full of energy.

‘MAMMA MIA’ came to the stage in a different way than most musicals. The usual path is to take a previously written piece of material and add music and lyrics, or create a script and meld in the songs. ‘MAMMA MIA,’ however, is a compilation of the songs of the singing group ABBA with a story written around them. What is amazing is how each song fits into the storyline, as if it were written specifically for the script.

The show has been playing to sold-out audiences on Broadway for over 7 years. The London production has done more than 4,000 performances. It’s been seen by over 40 million people worldwide, grossed over $2 billion dollars at the box office, and has been seen in over 200 major cities. It’s about to open in such locations as Oslo and Mexico City, and will soon tour in Spanish and Dutch versions. Yes, ‘MAMMA MIA’ is a gigantic hit!

The story concerns a single mother (Donna) who owns a small hotel on a Greek island. She has never told her daughter (Sophie), who is about to get married, the identify of her father. The daughter finds her mother’s diary and figures out that there are three possible “dads.” She invites each to the wedding. And, as in all good fairly tales, everyone lives happily ever after, and the audience has a swell time in the process.

It’s basically purposeless to evaluate the cast as opening night in Cleveland found five replacements, including Rachel Tyler (Donna) . It mattered little. This is a professional cast, and all but amateur acting Bradley Whitfield (portraying Sky, Sophie’s finance) were excellent.

I defy anyone to sit through the production and not be carried away by such wonder tunes as “Dancing Queen,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” ‘S.O.S.,” “Take a Chance on Me,” and “The Winner Takes It All.” As my wife says each time we see the show, “How can anyone not like a show that features three middle age women disco singing and dancing?”

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: This excellent production of ‘MAMMA MIA,’ runs only through Sunday, November 15. If you haven’t seen the show before, go, you’ll have a blast. If you have seen it before, go, you’ll have a blast!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

For Better

A delightful look at romance in the cyber age at Actors’ Summit

Playwright Eric Coble, whose play ‘FOR BETTER’ is getting its regional premiere at Actors’ Summit, is a satirist whose weird sense of humor allows him to hone in on peculiar social phenomena and take them to the extremes of absurdity. Coble asks such questions as: are up-scale parents interested in getting their child into the “correct” school, willing to kill another kid for the institutions last opening (‘BRIGHT IDEA’)? Or, to what extremes will someone go on a reality show to win a million dollars, such as agreeing to commit suicide using a method decided upon by the viewers (‘THE DEAD GUY’)?

Building on the premise that an entire generation of thirty-somethings have been brought up on email, instant messaging, cell phones and texting, Coble ponders whether a woman can develop a relationship on-line, almost never meet the guy face-to-face, accept his proposal for marriage, get her wedding ring via a FedEx delivery, and . . . (you’ll have to go see the show to find out what the “and” is all about).

At the center of non-stop talking (mostly electronic, of course) is Karen, who spends time with her fiancé Max (a character who never appears on stage) via wireless media.

Her electronically-challenged father, Wally, can't understand how to operate his TiVo, let alone understand his daughter’s virtual on-again, off-again engagement.

Her older sister, Francine, criticizes her rashness, even though she met her husband through an online dating service and their relationship has about as much passion as the electronic instruments they constantly depend on.

Coble, who admits to having only one cell phone for his entire family, observed those around him and states that he found “people’s emotional lives were really coming to depend on our cell phones and emails to keep us connected and sane as we became new hunter/gatherers. And I wanted to write a sweet romantic comedy about that.” Coble succeeded.

Though the script looks easy to stage, it isn’t. A good production depends on a quick pick up of line cues, actors all talking at the same time while insuring each idea is understood, making the characters real even though they are ridiculous, and rapid pacing.

The Actor’s Summit production, under the direction of A. Neil Thackaberry, accomplishes all the “must does.”

Though at times she is a little shrill, Constance Thackaberry, is in a proper state of angst as Karen. As Francine, Karen’s sister, Sally Groth proves again that she is very good at being uptight, frustrated and bitchy. Larry Seman basically steals the show as the widowed father. Most of the “mature’ audience totally understood his frustrations of living in an electronic world with only a fleeting knowledge of the technical language, let alone having the skills to navigate the terrain. Keith Stevens as Francine’s husband, and Tony Zanoni, as the Verizon man who travels the world asking, “Can you hear me now?” are on the mark. Their cyber drunk scene is hysterical. Jen Walker, Francine’s friend Lizzie, develops her role well.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: FOR BETTER is a delightful script which is given a fun production at Actors’ Summit. If you want to thoroughly enjoy yourself, put down your cell, turn off the computer, jump into your hybrid Prius, and set your Garmin to get you to 86 Owen Brown Street in Hudson. Think of it this way…you can text your 500 best cyber friends at intermission and tell them what a good time you are having.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Woyzeck: A Proper Murder

‘A PROPER MURDER,’ a good production of a convoluted script at Theater Ninjas

In his program notes to ‘WOYZECK, A PROPER MURDER,’ director Jeremy Paul states, “’WOYZECK’ was the first play I ever wanted to direct.” To be honest, I have no idea why of all the great plays written, Paul would pick this abstract, convoluted script as his heart’s desire.

‘WOYZECK,’ was written in the mid-1860’s by Georg Büchner. The script, which was found in segments with no clear structure, was left unfinished when Büchner died. It was completed by a variety of other writers.

The script deals with the dehumanization of a human being caused by human jealousy. It parallels the true story of a Christian Woyzeck, a wigmaker and soldier, who murdered his live-in mistress.

‘WOYZECK’ is supposedly a commentary on social conditions as well as an exploration of poverty and how circumstances in one’s life ultimately can push a person over the edge.

The Theater Ninja production, in spite of creative staging by Paul and fine acting by the cast, is a hard sit-through. Sebastian Hawkes Orr is properly maniacal as Woyzeck. Emily Pucell develops effectively the role of Marie, the woman Woyzeck is living with. The rest of the cast, Val Kozlenko, Elaine Feagler, Katelyn Cornelius, and Adam Seeholzer compently carry out the director’s concept.

Doing the play in the Asterick Gallery in Tremont adds to the abstract quality of the action as the actors dart in and out of the gallery’s display walls.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘WOYZECK, A PROPER MURDER,’ gets a fine production at Ninjas, but there is a caveat. The script will appeal to those who like abstract, experimental theatre. For those interested in a standard format of beginning, middle and end, with a clear message, this isn’t going to be their thing.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Inherit the Wind

‘INHERIT THE WIND,” an onstage view

‘INHERIT THE WIND,’ which is now receiving an impressive production at the Cleveland Play House, opened on Broadway on April 21, 1955 with a cast that included Paul Muni, Ed Begley, and Tony Randall. Basically, it is the story of a situation which put John Thomas Scopes, a Dayton, Tennessee school teacher on trial for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to his students. At the time, the state of Tennessee had a law on its books preventing the teaching of the evolution of man from lower orders of animals in place of the Biblical account. That state did not repeal the Butler Act, as the law was called, until 1967.

The Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee play was, according to the authors, an attempt to criticize the then current state of McCarthyism, the anti-Communist investigations of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Lawrence commented in an interview that, "we used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control. It's not about science versus religion. It's about the right to think." Arthur Miller used a similar device in his showcasing the Salem witch trials as the basis for his anti-McCarthy play, ‘THE CRUCIBLE.’

It’s interesting to note that Lawrence was from Cleveland and Lee from Elyria.

The play opens on a scorching July day in 1925. The trial pits two legal greats against each other, Mathew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan) and Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow). For twelve days, Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes (“The Monkey Trial”) captured the nation's attention as a media circus swept through Dayton, mainly fanned by the writing of liberal-leaning journalist E. K. Hornbeck (H. L. Mencken).
The script's title comes from Proverbs 11:29, which, in the King James Bible reads: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind: and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.”

The CPH production, under the adept direction of Seth Gordon, hits all the right notes. It is well paced, cutting the script from the traditional three-acts to a more sitable two, and keeps interest high through stressing both the humor and the captivating dialogue.

Broadway and TV veterans, Ed Dixon (Brady) and Scott Jaeck (Drummond) are both compelling in their characterizations. Scott Plate adds just the right sarcasm to the comments of Hornbeck. Dudley Swetland as the Judge, Tom White (Cates), Sarah Nedwek (as Cates’ girlfriend), and Cameron McKendry (as Howard, one of the children who testified at the trial) all are believable in their portrayals. Though I would have liked Mark Alan Gordon, as Reverend Jeremiah Brown to be filled with more fanaticism, Rohn Thomas to be more believable, and a more consistent use of the Tennessee accent by the Dayton locals, but those are just nitpicking points.
It was nice to see the Play House using many local area performers in the production. I hope this is a trend toward the future as there are good home town actors who could use the stage-time.

The Play House added a clever gimmick, filling the jury box with local lawyers, actors and volunteers. I was included in that group, so I got to see the play from the stage, as well as from my traditional seat in the audience. It was not my first experience with either the stage at CPH or with the script. As a youth, I was a Curtain Puller, one of the young thespians who learned their acting skills from the CPH staff. While a student at the University of Michigan, I participated in a staged reading of the script, portraying E K. Hornbeck. It was very pleasant to revisit past life occurrences.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘INHERIT THE WIND’ gets an excellent production at CPH. For those who saw the play in the past, a repeat visit is worth the time. For those who have not had the pleasure of viewing the Lawrence and Lee script, this is an excellent opportunity. Good job!