Sunday, March 28, 2010

How I Learned to Drive

None Too Fragile theatre company premieres with compelling production

For about four years, Bang and Clatter Theatre performed like the little engine that could. Run by the two Seans (McConaha and Derry), possessing little money, but lots of chutzpa, the company performed before nice-sized and appreciative audiences in Akron. True to its mission, the theatre presented innovative and challenging works. The atmosphere was relaxed, free wine flowed, and the performances were generally of high quality.

Several years ago they added a Cleveland theatre, opening a new space in the former Cole’s Shoe Store on public square in downtown Cleveland. That venue, due to poor parking availability, little publicity and the competition of the crowded Cleveland theatre market, never caught on. Then the economic crash finished off both theatres.

Now, growing out of the smoldering ashes, a new theatre company, None Too Fragile, has been formed by Sean Derry and former B&C actress, Alanna Romansky. Housed in the CityArt Indie Box Center on Front Street in downtown Cuyahoga Falls, the company’s first play is Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize chilling drama, ‘HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE.’

The story follows the strained, sexual relationship between Li'l Bit and her aunt's husband, Uncle Peck, from her adolescence through her teenage years and beyond. Using the metaphor of driving and the issues of pedophilia, incest, and misogyny, the play explores the ideas of control and manipulation.

The None Too Fragile production is exceptionally well done. Alanna Romansky is mesmerizing in the role of Li’l Bit. She presents a multi-textured character that displays maturity, while being a teen and then an adult. It’s worth going just to see Romansky weave her magic.

Jeffrey Grover shows a nice balance between predator and caring uncle. Though his accent comes and goes, he makes Uncle Peck a real person, complete with complex feelings ,who clearly is a sick and conflicted being.

In an interesting directing twist, Derry does the show with only two actors on stage, while six people actually appear in the production. Clever use of video and projections makes this possible.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE’ is a complex play that is emotionally difficult to sit through, yet, it is so well directed and performed that it is fascinating theatre. Let’s hope that the audiences who found Bang and Clatter such a rewarding experience show up at the company’s new home, and the word spreads quickly so that Derry and Romansky can make this new venture thrive.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Kimberly Akimbo

‘KIMBERLY AKIMBO’—dysfunctionality at convergence continuum

What’s it like to be a sixteen-year old and have already gone through menopause? Sound impossible, or at least improbable? Well, as displayed in Pulitzer Prize winning David Lindsay-Abaire’s play, ‘KIMBERLY AKIMBO,’ now getting a staging at convergence-continuum, such an anomaly is not impossible.

Progeria is a rare, fatal, genetic childhood condition characterized by an appearance of accelerated aging. Signs of the hereditary illness include growth failure, aged-looking skin, and stiffness of joints. Those with Progeria die at an average age of thirteen.

Don’t get the idea that this play is a downer because it deals with illness. There are a lot of laugh lines and situations. The experience may be a downer, but it’s not because of the illness…it’s a reaction to sharing time with this neurotic and dysfunctional group of characters. If anything, the person with the illness is probably the most psychologically healthy person on stage.

‘KIMBERLY AKIMBO’ concerns a lonely teenager who is a victim of progeria. She is trapped inside the frail physical body of an elderly woman. Jeff, one of her classmates, escapes from his hellish life, which includes living with a widowed drunken father and a drug addicted brother, by doing anagrams. He is a social misfit who wants to use the topic of Kimberly’s disease for his science report. The two form an attachment that allows each to have someone in their lives other than the members of their dysfunctional families, thus, gaining a sense of normalcy.

Kimberly’s father, Buddy, is an alcoholic who works at a gas station. Her insensitive and selfish mother, Pattie, is a pregnant hypochondriac with a foul mouth and a deep secret. Pattie's sister, Debra, is a homeless lesbian whose get-rich schemes get her in constant trouble with the law.

The play is well-written and the concept and the plot development lead to a high level of audience interest.

Convergence-continuum’s production, under the direction of Clyde Simon, doesn’t quite get all the empathy of the words, but works on its own level. The acting doesn’t always accent the characters’ psychological underpinnings. The lines and story concepts give us hints, but neither Tom Kondilas (Buddy), whose words often sound flat and memorized, nor Amy Bistok-Bunce, who screams almost every one of her lines, helps us to understand their underlying pain. It’s a simple rule of acting…if the actors feign and don’t really feel, the audience doesn’t empathize.

Marcia Mandell has the difficult task of making Kimberly both human and a victim of circumstances. She doesn’t always succeed. There is too much “old” lady and too little, 16-year old.

On the other hand, Scott Gorbach, he of slight body and sensitive nature, is right on-target as Jeff. Lauren Smith gives the right angry tone and physicality to the macho-lesbo aunt.

Clyde Simon and Jim Valore’s set design is excellent, creating five different settings on the tiny convergence stage.

Capsule Judgement: ‘KIMBERLY AKIMBO’ is a thought provoking play which gets an acceptable, but not a fully developed production, at convergence-continuum. It’s worth seeing.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Cloud Nine

Caryl Churchill’s thought provoking gender bender ‘CLOUD 9’ well performed by CWRU/CPHMFAAP

That theatre group with the impossible name is at it again. The Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts Acting Program is presenting Caryl Churchill’s ‘CLOUD NINE,’ a play about colonial and gender oppression in CPH’s Brooks Theatre. The play itself is a thought provoking, often humorous, often psychological mind twister, as is the company’s moniker. Why, oh why, can’t the program’s powers that be come up with an insignia that isn’t mind and mouth rattling?

‘CLOUD NINE’ is a two-act play which was first performed in 1979. It is as relevant today as it was back then. Yes, colonialism and western world feminine gender suppression are not as clear in the present time. However, inequality for homosexuals, opposition to equal rights for all, verbal and physical aggression by the older white males in the United States who are afraid they are loosing control of “their country,” female “inferiority” in the Muslim world, and resistance to a flat world concept, are still present.

The play uses melodrama and controversial portrayals of sexuality and obscene language to establish a parallel between colonial and sexual oppression. It is filled with incongruity and “shock” language to convey Churchill's political message about accepting people who are different and not dominating them or forcing them into particular roles.

Churchill has stated that during the development of ‘CLOUD NINE,’ she was influenced by Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Millett’s book was the bible for the women’s movement. It awakened many American and European women to the nature of the patriarchal society in which they lived.

Fanon’s book explained the feelings of dependency and inadequacy that Black people experience in a White world. This is well brought out in ‘CLOUD NINE,’ through the character of Joshua, the Black servant, who has chosen to “turn white” rather than disappear. Those who choose the opposite are either flogged or run the risk of being the victims of punitive raids by British soldiers, as their lives are considered of no importance. Joshua’s words, “My skin is black but oh my soul is white” are an allusion to “The Little Black Boy,” a poem by William Blake.

The two acts of the play form a contrapuntal structure. Act 1 is set in British colonial Africa in Victorian times, and Act 2 is set in a London park in 1979. Interestingly, each actor plays one role in Act 1 and a different role in Act 2, often of another gender.
Churchill’s creative approach makes it necessary for the viewer to make a mental switch from seeing a rag doll “child” in the first act being portrayed by a real adult in the second act, and a white male with an accent who in the first act is a Black male servant, playing a female child in the second act. It’s all part of Churchill’s well-honed attempt to make the story present-day relevant and not an illusion of “then” and “them.”

The CWRU/CPHMFAAP’s production, under the creative directorial eye of Ron Wilson, is excellent. From the creative pop modern art set of Jill Davis, to Michael Boll’s insightful lighting, to Tiffany Goff’s music, to the clear development of each character, the entire production works. The intimate Brooks Theatre adds immediate presence to the message…you can’t escape from being involved.

The entire cast is excellent. Special performances include Andrew Gorell’s interpretation of Betty, the mistress of the African plantation. Gorell, does not play the role as a cross dresser, but as a “real” woman. Yan Tual’s use of his natural accent adds an interesting dimension of white man playing Black man in the first act, while his transformation to a female child in the second act is startling considering his over six-foot height. Kelli Ruttle’s transformation from first act nanny to second act recently divorced mother, in search of who she really is, is excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘CLOUD 9’ is a thought provoking play that gets an excellent production by the ill-named CWRU/CPH acting program.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Speech & Debate

‘SPEECH AND DEBATE’—script exceeds production at Dobama

As a former speech and debate coach at the high school and college levels, I appreciated the device that author Stephen Karam used naming the scenes of his play ‘SPEECH AND DEBATE’ after the various events of the verbal competitions (e.g., duo interpretation, impromptu speaking, Lincoln-Douglas Debate). I also identified with some of the machinations of the competitors. Yes, members of speech competitions are often outsiders, the nerds, and the more academic members of the school community, looking for validation in other things than sports. They also often go on to be life-long superstars. Some of my former competitors have pleaded cases before the Supreme Court. There are a couple of college professors, a number of doctors, the head a major NY public relations firm and a WKSU-FM newscaster

Karam’s 2006 play, which is getting its area premiere at Dobama, concerns Howie, Solomon and Diwata, three teenagers in Salem, Oregon who discover they are linked by a sex scandal that’s rocked their town and another exposé which has been kept under wraps. When one of them sets out to reveal the “truth,” secrets become currency, the stakes get higher, and the trio’s connection grows deeper in this quirky comedy with dark overtones.

A New York review of the original production termed the show a "…savvy comedy…bristling with vitality, wicked humor, terrific dialogue and a direct pipeline into the zeitgeist of contemporary youth…Karam has a keen ear for how teens talk, move and think, how they view each other and the adult world…and uses both the advantages and perils of cyberspace to make amusing, original points…" Another stated, “Stephen Karam's dark comedy seems to be about a frumpy girl, a nerdy guy and an openly gay guy who band together to disclose the truth about a teacher who preys on his male students. But that topical plot is almost window dressing. The play's real accomplishment is its picture of the borderland between late adolescence and adulthood, where grown-up ideas and ambition coexist with childish will and bravado."

Though the script contains what the Big Apple reviewers saw, the Dobama production doesn’t live up to the hype. The trio of Baldwin Wallace College actors, under the direction of Scott Plate, are adequate, but, except for Nick Pankuch, miss the mark. There is a lot of acting, rather than reacting going on. Much of what we see is characterizing, not characters.

While Pankuch, as Howie, the new “blonde” gay kid in town, who searches for hook-ups on the Internet, seems to identify with his character, Shelby Bartelstein gives us a goth video version of Diwata, the quirky drama queen. She’s not real, she’s an illusion of what Bartelstein envisions Diwata to be. Nicholas Varricchio is also not totally real. He tries too hard to think his way through how the uptight Solomon should be portrayed. If the duo had just let Karam’s lines flow and react to their meanings, the entire evening would have worked better. Plate needed to guide his actors with more care.

Elizabeth Ann Townsend, one of my favorite local actresses, also misses the mark as the teacher. She just doesn’t ring true, “feigning” not “being.”

Laura Carlson’s set design works well. The creative use of PowerPoint visuals to illuminate the title of each segment also are effective.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Many aspects of Dobama’s SPEECH AND DEBATE work, but the overall effect is not what should have been the outcome of producing Karam’s contemporary and meaningful script.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Review of the Reviewer: Fred Sternfeld

Thanks again for coming out to TrueNorth [to see BABY]and giving them their first review ever - literally. You are the first critic to attend one of their shows. New venues in town need the support of people like you to succeed.



‘BABY’ gets rebirth at True North Cultural Arts

“It’s March, snow covers a college campus. And miracles are taking place. Unseen, sperm are reaching eggs. Life is beginning.” Thus starts the story of ‘BABY The New Musical.’

‘BABY,’ which has been one of my favorite small musicals since I saw it in New York in 1983, is now having a rebirth at True North Cultural Arts Center. Rebirth since the Sybille Pearson, David Shire, Richard Maltby, Jr musical has been rewritten since its initial production.

The New York staging was met with favorable reviews including one which stated, “Baby is a modestly scaled entertainment that woos us with such basic commodities as warm feelings and a lovely score.” The show ran 241 performances. Having seen the show in the Great White Way venue, I thought it was physically misplaced. It should have been produced in an intimate off-Broadway theatre, a space similar to that of True North.

The story centers on three couples who live in a university town and are involved in the excitement and the problems that accompany the experience of conceiving and giving birth to a child. One of these couples is composed of two 20-year olds, Danny and Lizzie. Another duo is Alan and Arlene who have been married for 20 years and are empty-nesters with three grown children. The final pair is Nick and Pam, 30-year-olds who want a child, but have been having trouble conceiving. Each couple feels they are on the verge of great changes.

The authors thought the show should be reformatted and, in 2004, an altered version of the script, complete with new plot twists, a new song and some alterations in the order of the music, was presented at The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. The second-ever presentation of the new script is presently being staged at True North Cultural Center.

The new version transforms the musical from being a very pleasant experience, to becoming an emotional roller coaster. The additional song, “The End of Summer,” adds pathos not previously present.

The True North production, under the direction of Fred Sternfeld, is excellent. The six leads are extremely well cast. Their singing and acting are right on target.

Shane Joseph Siniscalchi, who has a nice singing voice, creates in Danny a real person who we see grow from an immature fun-centered musician into a soon-to-be responsible dad. His duet with the beautiful, sparkling-eyed, talented. American Idol semi-finalist Natalie Green (Lizzie), “What Could Be Better?” is delightful, filled with a clever interpretation and an intriguing musical arrangement. “I Chose Right” and “Two People in Love, are also show highlights. Green’s “The Story Goes On” is mesmerizing.

Bernadette Hisey (Arlene) and Michael Dempsey (Alan) match well as the older couple questioning whether life will be better with a new child. Their “And What If We Had Loved Like That,” is the emotional highlight. Each develops a clearly etched and textured character.

Maggie Stahl-Floriano (Pam) and David Robeano (Nick) are yet another balanced duo. Their scenes are filled with emotional highs and lows as they traverse the world of trying to conceive. “Romance” and ‘With You” are well sung and nicely textured.

Doug Bill does a nice shtick as the fertility Doctor with new contact lenses.

Rick Fortney’s musical direction adds much to the production, underscoring rather than competing with the cast. Bebe Weinberg Katz’s choreography also adds to the quality of the show.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The new concept for the musical ‘BABY’ adds to what has always been a fine musical theatre experience. Sternfeld’s direction and the superb cast make this a very special evening of theatre. Hopefully he will consider taking this cast to his Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory so east siders can experience this wonderful production.


‘EMMA’ enchants at Cleveland Play House

Jane Austen is considered one of the best authors of English language romantic comedies. Her book ‘EMMA’ which has been adapted by Cleveland Play House’s Artistic Director, Michael Bloom, into a play format, is now on stage at CPH.

Director Peter Amster, who so brilliantly staged last year’s CPH production of ‘PRIDE AND PREJUDICE,’ has again configured a charming version of a classic tale. He seems to have a magical touch with making good scripts visually attractive and purposeful.

Many know ‘EMMA’ by the author’s explanation of the plot’s title character: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will like much.” In that statement she introduces Emma Woodhouse, a beautiful, clever, spoiled and self-centered know-it-all. Emma is an expert on matchmaking, at least she thinks she is an expert. As we find out, she misses out on the most important matchmaking, her own! We watch as many of her schemes go awry, leading to both humor and awe.

‘EMMA’ is more character than plot driven. This made Bloom’s task of whittling down the interweavings of persons difficult. How can so many people each be developed so that the audience keeps them all in mind? Bloom nicely succeeds.

Characters abound. Besides Emma, there is Mr. George Knightley, a close friend of the lead character, and seemingly, her only critic. In reality, as we find out, he cares deeply for her. Then there is Frank Churchill, whom at one point Emma thinks she may love, and Jane Fairfax, a very beautiful, clever, and elegant woman, with the best of manners. She is the sole person that Emma envies. Next, Harriet Smith, a young friend of Emma's, is a very pretty but unsophisticated girl who is too easily led by others, especially Emma. And, the list goes on and on.

In order for this play to succeed, all of the characterizations need to be well honed. And, fortunately, in the CPH production, the performers are up to the task. Scene after scene is charming and witty. The movements and machinations are well formatted by Amster.

Though she could have made a more transparent transition from know-it-all to woman-in-love, Sarah Nealis is charming as Emma. The scene where she runs and leaps through the garden, squealing like a freed animal, while Mr. Knightley asks her father for her hand in marriage, is a delight.

Mark Montgomery is properly aloof as Knightley. Patrick Clear is wonderful as Emma’s hypochondriac father. This is one talented and meaningful cast.

Robert Mark Morgan’s classic set is beautiful and Kristine Kearney’s costumes are era perfect.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH’s ‘EMMA’ is a classic production of a classic book. Michael Bloom’s adaptation works well. Peter Amster’s direction is spot on. The acting is universally excellent. For anyone who appreciates good theatre, ‘EMMA’ is a must see.

Friday, March 12, 2010

'Til Death Do Us Part--Late Night Catechism

Yet another Catechism at the 14th Street Theatre

She’s back. Yes, a “Catholic” nun is again castigating, teaching the heathens, making attendees who are errant—chewing gum, wearing low cut blouses or short skirts, not showing respect, or are believers in Scientology--all pay the price. The “good” ones in the audience get religious “baseball” cards with pictures of various saints on them.

Created in 1993 by Vicki Quade & Maripat Donovan, ‘LATE NIGHT CATECHISM,’ as the first version was named, was based on their experiences growing up Catholic in Chicago and the stories and experiences they've heard through the years from friends and family members. Part catechism class, part stand-up routine, it has brought its nostalgic kick to every state in the U.S. as well as to Canada, the U.K., and Australia.

The present edition, entitled ‘TIL DEATH DO US PART—LATE NIGHT CATECHISM 3,’ takes those who have gone through Catholic schooling back to their days as students who need to be taught the “right way of leading their lives,” so they can get to heaven. Heaven, is defined by Sister as “A spectacular concert with the presence of God.” She slips in zingers such as referring to Lutheranism being “Catholic Light,” and telling the assembled that “There is no marriage in heaven, only happiness,” explaining her attendance at a nudist wedding, what is meant by Irish Alzheimer’s (“being drunk”), and showing surprise that a newly engaged couple met on That duo got the “privilege” of participating in a quiz which showed how incompatible they were.

The various Catechism productions star six different actresses. In the Cleveland showing, Mary Zentmyer does a nice job of ad-libbing, using audience responses and situations, to develop a humorous evening.

A show highlight centered on Sister taking on the Vice President of Theatricals at Playhouse Square, for wearing a short skirt and “Nancy Sinatra” boots after the PHS administrator made the mistake of volunteering an answer to one of Sister’s questions. She wound up on stage on several occasions, having to cover her exposed knees with a napkin while keeping score during the couples’ quiz section of the show. Sister also took on the public relations director of several local theatre and dance companies, who was obedient in giving answers to Sister’s probes. Who gets picked on other nights is up for grabs. If you want to be a victim of Sister’s taunts, sit up close or be silly enough to volunteer to answer one of her questions. If not, do as I did, and hide in the back section of the theatre, sit up straight and keep your mouth shut and hand down.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Those who went through Catholic schooling will certainly have flashbacks as they stand erect, have chewing gum put on their noses, rest against the blackboard with their noses in a chalked circle, and hear the sound of “the clicker.” Non-Catholics should also be amused.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Alex Berko appears with Verb Ballets

Alex Berko, the kid reviewer, to appear with Verb Ballets playing one of his compositions

Many of you know Alex Berko as the “kid reviewer” who accompanies me to theatre productions and gives his views on whether the play is kid friendly. What you may not know is that besides his theatre insights, he is an accomplished pianist and composer.

Alex will be one of the featured performers in Verb Ballets’ Fresh Inventions Series of New Works which pairs a composer with a choreographer who uses the members of Verb Ballets company to create a piece of dance.

Alex, who is 14 years old, fell in love with music very early and has been playing piano since the age of 4. He has had many musical accomplishments throughout the years. Alex was awarded 1st place in the 2009 Scholastic Composer’s Contest. He was selected as a young composer (2009) and as a performer (2008) for the Cleveland Composer’s Guild project, “Creativity; Learning through Experience.” Alex was chosen from over 100 students to receive the Samantha Richardson Award for outstanding leadership and musicianship at Orchard Middle School (Solon, OH). He was selected to train and perform with the Cleveland Chamber Music Camp in 2008. Alex has received consistent Superior ratings in the National Federation of Music Clubs annual piano competition. He currently studies composition with Dr. Stephen Stanziano, piano with Mrs. Sandra Shapiro (Cleveland Institute of Music, Cleveland, OH), and music theory with Mrs. Monica Houghton (Cleveland Institute of Music, Cleveland, OH). An honor roll student, Alex was a member of the Solon Middle School soccer team last fall.

Alex will be appearing on stage, playing his composition, Volcano Rhapsody.

Choreographers include Richard Dickinson, Kay Eichman, Diane Gray, Terence Greene, Lisa K. Lock, Troy McCarty, and Sara Whale. Besides Alex, the other composers are Larry Baker, Loris Chobanian, Ty Alan Emerson, Richard Rinehart, Nicholas Underhill, and Eric Ziolek.

The program will be presented at the Cleveland Public Theatre in the Gordon Square Theatre from April 8 to the 11th. CPT is located at 6415 Detroit Avenue in Cleveland. Performances are at 7 p.m. on the 8, 9 and 10 and at 3 p.m. on the 11th. Tickets, which are $10 on the 8th, and $21 on the other dates ($2 discount for students and seniors), may be obtained by calling 216-631-2727 or going on-line to