Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Girl's Guide to Coffee

Cleveland playwright’s A GIRL’S GUIDE TO COFFEE delights at Actors’ Summit

Eric Coble, the author of A GIRL’S GUIDE TO COFFEE, which is getting its world premiere at Actors’ Summit, is on a roll. Next month his new play, VELOCITY OF AUTUMN, which will star Dorothy Silver, the grand dame of Cleveland theatre, will be performed at Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood.

Coble has the ability to take a minor incident and translate it into an amusing, yet meaningful theatrical experience. This is the case, again, with A GIRL’S GUIDE TO COFFEE.

In A GIRL’S GUIDE TO COFFEE, we find a java barista who’s trying to figure out her path in life. Twenty-two years old Alex has a degree in biology, seems happy without roots, and is wiling her time as the queen of lattes at the Steamed Bean. Her specialty is a “mandala,” which is a latte with a sacred Buddhist diagram created in the steamed milk. She can also do portraits and other images in this temporary art form. Temporary, as it is soon consumed and disappears.

She’s good, but, as she confides to the audience in one of her many talks to her listeners, she isn’t “as good as Lucy,” whoever that is. She’s good enough, however, that, according to Danny, her boss, one of her cups "brought one guy back from the dead.” She’s so good that Danny wants to enter her in the international barista competition in Barcelona, Spain.

In spite of the nagging by her parents, Alex’s plan for life is to have no plan at all. But into her life accidentally flows handsome, artist and some-time repairman, Christopher, who seems, in his subtle, and often bumbling way, to have other ideas for Alex’s existence.

Coble obviously has spent a lot of time hanging around coffee shops. His knowledge of the kinds and recipes for various drinks is amazing. In one long speech, Alex relates so many that it becomes overwhelming to realize that that many creations can be conceived by using one of the three types of beans available and some hot milk.

The play is filled with clever put downs of Starbucks (“the cockroach of the coffee world”), pointed criticism of consumerism, and the lack of clear focus in this text-addicted age.

The Actors’ Summit production, under the direction of Constance Thackaberry, is nicely paced, most of the characterizations well textured, and the clever lines correctly pointed for humor.

Pretty Margo Chervony is character right as Alex, the Barista Extraordinaire. She has a nice touch with humor, and interplays well the other characters. Rachel Gehlert, as Alex’s roommate and Barista Better-Than-Ordinaire, has some great comedy moments, as she gives obsession and hyperactivity, a new meaning. Frank Jackman is fun as the Owner of the Steamed Bean. Laura Stitt, as Alex’s Mother, does all those “mom” things that make her real. As Alex’s Father, Alex J. Nine, is fine in most scenes, but lacks the emotional presence needed for the segment when his wife’s life is in danger. Handsome Mark Leach displays the right degree of social uneasiness that adds a special quality to his Christopher, A Particular Customer, who seemingly is going to help Alex find a course of action for her life.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: A GIRL’S GUIDE TO COFFEE is a delightful evening of theatre that allows for a pleasant escape from the world of reality, adds knowledge to most people’s awareness of lattes, and showcases some pitfalls of life without a plan.

Monday, February 27, 2012


MIDDLETOWN, a fine absurdist comedy at Dobama

MIDDLETOWN, Will Eno’s absurdist comedy, has been characterized as, “a piece that's a bit like Thornton Wilder's Our Town if it had been penned by Dr. Seuss and edited by Samuel Beckett.” It’s a perfect description.

This is a profoundly wise script. In fact, that is probably why this isn’t a play for everyone. As a woman behind me said to her companion at intermission, “I don’t understand this.” They walked out of the theatre and didn’t come back for the second act.

Eno is not your run-of-the mill writer. He knows language well. He uses language well. He wrings meanings out of phrases that, on the surface, appear too abstract for understanding. His explanation of the parallel between people and rocks is far too complex to discuss here, but as two of the characters talk, and one makes a sculpture piece out of pieces of rocks, the concept becomes crystal clear.

To grasp Eno’s flow, you have to know the characters. There’s a quixotic-like librarian, a very confused handyman in search of the purpose in life, a pregnant young wife whose husband is like the invisible man, a thoughtful doctor, a well-meaning nurse, an over-compensating town cop, a former con who is a mechanic, a landscaper, and a town guide who seems to know nothing about the town.

As in OUR TOWN, the days of the play are not unusual days. they are ordinary, like the lives of most people. The existences of the people of MIDDLETOWN all intersect, like the streets on the map on the floor of the theatre, in random, yet patterned ways. Their journey takes them from the public library to outer space, from their homes to the hospital.

Eno, in the words of his characters, asks, “How does this whole thing [life] work?” and “What do you want out of life?”

MIDDLETOWN inhabits empty space, and, like many absurdist plays, asks why we exist, while showing how out-of-kilter life really is. There is only the asking of questions, not the giving of answers.

Dobama’s production, under the focused direction of Joel Hammer, wrings all it can out of the script. The cast is universally fine, not a weak actor in the bunch.

As the Public Speaker, Robert Hawkes, like the stage manger in OUR TOWN, explains to us the rules of engagement between the audience and the actors, in a long but very funny opening speech. He pops in again as a ground control NASA director, a man, and a doctor. This blending of characters is the nature of the play. As in life, most people are interchangeable.

Jason Markouc, the obsessive town cop with some anger issues, Fabio Polanco, the mechanic who borders on being mad, Emily Demko as the ineffective town guide, Maryann Elder as a female tourist and female doctor, and Mark Mayo as a landscaper, are all character correct.

Carly Germany, as Mrs. Swanson, a town newcomer and pregnant mom, develops a meaningful characterization. Tom Woodward, as a confused, frustrated, self-doubting handy man, is excellent, as is Laura Starnik, the town librarian, who has her thumb on the pulse of MIDDLETOWN.

Laura Carlson’s creative scenic design works well, as does the lighting design by Marcus Dana and the sound design of Richard Ingraham.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you don’t like to think, MIDDLETOWN may not be a play for you. But, for anyone willing to put in a little effort, this thought provoking absurdist comedy, is your thing.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Thought provoking ANTELBELLUM at Cleveland Public Theatre

In 1939, Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy in GONE WITH THE WIND. She was also the first African American to be an invited guest to attend the Oscars. Ironically, she was required to sit alone at the back of the Cocoanut Grove, the site of the award ceremonies, a far distance from the white performers in the movie.

Berlin in the 1930s was a hotbed of decadence. There were over 160 gay and lesbian bars and nightclubs. The use of drugs, prostitution, cross dressing and other lifestyle choices were in vogue before the rise of the Nazis.

It is against these two backdrops that Robert O’Hara’s ANTEBELLUM, which is getting its regional premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre, is set.

The play is part mystery, part romance, and an adventure that bridges together religion and race in a time of hatred. Its underpinning is expressed in the director’s notes in the program: “As I see [U. S.] conservative extremists gaining momentum, I often have the same fear that Gabriel shares in the play, ‘The majority remains quiet..And it is the minority…which strikes the match.’”

We watch as the scenes switch back and forth between a Southern plantation, a Berlin cabaret, and a concentration camp. We find Gabriel, a Black American cabaret singer as he transitions from entertainer and the lover of a Jewish Southern American male (Ariel Roca) who is in Berlin “on business,” to becoming a companion to a Nazi officer (Oskar von Schleicher).

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, there is much decadence surrounding the world premiere of the movie GONE WITH THE WIND. Into the southern setting steps Edna, who arrives unexpectedly at the home of Ariel and Sarah Roca. Yes, the same Ariel that we saw in Berlin. Why is Edna there? What havoc will her appearance cause? Time will tell, and the results are shocking and illuminating.

O’Hara’s script is well crafted, but a bit melodramatic. It’s appropriately written in both the genre of the overdone romance movies of the 30s, combined with mystery approaches of the films of that same era.

The CPT production, under the direction of Beth Wood, generally works. Staged in a runway theatre configuration, with the audience on both sides of the stage, set up in the middle of the Gordon Square Theatre, Wood’s stage design allows for easy flow between various settings and keeps the audience close to the action. The major flaw is that the theatre’s high ceiling and hard walls causes echoes and difficulty in clearly hearing the words. The backs of the performers are constantly turned away from one part of the audience or the other. The actors make straight line stage crosses, rather than the traditional figure-8 eights used for this type of staging, which would have opened them to the audience. This, plus the southern drawls and German-American accents, makes clear hearing problematic.

Nicholas Sweeney as Gabriel, the cabaret singer, effectively develops his tightrope walking roll, moving from show boy, to lover, to medical experiment, with clarity. Dana Hart is properly both horrific and tender as the German commandant, who acts against the principles of the theories of the master race with his love for the Black, gay Gabriel. Laurel Hoffman clearly carries the audience on a journey asking whether she is a ditz, crazy or a manipulator as Sarah, the southern belle and unfulfilled convenience wife of Ariel. Mark Rabant is believable as the conflicted Ariel.

Only Audrey Lovy, as Edna, fails to develop a real character. She stays on the performance surface, using forced physical movements and unmotivated vocal idea development. Lovy doesn’t make us understand her real torment. The program credited-acting coach needed to work on this.

Sarah’s GONE WITH THE WIND gown, as created by Melanie Boeman, is one of the season’s costume highlights.

Capsule judgement: ANTEBLELLUM is a production well worth seeing. It is a thought provoking piece, which gets a very good production at CPT.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

2012 Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a season for Celebration

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Stratford Festival of Canada. Want to get away this spring, summer or fall? Drive to Canada for great theatre, good food, and nice scenery.

This season’s productions are:
•MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (A Shakespeare romp of deception which finds Claudio wooing his beloved Hero, and his friend Benedick and Hero’s cousin, Beatrice, trading insults in their merry war of mutual disdain.)
•THE MATCHMAKER (Thornton Wilder’s play finds matchmaker, Dolly Levi, making her own plans to hook wealthy merchant Horace Vandergelder. It’s HELLO DOLLY without music.)
•42TH STREET (Warren and Dubin’s toe-tapping musical about how a chorus girl becomes a star.)
•HENRY V (Shakespeare’s story of civil strife in which the new British monarch decides to enforce his claim to the throne of France.)
•THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE (Gilbert and Sullivan’s operatic romp about soft-hearted pirates.)
•YOU’RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN (Clark Gesner’s delightful musical takes on the Peanuts comic strip characters.)
•A WORD OR TWO (Christopher Plummer’s one-man show which takes the audience on an autobiographical journey through the literature that stirs his imagination.)
•CYMBELINE (Shakespeare’s adventure which finds Imogen, the daughter of King Cymbeline, trying to win back the man she loves.);
• WANDERLUST (Panych and Norman’s musical about Robert Service and his dreams to escape to a new life in the Great North.)
•ELEKTRA (Sophocles’ tale of Electktra’s attempt to avenge her father’s death.)
• MACHOMER (One of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies meets one of TV’s most popular families in this comic tour-de-force.)
•HIRSCH (A one-person production staring John Hirsch as a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who finds refuge in Canada.)
•THE BEST BROTHERS (A tale of two brothers who learn to understand each other after the death of their mother.)
•THE WAR OF 1812 (The history of the Village of the Small Huts: 1812-1815.)

Besides their regularly scheduled plays, the Festival offers stage-side chats, the Celebrated Writers Series, Night Music, Table Talks, pre-show lectures, lobby talks, public lectures, the teaching Shakespeare School and The Teachers’ Conference.

What’s the lodging like? Hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts abound to fit any wallet. I like a b & b. You get to meet new people and there is a nice friendly feel of being more than a guest. My favorite is the Avery House (www.averyhouse.com).

Hungry? For moderate cost and high quality, try The Annex Cafe (38 Albert Street). Cleveland theatre legends Dorothy and Reuben Silver, who are Stratford regulars, recommend The Waterlot Restaurant and Inn (17 Huron Street behind the Royal Bank) in New Hamburg, which is about 20 minutes away (www.waterlot.com).

Packages can be arranged by www.theatrevacations.com. Stratford Escapes (theatrevacations.com), is an efficient way to make reservations. For individual tickets call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to www.stratfordfestival.ca.

Helpful hints: The ride from Cleveland is about six hours through Buffalo. Go on-line to the festival to get directions. The routings offered by AAA and Yahoo maps are confusing and miles longer. To satisfy border requirements carry your passport. Nothing else will do.

Go to Stratford, Canada! Find out what lovely hosts Canadians are, and see some great theatre!

Eric Coble: prolific playwright

Spotlight on Eric Coble, Cleveland’s prolific playwright!

He’s been called “A Playwright to Watch.” His writing has been praised as, “astute portraits [that] hit home with rib-tickling acuity.” His work has been termed, “a tour-de-force.” He’s been summarized as “the most astonishingly accurate—eye and ear on society and its foibles--of any current writer.” Who is this? Eric Coble, the present day Cleveland area’s most prolific stage writer. And, according to Coble, he owes it all to his children!

Coble, who was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, raised on the Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado, and has an MFA in Acting from Ohio University, had his sights set on performing on stage. But, when he became a stay-at-home dad, he figured the casting agents weren’t going to let him tryout in his living room, and he couldn’t ask the audiences to join him in his kitchen for a family dinner, so he went down a different path.

Coble decided that he could use his undergraduate degree in English, the imagination that allowed him to be a cartoonist, and his curiosity in the logical and illogical view of current events, to spin tales for stage, radio and books. He set up a schedule around his kids…”they go off to school, I go to my work of writing, they come home, I take off my professional hat and put on my dad hat.” The results have been astonishing. From 1994 until today, there are over 100 works that have been produced.

In the next two months, several plays will be transformed from page to stage in the local area. A GIRL’S GUIDE TO COFFEE, which features a barista whose creations elevate the humble bean to unknown heights, will be produced at Actor’s Summit in Akron. It’s part of his “The Alexandra Plays,” a trilogy concerning commitment, freedom, and how a person identifies him/herself. Another of the series, VELOCITY OF AUTUMN, will be performed at Beck Center for the Arts in Lakewood. It will star Dorothy Silver, the grand dame of Cleveland theatre, as an elderly woman with a wicked sense of humor, who finds herself in physical decline.

Where do the ideas come from? Coble admits he is addicted to the media and when he reads on-line and watches TV, he starts asking who and how would someone be affected by those instances. “An idea just gestates. Sometimes it takes five to six years. I just let it sit. Come back to it.” “You can’t force a good play and when it’s time to be, it will be.” He indicates that he doesn’t have any half finished plays stuffed in a drawer. Once he starts, he finishes. Fortunately, Coble states, “I don’t get writer’s block.”

Surprisingly in this electronic age, Coble hand writes his creations. The scripts are transferred to computer, but the #2 pencil, is his tool of choice.

He pays attention to the readings and early productions of a show and makes adjustments after the production. “You see something before an audience that you don’t see until the words take life.”

An Emmy nominee, the recipient of the American Alliance for Theatre and Education Distinguished Play Award for Best Adaptation, the winner of the AT&T Onstage Award, and the Cleveland Arts Prize, Coble is a member of the Cleveland Play House Playwright’s Unit. The purpose of the group is to critique each other’s work in order to aid members to produce a better product. He depends on these writers and a select group of others to give him criticism that helps develop the final product.

Coble is a full-time playwright, stay-at-home dad, a member of the Cleveland-University Heights Board of Education, and obviously a talented writer of plays, media scripts and books.

His play BRIGHT IDEAS, which premiered at the Cleveland Play House and went on to much off-Broadway praise, may well be a way of describing Coble. He’s full of bright ideas, that seem to give birth to bright audience-pleasing works.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Anyone Can Whistle

Dan Folino and Katherine DeBoer make ANYONE CAN WHISTLE worth seeing

When Martin Friedman, Artistic Director of The Lakeland Civic Theatre, announced he was staging Stephen Sondheim’s ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, there were some raised eyebrows in the theatre community. Friedman is a Sondheimophile. He knows the master’s works well. Why would he even adventure into Whistle land, which is fraught with land mines?

Originally entitled, THE NATIVES ARE RESTLESS, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE was a resounding flop on Broadway. Classified as the first absurdist musical, it lasted just thirteen previews and nine performances in spite of a cast that included Angela Lansbury and Lee Remick.

The show was seemingly doomed from the start. It took thirty-three backers’ auditions to raise the money. The lead supporting male had a heart attack, one of the dancers fell into the orchestra pit and died, Angela Lansbury, in her first musical production, was so unhappy with her performance that they considered replacing her. The three act format, the last major musical written in this style, was too long and whacking away at it resulted in some of the best songs being cut. This is not the stuff hit musicals are made of.

Sondheim, himself, in his book FINISHING THE HAT, COLLECTED LYRICS (1954-1981) WITH ATTENDANT COMMENTS, PRINCIPLES, HERESIES, GRUDGES, WHINES AND ANECDOTES states, “The show suffered a number of indignities during the pre-Broadway tour in Philadelphia. The fault was not in our stars but in ourselves” (music and lyrics by Sondheim, book by Arthur Laurents).

The show takes place in a small American town, which is a financial and physical wreck because its manufacturing base is a plant that makes a product which never wears out, and is the home of the Cookie Jar, an insane asylum. Cora Hoover Hooper, the town’s mayor and owner of the plant, comes up with a scheme to create a fake Lourdes-like miracle fountain. A nurse (Fay Apple) who covers up her identity by using a French accent and a red wig, a psycho (J. Bowden Hapgood)who is misidentified as Cookie Jar’s new assistant director, and three manipulating town employees create pandemonium.

The music is exceptional. Actually, some reviewers, in retrospect, call it Sondheim at his best. The album has a strong cult following and if the book was eliminated and the songs just sung, the choral concert might well have been a hit. Songs include There Won’t be Trumpets, Anyone Can Whistle, Everybody Says Don’t, and With So Little To Be Sure Of.

Lakeland’s production, under Friedman’s direction, is quite uneven. The leads are wonderful. Dan Folino, who left the area several years ago to take a position at Barter Theatre in Virginia, is back, and local theatre goers cheer his return. Folino has proven over and over that whether it’s comedy, drama or musicals, he is superb. His strong singing voice, ability to create real characters and dancing ability all add up to make his portrayal of Hapwood, a show highlight. Katherine DeBoer is fine as nurse Fay Apple. Good voice and a nice touch with the quirky. The duo has wonderful chemistry together.

Voluptuous Amiee Collier doesn’t quite convince as the mayor, but her singing and seduction scenes are well done.

The rest of the cast tries hard, but they don’t have a lot to work with and don’t always seem to understand how to create farce.

Larry Goodpaster does a nice job with the orchestra, supporting, rather than drowning out the singers. Trad Burns set design and lighting work well. Jennifer Justice’s choreography is fairly pedestrian. There needed to be more bizarre, let-loose joy from the cookies.

Capsule judgement: ANYONE CAN WHISTLE is a weak script which gets an acceptable production at Lakeland. It’s worth going just to experience Dan Folino and Katherine DeBoer in action.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Radio Golf

RADIO GOLF, Cleveland Play House’s Black History month production

Black history month means an explosion of theatre offerings in this multi-racial city. Ensemble has already performed A SONG FOR CORETTA and LOWER NINTH. Karamu staged THE BLUEST EYE, and though it will be beyond February they will stage GEM OF THE OCEAN from May 11-June 3. East Cleveland Theater is staging Wilson’s FENCES February 11-March 4, True North Cultural Arts will present THE PIANO LESSON from February 17-March 4 and Cuyahoga County Community College stages TWO TRAINS RUNNING at its Metro campus from March 29-April 7. The latter four scripts were written by August Wilson, as is the Cleveland Play House’s present production, RADIO GOLF.

RADIO GOLF is a seminal script. It was Wilson’s last work. He died in 2005, the year the play was published. It is the final chapter in his ten-play cycle which intended to chronicle African-American life in the 20th century.

The story centers around Harmond Wilks, a well-educated, wealthy real estate broker. He and Roosevelt Hicks want to develop the blighted Hill District in Pittsburgh. Wilks is also a candidate for the mayor of the Steel City. Problems arise when Wilks discovers that a house in the area was acquired illegally. Wilks attempts to buy the property from Old Joe, the tax delinquent owner, who is a vagrant with a questionable past, but Old Joe won’t sell. He has the backing of Sterling Johnson, a construction worker. Wilks decides to build around the house, much to the frustration of his partner, who has worked out a deal with a white developer to be his “black face” in several deals, including buying a radio station. On the day that the house is to be demolished, Hicks and Wilks have a falling out and Wilks goes to participate in a rally to stop the demolition, thus giving up his dreams of wealth, his political future, and possibly his wife.

RADIO GOLF is a true final play in the series, as it includes references and issues that Wilson discussed in earlier works. It centers on the question of what it means to be African America. The play asks whether it is possible for black culture to be preserved as it is integrated into mainstream white society.

Wilson focuses his vision on reality. He opens the issue of the differences in being a “negra” and a “nigger.” He asks whether there is a dissimilarity between the white’s and black’s definition of ethics and morality. He examines if progress is really good for black Americans. He uses the golf game to illustrate the alterations taking place in the African American community as they transfer from being denied privileges at golf courses, into playing the white man’s game.

The play won the New York Critic’s 2007 new play award.

CPH’s production, under the direction of Lou Bellamy, is generally effective. It’s long, especially the first act, which tends to get too caught up in exposition, thus slowing down the idea development.

Abdul Salaam El Razzac is both poignant and delightful as Old Joe. When he is present, he controls the stage with subtlety and character underplay. Terry Bellamy, as Sterling, develops a clear character as an advocate for Old Joe and a conscious for Harmond. David Alan Anderson is properly manipulative and smarmy as Roosevelt. He clearly illustrates he is out for Roosevelt, and Roosevelt, alone. Austene Van is properly aloof and self-centered as Mame Wilks, Harmond’s wife.

James Craven has the difficult job of developing a realistic Harmond. He does an excellent job early on. At the end, however, he starts screaming and swallowing his words. His breakdown would have been more effective with more intense internal emotion and less unbridled hysteria.

Vicki Smith’s set design, Karen Perry’s costumes, Don Darnutzer’s lighting design and James Swonger’s sound design all help enhance the production.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: RADIO GOLF, the last play in August Wilson’s monumental 10 play cycle, gets a very good, but not a great production at the Cleveland Play House.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Theatre calendar, Feb-March '12

Go to the theatre--a list of late winter theatre offerings

Here’s a partial list of what’s on the boards for March and April in some of the Cleveland area theatres.

Blank Canvas Theatre
1305 West 78th Street (78th Street Studios)
March 16th- April 1st (Friday-Sunday performances)
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
The classic tale of George and Lennie, two displaced migrant ranch workers during the Great Depression.
For information and tickets: www.blankcanvastheatre.com
Actor’s Summit
Tickets” 330-374-7568
103 High Street, Sixth Floor, Akron
February 23-March 11
Cleveland Playwright Eric Coble’s take on a barista whose creations elevate the humble bean to unknown heights.

March 29-April 22
Oscar Wilde’s laugh filled comedy of manners that gave the world malapropisms and what it’s like to form an alliance with a handbag.
The Liminis 2438 Scranton Rd. Cleveland
For tickets: 216-687-0074
March 16-April 17
Mac Wellman’s portrait of America adrift. A sinister stranger announces what could be the play’s credo: “What’s real has no name. None. Whatever!”
2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights
Tickets: 216-321-2930 or www.ensemble-theatre.org
DESTROYING THE NIGHT by Sasha Thackaberry
March 9, 15, 24, 30 @8 18@2 APRIL 1 @4
A modern reinvention of the myth of Persephone.

DANCING WITH N.E.D.—Tyler Whidden
March 8, 17, 23, 29 @ 8 March 11@2 April 1 @ 7
Claire has big plans for her 55th birthday, if only Peter would stop being a party pooper.

March 10, 16, 22 and 31 @8 March 25@2 April 1 @ 2
It’s the early ‘60s, an idyllic time to be a co-ed on the campus of a prestigious college. For roommates Sally and Nan ambition, creativity and a professional tryst signals the end of innocence.
Tickets: (216) 241 6000 www.clevelandplayhouse.com
February 10-March 4—Allen Theatre
August Wilson’s last play investigates how a successful and idealistic entrepreneur aspires to become a city’s first black mayor. It’s the final chapter in his unprecedented 10-play cycle chronicling African-American life in the 20th century.
March 16-April 8—Allen Theatre
Master American painter Mark Rothko has just landed the biggest commission in the history of modern art; but, when his young assistant gains the confidence to challenge him, Rothko faces the possibility that his crowning achievement could also be his undoing.
The Winter's Tale
March 7-17--Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre @The Allen Theatre
(A production of the CWRU/CPH MFA program)
William Shakespeare
’s epic in which King Leontes is consumed with jealousy, believing his pregnant wife Hermione has been having an affair with his childhood friend King Polixenes. He orders one be poisoned, another imprisoned and the baby exiled. What will become of the child as her true origins are revealed?
Tickets: (216) 241-6000 or www.playhousesquare.org


February 28 - March 11, 2012
--Palace Theatre
From the underground dance clubs of 1950s Memphis, Tennessee, comes a hot new Broadway musical that bursts off the stage with explosive dancing, irresistible songs and a thrilling tale of fame and forbidden love.

April 10-22—April 10-22—Palace Theatre
The weird and wonderful family leaps off the TV screen and printed page and comes to devilish life in song and dance.
Tickets: 216-241-6000 or www.greatlakestheater.org
March 9-25
Agatha Christie’s murder mystery masterpiece which examines what happens when a group of strangers is stranded in a guest house during a snowstorm and discovers that a murderer is in their midst. Whodunnit?
Ticket: 216-932-33906 or www.dobama.org
February 24-March 18
MIDDLETOWN is Will Eno’s moving and funny new play exploring the universe of a small American town.
Tickets: www.beckcenter.org or call216-521-2540 X10
March 23-April 29 (no performances on April 6-8)
The grand dame of Cleveland theatre, Dorothy Silver, portrays Lillian, an elderly woman with a wicked sense of humor, in this regional premiere of Eric Coble’s new script.
Cleveland Public Theatre
Tickets: 216-631-2727 or www.cptonline.org
 by Robert O’Hara
February 23 - March 10
Two stories merge as a love affair between two men, one Jewish and the other African-American, bridges time, space and gender.

Darwinii: The Comeuppance of Man 
by Glen Berger

March 1 - March 17
Back by popular demand!
 Cristobal confesses to stealing the original manuscripts of Charles Darwin from rare book libraries around the world.

Poor Little Lulu
 conceived & directed by Matthew Earnest
March 8 - March 24
Chronicles the exploits of Lulu - a sexual outlaw in a society riven by lust and greed - who is tossed like a frisbee from man to man.

Rusted Heart Broadcast
 conceived and Directed by Raymond Bobgan
March 22 - March 24
This work-in-progress is about staying awake, surviving the apocalypse and championing one's own home.

Opera Per Tutti
March 23 - March 25
Cleveland's newest professional opera company is continuing its mission of "opera for all."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Dracula and Oher Love Stories

Ohio Dance Theatre brings love to The Breen Center

When the Cleveland San Jose Ballet left town, it left a void. There appeared to be no regularly performing company that presented ballet. Yes, touring companies came in. Raymond Rodriguez and Karen Gabay’s Point of Departure popped up on occasion and gave hope for a return of a company that would showcase ballet.

What was overlooked was Artistic Director Denise Gula and her Ohio Dance Theatre, housed in Oberlin. Regularly appearing at Lorain County Community College, where Gula was the school’s first dance instructor, and making some west side of Cuyahoga county performances, the company brings a unique presence to local stages when it performs. Many of its numbers are ballet. Yes, pointe shoes, classic lifts and story telling ballet.

In their latest appearance in the Cleveland area, appearing at the Breen Center, the company performed to a nearly full-house on a snowy February 10 evening. The balanced program touched on various types of love….love of country, dreamy love, passionate love, obsessive love.

A new work, THE DREAM, choreographed by Lisa Lock, found the red, black and white costumed dancers moving to Ekectrocutango and Elecrotango. Staged with contemporary ballet movements, a dreamer and her dream characters created a fine parallel to the Latin moods and rhythms.

CARMEN, danced to the sensual music of Georges Bizet, was a fast paced, melodramatic vision created by Gula. It featured rapid moves, nice lifts and carries, and a variance from the usual CARMEN done with capes and bullfighting. The costuming worked well, except one can only wonder why Morgan Stinnet (Jose) was dressed in black chino pants, which was out of character and seemed to cut off his free flowing movements throughout the evening.

An excerpt from DRACULA, with music by John Pryce-Jones/Alfred Schnittke,

found the dancers performing in a gated-cemetery complete with gravestones and mysterious lighting. It was somber, dramatic and well fit the foreboding music. Kyle Primous was a visually imposing Dracula and Juliana Freude was a tempting tidbit for the bloodthirsty being.

BEYOND COURAGE was a tribute to World War II veterans, some of whom gave their lives while others suffered emotional scars, for love of country.

Set to video footage from composer Stephen Melillo’s THAT WE MIGHT LIVE, THEN, NOW. FOREVER., a documentary in music, the performance piece showed the battles of Bataan and Corregidor. The battle which lasted 3 years, 8 months and 25 days, resulted in 31,095 people losing their lives. Visual images and vocal transcriptions were seen and heard as the dancers moved.

A little overly long, BEYOND COURAGE was filled with melodrama and flag waving. The first part was powerful, but after an oral letter quoting segment, the effect wore off as more and more emphasis was placed on visuals and less on dancing.

The program was nicely balanced by two impressive interludes of music performed by the Credo String Quintet, a product of the Oberlin Conservatory’s Chamber Music Program.

Capsule judgement: Ohio Dance Theatre’s DRACULA AND OTHER LOVE STORIES was a nice balanced program of music, ballet and contemporary dance.

Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating, & Marriage

Miss Abigail’s feeble attempt to give advice now on stage at 14th Street Theatre

The 14th Street Theatre, nestled between such big venue spots as the Hanna Theatre and the major venues on Euclid Avenue, has a unique place in Cleveland theatrical presentations. It’s where the “little” acts go to play. We’ve had a nun teaching us the catechism, a cross-dresser talking us into buying Tupperware, and now an “expert” spewing out facts from books about dating, mating and marriage while being stalked by her on-stage Hispanic assistant.

The scripted/adlibbed presentation is dependent upon a dynamic and quirky presence as Miss Abigail, and a fun and sexy male assistant named Paco. Laurie Birmingham, who plays Abby, appears to be a nice woman, but isn’t a forceful presence. She doesn’t have the adlibbing ability to compensate for the poorly written script. Gabriel Gutierrez is quite charming, but lacks naturalness and the stud factor. Their interactions lack meaningful spontaneity. It’s almost like they are reading from prompt cards, and not doing that well.

Based on the ideas of real-life advice columnist and blogger, Abigail Grotke, the concept is to get the audience to enjoy themselves and share their views, participate from their seats and on stage, and hear many theories about dating, mating and marriage. They were also asked to fill out cards which were to be used to flesh out the script. Only a couple were used, and those seemed like planted questions.

Having an audience that is sloshed, willing to be played with, and can be excited by mildly sexual innuendoes, helps. Unfortunately the small opening night crowd, many of whom were woman out for a night on the town, weren’t quite drunk and raucous enough to help much.

There were “prizes” for participation including a stick of gum and cards with “Miss Abigail’s 10 Commandments for Couples,” “Miss Abigail’s ask the looking glass!,” and The Miss Abigail Dldow.” These are inscribed with such sage wisdom as: “Men, always greet her with a kiss, especially when other people are present,” “Is my hair brushed?,” “Order some Chinese food,” and “When in doubt get counseling.”

The set, which arrived so late that the original opening night performance had to be cancelled, consisted of some old couches, a poorly painted cloth backdrop, and a ton of books, from which Miss Abigail read the quotes of experts. This is a low cost tour, with seemingly low level expectations. One can only wonder what the producers were thinking when they decided to send it on the road.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The show’s websites list “reviews” from viewers as they exited the show. One person wrote what turns out to be my view of the show: “The idea was good but script was so bad that I couldn't really laugh even though I wanted to.”

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Groundworks Dancetheater 2/12

Groundworks presents compelling program at The Breen Center

David Shimotakahara’s Groundworks DanceTheater has received lots of awards and recognitions. They are well deserved. The artistic director and the company’s major choreographer continues to find fine dancers who are well-trained to continue the company’s tradition of having performers who are proficient, have fine body control, and can consistently perform at a high level. When one dancer leaves, he or she is replaced by another of equal or higher quality.

Though he didn’t choreograph a single piece in the company’s latest program

at the Breen Center, Shimotakahara’s perfectionist stamp was all over the performances.

Amy Miller, a former Groundworks dancer and presently the group’s Artistic Associate, left the area to move to New York, but returns to choreograph. Her VALENCE, was all Miller. Strong, powerful, controlled. The dancers moved with precision to a cacophony of sounds. The piece portrayed the capacity of one person or thing to react with or affect another. Like exploding atoms, the dancers ran, interacted and moved and affected each other. The two art forms of music and dance melded into a coherent purposeful piece. Dennis Dugan’s lighting well accented the actions.

CoDa, by Israeli choreographer Ronen Koresh, received its world premiere. It was danced to a variety of musical sounds and selections from such sources as Steppe, Seuls au monde and Invités sur la terre. Combining visual images from both Sephardic and Ashkenazy heritages, with moves of Hasidic and contemporary Israel, there was a heartiness, freshness and compelling presence to the dancing.

No story was told. Instead, it was a series of kinetic images that grab and hold an audience and was greeted by prolonged applause.

HINDSIGHT by Choreographer Lynn Taylor-Corbett concluded the exciting evening. Dancing to such songs as I’ll Stand By You, Hymn to Her, Rosalee, and Love’s A Mystery, the six-part piece, well used the dancers to create visual images that fit the music and created fine illusions.

Capsule judgement: Bravos to Felice Bagley, Sarah Perrett, Kathryn Taylor, Damien Highfield and Gary Lenington who effectively danced every number in the concert. Their abilities, along with fine choreography, made this a special evening of dance.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Bluest Eye

Morrison play highlights Black History month at Karamu

At the start of the Karamu production of THE BLUEST EYE we hear the voice of Shirley Temple singing. Yes, Shirley Temple, the cute Caucasian child movie star with the curly blond hair and bright blue eyes. That song harbors what is to come.

Toni Morrison, the author of the book, THE BLUEST EYE, which was the basis of the play by the same name, is a Nobel Prize winner. She was brought up in Lorain, Ohio, a blue collar city to the west of Cleveland, a city mainly populated by African Americans, Puerto Ricans and Hispanics who worked, for many years, in the steel mills, ship building yards, and auto plants. A city which in 1940, the year of the play, was still segregated. Where Lakeview Park, a city facility on the shores of Lake Erie, banned blacks.

THE BLUEST EYE was Morrison’s first book. It was written in 1970 while Morrison was teaching at Howard University. Ironically, because the novel deals with racism, incest and child molestation, there have been numerous attempts to ban it from schools and libraries. In the 1980s, when I served on the Board of Education in Elyria, a neighboring community to Lorain, a group of ministers had this title on the list of books it wanted to be eliminated from the school curriculum.

The story centers on one tragic year in the life of a young black girl. We find eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove verbally abused and the victim of childhood incest. She is continually being told and reminded by her mother of what an “ugly” girl she is. She blames her horrible existence on her dark skin and brown eyes. If only she could have blue eyes, like Shirley Temple, love would follow. For part of that year she lives with a neighborhood family whose two daughters, Claudia and Frieda, tried to make a difference in her life, but the scars were just too deep.

In the afterword to a 1994 edition of the novel, Morrison said, “The book, doesn't effectively handle the silence at its center: the void that is Pecola's 'unbeing.'”

Lydia Diamond, who adapted the novel into a play format, has helped flesh out some of the void by adding monologues for Pecola that make it clear how desperate she is for a warm and kind touch, a voice of encouragement. To a degree, this makes Pecola’s final flight into insanity much clearer.

Karamu’s production, under the understanding direction of Fred Sternfeld, basically gets all it can out of the script. While the play is filled with compassion, because it is mainly a spoken book, and not a play with visual elements of physical action and conflict, it’s difficult to get immersed. The silence Morrison talked about is still present. We are observers, not participants.

The cast is generally fine. Andrea Belser is compelling as Pecola. She rings all the right notes out of a scene in which she is unknowingly cajoled into poisoning a dog, a dog, much like her, who is the victim of fate. Corlesia Smith gives a textured performance as Frieda. Stephanie Stovall is properly obnoxious as the heartless mother.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE BLUEST EYE is a good selection as a Black History month presentation by Karamu. It is the work of one of the country’s finest African American women writers and a local celebrity. It gets a credible production.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Spring Awakening

Mesmerizing SPRING AWAKENING at Beck

On the way out of SPRING AWAKENING at Beck Center, my 16-year old grandson, known as the kid reviewer, said, “That was awesome. The singing, the acting, the music, the choreography, the staging, were all great!” Yes, Alex, you just experienced one of the finest theatrical works you may ever see.

SPRING AWAKENING, the Steven Sater (book and lyrics)-Duncan Sheik (music), folk-infused rock music drama, is based on a 1892 play by Frank Wedekind of Germany. The subject matter, which centers on teenagers on the road to self-discovery, portrays abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse and suicide. It was so controversial that its original source was banned for public view for over one hundred years.

The play is a powerful indictment against late 19th century Germany, where strict rules regarding right and wrong, and wide-spread hypocrisy were rampant. Sex wasn’t discussed, the reasons for actions weren’t revealed, and adults held strict control. It is relevant to modern day American where the religious right sometimes parallels the machinations of the adults in Wedekind’s script.

The play consists mainly of spoken and sung dialogues among the children, with an interspersing of voices of the adults. Wedekind has given the voices the ability to open our eyes, in gripping ways, to the joys and sorrows, hopes and despair, and struggles and the resulting tragedies. Tragedies in which the most promising children are sacrificed due a lack of appreciation and understanding from their teachers and parents.

We meet Melchior, intelligent, handsome and charismatic, who sees the corruption around him, but is powerless to change the events. There is Moritz, physically stronger but psychologically frail. He’s the product of a harsh father, and is pushed to near insanity when he fails an exam and eventually is led to suicide. Wendla is in love with Melchior, and naively becomes pregnant by him. Her fall from grace is based on her lack of knowledge about human sexuality, and still believing that “children are brought by storks.” She, too, becomes a tragic product of her culture’s rules. We also view Ilse, who runs away from a sexually abusive home, another product of the rules of the game of life.

We are left at the end of the epic with Melchior, his friends all destroyed, needing to find a reason to go on with his life.

This is a relevant play that has already, and should open additional eyes of the hypocritically blind to the need for sex education, understanding of the teenage mind and the hypocrisy of developing illogical and unbending rules for the sake of tradition.

The Broadway production won eight Tony Awards in 2007. The Baldwin Wallace-Beck Center collaboration, under the keen eye of Victoria Bussert, is as good as the professional shows I saw on Broadway and on-tour. This is Bussert at her best!

The staging is creative, encompassing, focused. The pacing is fine…slow when necessary, fast when appropriate. Ryan Fielding Garrett’s band, which is on stage during the entire production, expertly backs up, rather than drowning out the singers, the vocal blends are excellent, and even though several of the cast don’t have superb singing voices…they so well interpret the words of the songs, that it matters naught.

Zach Adkins, a young Brad Pitt look-alike, is compelling as Melchior. He displays a complete understanding of the mental and emotional workings of the role. As we see him standing alone at the end of the play we can only feel strong emotional bonding with the real person Adkins has created. His song All That’s Known is appealing, while Left Behind is emotionally revealing.

James Penca is spot-on as the conflicted Moritz. He develops a young man unable to fight off the power of his father and members of the school staff, who demand what Moritz is unable to give. His The Bitch of Living is a show highlight, as is Don’t Do Sadness.

Pretty Kyra Kennedy makes for a perfect Wendla. She creates a complete character who displays appropriate naivety and passion. Her Mama Who Bore Me was a strong curtain raiser and Those You’ve Known, a trio with Adkins and Penca, was tear-inducing.

The chorus was excellent, weaving in an out of the scenes with clarity and concentration.

Gregory Daniel’s choreography, Jeff Herrmann’s set and light designs, Richard Ingraham’s sound design, and Alison Garrigan’s costumes all make SPRING AWAKENING a special evening of theatre.

The show is advertised as 17 and older. When I asked Alex if he was uncomfortable, especially in the presence of his grandparents, he gave a, “no way” response. You have to know your teen, but the lessons to be learned from this script are great. In fact, if the characters in this play had known what they could have learned from being exposed to this material, there would have been no need for Wedekind to write the play.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: SPRING AWAKENING is an emotionally stirring, relevant, and well staged production. This is not a should see, it’s a must see presentation. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

Friday, February 03, 2012

Lower Ninth

Ensemble’s LOWER NINTH gives a snapshot of New Orleans following Katrina

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans. While the nation watched in horror, the event and the area were mainly ignored by then-President George Bush. When the President finally appeared on the scene, he praised the work of Mike Brown, his director of FEMA in spite of the ineptitude of the agency and their chaotic response.

The Lower Ninth Ward is the area within New Orleans downriver industrial canal, which is near the mouth of the Mississippi River. This area, mainly populated by African Americans, is still not rebuilt.

Beau Willimon’s LOWER NINTH gives a short glimpse of three men, two alive and one dead, who are stranded on the roof of a house following the storm. As the days and nights go past, a story is told of the relationships of these men. It also gives a glimpse of life before the catastrophe and maybe an insight into what is to come.

Willimon was the recipient of the Lila Acheson Wallace Julliard Playwriting Fellowship and the Lincoln Center Le Compte du Nuoy Award. He is best known for his play FARRAGUT NORTH which was adapted into the film THE IDES OF MARCH, which starred George Clooney.

LOWER NINTH is a she slice of life story which centers on Bible-quoting Malcolm, and E-Z, the son of the woman he lived with for many years. The duo are sweltering on a house roof waiting to be saved from the sea of contaminated water that surrounds them. Though their backgrounds are only hinted at, we gain a base understanding of each man. The connection seems to grow as they become more and more desperate. Also on the roof is Lowboy, a friend of E-Z’s, whose body was dragged out of the water in a failed attempt to save him.

The play, which is getting its area debut, does hold the viewers interest, but it is not extremely well developed. It is more a series of character studies rather than having a focused story with a beginning, middle and end. The themes are not clear, the motivations are only hinted at, and it is difficult to clearly state the play’s purpose.

Ensemble’s production, under the focused direction of Celeste Cosentino, is well paced, and the inclusion of visual images of clouds, sun and overcast skies, helps in building the tedious and sweltering mood of life on the roof. Steve Vasse-Hansell’s rooftop set gives a clear image of the isolation of the characters from the rest of the world.

William Clarence Marshall fully develops the role of Malcolm. He shows us a man who has found God, and transferred from a hinted-at history of abandoned accountability and social transgressions, to a person who has assumed his responsibilities.

E-Z, is a conflicted young soul, who appears to have had little male guidance and doesn’t really know who he is. He covers his insecurities with pseudo-macho mannerisms and ghetto language. J’Vaughn T. Briscoe fleshes out the role well.

Lowboy, was a drug dealer who had once saved E-Z from a school yard beating, thus earning life-long respect from the boy. Joseph Primes makes the most of a character whose motivations aren’t clearly etched.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: LOWER NINTH gives the viewer an insight into life in New Orleans immediately following Katrina. Though it gets a good production at Ensemble, it isn’t a well developed piece of theatrical literature. It’s worth seeing to gain an understanding of a topic that has not been showcased on stage.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

In Arabia We`'d All Be Kings

IN ARABIA WE’D ALL BE KINGS inaugurates Lab Theatre in Allen Complex

It’s been an amazing year for the Cleveland Play House. On Fall of 2011 they moved into their new Allen Theatre home, a beautiful and functional facility in the Playhousesquare complex. Last month they produced their first-ever theatre in the round production in their new Second Stage performance space. And, now, the Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre is open for productions.

The Lab Theatre is a flexible black box. For IN ARABIA WE’D ALL BE KINGS, performed by the Case Western Reserve University Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program, the space was set in a runway configuration. In this type of staging, the audience sits in parallel sections opposite each other, with the action taking place on a rectangular space between the seated groups of viewers. Think—the traditional high school football stadium—in minature.

The format worked well for the in-your-face writing of Stephen Adly Guirgis. The Irish-American/Egyptian Guirgis, who was nominated for a Tony Award for his THE MOHTERF* *KER WITH THE HAT, is one of America’s new breed of playwrights. IN ARABIA WE’D ALL BE KINGS, like much of Guirgis’s writing, is gritty, free form, and uses the language of the streets. There is no sugar coating, no happy endings, no political correctness, just no-holds-barred realism.

The play is set in a Manhattan bar. It’s the kind of dive that most educated, suburban people, would walk out of as soon as they walked in. The place is sleazy, it’s inhabited by the “sociological sub-strata” which Guirgis seems to know so well. Among others, there is a recently released from jail thug, a prostitute, a junkie, and, a drunk whose entire life is spent sitting on his corner-of-the world bar stool.

The play is about a group of dysfunctional people who have formed their own community with their fellow bar inhabitants. These are people who live by their wits, often perpetuating violence and often are on the receiving end of it. These are the people who used to populate New York’s Hell’s Kitchen until the city cleaned up its act and closed their homes-away-from home. These off-beats who have nothing more to do than dream far-fetched dreams, living in the constant hope that things will work out for the better, and escape from reality through drugs, sex, liquor and talking, were left without their culture and way of life when the bars and flop houses were shuttered.

Guirgis’s dialogue is filled with language that might easily offend…racial and ethnic slurs, swearing, gutter slang. They say what pops into their often-confused minds. These are feeling, not thinking people.

On the surface, theatre-goers, who tend to be the type who have probably never come in direct contact with this urban underclass, might be repulsed by the motley group. Yet, as written about by Guirgis, there is audience understanding, compassion, a feeling of being sorry for and wanting to reach out to these misguided folks.

The playwright is an actor turned writer, and, as such, he gives his thespians the material to work with. He writes complete characters whose motivations are transparent. He sets forth language that is natural and real. The motivations that push the characters forward and the story are clear. He writes isolated scenes rather than the usual flowing script which has transitions from one segment to another. He doesn’t waste words…the viewer can fill in the blanks. Often he motivates stunned silence, at times he forces laughter, often out of embarrassment rather than a joke or a funny instance. This is heady stuff.

Ron Wilson’s direction is spot on. The action whips along, the characterizations are clear, and the staging creative. He is aided by a group of first year MFA students who show potential for making this a very special class.

Everyone in the cast is strong. Especially effective were Stephen Spencer as Skank, a spaced-out druggie, whose ability to live in a fantasy world is clearly etched. Spencer is Skank, Skank is Spencer! Christa Hinckley is appropriately pathetic as the needy, airheaded Christie, who will do anything, including prostituting herself, for drugs. Therese Anderberg (Demaris) has a wonderful touch with exaggerated comedy.

Tiffany Scribner’s scuzzy realistic bar and street corner sets visually take us where we need to be.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: IN ARABIA WE’D ALL BE KINGS gets an impressive production and is a perfect vehicle to open CPH’s new Lab Theatre. Due to its language and subject matter, it’s not a play for everyone, but those interested in having an up-front emotionally involving theatrical theatre experience, should definitely see this production.