Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Compelling, must see "Anna Christie" at Ensemble

Eugene O’Neill is one of America’s greatest, if not THE greatest playwright.  The winner of a  Nobel Prize for Literature and four Pulitzer prizes for drama, including “Anna Christie,” which is now in production at Ensemble Theatre, his plays are master classes in language usage.

His forte is realism, much in the mold of Chekhov and Ibsen.  He was the forerunner of the likes of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge.

O’Neill writes natural, real dialect.  His characters speak as real people from the area and class of the play’s settings.  They are often people on the fringes of society, struggling to find their footing. They dream of a better life, but almost always slide into despair, hopelessness and disillusionment.  Even when he writes a happy ending, as he does in “Anna Christie,” there is no certainty that tranquility will reign. 

O’Neill spent many years at sea, after having been expelled from Princeton for throwing a beer bottle through the window of Professor Woodrow Wilson.  Yes, that Wilson, the future President of the US.  The contents of the bottle is significant, as O’Neill was an alcoholic.  He also suffered from depression. 

It is helpful to know O’Neill, as a person, in order to fully appreciate and gain a depth of insight into his writing.  Because of his life, habits and actions, many of his characters are people with a connection to the sea, are alcoholics, have mental illnesses, abandon the important people in their lives, and are self-destructive.  His messages and characters not only resonate, but stay with those who experience his writings.

O’Neill was unique from birth to death.  His life started in a hotel room and also ended in one.  He succumbed in 1953, at the age of 65, in the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Boston.  It is now Shelton Hall dormitory of Boston University, and the legend is, that his spirit haunts the room and the dorm.
“Anna Christy” opens in a waterfront bar in New York about 1910.  Old Chris, a coal-barge captain, receives a letter from his daughter, Anna Christie, who he has not seen since she was 5 years old.  

Unbeknownst to Old Chris, she has lived a tumultuous life, filled with secrets and regrets.  They meet at the bar and have a tenuous connection.  She agrees to go to the coal barge with him.  She finds peace on the water and decides to stay on the boat. 

During a sailing, they rescue survivors from a shipwreck.  One of the boatmen is Mat Burke.  At first he and Anna spark.  Then they fall in love.  Mat wants to marry Anna who he perceives to be a sweet innocent.  In order not to reveal her past, she refuses.  Eventually, a fight for control of Anna ensues between Chris and Mat.  To assert her independence, Anna reveals the lurid details of  her life, including being raped, homelessness, and a turn as a prostitute.  Chris leaves, Anna sticks around, Chris returns, they agree to marry.  A twist of fate brings a new issue, as the play comes to its dénouement.

The Ensemble production, under the laser focused direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz, is compelling.  Each character is carefully etched. The pacing and story clarity make the 125-minute, four act epic, zoom by.  The audience rides the emotional waves, carried by what often appears to be the rocking of the boat, the flowing of the fog, and the magic of moonlight at sea.

Katie Nabors gives what must be one of the best local performances of the year as Anna.  The beautiful young lady is completely believable in the role.  She is not acting a part, she is living Anna’s life.  Bravo!

Greg White, as Anna’s father, sets his Norwegian accent at the start and retains it throughout.  He does not portray a conflicted, alcoholic man of the sea, he is one.  Hurrah!

Handsome Michael Johnson is totally believable as the young longshoreman who falls in love with Anna and must decide whether he can “forgive” her for her past life’s actions.  Good job!

The rest of cast, Mary Alice Beck (Marthy), Stephen Vasse-Hansell (Larry), Allen Branstein (Johnny the Priest) and Kyle Huff (Longshoreman) are all excellent.

The set, the lighting, and the special effects all enhance the production.

Capsule judgment:  Ensemble’s “Anna Christie” is one of those special theatrical events that is required seeing for anyone who not only wants to appreciate the wonders of Eugene O’Neill’s masterful use of words, but see a flawless production!  Go see a show that actually deserves a standing ovation!

“Anna Christie” runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through October 19, 2014.  For tickets go to www.ensemble-theatre.com or 216-321-2930.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

THE PILLOWMAN--a chilling looks at life and death at convergence continuum

Clyde Simon, Artistic Director of convergence continuum, has a knack for finding off-beat, provocative plays that incite discussion and strong reactions from the theatre’s loyal following.  That group, and probably many more, will find themselves entranced by Martin McDonagh’s  black comedy, “The Pillowman.”

The play is set in an unnamed country whose symbol is a large five cornered red star, which is bannered on the wall of the interrogation room in which the story takes place.  The symbol is also emblazoned on the armbands of the two government officials, one a detective, the other a law enforcement officer, who are conducting an “interview” with a short story writer, whose “crime,” at the start of the play, is unknown. 

Before the tale is over, suicide, murder, decapitation, the sadness of life, sadism, perversion, incest, childhood deaths, misguided love, and inhuman torture is exposed through a volley of “f” bombs, sick humor, and storytelling. 

The audience is swept along, reacting in strange ways.  There is laughter when the response should be cries of anguish.  There are times when watching and listening should be replaced by closing of eyes and refusing to hear the goings on.  But pay attention we do.

“The Pillowman” tells the story of Katurian (his first, middle and last name), a short story “fiction” writer, who composes tales which are often bizarre tellings of child mistreatment and murder.  He has been brought to a secret place and is being interrogated by Tupolski (a detective) and Ariel (a brutish officer with a tendency to use torture to get desired answers).   Katurian’s “slow witted” brother, who is in the next room, is supposedly also being questioned. 

As the story unravels, over a two-and-a-half hour period, we become aware of the strange childhood experiences of the brothers, at the hands of their step-parents. 

Readings and enactments of some of Katurian’s stories are presented.  The most revealing as to the actions of the brothers are, “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother,” (a boy is encouraged to write happy stories by his parents, but the sounds of torture in the next room soon results in his writing disturbing tales);
“The  Pillowman,”(a being made of pillows visits people on the verge of suicide); “The Little Appleman, “ (a young girl carves little people out of apples into which she places razor blades); “The Tale of the Town By the River,” (a reinterpretation of the “Pied Piper of Hamelin”); and “The Little Green Pig (a green pig, who enjoys his strange coloring, and is mocked by the other pigs).

Assuming that the brothers will soon be executed, Katurian attempts to make their impending deaths less traumatic for his brother, and save his legacy, his stories, from destruction.  Whether he is successful or not, and the role in that decision by his torturer, Ariel, leads to McDonagh’s dénouement.

The play received a 2003 Olivier Award for Best New Play, a 2004-2005 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Play, and two Tony Award nominations.

Con-con’s production, under the direction of long-time company member, Geoffrey Hoffman, is often compelling.  The length and wordiness of the play sometime gets in the way, but the over-all pacing, staging and acting leads to a disturbing set of feelings that last long after the production is over.

The cast is quite good.  The highlight performance is turned in by Daniel McElhaney, as Michal, Katurian’s child-like and childish brother.  He develops a vulnerable character who elicits viewer compassion. 

Tom Kondilas uses his deer-caught-in-the-headlights eyes to display bewilderment, understanding, and desperateness.   Robert Hawkes is excellent as Tupolski, the emotionally “in control” detective with an underlying layer of seething purpose. 

Stuart Hoffman, the “bad cop,” shows menace well.  His most effective moments are at the play’s conclusion.  Nicole McLaughlin and Melissa Frelich are believable in their supporting roles.

Capsule Judgement:  “The Pillowman” is a disturbing script which gets a mainly effective production at con-con.  It is not a play for those who go to the theatre for escapism, but it will be of interest to the type of theatre-goer that likes to delve into the world of motivations, philosophical decisions, and the effects of the actions of others on the psyche.

“The Pillowman” runs through October 18, 2014 at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to convergence-continuum.org

Con-con’s last show of this season is Mark O’Rowe’s “The Terminus,” a tale of three people who are ripped from their daily lives and catapulted into a fantastical world of singing serial killers, avenging angels, and lovesick demons.  It runs from November 21-December 20, 2014.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lakeland Civic Theatre presents depressing, well staged, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY

The Westons of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning, AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY, gives new meaning to the phrase dysfunctional family. 

The dark comedy centers on Beverly Weston, an alcoholic, the family patriarch, and award winning poet who-disappears.  We quickly learn that his wife, Violet, eats prescription drugs like they are popcorn.  Her bossy sister, Mattie Fae, has a secret that is about to be revealed.  Daughter Barbara’s marriage has fallen apart.  Fourteen year-old granddaughter, Jean, is a secret pot smoker.  Without knowing it, daughter Ivy is involved in an incestuous romance.  Daughter Karen is engaged to a man with a questionable past and present.  Before disappearing, Beverly hired Johnna, a native American, to be the family’s housekeeper, but why seems to be a mystery.

The Sheriff appears to reveal something.  What?  The answer is the pivotal plot device that sets AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY on its unnerving course.

It might not be so depressing if the whole thing was made up.  But the author admits that the character, Violet, the vindictive, substance-abusing mother, is based on his maternal grandmother, who, he states, “was a piece of work.”  When Letts gave the play to his mother to read, he was nervous, but her first response was, “I think you’ve been very kind to my mother.”  Kind?  Only if kind means Attila the Hun on meth!

The Lakeland production, under the direction of Martin Friedman, is a well conceived, if overly long, staging.  While the first act drags a little, the second act speeds towards its upsetting conclusion at a roller coaster pace.  The characters are clearly etched.  For the most part, there is a nice level of character development rather than actors just playing roles.

Bob Abelman makes Beverly Weston into a believable drunk.  So often actors go too far, feigning slurring and unsteadiness.  No such problem here. Abelman does drunk well.

Annie McElvoy, as the pill popping Violet, the clan’s mother, is effective, swinging from drug induced fuzziness to rational clarity and back again.

Courtney Nicole Auman, as Ivy, has the most difficult role of the three sisters, as she needs to be in emotional control almost throughout.  She achieves the right levels of pathos and frustration. Diane Mull, as Barbara, a victim of possessing the psychological worst of both of her parents, effectively fizzles out before our eyes.

Caitlin Post nicely underplays Johnna, the Native American housekeeper, working at the Weston home out of financial necessity.

 Jeffrey Glover effectively portrays the henpecked Uncle Charlie, who morphs into a man with a backbone.  Rose Leninger, is focused correctly as Mattie Fae, a bitter woman with a secret.  Jeremy  Jenkins, as Little Charles, a boy/man who has been thoroughly psychologically whipped by, Mattie Fay, his mother, is correctly pathetic.

The rest of the cast nicely develops their roles.

Keith Nagy’s three level set is a perfect setting.  It is cluttered, dark and depressing, as sad as its occupants.

Be aware this production is not a show for the up-tight or those looking for a light, escapist comedy.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The Lakeland production of AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY is a well-conceived staging of an award winning script, and though not for everyone, makes for a well worth drive to Lake County.

For tickets to AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, which runs through October 5, call 440-525-7134 or go to http://www.lakelandcc.edu/arts

Sunday, September 21, 2014

OCCUPANT @ Cesear's Forum

Louise Nevelson, the subject of Edward Albee’s play, “Occupant,” now in production by Cesear’s Forum, may or may not be the person that is written about in the script.  The iconoclast artist, known for her monochromatic abstract expressionist sculptures, was an elusive figure.  Many of the accepted “facts” of her life have been proven to be untrue.  It matters not if Nevelson told the stories, or an art historian searched and found the information. No one knows exactly what is accurate.

Nevelson lived the “great lie theory.”  If you tell a lie over and over, after a while you can’t tell if it is the truth. 

Who is better to probe into Nevelson’s life than Edward Albee, America’s greatest existentialist playwright, whose works are representative of the Absurdist school of writing.  Absurd, meaning “out of sync” in one sense, “ridiculous” in another.  Yes, Nevelson led a life that was eccentric, when compared to the norm, and her fanciful exploits make for a bizarre story.

Who was Louise Nevelson?  Only she knows, and as we find out, she’s not telling.  Or, is she?

Albee sets up the investigation in what appears to be a clear format.  An interviewer is probing into Nevelson’s life, asking her questions.  But, suddenly the interviewer informs us, “I never interviewed someone who was dead!” Yes, the woman we see before us, is dead!

As the interview proceeds, we find that Leah Berliawsky was born in Kiev, Russia, on September 23, 1899.  (Well, maybe.)  She and her Jewish parents were driven out of the country during a series of pogroms.  They eventually settled in Rockland, Maine, where her father became a fairly wealthy lumber and real estate tycoon. (Maybe.)  Leah, tall, beautiful and shy, according to her, “suffered many anti-Semitic experiences.”  She escaped from Rockland to New York, via what may have been an arranged marriage to Charles Nevelson, an older, unattractive, but wealthy New Yorker. 

The stories of a life filled with lovers, expensive tastes, the Nevelsons losing much of their wealth, the birth of her unwanted son (she admits to being a “lousy” mother), her escape to Paris to attend art school, a return to New York, getting rejected by art reviewers and the buying public, finally making her breakthrough in the 1950s when museums began to buy her wooden sculptures, and her ultimate death in 1988.  She is recognized by many as one of America’s most innovative sculptors, but shunned by others as a “gimmick” artist.

Nevelson, always knew she was “special,” lived with the motto, “I am going to be my own special self.  I’m going to occupy that space if it kills me.”  This mantra kept her going when things looked bleak and life impossible.  Kept her going through suicide attempts, depression, and regrets.

The play is filled with droll humor.  And, as in many of Albee’s existentialistic theater creations, explores individual veracity, selective memory, and the process of self-fulfillment as he asks, “Why do we exist?”

The play’s title is taken from a real life happening.  Nevelson, near the end of her life, dying of lung cancer after being a chain smoker, was in the hospital, didn’t want visitors.  She had the sign on her door, which had been emblazoned with large letters spelling out her name, taken down and the word “Occupant” put up instead.  She was an eccentric to the end!

Julia Kolibab and George Roth are up to the challenge of performing the two-person, two-act, two-hour show, with great aplomb.  Roth chides, teases and challenges with a twinkle in his eye and sardonic and sarcastic vocal and physical tones.  Kolibab , wearing eccentric clothing and two pair of mink eyelashes, dominates the stage, fully capturing the very being of Nevelson. 

Director Greg Cesear keeps the action rolling.  This is difficult as the script is a long duologue with little action.  He manages to retain the audience’s attention by keying in on the humor and playing up the exaggeration.

Scenic designer Laura Carlson Tarantowski creates a clever set which imitates the sculpture style of Nevelson.  Make sure you get an up close and view Tarantowski’s clever use of castaway products that form the basis of the set.

Kennedy Down Under is a perfect space for this intimate piece. 

Capsule Judgement:  “Occupant” is one of those special plays and theatrical presentations that will be greatly appreciated by the serious theater-goer who likes to be exposed to a well-written, thinking person’s play, which gets a fine staging and interpretation.
“Occupant” runs through October 25 at 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 3 pm for the Sunday performances at Cesear’s Forum, located in Kennedy’s Down Under, PlayhouseSquare.  The entrance to the theatre is off the lobby of the Ohio Theatre.  For information and reservations call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.playhousesquare.org

Friday, September 19, 2014

CPH examines greed, ambition and misguided principles in THE LITTLE FOXES

Lillian Hellman, author of “The Little Foxes,” which is now in production at the Cleveland Playhouse, was a rebel with many causes.  An independent woman in an era before the women’s rights and liberation movements, she had strong political and societal opinions.  Because of her liberal affiliations she was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  She was “a smoker, a drinker, a lover, and a fighter, who took stands against and placed a negative spotlight on greed, ambition and misguided principles.”  She was an advocate for the downtrodden.  These principles are at the foundation of “The Little Foxes.”

 “The Little Foxes,” is set in the beautifully appointed home of Horace and Regina Giddens in a small Alabama town at the turn of the century.  Regina is one of three Hubbard siblings.  Her brothers, Ben and Oscar, have inherited a store that takes financial advantage of the area’s Black population.  

Regina married Horace, not out of love, but because he was her ticket to getting the “things” she wanted out of life.  Her brother, Ben, is a controlling schemer who wants to jump onto the success bandwagon of the Gilded Age of the 1900s, no matter the cost.  Brother Oscar, lazy, psychologically weak and undisciplined, married Birdie as his entrance into the prestige of being part of the “old south. “ He verbally and physically abuses Birdie, who is too timid to stand up to Oscar’s attacks. Their unlikeable son, Leo, is a carbon copy of his father, willing to be Ben’s pawn, in order to be financially successful. 

In contrast to the Hubbards, Horace, his daughter Alexandra, the black housekeepers, Addie and Cal, and Birdie, are decent and respectable people. 

The Hubbard’s latest scheme is the building of a cotton mill in their town.  The idea is sound, as it would avoid shipping the south’s raw cotton to the north, thus insuring profits.  The problem?  They don’t have the money to pull off the transaction, so they make a deal with a Chicago company.  They scheme to get the seed money from Horace, who is ill and in the hospital in Baltimore.  The opportunity comes when Leo, who is working at his uncle Horace’s bank, finds out that there are $80,000 worth of negotiable bonds in a strong box in his uncle’s office.

Intrigue increases when Horace returns home, and Regina’s disdain for everything about him, except his money, becomes obvious.  Horace has a heart attack.  Will Regina give him his needed medicine?  Will the stolen bond scheme work? Will Regina’s blackmail of her brothers succeed, or will Ben’s parting remark, “What was a man in a wheelchair doing on a staircase?” be the undoing of Regina?  Will Alexandra be swept up in the family intrigue or will she flee? 

The CPH production, under the focused direction of Laura Kepley, is intriguing.  The script, which is written in a traditional 1930s format of three acts (exposition, telling the tale, and resolution) has been compressed by eliminating the intermission between acts II and III, and tightening some dialogue.  The pacing fits the southern way of life, yet doesn’t drag.  Accents are finely honed, and character motivations clear.

The cast is universally excellent.  Maggie Lacey creates a Regina who is evil incarnate.  Cameron Folmar is scheming and snarly as Ben.  Jerry Richardson clearly creates Oscar as a despicable spineless bully.  Nick Barbato presents a Leo, who is as whining, weak willed duplicate of his father, Oscar.

Donald Carrier is a mirror of perseverance and moral strength as Horace.  The lovely Megan King creates an Alexandra who is the shining hope that something good may well emerge from this dysfunctional family. Heather Anderson Boll is appropriately bewildered and manipulated as Birdie, a true southern belle, better suited for cotillions than real life.  Sherrie Tolliver is impressive as the strong willed but gentle Addie, the Carrier family maid and Alexandra’s guide and protector.  Kim Sullivan has nice comic moments as Cal, the family butler.  Robert Ellis presents William Marshall as a businessman who may feel comfortable with being part of a scheme with some shady overtones.

One of the difficulties of doing a period piece is whether to be true to the period set and costume designs.  Lex Liang, the production’s scenic and costume designer, based on Kepley’s desire to give a modern feel to the production, has taken the influence of the 1900s transitional aesthetic era and eliminated the heavy look of the furniture and costumes, creating sleek modifications in the style, thus retaining the right feel and vision, but not being absolutely true to the era.  The gorgeous set and costumes work well in creating the right illusion.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” is a classic American play which probes into the values, ethics and morals of a group of southerners at the turn of the century.  This is a play and production well worth seeing thanks to Hellman’s writing, Kepley’s directing, the excellent acting, and well-conceived technical aspects.  It makes for a fine opening offering in this, CPH’s ninety-ninth year.

Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” runs through October 5, 2014 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Meet Ricky Ubeda,the winner of TV's, "So You Think You Can Dance" who will be performing in Cleveland

When the tour of “So You Think You Can Dance” comes to the Connor Palace Theatre in Cleveland on October 20, it will expose the local community to the top ten contestants and some of the other dancers who got the attention of the judges.

Since its premiere in 2005, “So You Think You Can Dance,” has been a television sensation. Created by Simon Fuller and Nigel Lythgoe, the show, which is a multi Primetime Emmy Award winner, has sparked the nation’s interest in dance and produced some top-ranked performers.  Many of the dancers have gone on to professional careers, including a number presently appearing in Broadway’s NEWSIES and hopefully in Cleveland when that show comes to town as part of the Key Bank Broadway series

A panel of dance experts select 20 dancers to appear in a competition.   They then whittle the number down to a final 10.  The jurists, plus votes by viewers, then select a winner.

The performers, who come from a variety of  dance styles including classical, contemporary, ballroom, hip-hop, street, jazz, tap and musical theatre perform all the genres on their march toward stardom.   Interestingly, two of the four 2014 finalists, were mainly tap dancers.

This year’s winner was Ricky Ubeda, who won a cash stipend of $250,000 and the offer of a part in the forthcoming Broadway production.

I interviewed Ubeda, who was in Los Angeles, during the rev-up to the national tour.  He indicated that he started hip hop dancing around age 12.  Raised by a single Cuban mother who “has always encouraged me to be myself, especially in dance, and be a leader,”  he was also “fortunate to go to Coral Reef High in South Miami.”  It has “a liberal atmosphere and advocates for being yourself.”  “There was no harassment over dancing.  In fact they had a co-ed dance team.  The attitude was, if you are talented, you were a hero. It definitely wasn’t like other schools.”

During the “So You Can Think You Can Dance” telecasts, Ubeda showed a great deal of emotion and emotional vulnerability, both as a dancer and in receiving comments from the judges.  Reminded that this is somewhat unusual for a male, he stated, “My mom was always open and vulnerable.  She taught me that it’s a beautiful thing to let the emotions show.”

Ubeda showed both amazing discipline and breath of ability in each of the dance styles.  He contends that his training helped, but that, in fact, “I was never taught half those styles.”  He contends that “having each choreographer for one and one-half hours the first day and five hours the second day, and then having the duets practice a lot on their own,” helped him hone his skills in each style.

Ricky is grateful to Miami’s Stars Dance Studio who held fundraisers and watch parties during the competition to raise money to send his mom, his siblings, his aunt and his best friend to the shows each week.

As for the competition itself, I probed whether he felt pressure since he was dubbed the potential winner by the judges from the first show on.  He stated, “it put pressure on me, but I listened to the judges’ feedback and took it as an opportunity to improve.”

What was the most difficult challenge he had during the competition?

“The physical exhaustion near the end was tremendous.  The stress and pressure added up.  There were times when we all felt that we just couldn’t keep going.  By the final four shows, we were all absolutely exhausted.” Also, since “we were a tight-knit group, and relationships formed as the competition went along, when friends were voted off it was tough.”

The top ten and some additional dancers, who were eliminated earlier, are going on a 75-city tour, which opens in New Orleans on October 1, 2014, and lasts until mid-February.  Each of the top routines will be included.  “Choreographer Mandy Moore will put the show together. All of the dancers are getting paid.”

After the tour, Ubeda has many decisions to make.  As the competition’s winner, he has have been offered a part in Broadway’s “On The Town.”  As of now, he plans to take the part.  He has already met the cast and has “an interest in getting to know Broadway.”

As for the prize money, he plans to “invest it, life’s crazy, you have to have backup.”

Ricky Ubeda is a dynamic and talented young man.  His future looks bright.

To get tickets to see Ubeda and the rest of the 2014 “So You Think You Can Dance” top ten, on Monday, October 20 at the Connor Palace (formerly the Palace Theatre), call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.playhousesquare.org/events/index/20

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Thought provoking "The Sunset Limited" @ none too fragile

--> Cormac McCarthy, the author of “The Sunset Limited,” which is now on stage at none too fragile theatre, probes, in his script, the topics:   Why would someone want to commit suicide?  Why does one person turn to religion when angst-filled, while another rejects the concept of a deity?  Is traditional education a negative or positive influence in dealing with problems?  What is the meaning of life?  Can a person change from killer to saint?  It probes the decisions to end one’s life, as well as human suffering.

“The Sunset Limited” is a two-person character study centering on dialogue rather than being a traditional action driven play.  In fact, the real action of the play takes place before the initial lights come up.

The ninety-minute poetic drama takes place in a small inner-city project apartment.  It is a conversation between two unnamed men, “Black “ and “White,” whose identifications match their skin color.  The former is very large and speaks Black English, while the latter, sometimes addressed as “Professor,” is slender in build and obviously well-educated as represented by both his language, and the way he formulates his ideas.

As their histories unravel, we become aware that Black has been in jail for murder.  While there, he became an evangelical Christian, having found “Jesus.”  His world revolves around reading and believing in the “Bible.” 

Just before the duos’ entrance into Black’s apartment, White had attempted suicide by jumping off the platform in the path of The Sunset Limited, a train that travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles.  Black grabbed him and stopped White’s flight to death.

As director Sean Derry revealed in a conversation following the production, he needed to “cut a lot of the dialogue,” which, in form, “is really more novel than a play script.”  It is not by accident that the subtitle of the piece is, “A Novel in Dramatic Form.”

The script is filled with well-conceived, insightful written lines, such as:  “Education makes the world personal.”  “All knowledge is vanity.”  “The darker story is always the correct one.”  “You are walking around dead.”  “There is a lingering Scent of divinity.” And, “There is a hope of nothingness.”

The men sit at a table, share coffee and food, move into the living room area, constantly talking.  There are no physical battles, no strong display of emotional outbursts.  Not much physically happens, but ideas flow. 

Myron Lewis, as Black, is an imposing presence.  He creates a real person who comes across as someone with an honest bent on “saving” White, both physically and spiritually.  His is a nicely textured performance.

Richard Worswick, as White, also develops a believable being, filled with angst, overwhelmed by life, having few friends, and possessing little reason to live.  He makes us believe that he has rejected the basic human need for survival and is ready to depart from his earthly existence.

Capsule judgement: “The Sunset Limited” is a thought-provoking script, which gets an intelligent production at none too fragile.  It is a play that will hold the attention of those interested in a philosophical delving into life, religion, and the human condition.

Big news from none too fragile: The company will present “Possum Dreams,” a play they staged in June of this year in New York in March, 2015.  Watch for the official announcement!

“The Sunset Limited” runs through September 27, 2014 at none too fragile theater which is located in Bricco’s Restaurant, 1841 Merriman Road, Akron. For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to http://www.nonetoofragile.com

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Martin Céspedes creates a delightful "Forever Plaid" at Beck

Do you like close-harmonic singing?  Are you harking back to experience the “good” old days?  Do you like to escape from the stressful world and just “yak” at comedy shticks and revel in the ridiculous?   Then the place for you to be is Beck Center where Cleveland’s multi-award winning choreographer, Martin Céspedes, has added “creative director” to his résumé. 

“Forever Plaid” is a quirky, fun script, which takes the audience back to the 1950’s, a time of innocence, songs with words you could understand and identify with, with an occasional rock-and roll ditty thrown in.  This was the era of close-harmony boy groups (e.g., The Four Aces,  Four Coins, Four Preps).  Each step and gesture were pre-planned and in hopefully in sync.  Costumes and hair styles all matched. 

Ever hear of the group, “Forever Plaids?”  Probably not.  They weren’t a real boy group, but an imagined one by Stuart Ross, who invented them as the center-piece of his musical review, “Forever Plaid.”   Ross shoehorned songs of the era, melodies such as “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Undecided,” “Perfidia,” “Catch a Falling Star,” “Heart and Soul,” “Lady of Spain,” and “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” between far-fetched stories to develop one of the most commonly produced theatrical reviews.

The premise is that the clean-cut quartet, Jinx, Sparky, Francis, and Smudge, had finally landed their first big gig at an airport bar in 1964.  To mark the event they ordered matching plaid tuxedos.  Unfortunately, on the way to the event, the high school chums’ dream of success, including their envisioned first album, ended when a bus filled with Catholic schoolgirls, on their way to see the Beatles’ American debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” slammed into their car, killing all four boys.  All they wanted was to get their chance, to wear those tuxes, to appear on a real stage, before a real audience.  But, those dreams were all snuffed out.  But . . ..

The play starts as the Plaids wander onto the stage and realize that they have been given a chance to  “live out” their dream.  What follows is a series of well harmonized songs, references to stars of the day, including Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, and the Ames Brothers, and lots of high jinx.   There are instances when the boys wander into the audience and interact with viewers, even bringing one startled lady on stage to help them out and do a synchronized dance.  They tease with the audience, and reminisce about the 1950s.

One of the show’s highlights is the reenactment of  the Ed Sullivan show, complete with appearances by Topo Gigio, Señor Wences and Johnny the puppet drawn on his hand, The Great Plate Spinner, and the Bersoni Chimps.

The Beck show, under the creative direction of Céspedes, delights.  The multi-award winning choreographer shows great skill in envisioning not only a perfect depiction of boy band moves, but letting loose with shtick that would have made Borscht Belt performers proud. 

The performers are Brian Altman as Smudge, the oft-confused member of the group, Shane Patrick O’Neill as Frankie, the leader with a tendency to hyperventilate when he gets stressed, Matthew Ryan Thompson as Jinx, the shy tenor with recurrent nose bleeds, and Josh Rhett Noble as the lovable, eager, adventurous, often goofy Sparky.  All have fine singing voices and display good comic timing.

On opening night, many audience members were heard singing along with the group, yelling out the names of the characters in the three and one-half minute capsulation of the “Ed Sullivan Show,” and being willing pawns in the audience participation segments.

Musical Director Bryan Bird and his orchestra (Bill Hart on percussion and Kevin Aylward on bass) created the right moods as they flowed from ballads to folk songs to rock and roll with musical ease. 

Joseph Carmola’s lighting, Aaron Benson’s night club set design, Carlton Guc’s sound design, and Aimee Kluiber’s costumes, all added to the overall effect.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Director Martin Céspedes’s creative directing and choreography, the excellent talents of Shane Patrick O’Neill, Matthew Ryan Thompson, John Rhett Noble and Brian Altman, and the fine musicianship of Bryan Bird, Bill Hart and Kevin Aylward, all combine to create a most pleasurable theatrical experience in Beck’s “Forever Plaid.”  It’s a relaxing, fun filled, “you’ll enjoy” it experience.

“Forever Plaid” is scheduled to run through October 12, 2014 on the Mackey Main Stage at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

KSU + Musical Theatre Project = "Babes in Arms"

There’s a new couple in town.  The musical Theatre Project and Kent State’s Musical Theatre program are joining forces to do a staged reading/sing-through of the musical “Babes in Arms.”

People familiar with “Babes in Arms” usually think of it as the “hey let’s us kids, put on a play.”  The 1939 wholesome movie starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.  What might surprises many is that a 1937 theatre version preceded the film. 

To add to the surprise, the original play had political overtones which delved into the concept of Nietzscheism, had a Communist character, and showcased two African-American youths who were victims of racism.   The play was redone in 1959 and was, as the publicity heralded, a “sanitized, depoliticized rewrite.” The script was again adapted in 1999 by John Guare. 

The score includes such classics as “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Johnny One Note,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” and “My Funny Valentine.” 

An interview with Terri Kent, chair of the musical theatre program at Kent State shared some interesting information about the “Babes in Arms” production and the KSU program.

Kent State got involved in this project when Terri was contacted by Bill Rudman, Artistic Director of the musical Theatre Project.  The duo discussed several shows and honed in on “Babes In Arms” because many of the roles are populated by characters the ages of the University’s student body.  Besides the age parallel, Kent liked the idea that the show was set in the mid-thirties and “allows students to gain an understanding of the society of that time.”

Though Kent and Rudman had never worked together, she knew his work and “admires him as a musical theatre historian.”

The twelve students selected for the production tried out in three days of auditions which the KSU musical theatre program holds for all their main stage shows.  In addition to the students, four adults were cast to play the “mature” members of the story.  These are MaryAnn Black, Ron Thomas, Rudman and Kent.  The cast will be supported by musical director, Nancy Maier.

Kent has 85 musical theatre students.  This addition to the regular on-campus productions, and Porthouse Theatre’s summer program, the MTP involvement gives the future “professional theatre stars” a chance for more roles.  KSU grads have gone on to star on and off-Broadway, in cruise ship productions, work at such entertainment venues as Disneyworld, and have become school and college drama teachers and professors.

One of the emerging aspects of the KSU theatre offerings is the Returning Professional Program, in which college graduates, who have been involved in theatre productions, return to campus to finish their advanced degree. Ken Howard, Broadway  (“1776,” “Promises, Promises,” and “See Saw”), film (“The Country Girl,” “Strange Interlude, and “J. Edgar” and television  (“The White Shadow” and “The Thornbirds”), who went on to be president of the Screen Actors Guild, was the first participant in the degree program.  Graduates include Cleveland area performers Tracy Patterson, Greg Violand, and Mark Moritz.  Paul Floriano is now a student.

Kent is looking forward to staging the first student production of the new musical, “My Heart Is The Drum,” in February, 2015.    The show, which has an all Black cast, takes place in Ghana, and centers on Efua Kuti who flees her village when she is forced to marry, but wants to get an education.  It is filled with driving rhythms and rich vocal harmonies.  http://www.myheartisthedrum.com.     

“Babes In Arms” will be presented on September 18 @ Beck Center for the Arts, 8 PM and September 21 @ Stump Theatre, Kent State University, 2 PM.  For tickets call (Beck) 216-521-2540 X10 or visit http://www.beckcenter.org or KSU 330-672-2787, http://www.kent/edu/artscollege/

Monday, September 08, 2014

A Review of the Reviewer: Nicci Cassara, Choreographer

I just wanted to take a moment and introduce myself. We have never met in person but I have been reading your reviews forever and I believe you have seen some of my work. I just wanted to thank you for all you do. It's not an easy job but you help keep theater alive and thriving in Cleveland. It is much appreciated. Much continued success to you.always,
Nicci Cassara

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Spellbinding “Belleville” opens the 55th Dobama season

Dobama may be entering its 55th year (I was present the moment founding artistic director Don Bianchi declared its existence), but it is actually in its first season.  What?   Late last season, the Dobama board voted to change the status of venue to that of a full professional theatre.  This makes Dobama, like Great Lakes Theatre and Cleveland Play House, a stage where all actors are paid by equity standards and the production staff are members of the appropriate staging unions. 

The change in professional designation may be new, but as evidenced by “Belleville,” Amy Herzog’s compelling mystery-drama, the opening play of the 2014-15 season, Bianchi’s vision of producing relevant, well-crafted, important new plays is still on the theatre’s masthead.

“Belleville” is a spooky play, not in the sense of ghosts or spirits, but in the sense of taking the viewer to a place in the theatre landscape which is scary, penetrating into personal psyches, forcing the questions of “OMG what’s going to happen next?,” “who is fooling whom?,” and “is this for real?”

Pulitzer Prize winner, Amy Herzog, is one of today’s most esteemed playwrights.  Locals were exposed to her Chekov-like writing when Dobama staged “4000 Miles” several years ago.  Herzog, like Chekov, is noted for her naturalistic writing.  Her language is the pattern and style of real people, in real situations.  There is nothing theatrical about her characters.  The actors can’t act the roles she writes, they must live them.  They must listen to their fellow performers and react to what they say, not feign, but feel, think and present honesty.

Her plays revolve around secrets being revealed.  Her revelations emerge naturally, through pitch-perfect dialogue, rather than being imposed by the demands of plot.  Her written language is filled with intrigue as it explores what lurks in the world of relationships.  The audience gets rapped up in the naturalness of the characters and the tale they tell through a breathtaking intermissionless hour and three-quarters.

“Belleville” made its debut in 2011 at the Yale Repertory Theatre and was later performed off-Broadway.

The story revolves around newly married Americans, Zack and Abby, who are living in Paris, supposedly because Abby has always wanted to relive her parents wonderful experiences in the city of love.  The desire got stronger when Abby’s mother died.  The duo is renting an apartment in the multi-ethnic Belleville neighborhood, which is managed by a Muslim couple.

A series of small happenings escalate the tension between the newlyweds.   Questions arise about Zack’s MD degree from Johns Hopkins University, his employment in Paris as an AIDS researcher, why he can’t pay the rent and spends much time smoking pot, his laid back attitude and sudden maniacal mood swings.  Why has Amy dropped out of her French classes, become obsessed with her family back in the US, and the yoga classes she teaches but where no students show up?  What’s true?  What’s a lie? 

Dobama’s founding director, used to say that the playwright is the predominant voice in the room (the theatre).  Corey Atkins, the director of “Belleville,” learned this lesson well.  He understandings underlying motives of Herzog’s writing style, and has honed his actors to carry out the author’s intent and purpose.  The psychology of the characters, the mystery and danger of the plot, are all accented.  The realism required to make the lines live is present. 

Llewie Nuñez takes on the role of Abby and wears it with tenacity.  She is always just on the edge of falling off the high wire of rationality.  She clearly creates a fragile woman caught up in a life of potential stumbles and disaster.

Matt O’Shea follows up his performance as the co-star with Dorothy Silver, in Dobama’s production of Herzog’s “4000 Miles,” with another spell-binding portrayal.   His Zack is an obsessed young man filled with contradictions.  Is he a liar, abuser, game player, or a psychopath?  Whatever, O’Shea is totally convincing.

Robert Hunter (Alioune) and Carly Germany (Amina) are character correct as the bi-lingual Muslim couple who manage the building in which Abby and Zack live.  Each develops a real person.  Their spoken French is excellent.  Whether they speak the language, or were well honed by dialect coach Donald Carrier, they are believable.

Jill Davis’s French apartment design of a living room-kitchen, with sight into a bathroom and bedroom, is completely realistic.  Marcus Dana’s lighting design well highlights scenes, as well as adding tension through special effects.  Sound designer Tom Linsenmeier has added outside street noises, running shower water effects and other sounds, which enhance the action.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ”Belleville” is a dark, draining play.  It looks at the limits of trust, truth, deception and dependency.  Dobama’s production is superb.  The writing, acting, staging and technical aspects all blend together to make for a compelling evening at the theatre.  It’s a must see for anyone interested in theatre and the limits of the human condition.
“Belleville” runs through October 5, 2014 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

No bombs greet this version of "HAIR," just heat and a simulation of an era

Theatre is representative of the era from which it comes.  Seeing a play that reflects a specific time period can reveal the cultural attitudes of the people and society of that period.

Seeing HAIR, “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” can give a film clip of the 1960s and early 70s in the U.S.  It was the era of the anti-war movement and rebellion against traditional societal patterns.  It was the time of sit-ins on college campuses, hippie communes, flower children, pot smoking, tie-dyed clothing, long hair, swearing and public nudity.  It was a period of rage against the military-industrial complex. It was the time of a clear generational divide.  If the young people could find a way to upset their elders, it was the “in” thing to do. 

Written by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, the show’s book was put to music by Galt MacDermot.  Its slim story was based on the authors’ personal experiences.   It centers on Claude, a member of the hippie community, who sells out and allows himself to be taken into the Army rather than burn his draft card or flee to Canada.

When the show first opened, it engendered strong protests.  Yes, protests about the protests.  On April 25, 1971, for example, a bomb exploded in front of Cleveland’s Hanna Theatre during the Age of Aquarius show’s run at that venue.

HAIR broke all sorts of theatrical traditions.  Members of the cast, known as the “tribe,” constantly jumped off the stage and interacted with members of the audience, invited patrons to dance with them, and they gave flowers and hugs to  the unsuspecting.  The U.S. flag was used as parts of costumes and burned.  There was full-frontal nudity and simulation of sexual acts.  There was an intentional ignoring of theater’s proverbial “fourth wall,” a separation of the stage actions from the audience.   This was a musical that broke from the tradition of the “nice” musical and took on controversy and started a trend in musical theatre of taking on contemporary and controversial issues.

This is not a well-written book musical.  The plot meanders, some of the songs don’t fit into the story, often do nothing to move the plot along.  Again, a break from the traditional musical of the day. Though often referred to as the “grand daddy of the rock musicals,” it’s a mélange of music and imagery.  The sounds change from rock to country to ballad to African American rhythms.

The highlight of action centers on Claude’s hallucinatory drug trip in Act II where a series of horrifying visions, loaded with historical figures, are presented in the oddest contexts. It’s a microcosm of the whole show, which essentially unfolds like a tune-filled acid trip that gives HAIR its distinctive period edge.

So, how does the show wear over all those years?  The times they have changed.  Reaction to swearing, smoking of pot, nudity, and protest are mundane by today’s standards.  Many of the references are beyond the knowledge of the younger members of the audience.  Unless you are an uptight conservative or an evangelical, who are not candidates to attend this show, the goings on won’t evoke much reaction.  Only the wonder of “what was all the fuss about?”

Some of the music has lost its luster.  Aquarius didn’t send me off onto a journey of effervescence.  Hashish, in this age of rampant drug usage, is just a song.  On the other hand, I Believe in Love, Easy to be Hard, and Good Morning Starshine, have held up due to their timelessness.

The Blank Canvas cast, under the direction of Patrick Ciamacco, was enjoyable, with two glaring flaws.  First, Ciamacco states in his director’s notes:  “I was drawn to produce “Hair” because I feel our country is going through a very similar movement as we did in the 60’s.”  Sorry, my naïve young man, since the you were not yet born when the anti-war demonstrations and flower-child rebellions were going on, you are not aware of the dynamics, power, and out-of-control motivations that lead to whole college campuses shut down due to sit-ins, and the take-over of buildings due the anti-war vehemence.  Nationally, buildings were burned, students were shot for civil-disobedience (e.g., the Kent State massacre).  There may be some uprisings and protests today due to individual events, but the 60’s movements were national events.  The portrayals by the young cast, not imbued with the true feelings the play reflects, were on the surface, acting what they thought their characters went through, but not identifying with the real motivations, therefore not feeling the actual angst.

Second, the small space, over sold-out audience, sweating actor’s bodies, real smoking, and 80+ degrees of heat outside, led to a sweltering theatre.  When the cast shed their clothing at the end of the first act, many in the audience were tempted to join them, just to get some personal heat reduction.  Either the theatre needs to find a way to cool the space more effectively, or change its schedule and avoid producing summer time shows.  Whew!

Brad Wyner and his band were excellent, wisely avoiding letting loose with the heavy rock sound and drowning out the singers.  Jessie Cope Miller’s choreography was creative, especially considering that she was working with a large cast on a postage stamp sized stage.  The moves on “Abie Baby” were, in era language, “mellow.”

Perren Hedderson’s projections added to the creation of visual realism.

Though the choral vocal sounds were mostly volume over blendings, there were both individual strong singing and acting performances.

Scott Esposito was well focused as Claude.  Who knew that this stalwart of local dramas (he gave a ”bravo” performance last season in Ensemble’s “The Normal Heart”) could sing so well?   Becca Frick (Jeanie) did a nice job with “Air,” Jessie Cope Miller, she of big and well-toned voice, wailed in “I Believe in Love” and “Good Morning Starshine.” Neely Gevaart (Chrissy) tenderly sang “Frank Mills.”  “What a Piece of Work Is Man” was the show’s musical highlight.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   HAIR is a classic musical, which entered the theatre into an era of reflection of the turbulent era of the 60s and broke many traditional theatrical formats.  For those who want to relive the era, or who want to generally get an idea of what was going on during those times, the Blank Canvas staging gives an opportunity to take a seldom reprised trip through the times.  Due to a generation gap in understanding the true angst of the era, this isn’t a great production, but it is entertaining.
Tickets for HAIR, which runs through September 13, can be ordered at 440-941-0458 or www.blankcanvastheatre.com