Sunday, November 19, 2017

O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” opens Ensemble’s 28th season

Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, William Inge and Eugene O’Neill are considered to be the major writers in the mid-20th century modern drama movement.   They used concepts of the emerging field of psychology to illuminate problems of individuals and the society in which they found themselves.

O’Neill, who wrote more than 50 plays, was the first American playwright to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.  He also was awarded four Pulitzer Prizes for Drama.

Scripts such as “Beyond the Horizon,” “Anna Christie,” “The Emperor Jones,” “Desire Under the Elms,” “Mourning Becomes Electra,” “The Iceman Cometh,” “A Moon for the Misbegotten” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” are now considered to be classics of the modern theater movement.

The latter is an autobiographical play which, though written in the early 1940s, was not produced until 1957, 25 years after his death because O’Neill stipulated that condition.  It is considered his masterpiece.

Ensemble Theatre is opening its 28th season, entitled “We the People,” with O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape.”  The script fits into the theatre’s selection of plays that “celebrates the diversity and dynamics of the population that makes up this ‘great nation’ while also speaking to the challenges we still face in 2017!”

“The Hairy Ape,” is not one of O’Neill’s classics.  At its opening, and since, the audience, and especially the critics, were perplexed with its expressionistic form.  The use of “excessive monologues, the slowness of certain scenes, and the depressing monotony of the situation,” along with its general tone of brutishness, do not bode for emotional involvement.

It is, in fact, more a closet drama, one which lends itself to reading and discussing, rather than a full staging.  Little happens that requires visual observation of movement.  It lends itself to academic intellectual discussion, more than actor-audience connection.

The overt expression of existentialistic thought, mainly highlighted by the protagonist’s final speech in which he bemoans, “Where do I fit in?” is also off-setting to many. 

The play centers on Yank, the ruler of the steam room on a large ocean liner.  He and his coal-shoveling crew are responsible for the ship’s movement.  He considers himself to be the principal cause for the motion of the vessel, more so than even the captain. Yank is a “coal” guy not one who approves of wind or other forms of energy.  (Sound familiar in this age of energy/global warning disagreements.)

He perceives society as being controlled by the rich, but he fights to control his part of that world.  One day, when a wealthy debutante takes a tour of the boiler room, is repulsed by him, and calls him a “filthy beast,” a hairy ape, he goes through a crisis of identity. 

When he leaves the ship and wanders into Manhattan, he finds himself at odds with the people he sees, even the labor organizers on the waterfront.  He becomes more and more animalistic, living up to his reputation as “a hairy ape.”   He becomes absurd, the very definition of the hero of an existentialistic play.

O’Neil probes the meaning of masculinity, the primitive nature of humans, social repression of the working class by the wealthy, toxic industrial environments, superficiality of the rich, and religious and racial degeneration.

The long one act, 1 hour and 25 minutes without an intermission, is not captivating theatre.  There is little actual action.  Instead long monologues and contrived movement take place.

Director Ian Wolfgang Hinz does what he can to induce attention.  He succeeded in most instances.  He uses the set well and adds lighting to add visual texture.  But, in the end, he can only do so much with the script.

The cast puts out full effort, but often presents “affect” rather than achieving effect.  Many speeches are flat in tone.  There is little texturing of characterizations.  Yelling and forced action often are present.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Ensemble is to be praised for continuing to present classic theater to its audience.  Whether “The Hairy Ape” was the best of the O’Neill play to select is questionable.  For anyone who likes to be exposed to works by noted writers, and those who like to probe into the intellectual nature of the arts, the play may be of interest.

“The Hairy Ape” runs Thursdays through Sundays through December 10, 2017 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

To see the views of other Cleveland area theater reviewers go to:

Next up at Ensemble: “The Little Prince,” from December 1-17, a play for the whole family, followed by Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America Part One:  Millennium Approaches” from January 5-28, 2018.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Wonderful WICKED wows yet again at State

Okay, I’m a “Wicked” junky.  I’ve seen the show five times, including seeing it in its first week of the New York run. 

“Wicked” opened on Broadway on October 30, 2003.  It is still running, and has performed almost 6,000 shows.   It is the 7th longest-running musical in Great White Way history.

A prequel to the “Wizard of Oz,” “Wicked” tells the “true” story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch, and her relationship with Glinda, the Good Witch. 

The musical has all the elements of the original tale, but gives you the background to how the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin man came to be, as well as how Dorothy got the red (in this version silver) slippers. And, most importantly, what really happened to Elphaba.  (Bet you thought she melted when Dorothy threw water on her. Ha!  That’s fake news!)

We also become aware of the power of gossip and rumors.  Most importantly, in this era of rising bigotry, encouraged by the “Wizard” in the White House, we are exposed to how hatred and making outcasts out of those not white and part of the “in” group, can lead to mass hysteria.

The music and lyrics, by Stephen Schwartz, includes such beautiful and meaningful songs as “Defying Gravity” and “As Long as You’re Mine.” 

As always, Schwartz includes a message song in the score (think “Corner of the Sky” from “Pippen”).  In “Wicked,” it’s “For Good,” stressing the importance of true friendship.

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

The choreography is creative.  The orchestra is excellent.  (The 5 traveling musicians are joined by 10 locals.)

The cast is very strong.  No, it’s not Idina Menzel (Elphaba), Christine Chenoweth (Glinda) and Clevelander Joel Gray (as the Wizard), but, realistically, who can top that amazing trio?

In this production, Mary Kate Morrissey glows gloriously green as Elphaba.  She hits the vocal high notes with ease and creates a clear characterization.  Her “I’m Not That Girl” is heart breaking, while “No Good Deed” is powerful. 

Ginna Claire Mason is properly bubbly as the shallow blonde ditz, Glinda.   She sings beautifully and textures the role well.  Her smile-inducing “Popular” brought lasting applause.

Jon Robert Hall handsomely walks though the role as the self-centered Fiyero, who falls in love with Elphaba.  Unfortunately, there is little obvious physical chemistry between the two.

There is a strong Cleveland connection and WICKED.  ARACA, ( the theatrical production company founded by Michael and Matthew Rego and Hank Miller, all native Clevelanders, are the producers of the show.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Put on your tiara, bring your wand, and join the masses who will enjoy “Wicked.”  Whether it is your introduction to this delightful and well-performed musical, or your umpteenth time, you will absolutely enjoy this must see production. 

WICKED runs through December 3, 2017 at the State Theatre in downtown Cleveland.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

“Diary of Anne Frank” conveys important message at the Cleveland Play House

The Holocaust was a horrific series of experiences.  As the years go by, and the survivors of the atrocities die off, leaving no one to attest to the actual pain and suffering, those who want to make sure that such experiences do not repeat themselves turn to tangible objects and written accounts.

Probably no record of the trauma has gained more attention than the diary of a German Jewish girl, Anne Frank, whose family went into hiding in Amsterdam, Holland, and came within months of being survivors of the onslaught.

Her words have lived on through the publication of her recounting of time spent in the upper floor of her father’s warehouse and office building in play scripts, textual analysis of her writing, and classes which use her diary as a text.  

Anne Frank, has, in fact, become cottage industry.   The site where she was sequestered offers daily tours.  The site’s bookstore sells everything from copies of the diary, coloring books, Holocaust drawings and art work, commemorative pens and pencils, and yellow cloth Jewish stars, like the ones Jews were forced to wear. 

Anne Frank is one of the most searched topics for research projects and school reports. 

Anne’s symbolic power has been memorialized with streets, schools and parks named after her.  There are also tasteless Halloween costumes and anti-Semitic taunts of soccer fans who draw on her identity.  

Several weeks ago, Lazio, Italy soccer fans plastered the Stadio Olimpico with stickers of Anne Frank wearing a jersey of city rival Roma, whom the Lazio supporters consider to be socialist and “Jews.”  Lazio’s anti-Semitic slurs in the past have included a banner telling Roma supporters: “Auschwitz Is Your Homeland; The Ovens Are Your Homes.”  The actions drew condemnation from the soccer league, the nation’s premier and the head of the European Parliament.

In a visit to Rome’s main synagogue, the premiere said the club would intensify its efforts to combat racism and anti-Semitism and organize an annual trip to the Auschwitz concentration camp with some 200 young Lazio fans to “educate them not to forget.”

A passage from Anne Frank's diary was read before Italian league matches as part of a number of initiatives to condemn the acts of anti-Semitism earlier this week by Lazio fans and to keep alive memories of the Holocaust.  The diary passage reads: “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

Even positive attempts to use Anne’s identity have backfired.  Deutsche Bahn (railroad) recently announced that it was planning to name a new high-speed train after her.  Supposedly, this was done to commemorate Anne’s train ride to the concentration camp in which she died at age 14.  The idea, which the railroad thought was an honor, was met with negative outcries and then withdrawn.

The play “The Diary of Anne Frank” is a stage adaptation of the book “The Diary of a Young Girl.”

It is generally believed that the diary was found by Anne’s father, Otto, when he returned to the building where the family hid for slightly over two years, after he was released from captivity.  He was the only one of the hiding place’s population to survive. 

In fact, the handwritten book of notes was hidden by a family friend and given to him upon his return.  Mr. Frank published it in 1947. 

A version of the play, which was produced on Broadway in 1955, was created by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.  Though it won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize and garnered strong positive reviews, it was often accused of being too sentimental and void of the Jewish part of the experience. 

In 1997, a revision of the script was done by Wendy Kesselman.  It more closely resembles the diary with some of the conflicts, growing pains and “Yiddishkite” more clearly presented.  It is this script that director Laura Kepley is using for the Cleveland Play House’s present staging.

The CPH production is generally well thought-out and crafted.  Kepley has nicely paced the show, has been careful to honor the Jewish aspects of the story, and brought attention to the part played by the brave gentile men and women of Holland who risked their lives to save their Jewish countrymen.

The cast is strong.  Special recognition to Rick D. Wasserman as the compassionate Otto Frank, Yaron Lotan as Peter Van Daan, who emerges from a shy, almost reclusive young man into Anne’s “beau,” Laura Perrotta as the self-centered Mrs. Van Daan, and Lise Bruneau as the stoic Edith Frank, Anne’s put-upon mother. 

For the play to work on its highest level, the audience must have a love-affair with Anne.  They must feel compassion for the youngster who grows and matures before their eyes.  Annie Fox does not totally gain that affection.  She is too old and lacks the teenage emotional undercurrent to garner the needed empathy.   This is not a bad performance; it just doesn’t hit the heart as it should.

The sound effects:  the sound of the carillon, the voices of children playing in the street, the tramp of marching feet, the singing of German troops, a boat whistle form the canal, add to the emotional power of the piece.

The set, though impressive, is problematic.  Those who have visited the actual site where the Franks, Van Daans and Mr. Dussel hide know it was much smaller and cramped than the massive CPH set.  The construction may mislead some viewers to believe that the inhabitants were not cramped, living on top of each other.  They, in fact, were in a claustrophobic place.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “The Diary of Anne Frank” is a powerful and important play. Especially in this country, when racist, religious and national attacks are condoned by the country’s leader, it is imperative that the message of “never again” be bannered.  Cleveland Play House has done a great service by staging the message of a young girl who was destroyed by bigots and haters.  This is a must see production!

“Diary of Anne Frank” runs through November 19, 2017, at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to

Next up at CPH: “A Christmas Story,” which plays from November 24 through December 23, 2017.  For information go to

Monday, November 06, 2017

Karamu and Ensemble team up for dealing with “The Lake Effect”

Karamu and Ensemble are two venerable local theatres. 

Karamu, the joyful meeting place, is the oldest continually running Black theatre in America.  Ensemble, whose purpose is to showcase classical American drama, has some of its history steeped in Karamu. 

Lucia Colombi, one of Ensemble’s founders was, at one time, Karamu’s interim Artistic Director.  Her daughter, Celeste Cosentino, Ensemble’s present Artistic Director, spent much of her informative theatre years at Karamu.

It is logical, therefore, that the two theatres join forces to produce “The Lake Effect,” a local playwright’s Cleveland-centric script.

Rajiv Joseph is a Cleveland Heights native, a multi-award winning author, who has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize (“Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo”) and won an Obie Award (“Guards At The Taj”).  These, and several of Joseph’s other scripts, including “Animals Out Of Paper” and “Gruesome Playground Injuries” have had Ensemble productions.

“The Lake Effect,” as with other Joseph scripts, is intimate and character-driven.  It spotlights his imaginative voice and his ability to come up with innovative, often quirky ideas, to develop a message.

Joseph says of “The Lake Effect,”” it is, in many respects, a play about separate worlds colliding. On one level, these worlds are divided by race and culture, but beyond that, it’s a play about secrets and families and what binds us together as just regular people.”

It is winter, 2013.  There is a typical 216/440 snow storm raging outside the small, intimate Indian restaurant in Lakewood.  (Yes, the script is filled with area references such as the Cuyahoga River and Edgewater Park.)

Inside we find Vijay, an assimilated mid-thirty-year old son of Vinnie, a man from India, who emigrated with his wife to the area and operated the small neighborhood restaurant while living with his family in the apartment above the establishment. 

Vijay’s mother died in an auto accident when he was 12, leaving not only a void in his life, but resentment because Vinnie unceremoniously dumped her ashes in Lake Erie.  The action caused a permanent rift between father and son.

Vijay fled Cleveland, became a day trader in New York and has returned for his father’s funeral.

As Vijay goes over the restaurant’s books, Bernard, an African American enters in search of lamb biryani.  He asks about Vinnie and shares tales about the family which Vijay didn’t know.  Who is Bernard?  Why does he know this information?

When Priya, Vijay’s younger sister appears, much of the mystery of the relationship between Vinnie and Bernard is revealed, as well as the facts of the strained relationships between the father and his children.

Joseph’s script does not have the depth of some of his other writings, but it holds attention.  As always, the actor’s writer, he gives cast members fleshed out characters to develop. 

Celeste Cosentino’s direction is focused.  Though the script is very talk-centered, she keeps the action moving, thus holding attention.

The cast is generally effective.  LaShawn Little shines as Bernard.  He doesn’t portray Bernard, he is Bernard.  His long monologue, which finds him isolated, outside, in the cold, with snow falling on him, spotlights the play’s theme, as expressed in the analogy that we are all connected by the “water is us,” in this case, the lake effect snow.

Resembling a young Omar Sharif, matinee-idol handsome Ammen T. Suleiman has some nice moments as Vijay.  At times, Natalie El Dabh (Priya), falls into becoming an actor portraying a character, rather than becoming the person

Karamu’s Concert Hall, a newly repurposed black box acting space, allows for an intimacy which this script needs.  Being up-front and personal with the cast allow for a requisite connection.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: “The Lake Effect,” written by Cleveland Heights’ award winning playwright Rajiv Joseph, is a thought-provoking script which uses Cleveland area references to develop its theme.  It gets a creditable production at Karamu.

THE LAKE EFFECT continues through November 26, 2017 in the Concert Hall (Black Box Theatre) at Karamu, 2355 East 89th Street.  For ticket information call 216-795-7070 or go on line to

Friday, November 03, 2017

STILL STANDING: A Musical Survival Guide for Life’s Catastrophes

Written and performed by ANITA HOLLANDER

SATURDAY, NOV. 18, 2017 at 8 p.m.

Fairmount Temple, 23737 Fairmount Blvd., Beachwood, OH

New York-based actor/singer/songwriter ANITA HOLLANDER wrote her evening of original songs to chronicle a journey that began when she was a college student stricken with cancer. A recurrence when she was 26 led to the amputation of one leg, leaving her to perform for more than three decades on the other one. The New York Times review of STILL STANDING called her “provocative, funny, moving, communicative and beautifully polished [with] a wide rainbow of vocal colors that she uses with dramatic sensitivity as well as comic insights…. plus a charming presence that flavors everything she does.” 

She has performed the show off Broadway, at the White House, across America and around the world. 

She returns to her native Cleveland for this one-time event, with her sister Rachel signing for the hearing impaired.

A $10 donation is requested at the door, by cash or check. 

The event is underwritten, in part, by the Roy and Eunice Berko Fund at Interplay.

RESERVATIONS at; or leave a clear message at 216 393-PLAY (7529)