Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Stratford Festival, a season of being pushed to the edge

The  Stratford Festival of Canada, whose present artistic director is Atoni Cimolino, started on July 13, 1953, when Sir Alec Guiness walked onto a stage located in a large tent and spoke the first lines of what has become the internationally-recognized celebration of theatre.  Now housed in five theatres, offering plays and other entertainment from late April to November, Stratford is the largest repertoire theatre in North America. The offerings are not only the writings of Shakespeare, but a variety of classical and contemporary works, including musicals.

Having just returned from the Festival, I offer these capsule judgments of some of the shows on this year’s theatre’s schedule:

“Man of La Mancha”-- “Man of La Mancha” is an exceptionally well-conceived and performed production of one of the American musical theatre’s great scripts.  Short of having seen the original Broadway production (which was breathtakingly effective), a viewing of this staging is a wonderful second place and makes for an unforgettable theatrical experience!  Applause, applause, applause!

“Crazy For You”-- “Crazy For You” is a total delight.  Anyone who loves the fun and ridiculousness of an old time musical, complete with a marvelous George and Ira Gershwin score, will have a wonderful time attending this Stratford production.

“King John”-- “King John” is an impressive and compelling staging.  This is not one of Shakespeare’s blood and guts plays but grabs and holds the audience with language rather than action.  Since the script is not often done, this is an excellent opportunity to gain exposure by seeing a fine performance.
“King Lear”-- “King Lear” is a must see production.  Every aspect of the staging works.  This is a presentation that teaches the audience what superb theatre is all about.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”-- “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of Shakespeare’s most delightful comedies.  Though the comic qualities were high, the Stratford production was filled with needless gimmicks and additions which added nothing to enhancing the basic script.  As evidenced by our B&B table discussion, audiences are going to either love or hate this production.   

For complete reviews of these shows go to:  http://www.royberko.info

Other shows on the Stratford schedule which I did not attend are:

“The Beux’ Stratagem” by George Farquhar
“Alice Through the Looking-Glass” by Lewis Carroll, adapted for the stage by     James Reaney
“Hay Fever’ by Noel Coward
“Mother Courage and Her Children” by Bertolt Brecht
“Anthony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare
“Christinea, The Girl King,” Michael Marc Bouchard
(For details about these scripts go to:  stratfordfestival.ca

What’s the lodging like?  Hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts abound to fit any wallet.  I like  to stay at bed and breakfasts where you get to meet new people and share views on the productions and life in general.  My favorite is the well placed Avery House (http://www.averyhouse.com), which is under the wonderful management  of John and Amanda who create breakfasts to satisfy the desires of the pickiest eater and present a variety of immaculate rooms to fit every taste. They also own Avery House Next Door, which offers lodging but no meals.

Hungry?  For moderate cost and high quality, try the excellent Stratford Thai Cuisine (82 Wellington Street).  My favorite is Rene’s (20 Wellington Street), a medium priced restaurant where the chef-owner holds sway in the kitchen and Margaret greets you at the door.  Based on a bad experience during our recent visit, in the future I will avoid The Keystone Alley Cafe.  I was served a raw chicken breast.  A request to the seemingly inexperienced waitress to tell the chef, received little attention.  No owner, manager or the chef appeared to respond to the serving of potentially dangerously prepared food.

Shopping?  The Touchmark Shop, 137 Ontario Street in downtown Stratford, is my wife’s favorite store.  Canadian fashions.  Canadian-nice salespeople! 

Stratford Escapes (theatrevacations.com), is an efficient way to make reservations.  For individual tickets call 800-567-1600 or go on-line to http://www.stratfordfestival.ca.

BTW…Stratford’s printed programs contain excellent clarifying messages about the playwright or the play itself.  It’s worth getting to the theatre early to read the material. 

Helpful hint: The ride from Cleveland is about six hours through Buffalo.  To satisfy border requirements carry your passport.  Nothing else will do.

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

Roy Berko is a member of The American Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle and Dance Critics Association. He is a college professor and author of thirty-one books. His reviews and commentaries can be found on ArtsAmerica.org, BroadwayWorld.com, NEohioPAL, “The News Herald” and “The Morning Journal,” CoolCleveland.com and on his popular blog, http://RoyBerko.info. He was selected top Editor/Reviewer in the Midwest for 2013 by BroadwayWorld.com.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Rabbit Run’s “Brigadoon,” a nice summer theatre experience

The period of 1943, from the opening of the first book musical, “Oklahoma,” until 1968, the opening of the tribal rock musical, “Hair,” is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of the Modern American Musical.  Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein created such shows as “Carousel,” “The King and I,” “Flower Drum Song,” and “The Sound of Music.”  That duo was matched by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who gave us the likes of “Camelot,” “My Fair Lady,” “Gigi,” and “Paint Your Wagon.”  Throw in “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” “Music Man,” and “Guys and Dolls,” and you have a basic understanding of the foundation of our present musical theater.

Rogers and Hammerstein’s scripts featured the meaning of community and had strong social messages.  Their “South Pacific” is a cry for intercultural understanding and features the poignant, “You Have to Be Carefully Taught.” 

Lerner and Loewe centered their works on highlighting the perfect time, the perfect place and the perfect love story. “Brigadoon,” a staging of which is being presented at Rabbit Run Theatre, finds two present-day Americans lost in the Scottish highlands.  They stumble upon Brigadoon, a mystical 17th century village that only appears one day every hundred years.  The magic of the Highlands, the power of love, and the inescapable infinity of time create the perfect setting for a love story.

 “Waitin’ for my Dearie,” “The Heather on the Hill,” “Come to Me, Bend to Me,” “Almost Like Being in Love,” “There But for You Go I,” and “From This Day On,” form a memorable score.  The orchestrations are plush and the music pushes the well-conceived story along.

As with any good musical plot, there are complications and the required classic musical theatre device where the first act ends with a problematic incident, the solution to which is the hinge on which the rest of the story depends.  In “Brigadoon,” on-going existence is dependent upon no member of the community leaving.  If a resident departs, the spell which allows the place to exist, frozen in time and space, will be broken.  When a rejected love-struck young man attempts to flee, the first act ends with the question of whether he will succeed and Brigadoon will be no more.

Besides being a charming fantasy, as director R. Scott Posey states in the program, “’Brigadoon’ is a story of love and faith, and having the courage to risk everything to gain everything.”

It must be recognized that while Rabbit Run was founded and operated for many years as a professional summer theatre, where the likes of Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronin, Dustin Hoffman, Jim Backus and Sandy Dennis performed, it is now an amateur summer venue.  The cast of “Brigadoon” is mainly composed of high school and college students.  Teens play adults, so the MacLaren daughters are about the same chronological age as their father. 

What the audience is seeing is basically a high school/community theatre production.  And, for that level, the Rabbit Run production is quite good and enjoyable.

Adorable Paige Heidrich is wonderful.  She has a trained voice, sings meanings not just words, and creates a consistent and real person as Fiona.  Her duets with Brian Mueller (Tommy) were all well sung.

Tom Hill, one of the few adults in the cast, is a perfect curmudgeon as the teacher and historian, Mr. Lundie.   Handsome Lincoln Sandham has a nice singing voice and creates a believable Charlie Dalrymple, the young groom.  His “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean” is delightful.  Hannah Green is charming as Jean, Charlie’s betrothed.

Brian Mueller (Tommy) has a fine singing voice, but is physically stiff and unnatural in his character development.  Though she displays enthusiasm, Katie Moorman misses out in developing the outlandishness of Meg.  The usually delightful “The Love of My Life” and “My Mother’s Weddin’ Day” lacked clarity of idea and understandability.

Rabbit Run has little backstage space, tiny wings and no fly gallery.  Tech Director Paul Gatzke must be a master of the jigsaw puzzle as he creatively designed set pieces that moved into every nook and cranny of space.  

Performing on a postage sized stage, with a huge cast, makes most of the dancing sequences seem like a Scottish flash mob, each person fighting for their own space on stage.  Less dancers would have solved this issue.

Karen Ziegler’s costume’s are excellent.  Where she got all the appropriate clan kilts and shawls is a question of wonder.

Director Possey needed to work with the cast on being more natural, listening to each other as they speak, and have the chorus not respond like puppets, with preplanned gestures, movements and facial expressions.  There was a general feeling of “fakeness” as the cast acted, rather than reacted.

Make sure you go out into the courtyard at intermission to listen to young Mickey O’Toole, bagpiper extraordinaire.

Capsule judgment:  Rabbit Run’s “Brigadoon” is a nice summer escape.  If audience members enter with no expectations for a professional production they will have a fine time appreciating several fine performances, while luxuriating in the music, score, story of one of the American musical’s finest scripts.

“Brigadoon” runs through August 2, 2014 at Rabbit Run Theatre at 5648 Chapel Road, Madison.  For tickets go to http://www.rabbitrunonline.org or call 440-428-7092.  For a special offer of dinner and theatre:  A specially selected three-course menu offering five entrees, an appetizer, dessert as well as a theater ticket make up this $55 a person package (tax and tip are additional).  Reservations for this package may be made by calling Bistro 70 at 440-352-7070.  Bistro 70 is located at 70 N. St. Clair St., Painesville, OH.

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is a "must see" at Blank Canvas

It probably will come as shock to many to know that when the play, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a script by Dale Wasserman, based on Kent Kesey’s novel of the same name, opened on Broadway in 1963, in spite of a cast that included Kirk Douglas, Gene Wilder, William Daniels, Ed Ames and Joan Tetzel, it was basically a flop, running only 82 performances. 

On the other hand, the 1975 film, directed by Milos Forman, which starred Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, was a sensational hit.  It won five major Academy Awards including that for Best Picture, and Best Actor and Actress in leading roles.  It has gleaned over $109 million dollars on its $3 million investment, and is listed as #33 on the American Film Institute’s best 100 films list.

“Cuckoo’s Nest” is now being staged at Blank Canvas Theatre. 

The story centers on a fight-for-sanity conflict between Randle Patrick “Mac” McMurphy and Nurse Mildred Ratched.  Mac is in a mental institution as a device to avoid criminal prosecution for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl.  Ratched is an unmarried, obsessive compulsive, OCD head nurse of the ward into which Mac is placed.  She is a master at humiliation, unpleasant medical treatments, and controls the patients through manipulation and mind-numbing routines.  (Her name has become a common phrase, in present day culture, for describing an overbearing, unrelenting, domineering female.)

Mac is creative and undisciplined. Ratched is obsessive compulsive and defiant in dominating her fiefdom.  She controls not only her ward, but the hospital’s psychiatrist, clients and staff.  This is a set of personalities naturally rife for conflict.

Understanding the title opens a door to the underbelly of the script.  A line from a nursery rhyme which the play mimics, states, “one flies east, one flies west, and one flies over the cuckoo’s nest.”  The inmates are controlled by Nurse Ratched, especially Chief Bromden, a “mute” Indian, and guilt infused Billy.  McMurphy, on the other hand, refuses to give in to her, creating a battle of wills.  Mac’s actions cause both the Chief and Billie to “fly” east and west, while he winds up flying over the cuckoo’s nest. 

In the process of the play’s actions, the audience is exposed to psychological theory, electro shock therapy, emotional blackmail, mob psychology, and the consequences of ultimate and manipulative power.

The Blank Canvas production, under the astute direction of Artistic Director Pat Ciamacco, is compelling.  The cast is superlative.  Each grabs his character and lives the role.  There is no wavering or confusion of the psychological motivation behind each person’s path into psychopathology.  Each is believable as a person who is a victim of a society which has set unmanageable rules, or has personal family connections which has stimulated or compelled him to be a problematic outcast filled with angst, self-doubt and insecurities which manifest themselves into out-of-norm actions.

Highlight performances are rendered by Perren Hedderson as the mother-dominated, self-conscious, insecure, emotional-stuttering Billy.  He is matched by Daniel McElhaney, as the rebel-with-a-cause Randle P. McMurphy (Mac) who finds the rules of society too hard to push aside, even when they endanger him.  The highest recognition of the quality of her wisely understated role development as Nurse Ratched were the ”boos” given to Anne McEvoy in the opening night curtain call!

Other strong performances were given by inmates Aaron Patterson, John Polk, Len Lieber, Chris Ross, Michael N. Herzog, and Matthew Lenczewski.

Be aware that though Blank Canvas has two large air-conditioners, and at the start of the production the intimate acting space was cool, but due to natural body temperature and the heat of the lighting, the venue got warm by mid-first act.  It is not oppressive, not more than the outdoor summer performances at Porthouse, Cain Park or Rabbit Run, but be aware that some people did complain. 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is one of America’s great plays.  The script gets an outstanding production at Blank Canvas. The cast is outstanding, the direction spot on, the pacing is excellent, the intimate venue lends itself to the audience being completely swept into the action.    It is a must see!

Blank Canvas’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” runs though August 2 , 2014 in its west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website.  (My GPS was of little help).  Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  It’s an adventurous battle. For tickets and directions go to www.blankcanvasthetre.com

Next up at Blank Canvas: “Hair,” the tribal rock musical, which bridged the age of traditional musical theatre to the modern era by putting the protest against the Vietnam War and the search for truth, peace and love on stage.  It features such musical classics as “Aquarius,” “Let the Sun Shine In,” and “Good Morning, Starshine.”  On stage August 29-September 13, 2014.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Arcadia," a well constructed play whichmakes for a long echoing sit at MAMAI

Czech born Thomas Stoppard is a Jewish British playwright who escaped from his birth country in 1939, just before the Nazi occupation.  Living, in England, he has gained a reputation as one of modern English language’s greatest playwrights.  The recipient of an Academy Award and four Tony Awards, it is generally agreed by theatre analysts that “Arcadia,” a production of which is now on stage at Mamai Theatre, is one of the western world’s greatest plays.

A staging won the 1995 Tony Award for Best Play and then the 2011 Tony for Best Revival of a Play. It is the only play ever to be nominated by the Royal Institution (of Britain) as “the best science book ever written.”

The 1993 written “Arcadia” explores linguistics, philosophy, literature, personality, human rights, censorship, political freedom, science, mathematics, physics, manners, and sexuality.  Thrown in along the way are discussions of sexual jealousy, landscape gardening, dueling, chaos theory, and the war between Classical and Romantic aesthetics.

The play’s unusual format jumps back and forth between present day and the early nineteenth century.  The actions of the earlier era form the subjects and discussions of the present day scenes.  As the play progresses, the past blends into the present to the degree that at the end of the play, the two have blended together.  In a creative bent, Stoppard has four dancers, two from the present and two from the past, perform to the strains of a single waltz melody as the final lights go out.

Interestingly, all of the scenes in “Arcadia” are played in the same acting space, a large room in Sidley Park, an English country house, with a table as the center of attention.  As the play progresses, items from both eras appear on the table.  A laptop computer accompanies a space with quill pens and ink wells.  An apple which is cut and eaten in 1809, is consumed in the “today” scenes.  Homework, notes, letters and books written and read in the nineteenth century, are used in the present.

The activities of two modern sibling scholars, a literature researcher (Chloe Coverly, and a mathematician (Valentine Coverly), juxtapose with the lives of their relatives, who lived in the manor years earlier.

We observe as Thomasina Coverly, the sixteen year old daughter of the manor, studies with her tutor, Septimus Hodge.  Her modern day cousin, Valentine, finds her work and is impressed by her creative ideas about mathematics and physics, well beyond her age and the knowledge findings of the day.

A visit by Lord Byron, who does not appear in person in the play, stimulates much of the conversation in both eras.  In the present, Hannah Jarvis, a writer, investigates a hermit who once lived on the grounds.  (Could it have been Bryon?)  Bernard Nightingale, a literature professor, is looking into the secret life of Byron.  What really happened?  As it turns out, only we, the observers know.

And, as all the modern day investigation takes place, gossip and actual events of the past unravel.  Another connecting link is a “living” tortoise who supposedly bridges the parts of the tale.  (Unfortunately, Mamai’s production uses a plastic tortoise, which leads to confusion and deflects this important reference.)

Stoppard’s language choices are intended to reflect the colloquialisms of early 19th century England and modern England.  Unfortunately, due to the terrible acoustics in the room, plus some poor vocal projection, and the lack of vocal stressing, this, like the tortoise’s  purpose, is lost.

The play ends with the blending of the times. This device brings Stoppard’s beliefs together that Romanticism and Classicism, intuition and logic, thought and feelings, can exist in the same time and space, and that order can be found amid chaos.

Mamai’s “Arcadia,” under the direction of Christine McBurney, though well acted and staged, is hampered by Pilgrim Churches presentation space.  The intimacy works well, but the high ceiling, hard wall surfaces, niches and crannies that allow sound to roam, creates mind-blurring echoes. This is a play that requires listening fidelity.  Every line must be heard to grasp the nuances. (The major topic at intermission was the lack of ability to hear many of the lines.)

Cute and pixy Meghan Grover, developed a Thomasina filled with teenage angst and unbridled enthusiasm.  She, like so many of the 1800 character’s, however, needed a Romantic era shading to her acting.

Handsome Jason Kaufman created a consistent characterization as Septimus, Thomasina’s tutor, but spoke so softly that most of his lines were lost.  This is a tricky performance space and Kaufman fell into the trap of not realizing that the intimacy did not translate into conversational projection.

Stuart Hoffman did use the Romantic era acting style of overdone shading, but since he was one of the few who did, his bulging eyes and over pronunciation made him look out of sync with the rest of the older-era cast.

The modern day cast members had an easier time in developing characters as they only needed to be realistic, sticking to modern acting style.  Scott Esposito’s Bernard was properly fey dusted, and Khaki Hermann, as his sister Chloe, was realistic in her character development.  Christopher Bohan was a little over-the-top, feigning characterization instead of realistically developing the insecure,  opinionated researcher, Bernard Nightingale.  (Is the character a buffoon, a caricature, nothing more than a device for laughter?)

Don McBride’s fragmented set and Benjamin Gantose’s lighting designs worked well.  Jenniver Sparano’s costumes were era correct and helped separate the time periods.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  “Arcadia” is one of the English language’s great plays.  Tom Stoppard’s language is poetic and poignant.  His use of dichotomies is impressive. This is a play worth seeing and Mamai should be praised for selecting and staging the script.  That said, the almost three hour sit became frustrating as many lines could not be heard, echoes exceeded clarity, acting styles weren’t always consistent to their era. The theatre desperately needs to find another venue.  It’s a shame that their quality work and the efforts of the cast are spoiled by the blurring of the dialogue, which is the basis for understanding the playwright’s brilliant efforts.

Mamaí’s “Arcadia” runs through August 3, 2014 at the Pilgrim Church, 2592 West 14th Street, Cleveland. For tickets go to:  http://www.mamaitheatreco.org

Sunday, July 13, 2014

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN should delight Beck audiences, but . . .


On a November Saturday afternoon in 2007, I anxiously entered the Hilton Theatre in New York.  I love exaggerated, well-conceived and performed farce.  I was going to see “Young Frankenstein” by the king of farce and parody, Mel Brooks.  Yes, “Young Frankenstein,” officially known as  “The New Mel Brooks Young Frankenstein,” was the Broadway follow-up to “The Producers,” by the comedy madman and his writing sidekick, Thomas Meehan. 

Brooks conceived the comedy routine, “The 2000 Year Old Man.” “Blazing Saddles” is one of my all time favorite movies.  Brooks is also responsible for such other zany offerings as “The Twelve Chairs,” “Silent Movie,” and “History of the World, Part I.”

“Young Frankenstein,” was going to be great!  Right?  Wrong! 

The musical, based on the 1974 film of the same name, followed Brooks’ pattern for “The Producers.”  He grabbed the film’s plot and best lines and modified them for the stage.  But this time he didn’t create the same power “shticks” and realistic ridiculousness, so the results were less than expected.

The reviews called the piece, “an overblown burlesque review,” “giggly smuttiness with throw-away music.” Other comments stated, “there’s more ho-hum than hummable music,” and, “you cannot escape the impression that everyone is working desperately hard to animate essentially weak material and the show fatally lacks that touch of the sublime that made ‘The Producers’ so special.”  Sadly, I agreed with them.

The public also agreed.  The Broadway production, in spite of the Brooks/Meehan combo, a cast which included Roger Bart, Megan Mullaly, Sutton Foster and Andrea Martin, a $16 million dollar budget, and direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, but ran only 484 performances.  (Compare that to the 2,502 performances for “The Producers,” or the $9 million spent on “The Book of Morman which has already run 1400 performances.)

“Young Frankenstein” is a parody of horror films, especially the blockbuster flicks based on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and “Son of Frankenstein.”  It takes place in Transylvania Heights in 1934.  At the start, the villagers are celebrating the death of Dr. Victor von Frankenstein, the mad scientist who has supposedly been experimenting in his castle with bringing dead bodies back to life. 

Hurrah, the mad scientist and his whole family are dead and the village no longer has to live in fear.  Well, not so fast!  Vic has a grandson, Frederick, the Dean of Anatomy at New York’s best university “Johns, Miriam and Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine.”  But, not to worry.  Ziggy, the village idiot, assures the townspeople that there is no way that Frederick is going to come to Transylvania. 

Of course, Ziggy, as is the case with village idiots, is wrong and Frederick, renamed “Fronkensteen” is forced to travel abroad to settle the claim on his inherited castle.  And so the potential fun begins.

Frederick needs to get away from his frigid fiancée, who refuses to allow him to touch her. (Obviously no hanky-panky is going to take place.)  There’s a meeting with Igor (the hunchbacked laboratory aid, whose hump keeps moving around his back), a romp in the hay wagon with Inga, (his well-endowed assistant), horses who neigh each time the name of the castle’s housekeeper, Frau Blucher, is spoken, the stealing of a dead body, the mishandling of a brain needed for the creation of the monster, a sex dalliance in mid-air, many reference to “boobs,” the creation of a large green monster in platform shoes, and lots of oft-hilarious (or, almost hilarious, or, kind of funny) situations).

Martin Céspedes’s creative choreography, which incorporates Borscht-belt vaudeville routines, tap dancing, a kick tap line, eastern European movements including the Chardosh, and the invention of the “Don’t Touch Me” style of movement, incorporates the right style of ridiculousness.

The depth of absurdity is not totally built into the script, so much of it has to be invented.  Director Scott Spence develops some of the ridiculousness, but he doesn’t dig deep enough to create the total needed abandonment.  In addition, though the cast puts out full effort, they simply don’t have the vaudeville backgrounds to create some of Brooks’s outrageousness.

Since, in general, the Beck audience members aren’t filled with the ethnic background needed to appreciate Brooks “mishegas,“ if the opening night audience is any indication, they won't know what they are missing.  ("Mishegas" is  ridiculousness beyond the ridiculous.  It’s Sid Caesar, Harvey Korman, Imogene Coca, Carol Burnett, Carl Reiner-ridiculousness.  It’s the Native Americans in “Blazing Saddles” speaking Yiddish rather than communicating in an Indian dialect.  If you don’t know Yiddish, you don't now how funny the scene is.

Amiee Collier , as Frau Blucher, comes the closest to understanding the level of Brooks’ farce.  Jamie Koeth has a nice touch with the reality of Frederick.  Leslie Andrews has some good moments as Inga.  Christopher Aldrich is physically right for The Monster and he does a nice job with “Putting on the Ritz,” but is neither scary enough at his “birth,” nor exaggerated enough, as he matures.  Alex Smith, as Igor, displays a fine touch with comedy, but needed to let loose more and enjoy himself.

Trad A Burns lighting design is well-conceived and properly spooky.  The lack of a fly gallery and wing space restricts scenic designers.  All things considered, Cameron Caley Michalak does an adequate job of making the scene changes non-obtrusive.  His answer to the need for a second level was not impressive and the concept of dropping things from the ceiling should have been deleted.  The setting is aided by some nice video designs by Ian Hinz. 

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  “Young Frankenstein” isn’t a well-written script and it has a weak musical score.  Is the production bad?  Not really. Martin Céspedes’s choreography added a creativity factor, and the second act on opening night was funnier than the first, hopefully indicating an increased comfort level by the cast and the ability to really let loose.   In spite of the negatives, audiences should have a fun time at Beck.
“Young Frankenstein” is scheduled to run through August 17, 2014 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

“Million Dollar Quartet” rocks the Ohio Theatre…."Great Balls of Fire!"

Part concert, part history lesson, and a lot of rock ‘n roll-- that’s “Million Dollar Quartet”, now on stage at the Ohio Theatre in PlayhouseSquare.

The second largest entertainment center in the United States is playing host to
Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.  Well, in reality, four performers portraying those icons of rock and roll, in a stage show that attempts to duplicate the one time that the four actually did get together for an informal rock session.

In October of 2011, “Million Dollar Quartet” began it’s long running trip around the country here, where Presley and Lewis were among our Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s charter inductees, and were soon joined by Perkins and Cash. 

It’s December 4, 195.  Four emerging music icons, all of whom were good old Southern boys, identified and molded by Sam Phillips, were in his Memphis Sun Studios.  They ad-libbed an evening of gospel, blues and rock ‘n roll music.  The event was chronicled by a reporter from the “Memphis Press-Scimitar.”  The next day the article discussing the event stated, “This quartet could sell a million.”  Little did the reporter realize that though that number sounded like a lot, this quartet would go on to sell many, many millions, and become individual musical icons.

Whether the actions happened exactly as portrayed is not known, but the fact that there was such a jam session is a reality.  A recording of the session, and a picture of the four, documented the event and became the basis for the musical with a book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. 

The touring production, under the direction of Eric Schaeffer, is basically on target.  The production is generally enveloping and filled with humor (mainly provided by John Countryman who portrays Jerry Lee Lewis) and a little drama.  And, of course, there is a “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

The stage literally explodes with hit after hit, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “That’s All Right,” “Sixteen Tons,” and “I Walk the Line.”  Then, there was a curtain call which features the likes of “Hound Dog,” “Riders in the Sky,” and “See You Later Alligator.”

This is a hard show to cast.  The performers need to look like, sound like, and play musical instruments with perfection.  The original assemblage fulfilled these requirements.  This cast doesn’t quite do so. 

Tyler K. Hunter is much heftier than the Elvis we knew at the early stages of his career, and though he sounds a lot like the king, and has the hip swivels and the pelvis thrusts, he’s missing the famous heavy eye-lidded stare and Elvis’s sensual attitude.  The last line heard from the stage at the conclusion of the production was, “And Elvis has left the building.”  In actuality, Tyler K. Hunter left the building.

The crowd-pleasing John Countryman, though he doesn’t look anything like Jerry Lee Lewis, portrayed the undisciplined, uber-talented pianist and singer, with dynamism.  He is electric on stage, hardly able to contain the character’s twitching, jumping, ADHD persona.  

Dressed in Johnny Cash’s signature black uniform, Scott Moreau’s deep and mellow voice and handsome dark features, helps create a nice characterization.

The alcoholic and conflicted Carl Perkins, known as the King of Rock-a-billie, was on a rocket shot to fame until he was eclipsed by Presley, including having the Perkins-written “Blue Suede Shoes,” sung by the King on the Ed Sullivan show when Perkins became ill and couldn’t perform.  James Barry physically and vocally brings Perkins alive.

Vince Nappo gives a human portrayal of Sam Phillips, Stephanie Lynne Mason is fine as Presley’s girl friend of the moment.  Corey Kaiser is tantalizing as bass player, Jay Perkins, Carl’s brother.  He plays a mean bass!  David Sonneborn is great on the drums.

Capsule judgement: Though it doesn’t have the fidelity of the original staging of “Million Dollar Quartet”, if you are a rock and roll fan, you will enjoy the production now at the Ohio.  It is a  fun and enlightening evening of theatre filled with great music and some excellent performances.  Yes, “Memories Are Made of This!”

“Million Dollar Quartet” plays the Palace through July 27, 2014.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Sci-fi musical, STARMITES, should delight many at Porthouse

There was “Star Trek.”  Then “Star Wars.”  Then there were the werewolves and vampires.  Then “Hunger Games.” Now there is “Starmites.”

On the surface, “Starmites” is a farcical musical about Eleanor, a shy, awkward, teenage girl who escapes from the real world through an obsession with sci-fi comic books.   Her walls are covered with space age drawings.  Her bedspread and stuffed animals follow suit.  Much to the consternation of her mother, the bedroom is enveloped in comic books.  Something has to change!

Change comes when Eleanor becomes a participant in her fantasies and she gets involved in an intergalactic adventure in which she is carried off into a conflict between the evil Shak Graa and the Starmites, guardian angels of Innerspace. 

The “mites” believe that Eleanor is pre-ordained to save the universe. (What kind of fantasy would this be without a shy female who turns from nerd to heroine?)  Her task is to find a powerful musical instrument (which is also a ray gun) before it falls into the hands of Shak Graa.  (Ah, the intrigue builds.)   In their quest, the Starmites and Eleanor are joined by a lizard named Trinkulus who leads them into the Shriekwood forest.  (Be wary of the green lizard that appears from nowhere!)  Of course, in the process, Eleanor and Space Punk, the leader of the Starmites, fall in love.  (Don’t roll your eyes, this is a female tween fantasy and there has to be a love story.)

Of course there are a couple of plot twists, a challenge to the destruction of the lives of the young lovers, but in the end the shy one and her geeky boy friend win out.  (Would you expect anything else?)

If one were to analyze the goings on of this youthful, high-energy fantasy, they’d discover a theme of discovering self-confidence, building self-esteem, and how we discover the center of our strength. 

The script contains many spoofs on the sci-fi genre that might go right over the heads of adults and young children, but the tweens who I was watching in the audience seemed much more attuned to the references and the experiences of right versus wrong in an out of the world way, and “in” references to the on-going language and plight of the mid-young set. 

“Starmites,” with music and lyrics by Barry Keating and book by Stuart Ross and Keating, saw its first light in 1980 at the Off-Off-Broadway Ark Theatre.  It then moved Off-Broadway in 1987 and on to the Great White Way in 1989, where it ran for 60 performances.  It received six Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical.  (That must have been a weak Broadway season.  Yes, the winner was Jerome Robbins’ “Broadway” with the other nominee being “Black and Blue.”  The never heard from again, “Blue and Black”).  Even with that underwhelming  competition,  “Starmites” won no awards.

Keating’s music is mostly doo-wop, with a little gospel and ballad sounds thrown in.  The songs, none of which hit the top ten, include “Superhero Girl,” “Afraid of the Dark,” “Attack of the Banshees,” “The Dance of Spousal Arousal,” and “Imolation.”  (No, I did not conjure-up these title!) 

Interestingly, there are three different versions of “Starmites.”  A junior version is intended for grade and middle schools. “Starmites High School” is aimed at the upper school grades, and “Starmites Pro,” the version being produced at Porthouse, is intended for community theatre and professional-level productions.

Porthouse’s production, under the direction of Michael McIntosh, has some nice touches.  It also misses out on some of the intended fun.  There were just not enough Marx Brother’s moments.  The script is fantasy, high farce, ridiculous. The audience laughed in parts, where they should have been hysterical.  The pace was too languid. (Since I saw a preview performance it is hoped that once the cast gets used to playing before an audience, they  will let loose, have more fun, and play for the laughs and realize the ridiculousness of the script.  Hey guys and gals, this isn’t Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams.)

The music was fine, but needed to have some Spike Jones-like sounds to accent and underscore the ironic idiocy. 

The comic book set, props and costumes were okay, but, they, too, could have been more outlandish.  The choreography needed more verve, more gimmicks and less traditional “Broadway” moves.

There were some nice performances. 

Lucy Anders, as Eleanor, has a nice voice.  Her “Love Duet,” sung with the animated, comic and dance-talented, Daniel Lindenberger, (the most Broadway- ready of the student performers), was well performed.  Lindenberger and the Starmites’ (Elliott Lintherland, Dylan Ratell and Christopher Tuck) rendition of “Milady” was nicely sung but needed a little more dynamism.

Colleen Longshaw wailed in “Hard to Be Diva.”

“Reach Right Down” sung by The Starmites, Diva, Eleanor and the Banshees (Jessica Nicole Benson, Grace Falasco, Miriam Henkel-Moellmann and Mackenzie Duan) rocked the house.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Artistic Director Terri Kent and the Porthouse staff, knowing their audiences, usually play it safe, producing the tried and true musicals (e.g., “My Fair Lady,” “Sound of Music.”)  Doing “Starmites” was a stretch.  It will be interesting to evaluate how the audiences respond and whether that encourages future stretching of the boundaries.  (I’d love to see them do “First Date” or “Bridges of Madison County,” recent Broadway shows.)  As for the production, I would have preferred that, as the powers that be had picked a ridiculous farce, that director Michael Macintosh, had pulled out all the stops and created a staging that was parallel to the bizarre sci-fi plot.

“Starmites” runs from July 19, 2014 at Porthouse Theatre, on the grounds of Blossom Music Center.

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE: “Oliver”” which runs July 24-August 10.  Curtain time is 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Porthouse open 90-minutes prior to curtain time. 

For tickets http://www.porthousetheatre.com
 or 330-929-4416 or 330-672-3884

Monday, June 30, 2014

A satisfying "My Fair Lady" opens the Porthouse 2014 season

Last year’s Porthouse production of “South Pacific” joined the beautiful and gifted Kayce Cummings (Green) as Nellie Forbush with suave and talented Greg Violand as Emile DeBecque, with Terri Kent, the theatre’s artistic director.  The result was “an evening of fine entertainment.”  This year the trio joined forces for a pleasing “My Fair Lady.” 

Kent knows her Porthouse audience well, and as with “South Pacific,” “My Fair Lady” is definitely their kind of show.  She directs for audience enjoyment, creating a show filled with joy, sprinkled with pathos.  She succeeds well.

“My Fair Lady” has been termed “the perfect musical” and appears on most lists of the ten greatest musicals.  It combines a nicely developed story line, based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” with meaningful lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and a memorable score by Frederick Loewe.

The story centers on Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl, who is brought from her life as a poor uneducated waif to being a “lady” through the training of phoneticist Henry Higgins. 

The tale contains many of Shaw’s causes:  the poor educational system of the  British, the class structure, the superficiality of the upper classes and the negative way in which women are perceived.
   
The musical score includes such classics as:  “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Why Can’t The English,” “The Rain in Spain,” “You Did It,” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to  Her Face.”  As in any well conceived musicals, they all move the plot along and/or etch a character’s personality and intentions.

The Porthouse production generally works well.  Kent and company take some curves off the usual course.  The music is played by two pianos, rather than the traditional large orchestra.  For most of the score, which are small ballads, Jonathan Swoboda and Melissa Fiucci’s fine musicianship worked well.  In fact, it enhanced the intimacy of such songs as “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly: and “On the Street Where you Live.”  However, “Get Me to the Church on Time” and “With a Little Bit of Luck,” could have used the oomph provided by the missing louder orchestra instruments.

Though the set was very attractive, with some fine artistic touches, Porthouse’s small stage was even more confined due to the stage design.  Large wagons, which carried the settings onto the stage, often made for some awkward levels, causing dancers and actors to straddle different stage level surfaces.  This also seemed to restrict the choreography.

S. Q. Campbell’s costumes were well designed and era correct.  Especially beautiful were Eliza’s dresses and the black and white women’s gowns and hats in the “Ascot Gavotte.”

The cast was excellent.  Cummings nicely transitioned from the dirt-smudged flower girl to the lady-like Eliza.  Her accent changes were distinct and consistent.  Her “Rain in Spain” brought spontaneous applause from the audience.  

Greg Violand, who has a big voice, nicely pulled in his volume to develop the talk-sing pattern developed by the late Rex Harrison, who created the role.  His ability to listen and react, rather than forcibly act, worked extremely well.  His was a fine, fine performance.

Lissy Gulick, who plays “cute old lady” so well, again pulled off her character development as Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper.  Geoff Stephenson made for a compassionate Colonel Pickering.  Elliott Litherland did a nice job 0f creating the love-struck Freddy.  His “On the Street Where You Lived” was well sung. 

Though he was quite acceptable, Rohn Thomas could have been a little more out of control as the drunken moralist, Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father. 

Daniel Lindenberger, Dylan Ratell, Connor Simpson and Christopher Tuck had nice blending as the Quartet which joined Eliza in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.”

I’m not sure why Kent decided to play the role of Mrs. Higgins in drag.  That device is so overdone that it has lost it’s kitchiness.

The duo of Cummings and Violand deserves another reprise.  How about casting them in such a show as “Man of LaMancha,” or “Evita”?

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Under the directing awareness of Terri Kent, and the outstanding performances by Kayce Cummings and Greg Violand, the Porthouse production of "My Fair Lady,"was a fine evening of summer entertainment.

“My Fair Lady” ran from June 12-28, 2014 at Porthouse Theatre, on the grounds of Blossom Music Center.

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE:  “Starmites,” which runs from July 3-19, followed by “Oliver,” July  24-August 10.  Curtain time is 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Blossom open 90 minutes prior to curtain time.  For tickets http://www.porthousetheatre.com

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A MAP OF VIRTUE confounds at convergence continuum

Every once in a while a theatrical production results in a “what is going on?” and “why is time and energy being wasted on this?” reaction.  Such is the case with “A Map of Virtue” now on stage at convergence continuum.

I thought maybe it was just my limited insight into the world of the obtuse, so I went on an internet search to find out the “true meaning” of what I had just seen.

A reviewer of the first staging of the play stated, “I think the play is a little bit of a formal adventure, because it's symmetrical, but it contains a varied emotional landscape which includes love, horror and friendship.  It's also about the present, the supernatural, and the ways we try to understand evil.” 
    (Okay, that’s enough to stimulate a “with all that double talk, what are you, or for that matter the playwright, trying to say if it takes that much obfuscation to explain the unexplainable?) 

The review continues, “The thing is, you think it's about something and then it's not.  It's vague, because you have to invest in the story.  There's a possible love story, and then there isn't.   There's all these bird images.” 
    (What’s the play about?  What’s the purpose of the author?  Why did she spend time writing it if the only result is vagueness and no message?)

And, yet, another attempt to educate the attendee:  “Mark and Sarah are obsessed with birds, and that's what brings them together.  Once things happen in the middle of the play, the second half of the play is these characters trying to understand what they saw, and how to live with it.”  “A Map Of Virtue is about morality.”   
    (Oh, its about morality!  What specifically leads to that conclusion?  What does morality in this context mean?) 

The author,  herself, says, “A lot of the fear and mystery and silence came out of the fact that I was in the woods; I wasn't  able to talk, and I was a little bit scared.  The flip side of that is: when you're out in nature, and you're silent, you can explore issues that are more complicated than when you're in the city, when you're so busy multitasking and your imagination can get somewhat limited.  Going out into the woods gives you a larger creative landscape that you can play around in.” 
    (Well, that should clear it up.  Yeah, sure!)

Another reviewer tries to save the day (and the play) by explaining, “In the end, ‘A Map of Virtue’ is the mirror image of the way it’s told. Just as a tidy structure frames some serious quirks, an outrageous episode becomes a window into a resonant tale of loss, lives not lived and the unlikely moments that hold relationships together.” 
    (What?  What? What?)

So, here’s my conclusion:  The narration is unclear, the plot development is unclear, the author seems unclear as to her purpose.  The reviewers are confused, but afraid to admit it, so they write in circles and abstractions.  They don’t want to be accused of being unintellectual.

You want to know the story?  There is a Hitchcock-like bird attack while two people (Sarah and Mark) in a coffee shop are looking at each other, but not communicating.   There is a little bird statue, who becomes our guide through the story, which was stolen by Mark from the office of the school official who molested him as a preteen.  The duo accidentally meet two other times, the second time at a party, are invited to a stranger’s house for another “party,” which turns out not to be a party.  They are locked up in a room, visited by a man in a bird mask and the female who invited them to the party, given little food, have no bathroom facilities.  Through a window  they see smoke or children or something playing outside, are saved by Mark’s lover who tracks them on Mark’s cell phone GPS, and spend a lot of time babbling about if they saw children. 
       (I swear, that’s it.)

The cast (Mike Majer, Kat Bi, Jack Matuszewski, Logan Smith, Eric Sever, Lucy Bredeson-Smith, Robert Hawkes) is fine. 
       (I do wonder if they understand the play any better than the past and present reviewers, the director, or anyone else.)  

Cory Molner creates some nice lighting effects.

Capsule Judgement:  I guess I’m old fashioned.   I prefer a play that, when it is over, I have some idea of what went on and take from it either having experienced a good laugh, a bit of real intrigue, a message, or a moral.  Sorry, philosophically abstract gibberish, and a plot in search of a purpose, isn’t my thing.  If it’s yours, you’ll really be turned on by “A Map of Virtue.’   

“A Map of Virtue,’ July 12, 2014 at 8 pm 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.

Con-con’s next show is “Amazon and Their Men” by Jordan Harrison, which runs from August 8-30.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Rabbit Run introduces audience to unbridled comic hysteria in "Noises Off"

Actors know that sometimes, what happens at rehearsals and backstage during a production, is a bigger event than what happens on-stage during a performance.  This idea come to English playwright, Michael Frayn, who, while watching from the wings, experienced the goings on during a staging of his play, “The Two of Us.”  He declared, “It was funnier from behind than from in front.”  This gave him the idea for “Noises Off,” a farce that is now on stage at Rabbit Run Theatre.

The theatre, referred to as “Ohio’s Premiere Barn Theatre,” surrounded by the Madison/Perry area’s agricultural tree farms, nurseries and grape orchards, is a true “old fashioned” summer theatre.  This is a no-frills venue.  The converted barn has no air-conditioning and hard seats (portable pillows are provided).  RR offers a four-production season, consisting of two comedies and two musicals.  A center of community pride, the theatre gets financial and advertising backing from the area’s businesses and residents.

The title, “Noises Off,” comes from a theatrical terms which refers to the theatre sounds which arise from places other than the stage.  And, in “Noises Off,” much of the play within the play, the sounds from off-stage and backstage are often more entertaining than what comes from the play being performed in the acting area.   The plot is similar to George Kelley’s farce, “The Torch-bearers,” which gave birth to a favorite question of actors, “Do you think they noticed?” after things go wrong on stage.  In the Kelley play, this was said following the set falling down when an actor slammed a door too hard and the cast walked over, placed the set upwards, watched it fall over again, and then held up the flats as they said their lines.

“Noises Off” centers on the performance of the first act of a British play which the audience is viewing as a play within a play.  The script being produced is a bad, very bad farce, entitled “Nothing On.”  Even the “fake” play’s program is a program within a program.  An insert into the RR printed program is the Grand Theater’s program for “Nothing On,” which includes the cast listing and fake ads.

Act One is the final rehearsal of “Nothing On.”  And, as happens in farces, everything goes wrong.  Lines are blown, props are misplaced, doors get stuck, actors enter from the wrong places at the wrong times.  It’s a hysterically funny disaster with scantily dressed women, men whose trousers hit the floor to reveal baggie boxer shorts, risqué language and a ridiculous plot.  And, as in this kind of nonsense, there is the most ridiculous of the ridiculous.  In this case, the laugh keynotes are plates of sardines that appear and disappear.  (Yes, this is a farce and definitely not for the uptight.)

The play hasn’t improved much as we find out in Act Two, a matinee performance one month later at a theatre in Ashton-under-Lyne.  For this act the audience is viewing the play from backstage.  The front of the set is now facing toward the backwall and we are exposed to the flats that make up the set, the backs of doors, the prop table, a waiting area for the actors and the stage manager’s station. 

The second act is enhanced, not only by the continuing problems with a drunk actor who keeps disappearing in search of booze, but with complicated love and lust relationships.

In Act Three, the play is near the end of its ten-week road run and we are in Stockton-on-Tees.  The personal frictions are so intense that there is a danger that the show will not go on due to in fighting.  Mishap after mishap happens, and attempts to kill and unnerve the members of the cast by each other, aids to make the farcical nature of the play reach its hysterical climax.

This is a farce which depends on realistic character development which leads to laughing not being dependent upon what the actor is doing, but the incongruity of who s/he is with and what s/he is saying and doing.  Slamming doors, double entendres, costume malfunctions and slapstick provide an entire air of ridiculousness, which becomes even more laughable because of the serious intentions of the actors. 

This play, with two intermissions, in the hands of a lesser director and cast, could be a long, tedious sit at almost three hours.  But director Ann Hedger and her merry bunch of farcesters, make the time go fast, with laughs rolling quickly one after another. 

Farce is hard to do.  Most British farces are impossible for American actors to do as the timing, the accents and the requirement for tongue in cheek humor is prime for the Brits, but almost impossible for their cousins from across the pond.  The RR cast pulls it off with seeming ease.

The accents are consistent and not over done, the realism that leads to humor is well developed, and the pacing is admirable.  Non-actors don’t know how hard it is to ride out a laugh…being sure not to cut it off too early and give the audience the message that if they laugh they will miss the next line.  It’s also difficult to keep in character and not laugh at the ridiculousness of what is going on.  Not to anticipate a fall down the stairs, and not forecasting preset things going wrong, takes great skill.  The RR cast is excellent at playing for laughs without begging for them. 

There were times when a little less shouting would have saved the vocal chords of the actors and the attack on the ears of the audience, but all in all, most of what happens on stage is impressive.

Applause to the cast:  Nancy Shimonek Brooks, Dennis R. Dixon, Bob Kilpatrick, Evie Koh, Sandy Kosovich Peck, James Lane, David Malinowski, Roger Principe, and Myrissa Yokie.

Be sure to stay in the theatre during scene changes.  “Noises Off” requires a realistic set.  The one designed by Chris Meyers is outstanding.  Due to the small stage and off-stage space at RR, it was necessary to split the set onto three large wagons which are turned individually to get them reversed back and forth for each of the scenes.  Working like a bunch of teamsters, Caerl Simoncic, Kassie Cudnik, Brian Cervelli, Alex Cervelli, Susie Griffin, Bill Smith and a number of others not named in the program did the changes with ease and lots of muscle.  Good job!

Capsule judgment:  The Rabbit Run production of the farce, “Noises Off,” was well directed, well acted, well technically presented and turned out to be a laugh riot! I saw this show in London was convulsed with laughter.  The PP show had much the same effect on me.

For anyone wanting a fun summer experience, the trip to Madison, the hospitality and hometown welcome of the RR community, as well as the quality of this production, all say, “You all come!”  You won’t regret it.


“Noises Off” runs through June 21, 2014 at Rabbit Run Theatre at 5648 Chapel Road, Madison.  For tickets go to http://www.rabbitrunonline.org or call 440-428-7092 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

“Heartbreak House” a long sit, but the acting quality may make it worth the effort

George Bernard Shaw, considered by many to be the premiere English playwright of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, had very set opinions, which he expressed in his writing.  A member of the Fabian Society, which was an utopian movement dedicated to establishing a socialist society, he attacked the English education system, organized religion, the blindness of the upper classes in ignoring not the needs of others, but for living lives of deceit and hypocrisy. 

Shaw felt that women were the “wiser” and “stronger” of the sexes, that war was an unnecessary evil, and that people and governments could change. 

He wrote dramas filled with comedy and often included farcical overtones.  He mocked and satirized to make his points.  Many of his plays, as was the style of the day, were three act, three-hour epics.

Shaw is often compared to the Russian playwright, Chekhov, who also wrote of the unwillingness of the upper classes to recognize that “the revolution is coming,” thus earning him the title of the “literary father of the Russian Revolution.”  Shaw never met with the political effect of Chekov, but his attitudes toward women’s equality and the rise of Socialism, came to pass.

Shaw wrote “Heartbreak House” in 1912, but due to the outbreak of World War I, the opening was delayed until after the war.  Ironically, many of the pronouncements he had made in the script were enacted by the time the play was produced.

The play takes place mainly in a room in a manor named Heartbreak House, which is designed to recreate the interior of a sailing ship.  The place is owned by The Captain, a former maritime skipper. 

The house is a metaphor for a place where the captain and his crew (the family and guests) journey together through good and bad, beautiful days and rain- filled eras. 

Each of the characters in the play represents some facet of British society.  There is Mangan, the business tycoon, who has been offered a place in the British government but is, in reality, a fake; the captain’s daughter, Hesione, a modern Brit with Bohemian attitudes; Mazzini, a nice person who is taken advantage of; Ellie, Mazzini’s daughter, who will do anything to marry for money as she believes this is the only way to happiness; Ariadne, the old time/old liner who believes manners and class standing are most important; and Randall, the pampered man who has inherited wealth and has no reason or purpose in life.  They each represent what Shaw saw as, “ignorance and indifference exhibited by the upper and upper-middle class that was self-indulgent and lacked the understanding of the central issues of that days British society.”

Hanging over the entire play is the threat of war, which, even when it comes, is not fully realized by the inhabitants of Heartbreak House.

Traditionally, local play productions are presented by theatrical producers (PlayhouseSquare, Great Lakes Theatre), sponsoring theatres (e.g., Dobama, Beck Center), civic sponsors (Solon Center for the Arts), or educational institutions. 

“Heartbreak House” is produced under the auspices of the Actors’ Equity Association Members’ Project Code.  The MPC was created in 1987 by Equity, the labor union that represents professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States, for the purpose of permitting members to showcase their talents.  As of now, according to director, Bernadette Clemens, this  staging of “Heartbreak House” is a one-time event.

Most plays showcased in the area, unless they are a professional touring company, may have none or a few equity members.  In this production eleven of the twelve of the cast are equity members. 

One issue with Shaw is that his plays are long. Most modern productions are cut so that they run about 2 hours.  Not this production.  It is the full script.  This gives the viewer the advantage of hearing the entire presentation of the Shavian language as the author intended it.  Viewers who are used to the recent trend in theatre of ninety-minute stagings will probably find this a long sit.

The cast are all excellent, but, due to the very live acoustics in the Pilgrim Church theatre, there are echoes which bounce around and make for unclear sounds.  This is especially obvious when actors, trained to project in large performance spaces and proscenium stages with no microphones allow their full voices to boom in the small enclosure.  This makes understanding difficult. Also, because of the echo, those speaking in heavy dialects sound garbled.  It’s a shame because, though the acting is superb, many of the spoken words are unintelligible.

Director Bernadette Clemens’ staging was excellent and the pacing kept the show moving, but she needed to work with some of the cast to modify the yelling and vocalizations to avoid sound overload.

Jason Coale’s scenic and lighting designs and Inda Blatch-Geib’s costumes enhance the production. 

Any organization using the Pilgrim Church auditorium must work on sound baffling and make their casts aware that excessive projection equals a lack of vocal clarity.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Those interested in being exposed to George Bernard Shaw and his philosophy of life,  the beauty of his language, and his use of humor and satire to develop his message, and are willing to sit through three hours of words, words and more words, many of which can’t be grasped because of the echo in the theatre, will enjoy the Actors' Equity Association Members' Project Code production.

“Heartbreak House: runs through June 29, 2014 at Pilgrim Church in Tremont.  For tickets  call 216-570-3403 or go to http://www.heartbreakhouse.org

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Cleveland Foundation Centennial Meeting highlighted by Cespedes choreography and Collin Powell speech


In the last century, the Cleveland Foundation, the first community foundation in the world, has given $1.78 billion dollars in grants to enrich the lives of young and old through working for sustaining a vibrant local economy, developing human potential, reimagining Cleveland, pioneering housing options, and preserving the arts.  What better way is there to celebrate these achievements than to throw well-earned celebrations?

The Cleveland Foundation has given Clevelanders free entrance to various venues during this year and held a major event on June 11th at the Palace Theatre. 


The highlights of that evening, were the granting of the Homer C. Wadsworth award to Steven D. Standley, Chief Administrative Officer of University Hospitals, for his “innovative, visionary and energetic leadership,” as well as the presentation of a delightful and thoughtful speech by Retired General Colin L. Powell, and an opening cavalcade developed by award winning choreographer Martin Céspedes.


Powell’s speech covered facts of his life, his experiences in the world’s political venues,  personal philosophical concepts, the value of the Cleveland Foundation, and a scolding of the present Congress for failing to compromise and work together.  As he comfortably wandered the stage, speaking directly to the audience, Powell used personal anecdotes and humorous references to enhance and charm the audience during what appeared to be an ad-libbed speech.


Céspedes’s dance concept was inspired by the organization’s visual image, the oak tree.   The choreographer envisioned that tree as the center of a connective story line through dance movement, lighting, electronic images and music.


As the story unfolded, a child finds an oak leaf on the ground.  A leaf which has fallen from a mighty oak, whose roots have grown deep and whose image inspires strength and longevity.  This allusion parallels The Cleveland Foundation’s growth from a sapling to powerful entity.   


A woman comes into the scene.  She symbolizes the guiding wisdom of the organization as she looks into the future.   


As Cleveland, circa 1914, appears on the screen behind her, we hear the woman’s voice filling the historic Palace Theatre with the strains of “Over the Rainbow” as visuals and movement illustrate the story.  


The image of the oak is framed against a landscape of Cleveland across the decades, with archival photographs moving from sepia tones of the past to the color-drenched palette of modern day. 


 Dancers (representing the organization’s Board, the philanthropists, and workers) help a girl along the path to today.

To the final measures of the music, the girl rushes toward the horizon. The oak tree springs to life.  The bold energy and innovative spirit encapsulated in the Foundation’s mission, the importance of its lasting significance, and the anticipation of what lies beyond the rainbow, is brought into focus!


Evelyn Wright, who brilliantly sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” is an award winning jazz, R&B and pop vocalist.  Talented David Dittloff did the song’s arrangement and accompanied Wright.  The accomplished dancers were: Frankie Zevnik, Natalie Welch, Holly Harris, Kelly Love, Jens Peterson, Tom Sweeney and Paige St John.


It’s too bad the entire program was not as well choreographed as the dance.  Multiple showings of the same video, and an excessively long and uninspiring State of the Foundation speech somewhat took the shine off the excitement and caused some of the audience to exit the venue before the completion of the program. 


Congratulations to the Cleveland Foundation, its founder Frederick Harris Goff, the many volunteer board members, philanthropists, and the organization’s staff for ensuring the legacy of giving to and enhancing the community for the past hundred years.

Acting far surpasses script in "Possum Dreams" @ none too fragile

Ed Falco, who teaches writing and literature in Virginia Tech’s MFA program, may best be known for his being the uncle of Edie Falco, who played the role of Carmela Soprano on the Sopranos.  He is also noted for his work with artists and actors through exploring the healing power of drama.

Falco’s “Possum Dreams” is now getting its world’s premiere at Akron’s none too fragile theater. 
Slightly resembling Edward Albee’s multi-award winning “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Falco examines the lives of two troubled alcoholics, who have flawed histories and are products of troubled families.  In the case of ‘Possum Dreams,” the names are Walter and Jan Landing, not the famous George and Martha of “Virginia Woolf” fame.

Seemingly up-tight, conservative, Walter, who achieved minor fame for writing a trashy novel, which was thoroughly trashed by reviewers, but hit the best seller’s list for two weeks, is an adjunct (part-time) English instructor at a no-reputation college.  He is frustrated by his students’ lack of sophistication and knowledge, the lack of respect for him by not only his students, but the other faculty members, and has not had sex for over 8 months with his wife.  He expresses fascination for a transsexual (male to female) student.  As we meet him, he is obviously agitated, sloshing down martinis and Scotch, and looking for a fight. 

Jan, also an “alchie,” who follows the sage given to her by her mother that, “Men will ask you to do terrible things.  Do them!,” edited the infamous novel.  The mother of eighteen year-old twins, she is obsessive compulsive.  She doesn’t like to live in a world without a clear set of procedures and focus.  She needs to have control.  Supposedly knowing that the twins, who will soon be going to their high school prom will probably “get killed” in an auto accident that night, and will have sex, which will ruin their lives, she plans to limo them to the dance and then rent rooms for them and their dates, with a healthy supply of condoms, at a fancy bed and breakfast, so that she will know they are safe. 

As the evening rolls on, we are exposed to illicit affairs, transsexuality, sex toys, swearing, panic, painting of the living room, tables being upended, decoration of living space with a possum pelt, and lots of drinking. 

In contrast to the clear and powerfully developed existential “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “Possum Dreams” fails to give a clear picture of why these people are out to destroy each other.  The language and situations are often forced, and the play screeches to a “cop out” unresolved conclusion. 

Why should we care about these people?   Why should we even bother to care what happens after the black lights indicate our experience with them is over.  What was Falco trying to impart to the audience about people, life or consequences of our actions?

Yes, there are many, many laughs, especially on opening night when, what appeared to be a drunk gentleman, kept yelling out comments and advice to the actors.
 
Is this supposed to be a meaningless comedy, a black comedy or a tragedy?  These forms all have purpose.  What’ s the purpose of this play?

In spite of being given absurdity to work with, both Andrew Narten and Leighann Niles DeLorenzo are superb in the development of these depraved people.  They rant, harass and taunt with glee.  They make palatable lemonade out of bad lemons.  Without their fine sense of timing, mobile faces, creation of situations out of rambling lines, and the direction of Sean Derry, the entire evening would have been a disaster.   They each present several powerful and hysterical monologues which are worth the price of admission, if you are willing to put up with the rest of it.

Capsule judgement: “Possum Dreams” is a poorly written and conceived script which gets a better than deserved production at none too fragile theater.  While Andrew Narten and Leighann Niles DeLorenzo are excellent, the play, itself is not.  Oh well, even none too fragile has to stage something that is less than outstanding every once in a while.

Possum Dreams” runs through June 28, 2014 at none too fragile theater which is located in Bricco’s Restaurant, 1841 Merriman Road, Akron.  Use the free valet parking, as car space is limited.  For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to http://www.nonetoofragile.com

The theatre’s next production is “Ride,” a dark comedy by Eric Lane.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Eric Coble, a Cleveland Heights-based writer, is the author of the Alexandra Trilogy.  Each play showcases Alex/Alexa/Alexandra at different ages and stages of her life.

The series starts with “A Girl’s Guide to Coffee,” which was staged by Actors’ Summit in their 2012 season.  The plot finds twenty-two year old Alex, a college grad, working as a barista. Alex’s plan is to have no plan at all.  But into her life accidentally flows handsome, artistic and some-time repairman, Christopher, who seems, in his subtle, and often bumbling way, to have other ideas for Alex’s existence.

“Stranded on Earth,” which finds Alexa, in her 40s, is the second script in the series, but was written last.  It is presently getting its regional premiere in a co-production of Mamai Theatre Company and Theater Ninjas.

“The Velocity of Autumn,” which recently had a Broadway run, garnered Estelle Parsons a Best Acting Tony nomination.  The play had a run at Beck Center last season, feaqturing a superb Dorothy Silver performance.   Velocity was the third play in Coble’s Alexandra trilogy.

Velocity found 78-year old Alexandra barricaded in her NY brownstone,  resisting being put “away” by her children.   She does have slips of memory, her knees and back hurt, she can no longer hold a paint brush, but she is sharp enough to know that she doesn’t want to leave her home and go to an extended care facility.  She thoroughly believes, ‘There are good and bad ways to die.” 

The one-hour, “Stranded on Earth,” an existentialistic exercise, finds Alexa in a state of emotional distress, “asking why do I exist?”  She’s a creative artist who finds herself in the midst of midlife chaos.  Everything has changed.  She isn’t sure where her life went off track and how, or if, can she get restarted.

As she probes and rants, she creates a Jackson Pollack-like abstract painting, tossing and splattering paint from above, then wallowing in it and then traipsing around, blurring the colors to create a final image that is much like her chaotic thoughts.

Coble’s poetic writing in “Stranded on Earth, in contrast to his sequential and traditional verbiage of “A Girl’s Guide to Coffee” and “The Velocity of Autumn” is a little off-setting.  Alexa’s grasping to make things come together in some logical form not only alludes Alexa, but, at times, the viewer.

Coble, who lived on Indian reservations as a youth, uses allusions to the artistic and religious pattern of creating “unfixed sand paintings,” ritual artistic arrangements which are destroyed or blow away after a ceremony is finished.  

Derdriu Ring is compelling as Alexa.  Hers is an impressive performance.  She flows in a torrent of torment, unable to find the right colors, blends, words, images, and clarity to explain to herself, or convey to the viewer, a clear line that makes us believe that she, and us, will be able to find our way.

Director Jeremy Paul, the artistic director of Ninja, has helped Ring develop a mesmerizing performance.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Mamaí’s mission is “to create intelligent, relevant classical theatre that offers an artistic home for Cleveland’s theatre artists, and equal opportunity for women in the professional theatre community.”  Theater Ninja’s goal is to “reimagine how and why we tell stories, and help us to create deep, fascinating worlds for the audience to explore.”  Their production of Eric Coble’s “Stranded on Earth,” with a master class demonstration of finite acting by Derdriu Ring, well meets both organization’s purposes.  

Mamaí and Theater Ninja’s STRANDED ON EARTH runs through June 22 at the Pilgrim Church, 2592 West 14th Street, Cleveland, For tickets go to:  http://www.mamaitheatreco.org