Tuesday, November 25, 2014

TOPDOG/UNDERDOG affords a conflicted look at the African American male@ none too fragile

Suzan-Lori Parks won a Pulitzer Prize for her script “Topdog/Underdog,” now in production at none-too-fragile theatre.  She also won the MacArthur “Genius Grant” Award for the play.   The script is an existential trip asking, “What is it like to be a black male in modern America?”

Being a student of James Baldwin, African American powerhouse writer, when she was a student at Mount Holyoke College, afforded Parks a model for delving into the Black experience, especially the male experience.

“Topdog/Underdog” showcases how two brothers, Lincoln and Booth, deal with women, poverty, racism, and their troubled upbringing.  They came from a home where the mother abandoned the family, the father named them Lincoln and Booth as a joke, and also split from the boys when they were teens, and the duo has struggled to find a constructive place in society.

The setting is a depressing, small apartment in an unnamed urban area.  The  brothers have a relationship based on a thin line of being brothers, but brothers of a very different ilk.  Lincoln graduated from high school and has been employed with odd jobs.  His latest is being a stand-in for Abraham Lincoln at an arcade, where the patrons pay to assassinate honest Abe, much like John Wilkes Booth did near the end of the Civil War as he watched a production of “Our American Cousin” in Washington D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre.  In the role he is painted with white makeup and given a lower wage than his white predecessor.  With little compassion, he is fired and replaced by a wax figure.

Lincoln walks through life in a coma.  He was married, but his wife left because his life centered on making money by conning tourists while performing a three-card Monte game.  When his partner was killed, he left the “business.”  He sleeps on a recliner in his brother’s apartment, which, he pays for with his arcade job.  He spends most of his time drinking, lying in the chair, and hanging out.  After his firing, he turns back to a life of shilling, with eventually bitter results.

Booth, a high school dropout with no prospects for any type of income, spends his time trying to emulate his brother’s success as a card dealer, telling fantasy success tall tales about his carnal life with Grace his “fiancé,” stealing , and fantasizing about sex.

As the prospects for their futures become more and more tenuous, a psychological battle between Lincoln (topdog) and Booth (underdog) escalates.   Eventually, Booth shoots Grace and, as their names indicate, a confrontation between the brothers brings to a climax the tale of Lincoln and Booth.

The none-too-fragile production, under the direction of Sean Derry, though overly long, grabs and holds the audience’s attention.  The quality of the acting is excellent.  Both Brian Kenneth Armour as Booth and Robert Grant III as Lincoln are totally natural and don’t act the parts, but become the characters.   Short, chunky Armour reeks of a frustrated boy-child with no realistic future, so he must invent a reason for respect and purposefulness.  Tall, handsome, Grant wants desperately to escape from his frustrating trap of a life, but doesn’t have the skills or tools to see daylight.

Capsule judgement:  “Topdog/Underdog” is one of those well directed, acted and written plays that should be seen by anyone interested in the plight of the Black man in America.  On the other hand, with nearly one in three 20-29 year-old African American males under some form of criminal justice supervision, whether imprisoned, in  jail, or on parole or probation, it is frustrating to realize that the situation may be hopeless and there appears to be no way to solve the problems.  Sad, so sad.

For tickets call 330-671-4563 or go to http://www.nonetoofragile.com

Sunday, November 23, 2014

“The story is told in verse, densely packed with rhyme, which has to be spoken so that it sounds like natural language.“  “Much of the play concerns a battle between angels and demons.”  “There is little action in the play, just a series of monologues.”  The descriptions are vivid, “fingernails pierce an eyeball and drain it of fluid, a knife slices into a woman while she’s having sex.  A body implodes beneath the tires of a truck.”  “The play is filled with vivid, vulgar verse.”

Most theatre’s artistic directors, reading those descriptions, wouldn’t even conceive of producing such a script.  But fear not local theater-goers looking for the unusual in the theatre, know that Clyde Simon, the chief guru of congruence-continuum, is turned on by such imagery.  He knows that his niche audience will flock through the doors of his postage stamp-sized theatre to see how he stages such visuals as a police chase of a stolen truck, the sex and beating scenes, and an attempted abortion with a pointed broom handle.

Irish writer Mark O’Rowe, who is noted for writing about thugs and lowlifes who have fits of savagery, has penned “Terminus,” a vivid play in which all of the action takes place in the theatre-goer’s imagination, rather than on stage.  In other words, he has written a movie script for the listener’s mind.

He does this by using vivid language to create the imagery.   Rather than dialogue, which places the actions on stage between people, he has his three actors speak monologues directly to the audience, forcing the listener to take the words and experience them.

Why the monologues?  O’Rowe says, ““The monologue is somewhere in the middle of theater, stand-up, and the novel.  You can’t look away, because everything that’s said is already inside your head.’’

Why this story and format?  The author states, ““The truest thing I can say is I’m indulging my inner 16-year-old, who loves films about blowing [stuff] up,’’
The storyline centers on three people, “A,” “B” and “C.”  “A” is a former teacher who is now working on a suicide hotline.  She is a mother who is estranged from her daughter.  “B” is a young pregnant girl, who is in the clutches of a powerful lesbian pimp.  “C” is a murderous, socially incompetent male psychopath, who has seemingly made a deal with the devil.  

The trio’s lives intersect in a series of violent confrontations. 

While on the hotline, “A” receives a call from a former student who is threatening to abort her 9-month fetus.  When she turns into a sleuth in order to track the young lady down, she ends up dipping her toe into the gritty Dublin underworld of lesbian gangs, abortions in backroom bars, physical beatings, and death.

Lucy Bredeson was born to play “A.”  She gives a vivid, performance.  Her eyes flashing, she tells her part of the tale in a direct, flat tone that is chilling!

Rachel Lee Kolis portrays “B,” telling her part of the tale consisting of searched after affection, and a near-death encounter with an otherworldly creature, with attention-demanding clarity.

Dana Hart, portrays “C,” an oddball with no conscience, who has supposedly sold his soul to the devil.  He is often compelling in his tall telling. Unfortunately, on opening night, some of the power of his last scene was diminished by some line stumbles.

Jim Smith’s set design, a series of three-step platforms on different parts of the stage, a modified crane, and graffiti covered walls, works well, as does Jeremy Allen’s music choices, which underlie many of the scenes. 

Dialect coach, Chuck Richie, has masterfully perfected each of the actor’s Irish lilts. 

Capsule Judgement:   Though compelling, “Terminus” is definitely not a play for everyone.  The language is rough, the vivid descriptions often unnerving, and the closeness of the actors to the audience can be off-putting.  On the other hand, the performances, the experience of listening to the impressive poetic writing, and the opportunity to experience intense emotional involvement, may stir the right audience to attend.

“Terminus” runs through December 20, 2014 at 8 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at convergence-continuum’s artistic home, The Liminis, at 2438 Scranton Rd. in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood. For information and reservations call 216-687-0074 or go to convergence-continuum.org

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"A Chorus Line” is “one singular sensation” at BWU

Baldwin Wallace is a powerhouse in providing talent to the Broadway stage.  In the past year, over a dozen of the program’s grads have listed, “a proud graduate of Baldwin Wallace” in their Great White Way “Playbill” resumes. 

What’s the secret?  A selection system that picks only the best applicants, fine training in dancing, voice and acting, and good counseling in the art of trying out and obtaining an agent.  The student’s culminating activity is participating in a New York showcase during the student’s senior year that exposes their talents to directors, casting agents and Broadway movers and shakers.

Two of those grads, and incidentally Aurora, Ohio residents, Chris McCarrell (class of 2013) and Caitlin Houlahan (2014) will be appearing in NBC TV’s “Peter Pan Live,” on December 4 at 8 PM.  McCarrell, fresh off his Broadway debut as Joly and Marius’s understudy in this year’s revival of “Les Misérables,” will play Nibs, one of the lost boys, while Houlahan, who lit up the stage in this year’s “Carrie“ at Beck Center, will be Jane.

The students got to hone their tryout and performance skills by staging “A Chorus Line,” which showcases a group of dancers auditioning.  Each dancer is showcased as s/he tries to win a spot in the chorus line.  The production was staged by the program’s director Victoria Bussert, with musical direction by David Pepin, and Gregory Daniels restaging the original choreography.

A Chorus Line,” the 1975 Broadway show, which won twelve Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett.  The role of Cassie was portrayed by Donna McKecknie, a character based in great part on hers life, as was the role of Maggie. 

McKecknie, a Tony Award winner, was a close associate with Bennett, who she later married. McKecknie was brought in to work with the BW students as they rehearsed for their staging of “A Chorus Line?”  

Yes, the students not only got to work with Victoria Bussert, but with a star from the original production, who is also an expert on Bennett’s demanding choreographic style. Exposure to Broadway power players is part of the BW program.

BWU’s “A Chorus Line” featured two alternating casts during its 10 performance run (November 13 through November 23). 

I saw the Cassie cast perform.  And what a performance it was!  It was difficult to realize that these weren’t experienced professionals. 

The very physically and psychologically demanding dancing was finely carried out by the youthful performers.

The cast was almost universally excellent, with many displaying Broadway-ready skills.  Standouts were Michael Canada as Paul, whose monologue about coming to terms with his sexuality, was emotionally stirring.   Genna-Paige Kanago as Cassie had the difficult task of dancing the demanding “The Music and the Mirror.”  She carried it off impressively.  Victoria Pippo portrayed the role of the bitchy and sexy Sheila with just the right attitude, not going over board and begging for laughs.  Mackenzie Wright stopped the show with her vocalization of “What I Did for Love.” Annalise Griswold was delightful as Val, whose version of “Dance Ten, Looks:  Three,” often referred to as “Tits and Ass,” was a show highlight.

Side notes:  Elyria native, Lorain County Community College and Kent State graduate, Crissy Wilzak, had a long run as Broadway’s Val.  She also played Vicki and Judy in the show’s run.  And, Elyria High School grad James Kirkwood won a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for co-writing the book for “A Chorus Line.”

If you missed seeing “A Chorus Line,” you will have the opportunity to see some of the students from the BWU program at Beck Center when the theatre presents “Dogfight” from February 6 through March 15, 2015.  The show, based on the musical film of the same name, centers on three young Marines, who, in 1963, before the night of their deployment, learn the power of compassion.  For tickets call 216-521-2540 or for information and/or tickets, go to  http://www.beckcenter.org

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Previews and Quick Reviews: CWRU/CPH, Groundworks, KIBBUTZ CONTEMPORARY DANCE COMPANY, THE NUTCRACKER: Joffrey Ballet/Cleveland Orchestra

“Three Sisters” @ CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program

Eight students are accepted each year to be part of the Case Western Reserve/Cleveland Play House MFA Acting Program.   The purpose of the program is to combine educational and professional theater experiences to prepare students for theatre careers.

Their latest production, staged in the Helen Theatre in the Allen Complex in PlayhouseSquare, was Anton Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” 

Chekhov was a Russian realist writer who is often referred to as the literary predictor of the twentieth century Russian Revolution.

“The Three Sisters” centers on the Prozorov sisters who relocated from their beloved Moscow to a provincial Russian town with their late father.  They wish to return to the refined life in Moscow, but fail to do so and their dreams recede further and further.
The production, under the direction of Ron Wilson, is slowly paced and thoughtful.  The acting is generally proficient.  Standouts in the cast are Nick Barbato as Andrei, the frustrated brother of the three sisters who was moving swiftly toward being a professor before he was wrenched from Moscow to live in the provinces,  Kathryn Metzger as Olga, is the matriarchal and spinster sister, Megan King as Masha, who is involved in a disappointing marriage, and Katie O. Solomon as Irina, the youngest sister, who believes her love is in Moscow and she must go there to find happiness. 
The images are nicely showcased in a fragmented set, enhanced by traditional Russian music, and era correct costumes.
The production runs through November 18, 2014.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or www.clevelandplayhouse.com

The next performance by the CWRU/CPH MFA program will be Phillip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story” from February 25th through March 7th, 2015 in the Helen.

GroundWorks Dance Theater, Fall Concert @ the Allen Theatre

Bannered as “imagination you can see,” GroundWorks dance has been critically celebrated as an “artistically significant” ensemble.  The company, which was founded in 1998, spreads its creative wings by performing in challenging settings including an ice house, cathedrals, libraries, outdoor venues, often with live musicians on stage.  In its 16 years it has commissioned 23 premiers from national and international choreographers, as well as 30 new works by its Artistic Director, David Shimotakahara, and 10 by Artistic Associate, Amy Miller.

Earlier this fall the company presented its third annual concert series at the Allen Theatre in partnership with Cleveland State University as its professional dance company in residence.

The nicely balanced program introduced GroundWorks newest company member, Troy Macklin, a welcome addition.  His youth and dynamisms fit well with the precision, athleticism and discipline demanded by Shimotakahara.

The program included “Always” choreographed by Gina Gibney to the music of Patsy Cline, centering on story telling, often about relationships.  The pulse and rhythms of the music were well integrated into the movements.  The second offering was the world premiere of “wait. now. go now.” by choreographer Johannes Wieland, which combined theatre and dance centering on how others see us and we see ourselves.   The concluding piece, “CoDa,” choreographed by Ronen Koresh, was a display of high level emotions, which featured the concept of focus as illustrated by strong physical and static movements.

GroundWorks next public presentations, The Winter/Spring Concert will be March 5 & 6 at EJThomas Hall in Akron and March 20 & 21 at The Breen Center,
2008 West 30th Street, Cleveland.


A joint production of the Cleveland-Israel Arts Connection, The Jewish Federation of Cleveland and Dance Cleveland, the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, presented “If At All,” choreographed by Rami Be’er, at the Ohio Theatre.

The 65-minute piece, presented without intermission, was a dance/theatrical piece which centered on interpersonal relationships by using literal and abstract movements, mainly the forming and breaking of circles.  The constant motion, and the expanding and contracting physical space, created a feeling of the altering dynamic of individuals and groups sometimes interacting, sometimes being static, other times being alone.

Though the choreography was often repetitive, the overall effect was positive. The well trained and disciplined dancers, especially, the males, were dynamic in their explosive movements. 

Dance Cleveland’s next offering is the creative Pilobolus (http://www.pilobolus.com/) on Saturday, January 31 @ 8 PM in the State Theatre.  For tickets, which run $20-55, call 216-241-6000 or go on line to www.playhousesquare.org


The holiday season is upon us and nothing seems to signal it more clearly than a performance of “The Nutcracker.”  And what could be more exciting than hearing Tchaikovsky’s distinctive score, being performed by The Cleveland Orchestra, one of the world’s great musical assemblages, and danced by the famous Joffrey Ballet?   Great music, choreographic excellent, brilliant costumes, larger than life scenery, all showcased in a tale for all times.

When?  November 26-30, 2014.  Tickets:  $20-99.  Where:  State Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. 

Please note:  Children under two years of age are not permitted.  Everyone, no matter their age, must have a ticket and be seated with an adult.

For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org

Monday, November 17, 2014

Classic, “The Great Gatsby,” at Ensemble

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby,” which many consider one of the greatest American novels, is the writer who, more than any other, painted a literary vision of the American Jazz age.  It was the 1920s, the era of decadence, mob violence, prohibition, flappers, dance crazes, high fashion, loose women,  powerful men, love and lust.

Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise,” “The Beautiful and Damned,” and “Tender Is the Night” were all classics, but nothing grabbed and still holds the public’s attention more than “The Great Gatsby.”  The novel was so compelling that at least five movie versions have been made.  The latest was in a 2014 which directed by Baz Luhrmann and featured Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire.

Fitzgerald wrote in his novel, “The Rich Boy,” “Let me tell you about the rich.  They are different from you and me.” Jay Gatsby, the central character in “Gatsby,” a stage adapted version by Simon Levy, which is now on stage at Ensemble Theatre, should have taken Fitzgerald’s statement into consideration in dealing with Tom Buchannan and his wife Daisy.  As it turned out, nouveau rich Gatsby was no match for the depths to which the old-money wealthy Tom would go to keep Daisy.

Jay Gatsby, the play’s flawed protagonist, lives in a large mansion in a fictional section on Long Island.  Many secrets circulate about the man who throws lavish parities for the rich and famous and how he obtained his wealth.  As the tale unfolds we learn that “Jay Gatsby” was born on a farm in North Dakota, befriended by a millionaire who taught him the skills of making massive amounts of money, met Daisy while in officer training school, fell in love with her, and spent the rest of his life in pursuit of the Louisville debutant.

Daisy Buchanan, who, after meeting Gatsby during World War I, promised to wait for him, also craves wealth and power.  When Tom Buchanan, who has both, proposes to her, she dismisses her promise to wait for Gatsby, and accepts.

Years later, after Gatsby has achieved his fortune, for the sole purpose of getting Daisy, the duo are reunited after much manipulating on Gatsby’s part.  Daisy agrees to leave her husband.   But the woman, who is subject to mood and decision swings is incapable of making a break from her philandering husband.

In the tale, Nick Carraway, who acts as the story’s narrator, is a young man from Minnesota, who fought in World War I, and goes to New York to learn the bond business.  He moves to Long Island, living in a small cottage next to the opulent estate of  secretive, wealthy Jay Gatsby.  As a cousin of Daisy Buchanan, Nick is encouraged by Gatsby, who has befriended the Midwest transplant, to arrange for a meeting between Daisy and Gatsby.  Little does Nick know that he is partaking in rekindling a romance between the two, a romance that will lead to psychological and physical destruction.

The story’s antagonist, Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s wealthy husband, is a self-centered, arrogant bully.  He is a true image of Fitzgerald’s “The Rich Boy” quote about the ways of the rich.  He beds who he likes, including the pretty but shallow Myrtle, the wife of a local service station owner.  It is this relationship which is the catalyst that brings “The Great Gatsby” to its emotional ending.

Simon Levy’s stage version of “The Great Gatsby, is an encapsulated version of the original Fitzgerald manuscript. This writing completes what he calls his Fitzgerald Trilogy, in which he adapted “Tender Is the Night,” and “The Last Tycoon” into stage plays. The compressed format lends itself to a streamlined play, with fragmentary scenery, a small cast, and the bare essentials of the story.

Ensemble’s production of “The Great Gatsby,” under the direction of Ian Wolfgang Hinz, accomplishes Levy’s goal of giving a snapshot version of the tale of Gatsby, Daisy, Nick and the decadence of the Jazz era.

Hinz has made an ingenious choice in casting Kyle Carthens in the Jay Gatsby role and Greg White as Meyer Wolfsheim.  Both actors are Black.  This not only takes the interpretation of the play in a different direction than the movie versions, which cast White actors in the roles, but highlights the racial and religious prejudice of the 1920s.  It makes Nick’s obvious deep seated hatreds sizzle even more.  He not only despises Gatsby for his desire for Daisy, but highlights Nick’s underlying racial prejudices.  It also puts a spotlight on Nick’s dislike for Meyer Wolfsheim, usually played as a Jewish gangster, and Wolfsheim’s being Gatsby’s benefactor. 

James Rankin nicely textures his performance as Nick Carraway, the play’s narrator.  He, more than anyone in the cast, comes across as real, not feigning emotions and motivations.

One of the production’s weaknesses is missing out on creating the required opulence of the Gatsby estate and the high level of visual elegance needed to live up to Fitzgerald’s descriptions in the book and Hollywood’s ability to create the proper illusion in their pictorial visions of the manuscript.  This was very noticeable in the costume designs, especially the male costumes, which were highlighted by inexpensive, ill-fitting suits, which were often era incorrect.  The required upscale image of the natty clothing of Gatsby, for example, and his famous pristine cream colored suit, were missing.

Capsule judgment:  “The Great Gatsby” is the illuminating tale of the Jazz Age, a time of the pursuit of money for the pursuit of money, with no moral base.  Neither the play version itself, nor the Ensemble production, is a perfect rendition of Fitzgerald’s classic book, but both do develop the basic  story and give an illusion of the America that was.  It’s worth a viewing.

“The Great Gatsby” runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through December 14, 2014.  For tickets go to www.ensemble-theatre.com or 216-321-2930

Next at Ensemble:  “The Never-Ending Story’ adapted by David S. Craig, based on the novel by Michael Ende, directed by Ian Wolfgang Hinz, January 8-18, 2015.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Mesmerizing “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time” is a must see!

Christopher, age 15, the character at the center of “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time,” has Asperger’s Syndrome.  AS is one of the five classifications of the Autism Spectrum Disorders, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual” (DSM).

Asperger’s is characterized by “severe deficits in social interaction and communication.”  It is fairly common for those with the syndrome to display inconsistent eye contact when speaking to others. They often lack the ability to pick up appropriate topics for discussion, usually interrupting when they want to say something, paying no attention to the needs of  others. 

Another common sign is sensitive to being touched or of having their space invaded.  There is also a tendency to be obsessive compulsive, making sure things are in the order which they perceive as “correct”  and setting up routines that must be followed.  If their rules are broken, they act out with loud noises, physical aggression, or huffily retreating.  Those with AS are often physically clumsy.

Asperger’s kids are sometimes nicknamed “little professors,” as they tend to have above average intelligence, and are commonly skilled in a particular subject, such as mathematics..

It’s 1998 in Swindon, England.  Christopher stands over the dead body of Wellington, a large dog owned by his neighbor.  This incident takes the fifteen-year old boy out of his comfort zone and he overreacts by attacking the policeman who comes to investigate the killing when the law enforcement agent attempts to touch him.  Christopher has difficulty conveying his ideas and starts yelling when the policeman questions him.  His movements are flailing and jerky. 

The story is told in the form of a narrator reading a book that Christopher has written about his life as part of a school assignment.  The tale is acted out by Christopher, his father, his estranged mother, his neighbors, and others he meets on his path of investigation and discovery of not only who killed the dog, but who Christopher really is. 

The tangled plot includes several infidelities, Christopher’s desire to take the A-level math exam for which he is too young to be eligible, and his discovery of reveling letters that leads him to distrust his father.  Pushing against his strong desires for security and order, Christopher undertakes the daunting task of leaving his neighborhood, taking a train to London, and searching for his mother.  There is a reconnection with his mother, a return to Swindon, readjusting to his father, and his sitting for the A-level test,.  As Christopher has promised the audience, he gets his A grade, “the best possible score.” 

We learn from the tale that as Christopher says, “I have been very brave.”  Yes, he has solved the mystery of Wellington’s murder, conquered the trip to London, found his mother, and writing a book that tells the tale!

The production under the guidance of director Marianne Elliott is mesmerizing.  The story grabs and holds attention.  The pacing is crisp and involving.  The acting is superb.  The technical aspects amaze.

Finn Ross’s video design is awesome.  Electronically, the audience is carried inside Christopher’s mind, tracing his thought processes as he solves problems, and follows street maps as he wends his way.  The viewers vicariously fall off subway tracks with him.  The entire stage, which is a large electronic light box, is like a large computer game which takes on the aura of being an additional character.

Alex Sharp, a recent Julliard graduate, makes his Broadway debut as Christopher.  Sharp doesn’t portray Christopher, he is Christopher.  Eyes blinking, hands flailing, reacting to being touched, avoiding eye contact, losing physical control, shrieking--he lives the life of a boy with Asperger’s.

The rest of the cast, each of whom play multiple roles, are all excellent.  They mold together to create the people in Christopher’s life.

During one scene, Christopher starts to explain to the audience how he solved one of the problems on his A-level math test.  He gets carried away with details.  The narrator explains to him that the audience probably isn’t interested in all the details, but anyone who is can stay after the play is over and Christopher can then explain the details in three minutes.  With a plan set, he is willing to stop the discourse.

After the traditional curtain call, the actors start leaving the stage.  Sharp suddenly turns, transforms himself back into Christopher and, arms swinging, hands flailing, eyes blinking, voice going into a high pitch, yells, “Wait, I forgot to tell you how I solved the problem.  It will only take three minutes.”  The audience froze in place. He proceeds, as the stage clock counts down the time, and the electronics illustrate his thinking process.  And, as promised, he finishes in exactly three minutes, smiles, and awkwardly runs off the stage!

Capsule judgement:  The production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is outstanding on every level.  Well written, creatively staged and exceptionally acted, it is a highlight of the Fall, 2014 season.  It well-deserved the screaming standing ovation it received.  To add to the excitement, Alex Sharp gives a Tony Award winning performance!

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is in an open-ended run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, New York, New York

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sting’s music launches a compelling “The Last Ship” on Broadway

What do you do if you lived an unhappy childhood in a forlorn town in England’s industrial north?  If you are Sting, you leave, become a famous musician, win 16 Grammy awards, write a memoir (“Broken Music”) and then create a moving theatrical musical.  A musical which was inspired by the haunting landscape from which Sting fled, and inspired him to “try to put right what went wrong in the past.”

“The Last Ship” is not a light, fun, escapist musical.  It’s more “Les Misérables” than “On The Town,” more “Sweeney Todd” than “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

This is a musical with a serious message that exposes the underbelly of abuse, the need to escape reality, the frustration of attempting to go home, and a discovery of what could have been if a person did go back.  This is not a “happy ever after” tale, even if there are some laughs along the way and a glimmer of hope as the final curtain falls.

The story, written by John Logan and Brian Yorkey, centers on Gideon, who returns to Wallsend, England, after his father died.  Its has been 15 years since he fled the working class, shipbuilding town, to see what the world had to offer.  He not only left his father, but Meg, his girl friend, with a promise to come back and get her.  Upon his return he discovers that Meg has a son (Tom), a fiancée (Fletcher), and the town is in despair over the proposed closing of the ship yard.

Gideon becomes involved with the ship workers who desire to build one last ship before the yard is officially closed.  With the help of Father O’Brien, the community’s priest, and his “reapportioning” of the church’s contingency funds, the money for the ship is raised and the task is undertaken.

Gideon tries to renew his relationship with Meg, but though she still has strong feelings for him, the reality of a secure life with Fletcher wins out.  Complications set in when Gideon discovers that teenaged Tom, Meg’s son, is his child.  The play concludes when the “last ship” leaves the dry dock with Gideon and Tom aboard, in what may result in a satisfying ending to the tale.

The show features a score by Sting that includes original material, as well as three previously-written songs.  Fitting the plot, most of the music is serious in tone, some songs, are actually dirge-like.  The score is generally contemporary rock, with some tonal ballads.

The tale is not uplifting.  Neither is the music, and that’s a good thing, as it helps cement the theme to the story’s mood. The overall effect is positive for those willing to accept that musicals can, as many dramas do, have messages that require a serious tone.

Life, and lyrics to musical theatre songs are not always, “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,” nor, “Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels.”  Sometimes, appropriately, the words are, “And whatever you’d promised, whatever you’ve done, And whatever the station in life you’ve become.  In the name of the Father, in the name of the Son, And whatever the weave of this life that you’ve spun, On the Earth or in Heaven or under the Sun, When the last ship sails.”

The production, under the adept directing of Joe Mantello, is visually compelling.  The shipyard, the building process of the ship, and the final launching, with the ship visually slipping into the sea, all grab and hold attention.

The pacing is appropriate to the material, generally intense and brooding.

David Zinn’s sets, consisting of scrim drops, scaffolding, fragmentary props, and electronic graphics are extremely effective, as is Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design.

Steven Hoggett’s creative choreography, containing much stomping and strong muscular moves, fits the score and the psyche of the mood of the ship workers and town folk.

The cast is excellent.

Michael Esper  has a strong singing voice and the physicality, that when added to his macho attitude and compelling presence, makes Gideon live.

Rachel Tucker is totally believable in her creation of the vulnerable, yet strong-willed Meg.  Her “August Winds,” sung with her younger self, Dawn Cantwell, effectively pushes the tale along.  Esper and Tucker’s “It’s Not the Same Moon,” is a well-performed, emotionally poignant ballad.

Collin Kelly-Sordelet creates a believable Tom.  He clearly comes across as an angst-driven teenager, in the mold of Gideon and maybe even Sting, himself, who needs to spread his wings.

Fred Applegate steals the show as the foul-mouthed, outspoken Father O’Brien.  Applegate is a master of the well-timed humorous line, accompanied by a twinkle in the eye.

The zaftig Shawna M. Hamic delighted with her second act curtain-raiser, “Mrs. Dees’ Rant.”

Sting indicates that writing the score was like “projectile vomiting.”  The characters were within him, “wrestling to get out.”  He found the experience to be “cathartic” as he exposed, “dislocated people railing against failure as they face tough choices.”  He summarizes the experience’s purpose for him by stating, “Maybe it’s over now.  Maybe I’ve exorcized all the ghosts.”

Capsule judgement:  Those willing to put aside preconceived ideas of the role of musical theatre to be escapist, not confronting dark and real issues, should find “The Last Ship” to be an emotional experience, as it probes the need to escape from certain realities of life, and the angst that flight can cause.  The powerful music, meaningful lyrics, emphatic dancing, and the sheer grandeur of the visual effects of “The Last Ship,” makes the production an exciting addition to the Broadway musical theatre lexicon.

“The Last Ship” is in an open-ended run at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street, New York.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

“The Country House,” humorous, thought-provoking dramedy on Broadway

Donald Margulies’ “The Country House” is a play of warmth, compassion and wit.  It is also a script of angst and frustrations.  Capping off the tale with a surprise ending, Margulies has created an old-fashioned drawing room play which tells a tale with humor and pathos. 

Margulies, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his “Dinner With Friends,” has a way with words.  His characters, much like those of Anton Chekhov, carry on conversations filled with natural, rather than esoteric and poetic phrases.

Even though “The Country House” is filled with many supposed stage and television personages who often speak “theater talk,” the characters are not fake or forced.  They are real people, with real issues affected by their careers, life’s ups-and-downs, and confusing relationships.

“The Country House” takes place in the comfortable home of Anne Patterson, a well known, aging actress.  She is the grandé dame of a family bound by experiences and secrets, including tales of lovers and ex-lovers, who are united in mourning the recent death of Anne’s talented and revered daughter.

In the four-day span, the extended family wrestles with their personal and interpersonal issues. 

Susie, Anne’s granddaughter, resents that her father, a well-known theatre and film producer, has brought his girlfriend to her mother’s former home.

Handsome Michael, a long time family friend, who is appearing at the nearby Williamstown Theatre Festival, has been invited to stay at the Keegan compound.  His reputation as a lothario, adds an element of sensual struggle among the women. 

Elliot, Anne’s brother, a “failed” son and frustrated actor turned playwright, adds his personal drama to the goings on, as does Anne, herself.

The performance is nicely staged and paced by director Daniel Sullivan.  As secrets are revealed, and bonds are attacked, created, recreated, and broken, both humor and drama reign supreme, creating the needed interest to grab and hold the audience’s attention.  A series of individual sexually charged incidents concerning Susie, Anna and Nell, all with Michael, are delightfully conceived.  Especially effective is the play’s emotional ending.

The transition between scenes is well choreographed, bridging the parts together, creating a whole, rather than segmented parts.

Technical aspects aid in developing the story.  A storm, complete with realistic thunder, lightening and rain, effectively places the right emotional dampness on the actions.  John Lee Beatty’s New England comfortable rustic living room, with a view of the outside, puts the action in the required realistic setting. 

On her first entrance Blythe Danner received an ovation.  Interestingly, in the curtain call, the major applause was given to Sarah Steele and Eric Lange.  It wouldn’t surprise if both get best supporting actor Tony nominations.

That’s not to say Danner is ineffective.  The two-time Tony winner is excellent, but her role doesn’t have the emotional highs and lows that draws attention to the performer, no matter her skill level.  As written, Anna is a self-centered woman whose career is fading and who has lost her favorite child to cancer.  She has endured a year of grief and has chosen to live her real life in a controlled way, deciding to release her emotions on stage in her upcoming stage role in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession.”  Danner’s performance walks the line between awareness and depression with skill.

Steele has a fine sense of both comedic and dramatic timing.  She creates Susie into a sensitive young lady, far wiser than her young years.  The character is the fulcrum on which the play balances and Steele carries the load with creative effectiveness.

Lange shows great depth of angst as the self-and-other put-upon Elliot, who has turned to alcohol and drugs in his attempt to dull his insecurities.  His performance, especially in the final scene, is multi-textured and compelling.

Daniel Sunjata, who is known for his portrayal of the charismatic, often sinister undercover FBI agent, Paul Briggs, in television’s “Graceland,” handles the role of the sex-symbol celebrity, Michael, with ease and style.  Supposedly noted as a womanizer, he is, in fact chased by women, rather than visa versa.

David Rasche, as Anne’s son-in-law, and the husband of the recently dead Kathy, and Kate Jennings Grant, as his finance, Nell, give convincing performances.

Capsule judgement:   With its fine cast, including two potential Tony best supporting actor performances (Sarah Steele and Eric Lange), a Broadway legend (Blythe Danner), and a nicely textured story line, “The Country House” is a play well worth seeing. And, with its interesting story, single set, small cast, and good roles, it will get lots of productions at community theatres.

 “The Country House,” is playing at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 131 West 55th St (between 6th & 7th Avenues), through November 23, 2014.

Mind-chilling “Disgraced” compels on Broadway

As the final curtain fell on “Disgraced,” the audience sat transfixed.  At the start of the curtain call, there was light applause.  People seemed unable to transition from the play’s emotional ending to reality.  But then the audience, almost as a unit, jumped up, clapping and orally shouting praise for the presentation. 

What had just been experienced was a mind-boggling, frightening, upsetting, enlightening, depressing, thought-provoking production.  A play which showcases the present day psyche regarding race, religion, human relationships, friendship and marriage. 

“Disgraced,” set in 2011-12, focuses on Amir, an American lawyer who is a lapsed Muslim.  He is questioning, among other things, the interpretation of the “Koran” by fundamentalists, which he perceives as rules appropriate for dessert dwellers many centuries ago, but not applicable to today’s society.  He is especially aware of the prescribed ways women should be treated, and how morals and values should be confronted. 

Amir’s life becomes affected when his long-time friend, Abe, asks the lawyer to be the legal counsel for an Imam who is being questioned about his possible terrorist connections.  With his wife’s encouragement, Amir gives some advice.  A newspaper article pinpointing Amir’s assistance to the Imam, which includes a reference to the legal firm for which he works, helps thrust Amir’s life into free fall.

To add to the state of affairs, Amir’s modes of operation often parallel the “worst” of the teachings he supposedly abhors.  This dichotomy becomes exposed when his job performance, marriage, and patterns of friendship become the center of action at a fateful dinner party in Amir’s plush condo, attended by his wife, Emily, friend (Isaac), and Isaac’s wife (Jory), a colleague in Amir’s law firm.

Dinner was to be a celebration announcing that Emily’s Islamic-influenced art was being included in an exhibition sponsored by Isaac, an art dealer, as well as Amir being considered for partnership in the law firm.

The results are anything but celebratory.  Amid attacks and counter attacks. His friendships and career are trashed, Emily and Amir’s marriage is destroyed, and the audience is confronted with philosophical challenges.      

If one of the major purposes of theatre is to provoke thought, “Disgraced” is a banner-waver of accomplishment.  It would be impossible for any thinking person to see a production of “Disgraced” and not be moved to examine what is going on in society and, in some cases, challenge one’s belief system, and even, personal life patterns.

It is ironic that the day “Disgraced” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Boston Marathon bombings took place and, on the opening day of the play in London, two Muslims murdered and tried to behead a British soldier. 

“Disgraced” is Ayad Akhatar’s first play.  The material was influenced greatly by the author’s having grown up in a Pakistani Muslim family.

Akhtar has stated that Muslims face an especially precarious place in American Society in the aftermath of September 11.  He has also indicated that natural fears have resulted in profiling and surveillance of Muslims, not unlike that which African Americans and Jews, historically, have experienced. 

The production, under the focused direction of Kimberly Senior, is compelling.  The staging, the character interpretations, and the building of tensions leads to grabbing and holding attention. 

Everything from John Lee Beatty’s upscale condo set, to Jennifer Von Mayrhauser’s costume designs, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting, work to create the appropriate images and attitudes.

The performances are focused and effective.  Hari Dhillon, who appeared in the show’s London production, gives a Tony nomination-level performance as Amir.  Uptight, perfectly coifed and dressed, pained, and driven, the characterization and the person blend into one.  Dhillon doesn’t portray Amir, he is Amir.

Beautiful Gretchen Mol, known to many as Gillian Darmody in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” makes the emotionally-under-control character of Emily a real person.  There is no acting here, just reaction to well-crafted lines, which she creates into a well-developed character.

Josh Radnor may surprise some with his intense portrayal of Isaac, after being exposed to the actor’s nine-season run as the erratic Ted Mosby in CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother.”  The accomplished performer handles both the comedic and the explosive lines of the art dealer and adulterous, Isaac, with understanding and effectiveness.

Karen Pittman as Jory, the African American lawyer, married to a Jewish white man, gives a strong understated performance. 

Danny Ashok as Abe, Amir’s Muslim young friend, creates a believable characterization of a man who may, or may not, be a real or potential terrorist.

“Disgraced” has a Cleveland connection.  The show’s major producer is The Araca Group, founded in 1997 by three west side Clevelanders,  Hank Unger, Mathew Rego and Michael Rego, who also produced “Wicked,” “Urinetown,” “Cinderella,” “Lend Me A Tenor” and “Rock Of Ages.”

Capsule judgement:  The Pulitzer Prize winning “Disgraced” is an exceptional script which gets a gripping production under the keen direction of Kimberly Senior.  The writing, acting and the technical aspects should earn the show a number of Tony nominations.  It is a must see show for anyone who appreciates though-provoking theater.

See “Disgraced” @ Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York, New York

Saturday, November 01, 2014

The “Whack” HOW WE GOT ON, is “dope” and “fresh” at Cleveland Play House

“The Urban Dictionary,” the ultimate source for the meaning of all words modern, defines rap as a music genre in which the ability of the performer to express himself/herself  is prime.  Specifically, “it’s like poetry with attitude.”  The source goes on to say that “It is hated by many people who believe in the stereo type that only blacks make rap and it’s always about shooting cops, drugs, money, [degradation of women], and sex.”  

Seeing the compelling HOW WE GOT ON, now on stage at Cleveland Play House, may open the eyes of many whose understanding of “rap” adheres to negative aspects of “The Urban Dictionary” definition.

In the 1980s, in some parts of the country, there was a migration of upper mobile blacks and Hispanics from the inner city to the suburbs.  In HOW WE GOT ON, we are taken to an inner ring Midwest suburb known as The Hill.  The spotlight shines on three talented high school kids who break with their fellow students’ fascination with hip hop and the inner city version of rap, and experiment with “suburban rap.”  They developed a kind of poetry, set to a series of sounds and music, which, Luann, one of the trio, explains as, “Just dumping out, but your lips must have joy.” 

Hank, Julian and Luann carry-on their war of words by dueling with verbalized poetry in parking lots and school stages, dubbing background sounds on a boom box, or by “beatboxing” [“creating vocal percussion sounds”]. They establish that “no two rappers can be in the same place at the same time [in experiences and words].”

As a disk jockey acts as the narrator, the lives of the three kids are looped together as they “discover the power of harmony over discord,”  and the synchronization not only of sound, but of life, itself.   

The CPH production is extremely well-conceived and staged by Jaime Castañeda.  Lauren Helpern’s scenic design, even envisioning a believable water tower, Brian Sidney Bembridge’s lighting designs, Mikhail Fiksel’s sound designs, and Shammy Dee’s musical concepts, taking us back to the sounds of the ‘80s, all work to enhance the 90-minute intermissionless production.

The cast is outstanding.  Not only can the trio rap, they can dance, and create perfectly honed characterizations. 

Eric Lockley is mesmerizing as the compact Hank, a young man with a vision and unbridled creativity and energy, who learns early that he is a better suburban rap writer than a performer.  He puts on the character of Hank and wears him throughout with fidelity. 

Kim Fisher is physically and charismatically perfect, as Julian, the handsome kid whose father wants him to be a basketball player, but who has performance talents to be a prime rapper, even though he is short on the ability to create the rhyme.  Fischer transforms himself into Julian!

Cyndii Johnson, in a post-show conversation, shared that she had some poetry slam experience but had no rap background before getting the role of Luann.  There was no way of knowing that as she was totally into the moves and sounds of a pro wrapper.  “YO!”

Portia portrays not only the Selector (narrator), but all the adults in the kids’ lives.  She is delightful, captivating and appealing in her various roles, using language of the day, humorous inserts, and parental vocalizations and nonverbal facial expressions and stances to add texture to the show.

This is a production that could not have been nearly as successfully staged in CPH’s previous venue where all the stages were traditional proscenium spaces.  Sitting in the Outcalt’s black box environment which has been transformed into a thrust stage configuration, where the action was right in the center of the audience, made this a special and encompassing experience. 

Come early, have a drink at the bar set up center stage, and then stick around and schmooze with the members of the affable cast after the final bows!

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: CPH’s production of HOW WE GOT ON is, in the jargon of the ‘80s, “dope” [good].  It opens the door to a “fresh,”[new and acceptable] understanding of suburban rap.  It takes the audience on a journey to view a “whack” [unconventional] side of music and modern poetry that many have not experienced.   In other words, this is an educational, enjoyable, enlightening, and well conceived production!  Yes, it’s a must see experience!

HOW WE GOT ON runs through November 16 in the Outcalt Theatre in the Allen complex at PlayhouseSquare.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A true “who done it” at Geauga Lyric Theater Guild

“And Then There Were None,” now on stage at Geauga Lyric Theatre, has had a fascinating theatrical history.  The story, originally written in book form by Agatha Christie, one of England’s greatest mystery writers, was published as “Ten Little Niggers.”  That identifier was used because of the inclusion of a British “blackface” poem which serves as a major plot device. 

When it was published in the US, due to concern for political correctness, the title was changed to “Ten Little Indians.” Later, at the insistence of the Christie estate, the title was again changed in 1943.  This time, “And Then There Were None,” the last line of the rhyme for which the book and play were originally named, was selected.

The story centers on ten strangers who have been invited to a get-together on an island off the coast of England.  After they arrive, a recorded voice accuses each of having gotten away with murder.  Due to weather conditions, they are trapped.  One one-by-one they die.  As each person expires, a statuette of little soldier boys on the mantel disappear or break. 

A English nursery rhyme says, “Ten Little Soldier Boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine.”  It continues with references to sleeping, chopping up sticks, going out to sea, being hugged by a big bear and getting “frizzled up.”  The death patterns follow the words of the ditty.

Not only the title, but the plot went through transition.  When Christie was first asked to dramatize the book into a play, she refused.   She was aware that the ending would have to be changed as all of the characters in the book die.  She thought that to make the play successful, “I must make two of the characters innocent, to be reunited at the end and come safe out of the ordeal.”  She used the ending of the original rhyme to solve the issue.  It reads, “He got married and then there were none.”  Thus, she felt she could portray a different conclusion on stage than she wrote in the book.  Interestingly, the poem printed in the program does not use the wording to which Christie alludes.

The Geauga Lyric Theater production, under the direction of Deborah Cluts, develops the story and keeps the audience involved in the guessing game of who is killing the guests. 

Though British accents waver, and some of the performers act their roles rather than being the characters, each is believable enough to represent Christie’s ideas.

Strong performances included Bob McClure as Philip Lombard, Civia Wiesner as Emily Brent and Bob Kenderes as Sir Lawrence Wargrave.  

A believable set, effective lighting, and realistic sounds effects all aid in developing the production.

Capsule judgement:  “And Then There Were None,” is one Agatha Christie’s best known mystery books and plays.  The script gets an effective little theatre production at Geauga Lyric Theatre, holding the audience’s attention.

The show runs through November 2 at the Chardon Theatre, 101 Water Street, on the square in downtown Chardon.  For tickets call 440-286-2255 or go to http://www.geaugatheater.org

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dobama’s “The Norwegians,” an extremely odd bitter comedy

C. Denby Swanson’s “The Norwegians,” now on stage at Dobama Theatre, centers on Tor and Gus, two Minnesota Norwegians, who are hit men who offer to “whack” individuals who have “done others wrong.”  Olive, a former Texan, has been mistreated by her boyfriend. She meets Betty, who has hired Tor and Gus in the past to rid her of an ex- boyfriend.  She is out to “do in” another guy, but, for reasons which roll out later in the story, she doesn’t hire Tor and Gus to do the job. Betty shares the Norwegian Mafia’s information with Olive, who hires them,  and the tale is off and running.  

“The Norwegians” is billed as a “bitter comedy.” It can also be heralded as “extremely odd.”  But the best description may well be that it is a mash-up of Garrison Keeler’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

Keeler, in his humorous radio show, makes fun of such things as the Scandinavians’ lack of emotional displays, odd choices of food, sing-song accents, patterned way of living, and the liberal/conservative dichotomy regarding their life styles.  Many of the incidents and references in “The Norwegians” sound like they are right from “News from Lake Wobegon,” Keeler’s make-believe home town, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”  That phrase has led to a psychological condition called, “The Lake Wobegon Effect,” defined as a human tendency  to overestimate one’s achievements and capabilities in relation to others.” 

Becket’s “Waiting for Godot,” as is typical of Theatre of the Absurd plays, is based on the existentialistic concepts of, “Why do we exist?  What is the meaning of life?  Why do we do the things we do?”  In “Godot,” people wait endlessly and in vain for the arrival of someone or something.  It exposes the audience to ritualistic aspects and elements taken from vaudeville, and often life in general.  

Questions abound.  Will Tor and Gus really kill Olive’s ex?  Are the duo suffering from “The Lake Wobegon Effect?”  

Queries continue.  What is this whole tale really about?  Is there a message, or are we waiting for Godot?  Is the script supposed to  be a laugh fest? Are we, the audience, while watching “The Norwegians,” a play with minimum action and little substance, also watching ridiculousness hoping for something of meaning and enlightenment to be exposed? 

Or, am I, the reviewer, trying to make more out the script than was intended.  Should I accept what is as is, accepting that, as Beckett once said about “Waiting for Godot,” “Why do people have to complicate a thing so simple.”

Director Shannon Sindelor, whose last staging Dobama was the well-praised and critically heralded “Kin,” doesn’t seem as well focused in “The Norwegians.”  It’s probably because the script isn’t as clear and effectively written as “Kin.”  

As is, the 70-minute play, with an intermission, is well paced and the acting is good, but one may question why an intermission was needed. 

Robert Ellis beautifully underplays the role of Tor. He sounded like he was right out of one of Garrison Keeler’s skits.  

Tom Woodward keeps his Norwegian “good” emotions under control as Gus, contrasted nicely with his “non-Norwegian” “bad” self.  

Christine Fallon twanged effectively as Olive, the Texas lass who wants payback.

Lara Knox, as Betty, gave a clear portrayal of a transplanted Minnesotan who blames her negative actions on the cold weather, rather than her inborn desire for revenge.

During opening night’s production, there were light and sound problems at the beginning of the show that caused Nathan Motto, Dobama’s Artistic Director, to restart the show several times.  Rather than being a negative, this may well have been an omen to the audience of the strange things that they were about to observe.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “The Norwegians” is the kind of script that some will like, some will dislike.  It gets a better production at Dobama than the material probably deserves.

“The Norwegians” runs through November 16 at Dobama Theatre and then will move to MOCA Cleveland for showings from November 20th through the 22nd.  Call 216-932-3396 or http://www.dobama.org for tickets.

As part of their social service to the community, Dobama is selling flashlights, intended to throw a spotlight on cancer.  The project is in honor of Mindi Bonde, the company’s Administrative Assistant, who is out about her fight against breast cancer.  Flashlights may be purchased, or donations made, at each production of “The Norwegians,” or by calling the theatre.  Our positive thoughts are with you, Mindi!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Farcical “Blithe Spirit” @ The Fine Arts Association

Noël Coward, the author of “Blithe Spirit,” now on stage at The Fine Arts Association in Willoughby, is noted for his wit.  The author of over 50 plays, many of which he starred in himself, he was also a composer, actor, and singer.  His satirical song, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” which he often performed in his concerts, was classic Coward.  It made fun of the uptight Brits, their penance for following custom, and their love of the “empire.” 

Many of his plays, such as “Hay Fever,” “Private Lives, “Design for Living,” and “Present Laughter,” are considered classics of world theatre, produced over and over by professional, educational and amateur theatres.  They are all high comedies, often farces, many were domestic in nature, garnering the title, “drawing room comedies.” 

A closeted homosexual, he was referred to as a “congenital bachelor.” He often took on subjects which drove censors of the 20s and 30s mad.  He continued his playfulness well into the 60s, much to the delight of audiences. 

His works are British through and through.

“Blithe Spirit” centers on a series of incidents which some think is based on a combination of his own search to find out about the occult, his desire to write a play about clairvoyance, his wanting to make fun of writers, and a way to banner his views of marriage.

The storyline centers on Charles Condomine, a snobbish British socialite and novelist.  In his desire to write a book about clairvoyance, he invites his neighbor, the eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a séance at his home.  His present wife and two very British friends, a doctor and his wife, are present.  None are believers in mysticism, and make snide comments about the whole event. 

The séance gets out of control when Madame Arcati actually summons Elvira, Charles’ dead wife from the “in between.”  Only Charles can see or hear Elvira.  The often annoying and temperamental first wife attempts to destroy his marriage to second wife, Ruth.  As Charles talks to Elvira, Ruth takes his words as critiques and remarks about her.  When he finally tells Ruth that Elvira is present, she fails to believe him.  She becomes reluctantly convinced when Elvira brings her a vase of flowers, lifts and replaces objects, and causes general chaos.

Farcical incidents happen, an accident accidently kills Ruth, but she is soon back as a “ghost.”  Eventually, after Madame Arcati is able to rid the house of the two mirages, the tale seems to come to its merry end.  Seems to, but who knows?

“Blithe Spirit” is a British comedic farce.  This genre is very difficult to direct and perform.  The Brits have a way of putting things that doesn’t lend itself to American senses of humor.  They like overdone reality.  They require fidelity to realism, but exaggerate in a subtle way that makes for a less is more pattern that is often hard for non-Brits to achieve.  They make an art out of door slamming, over-exaggeration of the trivial, and saying biting things with a tongue-in-cheek attitude.

In other words, Coward and his modern colleagues write plays that are very, very hard to present in a way that makes them as funny as they have to be. 

Many American amateur and even some professional companies stay away from Coward’s works because, even though they read well on paper, are nearly impossible to stage.  English accents must be exact, but not overdone, clear enough for the untrained Yank ear to understand.  The pacing must be alternately over and under done, depending on whether the scene is comical or farcical.  The characterizations must be realistic, real people, not being superficially presented as these people are perceived to be.  Gestures and facial expressions must be British.  Sometimes stoic, sometimes condescending, yet always in character, and natural, not faked.  This is a rough task. Why the powers that be at FAA selected such a difficult play is a mystery.

The director and cast of the Fine Arts Association’s “Blithe Spirit” try hard, but are over matched by the requirements of the script.  Congratulations to Nicole Alponat, Cami Blanchard, Justin Steck, Korbin James Lashley, Leah Smith, Marcia Mandell, Angela Savochka and director James Mango for a great effort.

Michael Roesch’s set design is excellent.  The accents were consistent, though a little overdone.  The pacing was generally good, but the production was slowed down by the extremely long blackouts between the scenes.  Some of the farce shticks worked, especially in the play’s last scene.

Capsule judgement:  “Blithe Spirit” is considered by theatre experts to be one of Coward’s greatest farces.  Though the director and cast at The Fine Arts Association give it a “pip, pip, hurrah” effort, they just can’t overcome the barriers created by picking a script with such high level of directing and performance requirements.

Tickets for “Blithe Spirit,” which runs through October 26, 2014 can be ordered at 440-951-7500 or online: http://www.fineartsassociation.org

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A haunting “Night of the Living Dead” @ Blank Canvas

Pat Ciamacco, Artistic Director of Blank Canvas Theatre, is audience friendly.  He wanted to find a script for the venue’s Halloween season.  Though there are a lot of movies that fit his liking, there were few to no plays.  So, true to Ciamacco’s nature, he decided to write one.  But, then he thought, why invent a new script when he could adapt a classic like the 1968 horror comedy cult classic indie film,  “Night of the Living Dead.”  And, to make matters even better, due to a glitch by the films producers, who forgot to register the rights to the script, the work is in the public domain.  In other words, no royalty has to be paid.

The film, which cost $114,000 to make has taken in nearly 30 million dollars and has a cult following.  Another plus for Ciamacco.  A built-in group of followers.   Stage it, and they shall come! 

The story concerns Barbara and Johnny, a brother and sister, who, each year make a visit to their father’s grave, in an isolated rural area.  Barbara is up tight over being in the graveyard.  So, of course, Johnny hides, jumps out and scares her, shouting, “They’re coming to get you.”  Little does he know how right he is.  In fact, “they,” the zombies, are coming to get everyone. 

Barbara runs when a “man” attacks and kills Johnny.  She finds an abandoned farm house with a mangled corpse inside.  She tries to flee, only to be confronted by another zombie.  She is saved by Ben, who is seeking gasoline as his truck has run out of fuel.  They return to the house, board up the windows and wait for “the attack of the creatures.”

Ben finds a gun in the house and proceeds to shoot some of the attackers.  In the meantime, a young couple, and a married duo whose daughter has been attacked by the zombies, are holed up in the basement.  When downstairs residents hear the sound from the radio which Ben has turned on, they emerge from down below.  A series of twists and turns, and a television broadcast, push the plot of the intermissionless one-hour tale to its gruesome conclusion. 

Getting the idea that this is not exactly the writing quality of “Hamlet?”  Well, as it turns out, it is a lot like the Shakespearean tragedy, as in the end, the stage is littered with dead bodies, good and bad characters, alike.

To the delight of the audience, each time someone is shot, red liquid squirts onto the patrons seated in the first two rows.  (If you don’t want to be part of the blood bath, make sure you are in the rear seating areas.)  A woman who saw the theatre’s even more bloody 2012 “Texas Chainsaw Musical” came into the theatre on opening night wearing a plastic raincoat with a hood, prepared for the spurting red showers.

The cast, garbed in bad wigs and over-stylized costumes, true to the melodramatic nature of the goings-on, play their roles with great seriousness, but with a tone of affected acting.  They take themselves seriously, in spite of the ridiculousness of the goings on, so the audience will both laugh at them as well as their surreal plight. 

Kudos to Matthew Ryan Thompson (Johnny), Amber Revelt (Barbara),  DeVon Settles, Jr. (Ben), Stephen Berg (Tom), Jonathan Kronenberger (Harry Cooper), Tasha Brandt (Judy Rose), Theresa Dean (Helen), Makenna Weyburne (Karen), Ian Atwood (Sheriff McClelland), and Will Crosby (Posse Member), plus a horde of Zombies, for being ridiculous in order to create the ridiculous.

Credit for the stage blood effects goes to Ciamacco and Chuck Klein.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  It’s the Halloween season, the traditional time of the year to pay homage to ghosts, goblins, and of course, zombies.  Pat Ciamacco and his merry band of performers give the audience a chance to wallow in stage blood, feign fear of the denizens of the dark, and enjoy themselves by watching the “Night of the Living Dead.”  Just remember, “Hamlet” this ain’t!

Tickets for “Night of the Living Dead,” which runs through November 1, 2014, can be ordered at 440-941-0458 or www.blankcanvastheatre.com

Enjoyable “Making God Laugh” at Actors’ Summit

Families can be interesting to observe.  Take for example, the family who is the subject of Sean Grennan’s “Making God Laugh,” the 125th main stage production of Actors’ Summit. 

The quintet are functional, but with some over-arching problems, mainly centering on Ruthie, an obsessive-compulsive wife and mother.  Ruthie, who believes rules are rules, traditions are traditions, and none these are up for discussion or change.

Ruthie’s “absolutes” include serving her foul tasting and smelling Fantasia Dip on every holiday, the infallibility of the Catholic church, her drive for making everything “perfect,” and her harassing two of her three children. Only Thomas, the youngest, who, at the start of the play is a priest-in training, is exempt.  The oldest son, Rick/Rickie/Richard, an alcoholic “wanna be” playboy, whose life centers on “a guy told me” get-rich schemes, purchases of off brand and weirdly colored cars, such as a “pink” Gremlin, wears trendy clothing, and perceives himself as a woman’s man.

Then there is middle child, Maddie.  Insecure Maddie, a lesbian, would-be actress and sometime teacher, is the constant recipient of her mother’s attempts to get her married, bring forth grandchildren, and be the duplicate of “Ruthie’s former best “friend.”

Bill is a quiet, undemonstrative dad and enabling husband, who puts up with Ruthie’s manipulations and control, including sleeping in a separate bedroom, for no other reason than that he loves her.  But even that parameter meets its match when Ruthie finally goes too far.

This a family filled with unresolved issues, met and unmet dreams, and angst.  Yes, a family, like many families. The negatives come forward during the holidays.  Ah, yes, the holidays, which are supposed to be happy times, but often, as is true of other stressing situations such as weddings, turn from happy anticipation to intra-family squabbles.

As outsiders looking in, the audience can laugh at the idiocy, sigh as they relive similar personal comparisons, and feel the tug of heart strings as each family member changes before our eyes due to attitude changes, realizations, and physical and mental illnesses.

The play covers three decades, each accented by a holiday.  First, there’s Thanksgiving (1980)…the era of green and gold furniture, David Hasselhoff, polyester clothing, words like “cool,” and “Fantasy Island” on television. 

Then comes Christmas Eve (1990)…gas selling for $1.16 a gallon, Pinto autos, Tom Sellick, huge portable phones with bad reception, sideburns, and dudes in denim duds. 

Next, it’s New Year’s Eve, 2000.  Yes, the time of the Y2K prediction of the millennium bug, the impending apocalypse, changes in the Catholic church, the forecast of Google, the fall of Enron, and soy beans as the farm crop of choice. 

The last scene is Easter Morning, in 20??...sometime in the near future.  When reality sets in, the “children” have found their niches in life, the physical and psychological woes of the elders are apparent, “pleasant dementia” is on display, and a new reality and family dynamics have set in and need to be managed.

The dramedy’s title was inspired by a Woody Allen’s classic line, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”  This family had its plans and they make not only God, but the audience laugh, in the process of watching these plans followed, changed, accomplished, and fall apart.

“Making God Laugh” is formulaic, more television than theatre in its writing style.  It’s not Neil Simon or Woody Allen funny, more “Modern Family” cute.  It does have its “ah ha” moments and “aw isn’t that nice” inclusions.

The Actors’ Summit production is nicely paced by director Neil Thackaberry.  The natural farcical instances are stressed, the laughs are abundant.

MaryJo Alexander’s costume designs are era-exaggerated, especially carried out in Rick’s garb and hairstyles and Maddie’s wardrobe.

The cast, Chanda Porter (Ruthie), James Hill (Bill), Keith E. Stevens (Richard), Shani Ferry (Maddie), and Adam Klusty (Thomas) develop consistent characterizations.  These are theater characters, not real life people, and are portrayed as such with exaggerated facial expressions and body movements.

Capsule judgement:  “Making God Laugh” is one of those nice escapist evenings of theater that will induce laughter, cause nostalgic trips to yesteryear for the more mature members of the audience, and incite awareness of the fears of some as they look forward to the “golden” years.   
“Making God Laugh” runs at Actors’ Summit, located in Greystone Hall, 6th floor, 103 S. High Street, Akron, through November 2, 2014.  For tickets call 330-374-7568 or go to http://www.actorsummit.org

Actors’ Summit’s next show is “Hound of the Baskervilles, the original Sherlock Holmes story, which runs from November 26-December 21, 2014.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Delightful "[title of show]," at Beck

Truth, well maybe the truth, can be stranger than fiction.  According to the show, itself, the musical “[title of show],” yes, that’s the title of the show, which is now appearing on stage at Beck Center’s Studio Theater, was conceived when one of the script’s authors received an announcement about a musical festival.  The New York Musical Festival, to be exact.  The NYMF was in search of new musical scripts. 

The duo, Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell (their real names and also the names of the characters in the script) decided that they could, in three weeks, accomplish the deed!  A script and four songs had to be written.  Bowen, who is a lyricist, supposedly wrote the words before any music was conceived.  Along with a couple of female friends, the duo wrote a script which was about them writing the script. 

Much to the amazement of all, “[title of show]” was accepted for production.  During the summer of 2004, the quartet (quintet if you count the piano player who has some spoken lines) performed three times at The Manhattan Theatre Source.  Their set?  Four office chairs on wheels, a telephone recording machine, an electronic piano, some sound equipment, a few posters, a couple of smartphones, and a lot of imagination.  In September of that year, they performed it again for six performances. 

Five new songs were written, a little conflict between the participants was added, some more short runs followed, and then the big break:  a limited off-Broadway run.  Then a bigger break:  a Broadway production in 2008 which ran 102 performances.  It won the 2009 Broadway.com Audience Award for Favorite Ensemble Cast.  And that wasn’t the end of the road.  In August of 2013, the show opened in London, numerous equity and non-equity local performances have followed, and the script was translated into Danish for a production in, you guessed it,  Denmark.

Not bad for a show conceived on a spur of a moment whim.

So, what’s the story?   You just read it.  Bowen and Bell tell the tale of how the script was written, how it got its first performance, and the stresses and joys of the writers and cast in developing the piece.

This is no great musical, no “My Fair Lady,” or “Chorus Line,” or even “Espresso Bongo.” (Did anyone but me see “Espresso Bongo?”) but, it makes for a delightful sit, especially for those who have knowledge of  the Broadway theatre and its many stars.  There are many “in theatre jokes” and celebrity name references that might roll right off the ears of non-theatre geeks. 

Does this mean, if you aren’t a member of the august community of theater aficionados, you won’t appreciate the show?  No.  There is enough charm to carry anyone to be intrigued about the toils and troubles of accomplishing the major task of creating a musical, even one without a name.

Clever songs include:  “Filing out the Form,” “Montage Part 2: Secondary Characters,” and “Change It, Don’t Change it/Awkward Photo Shoot.”  “A Way Back Then” is a tender offering.  BTW…want to hear a free song from “[title of show]?”  According to the Beck program, if you go to http://www.rnh.com/contest/TOS and enter the code Untitled you can get a free download from the original Off-Broadway cast recording. 

Director Scott Spence has conceived a production that is laid back and comfortable.  No big production numbers, no complicated sets, no attempts to make the show a classic. 

The cast also play rather laid back.  Though they are all talented, no attempt is made for anyone to be a diva.  Amiee Collier (Susan), Pat Miller (Jeff), Caitlin Elizabeth Reilly (Heidi), and Will Sanborn (Hunter), have all proven before on local stages that they are solid performers, with good voices, and concrete acting chops.  They use their skills well.

And, let’s not forget about Larry Goodpaster, the multi-award winning musical director, most people have never seen on stage, because he is usually in the orchestra pit, directing.  So, if for no other reason, here is your chance to see the cherubic Goodpaster, not only play the electric piano, but sling some clever lines and get lots of laughs.   Gee, he might trade in his baton for stage makeup.

Attention: “[title of show]” is advertised as “an adult” production.  Yes, some “F” bombs fly, masturbation is mentioned, gay sex and porn are alluded to, males are shirtless for brief interludes, and one of the girls removes her blouse, but not her bra.  You have been warned!

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  During the performance, when the cast of “[title of show]” are reading the show’s opening night reviews, it is revealed that Broadwayworld.com panned the show.  The Beck Center doesn’t have that problem.  This review (yes, it will appear on Broadwayworld.com, one of the sources that carries my show reactions) will be stating, ”[title of show],” now on stage at Beck Center for the Arts, in Lakewood, Ohio,  is a delightful theatrical experience, that audiences should enjoy!”).

“[title of show]” is scheduled to run at Beck Center for the Arts through November 16.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go online to http://www.beckcenter.org