From left, Russell Kunz as Martin Dysart and Antonio DeJesus as Alan Strang. Photo / Andy D

Blank Canvas’ ‘Equus’ reins in pyrotechnics to reveal raw emotion

By Bob Abelman

Peter Shaffer’s 1975 Tony Award-winning “Equus,” at Blank Canvas, focuses on a single, inexplicable and horrific crime: the blinding of six horses with a metal spike by a 17-year-old boy.  

The play largely unfolds through a series of lengthy confessional monologues by psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart (Russell Kunz) and – through flashbacks, dream sequences or under hypnosis – by the boy, Alan Strang (Antonio DeJesus), his distraught and devoutly religious mother (Claudia Esposito), and his strict and socialist father (Andrew Narten).

Throughout the play, Dysart is attempting to discover the deeply rooted reason for this violent act, find the cause of the boy’s psychosexual fixation on horses, and rid him of his emotional and mental anguish. While doing so, he reveals his own personal and professional crises. He lives in a loveless marriage. He is unable to experience the same passion expressed by his young patient. And he fears that by stripping Alan Strang of his fantasies and immense pain, his cure will be removing the very things that make the boy human.   

Given the wordy, thematically complex and often erotic nature of this play (there is nudity), productions of “Equus” are often painted with broad strokes that embellish the boy’s fantasies and capture his psychosis with belching smoke machines, assaulting video projections and loud soundtracks.

Director Patrick Ciamacco’s staging does not.   

His light, sound and scenic designs are simple and – by serving to merely isolate and dramatize individual performances – they are very effective. Luke Scattergood and Noah Hrbek’s costuming includes the creation of six horse heads sculpted from wire and leather that are worn by bare-chested performers (Daryl Kelley, Jason Falkofsky, Zac Hudak, Evan Martin, Anthony Salatino and David Turner) when horses appear in reality and fantasy.

By placing performances front and center rather than theatrical pyrotechnics, we are able to marvel at the astoundingly natural ones turned in during this production by Esposito and Narten as the parents, Chris Bizub as Harry Dalton, the owner of the mangled horses, and Sarah Blaubaugh as Jill Mason, Alan’s one and only friend. Even Amiee Collier as the magistrate and Katie Wells as the nurse humanize rather one-dimensional roles created to help set up and move along the story. 

As Alan Stran, DeJesus is remarkable. Though a tad inaudible at times, and often at crucial times, he bares his soul, musters raw emotion, and does so unflinchingly. The boy’s youth and delusion seem so authentic that it is tempting to call Juvenile and Family Services during intermission. 

Only Kunz as Dysart fails to deliver, in large part due to an insecurity with his lines.  Inappropriate hesitations and second-guessing undermines this character’s conviction, keeps the actor disengaged with fellow performers, and disrupts the important rhythms essential to this intense play. Several pages in the script may have been skipped as well.

Still, Blank Canvas’ production of “Equus” is a good one and should a more effective Dysart show up in subsequent performances, this will be a great one. CV

On stage

“Equus”

WHERE: Blank Canvas Theatre, 1305 W. 78th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Aug. 26

TICKETS & INFO: $18, call 440-941-0458 or visit blankcanvastheatre.com


Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 Ohio AP Media Editors best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Aug. 14, 2017.

Lead image: From left, Russell Kunz as Martin Dysart and Antonio DeJesus as Alan Strang. Photo / Andy D

Tom Ford, left, as Henry Higgins and Aled Davies as Colonel Pickering in Great Lakes Theater's "My Fair Lady". Photo | Matthew Murphy

By Bob Abelman

When we reflect back on a live theater production, it is usually a specific moment that we recall – an instant when a playwright’s idea, a director’s vision, or an actor’s performance surpasses an audience’s expectations and something special happens.

Such moments seem frozen in time and suspended in space. It is these isolated, elusive and brilliant moments that keep theatergoers coming back for more and win over the next generation of subscribers.

Theatrical missteps and creative miscarriages are similarly memorable and, for the audience if not the performers or production staff, they are just as entertaining. Awe can be found in work both awesome and awful.

Here are ten of this past year’s most memorable moments – both fantastic and unfortunate – from productions that have graced Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, Outside-the-Square theaters, and other area stages.

10. I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face

Tom Ford, left, as Henry Higgins and Aled Davies as Colonel Pickering in Great Lakes Theater's "My Fair Lady". Photo | Roger Mastroianni

Tom Ford, left, as Henry Higgins and Aled Davies as Colonel Pickering in Great Lakes Theater’s “My Fair Lady”. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

As Henry Higgins in Great Lakes Theater’s “My Fair Lady,” under Victoria Bussert’s direction, actor Tom Ford was playful, passionate and absolutely charming. These are characteristics rarely associated with the role. As such, his songs “Why Can’t the English,” “I’m An Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn to Him” were humorous and thought-full reflections of Higgins’ worldview rather than the droll barbs typically thrown in other productions. And Higgin’s eleventh-hour “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” was so much more than a song of regret; it was a moment of genuine heartbreak.

9. Matthew Wright in drag

Lindsey Mitchell, from left, as Mrs. Denmark, Matthew Wright as Sylvia St. Croix, and Calista Zajac as Tina Denmark in Beck Center's "Ruthless". Photo | Kathy Sandham

Lindsey Mitchell, from left, as Mrs. Denmark, Matthew Wright as Sylvia St. Croix, and Calista Zajac as Tina Denmark in Beck Center’s “Ruthless”. Photo | Kathy Sandham

There was much to love about Beck Center’s “Ruthless” – an outrageously campy, thoroughly self-aware musical comedy mashup of psychological thriller films – starting with 11-year-old triple threat Calista Zajac as the featured sociopath. But the moment when classically trained actor Matthew Wright stepped on stage as Sylvia St. Croix – adorned in a thigh-hugging dress and makeup applied with a spatula – was the moment when the show boldly exceeded the boundaries of outrageous and dared to go well past campy.

8. Girls gone Wilde

Heather Anderson Boll as Mrs. Erlynne, from left, Rachel Lee Kolis as Lady Windermere, and Chris Ross as Lord Windermere in Mamai's "Lady Windermere's Fan". Photo|Bob Perkoski

Heather Anderson Boll as Mrs. Erlynne, from left, Rachel Lee Kolis as Lady Windermere, and Chris Ross as Lord Windermere in Mamai’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan”. Photo | Bob Perkoski

Actual actresses ruled the Mamaí Theatre’s production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” Mamaí’s greatest strength is its ability to assemble an ensemble of remarkable female performers, and Rachel Lee Kolis as young Lady Windermere and Heather Anderson Boll as the mysterious newcomer Mrs. Erlynne handled every one of Oscar Wilde’s poignant, empowering soliloquies and each pointed piece of social commentary with astounding virtuosity.

7. “The Wild Party” sizzles

Patrick Ciamacco, center, as the brutal vaudevillian clown Burrs in Blank Canvas' "The Wild Party". Photo | Andy Dudik

Patrick Ciamacco, center, as the brutal vaudevillian clown Burrs in Blank Canvas’ “The Wild Party”. Photo | Andy Dudik

“Some love is fire: some love is rust/But the fiercest, cleanest love is lust.” So begins the seedy, Jazz Age narrative poem “The Wild Party,” on which Andrew Lippa’s lyrical musical of the same name is based. Several moments into Blank Canvas’ summer production, the theater’s air conditioner expired and, by the second song, the steamy, sticky and sweltering atmosphere perfectly matched the sexy score and its lusty performance by a superb seven-piece band – Ian Huettel, Ernie Molner, Zach Davis, Skip Edwards, Matt Wirfel, Jeff Fabis and Jessica D’Ambrosia. Clearly, this show is best served hot and with high humidity.

6. A store-bought musical

The ensemble of Mercury Theatre's "The Little Mermaid". Photo | PRM Digital Productions

The ensemble of Mercury Theatre’s “The Little Mermaid”. Photo | PRM Digital Productions

For a theater company best known for its unbridled imagination, which earlier this year was put on display in its wonderfully minimalistic “Finian’s Rainbow,” Mercury Theatre’s “The Little Mermaid” felt like an off-season, off-strip Vegas show. The production’s eye-candy costuming was rented from The Kansas City Costume Company, its set pieces were imported from Virginia Musical Theatre, and a pre-recorded soundtrack was purchased from Music Theatre International. From the opening moment, this prefab production was absolutely beautiful to watch but so very disappointing to see.

5Once more into the fray

Krystopher Perry as Ross, left, and Don Edelman as Mr. Green in the CVLT production of "Visiting Mr. Green". Photo | Courtesy of the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre

Krystopher Perry as Ross, left, and Don Edelman as Mr. Green in the CVLT production of “Visiting Mr. Green”. Photo | Courtesy of the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre

There will not be many more opportunities for 88-year-old veteran actor Don Edelman to ride the boards at his beloved Chagrin Valley Little Theatre. After all, how many plays call for a grumpy Old Jew character that the energetic and undersized Edelman has not already mastered and performed? The moment he walked on stage as the devout and despondent title character in Jeff Baron’s endearing “Visiting Mr. Green,” which was directed with immense tenderness by Carol Jaffee Pribble, the audience was privileged to witness what talent and tenacity can achieve when given time to properly mature.

4. A bad revue

The ensemble of Actors' Summit's "Tintypes". Photo | Bruce Ford

The ensemble of Actors’ Summit’s “Tintypes”. Photo | Bruce Ford

Popular during the Golden Age of bad entertainment, the revue is musical theater’s ugly ancestor. Its place of performance has been largely reduced to cruise ships, amusement parks and, inexplicably, Akron. Actors’ Summit’s production of “Tintypes,” a revue that offered a tour through 19th century America by way of public domain ditties, was the company’s grand finale, for founders Neil Thackaberry and MaryJo Alexander called it quits after 17 seasons. They produced over 141 shows, most of them superb and some truly spectacular… just not the one that left the lasting last impression.

3. Turning the Paige

Payton St. John, right, with Kayleigh Hahn as Annie in Magnificat High School's production of "Annie". Photo | Mary Papa

Payton St. John, right, with Kayleigh Hahn as Annie in Magnificat High School’s production of “Annie”. Photo | Mary Papa

Even with a feisty redheaded orphan, an adorable dog and 40 talented teenagers on stage, it was impossible to take your eyes off of Payton St. John during Magnificat High School’s recent production of “Annie.” While ensemble members are asked to blend in and not pull focus, these were impossible expectations for the younger sister of Magnificat alum and Inside Dance Magazine’s “2015 Dancer of the Year” Paige St. John. From the moment of Payton’s first perfect pirouette, it was clear that her kind of precision, passion and stage presence can’t help but call attention to itself.

2. When locals go national

Patty Lohr, far right top-tier, and the “Kinky Boots” national tour ensemble. Photo | Matthew Murphy

Patty Lohr, far right top-tier, and the “Kinky Boots” national tour ensemble. Photo | Matthew Murphy

The Tony Award-winning musical “Beautiful,” about the life, times and tunes of Carole King, came through Playhouse Square on national tour. It brought with it Cleveland-born actor Ben Fankhauser in a featured role. When the touring “Kinky Boots” recently strutted on stage at the Connor Palace Theatre, there was local actress and Baldwin Wallace University grad Patty Lohr in a supporting role. How wonderful to witness – whether for a few fleeting moments or for the duration of a production – the high-profile success stories that got their start on Northeast Ohio stages.

1. Showcasing Stockholm syndrome

John de Lancie as Mr. Wolf and Juliet Brett as Theresa in Cleveland Play House's "Mr. Wolf". Photo | Roger Mastroianni

John de Lancie as Mr. Wolf and Juliet Brett as Theresa in Cleveland Play House’s “Mr. Wolf”. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

Playwright Rajiv Joseph has a remarkable proclivity for examining big-ticket issues by way of small-scale stories. In “Mr. Wolf,” at the Cleveland Play House, a young girl played by Juliet Brett was abducted and hidden from the world by an astronomer played by John de Lancie who believed she can unravel the mysteries of the universe and find God. Early in the play, the entire set receded deep into the far recesses of the performance space and nearly vanished among the surrounding stars, suggesting the infinite expanses of the universe as well as the astronomical odds of this girl’s parents ever seeing her again. It was a moment when the playwright’s idea, director Giovanna Sardelli’s creative vision, Timothy R. Mackabee’s innovative stagecraft and the actors’ brilliant performances became so much greater than the sum of these parts.

Here’s to more memorable theater moments in the year to come and to you witnessing every one of them for yourself.


Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Dec. 9, 2016.

Lead image: Patty Lohr, far right top-tier, and the “Kinky Boots” national tour ensemble. Photo | Matthew Murphy

Patrick Ciamacco plays a vaudevillian clown with a voracious appetite for women. PHOTO | Andy Dudik

Voices soar, but staging stalls in ‘The Wild Party,’ a Prohibition-era production at Blank Canvas Theatre

By Bob Abelman

“Some love is fire: some love is rust/But the fiercest, cleanest love is lust.”

So begins Joseph Moncure March’s seedy, Jazz Age narrative poem “The Wild Party,” on which Andrew Lippa’s lyrical musical of the same name is based.

Both lure you into a Prohibition-era world that reeks of cheap perfume, gin-saturated sweat and raging pheromones. The dark and ominous musical, whose 2000 Off-Broadway run garnered Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Obie awards, does so with a brilliant and boozy score. It is currently on display at Blank Canvas Theatre.

The play’s action takes place in a steamy Manhattan apartment where vampish vaudeville performer Queenie (an alluring and accessible Trinidad Snider) throws a decadent all-night party to test the mettle of her brutal boyfriend Burrs (Patrick Ciamacco in full brooding mode), who is a vaudevillian clown with a voracious appetite for women.

Among the eclectic guests, including ensemble members Curt Arnold, Emma Beekman, Joel Fenstermaker, Richie Gagen, Kevin Kelly, BJ Colangelo and Sidney Perelman, is friend and former prostitute Kate (Neely Gevaart), who shows up with a newfound boy-toy, Mr. Black (Nathan Tolliver). He takes an immediate shine to the hostess. It is reciprocated by Queenie.

As revenge, the coke-snorting Kate seduces Burrs. The drugs, drink and rampant lust spark a dangerous love quadrilateral that inspires a musical score with jazz-infused period tunes — such as the ensemble number “A Wild Wild Party,” Queenie’s “Out of the Blue” and Kate’s “Life of the Party — as well as more contemporary Broadway ballads and belters, including Queenie’s “Raise the Roof,” Burr’s “What is it About Her” and Mr. Black’s “I’ll Be Here.”

The show also has its share of vaudevillian-esque novelty songs for comic relief, such as “An Old-Fashioned Love Story” sung by the lesbian stripper Madelaine True (a delightful Kate Eskut) and “Two of a Kind” with thuggish boxer Eddie and his petite girlfriend Mae (a winning Zac Hudak and Betsy Kahl).

Like the characters themselves, the music is diverse and often dissonant (think Fosse meets Brecht), offers complex and dramatic key-changes, and has moments that approach atonality which foreshadow the strong likelihood that things will not end well for anyone.

It is the performance of this music that is Blank Canvas’ strength and salvation, for the show’s staging does much to undermine this production.

With Ciamacco doing double duty as Burrs and the show’s director, the production values lack attention to detail and an artistic vision beyond mere functionality. The apartment, also designed by Ciamacco, is inauthentic and woefully unimaginative. Cory Molner’s lighting design fails to facilitate the play’s dark palette, decadent overtones, and mood swings. And the sound design, which is understandably not attributed to anyone, too frequently cancels out vocals in favor of the orchestra.

Fortunately, the six-piece orchestra under Ian Huettel’s direction is outstanding and the vocals that come through during the quieter show tunes are jaw-dropping. While not everyone on stage seems to be living in the 1920s, living in the moment, or capable of executing Katie Zarecki’s high-energy and always interesting period choreography with necessary grace and abandon, everyone is in top voice and sells each and every song like they own it.

Snider as Queenie, Ciamacco as Burrs, Gevaart as Kate and Tolliver as Mr. Black are truly exceptional vocal talents. Their solo numbers are astounding. But the Act I duet between Burrs and Queenie in “What Is It About Her,” the Act II duet between Mr. Black and Queenie in “Come With Me,” and the four-part harmonies delivered by these four featured actors in “Poor Child” and “Listen to Me” represent some of the best musical performances seen on a Cleveland stage.

While Gevaart and Tolliver still seem to be searching for their characters, such is not the case with Snider and Ciamacco, who are mesmeric. So are Hudak, Kahl, Justin Woody and Liz Woodard, who do much of the featured dancing and add much of the ambient decadence that is so important to this musical. In all likelihood, it is their cheap perfume, gin-saturated sweat, and raging pheromones that linger in the cramped performance space.

The lingering on the night of my attendance was due to a lack of air circulation and conditioning in the theater. While steamy and sticky are not ideal conditions in which to see musical theater, it sure works to the benefit of “The Wild Party.”

If you go, and go you should, choose a night with a high relative humidity. CV

On stage

WHAT: “The Wild Party”

WHERE: Blank Canvas Theatre, 1305 W. 78th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through June 4

TICKETS & INFO: $18, call 440-941-0458 or visit blankcanvastheatre.com.


Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 27, 2016.

Lead image: Patrick Ciamacco plays a vaudevillian clown with a voracious appetite for women. PHOTO | Andy Dudik

Joe Kendere, from left, as Richard Hannay, Kevin Kelly as Clown No. 1, Michael Prosen as Clown No. 2 and Rachael Swartz as Annabella/Pamela/Margaret. PHOTO | Andy Dudik

Blank Canvas Theatre’s film noir parody ‘The 39 Steps’ takes flight but cuts corners

By Bob Abelman

In the opening scene of Patrick Barlow’s aerobic stage adaptation of the classic, 1935 Alfred Hitchcock spy movie “The 39 Steps,” dashing and abundantly bored Richard Hannay seeks “something mindless and trivial, something utterly pointless” to amuse himself. So he goes to the theater.

Once there, he inadvertently gets mixed up with double agents, accidentally uncovers a plot to steal vital British military secrets, gets framed for murder and, of course, takes it on the lam.

Audiences also seeking something mindless will find it in Blank Canvas Theatre’s thoroughly entertaining but relatively low-risk production of this 2008 Tony Award-winning play.

“The 39 Steps” is a romp from beginning to end — a parody of film noir romantic thrillers with their low-budget aesthetics, gentlemanly heroes with mysterious femme fatales, dark and misty ambiance, and abrupt twists and turns. Every cinematic cliché, every cloak-and-dagger genre convention, and every Hitchcockian quirk is accentuated in this immensely clever play.

All this is handled nicely by the talented cast, consisting of Joe Kenderes as our square-jawed and thin-mustached hero Richard Hannay, Rachael Swartz as all of the female protagonists found in film noir storytelling, and Kevin Kelly and Michael Prosen as everyone else.

However, much of the work’s theatrical extravagances and creative indulgences are rendered a tad less theatrical and indulgent in this production.

Under Patrick Ciamacco’s vision and direction, this production circumvents the prerequisite and much relied upon athleticism of the cast and the imagination of the audience as everyday objects get turned into objects d’art reflective of Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers. Instead, it often takes technological short cuts.

Case in point is the wonderful chase scene atop a speeding train which, as originally conceived, was meant to be executed with only a handful of wood crates, some dramatic lighting, and the immense physicality and miming skills of the performers. Here at Blank Canvas — in opposition to its namesake — the train is given form and animation by projected imagery designed by Perren Hedderson.

While this certainly adds an intriguing cinematic component to a play that parodies Hitchcock’s signature cinematography, it misses the point — and much of the fun — of having to manufacture on stage and from scratch what was made for the screen.

In addition to technological short cuts, this production somewhat diminishes the archetypes that define film noir. Kenderes’ frenzied Hannay is a delight, but he strays from the character type’s perpetually cocked eyebrow and cavalier approach to danger. And Ciamacco abandons the play’s tendency to make its characters overtly self-aware and who seem, to our amusement, to recognize their own absurd melodrama. Here, they just talk back to the audience.

Also, as Clown No. 1 and Clown No. 2 — roles crafted to deliver vaudevillian showmanship, particularly in scenes requiring quick costume and character changes — Kelly and Prosen lack the necessary speed, dexterity and collective comic timing to pull it off. Instead, they merely clown around. Fortunately, Kelly is particularly adept at manifesting and milking very funny moments outside the script.

In short, Blank Canvas has prioritized silly over style, which while playful and very entertaining, is pedestrian. This production takes “mindless and trivial, something utterly pointless” a bit too literally. CV

On stage

WHAT: “The 39 Steps”

WHERE: Blank Canvas Theatre, 1305 W. 78th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through March 19

TICKETS & INFO: $18, visit blankcanvastheatre.com or call 440-941-0458


Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on March 17, 2016.

Lead image: Joe Kendere, from left, as Richard Hannay, Kevin Kelly as Clown No. 1, Michael Prosen as Clown No. 2 and Rachael Swartz as Annabella/Pamela/Margaret. PHOTO | Andy Dudik