Annie Fox as Anne Frank. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

CPH’s ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ so much more than a memorial

By Bob Abelman

It’s not often that we go to the theater to feel anguish, futility and the sorrow that stems from inconceivable inhumanity. We typically go to the theater to escape those feelings.

But Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s dramatization of the writings of a 13-year-old diarist is built for that very purpose. “The Diary of Anne Frank” offers a first-person account of how Anne, her family and a handful of acquaintances survived in hiding for two years in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam before their capture. And it asks us to never forget.

By rediscovering and publishing her now-famous diary after the war, Anne’s father lifted the young girl from among the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis and turned her, for many, into the innocent face and hopeful voice of the Holocaust.

The play opened on Broadway in 1955 and won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award. In 1959, the play was turned into an Oscar-winning film.

In 1997, for a Broadway revival, “The Diary of Anne Frank” was adapted by Wendy Kesselman, who removed much of the pandering sentimentality and placating melodrama of the original work and reasserted the historic Anne’s darker vision, unflattering disclosures, budding sexuality, as well as the diary’s overt Jewishness.

And in the Cleveland Play House’s revisiting of this play – having staged the earlier incarnation during its 1958-1959 and 1996-1997 seasons – director Laura Kepley finds all its dramatic beats and very human moments, and turns what could easily be an historical re-creation or revered testimonial into a resonating piece of theater.

To do this, the play is being staged in ¾-round with the first row of seats so close to the action that audience members are nearly co-inhabitants of the dusty, oppressive annex. And scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan wraps the entire outer circumference of the Outcalt Theatre arena in barbed wire to create that sensation for the rest of us.

Because of this staging, the walls and doors that separate the narrow living quarters of the annex have been removed, sacrificing a degree of realism for the sake of sightlines. This is only a momentary distraction, for it is one of many artistic choices made to add theatricality to the dramatic story being told.

Another is surround-sound designer Daniel Perelstein’s super-saturation of the space with the occasional blare of a passing police siren, the chiming of the bell from the Westerkerk church’s clock tower, the roar of planes flying by overhead and the exploding bombs they leave in their wake and, most poignantly, trains leaving the station.

When the script calls for Anne to read aloud from her diary, the actress is coated in bright, isolating overhead lighting courtesy of designer Mary Louise Geiger, as the other occupants of the annex stand in shadow, momentarily frozen in time and space.

Between scenes, we are reminded of the world outside by the dramatically lit Nazis ominously patrolling the perimeter above our seats.

Kepley pays particularly close attention to how tempers fray, trivialities and personality quirks become all-consuming aggravations, and hope and strength dissipates as weeks in hiding turn into months and months become years.

And Kesselman’s script gives added depth and richness to Anne’s romanticized vision of each character, which the CPH performers feast upon.

As Anne’s father Otto, Rick D. Wasserman walks that fine line between saint and survivor with perfect balance and distinction.  The same is true for Amy Fritsche and Tom Woodward’s portrayal of Miep Gies and Mr. Kraler, who heroically but humbly provide provisions.

As Anne’s mother, Lisa Bruneau bares the weight of Anne’s disdain and what the script suggests is a heightened sense of fatalism with remarkable grace.  And as Anne’s meek and nearly invisible sister, Margot, Sarah Cuneo bestows on her a quiet integrity that keeps her always present.

Anne’s diary and the original play paint Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan as relative caricatures, but Bruce Winant and Laura Perrotta turn them into fully fleshed people, which complements Yaron Lotan’s brilliantly nuanced and very realistic portrayal of their awkward teenage son Peter.  Lee Wilkof, as dentist Mr. Dussel, is similarly well-rounded and interesting to watch.

Best of all is NYU graduate Annie Fox as Anne Frank, who brilliantly captures the quicksilver quality that Anne recognized in herself.  In Fox’s portrayal, we get a glimpse of the actual Anne – the optimist, the agitator and the living, breathing young woman at the center of this heart-breaking story.

The only moment in this production that falls short is the Nazis’ (Paul Bugallo, Randy Merrill and Peter Hargrave) 11th-hour invasion of the annex. They arrive with unexpected stealth that manages to suck the air out of the audience, but then they linger, pushing and pillaging before slowly extracting the annex’s extended family. How much more effective it would have been if everyone was quickly whisked off the stage and, in the immediate emptiness and immense silence, out of existence.

Playwright Kesselman’s final addition to the script comes to the rescue. Here we find Otto returning to the attic, retrieving the diary, and recounting – one by one – the horrific fates of the others. It is a moment of unbearable grief that is all too familiar to many in attendance and, thanks to Wasserman’s sensitive portrayal, immediately comprehendible to everyone else. CV

On stage

“The Diary of Anne Frank”

WHERE: Cleveland Play House, Outcalt Theatre, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Oct. 21 – Nov. 19

TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $105, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com


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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on October 28, 2017.

Lead image: Annie Fox as Anne Frank. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Anne Frank

‘The Diary of Anne Frank’

By Bob Abelman

“I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone . . . and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support. …”

And so begins, on June 12, 1942, young Anne Frank’s diary, which remains one of the most widely read and powerful testimonies to the horrors endured by Jewish people in World War II.

By rediscovering and publishing her now-famous diary after the war, Anne’s father lifted the 13-year-old girl from among the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis and turned her, for many, into the face and voice of the Holocaust.

First published in 1947, the book has sold more than 25 million copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages. The play, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a dramatization by Francis Goodch and Albert Hackett, opened on Broadway in 1955.  It won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. In 1959, the play was turned into an Oscar-winning film.

When the play was first produced, the war against Nazi Germany had been over only 10 years. Adolf Eichmann was alive and the magnitude of the Holocaust was still being revealed. It remained incomprehensible for many and so the play was both powerful and placating.

In 1997, for a Broadway revival, the play was revisited by Wendy Kesselman, who removed much of the sentimentality and melodrama and reasserted the historic Anne’s darker vision as well as the diary’s overt Jewishness.

Although the Cleveland Play House has staged “The Diary of Anne Frank” twice before – during the 1958-59 and 1996-97 seasons – the upcoming production will be the first to use Kesselman’s adaptation.


Laura Kepley

Laura Kepley

The Cleveland Jewish News interviewed director Laura Kepley the day before cast members met for a first reading of the script, to discuss what she has in store for all of us.

CJN:  As the artistic director of the CPH, why select this play for the current season?  

Kepley: This story is always important to tell. But there are a lot of things going on in the world right now where stories like this can offer perspective and inspiration.

CJN:  The play has become so iconic for many people.  How does this impact your approach to the work?

Kepley:  We need to tell this story as truthfully as we can. You can’t play a symbol. It is important to find the truth in these characters and in their relationships. We need to make the on-stage family dynamics as nuanced as the real thing.

CJN: Is that easier to do with Kesselman’s adaptation of the play? Rather than being the torchbearer for the collective experience of victims of the Holocaust, this Anne seems actual.

Kepley: Absolutely. This adaptation is so compelling because it doesn’t sugarcoat or smooth out Anne’s rough edges. It lets Anne be a teenaged young woman who is vivacious, precocious and has a fierce intelligence. And everyone in the attic needs to deal with that, among so many other things.

CJN: Given this portrayal of Anne, what key qualities were you looking for in an actor to play her?

Kepley: In re-reading the diary, I recall Anne’s description of herself as “quicksilver” – something that moves or changes very quickly, something that is difficult to hold or contain. We found this quality in Annie Fox, a New York-based actor. I have to say, she blew me away during auditions. She made the language in the script seem visceral and managed to put on display all the changes Anne Frank goes through during her two years in captivity. Also, this is a tour de force role, and Annie has the professional training and experience to handle all the language and the vocal demands of the show.

CJN: Tell us about your staging of the work.  

Kepley: We are doing this in the intimate Outcalt Theatre space, which allows us to stage it almost in the round.  And when Anne is in her room on her bed, there will be audience members no further than three feet from her. When Mrs. Van Daan is in the kitchen, there will be audience members 2 feet away. When people leave for intermission, the actors stay put. In this play, we are watching people live under extraordinary circumstances. We want the audience to feel as if it is living them as well.

On stage

“The Diary of Anne Frank”

WHERE: Cleveland Play House, Outcalt Theatre, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Oct. 21 – Nov. 19

TICKETS & INFO: $25 – $105, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com


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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News October 11, 2017.

Lead image: Anne Frank

Collab_Web_Cover

When Northeast Ohio’s theaters collaborate, audiences benefit

By Bob Abelman

Theater is often described as a collaborative art – a joining of talents on stage and behind it. But collaboration most often takes place within producing theater companies and not between them.

Standing in the way of cooperative companies and creative partnerships is the significant competition that exists for rears to fill the tiers.

And because ticket sales to season subscribers and walk-in audiences account for less than 50 percent of the cost of doing business, local theater companies are also in competition for community and government resources, foundation support, corporate underwriting and the contributions of individual philanthropists to subsidize their work.

In short, collaboration is the equivalent of sleeping with the enemy.   

And yet we have seen an influx of theater partnerships in recent years. Some are fairly innocuous, such as when a consortium of local theaters comes together to host a joint audition for an upcoming season. Others reflect a temporary coming together that serves to support the arts in a community, such as when theater companies cross-promote or offer discounted tickets to each other’s work in playbills and on social media.

But, increasingly, there are companies willing to pool resources in order to share the financial costs associated with artistic risk-taking and innovation. Many theaters are seeing collaboration as a way to fill the creative gaps between what they must do to survive, what they can do, and what they would like to do. And there are partnerships motivated by the desire to give emerging artists at one venue a larger or more diverse platform at others.

We see all this happening in major cities with vibrant theater communities. Just recently, in a show of support for new plays, the Second Stage Theater in New York and the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles agreed to commission a series of world premiere works by American writers that will be staged first in California and then on Broadway.

Here in Cleveland, we also see collaboration. And we asked the artistic and managing directors of partnering professional theaters about the costs and benefits – for the respective companies and for their audiences – of having such strange bedfellows.    

A May-December romance:

Beck Center for the Arts and Baldwin Wallace University

Since 1999, under artistic director Scott Spence’s guidance, Lakewood’s Beck Center for the Arts has systematically worked toward professionalizing its theater offerings, including the provision of Equity contracts for actors. It is now recognized as one of the stronger, year-round professional theaters that produce musicals.   

For the past six years, Beck Center’s annual production schedule has included one musical infused with young talent found due south on the small Berea campus of Baldwin Wallace University. There, in its conservatory of music, is a musical theater program under Victoria Bussert’s direction that ranks high among the elite programs in the country. Within the program resides a pool of talented undergraduates who, upon graduation or sooner, have been landing agents and lead roles on Broadway and London’s West End.

As the musical theater program grew over the years, the on-campus stage facilities shared with BW’s opera and theater programs proved limiting in size and availability. Having worked at the Beck Center as a freelance director, Bussert worked out a formal partnership with Spence’s theater, where the students and the faculty design team are hired on as professionals. Mainstage collaborations have included “Carrie,” “In the Heights,” and most recently, “Bring It On.” Canvas recently spoke to Bussert and Spence, who describe the partnership:

Bussert: Scott and I have been able to choose projects that are attractive to the Beck Center audiences and accommodate the nature of our young casting population and our educational mission. Everything we do at BW has to have an educational element, so I am always looking for performance opportunities that teach the kids new skill sets.

Spence: This partnership gives us a greater opportunity to seek out those shows that have appeal to younger audiences and require a cast of younger actors. Every theater has an obligation to its older subscriber base, but it must also vary its product in order to invest in tomorrow’s audiences.

Bussert: Remember, these are college students who all have choir commitments up to their junior year, a full academic and performance skills course load, workshops and workouts at ballet boot camp, auditions and rehearsals for other projects.   

Spence: Once we were able to work out a scheduling formula, this partnership has been nothing but fantastic.

Bussert:  The 20-minute drive from Berea gives the students’ brains time to shift into “I’m leaving as a student and arriving as a professional.” And their experience at Beck – the shorter rehearsal time on stage and the longer production schedule, the working with professionals who do not operate the same way their teachers do, the audiences who are paying customers and not just supportive colleagues – offers valuable insight into the life of a working professional actor.

Spence: Just recently, I went to Columbus to do a Congressional tour and meet with the Ohio Arts Council. The council had taken notice of this partnership between the Beck Center and BW, to the point where it said it wanted to work with us to not only form a statewide model for academic and professional collaborations but a national model as well. We are pretty jazzed about this.

A long-distance affair:

Great Lakes Theater/Idaho Shakespeare Festival/Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival

Charles Fee, Great Lakes Theater producing artistic director, and Victoria Bussert, Baldwin Wallace University musical theater program director, at Hanna Theatre, home of Great Lakes Theater, in downtown Cleveland.

Charles Fee, Great Lakes Theater producing artistic director, and Victoria Bussert, Baldwin Wallace University musical theater program director, at Hanna Theatre, home of Great Lakes Theater, in downtown Cleveland. Photo by Roger Mastrioianni

Charles Fee holds a unique position in the American theater scene. He is the producing artistic director of three independently operated, professional theater companies – Idaho Shakespeare Festival in Boise, Idaho (which he joined in 1991), Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland (starting in 2002), and Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival in Lake Tahoe, Nevada (since 2010) – that have created an innovative production-sharing alliance.

Prior to the partnership, each theater was in a state of creative and financial duress. “We were all spreading our resources so thin that no one’s actually creating real work at real wages for anyone,” says Fee in a 2011 interview during the early stages of this alliance.

“Unlike co-producing models, our collaboration creates year-round opportunities for our artists and our production staffs by extending contracts across all three cities,” Fee says. “In other words, we create all of the work seen in our three cities.” And because ideas and information about marketing and other logistic considerations are shared between companies, each respective staff operates with greater speed and efficiency.

The first show Fee staged upon his arrival at Great Lakes Theater was the “Much Ado About Nothing” production he had just orchestrated at Boise.

After Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival joined the alliance, its production of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” had previously played in Boise, where several weeks before, the sets, costumes, props and performers were trucked 2,000 miles from Cleveland, where the show had been built and premiered.

More than 60 productions have been shared since Cleveland joined the alliance. 

“Because our strategic alliance’s business model affords extended work opportunities for artists and production personnel,” notes Fee, “we are able to attract and retain a truly extraordinarily creative team that has found a remarkable chemistry over time. We’re not starting from scratch with a new collection of people with each production. We’re working with a core group of artists that have collaborated together for many years. This level of collaboration enables us to deepen our work as a company. And I think audiences benefit immensely as a result.”

From flirtation to fling:

Dobama Theater and Karamu House

From left, Nathan Motta, Dobama Theatre’s artistic director; Tony Sias, Karamu House president and CEO; and Scott Spence, Beck Center for the Arts artistic director on stage at the Beck Center in Lakewood.

From left, Nathan Motta, Dobama Theatre’s artistic director; Tony Sias, Karamu House president and CEO; and Scott Spence, Beck Center for the Arts artistic
director on stage at the Beck Center in Lakewood. Photo by AJ Abelman

In 1915, a pair of Oberlin graduates opened a settlement house where people of different races and religions could come together. They soon discovered that the arts provided the perfect common ground. The Playhouse Settlement, renamed Karamu – a Swahili word meaning “place of enjoyment” – in 1941, quickly became a magnet and forum for some of the best African-American artists of the day.

During a “getting to know you” meeting in 2016 at which Tony Sias was introduced as Karamu’s new president and CEO, Dobama Theatre’s artistic director Nathan Motta shared a few ideas about a potential partnership intended to enrich their respective theater making. Motta had been appointed as Dobama’s fifth artistic director in 2013, which spurred the theater’s move to become the region’s newest full-time Equity House (along with the Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater).

These two theaters have occasionally flirted with each other in the years since Dobama was founded in 1959. Most recently, after leaving its long-time residence on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights in 2005 but before finding its current home on Lee Road, the company launched a highly successful co-production with Karamu of the musical “Caroline or Change.” But now they are in the early stages of what could very well be a long term, comprehensive partnership. Canvas recently spoke to Motta and Sias, who discussed their collaboration:

Motta: This season, we did an artist exchange where our Ben Needham did the scenic design for “Rasheeda Speaking” at Karamu, and their production manager, Richard H. Morris Jr., designed “An Octoroon” at Dobama. Company members learning and communicating about how each of us have dealt with creative challenges and where we’ve succeeded and failed can help us all grow stronger.

Sias: That exchange went exceptionally well and set the tone for future creative collaborations. Dobama will also be leasing a rehearsal room, storage space and a break room at Karamu. Just recently, our artists (in “Sister Act”) rehearsed next door to theirs (in “Peter and the Starcatcher”), so people are getting to know each other and understand the culture of our respective institutions.

Motta: By encouraging artists we work with to work – and see work – at other places, they learn new ways of doing things and experience other artists’ approaches to theater making. We are also working toward making the creation of theater more cost effective, while increasing the quality of the artistic product. This is nothing but a good thing for our audiences.

Sias: The Karamu/Dobama partnership will also be a catalyst for community outreach, engagement and education. We’re launching a new joint program called Theatre Artists for Social Change (TASC) that will mount organized artistic responses to current news events that concern social justice. This way, our theaters can be responsive and proactive, and our art can play a bigger role in creating awareness and change.

Cleveland Play House’s promiscuity

Laura Kepley, Cleveland Play House artistic director, and Donald Carrier, interim director of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA acting program, inside the Allen Theatre lobby in downtown Cleveland.

Laura Kepley, Cleveland Play House artistic director, and Donald Carrier, interim director of the Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House MFA acting program, inside the Allen Theatre lobby in downtown Cleveland. Photo by Michael C. Butz

Cleveland Play House, founded in 1915 and the recipient of the 2015 Regional Theatre Tony Award, has produced more than 100 world or American premieres, and during its long history, more than 12 million people have attended more than 1,600 productions. 

The CPH balances several collaborations at once to help maintain this level of productivity. One is an artistic and financial co-production partnership with a variety of sister theater companies across the country. The CPH and partnering theaters collaborate on show selection and artistic staffing, and share the costs of building, casting, rehearsing and staging the shows. 

In the 2016-17 season, “Baskerville” was built and opened in Cleveland and then went to Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. “How I Learned to Drive” went to Syracuse Stage after its opening run at the CPH. “Disney’s Freaky Friday” was built and opened at La Jolla Playhouse and moved to the Alley Theatre in Houston after spending a few weeks at the CPH.

According to Kevin Moore, who became managing director of Cleveland Play House in 2007, “we are extremely selective about how many of these partnerships originate elsewhere. ‘Freaky Friday’ is our first received co-production in two years because a received co-pro means less work is available for our CPH production teams.” But co-productions allow for large and elaborate shows to be staged here that could not otherwise be afforded because of the production rights, the prominent directors and designers brought in, and the large number of cast members they require. (“Freaky Friday” has a cast of 17 and a nine-member band.)

The CPH has also done collaborative cross-disciplinary projects with the world-class Cleveland Orchestra, including the most recent commissioned world premiere of Quiara Alegria Hudes’s play for actor-and-orchestra, “The Good Peaches.” 

“These are landmark opportunities,” says Moore, “where audiences get to see work that would not otherwise be done by two venerable institutions. Financially, sharing costs allow both arts organizations to keep operating and innovating.” Suggests Laura Kepley, CPH artistic director, “The logistical challenges of this partnership are really artistic possibilities. For each group to get to expose its core audience to an adjacent art form is really exciting.”

Another collaboration is the jointly administered Case Western Reserve University/ Cleveland Play House Master of Fine Arts in Acting Program, which began in 1996. Students are not only taught by industry professionals from CWRU, they also receive training from CPH artists and internationally renowned guest artists. A third-year residency at CPH provides students with on-stage performance experience in CPH productions, such as last season’s “The Crucible.”

A 2009 partnership with Cleveland State University and the Playhouse Square Foundation helped finance the flexible 300-seat Outcalt Theatre and the 150-seat Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre, which are shared by CPH, Playhouse Square, CSU and the CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program. 

These are just a few of the partnerships taking place in the local arts community.  “The spirit of collaboration in Cleveland,” notes Kepley, “is the most generous and robust of any city I have ever worked in.” CV

 

From left, Amy Fritsche (Phyllis), Megan Medley (Meaghan), and Fabio Polanco (Earl). Photo | Michelle Berki

New Ground’s ‘These Mortal Hosts’ offers a fresh twist on an old tale

By Bob Abelman

In the New Testament, a messenger of God tells John the Baptist to go into the wilderness to prepare for the coming of a messianic figure greater than himself.

In 15th century France, Joan of Arc testified to hearing angels and saints tell her to lead the French Army in rescuing her country from English domination.

And in Dove Creek, Colorado, three unlikely and seemingly random locals – a self-absorbed high school senior named Meaghan, an anal-retentive bank manager named Phyllis, and a kind-hearted, straight-talking grocery store butcher named Earl – find themselves in the middle of a miracle in Cleveland playwright Eric Coble’s “These Mortal Hosts.”

The play – a psalm with a sense of humor – is receiving its world premiere in the 12th annual Cleveland Play House New Ground Theatre Festival, an event that has firmly established itself as a champion of intriguing art and emerging artists.

Everything in “These Mortal Hosts” is set in motion by a car crash that takes the lives of three teenage boys. While the small town mourns, Meaghan (a thoroughly delightful Megan Medley) hears voices telling her to prepare the world for a day of reckoning, Phyllis (an always engaging Amy Fritsche) finds herself pregnant without the aid of intercourse, and Earl (an absolutely charming Fabio Polanco) discovers his kind heart growing exponentially to the point of explosion.

As did the messengers of God before them, Meaghan, Phyllis, and Earl begin to question their sanity as these bizarre and socially isolating changes from within begin to alter their world view and turn their neighbors against them. But as their lives become increasingly linked, the meaning behind the madness takes on divine clarity, magnitude and urgency.

Anyone who has read about the apocalyptic prophecy in the Book of Revelation or, better yet, rented the supernatural thriller “The Seventh Sign” – where the apocalypse comes to Demi Moore in Venice, California – knows where “These Mortal Hosts” is heading.

But the journey that takes us there is paved with remarkable storytelling. In this production, the playwright’s idea, director Laley Lippard’s creative vision, the simple but effective stagecraft by Cameron Michalak (scenic design), Michael Bol (lighting design), Esther Haberlen (costume design) and Roc Lee (sound design), and the actors’ wonderfully textured performances join forces to create something greater than the sum of these extraordinary parts.

As he demonstrated in “My Barking Dog,” “The Velocity of Autumn” and other works, Coble’s writing is as entertaining as it is smart and engrossing. In “These Mortal Hosts,” direct-address monologues dominate the script and immediately relay the nature of each character and then set up the aforementioned magnitude and urgency of their newfound circumstances. The pacing of this play is guided by the length and rhythms of these monologues, while poignancy and punchlines emerge from their poetry.

And every so often Coble allows the play to linger on a moment – such as when these three mortal hosts sway to the music of their mysteriously synchronized heartbeats and harmonized breaths – which is absolutely mesmerizing.

Director Lippard knows just when to let Coble’s words speak for themselves and when to bolster their emotional impact with theatricality. Using only a desk and three chairs in the small trapezoid-shaped performance space, their well-orchestrated movement coupled with lighting and sound effects establish the play’s various locations and beautifully underscore its mood swings. Assorted props and costuming come from panels that open and close on the surrounding wall. The result is a fluid, seamless and always interesting 90-minute production.

Lippard also delivers an exceptional cast of local actors who not only capture the essence of their characters but manage to be thoroughly endearing throughout their respective trials and tribulations, which is essential in a short play with a big message about faith and hope.

You may recall that things didn’t end well for John the Baptist or Joan of Arc, though Demi Moore came out OK.  Finding out about the fate of Meaghan, Phyllis and Earl is just one of the many reasons to see this play. Another is to say you did before this work is released upon the world and the many accolades it will no doubt receive start pouring in. CV

On Stage

WHERE: Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre, 1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through May 20

TICKETS & INFO: $15 – $30, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.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 13, 2017.

Lead image: From left, Amy Fritsche (Phyllis), Megan Medley (Meaghan), and Fabio Polanco (Earl). Photo | Michelle Berki

From left to right: Karis Danish (Female Greek Chorus), Nick LaMedica (Male Greek Chorus), Remy Zaken (Teenage Greek Chorus), Madeleine Lambert (Li'l Bit), and Michael Brusasco (Uncle Peck). Photo / Roger Mastroianni

CPH’s ‘How I Learned to Drive’ boldly takes the road less traveled

By Bob Abelman

It has taken 20 years for Paula Vogel’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning “How I Learned to Drive” to appear on the Cleveland Play House stage. But as we learn from the predatory pedophile at the center of her disturbing story, patience has its rewards.

The play takes place in the mind of a young woman (Madeleine Lambert) nicknamed Li’l Bit by her southern family, who at the age of 11 and continuing through young adulthood, is sexually pursued by her Uncle Peck (Michael Brusasco).

“How I Learned to Drive” unfolds as traumatic memories do – scrambled, selective and surreal.

An older Li’l Bit narrates and then jumps into her recollections. A three-member Greek Chorus (Karis Danish, Nick LaMedica and Remy Zaken) phases in and out as assorted relatives and classmates. And fantastic, often incongruous scenic design serves up often unnerving and rapidly shifting imagery.

Scenes in this show are introduced as chapters in a driver’s education manual, reflective of Uncle Peck’s driving lessons and the seduction, disguised as life-lessons, that come with them. Driving serves as the metaphor that drives Li’l Bit’s storyline.

And everyday items, like eating utensils at mealtime and Uncle Peck’s car during driving lessons, are imagined to serve as subtle reminders of the dream world we’ve entered into.

The play’s unsettling taboo theme, unrelenting and intermission-less presentation, and immense theatricality purposefully challenge our comfort zone. And much of its unnerving dialogue is spoken directly at the audience, daring us to look away while simultaneously drawing us in with its southern-fried lyricism and bittersweet humor as delivered by richly drawn characters whose appeal belies the fire that burns within them.

Though a disturbing work, both the playwright and astute CPH director Laura Kepley succeed at never crossing the double yellow line that keeps this play from having head-on collisions with anything too difficult to sit through.

While touching on explicitly sexual themes, little touching and no nudity take place on stage so to quash the arousal of anything but sympathy for the victim. Even in the scene where middle-aged Uncle Peck is taking suggestive photographs of his 13-year-old niece for his private collection, the sexy lingerie used in other productions is replaced with less alluring garb here.

Although Uncle Peck’s incestuous instincts are couched in endearing charm, genuine affection and the influences of alcohol – and the sensational Brusasco’s immense charm is covered in thick sorghum molasses – nothing serves to rationalize his misguided attraction to Li’l Bit or romanticize his actions.

And while Li’l Bit’s curiosity and flirtatiousness are apparent to all – with Lambert brilliantly displaying the neglect, damage and vulnerability just beneath these desperate acts – we eventually come to understand the family dynamics, the social pressures of early maturation and the careful manipulation by Uncle Peck that inspired them.

Scenic and projection design by Collette Pollard and Caite Hevner, respectively, keep the play’s driving metaphor in the forefront by placing a two-lane strip of asphalt highway in the middle of the stage that runs from its edge to its rear, where the road cascades upward into the rafters. Wonderful images that establish a sense of time, place and surrealism are projected on a horizontal array of screens that surround the performance space.

“How I Learned to Drive” is an important and worthwhile part of Cleveland Play House’s season, and the spellbinding performances turned in by this cast should not be missed. And when you come, and come you must, buckle up.


Bob 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 12, 2017.

Lead image: From left to right: Karis Danish (Female Greek Chorus), Nick LaMedica (Male Greek Chorus), Remy Zaken (Teenage Greek Chorus), Madeleine Lambert (Li’l Bit), and Michael Brusasco (Uncle Peck). Photo / Roger Mastroianni

outsidethesquare

A potent group of smaller stages are growing and strengthening Northeast Ohio’s theater scene around headliner Playhouse Square

Story by Bob Abelman
Illustration by Jon Larson

Like Broadway in New York and the Loop in Chicago, downtown Cleveland’s Playhouse Square is the hub of the city’s theater scene as well as the nation’s second largest unified performing arts center. 

Its original five venues – the Ohio Theatre, Palace Theatre, State Theatre, Allen Theatre and Hanna Theatre – were constructed in the early 1920s as houses for vaudeville, movies and legitimate theater. 

Now fully restored after years of abandonment, fire and vandalism, the historic theaters house top-tier national Broadway tours, serve as the home to Cleveland’s classic theater company, play host to America’s first professional regional theater, and offer concerts, comedy shows and dance performances. 

Yes, Playhouse Square on Euclid Avenue between East 14th and East 17th streets is thriving. But the true sign of a city’s evolving theater scene can be found on the roads less traveled. It’s there that smaller stages are producing innovative, avant-garde and contemporary plays as well as original works by local playwrights. 

Every city known for its performing arts has followed this off-the-beaten path.

New York’s Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway movements began in the early 1950s as a reaction to the commercial theater that dominated the mid-town area.  Located largely on the Lower East Side and the Upper West Side, away from Time Square, these indie theaters provide an outlet for each new generation of creative artists whose voices are not being heard elsewhere.

The 1960s and ’70s saw an explosion of homegrown theaters in Chicago, called “Off-Loop,” which are still performing in unorthodox and inexpensive settings away from the mainstream venues in the city’s downtown Loop area.

The 99-Seat Theater scene evolved in Los Angeles during the 1980s, when many of the larger, nonprofit professional theaters found themselves dependent on box office sales for most of their income and less likely to engage in creative risk-taking. 

And now, Cleveland’s theater scene is undergoing its own version of an Off-Broadway, Off-Loop, 99-Seat Theater movement. 

Located on the East Side and West Side, away from Playhouse Square, these professional playhouses welcome diverse perspectives not only in who is telling the story and what the story is about, but how the story is told. Some are venturing into the use of immersive, interactive technology for their storytelling that create virtual worlds onstage. Others are blurring the line between theater disciplines. And they are all tapping local talent with distinctive voices. 

Let’s call these theaters “Outside-the-Square.” Here are a few worth visiting:


“Bat Boy: The Musical” was performed in October 2015 at Blank Canvas Theater. Photo | Andy Dudik

“Bat Boy: The Musical” was performed in October 2015 at Blank Canvas Theater. Photo | Andy Dudik

Blank Canvas Theatre
78th Street Studios
1305 W. 78th St., Suite 211, Cleveland
440-941-0458 or blankcanvastheatre.com

In search of an identity in Cleveland’s highly diverse performing arts marketplace, the upstart Blank Canvas Theatre has waffled between modern classics, such as “Twelve Angry Men” and “Of Mice and Men,” and cultist musical comedies that include “Debbie Does Dallas,” “Psycho Beach Party” and “Bat Boy.” The theater, in its fifth year, also provides a performance space for founder and artistic director Patrick Ciamacco’s sketch comedy troupe, The Laughter League.

This is part of Ciamacco’s master plan to lure younger audiences to the theater via offbeat offerings and then strategically introduce them to the modern classics. “Or vice versa,” he notes. “We want a typical theatre lover who would normally only see a classic to enjoy it so much they go outside their comfort zone and show up to have blood splattered on them while watching ‘The Texas Chainsaw Musical.’”


convergence-continuum
Liminis Theater
2440 Scranton Road, Cleveland
216-687-0074 or convergence-continuum.org

“Most theaters are like mirrors, reflecting the familiar,” suggests convergence-continuum mission statement. “Everything is nicely laid out for you as you view what is comfortably, safely beyond that wall, confident that you will be made, indeed are expected, to understand the experience in terms of conventional logic. Aren’t we all tired of that by now?”

con-con prides itself on taking risks and confronting conventions, and has done so under the supervision of Clyde Simon, who has served as artistic director, director, actor and set designer since the theater’s founding in 2000. The immensely intimate Liminis performance space offers an up-close-and-personal theater experience in an effort to fully engage its audiences’ senses and imaginations.


“Three Sisters” was performed in June 2015 by the Mamaí Theatre Company. Photo | Erik Johnson

“Three Sisters” was performed in June 2015 by the Mamaí Theatre Company. Photo | Erik Johnson

Mamai Theatre Company
Cleveland Masonic Performing Arts Center
3615 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
440-394-8353 or mamaitheatreco.org

Mamaí is passionate about offering audiences canonical works from dramatic literature. They do so, according to co-founders Bernadette Clemens, Wendy Kriss, Christine McBurney and Derdriu Ring, “without filtering what might be denser, older or more rarely performed out of a fear that contemporary audiences cannot or will not engage with classical playwrights.”

Their 2013 inaugural production of “Medea” did just that. “Good classical theater need not be watered down, dumbed down or used as a rare spice to blend into a contemporary season,” says Clemens. Adds McBurney, “For me, one of the biggest returns from our first season was learning that audiences do respond to plays that do not resemble sitcoms; plays with big ideas, complexity and beautiful language.” Next season, Mamaí will move downtown into the 150-seat Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre after having established its reputation just east of the Square.

Mamaí is attempting to counter the tendency of many other theaters to make play choices that are heavily weighted toward male casts by ensuring that, for Cleveland’s professional theater community, women will have increasing opportunities to work.


Playwrights Local
Waterloo Arts
397 E. 156th St., Cleveland
216-302-8856 or playwrightslocal.org

Newly formed Playwrights Local, located in the revitalized North Collinwood neighborhood, is the city’s first theater company exclusively dedicated to new plays by local playwrights.

After obtaining nonprofit status and finding a work space at Waterloo Arts, artistic director David Todd and managing director Tom Hayes created a laboratory environment where directors, actors and dramaturgs provide feedback on new work, as well as space for table readings, rehearsals and public staged readings.

In November, the company will orchestrate its second annual two-day Cleveland Playwrights Festival that will feature workshops, panel discussions and staged readings of short works by David Hansen, Lisa Beth Allen, Eric James Dahl, Craig Joseph and Luke Brett. Says Todd, “We want to raise awareness for Cleveland as a playwriting city and add another facet to what is going on in the arts.”


“Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys” was performed in October and November 2015 by Theater Ninjas. Photo | Anastasia Pantsios

“Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys” was performed in October and November 2015 by Theater Ninjas. Photo | Anastasia Pantsios

Theater Ninjas
440-941-1482 or theaterninjas.com

Theater Ninjas is the food truck of Cleveland theater; a nomadic company that seeks out new and challenging performance spaces such as the repurposed recording studio at 78th Street Studios. “Working in nontraditional venues gives us an opportunity to reimagine how and why we tell stories,” suggests artistic director Jeremy Paul, “and helps us to create deep, fascinating worlds for the audience to explore.” 

For instance, “The Excavation” was staged at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where audience members chose their own path through different “exhibits” that used humor, science, tragedy, puppets and multiple artistic disciplines to celebrate cultural legacies, mortality and our deep curiosity about the lives of other people. “It’s the kind of show that couldn’t be done in a traditional theater or by any other company in Cleveland,” says Paul. Other productions have been staged at the Rising Star Coffee Roastery, the Canopy Collective and the Guide 2 Kulchur bookstore.

Jon Seydl, former curator at CMA, described Theater Ninjas as operating “on the end of the theater spectrum; the place where theater connects to other forms of performance.” 


none too fragile
1835 Merriman Road, Akron
330-671-4563 or nonetoofragile.com

Promotional ads for none too fragile boast: “We don’t just push the envelope. We lick it.” Shock value is what this theater is known for, starting with the ritual shot of Jameson whiskey that is distributed to audience members before each performance.

The Akron-based theater company was created in 2012 by Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky after an earlier experiment by Derry, called the Bang and the Clatter Theatre, proved too adventurous and bold for downtown Cleveland denizens.  This new theater picks up the mantle of providing principle-challenging, character-driven, and often funky storytelling. 

“Professional indie theater” is the way managing director Jaysen Mercer describes the types of plays they produce. “I believe that we offer our audiences something very unique that may not be possible at larger venues,” suggests Derry, “and that is true, intense intimacy with the artist and his/her material.”


Several progressive theaters of note initiated the “Outside-the-Square” movement before it was fashionable. Below are two of the most prominent.


“Incendiaries” was performed in January 2016 at Cleveland Public Theatre. Photo | Steve Wagner

“Incendiaries” was performed in January 2016 at Cleveland Public Theatre. Photo | Steve Wagner

Cleveland Public Theatre
6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
216-631-2727 or cptonline.org

Cleveland Public Theatre’s mission is to “raise consciousness and nurture compassion through ground breaking performances.” CPT develops new, adventurous work by Northeast Ohio artists, undertakes nationally significant second and “early” productions of new scripts, and develops devised, ensemble-based theater as well as radical reinterpretations of existing work.

Located in the Gordon Square Arts District, CPT was founded in 1981 when James Levin returned from New York City and was determined to form an experimental theater group similar to Off-Broadway’s Cafe LaMama, where he worked as an actor and director.   

Over the past 10 years, executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan has expanded this mission. “We want people to leave CPT feeling like they have seen something extraordinary – something that they couldn’t have witnessed anywhere else in the region.” The CPT believes that theater can be at the center of community dialogue and, notes Bobgan, “personal transformation.”


Dobama Theatre
2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights
216-932-6838 or dobama.org

Founded in 1959 by Donald and Marilyn Bianchi, Barry Silverman and Mark Silverberg, Dobama Theatre has worked consistently to produce innovative plays of consequence.

The vast majority of the theater’s productions are regional, American or world premieres of the best contemporary plays by established and emerging playwrights.

“We honestly don’t go out of our way to do ‘edgy’ material, whatever that means,” says artistic director Nathan Motta. “However, if the material is something that might challenge our audiences – that is, if it’s thought-provoking, moving and relevant, with strong dialogue, layered characters and a unique or interesting premise – that work is certainly not something we’re going to shy away from.”

Since its origin, Dobama has always taken risks and, according to Motta, “asked its audiences to take the risk with us. This is an artistic decision we make knowing full well that it may prove challenging in terms of marketing, and in some cases, selling tickets.” CV

Steve Vinovich, center, as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and members of the ensemble of “All the Way.” | Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Cleveland Play House’s ‘All the Way’ riveting Elizabethan drama

By Bob Abelman

Richard II. Edward III. Henry VIII. LBJ.

These famous figures from another time – with their larger-than-life personalities, excessive appetites, unfillable holes in their egos and Rabelaisian crudity – are the focus of historical dramas that offer insight and perspective on the turbulent and heroic past.

And while “All the Way” is a 2014 Tony Award-winning drama that chronicles the first year of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s accidental presidency in 1964, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan’s play is no less epic in scope, no less Elizabethan in style and no less theatrical than the works penned by William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

And it is no less enthralling.

The play at Cleveland Play House under Giovanna Sardelli’s superb direction, opens just after the assassination of JFK. It explores LBJ’s (Steve Vinovich) efforts to maneuver members of Congress to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and support his candidacy for the upcoming election. 

This is done through backroom deals with assorted southern senators (Stephen Bradbury and Timothy Crowe), showdowns with Alabama Gov. George Wallace (Greg Jackson) and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (William Parry), and the strategic manipulation of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Jason Bowen) and his advisers and NAACP colleagues (Biko Eisen-Martin, Eddie Ray Jackson, Jeffrey Grover, Joshua David Robinson and Charles E. Wallace).

And because historical dramas are nothing without the vantage point of a fortunate fly on the wall behind closed doors, we get to witness LBJ’s love for Lady Bird (Laura Starnik), his tumultuous relationship with liberal senator Hubert Humphrey (Donald Carrier), and the undying support offered by his aide, Walter Jenkins (Chris Richards). 

As such, we get to see all sides of LBJ – the intimidating and savvy politician, the tortured soul, the man-child – all of which are mastered by Vinovich in a true tour-de-force performance.  Vinovich captures the spectacle of the time and the awe-inspiring power in the man. And, unlike the Broadway production of “All the Way,” this is done without prosthetics to help capture LBJ’s character-defining facial features.    

Of course, realism is not an appropriate marker for judgment in historical dramas like “Richard II” and “Edward III,” which were written 200 to 300 years after the fact. And even though many audience members have memories that date back to the 1960s, imitation is significantly less important in “All the Way” than capturing the essence of the time and the people who populated it. 

In this regard, this CPH production nails it. David Kay Mickelsen’s period costuming helps, but the entire ensemble conveys their characters interestingly and absorbingly, all the while delivering often wordy, narrative-driving, fact-filled lines in the quick, direct and stylized manner required of historical dramas.    

The thing is, historical facts and figures rarely lend themselves to interesting theatrical representation. While Shakespeare and Marlowe necessarily infused their work with heightened language stuffed with gorgeous rhetoric, witty word-play and lyrical poetry, “All the Way” embraces LBJ’s penchant for homey adages, Texas slang and profane storytelling.   

It also employs spectacular projections to help establish a sense of time and place and to move along the storytelling. Where the Broadway production offered these images behind the actors, Dan Scully’s vivid projections appear on the surrounding curved walls of Robert Mark Morgan’s gorgeous oval office facsimile in this CPH production. The office doubles as all other locations as well, courtesy of Michael Lincoln’s isolating lighting and director Sardelli’s clever staging.

One of the most clever and dramatic examples is when LBJ and others are lamenting the escalation of the Vietnam war in the background while, in shadow inches from the audience, FBI agents dig, discover and remove from the ground the body of James Chaney – one of the three young civil rights workers who were murdered by local police in Neshoba County, Miss. 

This moment can’t help but call to mind the “Alas, poor Yorick” scene in “Hamlet,” where another frustrated leader faces mortality by an open grave. 

But, more significantly, this moment and others throughout the play remind us that many of the issues and injustices faced by LBJ in the 1960s – the civil unrest, the white police killing black men, the dirty politics and the deplorable politicians – are identical to those we face today.

Like every Elizabethan historical drama that came before it, “All the Way” reminds us that the more things change the more they remain the same. CV

On Stage

“All the Way”

WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Oct. 9

TICKETS & INFO: $25-$100, call 216-241-6000 or visit clevelandplayhouse.com


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 Sept. 24, 2016.

Lead image: Steve Vinovich, center, as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and members of the ensemble of “All the Way.” Photo | Roger Mastroianni

From left, Erika Rolfsrud (M’Lynn), Allison Layman (Shelby), and Elizabeth Meadows Rouse (Truvy). PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni

Female-driven comedy ‘Steel Magnolias’ hilarious at Allen Theatre while marking a historic collaboration between Cleveland Play House and Playhouse Square

By Bob Abelman

Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias” at the Allen Theatre, is a mani-pedi of a play — an estrogen-driven, southern comfort comedy set exclusively in Truvy’s Beauty Shop in Chinquapin Parish, La.

The drawling dialogue revolves around local gossip, recipe exchanges and Shelby. Shelby (Allison Layman) is an endearing, headstrong young woman whose diabetes and disappointing marriage lead to personal setbacks, medical complications and tough-love doled out by her ever-vigil but adoring mother, M’Lynn (Erika Rolfsrud).

The play also features the salon owner Truvy Jones (Elizabeth Meadows Rouse), her born-again assistant Annelle (Devon Caraway), and a duo of lovable and devoted locals — Clairee (Charlotte Booker) and Ouiser (Mary Stout) — who come in for a wash and a rinse, but stay to dish and offer astute observations about life and love.

Throughout the play, these women share in Shelby’s pain and pleasure and, by doing so, invite us to do the same.

“Steel Magnolias,” which premiered Off-Broadway in 1987, will be familiar to those who’ve seen the 1989 film starring Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah and Julia Roberts or the 2012 remake on what has become the natural habitat for sisterhood stories like this: the Lifetime Channel.

But this particular production is also historic, for it is the first time the Cleveland Play House has mounted a co-production with Playhouse Square. This means that a show featured in the KeyBank Broadway series, which typically caters to productions of national tours and has more than 32,000 subscribers, has been built in Cleveland for Clevelanders.

And it is likely the first time the Play House has featured an all-female design team (Vicki Smith, scenic; Jen Caprio, costume; Jennifer Schriever, lighting; Jane Shaw, sound), spearheaded by local director and Play House artistic director Laura Kepley.

Also momentous — and, perhaps, testimony to the thriving state of professional theater in Cleveland — is that, on an opening night that coincides with an NBA playoff game that could (and did) launch the Cavs into the finals, there was a large audience with significant male representation.

And this is not an easy play for some men to love. Its preponderance of personal disclosure tends to exclude any man in the audience not willing to be one of the girls for a few hours. As if to punctuate this point, as well as bolster the notion that these women are the strong and independent Southern belles suggested in the title, the men in the play are merely talked about and never make an appearance.

What makes this play so very entertaining and appealing is that the writing is filled with clever, country-fried witticisms and hilarious one-liners, and the characters are affable and absolutely charming. When they are played well, both their gentility and inner-strength ring true.

They are most certainly played well in this production — all six women are clearly defined and always interesting — but gentility tends to take a backseat to strength in this female-driven production, which comes with some pros and cons.

Consider M’Lynn, the emotional anchor who puts on a brave face when dealing with her daughter Shelby’s fragility. Because all the characters in this production are played with a heightened sense of resiliency and strength, actress Erika Rolfsrud’s portrayal of M’Lynn’s female fortitude gets heightened even more. She comes across as overbearing, which is unattractive and unrealistic in a play set in Dixie in the 1980s, when feminism has yet to make its way from the Northern states.

Yet, when M’Lynn finally has an emotional outburst toward the end of the play, the floodgates open so wide that the intensity of the hurt, the rawness of Rolfsrud’s expression, and the naked honesty behind the other actresses’ reactions — under Kepley’s sensitive direction — is extraordinarily overwhelming.

Also hit and miss are some creative choices made regarding the show’s production values.

Kepley has opted to swap out the scripted prerecorded radio music and voiceovers between scenes for Emily Casey on guitar and Maggie Lakis on ukulele/banjo, who also provide the narrative. This adds immense charm to the proceedings and makes the minor set changes nearly invisible.

Not so covert is the makeover given Truvy’s Beauty Shop, which is expansive and over-accessorized in order to fill the vast Allen Theatre stage. Foliage runs along the lattice work of the proscenium arch, so that the set resembles a picture postcard sent from Chinquapin Parish rather than a modest backwoods Louisiana enterprise.

This is a minor concern, really. Particularly for a production that manages to make its patrons — including the men — feel the cotton balls between their toes and joy in their hearts by the play’s end. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Steel Magnolias”

WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Aug. 21

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$80, call 216-241-6000 or visit clevelandplayhouse.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 29, 2016.

Lead image: From left, Erika Rolfsrud (M’Lynn), Allison Layman (Shelby), and Elizabeth Meadows Rouse (Truvy). PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni

John de Lancie (Mr. Wolf) and Juliet Brett (Theresa) PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni

Cleveland Play House’s ‘Mr. Wolf’ is a brilliant play, astounding production

By Bob Abelman

Surely you followed the real-life drama of Michelle Knight who, in 2002, was abducted by Ariel Castro and finally rescued from his Tremont home after spending 11 years in captivity.

Leave it to Cleveland-born playwright Rajiv Joseph to find poetry in such pathology.

His “Mr. Wolf” revolves around a 15-year-old girl who, when she was 3, was abducted and hidden from the world by an astronomer who believes she can unravel the mysteries of the infinite expanses of the universe. By doing so, she will find God and save Humankind.

Rather than being mistreated, Theresa’s intelligence and inquisitive nature are nurtured by her abductor, Mr. Wolf, who sees her as a prodigy and a prophet. Equal parts Stockholm syndrome and genuine affection forge Theresa’s attachment to Mr. Wolf, which is all-encompassing, and after 12 years of isolation, all that she knows.

A play like this coming from Joseph is no surprise, for he has a remarkable proclivity for examining big-ticket issues by way of small-scale stories and unlikely spokespeople.

In “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” — a 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist — he exposed the self-destructive nature of the human species by examining the atrocities of the Gulf War and giving voice to a philosophizing feline. His “Guards at the Taj” offered an existential treatise on the human costs of Man’s self-aggrandizement, delivered by two simple-minded 17th century sentries at the Taj Mahal.

In “Mr. Wolf,” the passionate pursuit of astronomy and the infinite possibilities of the universe are counterbalanced by the comparatively infinitesimal heartache of a parent losing a child and the astronomical odds of finding her alive after all these years.

Find her they do, and after some unsavory revelations about Mr. Wolf’s quest for the one true prophet, the story turns its attention to psychological and spiritual healing. The scenes involving Theresa and her parents’ adjustment to their reunification are as tenderly conceived, brilliantly constructed and emotionally engaging as the ones that came before.

The staging for Cleveland Play House production of “Mr. Wolf,” which is the centerpiece of the CPH’s 2016 New Ground Theatre Festival, is sparse, so as to keep our focus on the story and less on the storytelling.

However, director Giovanna Sardelli employs plenty of technological bells and whistles — such as a receding set piece and a rising platform (Timothy R. Mackabee), overtly dramatic lighting (Gina Scherr), and haunting sound design (Daniel Kluger) — to underscore the cold loneliness that resides in the vastness of the space Theresa and Mr. Wolf contemplate, in the isolation of her captivity, in the world of a father who is desperately searching for his child, and in the soul of a mother who has given up hope. The effect is chilling and powerful.

Sardelli delivers a cast whose acting and listening skills are so exceptional that they make it hard to separate the writing from its onstage rendering or shift attention to admire the stagecraft surrounding them.

Juliet Brett — barefoot and a bundle of autistic tendencies, genius eccentricities and sheer intensity — is an incredible, surprisingly endearing Theresa. Her fingers twitch as if engaged in phantom activities. Her eyes, when not avoiding contact, demand it. And her analytical pattern of speech shows no signs of long-repressed and now-foreign emotions, except when Mr. Wolf introduces her to new life experiences and then in the most delightful manner.

John de Lancie, who originated the role of Mr. Wolf in last year’s world premiere at South Coast Repertory in California, anchors this production as well. Never does his Mr. Wolf show anything but genuine affection for his misappropriated mentee and dedication toward their mission, despite an undercurrent to the contrary — which is a fascinating choice by de Lancie and Sardelli. And when Theresa sees Mr. Wolf’s face on the detective who rescues her and the doctor who then examines her, de Lancie manages to be those people but with subtle traces of Mr. Wolf in the mix.

Theresa’s father, mother and stepmother are all people damaged by the trauma of losing a child. But Todd Cerveris, Rebecca Brooksher and Jessica Dickey create rich and complicated characters above and beyond this plot point. Their pain from Theresa’s absence is convincing, but the resultant dysfunction and often comical awkwardness upon her return are remarkable.

Michelle Knight’s dramatic story, which has since been turned into a Lifetime Channel made-for-TV movie, is a fear-inducing survivor’s tale about the evil that lurks in the heart of Man. Joseph’s imaginative “Mr. Wolf” is certainly more uplifting. And by setting its sights on the cosmos and our place in the universe, it is significantly more thought-provoking. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Mr. Wolf”

WHERE: Outcalt Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through April 24

TICKETS & INFO: $20-$90, call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com


Bob 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 April 9, 2016.

Lead image: John de Lancie (Mr. Wolf) and Juliet Brett (Theresa) PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni

The “Luna Gale” cast, from left, Jeremiah Clapp (Peter), Megan King (Karlie), Lee Roy Rogers (Caroline), and Kenneth Lee (Cliff). PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni

Though well written and excellently acted, Cleveland Play House’s issue-driven ‘Luna Gale’ too edifying to entertain

By Bob Abelman

A year or two ago, a short play called “Legally Addicted” toured Cleveland-area schools and dramatized the opiate epidemic among teens in order to educate and advocate. Many of the kids in attendance — who received community service credit or reduced probation to be there — felt trapped within a public service announcement as the play’s didactic earnestness and frequent teaching moments overpowered things meant to be merely entertaining.

Rebecca Gilman’s “Luna Gale” seems to have had a similar effect on its opening night audience at Cleveland Play House’s Allen Theatre.

Gilman has made a name for herself exploring sensitive and complicated social issues in her dramatic plays, such as racism and white hypocrisy in “Spinning into Butter,” rape and victimhood in “Boy Gets Girl,” and the glass ceiling of social class in “Blue Surge” and “The Glory of Living.” Her latest play, which premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 2014, is no exception.

“Luna Gale,” set in present-day Cedar Rapids, Iowa, examines the fate of a baby who has been taken from her young, crystal meth-addicted parents (Megan King and Jeremiah Clapp) by Caroline (Lee Roy Rogers), the beleaguered social worker assigned to the case. The baby, Luna Gale, is placed in the temporary custody of her born-again grandmother (Angela Pierce), who is receiving spiritual support and legal guidance from Pastor Jay (Donald Carrier).

As is her tendency, Gilman steers the core storyline into even deeper waters.

She underscores the inadequacies of underfunded and understaffed social service agencies by serving up a social worker worn thin and numb by decades of dysfunctional families and an impersonal bureaucracy, as personified by Caroline’s officious supervisor, Cliff (Kenneth Lee).

To further emphasize the sorry state of child and family services in this country, we witness one of Caroline’s success stories — a promising young woman named Lourdes (Athena Colon), who just aged-out of the system — quickly crash and burn.

As the play progresses, Gilman unveils repressed family secrets associated with sexual abuse and the legacy of alcoholism.

And, by having Caroline compromise her own unflinching integrity in order to help the recovering parents regain custody of their baby, Gilman examines the moral ambiguities associated with having to make bad choices when better choices are just not available.

In short, this play is overburdened with weighty, complex, highly dramatic issues and the probing questions they raise.

But this does not account for the opening night audience’s consternation, for this play is beautifully written.

The playwright earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination and a Guggenheim Fellowship for her earlier work and “Luna Gale” received the 2014 American Theatre Critics Association’s New Play Award as well as the Cleveland Play House’s Roe Green Award, which brings the country’s best playwrights to town to develop new work like this.

And the acting by this ensemble of players is excellent as well.

King and Clapp as Luna Gale’s strung-out yet sympathetic parents, Karlie and Peter, are particularly superb. Their talents are best displayed when, late in the play, one of them rises to the challenge of sobriety while the other falls. Both portrayals are layered with realism.

Pierce, as Karlie’s devout and estranged mother, and Lee as Caroline’s micromanaging supervisor, handle the playwright’s abrupt shifts in their characters’ intentions with incredible dexterity and conviction.

And while Rogers is not always on sure footing during the opening night performance, her depiction of social worker Caroline’s unsentimental professional detachment — and the reveal of her reasons for it — are intriguing.

The problem with this production lies in its direction by Austin Pendleton.

It starts with the decision to turn this two-act play (as produced by the Goodman) into an unrelenting two-hour one-act. It continues with the meta-theatrics of having each of the play’s six locations on stage simultaneously and side by side. Purposefully exposed support beams are seen in each of Michael Schweikardt’s set pieces and behind them is the theater’s barren backstage.

Characters walk through one set to get to another and make eye contact with others who are loitering on stage and not in their scene. Each scene is announced with a dramatic light shift and accompanying sound effect, designed by Keith Parham and Joshua Schmidt.

All this is an obvious but curious effort to accentuate artificiality in the storytelling, which flies in the face of the realism generated by the playwright and embraced by the performers. As such, this production of “Luna Gale” calls to mind low-budgeted PSA programming like “Legally Addicted,” which places the obligation to educate over the desire to entertain.

Perhaps the opening night audience would have been less disquieted if they received community service credit for their attendance. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “Luna Gale”

WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through March 20

TICKETS & INFO: $20-$78, call 216-241-6000 or visit clevelandplayhouse.com


Bob 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 6, 2016.

Ro Boddis as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Angel Moore as Camae. PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni

Cleveland Play House’s ‘Mountaintop’ built on hallowed but shaky ground

By Bob Abelman

As if atoning for the magnificent but mindless musical “Little Shop of Horrors” being performed on its Allen Theatre stage, the Cleveland Play House has selected Katori Hall’s self-righteous 2009 drama “Mountaintop” for its intimate Outcalt Theatre offering.

The play takes place on the evening of April 3, 1968, in Room 305 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, as the road-weary and ailing Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. returns to fine-tune his next speech. It is a speech he will never give for, on the hotel balcony at 6:01 p.m. the next day, he will be killed.

Two historic moments have been etched into the country’s collective consciousness regarding the final days of King.

One is in a recording of his famous “Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis from the day before his assassination, when he offered what seemed to be an eerie — some say divine — premonition of his own death:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

The other is captured in the iconic photo taken by Joseph Louw moments after the shooting, as Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy stand over the slain civil rights leader’s body and point in union in the direction of the gunshots. It is the very moment the man became a martyr and his legacy of nonviolent protest became the stuff of legend.

In her one-act play, Hall attempts to reconcile those moments by showing us what could have occurred during the hours between them when King was merely mortal.

And so we find King (a thoroughly engaging Ro Boddie) with his suit jacket off and his defenses down, talking the night away with a gorgeous young maid named Camae (an absolutely delightful and highly spirited Angel Moore).

Most of the play serves to humanize King and it begins as the great man enters the dark motel room, heads for the bathroom and urinates. He then smokes, drinks, stinks, curses, flirts, laughs, lies and bares his insecurities. Camae reacts, provides Pall Malls, playfully challenges his patriarchal views, and discusses whether and how his message is reaching the black folks of Memphis.

Once King is effectively cut down to size and the novelty of being in his presence grows thin, so too does this play. But the dialogue continues and its rather pedestrian construction becomes increasingly apparent and significantly less captivating.

Only the talented actors and the creativity of director Carl Cofield keep things interesting, but by the third shared cigarette — a lovely piece of stage business that connects the characters and gives us something to look at other than the thunderstorm brewing outside the motel window — this grows tiresome as well.

And just when you think that “The Mountaintop” has peaked and there is no dramaturgical Promised Land in sight, the play’s stark realism and deceptive simplicity turn metaphysical and hypertheatrical, as does Wilson Chin and Alan C. Edwards’ authentic rendering of the Lorraine Motel suite.

When it does, it becomes clear that the playwright’s intention was not to humanize the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in order to better connect a modern audience with the man and his message, but to set him up for canonization. The premonitions, we learn, are justified. The martyrdom, we are told, has been sanctified by the highest authority. And so the playwright irreverently romanticizes the very things we were led to believe were being demythified.

Mere admirers of the man will likely find the overtly theatrical bait-and-switch clumsy and manipulative. Others will find comfort in this gospel according to Katori Hall and the tent show revival the play quickly becomes, complete with call-and-response to arouse emotion and mesmerizing stage gimmickry, courtesy of Dan Scully, to change the hearts of nonbelievers.

There was no shortage of shouted “amens” on opening night, some for the beatification of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. but most in remembrance of his mission. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “The Mountaintop”

WHERE: Outcalt Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Feb. 14

TICKETS & INFO: $20-$90. Call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.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 Feb. 1, 2016.

Lead image: Ro Boddis as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Angel Moore as Camae.PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni

Ari Butler, from left, as Seymour, Lauren Molina as Audrey and Larry Cahn as Mr. Mushnik in “Little Shop of Horrors.” | PHOTO / Roger Mastroianni

‘Little Shop of Horrors’ delightful at Cleveland Play House

By Bob Abelman

The Cleveland Play House doesn’t often stage musicals and, when it does, most serve to tell the life story of legendary singers like Mahalia Jackson, Woody Guthrie and five guys named Moe.

It is the exception when the CPH braintrust chooses a mainstream musical. It is rarer still when they boldly color outside the lines and stage something as outrageously campy and hilariously quirky as Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s “Little Shop of Horrors.”

The show is sown from the seeds of Roger Corman and Charles Griffith’s low-budget, nonmusical 1960 movie about a meek skid row flower shop clerk named Seymour who discovers a mysterious man-eating plant that magically transforms his life in exchange for the lives of his acquaintances.

The musical comedy played Off-Broadway for five years in the 1980s, was made into a star-studded feature film in 1986, and had a short-lived Broadway stint in 2003.

The thing is, the CPH doesn’t resort to “campy” and it doesn’t settle for “quirky,” not with a Tony Award on its mantel and the words “stimulate as well as entertain” in its mission statement.

And so Amanda Dehnert was invited back to Cleveland to direct, choreograph and musical direct “Little Shop of Horrors.”

In 2007, Dehnert spearheaded an astonishing, streamlined CPH production of “My Fair Lady,” as well as a remarkably smart, intimate and dark staging of “Man of La Mancha.” Her recipe for success in “Little Shop of Horrors” — and this is a very successful production — is the same as for those more straight-laced shows: gather exceptional New York talent, stir vigorously and serve while hot.

While many musicals rely on talented singers who also act, the cast of “Little Shop of Horrors” consists of talented actors who also sing. Fine acting adds dimension to already interesting characters, more meaning to the musical numbers, and a rich layer of intricacy to a show most often produced without one.

Ari Butler’s Seymour is a lovable nebbish whose driving traits are effectively communicated through insecurity and social ineptitude rather than the creation of easily identifiable but highly stereotypical shortcuts. This Seymour comes across as authentic and accessible, which allows the self-assuredness he slowly acquires by way of Audrey’s admiration and the extraterrestrial plant’s mind-melding abilities to seem authentic as well.

As Audrey, Seymour’s blond bombshell colleague and love interest, Lauren Molina does not allow the character’s cleavage or thigh-high skirts to define her. Instead, the actress attaches piercing vulnerability to her character’s low self-esteem and compassion to the comedy, which repeatedly breaks your heart. And she wins your heart during the beautiful solo “Somewhere That’s Green,” where Audrey dreams of a life far away from Skid Row, and in an astounding rendition of “Suddenly, Seymour,” when she realizes that her dream is incomplete without a good man.

Joey Taranto is flat out hilarious as Audrey’s sadistic dentist-boyfriend and eventual plant fodder. While Orin is meant to be played over-the-top, as are the wonderful walk-on roles that Taranto takes on in disguise and to perfection, the actor never loses sight of the director’s more lofty creative vision for this production and keeps it all in check.

And while Seymour’s boss, Mr. Mushnik, can be too easily underplayed and get lost amid Orin’s antics, Audrey’s adorability and the man-eating plant’s tongue-in-cheek (or is it stamen-in-pistil?) asides, Larry Cahn — a wonderful veteran actor with superb comic timing — never lets that happen.

In addition to casting fine actors who sing, Dehnert found musicians who act so that the onstage band doubles as Skid Row street urchins. Kate Ferber on keyboard I, Alanna Saunders on keyboard II, Hallie Bulleit on bass, Brittany Campbell on guitar, and Injoy Fountain on drums provide musical accompaniment and narrate the show’s storyline by way of soulful R&B harmonies and a splash of choreography. They are delightful.

They are also a cause for distraction, for their being in the world of the play as well part of its creative construction makes it as hard to get completely lost in this performance. The same goes for allowing Eddie Cooper to be clearly visible while providing his magnificent bass-baritone voice of the man-eating plant (which is masterfully manipulated by hidden puppeteer Kev Abrams) and having a headset-toting crew member running on stage each time the two-story exterior of Mushnik’s flower shop needs to swing open to reveal what’s inside.

Such disregard for concealing elements of artifice doesn’t contribute to the storytelling, although the dynamic Cooper is awfully fun to watch. And it seems inconsistent with scenic designer Philip Witcomb’s admirable efforts to create a believable Skid Row, albeit one infused with a playful palette and Brian Gale’s melodramatic lighting that nicely parodies sci-fi horror sensibilities.

But these things are easily outweighed by all that this production does right, leaving you hoping as the house lights come on that the CPH dares to color outside the lines a little more often and a little bit wider. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Little Shop of Horrors”

WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Feb. 7

TICKETS & INFO: $20-$100, call 216-241-6000 or go to

clevelandplayhouse.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 in January 17, 2016.

Lead image: Ari Butler, from left, as Seymour, Lauren Molina as Audrey and Larry Cahn as Mr. Mushnik in “Little Shop of Horrors.” | PHOTO / Roger Mastroianni