convergence-continuum’s ‘The Casual Tree Ward’ a tedious treatise on truth and faith

By Bob Abelman

The blurb promoting the world premiere production of Robert Hawkes’ one-act “The Casual Tree Ward” reads: “The Goddess Freyja (or is she?) is tending to Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree (or is it?), trying to protect it from increasing drought. An itinerant water-bearer tries to persuade Freyja to go with him to where water is plentiful. She refuses. Does the world really depend on this single tree, or is this a self-generating myth? All is made clear (or is it?).”

The key question not asked is “huh?”

Hawkes has written a folkloric short story that uses the threat of death of the tree of life as the modus operandi for characters from Norse mythology – Freyja, the goddess of love (Andrea Belser); Odin, the god of wisdom (David L. Munnell); and a pragmatic human named Nero (James Alexander Rankin) – to argue over the differences between truth and faith, facts and hope, proof and belief.

Argument and explanation occasionally devolves into bickering and all of it is an exercise in verbosity that can easily alienate an audience whose insight into Middle Age Icelandic storytelling may not be up to snuff, whose interest in theater-as-debate may be limited and whose patience for 80 minutes of literary prose and wordplay void of poetry is short.

Fortunately, this convergence-continuum production does not break into the North Germanic language spoken by the Scandinavian people during the European Middle Ages, which must have been tempting.

To their credit, all three performers find and feast on the sharp wit Hawkes weaves into the script. And while Belser has some difficulty fighting through the hard veneer of a Nordic goddess, Rankin and Munnell both unearth something very accessible and modern in their portrayals.

While a modern take on these classic characters makes them interesting, it does fly in the face of Scott Zolkowski’s costume design set in a time without buttons or zippers. Director Susan Soltis does a nice job of augmenting the script with Beau Reinker’s sound design and Cory Molner’s lighting design to make the work theatrical. But the huge tree that scenic designer Jim Smith has placed center stage in Liminis Theatre’s narrow performance space keeps her from finding anything for her actors to do except go toe to toe with each other.

Hawkes emulates the skalds of yore by telling a tale about the world on the brink and the need to forge a better relationship with nature. Though the tale has never been more relevant, the telling of it is too much of a test of acumen and endurance to be entertaining or particularly informative.

“The Casual Tree Ward” by convergence-continuum
WHERE: Liminis Theatre, 2438 Scranton Road, Cleveland
WHEN: Through Sept. 15
TICKETS & INFO: $10 – $20. Call 216-687-0074 or visit

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at or visit 2018 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 6, 2018.

Lead image: Andrea Besser as Freyja, David Munnell as Odin and James Rankin as Nero | Photo / Tom Kondilas

The cast of "Rhinoceros." Photo / Evan Kondilas

Convergence-continuum’s ‘Rhinoceros’ as ungainly as its title characters

By Bob Abelman

“Dying is easy,” said famed 1940s performer Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed. “Comedy is hard.”

Tragifarcical absurdism may be even harder judging from convergence-continuum’s well-intended but ultimately ungainly production of Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros.”

Inspired by the playwright’s experiences with fascism in Paris during World War II, “Rhinoceros” depicts the struggle of an everyman named Bérenger (Tom Kondilas) to maintain his identity and morality while those around him succumb to the allure of conformity and brutality.

The action takes place in a provincial French town suddenly overrun with a mysterious plague that is causing ordinary citizens to turn into rampaging and destructive pachyderms.

Written in 1959, the three-act play tests one’s pain and pleasure threshold for the playwright’s exaggeration of the ordinary and having his characters speak in non-sequiturs to reveal the strangeness of what’s commonplace.

“Rhinoceros” is more laborious than Ionesco’s earlier, short-form plays like “The Bald Soprano” and lacks the fluidity he would eventually find in later works like “Exit the King,” but it is still an intriguing piece of theater.

Director Jonathan Wilhelm keeps this play moving at lightning speed, which thankfully keeps the production at well under its usual three-hour run-time but manages to miss some of the play’s more poignant beats.

He also foregoes the dark and stark realism embraced by most productions of this play and adds a touch of surrealism to emphasize and expand the moments of comedy. He places his characters in a bright and completely white-washed environment, adorns them in white and black costuming and makeshift headgear when they transform into rhinos, and gives the actors who play the characters that surround Bérenger the license to clown.

They (Kayla Gray, Joseph Milan, Natalyn Baisden, Rocky Encalada, David L. Munnell, Jeanne Task and Kim Woodworth) do so with incompatible degrees of exaggeration, with Milan, Woodworth and Munnell being the most effective.

While this waters down some of the metaphorical potency and political relevance of the play (though some lines of dialogue resonate without any need of assistance), it nicely emphasizes Ionesco’s commentary on the state of humanity as embodied in his central characters Bérenger and Jean (Mike Frye), the first of Bérenger’s colleagues to turn

The mop-headed Kondilas does a wonderful job of capturing Bérenger’s hungover, unheroic ordinariness. His efforts to both avoid and address the madness around him is a pleasure to watch, as is his ability to engage his fellow players and the audience throughout the production

His moral and physical counterpoint is the prim and self-absorbed Jean, a role that Frye seems to relish, particularly during his snorting moments of transformation. Although much of Jean’s shapeshifting takes place behind a curtain – resulting in disappointingly few prosthetics and only a few smears of green paint when he returns – Frye’s fine acting does the heavy lifting before Jean joins the growing herd we hear stampeding (aided by Beau Reinker’s sound design) behind the theater’s stadium seating.

Because of the play’s timely political commentary, this is the first con-con production since its first season 16 years ago to breach its mission statement by featuring a nonliving playwright. Short of adorning the rhinos in red baseball caps that read “Make France Great Again,” one would think that more creative risk-taking would take place to better underscore Ionesco’s bullet points.

In short, this production is more amusing than it is provocative, which is not necessarily what Ionesco was going for. CV

On stage

WHERE:  Liminis Theatre, 2438 Scranton Rd., Tremont

WHEN:  Through Sept. 16

TICKETS & INFO:  $10 – $20.  Call 216-687-0074 or visit

Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at 2017 Ohio AP Media Editor’s best columnist.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on August 26, 2017.

Lead image: The cast of “Rhinoceros.” Photo / Evan Kondilas

DANCECleveland brings in nationally recognized dance companies like the contemporary Brazilian dance company Grupo Corpo, which exemplifies a minimalistic approach to dance.

Home to a variety of theater, classical music and dance offerings, Northeast Ohio stages are in the spotlight

By Alyssa Schmitt

With scores of stages from Cleveland to Akron and Canton – and in many of the suburbs in between – Northeast Ohio is bursting at the seams with dance, theater and classical music offerings.

So much so, in fact, Karen Gahl-Mills, CEO and executive director of Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, one of the largest public funders of arts and culture in the U.S., says the thriving region performs at a level higher than might be expected of it.

“When you look at the list of all the organizations we fund – much less everything that’s out there – we do seem like we have more stuff, more stages, more organizations doing more work here than really belies a city of our size,” Gahl-Mills says.

That the area is experiencing this boom is in part a result of previous generations making arts part of the region’s foundation. To that point, several institutions are celebrating milestone anniversaries, including The Cleveland Orchestra, whose upcoming 2017-18 season marks its centennial anniversary.

The world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra performs at Severance Hall in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood.

The world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra performs at Severance Hall in Cleveland’s University
Circle neighborhood. Photo by Roger Mastroianni / The Cleveland Orchestra

“Cleveland used to be a city of a million people, so many of our cultural institutions are celebrating 100th anniversaries over the course of the last five and next five years,” Gahl-Mills says. “That speaks to those institutions being built at a time when Cleveland was a much bigger city with a much larger population. And it was a population of folks who really did believe that having arts and culture in your community needed to be part of your community’s DNA. It was a way to speak of yourself as a world city.”

The idea that Cleveland is a world-class arts city may sound foreign to outsiders, but compared to stage scenes in New York City or Chicago, Cleveland’s large and vibrant performance arts culture – and its focus on community – stack up quite well, says Clyde Simon, co-founder and art director of convergence-continuum, a Cleveland theater company that calls Tremont’s Liminis Theatre home.

“Since (convergence-continuum) started (in 2000), the theater scene in Cleveland has really grown,” Simon says. “In terms of quality, we’re definitely there. The productions that I’ve seen in those other places and the ones I’ve seen in Cleveland are equal in quality, and we’re being recognized outside of the area for such things. Cleveland has been getting some national attention beyond our own city limits.”

Quality guides the livelihood of Cleveland’s stages, but the secret to its growing audience is accessibility. Nationally known productions run through Cleveland often. Those who can’t afford to make the trip to New York City to see a renowned play or musical – chances are – can see it in Cleveland.

“Five Flights” transformed the entire theater space at convergence-continuum’s Liminis Theatre in Cleveland into the interior of an abandoned aviary.

“Five Flights” transformed the entire theater space at convergence-continuum’s Liminis Theatre in Cleveland into the interior of an abandoned aviary.

“We have a lot of offerings that, (in) many cities, you don’t necessarily have the opportunity to experience,” says Sarah Hricko, marketing manager at DANCECleveland, a stand-alone, dance-only presenter based in Cleveland’s Shaker Square neighborhood. “We’re able to provide, at DANCECleveland, the ability for people to see world-class dance performances that in many places people would have to drive really far to get to, or in New York for example, you’re going to be spending at least double what you pay for tickets here.”

The Cleveland Orchestra has also increased accessibility in recent years. In addition to regularly performing at Severance Hall in Cleveland and Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, the orchestra has participated in neighborhood residences in Lakewood and Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway, Slavic Village and Hough neighborhoods. By performing in more familiar environs, the orchestra is able to present its world-renowned performances to audiences that may not otherwise get to experience them, says Justin Holden, Cleveland Orchestra’s director of public relations.

“Providing access, in general, in different settings – whether it’s smaller ensembles or outside of a concert hall – just helps,” Holden says. “I think that when people are asked to connect with it simply as great music and great artists performing, then it’s easier for them to have an experience that’s meaningful to them.”

Many organizations are also engaging audiences over and above an evening’s main performance. Pre-show talks explaining the history of the production, classes in which audiences can interact with performers and Q&A sessions allowing audience members to speak directly to creative talent are all common ways connections are being built.

“We want to try to make sure that not only are you seeing the show, but you’re getting to interact before and after the show as well,” Hricko says. “It’s all about creating different experiences for different people.”

Each stage is unique, which may make it challenging (in a good way) when deciding what to see, but from dance to classical music to theater, there’s no shortage of options.

“There’s a real variety in Cleveland of really different types of theaters, both physically and the kind of things they produce,” Simon says. “There’s a real wealth of theater and you can’t see everything in one week … you’re going to miss stuff because there’s so much going on now.” CV

On stage

The Cleveland Orchestra

The Cleveland Orchestra’s Gala Concert will take place Oct. 7 and serve as the celebratory kick-off to launch Second Century initiatives at the start of the ensemble’s 100th season. For more, visit


Performances of “Rhinoceros” (Aug. 25 – Sept. 16) and “In the Closet” (Oct. 13 – Nov. 4) will take place at Liminis Theatre. For more, visit


A performance by the Koresh Dance Company will take place Oct. 1 at The University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall, and a performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company will take place Nov. 11 at Playhouse Square’s Ohio Theatre. For more, visit

Lead image: DANCECleveland brings in nationally recognized dance companies like the contemporary Brazilian dance company Grupo Corpo, which exemplifies a minimalistic approach to dance. Photo by Jose Luiz Pederneiras / DANCECleveland

Back from left, Dennis Burby as Hector, Wesley Allen as Panama, and Beau Reinker as Eliseo. Front from left, Kelsey Rubenking as Janis, Jamal Davidson as Eric, and Hillary Wheelock as Lila. Photo | Cory Molner

‘Massacre’ is both the title of and commentary on con-con’s production

By Bob Abelman

At the core of José Rivera’s “Massacre (Sing to Your Children),” first staged in 2007 at the Goodman Theater in Chicago and currently in production by convergence-continuum, is an outlandish tale about oppression.

The oppressor is a fellow named Joe, whose powers include the mind control of children, the ability to look into the souls of adults, and making infertile the land and the women of the small town of Grandville. For five years, he has engaged in psychological torture, rampant rape and the killing of those who do not abide by his strict and strictly enforced curfews.

It is never clear whether Joe’s reign of terror represents a political dictatorship, a religious theocracy or the innate evil in the human animal – all of which are even-money bets considering Rivera’s other works (“Marisol,” “The Motorcycle Diaries”) and the themes they embrace. What is clear is that Joe’s hunger cannot be satiated, his charisma cannot be quenched, and his evil cannot be extinguished.

We know this because, at the start of the play, the seven townspeople brave enough to revolt against and brutally butcher Joe return, bloody and euphoric, to their leader’s humble apartment to revel in their victory and make plans for the future, only to have Joe – still alive, angry and vindictive – come a-knocking by intermission.

Some of the seven are willing to give the killing of Joe another go but after turning on each other and forsaking their leader in frustration, most regret their primitive acts of violence, repress their oppression by finding comfort in it, and return to their homes.

The play’s ambiguity – about what Joe represents, about what the revolt against him means, and about what the revolt’s failure signifies – is never addressed or resolved over the course of the evening, which is infuriating. This play is an allegory for something, but what is anyone’s guess.

The ambiguity is not nearly as infuriating as Rivera’s means of presenting it. Much of the play’s dialogue employs stilted, pretentious, heightened language that is as uncharacteristic of the ordinary folks who speak it as it is foreign to the kind of story in which they reside.

Imagine John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier reading and paraphrasing aloud a Steven King novel and you’ll get a sense of this highly stylized piece of storytelling.

While some performers in this production (Hillary Wheelock, Beau Reinker and Lucy Bredeson-Smith) have created distinctive characters who manage to speak this dialogue with a sense of authenticity and urgency, others (Wesley Allen, Kelsey Rubenking and Brian Westerley) only come close while a few (Dennis Burby and Jamal Davidson) never seem comfortable in the skin or with the words they’ve been assigned.

Other productions of this play have attempted to bypass its ample ambiguity and off-set its off-putting pretentiousness by throwing theatricality at it in the form of visceral intensity – an amplified soundtrack, an infusion of Latin-American magical realism, and gallons of gore. Some have set the play in an abandoned slaughterhouse, costumed the seven vigilantes in grotesque animal masks, and armed them with pick-axes and tire irons instead of weapons fashioned from household tools used for dicing and slicing.

But con-con’s production, under Clyde Simon’s direction, goes to the other extreme.

The setting is a low-budget rendering of a low-rent apartment. The staging is stark and comparatively realistic. The gore is limited to stains on clothes and dried blood sparingly smeared on hands and faces.

Such minimalism works well because it allows the powerful poetry that Rivera scatters throughout the script to be delivered without distraction.  But it calls attention to the play’s many imperfections as well.

It also turns the play’s drama into unfortunate melodrama on the occasions when Simon chooses to step up the production values. This happens when actors about to soliloquize step into the isolating illumination that lighting designer Cory Molner has waiting for them and when sound designer Beau Reinker’s gentle underscoring swells to signal a mood shift.

It’s admirable that Simon and company have taken on a play with such a high degree of difficulty, particularly since few productions have been able to turn it into something worthwhile. But we need to add con-con’s production to that list. CV

On Stage

WHERE: Liminis Theatre, 2438 Scranton Rd., Tremont

WHEN: Through June 10

TICKETS & INFO:  $10 – $20.  Call 216-687-0074 or visit

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 21, 2017.

Lead image: Back from left, Dennis Burby as Hector, Wesley Allen as Panama, and Beau Reinker as Eliseo.  Front from left, Kelsey Rubenking as Janis, Jamal Davidson as Eric, and Hillary Wheelock as Lila. Photo | Cory Molner

From left, Wesley Allen, Rochelle Jones, Michael May and India Nicole Burton. PHOTO | Tom Kondilas

‘Bootycandy’ looks at black culture through blackout sketches at convergence-continuum’s Liminis Theatre

By Bob Abelman

Theater at convergence-continuum can, at times, be provocative, profound, perverse and very funny. Robert O’Hara’s “Bootycandy” is all of these things at once, though not always in balance or with consistently satisfying results.

The play, which premiered in 2011, serves up for our consideration the playwright’s experiences as an effeminate, gay man living in an uncompromising black culture. And it does so through a series of vignettes that range from smartly satirical to stone-cold sobering rather than a traditional running narrative.

By presenting these personal experiences unconventionally and through the filter of outrageous exaggeration and social satire, “Bootycandy” isolates and exposes toxic African-American attitudes toward homosexuals. The hope is that, through our collective laughter, those attitudes and the stereotypes they generate will be undermined, dissipate and disappear.

Most of the 10 vignettes feature Sutter (Wesley Allen), the playwright’s alter-ego, in revealing slice-of-life moments that take place in his childhood home, a nursing home and a local bar.

We see a very young and curious Sutter asking his woefully ill-equipped mother about his private parts. Later, an adolescent and decisively gay Sutter falls victim to an impromptu intervention by his parents, who attempt to set him straight by recommending that he put down Jackie Collins novels, take up sports, and “bend at the knees when you pick stuff up.” Later still, at some dive, an older Sutter and a friend pick up and accommodate a drunk, depressed and straight white guy who wishes to be sexually humiliated.

Four actors play the other characters in Sutter’s scenes, and each is also given a tangentially relevant vignette of their own. There’s an inspirational sermon by a cross-dressing preacher (Michael May), an over-the-top phone conversation between four friends (all played by India Nicole Burton and Rochelle Jones), one of whom is pregnant and plans to name her baby Genitalia Lakeitha Shamala Abdul because she likes the way it sounds, and an intense monologue that offers the victim’s perspective (Nate Miller) of a late-night mugging.

And, as if an afterthought, there is a scene — one of the evening’s best — where the playwright cunningly comments on the challenge of writing plays like this with vignettes like these for predominantly straight, white audiences like us.

Most of the vignettes are laced with thematic and graphic profanity. Many, but not all, are cleverly conceived and very well executed by a talented and fully committed cast. One offers gratuitous male nudity.

Director Terrence Spivey does yeomen’s work, aligning the assortment of comedic and dramatic blackout sketches that is “Bootycandy” to create an evening of coherent and entertaining social commentary. What he failed to achieve on opening night was consistency, for his actors were often on a different page regarding how broad satire should be. At times some went significantly overboard, which got the laughs but turned the production into something less desirable and impactful than what the playwright had in mind.

And, too often, actors went unseen. Jim Smith’s set design scatters three separate performance spaces amid three clusters of tiered audience seating in con-con’s intimate theater. Everyone in attendance has an obstructed view and an awkward vantage point some time during the performance.

The production’s miniscule budget does nothing to harm this play, but there are plenty of missed opportunities. This is particularly evident in the way of Malikah Johnson Spivey’s costume design, which would have enhanced the humor and poignancy in the phone conversation sketch, among others.

“Bootycandy” is most certainly an audacious piece of work, which is why it premiered at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., and had an Off-Broadway run in 2014.

Audacious is what con-con tends to do best. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Bootycandy”

WHERE: convergence-continuum’s Liminis Theatre, 2438 Scranton Road, Cleveland (Tremont)

WHEN: Through April 16

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$15. Call 216-687-0074 or visit

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at

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

Lead image: From left, Wesley Allen, Rochelle Jones, Michael May and India Nicole Burton. PHOTO | Tom Kondilas