Tania Benites and Jason Estremere in Tlaloc Rivas’ “Johanna Facing Forward,” which was part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Teatro Publico de Cleveland. The play was based on the story of Johanna Orozco, a Cleveland teenager who survived a gunshot wound to the face from her abusive boyfriend. Photo | Steve Wagner

Several Northeast Ohio theater artists are using their stages to tackle issues such as racial discrimination, mental health and the opioid crisis

By Bob Abelman

Throughout history, artists have created work that does more than entertain. Art can call attention to causes, give voice to sociopolitical injustices, provide a catalyst for protest and serve as an agent for change.

Playwright Aristophanes may well have been the first theater activist. Weary of the Peloponnesian War that had been raging for years, his “Lysistrata,” first performed in 411 BCE, encouraged a sex-strike by all of the women of Greece as a demonstration of their dissent and solidarity.

This past summer, New York’s Public Theatre, Shakespeare Dallas, the Washington, D.C.-based Shakespeare Theatre Company, and other troupes across the country staged provocative productions of “Julius Caesar” intended to stimulate discussion about modern-day populist leaders with a fondness for executive power.

Feminist street theater performers in New York publically called out art galleries and museums for their lack of female artists.

In Spain, performance artist flash mobs staged unannounced Flamenco dances in bank lobbies and the Andalusian parliament to passionately denounce the banking crisis and the austerity measures resulting from European bailouts.

Here in Northeast Ohio, activism by theater artists ranges from overt to incidental and from political to very personal.

Raising consciousness:
Cleveland Public Theatre’s Raymond Bobgan

Nonprofit theaters perform a balancing act when reacting to politics. They can’t hold rallies and they can’t make endorsements without endangering their tax-exempt status. But they most certainly can tell stories.

Raymond Bobgan – who is celebrating his 11th season as executive artistic director of the Cleveland Public Theatre – is all about the storytelling.

Bobgan received the 2017 Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio for his “sustained, impactful and visionary leadership” while championing the diverse voices of local playwrights and the minority communities they represent.

In CPT’s multi-theater complex in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, Bobgan launched Teatro Publico de Cleveland, a 35-member ensemble of Cleveland’s Latinx theater artists, and is laying the groundwork for a similar initiative with Cleveland’s Middle-Eastern and Arabic communities.

He brought “Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays” to the CPT stage to open hearts and minds to marriage equality when the issue was before the Supreme Court. And CPT’s Station Hope – an annual one-night performing arts event in April or May that celebrates the Underground Railroad and explores contemporary issues of social justice – is perhaps the best example of this theater company’s brand of activism. 

“Social justice is about empowering marginalized and minority groups to tell their own stories,” Bobgan says.

Sparking connections:
Interplay Jewish Theatre’s Faye Sholiton

Tom Fulton and Laura Perrotta in Anat Gov’s “Oh God” by Interplay Jewish Theatre. Photo | Elaine Siegel

Tom Fulton and Laura Perrotta in Anat Gov’s “Oh God” by Interplay Jewish Theatre. Photo by Elaine Siegel

Founded in 2011 by Beachwood playwright Faye Sholiton, Interplay Jewish Theatre offers free staged readings of plays that view the contemporary world through a Jewish lens.

Interplay’s first performance was a reading of Deborah Margolin’s drama “Imagining Madoff,” which examined the human capacity for greed. Since then, Sholiton has produced a series of works by a range of living Jewish artists who explore the Middle East conflict, racism and Holocaust denial, among other hot-button topics.

“We don’t choose scripts specifically meant to spark action,” Sholiton says. “It’s more to spark a connection. We want to touch people, provide new insights into the human condition. As playwright/director Aaron Posner told a group of theatermakers a few years ago, ‘The days of sit back, relax and enjoy a show are over. It’s now sit up, lean in and engage.’”

Early on, the company was itinerant. But since 2013, Interplay’s primary partners are Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights and Beachwood’s Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.

“Whether audiences are moved to social, political or religious action, I don’t know,” Sholiton says. “But they certainly become more aware of their own fragility, and we make these discoveries together in a safe and welcoming space.”

Reflecting the good intentions of many other local theater artists, Sholiton adds, “I like to think the work makes us more thoughtful citizens and more compassionate neighbors. Turning those values into action is icing on the cake.”

Denting stigmas:
improvisational comedian Deena Nyer Mendlowitz

Improvisational comedian Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, whose experiences led her to create and perform a monthly live show called “Mental Illness and Friends.” Photo | Deena Nyer Mendlowitz

Improvisational comedian Deena Nyer Mendlowitz, whose experiences led her to create and perform a monthly live show called “Mental Illness and Friends.” Photo by Deena Nyer Mendlowitz

If academic credit could be earned through real-life experience with suicidal depression and electro-convulsive therapy, then comedian/improv artist Deena Nyer Mendlowitz has a master’s in mental illness – and her thesis is the one-woman show “Funnel Cakes Not Included.”

The comedy is a deeply personal excavation of how depression colors a person’s day-to-day existence and serves to distinguish between sadness and depression in the hope of putting a dent in mental health stigma and discrimination.

It was first performed to sold-out houses in 2014 at the Cleveland Public Theatre and has since been staged at the Dobama Theatre’s Playwrights’ Gym, Miami University in Oxford, Arcade Comedy Theater in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. 

The positive response to this production launched a live show called “Mental Illness and Friends,” which takes place every month at Bar Louie on West Sixth Street in downtown Cleveland. Mendlowitz, who was trained at The Second City and Annoyance Theater in Chicago, begins each performance with a new opening monologue, seamlessly weaving together mental illness, real life and laughter. Guest comedians, improv artists, actors and the occasional musical guest perform and share a bit of their own mental health history.

The evening ends with an improv session based on topics from that evening’s discussion, resulting in hilarious, healing and – hopefully – attitude-changing entertainment.

“When life is rough,” says Mendlowitz, “create new stuff.”

Raising awareness:
none too fragile’s Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky

Sean Derry and his daughter, Seá, who has Rett Syndrome and inspired her parents to stage one performance per production that caters to those who have sensitivity to loud sounds or strobe lights or who can’t sit or sit still for long periods of time. Photo by Sean Derry

Sean Derry and his daughter, Seá, who has Rett Syndrome and inspired her parents to stage one performance per production that caters to those who have sensitivity to loud sounds or strobe lights or who can’t sit or sit still for long periods of time. Photo by Sean Derry

Co-artistic directors Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky are performing a very personal form of activism by initiating “relaxed” performances at their Akron-based none too fragile theater.

“Seá’s Night,” named after their 18-year-old daughter with Rett Syndrome, caters one performance per production to those who have sensitivity to loud sounds or strobe lights or who can’t sit or sit still for long periods of time.

“Our other children enjoy attending shows as well as helping backstage or on stage,” says Derry, “but Seá has not been able to do so. Until now.”

By opening the door to special needs attendees and making their theater more inclusive, Derry and Romansky are spreading awareness of Rett Syndrome – a rare non-inherited neurological disorder that occurs almost exclusively in girls and leads to their inability to speak, walk, eat and breathe easily – and other debilitating diseases to their patrons. And all profits from “Seá’s Night” performances are donated to the Rett Syndrome Research Trust.

Confronting the devil:
playwrights on the front line of opioid addiction

Christopher Bohan in Greg Vovos’ “How to be a Respectable Junkie” at Dobama Theatre. Photo by Steve Wagner

Christopher Bohan in Greg Vovos’ “How to be a Respectable Junkie” at Dobama Theatre. Photo by Steve Wagner

Following in the footsteps of activist-minded theatermakers who penned heartbreaking plays about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, including Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” several local playwrights have been tackling the state’s surging opioid crisis.

Emily Sherin and Zach Manthey are students at Kent State University who co-wrote “(In)dependent: The Heroin Project” in response to the much-publicized news photo of an East Liverpool woman and her boyfriend slumped in the front seat of an SUV after overdosing on heroin. The woman’s 4-year-old grandson was in the backseat.

The drama – based on some 50 interviews with heroin users and family members, counselors and paramedics, and written in the powerful first-person style of Moisés Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project” – recently premiered at the Akron Civic Theater. On stage, “when you have someone in front of you showing you the effect this epidemic has, it opens your eyes,” said Sherin in a recent article in The New York Times (nyti.ms/2hgXcB8). “Confrontation is key to communication.”

Premiering at Cuyahoga Community College’s Western Campus in Parma, Greg Vovos’ one-man, 90-minute play “How to be a Respectable Junkie” follows a similar path. It is based on extensive interviews with a recovering white-collar heroin user.

“I was blown away by his sense of humor, intelligence and how engaging he was,” says Vovos. “It made me realize that our communities were losing so many great people, and I needed to write about that.”

The play unfolds as stream of consciousness commentary by 30-something Brian. According to a Plain Dealer review (bit.ly/2hagp3S) of its recent Dobama Theatre production, “How to be a Respectable Junkie” prescribes empathy as an antidote and “speaks to addicts, their parents and loved ones numbed by disappointment … and those lucky enough to have watched the numbers of (overdoses) rise and rise without ever having to attend a funeral.”

“A person approached me after one show,” recalls Vovos, “and said I’ll never write a more important play in my life.”

As a grassroots initiative, theater can bring communities together, give voice to the marginalized, articulate issues and push to the forefront problems we otherwise choose to ignore. Every time theater artists like these challenge the powers that be and established ways of thinking, they prove that art and activism are more powerful together than apart. CV

Anne McEvoy contributed to this story.


Lead image: Tania Benites and Jason Estremere in Tlaloc Rivas’ “Johanna Facing Forward,” which was part of Cleveland Public Theatre’s Teatro Publico de Cleveland. The play was based on the story of Johanna Orozco, a Cleveland teenager who survived a gunshot wound to the face from her abusive boyfriend. Photo by Steve Wagner

Jabri Little as Tray and Lisa Langford as Lena. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

Dobama’s ‘brownsville song’ a poignant play about love and resilience

By Bob Abelman

“There’s some / thing / Got a / a uh weight to it / Dig into my ribcage every breath I take every hour of the day / Drippin scratchin on my skin with its red saliva / Writin his name over and over / Those letters just burnin through to my bones / burning me with why / and he knew better / and didn’t I say to him.”

So begins playwright Kimber Lee’s lyrical, heartfelt and heart-wrenching tale about deep loss and senseless death, and Dobama Theatre’s remarkable telling of it.

“brownsville song (b-side for tray)” takes place in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., where a young black life with infinite potential on the verge of endless possibilities is tragically cut short in a street shooting. That is where this story, which seamlessly time-shifts between the past and the present, both begins and ends.

In between, we meet the teenager Tray (Jabri Little), the adoring 9-year-old sister (Logan Dior Williams) who sees his apparition everywhere, his remorseful step-mother who abandoned them (Cindy Chang), the loving grandmother who raises them (Lisa Louise Langford), and a fatalistic best friend (Kalim Hill) who is all the things that Tray is not.

Despite a story that balances precariously on the tenterhook of tragic loss, director Jimmie Woody keeps his talented performers and their textured performances from sinking into and getting lost in that emotion. The heartbreak is obvious, omnipresent and all-encompassing, but by bearing the pain and moving forward, the survivors’ resilience and the harsh reality of the street are made even more poignant.

While Langford’s portrayal of the grandmother Lena stands out for its remarkable honesty and painful vulnerability, Little – a senior at the Cleveland School of the Arts – gives us a young man to cheer for and a professional debut to remember.

When paired with others, who deliver fully-fleshed characters, his charisma and virtuosity makes the tiny Williams’ Devine all the sweeter, Chang’s Merrell all the more remorseful (particularly at the end of the play, when Chang’s mastery of this challenging character solidifies), and Hill’s Junior all the more tragic.

All this is set against a brick wall scarred with ghetto graffiti that comes to life during scene transitions thanks to T. Paul Lowry’s eye-candy animated projections and the pulsating backbeat of hip-hop and jazz courtesy of sound designer Cyrus O. Taylor.

The few set pieces ushered in and out of the performance space – the apartment where Tray lived, the gym where he trained for the Golden Gloves, and the Starbucks where he worked to save up money for college – are realistically rendered by Laura Carlson Tarantowski and dramatically lit by Marcus Dana, and define the finite boundaries of Tray’s existence.

This play premiered in 2014 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., the same year as the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police. Cleveland’s Playwrights Local recently told that tale in the original play “Objectively/Reasonable” and did so through a dramatization of documented reactions by anonymous neighbors, friends and community leaders. This made the senseless shooting particularly personal, political and parochial.

Although “brownsville song (b-side for tray)” is similarly inspired by the shooting death of a young man named Tray Franklin in Brownsville, turning fact into fiction side-steps the political science of senseless acts of violence and allows for poetry to take the place of testimony and news reports. As such, this play transcends eulogy, broadens the conversation, and places it squarely in the lap of the audience, where it belongs.

As Lena says in that opening monologue: “Same Old Story so you gon feel bad and move on / Cuz he just another / Ain’t he / To you. / He was not.” cv

On stage

“brownsville song (b-side for tray)”

WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts.

WHEN: Through Sept. 24

TICKETS & INFO: $30–$32, call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org


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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on September 2, 2017.

Lead image: Jabri Little as Tray and Lisa Langford as Lena. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

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

 

Photo / Steve Wagner

Dobama’s ‘Hand to God’ is demonically funny

By Bob Abelman

Hand puppets can get away with saying just about anything.

As innocent extensions of their handlers, Burr Tillstrom’s Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Sherri Lewis’ Lamb Chop and Jim Henson’s Muppets charmed and educated golden age TV audiences with their cheery dispositions, disarming naiveté and clandestine moral guidance.

More recent wood and fabric fabrications such as Jeff Dunham’s abusive Walter, Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and the ensemble in Broadway’s bawdy “Avenue Q” give voice to their creators’ progressive social commentary and particular political leanings.

And then there’s Tyrone, the profane and demonically possessed sock puppet who currently rants against religion on the Dobama Theater stage in Robert Askins’ outrageous comedy “Hand to God.”

The play begins in a church basement in Cypress, Texas, where young members of Pastor Greg’s (David Bugher) Christian ministry (played by adults) engage in puppet therapy to help the shy Jason (Luke Wehner) learn to express himself, help the sexually aggressive Timothy (Austin Gonser) find a more constructive creative outlet, and help Jessica (Molly Israel) – the secret object of Jason’s affections – find God.

The therapy is run by Jason’s mom, Margery (Tricia Bestic), who could use a bit of help herself as she struggles with guilt over her husband’s death-by-over-eating and the resultant emotional toll it has taken on Jason.

Soon Jason’s puppet Tyrone broadcasts the boy’s private thoughts, acts out his primitive impulses and base instincts, and eventually takes over the soul of the teen attached to the arm that is attached to him.

At first glance, this play seems to be little more than the stuff Tyrone is made of – a wad of impudence swaddled in slightly askew cuteness, bedazzled with blinding vulgarity, and built to shock and amuse with its malevolence and boldfaced blasphemy.

But the play’s 2011 Obie Award (off-Broadway), 2015 Tony nominations (Broadway) and 2016 Olivier nominations (London) suggest that this is more than just a perverse puppet show aimed at agnostic adults. There’s some deep thought just beneath the titillation that has made “Hand to God” one of most produced new plays in the country.

Look close and you’ll see that the play strips away normalcy so to showcase for our consideration a range of human foibles and frailties.

The debilitating and disorienting power of shame is on display, albeit in the form of Margery’s seduction of young Timothy, which is performed with superb comedic timing and clever choreography by Bestic and Gonser.

The lure of lust is also examined by way of simulated coitus between Israel’s hand puppet and Wehner’s Tyrone, an absurd act that takes its cue from “Avenue Q” but with heightened explicitness.

In Wehner’s magnificently violent, one-man wrestling match between Jason and Tyrone, we witness the human psyche’s perpetual battle between the id and the superego.

And the play suggests that hypocrisy exists in the heart of the super-devout, handled with immense grace by Bugher.

OK, this sounds like I’m over-intellectualizing all that is naughty in “Hand to God” in order to justify it. But everything Askins has to offer lands with resonance as well as audacity. And, under Matthew Wright’s sleight-of-hand direction, even the dropping of f-bombs is raised to an art form. His actors offer a master class in balancing horror with humor, vulnerability with vulgarity, and playing impertinence with a straight face.

All this is complemented by delightful stagecraft. Richard Ingraham and Marcus Dan’s haunting sound and lighting designs, Yesenia Real-Rivera’s playful prop design, and Ben Needham’s rotating scenic design that seamlessly and repeatedly swaps out the church basement with other locations feeds the frenzy that is “Hand to God.”

Puppets can most certainly get away with saying just about anything. And “Hand to God” pushes this notion awfully close to the breaking point. CV

On Stage

WHAT:  “Hand to God”

WHERE:  Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts.

WHEN:  Through May 21

TICKETS & INFO:  $29 – $32.  Call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org


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 April 24, 2017.

Lead image: Luke Wehner as Jason/Tyrone. Photo / Steve Wagner

Christopher Bohan (from left) as Sam, Gordon Hinchen as Avery, and Nate Miller as Dreaming Man in "The Flick". Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

Two thumbs up and 5-stars for Dobama’s ‘The Flick’

By Bob Abelman

Annie Baker’s long, leisurely and 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning Off-Broadway ode to small, solitary lives is given the splendid treatment it deserves and we have come to expect from Dobama Theatre.

“The Flick” features three emotionally stinted, socially awkward and deeply lonely co-workers at one of the last remaining, independent movie theaters in Worchester County, Mass., to house a 35-millimeter projector. And its seemingly simple story is as sweet and sorrowful as it is masterfully constructed, clandestinely complex and beautifully penned.

Baker is a favorite of Dobama’s. You may remember “The Aliens,” which was performed at the Cleveland Heights theater in 2014 and featured the drug-addled ramblings of a pair of 30-something slackers. They offered terse reflections on the human condition that trailed off into unfinished thoughts, elongated sighs, and slow drags on cigarettes.

In the place of the dramatic arc typically found in theatrical storytelling were a series of subtle, fairly uneventful yet intriguing moments that were buffered by pauses that stretched to epic proportions.

What surfaced from Baker’s deliberate and disarming display of human wreckage was insight into the people we randomly encounter with eyes wide shut and exposure to the delicate albeit discordant rhythms of their street poetry.

The same goes for “The Flick.” Here, we observe the evolving friendship between veteran floor-mopper Sam, newbie employee Avery, and the projectionist Rose as they carry out their repetitive, brain-dead and soul-crushing manual labor for $8.50 an hour.

“The Aliens’” discordant rhythms of speech are replaced here by a wonderfully annoying regional accent that manages to belie the intelligence of the speaker (think Matt Damon in the film “Good Will Hunting,” who starred with Robert De Niro in “The Good Shepherd,” who starred with Kevin Bacon in “Sleepers”), even when Sam and Avery are playing a rousing round of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

And the excruciating pauses found in “The Alien” are exchanged for silent moments of mopping in the empty movie house – which is accurately rendered by scenic designer Jill Davis – between screenings.

Each of the eight scenes in Act I and the eight scenes in Act II begins with the house lights dimming, blinding undecipherable images beaming from the film projector booth at the back of the movie theater, the sound of a generic movie soundtrack drawing to a close, and the house lights flickering to life as the screening comes to an end.

The play – with its existential insights into the human condition, its silent moments of mopping, its screening segues and its rounds of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” – clocks in at just over three hours.

Yes, Baker requires that the audience have skin in the game and ante-up patience and perseverance in order to be rewarded for her efforts. And rewarded you will be.

In addition to Baker providing an intriguing play, director Nathan Motta has found an exceptional group of actors to deliver it. Every one of them fits their respective character like a glove and, most remarkably, manages to manifest their character’s defining frailty in their physicality.

The 35-year-old Sam is stuck in a loop of living with his parents, working a dead-end job and secretly adoring Rose. And just as he has never learned how to operate the movie projector, he is incapable of changing the reels and moving forward in his own life.

As Sam, the incredible Christopher Bohan wears his character’s insecurities and lifetime of disappointment on his sleeve, in his shoulders and around his hips, and his ungainly lurch reveals just how uncomfortable Sam is in his own skin.

Twenty-something Rose is a bit of a free-spirit who uses her sexuality to compensate for her pathological self-doubt. This is best seen when she tries to seduce Avery with a wildly improvised and highly cathartic dance, while all that the inexperienced, deeply depressed and spiritually-broken Avery wants to do is escape into a movie.

Actress Paige Klopfenstein does not allow Rose’s physical displays of bravado to mask the character’s humanity. In fact, she does a remarkable job of always keeping it just below the surface of her performance. And Gordon Hinchen’s Avery – a walking, talking composite of phobias, self-consciousness and film-nerd eccentricities – is delightful.

During “The Flick,” Sam notes that “people always freak out when like, you know, when art forms move forward.” He was talking about motion pictures but he just as easily could have been talking about the long, leisurely, Pulitzer

Prize-winning play in which he resides.

“We’re lucky to be living in the era of Annie Baker,” wrote “The New Yorker” not long ago. She’s a playwright “who listens to people so carefully, who re-creates human speech with such amusement and care, that her characters feel startlingly familiar.”

That’s the reward that awaits you at the end of the third hour of this production.


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 March 5, 2017.

Lead image: Christopher Bohan (from left) as Sam, Gordon Hinchen as Avery, and Nate Miller as Dreaming Man in “The Flick”. Photo / Steve Wagner Photography

Joel Hammer as Tommy, left, and David Peacock as Doc.  Photo | Steve Wagner Photography

Dobama’s ‘The Night Alive’ a wily morality play

By Bob Abelman

If you caught Ensemble Theatre’s recent production of Conor McPherson’s “St. Nicholas” or Beck Center’s more recent production of McPherson’s “Shining City,” then you know what you are in for when attending the master storyteller’s “The Night Alive” at Dobama Theater in Cleveland Heights. And attend you must.

McPherson’s plays – of which there are 15 – tend to be cleverly woven short stories that tell tall tales.

Many, including this one, are one-act productions that take place over a brief period of time, which generates a strong sense of urgency.

Much of the dialogue consists of confessional meditations on life by lonely characters who have given up on it, which overflow with so much lyrical prose and powerful imagery that they resemble poetry.

And lurking in dark corners of McPherson’s work is a quirky, other worldly element – vampires or ghosts – that bites at the heels of the play’s otherwise sober realism.

Conspicuously missing from the Drama Desk Award-winning “The Night Alive,” which premiered in London and then transferred to Off-Broadway in 2013, are those things that go bump in the night. In this play, life is scary enough.

This stark piece of storytelling opens with the defeated and despondent Tommy (Joel Hammer) entering his refuse-filled first floor living space in Dublin with Aimee (Anjanette Hall), a young prostitute, in tow. She has been rescued from her abusive boyfriend Kenneth (Val Kozlenko) after being beaten and bloodied, and takes up the offer to crash for a few days to hide, heal and dine on dog biscuits.

There she meets Tommy’s judgmental uncle Maurice (Robert Hawkes), who owns the house and lives alone upstairs. She is visited by Tommy’s odd-job business associate and only friend, the mentally slow but delightfully solicitous Doc (David Peacock). And, eventually, she is found by the psychotic Kenneth.

This play unfolds as if it were simply a dark drama about broken people who have become entangled, by circumstance and bad luck, in each other’s sad and messy lives. And yet, as the characters’ vulnerabilities are exposed, as tensions build and as Doc describes dreams that turn deep and dismal, there is the sense that this play is significantly more than it appears.

And then, midway through the storytelling, we hear Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit song “What’s Going On?” on the radio.

The music momentarily rouses Tommy from his malaise, Aimee from her misery and Doc from his musings. The three break into a spontaneous dance that is at once awkward in its execution and awesome in its unadulterated jubilation. And the lyrics mimic the question on the lips of theatergoers who have become lost in this story’s idiosyncrasies, its characters’ eccentricities and the set design’s intriguing incongruities, including a stained glass window hanging above the squalor: what’s going on?

If you attempt to answer that question, be reminded that this play was penned by McPherson and that those idiosyncrasies, eccentricities and incongruities are evidence that the things that go bump in the night have been with us all along. In fact, the playwright has devised a cleverly disguised morality play grounded in his Irish Catholic upbringing and populated by a soul in limbo, a fallen angel, a prophet, a demon and a disapproving deity.

What is also going on are spot-on performances by exceptionally talented actors, who manage to keep one foot in reality and the other in the play’s marginalized mysticism without ever losing balance or their Dublin accents.

Director Leighann Delorenzo and her designers Cameron Caley Michalak (scenic), Marcus Dana (lighting), Jeremy Dobbins (sound), Inda Blatch-Geib (costume) and Ryan Zarecki (fight choreography) keep things real without ever tipping their hand until required to do so in the play’s final scene, which is beautifully executed.

“The Night Alive” is an intriguing play and risky enterprise. This is a remarkable production of it.

On Stage

WHAT:  “The Night Alive

WHERE:  Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts.

WHEN:  Through Feb. 12

TICKETS & INFO:  $29 – $32.  Call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org


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 Jan. 23, 2017.

Lead image: Joel Hammer as Tommy, left, and David Peacock as Doc.  Photo | Steve Wagner Photography

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

Photo | Steve Wagner Photography

Dobama’s ‘The Mystery of Love & Sex’ found wanting

By Bob Abelman

Black/white. Jewish/Christian. Gay/straight. Single/divorced. Yankee/southerner.  Daughter/son.

These ties that divide are the stuff of Bathsheba Doran’s comedy/drama “The Mystery of Love & Sex,” which received its world premiere production at Lincoln Center in 2015 and serves as Dobama Theatre’s season opener under Shannon Sindelar’s direction.

The play revolves around two lifelong best friends whose love and sex lives are being re-evaluated now that they are 21 years old and contemplating the future. Complicating matters is the reality that Charlotte is white, Jewish and may be gay, while Jonny is black, Baptist and a virgin.

Add to the equation Charlotte’s parents – Howard, an author of detective fiction and an aggressive, self-centered New Yorker, and Lucinda, a Southern belle and lapsed Catholic – whose conflicting world views, clashing parenting styles and troubled marriage complicate matters even further.

This is familiar familial territory for Doran, whose modern-day dramedy “Kin” – which played at Dobama in 2014 – similarly explored the intimate relationships of its characters in order to unlock the mystery of who they really are. The playwright is fond of reminding us that we all have emotional baggage and is skilled at revealing, through clever dialogue and rich characters, their interesting points of origin.

But while “Kin,” also directed by Sindelar, accomplished this by employing 20 short, fast-moving and mostly two-person scenes, “Mystery of Love & Sex’s” four-person cast labors harder, in half as many scenes, and is less successful.

The reason is that each actor seems to be performing in a fundamentally different play rather than finding what it takes to blend into this one.

As Charlotte’s obnoxiously controlling dad, the wonderful Scott Miller appears to have pulled his character from something written by Neil Simon and produced by Mel Brooks. His comparatively broad emotional and physical overreactions – while very funny and quite endearing to this expatriate New Yorker – would be more so if they better complemented the character choices and acting styles of the others who share the stage.

Heather Anderson Boll as the sardonic Southern-bred mother, for instance, is busy performing in a Tennessee Williams’ play. She is wonderful in it but the dramatic edge and self-aware introspection she offers seem out of place here, particularly since the playwright gives Lucinda the most comedic one-liners and the responsibility of articulating her rather mystical outlook on life’s mysteries.

And Wesley Allen, as Charlotte’s childhood neighbor and earnest best friend, has yet to find his play. He is searching – for defining character traits, for vocal inflection, for his lines – for much of the production. Jonny’s intimate relationship with Charlotte, his tender relationship with Lucinda and his complicated relationship with Howard are undermined as a result.

Only Tess Burgler as the troubled Charlotte finds the authenticity desired by the playwright and written into the very fabric of the script, which calls attention to just how much she stands alone in this regard.

Each scene – which, collectively, span five years in the lives of these characters and unfold in designer Jill Davis and Marcus Dana’s sparingly built and beautifully lit dorm room, family living room set and backyard – is detailed and unhurried. Only Burgler finds the right tempo while Miller rushes, Boll meditates and Allen meanders.  And she appears to be working too hard to lead her cast mates to that elusive common ground.

Not working hard enough is sound designer Cyrus O. Taylor, whose musical segues between scenes enter and end abruptly for no clear reason.

There are certainly moments in this production where everything clicks. When the tense and rhythmically-challenged Charlotte tries to unwind and dance with the similarly hampered Jonny, the result is absolutely charming.  So are the two isolated incidencts of nudity, the first intended for and achieving dramatic effect and the second bravely and very effectively going for the laugh.

There are beautifully tender moments as well, between Howard and Lucinda when he delivers a wedding dress for Charlotte and between mother and daughter throughout the production.

There’s also a sweet 11th-hour cameo appearance by long-time character actor Donald Krosin as Howard’s father.

But one of the mysteries of “The Mystery of Love & Sex” should not be why this Dobama production does not have more moments like these.

On Stage

WHAT:  “The Mystery of Love & Sex”

WHERE:  Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts.

WHEN:  Through Oct. 2

TICKETS & INFO:  $10 – $32.  Call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org.


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

 Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 4, 2016.

Lead image: Heather Anderson Boll (Lucinda), from left, Scott Miller (Howard), Tess Burgler (Charlotte), and Wesley Allen (Jonny). Photo | Steve Wagner Photography

From left, Michael Regnier (Rabbi Isidore), Robert Branch (Simcha Bergman) and Kelsey Angel Baehrens (Rachael Bergman). PHOTO | Dale Heinen

Engaging ‘To the Orchard’ pits tradition against desire at Waterloo Arts and Dobama Theatre

By Bob Abelman

Local playwright Les Hunter’s latest contemporary drama is getting its world premiere as the first full-length production of the newly formed Playwrights Local 4181. It is taking place at Waterloo Arts in Collinwood and, later in the run, at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights.

“To the Orchard”— which is about making mistakes, repairing the damage, and reconciling religious traditions with personal desires — was a top 10 finalist in the 2016 Jewish Play Project, received a National Foundation for Jewish Culture New Play Development Grant, as well as a production grant from the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation.

The play takes place during the 30 days of shloshim — the Jewish ritual of mourning — which happens to coincide with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and tracks Brooklyn College student Rachel Bergman’s (Kelsey Angel Baehrens) coming to terms with her homosexuality.

Upon the death of her mother, Rachel decides to come out to her estranged Orthodox Jewish father, Simcha Bergman (Robert Branch) — the starting anew associated with the first holiday. We soon learn that Simcha has been battling his own internal demons, and must forgive himself for past indiscretions before he can forgive others — the atonement associated with the latter holiday.

Throughout the play, Rachel seeks the comfort of her queer studies professor Tracie Braggs (Andrea Belser) while Simcha seeks the counsel of an addled old family friend, Rabbi Isidore (Michael Regnier). And though the play is set in the here and now, spiritual guidance is also provided through dreamlike visitations by 1970s rocker Robert Plant (Regnier), turn-of-the-century author Virginia Woolf (Belser), and 19th century financier August Belmont (Baehrens).

This touch of magical realism adds some light moments to an otherwise intense work, made even more so by some stiff dialogue early in the play and the intimate confines of the Waterloo Arts performance space.

Despite the tight quarters, director Dale Heinen stages an appealing production, using T. Paul Lowry’s superb animated projections to establish a sense of place, Jonathan Maag’s lighting design to manipulate attention and establish a sense of time, Daniel McNamara’s sound design that cleverly merges klezmer with classic rock and roll, and four excellent performers to keep us fully engaged.

During those occasional bouts of stiff prose, the acting comes across as stilted and forced. But the performances soar when Hunter’s words seem to fly from the page and are as poetic as they are poignant, which happens often.

Such is the case with the final scene in Act I, when Rabbi Isidore compels Simcha to recite the Al Chet and the two men rhythmically admit their sins while alternating between Hebrew and English. “For all these, O God of forgiveness,” says the Rabbi as he beats his chest during the confession, “forgive us, pardon us, grant us remission. Simcha, the gates are not closed. This is my gift.” This beautifully sets up the healing that takes place in Act II.

The play’s many short scenes and frequent set changes can be taxing. And set changes performed by the actors rather than a crew are a distraction and detract from the production’s professionalism. But not enough to undermine Hunter’s work, which is thoughtful and so very intriguing.

“To the Orchard” is a welcome addition to the homegrown plays that are being supported, developed and produced in Cleveland. And Playwrights Local 4181 is a welcome addition to the companies lending support and doing the development and production. CV

On stage

WHAT: “To the Orchard”

WHERE & WHEN: Waterloo Arts, 397 E. 156th St., Cleveland through June 5; Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights, June 10-12

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$15, call 216-302-8856 or visit playwrightslocal.org


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 30, 2016.

Lead image: From left, Michael Regnier (Rabbi Isidore), Robert Branch (Simcha Bergman) and Kelsey Angel Baehrens (Rachael Bergman). PHOTO | Dale Heinen

Lara Mielcarek, from left, as Polignac, Carly Germany as Marie Antoinette, and Rachel Kolis as Lamballe.
PHOTO | Steve Wagner Photography

Dobama Theatre’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ promises cake, provides crumbs

By Bob Abelman

Had psychotherapy been around in the late 18th century, Sigmund Freud would have had a field-day with fellow Austrian Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna von Habsburg-Lothringen, better known as Marie Antoinette.

One of 16 children and the eighth daughter and second youngest child of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa, archduchess of Austria and queen of Hungary and Bohemia, Marie had issues.

She was afraid of her forbidding mother and intimidated by her oldest brother.

She was functionally illiterate though very well versed in the empty enterprise of self-indulgence.

She was culturally and socially isolated prior to being sent off as a 14-year-old to wed Louis-Auguste, the heir to the throne of France, and she was even lonelier during her time as queen.

Which wasn’t very long. Marie was famously imprisoned and beheaded during the French Revolution at the age of 37.

In “Marie Antoinette,” first performed in 2012 and on stage at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights, playwright David Adjmi does Freud’s work by bringing to the surface all that ails Marie. And he uses the therapist’s dialogue-driven clinical methodology to do so.

We overhear Marie (Carly Germany) sharing gossip and fashion tips with her ladies-in-waiting (Lara Mielcarek and Rachel Lee Kolis), disclosing Louis XVI’s failings as a leader with her brother Joseph (Robert Hunter), and discussing the king’s failings as a lover with a dashing courtier (Joe Pine). We eavesdrop on her conversations with a sardonic sheep (Abraham Adams), as she learns about the angry world outside her gilded cage.

As does this play, recent works by other playwrights have re-envisioned and stylistically brought into the modern era historical figures. A young Andrew Jackson is portrayed as a radical rock and roller in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and founding father Alexander Hamilton is a rapper in “Hamilton.” Adjmi depicts Marie Antoinette as the poster child for the extravagant consumerism, outlandish sense of entitlement, and astounding superficiality displayed by today’s rich and famous 1-percenters.

When revolutionaries outside her gate shout “Fraternite,” the clueless Marie hears “fraternity party.”

Adjmi’s characters speak in contemporary vernacular, wear lavish period costuming (courtesy of Tesia Dugan Benson) that has pop fashion flair, and have the same soullessness and unchecked appetites common in characters in Adjmi’s other plays, including “Stunning,” “Elective Affinities,” and “3C.”

While the musicals “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and “Hamilton” fill their stages with a raucous score and elaborate choreography, “Marie Antoinette” director Nathan Motta similarly saturates Dobama’s performance space. But he does so with wonderful projections of animated imagery (designed by Mike Tutaj), fashion model runway lighting (designed by Marcus Dana), and a rich soundtrack (designed by Richard Ingraham) between scenes.

All this marvelously embellishes the many moods of and dramatic moments in this play, and complements the purposefully minimalistic but still-effective exhibition of opulence (designed by Ben Needham) of the palaces at Versailles and Paris.

The downside of this dynamic display of sight and sound is the void it leaves in its absence. Despite terrific performances by every actor — particularly Dan Hendrock as the incessantly whining King and Germany as the easily distracted and, later, terribly distraught Marie — the script is pale and plods along when left to its own devices.

Worse, the play is sometimes aimless and unsure of what it wants to say. After two hours of putting Marie on the therapist’s couch, “Marie Antoinette” fails to provide the necessary Freudian insight to turn smart dialogue and awesome production values into something more meaningful.

When watching “Marie Antoinette,” it’s as if the playwright wanted the audience to eat cake but only provided handfuls of delectable but ultimately unsatisfying breadcrumbs. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Marie Antoinette”

WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights

WHEN: Through May 22

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$28. Call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org.


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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 24, 2016.

Lead image: Lara Mielcarek, from left, as Polignac, Carly Germany as Marie Antoinette, and Rachel Kolis as Lamballe. PHOTO | Steve Wagner Photography

Andrew Gombas and Dorothy Silver. PHOTO | Steve Wagner Photography

Thin, implausible ‘Revisionist’ fully fleshed out in ‘enjoyable, thought-provoking’ Dobama Theatre production

By Bob Abelman

“Write what you know” is usually the advice fledgling authors follow when they first put pen to paper.

Such is the case with actor-turned-playwright Jesse Eisenberg. He has so mastered the art of depicting patronizing, self-centered, socially awkward characters in films like “Social Network” and “Now You See Me” that he has created similar characters to portray in his own plays, “Asuncion,” “The Revisionist” and, most recently, “The Spoils.”

In “The Revisionist,” which premiered off-Broadway in 2013 and is on stage at the Dobama Theatre, a young American writer named David arrives at the run-down Polish city of Szczecin and the well-worn flat of his second cousin Maria. Self-absorbed, high-strung and thin-skinned, David has come hoping that the isolation and radical change of scene will allow him to concentrate and complete his new novel. He makes no effort to be gracious to Maria or show any appreciation for her hospitality.

The septuagenarian Maria thinks David has come to visit her and learn about the family they lost in the Holocaust and the many others depicted in the cherished photographs that cover every surface in her modest apartment, designed with wonderful attention to detail by Aaron Benson and Marcus Dana.

Both David and Maria are in desperate need of human contact and personal connection, but their generational, cultural and culinary differences create barriers that only a bottle of vodka and some serious truth telling can penetrate.

This is a lovely story but, as with the early works of many fledgling authors, it is thinly told and full of implausible, forced and structurally graceless moments. What should be a small, delicate watercolor portrait is rendered with expressionistic subjectivity, broad strokes and unrefined technique.

Fortunately, it fell into the hands of director Leighann Delorenzo. Her delicate touch has tapped all that is heartfelt and beguiling in the script. And her eye for casting has allowed it to take form on stage.

Dorothy Silver captures in tone, temperament and physicality a woman who has turned self-preservation into a going concern. Her character’s rock-solid defiance and effortless ability to laugh at herself and others — all masterfully put on display by one of Cleveland’s finest actors — were Maria’s survival strategies during the war and work for her still. It is a testament to Silver, not the script, that Maria appears so genuinely robust and fully fleshed out.

And it is a testament to Andrew Gombas that David’s defenses break down and he becomes increasingly vulnerable and likable as the play progresses, something Eisenberg never accomplished in his world-premiere Cherry Lane Theatre production. David is a lost soul, not a lost cause. Without Gombas’s effective communication of this, neither Maria’s affection nor our investment in his well-being would have been justified or so richly rewarded.

Also superb is John Busser as Zenon, a brash and burly taxi driver who has befriended Maria and serves as brief comic relief. His Polish seems authentic but, more importantly, so do his warmth and gruff charm.

“I am an open book,” Maria tells David when he finally gets around to asking her what happened during the war. She is not. And neither is this script. But this Dobama production does a fine job of making it an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “The Revisionist”

WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights

WHEN: Through April 3

TICKETS & INFO: $10-$28. Call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org


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 7, 2016.

Lead image: Andrew Gombas and Dorothy Silver. PHOTO | Steve Wagner Photography

From left, Chris Richards (John), Joel Hammer (Bob), Tracee Patterson (Jennifer), and Rachel Zake (Pony). PHOTO | Steve Wagner Photography

In staging the play’s regional premiere, Dobama Theatre more than keeps up with ‘The Realistic Joneses’

By Bob Abelman

In Will Eno’s “Middletown,” which Dobama Theatre staged in 2012, we were introduced to the small New England community of Grover’s Corners, where the population consisted of impulsive, stream-of-consciousness self-disclosers with no filter and no off-button.

The chatty citizens of this township shared every random observation, nagging anxiety and metaphysical thought that popped into their heads. They casually pondered the vast mysteries of existence and the morbidity that lies beneath as if discussing the weather.

If you listened closely, diligently and patiently — always a wise choice during any Dobama Theatre production — the playwright’s clever wordplay and subtle punch lines gave way to weighty and intriguing insights into the human condition and the ways of the world.

Eno’s love of language and penchant for using it is immediately evident in his newest work, “The Realistic Joneses,” which left Broadway in 2014 and is currently being performed at Dobama.

The four characters in this playful and poignant one-act tragicomedy are as likely to ramble and free-associate as those residing in “Middletown,” and their simple observations also have big-picture applications. But their use of words serves a different and higher purpose: to demonstrate their inadequacy. Words fail these people when they need them most.

The play starts with Jennifer Jones (Tracee Patterson) turning to her husband Bob (Joel Hammer), who is dying from something called Harriman Leavey Syndrome, and stating: “It just seems like we don’t talk.”

On the contrary, this middle-aged couple speaks incessantly. But words just don’t capture the extent of Bob’s pain or relay the frustration of having an irreversible and degenerative nerve disease that impacts his short-term memory and word formation. And words just can’t convey Jennifer’s pain of loving someone who is dying or express the frustration of caring for him.

The neighbors John Jones (Chris Richards) and his wife Pony (Rachel Zake), a young couple that just moved to this semirural mountain town, have problems with words as well. Pony lacks the wherewithal to find the right words to express her feelings and John tends to speak in bizarre non-sequiturs and hilarious self-contradictions. So he talks a lot but says very little.

There is no substantive plot, per se, in “The Realistic Joneses,” and little realism save for the Joneses just trying to get through the day. This can be infuriating for the smattering of staunch defenders of traditional storytelling who seem surprised by the range of Dobama Theatre’s offerings.

In their defense, the playwright’s idiosyncratic tendencies and despairing views of existence, albeit shrouded in deliciously dark humor, can certainly be difficult to digest. Eno is not easy.

But director Shannon Sindelar knows full well that there is much to salvage and savor in Eno’s brilliant wordplay and complex characters, and her actors facilitate the process with their considerable talent and astounding dexterity.

Everyone succeeds in finding warmth and distinctiveness in their respective Joneses. The raw vulnerability that Patterson and Zake bring to their characters makes it possible for us to care deeply about their struggles, relate to their inability to find the right words when they need them most, and rejoice in their few moments of calm, clarity and connection.

And there’s something so very touching about the undercurrent of fear that resides just below Hammer’s droll and very funny delivery of Bob’s lines, most of which are brutally honest expressions of his innermost thoughts. It’s not easy to still have the audience’s sympathy when you dismiss your company by blurting out, “You have to leave so I can ho to bed,” as Bob does in the opening scene.

The manner by which Richards reveals John’s malady, by subtly and methodically undermining the character’s façade of quirky self-assuredness, is most remarkable. Although it is heart-rending to watch John have a neurological episode late in the play, it is enthralling watching Richards build to that moment.

Those willing to listen closely, diligently and patiently to this regional premiere of this truly intriguing and entertaining play will find it worth their while, if not for the cleverness of the material but for the brilliance of its execution.

On Stage

WHAT: “The Realistic Joneses”

WHERE: Dobama Theatre, 2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights

WHEN: Through Feb. 14

TICKETS & INFO: $25-$28. Call 216-932-3396 or visit dobama.org


 

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 Jan. 26, 2016.

Lead image: From left, Chris Richards (John), Joel Hammer (Bob), Tracee Patterson (Jennifer), and Rachel Zake (Pony). PHOTO | Steve Wagner Photography