Joseph Mian as Yank. Photo / Celeste Cosentino

Ensemble Theatre’s ‘The Hairy Ape’ powerful but not poetic

By the time he wrote “The Hairy Ape” in 1921, Eugene O’Neill had tired of the literary naturalism of his earlier work. He was now venturing into a form of expressionism that inflates human pathos by layering characters’ speech with visceral and vivid poetry.

It’s this poetry that an otherwise solid Ensemble Theatre production of this play mismanages.

The poetry written for the play’s main protagonist Yank (Joseph Milan) – a musclebound, belligerent and bullying stoker working in the bowels of a transatlantic ocean liner – is primal. It references steel, sweat and fire, is uttered in violent bursts of short sentences, and reinforces the wealthy class’s belief that the working class is comprised of primitives, more simian than human.

Yank’s sense of self-worth is tied to his status as the toughest, strongest and most confident stoker on the ship, which is shaken by Mildred Douglas (Brittany Ganser), the bored daughter of a steel tycoon whose poetry is bloated and flowery. She ventures down into the dark stokehole in her white finery, curious about the men who toil there, but is startled at the sight of the brutish Yank. She calls him a “filthy beast” and leaves in a fit of fear and revulsion.

Among other stokehole denizens is Paddy (Allen Branstein), an Irish boiler room worker who is the antithesis of Yank. Weak, drunken and romantic, he lyrically bemoans the loss of the days of yore on the high seas, when “ships were clippers and the sea was a part of the ship and the ship was us.”

Another is Long (James Rankin), a proselytizing socialist whose wide-eyed skepticism is a perfect counterpoint to Yank’s thick-skulled world-view and whose poetry is grounded in the party line.

Mildred’s outburst shatters, embarrasses and infuriates Yank, and leads him on a journey through the wealthy neighborhoods and back alleys of New York City. Searching for revenge, he soon finds that men like him don’t belong in the modern world. Not even in its zoos where, late in the play, he has a sobering heart-to-heart with a caged ape.

This play is as powerful if not as socially relevant as the day it was written, and director Ian Wolfgang Hinz serves it up on an appropriately minimalist set devised by Walter Boswell with shadowy lighting and dramatic backlighting by Andrew Eckert.

Thankfully, there’s no modernization or artsy reinterpretation – as was done in the controversial 2015 staging at London’s Old Vic and in this year’s production at the Park Avenue Armory in New York – to deviate from the playwright’s detailed stage directions. At Ensemble Theatre, the action takes place on and around a metallic platform from which a steel arch that serves as the ship’s furnace and a New York jail cell protrudes, suggesting the starkness of the human experience.

On this platform struts the square-headed, jut-jawed and solidly built Milan as Yank, who moves like a man convinced that nothing and no one in the world moves without his say-so. Milan’s mastery of his character’s crude poetry and arrogant demeanor is impressive, but the defiance and intensity he exudes only goes so far. There is never a sense of its erosion when Yank is confronted with a world that rejects him or in the final scene where he is lying on the ground after being beaten and broken. This makes it difficult to be sympathetic to his tragedy. He needs to break our hearts, but doesn’t.

More perfect in their portrayals are Rankin as Long and Keith Kornajcik as the head of Industrial Workers of the World who, leery of infiltration, rebuffs Yank’s desperate effort to join the organization. Whit Lowell, Santino Montanez, Kyle Huff, Aziz Ghrabat and August Scarpelli as fellow stokers and Mary Alice Beck as Mildred’s Aunt also do nice work.

Sadly, Branstein as Paddy never quite finds his footing or his accent, and so stumbles through much of O’Neill’s best writing. As Mildred, Ganser’s persistent overacting keeps her character from ever being interesting. Both actors seem to find O’Neill’s dialect, poetry and lengthy monologues way too much of a challenge.

So does Hinz, whose direction doesn’t discover a proper rhythm for this work. It shifts from scene to scene without any ebb and flow. There’s no opportunity in this production’s propulsive momentum to savor moments or absorb what O’Neill has to say.

O’Neill’s writing and Milan’s work in this staging are certainly enough to make this production of “The Hairy Ape” worthwhile. But there is more to be mined from this play. CV

On Stage

“The Hairy Ape”

WHERE: Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Hts.

WHEN: Through Dec. 10

TICKETS & INFO$12-$25, call 216-321-2930 or visit ensembletheatrecle.org


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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on November 19, 2017.

Lead image: Joseph Mian as Yank. Photo / Celeste Cosentino

Lead image: Geoff Knox, from left, as Henry, Scott C. Hare as Deacon Ball and Terry Burgler as Waldo. Photo | Celeste Cosentino

Ensemble’s ‘The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail’ is transcendent

By Bob Abelman

“It’s a marvel to hear the way the words roll out,” says the illiterate Bailey after listening to the philosophical musings of his young Harvard educated cellmate early in Robert Edwin Lee and Jerome Lawrence’s “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.”

“A marvel” perfectly describes Ensemble Theatre’s eloquent staging of this loquacious, occasionally sanctimonious play originally earmarked for production by community and collegiate theaters.

In 1846, the essayist, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist and scofflaw Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail after refusing to pay tax money that would support the war President James Polk singlehandedly waged against Mexico. This incident later provided the basis for Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” and serves as the inspiration for Lee and Lawrence’s fictionalized account of that evening and the events leading up to it.

And while the play offers insight into the man and his meditations – his transcendentalist world view, his witty disregard for organized religion, and his penchant for nature and civil disobedience – it also concerns itself with what weighed heavy at the time of its writing 125 years later.

In their 1955 play “Inherit the Wind,” Lee and Lawrence turned the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” debate over evolution into not-so-clandestine commentary about America living under mid-century McCarthyism. The playwrights used the teaching of creationism as a metaphor for anything that limits the right of a free people to think.

So while their 1971 play “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” takes place in 19th century Concord, Massachusetts and addresses the unjust American-Mexican war, it is very much a stone-cold treatise about the unjust war in Vietnam.

True to Thoreau’s transcendentalist leanings, the play bounces around with little attention to the confines of linear storytelling, which director Celeste Cosentino turns into creative and wonderfully theatrical staging. Scenic designer Stephen Vasse-Hansell’s rendering of a skeletal jail cell serves as the central location around which various scenes from various times occurring in assorted locations revolve. To the left and right of the cell and its two wood benches are large screens that display projected images to help track a particular time and place.

And true to the central tenet of transcendentalism, Cosentino has allowed the divine master plan that connects all nature and humanity to guide her casting of the featured players in this play.

Geoff Knox as Henry David Thoreau, Joe Pine as his brother John, and Terry Burgler as his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson are a company member, an associate producer/performer, and a founding artistic director/performer with Akron’s Ohio Shakespeare Festival, respectively.

As if intended by divinity to serve as preparation for this particular production, their training and years of performance of Elizabethan plays have provided a skillset that translates marvelously to a work like this. Each actor has the ability to master volumes of text, can eloquently and effectively execute poetic prose, and uses the language their characters are provided to give them definition and dimension.

And the rest of the 15-member ensemble – particularly the charming Sara Bogomolny as the love-interest of the Thoreau brothers, Allen Branstein as the buffoon Bailey, Scott C. Hare as the insufferable Deacon Ball, Leslie Stager as the endearing Lydian Emerson, and Whit Lowell as the clueless Sheriff Sam Staples – follow suite.

The only hiccup occurs late in the play, when Lee and Lawrence try their hand at overt artistry to drive home a poignant point. Here, they theatrically transport Thoreau into the middle of the Mexican-American war. Intended to be a surreal nightmare layered with cannon blasts and a blur of activity, dramatic lighting and special effects, Cosentino’s staging of this scene is woefully underwhelming.

It also misses an opportunity to reinforce the relevancy of this play to modern day America. The projected images from the Mexican-American and Vietnam wars could have been infused with images from Afghanistan and Iraq, and the subtle underscoring of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tunes could have also employed something more contemporary.

Still, Ensemble’s “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail” is a wonderful night of theater – as genuinely thought-provoking as it is beautifully performed. CV

On stage

WHAT:  “The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail”

WHERE:  Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd. in Cleveland Hts.

WHEN:  Through Dec. 11

TICKETS & INFO:  $12-$24, call216-321-2930 or visit ensembletheatrecle.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 Nov. 19, 2016.

Lead image: Geoff Knox, from left, as Henry, Scott C. Hare as Deacon Ball and Terry Burgler as Waldo. Photo | Celeste Cosentino

Michael Mauldin as Harold Carver and Mary-Francis Renee Miller as Daphne Anderson | Photo / Celeste Cosentino

Bad timing tames but doesn’t trump ‘Margin of Error’

By Bob Abelman

Turn on Samantha Bee’s “Full Frontal,” “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, or any of the other late-night TV comedy shows and listen to how studio audiences respond to the partisan puns and whoopee-cushion commentaries.

These days, we seem less likely to laugh out loud at the sorry state of our nation’s political affairs, preferring instead to shake our heads in quiet consternation.   

Our morale has been shaken by a disconcerting televised debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. 

Our minds are reeling from the onslaught of negative ads and acidic tweets, leaked emails of the Democratic National Committee, and the latest, a viral release of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric during a videotaped deposition. 

So the timing of local playwright Eric Coble’s political comedy “Margin of Error” – a beautifully constructed one-act play receiving its regional premiere at Ensemble Theatre – couldn’t be worse. Too soon. And too close to home.

Coble’s play takes aim at the Machiavellian masterminds behind the scripted, spun, leaked and manipulated misinformation that drives contemporary American politics. It features the two-faced, morally corrupt and ethically bankrupt Harold Carver (Michael Mauldin), who is the most successful and sought-after Republican political strategist in the nation. 

For the duration of the play, the speed-talking wordsmith is stuck at Gate C19 of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, while campaigns in Vermont, Oregon, Louisiana and Oklahoma, a disintegrating marriage, and an FBI probe into his dubious practices vie for his attention. Carver is aided by an eager young intern, Daphne Anderson (Mary-Francis Renee Miller).

Each concern is given its own color-coded cellphone, so we are able to eavesdrop on Carver’s behind-the-scenes message massaging (“People are as predictable as a pop song”) and witness his personal ideology (“You know who my God is? Victory”) and political philosophy (“A lie is only a lie until it becomes the truth”) at work. The damage they do appear in the newscasts blaring from the airport television monitors. 

Mauldin relishes every opportunity to play this man of no conscience as big and bold as possible and, under Eric Schmiedl’s direction, he masterfully rides the play’s comedic rhythms with just the right pace and with just the right tone.

Coble provides Carver with frequent outbursts – including a wonderfully heartfelt personal disclosure comprised largely of fiction and an impassioned battle cry to inspire his Louisiana candidate just before he speaks in front of the Baton Rouge Rotary Club – which Mauldin milks for all its worth. “This is your day, Auggie Diggs,” Mauldin screams into the yellow phone as sweat flies in every direction. “This is your Battle of Chancellorsville, your Normandy Beach, your Desert Storm, your Navy SEAL raid on Bin Laden – God has put you here, of all men on earth, you, to complete this mission.”

And yet laughter was limited during the show’s opening-night performance, in part due to the unfortunate timing of the play, but also due to the lack of comic timing and chemistry between Mauldin and Miller. 

Miller, as Daphne, is at her best when impressing Mauldin’s Carver with her intelligence, resourcefulness and like-minded passion for politics. But she has yet to find the core of her character when enacting the weaknesses Carver senses when he demands that she pull up her “big girl panties, grab a pitchfork and join the rebellion.” 

With nothing else to look at for 90 minutes, save the six seats that represent Gate C19, every action and emotion offered by the actors is under close audience scrutiny and needs to ring true to be effective.

“Margin of Error” runs through Oct. 23, during which two more presidential debates will take place. For the sake of this production, though not necessarily the state of the union, let’s hope the candidates give us something to laugh at. CV

On Stage

“Margin of Error”

WHERE: Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Hts.

WHEN: Through Oct. 23

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$35. Call 216-321-2930 or visit ensembletheatrecle.org


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

Orginally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Oct. 4, 2016.

Lead image: Michael Mauldin as Harold Carver and Mary-Francis Renee Miller as Daphne Anderson. Photo | Celeste Cosentino

From left: Michael Johnson as Davey, Becca Moseley as Pea, James Rankin as Ginger, Mitch Rose as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, Kyle Huff as Lee and Leah Smith as Tanya. 
PHOTO | Celeste Cosentino

Ensemble Theatre has a hit with its rendition of dark comedy ‘Jerusalem’

By Bob Abelman

Like the opening moments of a contemporary staging of a Shakespeare play, it takes a while to adjust to the unfamiliar rhythms that flow through Ensemble Theatre’s staging of Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem.”

It’s not so much the West Country English accent of the characters that takes some getting used to; it’s the dangerous undertow lurking just beneath the play’s brash and occasionally crude comedy.

Fortunately, the show clocks in at three hours, so there is plenty of time to get one’s bearings. And this terrific staging of this intriguing play provides plenty of incentive to do so.

The story revolves around the slow-moving but quick-witted Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Mitch Rose), an inert anarchist who lives in a run-down trailer in the Wiltshire woods in southwest England. The surrounding encampment, littered with discarded furniture and empty beer cans, serves as a safe haven, playground and pharmacy for the aimless, ostracized teens (James Rankin, Kyle Huff, Michael Johnson, Becca Moseley and Leah Smith) who Rooster attracts.

Part of the attraction is the attention and backhanded affection Rooster doles out with each gram of cheap narcotic. He calls the kids “beloved spongers.” But it is also his evocative storytelling grounded in magic and mythology, for Rooster is a battle-scarred and war-weary holdover from a forgotten time — equal parts dragon-slayer and Pied Piper — and these latter-day Lost Boys and Girls are in desperate need of enchantment and a champion.

Modern dragons in need of slaying include local authorities (Valerie Young and August Scarapelli) and homeowners from the encroaching neighborhoods, who are mounting a battle to get Rooster evicted. They see him as little more than a property squatter and bad influence. His ex-girlfriend (Brittni Shambaugh Addison) sees him as a deadbeat dad lost in what he affectionately refers to as an “alcoholic, bucolic frolic.”

So do we, at first. But then we listen to his tall tales, masterfully presented by Rose with a mesmerizing combination of mischief and mysticism.

We hear romantic soliloquies about the bygone days of ancient heroes, spoken by the delightful, drug-addled “Professor” who occasionally ventures into the encampment and is brilliantly portrayed by Dana Hart.

We watch pub owner Wesley, played with immense tenderness by David Vegh, as he loses his dignity and cultural identity to corporate franchising.

And we observe a young girl (Katja Yacker) in an angel’s costume attempting to sing a verse from William Blake’s short, nationalistic poem, “Jerusalem,” only to be drowned out by blasts of head-banging rock ‘n’ roll.

And it then becomes clear that Rooster is the keeper of the nation’s history and heritage, which is being forgotten or forsaken with each passing generation. And we realize that the undertow lurking beneath the play’s humor is the possibility of its disappearance forever.

“Jerusalem” is at once irreverently funny and quite foreboding, and director Ian Wolfgang Hinz and his extremely talented, fully committed ensemble perfectly balance the humor and drama. Contributions by Hinz’s designers (set by Walter Boswell, lighting by Bryanna Bauman, costumes by Meg Parrish) are invaluable in this regard.

While it takes a bit too long for Rose’s Rooster to win us over in the opening scene — in fact, everyone involved seems to be working too hard to establish their characters — win us over he does. And he holds court for the rest of this three-act play.

“Jerusalem” reports on the state of the nation, that nation being Britain. But its themes and its characters resonate in the U.S., as was demonstrated in the immensely successful 2011 Broadway run and in this wonderful Ensemble Theatre production. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Jerusalem”

WHERE: Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd. in Cleveland Hts.

WHEN: Through May 21

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$24, call 216-321-2930 or visit ensembletheatrecle.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 May 1, 2016.

Lead image: From left: Michael Johnson as Davey, Becca Moseley as Pea, James Rankin as Ginger, Mitch Rose as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, Kyle Huff as Lee and Leah Smith as Tanya. PHOTO | Celeste Cosentino

Joseph Milan as Glas, from left, Leah Smith as Rosie, and Nathan Tolliver as Randall. PHOTO |Celeste Cosentino

Ensemble Theatre’s ‘Slow Dance on the Killing Ground’ stumbles despite graceful production

By Bob Abelman

A young black fugitive, a political refugee from Nazi Germany, and a Jewish girl seeking a backstreet abortion walk into a room.

This sounds like the setup for a bad joke with a distasteful punch line, but it is the plot summary of William Hanley’s three-act play “Slow Dance on the Killing Ground,” at Ensemble Theatre.

Written at a time when the existential plays of Jean-Paul Sartre, the avant-garde work of Samuel Beckett, and the biting dialogue of Edward Albee offered theatergoers creative, cutting-edge social commentary, Hanley’s drama was more concerned with the social dynamics — the slow dance — that take place when a diverse group of helpless, victimized strangers are confined to the same small space and bare their wounds.

Never a crowd-pleaser — an early New York Times review noted that the words coming out of actors’ mouths seemed to be accompanied by the sound of typewriter keys — “Slow Dance” lasted a mere 88 performances on Broadway in 1964. Its Off-Broadway revival in 1970 stayed less than a month.

Recent productions have not fared any better. The more removed the play is from its roots in the theater scene of the ’60s, the more contrived this chance meeting in a Brooklyn candy store on the night that war criminal Adolf Eichmann was executed seems to be. And with each passing year, the time-locked dramatic license that allowed characters to break into brooding self-disclosures and lengthy, hyper-theatrical monologues grows increasingly dated.

Although an odd choice by Ensemble Theatre, its production does come with some creative decisions by director Greg White and his design team (Ron Newell, Meg Parrish and Steven Barton) that mask much of the play’s unsightly age spots.

One of the boldest was combining the three acts of “Slow Dance” — which the playwright labeled Pas de Deux, Pas de Trois, and Coda — into two. This speeds along and even circumvents some of the characters’ endless introspection and allows the audience to better connect with each character without so many intermissions. The downside is that the slow dance becomes a tarantella at times in order to keep each act from running too long, which sacrifices some drama for alacrity.

Three of the best decisions were casting Nathan Tolliver as the talkative, tormented, game-playing Randall; Joseph Milan as the world-weary shop owner Glas, who wants nothing more than to suffer in silence and solitude; and Leah Smith as Rosie from Riverdale, whose insecurities about her looks and personality define her existence.

These actors brilliantly capture the psychological essence of their characters, as well as their distinctive speech patterns, and prioritize authenticity over the playwright’s fascination with the metaphoric.

Case in point: Late in the play, it is revealed that each character bears the immense guilt of having denied life to another person, which Hanley uses as a device to add mystery to the proceedings and stir up the group dynamics. But these actors wear the weight of those feelings on their sleeves from their opening scenes. This gives their characters an added layer of complexity and makes for some truly intriguing acting choices on stage that are not in the script.

This production tries and most often succeeds in finding a balance between the realism the performers embrace and the outdated theatricality the script demands. Sometimes, however, both approaches end up leading the slow dance, resulting in the production stepping on its own toes.

This happens during each character’s confessional monologue, which White stages at the very edge of the performance space and inches from the audience. The speech could either be the hyper-theatrical moment it was intended to be, where the actor is bathed in isolating light and delivers the speech to the universe. Or the actor could break the fourth wall and have a genuine moment with the audience. Instead, these moments are stuck in the middle, with the actor talking at us but not with us, and production values never shifting to facilitate the storytelling one way or the other.

“Slow Dance on the Killing Ground” is most certainly a troublesome play, but Ensemble Theatre works valiantly to make it an accessible and interesting piece of work. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “Slow Dance on the Killing Ground”

WHERE: Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights

WHEN: Through Feb. 28

TICKETS & INFO: $12-$24, call 216-321-2930 or visit tickets@ensemble-theatre.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 Feb. 8, 2016.