The new New Deal

by Bob Abelman

Between 1933 and 1943, during the depths of the Great Depression and into the early years of World War II, federal tax dollars employed artists and craft workers of various media and with varying levels of experience, and kept them from poverty and despair.

In addition to providing relief, the New Deal’s Federal Art Project and other government-sponsored art programs promoted American art and culture by giving more Americans access to what President Franklin D. Roosevelt decorously labeled “an abundant life.” It enabled Americans all across the country to see an original painting for the first time, attend their first professional live theater or dance production, or take their first music or drawing class. An enormous volume of public art intended for education and civic engagement – including 2,500 murals and 18,000 sculptures – was created without restriction to content or subject matter and put on display.  

Arshile Gorky works on “Activities on the field,” his 1936 mural project for Newark Airport sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. | Photo / Federal Art Project, Photographic Division

“Artists have been given something more precious than their daily bread,” said social critic Lewis Mumford at the time. “(They have received) the knowledge that their work has a destination in the community.” The public art of the New Deal reflected a vast array of traditions and cultures that served not only to celebrate the nation’s diversity but to reflect and build a common, collective national identity through art.

Never before or since has our government so extensively supported and sponsored the arts. Until now.

COVID-19 devastation by the numbers

The Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts report arts and culture contribute approximately $877.8 billion, or 4.5%, to the nation’s gross domestic product annually, according to 2017 data. Prior to the pandemic, more than 5 million wage-and-salary workers were employed in the arts and cultural sector.

In the wake of COVID-19, the arts have been devastated. Research published by the Brookings Institution reports the performing arts have been the most at risk and the hardest hit of all the creative industries. More than 52% of actors and 55% of dancers were out of work in the third quarter of last year, when the national unemployment rate was 8.5%, The New York Times reported. Since the shuttering of arts venues in March to the end of the last calendar year, it was estimated that nationwide almost 1.4 million performing and fine arts related jobs and $42.5 billion in sales have been lost. And the numbers are mounting as venues remain closed or open to sparse, socially distanced occupancy.

The live entertainment industry has missed out on $9.7 billion of box office sales, according to Pollstar, a trade publication. The larger economic hit from lost sponsorships, concessions, merchandise and other related revenues may be closer to an estimated loss of $33 billion. 

Broadway theaters were among the first businesses to shut down in March 2020, and according to the Actors’ Equity Association, more than 1,100 actors and managers lost work. From May 2018 to May 2019, shows across all 41 theaters garnered more than $1.83 billion in sales. But according to a report published by the Broadway League, a national organization of theater owners and show producers, only around $300 million in ticket sales were generated in 2020 before theaters were shuttered and midtown Manhattan became nearly deserted. Thousands more working touring shows that contributed $3.8 billion to the local economies of about 200 U.S. cities became unemployed.     

In March, we witnessed the abrupt closure of nearly all the nation’s 5,477 cinemas, the Los Angeles Times reported. In Los Angeles County, where all five major film studios – Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Warner Bros., Universal Pictures and Walt Disney Studios – are housed, job losses in the creative community reached 24% between February and December 2020. Disney alone saw a $7.4 billion loss to its operating income in the last fiscal year, despite its effective shift in distribution to streaming services.  

Locally in Cuyahoga County, arts, entertainment and recreation is a $1.35 billion industry that employs more than 10,000 people, one-third of whom lost jobs due to the pandemic, ideastream reported in October. Downtown Cleveland’s Playhouse Square Foundation – a consortium of performing arts venues that attract about 1 million visits a year – estimated a loss of about $4 million and laid off or furloughed nearly 200 employees between March 2020, when its theaters were first closed, and the end of the calendar year. Playhouse Square has canceled or postponed 680 performances, the organization reported late last year. 

In a May 2020 press release, Gina Vernaci, Playhouse Square CEO and president, said, “Your health and safety are our top priority,” announcing the postponement of the KeyBank Broadway series.

And, of course, local theaters, concert halls, nightclubs and arenas across the region have had thousands of live performances canceled or indefinitely postponed, leaving artists unemployed or severely underemployed. But there has been help.

A New New Deal

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act was a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill signed into law last March in response to the economic fallout of the pandemic. The bill included the Paycheck Protection Program, which offered small businesses – including arts organizations – forgivable loans to help them keep their workforce employed during COVID-19.  

Within 18 days of the bill’s approval, the National Endowment for the Arts was awarded almost $75 million, 40% of which was to be distributed to state and territorial arts agencies and regional arts organizations, including the Ohio Arts Council, for their funding of local programs. By law, the agency had to allocate the money by Dec. 30, 2020 which, according to its Executive Director Donna S. Collins in a press release, “will go a long way in supporting the recovery and resilience of Ohio’s creative economy.”

The OAC issued 296 grant awards totaling $20 million in economic relief for the arts and culture sector. Approximately $2.66 million was set to be distributed to arts and culture nonprofits through Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, the public agency that distributes some $12 million a year in county cigarette tax revenue to cultural nonprofits in the area. An additional $1.3 million was given to Arts Cleveland, which distributed the relief funds to some 425 Cuyahoga County artists and 38 performing arts businesses, of which 23 are owned by minorities or women, local media reported. 

“The CARE funds we received though the Ohio Arts Council and Cuyahoga Arts & Culture have helped survive the loss of a season plus two plays from last spring,” says Bob Taylor, executive director of Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland. “They allowed us to hold onto the reserves we strategically and rigorously built over the last decade so that we will be ready for when what’s coming next comes along.”

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program

In December 2020, tucked into Congress’ massive, year-end $2.3 trillion relief package, was the largest public rescue of the arts in U.S. history: $15 billion in relief grants earmarked to help save the arts and entertainment industry. First crack at the money went to those venue owners who could demonstrate losses of 90% of their earned total revenue because of the COVID-19 shutdown, the Washington Post reported. Allowable expenses included equipment, rent, insurance, worker protection expenditures and mortgage payments.  

The PPP was also extended, allowing many arts organizations to apply for a second forgivable loan from a pool of $284 billion. The NEA and National Endowment for the Humanities were given a budget increase of $5.2 million each ($167.5 million each in FY2021) and were tasked with distributing additional funding to nonprofit arts organizations across the country. 

American Rescue Plan Act

Most recently, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 passed this March. The Act provides an additional $270 million in funds to the NEA and NEH, $175 million in emergency funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an additional $7.25 billion for PPP and an additional $1.25 billion for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program program. It is expected this round of funding will support about 234,000 jobs, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.   

The cast of “Ghost Girls,” part of the “5 x 15 Minutes” musicals, a partnership between the Beck Center for the Arts, Baldwin Wallace University and the National Alliance for Musical Theatre. | Photo / Screenshot, directed by Vicky Bussert

The impact of relief funding

How do relief payments affect arts organizations on an individual basis? For one thing, the funding provides for sustainable staffing. 

For many arts organization, the first and most accessible form of assistance came in the form the forgivable loans made available through the Paycheck Protection Program. The first round of the PPP, which issued loans from March to August 2020, helped 5.2 million small businesses keep 51 million American workers employed, according to the Small Business Administration.  

This past December, as many small businesses continued to struggle and the PPP was renewed, roughly 60,000 borrowers were approved for the forgivable loans during the first week of the reopening, noted the SBA. A portion of the available funds were set aside for first-time borrowers.  

In Northeast Ohio, some larger organizations like downtown Great Lakes Theater did not have to lay off a single administrative or production staffer thanks to these loans. 

“When we are ready to go back to work and deliver live theater – hopefully in the fall, along with our Playhouse Square partners – we will have our team in place and hit the ground running,” Taylor says.  

André Gremillet, president and CEO of The Cleveland Orchestra, says, “We applied for and received a PPP loan in the amount of $5.5 million dollars, which was absolutely essential in order to be able to pay our employees – including our musicians – in 2020.”

For some smaller arts organizations with limited staffing, such as Cleveland Heights’ Ensemble Theatre, PPP loans were “a lifeline,” according to Executive Artistic Director Celeste Cosentino.

Katrice Monee Headd in Maelstrom Collaborative Arts’ “ACTIVATE 2020” storefront window visual and performing arts project. | Photo / Kaitlin K. Walsh

The funds also allowed for creative pivoting. For Gordon Square’s Maelstrom Collaborative Arts, the PPP and other forms of federal funding “allowed us to pivot, creatively,” says connectivity director Marcia Custer.  

Similarly, Laura Wiegand, executive director of Les Délices, suggests grants distributed by Cuyahoga Arts & Culture and the OAC enabled the Cleveland-based chamber ensemble to think outside the box. Adds the company’s artistic director Debra Nagy, “We emerged from the pandemic as providers of virtual interactive programming and pivoted from audio to audio/video recording for later distribution. It changed our model of creativity.”  

Verb Ballets dancers Emily Dietz, from left, Lieneke Matte, Kelly Korfhage and Kate Webb perform “KL3668.” | Photo / Kolman Rosenberg Photography

The same goes for Verb Ballets in Shaker Heights, which was forced to close its doors last March. According to producing artistic director Margaret Carlson, “we could not have continued without relief funding,” which not only reopened the doors six weeks later by providing payroll for the company’s 14 dancers and six staff, but it allowed Verb Ballets to invest in the equipment necessary to transition a rehearsal studio into a recording studio, and purchase the technology necessary to deliver performances virtually. “Doing so,” adds Carlson, “has significantly expanded the company’s audience nationally and internationally.”  

Cleveland Public Theatre’s Raymond Bobgan notes that everything takes longer and requires more resources to produce art under the current circumstances. But the grants have allowed CPT, located in Gordon Square, to “dive in” and reinvent its working model, he says. 

Darelle Hill, from left, Samantha Cocco, Christina Johnson, Zach Palumbo and CorLesia Smith in Karamu House’s “Freedom After Juneteenth, Episode Two.” | Photo / Nathan Migal

Another impact is on programming. Karamu House, in the Fairfax neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland, and CPT were among the many local theaters to receive a grant from the OAC CARES program. But they were the only two Cleveland theaters of the 30 historically under-resourced Midwestern arts and culture organizations to receive a grant from Arts Midwest’s share of the United States Regional Arts Resilience Fund.  

This first round of funding – consisting of $50,000 to $55,000 grants for each of the 30 organizations, underwritten by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation – focused on rural communities, Indigenous communities and communities of color. Karamu is the oldest producing African American theater in the nation, and CPT is home to the Latino theater company Teatro Publico de Cleveland. Grant sources helped make possible Karamu’s original virtual theater social justice series “Freedom on Juneteenth” and facilitated CPT’s use of technology to extend its virtual reach into the community, and to take creative risks in the development of hybrid performance art that merge film with live theater. 

When the dust settles

As might be expected, the New Deal’s Federal Art Project was met with some political opposition. Works of art that promoted social justice, challenged political beliefs or threatened cultural norms, for example, were seized upon by critics of President Roosevelt and used as fuel for the argument that the New Deal was bad for America. Many argued art projects should not be funded with taxpayer money. Several works of art that depicted controversial topics were destroyed by local officials uninterested in or fearful of radical, depressing or “un-American” subject matter.

Clearly, funding the arts is still a partisan issue. Recall that former President Donald Trump’s budgets for the past four years proposed the elimination of the NEA, NEH and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as The New York Times reported.  

“As for now,” notes Laura Lott, president and chief executive of the American Alliance of Museums in a recent Times article, “we are relieved with how things ended up (under the Biden administration). But we don’t take anything for granted.” 

Craig Joseph as Louis Ironson, from left, and Scott Esposito as Prior Walter. Photo / Aimee Lambes

Ensemble’s epic ‘Angels in America, Part Two’ is time well spent

By Bob Abelman

It’s been three months since we last spent time with the 30-year-old, AIDS-infected Prior Walter.

In the first part of Tony Kushner’s powerful “Angels in America,” performed last January at Ensemble Theatre, Prior’s longtime lover Louis had abandoned him, he had hallucinated himself into the depression- and drug-induced visions of a young Mormon woman whose husband – a clerk for power-lawyer Roy Cohn – had left her for another man, and an angel had just crashed through his ceiling to declare that Prior was a prophet and that “the Great Work” of saving humanity and heaven begins.

Quite the cliffhanger.

In part two, the “Great Work” not only begins but the great work performed earlier by Ensemble – the wonderfully rendered portrayals orchestrated by director Celeste Cosentino and the intriguing impressionist, location-establishing screen projections designed by Ian Hinz – continues.

“Angels in America” – which premiered in 1991 and is the winner of a Pulitzer for drama and a Tony for best play – is set in the mid-1980s, during the Reagan administration, as the AIDS plague ravages the nation. The play is a theatrical landmark and an audaciously ambitious work that is at once imaginative and unpretentious, personal and political, uncompromising and affable.

Its message of hope in the face of the unbearable devastation that plagues humanity, and the passion with which it was written, is still astonishingly relevant. So much so that the play has returned to Broadway, where both parts are being offered in a marathon seven-and-a-half-hour staging, which is how it should be experienced.

With Ensemble’s three-month separation of parts one and two, it takes a while to warm up to the returning characters and lose oneself in Kushner’s revisited fantasia. But audiences will eventually find themselves laughing along with the work’s hilarious irreverence and weeping in response to its heartbreaking depiction of the human condition.

Those attending part two without having seen the initial installment will likely be in the dark about how these characters first came together while watching them fall apart.

Over time, this cast has grown fiercer, more confident and more passionate in its portrayals.

No longer playing the hopeless victim, Scott Esposito’s brilliant portrayal of Prior is even more textured while still maintaining the character’s core cynicism, intelligence and likeability. Craig Joseph’s Louis is still a coward, but he gets to add repentant to the complexity that defines him. Joseph’s honest and sensitive depiction of him is enthralling.

Harper Pitt, the emotionally unstable wife of gay Mormon Joe Pitt, comes to terms with her dilutions in part two, which gives the talented Kelly Strand the opportunity to showcase her acting chops and well-honed comic timing. Meanwhile, Joe now reaps what he sowed in the first installment and actor James Alexander Rankin plays devastation marvelously.

Jeffrey Grover, as the now-dying Roy Cohn, has lost none of the deliciously serpentine traits that define his character. Indeed, they have gotten richer and more defined as Cohn defiantly faces his ungainly demise.

Derdriu Ring’s ability to totally inhabit whatever role she takes on is on full display in her portrayals of Joe Pitt’s stoic mother, the bitter spirit of the executed spy Ethel Rosenberg – who performs an impressive kaddish over Roy Cohn’s body – and assorted others.

Davion T. Brown replaces the original actor playing Belize, a former drag queen turned nurse, and does so without missing a beat. In fact, he brings an authenticity to the role that enriches the character’s endearing qualities which, in turn, enriches this production.

Inés Joris is imposing as the ethereal angel, whose flight is cleverly mimicked by being hoisted onto the shoulders of a wingless shadow. But she is rather uninteresting for a celestial being and her heightened prose is often inaudible, which tends to stall the storytelling during her visitations.

“We’re not going away. We won’t die slow, secret deaths anymore,” cries Prior to all who will listen at the end of the play. “More life!”

This declaration of choosing life, despite all the suffering and ugliness he has encountered in the world, is the play’s most poignant moment and Kushner’s most stunning accomplishment with “Angels in America,” considering the time in which it was written.

But it is just one of many moments that shows the immense compassion with which Ensemble Theatre has approached this play. It was well worth waiting the three months.

On Stage

“Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika”

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

WHEN: Through May 20

TICKETS & INFO$12-$25, call216-321-2930 or visit

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 29, 2018.

Lead image: Craig Joseph as Louis Ironson, from left, and Scott Esposito as Prior Walter. Photo / Aimee Lambes

Craig Joseph as Louis Ironson, from left, and Scott Esposito as Prior Walter. Photo / Celeste Cosentino

Ensemble’s ‘Angels in America’ offers compelling storytelling

By Bob Abelman

Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” – which premiered in 1991 and is the winner of a Pulitzer for drama, a Tony for best play, and 11 Emmys – is set in the mid-1980s as AIDS ravages the nation and escalates the pre-existing discrimination aimed at gay men. Thirty-year-old New Yorker Prior Walter, the play’s key protagonist, is one of them, and this play takes us on his personal journey.

That is the short version of what is actually a landmark theatrical marathon; an audaciously ambitious work that is at once imaginative and unpretentious, uncompromising and affable, hard to watch and impossible to ignore.    

The play, in its entirety, is told over two separate performances: “Part One: Millennium Approaches,” which is currently on stage at Ensemble Theatre under Celeste Cosentino’s direction, and “Part Two: Perestroika,” which will open there in April. 

Collectively, the shows take longer than seven hours to perform, with Ensemble’s first installment clocking in at three hours and 20 minutes, during which we witness the parallel and occasionally overlapping stories of Prior’s illness and abandonment, a high-profile closeted prosecuting attorney facing his own demise, a closeted Mormon legal clerk coming to terms with his sexuality, and his Valium-addicted wife. 

The play compares liberalism and conservatism during the Reagan years, offers a searing indictment of race relations in the U.S., and philosophizes about how the past shapes the present. It also forges an alliance between Judaism and homosexuality, reminding us – as if we needed reminding – how swiftly a fearful and divided society marginalizes, stigmatizes and ostracizes “others.”  

Clearly, “Angels in America” demands a lot from its audience. It demands a lot from its cast members as well, who play multiple roles to demonstrate the elasticity of gender, social and cultural identities, as well as the implicitly theatrical nature of this work.  

Fortunately, the characters that Kushner creates are so compelling, and his capacity to balance diatribes with dialogue, reality with drug- and disease-induced fantasy, and horror with humor is so engaging that the play keeps audiences ever-attentive, even during the occasional lapses in technical execution that blemished Ensemble’s opening-night production.  

The show’s staging is similarly intriguing, for the script’s “Playwright’s Notes” calls for a “pared-down style of presentation” to make the show an “actor-driven event.”  

Set designer Ian Hinz respectfully redefines “pared-down” by trading traditional scenery for projected imagery. The images offer artist-rendered and intermittently animated portraits of locations that are coupled with a single piece of furniture for each scene. The images appear on a rear screen that runs the length of the long and narrow performance space, which parts to reveal a deeper performance space and second screen, which parts to reveal a third. A period appropriate and thematically relevant soundtrack, including such tunes as Queen’s “Under Pressure,” plays between scenes.

Kushner’s play is enhanced by this treatment and still manages to be actor-driven. And the actors in this production serve up truly remarkable performances that showcase their characters’ distinctive brand of pain.

Scott Esposito’s boyish portrayal of Prior is immediately likable, increasingly sympathetic and eventually heroic as the indignity and hopelessness of the character’s AIDS-ridden and rapidly diminishing body plays out.

Craig Joseph, as Prior’s lover Louis, bears the full weight of his character’s anguish over abandoning Prior and offers an immensely moving, brutally honest performance.  

So does Kelly Strand as Harper Pitt, the drug-addled and emotionally unstable wife of gay Mormon Joe Pitt who, in turn, is brilliantly portrayed by James Alexander Rankin. Harper’s chronic sorrow and all-encompassing melancholy is made palpable by Strand, and her ability to balance this with her character’s humorous delusions is dazzling.

As self-deceptive and loathsome lawyer Roy Cohn, Jeffrey Grover comes out of the gates slowly but becomes deliciously serpentine and increasingly repulsive as the play progresses.  

Robert Hunter is a delight as the former drag queen turned nurse, Belize. He milks all the gallows humor out of his scenes with Prior and turns his hilarious debate about race with Joseph’s Louis into one of the highlights of this production.

Another is Derdriu Ring as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, who opens the show by offering a eulogy that laments the loss of “the last of the Mohicans” of early Jewish immigrants who never fully integrated into American culture.  Ring’s Yiddish, heavy Eastern European accent and impersonation of an elderly man are remarkable, as is her portrayal of Joe Pitt’s devoutly Mormon mother during a late-hour exchange with a homeless woman, played by Inés Joris.

Director Cosentino has put together a talented cast and crew to generate a very memorable production of a truly monumental play. Bring on Part Two.

“Angels in America,” Part One

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

WHEN: Through Jan. 28

TICKETS & INFO$12-$25, call216-321-2930 or visit 

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on January 8, 2018.

Lead image: Craig Joseph as Louis Ironson, from left, and Scott Esposito as Prior Walter. Photo / Celeste Cosentino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 8, 2016.