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.” 

Great Lakes Theater treats Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with austerity

By Bob Abelman

“In an innovative, tradition-defying rethinking of one of the greatest comedies in the English language,” begins a satirical article in a recent posting on, “Morristown Community Players director Kevin Hiles announced Monday his bold intention to set his theater’s production of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in 16th century Venice.”

“I know when most people hear ‘The Merchant Of Venice,’ they think 1960s Las Vegas, a high-powered Manhattan stock brokerage or an 18th century Georgia slave plantation, but I think it’s high time to shake things up a bit,” Hiles said.

Despite Great Lakes Theater’s propensity for re-envisioning classic works, it too has gone the risky route of staging the theater version of Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice” in the time, place and spirit in which it was penned and published more than 200 years ago.

The play, like the novel, tells the story of the five British Bennet sisters, whose mother is driven to marry them off to affluent suitors in the hope of assuring their financial security. This is a scenario dutifully accepted by each of the girls save Elizabeth, the second eldest. When the headstrong Lizzy meets the wealthy and handsome Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, she finds him arrogant and unattractive, and he is equally unimpressed with her. They bicker, they throw elegant barbs at one another, and of course, they fall in love by the end of the final act.

In the playbill, director/co-adapter Joseph Hanreddy calls “Pride and Prejudice” a “perfectly written novel” and treats it as a sacred text for this production. His and J.R. Sullivan’s script works hard at maintaining the work’s narrative voice and calls for fairly bare-boned staging so as not to detract from Austen’s precise prose.

Designers Linda Buchanan (scenic) and Paul Miller (lighting) have created one stationary set for all the play’s action, from which Laura Welsh Berg, as Lizzy, rarely leaves and never for long.

The set consists of a gorgeous half-circle of floor-to-ceiling wood panels divided by pillars across the rear of the thrust stage. Only a few period chairs and tables are brought in and out by servants to represent halls in luxurious estates while simple costume changes – many a matter of removing a frock designed by Martha Hally or putting on a shawl – occur onstage. Scenes change as effortlessly as the turning of pages.

Such economic staging keeps Austen’s words the focus of our attention but offers rather understated theatricality. Hanreddy’s quick pacing helps keep things lively, as do stellar performances turned in by this cast that have been refined during the show’s summer engagement at sister theater The Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

Stand-out performances include Andrew May as the ever-anguished patriarch of the Bennet clan, whose comic timing is impeccable. He is nicely matched by the over-the-top histrionics of Carole Healey’s Mrs. Bennet.

Daniel Millhouse as the carefree playboy Charles Bingley, Jodi Dominick as his snobbish sister Caroline and Eric Damon Smith as the ridiculously self-centered Mr. Collins give particularly impressive performances as well. While Berg as Lizzy and Nick Steen as Mr. Darcy are saddled with Austen’s unambiguous depictions, they do a wonderful job of letting the characters’ romantic arc take its course.

The show’s austerity may not be to everyone’s liking and, as Morristown Community Players director Kevin Hiles learned, “audiences may be taken aback initially by the lack of Creole accents.” But Jane Austen fans will likely be delighted by this production. CV

“Pride and Prejudice” by Great Lakes Theater
WHERE: The Hanna Theatre, East 14th Street and Euclid Avenue, Cleveland
WHEN: Through Nov. 4
TICKETS & INFO: $13 to $80, call 216-241-6000 or visit

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Nov. 1, 2018.

Lead image: Jillian Kates (from left), Laura Welsh Berg, Courtney Hausman, Amy Keum and Kailey Boyle as the Bennet sisters, and Eric Damon Smith as Mr. Collins. | Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Christiana Perrault, from left, Annalise Griswold, Hannah-Jo Weisberg, Shelby Griswold, Camille Robinson and Adrianna Cleveland. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

‘Beehive’ at Great Lakes Theater all honey and no sting

By Bob Abelman

It is unlikely that Great Lakes Theater thought to counterprogram what is currently being offered across the street at Playhouse Square, but its production of “Beehive: The 60s Musical” could not be more different than the touring “Aladdin.”

While “Aladdin” is a larger-than-life, deep-pocketed musical conceived by the collective brain trust of the Disney Theatrical Productions juggernaut, “Beehive” is an intimate, low-budget, no-frills jukebox musical created by a guy named Larry Gallagher, a booking agent with a momentary epiphany.

Actually, the show is more of a musical revue than a jukebox musical, since the songs neither tell a story nor is there a discernable story being told between them as connective tissue.

Essentially, six female performers in full frontal flirtation mode and cheer face sing popular ’60s songs by female performers the likes of Tina, Aretha and Janis, and renowned girl groups that include The Chiffons, The Shirelles and The Supremes.

They do so while performing Gregory Daniels’ choreography that cleverly incorporates the dance crazes – the Swim, the Mashed Potato, the Twist, the Frug, the Pony – and highly synchronized backup group movement of the era, while wearing colorful period dresses designed by Esther M. Haberlen.

Although ’60s issues like civil rights and woman’s rights are addressed, they are delivered with postage due through token songs like “Abraham, Martin and John” and “You Don’t Own Me,” respectively.

All this is performed on a stage with only six light columns to call scenic design, which change hues in accordance with the mood of the song being performed.

In addition to the nostalgia generated by the music for those cognizant in the 1960s, this show offers little except for the exceptional performers handpicked among Baldwin Wallace University’s students and alum by the school’s director of music theatre and this production’s director, Victoria Bussert.

Christiana Perrault, Annalise Griswold, Hannah-Jo Weisberg, Shelby Griswold, Camille Robinson and Adrianna Cleveland are no Tina, Aretha or Janis – whose songs make up most of the show’s less engaging second act – but they brilliantly cover everyone else, are immensely charming and move beautifully. They are backed by a wonderful six-piece band under Matthew Webb’s direction and keyboard.

Bussert pulls all this together nicely into a tight 100-minute production.

The one thing this production does share with the Broadway tour down the road is that neither engages the mind nor inspires the soul. But that is not the point of productions like these. Sit back, sing along, and enjoy the performances.

On Stage

“Beehive: The 60s Musical” at Great Lakes Theater

WHERE:  The Hanna Theatre, 14th St. and Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through May 20

TICKETS & INFO:  $15 – $80, call 216-241-6000 or visit to

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 May 6, 2018.

Lead image: Christiana Perrault, from left, Annalise Griswold, Hannah-Jo Weisberg, Shelby Griswold, Camille Robinson and Adrianna Cleveland. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Lynn Robert Berg as Macbeth. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

It’s back to basics with Great Lakes’ ‘Macbeth’

By Bob Abelman

The more theater one sees in Cleveland, the more familiar one becomes with each theater company’s wheelhouse – the types of plays and productions they are most capable and comfortable performing.

Despite changing its name from Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival to Great Lakes Theater Festival in 1985, to capture the broader body of work produced beyond Shakespeare, and then shortening it to Great Lakes Theater to best reflect its broader programming format, one thing is clear to all who attend its plays: Great Lakes Theater does the Bard best.

Regulars also know that the works of Shakespeare are not impervious to creative reinvention by the company’s brain trust in terms of the time and place in which the plays take place.

In 2013, “Richard III” was set in modern times and staged within cold glass and chrome corporate headquarters.

For its 2010 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the comedy was transported from the 1590s to the hallucinogenic 1960s, complete with surreal landscapes, period costuming, a Volkswagen Beetle on stage and the interweaving of Beatles tunes to facilitate the storytelling.

In 2008, “Macbeth” was infused with classic Japanese styles, sensibilities and theater traditions, and the entire production was underscored with live percussion based on the bold rhythms of Taiko drummers. The Far East met the Thane of Scotland.

Not in the current production of “Macbeth” under Charlie Fee’s direction, who also happened to direct the 2008 staging. Here, the production resembles what one would imagine to be the original performance of the tragedy in 1606, though a few modern-day bells and whistles help create the illusion.

Scenic designer Russell Metheny employs a fixed wooden structure for the set that is surrounded by galleries for audience seating, reminiscent of Elizabethan playhouses. And though below stage hydraulics are used upon occasion and to great effect, this is a place where Shakespeare would seem at home.

Rick Martin incorporates two candle-lit chandeliers into his lighting design, though a dramatic use of floodlights and spotlights provides much of the ambiance and special effects. Kim Krumm Sorenson embraces the influence of historical costuming in her design and fight choreographer Ken Merckx does the same regarding his choice and wielding of weaponry. Sound designer Matthew Webb accentuates every dramatic ending of a scene, which director Fee orchestrates with astounding speed and grace, with sharp percussion.

Everything seems period and appropriate.

All this allows the production to focus on the play’s glorious language, complex characters and stellar performances, which theater purists would argue is the obvious choice. It is hard to argue.

In case you missed any of the five previous Great Lakes Theater stagings, “Macbeth” is about an army general’s (Lynn Robert Berg) bloody rise to power and the guilt-ridden pathology of evil deeds that follow.

His ambition, and the horrific path he takes toward being crowned King of Scotland, are foreseen in the prophecies of three dreadlock adorned sisters (Laura Welsh Berg, Jodi Dominick and Meredith Lark) who are witches. Macbeth assassinates the reigning king (David Anthony Smith), murders his best friend (Jonathan Dyrud), and kills the wife (Jodi Dominick) and children (Niko Ustin) of his key rival MacDuff (Nick Steen).

Lady Macbeth’s (Erin Partin) blind passion for power leads her into an unnatural alliance with witchcraft, which results in insomnia, madness, suicide, and some of the best soliloquies ever written for the stage, which are delivered with incredible passion and precision by the actor.

Everyone in this top-notch ensemble, which includes Great Lakes veterans Dougfred Miller, Andrew May and Aled Davis, is remarkable.

But Berg, who played Banquo in the 2008 production, is brilliant as Macbeth. In the program notes, Fee remarks that Macbeth is a character plagued by an inability to stop himself from thinking forward and projecting himself through a future that is dangerous and problematic. Berg’s every expression, every movement, hints at this and then he recoils in pain and self-consciousness when he realizes that it has. Brilliant.

This and everything else on stage reminds us of Great Lakes Theater’s wheelhouse and how fortunate we are to be able to experience it in person.

Great Lakes Theater’s “Macbeth”  

WHERE: The Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through April 15

TICKETS & INFO: $13-$80, call 216-241-6000 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 1, 2018.

Lead image: Lynn Robert Berg as Macbeth. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Andrew May and Kathleen Pirkl Tague. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

‘Misery’ is both title and critique for Great Lakes Theater production

By Bob Abelman

Prolific novelist Stephen King earned his fortune terrifying his significant fan base with horror stories that feature shapeshifting eldritch monsters, walking dead abominations, demonically possessed cars and canines, and everyday folks cursed by supernatural abilities.

“Misery,” his 1987 novel that was turned into a 1990 film and a 2015 Broadway play, marches to a different demon: a middle-aged sociopathic bibliophile named Annie Wilkes.

The story begins with Annie finding an unconscious and mangled Paul Sheldon after he has run his car off the road in the midst of a rural Colorado snowstorm. Recognizing him as the writer of her favorite historical romance novels, she brings him back to her remote home for healing.

While there, she learns that Paul has killed off the novels’ main character, Misery Chastain, in his soon-to-be-released final installment so he can break out of his successful rut of writing pop fiction and become a serious writer of serious books. Keeping the paralyzed Paul prisoner, the unstable Annie uses increasingly extreme forms of torture in an attempt to get him to write a new novel that revives Misery Chastain and resurrects the series.

The stage adaptation of this psychological thriller is written by William Goldman – who also penned the 1990 screenplay – and has found a place in Great Lakes Theater’s seasonal lineup in the slot previously held by such like-minded works as Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” and “And Then There Were None” and Frederick Knott’s “Dial M for Murder” and “Wait Until Dark.”

The thing is, Goldman does not have the skills or track record of a Christie or Knott. His first shot at a Broadway play, in 1962, lasted only 84 performances. “Misery” fared no better.

The play lacks the novel’s narrative voice, which assumes the point of view of the sympathetic victim of the horrific acts that King so skillfully describes and offers a carnival ride of suspense. It also lacks the cinematic storytelling afforded the B-movie rendition, which employed editing, camera placement and camera movement to establish its stifling sense of claustrophobia, create an atmosphere of fear and dread, and build immense dramatic tension.

Shock is so much harder to dole out and sustain in live theater.

To compensate, the Broadway production employed a revolving set that allowed the audience to follow the action from room to room exactly like a camera. And it offered a filmic underscore and cast highly recognizable film and TV actors Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf in the leads, to no avail.

Great Lakes Theater director Charlie Fee goes with more standard staging, with scenic designer Gage Williams building a farm house that is at once theatrically enticing in its detailed state of utter dilapidation and downright confusing in its placement of Paul’s room bizarrely in front of the rest of the exposed interior of the homestead. It is also dysfunctional in terms of the characters’ difficulty navigating the awkward layout and disappearing from sight in order to get from one side of the house to the other.

While lighting designer Paul Miller and sound designer Josh Schmidt do a nice job of establishing the raging snow storm that persists throughout most of the production, it is odd that the trees that surround the house show no evidence of inclement weather.

It could be argued that these creative choices reflect the state of mind of its insane occupant, in much the same way the castle crumbles in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” It could also be argued that all this is a distorted figment of Paul’s drug-altered imagination. But they wouldn’t be convincing.

A better argument is that all this is a conceptual misstep, a notion reinforced by the peculiar horror elements that are inexplicably and ineffectively incorporated into the play’s ending.

Andrew May, as Paul, is a fine actor tasked with portraying a terribly underwritten character. There is little this former Cleveland Play House leading man and GLT favorite son can do with his character’s limited mobility and curtailed dialogue to create the tension this play requires or provide the narrative voice the story so desperately needs.

For those unfamiliar with this tale, Kathleen Pirkl Tague is more than satisfactory as Annie. But for the rest of us, there is little she can do to avoid comparisons to actress Kathy Bates’ indelible screen incarnation and she does less to create her own memorable creature.

In short, this play is dull and a bit drowsy – two words rarely associated with Stephen King – and, to borrow from Annie’s limited but colorful vocabulary, this production is “cockadoodie.” It is easy to understand the commercial attraction of a popular work like “Misery,” but artistically, it seems a poor choice by the brain trust at Great Lakes Theater.

Great Lakes  Theater’s ‘Misery’

WHERE: The Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through March 11

TICKETS & INFO: $13-$80, call 216-241-6000 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 February 23, 2018.

Lead image: Andrew May and Kathleen Pirkl Tague. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

M.A. Taylor, center, as Puck. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Great Lakes offers modern, amusing but muddled ‘Midsummer’

By Bob Abelman

According to Puck, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s” most impish of fairies, “If we shadows have offended/Think but this and all is mended/That you have but slumber’d here/While these visions did appear.”

Shakespeare’s play is, by nature, a dreamy charade that allows for mortals to mingle with pixies and for all sorts of absurdities to seem commonplace. Among its assorted subplots, this absolutely delightful diversion revolves about two young couples (Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius) in love with the wrong partners, who venture into the woods and fall prey to mischievous fairies and their manipulations of the human heart.

Past productions of this play by Great Lakes Theater – and there have been six others, mostly when the company went by the title Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival – tend to take Puck at his word for they were truly hypnagogic affairs.

For its 2003 and 2010 productions, for instance, the play was transported from the 1590s to the hallucinogenic 1960s, complete with surreal landscapes, period costuming, a Volkswagen Beetle on stage and the interweaving of Beatles music to facilitate the storytelling.

Its current incarnation, under Joseph Hanreddy’s artistic vision and direction, is similarly surreal but it places the story and all its lyrical Shakespeare-speak in modern times.

The four young lovers – played by Michelle Pauker, Corey Mach, Keri Rene Fuller and Jon Loya – brandish fist bumps and cellphones, display the same phonetic rhythms and physicality as any millennial, and strut and fret their 2 1/2 hours upon the stage in modern-day garb courtesy of Rachel Laritz. They are surrounded by scenic designer Scott Bradley’s cosmic library, where nature seems to be taking over human invention and reality and fantasy have morphed into an imaginative amalgamation of colors and shapes.

On subplot features the “rude mechanicals” – the skilled laborers from Athens who want to put on a play for the city’s royalty, Theseus (Nick Steen) and Hippolyta (Jillian Kates) – who are made of the same modern cloth.  They consist of Peter Quince the carpenter (Tom Ford), Snug the joiner (Aled Davies), Nick Bottom the weaver (David Anthony Smith, who played the same role in the 2010 showing), Francis Flute the bellows-mender (Mack Shirilla), Tom Snout the tinker (Alex Syiek), and Robin Starveling the tailor (Jodi Dominick).

Hearing Shakespeare’s elevated language and iambic pentameter spoken with today’s casual cadence is an extraordinary thing, particularly since these performers have had significant classic training to keep that very thing from happening by accident.  It lands strangely on the ear, which not only accentuates the comedy written in the script but gives way to additional opportunities for humor by the lovers and the motley crew of mechanicals.

All this showcases a remarkable discipline and skill-set possessed by every performer on stage, made even more remarkable with the realization that they are also performing the large-scale musical “Hunchback of Notre Dame” in repertory.

Still, not everything works in this production.

The modern-day staging concept gets a bit muddled in M.A. Taylor’s portrayal of Puck as a head-banging rocker ala Mötley Crüe, which is chronologically at odds with other goings on.

Assorted fairies (Olivia Kaufmann, Mackenzie Wright) and elves (Dan Hoy, Andrew Kotzen, Mickey Patrick Ryan), as well as some of the music choices by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, seem similarly out of sync.

And, of course, some theater purists may balk at this reconstruction’s insertion of contemporary phrases and gender-correcting terminology into Shakespeare’s sacrosanct prose and poetry.

But Puck’s play-ending apology accounts for most of these occurrences.  And his earlier observation – “What fools these mortals be” – seems to cover for the rest.

On Stage

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” 

WHERE: The Hanna Theatre, 2067 E 14th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Nov. 5

TICKETS & INFO: $13-$75, call 216-241-6000 or visit to

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 Oct. 10, 2017.

Lead image: M.A. Taylor, center, as Puck. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

When Northeast Ohio’s theaters collaborate, audiences benefit

By Bob Abelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A May-December romance:

Beck Center for the Arts and Baldwin Wallace University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long-distance affair:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From flirtation to fling:

Dobama Theater and Karamu House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleveland Play House’s promiscuity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


From left, Mickey Patrick Ryan, Andrew Kotzen, Mack Shirilla and James Penca. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

Great Lakes Theater’s brand equity sorely missing from doo-wop driven ‘Forever Plaid’

By Bob Abelman

A lightweight jukebox musical is the last thing one would expect from the same theater company that just dared to double-cast a female in the title role of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” And jukebox musicals don’t regularly appear on the resume of the director who recently staged the story of axe wielding double-murderess Lizzie Borden.

But currently on the Great Lakes Theater stage under Victoria Bussert’s direction is the corny and contrived “Forever Plaid,” sans the brand equity that typically accompanies productions by Cleveland’s classic company and without the ingenuity typical of its top-tier director.

Written and staged off-Broadway in 1989 by one-hit-wonder Stuart Ross, the show introduces us to Frankie, Jinx, Sparky and Smudge. The boys are members of the doo-wop group “The Plaids” who, in 1964 and not long out of high school, were killed in a car accident on the way to their first professional gig at an airport lounge.

They appear before us – resurrected in matching dinner jackets and cummerbunds by mysterious cosmic forces – to perform the show they never got to do and, hopefully, hit the elusive perfect harmony.

The boys sing renditions of 28 Top-40 tunes from the 1950s, including Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Three Coins in the Fountain” and Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’ “Rags to Riches,” which are set to era-specific synchronized dance moves courtesy of choreographer Gregory Daniels. They are accompanied on stage, just to the left of Jeff Herrmann’s glittery lounge-show set piece, by Matthew Webb on piano and Timothy Powell on bass.

In true jukebox musical fashion, the boys provide benign banter between songs that supplies the flimsy narrative that holds this production together and engage in gimmicky antics – such as an abbreviated version of “The Ed Sullivan Show,” a story about a close encounter with Perry Como, and the dragging of audience members on stage – to offer a bit of variety to what is essentially a 97-minute musical revue.

Played with immense charm by Mack Shirilla, Mickey Patrick Ryan, Andrew Kotzen and James Penca, the boys also lack the spontaneity that was evident, according to posted reviews, in their performances this past July and September at Great Lakes’ sister theaters in Lake Tahoe and Idaho, respectively. This pre-fabricated production is also missing one musician, a percussionist, which doesn’t help matters.

Fortunately, the singing by these Baldwin Wallace University trained performers is spot-on and a pleasure to listen to. And the elusive perfect harmony is nailed in the final song, Paul Francis Webster and Sammy Fain’s “Love is a Many Splendored Thing.”

“Forever Plaid” is clearly targeted at audiences old enough to have first experienced its song list at 45 rpm on vinyl. On the Wednesday matinee of my attendance, they were well represented by members of the Valley View Community Center, Federated Church Seniors, O’Neill Healthcare North Olmsted, Eastlake Senior Center, and Willowick Senior Center.

In addition to providing a joyful, unsolicited and somewhat precarious fifth part to every songs’ four-part harmony, they offered a slow but sincere standing ovation at the end of the production.

Should you come to this Great Lakes Theater production of “Forever Plaid,” it is highly recommended that you bring a septuagenarian as your plus-one. CV

On Stage

WHERE:  The Hanna Theatre, 14th St. and Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through May 21

TICKETS & INFO:  $13 – $80, call 216-241-6000 or visit to

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 11, 2017.

Lead image: From left, Mickey Patrick Ryan, Andrew Kotzen, Mack Shirilla and James Penca. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

Jonathan Dyrud as Hamlet. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Great Lakes’ ‘Hamlet’ worth seeing twice

By Bob Abelman

God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.    ~”Hamlet,” Act III, Scene I

By featuring male and female twins in two of his comedies, “The Comedy of Errors” and “Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare capitalized on the humor that comes from mistaken identity and misdirection and the provocation found in issues grounded in gender roles and social politics.

By double-casting the title character in “Hamlet” with a male (Jonathan Dyrud) and a female (Laura Welsh Berg) actor in alternating performances, the only thing Great Lakes Theater director Charlie Fee meant to capitalize on was his deep and diverse talent pool of performers.

Laura Welsh Berg as Hamlet. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Laura Welsh Berg as Hamlet. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Women have appeared in Shakespeare’s plays since 1660, once Charles II officially granted permission to do so for two theater companies in London. And women have been earning critical acclaim for their portrayal of Hamlet since 1775, when the young Sarah Siddons toured the British provinces in the Prince of Denmark’s codpiece and fine hosiery.

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t, for casting Hamlet in the feminine allows the character to weep more unabashedly over the death of his father, reveal more emotion while plotting the revenge he seeks by killing his murderous uncle, and more boldly bare his vulnerabilities to the audience in splendidly penned soliloquies.

And such casting forces audiences to look at and listen to this classic play more closely and from a different vantage point, which may reveal a new understanding of the historic text as well as contemporary attitudes toward gender.

All this happens in the Great Lakes Theater production but, for Fee, the play’s the thing and his only concern about having a male and a female Hamlet is how well they manage to play him.

Still, there no getting around the fact that a female answering to “son,” “prince” and “my lord” is a distraction. But so are the many other realities this art form requires us to ignore when watching a play.

We are not, for instance, in Denmark and this is not the Elizabethan age. That is not actually Claudius (David Anthony Smith), Polonius (Dougfred Miller), or the ghost of the King (Lynn Robert Berg) we see before us. Many performers are called on to play two characters and no one on stage speaks in iambic pentameter when off it.

If we are able to suspend disbelief in these pretenses, than we can surely do the same regarding a female Hamlet and Fee makes this particularly easy to do by offering a production steeped in the simple staging traditions of Shakespeare’s Globe Playhouse.

There’s seating areas onstage and surrounding the thrust playing area, rich period costuming by Kim Krumm Sorenson, single-source lighting designed by Rick Martin to dramatically isolate the actors while keeping the surrounding area in darkness, and a majestic two-tier wood structure absent of scenery to enclose the action, designed by Russell Metheny. Subtle underscoring provided by Matthew Webb reinforces the emotion in key scenes, including Queen Gertrude’s (Laura Perrotta) announcement of Ophelia’s (Erin Partin) drowning and Hamlet’s final scene where he answers his earlier question “to be or not to be.”

All this allows us to keep our focus where it belongs: on the words, on the truly brilliant performances turned in by every member of the ensemble, and on the sweet prince who struts and frets his or her three hours upon the Hanna Theatre stage.

As Hamlet on opening night, Dyrud speaks his lines as if they had just come to mind and fully embraces the terrible melancholy, the feigned madness and the dark introspection they reflect. His brooding makes you listen closely, watch without blinking and marvel at the intensity he manifests. All this has his fellow actors responding in kind, resulting in a production that brims with passion and precision.

Berg brings ferocity to the role. Her Hamlet is more rebellious, wears his anger on his sleeve and offers words that are boldly expressed. Her interpretation of Hamlet’s distemper is overtly theatrical, which is particularly apparent when crossing swords with Laertes (Nick Steen).  Although the fight choreography is identical between productions, its execution is much more lavish in Berg’s hands.  Whereas Dyrud’s craft is concealed, Berg’s is unabashedly on display.

Early in the play, Hamlet remarks that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” This applies to the two portrayals of Hamlet, which are marvelous in their own right and do the work justice. Preferring one over the other is simply a matter of personal preference – mine leans toward Dyrud – but neither should be missed. cv

On Stage

WHAT:  “Hamlet”

WHERE:  The Hanna Theatre, 14th St. and Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN:  Through April 15

TICKETS & INFO:  $13 – $75, call 216-241-6000 or visit to

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on April 4, 2017.

Lead image: Jonathan Dyrud as Hamlet. Photo / Roger Mastroianni

Tom Ford, left, as Henry Higgins and Aled Davies as Colonel Pickering in Great Lakes Theater's "My Fair Lady". Photo | Matthew Murphy

By Bob Abelman

When we reflect back on a live theater production, it is usually a specific moment that we recall – an instant when a playwright’s idea, a director’s vision, or an actor’s performance surpasses an audience’s expectations and something special happens.

Such moments seem frozen in time and suspended in space. It is these isolated, elusive and brilliant moments that keep theatergoers coming back for more and win over the next generation of subscribers.

Theatrical missteps and creative miscarriages are similarly memorable and, for the audience if not the performers or production staff, they are just as entertaining. Awe can be found in work both awesome and awful.

Here are ten of this past year’s most memorable moments – both fantastic and unfortunate – from productions that have graced Cleveland’s Playhouse Square, Outside-the-Square theaters, and other area stages.

10. I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face

Tom Ford, left, as Henry Higgins and Aled Davies as Colonel Pickering in Great Lakes Theater's "My Fair Lady". Photo | Roger Mastroianni

Tom Ford, left, as Henry Higgins and Aled Davies as Colonel Pickering in Great Lakes Theater’s “My Fair Lady”. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

As Henry Higgins in Great Lakes Theater’s “My Fair Lady,” under Victoria Bussert’s direction, actor Tom Ford was playful, passionate and absolutely charming. These are characteristics rarely associated with the role. As such, his songs “Why Can’t the English,” “I’m An Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn to Him” were humorous and thought-full reflections of Higgins’ worldview rather than the droll barbs typically thrown in other productions. And Higgin’s eleventh-hour “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” was so much more than a song of regret; it was a moment of genuine heartbreak.

9. Matthew Wright in drag

Lindsey Mitchell, from left, as Mrs. Denmark, Matthew Wright as Sylvia St. Croix, and Calista Zajac as Tina Denmark in Beck Center's "Ruthless". Photo | Kathy Sandham

Lindsey Mitchell, from left, as Mrs. Denmark, Matthew Wright as Sylvia St. Croix, and Calista Zajac as Tina Denmark in Beck Center’s “Ruthless”. Photo | Kathy Sandham

There was much to love about Beck Center’s “Ruthless” – an outrageously campy, thoroughly self-aware musical comedy mashup of psychological thriller films – starting with 11-year-old triple threat Calista Zajac as the featured sociopath. But the moment when classically trained actor Matthew Wright stepped on stage as Sylvia St. Croix – adorned in a thigh-hugging dress and makeup applied with a spatula – was the moment when the show boldly exceeded the boundaries of outrageous and dared to go well past campy.

8. Girls gone Wilde

Heather Anderson Boll as Mrs. Erlynne, from left, Rachel Lee Kolis as Lady Windermere, and Chris Ross as Lord Windermere in Mamai's "Lady Windermere's Fan". Photo|Bob Perkoski

Heather Anderson Boll as Mrs. Erlynne, from left, Rachel Lee Kolis as Lady Windermere, and Chris Ross as Lord Windermere in Mamai’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan”. Photo | Bob Perkoski

Actual actresses ruled the Mamaí Theatre’s production of “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” Mamaí’s greatest strength is its ability to assemble an ensemble of remarkable female performers, and Rachel Lee Kolis as young Lady Windermere and Heather Anderson Boll as the mysterious newcomer Mrs. Erlynne handled every one of Oscar Wilde’s poignant, empowering soliloquies and each pointed piece of social commentary with astounding virtuosity.

7. “The Wild Party” sizzles

Patrick Ciamacco, center, as the brutal vaudevillian clown Burrs in Blank Canvas' "The Wild Party". Photo | Andy Dudik

Patrick Ciamacco, center, as the brutal vaudevillian clown Burrs in Blank Canvas’ “The Wild Party”. Photo | Andy Dudik

“Some love is fire: some love is rust/But the fiercest, cleanest love is lust.” So begins the seedy, Jazz Age narrative poem “The Wild Party,” on which Andrew Lippa’s lyrical musical of the same name is based. Several moments into Blank Canvas’ summer production, the theater’s air conditioner expired and, by the second song, the steamy, sticky and sweltering atmosphere perfectly matched the sexy score and its lusty performance by a superb seven-piece band – Ian Huettel, Ernie Molner, Zach Davis, Skip Edwards, Matt Wirfel, Jeff Fabis and Jessica D’Ambrosia. Clearly, this show is best served hot and with high humidity.

6. A store-bought musical

The ensemble of Mercury Theatre's "The Little Mermaid". Photo | PRM Digital Productions

The ensemble of Mercury Theatre’s “The Little Mermaid”. Photo | PRM Digital Productions

For a theater company best known for its unbridled imagination, which earlier this year was put on display in its wonderfully minimalistic “Finian’s Rainbow,” Mercury Theatre’s “The Little Mermaid” felt like an off-season, off-strip Vegas show. The production’s eye-candy costuming was rented from The Kansas City Costume Company, its set pieces were imported from Virginia Musical Theatre, and a pre-recorded soundtrack was purchased from Music Theatre International. From the opening moment, this prefab production was absolutely beautiful to watch but so very disappointing to see.

5Once more into the fray

Krystopher Perry as Ross, left, and Don Edelman as Mr. Green in the CVLT production of "Visiting Mr. Green". Photo | Courtesy of the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre

Krystopher Perry as Ross, left, and Don Edelman as Mr. Green in the CVLT production of “Visiting Mr. Green”. Photo | Courtesy of the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre

There will not be many more opportunities for 88-year-old veteran actor Don Edelman to ride the boards at his beloved Chagrin Valley Little Theatre. After all, how many plays call for a grumpy Old Jew character that the energetic and undersized Edelman has not already mastered and performed? The moment he walked on stage as the devout and despondent title character in Jeff Baron’s endearing “Visiting Mr. Green,” which was directed with immense tenderness by Carol Jaffee Pribble, the audience was privileged to witness what talent and tenacity can achieve when given time to properly mature.

4. A bad revue

The ensemble of Actors' Summit's "Tintypes". Photo | Bruce Ford

The ensemble of Actors’ Summit’s “Tintypes”. Photo | Bruce Ford

Popular during the Golden Age of bad entertainment, the revue is musical theater’s ugly ancestor. Its place of performance has been largely reduced to cruise ships, amusement parks and, inexplicably, Akron. Actors’ Summit’s production of “Tintypes,” a revue that offered a tour through 19th century America by way of public domain ditties, was the company’s grand finale, for founders Neil Thackaberry and MaryJo Alexander called it quits after 17 seasons. They produced over 141 shows, most of them superb and some truly spectacular… just not the one that left the lasting last impression.

3. Turning the Paige

Payton St. John, right, with Kayleigh Hahn as Annie in Magnificat High School's production of "Annie". Photo | Mary Papa

Payton St. John, right, with Kayleigh Hahn as Annie in Magnificat High School’s production of “Annie”. Photo | Mary Papa

Even with a feisty redheaded orphan, an adorable dog and 40 talented teenagers on stage, it was impossible to take your eyes off of Payton St. John during Magnificat High School’s recent production of “Annie.” While ensemble members are asked to blend in and not pull focus, these were impossible expectations for the younger sister of Magnificat alum and Inside Dance Magazine’s “2015 Dancer of the Year” Paige St. John. From the moment of Payton’s first perfect pirouette, it was clear that her kind of precision, passion and stage presence can’t help but call attention to itself.

2. When locals go national

Patty Lohr, far right top-tier, and the “Kinky Boots” national tour ensemble. Photo | Matthew Murphy

Patty Lohr, far right top-tier, and the “Kinky Boots” national tour ensemble. Photo | Matthew Murphy

The Tony Award-winning musical “Beautiful,” about the life, times and tunes of Carole King, came through Playhouse Square on national tour. It brought with it Cleveland-born actor Ben Fankhauser in a featured role. When the touring “Kinky Boots” recently strutted on stage at the Connor Palace Theatre, there was local actress and Baldwin Wallace University grad Patty Lohr in a supporting role. How wonderful to witness – whether for a few fleeting moments or for the duration of a production – the high-profile success stories that got their start on Northeast Ohio stages.

1. Showcasing Stockholm syndrome

John de Lancie as Mr. Wolf and Juliet Brett as Theresa in Cleveland Play House's "Mr. Wolf". Photo | Roger Mastroianni

John de Lancie as Mr. Wolf and Juliet Brett as Theresa in Cleveland Play House’s “Mr. Wolf”. Photo | Roger Mastroianni

Playwright Rajiv Joseph has a remarkable proclivity for examining big-ticket issues by way of small-scale stories. In “Mr. Wolf,” at the Cleveland Play House, a young girl played by Juliet Brett was abducted and hidden from the world by an astronomer played by John de Lancie who believed she can unravel the mysteries of the universe and find God. Early in the play, the entire set receded deep into the far recesses of the performance space and nearly vanished among the surrounding stars, suggesting the infinite expanses of the universe as well as the astronomical odds of this girl’s parents ever seeing her again. It was a moment when the playwright’s idea, director Giovanna Sardelli’s creative vision, Timothy R. Mackabee’s innovative stagecraft and the actors’ brilliant performances became so much greater than the sum of these parts.

Here’s to more memorable theater moments in the year to come and to you witnessing every one of them for yourself.

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Dec. 9, 2016.

Lead image: Patty Lohr, far right top-tier, and the “Kinky Boots” national tour ensemble. Photo | Matthew Murphy

Juan Rivera Lebron as Orsino and Cassandra Bissell as Viola disguised as Cesario. | Photo / Ken Balze

Dark underbelly of romantic comedy ‘Twelfth Night’ exposed

By Bob Abelman

For those keeping score, this is the seventh time that Great Lakes Theater has presented “Twelfth Night, or What You Will,” which is one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies.  Although the story is the same, as are many of the actors, the current production could not be more different than the last time the play was seen on the Hanna Theatre stage.

“Twelfth Night” features a pair of fraternal twins – Sebastian (Jonathan Christopher MacMillan) and Viola (Cassandra Bissell) – who are separated by a shipwreck and carry on their lives thinking the other dead. Landing on the coastal city of Illyria, Viola disguises herself as a man for protection and to honor her brother, calling herself Cesario.

She finds employment with Orsino (Juan Rivera Lebron), the Duke of Illyria, with whom she secretly falls in love. The Duke is in love with the Countess Olivia (Christine Weber) and sends the cross-dressing Viola to woo her on his behalf. The guarded Countess allows herself to fall in love with the disguised Viola, but accidently beds and weds Sebastian when he happens into town.

In line with the driving subterfuge of gender duality, Shakespeare has given “Twelfth Night” ample doses of both comedy and melancholy, as characters pursue what and who they desire but cannot have.

In 2009, under Charlie Fee’s direction, the Great Lakes production leaned heavily toward the laughs. It did so by lightening up Illyria with Mediterranean sensibilities and allowing the players to play broadly, boldly and in the spirit of Feste’s line “Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.”  

Under director Drew Barr’s creative vision, the play is remarkably dark and restrained. Fully embracing the notion of night referenced in the play’s title, everything in the world of this production exists in evening’s shadows where the boundaries that define period, place and persona are ambiguous or obscured.

Although the language and musical interludes are Elizabethan, the acting and instrumentation (Jillian Kates on electric guitar) are contemporary. 

Costuming designed by Kim Krumm Sorenson is dark and timeless and, like the casting, dabbles in androgyny. 

And every location takes place in the same setting – a once elegant but now faded estate designed by Russell Metheny and dimly lit by Rick Martin – where one scene transitions into the next while characters from the previous or next scene linger on or around the stage.

All this adds texture to the questions Shakespeare raises about love and desire, but it plays havoc with the humor. This is particularly so in the subplots that were built specifically with comedy in mind. Their implicit buoyancy clashes with the weight and density that has been added to this production. 

The Countess’s outrageous cousin Sir Toby Belch (Aled Davies) and his foolish drinking buddy Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Tom Ford), for example, come across as sad clowns rather than incorrigible rapscallions, which is a shame. When their raucous laughter fades, an undercurrent of pathos lies in wait. 

Veteran performers Davies and Ford play this well, but their hands are tied by the emotional strings attached to their undeniably hilarious dialogue.    

The same can be said for the wonderful M.A. Taylor’s portrayal of Feste the fool. Taylor, at times, appears to be champing at the bit to trade in his character’s poignancy for a little more playfulness.   

As Malvolio, the self-impressed steward to the Countess who mistakenly believes he can win her hand, Lynn Robert Berg plays his defining pomposity relatively straight. The famous scene where Malvolio reads a letter of seduction supposedly written by the Countess but actually penned by Olivia’s gentlewoman, Maria (Laura Perrotta), is an understated affair compared with David Anthony Smith’s 2009 full-throttled performance, which is a shame as well. 

But it does set up Berg’s particularly audacious selection of cross-gartered yellow stockings – per the letter’s request – most remarkably. 

Despite the production’s veil of darkness, Weber’s Olivia manages to maintain her giddy delight when she falls for Cesario and Bissell as Viola/Cesario is just plain delightful. 

In contrast, MacMillian’s Sebastian has completely lost his sense of humor and seems overcome by melancholy to the point of clinical pathology. It’s one thing turning a comedy dark; it’s another turning it into a Shakespearean tragedy.

Taken as a whole, this production of “Twelfth Night” may not be what you will, but it makes for a truly intriguing evening of theater. CV

On Stage

“Twelfth Night”

WHERE: Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St. and Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Oct. 30

TICKETS & INFO: $13 – $80, call 216-241-6000 or visit to

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

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

Lead image: Juan Rivera Lebron as Orsino and Cassandra Bissell as Viola disguised as Cesario. Photo | Ken Balze

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

Lightning strikes thrice with Great Lakes’ ‘My Fair Lady’

By Bob Abelman

Shortly after the record-breaking, award-winning production of “My Fair Lady” opened on Broadway in 1956, the show’s playwright and lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner, remarked that “the right people at the right moment in their lives embarked on the right venture.”

The same can be said for Great Lakes Theater’s most remarkable rendition of “My Fair Lady.” 

Artistic Director Charlie Fee hired just the right director who brought in just the right designers and performers to take all that is charming about this musical and make it captivating. And while all the show’s special moments have been mined over six decades of reproductions and four Broadway revivals, the Great Lakes Theater company has managed to find more by stripping the show’s production values down to the essentials while adding rich dimension to each and every character.    

“My Fair Lady” is most remembered as an Academy Award-winning film, made in 1964 during an era when hit Broadway musicals were routinely turned into elaborate Hollywood productions. The Broadway production on which it was based, which first introduced Fredrick Loewe’s irresistibly hummable music and Lerner’s memorable lyrics, won six Tony Awards. 

But “My Fair Lady” is grounded in the story “Pygmalion,” written in 1912 by George Bernard Shaw. It tells the tale of a high-handed, high-brow British phonetician named Henry Higgins, who places a wager with his priggish sidekick Colonel Pickering that he can transform Eliza Doolittle, a young Cockney guttersnipe, into a duchess simply by improving her manner of speech.    

Shaw’s writing, in turn, was inspired by “Metamorphoses” – a simple play written by ancient Greek poet Ovid about a sculptor named Pygmalion who falls madly in love with one of his ivory statues and his passion fuels the desire to bring her to life.

It is these seminal elements – the love and passion that drives the story and the unpretentious simplicity that constitutes the storytelling – that inspire this absolutely enthralling Great Lakes Theater production. 

Under the creative vision and virtuosic direction of Victoria Bussert, every design element comes in shades of black and white. 

Scenic designer Jeff Herrmann represents the cityscape of Edwardian London with three black on white line drawings that fill the space between huge white pillars, which rotate to reveal the whitewashed bookshelves of Henry Higgins’ Wimpole Street apartment and rotate again to offer a simple and serviceable backdrop for every other scene in the production. 

Each scene is imbued with just a few pieces of white furniture that are whisked on and off the stage by ensemble members with the same fluidity as the gorgeous choreography and musical underscoring they are provided by Gregory Daniels and Joel Mercier, respectively. The ensemble wears spectacular period costuming by Charlotte M. Yetman that also comes in shades of black and white. 

Only Eliza Doolittle’s costumes add a splash of color, as does actress Jillian Kates in the role. She is a delightful performer with a remarkable voice that shows its impressive range and variability during Eliza’s transformation between “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “The Rain in Spain.” And though her transformation is traditionally attributed to Higgins’ teachings and the enticement of chocolates, it is clear in this production that the strong-willed Eliza is an equal partner in the enterprise. 

Her verve and intelligence not only keep Higgins on his toes, but it underscores the shortcomings of her head-over-heels suitor Freddy, as he paces the street where she lives. He is played by the adorable Colton Ryan, who was purposefully cast young and who plays even younger, which adds humor and dimension to “Show Me,” where Eliza demands that he put up or shut up. 

As Higgins, Tom Ford is playful, passionate and absolutely charming – characteristics rarely associated with the role. As such, his songs “Why Can’t the English,” “I’m An Ordinary Man” and “A Hymn to Him” are humorous reflections on Higgins’ worldview rather than harsh barbs thrown at others.  They are also so much more interesting when sung than when spoken, as was done by Rex Harrison, who famously created the role on stage and screen. As a result, Higgins’ 11th-hour “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is more than a song of regret; it is heartbreaking.

As Eliza’s ne’er-do-well dad Alfred Doolittle, master clown M.A. Taylor’s performance is remarkably textured and always interesting. The scene where he comes to the Wimpole Street apartment to coerce cash from Higgins for stealing his daughter is the perfect storm of brilliant writing and inspired performance. 

Even Pickering – a steadfastly one-dimensional character – is all heart and sentimentality in the hands of Aled Davies. In fact, every small role is enhanced by the immense talents of Laura Perrotta, Jodi Dominick, Lynn Robert Berg and others.

Lightning certainly struck on Broadway in 1956. It struck again in Boise, where this Great Lakes Theater production opened in July in partnership with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. And, now well-rested and fully tested, it strikes once more on the Hanna Theatre stage. CV

On Stage

“My Fair Lady”

WHERE: Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Oct. 29

TICKETS & INFO: $13-$80, call 216-241-6000 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 Sept. 26, 2016.

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

Christopher Tocco (Berowne), from left, Nick Steen (Dumaine), Jonathan Dyrud (Ferdinand) and Jeb Burris (Longaville). PHOTO | Ken Blaze

Great Lakes Theater finds joy in Shakespeare’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’

By Bob Abelman

In her program notes for Great Lakes Theater’s current production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” director Tyne Rafaeli calls the play “a polyphonic explosion — a feast of style and language.”

An explosion it is, but the writing is more smorgasbord than feast.

Rather than choose one of the poetic styles in fashion in London in 1589, the young and cocky Will Shakespeare included them all: sonnets, rhyming couplets, lengthy quatrains, puns in English and Latin, a seemingly endless supply of alliterations, and a constant stream of quick-witted wordplay.

There are more speeches by more people in this lesser comedy than in most of Shakespeare’s later works, as well. And by writing a play that is both a celebration and condemnation of poetry and puns, there are plenty of inside jokes about language whose meaning and cleverness have not traveled well across the centuries. Starting with the title.

It is little wonder that this overstuffed and comparatively unrefined play, with its boisterous opening and sober conclusion, went largely unproduced for much of its early history. Few theater companies have the talent to do this play and fewer still have it in the bulk required to do it well.

The Great Lakes Theater does and it most certainly has the talent. They manage to turn all the heightened language and immense loquaciousness into a joyous affair.

What helps make “Love’s Labour’s Lost” manageable to perform is its very simple plot.

King Ferdinand of Navarre (Jonathan Dyrud) and his privileged pals — Berowne (Christopher Tocco), Longaville (Jeb Burris) and Dumaine (Nick Sheen) — swear by an idiotic oath to spend the next three years engaged in deep study, far from the distraction of women.

Within moments of signing the oath, the Princess of France (Erin Partin) and her attendants — Rosaline (Laura Welsh Berg), Maria (Christine Weber) and Katherine (Heather Thiry) — arrive for a visit. They are as beautiful as they are smart and cynical. And they do not suffer fools gladly.

Let the battle of the sexes in the war of words — in their many manifestations and significant measure — begin.

Each of the eight featured and immensely gifted performers in this play manage to create rich, interesting characters defined by their own particular brand of wordplay.

But it is the scenes that focus on the secondary characters — the Spanish braggart Don Armado (David Anthony Smith), the clown Costard (Juan Rivera Lebron), and the pompous schoolmaster Holofernes (Dougfred Miller) — that are the funniest. Miller is particularly ingenious in his delivery of the character’s random Latin phrases, unbearably precise and pompous expression, and excruciating redundancy.

The play’s poetic styles are so many that Shakespeare adds numerous ancillary characters to the festivities to showcase them, including the constable Anthony Dull (Tom Ford), the curate Nathaniel (M.A. Taylor), the Princess’ attendant Boyet (Chris Klopatek), and the dairy maid Jaquenetta (Maggie Kettering). Director Rafaeli wisely casts excellent performers in these roles, adding a layer of humor to the mix.

As if to reward us for listening so intently for so long to Shakespeare’s folly, Rafaeli gives us lots to look at.

There is plenty of playful, physical humor worked into this production, which is cleverly choreographed by Jason Paul Tate. And each character is adorned with colorful and contrasting modern costuming, designed by Andrea Hood. The single set piece, designed by Kristen Robinson, is a mountainous hardwood library that expands the full width and height of the stage, with a grass-covered floor that appears to have been overtaken by nature. Like the oath sworn by the boys, the stage itself pits instinct against intellect.

The bookshelves are filled with hardbound texts, various literary artifacts and, in one of the best scenes in the play, the boys themselves. Ferdinand and his cronies comically plow through shelves of books in an effort to escape the palace’s inner sanctum to get at the girls outside. And, when trying to avoid being seen while eavesdropping on each other’s failed attempts at seduction, the boys hang precariously from ladders and the edges of the highest shelves.

This play is most certainly not Shakespeare’s best. But the folks at Great Lakes have made the most of it. CV

On stage

WHAT: “Love’s Labour’s Lost”

WHERE: The Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through April 24

TICKETS & INFO: $13-$70. Call 216-241-6000 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 April 11, 2016.

Lead image: Christopher Tocco (Berowne), from left, Nick Steen (Dumaine), Jonathan Dyrud (Ferdinand) and Jeb Burris (Longaville). PHOTO | Ken Blaze

The ensemble of “And Then There Were None.” PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni

Whodunnit revealed in Great Lakes Theater’s ‘absolutely enthralling’ production of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’

By Bob Abelman

It is a long-standing theater tradition that those who attend an Agatha Christie murder mystery must never expose its secrets to those who will be attending it next.

This tradition ends here, for this review will divulge — against better judgment and the expressed wishes of the theater’s artistic director — precisely whodunnit in the current Great Lakes Theater production of “And Then There Were None.”

But, as befits the murder mystery formula, a little context must first be presented to set up, in dramatic fashion, the big reveal.

Christie’s ingenious play is based on the best-selling author’s biggest-selling novel, written in 1939. In it, 10 individuals — strangers to each other but apparently known to their affluent but absent hosts, Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen — are lured to a secluded home on a private island off the coast of Devon, England.

Each one of them, we are told by a recorded message upon their arrival, has blood on his or her hands.

Over cocktails and uncomfortable conversation, the guests start dying one by one in ever more inventive fashion and in accordance with a macabre nursery rhyme called “Ten Little Soldier Boys” that is framed and hanging (yes, hanging … cue murder mystery music) by the fireplace mantel.

The original, racially insensitive title of this rhyme — which was sung as a standard in blackface minstrel shows in the United Kingdom — was the novel’s original title as well. It was subsequently changed to “Ten Little Indians,” and for obvious reasons, was changed again to “And Then There Were None,” as were later printings of the novel and adaptations for film, television and the stage.

What has this to do with revealing whodunit? Nothing whatsoever. This was just a distracting and infuriating red herring, of which there are plenty in this play.

Those left standing after each murder, and all of us sitting in the audience in the intimate Hanna Theatre, desperately try to figure out just who the murderer might be. The trick is to do so by the end of this play’s two intermissions and before the last body hits the ground.

But enough exposition about a play famous for it. Whodunnit?

Was it Jonathan Dyrud as thrill-seeking Anthony Marston, who loves fast cars, fine drink, and preferably, both at the same time? Perhaps it’s Nick Steen as the dashing Philip Lombard or Laura Welsh Berg as the Owens’ spicy secretary Vera Claythorne.

Could it be Tom Ford as the officious Honorable Lawrence Wargrave or David Anthony Smith as William Blore, a retired detective?

How about Dougfred Miller as irascible Dr. Armstrong, Laura Perrotta as cold-hearted missionary Emily Brent, or Aled Davies’ despondent General Mackenzie?

Perhaps it’s M.A. Taylor as manservant Rogers or Maggie Kettering’s Mrs. Rogers.

The answer is … yes (cue murder mystery music). All of them are responsible for turning this chestnut of a play and its game-board characters into a most remarkable, absolutely enthralling production. They all dunnit.

Leave it to Cleveland’s classic company, with an ensemble of actors trained in Shakespeare-speak and years of the Bard’s dramas and comedies under their belts, to find layers of complexity in these simply drawn characters and master the precise rhythms and melodramatic moments in this murder mystery.

Just watch these players when they are not speaking and see all that they do to add texture to the scene, build anticipation toward the next spoken line, and create dynamic tension in this production. They are in the moment every moment. And so, vicariously, are we.

And they don’t dunnit alone. Director Charlie Fee beautifully choreographs the dance these characters do as they try to expose each other without exposing themselves. Count the beats it takes a character to avoid suspicion by moving from one spot in the spacious living room to another, and then move on again, and you’ll get a sense of the intricate coordination and immense artistry that go into staging 10 actors who share the same space. And then nine. And then eight.

The spacious, gorgeous post-deco living room, a glass-enclosed rotunda that overlooks nothing but sky and a menacing crag that buttresses up against the house, is designed with superb attention to detail by Russell Metheny. It is beautifully lit by Rick Martin and enhanced with ambient sound — waves, gulls, storms (cue murder mystery music) — by Joe Court. And the period costumes by Kim Krumm Sorenson are exquisite.

Everything in this production is done with complete conviction, resulting in an evening of theater as surprising as it is engaging.

But don’t tell anyone. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “And Then There Were None”

WHERE: Hanna Theatre, 2067 E. 14th St., Cleveland

WHEN: Through March 20

TICKETS & INFO: $13-$70. Call 216-241-6000 or visit to

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on March 3, 2016.

Lead image: The ensemble of “And Then There Were None.” PHOTO | Roger Mastroianni