Anjanette Hall as Nora and Abraham Adams as Thorwald. Photo / Bob Perkoski

Mamai’s ‘A Doll’s House’ a quietly gripping production

By Bob Abelman

Currently playing on Broadway is Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” an imagined sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s landmark 1879 melodrama.

It begins 15 years after the original play ended, with Nora Helmer returning home after her famous – and, in the 19th century, infamous – door slam that left in its wake her husband and three young children and set into motion her epiphanous quest to forge an identity other than dutiful wife and doting mother.  

Nora’s play-ending exit startled audiences with its brazen defiance of societal norms and theatrical conventions, which back in the day, afforded the female protagonist but two options: dramatic death or placating reconciliation. The humorous sequel to “A Doll’s House” is an attempt to answer the questions raised by Ibsen’s stone-cold sober third option.

Mamai Theatre’s revisiting of the original work – a smart and stirring turn under Christine McBurney’s fast-paced and quietly gripping direction – serves to remind us what all the fuss was about in the first place.

Prior to the door slam we see Nora (Anjanette Hall) as the petted and pampered creature envisioned by her controlling husband Thorwald (Abraham Adams). We learn that in order to save him from illness and debt, and to spare his masculine pride, she arranged a loan without his knowledge and by forging a signature. When the crime is inevitably revealed, Thorwald’s selfish response awakens Nora’s sense of self-worth and sets into motion her final act of defiance.

The Mamai production is based on a 1937 adaptation of the play by Thornton Wilder. Wilder’s version neatly strips the work to its substantive essentials, which designers Don McBride (scenic), Kristine Davies (costume), Marcus Dana (lighting) and Richard Ingraham (sound) do as well with their simple but elegant staging against a black backdrop.

Wilder also provides clarifying, conversational and contemporary dialogue that replaces much of the original script’s melodrama with nuanced emotion. This is appealing to modern sensibilities and presents Nora as less of a victimized heroine and her husband as less of a chauvinistic heel. 

The other key characters – Nora’s childhood friend Christina Linden (Rachel Lee Kolis), Thorwald’s best friend Dr. Rank (Tim Keo) and Nils Krogstad (John Busser), who holds a subordinate position at the bank in which Thorwald serves as manager – are given greater clarity, gravity and dimension as well. They are shipwrecked souls and the personification of life’s harsh realities – poverty, mortality and immorality, respectively – but Wilder’s writing as well as some truly fine acting keeps these characters from being mere placeholders for the play’s pathos.

In fact, Kolis, Keo and Busser play their characters with such aching complexity and sympathy that Hnath should seriously consider additional “A Doll’s House” sequels with them as the focal points.

Though Thorwald is very much a man of his time and far from sympathetic, Adams allows his character to connect with others from time to time which makes him a bit more accessible. And toward the end of the play, when a drunk Thorwald learns of Nora’s deception, he is vulnerable as well.

This production gives Ibsen’s play even greater focus by stripping Wilder’s adaptation of its extraneous characters by rolling the maid and the nurse into one servant, Anna (Mary Alice Beck), and eliminating the scenes that require the presence of the Helmer children.   

Keeping Nora from interacting with her children on stage impacts more than just the production budget. It places greater responsibility on the actor playing Nora to establish, through virtuosity and conviction, the strength and elasticity of the emotional bonds that she will eventually break.

Hall handles this marvelously. Her girlish giggles when appeasing Thorwald, her intriguing reactions to Dr. Rank’s advances and Krogstad’s threats, and her small and delicate acts of rebellion are also hallmarks of Hall’s remarkable performance. All this turns Nora’s final act into a more believable and interesting accumulative realization than an overly theatrical moment of revelation.

This play, as performed by Mamai, still pulsates with life 138 years after it was written. It is more than a prequel to “A Doll’s House, Part 2;” it’s an iconic piece of theater not to be missed. CV

On stage

“A Doll’s House”

WHERE: Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre,1501 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Aug. 27

TICKETS & INFO: $32, call 216-241-6000 or go to

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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on August 12, 2017.

Lead image: Anjanette Hall as Nora and Abraham Adams as Thorwald. Photo / Bob Perkoski

A potent group of smaller stages are growing and strengthening Northeast Ohio’s theater scene around headliner Playhouse Square

Story by Bob Abelman
Illustration by Jon Larson

Like Broadway in New York and the Loop in Chicago, downtown Cleveland’s Playhouse Square is the hub of the city’s theater scene as well as the nation’s second largest unified performing arts center. 

Its original five venues – the Ohio Theatre, Palace Theatre, State Theatre, Allen Theatre and Hanna Theatre – were constructed in the early 1920s as houses for vaudeville, movies and legitimate theater. 

Now fully restored after years of abandonment, fire and vandalism, the historic theaters house top-tier national Broadway tours, serve as the home to Cleveland’s classic theater company, play host to America’s first professional regional theater, and offer concerts, comedy shows and dance performances. 

Yes, Playhouse Square on Euclid Avenue between East 14th and East 17th streets is thriving. But the true sign of a city’s evolving theater scene can be found on the roads less traveled. It’s there that smaller stages are producing innovative, avant-garde and contemporary plays as well as original works by local playwrights. 

Every city known for its performing arts has followed this off-the-beaten path.

New York’s Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway movements began in the early 1950s as a reaction to the commercial theater that dominated the mid-town area.  Located largely on the Lower East Side and the Upper West Side, away from Time Square, these indie theaters provide an outlet for each new generation of creative artists whose voices are not being heard elsewhere.

The 1960s and ’70s saw an explosion of homegrown theaters in Chicago, called “Off-Loop,” which are still performing in unorthodox and inexpensive settings away from the mainstream venues in the city’s downtown Loop area.

The 99-Seat Theater scene evolved in Los Angeles during the 1980s, when many of the larger, nonprofit professional theaters found themselves dependent on box office sales for most of their income and less likely to engage in creative risk-taking. 

And now, Cleveland’s theater scene is undergoing its own version of an Off-Broadway, Off-Loop, 99-Seat Theater movement. 

Located on the East Side and West Side, away from Playhouse Square, these professional playhouses welcome diverse perspectives not only in who is telling the story and what the story is about, but how the story is told. Some are venturing into the use of immersive, interactive technology for their storytelling that create virtual worlds onstage. Others are blurring the line between theater disciplines. And they are all tapping local talent with distinctive voices. 

Let’s call these theaters “Outside-the-Square.” Here are a few worth visiting:

“Bat Boy: The Musical” was performed in October 2015 at Blank Canvas Theater. Photo | Andy Dudik

“Bat Boy: The Musical” was performed in October 2015 at Blank Canvas Theater. Photo | Andy Dudik

Blank Canvas Theatre
78th Street Studios
1305 W. 78th St., Suite 211, Cleveland
440-941-0458 or

In search of an identity in Cleveland’s highly diverse performing arts marketplace, the upstart Blank Canvas Theatre has waffled between modern classics, such as “Twelve Angry Men” and “Of Mice and Men,” and cultist musical comedies that include “Debbie Does Dallas,” “Psycho Beach Party” and “Bat Boy.” The theater, in its fifth year, also provides a performance space for founder and artistic director Patrick Ciamacco’s sketch comedy troupe, The Laughter League.

This is part of Ciamacco’s master plan to lure younger audiences to the theater via offbeat offerings and then strategically introduce them to the modern classics. “Or vice versa,” he notes. “We want a typical theatre lover who would normally only see a classic to enjoy it so much they go outside their comfort zone and show up to have blood splattered on them while watching ‘The Texas Chainsaw Musical.’”

Liminis Theater
2440 Scranton Road, Cleveland
216-687-0074 or

“Most theaters are like mirrors, reflecting the familiar,” suggests convergence-continuum mission statement. “Everything is nicely laid out for you as you view what is comfortably, safely beyond that wall, confident that you will be made, indeed are expected, to understand the experience in terms of conventional logic. Aren’t we all tired of that by now?”

con-con prides itself on taking risks and confronting conventions, and has done so under the supervision of Clyde Simon, who has served as artistic director, director, actor and set designer since the theater’s founding in 2000. The immensely intimate Liminis performance space offers an up-close-and-personal theater experience in an effort to fully engage its audiences’ senses and imaginations.

“Three Sisters” was performed in June 2015 by the Mamaí Theatre Company. Photo | Erik Johnson

“Three Sisters” was performed in June 2015 by the Mamaí Theatre Company. Photo | Erik Johnson

Mamai Theatre Company
Cleveland Masonic Performing Arts Center
3615 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
440-394-8353 or

Mamaí is passionate about offering audiences canonical works from dramatic literature. They do so, according to co-founders Bernadette Clemens, Wendy Kriss, Christine McBurney and Derdriu Ring, “without filtering what might be denser, older or more rarely performed out of a fear that contemporary audiences cannot or will not engage with classical playwrights.”

Their 2013 inaugural production of “Medea” did just that. “Good classical theater need not be watered down, dumbed down or used as a rare spice to blend into a contemporary season,” says Clemens. Adds McBurney, “For me, one of the biggest returns from our first season was learning that audiences do respond to plays that do not resemble sitcoms; plays with big ideas, complexity and beautiful language.” Next season, Mamaí will move downtown into the 150-seat Helen Rosenfeld Lewis Bialosky Lab Theatre after having established its reputation just east of the Square.

Mamaí is attempting to counter the tendency of many other theaters to make play choices that are heavily weighted toward male casts by ensuring that, for Cleveland’s professional theater community, women will have increasing opportunities to work.

Playwrights Local
Waterloo Arts
397 E. 156th St., Cleveland
216-302-8856 or

Newly formed Playwrights Local, located in the revitalized North Collinwood neighborhood, is the city’s first theater company exclusively dedicated to new plays by local playwrights.

After obtaining nonprofit status and finding a work space at Waterloo Arts, artistic director David Todd and managing director Tom Hayes created a laboratory environment where directors, actors and dramaturgs provide feedback on new work, as well as space for table readings, rehearsals and public staged readings.

In November, the company will orchestrate its second annual two-day Cleveland Playwrights Festival that will feature workshops, panel discussions and staged readings of short works by David Hansen, Lisa Beth Allen, Eric James Dahl, Craig Joseph and Luke Brett. Says Todd, “We want to raise awareness for Cleveland as a playwriting city and add another facet to what is going on in the arts.”

“Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys” was performed in October and November 2015 by Theater Ninjas. Photo | Anastasia Pantsios

“Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys” was performed in October and November 2015 by Theater Ninjas. Photo | Anastasia Pantsios

Theater Ninjas
440-941-1482 or

Theater Ninjas is the food truck of Cleveland theater; a nomadic company that seeks out new and challenging performance spaces such as the repurposed recording studio at 78th Street Studios. “Working in nontraditional venues gives us an opportunity to reimagine how and why we tell stories,” suggests artistic director Jeremy Paul, “and helps us to create deep, fascinating worlds for the audience to explore.” 

For instance, “The Excavation” was staged at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where audience members chose their own path through different “exhibits” that used humor, science, tragedy, puppets and multiple artistic disciplines to celebrate cultural legacies, mortality and our deep curiosity about the lives of other people. “It’s the kind of show that couldn’t be done in a traditional theater or by any other company in Cleveland,” says Paul. Other productions have been staged at the Rising Star Coffee Roastery, the Canopy Collective and the Guide 2 Kulchur bookstore.

Jon Seydl, former curator at CMA, described Theater Ninjas as operating “on the end of the theater spectrum; the place where theater connects to other forms of performance.” 

none too fragile
1835 Merriman Road, Akron
330-671-4563 or

Promotional ads for none too fragile boast: “We don’t just push the envelope. We lick it.” Shock value is what this theater is known for, starting with the ritual shot of Jameson whiskey that is distributed to audience members before each performance.

The Akron-based theater company was created in 2012 by Sean Derry and Alanna Romansky after an earlier experiment by Derry, called the Bang and the Clatter Theatre, proved too adventurous and bold for downtown Cleveland denizens.  This new theater picks up the mantle of providing principle-challenging, character-driven, and often funky storytelling. 

“Professional indie theater” is the way managing director Jaysen Mercer describes the types of plays they produce. “I believe that we offer our audiences something very unique that may not be possible at larger venues,” suggests Derry, “and that is true, intense intimacy with the artist and his/her material.”

Several progressive theaters of note initiated the “Outside-the-Square” movement before it was fashionable. Below are two of the most prominent.

“Incendiaries” was performed in January 2016 at Cleveland Public Theatre. Photo | Steve Wagner

“Incendiaries” was performed in January 2016 at Cleveland Public Theatre. Photo | Steve Wagner

Cleveland Public Theatre
6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
216-631-2727 or

Cleveland Public Theatre’s mission is to “raise consciousness and nurture compassion through ground breaking performances.” CPT develops new, adventurous work by Northeast Ohio artists, undertakes nationally significant second and “early” productions of new scripts, and develops devised, ensemble-based theater as well as radical reinterpretations of existing work.

Located in the Gordon Square Arts District, CPT was founded in 1981 when James Levin returned from New York City and was determined to form an experimental theater group similar to Off-Broadway’s Cafe LaMama, where he worked as an actor and director.   

Over the past 10 years, executive artistic director Raymond Bobgan has expanded this mission. “We want people to leave CPT feeling like they have seen something extraordinary – something that they couldn’t have witnessed anywhere else in the region.” The CPT believes that theater can be at the center of community dialogue and, notes Bobgan, “personal transformation.”

Dobama Theatre
2340 Lee Road, Cleveland Heights
216-932-6838 or

Founded in 1959 by Donald and Marilyn Bianchi, Barry Silverman and Mark Silverberg, Dobama Theatre has worked consistently to produce innovative plays of consequence.

The vast majority of the theater’s productions are regional, American or world premieres of the best contemporary plays by established and emerging playwrights.

“We honestly don’t go out of our way to do ‘edgy’ material, whatever that means,” says artistic director Nathan Motta. “However, if the material is something that might challenge our audiences – that is, if it’s thought-provoking, moving and relevant, with strong dialogue, layered characters and a unique or interesting premise – that work is certainly not something we’re going to shy away from.”

Since its origin, Dobama has always taken risks and, according to Motta, “asked its audiences to take the risk with us. This is an artistic decision we make knowing full well that it may prove challenging in terms of marketing, and in some cases, selling tickets.” CV

Doug Kusak as Sir Roderick, left, and John Polk as the Steward. PHOTO | Bob Perksoski

Mamaí Theatre Company resurrects, reanimates lost lampoon, ‘The Woman-Hater’

By Bob Abelman

Not long ago, the remains of Shakespeare’s Curtain Theatre — built in 1577 and the site where “Henry V” and “Romeo and Juliet” were first performed — were discovered beneath a graveled yard in congested east London.

Although to passersby they were just a bunch of bricks and decaying wood foundation walls, to experts from the Museum of London Archaeology the remains “clear away the miserable piles of Victoriana and Empire, revealing the wild, anarchic and joyous London lurking beneath.”

Like-minded though less expressive enthusiasm surrounded the rediscovery of the play, “The Woman Hater,” a long-forgotten and never-performed satire written between 1796 and 1801 by Frances Burney, an influential novelist but comparatively inconsequential and infrequent playwright.

The play resurfaced in 1945 when the New York Public Library acquired a collection of Burney’s novels, letters and plays. The work was published for the first time in 1995, received its first production in Montreal in 2003, and is currently on stage at Mamaí.

Theater historians have called “The Woman Hater” the “missing link between Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Oscar Wilde” — a satirical indictment of the excesses of privileged men and women that puts on display Burney’s wily and insightful protofeminism, which fits nicely into Mamaí’s artistic wheelhouse and mission statement.

To casual observers, however, the play is pretty much a period piece that bears all the hallmarks of its time: lengthy, long-winded and laden with identities that are mistaken, social pretensions that are exposed, and a happy ending that is as hard-earned as it is abrupt upon arrival.

And the play, as do others from that era, requires the audience to pay close attention from the get-go, for it opens with an abundance of exposition intended to launch the intrinsically connected sub-plots that have been in the making 17 years before the curtain rises.

We learn that Sir Roderick and his sister Eleonora were set to marry another pair of siblings, the Wilmots. Just before their wedding, Sir Roderick was abandoned by his fiancée who then married Lord Smatter. And despite Sir Roderick’s vows to disinherit his sister if she followed through with her own marriage to Wilmot, she did, and the couple fled to the West Indies.

As the play begins, we are introduced to the titular hero, the jilted Sir Roderick (Doug Kusak). He has become a curmudgeon and a fanatical misogynist, who lives to denounce women and verbally abuse his steward Stevens (John Polk) and the other servants (Dylan Freeman and Gus Mahoney).

He shares his home with an heir, the young Jack Waverley (Evan Thompson), but promises to disinherit Jack and toss out his sycophantic father (Michael Regnier) if they detour from devout bachelorhood. Of course, Jack is a bundle of raging hormones and incapable of controlling himself.

Sir Roderick’s former fiancée, Lady Smatter (Carrie Williams), is once again single and has turned into a voracious reader with a tendency to misquote from novels and plays, driving her maid (Marcia Mandell) and everyone else crazy.

And Eleonora (Rachel Lee Kolis), having left her jealous husband Wilmot (TJ Gainley) years ago, has returned to the English countryside with their daughter Sophia (Natalie Welch) and a maid (Shannon Sharkey).

Wilmot has also returned to find and apologize to Eleonora, though he too has a young girl (Meg Martinez) and her nurse (Khaki Hermann) in tow, whom he believes to be his daughter.

Both girls seek out Sir Roderick for financial support, though one of them mistakes Old Waverley for her uncle.

For nearly three hours, 18th century insanity ensues as Sir Roderick steams when confronted by females, Lady Smatter misquotes, young Jack Waverley seduces, Old Waverley is befuddled, and Wilmot theatrically laments. And we are introduced to Bob (Nate Miller), the idiot nephew of the steward Stevens.

Under Christine McBurney’s stalwart direction, all this makes absolute sense and unfolds with remarkable dexterity, speed and humor. In fact, “The Woman Hater” is thoroughly entertaining. Expedient and interesting scene changes on an all-purpose, period-appropriate set designed by Don McBride, accompanied by period-appropriate segue music designed by Richard Ingraham and adorned with Angelina Herin’s costuming, help hold our attention.

The entire ensemble delights in the satirically melodramatic dialogue the players are handed and create rich, relatable characters that at first appear preposterous and foreign, but quickly grow on you. The featured players — particularly Kusak, Gainley, Regnier, Kolis and Williams — are remarkably adept at speed-reading as well as stage presence, while Polk, Welch and Martinez are absolutely charming.

The excavation of Shakespeare’s Curtain Theatre may have revealed the wild, anarchic and joyous London lurking beneath it, but Mamaí’s resurrection of Frances Burney’s “The Woman Hater” has given it voice. CV

On stage

WHAT: “The Woman Hater”

WHERE: Cleveland Masonic Performing Arts Center, 3615 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through Sept. 4

TICKETS & INFO: $15-$22. Call 216-382-5146 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 Sept. 2, 2016.

LEAD PHOTO: Doug Kusak as Sir Roderick, left, and John Polk as the Steward. PHOTO | Bob Perksoski

Courtney Brown, from left, Rocky Encalada, Lisa Langford, Anne McEvoy and Amy Schwabauer. PHOTO | Bob Perkoski

Feminism a dish best served hot in Mamaí Theatre Company’s ‘Top Girls’

By Bob Abelman

The dinner table — where two or more contrary characters are required by convention, circumstance or social obligation to sit and talk — is often used as the centerpiece of great plays. It’s where proper etiquette and unpleasant temperament collide, resulting in character-defining discomfort, unexpected disclosure and some really good theater.

Shakespeare had Macbeth join Lady Macbeth and various Lords for dinner only to find his place occupied by Banquo’s ghost. The Bard served up some chilling cuisine during the notorious family feast in “Titus Andronicus.”

The extent of southern family dysfunction and the epitome of narcissistic Bohemian behavior unfold over dinner in Tracy Letts “August: Osage County” and Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever,” respectively.

It can be argued that some of the most memorable moments in thrillers such as Patrick Hamilton’s “Rope,” comedies like Bernard Shaw’s “You Never Can Tell,” dramas like Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and such sentimental storytelling as Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” take place at the table.

This is certainly the case with “Top Girls,” Caryl Churchill’s treatise on women breaking the glass ceiling that premiered in 1982 at London’s Royal Court Theatre on the cusp of the equal rights movement at the start of the Thatcher era. The Mamai Theatre Company is staging an intriguing production of the play.

The first of its three acts takes place in a restaurant where the self-assured Marlene, played to perfection by Lisa Langford, is celebrating her promotion to managing director of an employment agency. Churchill invites to the dinner party five prototypical guests who have, in their own unique way, redefined the role of women.

But they are not the usual suspects of second-wave feminists. Instead, there’s a martyred female pope from the Middle Ages, who orders cannelloni and salad. She is perfectly underplayed, with wonderfully subtle humor, by Amy Schwabauer. A 13th century concubine turned Buddhist nun, whom the delightful Anne McEvoy portrays with saintly resignation as she describes Lady Nijo’s rape as a young woman, joins Pope Joan.

Also sharing the meal is a folkloric Flemish peasant warrior, immortalized in a 1562 painting by Bruegel the Elder, who will now be remembered for the clever antics bestowed upon her by Courtney Brown when the character is not engaged in dinner conversation. Joining the party is the celebrity Victorian naturalist and explorer Isabella Bird, who opts for chicken and soup but is nicely played with layers of “non-kosher meat” by Rocky Encalada. The last to arrive is the too-obedient wife from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” Patient Griselda, whom Cassandra Miller plays with refined dignity.

Inviting strong females from fiction and the faded past allows Churchill to not only champion their achievements but comment on the costs — the moral compromise of subservience, the physical toll of sexual abuse and political wrath, the personal sacrifice of being married off as teenagers and having female children killed by their husbands — associated with obtaining them.

To reinforce this poignant point, the dinner party decays into drunken, self-absorbed rants during which the women vie for attention and dominance — characteristics typically associated with the alpha males who ruled their existence. Director Jaime Boluvier orchestrates this scene perfectly by counterbalancing all the overlapping dialogue with distinctive, character-defining action by the players and dressing all in detailed character-defining costuming by Suzy Q. Campbell.

Boluvier is not as successful in making the other scenes in the play as interesting. They are less absurd, and Churchill narrows her focus on Marlene, her coworkers and clients, her estranged sister, niece and the niece’s young friend — all played by the aforementioned actresses, including the delightful Isabel Wang.

These scenes are overwritten, perhaps purposefully, to emphasize the magnitude of the multitude of arguments being made about whether women can have a family and a career, and whether they can have both at the same time.

But words get lost in the sound-absorbing confines of the performance space when there are fewer actors in it than during the iconic opening. And these scenes are less interesting visually in this scenery-less setting despite scenic designer Don McBride’s effort to narrow the space by creating a series of receding proscenium arches adorned with bunting.

Still, this play and this production amount to an extraordinary accomplishment in retention of the playwright’s message and her means of delivering it. Nothing feels dated, even though the work is specific to England in the 1980s. Using an ethnically diverse cast of women helps along these lines. Casting extraordinary talented women helps even more. CV  

On stage

WHAT: “Top Girls”

WHERE: Cleveland Masonic Performing Arts Center, 3615 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

WHEN: Through June 19

TICKETS & INFO: $15-$22. Call 216-382-5146 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 June 7, 2016.

Lead image: Courtney Brown, from left, Rocky Encalada, Lisa Langford, Anne McEvoy and Amy Schwabauer. PHOTO | Bob Perkoski