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

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

By Bob Abelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raising consciousness:
Cleveland Public Theatre’s Raymond Bobgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sparking connections:
Interplay Jewish Theatre’s Faye Sholiton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denting stigmas:
improvisational comedian Deena Nyer Mendlowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne McEvoy contributed to this story.


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

Rose Gabriele as Mary and Robert Ellis as Charlie. Photo | Brian Kenneth Armour

none too fragile’s ‘The Whale’ wallows in well-chartered waters

By Bob Abelman

In Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale” – initially found breaching off-Broadway in 2013 and currently on stage at none too fragile – Charlie’s death scene clocks in at 1-hour and 50-minutes.

For the entirety of this slow-moving but quietly affecting drama, the morbidly self-destructive, always-apologetic 600 pound Charlie sits on or precariously orbits around his couch in a small northern Idaho apartment awaiting his final, thin exhale.

Intermittently orbiting around Charlie (Robert Ellis), when he is not offering online tutoring on expository writing, are a handful of well-intended characters who are remarkably ill-equipped to follow through with their objectives.

There’s his devoted caretaker and only friend, Liz (played by a wonderfully intense Jen Klika).  She is forever insisting that Charlie go to the hospital to control his death by overeating but never manages to get him there.  Her visits are as much a lifeline for her as they are for him.

There’s his estranged teenage daughter Ellie (portrayed with intelligence and impenetrable goth gravitas by Ireland Derry), who hates everything and always chooses the path of most resistance.  She is repulsed by Charlie’s appearance, his life choices and his helplessness, but stays by his side nonetheless.  Good-hearted despite having congestive heart failure, Charlie finds wonder in her wrath, beauty in her bile, and evidence of good intentions in her bad behavior despite his ex-wife’s insistence that there are none.

A victim of Ellie’s passive-aggressive do-gooding is Elder Thomas (the delightful Jon Heus), a naïve young Mormon missionary who arrives at Charlie’s door to offer spiritual guidance but leaves an inadvertent recipient.

Also paying a visit is the ex-wife Mary (a poignant Rose Gabriele), whose resentment over Charlie leaving her for another man has softened over the years into an awkward, alcohol-assisted affection.

Hunter’s play serves up moments that are wonderfully surprising in what they reveal about these characters and in their tender rendering.  But, between those moments, “The Whale” lies beached in familiar territory about mending relationships and seeking redemption.

And the play’s modus operandi – its marginalized Idaho-bounded inhabitants, its many short scenes that create the rhythm of time passing painstakingly, and its disgraced religious zealot and emotionally damaged teenager – is pilfered from the playwright’s own “A Bright New Boise.”   

Clearly, the novelty of the protagonist’s size and the untimely death of his partner, Alan, are intended to offer commentary on how those of us with sensitive souls and big hearts are easily victimized, beaten down and broken by others.  And the play’s numerous references to Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” – Charlie’s favorite novel – run parallel with the damage and anger this whale of a man has inadvertently caused in those around him.

The codependent caretaker, the rebellious daughter, the fallen Mormon, and the alcoholic ex-wife are Ahabs all.

And yet, all the intended metaphoric meaning seems a bit too forced and, at times, too transparent to carry much weight.

It is fortunate that director Sean Derry’s finds all the small and often subtle bits of dark humor in the script that helps make these characters relatable and adds life to the death knell that drives this drama.  And he has pulled together exquisite actors who deliver this humor as if it was a natural extension of their characters’ anguish.

Authenticity is key at none too fragile, where the staging is so intimate that the first row of seats invades the fourth wall.  Any false pretense in the performances or in Derry’s simple set design is easily spied.  There is none of that here.

Ellis’ performance is particularly authentic.  His Charlie is a gentle and self-effacing giant, yet the deep psychological crisis that gnaws at him, the emotional pleasure and pain he suffers with each visit by Ellie, and the immense physical discomfort that accompanies his every movement is always visible.

Ellis’ feigned strain under the illusion of massive weight created by a plausible fat suit designed by Jackie Guerra is remarkable.  It seems so real that one fears that the performer expires at the end of the production and not just the character he plays.

Come to none too fragile to see an engaging if unexceptional work by MacArthur Foundation genius grant winner Samuel D. Hunter.  Stay to marvel at the eloquent performances it is provided.

On Stage

WHAT:  “The Whale”

WHERE:  none too fragile, 1835 Merriman Rd., Akron

WHEN:  Through Feb. 18

TICKETS & INFO:  $25, visit nonetoofragile.com


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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 5, 2017.

Lead image: Rose Gabriele as Mary and Robert Ellis as Charlie. Photo | Brian Kenneth Armour

outsidethesquare

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

Story by Bob Abelman
Illustration by Jon Larson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


convergence-continuum
Liminis Theater
2440 Scranton Road, Cleveland
216-687-0074 or convergence-continuum.org

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Theater Ninjas
440-941-1482 or theaterninjas.com

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Geoff Knox and Rachel Lee Kolis. PHOTO | Brian Armour

‘A Kid Like Jake’ at none too fragile theater is a captivating, contemporary Cinderella story

By Bob Abelman

Daniel Pearle’s one-act play, “A Kid Like Jake,” on stage at none too fragile theater, provides a landing pad for helicopter parents — those cossetting caregivers who hover over their children in order to maximize their potential for greatness.

Alex (Rachel Lee Kolis) has given up a legal career to be the perfect mom and is now fully committed to getting her bright and precocious 4-year-old son, Jake (who remains unseen), into a top-tier private kindergarten.

And by fully committed, we’re talking obsessed.

She sends out applications, which have been written with great care and then rewritten again and again, months in advance. She works diligently with Judy (Laura Starnik), the placement adviser at Jake’s fancy preschool, to best prepare the boy for the battery of assessments that are part of the application process. She neglects her husband Greg (Geoff Knox), a clinical psychologist, who taps his infinite patience and vast knowledge of crazy behavior to keep his wife from imploding.

Despite everyone’s best efforts to act in Jake’s best interest, no one quite knows how to handle the boy’s enthusiasm for “gender variant play,” such as dressing up as Cinderella and favoring dolls over toy trucks. Jake, it seems, is starting to identify as female.

Judy recommends that the family embrace Jake’s proclivities and capitalize on them by going after the private schools’ diversity quota. Greg suggests placing Jake in therapy. Alex casts blame. She blames her husband’s permissive parenting and the allure of Disney’s animated princesses. She blames the subtle influence of Judy’s lesbian leanings. And she blames her faulty womb, which miscarriages children when not instilling them with confusion.

“A Kid Like Jake” is very much a domestic drama about what happens to a family when childcare is turned into a blood sport. But it also raises questions about the current state of primary education and whether human intelligence and gender identity are created by nature or molded through nurturing.

And it does so with an excess of dialogue and a paucity of action, as if the playwright — like Jake — was repeatedly told by his parents to “use your words” rather than act out emotions.

The awkward imbalance of these ingredients, plus an odd dream sequence involving a grown-up Jake (played here by Katie Wells), earned mixed reviews during the play’s 2013 premiere at the Lincoln Center Theater in New York. Many noted that audiences could not find much sympathy for the highly volatile, monomaniacal Alex.

Everything falls into better alignment in this none too fragile production, under Sean Derry’s direction. He acknowledges the issues being raised in the script, appreciates the precision in Pearle’s dialogue, and allows his actors to weigh the impact of their words. But he also insists that their characters be compassionate and conversational. Though affluent, they remain unpretentious and relatable. Derry also keeps the pace of this production moving ever forward.

One way of achieving this is foregoing scenery and realistic set pieces, replacing them with a black curtain backdrop and simple wood crates. The crates are rapidly repositioned between scenes to create an office or a living room, while actors quickly change costumes in the corners of the small performance space. When not rushing back into action, they sit and observe from the sideline.

The thing is, this is not the kind of play that benefits from or is conducive to such metatheatrical treatment. In fact, its sharp contrast to the realistic dialogue taking place in realistically devised scenes is a constant distraction and artistic misstep.

Fortunately, the acting is so superb that it serves as a salve for what ails the script and is absent from the scenic design.

Although the character of Greg is underwritten in comparison to Alex and can come across as quite submissive — and intentionally so — Knox turns this into benevolent acquiescence, which is so much more interesting and engaging. Knox’s Greg may often be in the background, but he never fades into it.

And despite Alex’s accusations and the script’s inclinations, Starnik’s Judy never comes across as manipulative when championing Jake. This is a more honest, albeit less dramatic, depiction and a good fit for this production.

The most remarkable performance of all is turned in by Kolis, who makes Alex and her Type A personality relatable long before the playwright offers insight into her family history toward the end of the play. In fact, Kolis manages to make Alex vulnerable and likeable.

Pearle’s drama is smart, frequently funny and given a particularly good turn at none too fragile. CV

On Stage

WHAT: “A Kid Like Jake”

WHERE: none too fragile, 1835 Merriman Road, Akron

WHEN: Through March 26

TICKETS & INFO: $20, visit nonetoofragile.com


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

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on March 20, 2016.

Lead image: Geoff Knox and Rachel Lee Kolis. PHOTO | Brian Armour