LCT Continuing “Stage Insights”

This season, LCT continues its program "Stage Insights". In place of our usual reviewing process, Stage Insights provides more in-depth, personal reviews from a select number of our contributors dedicated to each of the theatres they are reviewing. In addition, they will be providing exciting Sneak Peaks of upcoming productions. Look for our Sneak Peaks on the front page of our website and our weekly reviews on the Review Page.

CSC’s Tempest Ends Its Season with a Bang Before Heading to a Brave New World

Review by Doug Iden of The Tempest: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Nick Rose (right) and Caitlin McWethy in “The Tempest”

The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company triumphantly opened its final show at its current Race Street location in tempestuous fashion with one of Shakespeare’s last plays, The Tempest. The play tells the story of sorcerer Prospero (Nicholas Rose), the rightful Duke of Milan, who is set adrift with his daughter Miranda (Aiden Sims) and, years later, plots revenge against his usurpers. Using magic, he conjures an immense storm and tricks his nemesis brother (re-named Antonia and played by Kelly Mengelkoch) and King of Naples Alonso (Jim Hopkins) into thinking that they have been marooned on the island as well. The dispenser of his magical charms is sprite Ariel (played intriguingly by Caitlin McWethy) who shadows most of the characters unseen by all but Prospero. Three interwoven stories are told with Prospero playing matchmaker with Miranda and Ferdinand (Alonso’s son played by Crystian Wiltshire). His ministrations succeed admirably. In the second story, deformed island native Caliban (a slave of Prospero portrayed mischievously by Geoffrey Warren Barnes II) plots with jester Trinculo (Justin McCombs) and drunken butler Stephano (Billy Chace) to perform a coup against Prospero. The third scenario details Sebastian (Kyle Brumley) and Antonia’s attempt to replace Alonso as the king. Ariel, at Prospero’s bidding, foils all of the coup attempts and, eventually, earns her freedom.

The Shakespeare Company has an advantage in that it is a resident group of actors who work together year round which is reflected in the ease with which they interact. There are some outstanding performances including Rose as Prospero who is both a character and a narrator and McWethy as Ariel who is part sprite, part enchantress and part scene stealer. Barnes has an interesting take on Caliban with reptilian mannerisms and an undefinable accent. But the stage really lights up when McCombs (as Trinculo) and Chace (Stephano) cavort in various states of drunkenness, often in contrast with Caliban’s monstrosity. All are directed by the triumvirate of Sara Clark, Jeremy Dubin and Brian Isaac Phillips.

Identified variously as a Romance and/or a Comedy, The Tempest boasts villainous action, romantic love and slapstick buffoonery in equal proportions. This mixture makes this an unusual and interesting Shakespearian play.

But the really interesting aspect of the show is the staging (designed by Shannon Robert) which is a combination of modern technology and some very old-fashioned theatrical tricks such as using sheets manipulated by actors to simulate waves. As you walk into the theater, there is a bare stage flanked by shabby sail material against the aisle walls. The play opens with a single light and recordings of numerous well-known Shakespearean quotes from other shows. Suddenly, the storm starts and we see projections of waves on the walls accompanied by the clash of thunder and actors simulating the rocking of the ship. Throughout the show, we see numerous surreal projections adding to the eeriness and effective use of many small lights hanging from the ceiling above the audience, all designed and controlled by Justen Locke. At the end of the play, the actors strip the canvas from the walls and the play reverts to a black stage with the actors out of costume and in street clothes. It seems to be an ending to the era of the current theater.

So don’t let a little Stormy Weather inhibit you and enjoy The Tempest, presented by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company through May 20.

Covedale Gloriously Revives Musical Favorite My Fair Lady

Review by Doug Iden of My Fair Lady: Covedale Theatre

“I have often walked down this street before” and the journey has always been glorious as My Fair Lady opened at the Covedale Theater. Based upon George Bernard Shaw’s social satire Pygmalion, My Fair Lady is considered by many (myself included) to be one of the greatest musicals every written. The story shows Professor Henry Higgins’ attempt to transform a cockney flower girl (Eliza Doolittle) into a refined, high society lady by changing her dialect and her manner of speech. During the process, both Higgins and Doolittle are transformed in ways that neither could imagine.

Linguist Higgins (Brent Alan Burington), a product of the British caste system, is an arrogant, self-absorbed bachelor who is wedded to his work and views Eliza only as a challenge and not as a person. Eliza (Sarah Viola) is initially awed by the opulence and privileges of the upper class but, gradually, finds her voice and her own inner strength and eventually stands up to Higgins’ bullying tactics.

This is as perfectly integrated musical with Alan Jay Lerner’s clever and insightful lyrics propelling the story accompanied by Frederick Loewe’s melodic score. The play starts with the song “Why Can’t the English” in which Higgins decries the various English dialects which keep people in their societal niches. All of Higgins’ songs are patter songs which were originally “sung” by non-singer Rex Harrison. We hear the thoughts of the primary characters through song soliloquies including “I’m an Ordinary Man”, “Just You Wait” and “Hymn to Him”. This is one of the best scores ever written for a musical.

Burington portrays Higgins as a slightly more aggressive and boisterous character than we are used to seeing and it works well because Viola’s Eliza is also more assertive, so the battle of wills takes on a delicious fervor. Viola is excellent as Eliza with an extraordinary voice singing “I Could Have Danced All Night”, one of the big hits of the show, and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” among others. Another highlight is local veteran Matt Dentino portraying Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s hedonistic father. Dentino steals every scene in which he appears with over the top renditions of the extraordinarily clever “With a Little Bit of Luck” and the ironically rueful “I’m Getting Married in the Morning”. Dave Wilson plays a besotted and innocently naïve Freddy Eynsford-Hill who slavers in his devotion to Eliza by singing the classic “On the Street Where You Live” in a pleasant, tenor voice. Gregory Bossler plays Higgins’ friend Colonel Pickering who functions both as a co-conspirator with Higgins and an ameliorating counterpart for Eliza. The large ensemble cast, who variously play cockney laborers and upper class snobs, is universally good with a few playing supporting characters such as Brandon Bentley (Zoltan Karpathy) and Mary Puetz (Mrs. Higgins). All are good singers.

Maggie Perrino has choreographed simple but alternately energetic and elegant dance routines ranging from the cockney workers to the sumptuous Embassy waltz number.

The set is detailed, functional and effective. Three set pieces (designed by Brett Bowling) have faces which, when turned by one-third, represent Higgins’ study, a street scene and some other interiors. There is a lot of detail in Higgin’s study with book-lined walls, a staircase, a second floor and a workspace including elocution and recording equipment, a bust of Shakespeare and several medical charts.

Caren Young must have busted the budget with an array of costumes including working clothes, upper class suits and dresses, formal dance apparel and several gorgeous gowns worn by Eliza. Due to the large cast, there are a lot of costumes.

Tim Perrino (the Covedale’s Artistic Director) directs his self-proclaimed favorite musical with fast moving abandon, drawing good performances from the principal leads. My only quibble is that the horn section of the band may need more practice.

On a personal note, My Fair Lady was the first professional musical I ever saw and, at a New Year’s Eve matinee at the Shubert Theater in Chicago, I fell in love with musicals in general and My Fair Lady in particular.

So, if you want to see a good production of a marvelous musical, Dance all Night on the Street Where the Covedale Lives continuing through May 21. Tickets are available by calling 513-241-6550 or going to the Covedale website, www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/ccpa

Have a Whopper, Pull Out the Stopper, and Get to the Covedale‘s My Fair Lady on Time

Review by Jack Crumley of My Fair Lady: Covedale Center for the Performing Arts

It’s the end of the season, and Tim Perrino & Co are going out on a high note. Featuring some of the best songs in American musical theatre history, My Fair Lady is easily the most ambitious production at Covedale Center for the Performing Arts this year.

My Fair Lady boasts one of the best Broadway pedigrees, ever. Originally a play by George Bernard Shaw, the show as a musical languished in development for years before Lerner and Loewe were able to adapt it properly. It’s the show Rex Harrison won his second Tony for and it’s also where a young Julie Andrews was discovered.

For Covedale audiences, Brent Alan Burington commands in the role of Henry Higgins, the brilliant-but-cold phonetics expert trying to train Eliza Doolittle to act and speak like a woman of high society. Sarah Viola returns to the Covedale stage as Eliza, and brings not only her elegant, powerful singing voice, but also her raucous, Cockney-accented shrieks. Higgins’ cohort and the source of Doolittle’s moral support is Colonel Pickering, played by Gregory Bossler. His good-natured demeanor and solid comedic timing are a perfect balance for Higgins’ all-consuming drive and lack of social grace.

As strong as the lead actors are, the entire cast deserves credit for how well they work together. It’s only fitting that a show about the beauty and power of the spoken word features a cast with such extraordinary voices. Burington, Viola, and Bossler each have a unique tone, but they all blend very well with the ensemble members of the cast during group numbers like “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and “You Did It.” The ensemble should be praised for all playing charming, unique background characters that never go so far as to steal interest away from the main action.

Special recognition goes to Matt Dentino. No one is having more fun than he is playing Eliza’s father, Alfred Doolittle. He’s a pleasure to watch cut loose singing “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” and he steals every scene he’s in.

A somewhat regular issue at Covedale can be the acoustics, but there were no problems with sound whatsoever on My Fair Lady’s opening night. Every cast member could be understood, whether they had a microphone or not. It’s an impressive feat given the sheer volume of dialogue and lyrics the cast members have to deliver. Burington’s Higgins has the lion’s share, and he handled it all quite confidently. Viola has the task of both speaking and singing in multiple accents over the course of the show, and it was fun to hear how she transformed her voice from an obnoxious, ignorant flower girl into a classy, self-assured woman. The live band led by Xan Jeffery is a welcome addition for this show as well. Again, the sound quality was great and there was never a time when the words were drowned out.

Covedale’s My Fair Lady is impressive beyond the cast and how eloquently they speak and sing. Brett Bowling’s set is his best work of the year. The pieces and flats that take the audience to the streets of Edwardian London look almost like 3D pencil sketches. They give the stage a storybook feel, and it helps focus attention on the actors. There’s a great contrast when we travel inside the home of Henry Higgins. Two of the side set pieces rotate and the flats slide open to reveal a more detail-oriented space. From the extensive bookshelves to the complicated, practically steampunk-style audio equipment, it’s like stepping inside Higgins’ head. Another rotation and the addition of some trellises turn the stage into opening day at the Ascot Gavotte. The set for the embassy ball at the end of Act I isn’t extremely opulent, but one of the rotating set pieces has a staircase that impressively slides out and into place for Eliza to descend and command the room.

Also to be praised is the costume work by Caren Young and Heather McKernan. The tan suit that Higgins wears for most of the show is spot on. Eliza’s flower girl dress is obviously reminiscent of what Audrey Hepburn wore in the film, and her dress at the Ascot is stunning. The ensemble cast has to switch looks from poor laborers to butlers and maids to high society, and none of their looks ever felt out of place.

There was no one in the audience left wanting by the end. This production is sponsored by Arnold and Mary Jo Barnett, and they were in attendance on opening night. Within seconds of the start of curtain call, they were both on their feet, and the rest of the audience soon followed. I’ve spent the 2017 season sitting next to the same group of three ladies, regular season ticket holders. They all agreed that Covedale saved the best for last.

My Fair Lady plays Thursdays through Sundays until May 21. Tickets are available by calling 513-241-6550 or going to the Covedale website, www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/ccpa

Sound and Fury are Part of Listening for the Light at Know Theatre

Review by Ken Stern of Listen for the Light: Know Theatre

What’s more improbable than history, the actual lives lived in the past? Who would believe a story of a visiting angel telling a man to dig up gold plates that have holy text inscribed on them and creating a whole new religion from that? That is the truth Mormons tell of Joseph Smith and his starting their religious movement.

It is hard to believe that Joseph Smith would embrace an escaped slave, invite him to be one of his 17 apostles and make him a trusted adviser. That is not historical. It is the tale Kara Lee Corthron spins in her play, Listen for the Light, playing at the Know Theatre through May 13.

See this world premiere production and admire the strong acting talent Cincinnati theatres have nourished. Outstanding performances are delivered by Darnell Pierre Benjamin as Eli, Josh Katawick as Joseph, and Tess Talbot as Lula. The three are an ensemble cast, and each play multiple roles, but they shine as their main characters. Tamara Winter deserves credit for her direction. She does much more than keep the cast in motion.

Eli is an escaped slave in the Frederick Douglass mold: smart, thoughtful, religious, ethical, striving for justice, and burdened by the personal tragedy of the deaths of his wife and daughter, who died on their journey north. His is a quiet power, expressed in facial expressions and gestures.

Katawick’s Smith has a fierce integrity, even as he questions his own faith and wonders if he is a prophet or a fraud. Like Benjamin, Katawick twists up his face as he looks skyward, imploring God. His is a more explosive and spirited performance, but it is always authentic to the character portrayed.

Talbot’s Lula, a 17 year old pioneer daughter, is an animated, quick talking, wear-her-heart-and-her-head-on-her sleeve virgin. Tapped by Smith to be his 43rd wife, Smith has entrusted her to Eli’s care until the spirit of the lord moves in her to accept Smith’s proposal. But while the backwoods teen is illiterate, she has as much integrity as her fellow protagonists. She is truly waiting for God’s voice to tell her He wants her to be Smith’s bride. And the voice doesn’t come. Not in Act I.

The action takes place in and around a sturdy, well planked interior of a log cabin, alternatively Eli’s home and the town store. Pegs adorn the walls from which costume changes hang. This seems shoehorned into the left half of the stage. The right half is open, the back wall serving as a screen for grainy black and white film clips that match the scene. These clips are as varied as Eli’s baby and a wolf in the wild. (Doug Borntrager designed sound and video.)

While Lula awaits word from above, the people of Nauvoo, Illinois are about to run the Mormons out of town. Smith catalyzes this action by ordering his followers to destroy a printing press and torch the building. That fire washes over the audience, courtesy of Andrew Hungerford’s usual stellar lighting design. Smith eventually is taken to jail, a death sentence when a mob breaks in. The blood appearing on his shirt is a great touch made possible by designers Sarah Beth Hall (scenic and prop design) and Noelle Wedig (costume design).

This all sounds serious, and is, but there are plenty of opportunities to laugh. Among the many minor characters are two of Smith’s wives, played by Benjamn and Katawick. Their head-to-toe brown cloaks, heads covered by bonnets, cannot hide their height or maleness. Their appearances prime the audience to smile, which is coached into laughter by the wives’ conversations and caricature actions. Playwright Corthron may need to rethink the balance of breaking tension with distracting attention from the plot.

But credit Corthron for weaving miracles into the script and the design team for creating the expanding light and swirling smoke, which pulls Lula out of the cabin, making the miracle real. That is only one of the production’s miracles. But this story, which is religious for each of its main characters in ways uniquely authentic to each, has Eli saved from a dire fate saved by a less obvious miracle.

In a flashback near the end, Smith baptizes Eli, and, symbolically, his wife and daughter, telling Eli “They’re saved. And so are you. [a pause] You don’t believe me.” Eli’s reply: “I trust no man.” And Joseph’s response: “Trust God. If I give you nothing else in this life, I want to give you hope.”

The real Joseph Smith’s creation of a religious movement must have come from his ability to give people hope even as he spun tales of angels and buried golden tablets. Corthron is true to that version of the Mormon founder. Her characters, like real people are battered. They also hold on to hope. The entire cast and production crew is true to the vision presented in this world premiere.

The show continues through May 13, Wednesdays through Sundays (matinee performances), A pre-show brunch is an option on April 30th. Tickets can be purchased at 513-300-KNOW or knowtheatre.org.

CCM‘s Very Dumb Kids Are Brilliant

Review by Alan Jozwiak of Very Dumb Kids: CCM Acting

Friends gathered over the Fourth of July weekend. It is a time when relationships are tested, secrets revealed, and decisions made. This particular holiday weekend has been the backdrop for many plays, such as Terrance McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Lanford Wilson’s Talley Trilogy.

A Fourth of July weekend spent in an old farmhouse in western Massachusetts is the setting for a bold new venture from CCM Acting (formerly CCM Drama), New York playwright Gracie Gardner’s Very Dumb Kids.

Specifically commissioned for CCM Acting (the first such commission by CCM Acting), this play had a workshop production last year around this time in which a very different version of the script was presented. Much to Gardner’s credit, she did a major script overhaul by streamlining dialogue and rearranging scenes to make it easier to follow the progression of the different characters.

Very Dumb Kids follows a group of twenty-something friends recently graduated from college who deal with the death of their friend Sarah (Lauren Carter), who dies unexpectedly while on a mission trip to Libya. Left to pick up the pieces are her friends, the mourning Phoebe (Jacqueline Daaleman), her absent boyfriend Austin (Isaac Hickson-Young), and an assorted cast of characters who deal with the death in different ways.

As befits an ensemble piece, all the actors did an outstanding job working off of each other and acting like they’ve been friends for years—which they have been, since they have been in CCM classes and shows together for years.

Jacqueline Daaleman played the part of the needy and neurotic Phoebe to perfection, who is devastated by the loss of her close friend Sarah. Lauren Carter was strong as both Sarah and Carrie, the “very dumb kid” killed in Libya and the girl Sarah’s boyfriend Austin becomes engaged to after Sarah’s death. Also strong was Carter Lacava as Peter, the hapless and eye-infected Latin teacher, and Nicholas Heffelfinger as Nolan, the opportunist trying to hit up his friends for money to fund his app.

Director Brant Russell does a fine job guiding the actors through the overlapping dialogue and missed opportunities which these characters continually find themselves in.

Russell did an especially fine job with the opening scene in which all the actors are speaking at different times over the dining room table. It was a bit of a challenge to figure out relationships, but that was the point behind Gardner’s overlapping dialogue (an earlier draft was written on an Excel spreadsheet to keep straight when actors were supposed to overlap their lines). Russell turns this seeming cachophony into coherence—a pretty mean feat.

The scenic designer, CCM student Karly Hasselfeld, created a compelling set of rooms which function as the front rooms and bedrooms of the farm house. The combination of faded weather-beaten décor acted as the perfect backdrop for what happens onstage.

Overall, Very Dumb Kids was an enjoyable evening of theater. My only complaint was its length. Running at 1 hour 45 minutes, it felt like it could have had an intermission without losing any of its momentum. A special treat was that the playwright herself was present at the opening performance Thursday evening and had a talkback after that performance.

For more information on CCM Acting, go to http://CCM.uc.edu/theatre/drama.html. and You can find information on next season’s CCM Acting productions, as well as other information related to the program.

NKU‘s Human Services Skewers Our Fetish with Fame

Review by Doug Iden of Human Services: NKU Year End Series

The Y.E.S. (Year End Series) Festival continued at NKU with the world premiere presentation of Tom Baum’s Human Services. Alternating with the other YES Festival participant Unfrozen, Human Services tells the story of a spoiled, shallow female rock star Kelsey (played by Madison Pullins) who is arrested for drug possession and sent to a rehabilitation clinic.

The play opens with a phone dialogue between Kelsey and Momma (Alexa Fangman) and we find out quickly why Kelsey is a hedonistic brat–because her mother is the same. Exchanging insipid air kisses and sophomoric declarations of love, Momma basks in her role as the archetypal stage mother who is infatuated with fame, glory, self-aggrandizement and money.

Presented In the intimate Strauss Theater at NKU, the play castigates the obsession which society has with celebrities. In the absence of “royalty”, we deify air-head Barbie dolls who can’t sing a note outside of a recording studio. But the story is also about maturation and redemption, at least on the part of Kelsey.

When our egotistical rock star arrives at Aspiration House, she is greeted by an ensemble of recovering eccentrics including a transvestite (Daisy, played by Jacob Miller), a woman who sees aliens behind every bush (Carmen, portrayed by Emily Tortorella) and Baxter (Brandon Critchfield), a homeless man who may yet be savable. I would describe this play as a “dramedy” since there is significant campy, satiric comedy overlaying some very serious content. But, above all, it is the story of relationships and how, eventually, most of the characters work together to try to improve themselves and their situations.

Leading the ensemble rehab group is Jacob Miller as the ebullient transvestite, Daisy, who steals virtually every scene they are in. Daisy is an outrageous but kind-hearted soul who mentors Kelsey and tries to steer her though the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the center and with her fellow eccentrics. Daisy can also be jealous, however, and reacts strongly to her perception of unwanted attention shown by others towards Kelsey. Also effective in a mostly comedic role is Emily Tortorella as Carmen, who has a hilarious scene when she mistakes some bug exterminators dressed in decontamination suits as alien spacemen. Critchfield imbues Baxter with a level of sanity and dignity and shows the potential for real recovery. His equanimity contrasts with the craziness surrounding him. As polar opposites of the inmates, Kearston Hawkins-Johnson plays the institution’s boss as imperious and officious, while her chief psychiatrist Rachel (Emily Borst) is rather naïve but is genuinely trying to help her clients. A latecomer, Wyatt (Matt Dreyer), plays a significant role in the story. And did I mention that there is a stalker?

Another target of Baum’s derision is the paparazzi who try to invade Kelsey’s privacy, first at home and then in the rehab facility. Playing a bit like two of the Three Stooges, Milo (Matt Nassida) and Roman (Landis Helwig) assume various guises (including cops and the above mentioned exterminators) in their quest to get pictures and dirt for the publicity crazed media.

But the story would not work without the believable transition of Kelsey from narcissist to a caring and involved person. Interestingly, that transition is manifested by a role reversal with her mother when Kelsey becomes the parent and Momma the child. Kelsey also, in secret, provides both Baxter and Daisy with the financial opportunities to succeed. Pullins does the transition admirably.

One caution is that play is replete with raw language which, at times, seems gratuitous.

Director Michael Hatton controls the insanity and choreographs the rapid entrances and exits well in the small theater space. The costumes (Margo Birdwhistell) are appropriate for the characters including button-down suits for the professional women and a series of dresses for the tall, statuesque Daisy (Miller). Despite an early glitch which required a re-start of the play, the lighting and graphics (William Milligan) effectively showed a transition on the one-set stage designed by Kaitlin Findley.

Human Services with its counterpart Unfrozen continue at NKU through April 30.

Listen for the Light Shines at Know Theatre

Review by Sheldon Polonsky of Listen for the Light: Know Theatre

In Roger Miller’s Big River, a wonderful musical adaptation of Huckleberry Finn, there is a song that permeates the production: “Waitin’ for the Light to Shine,” in which Huck sings, in his own simple way, about trying to find his personal spiritual and moral enlightenment. As I watched the thought-provoking world premiere of playwright Kara Lee Corthron’s Listen For the Light, now playing at the Know Theatre, I could not get that song out of my head, nor avoid thinking about the many associations the play has with with Huckleberry Finn. That her play evokes the same spirit and authenticity as Twain’s American classic is only to its credit.

Like Huckleberry Finn, Listen for the Light takes place in the pre-Civil War American midwest–a Mormon enclave in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844. Its three main characters, each in their own way, are also “waiting for the light to shine”. Lula, age seventeen, has been selected to be the 44th wife of “the Prophet”, Mormon founder Joseph Smith, but has her doubts and is separated from the community by Smith and forced to pray until she gets a sign from God and willingly accepts the marriage. Like Huck, Lulu is uneducated, unspoiled and unfiltered, and her natural moral understanding allows her to spot the fallacies and facades of organized religion a mile away. Smith selects Eli to be her temporary guard, who like Twain’s Jim is a runaway slave, but, unlike Jim, is erudite and talented both in education and carpentry. Although they are worlds apart, Eli and Lulu gain a mutual respect, understanding, and affection. Eli, however, is waiting for his own revelation, both to ease the torment of the memories of his dead wife and daughter, and to find some way to bring moral clarity to the country in the form of abolition. Finally, there is Joseph Smith himself, embodying Twain’s King and Duke, who despite some good intentions recognizes that he is at heart a charismatic charlatan, desperate for attention, and freely admits to himself that his many wives are a reflection of his own carnal failings (an “affliction”) and not a sacrament. He, too, is waiting for the light, hoping to receive a true sign from God justifying his work which has been withheld up to now despite his pretensions.

These three characters are luminously portrayed by three veterans of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and the Ensemble Theatre. Tess Talbot perfectly captures Lulu’s exuberance and tempestuousness early on as well as her more tamed spirit in the second act. Darnell Pierre Benjamin, always a consistent Cincinnati artist, is equally compelling as Eli, whose well-controlled emotions mask a storm of self-doubt and anger below. Finally, there is Josh Katawick, as Joseph Smith, who has perhaps the heaviest burden to carry: a deeply flawed character who must nonetheless command some measure of the audience’s respect and empathy. He does so with consummate skill and confidence. The trio are ably backed up by Tamara Winters’ tight direction, an effective scenic design by Sarah Beth Hall, evocative costuming by Noelle Johnson, and intricate, subtle lighting and sound design by Andrew J. Hungerford and Doug Borntrager, respectively.

Kara Lee Corthron’s script is at its best when it focuses on the thoughtful, authentic dialogue between the three main characters and their provocative self-reflection. Some additional theatrical devices were used which were, in my opinion, somewhat less effective. In addition to their main characters, each of the actors plays several other minor roles in some scenes. Often these were somewhat confusing, or at the very least distracting, and did not always seem essential to advancing the plot. For example, in a few scenes Benjamin and Katawick play two other of Smith’s wives, and while amusing, broke the mood for me. If the other characters were absolutely necessary, I would have preferred some additional cast members playing the roles. Another device used by the play was a large video screen behind the action, which at times depicted props which were otherwise pantomimed by the actors (for example, a newspaper, a book, or a chair) and at other times displayed their imagination (Eli’s vision of what his daughter would look like now, or Lula’s fantasy of shooting a deer). I suppose the effect was meant to emphasize the idea that our perception shapes our reality. The videos (also created by Doug Borntrager) were certainly well-designed and eye-catching, but again, to me, detracted from the overall more genuine experience I was feeling. Other pyrotechnics used later in the production also seemed somewhat contrived and unnecessary.

My son, who was with me, commented after the show that he saw Joseph Smith’s arrogance, his self-serving twisting of history and religious doctrine, and the Mormons’ relentless migration west to be a microcosm of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism, with all their negative connotations and repercussions. I suppose in some ways that analysis is justified. But then I thought about Huckleberry Finn again, and reflected that Twain’s and Corthron’s shared vision is more positive than that. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to reveal that all three characters–even Joseph Smith–achieve some measure of redemption and revelation, both figurative and literal, by the end of the play. Fundamentally the message I took away from the play is that the American experience promises that, despite all our acknowledged flaws and moral failings, our idealism somehow still manages to find opportunities for hope, understanding, tolerance and enlightenment. I look forward to experience more of Corthron’s vision in the future and I am grateful for the Know Theatre for letting me share in this one.

Listen for the Light continues through May 13. Tickets can be purchased at 513-300-KNOW or knowtheatre.org.

Listen for the Light, World Premiere at Know, is a Story of Transformation

Review by Liz Eichler of Listen for the Light: Know Theatre

Listen for the Light by Kara Lee Corthron is loosely based on stories surrounding the history of the Mormon religion, including a character based on Elijah Abel, a documented freeman, carpenter, and Mormon convert who lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1840’s. The production at Know Theatre is not designed to be a documentary, but it is a fearless modern telling of the conflict of religion, race, and women’s rights, and how dissimilar people can connect and positively influence others, despite their flaws. This play intrigued me, encouraging me to do more research on this often-misunderstood religion.

The three actors portray at least 10 characters, which “adds to the theatricality” of the piece according to author Corthron, who happened to be sitting next to me during the world premiere performance Friday at Know Theatre. Originally designed to be 7 actors, she considered a smaller cast and liked the results. The play is ably directed by Tamara Winters, Know’s Associate Artistic Director.

The performances of all three actors (Darnell Pierre Benjamin, Josh Katawick, and Tess Talbot) are worth more than the ticket price. They embody three main characters: freeman Eli, Joseph Smith himself, founder and prophet of the Mormon religion, to his newest young bride, Lula. The three also embody other characters without gender or racial constraints. It is that process that is so incredible to watch. When Tess Talbot removes her hat and replaces her skirt, you witness a physical transformation, like watching a butterfly break from the cocoon and back again, fast forwarding and reversing. Talbot’s character Lula is a sweet country girl, fidgeting, pacing, and restless to be free, confined in the cabin to pray and contemplate whether she’s been called to be Smith’s 44th wife (not a typo). She is guarded by stoic carpenter Eli (Benjamin) and develops a warm regard for him over her two-month captivity. He eventually shares his story with her, and in a more modern time, this may have been a love story. His race would make that unthinkable in the 1840’s. Eli’s motto “good is good, bad is bad” does not hold true for a man of his color, but he clings to his belief that God is good and he will receive his reward with Him in heaven. Katawick delivers a complex and admirable performance as Joseph Smith. We see his magnetism, and we see his failings. A man with no book smarts raising to such heights based on confidence, or as Eli says “I understand that your will is too strong to be anything else but right.” Imagine.

The scenery design (Sarah Beth Hall) supports this performance, as it is a wooden cage, holding in the characters, and keeping some unsavory characters out. It allows us to see transformations. The lighting (Andrew J. Hungerford) and projections (Doug Borntrager) are a powerful force here, in fact another character all together. The musical interludes are “recomposed” by Borntrager, making it modern but familiar.

You will be moved by this play. Although the first act is stronger than the second, and not all of the monologues are successful, there is a lot of humor which keeps you interested in these characters. It also encourages contemplation of the boxes or cages in which many of us find ourselves–religious, gender, political or racial beliefs of our own or others. It forced me to research the characters and Mormonism in the US, and check in with a Mormon friend, who has been a testament to the strength of the religion for supporting clean living and strong family values. The author said she was inspired by the book Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, which explores the extremists in the LDS faith. I’m not certain how well this will play with Mormons, as it focuses on Joseph Smith the flawed man, not the inspirational prophet and leader, but for people who are interested in a story of transformation, and want encouragement of how far we have come, it is inspiring. The show continues through May 13. Tickets can be purchased at 513-300-KNOW or knowtheatre.org.