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.

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.

Unfrozen, at NKU‘s Y.E.S., Will Melt Your Heart

Review by Doug Iden of Unfrozen: N.K.U Year End Series

NKU’s bi-annual Y.E.S. (Year End Series) Festival opened with the world premiere of Mark Eisman’s play Unfrozen. The play is a somewhat whimsical view of a family obsessed with competitive figure skating told from the viewpoint of the youngest daughter who can’t stay upright on the ice. Obviously, this can lead to familial distress, exacerbated when Michelle (played beguilingly by freshman Catherine Young) discovers her true strength – Latin. Under the tutelage of her Latin teacher Mr. Pullman (Kevin Birdwhistell), Michelle is teamed with fellow student Joel (enthusiastically portrayed by Cale Wheeler) as a two-person Latin team which will eventually compete in a major competition. A major metaphor is the fact that Latin is a dead language which almost no one studies any more.

One issue with the play, however, is that, through a combination of under-spoken and unmiked actors and significant laughter from the predominately NKU student audience, it was difficult to understand some of the dialogue, and I failed to catch some of the characters’ names, so I apologize ahead if I have misidentified any of the characters. The level of enunciation was excellent for some of the actors but inadequate for others. This is, basically, a funny play, but I’m sure that I missed some of the comedy.

To continue, Michelle feels somewhat rejected by her ice skating obsessed family and moves in with Joel’s family, led by parents who have an enormous collection of decorative plates, under the impression that they are accumulating a fortune in collectibles. Father has quit his job as a teacher of Esperanto (another dead language) due to lack of interest by students and is now fully employed trying to promote his plate-centric avocation. Michelle has moved from one dysfunctional surreal family to another.

In her own family, Michelle’s divorced mother is tutoring her other two children (as first a “pairs” couple and then an ice dancing group) and another girl, whom Michelle dubs “Princess Margaret (Ashley Martin), with little success. Her ex-husband Victor (Ray Dzhorgov) has returned to Russia after a lackluster skating career with his ex-wife. The emphasis on skating (to the detriment of their ongoing education) is creating a dead-end environment for the entire family.

Even though the above description may seem overly dramatic, the play unfolds in a charmingly light-hearted manner due to a combination of excellent, almost screwball comedy dialogue and sparse but clever staging. Because of the ice skating motif, the stage appears to be a giant rink with many of the actors simulating a skating shuffle while dancing around the area. Impressionistic mountains in the back add to the illusion. Scenes moving from Michelle’s home to the school to Joel’s home are all accomplished by changing the spotlight, moving some furniture and lowering some props or signage from the ceiling, all designed by Ronald Shaw. “Movement” was created by Margie Wiemann which is an unusual but appropriate title since there is a cross between simulated choreography and real dancing by the ice skating groups.

I was intrigued by the sometimes gentle, sometimes pointed spoof of competitive figure skating. Ashley Martin does a nice job of portraying the (deliberately) stereotypical skating diva with emphasis on makeup, hair and wardrobe. In one cute scene, Michelle must remove her normal teenage clothes because the closet is filled with dozens of glitzy, outrageous skating costumes designed by Rachel Alford. Overall, the direction by Mike King was very clever with the caveat about the actors’ enunciation. Another interesting touch was Michelle’s ongoing dream about being in Antarctica with a human-sized penguin (Erin Reynolds). Joel insists that he is the penguin that Michelle is dreaming about. Other members of the ensemble include McKenzie Reese (Teresa), Trase Milburn (Ben), Natalie Bellamy (Liz) and Chloe Price (Barbie).

But the play is carried by Catherine Young’s depiction of Michelle. It is constructed with a lot of dialogue directed at the audience which seems to be the trend lately. Young is bright, energetic, outgoing and a sheer delight who has crafted a character in keeping with the whimsical nature of the play.

Unfrozen (which has multiple meanings in the play) is alternating with Human Services throughout the Y.E.S Festival at NKU.

Miami’s Wild Party is One You Need to Go To

Review by Ken Stern of The Wild Party: Miami University

The Wild Party is going on this weekend and next up at Miami University’s Gates-Abegglen Theatre in Oxford. If you like a swinging good time, boarding on debauchery, and insist on live music, dance, singing, and fisticuffs at your parties, then go. You won’t be able to crash this party, but you can probably get a great seat to watch it up close. Do so.

If you enjoyed the excesses depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street, you will love The Wild Party. Set in the 1920s, the story’s origin is a 1928 book length poem written by Joseph Moncure March, an American poet, journalist, and screenwriter. (Fun fact: the poem was banned in Boston because of its salacious content.) Its characters are vaudeville actors and their friends: other entertainers: clowns, dancers, boxers, and assorted followers, and hookers, Sometimes a party is just a party: the plot is entirely personal, about relationships and what to do when facing up to one that long ago went bad.

Andrew Lippa’s musical, first workshopped in 1997, is a jazz opera, offering 50 songs. It is almost entirely sung, and much of the cast’s movement is dance (wonderfully choreographed by Jay Goodlett, with a great fight scene choreographed by John Baca).

Queenie (freshman Abby Chafe, with a strong voice as well as stage presence) stands out from the opening curtain; the six ensemble cast members are dressed in gray and black but he is wearing white, with pink accents and a pink scarf. The opening song is hers. We learn that “That she liked her lovers violent. / And she likes her lovers vicious. / But until she found the one man / Who could answer all her wishes.”

Enter Burrs, halfway through the song. They are a pair, made for each other, he singing: “He was mean and rough . . . . / They likes him / tough.” Jeremiah Plessinger’s Burrs is a terrific singer, dancer, and actor, and lover. Alas, relationships are more than all about sex. After a couple years, a near rape turns into a defense with a kitchen knife. Maybe the only way to keep the two together is to throw a party to end all parties.

So they do, Queenie and the ensemble singing “Let’s raise the roof! / Let’s call the shots / Let’s roll the dice.” Maybe Mr. Right will come in, sweep her off her feet, and take her away. But love is complex, and while Burrs is an abuser, Queenie is no angel, and they have years of having made their relationship theirs. Even as relationships go bad, there is ambivalence.

But the handsome Mr. Black (great acting and singing by Brenton Sullivan) might be as good at heart as he is in looks. Kate (Alisha Bond, another great voice, with a comic acting touch) brought Black, but having started out as a hooker, she shows she’s not quite retired. As Queenie is attracted to Black, Kate gravitates toward Burrs. There are duets, and the four singing together, or countering each other, polyphonically (Stephen Lytle, music director).

The action is primarily sung, and danced, with the ensemble cast on stage and moving in dance most of the time. Sometimes they are comatose, on the floor, but they manage to snap fingers in unison, or raise an arm and move a hand in that 1920s flapper wave.

Restless, the four leads make use of the entire stage. The set before the curtain looks like the front of a vaudeville theatre, with walls of posters and a giant board announcing The Wild Party, with writing credits. That board is raised to reveal Queenie’s and Burr’s apartment’s bedroom and bathroom. Once the party starts the front of the stage becomes their living room, with a divan, and kitchen, with a small table. The ensemble, too, moves about, as people do at a party (Ed Cohen ably directed this swirling mass with Gion DeFrancesco, scenic designer and scene shop foreman, Tom Featherstone).

A couple of times character actors get solos or duets. Madelaine sings “An Old-Fashioned Love Story,” about her lesbian desires, thwarted every time. Melissa Rowan’s Madelaine has a strong voice and stage presence, with an ironic comic touch. Remy Willlocks also deserves a shout-out for a smarvelous olo dance number in the second act.

Eddie (Daniel True-Omait), the boxer, and his wife Mae (Cassidy Steele, with a unique high pitched, what might be the classical flapper, voice) stand out in their number, as do brothers Oscar (George Swarn) and Phil (Michael Smith). These two are dressed in red striped suit coats over argyle sweater vests. The theatre department accomplishes its usual great costuming, led by costume designer Melanie Mortimore, with support by production manager Melanie Mortimore and producer Julia Guichard.

The production is the theatre department’s annual big spring musical. The cast of 18 is supported by an eight piece music ensemble. Curtain is at 730 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with Sunday matinees on the 23rd and 30th. For tickets, call 513-529-3200, email boxoffice@miamioh.edu or click on this link.

Equus at the Incline: Fury, Rage, Worship, and Love Are Closely Intertwined

Review by Ken Stern of Equus: Incline Theatre

Is the primary human story that of parents and children? And is love—and trust—life’s primary motive? So when your dad is a socialist, and an atheist, and your mom is a devout Christian, and each suppresses criticism and conflict while voicing their beliefs, of course their only son is confused, and also leading a lonely life.

More then confused, actually, in Peter Schafer’s Equus, playing through April 23rd at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater. Before the curtain rises teenager Alan Strange (Christopher Carter) blinded six horses at the English stable be works at on weekends. Alan loves horses, had a horse poster on his bedroom wall for years, so why? What is the root cause of his horrific act?

Alan has been brought to a psychiatric hospital and Dr. Martin Dysart (Michael Hall, who is, like Carter, on stage for almost the entire play) by court magistrate Hester (Leslie Rae Slaugh). Will the psychiatrist get through to the initially silent and intransigent teen?

This is a heady, serious, and intense subject, not the least because sex, and full nudity, is also an issue. It is hard being a teenager, even in a functional loving family. Alan’s parents (Martha Slater as the mother as committed to her fury as her son and Rory Sheridan as the inflexible father) quietly and consistently don’t get along, and are rigid and unrelenting in their radically different world views. They impose on, rather than nurture their child. The result, here, is that Alan has snapped, rather then being bent to either’s will.

Much of Alan’s history is acted out as flashback, Alan on stage acting out what he has revealed to the doctor during their sessions. We see Alan’s first, excited, enthusiastic, encounter with a horse at age six, while on a holiday at the beach. His ride on the horse (wonderfully scripted, the rider becoming the horse as Alan climbs on his shoulders) ends with the dad pulling Alan down to the ground with an angry and class-based reaction: “Upper class riff-raff. . . .trampl[ing] on ordinary people!” But it is Alan who is traumatized.

Dysert narrates his own backstory, when he is not sharing incidents from his own loveless marriage with Hester (Slaugh’s character is written in two dimensions, though she gamely acts on, a catalyst for Dysert’s ruminations). A scorecard is needed to track characters’ disappointments in relationships and the obsessive interests they seek to substitute. Dysert is a bit of a ring-master and one man Greek Chorus. Director Greg Procaccino moves him around the set, peering into Alan’s hospital room, observing Alan and Jill in the movie theatre (a well done scene, Jill putting her hand on Alan’s knee), and watching Alan and Jill making love in the stable.

Jill (Hannah Gregory, in a perky performance), has the most joyful role. A teenager also employed at the stable, she helped Alan get his job there, and entangles herself romantically with him. But Jill is not Alan’s first love. Worship and relationships are at the heart of the play. Alan is mixed up as well as mesmerized by horses, his mother’s messages and Bible passages she fed him as a child, now mangled into a personal cult religion. Christopher Carter’s Alan moves from silent to morose, mostly angry, always lonely, and finally, tentatively, reaching for help from both the doctor and Jill.

Pay close attention to the words, as well as the actions of the play. The Doctor is a bit of a philosopher and religious critic and a troubled soul himself. There are no easy answers or solutions to the pain of life. Listen to him grapple with his options for Alan’s “cure” in the last scene.

The supporting cast has character roles, well supporting the play, even if bordering on caricature. Angela Alexander Nalley at the burly Nurse is definitely in charge of her ward. Jim Stump is terrifically costumed and certainly authentic as the roly-poly Dalton, the stable owner.

Peter Cutler is primarily the horse, Nugget, but transforms from horseman to horse in the scene on the beach with the six year old Alan. His horseness is underplayed, his costuming being something between a wig and a mophead as his horse’s mane, a decision made by the production team, which included Steven Ducker, production stage manager and Carissa Gandenberger, stage manager. The set, wood framing, alternates between rooms at the psychiatric hospital and the horse stable.

Peter Shaffer’s Equus won the 1975 Tony Award for best Play.

The production runs through April 23rd with evening performances and a matinee, only, on Sunday. For tickets, call 513-241-6550 or go to www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com. The Warsaw Federal Incline Theater is at 801 Matson Place Cincinnati Ohio 45204.

Enjoy Your Visit On Golden Pond

Review by Liz Eichler of On Golden Pond: Human Race Theatre

Kaleb Barlow and Joneal Joplin in ON GOLDEN POND at Human Race Theatre, Dayton. PC: Scott J. Kimmins

On Golden Pond, produced by the Human Race Theatre Company, is simple and warm as the setting sun, keeping a smile on your face.

On Golden Pond, by Ernest Thompson, was written in 1979, and is still a relevant meditation on the realities of aging: the teen years, the middle years, and the twilight years. It is the story of Ethel and Norman Thayer, their life-long relationship with the lake, and Norman’s distant relationship with his daughter, who visits with her fiancé, his young son, and the chip on her shoulder she’s been nursing for years.

Is there someone like any of these characters in your family? Norman (Joneal Joplin) is the authoritarian father—not Daddy—who’s gruff manner has scared more than one suitor from the house, but underneath that is really a sweet man. Ethel (Dale Hodges) is the mom who has been torn by her allegiance to her husband and a child, both she dotes on, but neither ever seeing eye to eye. Chelsea (Jennifer Joplin, Joneal’s real life daughter) is the daughter who is a capable adult everywhere but in her childhood home, who has lived most of her life feeling she disappointed her father for not being a son. Charlie Martin (Charlie Clark) is the sweet but odd guy who still lives in the hometown, always reminding you of your youth. Bill Ray (Ken Early) is the daughter’s new man, awkwardly butting heads with his grown girlfriend’s father, as that father enjoys the game of “jerking him around.”

As expected, all the leading characters are masters at their art of acting. There are over 120 years of experience among them. However, the brightest spots in this warm and genuine show are the scenes with newcomer Kaleb Barlow, as Bill’s young son, Billy Ray. With great timing, presence and diction, Barlow is charming. This Stivers School for the Arts student has found the balance which makes him a believable dentist’s son from LA—smart, polite, curious, but with some street cred. You can see why his character lights up Norman, and they thoroughly enjoy their time together—as does the audience.

The setting is a spectacular lake house, designed by Mark Halpin of UC’s College Conservatory of Music. It has a “charming ambience” with solid beams, a fieldstone fireplace, ample plaid couch, rag rugs, window cranks, and fishing gear as décor. It will make you crave a vacation, and listen for the loons.

Director Richard Hess, also from UC’s CCM, uses the space well, and guides us along on this journey, “a love letter to love, to longevity in marriage.” The show runs through April 23. For tickets visit humanracetheatre.org or call 937-228-3630.

Clifton’s Latest Dark Comedy is the Small Engine that Could

Review by Lissa Gapultos of Small Engine Repair: Clifton Players

he setting of Clifton Performance Theatre’s Small Engine Repair is Frank’s repair shop, which encompasses nearly the entire space of the performance space. Dressed with authenticity – a work bench, steel shelving that contains various mechanical tools, a refrigerator with random magnets– the set also it also has certain tidiness about it. Frank wanders around and through the set during the pre-show, going about closing his shop for the day.

Frank has deceptively summoned his long-time friends Packie and Swaino to his shop after hours. We learn that Frank has raised a daughter on his own after his girlfriend left. Nathan Neorr portrays Frank as a humble, responsible working man with nervous energy, and a great love for his daughter Chrystal. He seems to be the neutral calming force of the three friends.

Packie is the first to arrive, and boy, does he make his presence known. Charlie Roetting’s blustering entrance is a mixture of urgency, concern and the lament of missing a game. Packie is the tech nerd who lives in his grandmother’s basement; unemployed and unambitious, except with regard to technology and social media. Roetting plays him with over-the-top energy and comic simplicity. There’s no doubt that Packie is diehard Boston sports fan, as Roetting gives a vivid and passionate recollection of a legendary baseball game from 1986.

Swaino is the suave “ladies love me” guy of the group. He and Packie have been out of sorts after a seemingly petty disagreement over a cough drop. Swaino dishes out a steady stream of bitter snark just for Packie. Actor Carter Bratton exudes arrogance, condescension, and vanity as Swaino — easy to resent and fascinating to watch.

The trio’s bromantic and alcohol-fueled revelry is interrupted by the arrival of Chad, an Ivy League frat boy that Frank has befriended through basketball. Actor Rupert Spraul plays Chad as laid back and confident. His is a privileged life, and he clearly knows he will always have the upper hand. Chad has very little in common with the three friends, and yet he has no qualms about being out of his element.

The energy ramps up to disturbing and dark level that suddenly throws everything askew, and begs the question: what is the essence of this play? The undying bond of friendship? The follies of youth? Class inequality? Or simply, men behaving badly who finally realize they need to grow up? John Pollono’s script simply ends in a weird and unsatisfying way. Director Jared Doren (who also designed the life-life set) gives his versatile actors effective guidance which results in steady and convincing delivery from all of them – anything from big and bombastic fits of masculinity to pensive moments of reflection about family and the good times of past.

If you enjoy your comedy dark (and this play is very dark) with generous amounts of crude behavior and offensive language, then this cast will take you into the proverbial man-cave in both entertaining and devastating ways. Otherwise, consider this a warning.

Clifton Players’ Small Engine Repair plays at 404 Ludlow Avenue until April 15. For tickets go (quickly) to https://cpt.cincyregister.com/smallenginerepair or call 513.813.SHOW (7469).

Engage your Mind at Incline’s Provocative Equus

Review by Laurel Humes of Equus: Incline Theatre

Be sure to take a thinking person with you to Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre’s production of Equus. You are going to want to discuss this play!

The premise is established early: A 17-year-old boy has blinded six horses with a metal stake. But this is not a random act of cruelty. The play – and Incline’s compelling production – is devoted to psychiatric digging into why he did it.

The play unfolds in acted-out flashback scenes during sessions
between psychiatrist Dr. Dysart (Michael Douglas Hall) and Alan (Christopher Carter). The nondescript boy is the only child of wildly diverse parents. Mother (Martha Slater) is deeply religious and indulgent to Alan. Father (Rory Sheridan) is atheist and a rigid disciplinarian.

Each parent contributes to the story line in their own revelations to Dr. Dysart. But, in a standout scene from Slater, they refuse to take responsibility.

We know what you’re thinking, she tells Dr. Dysart, “whatever happened is our fault. It’s not our fault. It’s the devil,” inside her son.

At the same time, Dr. Dysart is struggling with his own internal demons: professional doubts, a loveless marriage. As he gets Alan to reveal more and more about his secret near-religious devotion to horses and the events that led to the maiming, the doctor actually expresses envy of the boy.

“He has lived a passion. I’m jealous of him,” Dysart says. Psychiatry can “fix” Alan, but what will be left without passion?

The entire cast of Equus, directed by Greg Procaccino, is excellent. But the show does belong to the duel between Hall’s Dysart and Carter’s Alan, as the doctor works to get past the young patient’s locked-down exterior.

Carter nails the adolescent persona, with a high-pitched, petulant voice and emotional mood swings. He builds his character successfully to the powerful climatic scene.

Hall’s portrayal is equally strong, although limited to the confines of a staid, sometimes grumpy professional. We watch has he, too, builds his character to an understanding of his own unhappiness.

Incline’s Equus set of wooden beams suggests horse stables, and the “horses” wear stylized masks, with all other props imaginary and skillfully mimed. Even so, the climactic scene is made so realistically horrifying with sound effects and lighting that I had to close my eyes.

It must also be mentioned that Equus contains a scene played entirely nude by Carter and romantic interest Jill (a very good Hannah Gregory). The nudity is hardly gratuitous, but essential to the plot.

So: Are horses Alan’s gods? Can false gods lead us to commit horrible acts? Can psychiatry (and psychiatric drugs) make us all ‘normal,’ and at what cost?

Discuss!

Equus continues at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater (Incline District, East Price Hill) through April 23. For tickets, call 513-241-6550 or go to www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com.