LCT Reviews

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THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF AMERICA, ABRIDGED 7/25/15  Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

CSCCompleteHistoryImageQ: “What do you get when you cross three crazy actors and 5,000 years of American history?”

A: “The Complete History of America (Abridged)!”

Ba-dum-bum-CHING!

This production, having its regional premiere at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, is created by the same trio who created the wildly popular “The Complete History of Shakespeare (Abridged).” The basic premise is that there is much to be made fun of with respect to American history—and they deliver many very funny moments.

Having to cover 5,000 years of American history, playwrights Adam Long, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor cover a lot of ground, but leave out some important elements of American history. I was surprised that they did not discuss the Westward expansion and taming of the frontier.  

This show delivers major laughs and the three CSC actors (veterans Justin McCombs and Miranda McGee and newcomer Goeffrey Barnes) are up to the challenge in poking fun at everything in American history, from Amerigo Vespucci’s role in naming the continents of North and South America to a slide show of the Civil War.

            Special praise goes to Justin McCombs, who was outstanding playing a large number of female roles in drag. There is one scene at the end of Act II where he comes on stage playing a seductive Madame Chiang-Kai-Shek that is a showstopper. Coming on stage, McCombs has this exaggerated cross-legged shashay that is completely hysterical.

            Fellow cast members Miranda McGee and Geoffrey Barnes also had their fair share of funny moments. I loved the premise given at the top of the show that McGee needed to do this play as extra credit for her to get her green card. It added more weight to the exploration of American history. Barnes does a very funny imitation of President Obama and shines with being the lead in the film noir review of the last thirty years of history.

            Despite the load of laughs, there were several jokes that fell flat which did not showcase these actors not nearly as well as they should have. I suspect that these problems with be corrected as the actors fine-tune the production over its run.

The Complete History of America (Abridged) is a great summer offering from Cincinnati Shakespeare. I hope that they reprise this play again next year, so that the production can grow to become even funnier the next time out.

 

ONE MAN, TWO GUV’NORS 6/13/15  Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

CSCGuvnorsImageI have been looking forward all year to see the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s regional premier of One Man, Two Guv’nors, after having seen the original version on the London Stage. The play, based on Italian Commedia Dell’Arte with a good dash of vaudeville, Monty Python, and audience participation thrown in, requires tremendous energy and comic flair; as usual, CSC did not disappoint, providing an uproarious production every bit as entertaining as the original. Key to success is a charming and both physically and verbally gifted leading man to play Francis Henshall, our everyman protagonist who juggles the demands of two bosses while simultaneously looking for a good meal and a good…woman. Matthew Lewis Johnson, who wowed theatre-goers last year as Falstaff in CSC’s Henry IV, was perfectly cast and once again demonstrated his impeccable comic timing and connection with the audience. He was backed up by CSC’s outstanding stable of character actors , highlighted by the eternally reliable Justin Combs, Miranda McGee, and especially Jeremy Dubin as the nonagenarian waiter, Alfie. Certainly not to be forgotten are “The Shakes”, the jazzy/bluesy skiffle band who provide entertaining musical interludes throughout the show, led by Kelly Mengelkoch, Cary Davenport and other CSC regulars who for a change of pace got to show off their musical talents. Finally, kudos to director Brian Isaac Phillips who nailed the pace and timing of this non-stop foolishness.

One Man Two Guv’nors may not be high art—maybe not even high comedy. But it’s an irreverent homage to the art of comedy itself that breaks down the fourth wall of theater and never fails to surprise and amuse. Tickets are almost sold out, although two shows have recently been added, so don’t miss this production. I hope CSC continues to take similar opportunities to produce fresh, contemporary productions with enough of a classical twist to fit into their otherwise traditional repertoire.

THE TRAMP’S NEW WORLD 6/5/2015 Diogenes Theatre Company

What do you do when the world comes to an end?

This is the premise behind Diogenes Theatre Companies latest production, The Tramp’s New World.

This is a high quality performance, with a serious story involving being the last man standing after an atomic bomb explodes and kills everybody save for the lowly Tramp—the trademark character of silent screen legend Charlie Chaplin.

This story is based on a screenplay by James Agee, noted American author, journalist, poet, screenwriter (he wrote The African Queen), and film critic who died at the age of forty-five in 1955. Agee wanted Chaplin to star in the film, but Chaplin did not feel audiences would respond to the Tramp in the same way they did when he was in his heyday.

Chaplin has been proven wrong.

Rob Janson, who plays the Tramp, adapted the Agee screenplay to the stage. He does a marvelous job capturing the mixture of despair and anxiety that permeated the atomic age—and continues to permeate our own age.

While not trying to mimic Chaplin’s mannerisms, Jansen is an affecting mime who engages the audience – touching them, prompting applause, and even dancing with a patron.

Janson gives us a distilled version of the Tramp who tries to make a new life within the post-atomic wasteland. In the beginning of the play, Janson carts a bed across the theatrical space—a perfect symbol of tking the fragments of the old world to tell the story of the new.

This show had a tight lighting design by Sara Watson, with a strong sound & video Design by Doug Borntrager. Borntrager created some effective silent film clips which filled in some of the details of the story. Because the clips were being shown again a brown tarp, it took a little bit of effort to figure out what was written on some of the word cards.

Kudos to director Joseph Megal and stage manager Laura Karavitis, who kept the action and the technical crew in order.

At one hour in length, this was a play could have easily been part of the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. Yet it stands by itself as an outstanding example of what can be done with a solo actor and a great idea.

The Tramps’ New World is running at the Fifth-Third Theater at the Aronoff Center for the Arts June 3-7 and June 10-13 with shows starting at 7:30 pm, save for 2 pm Sunday matinee on June 7th.

ASSASSINS 5/29/2015 Falcon Theatre

The Falcon Theater specializes in offbeat performances and Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins certainly fits that bill. Assassins is a dark musical comedy which shines a spotlight on those quirky individuals who shot at presidents, helping us understand their motivations–to help them be happier, because, as the song says, doesn’t everyone deserve to be happy?  Doesn’t everybody has the right to their dreams? Theatrically, this is a very interesting play pitting a series of misfits against the “American Dream” with each assassin justifying their actions from their unique perspective.

The Falcon’s production is quite admirable, with a special strength in casting. All were convincing, but particularly outstanding was Eileen Earnest, as Squeaky Fromme–this is the role she was born to play. Other standouts were Brian Berendis as John Wilkes Booth and Patrick Carnes as Guiteau, the man who shot Garfield. Mike Dennis and Helen Raymond Gowers were also of note. The acting was strong overall. However, the cast had difficulty with the challenging Sondheim score. Dramatically, Berendis performed well but missed a number of notes which was a little jarring since he has the biggest part. The singing will, no doubt, improve as the show continues. I still find canned music to be disruptive but the singers were in sync with the score.

This was an unusually large cast for the small Falcon Theater stage and it is always an interesting challenge to choreograph the movements on and off the stage. The set, designed by Jared Doren, aptly resembled a carnival shooting gallery and the lighting was unique, especially at the moment of the successful assassinations. Overall, I recommend the show although it is a dark look at the underbelly of American society.

HENRY V 5/9/2015 Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Justin McCombs as Henry V
Justin McCombs as Henry V

There are many reason why you should put Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry V on your must see list of shows this year. Of course, Shakespeare’s war epic is a masterpiece and its language makes English majors tingle in their ears (you could hear it in the audience), but this particular production, directed by Brian Isaac Phillips with Justin McCombs in the starring role, is quite simply a love affair of theatrical genius.

It is not that the production transplants the Bard’s play into some unique setting, suddenly giving the story new meaning; this production remains in England and then Agincourt where Henry’s army of nobles and commoners battle and massacre the French army’s much larger fighting force.

No, what makes this production of Henry V so startling, so fantastic, is the pure breath of humanity that Phillips’ and his fabulous ensemble of actors have given to its story. This production is so utterly human, in fact, that you will laugh, feel heartsick (Act Three’s death of Falstaff is heartbreaking as the hostess describes trying to keep him warm until she realized he was dead), become suddenly uplifted, and then totally distraught all in a matter of 3 hours. In the end, however, you will leave the theatre aware of just how powerful Shakespeare’s Henry V can be.

The way McComb handles the text and embodies the character is so totally genuine that you will not have to suspend your disbelief; he makes Shakespeare’s words so much the king’s and provides such authentic behavior that you will find yourself identifying with this young man in every scene.

The rest of the ensemble also does a superb job, from Paul Riopelle’s chorus setting the scene to Caitlin McWelthy’s Katherine of France, whose courtship scene with Henry was an absolute gem, capturing with awkward grace the warrior Henry’s naïveté in matters of romance, even as it demonstrates Katherine’s growing comfort with the idea of marrying a man who just slew thousands of her countrymen.

Phillips’ direction takes its cues from Shakespeare’s own meta-theatrics, explicitly drawing on the audience to buy into the make-believe necessary to make “this wooden O” of the little stage hold throne rooms, taverns, the ocean, and the towns and fields of France.

I truly think that one could not ask for anything more from the stage. If there is only one Shakespeare show that you will see in CSC’s Henry V must be that show. Not only will it give you a glimpse of theatrical excellence, but it will also reveal a level of humanity that our contemporary artistic culture rarely brings to light.

THREE DAYS OF RAIN 5/8/15 Untethered Theatre Company

UntetheredThreeDaysRainImageUntethered Theater’s Three Days of Rain is definitely an ambitious performance at Clifton Performance Theatre. The first act opens in 1995, the second act in the same apartment in 1960. This was a play of three actors playing two roles each and was well-played by this 3-person ensemble, MaryKate Moran, Carter Bratton, and newcomer to Untethered, Adam Jones.

The story begins with the encounter of a brother (Ned) and his sister (Nan) after a long period of time only to meet a lawyer to find out what their deceased father had left behind for them. Pip, a common friend of them both, as well as affectionately close to their father, joins the meeting as well. The elaborate yet concise stage set up is initially a rundown studio apartment where the Ned and Pip’s Dad began their modest journey together as architects. It is clear neither of the siblings went through a normal family life During the first half of the play Ned attempts to discover his father through an enigmatic journal, first page of which is dated for three consecutive days and has just these four words written: “Three Days of Rain”.

Following the intermission we see the same set but everything is alive as the set takes us back to the days when Walker (Ned’s father) and Theo (Pip’s father) were in their early days as architects. The low self-esteemed and a chronic stutterer Walker felt fortunate to have an outgoing and influential friend like Theo, while Theo diplomatically depended on the talent of Walker to advance to fame as an architect. Theo also has a rocky relationship with his girlfriend, Lina, who is not always charmed by his extraverted nature. The chemistry and relationship between these characters form a complicated triangle.

The first act develops curiosity within the audience who try to anticipate where the story is going. We expect some twisting revelation. But although the story in the second half presents a sharper relationship drama, it lacks the brilliance of the first half and seems to present a more clichéd version of a romantic triangle.

Nevertheless, the three actors still render excellent performances that continue to draw our undivided attention. Adam Jones (Ned) from the first half reappears as his father, Walker, in the second half. The strongly contrasting character of these two men was vividly portrayed in Adam Jones’s performance. From his clothing, hairdo and mannerisms, Adam Jones led us to believe he was not the same man in these two different roles. Mary Kate Moran’s performance as Nan and Lina, was less polished and her roles were much less dynamic. As Pip, Carter Bratton’s portrayal was somewhat flat, as the smooth finesse of both characters did not allow as much contrast between them.

This production, perhaps, needs a bit more time to gel. Once it does, it will be compelling theater. As it stands, it is a show that had good moments with occasional missteps in between. The costumes in this play needed a lot more attention, especially to draw contrast between Walker and Theo and the different eras. The sound and lightening design helped to separate the indoor and outdoor spaces but it was rough at times. The sound was often too loud over the actors and the light didn’t hit all the actors correctly and caused strange shadows. Lighting operation malfunctioned a couple of times though Adam Jones spontaneously attempted to cover it up by impromptu dialogue. And most definitely big kudos must go out to Buz Davis for a creatively thoughtful scenic design with extensive detail. Leah Strasser did a great job directing this play. Her skill was evident, although occasional lack of attention to details provided some confusion at times.

Overall, the audience was well-served by this subtle play. The bond between the actors, as well as everyone else at the Clifton Performance Theatre was vibrantly in evidence through their collaborative and energetic presentation. One can warmly utter: “a small theatre doing big things”. Three Days of Rain is recommended for the passionate lovers of good theater.

OUTSIDE MULLINGAR 5/6/15 Ensemble Theatre Company

ETCOutsideMullingarImageOutside Mullingar, by John Patrick Shanley, is a charming and heartwarming, Irish, romantic comedy at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati.  Director Ed Stern makes a welcome return to Cincy stages and steers this production right into our hearts and minds. Stern very rightly points to this work as a different voice than we are used to hearing from Shanley; it’s a journey into his Irish roots and as Stern describes it: “There is a lyricism, a beauty, with nuanced comedy and drama intermingled into a soft human and humane work.”  Just so.

The ensemble is worthy of the theatre’s name and unfolds this simple and poetic story with ease. Two longtime farm neighbors have a friendly but sometimes strained relationship over a land dispute and an incident that happened between the kids when they were young. Shanley’s characters are real and engaging and are infused with the bittersweet longing found in the characters he created in Moonstruck. Quirky and lovely, Shanley gives the characters so much narrative and so many descriptive scenes, you feel you’ve known them all your life.  A very neat feat in only 90 minutes.

Area favorites Joneal Joplin as Tony Reilly, and Dale Hodges, as Aofie Muldoon, are crusty and endearing neighbors who have both lost their spouses.  Both inhabit these characters completely with genuine charm and dynamic realism.  Brian Isaac Phillips, usually directing at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and is its’ artistic director, was a delight to see onstage.  He plays Anthony Reilly, son of Joneal Joplin’s Tony Reilly, with heartbreaking vulnerability and his scene with his dying father is a stunning revelation into the depth of both Phillips and Joplin.Tony Reillycomplains that his son has trouble “standing up for himself” and ruminates about giving the farm to his American cousin instead. But Anthony is the real poet of the land he works and dreams of flying.  Phillips gives the son such pathos and an aching longing that instantly engages him with the audience. Jen Joplin as Rosemary Muldoon (and real life daughter of Joplin), is as sturdy and rugged as her male counterpart farmers  Jen gives her the Irish soul of a rare beauty like the white heather she finds among the hills during her solitary walks. Jen Joplin is a study in contrasts and yet steady as the day is long, giving a beautiful and grounded performance. Brian Phillips and Jen Joplin have a lyrical quality together that was both sweet and aching for the love of each other that they can’t seem to express.

Thanks to Rocco Dal Vera’s expert vocal coaching all of the actors had spot on Irish brogues. Joe Tilford’s extravagant wagons slide on and off stage with slick, quick and complete scene changes. Bravo to the running crew!  The addition of real rain and a couple of surprises at the end made this a truly remarkable set design. This is Tilford’s debut at ETC who can be found more regularly at Playhouse in the Park. It is a brilliant debut.  Additional props to the perfection of set dressing by the always-on-point Shannon Rae Lutz and a moody lighting design by Resident Designer Brian Mehring sets this journey on the right course.

Don’t miss this comfortable and quirky visit to Mullingar!

 

THE SOUND OF MUSIC 5/1/15 Covedale Theatre

Covedale Sound of Music ImageThe Covedale Theater concludes its season with a solid, enjoyable and touching rendition of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The Sound of Music”.   The key to a successful show is Maria and the children and both perform very well in this version. Maria, played by Helen Raymond-Goers, transitions well between the naïve postulate to the mature woman who helps the family deal with the Nazi threat and eventually escape Austria. She also has an excellent voice and handles the variety of songs from the comic and boisterous to the delicate love songs with equal aplomb. The children, a critical part of the play, who help Maria with that transition, excel in their roles as believable and distinct characters with good voices.   Margot Grom, as Liesl, was the best singer and dancer among the children and Violet Hicks was delightful as the youngest, Gretl. Justin Glaser found the arch in the role of the Captain and his big bass/baritone voice was powerful and appropriate. Much of the success for the show must be attributed to co-directors Dee Anne Bryll and Ed Cohen who keep the action moving without falling into the trap of being overly sentimental. The set design by Brett Bowling was very cleverly constructed to easily represent both the abbey and the Von Trapp living room with a minimum of alterations. My quibble is that the music was canned and robotic. Initially, the singers were out of sync with the music but that improved as the evening progressed. Some of the scene changes could have been done with more blackout – the scene changes were long and somewhat disruptive.   Overall, I recommend the show and hope people will “Climb Every Mountain” to see it.

MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS 4/30/15 Mad Anthony

Prepare to have the “Theme from Tara” playing in your head for a few days after you see Moonlight and Magnolias, the latest production of Mad Anthony Theatre Company at the Fitton Center in Hamilton. Director Patricia Ganz uses the familiar music to good effect in the play, which provides a true back story to the making of the movie Gone with the Wind.

The play’s setup is that famed producer David O. Selznick has started shooting Gone with the Wind when he realizes the script is terrible and he fires the director. He takes director Victor Fleming off the almost-finished Wizard of Oz and cajoles screenwriter Ben Hecht to rewrite the script.

The three movie men have five days, locked in an office, to produce a new script so filming can start again.

The play’s humor starts immediately with screenwriter Hecht’s admission that he has not read the famous novel. So Selznick and Fleming “act out” scenes from the book while Hecht furiously types.

Moonlight and Magnolias is mostly fun, and Mad Anthony’s production is in the capable hands of veteran director Ganz and the small cast led by Henry Cepluch as Hecht. Playwright Ron Hutchinson has given Hecht the best lines – “Does the movie have to be set in the Civil War?” and “Isn’t it obvious that tomorrow is another day?” Cepluch plays the role with an understated dry wit.

The role of Hecht here also has a social conscience that broadens his character. He is the one concerned about the portrayal of the slaves in “Gone with the Wind” and also about the current (1939) discrimination against Jews – Hecht and Selznick are both Jewish.

But the insertion of social issues into what is mostly a farce in some ways feels like “filler,” because the audience has been set up to laugh, and that’s what we wanted. And each of the actors are saddled with long monologues pontificating on the roles of the producer, director and writer of a movie. Appreciated are Selznick’s lines about everyday people, the audiences of movies, being the true determination of success.

Bob McClain as Selznick and Steve Tunning as Fleming are at their comedic best play-acting scenes from Gone with the Wind–Melanie giving birth and Scarlett fiddle-dee-deeing. A good laugh when Selznick finally comes up with the iconic line, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

There is good use of sound effects when McClain as Selznick gives a fast-track synopsis of the novel – a baby crying, the saw mill whirring.

It is great fun for the audience to know what these struggling movie men don’t yet know – that “Gone with the Wind” will win many Oscars and become the highest-grossing film of the 20th century. Meanwhile, thanks to this play, we now know the movie’s shaky start.

Moonlight and Magnolias runs through May 3.

YOU’RE WELCOME 4/24/15 CCM

I have no idea what I saw on stage the Cohen Family Studio Theatre of the College-Conservatory of Music, but I haven’t laughed this hard at a farce in a long time. What a wacky refreshing evening of theatre at CCM Studio Series. If Monty Python and Carol Burnett had a child this would be the offspring.  The play is a series of sketches, vignettes, or whatever you want to call it (it’s billed as a cycle of bad plays so take your pick). The fun is that it’s a series of satirical views of theatre — complete with an overzealous director (the real one, not the one portrayed by very talented Bartley Booz and, well, a very famous CCM director in cameo at the curtain call!).

It was very “fringey” and that’s what I loved. While this show feels like acting exercises and improv games made into a piece of theatre, I enjoyed the effort. Often times when I see shows at CCM their offerings are highly polished and technically proficient but lack some emotional energy or edginess. Kudos to director Brant Russell for changing things up!! This is devised theatre, funny and scrappy and showcasing several of the drama students to great effect. It’s hard to single out individuals when you’re seeing an ensemble hard at work. Spencer Lackey was disturbingly charming and mysterious in a Norman Bates sort of way sitting on a bench waiting for a train. It took the audience a while (if not right at his reveal) to realize it was a man as a woman boozing it up during the voice-over monologue.  Andrew Iannacci, Colleen Ladrick, Laura McCarthy, Devan Pruitt, Alison Slutter and Arielle de Versterre are all juniors in the program, so you should not miss this fun with them before they graduate. I’m looking forward to more work by sophomore Emily Walton (along with sophomore Lackey), who seem to make the transition from drama to comedy smoothly.

It’s theatrical sin at its finest. The “We’ve got a fog machine” was a brilliant zinger of the rule “just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to” that plagues many theatre productions — professional, community, high school, Las Vegas, even mega-churches. Not to mention the hilarious send-up in sound design and choreography of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. I loved the breaking of the fourth wall and loved the fun ending.

I’m reminded of a John Cleese bit “If you’re not old enough to cope with bad language then you should not have chat shows.” If you’re not old enough to laugh at some fine theatre you shouldn’t be a theatre-goer at all.

YES FESTIVAL 2015  4/17/15 NKU

NKU‘s biannual YES Festival opened with Colin Speer Crowley’s Encore, Encore, which details the early life and career of acerbic writer Dorothy Parker. The play centers on the duality of Parker’s early public life where she was a well- known writer, critic and member of the Algonquin Round Table (also dubbed “the Vicious Circle”) and her troubled personal life. She was married to WWI veteran, Edwin Parker who was suffering from what we today would call post-traumatic stress disorder. The staging is minimalist with a mostly bare stage and few props. Seven actors played five principal parts with two playing multiple characters. The overall production was mixed and had the feeling of a work in process. The story bounces around with a number of people, mostly from the Algonquin Club, flowing in and out which presents some difficulty following the story and keeping track of the characters. The play assumes that the audience is familiar with Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Club. Victoria Hawley does a fine job in the role of Dorothy Parker, as did Hunter Henrickson , who found layers and nuances to the role of Eddie Parker. I enjoyed members of the Ensemble as well. Chandler Taylor as Frank Crowinshield and Melissa Cathcart as Other Women had strong characterizations throughout. Encore, Encore was the most consistently written play of the Y.E.S. Festival, but is uneven and needs some pruning.

What if 17th century playwright William Wycherley had been a Science Fiction writer? NKU’s YES Festival’s production of David L. William’s The Divine Visitor ponders this idea and plays like a cross between The Country Wife and Doctor Who. Act One of The Divine Visitor is written in the style of a mid-17th century Restoration Comedy, complete with a rake who has an outlandish plan in which to bed as many ladies as possible. The second act takes a hard turn into Sci-Fi. While the play has highly entertaining moments, the bi-polar nature of the play does not make for a satisfying whole. There are some excellent comic turns performed by Wes Carman as the lothario, Noah Berry as the co-conspirator, Jennifer Rhodenhiser as the jilted lover, Hallie Hargus as another jilted lover and McKynleigh Abraham. The set in the smaller Strauss Theater depicted a 17th Century inn with a rustic but seemingly authentic feel. The scenic designer was Bryce Liebers. Ronny Chamberlain’s costumes were exquisite for the women and appropriately drab for the middle class men. Overall, I recommend the play but I think the second act needs some work, although I do like the novel gimmick which Mr. Williams uses.

The last production of the YES Festival was the murder mystery comedy, It’s a Grand Night For Murder. Nothing is harder to sit through than a murder mystery comedy that is neither mysterious nor funny. The play is predictable, cliché ridden, boorishly unfunny and sophomoric. I will credit most of the actors for giving it their best try. In the story, Phil (played by Rhys Boatwright) hires a man to kill his wife Sally (played by Emily Fry). The “contract killer” Ginger (played by Robert Macke), however, is actually a recently fired franchise restaurant manager who has never killed anyone and is a slightly wacky buffoon with a photographic memory. Enter Ramon who tries to seduce Phil but has a hidden agenda. As in any good mystery, most of the characters are not really what they seem to be. By play’s end, there are numerous dead bodies and numerous plot twists but amateur Agatha Christies should have little difficulty sorting out the labyrinth. The acting was a little uneven with some actors over-acting and bombastic while others were a little passive in their roles. The comic characters of a cockney plumber (with an incomprehensible accent) and a female cable installer do not work at all. Both characters received laughs from the audience but I felt the roles were to over the top. Kudos for Emily Fry, Rhys Boatwright, A. James Jones (as Ramon) and particularly Robert Macke, who had the most difficult role to play. The scenic design by Benjamin Adams was good with the first act in a diner and the second act set in a luxurious cottage.

Avenue Q 4/17 Miami University

Think “Sesame Street on Crack” and you will get a little insight into what Avenue Q the musical is all about, now onstage at Miami University. Avenue Q presents a whole unique set of challenges for any theatre, especially a college theatre. That being said, Miami University’s production handles the show well. The most characteristic challenge is creating puppets that are humanistic and interesting enough for us to look at the entire show. As with the PBS hit series that teaches young children their ABC’s, numbers and other life lessons, this adult version of the avenue, continues to teach us, but perhaps topics that are just a bit different and perhaps a might naughtier.  With a book written by Jeff Whitty and music and lyrics by Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez (the same guys who brought us The Book of Mormon) this is not a show that will have you humming the tunes, however it will have you laughing and will definitely put a smile on your face and a warm feeling in your heart.

A bunch of racist, horny and sexually confused puppets (magnificently designed by Grant Lemasters in an homage to the late Jim Henson) from Avenue Q  are the “leading characters” in this musical that is very difficult to execute for a myriad of reasons.

The cast was led by a quad of four strong performers: Kelcey Steele and Taylor Hayes as Princeton and Kate Monster, and the loveable duo of Josh Stothfang and Sean Davis as Rod & Nicky (think Bert & Ernie meets Will & Grace). Princeton (Kelsey Steele), a recent college graduate with a useless BA in English, is trying to find his life purpose and through his foibles and follies, including some invasive Bad Idea Bears, the other furry and not so furry residents on the block are able to find new meaning in their lives. Of course this is all done through songs such as “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”; “The Internet Is For Porn; “If You Were Gay”; “You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want When Your Making Love” and “Schadenfreude”.

For their human neighbors, it gets no better than Cara Hihn as Christmas Eve who makes Hunter Dobereinder’s Brian all the more hilarious.   Then there is Sean Davis whose crisp, funny and vocally limber performance and puppetry with Nicky is better than the original Broadway creator of the role.

With a cast that innately understands the actor/puppet relationship and a technical team that lets the show seamlessly unfold, this is a production that could run for years.  The amazing part of this production is that the actors, who become puppeteers, do so to perfection, in no small thanks to the puppet coach Aretta Baumgartner. The vocals were spotty here and there, but never enough to get in the way of the story or characters. In fact, the puppets they handle become a true part of them and even though we see their actual faces as they operate the characters, we forget that it is the human we are watching or hearing as we are focused on the puppets in the play.  As stated, the technical side of this Avenue Q is near perfect as the puppets come to life in the design by Lemasters, and coached by Aretta Barumgartner.  It’s clear these actors lived with and through their puppet counterparts as seen in their ability to bring these characters to life with their acting and singing.

Gion DeFrancesco’s scenic design is reminiscent of the original; and as usual, This production is hard to say anything in the least bit negative about (with the exception of erratic spotlights and some sound issues)– it is solid from the beginning to the end with no downtime in between. The actors are having as much fun telling us this story as we are having watching it unfold. They have heart and they become very real to us.  So if someone can’t tell you how to get to that other street, have your GPS point you to Avenue Q at Miami University.

Death and the Maiden 4/15 Diogenes Theatre

The more theatre I experience, the more I realize how important basic sound design is to a production.  If an audience cannot hear the actors during a performance, than the performance does not exist.

This is the case of Death and the Maiden, produced by the Diogenes Theatre Company at the Jarson-Kaplan Theater at the Aronoff.  I wish the playbill talked more about Diogenes, a new theatre company in town, but unfortunately the group seems indiscernable in the program despite highlighting the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s Brian Isaac Phillips and a back cover with the CSC Season 21 schedule.

Death and the Maiden is set in a beach house in Chile after a long period of dictatorship. The set design on the massive stage consisted of a few boxes to simulate furniture, a chair, a table set in front of several vertical, fan-blown, opaque, gauzy strips of cloth that filled in for the ocean.  An annoying ocean wave sound that got worse the farther you sat from the stage further interfered from hearing the un-miked action on stage.

Michael G. Bath plays Gerardo Escobar, who has just been assigned to a very important committee looking into human rights violations during the recent dictatorship. Anne Fitzpatrick is Paulina Salas, Gerardo’s wife, who happens to be a little insane and seriously off-kilter as she is suffering from a torture and rape experience by secret police working for the dictator. Giles Davies is Roberto Miranda, and he is the only cast member who remotely looks Chilean.

It so happens that Miranda rescues a stranded Escobar – he had a flat tire – and he ends up returning to Escobar’s later that night. He begins to ask very detailed questions about the commission (at least the ones I could hear). He stays the night by sleeping on the three boxes under a flimsy blanket—this is a bare-bones set.

In the morning, crazy Paulina is sure that Miranda is one of the dictator’s doctors who defiled her 15 years ago. She attacks the sleeping man, ties him to a chair, and in what is one of the best scenes I’ve experienced this year as an LCT panelist, removes her nylons, stuffs them in Miranda’s mouth, and then duct tapes it shut! Fitzpatrick plays her role in over-the-top fashion as she points a gun at the sniveling man.

She demands that Miranda confess to the crime and bullies her husband to assist. Unfortunately, much of the tense dialogue was reduced to whispers and turned-to-the-back-of-the-stage readings. Many plot points were lost. [As a further note, the audience is barred from sitting in the first four rows of this production, and the twelve or so ushers made sure of that.]

This production should have been in the Black Box space on the other side of the Aronoff. The big size of this little theater space swallowed the action on stage. These are great local actors, but their talent was not used to full effect. The high union cost to stage a show at the Aronoff apparently limited this production. The director, Lindsey A. Mercer, just didn’t get the basics done.

Race  4/11, New Edgecliff Theater

NETRaceImageWas the sexual encounter rape? Was the rape racially motivated? And how important are sequins in determining the truth of the matter?

These questions are raised in the latest outing from New Edgecliff Theater, David Mamet’s play Race. This taut hour and forty-five minute play examines the truth behind the story of a billionaire who is accused of raping an African-American woman with whom he was having sexual relations. Beneath the surface of these events, Race forces us to look at ourselves and what lies in our conscious and unconscious with regard to race relations.

Playing the legal team who agrees to take on the case are Michael Shooner and Reggie Willis as lawyers Jack Lawson and Henry Brown. Both Shooner and Willis deliver strong performances as the racially mixed law firm who agrees to defend the billionaire accused of rape. Mamet’s script is filled with sharp wordplay and quick exchanges and Shooner and Willis tussle their way through it all with verbal fireworks.

Shooner had several memorable speeches about the constructed nature of reality as it relates to creating narratives for the courtroom that are a marvel to watch. In those scenes, he was so much in character that he made me believe he was Jack Lawson, ultra-cynical lawyer. Similarly, Willis’ opening comments where he lays out his character’s views of race and the law are very strong and likewise memorable.

Rounding out the ensemble is Renika Williams, who plays the African-American legal assistant Susan, and Bob Allen, who plays the billionaire accused of rape. Williams did a solid job playing the legal assistant, who has mixed feelings about her firm taking this case. This was my first time seeing Williams on stage, who will graduate from Wright State University this spring. She turns in a fine performance and I look forward to seeing more of her onstage in the future.

Bob Allen played the billionaire Charles Strickland with a nice mixture of recalcitrance and bewilderment. Like a man who is used to getting his way, he is completely dumbstruck by the accusation and does his best to gum up the works of his legal team. I have seen Bob Allen in a variety of different roles over the years, so it was a pleasure seeing him in a role that was out of the ordinary—and also sporting a full head of hair!

On the evening I saw the production, there were a few minor problems (such as the accidental breaking of a glass candy dish) which I attribute to opening weekend jitters.   However, the essential strength of the play comes forth despite these minor problems. Much of that success has to be contributed to the director, Northern Kentucky University Professor Daryl Harris. Harris knows how to move his actors through the emotional minefields inherent within the play and get the most out of them.

Race is part of a larger offering of productions this spring by Greater Cincinnati theaters dealing with the issues of race and the African-American experience. This play is a thought-provoking addition to that lineup, which includes Buzzer at the Playhouse, Detroit ’67 at Ensemble Theater, and In the Heat of the Night by Falcon.

Powerful writing, great acting, good direction make this a must-see production. Race is playing within The Hoffner Lodge, 4120 Hamilton Avenue, Northside from April 10-April 25. Don’t miss it.

The Underpants  4/11, Carnegie Theater

CarnegieUnderpants ImageIf you are looking for a lighthearted night out, the Carnegie Theatre concludes its season with The Underpants, a bedroom farce adapted by comedian Steve Martin. The Underpants is an outrageous, over-the-top story about a young bride who creates a sensation when her underpants fall down while watching a parade for a turn-of-the-century German king.

The audience does not actually see the scandalous incident. The play opens in the living room of Frau Louise and Herr Theo’s home, a respectable middle-class, newlywed couple. Having just heard of Louise’s underpants incident, Theo (Randy Lee Bailey), a stuffy and pompous civil servant, has come home from work and is mortified — not for Louise (Erin Ward), but for himself, imagining all sorts of repercussions from the embarrassing incident that will affect his job and their overall livelihood. Louise, on the other hand, is not at all concerned.

To make financial ends meet, the couple rent a single room to two boarders, who were attracted by the “wardrobe malfunction” and are willing to pay any price for the chance to live under the same roof as Frau Louise, leading to many comic and somewhat bawdy situations. Versati (Brian Griffin) is a playboy poet who Louise is actually attracted to and Cohen (Michael Hall), is a creepy guy who chases Louise around the apartment. In the thick of all this chaos is the nosey neighbor, Gertrude (Jodie Schwegmann-Meyn), who is the highlight of this Carnegie production as she encourages Louise’s enjoyment and sexual arousal from all this unexpected attention.

All-in-all, the play addresses the roles of men and women, the balance of power in a marriage, and lighthearted sexual tension. The set design by Ryan Howell is appealing and the costumes by Jim Stump deserve kudos–they display the elegance of the period but also add to the absurdity of some of the characters. The cast is loaded with talented local actors who have proved their abilities many times over in past productions, but never quite gelled into a stylistically cohesive unit in this production. Martin’s script is a fast paced ninety minute one-act play, but the Carnegie production was somewhat tepid and drawn-out.

The Underpants continues at The Carnegie through April 26.

Cover of Life  4/10, Falcon Theater

FalconCoverofLifeImageThe current production by the cozy Falcon Theatre of Newport is a play written by R.T. Robinson titled The Cover of Life. Life is the famous Life magazine, yet the lives developed and enlarged in this play bring out the realities and the complex conflicts of the women of the  Cliffert family in 1943 Louisiana.

Tood, Weestie and Sybil are the three wives married to the three Cliffert brothers. All three brothers are away, engaged in World War II. To save on expenses, the three wives move into the Cliffert family home with Aunt Ola Cliffert, the mother of the three Cliffert boys. Life begins on stage at this point when Kate Miller, a journalist fresh from the frontline, is assigned by Life magazine to cover the story of these three brides of the military family. Kate Miller is supercilious and, therefore, reluctant to visit the rural Louisiana; yet she accepts the assignment, since this would present her with the opportunity to do a cover story for famous Life magazine.

From the very moment of Kate’s arrival at the Cliffert residence the lives of the women, including Aunt Ola Cliffert, continue to unfold. This is by no means just a flat story of wartime wives who are waiting for their husbands to return home while somehow surviving. The lives of these women gradually end up depicting the life stories of women in general. This is where the playwright crafts an extraordinarily powerful revelation through wisdom, insight, and humor which otherwise could have been a bland saga of overflowing emotion.

Though nowhere in the playbill, Falcon Theatre gave credit to the playwright. Through the penmanship of the playwright R.T. Robinson the story was covered in such a lively manner. There was an incredibly strong cast who worked well off of each other.  I give the praise for that to the director, Tracy M. Schoster.  She made certain the emotional core of each of the characters came through loud and clear. Although I wasn’t blown away by this production, I enjoyed it. The play has a powerful and empowering message that gender roles hurt everybody, not just women, and that only when we question what everyone else accepts as “the way it is” can we become awakened. I loved that aspect of the play and thought the actors did a good job of conveying the message.

The lighting and set were stark and didn’t add very much. Monmouth Theatre, though very cozy and intimate, poses some challenges for a very elaborate light design. The set was too busy for a small stage, however, it reflected the thoughtfulness of Tracy M. Schoster, who was also the set designer for the play. The production was well directed by her , skillfully moving between the set piece of the living room to various other scenes  on the small Falcon stage. One suggestion would be to be a bit more thoughtful about the smooth flow between the scenes, as they appeared to be somewhat abrupt.  The costume design by Tara Williams, who also enacted the character of Kate Miller, was appropriately dated for the period, although they seemed to have more clothes than their financial situation would allow.

Overall, it was a warm presentation by the Falcon team and the entire cast and crew are to be given appreciation. Barring a few silly mistakes in dialogue delivery the characters did a superb job in making the audience believe in their authentic southern accent through and through. The cast demonstrated great team work from a small team where many wear more than one hat, promote and to spread value in theatre. The Cover of Life is to be highly recommended for all audiences because of the message it conveys and the energy from the actors onstage.

Aladdin Jr  4/10, Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati

CTCAladdinImageThe Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati production of Disney’s Aladdin, Jr. was what you look for in a classic Disney story brought to the stage. Combining elements of the live theatre production of “The Lion King” this production did what is supposed to do – entertain the little Friends Like Me!

The narrator enters the stage to the familiar opening scene of the palace of Agrabah while he leads a life-size camel ( a puppeteer like the aforementioned Lion King).  from there the pace of the show explodes non-stop with additions of the Cincinnati Circus performers, whose aerial tricks contributed to the larger-than-life feel of the show.

Inside the palace gates, Princess Jasmine (Megan Ainsley Callahan) prepares to choose from a parade of suitors (Prince Da-Doo Ran Ran!).  The vizier, Jafar (oozing silent screen villainy by Sam Rueff) and his sidekick ( a remarkable and delightful puppeteer, Mia Bella D’Ascenzo who channeled the movie’s Gilbert Godfrey) secretly re-write a law so that the Princess will have to marry Jafar if she fails to choose a husband within the allotted time.  When Jasmine escapes the palace and goes to the marketplace she runs into Aladdin (Korey Harlow as a natural personified goofy teen).

Aladdin is captured and thrown into Jafar’s secret hiding place, the Cave of Wonders, where he finds a lamp. Rubbing it clean, and through something akin to Disney magic, the Genie (an always delightful Bob Herzog channeling a bit of Robin William, but with bold characterizations and a wonderful sense of timing) grants “Al” three wishes.

Since the “Jr.” production is a pared down script based on the original movie,  things happen quickly. But that’s a good thing to keep the young ones in the audience occupied.  Once the genie is out of the bottle it’s showtime!  The addition of  the Cincinnati Circus brought a new level to the marketplace opening number, but  in the Genie’s “Friend Like Me” showstopper they really pulled out all of the stops.  Aerial acrobatics such as seen with Cirque De Soleil productions, flash pots, smoke and all kinds of razzle dazzle made for a terrific introduction to showstoppers for the little ones. The adults have a lot of fun too – with Herzog’s ad-libbing a few local jokes regarding traffic on “the cut-in-the-hill” while taking Aladdin on the magic carpet to meet the princess.  While the adults were laughing one child in the seat behind this reviewer remarked “the carpet is just fantastic, fantastic….I want one, Mommy.”

Director and choreographer Roderick Justice did a fine job with the cast. They were energetic and kept the humor, characterizations and tempo of the original Disney classic.  Lighting design was a bit awkward at times, the follow shots seeming to have a hard time finding their actors while other cues were making it feel like they were being made up on the fly.  The flying effect of the magic carpet was a nice addition.

Overall this fast-paced adventure is a perfect introduction to the theatre for young – and old – alike.  The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati has done a marvelous job of keeping the magic of theatre alive with imagination and fun.

110 in the Shade  4/9, CCM Musical Theatre

Ben Biggers, John Battagliese, and Brianna Barnes in "110 in the Shade"
Ben Biggers, John Battagliese, and Brianna Barnes in “110 in the Shade”

Once again, with its studio production of 110 in the Shade, the CCM Musical Theatre Department demonstrates you don’t need an expensive set, 20 piece orchestra, or fancy pyrotechnic effects to create magic on stage—you just need a talented cast, tight direction, and an overlooked musical classic with a lot of heart.

110 in the Shade, which premiered on Broadway in 1963, takes place in a small southwestern town during a terrible drought. It focuses on the lives of Lizzie Curry, a girl whose father and brothers are trying to marry her off, and her relationships with the local sheriff File and charismatic con man Bill Starbuck, who poses as a rainmaker promising to bring a rainstorm for a hundred dollars. If this sounds a little bit like “The Music Man”—it isn’t. If anything, it is an anti-Music Man, with more focus on plot and characterization and a more mature book and musicality than many of the musicals of its time.

Like most of CCM’s studio musicals, this doesn’t have a big budget and relies on simple staging, clean but functional costumes, and two pianos rather than a large orchestra. But director Vince DeGeorge makes it all work by focusing on the powerful emotionality of the work and its deeply interesting characters. It usually goes without saying that the vocal quality of a CCM musical is top-notch, and this one was no exception. Kudos to vocal director Steve Goers for strong consistency in all the musical numbers. My only quibble with the vocals was that sometimes the singers’ lyrics got overwhelmed by the pianos, despite the fact that they were miked.

What stood out for me in this production, however, was the fine acting performances, led by Brianna Barnes as the vulnerable Lizzie Curry. John Battagliese, as the imaginative and cocky Starbuck, and Ben Biggers, as the emotionally scarred Sheriff File, were also effective. There were many fine supporting performances,  in particular the exuberant Alec Cohen who played Lizzie’s brother, Jim. All these characters had strong emotional arcs that resonated with me and drew me into both their pain and triumphs.

110 in the Shade was an extremely satisfying evening of entertainment, and thanks to CCM for introducing us to this little known gem, which I hope will get more attention from theater groups across the country.  When it was originally produced, it was overshadowed by its contemporaries like Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl, but it deserves more recognition and a wider audience.

 

Taming of the Shrew  4/4, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

CSCShrewImageThe Taming of the Shrew at the CINCINNATI SHAKESPEARE COMPANY is easily understood and well staged by Director Kevin Hammond. With such a reliable level of technical contributions, the set, lights and sound create a classic Shakespearean environment. All audiences will enjoy the campy antics of this most excellent rendition of a classic. Simple and focused, the 2 1/2 hour show moves quickly and is highly entertaining.   Hammond includes the often cut Christopher Sly prologue which frames the story is a satisfying way.

Baptista is a wealthy man with two daughters; his elder daughter is Katerina, or Kate, a screaming outspoken shrew and his younger daughter is Bianca, a soft-spoken virginal darling. Suitors clamor for Bianca’s hand but Baptista will let no man near her until nasty Kate is wed. The various suitors employ machinations and bribes to get Kate married off to someone, anyone – so they can vie for sweet Bianca. Along comes Petruchio, an older rascally bachelor who is enticed to woo Kate because of her dowry and the suitors’ promises of ducats aplenty. When Baptista gives Kate to Petruchio against her will, sparks fly and the warlike wooing is on.

The action takes place in a tavern and is performed by a band of roving actors who lapse often and well into bawdy drinking songs and the occasional anachronistic ad-lib. The very beige but functional English Tavern set worked really well, with enough doors for everyone to slam and yet neutral enough to pass for indoors or outdoors, a banquet hall, a town square, a classroom, a great room, a muddy road. Again, the lights and sound and costumes were all top notch. The costumes particularly ring true to the Bard’s classic style and yet still let the actors move and cavort.

The action is nonstop and all actors conduct themselves with great aplomb and dedication. Kelly Mengelkoch as Kate and Nick Rose as Petruchio rise above the excellent ensemble, as well they should. The show hinges on the combative dynamic between Petruchio and Kate as they wage their war with the concept of coupledom.   Well-matched, these two play off each other with intelligence and fury, with mischief and playfulness, Her long red locks flying, Mengelkoch revels in her shrewishness, growling and roaring on and off stage and takes us along for her “taming”, adding layers of nuance and letting us in on her AHA! moments.   Rose delivers a mercurial handsome Petruchio that is both charming and infuriating, understanding and tyrannical.

The entire ensemble is first rate and is playing at the top of their game. Standouts include Caitlin McWethy whose Bianca is saucier than many. Justin McComb as Servant Tranio and Jeremy Dubin as Servant Grumio both pull a lot of laughs with their polished comical skills. Strong character performances also from Frank Delaney, Jim Hopkins and Billy Chace. Well done, Players!

This is one of the easier plays for non-Shakespeare aficionados. Go and enjoy this classic battle of the sexes.

Hearts Like Fists  3/27, Know Theatre

KnowHeartsLikeFistsImageComic book crime fighting comes to the stage

The Know Theatre production of “Hearts Like Fists” by Adam Symkowicz lacks a bit of punch. The comic book inspired story of finding love has what you want in a comic book themed play: crime fighting women in form-fitting costumes, lots of zippy one-liners, a sinister Dr. X terrorizing the metropolis, and a heart surgeon whose heart needs to be fixed but he can’t find love.

Nurses by day, skilled warriors by night, a Charlie’s Angels-like team battles the evil and elusive Dr. X and his deadly war against romance. Dr. X sneeks into apartments late at night and injects lovers with a deadly serum that stops their hearts.

The script itself is flimsy and showcases an antiquated view of women, how women talk to one another, and what women care about – which is surprising because the whole purpose of the play was to have kickass female superheroes.

The ensemble moves nimbly on Andrew Hungerford’s life-size comic book set. The fight choreography by Jonn Bacca (coupled with lighting design images of comic book “punch” lines) brings to life the yesteryear comic book serials of Adam West with a mix of kung fu, gymnastics, and the grace of a ballet.

There are slow-mo punches, accompanied by a fantastic low bass sound and a projection of a comic book bubble that says “KAPOW!” or “OOF!” or “BAM!” (you get it). After the slow-mo, the actors return to a real-time follow through, bringing us back to reality.

The actors do a great job with it, but the tech elements are outstanding – to sync up all the sounds and projections with the actors’ movements must have taken a lot of time and energy.

The excellent cast is more than game at keeping the humor and multiple storylines intriguing. While the stylized villainy and bravery of the characters elicit laughter, the edginess of the piece isn’t quite clear. The production has its tongue planted firmly in cheek, paying homage to comic books and films, even hospital melodramas, but the production lacks the deeper complexities at work beneath.

It’s a humorous piece that demonstrates that theatre is limitless and has the ability to astonish. And I’m glad the Know Theatre gives us a chance to break away from the conventional.

“Hearts Like Fists” continues at The Know Theatre Wednesdays through Sundays, through April 25. For more information and tickets, go to http://knowtheatre.com.

Detroit ’67  3/18, Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati

ETC Detroit 67 imageThe ENSEMBLE THEATRE CINCINNATI’S production of Detroit ’67 is a winner. The set/lighting/props/sound are all stellar, a delicious time capsule from the 60s.

I remember being invited to a “basement party” back in the 60’s in the hood where, for a small cover, you got great music, a bar, and for a white girl like me, dance lessons! I still feel those were the best moves I ever had!

The basement in the ghetto neighborhood of Detroit serves as the underground after hours party place for locals and is a major source of income for Chelle and Lank, the sister and brother who grew up in the house and live there now as adults. They have recently inherited the house from their deceased parents. A stairwell bisects the stage and distinguishes life above ground and the life that goes on underground. The actors are constantly climbing down or up and traveling between worlds. Above the basement stairs, just a hint of the hallway and the house beyond leads your eyes to a long span of dark shadowy cityscape that reminds you where you are. The sound was marvelous. Who doesn’t want to listen to old Motown, the Temps, Marvin Gaye and the like? But in the background, muted sirens scream that the rioting isn’t far away. An old stereo that plays 45s keeps skipping to the irritation of Chelle.

The play flows through the five days and events of the 1967 Detroit riots like the music which characters turn to constantly; music for the nightly party, music to wait by, to dance to, to celebrate a moment, to tolerate a moment, to dream to, to delight one other. The characters are struggling with who they are, to the world, to each other and what stands in their way, whether it’s their own beliefs, the color of their skin, or the limits of the culture of the times they live in.

The acting is energetic and consistent, honest and earnest – not a false note in the show. Bryant Bentley as Lank, a Dayton native now in Columbus, is particularly good as he conspires with his best friend Sly, Darnell Benjamin, performing locally and teaching with Pones Inc., Know Theatre and across the Tri-State, who mollifies his sister Chelle. Burgess Byrd’s Bunny is a sight to behold. She is cast beautifully and fills the role with sexy gusto. Zina Camblin’s Chelle is sweet in her pedal pushers and sleeveless shirts, playing Lank’s big sister and is touching as she tries to keep everyone and everything safe from the troubles outside. Sly, all legs and fedora, is enthusiastic beyond all measure, Lank’s best friend and would-be beau of Chelle, if she’d take him seriously. And Leslie Goddard’s Caroline, is strong and problematic and gives her role nice complexity, so that you can’t easily tell if she’s a good girl or not. She’s a savory mystery. All the actors work beautifully together.

The production is one not to be missed!

The Marvelous Wonderettes  3/13, Covedale

CovedaleWonderettesImageIf you like 1950’s music sung with 1950’s women’s quartets and enough plot to make it a musical instead of a concert, you will like The Marvelous Wonderettes at the Covedale. The 4-women ensemble consisting of Kate Elliott, Grace Eichler, Lauren Carr and Blair Godshall sing, dance and act well enough to provide an entertaining evening out of pretty thin material. The first act of the show is about four high school seniors at their 1958 prom who have been asked to provide the entertainment by creating a girl singing ensemble called the Marvelous Wonderettes. The second act shows the four women 10 years later at their high school reunion and we find out what has happened to each in the meantime. Their stories are told through their songs including 1950’s and 1960’s pop songs such as “Mr. Sandman”, “Lollipop”, “Dream Lover”, “It’s my Party” and “You Don’t Own Me”. The harmonies improved as the night progressed, plagued somewhat by early miking issues. The singers have powerful voices and I’m sure it will improve. The choreography is simple yet typical of the female (and male) groups of the day. The set is typical 1950’s high school gym/stage with a basketball scoreboard, a stage at the back and minutiae such as graffiti on the wall. This show is not Shakespeare but it is fun, entertaining and energetic led by a captivating and talented cast. It’s Wonderette enough. And, going to the Covedale is always a treat.

Transmigration  3/12-14, CCM Drama

If you haven’t seen Transmigration, the CCM student written marathon of short, 30 minute plays, make a plan to go next year! It’s fun, fast, and furious and you get a peak into what’s on students’ minds. Many of the vignettes centered on making some sort of “migration, or journey to find something, leave something, or transform,” sort of like moving from schooling into the professional world and working their way through the intense four year journey through the CCM odyssey.

The students have a scant 2 weeks to write, rehearse, and perform the 30 minute pieces. It shows what these talented students can do with very little of the technical support they enjoy in a full production at CCM. Here’s a taste from each. Sadly, there are no students’ names in the program for individual praise:

Coulter Cliffs is sort of Grand Budapest Hotel meets The Shining. A hotel where once you enter, you can’t leave until a new person arrives to provide a swap. The audience votes on who can leave (or “win”) based on the most compelling story. Sort of like what happens when they graduate. Some have been there for 149 years—they never age of course. Who knows what’s waiting for them in the “real” world. The characters who made bold choices were the most successful in winning their escape. It was enjoyable and fun connecting to the characters.

A Fool’s Paradise was a favorite among the reviewers and is a community theatre in Boca Raton Florida; probably the worst graduation nightmare for these talented students! Hilarious musical compositions by the students and sung with great bravado, most notably by the “Mayor” of Boca, the old curmudgeon who leads this cast. The director-diva, Peaches Montgomery, the scariest fool in the “paradise” for her power and control over her universe, exhorts us to have a “Peachy Day” as she blindly props up her son, the piano player, who played expertly. We meet familiar characters like the perennial leads, so often seen in community theatre. Here they are brother and sister vying for Romeo and Juliet and happily provide the audience an “eeewww” factor in the love scenes. The football hero turned “actor” with Brad Pitt good looks, and the fresh newbie, are all drawn, no doubt, from the students’ own pre-CCM experiences.

Seven Feet Under was different from the other concept pieces and drew on a more dramatic through line that didn’t rely solely on humor. The vain and selfish Snow White sends the seven miners on a mission below to find “the treasure” and must face the monster the get it, another graduation truth. Nice monster puppet was created with cardboard and burlap and even some dry ice for effect.   The “dwarves” were a good ensemble and played on their strengths as actors so that we very quickly identified and cared about their journey and demise.

cult(ured) was akin to drinking the Kool-Aid in this woodland cult of characters led by an iconic mother nature figure trolling for recruits–just like CCM. The characters, like the sanguine loner who promoted cocaine-flavored yogurt, were engaging, and the show had smartly showed transitions and the passage of time.

Neutral and Non Partisan: Very well written and performed! This cautionary tale about the very real possibility of big brother watching random, “average” Americans under the guise of psychological research. This employed great use of multi-media combined with layered performances.

Mandatory Fun:  This was the only piece that was less than enthusiastically received by the panelists. In a robot game show where humans battle each other, the plot seemed too obvious and the characters shallow.

Well, you can’t win them all but even with a clinker or two, this is an exceptional evening celebrating enormous creativity and, as we always know we’re going to get from CCM, talent!

Peter Pan 3/5/15 CCM Musical Theater

CCMPeterPanImageThe story of Peter Pan never grows old when performed by the extremely talented CCM team. This old chestnut is enlivened by a frenetic group of dancers and singers who consume the stage with energy while telling the timeless fantasy tale of the orphan boy from Neverland written by James Barrie. The frenzied action, outrageously hued costumes, and set which morphs from a typical English nursery in the early 20th century—not to mention the phantasmagoria of color and ever-changing lighting set against a decrepit amusement park set representing Neverland—sweeps the audience along on a roller coaster ride. Keeping with the tradition of having a woman play the part of Peter Pan (started by Mary Martin), CCM follows suit with two alternating actresses playing the lead role. In the production that I saw, Peter was portrayed by Hannah Zazzaro, who captivated the audience with the proper amount of braggadocio and charm while still hinting at the inherent loneliness of the character. She also belted the songs and danced very well. She did swallow some of her lines, however. The other tour de force was Nathaniel Irvin, who played jointly Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. It is an interesting juxtaposition between a proper English gentleman and a smarmy, evil yet cowardly pirate in Hook. He seemed to be having a good time playing Hook.

Two scenes in particular stand out in their frenzied best. The first is the fight and then reconciliation between the lost boys and the Indians and the second is the battle between the pirates and everyone else in the final act. Several dozen actors, dancers and singers are in constant motion during both scenes. It is a bit like trying to follow a multi-ring circus simultaneously.

There were some opening night glitches and, at times, the frenzy on stage tended to overwhelm the storyline but the enthusiasm of the company overcame those issues.

Kids should also enjoy the show although, with a three act construction, the play is longer than many. I recommend the show.

Found a Peanut   2/25/15   Miami University

Miami University’s Found a Peanut, by Donald Marguiles, is about eight children, ages 5-14, on the last day of summer vacation before the new school year begins.  This day, in a Brooklyn yard, they lose their childhood innocence and experience the difficulties of growing up.  While digging a grave to bury a dead bird, they discover a bag filled with money (“It looked like a lot more,” says Jeffery Smolowitz).  The quarrel resulting from their discovery results in greediness, violence and finally leads to the disruption of a friendship. The death of a neighbor coinciding with the death of the bird triggers a change in attitudes as the children start seeing death in relation to themselves.  This may be the death of their summer vacation, but it also the death of innocence and their childhood.

It takes a few minutes to get past the college actors playing children in this production. The program’s cast list stated their age but several of them, at least, through their physical appearances didn’t match the age described for the characters. Mike (11, played by Richard Dent) is drawing a game on the cement as is milquetoast buddy Jeffrey (also 11, played by Caleb Schemer) hangs around trying to learn to play catch with his Pensy Pinky ball.  Mike’s 8-year-old sister (Jordan Gravely) comes bouncing in troubled that she’s her house keys. for tomorrow she becomes a latch-key kid.  Her fat friend, Joanie (8, discerningly played by Kaela Smith) comes out to play followed by Little Earl (a superb and humorous Aidan McBreen playing a believable 5-year-old).   Nothing much happens.  The day, and the plot, gradually unfold and the summer-time world we all remember just moves along like a long summer day. Playwright Donald Margulies staged the setting behind an apartment building in Brooklyn, NY in 1962, however, this play could have been from any other time period. The only prominent issue to mark the time was mentioning of the movie “Psycho”  which was released in 1960. But the play quickly wears out its welcome as Marguiles plays to stereotypes.  Initially it is an adjustment believing the characters are children, but through the characters you see some of the old neighborhood kids on your block.  It wasn’t the overall script that kept me interested but the individual moments that caught me (and other audience members): the agonizing over picking up a dead bird with two sticks only to quickly push it toward the garden soil; or, Little Earl giving voice to his plastic T-Rex and the epic battle between the Rex and an old roller skate.   Director Joshua Horowitz did his job and it’s evident that he put a lot of thought into the direction. The often overlapping of action and dialogue, unless well-thought and well-rehearsed, could have turned into cacophony. Mr. Horowitz marvelously crafted and developed the young actors throughout the play, especially during those overlapping moments. The compositions, especially with six or seven actors in the play area at one time, were well-orchestrated; however, some of the characters lost their spontaneity when taking over their positions that came across as a taut and rehearsed movement rather than logical steps. The play works very well in the Studio 88 space. Set designer Todd Stuart’s staging is simple yet sublime in recreating the chalked concrete we all remember.  The subtle fencing around the studio space and the choice to play the production “in the round” really brings the joy of the childhood back to our memories. The young performers attempted their best and gave it all they had. Their genuine sincerity was easily sensed as they attempted to make the play a notable one. They must be applauded for that. It is truly commendable to take such initiative developing young actors who will hopefully embrace acting and become pros at it some day in near future.

Little Women   2/20/15   Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

CSCLittleWomenImageCincinnati Shakespeare Company’s “Little Women” is a fine production of a beloved classic story, staged and performed in a way that preserves and honors the novel. The show should please everyone who has fond memories of reading it as a child.

“Little Women,” written in 1868 by Louisa May Alcott, is the story of the March family of New England during and just after the Civil War. The ‘little women’ are the family’s four daughters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. When the play opens, Mr. March is serving as a chaplain in the Union Army. Mrs. March and teenage daughters are keeping a poor but loving home.

The script, so faithful to the novel that it lifts actual lines of dialogue, spans several years to follow the sisters through spats, love interests, marriages, illness, and even death.

The backbone of the family is Mrs. March (we never do see Mr. March). She is wonderfully played by Annie Fitzpatrick, who evokes the character’s calm dignity, quiet resolve, and compassion. Fitzpatrick does get some emotional scenes, though – the finest when she learns her at-war husband is ill and she must go to him.

Dominant of the sisters is the tomboy Jo, who has no use for airs and pretension. Maggie Lou Rader is terrific in the part, displaying a fiery energy and a “what you see is what you get” temperament – all her emotions are on display. Rader developed a perfect signature gesture for Jo of flouncing into a chair sideways, arm flung over the back.

The role of the youngest, Amy, is possibly the most difficult. Actress Courtney Lucien has to evolve from a prissy preteen with ringlets in Act 1 to a beautiful young woman in Act 2, while still keeping some of her self-centered traits. Lucien brings the audience right along with her.

There is great supporting work from the rest of the cast. Notable is Abby Roward as Aunt March. Believable makeup and a great physical acting job turn Roward into this elderly woman with a sharp tongue, but the ability of wealth to make a difference in the March sisters’ lives.

Director Sara Clark keeps the acting focused and the pacing tight through a show that spans several years and multiple locations.

The multifunctional set has the ability to serve many locales but still keep certain areas fixed in the audience’s mind – the attic where Jo writes, the bedroom where Beth dies, and the family living room where all gather. There is good use of projected images to let us watch the passing of the seasons out a window and images of dancers at a ball to create the illusion of more people on stage.

Cincinnati Shakespeare’s production is an excellent adaption of “Little Women,” both for those who love the work and those seeing it for the first time.

The show continues weekends through March 21. Call 513-381-2273 or visit www.cincyshakes.com.

Les Miserables   2/20/15   Northern Kentucky University

NKULesMisImageI am a self-proclaimed connoisseur of Les Miserables. And I think maybe it’s because I went in with such high expectations, that I was disappointed in NKU‘s mounting. With the choice to use minimal sets and props, as opposed to NKU‘s typical grandiose musical stagings, it felt like a lightly blocked concert. Knowing that Ken Jones was in charge of the beast, I entered expecting his usual all around fully polished direction, but he missed some spots on this one. To begin with, this show is too big for educational theatre. It’s too big for most theatre. Taking the reigns as the reformed convict Jean Valjean was NKU music Professor Jason Vest, who has studied opera performance around the globe. I’ve never been a proponent of guest artists in educational theatre, but in a show revolving around said guest performer’s role, I fail to see the benefits for the student cast, especially when NKU has so many capable musical theatre and vocal performance majors. Vest has the vocals down, but I kept waiting for more emotional expression. It is a tough gig, moonlighting as one of the more hyped and challenging roles in all of musical theatre. I always look forward to “Valjean’s Soliloquy”, which occurs a few numbers into the show. The song is designed to suck the audience in and allow witness to Valjean’s moral transformation. It sets the tone for the rest of the sojourn, however, in this production it felt rushed and unimportant. One of the beautiful aspects of the Valjean character is his vocal range, which needs justification through subtext, but in the end it felt like a very talented opera performer singing pretty words for the crowd.

When reflecting on Les Mis, I always ask myself if Inspector Javert’s lifelong and obsessive disdain for Valjean is justified by the actor’s choices. While Brandon Huber as Javert is vocally strong and one of the better interpretations I’ve seen,  I had trouble pondering this question due to the little emphasis placed on the conflict between the two, even in the famous “Confrontation”. Without the sizzling passion between the foes, which should ultimately be realized through Javert’s ethical and religious plight, that major plot point is lost. I honestly barely remember the two being on stage together (kudos, however, to Jones for Javert’s final scene, seriously well done). Another important question is how well the director handles Valjean’s sudden and rapid aging/declining health at the end, which more often than not is thrown to the wind. While many brush it off as an error in the script, it’s there for a reason and I feel it is the director’s responsibility to interpret this phenomenon, which Jones has not.

Definitely familiarize yourself with the story before you head to the theater. The story takes place over several decades in post-revolution France, focusing on the lives of over a dozen named characters.  It was a very fast paced three hour production. So much was rushed, specifically in the introductions of major characters, so anyone not familiar with the plot would have trouble keeping up. Everything felt safe, which at times was confusing, especially the decision to have Marius sing ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ while sitting on another character’s death bed, with no chairs or tables in sight. The sound was all over the place, with mic issues, I’m assuming a result of super quick costume changes and fight/dance choreography. The lighting was distracting, primarily during solos with no spotlights. As previously mentioned, there was barely a set. You don’t necessarily need turntables or an elaborate set to stage Les Mis, but you need to throw the audience a bone, draw them into the story, give the actors more to interact with. We saw half hints of city buildings on the edges of the stage which I kept waiting to roll out, but never did. We saw a completely nondescript mass in the middle of the stage, which, while providing some layering to the staging, had no meaning to me whatsoever.  What sets they did drop down, like the gate for Cosette’s home and the arch for the wedding, felt cheap and flimsy, almost comical.  And of course, there was the most blatant miscue of all–engraving “Les Miserables” in stone on the floor of the set to scream to the audience, “Yes, we are doing Les Miserables”. This was really to me symbolic of the entire show, Ken Jones basically asking the audience to concentrate on the vocal performance.

With all of this being said, there were some fine performances. The Barricade Ensemble saves the show. Cason Walden as Enjorlas and Miki Abraham as Eponine, both hailing from Paducah Kentucky, were absolutely stellar. Both have an undeniable presence, with the skills to back it up. You should see this show for their performances. The entire Barricade crew, for that matter, was truly delightful. Every one of them has some major acting and vocal chops, and is probably capable of playing the previously mentioned out-sourced lead. It is nice to see Abraham go out on such a strong note, and comforting to see a fresh crop with Walden.

This production just felt incomplete. If you want to do a concert version of Les Mis then fine, do that, and call it that. And this would have been a fine concert version. But to stage a production and then undercut it like this leaves the performers and the audience out in the cold.

August: Osage County  2/20/15  Untethered Theatre Company

Bob Allen and Christine Dye in "August: Osage County"
Bob Allen and Christine Dye in “August: Osage County”

Any family has its ups and downs, issues and secrets. The Westons have that and then some. As literature, “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts is a masterful work. It is multilayered and multi textured but not all of the layers are things you really want to explore. The story of the Weston sisters and their parents and relatives, who come together during a family crisis, reflects and absorbs the energy of many families; sometimes the mirror reflects humor, sometimes naked raw emotion.

Untethered Theatre made a bold choice in choosing this piece, perfectly aligned with their mission, but not with their sight lines, and eliminating seating for the audience. Perhaps there were other answers to the sprawling set in the cramped, yet intimate space. Could the bunkbed and study have been switched for audience comfort? Or was it a conscious effort to make the audience squirm and turn in their seats? As each layer is ripped away, the audience should become more uncomfortable at the sight of their own wounds.

With those details aside, it is a powerful play, where layer upon layer it is revealed that this family has been poisoned and eaten away by a complicated web of lies, denial, illness and the sweet allure of whiskey, pills, weed or wine.

The highlights of the evening are performances by Dale Hodges (Violet Westin), Christine Dye (Mattie Fay), Bob Allen (Charlie), Carter Bratton (Little Charlie) and Mindy Heithaus. Strength of focus, crafting people rich and full in detail confirm these actors as Cincinnati treasures. Another audience member summed up Dale Hodges’ performance “How she made me detest this complicated woman and then be hopeful for her well-being by the end of the play was lovely to watch.” The others rounding out the cast of 13 (!) fulfill their roles well, in a true ensemble cast. Costumes and lighting were appropriate.

I highly recommend this show. It is not for the easily offended. It is long, but most of it flew by as we were all entranced by this wonderful theatre making brave, bold choices.

The Heidi Chronicles  2/12/15 CCM Drama

Sarah Davenport in "The Heidi Chronicles"
Sarah Davenport in “The Heidi Chronicles”

The Heidi Chronicles produced by CCM is an example of perfectly balanced play that blends intelligence with artistry. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein has left a profound impression of a specific time period (1965 – 1989) that in reality impacted the population of the entire world as well as pushed the boundary for many to a new horizon. In approximately two hours and twenty minutes Heidi Chronicles produced by CCM is an example of perfectly balanced play that blends in intelligence with artistry. Playwright Wendy Wasserstein has left a profound impression of a specific time period (1965 – 1989) that in reality impacted the population of the entire world as well as pushed the boundary for many to a new horizon. In approximately two hours and twenty minutes the journey of a random woman, Heidi Holland, has been portrayed intricately. My only disappointment with the script was that it appeared to drag a bit, especially during the second half, when the was not really progressing.

Nonetheless, kudos to the entire cast and crew of the production. What a fabulous job they have done in presenting The Heidi Chronicles. What is more inspiring is the fact that majority of the crew are students and still in their learning process, yet the mastery they have individually and collectively displayed transformed the evening into a memorable and pleasant experience. In every sphere of production the thoughtfulness, caring contribution, and sincere passion for a brilliant production have been manifested in a magnificent manner. Over a hundred people have been actively involved behind the scene to produce this play and they were so well tuned that made the presentation appear to be a piece of cake. All the complexities during scene changes were so well synchronized and flew so seamlessly that the performances were almost flawless. These are students who would challenge the skills of the professionals.

Jillian Coratti has poured her heart into designing the costume that was beyond elaborate and true to time period.The five women in their support group meeting scene was perhaps the height of the craftsmanship of Jillian’s brilliance. Credit is also due to scenic designer Thomas C. Umfrid for his out-of-th-box creative application. The theme itself was so embracing of the era and then topped off with his careful selection of items and slides that were projected. He definitely gave a new meaning to the application of moving visual aids in setting up the perfect ambience of scenic design. Sound designer Corbin Wescott performed a tremendous job by diligently masterminding the sound effects, whether it was the use of the microphone in the lecture hall or the numerous background songs each with perfect background level.

Sarah Davenport as the central character of Heidi Holland went beyond merely doing justice to the portrayal. Her natural performance never allowed us to feel that she was not Heidi Holland. Her intonations, pitch, modulation, dialogue throwing as well as movements completely transformed Sarah into Heidi or at least what as an audience what we would like to imagine of Heidi’s characteristics. Out of the remainder of the cast of fifteen performers, Connor Lawrence as Scoop Rosenbaum demonstrated a perfect understanding of his character. His mannerisms, body language, and expressions were so much in tune with the character. His mindful exploration of the character was so in depth that he flawlessly displayed the typical style of holding the glass of wine and how to take a sophisticated sip, or how to stand erect with his arms around his hips. Through the journey of this almost 25 years he maintained the changes of his age and status meticulously. The remainder of the cast were all superb in their own right. Even the shortest non-verbal characters paid so much attention to their role that the entire play became a feast of the eyes. For example, sophomore Ryan Garrett as the waiter demonstrated such convoluted competence that promises him to land a more dominating character in near future.

To say the least, it must be mentioned that the casting has been fabulous in Heidi Chronicles. Each and every cast member appeared to be just a perfect match for his or her characters.

Finally, director Richard E. Hess deserves a salute from all, including the audience. What a fine knitting he has done in The Heidi Chronicles. A job well done –truly brilliant.

Needless to say, I would highly recommend for all theater lovers not to miss this play. A play of this superior standard is not often found.

Schoolhouse Rock 2/14/15 Children’s Theater of Cincinnati

What a fun show! This show incorporates all the classic songs from the Emmy award winning educational cartoon series of the seventies and eighties, presented for the new generation to experience for the first time. There was something for everyone: classic jokes and songs that adults knew, and upbeat choreography, and live music, for children to dance along too. The costumes brought the original cartoon characters to life, although the oversized wigs were distracting at some points — perhaps they were a bit TOO large. The lighting design was outstanding. Since the show is so audience involved, the lighting really helped to bring the audience members into the show and no one felt shy about participating. Video also helped the audience feel included in the story with projections of themselves on the big screen backdrop. The game show set was outstanding – fun and functional without detracting from the show. At each performance that panelists attended, there were sound issues throughout the entire show. It was really hard for me to hear what some of the performers were singing. This was a function of both the technical issues, but also the enunciation of the cast. One member in particular had a lisp-y quality to his speaking voice that made the wordy songs difficult to understand. Overall the cast was dynamic and talented, but no one stood out from the pack. They all brought amazing and infectious energy to the stage and performed Jay Goodlett’s choreography well, which was suited to each song and the teach-y cartoon-y nature of the show. Using the Rusty Griswolds as a live band was a smart marketing move for the Children’s Theatre and it was a welcome change from the typical pre-recorded soundtrack. (Do this again, CTC!)

In the Heat of the Night 2/13/15 Falcon Theatre

Michael Hall and Derek Snow in "In the Heat of the Night"
Michael Hall and Derek Snow in “In the Heat of the Night”

“They call me MISTER TIBBS”

So says black Pasadena Homicide Investigator, Virgil Tibbs, strongly played by Derek Snow in the Falcon Theatre’s production of In the Heat of the Night.

It’s the early sixties, and Tibbs is traveling in the deep South. He is waiting for a bus in Argo, Alabama when he arrested by the local hayseed cops for a murder. Virgil confronts racism and prejudice while helping the local sheriff solve the murder mystery.

This production of In the Heat of the Night is outstanding. Small intimate spaces like the Falcon put the audience close to the action of the stage. Director Ed Cohen smartly places all the actors behind a scrim, reminding the audience of the ensemble, which is very good. Each actor of the 10-person troupe was well-prepared for their roles. Derek Snow was solid throughout, commanding each scene. He needed a good counterpoint for his strong, laconic role of Mr. Tibbs and he got it in Michael Hall’s interpretation of Sheriff Gillespie, an outsider hired to be sheriff. Hall’s performance matched Snow’s, and you really felt his transition from desiring to be accepted in a bigoted town to accepting the new world where a black man could be equal.

Cohen used the actors to change the set and this technique moved the play along at a brisk pace. Simon Powell and Dan Maloney played police officers and both were very fine. I like when actors project their voices toward the audience! Tom Peters also stands out, playing two crucial roles.

Special mention must be made for the production music provided by two actors on stage, Rich Setterberg and Allison Evans. Rich played three roles, and played bass lines of popular tunes from the era (and harmonica). Allison provided a drum beat and did a good job playing her character.

The lighting in this show was also very fine. The Whiskey Shambles Band played some blues tunes before the show. This was a great way to set this fine period piece by John Ball.

Falcon is celebrating its 25th season. Falcon Producer Ted Weil wears more hats than the inventory of Batsakes Hat Shop downtown. Lighting design, set design, set construction, sound design. In addition, Falcon Theatre has successfully purchased the building and have made serious improvements to the theatre space.

Greater Cincinnati theatre lovers are lucky to have the Falcon Theatre as one of the many theatrical treasures available. Go see this show!

Any Given Monday     2/13/15   Mad Anthony Theatre Company

If you stick with Mad Anthony Theatre Company’s production of “Any Given Monday,” you will be amply rewarded. Overall, the show got off to a rocky start opening night, but the second act fulfilled the play’s promise. The plot gets started with a potentially trite action – wife cheats on husband, possibly ending a 20+ year marriage. Husband Lenny, very well played by Chris Kramer, is devastated. He is a Good Man (everyone says so) who would never do the same to his wife, and all he wants is to have her back. He and his friend Mickey talk while watching Monday Night Football on TV – hence the title of the play. This is an insightful observation by playwright Bruce Graham; serious talk can flow easier if people (maybe especially men) can pretend to be distracted by the screen. The long first-act scene between the two friends is played out, rather than acted – that’s how well each actor slips into his role. Daniel C. Britt’s Mickey is rough and cynical from his long-time job on the subway. He spends his days observing all kinds of people, and none of them escapes his sarcasm. Mickey’s lines account for many of the laughs in the show, although sometimes they are cheap laughs based on bigotry and laced with profanity. It is in this first-act scene that the real plot of the show takes off, and the second act provides more twists that can’t be revealed without spoiling the pleasure for future audiences. You know an audience is totally involved when, as on opening night, there is a collective gasp at a revealing and well-played piece of stage business. Bekka Eaton as wife Risa shines in the second act. The actress is very ill-served in the first act, by her placement at an ill-lit edge of the stage and the badly chosen costume for her first appearance. By the end of “Any Given Monday” we are pondering some big ethical and moral questions about honesty, death, good and evil, introduced by the fourth performer, daughter Sarah, adequately yet awkwardly played by Allyson West. Post-show discussions may well start with “What would you do?” and that is the mark of a thoughtful script well played.

It must also be note that the newly renovated theatre is warm and welcoming, and a visit to the Fitton Center always provides additional opportunities to enjoy art shows. There are three new installations which you will also enjoy.

Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992    2/6/15  Diogenes Theatre Company

“Where do I finda [sic] justice?”

This plea comes from a Korean liquor store owner and is part of the symphony of voices that makes up Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a play being staged by Diogenes Theatre Company.

Culled from interviews taken in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, playwright Anna Deavere Smith tells the story of the riots which occurred when the Los Angeles police officers responsible for beating of Rodney King went to trial and were found innocent of police brutality.

Deavere Smith weaves this play out of the voices of those involved and/or affected by the riots—disenfranchised African-Americans, Korean store owners, law enforcement officers, and riot victims. Without judging any of her interviewees, Deavere Smith lets them speak their peace, even if their views are not popular or politically correct. In this way, she creates a dialogue about issues of race, justice, equality, and opportunity that are essential to understanding the American character.

Playing the 30-plus characters is Torie Wiggins, who provides a tour de force performance as she deftly switches between each of these different characters. At one turn, she is a rich real estate agent talking about her difficulties of getting dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel during the riots and at another turn, she is a close relative of Rodney King talking about the false image the media was giving of Rodney King.

What impressed me most about Wiggins’ portrayal of all these characters was that she could sell the people she was portraying so effectively that I forgot that a lone actor was playing all these roles. That occurred with her portrayal of Mrs. Young-Soon Han quoted at the beginning of this review. Wiggins so sounded like the Korean liquor store owner that I forgot that a Korean actress was not playing the role.

Director Brian Isaac Phillips does a good job moving Wiggins through this script and making certain that it was clear who Wiggins was speaking for at any given moment. The only false note I had with the staging was that in Act Two; Wiggins does a musical chair bit around a set dining room table, changing chairs every time she was a different person. I felt this slowed down the action as Wiggins moved from chair to chair.

However, this is a minor quibble for an otherwise truly outstanding production.

This was the second outing for Diogenes, having previously producing Bibi by local playwright Kalman Kivkovich last year. Bibi earned two LCT nominations for sound and set design. Diogenes is living up to its mission statement to “producing high-quality professional theater in the Cincinnati area.” Their next production is the moral thriller Death and Maiden going up in mid-April at the Jarson-Kaplan Theatre, Aronoff Center for the Arts.

Diogenes Theater Company is poised to be the “must-see” theater company if they continue producing such strong theater. Twilight: Los, Angeles, 1992 only had four performances, so hopefully they will remount this show in the future.

I quote from the play from Mrs. Young-Soon Han who asks where she can find justice. While the play does not offer definitive answers, Twilight: Los, Angeles, 1992 is a good place to begin to address such issues.

 

The Other Place   1/28/15    Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati

Michael Bath and Regina Pugh in "The Other Place"
Michael Bath and Regina Pugh in “The Other Place”

The Other Place, a play by Sharr White running at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, is a study in subtle greys and mist. So much of what you think is happening is not and when you think you know what’s coming, you don’t.

This haunting mystery by Sharr White has been heaped with honors and deservedly so. The dialogue has the sharp precision of Pinter spun with a delicacy that allows the audience to see a mind unwinding in a very short 75 minutes.

It is simply breathtaking to watch Regina Pugh, as Juliana, move with utter believability from a professional and prickly doctor to a woman on the edge, and on to the poignant and aching ending, with confident and sensitive brush strokes. Pugh has shown her chops as an artist who can surprise as in The Skriker, at Ensemble years ago, and more recently in ETC’s Next Fall and My Name is Asher Lev. She’s also a founding member (along with co-star Michael Bath) of The Performance Gallery, known for pushing the boundaries of creativity. Pugh is striking as a woman fighting dementia.

The irony is that Juliana’s scientific breakthrough is the development of a synthetic molecule that blocks dementia involving plaque growth on the brain. Juliana’s husband, who she continually tells us she divorcing, is a very welcome dramatic turn for Michael Bath, usually seen flexing his considerable comedic range. Bath as Ian presents a controlled and complex portrait of a marriage, sometimes coaxing the humor in a situation and other times weary of the unfolding mysteries of Juliana, the obvious love of his life. Ian, a renown oncologist, is at turns solicitous, angered, and deeply wounded by the inability to cure his wife or to understand the subtle changes that happen to Juliana over time. Another irony.

Bath and Pugh have played husband and wife several times onstage and the trust between them is evident and deeply moving. We see the underpinnings of a long term relationship.

This is a solid ensemble rounded out by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company veterans Billy Chase (The Man) and Kelly Mengelkoch (The Woman). Each play several roles with Chase giving a three dimensional portrait of a researcher at the beginning of a promising career and dealing with young parenthood. Chase gives us a lot of information in a scant scene that the dialogue doesn’t articulate. The actor must paint it and fill it in and does he ever! Mengelkoch plays a doctor trying to maintain control of Juliana at different stages in her treatment. She is particularly good as a startled home owner of “the other place” on Cape Cod, who makes one of many sharp turns in the space between dialogue and information found beautifully between the lines by these actors.

So much of this play is what artists call the white space. What’s not there. White is a playwright who trusts actors to fill what’s not spoken, harder than it looks. White comes by his trust of actors honestly as a former actor and MFA recipient from ACT.

Lynn Meyers direction is sure and strong. When actors are moving backward and forward in time it can be confusing. Not in this play; Myers steers the ensemble unflinchingly toward the truth. We don’t know how it’s going to end but it’s good to be led through this tissue paper thin labyrinth of the mind with someone who knows where we’re going.

It’s an embarrassment of riches to add the dramatically pure sound from Fitz Patton who has a long list of impressive creds and can add The Other Place to them. (He was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for the Broadway run of The Other Place.) It is a complicated sound plot that involves not only complex layering of off stage domestic sound, but also the amplification of Juliana’s mic as she delivers her dense medical speeches and adds just the right mix that tells its own story of what Juliana is hearing.

This show will undoubtedly stir many conversations about dementia as the Baby Boomers take on the responsibility of caring for aging parents. I wanted to track Juliana’s “warning signs” and push the replay button to review the progression. But, as in life, we don’t always see clearly in the midst of descent until we are at the end.

This is the kind of play that Ensemble does best, great stories with great storytellers. It is wonderful showcase of Cincinnati’s fine acting talent, led by a master, and a cracking good mystery in the bargain

The Other Place runs through February 15th at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. Tickets may be purchased at www.ensemblecincinnati.org.

A Handmaid’s Tale  1/22/2015  The Know Theatre

KnowHandmaidsTaleimage
Corinne Mohlenhoff in “A Handmaid’s Tale”

If I’m being honest, I was skeptical walking into the Know Theatre‘s production of The Handmaid’s Tale. Margaret Atwood has long been my favorite author, and I spent a full semester of English studying this book in particular. While I was excited to see it come to life, I was scared it would have the same book-to-movie effect where details and even plot lines were cut for the sake of time or budget. Brian Isaac Phillips, however, did not disappoint. Directing his wife, Corinne Mohlenhoff, as the handmaid Offred, I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting Atwood’s work through the script adaptation by Joe Stollenwerk. Set in the not-so-distant dystopian conservative future, women are categorized based on their fertility, serving as “handmaids” for wealthy couples that can’t conceive. Offred narrates between her position in the Commander (Fred’s) house and her memories from “the time before,” which sounds like it could be as close as 30 years away.

The set, designed by Andrew J Hungerford, grew on me more and more as the two acts unfolded. The disintegrating walls, burnt wood floor and high windows combined a dystopian underground bunker with a prison cell, only letting in sunlight where you couldn’t reach it. As the show doesn’t aim to be highly “spectacle,” with one set, one costume and one actor, I enjoyed being able to interpret the set as a metaphor as well.

Also deserving mention were the light and sound design, by Hungerford and Doug Borntrager, respectively. The combination of natural stage lighting and overhead fluorescents transported us to either an old school gym, a quiet bedroom or (twice) the doorway to the unknown. Borntrager’s sound design also seemed effortlessly realistic, as I turned around more than once to see which audience member was talking while Offred described a conversation. Even the simplest suggestions of sound in the script were brought to life and pulled the audience closer into the story.

The nature of the show is, as Offred repeats, “a reconstruction.” It is not live action or a distant memory, but a retelling, full of minor modifications and inner dialogue. That being said, I enjoyed Mohlenhoff’s reconstruction of Offred, but felt there could have been more distinction between her actions and her role as a narrator– that is, defining her self between present, past and “the time before.”

While I heard remarks about the length and wordiness of the narration, what else would you expect from a one-woman novel? Again, I am extremely partial to the story, and found it even more relevant today than I did at first reading, but I would recommend this show to most modern & mature audiences, as it can make the dystopian future seem startlingly close.

Greater Tuna 1/23/2015 Covedale Theater

CovedaleGreaterTunaImageTwo hardworking actors playing 21 zany characters are the comedic centerpiece of Greater Tuna. Justin Smith and Matt Wilson earn the audience’s laughter and ovations in the production now playing at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts.

The setting is Tuna, the third-smallest town in Texas, and a place where “the Lions Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never dies.” The glue of the town is the local radio station, where no piece of news or gossip is too unimportant to be broadcast, and where everyone with an opinion is invited to call in.

And in this satire, everyone has a politically incorrect opinion. The Smut Snatchers group wants to remove books from the high school library, specifically “Roots,” because “it doesn’t properly present the other side of slavery,” and “Romeo and Juliet,” because “it just shows teenagers having sex.”

A Ku Klux Klan member makes a conspiracy case against Agent Orange when he notes that he hired several Vietnam vets; only four of them died and none turned orange. The owner of a used weapons shop advertises that all her products are “guaranteed to kill.”

And there is the elderly woman who routinely poisons dogs who come into her yard. This time, she accidentally poisons her husband’s valuable bird dog, then runs over it with the car to hide her crime.

This is Greater Tuna – consistently in bad taste, always offensive. But it can be funny. Director Bob Brunner makes that case in his program notes: “Greater Tuna is irreverent and wrong on so many levels. Prepare to laugh.”

Easier to admire is Covedale’s production of Greater Tuna. Actors Smith and Wilson move seamlessly among their characters – men, women, teenagers to senior citizens, each with a costume and wig change. Kudos to costume designer Caren Young and her team of quick-change artists: Betsy Brunner Kline, Natasha Boeckmann and Melanie Hall.

Smith and Wilson make each character (caricature, actually) distinct by voice and movement. A highlight is when they draw the audience into the scene, as a stand-in for a church congregation.

Also to be admired is the set, designed by Brett Bowling. The huge barn façade is decorated with old metal signs for Esso and beer, including one that reads “Hippies use back door,” and flanked by an old-time TV antenna and an oil derrick. Cleverly, the hayloft door opens and becomes the radio station studio.

Greater Tuna runs through Feb. 15. Call 513-241-6550 for ticket information.

Waiting for Godot 1/17/2015 Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Nick Rose and Bruce Cromer in "Waiting for Godot"
Nick Rose and Bruce Cromer in “Waiting for Godot”

VLADIMIR: They’ve called us back.
ESTRAGON: For an encore?
VLADIMIR: No, we’re supposed to say what it means.
[A pause]
ESTRAGON: What what means?
VLADIMIR: This play! We have to explain it.
ESTRAGON: And then?
VLADIMIR: [discouraged] I don’t know. Maybe Godot will arrive. But again, maybe he won’t. He’s not very reliable. [Another pause] Still, we can try.

And try they did.

“Waiting for Godot” was an excellent production of a modern classic, performed by two consummate Cincinnati actors, Bruce Cromer and Nick Rose. Jim Hopkins and Brent Vimtrup were fine as the two supporting roles, Pozzo and Lucky. The story line revolves around two seemingly homeless men waiting for someone or something named Godot. Vladimir and Estragon wait near a tree on a barren stretch of road, inhabiting a drama spun from their own consciousness. The result is a comical wordplay of poetry, dreamscapes, and nonsense, which has been interpreted as a somber summation of mankind’s inexhaustible search for meaning.

I would certainly recommend it to audiences who are interested in absurdist or existential theater. Still, I really felt a spark lacking from last night’s production and a vague disappointment.

Bruce Cromer (Estragon) and Nick Rose (Vladimir) are stars who always show us their formidable technique. They don’t make acting look easy. We see all the effort, all the comic setting up. They signal what they’re about to do, which can make the pay-off a lot of fun. In this production they spend more time looking at the audience than at each other, which may undercut the sense of affection and chemistry we expect from these two characters. However, the play is written as an awkward car ride with a stranger (or a teenager), fluctuating between forced attempts at conversation and uncomfortable silence, focused more on getting to the final destination, than actually taking the time to enjoy the scenery or have meaningful conversations which could progress your plot.

Since “Godot” is replete with theater references anyway, there’s a redundancy at work in director Brian Isaac Phillip’s vision that, after intermission, may leave you waiting for the final curtain while the characters are on stage waiting for Godot.

Nevertheless, it is a classic, and should be seen by those willing to bring their part to the production, to contemplate how they have been filling their time on earth: waiting–or being and doing with others, creating something alive which doesn’t have to rely on Godot’s support, approval or blessing.

ESTRAGON: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?
VLADIMIR: Yes, yes, we’re magicians.

West Side Story   1/9/2015  The Carnegie Theater

Carnegie West Side Story ImageWhen entering The Carnegie‘s production of West Side Story, I was greeted with the set we’ve come to associate with the show– brick walls, busted metal fence, the ever-important “balcony-turned-fire escape.” But from the first moment of the Prologue, as Kate Mock Elliot’s Anbodys scurries down the mirroring proscenium ladders and Brian Bailey’s Riff lights up a cigarette, the show elevates to something grander. Immediately followed by Jay Goodlett’s stunning battle-meets-ballet choreography, just reminiscent enough of the original moves, the Jets and Sharks take the stage.

As the Jets receive the majority of the stage time, I was impressed by the ensemble of the men and their character distinctions, both in dance and scene. Most notable were Tyler Kuhlmann’s Action, who seemed to carry the Jets in their dance numbers, and Brandon Huber’s comedic Baby John.

Marcus Shields’ Tony seemed youthful enough in scenework, but the casting of two operatic voices as the leads seemed to age both him and Abigail Paschke’s Maria. Paschke had much more personality than one would typically see in a Maria, and it was refreshing to have seen a different choice made of the ingenue role. Chemistry between the two seemed minimal, yet there seemed to be an exuberant amount of kissing in virtually every scene between them.

The most impressive performance for me was Layan Elwazani as Anita, whose charisma and dance ability were matched by her strong vocals, both in the raucous “America” and the contrasting “A Boy Like That”.

In both “America” and “Mambo”, the dancing ensemble was very impressive, but almost overshadowed by the lively costumes. Joy Galbraith brought the petticoats in a rainbow of colors, all of which were heavily utilized in the choreography.

The major distraction I noticed opening night was with sound quality, both from the orchestra and the booth. Many of the instruments seemed to be competing with one another in some of the songs, and many mics had issues. The best sound of the night, however, was the (spoiler) gunshot in the final scene. Montez Jenkins’ Chino appears out of nowhere in a moment of silence, and the jump and gasp from the entire audience was almost comical.

While the show’s ending is, expectedly, grim, the Carnegie‘s production hits all of the highlights we’ve come to love about West Side Story. From the snaps of the Jet boys to the sass of the Shark girls, I would recommend the show to all.