Halloween seems on its way to being celebrated as a classic holiday, so perhaps it's appropriate that Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has not one but two productions that specifically the give-me-goosebumps crowd.
The 13th annual Cincinnati Entertainment Awards for Theater were handed out last night in a loose, fun event at Below Zero Lounge in Over-the-Rhine. Amazingly, 11 different local theater organizations took home a trophy: Cincinnati Playhouse, Ensemble Theatre, Cincinnati Shakespeare, Know Theatre, College-Conservatory of Music, New Stage Collective, New Edgecliff Theatre, Cincinnati Music Theatre, Footlighters, Covedale Center for the Performing Arts and Artemis Exchange for a production at the 2009 Cincy Fringe Festival.
It's taken 17 years for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company to get around to staging King John. With only four more beyond this one to complete the cycle of producing all 37 of Shakespeare's plays, CSC is headed to a position that few theater companies can boast about.
When you see a show like Emma, the Jane Austen musical recently presented at the Cincinnati Playhouse (pictured), do you ever wonder where it came from? If you paid attention to some of the Playhouse’s publicity, you might know it premiered at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, Calif., where it was a big box-office hit. In fact, the theater’s artistic director Robert Kelley, who staged the original, and several cast members from the original production came together again in Cincinnati for the Playhouse production.
The clash of good and evil seems to be on the mind of most of our local theaters this week as numerous openings bring plenty of offerings for you to choose from.
Abigail/1702 at the Cincinnati Playhouse is a kind of sequel to Arthur Miller's The Crucible. This new play by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (it's actually a world premiere) takes the character of Abigail Williams, the villainous and spiteful catalyst for the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and moves her 10 years beyond. She's living in Boston, an outcast caring for people afflicted with the "pox" — and haunted by her past. She knows her actions in Salem were evil, perhaps inspired by the Devil himself. How she copes with the current events of her life is very much dictated by her actions from the past. This is a fascinating variation on a familiar character, told with an air of supernatural events and eerie sights and sounds. Box office: 513-421-3888.
Freud's Last Session at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati puts a debate about the existence of God front and center, with the distance between good and evil or right and wrong as the battleground. Psychoanalyst and atheist Sigmund Freud is dying of oral cancer; he invites to his London flat a young academic and newly converted Christian, C. S. Lewis (who later wrote the Christian allegory The Chronicles of Narnia). On the September day in 1939 when England declares war on Germany — perhaps another clash of good and evil — they meet for a conversation. The play is almost all talking and very little action, but the clash of ideas is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat. That's made especially true by two fine actors: Bruce Cromer (the Playhouse's longstanding Ebenezer Scrooge and Cincinnati Shakespeare's recent Atticus Finch) as the earnest Lewis, and Barry Mulholland (a local newcomer, but a veteran actor) as the skeptical Freud. This one will make you think. Box office: 513-421-3555.
Camelot at Covington's Carnegie Center offers a distilled version of the Broadway hit from 1960. It's presented as a concert, singers backed up by members of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, led by its maestro Mischa Santora. The story of King Arthur's court, a place of goodness and justice brought down by an illicit love affair, is another glimpse of the good and evil affect history — even if it's mythic history. Former NKU professor Mark Hardy is back in town to play Arthur. Through Feb. 3. Box office: 859-957-1940.
The evils of racial injustice are at the heart and soul of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Memphis, which has a touring production at the Aronoff through Feb. 3. Set in the 1950s, it's about a white radio DJ who digs black music long before it became mainstream. His love of the music leads him to a romance with a talented singer, and that causes complications in a town where black and white don't mingle without serious repercussions. Of course, it's a musical, so this doesn't dig too deeply into the issues, but it's definitely a reminder of a time and place that feels very foreign to us today — even if some attitudes persist. Ultimately, it's about the power of music to bridge difficult boundaries, and that's a good message. Box: 800-987-2787.
February is Black History Month, a period when the arts traditionally wake up and pay attention to African-American stories and artists.
I'm always a bit troubled by this segmenting, so I want to commend both
the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
for presenting two fine productions of shows featuring African Americans
in engaging stories — in the middle of March. They represent two of this weekend's best choices.
At ETC, Black Pearl Sings! features two outstanding local actresses. Annie Fitzpatrick plays Susannah Mullally, a folk music researcher in the 1930s; Torie Wiggins is Alberta "Pearl" Johnson, a prisoner (for a violent but probably justified crime) who has a remarkable recollection of songs she learned as a child from her family. They form an uneasy alliance that turns into a guarded friendship, and Fitzpatrick and Wiggins have a delightful interplay and chemistry. I heard that this might be the 40th production Fitzpatrick has done at ETC; she's a versatile actress, and she convincingly creates the uptight but driven Susannah. Wiggins, who graduated from the drama program at CCM, earns her Equity card on this production: Chronologically, she's probably a tad young for the role, but she so wholly embodies Pearl's feisty character that it makes no difference. Hers is a tour-de-force rendition, musically and theatrically. This one is a definite must-see. Box office: 513-421-3555.
Let's give the Playhouse — and new artistic director Blake Robison — props for finally getting around to staging a show by Horton Foote, who died in 2009 at the age of 92. He was a prolific dramatist and screenwriter (he wrote screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies) for years, and his play A Trip to Bountiful is a lovely, emotional paean to the notion that "there's no place like home." Foote wrote the play about an elderly Texas wido pining to return to her hometown in 1953 (as a play for television, in fact) and it was an award-winning 1985 movie with a white cast. For the Playhouse, Timothy Douglas has changed up the story by overlaying an African-American filter over the story and casting veteran actress Lizann Mitchell as Carrie Watts. She's a dream of an actress, portraying a tiny Texas cyclone of energy with a wry sense of humor. The story is nothing too innovative — she runs away from a cramped apartment where she lives with her son and his demanding wife to return to her girlhood home, which has all but disappeared — but the truth and dignity of the tale (and Mitchell's performance) make this show worth seeing. Box office: 513-421-3888.
Finally, I need to mention Clifton Players production of A Behanding in Spokane by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. He's the writer of dark tales like The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Cripple of Inishmaan, as well as the even darker film In Bruges. Clifton Players perform at Clifton Performance Theatre, a tiny, intimate storefront space on Ludlow Avenue. I've heard lots of positive remarks about this production. Be prepared to be shocked and entertained by the show's comic violence. Tickets: 513-861-7469.
The pickings have been kind of slim at Know Theatre over the past year. The quality has been high (the staging of When the Rain Stops Falling was one of the best shows onstage locally during 2013, and Mike Bartlett’s Cock offered a showcase of strong acting), but the works have felt few and far between. So today’s announcement from Producing Artistic Director Eric Vosmeier of a full schedule that’s already under way and extends beyond the typical end of the 2013-2014 season is welcome news. Here’s what’s in store following Lauren Gunderson’s Macbeth-inspired comedy Toil and Trouble (presently onstage through Aug. 24):
Bull by Mike Bartlett (Nov. 1-30): Yes, it’s another piece by the playwright of Cock, making Know the first U.S. theater to produce both pieces by the British writer. Both use a stripped-down aesthetic — no props and no scenery make for a lot of onstage intensity regarding characters and their relationships. This one is the story of three mid-level executives who compete for two corporate positions. Brian Robertson, who also staged Cock, returns to direct this one, and George Alexander, one of the four actors in the earlier show, will perform in this one, too.
The Naughty List (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings, Dec. 1-30): OTRImprov, an improvisational comedy troupe that’s part of Know’s Jackson Street Market, will hold forth in the courtyard at Arnold’s Bar & Grill in downtown Cincinnati for the holidays. Combining long- and short-form improv, the performers will offer a very irreverent take on the holidays — with the help of audience suggestions and participation.
Pluto (Jan. 24-Feb. 22, 2014): Know’s former artistic director Jason Bruffy comes back to town to stage a poignant and evocative new script by Steve Yockey. The production is part of a rolling world premiere through the National New Play Network, and it will feature two excellent local professionals, Annie Fitzpatrick and Tori Wiggins. An ordinary day in a suburban home takes a strange turn following a local tragedy, what with all hell breaking loose. Know’s publicity says the show “explores tragedy, loss and the way love can blind us to the truth.”
TBD (April 4-May 10, 2014): Know is holding a slot for a production to be announced later. You can be sure it will be another script with the ink still drying.
Cincinnati Fringe Festival (May 27-June 7, 2014): The 11th annual Fringe will be back with 12 days of theater, music, dance, film, art — and a lot of stuff in between that kind of defies simple description. Applications for performers will be accepted starting Sept. 1, 2013 (through Dec. 6). Info: www.cincyfringe.com.
Moby Dick (Fall 2014): Playwright Julian Rad adapted Herman Melville’s great American novel for an Off-Off-Broadway production in 2003. Michael Burnham, recently retired from a long career as a professor of drama at UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, will co-direct the show with designer Andrew Hungerford. The tale of revenge and obsession with Captain Ahab pursuing the great white whale that maimed him has been stripped to its essence for what promises to be a highly theatrical endeavor that uses sea chanteys and creative staging.
In addition to these full-scale productions, Know has announced several Fringe “encores,” the return of shows that were hits during the festival’s 10th iteration back in June. Jon Kovach will repeat his powerful one-man show based on Ron Jones’ The Wave (Aug. 26-27); comedian/storyteller/singer Kevin Thornton will present Stairway to Kevin (Sept. 6 and 13); and Paul Strickland’s one-man trailer park fairytale comedy, Ain’t True and Uncle False (Oct. 11-12).
Tickets for the full-productions are $15 in advance, and $20 the week of the performance; Fringe “encore” tickets are $12. Know offers sets of six-show flex passes for $90 that do not expire. They can be exchanged for tickets for any of these productions. For more information: 513-300-5669 or www.knowtheatre.com.
I was at the Tuesday night opening of a one-week run of the tour of the 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables. You might be saying, “I’ve seen that before — more than once.” But this is a new version — no more turntable or pirouetting barricades. Now we have some startling video that let’s you see the rebellious students marching in the streets of Paris and Jean Valjean carrying Marius through the sewers. The tour has great voices in all the roles; the volume was amped up beyond my hearing threshold, but it’s a powerful show — after all these years. Through Sunday at the Aronoff Center. Tickets: 800-982-2787.
Here’s a tip if you want something that’s new(ish): The Light in the Piazza was a Tony Award winner in 2005, and it’s being staged by one of the most reliable community theaters in the Cincinnati area, Footlighters Inc., at its Stained Glass Theatre in Newport. It’s a romantic love story set in Italy in 1953, told with sophisticated music, sometimes operatic performances. In June 2006, just before it closed, it was broadcast on the PBS Live from Lincoln Center series, drawing more than two million viewers. That many can’t make it to Newport (it runs through May 19), but if you’re interested, Footlighters is offering a “buy one, get one” deal for its 2 p.m. matinee this Sunday, May 13. Tickets: 859-652-3849.
If you resonate with the Blues, I recommend that you head to the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park for Keith Glover’s Thunder Knocking on the Door. It’s a revival of sorts from 1999 — but thoroughly and creatively reimagined for the Eden Park’s last mainstage production of Ed Stern’s final season leading the Tony Award-winning theater. The musical — with emotional tunes mostly by Keb’ Mo’ — tells the story of the power of love, music and Blues guitar players. It’s presented with panache, including technology and design that are all about 2012. Through May 20. Box office: 513-421-3888.
The Doo-Wop silliness of The Marvelous Wonderettes, a hit from 2010 at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, is brought to life again with Life Could Be A Dream, Roger Bean’s sequel to the story of some bubbly girls who bond around teen hits from the ’50s and ’60s. This time it’s boys, and that’s most of the difference. As in the two Wonderette shows, Dream is shot through with adolescent angst, this time around a local radio station contest that could “make them famous.” It’s an excuse for two dozen tunes from the era, a familiar formula. But ETC’s talented cast makes it a lot of fun. (Through May 20.) Box office: 513-421-3555.
This weekend is your final chance to see Know Theatre’s production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. (Final performance is Saturday.) It’s a youthful mix of political commentary, driving Rock, history, humor and sober observations about America’s seventh president — played as a Rock hero. I gave it a Critic’s Pick. Call the box office to see if there are any cancellations: 513-300-5669.
Each week in Stage Door, Rick Pender offers theater tips for the weekend, often with a few pieces of theater news.
Sondheim created the tale of the “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” with the notion that he wanted it to scare people, and it’s done just that for three decades. It’s a great show in the run-up to Halloween — what with Sweeney’s collaboration with Mrs. Lovett to turn his victims into meat pies — and that’s surely what Footlighters, Inc., had in mind when they scheduled it. (It opens tonight and continues through Oct. 24.)
Check out CityBeat's extensive coverage of the 2009 Cincy Fringe Festival. As of noon Saturday we've posted reviews of 21 productions, with more coming every day until all 31 shows have been reviewed.