The American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) today announced six finalists for its Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award recognizing playwrights for the best scripts that premiered professionally outside of New York City during 2010. Among the finalists is The History of Invulnerability by David Bar Katz, a script that premiered in April 2010 at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
There's a bounty of
theater choices to keep you entertained this weekend, with productions
on venues all over town — including on several university campuses. Here
are a few you might want to check out.
During several of the years I spent at CityBeat as arts and entertainment editor, I sat just a few feet away from Kathy Y. Wilson. She was an indisputable force of nature: When she arrived in the office, the otherwise quiet room full of writers exploded with her raucous laughter, challenging dialogue and outspoken presence.
I had the singular privilege of editing her "Your Negro Tour Guide" column for quite a bit of that time, giving me a regular dose of her wit and profound insights about an aspect of American life that some readers loved and others hated. No one was take-it-or-leave-it about Kathy and what she had to say in her writing.
Last night The Cincinnati Enquirer presented for the fourth year its "me-too" theater awards, the Acclaims. (CityBeat's Cincinnati Entertainment Awards will mark their 13th year in August.) It was as quirky as ever, with no real explanation of how or who awards are decided on. I will grudgingly admit that any recognition for Cincinnati's theater scene is worthwhile, and the Acclaims made some fine choices, but there were just as many that left me scratching my head, especially several of the "best of the best" choices.
On Thursday evening I was that the Cincinnati Playhouse for the opening of Speaking in Tongues. If you like heady, noir-ish drama with flashes of sardonic humor, this is the show for you. Andrew Bovell’s 1996 script uses four actors to play nine characters whose lives intersect and diverge and reconnect in ways that you have to pay attention to if you want to get the story. This is not a sit-back-and-relax kind of play, but rather one you’ll be trying to follow the narratives, which are neither linear nor chronological. But they are certainly fascinating. The cast includes two of Cincinnati’s best local professional actors, Bruce Cromer and Amy Warner, and two others who have delivered memorable Playhouse performances, R. Ward Duffy and Henny Russell (who happen to be husband and wife). In fact, Warner is married to director Michael Evan Haney, so this show about deceitful relationships and the importance of trust and faith must have made for an intriguing rehearsal process. Be prepared to think hard if you go to see this one on the Shelterhouse stage. 513-421-3888.
The holiday weekend is not when most people think about theater-going, but I can recommend a good choice or two if you prefer being indoors to celebrating the kick-off of summer: The Cincinnati Playhouse's production of Marry Me a Little is a quick entertainment (only a bit more than an hour long), a good choice if you're busy with other things like Taste of Cincinnati.
Last Sunday evening I gave a lecture prior to the Cincinnati Playhouse performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. I stuck around to see the show again (I attended the opening on March 8 in order to review it for CityBeat). I gave the show a Critic’s Pick, but empty seats on Sunday reminded me that a theater critic’s opinion is not necessarily the only endorsement needed for a show to sell tickets. Although this is a fine production, several reasons come to mind: The show is not well known; if people do know it, they’ve heard it was a flop when it had a brief Broadway run in 1981. John Doyle’s production shows little evidence of the latter and demonstrates amply that there’s much to be appreciated. But there’s not been much buzz around Merrily at the Playhouse, despite the work of Doyle and his excellent cast. The upshot is tickets are still available for most performances, through March 31. Doyle inventively staged Sondheim’s Company in 2006 at the Playhouse, a production that moved to Broadway and earned a Tony Award. This production uses the same approach: actors provide their own musical accompaniment. It’s a showbiz tale about chasing success at the expense of happiness. We start at the demise of a bond between three former friends who wonder what happened to the “good thing going” they once had. We trace back to their earliest, optimistic moments via great music, brilliant design and excellent performances. If you love musicals, you should see Merrily We Roll Along. I’ve talked with several people who have returned the Playhouse production. (Merrily is not likely to transfer to New York as Company did in 2006. The show was presented by Encores! at New York’s City Center in February, so theater critics have not paid attention to the Cincinnati production as they did with Company in 2006, right after Doyle staged Sweeney Todd on Broadway.) Box office: 513-421-3888
You can’t go wrong with Donald Margulies’ very much in-the-moment drama Time Stands Still at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. It’s the story of two journalists who have been addicted to the adrenalin rush of covering wars. He’s now running away and hiding in film reviews (there’s a touch of post-traumatic stress, it seems, because he’s watching classic horror films all the time), and she’s recovering from injuries that resulted from a roadside bomb blast in Iraq. What’s next for them? Well, that’s what the play is about — a return for more or settling for a calmer, safer life, represented by a happy if unlikely couple who visit them, the photographer’s editor and mentor and his naïve young girlfriend. Four intriguing character studies add up to an evening of thoughtful drama. I gave it a Critic’s Pick; here’s a link to my review. Through April 1. Tickets: 513-421-3555
Northern Kentucky University just opened a production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good. It’s about people sent off to a penal colony in Australia in the 1780s. The governor decides to impose order on the criminals by having them put on a play. It’s not an easy undertaking — but it changes the lives of everyone involved. It’s a play about the power of the arts to humanize people and transform them into something new and better. The show’s original Broadway production in 1991 was nominated for six Tony Awards. It’s one of my favorite scripts, a fine choice for NKU’s drama program, where it’s being staged by Daryl Harris. Through April 1. Tickets: 859-572-5464
Finally, if you’d like to instill some interest in the theater in a couple of kids, take them to one of this weekend’s performances of Rapunzel! Rapunzel! A Very Hairy Fairy Tale, presented by The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati. It’s a world premiere musical created by composer Janet Vogt and writer Mark Friedman, who wrote How I Became a Pirate, a hit from last season. Performances happen at the nicely renovated Taft Theatre on Saturday and Sunday (as well as March 31). Tickets: 513-569-8080, x13.
Each week in Stage Door, Rick Pender offers theater tips for the weekend, often with a few pieces of theater news.
It's funny how one or two words can convey many different meanings. Take the word Mauritius. If you know your geography, it's an island in the Indian Ocean east of Africa. If you're a stamp collector, it's one of the first places in the world where postage stamps were issued — and it's where some of the rarest stamps originated, today worth millions of dollars.
If you're Cincinnati-born playwright Theresa Rebeck, it's an inspiration for an edgy comic drama about two half-sisters and some eager stamp experts fighting over a stamp collection. And if you're a theatergoer, Mauritius, the title of Rebeck's play, means you'll be lining up to see Ensemble Theatre's latest production. It's a great script, profane and funny, yet also insightful and sad about how human nature works — or doesn't.
If you're waffling between whether to go to the theater or
do something else this weekend, let me help you decide: You should get a
ticket to see When the Rain Stops Falling at Know Theatre. It's running through March 16, but it's going to be an in-demand ticket soon: I gave it a Critic's Pick in CityBeat (review here),
the League of Cincinnati Theatres bestowed eight nominations on it (I
believe that's the most they've given to any production this season),
and everyone I've talked to has been breathless in their praise of the
script, the cast, the design — well, the entire production.
Bovell's play bounces around in time between 1959 and 2039 and between
the histories of four generations of two families. That might sound a
bit complicated or confusing, but it's not: There are parallels and
intersections that slowly make sense, and the play uses language and
imagery to bring the stories together into a coherent narrative by
Two characters are played by two different actresses, representing younger and older incarnations of these unusual women: One is an intellectual in her early years, but becomes emotionally distant due to a personal trauma; the other is a free-spirited young woman whose life turns dramatically and becomes an older woman with fragmented memories and a tenuous grip on the present. The stories are about fathers and sons, parents and children, and how actions by one generation reverberate down the line. Bovell's script reinforces these echoes with lines and artifacts that recur in different contexts. It's a brilliant piece of writing, and director Brian Phillips (he's artistic director at Cincinnati Shakespeare) uses movement and scene intersections to tell the story with nine actors (four from his Cincy Shakes company). The LCT recognition singled out three performers, but I'd suggest that the show is powerful because the entire ensemble is operating in a powerful, parallel manner. You don't want to miss this one. Box office: 513-300-5669
On Thursday evening I attended Leveling Up at the Cincinnati Playhouse, a world premiere by Deborah Zoe Laufer. It's an insightful slice of contemporary life, three
young men and a girlfriend who are obsessed with video gaming, stalled
in their post-college lives. They spend 20 hours a day online, and their
social skills (if they had them previously) have deteriorated amid the
rubble of a basement game room in Las Vegas.
Laufer's script will leave you feeling like you've eavesdropped on real life (in fact, they're already playing when you enter the Shelterhouse Theatre — although the "screen" they watch is the theater's invisible fourth wall: They are staring forward at the central audience section and their attention never wavers, even when they're having distracted conversations about life. The divide between their world and being "IRL" ("in real life" as they shorthand it) increasingly and distressingly — and sometimes comically — blurs. Laufer's metaphor about "leveling up" in games and its parallel to stepping up to levels of maturity gives the show meaning and depth. The young cast are entertaining and convincing. I know this show will appeal to young audiences, but I heard many in the audience after the 90-minute performance who were impressed with the story and what it tells us about society today. It's worth noting that this weekend the Cincinnati Playhouse has two world premieres on its stages, which Abigail/1702 (review here) on its mainstage. Box office: 513-421-3888.
Opening tonight is a production of Dangerous Liaisons at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. It's Christopher Hampton's stage play that inspired the 1988 film many will recall featuring Glenn Close and John Malkovich as manipulative French nobility who play games with young innocents (including Michelle Pfeiffer). For CSC, the cast includes two popular performers from the past: Giles Davies as the Vicomte de Valmont and Corinne Mohlenhoff as the Marquise de Merteuil, the scheming pair who put devious plots in motion. This promises to be a delicious drama. Box office: 513-381-2273 x1.
Let's give credit where credit is due. The League of Cincinnati Theatres award process moved quickly (if incompletely) on recognizing the Cincinnati Playhouse production of Always … Patsy Cline, which opened just a week ago today. The judging panel singled out costume designer Gordon DeVinney for his work. A panel member commented, “If you look at images of Pasty online, these ‘looks’ are incredibly authentic and evoke her persona in a startling and effective combination of era and personality.” DeVinney is the Playhouse’s costume shop manager; he has designed more than 30 productions for the Playhouse.