Looking for some good theater this weekend? There’s plenty to choose from on Cincinnati stages.
Last evening I was at the Cincinnati Playhouse for the opening performance of To Kill a Mockingbird. If you’ve read Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel or seen the classic film starring Gregory Peck, you know the story. But I bet you’ve never seen it quite the way Playhouse Associate Artist Eric Ting has staged this one. Reminiscent of Our Town, it’s played out on an all-but-bare stage — no scenery, minimal props — just great storytelling acting, including a lot of local professionals: Dale Hodges, Annie Fitzpatrick, Torie Wiggins, Ken Early, Barry Mulholland, Jared Joplin, Randy Bailey and three sensational kids. The set is deceptively simple, but used very effectively with Ting choreographing the action using two concentric “revolves,” atmospheric lighting and sound effects. The Playhouse clearly has a winner with this production. It just opened and the demand for tickets is already so strong that it’s been extended to April 10, a week beyond the initially announced closing. Tickets: 513-421-3888.
When you put together a songwriting team like Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (the guys behind Fiddler on the Roof) and a writer like Joe Masteroff (he also wrote the script for Cabaret), the results ought to be good. And they were in 1963 when She Loves Me debuted on Broadway. Set in a 1930s perfumery, it’s about two shop clerks, Amalia and Georg, who don’t see eye to eye; both lonely and yearning for love, they unwittingly end up as pen-pals — and a warm-hearted comic romance ensues. (Sound familiar? It’s also the story of the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan hit film from 1998, You’ve Got Mail.) She Loves Me was revived on Broadway in 1993, and there’s a current production of it w by Roundabout Theatre Company. But you don’t have to travel to New York City to enjoy this charming show, since it’s onstage at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts through April 3. Tickets: 513-241-6550.
There are numerous whiffs of Fringe shows in the air this weekend. Beertown continues at Know Theatre through March 19, a concept brought to town by dog & pony dc, a group that’s performed more than once at Cincinnati Fringe Festivals. This one is an exercise in civics that happens to be highly entertaining, as a small town decides which items to keep or replace in a time capsule that’s reviewed every five years. Audiences get to join the conversation — and they do. With a cast featuring a lot of local improv and acting talent, Beertown is a thoroughly entertaining production, and it can go in different directions every time it’s performed. Know is also presenting a double bill of two past Fringe award winners — Petunia and Chicken from Animal Engine and Edgar Allan from the Coldharts. The former is a story of love and loss inspired by the works of Midwestern Prairie author Willa Cather; two actors play all the parts piece. Edgar Allan was inspired by imagining the boyhood of Edgar Allan Poe. If you missed these shows during the 2013 and 2015 festivals, you can see them at Know’s Jackson Street theater on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Tickets, for one or both shows, which are both presented each evening: 513-300-5669 or at the door.
If you’re still pining for Fringe-styled shows, try Transmigration 2016 at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, featuring student-created works presented tonight and Saturday evening at 7 p.m. This annual event by CCM’s drama program features teams of actors who write, promote, stage and perform a handful of 30-minute shows. For 2016 the titles are “Elliot Popkin: The Best Friends I Never Had,” “The Elephant in the Room,” “The Family,” “Colony Collapse Disorder,” “Vices” and “A Brief Eternity.” Show up for an evening and dash around the CCM complex to see four of these unpredictable but wildly creative pieces. Admission is free, but reservations are required: 513-556-4183.
Also at CCM: The thrashing, pulsating production of American Idiot continues through Sunday at Patricia Corbett Theater on the UC campus. If you’re a fan of Punk Rock (the show is a stage version of Green Day’s 2004 recording), this is the show for you … Prefer something more sedate? Head downtown for Cincinnati Shakespeare’s stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, which continues through March 26. Tickets: 513-381-2273.
Take your pick from four wildly different shows on Cincinnati stages this weekend.
For something completely different, check out Beertown at Know Theatre (through March 19). It’s a national touring project by dog & pony dc, a company that was here for several recent Cincinnati Fringes. The show is set in an imagined American town that opens a time capsule every five years to review its “eternal” and “ephemeral” contents. With the exception of dog & pony dc actor Wyckham Avery as the town’s patronizing mayor, the performers are all Cincinnati actors, a majority with significant improv experience. They solemnly execute the “20th quinquennial” ceremony to revise what’s saved and removed, relying on voluntary input from the audience as to what’s most important for the community. The show includes interspersed scenes (injected as “antecedents”) that reveal details of the century-long tradition. Beertown starts out feeling like an amusing Fringe show — artifacts range from serious items such as antique photos and a family bible to trivia such as pink slips and a “jar of smoke” — but by the time it’s over, with some cleverly planted messages from the ably played “townspeople,” you realize you’ve been part of a civic exercise that has depth as it explores just what’s important to a community. Know’s artistic director Andrew Hungerford says, “There’s nothing newer than a show that is created in partnership with the audience each night.” I’m not a fan of theatrical audience participation, but I was surprised and gratified by how Beertown unfolded and landed its messages. By the way, you’re invited to bring desserts to share for the potluck before ceremony begins. Tickets: 513-300-5669.
The Disney musical Newsies, based the 1992 film, is in town through March 13 at the Aronoff Center. The true story is unsubtle and predictable: Downtrodden newsboys in 1899 New York City get fed up with the high-handed ways of arrogant publisher Joseph Pulitzer and go on strike. Their “children’s crusade” wins out and improves conditions for kids who hawked papers on street corners. There’s no question from the outset that these spunky young fellows are going to succeed; Pulitzer is an unadulterated greedy villain, and Jack Kelly (Joey Barreiro), the Peter Pan-like leader of the boys is played as the hero from the get-go. Nevertheless, Newsies indeed showcases athletic dancing — about 15 high-energy young men who high-kick, cartwheel and back-flip around the stage for more than two hours to imaginative choreography by Christopher Gattelli. The production’s design, big pieces of Erector Set-like structures that double as fire escapes and more, roll into various configurations and provide surfaces for video projections that set the scene. Not profound, but fun to watch. Tickets: 513-621-2787. An additional note: The show’s “newsboys” will present a special evening of song and dance on Monday evening at 7:30 p.m. in the Aronoff’s Jarson-Kaplan Theater with the proceeds to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Tickets start at $25: cincinnatiarts.org/newsboys.
For another musical populated by disaffected youth dancing, check out American Idiot at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. Onstage at Patricia Corbett Theater, like Newsies, this show is rooted in real events — it opens with ominous video recollections of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It’s based on Green Day’s 2004 Punk Rock album, full of anger and angst. The show is more impressionistic than narrative following three young men yearning to escape the deadening humdrum of suburbia to do something, be somewhere, where they will feel more real. But crushing reality — ranging from parental responsibility to military service and drug addiction — bears down in depressing ways on them. After pain and searching, they find their way to stasis if not happiness. Along the way, the production, staged by Aubrey Berg with music direction by Steve Goers, pounds out Green Day’s mostly anxious songs; of singular note is CCM senior Samantha Pollino’s thrashing, hair-whipping, fist-punching choreography. One word of caution: This show is no-holds-barred in terms of drug use, sexual content and profanity. But frankly (and I do mean frankly), that’s a big part of what it’s about. It’s onstage through March 13. Tickets: 513-556-4183.
veteran company member Kelly Mengelkoch, Emma (through March 26) lives up to Cincy Shakes previous productions
of stage adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels — romances, first and foremost,
navigating the ins and outs of love and relationships in the early 19th
century. Austen’s central characters are usually feisty but moral women,
strong-minded and judgmental, and they match up well with the versatile female
talent in Cincy Shakes’ acting company. First and foremost is Courtney Lucien
as Emma Woodhouse, whose confidence in her matchmaking skills puts her in
several pickles with friends and acquaintances as well as personally. The
object of Emma’s plans is the modest Harriet Smith, played by Caitlin McWethy,
who often says as much with demeanor and facial expression as with the words
provided by Jon Jory’s adaptation of the 1813 novel. Despite some derailments
along the way, Emma is awash in wit and good humor. I gave this production a
Critic’s Pick. Tickets: 513-381-2273.
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
Perhaps by now you’ve heard that Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is building itself a new home at 12th and Elm streets in Over-the-Rhine. (Construction is already under way.) But before the move, there’s one last season of theater to be produced at 719 Race St., Downtown, the space where the group has performed since the late 1990s but has outgrown.
Brian Phillips, Cincy Shakes’ producing artistic director, says, “Before we go, we have one last season here on Race Street. We will present a slate of titles that are as nostalgic as they are timeless and represent the next phase of Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. This is the perfect chance to join us as we bid a fond farewell to Race Street, because this goodbye is only the beginning.”
The season announced today offers nine productions, commencing with a powerful stage adaption of The Diary of Anne Frank (Sept. 9-Oct. 1) featuring Courtney Lucien — currently playing the title role in the current adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma — as the young Jewish girl who records her harrowing story in her diary. Her family’s experience, hiding from Nazi persecutors in an Amsterdam attic, endures as a condemnation of man’s capacity for cruelty and a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit. It will be followed by Bernard Pomerance’s award-winning American classic, The Elephant Man (Oct. 14-Nov. 5). Longtime favorite actor Giles Davies will play the deformed central character, Joseph Merrick, and Brent Vimtrup portrays the young doctor who finds an intelligent, sensitive man behind his horrifying disfigurement.
The season’s first Shakespearean production at the classic theater is the romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing (Nov. 18-Dec. 10). It’s about Beatrice and Benedick, a perfectly matched couple who can’t stand each other — a formula for great comedy. More Shakespeare comes in January as Cincy Shakes wraps up the History Cycle, a feat undertaken by just one other theater in the U.S. The presentation in chronological order of Shakespeare’s history plays about the reigns of five British kings and a century of turmoil began in 2013. The concluding elements of this series will be the 2017 productions of Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses, Part 2 (Jan. 20-Feb. 11) followed by the cycle’s thrilling conclusion with the story of England’s most murderous monarch, Richard III (Feb. 17-March 11), played by Billy Chace.
Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece of the American stage, A Raisin in the Sun (March 24-April 15) comes next, about a working class African-American family in 1950s Chicago. A financial windfall opens a door to opportunity, but social pressures undermine their dream. The 1959 play is a classic in every sense of the word.
Cincy Shakes’ final production on the Race Street stage, fittingly, will be Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest (May 5-June 3). Longtime company member Nicholas Rose will play the magician Prospero in a sweet story of revenge, love, magic and redemption.
To add several sparks of hilarity to its final season, Cincy Shakes will present two other shows outside the subscription season. They are All the Great Books (abridged) (July 22-Aug. 13, 2016), another script from the deliriously fevered brains that created The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), The Complete History of America and more. They’re calling it a refresher of literature’s greatest hits for “everyone from the illiterate to the literati.” And it wouldn’t be a Cincinnati holiday season without another round of Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!) (Dec. 14-31). The 90-minute send up of “Beloved Holiday Classics” returns for the 11th year.
It’s a great send-off for the company, the little literary engine that could, which will open the following season in the new facility in Over-the-Rhine in September 2017.
For his fifth season in Cincinnati, six of the 10 productions are by women or artists of color. Robison has included a Pulitzer Prize winner, a work by America’s greatest African-American playwright, a couple of classics, two world premieres and some shows that touch on important contemporary issues.
He’s particularly pleased that the shows he’s programmed for the Robert S. Marx Stage “have some degree of name recognition. But the season is not watered down — we haven’t resorted to ‘cotton-candy’ programming. We’re leaning forward and doing some very challenging work, but it has a popular flair. From the beginning I said that I wanted to be sure that our programming was both artistically challenging and hugely popular. That seems like it should be an easy thing, but it’s actually one of the hardest. I think this season has come the closest to that goal.”
The Marx season opens with an adaptation of John Irving’s popular 1989 novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany (Sept. 3-Oct. 1). A work that explores friendship, destiny and faith, it’s a show that Robison staged with memorable success a decade ago at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., where he was artistic director before Cincinnati. “It’s a beautiful, imaginative, resonant story,” he says. “The search for meaning, personal faith and true things, above and beyond organized religion, is interesting to people these days.”
Next will be August Wilson’s Jitney (Oct. 15-Nov. 12), one of the 10 plays in Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” chronicling African-American life during the 20th century. The story of men operating an unlicensed car service in Pittsburgh has never been staged in Cincinnati. Playhouse Associate Artist Timothy Douglas, one of the foremost interpreters of Wilson’s work in America today, will direct it.
Following the 26th annual production of A Christmas Carol, the Playhouse will present Little Shop of Horrors (Jan. 21-Feb. 19), a campy off-Broadway show about a man-eating plant that became a Broadway hit (and a movie) in the 1980s. (The Playhouse produced it in 1987.) “I just love this show.” Robison says. It’s no longer touring, and he promises “a high-level treatment” by guest director Bill Fennelly, who helped make Jersey Boys a hit. “When we did Ring of Fire in 2015,” says Robison, “we discovered that something fun and peppy and innately populist fits in January.”
From populism to the classics is the path he’s taking for the season’s final productions on the mainstage — an adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s romantic novel Jane Eyre (March 11-April 8) and Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery (April 22-May 20). The latter is an amusing adaptation in the same vein as the hilarious production of The 39 Steps, using five actors to play numerous roles and hurtle through a familiar tale.
The Playhouse’s Shelterhouse stage is where more adventurous works are offered. The season kicks off with Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Disgraced (Sept. 24-Oct. 23), a dinner party on New York City’s Upper East Side hosted by a Muslim-American attorney with friends and colleagues that melts down around identity, religion and politics. “It’s the Playhouse’s responsibility to ensure that our audiences can enjoy these huge award-winning plays,” Robison explains. “ You don’t have to go to New York or Chicago to see them. It’s going to be fantastic in the Shelterhouse. We’ve intentionally chosen to put this pressure cooker in the Shelterhouse and turn up the heat.”
Every holiday season the Playhouse seeks an alternative to its lovely traditional production of A Christmas Carol. This year’s show should be especially attractive: The Second City’s Holidazed & Confused Revue (Nov. 5-Dec. 31). It promises to be a hilarious evening of its skits that send up Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and everything in between, performed by talent from the legendary Chicago comedy club.
In the New Year, Robison has lined up two more world premieres, again featuring up-and-coming female playwrights. Arlitia Jones’s Summerland (Feb. 4-March 5) is about a “spirit photographer,” inspired by a man who took haunting images of the dead in the era just after the Civil War. That will be followed by Jen Silverman’s All the Roads Home (March 25-April 23), the story of three generations of women and the legacies they inherit across the latter half of the 20th century.
The Shelterhouse season wraps up with a one-woman show, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End (May 6-June 4), a portrait of the Dayton, Ohio, housewife whose newspaper columns gave voice to ordinary women everywhere. “This show is just an absolute stitch,” says Robison. “It had a very successful run at Arena Stage in Washington last spring, and we got it immediately because of the Ohio connection. It’s the perfect vehicle to send people into summer with a smile.”
As Robison said, it sounds easy to assemble an
artistically challenging and popular season, but it’s truly a tough
task. It would appear that he’s done it for 2016-2017. “I think this
season has come the closest to that goal,” he says.
The box office is the true gauge, but the season certainly looks promising.
There’s an exciting array of theater on local stages this weekend, a perfect time to check out a live performance before you settle in for the Academy Awards on Sunday night.
It seems that all a theater needs to do these days is mention Jane Austen and fans line up for tickets. I’m sure that’s what Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has in mind with its production of Emma, opening tonight. It’s the story of an amateur matchmaker who loves to meddle in the love lives of others. But when her efforts on behalf of her friend Harriet go awry, Emma Wodehouse has to undo the damage. Cincy Shakes’ productions of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility broke box-office records, and there’s no reason that show adaptation (also by Jon Jory, who led Actors Theatre of Louisville for 32 seasons). Tonight’s the opening, and the show will be onstage at 719 Race St. through March 26. Tickets: 513-381-2273.
Last June, the Audience Pick of the 2015 Cincinnati Fringe was dungeon by the Hit The Lights! Theatre Company from New York City. In fact, the company has roots here in Cincinnati; its co-founder says, “We’re overjoyed to be returning to Cincinnati, our home away from home, to invite audiences into a more fully-formed dungeon than they last encountered.” The show is about a young man who enters the unknown to rescue something he holds dear. The show is inspired by kabuki, video games, horror movies and Pixar shorts, creating a world where darkness speaks louder than light. Two encore performances this weekend at Essex Studios (2511 Essex Place) in Walnut Hills at the Cincinnati Actors Studio and Academy (CASA, Room 282B), tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $15 at the door.
It’s the final weekend for three shows on campus at Xavier University, presented in repertory: Miss Julie, a classic by August Strindberg; Betrayal, a heady drama by Harold Pinter; and Begotten, a world premiere by senior theater major Tatum Hunter. At the Gallagher Student Center Theater through Sunday. Tickets: 513-745-3939.
The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists (on the Shelterhouse Stage through March 6) has another week to run. It brings together a quartet of badass women, under house arrest during the French Revolution — including Queen Marie Antoinette and assassin Charlotte Corday. Awaiting their likely demise by the guillotine, they encourage, inspire and support one another during the horrific Reign of Terror. Sounds serious but it’s a very funny, irreverent fantasia performed by an excellent cast. I gave this one a resounding Critic’s Pick. Through March 6. Tickets: 513-421-3888.
The characters might express the feeling that “It Sucks to Be Me,” but I don’t think anyone in the audience will feel that way watching Cincinnati Landmark’s production of Avenue Q at the Incline Theater in Price Hill. The darkly funny and very adult parody of Sesame Street has been staged by local stage veteran Elizabeth Harris with a cast of singers and actors who know how to bring puppets to life — politically inappropriate, from start to finish. It’s an evening of gasps, giggles and guffaws. Through March 6. Tickets: 513-241-6550.
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
The 2016-2017 season for Broadway in Cincinnati was announced over the weekend. We’ll be seeing several time-tested titles, as well as a number of brand-new works and a couple of certifiable hits. Here’s the rundown:
The Sound of Music (Sept. 27-Oct. 9): It’s a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved hit about Maria and the von Trapp Family. It’s a sure bet that audiences will love this one, the show that became the most successful movie musical in history.
The Phantom of the Opera (Nov. 15-27): I’ve lost track of how many times a tour of Phantom has come to Cincinnati, but I can tell you that the Aronoff Center’s Procter & Gamble Hall, which opened in 1995, was designed with the appropriate infrastructure to support the show’s crashing chandelier. This tour is a new production by Cameron Mackintosh that’s described as “bigger and better than ever before,” featuring many exciting special effects — including that legendary chandelier. It’s one of the largest productions currently touring. This one is what the Broadway Series calls a “Season Extra,” not part of the package of shows that subscribers can purchase — it’s an over-and-above choice that a lot of people will be making, I’m sure.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (Jan. 3-8, 2017): The one-week run suggests low audience expectations, but this show earned rave reviews in 2014 and won the year’s Tony Award for the season’s best musical. It’s the story of a distant heir to a family fortune who sets out to move to the top of the list by eliminating eight relatives in the way — all played by one actor. It’s a very funny farce.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid (Jan. 17-29, 2017): Based on the Disney animated film, this one will draw families by the droves, I’m sure. It’s the story of Ariel, weary of flipping her fins and longing to be on dry land. All the characters from the film are all onstage — Sebastian, her crabby sidekick; handsome Prince Eric; and most memorably, Ursula, the evil sea witch. I bet you know some of these songs.
Something Rotten! (February 21-March 5, 2017): Weary of competing with Rock star playwright Shakespeare, Nick and Nigel set out to write the world’s first musical, based on questionable advice from a soothsayer who suggests that the future of theater is about singing, dancing and acting — all at once! Great fun for those who pick up on the Elizabethan gags and musical theater parodies, as well as anyone else who simply loves over-the-top comedy. I saw this show on Broadway back in November, and pretty much laughed from start to finish.
Mamma Mia! (March 10-12, 2017): This is another “Season Extra,” presented outside the subscription package for just a three-day stop. It’s the ultimate feel-good show with ABBA’s greatest hits, including “Dancing Queen,” “Take A Chance on Me” and “The Winner Takes It All,” and a story of love, laughter and friendship.
The Illusionists – Live from Broadway (March 21-26, 2017): OK, it’s not exactly a Broadway musical or play, but it is a spectacular showcase performed by seven of today’s most entertaining illusionists.
Matilda The Musical (April 4-16, 2017): Roald Dahl’s beloved novel became a hit in London when it debuted as a musical in 2011 where it’s still running; it’s been a Broadway attraction since 2013, when it picked up a bushel basketful of Tony nominations. Time magazine named it 2013’s No. 1 show, and the story of a spunky girl who, using her imagination and her sharp mind, takes a stand and changes her destiny, is a worldwide hit. It should be popular with Cincinnati families.
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical (May 2-14, 2017): Everyone I know who’s seen this show in NYC has loved it. King’s songs (many of them written with her husband Gerry Goffin and best friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann) became hits for the biggest acts in Rock & Roll. But when her personal life began to disintegrate she found her true voice and became one of the most successful solo acts in Pop music. Her tunes were a soundtrack for the late ’60s and early ’70s — “I Feel The Earth Move,” “One Fine Day,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “You’ve Got A Friend.” The show won two 2014 Tony Awards and its cast recording earned a 2015 Grammy; it’s still playing to sold-out houses on Broadway. Nostalgia is the key and it’s unlocking a lot of warm feelings.
British playwright George Bernard Shaw was one of the great writers for the stage a century ago, and his most popular play, Saint Joan, is a choice available for theatergoers this weekend, thanks to the Diogenes Theatre Company. It’s the story of the rise and fall of one of history’s most fascinating characters, a young country girl in the early 15th century who claimed that God told her to drive the invading English army out of France. Of course, her fate turns and she’s burned at the stake before her 20th birthday. Cincinnati Shakespeare veteran Sara Clark is taking on the title role, and Lindsey August Mercer, who has assisted with many Cincy Shakes productions, is the director. She says, “The beautiful effect of Shaw’s account is the way his language encapsulates Joan’s strength, conviction and unshakable positivity.” Three actors — Billy Chace and Geoffrey Barnes from the Shakespeare company and Patrick Phillips, a regular with Ensemble Theatre —portray a large cast of additional characters. Diogenes is presenting Saint Joan at the Aronoff’s Fifth Third Bank Theater through March 5. Tickets: cincinnatiarts.org
The smart-alecky Avenue Q just opened at Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ Incline Theater in Price Hill. A Tony winner in 2004, the show is a darkly funny knock-off from Sesame Street, Muppet-like puppets and all, with a strong off-color dose of contemporary sarcasm. Kids who watched the educational PBS show were told they could do anything if they tried hard; Avenue Q turns that notion inside out, working from the premise that life sucks. (The song “It Sucks to Be Me” takes most of the air out of any optimist’s balloon.) The production, staged by local state veteran Elizabeth Harris, has a cast of able singers and actors who have learned they way around making puppets laugh-out-loud funny, especially Allyson Snyder as nice girl Kate Monster and neighborhood bad girl Lucy the Slut. A fine and varied singer, Snyder ably flips the switch between Kate’s naïve innocence and Lucy’s lascivious come-hither ways, often in the same scene. It’s an evening of giggles and guffaws, but not for the kids. Through March 6.
Some good things happening starting this weekend on campus at Xavier and Northern Kentucky universities. At XU’s Gallagher Student Center Theater you’ll find three shows in repertory — a classic by August Strindberg, Miss Julie; a heady drama by Harold Pinter, Betrayal; and Begotten, a world premiere by senior theater major Tatum Hunter. They’ll be in a rotating schedule through Feb. 28. Tickets: 513-745-3939 … At NKU, it’s a classic comedy, Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, a wickedly funny script from 1929 about some vaudeville troupers trying to make a comeback in Hollywood. Tickets: 859-572-5464 … Want to know a bit more about local university theater programs? Read my Curtain Call column from Feb. 17.
Once you make it past the weekend it will be time for the second installment of Serials! at Know Theatre, the “episodic theater party” offering 15-minutes from five works in progress — three that began on Feb. 8, and two new works starting this week. Audience members get to vote for their favorites to keep them alive for the next session on March 7. Watch theater being made on the fly. Tickets: 513-300-5669
Rick Pender’s STAGE DOOR blog appears here every Friday. Find more theater reviews and feature stories here.
Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey met with great success when they created next to normal, winning several Tony Awards and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for drama. They didn’t strike gold with their next show, If/Then, onstage locally for just a week in a touring production — but I found it to be a very satisfying, if complex work. (Read my Curtain Call interview with Kitt and Yorkey here.) Elizabeth is recently divorced and trying to decide what path to take next. She asks herself musically “What If” she takes this path or that — and this show lets us follow her down two divergent threads, one toward a successful professional career as a city planner in New York, the other in a happy marriage with kids that doesn’t quite turn out as she imagined. Her stories are presented in overlapping narratives, since some moments and events are quite close. It requires paying close attention, but it’s definitely worth the effort. It’s made all the easier by a very strong cast — including Jackie Burns in the leading role, Broadway veteran Anthony Rapp as Lucas, one of her close friends (he originated the role on Broadway Lucas and played videographer Mark in the original cast of Rent back in 1996) and Tamyra Gray as Kate, who pushes Elizabeth in a different direction. The show’s inventive staging, using video and fluidly moving set pieces, is also a fine example of contemporary theater design. Definitely worth seeing. Onstage through Sunday.
In BlackTop Sky at Know Theatre, Ida’s view from an asphalt-paved courtyard surrounded by the housing project where she lives isn’t pretty. The 18-year-old yearns to escape, but her avenues are limited. The safe, predictable route is with Wynn, her boyfriend, a hardworking auto mechanic. Then there’s Klass, an all-but-inarticulate homeless man who settle on two park benches. Ida is caught between these two poles. This is a show about lives that are pretty dead-end. Nevertheless, Christina Anderson’s script has its moments, especially with Kimberly Faith Hickman’s purposeful staging of 34 distinct scenes, several of them entirely wordless. Anderson writes with occasional lyricism and feeling, but desperation underlies these sad stories. That being said, the telling holds out a promise of change. That’s an important if not altogether entertaining message. Onstage through Feb. 20.
Also at Know, the fourth outing of Serials gets under way on Monday evening at 7:30 p.m. They’ve dubbed this one Thunderdome 2 – Beyond Thunder, meaning that each evening two of the five shows will be voted out by the audience, to be replaced by two new shows at the following session. Serials 4 features some writers and directors who entertained audiences in previous iterations of Serials. But several new talents have entered the fray, and the Know staff tells me, “There are some seriously strong story pitches this round!” They feel that the “gentle competition” of Thunderdome leads to stronger writing and a better audience experience. Writers who take the challenge must leap quickly into their narratives; if they lag behind, they’ll be struck by a thunderclap and end up in the audience at the next round. Subsequent episodes are set for Feb. 22, March 7 and 21 and April 4.
Finally: If you’re tuned in to the Super Bowl on Sunday evening, keep an eye out for a 30-second commercial for Gold Star Chili. It was shot locally, featuring 15 Cincinnati actors at several Gold Star locations. Ensemble Theatre’s Lynn Meyers did the casting for it, so you’ll see some familiar faces often featured on local stages.
There are so many things happening on local stages it’s a bit of a challenge make recommendations. But every one of these productions has some sort of conflict at its heart.
Grounded opened Wednesday night Ensemble
Theatre Cincinnati. George Brant’s a one-woman script is about a
fearless fighter pilot whose career is cut short by an unexpected
pregnancy, marriage and parenthood. Her new job is to fly military
drones from a trailer outside Las Vegas; but she goes home to her family
every night — and before long, she has trouble sorting out the
boundaries between her two worlds. Kathleen Wise makes her ETC debut
with this challenging performance, a woman who knows her way “in the
blue” as a pilot, but must navigate new paths when she’s relegated to
the “chair force,” wandering remotely “in the gray,” targeting
“personality strikes.” Michael Haney is back in town to stage this one,
and he always succeeds with making solo shows a powerful experience. Grounded
is a pressure-filled, cautionary tale, gripping but not easy to watch.
Nevertheless, it’s compelling theater. Through Feb. 14. Tickets:
Karen Zacarías’ Native Gardens, a world premiere, opened at the Cincinnati Playhouse last evening. Her Book Club Play was a Playhouse hit in 2013; this time around the subject is a tad more serious, but it’s handled with deft humor as neighbors battle over styles of gardening — formal vs. natural — and choices driven by cultural differences. New neighbors Pablo and Tania are of Hispanic descent, moving in next door to Frank and Virginia, who are as waspy as can be. You can imagine where that goes: Straight down the road to audience gasps as the couples insult one another when boundaries are crossed. The 80-minute show wraps up neatly — maybe a little too much so. But there’s no denying this is a show that has lots of comic appeal involving circumstances many people will recognize. Through Feb. 21. Tickets: 513-421-3888.
Tonight is the opening for Black Top Sky at Know Theatre. Christina Anderson, a resident playwright with New York City’s New Dramatists, makes her Cincinnati debut with this show about the residents of a housing project. Ida, 18, befriends Klass, an unpredictable young homeless man. Their friendship forces Idea to make a choice: Embrace the struggle for justice or embrace a life with her successful boyfriend. Kimberly Faith Hickman, who staged 2014’s The Twentieth-Century Way for Know, is back from New York to direct. Andrew Hungerford, Know’s artistic director, chose this show because he was “struck by the poetry of the language, the visual poetry of the stage directions and the gut-wrenching timelessness of the story.” He adds, “It flips from humor to heaviness at the speed of light.” Onstage through Feb. 20. Tickets: 513-300-5669.
Shakespeare’s chronicling of King Henry VI took three plays back in the 16th-century; Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has rearranged them into two productions, one onstage now and another coming next season. This portion details the roots of the War of the Roses, with relatives vying for power — it’s truly a historic “game of thrones.” It’s also is a predecessor of today’s action movies, with lots of combat — and the fiery presence of Joan of Arc (played with zest by Caitlin McWethy), as England’s zeal for dominance in France runs a parallel track to the jockeying for position among royal relatives back home. Through Feb. 13. Tickets: 513-381-2273.
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is staging the original “game of thrones” — England’s Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) as retold by the Bard’s history plays — eight shows being presented in chronological order across five theater seasons. (Cincy Shakes is only the second theater company in the U.S. to present the history cycle in Chronological order.) We’ve already seen Richard II, Henry IV: Part 1 and 2 and Henry V. Now it’s time for the reign of Henry VI, which Shakespeare covered with three plays. This week starts the production of Henry VI, Part I, the story of Henry V’s only son who, in 1421, inherited the throne before his first birthday, after his father’s untimely death. A child on the throne opened the door to the dynastic struggles of the War of the Roses. (The cycle concludes next season with the bloody tragedy of Richard III.) Darnell Pierre Benjamin plays Henry, an unusual choice. Here’s what he says about taking on this role: “I’m a black male from St. Martinville, Louisiana. Despite how much I’ve always fixated my interests on the classics, I never thought that I’d have the honor of representing one of Shakespeare’s history kings.” He says he hopes “to open people’s minds and hearts to seeing the core of this story — a young man coming into his own as he learns that there are forces, both good and bad, that can alter his perception of himself.” Through Feb. 13. Tickets: 513-381-2273.
The Covedale Center just opened Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, a play about a widowed writer trying to start over while still grieving for his late wife. The story is rooted in Simon’s own experience, and the playwright’s famous one-liners are still there, but woven into the show’s humor is a story about coming to terms with death and moving on. Through Feb. 14. Tickets: 513-241-6550.
In Covington, The Carnegie is offering what sounds like an interesting production of The Wizard of Oz that opened last night. With musical accompaniment by the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, it’s a “lightly-staged” rendition with Harold Arlen’s famous score from the 1939 movie. Of particular interest is the scenic design by local artist Pam Kravetz, a unique take on the iconic landscapes of Oz, including Munchkin Land and the Emerald City. Just to remind folks passing by on Scott Avenue, you’ll see a giant pair of legs with striped stockings and ruby slippers to remind you that one wicked witch is dead. Through Jan. 31. Tickets: 859-957-1940.
For something completely different, consider The Realistic Joneses by Clifton Players, at Clifton Performance Theater on Ludlow Avenue. It’s about two couples named Jones, next-door neighbors who get to know one another despite fear and loneliness. Will Eno’s unusual play — part comedy, part drama — digs into secrets that aren’t often spoken aloud. It’s being staged by local theater veteran Dale Hodges with a cast that includes Carter Bratton, Mindy Siebert, Miranda McGee and Phil Fiorini. It’s onstage through Feb. 7. Tickets: 513-861-7469.
Next week there will be even more theater on local stages: Grounded, a one-woman show about a fighter pilot assigned to making drone strikes (Ensemble Theatre, Jan. 27-Feb. 14, 513-421-3555), BlackTop Sky, a tale of homelessness and friendship (Know Theatre, Jan. 29-Feb. 20, 513-300-5669) and Prelude to a Kiss, a sweet love story about changing places and understanding different perspectives (Falcon Theater in Newport, Jan. 29-Feb. 13, 513-479-6783).