If I could charter a bus and offer you transportation to Louisville over the next few days to see a production at Actors Theatre, I'd happily do so. I made the drive to see a Sunday matinee of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, "reimagined by The Hypocrites." This zany group of theater artists from Chicago have found contemporary ways to inject new energy into traditional works from Shakespeare to Golden Age musicals. And that's what they've done with Pirates, a show that was a silly musical hit in the 1880s on both sides of the Atlantic.
I caught the opening night of the Cincinnati Playhouse's production of Clybourne Park
last night. The play won the theater triple crown: Tony for best play
on Broadway, Olivier for best play in London, and the 2011 Pulitzer
Prize for drama. It's being staged by a lot of big theaters this season,
but you need go no farther than Mount Adams to see what all the fuss is
about. And there is a ton of fussing in Bruce Norris's script. He took
his inspiration from the events of Lorraine Hansberry's historic 1959
play A Raisin in the Sun, the story of a black family seeking to improve its lot by buying a home — in a previously all-white neighborhood. Clybourne Park's
first act looks at the same events from the neighborhood's perspective;
Act II jumps ahead 50 years to the same neighborhood, deteriorated but
coming back. Curiously enough — or is it predictably? — many of the
stresses and strains have only moved from one set of people to another.
Norris's clever script subtly presents parallels and contrasts, with
some humor and some pathos, and a sardonic sense that human nature is
what it is. The Playhouse does a great job with a cast that plays
different roles (some slightly connected from past to present) and a
revolving set that recreates the house at 406 Clybourne in Chicago in
1959 and 2009. This production will spur lots of thoughtful and spirited
conversation. Onstage through Feb. 16. Tickets: 513-421-3888.
Pluto at Know Theatre is being staged by former artistic director Jason Bruffy. Steve Yockey's unusual script blurs the line between real life and mythology, as weird events materialize in a suburban kitchen, what with a talking three-headed dog and other unusual phenomena getting in the way of necessary dialogue between a mom and her sullen son. It opens tonight and runs through Feb. 22. Tickets: 513-300-5669.
Last weekend I drove out through Mariemont to the Walton Creek Playhouse where Mariemont Players has assembled a thoroughly enjoyable production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, a show once described as "whipped cream with knives." The theater, an old schoolhouse, has an intimate performing space, a perfect setting for this tale of mixed-up couples in early-20th-century Sweden. The show, simply and effectively staged by Skip Fenker, revolves around a free-spirited but aging actress who eventually sings "Send in the Clowns," Sondheim's best-known tune. The Sunday matinee I attended was all but sold out, so you should call in advance for a reservation: 513-684-1236. Onstage through Jan. 26.
If you're looking for some outstanding acting, you should definitely head to Cincinnati Shakespeare and watch Brent Vimtrup play the title role in Hamlet. He plays the role of the indecisive Prince of Denmark, pointed toward vengeance but filled with doubt. Vimtrup uses an expressive physicality and natural insight that makes long-familiar speeches ("To be or not to be," "What a rogue and peasant slave am I" and more) feel fresh and new. He's onstage for most of the three-and-a-half hour production, a highly watchable marathon. Tickets: 513-381-2273 x 1. Through Jan. 26.
Truth to tell, midnight has already passed and Victorian adventurer Phileas Fogg thinks he's missed the deadline for getting "around the world in 80 days." But his faithful servant Passepartout (played with manic energy by the always amusing Michael G. Bath) saves the day by sorting out travel across time zones. Your deadline has not quite passed, since Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati's inventive staging of a musical version of Jules Verne's classic Around the World in 80 Days continues through a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday. (CityBeat review here.) If football and cold weather aren't your preferences, maybe you should head to the Over-the-Rhine theater for a final volley of holiday entertainment. Tickets: 513-421-3555.
At the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park you'll find the traditional Christmas favorite A Christmas Carol as well as The Complete History of Comedy (abridged) onstage through Sunday. It feels a bit odd to be watching Scrooge and the ghosts after Christmas Day, but the Playhouse's rendition is such a lovely show and Bruce Cromer's portrait of the old miser is so entertaining that you'll be charmed, I'm sure. And the Reduced Shakespeare guys doing the "comedy" piece know how to evoke laughter from the making of jokes in ways you haven't imagined. They're the guys who originated this amusing formula with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), and they're making it work with this world premiere production. It's a nice bit of entertainment for a weekend between the holidays. Tickets: 513-421-3888.
Holiday themed laughs are being served up at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company through Sunday, too, with their eighth annual presentation of Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some). No Shakespeare in evidence (although they're performing on the gussied-up set that was built for the previous production, Twelfth Night) but four of CSC's best comic talents are mashing up every imaginable tale you might think of that has a holiday connection — Charlie Brown, Charles Dickens, Rudolph, the Nutcracker, It's a Wonderful Life and many more. They'll have you laughing from start to finish, especially if you make a stop by the bar in the lobby beforehand. Not for the kids, but a lot of fun for anyone with an adolescent sense of humor. Tickets: 513-381-2273 x 1.
If you want a nice outing for the kids, I recommend Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati's holiday show, Around the World in 80 Days. Jules Verne's adventure classic about a hectic circumnavigation of the globe in 1899 has been musicalized and condensed in a way that children will enjoy it — but there's enough humor and talent onstage to keep adults entertained, too. ETC'S production actually runs through the weekend after New Year's Day, but if the kids are restless and you want to entertain them with live theater, this is a great choice. Tickets: 513-421-3555.
It's the final weekend for most holiday shows, and there are lots of good choices. I'm ranking today's listings according to the laugh-o-meter, starting with the most hilarious:
It's Friday the 13th, but if you're in the mood for holiday shows, this is your lucky weekend. Just about every theater in town has something onstage aimed at getting you into the Christmas spirit, making you laugh, diverting you from the stress of being cheerful or just poking fun at the ways of the world (at least the world of commercialism we see in America today).
Perhaps you've already done your annual brush-up on Dickens' A Christmas Carol
at the Playhouse (another fine production, now in its 23rd season with
Bruce Cromer back as Scrooge and a new interpretation of Bob Cratchit,
featuring the very angular Ryan Wesley Gilreath, who seems to be all
arms and legs and stringy hair — very Dickensian) or the musical version
being presented by Covedale Center. With the story of Scrooge's dark
night of the soul fresh in mind, perhaps you're ready for A Klingon Christmas Carol,
presented by Hugo West Theatricals at the Art Academy of Cincinnati
(1212 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine). This is a newish theater group that
knows its way around satirical work (their Don't Cross the Streams, a goofy derivative of Ghostbusters,
was a popular piece in the 2012 Fringe festival), they are giving this
unusual piece its local premiere. (It's been staged in Chicago and
Minneapolis.) It's actually a rather faithful retelling of the story
with SQuja' (Donald Volpenheim), a cowardly, money-grubbing member of
Star Trek's warrior race, taking the place of Scrooge.
It's presented by a deadpan Vulcan narrator (Lauren Carr) who positions the work as the "original" of the tale. Klingons don't celebrate Christmas, but they are bound by traditions, the greatest of them being the "Feast of the Long Night." The 70-minute piece closely matches with Scrooge's story, but it's all through a Klingon filter — lots of angry outbursts and hearty laughter, grunting, growling, drinking and chest-thumping by characters with wrinkled foreheads, bushy eyebrows and fierce demeanors. Eileen Earnest handles timHom (a Muppet-like equivalent for Tiny Tim), son of Quachit (David Dreith), whose training as a warrior is being neglected because of greedy SQuja'. If you've never yearned for a visit to Qo'noS, the Klingon homeworld, you might find this production a bit impenetrable since it's performed in the guttural Klingon language, but there are projected subtitles that add humor to the action. This won't be a show for everyone, but if you're a Star Trek fan, you'll have a good time. Tickets ($20 at the door or here).
OK, the holidays are officially here. If you have any strength left after shopping last night and all day today, there are numerous theatrical offerings to consider.
The theater season takes a bit of a pause around Thanksgiving, since many companies are readying holiday productions. But there are plenty of choices available this weekend.
I'm not the only one who enjoyed the laugh-fest that is The Complete History of Comedy (abridged) at the Cincinnati Playhouse. I've heard numerous people who saw it say they were recommending it to others. In two hours the Reduced Shakespeare Company puts forth more humor than you can shake a stick at. (But be careful shaking sticks. You might get a pie in the face.) No matter your tastes in comedy — witty, loud or rude and crude — you'll find it in this production. How about Abe Lincoln as a deadpan rapper? This could be a good outing this weekend or a lot of fun for out-of-town guests who descend on you next week. Tickets: 513-421-3888.
Tonight is an opening at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, the very frothy comedy Twelfth Night. (It's subtitle is "or What You Will," indicating that it's a lot of foolishness, which is an apt description.) In fact, Twelfth Night is a beautiful piece with clever situations, amusing characters, a bit of intrigue and a lot of mistaken identities. And several of the most laughable characters Shakespeare ever created, from the bombastic Malvolio to his persecutor Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, plus the best of all Shakespeare's fools, Feste. It's a safe bet that this is a production that even those who fear Shakespeare will truly enjoy. Tickets: 513-381-2273 x 1.
If you're more into storefront theater, you might check out the current production by Untethered Theater at Clifton Performance Theatre on Ludlow, just east of the business district. It's a tiny space (only 50 seats), but that makes it all the more interesting. The current production is Wendy Macleod's The House of Yes, a very dark comedy about a weirdly dysfunctional family. The story focuses happens while there's a Thanksgiving hurricane outside, so it's timely, too. Performances Friday and Saturday (through Dec. 7). Go here for tickets.
This is the last weekend for Boeing Boeing, a crazy farce about a guy juggling three fiancees who happen to be flight attendants. It's at the Carnegie, featuring performers from the drama program at UC's College-Conservatory of Music. Tickets: 859-957-1940.
There's a fine community theater production of A Chorus Line at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater. It's by Cincinnati Music Theatre, and they've recruited a talented cast of dancers, singers and actors to tell the stories of 16 performers competing for roles in the chorus of a Broadway show. There are many fine performances in this show — the characters become known, one by one as they tell their stories, some humorous, some heartbreaking — but the show's greatest emotional wallop comes when they are all in synch, wearing glitter and gold, hats cocked and performing as "One." Final performance is Saturday evening. Tickets: 513-621-2787.
The Commonwealth Theatre Company's production of Route 66 continues its dinner-theater run at Northern Kentucky University. It's about a band traveling from Chicago to the West Coast in the 1960s along one of America's most legendary highways. Along the way, they meet a lot of colorful characters and see a lot of America. Wes Carman, Roderick Justice, Dain Alan Paige and Joshua Steele make up "The Chicago Avenue Band," who make stops at juke joints, diners, cheap motels and curio shops in this coming of age story. Through July 27. Dinner and the show ($30): 859-572-5464.
Last Saturday evening I ended up at Highlands High School in Fort Thomas to see teacher Jason Burgess's production of The Addams Family featuring a herd of high school kids from all over Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. It's a perfect musical for the program Burgess has created (C.A.S.T, the Commonwealth Artists Summer Theatre), bringing together a ton of students who are in love with theater. Surrounding the central characters in The Addams Family, nicely portrayed by Aaron Schilling as Gomez, Lindsey Gwen Franxman as Morticia and Harrison Swayne as Uncle Fester, are 18 ghostly "ancestors." Each one is costumed (designer Laura Martin) from various periods with a clearly evident character; together they sing and dance as a coherent company. (Amy Burgess served as the production's choreographer, and Alex Gartner is the music director — in creepy makeup.) Through Sunday at 2 p.m. General admission ($10) at the door or online via www.showtix4u.com.
Monday evening at 8 p.m. brings the third installment of Serials! at Know Theatre (1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine). It's a wacky summer-long set of a half-dozen episodic plays by local playwrights. So far we have seen meat falling from the sky, an NSA spook monitoring a contentious couple, a kid refusing to go to a funeral, a philosophical fetus, a suicidal pair competing over techniques and more. Each 10-15 minute episode is preceded by a clever recap to catch you up, even if it's your first time there. Rest assured there are cliffhangers — not to mention Know's well-stocked Underground Bar. Admission is $15. Tickets: 513-300-5669.
I saw Cincinnati Opera's production of Silent Night on Thursday evening. It's the regional premiere of a work that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for music, and our local opera is doing a bang-up job of presenting it. And "bang-up" is the operative term: This opera is set during some of the darkest days of World War I, and the opening segment of the production reproduces the violent and deadly combat between troops from England (actually a regiment from Scotland), France and Germany. You're not likely to see a more gripping onstage representation of battle than what's happening at Music Hall. Before Thursday's performance I listened to composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell talk about how to "musicalize" such a scene: Their research included studying the opening sequence of the Saving Private Ryan, the graphic, Academy Award-winning film of the D-Day invasion during World War II. It's a powerfully real scene, a perfect opening to the moving tale of soldiers pitted as enemies who found common ground in one another's humanity on Christmas Eve 1914. You can get good seats for the concluding performance on Saturday evening (7:30 p.m.) for $30-$45 by calling the Opera's box office: 513-241-2742.
Area high school students are the talent in onstage for Commonwealth Artists Summer Theatre (C.A.S.T.) at Highlands High School (2400 Memorial Pkwy., Fort Thomas). Starting tonight is a two-week run (July 11-20) of The Addams Family, a Broadway musical based on cartoonist Charles Addams' bizarre and beloved family of characters. The group is headed up by Fort Thomas theater instructor Jason Burgess, who has assembled theater kids from the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky who are eager to develop their skills in performance and production. Tickets: $10 (http://www.showtix4u.com) or at the door.
Tony Award-winning musical next to normal, about a
woman with bipolar disorder, gets not one but two productions by
Cincinnati-area community theaters: Sunset Players on the West Side and
Paradise Players for East Side siders. You can choose between them tonight. The
venerable Sunset Players, which presents shows at the Dunham Arts Center (in
the Dunham Recreation Complex, 4320 Guerley Rd., Price Hill), has performances
through July 26,
mostly at 8 p.m.
Tickets ($14-$16): 513-588-4988. Meanwhile,
Paradise Players, a newish group offering summer productions at McNicholas High
School's Jeanne Spurlock Theatre (6536 Beechmont Ave.), is presenting its
rendition of the show this weekend only, tonight at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at
2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $15 (http://mcnhs.seatyourself.biz
Cincinnati stages were pretty quiet over the Independence Day weekend, but this week they start waking up and getting ready for more. Tonight at 8 p.m. is the second installment of Serials! at Know Theatre. You can see six fresh, 10-minute episodes of brand-new plays by local playwrights — Trey Tatum, Chris Wesselman, Jon Kovach, Ben Dudley, Michael Hall and the team of Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin — and featuring lots of Cincinnati-area actors. New artistic director Andrew Hungerford calls it a "theater party" offering cold beer, air-conditioning and world-premiere stories in Know's Underground bar (1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine). Even if you missed the "pilots" on June 23, you'll get caught up with a recap before each episode. I had a blast watching these tantalizing tidbits two weeks ago, and I suspect tickets will become harder to get as the summer progresses. (Subsequent performances on July 21, Aug. 11 and 25 and Sept. 8.) Tickets ($15): 513-300-5669.
There's a great array of theater this weekend, no matter what you like. That's a good thing, because local theater, like baseball, takes a kind of midsummer break (no All-Star Game onstage anywhere, however). So get out and see something this weekend, then enjoy the fireworks and picnics next. Here are some suggestions:
Probably the most entertaining thing onstage right now is Private Lives at Cincinnati Shakespeare. It's been selling so well that 2 p.m. matinee performances have been added this Saturday and June 28. (It closes on June 29.) It's the story of honeymoons going bad when a feisty divorced couple decide to reunite rather than stick with their new spouses — when they find themselves coincidentally in adjacent hotel rooms in Southern France. (CityBeat review here.) Cleverly staged by Ensemble Theatre's Lynn Meyers, using four of Cincy Shakes best actors. Of course it's all improbable and overdone, but that's a Noël Coward play for you — witty, silly and lots of fun. Tickets ($22-$31): 513-381-2273.
Just two more days of the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, so here are a few recommendations for great shows you can still catch. (Look for reviews of these performances on CityBeat's Fringe page here.) Many Fringe performances are sold-out, so check in advance to be sure seats are still available: cincyfringe.com.
If it's fun you're seeking, you might want to stop by the Carnegie in Covington, where Showbiz Players is presenting Spamalot. It opens tonight and runs through June 8. You probably know that this very amusing musical (it won three 2005 Tony Awards, including best musical) is "lovingly ripped off" from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If you can repeat lines from that 1975 cult hit, then this is surely the show for you. Tickets ($21.50-$24.50): 859-957-1940
Although it's not part of the Fringe, Marc Bamuthi Joseph's red, black & GREEN: a blues surely could be. The hybrid performance work leads audiences through four seasons in four cities: summer in Chicago, fall in Houston, winter in Harlem and spring in Oakland. Memories, hallucinations, dreams and lamentations are set in shotgun houses and subway cars, on park benches and in father-son conversations. I haven't seen it, but people I know have raved about the power of the work, which ranges from hilarious to poignantly sad. Joseph is a spoken-word poet, and his work is meant to be a conversation starter about sustainability and community building. It's being presented on Friday and Saturday evening by the Contemporary Arts Center at the Aronoff's Jarson-Kaplan Theater. Tickets ($18 for CAC members, $23 for everyone else): 513-621-2787
This is the final weekend for The North Pool at the Cincinnati Playhouse. (CityBeat review here.) Rajiv Joseph's anxiety-filled drama is a sparring match between a hard-nosed vice principal who thinks he knows something and a student, the son of Middle Eastern immigrants, who has things he wants to keep to himself — but it's not what the school official thinks. In fact, they both have secrets that are slowly, painfully revealed. Great script, great actors. This one is definitely worth catching. Tickets ($25 for students; $30-$75 for others): 513-421-3888
The really big show this weekend happens tonight when the The Cappies of Greater Cincinnati present their eighth annual awards for high school theater productions and performers. Our local program is one of the most established, right up there with programs in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and beyond. Our local awards are presented at the Aronoff Center's Procter & Gamble Hall. In addition to the recognition of high school student performers, the evening offers excerpts from a dozen or so schools plus ensemble numbers featuring kids from all over the region — more than 20 schools participate in the program. An especially exciting aspect (at least from my point of view as a critic) is the fact that an element of the Cappies involves students attending one another's performances and writing about them. Tonight will open with a recognition of the outstanding boy and girl critics, and wrap up by citing the top team of high school critics. I'll be onstage at the Aronoff to present that award, as well as something new: An award for the "top critique" by a student writer. I had the privilege of choosing the winner, which will be posted on CityBeat's arts blog after the award ceremony. And to show how profoundly CityBeat is committed to cultivating arts coverage, we're inviting that winner to cover a high school Fringe Next production in the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, which kicks off next week. No award for me, but I'm honored to be asked to hand out this recognition to the next generation of theater writers!
You really can't go wrong with a show at the Cincinnati Playhouse this weekend. I gave both productions Critic's Picks. The North Pool, on the Shelterhouse stage through June 1, is a taut dialogue between a suspicious high school vice principal and a wary student of Middle Eastern descent. (CityBeat review here.) It takes a while (the show is about 90 minutes, played in real time) to decide who's the good guy and who's the bad guy, and you'll be turned around several times in the process. Excellent acting and a fine script by Ohio native (and Miami University grad) Rajiv Joseph makes this an excellent theatrical experience. On the Playhouse's Marx Stage, it's the final weekend for another kind of cat-and-mouse game. Venus in Fur is all about sexual tension, between an imperious playwright/director and the woman who's auditioning for a role in a play he's adapted from an erotic novel. (CityBeat review here.) David Ives' witty and allusive script (it's literary and mythical in some most amusing ways) is being produced at theaters from coast-to-coast, but I can't imagine there's a finer production than this one anywhere. Tickets: ($30-$75) 513-421-3888.
There are quite a few good options for theatergoing this weekend. First and foremost, I'd point to The North Pool at the Cincinnati Playhouse. It's a newish script from Rajiv Joseph (his play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a runner up for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize), and it's a very timely piece, set in 2007 in a large public high school. Just two characters: a slightly disgruntled, tightly wound vice principal and a student of Middle Eastern descent who's been called in on the eve of spring break for a "conversation." What starts out as awkward but mildly amusing takes numerous twists and turns (the show is about 85 minutes long) and will keep you guessing as more and more is revealed. The teacher says people are like onions: You can keep peeling, but you never quite get down to the essence. You will arrive at a surprising — and moving — conclusion, likely not what you'll be suspecting. That's the kind of writing and performance to be found in this production. Through June 1. Tickets ($30-$75; $25 for teens and students, with the proviso that the show has strong language and mature themes): 513-421-3888.