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.
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati's artistic director D. Lynn Meyers has assembled another set of intriguing productions for 2014-15, opening with the musical Hands on a Hardbody (September), a Tony-nominated 2013 musical with a book by Doug Wright, the playwright of I Am My Own Wife and bookwriter for Grey Gardens, both hits for past ETC seasons. This one is based on a 1997 documentary about a Texas contest to win a new truck by being the last person to keep at least one hand on the new vehicle.
If you're looking for a show that will get things going romantically, I'll point you to the Cincinnati Playhouse's production of Venus in Fur (onstage through May 17). But be careful what you wish for: You might end up like playwright/director Thomas with your hands full of more than you wanted to take on. He's seeking an actress to play the central role in his adaptation of an erotic Victorian novel. Vanda shows up for an audition, none too promising at first, but the tables turn very quickly. This is a funny and provocative script, and Greta Wohlrabe's performance as Vanda is masterful and highly entertaining. I gave it a Critic's Pick. Tickets ($30-$75): 513-421-3888.
This is a busy time of year on local stages, and that's especially true at colleges and universities where the academic year is winding down.
At Northern Kentucky University, the 17th biennial Year End Series (Y.E.S.) Festival is underway, presenting three world premiere productions in rotating repertory. It's a Grand Night for Murder opened on Thursday; The Divine Visitor, a Restoration Comedy through a sci-fi filter (figure that one out) starts tonight; and Encore, Encore, about witty and caustic New York writer Dorothy Parker, gets underway on Saturday. There will be multiple performances through April 26. Tickets: 859-572-5464
At Xavier University this weekend you can find a production of the Rock musical Spring Awakening, the winner of eight Tony Awards in 2007. It's about a group of students struggling through adolescence to adulthood — with a lot of rebellion along the way. It's being presented in XU's Gallagher Student Center Theater. Tickets: 513-745-3939
A lot of high school students have been recruited by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company for more than 38 free art events based on the works of Shakespeare. You might recall that CSC "completed the canon" (produced all 38 of Shakespeare's plays) a year ago. The celebrate that accomplishment, the company devised Project 38 to work with numerous area schools. Each one was assigned and worked with some of the company's artists to be inspired in productions, art, writing — whatever moved them. The initiative is culminating in an eight-day festival of free performances and exhibitions in Over-the-Rhine's Washington Park. School performances are all free. Since performances of The Taming of the Shrew are sold out on CSC's mainstage, Project 38 gives you the chance to see Shakespeare you might have missed otherwise. Schedule here.
There's another take on a student coming to terms with the Bard at Dayton's Human Race Theatre Company: Taking Shakespeare is the story of a disillusioned college professor asked to tutor her dean's son through his freshman Shakespeare class. It's got its humorous moments, but the show delivers a serious message about living up to expectations. Playing the student is Cincinnati actor Jon Kovach, who's performed on numerous local stages. Through May 3. Tickets: 937-228-3630
The farcical show by Steve Martin, The Underpants, is evoking laughs at the Otto M. Budig Theatre in the Carnegie in Covington. It's a bit risqué, but the humor is very gentle. Tickets: 859-957-1940 … Not so gentle is the production of Death and the Maiden by Diogenes Theatre Company at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theatre. This three-character thriller is set in an unnamed Latin American country where a woman gets control of a man she believes once tortured her under a brutal dictatorship. It's a powerful piece, magnificently acted by three top-notch professionals familiar to Cincinnati theatergoers — Annie Fitzpatrick, Michael G. Bath and Giles Davies. Not for the faint-hearted or those who are squeamish about violence, but this is production that deserves to be seen. Through May 2. Tickets: 513-621-2787
One last note, for anyone interested in playing a supernumerary for Cincinnati Opera (that's like being an extra in a movie): Open casting for the upcoming summer season happens on Monday at 6 p.m. at Music Hall. You don't have to be a singer. In fact, no experience is necessary; positions are filled on a voluntary basis. Details here.
There's a ton of theater opening up this weekend, something for just about every taste. But if you're looking for something free, I have a special recommendation: It's 110 in the Shade at UC's College-Conservatory of Music. This is a production in the Cohen Family Studio Theater (an intimate black box venue that seats about 150). The production is in the "Musical Redux" series, bringing back a show that's not often produced. 110 dates back to 1963. It's the story of Lizzie Curry, on her way to being an "old maid," who lives with her dad and her brothers. A charming con man shows up posing as a rainmaker and promises relief to drought-stricken farmers. Is he for real? Lizzie has her doubts, but he works hard to win her over. CCM Studio productions are free, but reservations are required (513-556-4183), and performances are often filled up. This one is likely to be a lot of fun; it's this weekend only, final performance at .
Two shows on local stages are dealing with top-of-mind issues of race and urban living, one at the Cincinnati Playhouse, the other at Ensemble Theatre.
Last evening the Playhouse opened its production of Tracey Scott Wilson's Buzzer. Wilson is a playwright who's not afraid to get at prickly issues of contemporary life (read more here), and that's what she does in this piece that could be set in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine. (It's actually in New York City, but that doesn't make it less relevant.) Jackson returns to his onetime childhood neighborhood, once neglected and now trendy; he's black, girlfriend Suzy is white, and so is Jackson's troubled friend Don, out of rehab yet again and needing a place to stay. Their triangle is a toxic mix with a troubled past that's exacerbated by life in a neighborhood where black and white relations are strained. The Playhouse is offering talkbacks after each performance to discuss issues raised, and there will be a panel discussion focused on OTR's housing challenges here in Cincinnati on Saturday evening at 6 p.m. My take: This show is more about personal relationships that aren't entirely honest, even though there is constant conversation about "no secrets." The actors in this tense drama are vividly real, unpredictable and vulnerable; you'll feel like they're people you know. (Through April 19.) Tickets: 513-421-3888
The second show that's heating up conversations about race is ETC's staging of Dominic Morisseau's award-winning play, Detroit ’67 (reviewed here). While the story has a historical setting — the story of family aspirations and disappointments unfolds against the backdrop of the Motor City's race riots almost 50 years ago — it almost feels ripped from current news stories about unrest stemming from police brutality in Ferguson, Mo. Five actors portray some colorful and occasionally humorous characters from the era involving the family dynamic between a brother and sister who differ about making ends meet in a challenging environment. Motown tunes from the ’60s are the soundtrack for a story that's often painful but ultimately hopeful. (Through April 5.) Tickets: 513-421-3555
Know Theatre opens Hearts Like Fists tonight at its Jackson Street stage in Over-the-Rhine. Adam Szymkowicz's comic-book-inspired action adventure has some fine local actors as the Crimefighters, female superheroes who are out to stop Dr. X, on a mission to murder happy couples in their sleep using a deadly serum that goes straight to the heart. When the show was staged in New York in 2012, the New York Times called the show's comic hybrid of parody and punches "madcap" and "hysterical." That's what Know will be striving for, through April 25. Tickets: 513-300-5669
If you are interested in seeing actors, singers and dancers who are on their way to professional careers, you might want to catch Senior Showcases from the drama and musical theater programs at UC's College-Conservatory of Music. The drama majors, readying their piece for trips to Los Angeles (for potential TV work) and New York City, will perform today at 2 and 7 p.m. at Patricia Corbett Theatre. (Admission is free.) The triple threats graduating from the musical theater program offer their showcase twice on Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m. as they prepare to shine for Broadway producers and casting agents in New York next week. Admission is free but reservations are required: 513-556-4183.
Planning ahead? The popular touring production of The Lion King returns to Cincinnati where it's been a big hit twice, in 2003 and 2007. The magnificent musical about good overcoming evil and youth finding maturity opens on Tuesday for a four-week run at the Aronoff Center. (Through April 26.) Tickets: 513-621-2787
I took a trip to my senior year in high school when I attended the opening of Detroit '67 by Dominique Morisseau at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati on Wednesday. It's set in Detroit during that city's 1967 "race riots," but they are the backdrop for a family drama: Sister and brother Chelle and Lank are trying to make ends meet by running an after-hours club in the basement of their family home, now theirs since the death of their parents. Chelle is satisfied with the status quo; Lank dreams of owning his own legit bar. But they'd need to sell the house to make that possible, so they're at an impasse. He's impetuous and makes moves to buy a local joint without her knowledge, only to have the destructive riots threaten his deal. More personal complications make the story interesting, if a bit too pat. Motown tunes — Lank buys an eight-track player to replace his sister's turntable — make this production a walk down memory lane for Baby Boomers. But Detroit '67 will grab everyone because the events of five decades ago are eerily and sadly similar to recent disturbances in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere. (Through April 5; tickets: 513-421-3555)
Peter and the Starcatcher at the Cincinnati Playhouse is a playful and over-the-top imagining of the origins of Peter Pan. It's not a very adult cup of tea; it's more a swig of giggle-inducing rum. But if you yearn to head back to childhood for a few hours — playing with words, making fart jokes and having an adventure "against impossible odds" — this production is a joyous must-see. (Through April 4; tickets: 513-421-3888)
The Marvelous Wonderettes was a big hit for Ensemble Theatre a few years back. They staged the original story of girls singing Doo-Wop hits in 1958 and coming together again in 1968 for more old tunes, and did well with several sequels that kept audiences eagerly coming back for more. The show is now being presented at the Covedale Center in West Price Hill, and it has a nostalgic draw for people who grew up with those tunes. But the production's characterizations of Cindy Lou, Betty Jean, Missy and Suzy feel a little shallow, reducing the potential charm of the show. Nevertheless, it's a lot of fun if you love the music of the era and remember your own angst about boyfriends and girlfriends. (Through April 4; tickets: 513-241-6550)
Cincinnati Shakespeare's very pleasant production of an adaptation of Little Women continues through Saturday evening; tickets: 513-381-2273. The musical based on Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel about the March sisters is onstage through Saturday, too, at Newport's Stained Glass Theatre, produced by Footlighters, Inc., a community theater; tickets: 859-652-3849.
The moving play based on The Diary of Anne Frank is being presented this weekend by the School for Creative and Performing Arts with performances remaining on Friday and Saturday evening at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. It's the powerful story of a Jewish family who went into hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam during World War II; Anne, the diarist who recorded their tribulations, died at age 15 in a concentration camp. Tickets: here.
I hope my Curtain Call column (found here) in a recent issue moves you to head to UC's College Conservatory of Music for Richard Hess's staging of Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize winner, The Heidi Chronicles, onstage through . If you remember the 1970s and ’80s, this production will transport you back in time as you watch young feminist Heidi Holland grow up, grow weary and grow wise. Tickets: 513-556-4183.