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.
There are several good productions onstage around town — check out CityBeat coverage of Hands on a Hardbody (a musical at ETC), The Great Gatsby (a classic American novel adapted for the stage at Cincy Shakes), Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club (a new adventure for the great detective at the Cincinnati Playhouse) and Tennessee Williams' prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire (at the Covedale) — but if you've seen those, you have other choices for onstage entertainment. Here are three suggestions for shows a little more off the beaten path:
Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of
the Suicide Club opened last night at the Cincinnati
Playhouse in the Park. It's a new adventure for the Victorian sleuth. How can
that be, you might ask, if you're a Sherlock fan — this isn't a familiar title.
That's because playwright Jeffrey Hatcher picked up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's
memorable detective, a master of deductive observation, and plugged him into a
tale of mystery and intrigue conceived by Robert Louis Stevenson back in 1878.
No spoilers here, but I will tell you that the plot of this show requires
closely following a complex tale of both personal and political intrigue.
Hatcher has set the story in 1914, on the brink of the first World War, and the
state of international relations in Europe is woven into the tale. But there's
nothing dry about this story, and Steven Hauck's performance as Sherlock is
very satisfying: He brings a quirky physicality as well as a sharp wit to the
character that makes him very engaging. Fans of Sherlock will not be disappointed
by this show. Through Oct. 4. Tickets ($30-$85): 513-421-3888.
I attended the opening of The Great Gatsby at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company last week. In my review, I said, "the production gets the story and the era right," and I added that CSC's Justin McCombs "perfectly embodies" Nick Carraway, the honest narrator of this Jazz Age tale of nouveau riche Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, the one-time debutante who obsesses him. There's lots to like about this production, which captures the essence of lavish parties and the fast life of the Roaring Twenties. Cincy Shakes is committed to bringing classic literary works to the stage, and this production is a good example of how they get it done. Simon Levy's script hews close to F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1924 novel, and the company's actors bring life to the characters. Through Oct. 4. Tickets ($22-$36): 513-381-2273.
Everyone I've talked to about Hands on a Hardbody at Ensemble Theatre has been enthusiastic about the show that brings to life a contest to win a Nissan pickup truck by keeping one hand on it the longest. It's a true story (it was a 1997 documentary) and these feel like real people, down on their luck but dreaming what a difference that winning could make. The music is by Trey Anastasio (of Phish) and Amanda Green, and the script was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright. ETC has staged memorable productions of his play I Am My Own Wife and his musical, Grey Gardens. But the real attraction is an excellent cast who make you believe in these people, struggling to stay away and outlast one another under the brutal sun beating down on the Texas parking lot of a Nissan dealership. It's a fine entertainment. Through Sept. 21. Tickets ($28-$44): 513-421-3555.
Just opened at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts is a production of Tennessee Williams's great American play, A Streetcar Named Desire. It's about a woman who's down on her luck but unwilling to admit it. When genteel Blanche DuBois moves with her pragmatic sister and her brutal, blue-collar husband, Stanley Kowalski, is a rude awakening that goes downhill fast. Through Oct. 5. Tickets ($-$): 513-241-6550.
If you've become a fan of shows in the intimate Clifton
Performance Theatre, you might want to check out The Riverside, a
play written and directed by local theater artist Kevin Crowley. It's a story
set in a Cincinnati bar in 1989 as locals follow the saga of Pete Rose's demise
in baseball, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square. But the bar
itself is changing, too, impacting the lives of the family that owns it as well
as its patrons.
Through Sept. 27. Tickets ($25): https://cpt.tixato.com/buy/.
If you'd like to go to the theater every evening for the next four days, there are plenty of options for you to consider as the 2014-2015 season is getting underway on stages all over town. Here are some good choices to consider:
Hands on a Hardbody opened on Wednesday at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, and CityBeat reviewer Stacy Sims called it "effervescent" and "offbeat" in her review, giving it a Critic's Pick. I was there, too, and couldn't agree more about the infectious, heartfelt joy coming from the big cast of 15. The show is based on a true story (the subject of a 1997 documentary) about people in a downtrodden Texas town who enter a contest to win a Nissan pickup truck by outlasting others who vow to keep one hand on the vehicle. The cherry-red truck is as much a character as any of the contestants, the physical embodiment of their hopes and dreams — which take the form of songs by Trey Anastasio (of Phish) and Amanda Green. The script by Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright treats these diverse, down-on-their-luck folks with dignity, and the performers (who often perform with the truck as their dance partner) bring every one of them to life in vivid ways. This one is a must-see, a great way to kick-off ETC's theater season. Through Sept. 21. Tickets ($28-$44): 513-421-3555The Great Gatsby kicks off Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's season tonight. You didn't know Shakespeare wrote it? Well, he didn't. This theater company focuses on the Bard, to be sure, but it frequently branches out to present stage versions of other classics, in this case an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 classic about a mysterious nouveau-riche millionaire who's obsessed with a one-time debutante. Set in the Jazz Age and inspired by lavish parties the high-flying Fitzgerald attended on the prosperous North Shore of Long Island, Gatsby is a story about the ups and downs of the American Dream. Simon Levy's script is the only one authorized by Fitzgerald's estate, and Cincy Shakes is presenting its regional premiere. (And here's a tip: on opening nights at 6 p.m., the theater offers ticket holders a complimentary catered meal, beer and wine.) Through Oct. 4. Tickets ($22-$36): 513-381-2273
Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club opens next Thursday at the Cincinnati Playhouse, but previews begin for the season opener this Saturday (through Wednesday). Tickets for these performances are discounted, and you'll be seeing a show that's pretty much ready to go. Jeffrey Hatcher's script should be lots of fun for fans of the Victorian sleuth. He's taken the character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and dropped him into a tale conceived by another inventive writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, for a mash-up that will keep even Baker Street regulars guessing. Tickets: 513-421-3888
Serials! at Know Theatre, which has presented episodes of six Fringe-like shows at two-week intervals all summer long, culminates on Monday evening at 8 p.m. with finales of each tale. Who will win the ultimate fist fight with the Devil in Flesh Descending? How long can Luke really stay in his bedroom during The Funeral? Will we ever find out what's really happening in Mars vs. The Atom? These questions and more will be answered on Monday. Even if you've missed a few episodes, don't worry: Each 15-minute performance begins with a brief recap of the story so far. Zany and fun for anyone who's enjoyed the annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival. Tickets ($15): 513-300-5669
Finally, a tip for an eye-opening theater experience next weekend: On Sunday, Sept. 14, the Cincinnati area's first-ever South Asian Theater Festival happens in an all-day event at the Anderson Theater (7850 Five Mile Rd.). Five plays are scheduled to be presented, as well as panel discussions, seven hours of programming in all. The day begins at 12:30 p.m. and is set to conclude around 8 p.m. A limited number of tickets remain ($19-$29): SATFCincy.org
Not too many years ago August was a very quiet month on local stages. No longer. You have plenty of good choices this weekend.
The big show this weekend will be Lumenocity in Washington Park. If you were lucky enough to get a ticket, you'll be seeing some great images on Music Hall's facade with accompaniment by the Cincinnati Symphony. If you weren't so lucky, you can still enjoy the show via radio (WGUC), television, big screens (at Fountain Square and Riverbend, for free) or via live streaming at lumenocity2014.com.
If you paid attention to the local theater season just concluded, you will recall that Cincinnati Shakespeare Company completed a herculean task: During its 20-year existence, the classic theater has produced all 38 of Shakespeare's plays. This summer three of Cincy Shakes' best actors are repeating the feat — sort of — with a production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), opening tonight. Jeremy Dubin, Justin McCombs and Nicholas Rose will be careening through the comedies, histories and tragedies digging props, wigs and ridiculous costumes out of a trunk. This is a perfect summer laugh-fest, and it's been a predictable hit in past seasons for Cincy Shakes, so tickets are sure to sell fast. Through Aug. 11. Tickets ($22-$35): 513-381-2273.
Summertime musicals are another great tradition, and Cincinnati Young People's Theatre has been presenting them with big casts of high school students for three decades. In fact, the just-opened production of Footloose at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts is the 33rd summer show. It's the stage version of the popular 1984 movie musical, and it's a perfect vehicle for youthful energy focused on a group of high school kids — despite a repressive conservative atmosphere, kids in a small farming town just want to dance and have fun. With Tim Perrino at the helm, CYPT has steered more than 2,300 teens through entertaining shows, and this one will be another notch in his director's belt, providing experience for performers and techies alike. Through Aug. 3, you'll be able to come out and "Hear It for the Boy"! Tickets ($12-$16): 513-241-6559.
I wrote a CityBeat column a week ago about John Leo Muething, an ambitious young theater artistic who's staging a couple of shows this summer at the Art Academy's auditorium on Jackson Street in Over-the-Rhine. His second of three shows, repertory theatre, will be produced this weekend (Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.). It's about a timid young playwright who approaches a veteran director about his new play. With Shakespeare's Hamlet echoing throughout, things get wilder and wilder. This show was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe for two years, and its original production is still touring in England; this is its U.S. premiere. Tickets ($10) at the door.
The Commonwealth Theatre Company's Route 66 winds up its run at Northern Kentucky University this weekend on Sunday. It's the tale of a band headed for the West Coast in the 1960s stopping at juke joints, diners, cheap motels and curio shops along one of America's legendary highways. Wes Carman, Roderick Justice, Dain Alan Paige and Joshua Steele play The Chicago Avenue Band. Dinner and the show ($30): 859-572-5464.
If Monday evening arrives and you're still yearning for something entertaining onstage, you can't go wrong with the next quarterly installment of TrueTheatre. This time around it's trueBLOOD, with the warning that if you cringe easily, this might not be the show for you. Whether it's stories that make your blood run cold — or just run — you can be sure that there will be first-person tales of memorable experiences. Great fun with a lively audience. One night only, Monday evening at 7:30 p.m. at Know Theatre. Tickets ($15, only a few left): 513-300-5669.